tagMind ControlA War Dawning Ch. 05

A War Dawning Ch. 05

bySaddleRider©

Author's note: There will be some hack and slash peppered here and throughout the rest of the story. I'm skimping on the gore factor simply because it's not what most people are coming to the story, but it's still relevant to the story so it warrants inclusion.

Also, there's no sex to be had in this chapter.


*****

The word had reached Mareth in the middle of the night with his page shaking him gently with the message, "Lystra says it will be ready soon." He didn't know what the message meant, but it didn't matter. It was only his job to deliver it.

The king bolted from bed, the need for sleep gone, and commanded the page to tell his entourage to get ready to ride. Dressing quickly, he was riding out to the site almost as rapidly as his horse would carry him. In fact, he had dressed lightly for fear that it might slow him down. He hadn't strayed far from the site almost since it was discovered, and certainly not since discovering the truth of it and that there was a chance that he could make it work. Now, if Lystra was to be believed, the moment was close at hand.

He spent the ride contemplating the feeling of the world at his feet. Once Erette fell the rest would follow and he would lay the groundwork for a dynasty that would last a thousand years. He was riding such a high he thought he might never have to sleep again.

He dismounted almost before his horse came to a stop in front of the molded, concealed stone and metal that led deep underground. One guard hustled to get ahead of him, barely managing to get through the door before him while the other followed him. Stairs led to ladders and on again until he reached the control room to see Lystra at the control panel with Drax behind her and off to the side with a smile where she ushered him forward.

The guards remained outside and his words came in as much of a rush as his body. "It works? It's ready to test?" Part of him didn't even want to do that. Part of him wanted to bathe his enemies in righteous fire at a moment's notice, but he was no fool. He didn't want to scorch the world unless he had to and he certainly didn't want to risk harming himself. Besides, a test had the virtue of maybe bringing the kingdoms to heel by itself.

If not, examples were good things to make.

"It works," Lystra said, her exuberance nearly matching her father's. She tapped several more of the switches that were marked, and they responded to contact, but they seemed to be inside the translucent material. With a few hand gestures she could change what she was looking at and what she controlled.

He shook his head. Remarkable.

"It's responding well. There are a few more tests to run to be certain that it can and will target properly and that it can be linked to you somewhere other than here." There was pride and relief in her voice and she looked up at her father's happy expression and she thrilled at being the cause of it. It is capable of responding to simulations fed into it, and then we can judge whether or not all the pieces of it are working in concert as designed."

She keyed in more commands and most of the text that scrolled was electric blue with several yellow columns of numbers and words. "Then we have to make certain that it will respond to being controlled remotely as you wish rather than solely from here. But...I think we are almost there."

"Test in a few days?" He hoped he didn't sound too much like an anxious child.

She opened her mouth and the silence from it as she weighed her words had him on edge. "Barring some sudden problem from nowhere, I would say yes."

The joy that burst from him was real. He picked her up from her chair and did his best to squeeze the life from her. Kissing her cheek, he held his arms straight, hands squeezing her shoulders. His eyes were all warmth and his voice all praise. "I knew you could do it. Even when you doubted you, I did not truly. I knew you would perservere and conquer My daughter is brilliant. Because of you our people have a chance to end the conflict once and for all."

She wiped tears quickly from her eyes. It seemed like she had been working to that end all of her life. "That's all I ever wanted, Father."

He hugged her again and she let tears flow while he spoke soothingly to her. Glancing at Drax before closing his eyes to imagine what would come he told her his truth. "I love you, girl. With your help, a new, peaceful world will dawn for all of us."

"Forever."

***

Nelina Jaye stood and watched. It taught her as much as doing, and sometimes more. Her mother had made her first lessons in Court dynamics just having her watch the looks, and listen to the words whispered, and note who danced with whom or who stopped dancing with whom, and then ask "Why?" She forced Nelina to use her wits and knit the pieces together herself to get the picture. Maia would fill in the blanks when she was right, or lead her to what right was when she was wrong. Her mother gave her the tools to make her own judgments and then let her do it.

She took those same tools to the service where they served her well. Neral understood it and her other superiors nearest Neral's level appreciated that she only asked questions when something was truly unclear and was otherwise content to stay out of the way and observe. That's what she was doing now, but she admitted that it was more difficult now than usual. She wanted to chase the scum down and fight them and bring them to justice. Whether that meant an Erette prison or them hanging by their necks as an example to others, so be it. Bandits rolling in to steal the toil of others rather than working for it turned her stomach.

The possibility that this was a preamble to war made a bit more sense to her. It was still vile, of course, but it was more understandable somehow. It was soldiers doing their duty, even if misguided and fundamentally wrong. She could respect that sliver of it at least and for that alone, she thought it was so. What was bothering her more at the moment was the fact that they had stopped moving. The company was now in striking distance of the same villages that the bandits were hitting.

The people broken by those bandit raids had been coming before them in a steady stream for days now. The wounded and burned out met them on the main roads with the horses and animals they could save and their bodies carrying the evidence of the atrocities committed against them. The fact that they would bear those wounds long after the healers in the company tended to them was in their eyes.

Also in those eyes she saw hope and gratitude at the sight of General Jaye and a full company of the best the kingdom had to offer and that filled her with pride. She wanted to live up to what they thought she would be. She helped where she could lesser wounds but often just by being a listening ear. Many simply needed to hear someone tell them that it was going to be all right. She watched Neral down with them, helping where she could on the road and helping look through the villages for other survivors. She was above no one and deferred to those under her with more expertise than she in rescue or healing.

Patrols of these reaches met them too and reported directly to General Jaye, who listened intently to their stories along with Colonel Ynesa Dion, a soldier's soldier with close set, oval with eyes and fair skin. She seemed to defy age, her hair, deep black, fell past her neck. Nelina knew the Colonel had risen after a similar call to arms some years ago had taken the life of Devine Kress. Neral still spoke well of Kress and her voice never lost a hint of emptiness and deep sadness when she was the topic, as though it were all recent and raw. That Kress gave her life to get the rest of the group where they needed to be was all she would say and details weren't any of Nelina's business so she never pressed.

The border garrisons had been run ragged and spread thin and it showed on the weary faces as their leaders gathered at the clearing under a sky as gray as the collective mood. Neral knelt on one knee as she studied the map on the grass looking for patterns. Dion traced her finger along the river and noting where the pins had been placed. "They're not doubling back anymore."

"It didn't take long for the people or us to figure out they were doubling back to see what damage they could do," Major Ott responded. "So we did the same as best we could to keep people out of harm's way."

"Which stretches you thinner and lets others strike," Dion said in understanding.

"It feels like there's an army against us."

Neral's eyes danced the map as she spoke. "Less that that I'm sure, Major. You believe they are bandits?"

Ott continued, his voice an angry tired. "It seems to be so, but they are far more organized than usual. Perhaps they found someone with some more serious military skill. The ones we've taken out look like bandits. If they weren't, they wouldn't be carrying identifying bits."

It made her feel slightly better in that they didn't seem to be part of some more grand move. "They probably won't go much further south than the Deshen because it envelopes them within us. We can bring more force to bear than they probably have, so that helps us."

"They've left the western settlements largely untouched, General" Nelina noted. "That will change. They're running out of targets otherwise."

"It is at least possible that they'll retreat rather than confront."

"Possible." Neral didn't believe it though and she told Nelina so in so many words. "But to toy with the border as they have suggests that they want to measure our response."

"Which will be?"

Neral's eyes lifted enough to look to Ott "The two most recently hit villages; take a full third back to them. See how many refugees are willing to return with you. Let them see you, and let them see you with the refugees."

Nelina tried to glean how Neral's mind was working. "You are using... them as bait?"

Neral ignored it. "Stay with them and let whatever scouts see that, too. "I'll take what men of yours I need to augment mine. Concentrate what you have left near here. Use your patrols to try to push them west."

Ott caught on, "But loop back to suggest we are now a wall."

"Which will either hold because they do not want confrontation or they will push west," Dion filled in for Nelina's benefit.

Neral placed her finger on the map. "Osten. It's small and back a bit from the border. There are others closer but there are excellent craftsmen there so it's a tempting hit. Give us time to get there before you build your wall, Major. Otherwise, don't break the pattern of action already in place."

He put his arm to his chest, fist to his heart to salute, "Yes, Sir."

She looked to Dion, firm now that the decisions had been made. "I want to move as soon as we've given all the aid we can here. Make sure everyone has eaten and slept because they are going to be pushed. Let them know."

"Sir."

Dion left as Neral took pins from the map, folded it and headed off for the road to the field where Stenna had been grazing. Nelina walked with her to her right, her green eyes concerned, but her demeanor suggesting that she didn't quite know how to bring it up. She respected her aunt more than she could say, and she didn't want to give voice to her thought, but then realized that she was useless if she didn't offer counsel, even if she was smart enough to know how small she was in the grand scheme, and how much her opinion really mattered. "May I ask a question, General?"

He looked at that cherubic face, "You may."

The very question made her uneasy, but she felt she needed to ask. Even so, her question took the form of a statement she wanted to be affirmed."You wouldn't use the refugees now as bait."

She shook her head. "They've been through enough."

"What about the people of Osten?"

"I have a plan for that."

Nelina puzzled, but moved on to what was really on her mind. "What if...they don't do as you expect? What if they bypass Osten? What if they hit other villages first?"

"We will stay in Osten until we know they will avoid it or they strike."

"So if they attack elsewhere..."

Her jaw tightened as she contended with the bitterness. "If the survivors make it to Osten we'll help them. Otherwise...we stay in Osten."

She saw the images in her mind that the stories the refugees told her their stories. She saw them being repeated in any one of half a dozen villages before Osten and her anger flared as she struggled to maintain herself. "Perhaps a token guard peppered throughout..."

Neral's teaching tone had a firm edge now. "Every soldier I take will be needed at Osten. Token guards will just diminish what we can bring to bear in the end."

Nelina could not believe her ears, "We can't just let those people die and do nothing. We have a duty..."

Neral turned to her, angry now so that the brown of her eyes appeared black, "Nelina Jaye, I have known my duty since before you drew your first breath, and I do not need you to tell me what it is. We have a duty to save as many lives as we can. People have already died. I have already failed them. What I can do now is save as many as I can, and that means stopping these creatures as quickly as possible."

"This seems to me the best way. It's certainly better than trying to chase them all over creation without knowing where they will strike. If I do as you suggest, I leave a few men in a town to be overwhelmed and die along with the others. If I do as I think best, I risk them dying, in addition to whomever else in Osten and the towns along the way if they don't pick the most ripe target over the closest. But their odds are better with us whole than apart."

"People are very likely to die and have died and that is my fault, girl." She took a step closer , her full height helping her anger bear down upon the other. "I do not need a child soldier to bark at me about my duty. I owe explanations to Court and my queen, not to you. Clear?"

She backed away almost imperceptibly as a visible sign of her own inner turmoil over the situation and embarrassment that she just questioned Neral's honor and ability in one fell swoop. "Yes, Sir."

"Do whatever it is you need to do, then eat, then sleep. We have a long, hard ride ahead."

"General, I wish to..."

"Dismissed."

She stopped in mid-sentence at the tone. She saluted smartly and took three steps away in a march before assuming a regular gait, feeling pummeled almost beyond words.

***

It was another good day in a string of them for Dirkal as he scratched his rough beard, meandering down the grassy side road, which in this case, was simply a well-trodden path off from the main roads. He had a dozen of his best with him and hundreds behind. A lot of them weren't exactly the best even when sober, but they knew how to hold a weapon and do what they were told, which was enough. He'd led them to victory and to riches, so they held their weapons and did what they were told. He admitted that that was fun, but it was almost more so to run the largest military on the planet like an animal on a leash. It was bad for them and good for him that they were pretty much all the same because he'd lived it. They were full of mid-level functionaries with either stalled careers or no ambition to start with. If they had any greatness they were already in the inner circles.

The ones on the border marked time, staring out their windows until they could retire. Put them in the field and they obeyed too, but they weren't the ones who won battles. Only now were they closing ranks in the east, leaving the west open now when he was essentially finished with it. There were a few nice places to strike back that way and maybe he'd swing back once he stretched them out again, but there was fresh territory to hit before Erette sent reinforcements. As soon as he saw them, he'd vanish behind the borders for a few weeks or months until Erette relaxed again.

But the territory ahead excited. There would be new strikes, new loot, and new...rewards. He was scouting them even now and would maybe choose in a few days after the soldiers against him ran out of adrenalin. His mind went happily back to the looting. The men did love those rewards at least as much as the pillaging, even though they were far more fleeting. Even Dirkal liked them fine; a good raping was a nice way to burn off the energy of the day not to mention teach the women around here a lesson. Erette gives its bitches far too much power. They deserved to know who was really in control. The day was gray as most were these days and light snow had been turning to slush with a few warmer days, but, for Dirkal, the sun was shining.

"Dirk, come see this."

He heard the excited edge to Kaen's voice so he nudged his horse ahead and through the trees to come up alongside. He didn't have to ask what; he saw it: three women on the main road riding sweet as you please, probably gibbering all the way because that's what women did when you got two or more of them together. Their dresses looked store bought, fairly new and, most importantly, expensive. And they had nice posture on the horse, shoulders back, relaxed body, yet tall in the saddle.

That suggested breeding as much as the fine horses they rode and Dirkal contemplated the possibilities, all of them pleasant. There were craftsmen of some repute around here and maybe they decided on a little 'adventure' rather than just have their house mistresses make arrangements. They were safe within their homeland after all, that wasn't uncommon. Neither was occasionally ransoming such women. It was profitable depending on the House, and it was a nice opportunity to show the stuck up noble bitches who was really in charge. He smiled wide and wicked as he watched them ride off into the distance, "Go get the others."

Kaen nodded nodded and began turning his horse away when he felt Dirkal's meaty hand on his forearm. When he looked back, he met those deep set dark eyes and heard, "All of them."

Kaen deflated. That meant riding back a bit and that meant missing the fun. Dirkal read his mind and tried to soothe him. "You can have first pick in town. Well...second," he admitted.

That mollified him well if the look on his face was any indication and he rode on. Dirkal called to the half dozen that made up his scouting party, "Boys? I see a party. Let's go see if we can get an invitation."

The whoops and hollers that came in response spurred him on with the hoof beats of their horses not far behind.

***

The road was familiar now, as all the roads around Osten were. Nelina could map out every wagon track, hoof print, and rock on the roads to the point where she could navigate it blindfolded if need be. It was often that way for her on patrols, but, in this case, she hoped and expected that something would happen sooner or later. The women had been working in shifts in patrols that served not only as scouting rides, but as potential bait because, no matter how organized the bandits, no matter the brain that might be behind them, there are always certain desires that drove them. In order to stay in control, a bandit leader had to meet those needs or he would be gone one way or the other.

The women of the village had been most helpful in offering their church-best clothes to the women that would fit them. Kaled rode with them this day in a violet dress that came from a woman of greater width, so it hung loosely around her, though that was something of a benefit in that it hid her frame in ways that wouldn't tip off a keen eye.

The younger Jaye had been exceptionally quiet since setting out to Osten. Neral had not avoided her or dismissed her from her place as aide, though neither would have surprised Nelina under the circumstances. Even so, there was a wall there now. Neral expected her to do her job and anything related to that was fine, but that's where the interactions had largely ended. It couldn't be allowed to continue. She could hear her mother's likely response in her head even now, and, just as importantly, she didn't want that between her and her aunt. Walls such as that were erected and hardened quickly, and, once so, were very difficult to overcome. It was already feeling like something too big to talk about, which meant it had to be done.

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