Of Maze and Mists Folk (July#BattleBlog- Hatch)

The Maze Folk

          Threll, Invigilator Civic to Prince Machthaber of  Dienlich, was a man who wielded calm patience as a weapon of fearful effectiveness. Nobody wanted to be the one who caused him to lose his temper; in his usual demeanour he left an efficient enough trail of woe upon any who suffered his professional displeasure.

          ‘This is most unfortunate,’

          He sounded as if an unforeseen weather event was causing cancellation of an afternoon’s repose in his garden. However the slight furrowing of his brow warned the two before him. One was trying to keep the word ‘grave’ out of their thoughts; it gave a prescient air to matters.

          Both knew not to serve excuses up to Threll. Reasons and self-criticism were your best hopes; no babbling either. Calm and composed, was the way

          ‘Very unfortunate,’ Surveyoress Bekwaam said, contrition in her voice, encouraging her colleague.

          ‘Quite so,’ Surveyor Ervaren agreed.

          Threll considered the two of his senior staff.

          ‘Indeed,’ he said ‘And have you formulated how the deep coded false message to the rebel group to act, thus showing their hand actually contained a warning they had been compromised? It should have been impossible considering our failsafe programmes,’

          Bekwamm straightened clutching the file into the crook of her arm.

          ‘Three separate layers of code, each with their own clerkes did not account for clerical errors being transposed,’ she swallowed ‘We should have considered this,’ and handed The Analysis to her superior.

 

          Some days before.

          ‘Time to unlatch the hatch, and sneak the catch,’ the fellow trilled.

          Ven being the professional thief of the duo gripped the fellow. Palavelle by name, being a rogue Mechanical. His talents enabled him to work through a quadruple lock with three sets of alarms, his lack of common sense allowed him to announce his success to the locality and would have had him march into the final, least subtle but most effect trap.

          Two axes swung down from the walls in a criss-cross motion.

          ‘An’t you lucky,’ Ven hissed ‘I know the classics. Now let’s get in before someone comes to find out who is singing damn silly songs, this far from a tavern,’

          Once they eased passed the still slightly swaying blades Ven had the man relock everything.

          ‘Ah latch the catch. There’s the thing,’

          Why, Ven mused to himself did these rogue Mechanicals have to been so artisy and showy? They didn’t impress nobody down the working end of the City. After this job was done he’d have quiet words with his Guv’nor, Old Fryd about this one. Even if a contract was a contract, and the whole job was for someone, who might be acting for another someone else, if fellows like Ven Jek was caught, the last conversation would be with a rope.

          Meanwhile, get the business done. Hope everyone in the town house of a lesser duke, one Sabatch, placed too much faith in that lock and assumed it was doing all the work. 

          ‘Stop humming. This is no social visit,’

          ‘You should be happy in your work,’

          ‘I save, Happy, for when the job is over. Save all your talents for third door up on the left,’

 

          ‘It’s not a bad piece of work Guv’nor,’ Ven said handing over the ornately carved lapis lazuli statuette. Old Fryd surveyed with work with a veteran’s eye, but nonetheless passed it to the gang’s own antique expert.

          ‘Actually, very nice,’ the fellow said examining details through magnifier ‘Well done young Ven for bringing such a delicate piece out intact. I’ve seen a thousand golds literally knocked off the value through carelessness,’

          Old Fryd winced at the memories.

          ‘How was our,’ he coughed dryly ‘Specialist,’

          ‘Typical talented risk from the Comfy Class, getting his thrills,’ Ven said sourly. ‘Lucky, we didn’t raid some sort of professional Antique collector, not so legal,’ 

          Their own expert pulled a face.

          ‘They do get very cross and usually have accurate ideas where to express their displeasure. Did he pick up anything of for his own collection, a souvenir?’

          Ven shrugged.

          ‘He fiddled and nosed with a few bits; that was all. Shouldn’t use him again Guv’nor. Him and his damn sing-song silly rhymes. As if everyone appreciates them,’  

          ‘I’ll take care of those words Ven. That I will,’        

 

          Around the same time.

          ‘Imagine how embarrassing it would be to have the name of Hatchapatch,’

          Fegdale tightened putting down his newspaper in a sharp movement. The club was a place where one was supposed to sit and enjoy silence.

          ‘The matter has never occurred to me, Wingsleyden. In fact, I would say I couldn’t care two straws on the subject,’

          ‘Even so,’ the man had continued as if the matter were of fundamental philosophical concern ‘It would be fairly hard going for the poor fellow. You could make all sorts of poor jokes at his expense,’

          Fegdale glowered at Wingsleyden, who seemed unconcerned by the sight.

          ‘Why this sudden morbid interest in such an unlikely name?’

          Wingsleyden waved his own newspaper in response.

          ‘Why? Because I encountered the name in this journal. He’s suffered a ballooning accident at a farm cottage. And the bally paper has made light of it,’ his voice took on an injured tone as he waved the broadsheet in Fegdale’s face, pointing to a small column set aside for trivia ‘Hatchapatch Catches The Thatch In An Inflated Despatch,’

          The irony that one of the biggest fatheads in town was inadvertently blurting out a significance message was not lost on Fegdale. There was no time to reflect on such synchronicity. At least the warning had reached him sooner than the usual network of bemused gossip arising from a seemingly random quirky newspapers items. He grunted his excuse for leaving.

          ‘It comes to something when a fellow cannot find peace and quiet at his club,’

          The bustle of night time mixed with the steady autumn rain would provide distractions and cover. As watchman this was one of his roles. Raise the alarm.

 

          ‘This is very thorough, and it has to be said honest work,’ Thrall said to the pair, at the next meeting. ‘Taking full responsibility for all of your region’s status,’

          Ervaren took the lead.

          ‘We should have been more vigilant with the codes. Both in their drafting and overseeing. Complex systems need constant surveillance,’

          ‘Always a problem,’ Thrall agreed ‘ Balancing a system’s theoretical composition not to be compromised with its efficiency in practice,’      

          ‘Mistakes have been made, I hope lessons learnt,’ Bekwamm added ‘At least the rebels should be relatively easy to trace, with their nascent unprofessional approach,’ 

          ‘Yes,’ agreed Thrall ‘As the old tag-line goes. Good luck, bad luck. Who can say?’

          And sighed.

          The duo laughed, lightly.

          Slightly relieved.

 

          Palavelle relaxed and then only slightly when the coastline slipped from view. Even in uncouth company, being a simple conveyor dropping a message tube into an indifferent vase had been a thrill. All the fuss afterwards though; folk vanishing, strangers come to spirit you out of town. Far too rich a diet for him. Exile it would have to be.

          ‘Do you think he ever knew who he was working for?’ Ven Jek asked from the alley shadows as the ship sailed on.

          ‘Doubt it,’ Wingsleyden drawled glad to be relieved of his public voice.

          ‘Fribbin’ Comfies thinking it’s game,’ Ven spat. ‘Speaking code without checking,’

          ‘You try being one, year in year out chum,’ Wingsleyden said in grim humour ‘Forget your own name in a while, you will,’

 

          Fegdale was carefully drafting his confession, making sure it was officially obvious he had actually been working for the princedom as a decoy agent within the Dukes’ rebellion. That was what he had been told to write. He confessed to being quite wrong, the prince’s administration was very efficient. And was that not what everyone wanted? From his cell window he could see the scaffold. He shuddered thinking on his narrow escape.

 

          Maid Bekwaam comforted by her last herbal tea, walked composed to the scaffold. There was no more to be said. She had been caught in acts of treason. At least Thrall had assured her, her mother would be protected from the threats which had forced Bekwaam into the rebels’ hands. How they had targeted her was still being investigated. She was glad it was autumn, she would hate to be seen sweating.

 

          Bekwaam could remember the rope, it was silken, then the brief tightness. Now she was blinking? Someone was peering into her face with a magnifier. And she was breathing?

          ‘Yes. She is recovering,’ the someone said, her focus returned, he was elderly and maybe familiar?

          Two pairs of women’s hands raised her gently, sweet clear water to her lips, she knew enough to sip, and wait for clarity.

 

          She knew this one; Franzet ‘Old Fryd’ Durchtrieben. In criminal terms equivalent to nobility, always careful in his playing of sides. Thus, not surprising to learn now his network had found out her fate, unbeknown to her smuggled a powerful narcotic into her tea; the resulting feigned death, her coffin switched with another. All an effective rescue. Further details she might know eventually. Until then, be guardedly grateful.

          ‘Hello Miss Bekwaam. I won’t repeat the explanations. Glad to see you looking well,’ he tutted ‘Hate to see good resources wasted. Can’t have that,’

          ‘Thank you for thinking so,’ she replied, still a little croaky.

          ‘We’ll be easing you elsewhere. Five hundred myles south and west to Elinid. I expect you have a working knowledge about how that city is run. We have an agreement with the Silc clan there. They could use someone of your deductive and organisational talents. You’ll like it. Not so stuffy. Still spry enough to start afresh,’ he winked ‘And we’ll arrange for you to keep in touch with your old Mum. We got tender folk are already explaining basic matters to her, so it won’t come as a shock,’

          Bekwaam had to admit, currently this was a better outcome. She could not help but wonder if Thrall had some idea about this. A much broader and deeper game maybe.

 

          Ervaren brooded into the into the glass. He should have helped Bekwaam and not been instrumental in laying her upon Strategy’s bloody altar, our sacrifice of gratitude for a bountiful harvest of the treacherous, all to ensure our prince slept well.

          Without the usual knock the door to his study opened. His servant, a solid veteran entered, three men followed him, stern. Ervaren was familiar with the type, those who did not need to be obvious. He managed a harsh laugh and swilled his wine.

          ‘And so, the covering of the traces. My turn then,’ he raised his glass in a sincere salutation. ‘Make it quick and dignified. And Lave here, I bear you no ill-will,’

          One man of iron-grey short hair afforded Ervaren a softening of his expression.

           ‘Surveyor Ervaren. Your remorse and the urge for self-chastisement are understandable. However, these are pragmatic times. The empire’s stability always paramount. Invigilator Civic Thrall is willing for your talents to be seconded,’

          ‘Seconded?’ the effects of the wine flushed out by professionalism.

          ‘Yes,’ the voice was now shielded ‘The Invigilator understands he is too close to be effective on one issue. There are concerns regarding Prince Machthaber. Being the subject of avaricious potential rebellions does not exclude a prince from suspicion on other issues. You will receive instructions on methods of reporting,’ a thin smile ‘All for the stability of the Empire,’

          Later, pondering, Ervaren could not help but feel it could just as easily have been Bekwaam receiving those words. Imperial Stability was such an amoral concept.

 

          Duke Sabatch was vexed. Another occasion of Court People trampling through his town house. He would vet his staff better.

 

          Thrall made fresh entries upon the map of relationships and alliances. It would not do to lose track of who was who and what was being hatched by all sides. At least Sabatch was consistent, The Useful Idiot.

 

A Matter of Mixed Fortunes (May#BlogBattle-Pastoral)

Pastoral

Lord Preldehal scowled towards Lord Reivod’s construction.

The fellow wishing to break from widowhood and respectable poverty had entered in marriage negotiations with the wealthy mercantile family Beeinflusser, they seeking access into Gentry classes. They made things with sanctioned machines. Reivod had agreed to turn arable lands to something termed by his possible in-laws as Profitable Enterprise. Still in the early stage, all to show was a loss of woodlands, disgruntled farmers and smoke. Preldehal being competent in farm management did not see advantage to the region, only to the pockets of Reivod and his prospective in-laws.

Sanctioned machine? To his mind they skirted questionable areas which meant dabbling with Stommigheid otherwise named Ethereal. Dangerous stuff. Yet you raised such concerns at your own peril attracting the attention of The Custodians of The Lord God’s Word. Accuser and Accused both viewed with equal suspicion.  

But not satisfied to sit back Preldehal utilised his knowledge of the landscapes and his unfocused son. Weltfremd’s latest affectation to idyllic countrysides had been manoeuvred by his father by a gift of woodland, and its modest stream. Preldehal had suggested the stream could be utilised to make a pond. Weltfremd enthused on this venture.  His father was certain there would be minimal success but the resulting diversion of water would impact upon the flow and quality of the River Wichtig, itself vital to the running of Reivod’s machinery; hopefully ruining the profitability.

‘Good friends,’ Weltfremd announced loudly to friends, male to work, female to encourage. ‘To task,’ thus struck a shovel into the ground, while singing a work song. At once, more or less his group joined in. The initial fervour was worthy, however the organisation being based solely on digging a hole irrespective of other factors was not a sound one. The girls as the first careless showers of earth arrived retreated with servants but not so far as they could not observe the group of young males divest their upper clothing. There were giggles, not from the servants who would have to carry everything back again and found the singing irritating. A nearby unseen observer had their own concerns.    

Translator Pastoral ClnMyla was seated in his one comfy chair; one brief interlude of relaxation from supervising his three translators, ensuring the entire community of Lord Preldehal’s had at least nominal adherence to the Word of The Lord God thus avoiding the dyspeptically pedantic attentions of Custodians of the Word.  

‘Sorry to trouble your Interlude,’ the fellow said, back from observing ‘There’s something going on in Draybelle Woods. Not the usual ‘something’, even if it does involve young folk,’ the fellow pulled a face ‘Heir Lord Weltfremd is involved,’ this intelligence resulted in a long fatalistic sigh from the Translator Pastoral.

‘Since, those being one of his father’s own woods, that part would not be surprising. But judging by the troubled look upon your face Marthrik Healme there’d be woe you’re about to tell me. Sit yourself down and partake of the fresh coffee man. Unhappy tales are best told with refreshments,’ The invitation being gratefully received, the man began.

‘At your instructions I was patrolling the lords’ borderlands at the juncture of current potential disputes, when I espied numbers of privileged young with servants in tow by foot, horse or cart heading for Draybelle Woods. There to be greeted by Weltfremd and provisions. The purpose, to dig a pond, which the male part set about. Whether the result will be a pond, a mud hole or a swampy patch I couldn’t say. This was not my main concern,’

‘Enthusiastic young privileged folk with no idea what they are about is always cause for concern. Yours Marthik?’

‘It was the singing,’

‘The singing? I can anticipate the efforts might not be pleasing to the ear, but that would not be the problem now, would it?’

‘They were using tracts from the Second Holy Book, only they were wrongly sung,’       

‘Since we can dispense with the possible sin of being out of tune, there would be more to this yes?’

‘They were not using the officially sanctioned restrained celebrations of The Lord God’s Creation or the tastefully crafted appreciation of His Wonderous Works of Beauty. Not even one of the ten acceptable hymns of Natural Ways,’

ClnMyla often turned a literal deaf ear to the genuinely inadvertent transgressions which could arise when folk got caught up in the optimism and honesty of the one holy book which was about being Happy, within reason. Often a defence presented to his local Court of the Ecclesiastes began with ‘But in the Second Holy Book….’. He had been careful to school Marthrik in this difficult path which suggested the fellow had already sifted the evidence. The Translator Pastoral bade farewell to any chance of further relaxation.

‘And?’ he asked.

‘I reckon they’ve got hold of a proscribed version. However since none of them were dancing about undressed, waving branches or adorned with badly made animal masks it’s possibly accidental and not true heresy,’  

‘Accidental can be worse. Approach softly, we don’t want to alarm them and be setting off natural force,’

For the first time Marthrik looked startled.

‘Force?’ he echoed, twitching.

‘Call it Stommigheid, call it Ethereal. Our Higher Translators Extraordinaire and Council of The Custodian’s Conclave may deny, but there is everywhere a natural smidge of these most evasive of elementals. Even the dullest of us can set this off by a combination of circumstances. Without intentional summonings,’

‘Thank you for seeing me My Lord,’ ClnMyla said in his conversational tone, he had left Marthrik to continue observation ‘I was out on one of my rare constitutional rides, past those lovely Draybelle Woods. It was remarkable to hear your son and his friends singing as they went about some honest work,’

‘Singing?’  Preldehal asked, his concern stilled because of the word ‘remarkable’ was spoken generously.

‘That they were. And from the Second Holy book, itself ,’

He let the words hang, the absence of an immediate response suggested a lordly dither. His worries concerning the potentiality of unpleasantness between Lords Preldehal and Reivod began to solidify.  

‘My Lord. I wonder, do you think it might be of encouragement if I were to present myself there and give a formal blessing. They’re your woods and it would not be fitting to just go tramping in there,’

As ClnMyla anticipated the lord was only to happy to agree, relieved The Ecclesiastes was content with the effort, a defence against any outrage Reivod would raise.  

He reckoned arrival on the second day when enthusiasm would be waning and various aches, concerns about dresses and general discomfiture would be settling in would suit. 

Translator Pastoral ClnMyla was caught off guard at the sight of the lad standing on a rock addressing a captivated gathering of youthful folk and servants, all a lot more dirty than he had expected. Held aloft indeed was copy of The Second Holy Book green edging to the pages.

‘Your mentorship,’ enthused Weltfremd ‘You find us at break from our efforts,’ he gestured to the rather irregular, wide but shallow hole. ‘I have taken the liberty of addressing everyone to lift our spirits,’

‘We have made a little dam,’ a bright eyed muddy young woman joyfully announced ‘To hold and channel the waters,’

At this point as they all broke into a spontaneous song to do with rain, ClnMyla politely took the copy of The Second Holy Book, seemingly to allow Weltfremd to lead the singing. A brief thumbing through the said tome commenced. Deeply worried the Translator Pastoral was as the skies suddenly thickened with rain clouds; surprised he was not. There were Ethereal forces at work.

Breaking up a volatile crowd even a small one in this situation was not wise, lest unforeseen lightening bolts occur. Instead as the first thick rain drops fell ClnMyla tucked the book into the folds of his cloak. He managed to get his hood up before a herald of the deluge arrived. In his dignified but purposeful flight he met Marthrik.

‘Thank Lord God you have left Translator Pastoral,’ he said ‘They built a dam,’

‘I heard,’

‘In the shape of the discouraged symbol of the Generous Otter. It was not a structurally sound or artistically worthwhile representation,’

‘I would have thought the Graven River Badger would have suited better. Anyway let’s away,’ he produced the book ‘Things will calm down, eventually,’

With the torrential rain the intention to produce a steady, directed flow into the hole meant to be a pond of course failed, much water with one or two of the smaller stones burst upon the clearing, to reinforce the celestial inundation. Folk were transported in all directions. By good fortune the hole impeded some of the impetus pitching them only into muddy puddles, although some being cracked in the ankles or shins, hopped about a bit first to end seating in undignified postures. By then the singing had given way to wails, pleas for assistance and as is the mentality of mobs accusations upon Weltfremd, of which some were thrown back at the accusers in forms of handfuls of mud. It appeared the alleged spirit of the Generous Otter was not taken with the image of him as a dam.

Unto River Wichtig the resulting mix flowed  

The rain turned into a steady drizzle which followed the sorry party to the nearest village where irrespective of status they were shoved into a barn, until by various means everyone was transported to their homes, each with a tale to tell.

ClnMyla addressed a perplexed and guilty looking Lord Preldehal.

‘This My Lord, is not a version of The Second Holy Book you should be having about the place. This was crafted by folk who took the message of tending to Nature’s Bounty slightly too far. They meddled with forces not to be meddled with by the well-meaning innocents. Now you’ll not to worry about your son, he will return sadder, whether wiser I cannot say. In the meantime I will be examining your library and you should take arrangements with your sheriff’s office and captain of your retinue to prepare for some minor upsets and spats between families,’

The fuss lasted forty days with some pre-emptive weddings involved. Lord Reivod was amused, particularly as the extra water provided greater industry. His prospective in-laws would be pleased on their inspection.

They arrived with a guildsman of the Mechanicals, experts in machinery and its tenuous link with Ethereal influences. Reivod’s anticipation faded when the fellow returned from inspection shaking his head and sucking breath between his teeth.

‘Got trouble here squire,’ he said, Mechanicals used that term to everyone irrespective of rank ‘You got flowers growing in your pipes, nasty case of Yellow Flag. You been meddling with Ethereal?’

‘The very idea!’ the lord spluttered.

‘Anyways,’ the fellow addressed to the prospective-in-laws ‘I can’t sanction this. Oh dearie no. Not with such infestation,’

Reivod was left with a location filling with Yellow Flag and no prospect of marriage or wealth. Later, thanks to mediation by the genial Translator Pastoral across the border did find consolation in a young widow recently relieved of a choleric farmer.

The Yellow Flag proved to be a popular ornamental plant, while Maybelle Wood became a place of many sought after blooms, which spread. Both men settled their issues and entered into a most profitable floral supply. Weltfremd expunged from polite local society left to acquire status by his unexplainably found talent of dredging distant waterlogged locations. By good happenstance the expected pregnancy within the Reivod household and the surprise one in the established Preldehal marriage led to births of daughter and son, whose amiable relationship over the years resulted in the union of the households.

Custodian of the Word Marthrik Healme renowned for his more philosophical approach was fond of citing this one as an example of The Lord God’s Ways being mysterious and wonderous to behold. Usually said with a wry grin.      

Places of Resolve

Awaiting

‘My poor darling,’ her hand touched his forehead ‘What a dreadful cut. I do wish you would wear your helmet,’

‘My sweet,’ he replied with warmth taking her hand and kissing it ‘There was only a brush of steel against skin. You know how I feel about helmets, they do impede the vision,’

There came the endearing little pout as she set to scolding him.

‘Your vision will be lot more impeded if your silly head was cut off,’ she tugged his nose for emphasis ‘Now let me clean that gash up properly The Good Lord God knows where that rag pretending to be a bandage has been,’

Thus he did sit patiently by the log fire of their apartment as she tended to the wound with her own astringent, following with application of the clean linen bandage. He thought himself the most fortunate man in the Empire to have found this beautiful, caring, able woman who had consented to be his wife, doubly so her being willing to share his lodgings at the outpost while the campaign against the stubborn clan continued.  

Once she was satisfied with her ministrations, a simple evening meal was partaken of and as was their custom, they sat before the fire, she curled up on his lap, head and one hand resting on his chest, each savouring the closeness of the other.

‘I worry for you so,’ she whispered ‘Out there upon those bleak fields and slopes. The risks are so great, and for what? A piece of ground an emperor does not even know about much less care for,’ her breath caught and she looked up at him, deep brown eyes pleading ‘You have rank and some say in the matter. They might listen to you,’

His frustration was shaped as a sigh with a groan.

‘Lord Frygem still wishes to raise his profile with Duke Mereth who remains the favoured advisor of Prince Nahdel who……’

‘…..wishes to prove to the Emperor that he too has his princedom completely under his sway,’ her completion of the litany ended with her own sigh ‘While the troublesome Clan K’ith Sondours refuse to trust the word of known Oath Breakers,’

‘It seems the only Oaths which count are those to The Emperor, know ones dares cross a strong emperor who also has the confidence of The LifeGuard. Everyone else thus scrabbles for their joint or separate favours,’

The frequently visited topic discussed, they sat in silence holding each other, until he said, kissing russet hair ‘Away with our gloom for this night. Let’s read the play: ‘The Adventure of Stefan and Alosia,’

‘This time I’ll be Stefan and you be Alosia,’ she announced, the previous plaintive sadness replaced by a rather appealing nuance in tone and glance. By the time he had returned with the bottle of wine to aid their intended comical narration she was curled up peeking over the script of the popular comedy. They had, a while back agreed the tale of a couple facing an arranged marriage turning the tables on the arrangers to suit the couple was a theme in which they found certain strands of empathy. Their efforts at acting this slightly bawdy theatre always raised their spirits.

She awoke tender with memories of the night. He had, of course risen before her, for duties and profile elsewhere called. As was his practice he had left breakfast dishes laid out, oatmeal and water for coffee bubbling in pots hung over the fire, while there as always a dainty vase of dew damp small star petalled flowers, she held them up and breathed in the freshness. As she drank her coffee she would read her copy of ‘Varow and Betherelle’s Encounter’, based on another factual couple, and the first of a series of verses recording their rather controversial deeds, popular amongst folk at the lower end of society. Good for resolve, she thought in the dawn still a measure away.

Lord Frygem, a stocky man of nearing middle years believed himself to know something of warfare, yet was possessed of enough basic sense to appreciate advice and experience, so was glad to see the outline, albeit hunched, almost furtive. Mercenaries were a variable crew, he would thank Duke Mereth for this one. Checking the large clan raiding force, holding them and pushing them back. Frygem ruefully had to admit his border troops liked the man and his skill. Also he had kept to his ducal contract, some might have given up on the task, particularly with a pretty and shy little wife in tow. That was a puzzle. Risking her safety in The Wilds. Still a man needed his comforts.

What did rankle Frygrem and touched on a raw spot was having the damn LifeGuard here. Observing. Five of them, long dark green coats, wide brimmed black hats. Their officer a hard faced major intoning ‘Imperial Stability’ at him. The Clan was a local problem. Did LifeGuard not have better things to do? He scowled in the direction of the far off group. Beneath their dignity to take part.   

‘Captain Leiding,’ he hailed ‘Surveying the ground I trust?’

‘From dawn Lord Frygrem,’ the mercenary said ‘The Clan has quit the hill and removed themselves. They have given up on the incursion. We can take back the hill and await re-enforcements. The crisis has passed,’

Emboldened by the encouraging news Frygrem’s irritation at Imperial Supervision took hold.

‘A retreat?’ his eagerness unsettling the mercenary captain  ‘We might pursue them,’

‘If we had a larger reserve,’ Leiding said, intending to bring neutrality into the conversation. ‘Our current force needs rest and recuperation,’

‘Whereas I can appreciate your caution captain, as your profession values conservation of resources, in my world, political demonstration is equally as weighty,’ this was accompanied by a brief twitch of his head towards the LifeGuard. ‘I would like to consider the ground myself. Accompany me,’

Since there was no evidence of Clan numbers Leiding saw little point in arguing here and hoped he could dissuade Frygrem during the ride. He gestured to four men selected for skill with crossbow to accompany the lord’s small entourage.

‘This is Lord Frygrem’s idea. Keen eyes,’ he said to his own ‘Bows loaded, but aloft to avoid accidents,’

The approach was not the issue, the slope and the sparse cover would be a risky place for an ambush. Leiding insisted his group reached the crest first, sharp eyed they scanned, dismounting, to avoid being an easy target.

‘Captain,’ the lord called out impatient after the slow climb ‘I would advance,’ Leiding surveyed the grasses, heathers, gorse  and small outcrops; the only true cover a copse in the far distance. The land  appeared safe, though ‘Appeared’ was never a word he trusted.

His pause obviously did not suit Frygrem, the man advanced his horse at a swift trot, until he was amongst Leiding’s group, disrupting their watch.

‘My Lord,’ Leiding said, command in his voice ‘Dismount,’ Frygrem having briefly looked ahead turned his attention back to the LifeGuard.

The brief warning was the gorse bush twitching against the direction of the breeze, too fast though for the message to go from eye to head to hand. The figure rose already losing off their own bolt, before starting to duck. By the time even the swiftest of the party at the crest was physically reacting Frygrem was tipping back from his mount, either it was the bolt in his chest or the fall from his horse, killing him.

Whether he was dead by the time three crossbow bolts flew towards the gorse, one hitting the ambusher it was of no consequence.

Against the backdrop of clamour from the entourage Leiding and his men viewed the body, caution staying them.

‘High Holy,’ breathed one ‘He was swift,’

‘Little,’ added another ‘That’s how he hid,’

‘Patient,’  said the third

‘Steady,’ concluded the fourth, adding, alarmed ‘Captain?’

He was uncaring of the warnings from his men and the indignation from the entourage, drawn to brief view of russet hair loosened as the ambusher fell backwards. There should be anger, anguish, at least confusion. Why was there admiration, laced with hope, melding with confusion?

Voices were but sounds as he reached the body, eyes flickering, the grimace of triumph softening to a smile.

‘It was a lovely breakfast,’ she said, raising her cap ‘Look I wore your posey,’

Her accent was no longer regional encompassing three princedoms, there was the distinctive rolling lilt of these clan folk, an urgency caused a cough, blood running from her mouth.

‘I taught you too well,’ he said.

‘I did not play thee, dear husband. There was no long plan. It was only when your contract drew you here. I had prayed there would just be scraping like wee dogs, then going away,’

He stroked her hair. A lord’s death. Who cared?

‘You do not hold Clan deaths against me?’

‘They should have stayed in our own lands,’ she slurred ‘My father, always counselled  The Chief to stop raiding. Yet, Frygrem had to go, a warning,’

‘It was deftly done,’

‘While you boys were out brawling I learnt the exits,’

 ‘There’ll be reprisals,’

A pained little laugh.

‘With The LifeGuard hovering around. Them and their adherence to Stability? Look not surprised, a Clan Chief’s niece learns a much of politics,’

A tearful chuckle was his response.

‘That was the marriage you were running from,’

‘I think I saw him die yesterday,’

‘What in the Second Hell is he doing?’ someone on the crest demanded.

One of the crossbowmen shrugged. The arrival of the LifeGuard Colonel stilled all conversation.

Their shared laughter stopped, his face grave as he placed the knife in her hand.

‘Also as I taught you,’ he said ‘It makes sense, for I let a lord die on my watch, grave mistake. More to the point, I can’t spend time on this realm without you,’

Her eyes were losing focus, breath ragged.

‘I could not leave you alone,’ she said and plunged in the blade.

Only the Colonel of LifeGuard did not seemed surprised.

The Colonel of LifeGuard bore the tirades of the Duke and Prince with an impassive disinterest. They owed more to the Oakhostian Empire than it did to them. They knew full well. When they ran out of ire, he spoke.

‘You were fortunate The LifeGuard was there to return the young woman’s body to the Clan, the whole business could have spread from Clan to Clan like a gorse fire. Never mind this Clan was an inveterate nuisance, Clans rally when Princes push their luck. The LifeGuard will have to attend to this,’ he let the words hang, the warning, LifeGuard were arbiters of this Emperor. ‘Captain Leiding was obviously being generous in tending her last religious rites. Being confused she stabbed him. Unfortunate. I will tender my report on the matter, both to The Grand Oaken Throne and my Commanders. You should await the Emperor’s Word. Do not venture beyond that crest. It is his wife I feel sorry for, secretly fleeing in distress,’

He left.

The winds blew across the freshly raised twin mounds. Four men crossbowmen, and four Clansmen had stood watch all the day. The sun settled, the quartets nodded to each other, and returned  to their own ranks.

Newly planted flowers quivered in the wind.

The tenth draft might be the foundation for the official report. Only LifeGuard’ s grim fortress Drygnest would know the captain was their own, despatched to act as mercenary, mining fertile battlefields for nobility’s indiscretions. Dangerous road, sometimes a LifeGuard went in so deep they lost perception. Usually going hard rogue taking lives like tankards of ale, conspiring for thrills. Instead here a fellow had stepped off the road, onto softer pastures, tripped when he came back onto the road. Tendered his way out with dignity, and it seemed love.

The Colonel looked to the copies of play and verse. Romance. Just as likely to kill.  

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Those Varying Borderlands of Gloom and Light

The Gloom

Working in the gloom was not uncommon. All mediums came with advantages and drawbacks, seldom were they unconditionally generous.

Here, there was Dankness of the dripping sort which had soon put an end to his torch. He never had cared for lamps with their greasy or oily fumes and cumbersome inclinations. Far better to enhance limited vision with your other senses, and of course caution. Arguably you might be better off without a torch anyway, for then you could wield your sword easier without the glare impeding your vision. Find your way by steady step and one hand gliding over the nearest wall. And always remember the watcher whatever or whoever they were had the first advantage, some sort of advantage of your own.

This would be a poor and humiliating place to find luck had finally expired. No grand venture for some noble close to the Imperial Throne, who desired something but whose rank required discretion. Instead in a remote squalid location, simply to make good on an error, a salve to a petty lord with far more vanity and ill-conceived pride than character. A place where small, slithering base things dwelt, their deadliness paid out in sly, instinctive reactions, no sliver of comfort that they revelled in the kill; no roaring out a challenge and bellowing victory over your body. Not for you the bleached skull posted somewhere to mark your end, only the slow ugly decay as smaller things feasted on your flesh, chewed on your bones and what was left was rolled along by a fetid stream to be swallowed by swamp or mud. These were the places which usually claimed the inexperienced or the lost. The humiliation would be of someone finding out where The End had finally been met and for what reason.

He stopped to steady himself, intending to shake loose the creeping tendrils of Desolation such places and circumstances birthed. He had traversed sharper places. He should treat this as no more than groping around in a sewer for a misplaced purse. Time to gather in all the instincts and experiences, treat this as but a task to be done and no more.     

He wanted to move on, for there was no option. However all hard gained knowledge and perceptions warned him there was something else out there, aside from any small creature. Waiting, lurking, watching. Whatever this was had been very still and patient, until his closing proximity appeared to have unsettled this stance, there was a rising of breath, the barest of sounds of movement. He stilled the irrational relief at a possible challenge, there were always the creatures, one careless move could cause them to strike out from their deep, wet gloom, and there would be no contest.

‘Hey fellah,’ the traditional greeting to a stranger came in clear, slightly anxious words surprising him. A greeting by anything so female should be sultry, tempting, lowering your guard before the strike. The eyes not two person’s length away widened, as if to signal there was no threat; a good killer always kept their eyes hooded in darkness, eyes could reflect even the barest of light.

‘Hey yourself girl,’ he replied, also honouring tradition, he kept alert but spoke casually, good manners cost nothing ‘Are you lost or here with a purpose?’

Carefully viewing and measuring the shifting of the shades of gloom, he discerned the outline of someone seated against the wall, legs hunched up to avoid the dangerous pools and watery traces.

‘Never get lost,’ came the sulking reply ‘Don’t reckon on doing so neither,’

The drawl placed her from Hengestatia, a land he believed to be populated entirely by restless nonconformists.

‘How about you fellah? Come in out of the rain? Or,’ a mournful sigh issued ‘You intending to make a fool of yourself too?’  

‘Comments which suggest you know something more than I do,’

‘I wouldn’t say that. I’m hearing an experienced and cultured venturer coming to a soul-sucking forlorn and remote place for no more than a candlestick which would get the finder laughed at on most markets be they open or behind doors,’ a bitter laugh followed ‘Now why would that happen? Unless said venturer been so long in highly thought of quests they forgot to look down and tripped over their own reputation?’

Hengestatians, ever loquacious, even if they were astute. 

‘Very well. On taking a short cut I inadvertently insulted a local lord of low character and intellect when stopping his drunken obnoxious son from forcing his attentions on a tavern serving girl; fists and an introduction to a midden were involved. The lord required I look for this lost valuable family artifact, or he would burn down the tavern as he co-blamed the owner. You?’ the last word was pointed.

There followed the sound of something lightly striking the wall, he guessed it was the back of her head.

‘Nothing as noble as yours. Common enough stumbling amongst the ranks of us lesser venturers. Did start in a tavern though. Got to drinking with fellow scrabblers and we started to swap notions on which would be the most stupid of quests here abouts and someone came up with The Candelabrum of House Waardeloos; them being an object of derision in this princedom, so singularly useless and negligible, folk of your style would not have heard of them,’

‘I have now,’ he said bitterly ‘Go on, there must be more,’

‘C’mon over here classy venturer,’ he stiffened at the overture, relaxed at the sudden weariness causing a thickening of the accent ‘I don’t feel much like speakin’ this out loud,’ a cough of a laugh followed by an obscenity ‘Scraith. Don’t it get tiring?’

Caution his byword as he grew closer, there was a flick of a match and a faint geometric glow from a box she held. A young lined face, framed in pale hair, she was possibly a handspan taller than most women, dressed in travel hardened leathers and buckskins, a wide-brimmed hat flipped back, a tough smile.

‘My. An’t you a looker too,’ she patted the rock gesturing him to sit. He slumped down next to her ‘You’ll like the joke on this one. We got around to cards. I musta drunk a smidge too much. Kept playing the hands bad. Ended up betting my best sword, knife and gauntlets. Lost. At the time, seemed they were being kindly over it. Said if I could bring back that stupid-ass’d candle, it would make up for being so stupid as to lose my gear,’ she tailed off with a long sigh. ‘Least I had the sense to keep mechanical illumination,’

‘No disrespect, I have heard funnier endings to stories,’

‘An’t done yet,’ the sulking again. ‘Cause the punch-line only came to me when I got here. I’ve been down the tunnel a bit, comes to a sudden drop, my little gubbinz here only illuminates to gloom ten paces, so down goes a stone. Counted,’ she held up a hand ‘Six…damn six…. That’s like two hundred paces, ‘bout a hundred man drop. And’ she held up one finger to the gloom. There’s no going beyond that drop. S’ a wall,’ she bumped her head again ‘Set me thinking, those fellows knew it would end up here. No one carries two hundred paces of rope or clambers into nowhere for a market day selling candle. They set me up to fail, keeping really good quality weaponry,’

‘And I by honour bound was obliged to try,’ he said in empathy.

‘There was a splash too,’ she added ‘Frib’ knows what would be waiting down there,’

They looked at each other, the shared expression of two who should have known better, but had let one guard or another down and wandered into situations they had usually avoided.

‘Luck and sense run out with the best of us,’ she said, then suddenly extended a hand to him ‘Betherelle Gettis,’ by way of introduction.

‘Varow Dekyria,’ he replied and shook her hand.   

They lapsed back into silence.

Previously he had expected one day in battle, old injuries, age, over-confidence, poor judgement or some quirky event would be his downfall. Not just running out of confidence and the humiliation of being herded here like some farm animal, tethered by Honour and Reputation.

‘Unless I get that candlestick he will burn down the tavern,’ he said, hoping speaking out the words would give him resolve.

‘Sure Master Venturer Dekyria. You go and try, lose you grip and fall, into some deep ice cold water which’ll rip your breath out, stop you swimming to the plinth or whatever. Or trying to clamber up, cold, shivering, losing that grip again,’ a slight shrug ‘Me, I just lose good gear, walk away looking a fool. I can get good gear again, go to another part of the empire, piece together another ragged sort of a reputation,’

‘You must be short on resources,’

‘At my end of the business a little bit of light  thievery is not frowned upon,’

The word  landed lightly first as an observation, then settled.

‘What sort of light thievery Betherelle Gettis?’

‘Don’t sound so censorious Master Venturer Dekyria. Finding unsecure windows and doors and tippy-toeing into places where folk can afford a small loss,’ a little hurt seeped into her voice ‘All beneath your status I am sure,’

‘I apologise. My curiosity took hold,’

‘You sound suddenly planful,’

A pause that stretched her nerves followed.

‘Much experience of combat with your lost sword and knife?’

‘An interesting question,’ she sat up ‘Since we’re down amongst the drainage as it were, no. Mostly fists and knees, or hilt of the sword on the nogging. Sharp end for defence before running off. Only served mild wounds and maybe two deaths to my name. My line is scouting, look-out, being an extra body to intimidate, relieving of fat purses by hard suggestion and,’ brittle cough ‘That light thievery. Good at it all too,’ her eyes glinted knowingly ‘Combat? You’d probably see me off in a count of five. If I was lucky to get the chance to flee, that is. What’re you scheming all of a sudden?’

‘My experience’ he chose his words ‘Is more in combat. I can moved deftly, but had the luxury of feeling if discovered I could fight my way out. You seem far better based for avoiding danger,’

‘Know your limits I say. What road are we treading? I’m guessing there’s a ‘We’ in this chat,’ 

‘I admit on realising the true extent of this wretched business I fell prey to despondency. Listening to your view of this work I am angry at being caught out by such a wretch and his worthless son. The candlestick is of no importance. The well being of the tavener, his family, staff and neighbours are. This lord is in the way,’

There was a long low whistle.

‘You gonna remove him and his progeny from this mortal world? That’s a turn around, heavy duty, no mistake,’

‘It would not be the first time I have been part of such an enterprise. I only need someone who is deft at finding their way into a place,’

A soft puff of an exclamation.

‘I dunno. I got no quarrel with this fellow. Killing lords hangs around you for a long time and distance,’

‘There again Betherelle Gettis. Success in such a venture also gives you a new sort of status to those higher than mere lords,’

‘Oh my. Here was I thinking you worked only noble causes,’ she fingered the box, light and shade moving across her face’ Mope in here, slouch out. Or?’

There was a  smirk.

‘I’ll see you in then and watch your back?’

‘One extra matter,’

‘Yeah?’ suspicion

‘Best we marry after. Husband and wife teams carry more value and oddly, dignity,’

‘Why, Master Venturer Dekyria. How could a girl refuse such an offer?’

Are Vast Distances Circular?

Interface

An interlude of achievement. Not just signals. Contact and Communication had been achieved.

There was a great deal of excitement. Much chatter between the explorers on the team, the programmers at base and the theoreticians, elsewhere. Below the mutual congratulations the subtle game as to who could claim the bulk of the credit for the first successful translation of signals into images.

Meanwhile Captain Mazehof seconded from Military Psychological Observation was left to stare at a face and read runes. All by himself. No one had thought to have a team. A mix of folk, various working knowledges of physical signals across Life’s myriad options. There were other officers; communications, logistics and of course security all dropped in with little advanced training on the project. They were military, they could adapt. Right?

Not any option. If someone wanted him to stare at a face, he would stare at a face. An interlude. A face in a picture. He was supposed to work out deep secrets from one snapshot, estimate an entire civilisation and race. He didn’t know if he was supposed to know, but truth be known amongst all the exultation, congratulations and edging for credit no one was exactly sure just where or when the signals which formed the image had originated.

Mazehof had been musing upon the face for three days, studying each feature in detail, returning to gain further insight. When the image had first appeared upon the scan the team had been surprised, some relieved to see similar to human features, although it had to be admitted in those high cheekbones, wide eyes, the slight protrusion of the nasal and jaw areas and ears with a peak there was  a distinct difference. Opinions on comparisons differed; feline, canine, or maybe the more delicate of the ruminants. His mind was open on the matter; his concern being, was this a message directed to Humanity or a chance image which the scan had captured?  No one was chasing him for results, which was a relief. Maybe they had forgotten him, as they pondered on the mathematics and the readings.

You had to think of this image as a person, and what was the mundane in their lives if you were going to get anywhere in this vague mission. The turn of the lips to the right. Was that friendly or a warning? Dogs had managed to work out a human smile was not the barring of teeth challenge, there again they had that incredible sense of smell to let them know humans simply had quirky muzzles. When he thought about it on that level he was at a distinct disadvantage, for staring at this enigma had been causing his mind to wander. Starting off, sure you could just stare intently. However because of the nascent size of the task, trying to encompass time and space within the context of another being? Or perhaps the answer was a distressing one, being beyond comprehension, so you just drifted off.

He sat back, startled. The face had moved, one blink of an eyelid; causing Mazehof to catch his breath. The head inclined to the left, giving him the impression he was being examined. He ordered himself to stare back, while options of physical reaction crowded through him. For who was to say what might be seen as hostile?

The concern was clouded by subsequent thoughts returning to the question of Time and Distance. All current knowledge indicated the events he was witnessing were not taking place; they were of the Past.

Nonetheless, when one arm moved slowly upwards, and the hand opened into a palm displayed, followed by the mouth arcing into a smile, he could not help to respond in like manner. Never mind the unavoidable and overwhelming possibility the being was now dust.

‘What a relief. I found you,’ the words were clear, the accent lyrical, heavy with an emphasis.

‘Me?’ Mazehof failed to contain the squeak as all musings of the variabilities on Time and Distance were distilled into the notion of being sought out. One grain of sand on a beach?

There was a distinct grin there, never mind what the twist of the mouth conveyed, the eyes sparkled in humour.

‘I should have focused my accuracy of explanation,’ there was a  strange sound Mazehof took to be a clearing of a throat ‘To be precise, I have enacted the correct location relevant to your society,’

Mazehof felt a quirk of disappointment at being downgraded but was equally swift to put such a vanity to one side and be sober.

‘For what purpose?’

‘To place you in perspective. Have you any direct experience of dealing with the dimensions encountered in Quantum Physics?’

‘No,’ Mazehof said but felt he needed to add something ‘I have a rudimentary knowledge of Space Time,’

‘This will be of assistance,’

‘Before we proceed. Might I ask you, your name and how you are reaching out across vast tracts of Space Time as if we were in the same room?’

‘Firstly. Know me as Vestnesis. For the other part, there are dimensions beyond the perceivable four,’

‘I have heard of theories. Are there facts now?’

‘Indeed. I am fortunate not to be involved in the mathematics or the mechanics, simply a herald,’

Not a time to interrupt Mazehof reckoned. And try not to think about the implications in the increase in the blinking of the eyes, concentrate on information.

‘Beyond Space Time, after much effort a way was found into the Fifth Dimension. This acted as a conduit into other dimensions, a gateway and viewing lens. Utilisations led to the Sixth Dimension, which afforded a mapping of the parts of Creation previously hidden. By adapting to these two advances, navigation of the vast distances between stars was made possible along with prompt communication. Matters were allowed to stay there while physical exploration and settlement of near solar systems was conducted. But progress ever seeks many ways. Thus once a full working knowledge of the Fifth and Sixth was achieved amidst myriads of possible worlds, the Seventh Dimension was uncovered, a location where a long suggested aspect of Time was found. The revelation being Time was indeed not flowing as a river, but was a sea with its own tides to be navigated and journeyed along,’ Mazehof witnessed a long exhalation as if this was all a great effort, then the intake for another ‘The Eighth  Dimension’s own nature could be used as the craft to travel,’ Vestnesis paused searching for Mazehof’s comprehension, which came quickly, the feeling he had been waiting for someone to tell him this. And where had that come from?

‘Therefore,’ he said slowly choosing his words ‘It does not matter where we both are, or when we are?’

The hand which Mazehof now noticed had longer fingers than normal, extended in a sign of acknowledgment. Briefly he wondered on the factors which had caused the physical diversions of Vestnesis’ people. He held back from asking though, not the right circumstances.

‘The task of explaining to you I am located in your future is easier. Yes?’

‘I suppose so,’ came the reply, his own suppositions made form were rushing into his head ‘You were grateful of locating me? Why was this necessary?’

‘You will appreciate a sea is not something easy to navigate without landmarks at some stage,’

‘I am one?’ that was overwhelming, a slight shake of the head eased his heartbeat.

‘No, only your location. Now we know exactly where to send the rations of information to enable the progress to ensure our societal status. Inject readings into devices, leave salient suggestions in academic environments,’

‘Wait please. This sounds circular. You are human from my future, engaging in your past to ensure your present?’

‘You are very swift on the uptake Mazehof,’

‘Thank you,’ what else do you say? ‘I have to ask. I have been staring at you for three days. Did you have the same experience?’

The pinched expression was universal in the human lexicon. Consideration of the answer.

‘I am not truly versed in the matters, but I think this is something to do with the interfacing of the varying temporal tides,’

Mazehof was finding the conversational exchanges growing easier, something of the circumstance settling within him.

‘I appreciate there is a factor of stealth involved here. Balancing Cause and Effect is always difficult. However I will have to report something to my superiors. You understand this?

In response there came a soft wheezing, which judging by the sparkle in the eyes had to be an empathetic laugh.

‘I too sit in a similar construct. My commanders will be anxious to have something positive to pass onto the Governance at this innovative time,’ definite irony slipped in ‘There could even be an advancement for this humble servant,’

‘Innovative time?’

‘Oh yes. For Ten Generations the Human Confederation has been satisfied with a centralised decision making process of a council. Once there was a certainty of no interlocking with alien civilisations and the extension into the Seventh and Eighth dimensions made it was felt there should be other progressions. Thus to ensure Humanity had room to flourish it was felt a certain allowance should be made to points of view from varying sectors of civilisation and if these were found acceptable to let them endeavour with government. Should these proponents be found wanting the populations could replace them. It is all very exciting,’  Vestnesis paused again ‘I witness doubt on your face Mazehof,’

‘Yes,’ he drawled ‘We have this system. I will give you a message from the past. There will be arguing. There will be disappointments with those you select because they cannot be all to everyone. Do not trust anyone who says they have simple solutions to problems. Avoid anyone who tries to blame one part of your societies for all the problems. Expect planets or collections of planets to want to go their own way. Above all seek out as much history as you can and learn from that. Nothing is straightforward,’

Vestnesis seemed to sit back, eyes wide.

‘You speak with some insight Mazehof. Have you taken part in governing?’

‘No, but I, as have many, have wished some of those who have governed had never been given the option,’ Mazehof felt a certain confidence and urgency to advise those descendants’ that naivety and excitement were not the right qualities to have at this juncture. ‘Be wary Vestnesis. A great responsibility will rest on all. I know you are only one in a vast population I cannot begin to imagine, however this must start somewhere. Spread this, Choose With Care,’

‘You speak cautiously Mazehof. Neither of us should spread information too quickly,’

‘We should probably not speak anymore Vestnesis, other folk less sanguine might overhear us,’

‘Wise words from the Past,’

The screen blurred and blanked.

Disappointment with resolve resulted.

Mazehof’s report was prompt and quite bland in comparison to the information given to him. He spoke vaguely of Human sort of beings. He suggested the images came from the distant past. He speculated there would be others out there and if Humanity managed to travel into the stellar depths there might be the remains of ancient civilisations to support this. He grew adept at giving vague answers which many thought was a sign of great insight gained in his short tenure. Thus he left the military and lectured in social sciences  at a small college. Some of his work on the Nature of Speculation  was considered influential in many fields.

Vestnesis was buoyant at his success in finding a location and in turn his superiors promoted him. From there he bided his time, musing on Mazehof’s words.

He took up a career in politics, when others asked him where  the inspiration for his successful creed had originated from, he said ‘The Collected Wisdom and Mistakes of Our Histories’. His insight became a byword.

******

This is an offering for the February  #BlogBattle, (Keyword :Interface) . Always a place for interesting short stories.

Places Which Whisper

Park

No one was wholly sure how long there had been The Park. When each earlier record was discovered, the account suggested four generations before held the true answer.

Stefan of Ingefahr took one last look at the thin curtains of early morning spring mists drifting over the water. A loud, wailing “kuk-kuk-kuk-kaow-kaow,” signalled a grebe had an opinion. He wanted to remain until the mid-morning sun had burnt off the light grey veil, affording him a better view; was the span of water was a very small lake or a distinctly large pond? In a park of many pleasant views this was his favoured of early morning; sunlight on water, dappling and dancing, temporary jewels on ripples. However duty called. Oh, to be like that lad in the distance, a simple garden worker.

Stefan  had accepted one day he would be prince, but not this early in his life. Still alive and generally healthy Stefan’s father Prince Heyrold had been elevated to the rank of Court Advisor to the Emperor. Even if was only to advise on porcelain art, the emperor’s latest interest, you did not refuse. You handed on your title and with your spouse set up residence in the vastness of the Imperial Estates. Leaving an young inexperienced lad as prince.

At least Stefan had his father’s Chancellor Scharfsinnig to advise and commiserate with him as he faced this crisis.

‘Well Chancellor. Do our Intelligence Services confirm, who plans advancement from this paternal elevation?’

Whereas the lands were dwarfed by the surrounding princedoms Ingefahr had by far the most astute, deft and loyal Intelligence Services.

‘Raffgierig of Drohend,’ inevitability in Scharfsinnig’s delivery. House Aufdringlich held its princely throne by dint of being a constructively obnoxious family in the unfortunate land. Drohend was a frequent cause of local ‘issues’.

‘Malignant, grasping fellow, but father ever placed faith in quiet diplomacy,’

‘Thus he was held in Fond Regard by most of our neighbours. He hosted some fine conferences to smooth out local issues and,’ there was a sad smile on the usually hard face ‘Always the visits to The Park. Everyone looked forward to those,’

‘Apart from Raffgierig who never got his way. Looking for even the score,’ Stefan scowled ‘Listig, his sly chancellor, is probably behind this. The  intelligent one. Arranging the singing of my father’s praises at the imperial court. Out-manoeuvred us this time. Leaving an unmarried son thus by imperial law in need of a wife. Raffgierig at the head of the line having a daughter of correct rank,

Aloisia, I saw her at a distance once, small passive thing in the wake of her father. She seemed to appreciate The Park. Raffgierig pays a dowry, which he can afford, while accordance with imperial protocol I must impart a nuptial gift,’ Stefan tapped an ominous rhythm on the arm of his chair ‘Thus we must wait for his princely suggestion, one detrimental,’

‘Likely he will request rite of passage through Ingefahr,’

‘As son-in-law I could hardly refuse. Even if it does remove our neutral status,’ Stefan looked pleadingly to his Chancellor ‘I don’t suppose Father’s new station will give us leeway of Imperial Benevolence,’

Scharfsinnig sighed.

‘There are bigger games being played at the Imperial Court than the well-being of Ingefahr. The regional stability crafted  by your father and grandfather is no longer the most important coin on the table,’

‘Thought so,’ Stefan sighed ‘Not much option only to wait and see,’

Scharfsinnig was sorry for Stefan. He had a good grasp of the situation, and was handling matters calmly. Intelligent, reflective and popular with the people. And he had The Park. Where he did the best of his thinking. The princes and wives had worked diligently to nurture the blend of wild and cultivated, while adding tasteful bridges over waters, attractive empathetic walk ways and small constructs from where to rest and ponder, or chat. A cause of national pride.

In a small princedom closeness to the population verged on personal, in consequence delegating was not an option. Therefore three days passed before Stefan could take a walk through one of The Park’s winding lanes into a glade at the western edge of the wood, affording him the gilded shades of late afternoon upon leaves and bark. He sat upon a simple rustic bench and to the background of birdsong pondered upon options political and even military.

He reasoned, if you started at the worst result you should be able to trace backwards and find out where to make the right turn. In theory.

‘You got the grumps too?’

To Stefan’s surprise a new arrival was leaning, then slowly slumping down a tree opposite him, the sizeable untidy woollen headgear was familiar, the gardening lad he had seen the other day.

‘Yes,’ Stefan admitted at ease with the casual attitude, presumably he was not recognisable in the shade, opportunity for a relaxing share of woes, guardingly ‘Your accent is not local. Missing home?’

The initial response was a common vulgar sound although the particular application of tongue to lips made it somewhat musical.

‘My uncaring parent farmed me out to be an apprentice. Horrible idea. I ran away,’

‘All the way from,’ he paused placing the accent ‘Drohend?’

‘I started not far from the border,’

‘You have hiding out in a royal park. It’s not a public place,’ he tried to sound friendly and helpful; the idea of a runaway seeking sanctuary in his Park was bemusing.

‘I know that,’ they retorted ‘It’s good place to hide. This wood particularly. You looked miserable enough to be hiding yourself,’

A perceptive runaway.

‘Close,’ he drawled ‘I work in the Castle, a type of clerke. A difficult busy time now. I come here for peace,’

Not actually a lie, simply short on details.

‘Is your prince horrible too?’ they asked.

‘No,’ this time his reply was defensive, only to be interrupted by an unmistakeable gurgling sound and the interloper squirmed. ‘Hungry then?’ Stefan asked, interest piqued by this arrival.

‘My supplies finally ran out,’ they complained, adding defiantly ‘I’ve not been stealing either,’

‘I didn’t say you had. You have an air of cynosure and probity about you,’

‘Thank you. I endeavoured to keep balanced. Not to cause problems,’

‘You chose well to stay here. The gardeners leave the wood to itself in summer. I will bring you sustenance at dusk. Here’

‘Again thank you. May I ask why this generosity?’

‘I would like to learn about your land. And your name?’

‘Call me Al,’

Stefan was doubly occupied. Musing on reasons for the absence of the expected approach by Raffgierig and nurturing this cautious refuge, whose appearance suggested regular washing in a stream. Conversation was stilted, you could give away facts about yourselves when asking questions of others. Thus each evening’s delivery of food involved a conversation about The Park, a shared enthusiasm it seemed. They talked of nothing but The Park. On a particularly warm breeze softened evening Stefan concluded they were sharing evasion.

‘At the risk of sounding a snob, a runaway apprentice when being told they have an air of cynosure and probity would normally say ‘Uh?. Not thank me. Nor sound eloquent,’

Their face crumpled into acceptance.

‘It took you long enough to admit to your suspicions and ploy,’ a smile quivered ‘Prince Stefan,’

A beam of late sunlight flickering through branches caused sparkles upon alert eyes, accompanied by a slow removal of the untidy head gear.

Recognition.

‘And you would be Princess Aloisia,’ his response was hardly a question, although the subsequent words were ‘Are you actually a runaway?’

‘Yes,’ she was quite frank ‘This would be the last place Prince Raffgierig would look,’

‘Quite so,’ Stefan struggled slightly as he attempted to thread the logic through a needle eye of circumstance ‘My information suggests he was intending to manufacture an unavoidable alliance through our marriage. However, you arrive of your own volition,’ pause to weave irony  ‘Al,’ which caused a giggle.

‘He can’t offer me, if he hasn’t got me,’ came a sing-song reply.

A cogent point. Emperors held strict laws over their princes, each prince aware fellow princes would take advantage of a transgression.

‘Al,’ the shortened name did suit this forward maid ‘Are you not afraid he will demand your return?’

‘It’s The Park, I do love it so,’ she hugged herself ‘Makes me feel safe,’

Although the reply should have been evasive, her words struck him as an affirmation of faith.

‘I saw you once in tow during a conference  The Park greatly impressed you at one brief visit?’

Aloisia blushed, simpered, this time the eyelashes lowered.

‘Two brief visits,’ she said, biting her top lip.

‘You’ve sneaked in before?’ fascinating girl.

‘In a way. My mother; entrapped in a cold marriage. And Chancellor Listig lonely in his demanding work. Attraction. My mother told me of an evening such as this, The Prince was out being boring, and you know the sweet little summer house at the river bend,’ a flicker of mischief ’There were other occasions, but my mother was quite sure,’ she spread out her arms ‘Raffgierig  not my father and this is my home,’

Stefan was sifting the politics and musing on what his chancellor would say, when Aloisia knelt forward batting her eyelashes brushing a kiss on his mouth, adding hopefully.

‘Will you marry me? Before Raffgierig finds me?’

With his emotional foot tripping over his political foot to regain a semblance of balance Stefan opted for the simple approach. He took her shoulders, kissed her back and said ‘Yes’. Naturally there was going to have to be some swift diplomatic dancing. Meanwhile against the background of a few nightingales, clarifications were needed.

‘You are remarkable Al,’ compliments were useful openers.

‘I have to admit my father, Chancellor Listig played a part. He sees Prince Raffgierig as an idiot who will bring down Drohend. My precipitate action will make public that trait. Listig has delicately tutored my nearer brother to replace him. My elder sibling is hopeless,’

‘This is all part of an overthrow strategy?’

She nodded cheerfully.

‘There are others facets. I only helped because there’s the benefit of nabbing,’ she emphasised the next words spicing them with allure ‘You as my husband,’ she tapped his  nose and in her sing-song style added ‘And having The Park,’

Answers bringing clutches of questions.

Uppermost at present. Why had not his Intelligence Services warned him? More to the point why would Listig take this audacious, paradoxical risk? A robin chirped up, Princess Aloisia pursued her lips. Matters became clearer for Prince Stefan.

Chancellor Scharfsinnig had finally reached bed, only to be summoned to Stefan’s council chamber, Stefan seated with Princess Aloisia at his side.

‘You do not look as surprised as you ought Chancellor,’ Stefan said ‘Please be seated, and meet my bride to be, who fled her,’ he coughed ‘Father’s domain. For two weeks she has resided in The Park. Did you know?’

‘I would have told you My Prince,’

In response Stefan addressed not him but Aloisia.

‘You will notice, dearest, no expression of frantic concern over Raffgierig’s possible responses,’

‘Yes my dearest. Chancellor Listig always spoke well of Chancellor Scharfsinnig,’

Holding the other’s hand, the couple rose.

‘My Chancellor, rest, busy times are ahead. Aside from the politics of weddings and neighbouring states, I would know whether my father was truly inveigled or simply positioned himself in a long game. I will arrange Princess Aloisia’s domestic comforts,’ he kissed her hand.

Scharfsinnig left, relieved. As Listig had suggested; here was a couple with potential.

Entwined they lay in the Summer House, respite from hectic days navigating the political storms. A respite with a impish edge.

‘Imperial Law insists we must marry now,’ she said moonlight playing on her eyes.

‘Anything you wish Al,’

They had been drawn in. Willingly, of course. Coercion never worked. They had embraced the ancient tides of placid continuity. The Park was content.

https://bbprompt.com/2022/01/07/january-blogbattle-park/

A Mid-Winter’s Tale…Pt VIII

A Mid-Winter’s Tale

A Mid-Winter’s Tale…Pt II

A Mid-Winter’s Tale… Pt III

A Mid-Winter’s Tale… Pt IV

A Mid-Winter’s Tale… Pt V

A Mid-Winter’s Tale… Pt VI

A Mid-Winter’s Tale… Pt VII

 

A extra chill in the air, brought on by the cutting wind driving added discomfort in the form of a heavy drizzle. Of course he had known worse, though in those cases the circumstances had been familiar or at least understandable; there was a foe out there looking to harm you and you were willing to return the compliment. Not a village with an odd vibe, intelligence officers acting like local elders, and Her. He knew she was out there, there were types who got so absorbed in their work, that it became the only thing which made sense, and they became territorial about it, no one else could or should do it, so Command let them have their way until the odds played against them and worn out they made The Error. She wasn’t worn out though.

Despite the weather, or maybe because of her positioning the pungent odour of those smokes made her presence known. As he had expected she was signalling. Caution bred of experience would not allow him to look up, there was always that suspicion she was playing a long complex game to lull him, into one killing shot, the one she’d decided to play, not her commanders. Veterans; you could never tell. He started the long, careful process of moving along his right flank, just like she was hefting her sniper rifle, waiting, patient. Slovosskian women snipers had a deadly patience, lying still for a day or more.

An hour later he came upon her settled in a hollow, one she’d no doubt deepened, and she had a covering of local dirt, chin resting on flattened hands, peering contentedly into the gloom. He could not resist, he picked up a pebble and sent it to land just in front of her face, causing the mound which she was to twitch, quick though to turn in his direction.

‘Sergeant,’ she said softly as if greeting an old friend ‘That was very good. I am so glad it was you. Anyone else would have been mortifying,’ and she rolled out, not, he noticed trusting to stand up. She wasn’t sure either.

‘It’s only me. I swear,’ he said, then with the air of someone addressing a member of their own squad ‘Corporal. What the hell are you doing?’

She eased into a crouch.

‘Waiting for you Sergeant. I had to get you out here, by bothering the other patrols. You would eventually arrive. We should talk,’ This said she sat on her haunches hands gripped about her knees, now there was something of the wide-eyed waif about her. That was disturbing. He closed to distance to rifle length and knelt facing her.

‘Have you?’ the words came slowly, because his thoughts were still forming, ones which had a sort of sense, if you embraced what folk who’d never been in War thought of as weirdness ‘Been protecting that village?’ as he spoke he questioned his own perceptions and judgements. Where had that notion come from? Meanwhile she was nodding vigorously.

‘Yes,’ came the firm reply ‘My commanders think I am only out here patrolling. No one ever comes with me,’ she tapped the side of her helmet, her face growing taut  ‘Good.  But too dangerous to be with. It is a good guise for a girl in an army of men,’ the expression brightened ‘I have been sneaking out rations, bringing them to the village for Gadeer, so she can get her strength back for the journey. I’ve convinced her she has to leave,’

‘You convinced her corporal?’

‘Very well,’ she replied buckling under his sceptical tone ‘I volunteered to be an escort out of here, aid the new family to travel to a safer place,’ her face tightened ‘Don’t ask. So you won’t have to make any big lies to your commanders. I’m just asking you to delay that’s all,’

‘Now. Corporal, you are asking a great deal of me. Firstly, are you deserting?’

‘Yes,’ came the defiant retort ‘This is one time too many to shrug off. I don’t care about the politics, like all good soldiers I don’t understand them. Thinking too hard interferes with my fighting ability. This time I just want to see one family get a chance. Did you know most of the young folk have left, with their children. The local folk know full well what’s going to happen. The net is tightening though, more of both our sides coming in, and those who want Gadeer and Eyad removed as symbolisms of an Opposition,’

‘That opposition? Do you know where it leads?’

‘Don’t care. I just don’t want to see another baby die. I can do something good for once. You understand, don’t you Sergeant? Otherwise you wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble of meeting with me again. We could have caused a lot of trouble that past night, but we didn’t,’

‘I can’t argue with that Corporal,’ he said, in the act of agreement feeling relief of a burden taken from him. When do you leave?’

‘If I do not tell you, you won’t have to keep the information from anyone. That is only fair to you,’

‘Thank you for that Corporal,’ a question came out, naturally after the years in The Wilds ‘Can you trust those Security Officers?’

She stood brushing off some of the less stubborn dirt. One of those expressions you saw too often on those who went out too often, and he assumed others saw on his face.

‘As much as they trust me,’

Faigai heard, saw and tasted the entirety of his service in the span of the few breaths following her her reply. Life had now come sniping him with that ammunition which did not miss…memories. Supressing a crowd of other emotions he fixed her with the exasperated air any sergeant would lay upon a soldier.

‘Corporal. Even in the short time I have known you I have you fixed as a damn nuisance. I don’t know what you have up there in that head of yours, but it is certainly not common sense as to how armies work,’

He did not appreciate the sly grin that comment caused, fired by the minor insubordination he forged on.

‘If you don’t go back, your commanders might be glad to be rid of you, but they will not be content with losing a scout. A patrol will be sent out. If they head in our direction there will be tension, stand off and maybe shots exchanged and generals will not be happy. If they head towards the village with the notion the locals took you there will be unhappy consequences and the politicians and diplomats will not be happy. Worse than that I will be questioned and interrogated by several layers of command and our own intelligences services, the latter I will not like at all, and they will not like my attitude. Since your people will be conducting them, someone who will not have to do it will decide we need to send out aggressive patrols, and we are back to shots being exchanged, with that village in the middle. Do I make myself clear?’

‘Yes sergeant,’ she said a little meekly because he had been very eloquent and persuasive in her native language. ‘May I ask what you think is the best course of action?’

Faigai had been obliged to carry out many an action most folk would not call ‘normal’. This was because battlefields were not normal. Here however was one which call for action way above and beyond what even was acceptable on a battlefield. But, when you scanned, considered and evaluated in the light of all you had experienced and reckoned could go wrong what other choice was there?

 

The villagers had been warned and prepared. When the patrols arrived, happily at different times they were greeted respectfully by a man of late years, who although dressed in the villages’ garb bore himself with an air that the two sets of soldiers felt might be more than just a village elder. He handed each group a document, the men recognised the writing on the one in their language. There was a heading with a soldier’s name, rank and number and the statement ‘In conjunction with…’ followed by details which obviously belonged to someone of the opposition. 

‘I have, of my own freewill and judgement resigned my position with the armed forces. I can no longer conduct my duties to the required standard and have therefore taken it upon myself along with this comrade in arms to seek out more productive and useful employment of my skills and experience. This will be carried out with the intention of causing no harm to soldiers of either of our armies,’

And was signed.

The documents were puzzled over by each patrol who became a small crowd expressing words of disbelief and astonishment, though not very eloquently. Resigned? Who got to consider they could resign? The conversations continued all the way back to the respective lines where the statements were handed over to officers who once they had recovered from the shock passed this onto other officers and so forth. Under guidance from political staffs of each the relevant hapless liaison officer with a local and unwilling official visited the village. They were advised by the elder, yes, there had been two strangers seen prowling around the village outskirts, but had avoided contact. Yes, their presence had frightened folk particularly when they had finally come in together and thrust the documents to him. Indeed they had bartered for food then, thankfully had left. There was a very delicate conference between officers of both sides, it was decided for the best that it was to be assumed the pair had actually been meeting for a while and since were of opposite genders had formed a relationship and gone rogue, no doubt to try their hands at banditry. It was agreed this sort of thing could happen with those who had been out too long as individuals patrolling. Thus the reports went back that both had deserted (resigned indeed!) and were officially disgraced to be court martialled on being apprehended, which those who knew them thought very unlikely.

It was just as Banner Sergeant Faigai had anticipated. And would have given them and the family a few days start on any attempt to follow. He and Corporal Jagerin shared one question neither could answer.

Who had fired off that star shell, to fall right where they had been?  

 

 

A Mid-Winter’s Tale… Pt VII

A Mid-Winter’s Tale

A Mid-Winter’s Tale…Pt II

A Mid-Winter’s Tale… Pt III

A Mid-Winter’s Tale… Pt IV

A Mid-Winter’s Tale… Pt V

A Mid-Winter’s Tale… Pt VI

‘There was someone out there My Major. I could tell they were sneaking around. Maybe it was luck that blinded them too. Who set off that damn star-shell?’

This Major was used to The Corporal’s mix of respectful address to him and general hostility to anyone she had not met personally but she held responsible for some discomfort to her efforts.

‘I was not informed Corporal,’ he replied still unable to rid himself of the feeling he was always reporting to her and not the other way around ‘It was probably The Mitches. Then you didn’t encounter any reinforced or aggressive reconnaissance?’

‘No My Major. I got as far as the outskirts of the village,’ she pointed idly to the map ‘Saw some shepherds doing shepherding. Whoever was out there was doing the same as I was, I suppose. Only locals in the village and most of those all huddled up for the night,’

The Major’s aide, a lieutenant recently from some layer of higher command, still bridled at her slouch and when they were not active, hands hooked by thumbs into pockets, but The Major told him, for his own sake, she was off-limits when it came to the niceties of military convention and discipline. There was a specific reason why she worked alone, the lieutenant did not know what that was, all he had learned was no one wanted to work with Corporal Jagerin, even if she was reasonably approachable around the battalion lines.

‘I will go out again this night My Major, if you so wish,’ she offered ‘See if I can find out who is out there,’

‘You can Corporal. You will not engage in exchange of fire. You will only defend yourself if close combat arises. Now get some rest,’

‘Yes My Major,’

When she had left the command post The Lieutenant dared speak.

‘My Major. If I may ask. A soldier given orders, not to return fire, even when their life is in danger?’ he hoped from appearing to be concerned for her, he might find out something else.

‘Corporal Jagerin will not allow the situation to arise Lieutenant,’

It was a disappointing reply.

Banner Sergeant Faigai was sitting in the battalion commissary, true the construction was a rudimentary thing of plastic and metal sheets into which were fitted two folding tables and six chairs whose association with comfort was distant. The place had a coffee making machine and five containers holding sandwiches and tins of things claimed as edible, all supervised by a thick set sergeant renowned for being unsympathetic but inventive when he was in the mood for concocting hot meals . In comparison with many places Fergai had served it was luxury, particularly after three days of reports, visiting Brigade Headquarters and briefing members of scout teams on his week’s worth of exploring these Wilds. He had kept his comments about the slovosskian to a bare minimum ‘Someone from The Other Side was out there’ as for the village; ‘it’s another village, like any other, hoping we leave them alone…and watch out for those shepherds, there’s carrying guns folk,’ He swirled the black liquid masking as coffee, wondering what Jagerin had been up to.

‘Flags,’ at the familiar voice using the informal term for his rank he sat up, turning to the man, a thin, rangy fellow who had served five years and did not usually wear a wide-eyed and furtive expression, nor sound urgent, nor move that quickly to sit next to him, leaning across the table like a recruit about to confess some minor infraction.

‘What’s the hell is wrong with you Orolig? You got to take some colonel’s fresh-faced lieutenant son out on night patrol with strict orders to make sure he comes back with clean undershorts?’

‘Flags,’ the man was agitated enough to ignore the old banter ‘You’ve been out there for a full week. Did anything freaky happen. Y’know the sort, ones that don’t fit in reports,’

Faigai stiffened, of course a patrol would be sent out eventually, and he would tell himself he was not the only one trusted to  go out into Neutral Wilds.

‘You urban boys. Walk out side of the city boundaries and any half acre of land with three or more bushes, a tree and five rocks is freaky,’ You had to start with banter, this time it was to draw out what had troubled another long-timer.

‘Give us time Cookie,’ Orolig said with deference to the man, who could to be fair make something edible from the inedible contents of various tins, he nodded and left to stand outside the door to block it. When scouts wanted to talk in private places were off-limits.

‘You not gonna believe this Flags. There was someone out there sniping us with small stones and pebbles. We’d got to the trail beneath the hill. There was a clink and Benz hisses out ‘My helmet. Someone bastard’s throwing stones,’ . Next thing I hear is Longshot saying the same thing. Then there was this giggle,’

‘You were sniped with stones by kids?’ Fergai was sounding he was sounding surprised, surprise was not the emotion, he was already ahead.

‘Not a kid’s voice. Lower, and like they’d been smoking too much. Then a stone clips my boot, right on the heel, another giggle. Night Owl swears he can see someone sloping off, but they stop, turn, wave and then gone, like they dropped into the earth. Lucky none of my guys panic and start shooting, we spread out to trying and keep track but they had gone. The stones though. It was a triangulating pattern. Point, Right Flank, then patrol command. Like they read us, knew we were not in true combat readiness,’

‘Did you get any prints, tracks?’

‘Oh yeah. Tracks. Bare feet. Who professionally works over a patrol with stones and giggles, goes about it in bare feet, then waves you off? There’s either someone out there trying to provoke us into shooting first, or has long gone. Still got their skills, but their mind is lost.  Tonight it could be slit throats. I tell you Flags I can’t figure how to report this without sounding like a fresh intake,’

Fergai had let the the man go one, it gave him time to formulate his reply.

‘Sounds like the one I encountered might be getting cute. Which since there’s no such thing as a cute slovosskian we could have BDD trooper who has indeed long gone; maybe their commanders have let them loose to cause a ruckus. Tell your team to keep it to themselves, unless they want to look fools. Just report in you established a single scout. You due to go out tonight?’

‘Fitch’s crew,’

‘OK. I’ll have a quiet word,’

 

The next dawn, Fitch a stocky phlegmatic fellow whose reports normally bore the words ‘Nothing’, ‘Light’ ‘There’s trouble’  or ‘You don’t want to go there without support,’ approached Faigai in a very irritable mood.

‘Somebody is fooling with us. Throwing stones and giggling. Kept dancing away. I think they are looking to provoke. If we weren’t on this Look But Don’t Shoot routine I would’ve given them a taste of triangulated fire back,’

‘That’s provoking Fitch,’ Faigai pointed out mildly ‘And giving away a position,’

‘It’d would have shoot an’ scoot Flags,’ it was a reasonable reply, if the fellow hadn’t sounded like a teenager being told to clean their room.

By then it was impossible to keep the gossip and rumours from seeping out and command concluding the seeming routine replies to be veterans trying to hide their frustration and embarrassment. Faigai said he would go out alone again, and make sure there were no damn start shells this time. He was assured, once more than no one on this side had fired off a start shell that night.

He could sense the tension, so tight you could play a strong tune on it; this would have to stop. He needed to grab hold the scruff of her neck and figure out if; This was some new BDD trick, or maybe she had long gone and was fooling with everyone….

Or gone local???

To be concluded….   

A Mid-Winter’s Tale… Pt VI

A Mid-Winter’s Tale

A Mid-Winter’s Tale…Pt II

A Mid-Winter’s Tale… Pt III

A Mid-Winter’s Tale… Pt IV

A Mid-Winter’s Tale… Pt V

‘We are expected only to bring this sort of information back and let others make of it what they will. Is that not so Sergeant?’

‘If those Security types had expected us to do that, they would not have told us. Might even have taken the risk to put an end to us here and now corporal,’

‘Yes. Instead they tell us, mere rifle carriers and grenade throwers about a movement to involving part security services to support the opposition they are supposed to be hunting down,’

‘Yeah, well with an idiot of a Popular President of The People who thinks he can play the FDR off against the SDR and the other way around, it’s a survival response. Better you control your narrative than have others start writing it for you. It would be a general signal to both sides. ‘You know we have a fool at the top. Let us deal with it. Don’t try and bring your own hirelings into the game,’ . It’s an old part of an older game,’

‘Why tell us though? They should have used the soft, slow lines which get set up once our armies move in,’

The pair sat, for once not feeling threatened in the locality, looking out into the night, towards an horizon which in due course would smear with light.

‘They probably have. But,’ he turned and gestured with his vape ‘Not about this one small detail, though. The last two known members of a prominent opposition group whose leader,’ Faigai thought about the right word.

‘The way that girl tells it, he sacrificed himself so they had time to flee with the most sensitive information. I would have thought it a hard task to place on your pregnant granddaughter until I spoke with her and her husband,’ for an instant her teeth caught the moonlight as she grinned ‘Dedicated and,’ the next word she drew as a blade ‘Sharp,’ followed by a brief laugh ‘She told me everything like a briefing and her just a mother. You would not think her inoffensive nervous looking young husband, was the master tactician of the group, the could put together demonstrations, media attention. The Carpenter,’

‘One of those old foxes mentioned him with some admiration,’

‘Someone approaches,’ she said without turning around. All the headiness of the earlier part of the night was gone from her.

‘It’s the security trio,’ he said, with a sigh ‘What are they about to shovel on us?’

As one the duo turned about to face uncertainty. The fellow who had talked to Faigai was obviously the spokesman, his comrades were wearing the blank expressions favoured by those who were not wishing to intimidate, just judge. Or maybe evaluate. On the whole life would have been simpler if he had not be so good at this job and just another rifle carrier, he would have seen less options.

‘What conclusions have you reached?’ the spokesman asked and was rewarded with two expressions of disbelief. Who asked soldiers, rifle carriers for their thoughts?

‘We have nothing to report,’ the corporal said, ill-tempered as she flicked the remains of the vape away. ‘There is a small village, which our commanders knew about already, and I, for one knew there was someone from the other side creeping around but could not see them,’

Cocked one eyebrow to the sergeant.

‘Not one thing of any importance,’ he said ‘Nothing to do with us. We have our own problems. Which I may add will be coming this way soon. You should tell your people to move away. It’s only a question of time before the shooting starts here. Am I right Corporal?’

‘Ideal place,’ was her bitter comment ‘Two brigade sized forces in a desolate place can have a sparing match. Only light casualties and some civilians of course,’ she studied the skyline ‘I should be returning. You do not want a patrol coming out here to look for,’ more bitterness, this time as a laugh ‘My body. Do you?’

The Banner Sergeant recognised the sudden arrival of weariness arriving on her. The tension of starting a patrol, the rush of relief at a truce, then the puzzlement at the locals’ actions, with a finality with the usual no clear answer. Yeah, you got so tired of it all and worse knowing what was to come upon folk who were just trying to make something out a mess they were part of, and also not part of. 

‘You should try and get them to move,’ he said as a parting comment to the elder men ‘Whatever plans you have won’t stop this village being shot at. Someone will decide we need to take it,’

He could feel that weariness coming now, and sloped off following the corporal.

 

They reached the place they had first met, each facing the way they should go, briefly back to the other.

‘Take care Sergeant,’ she said, shaking her head and dropping low to merge into the cover before moving off.

‘Try and stay sane,’ he whispered and set off in the other direction.

 

To be continued… 

A Mid-Winter’s Tale… Pt V

A Mid-Winter’s Tale

A Mid-Winter’s Tale…Pt II

A Mid-Winter’s Tale… Pt III

A Mid-Winter’s Tale… Pt IV

 

‘Hello sir,’ Jagerin said, for want to anything other than the need to say something.

‘Ah Long Range Reconnaissance Unit 12,’ the man said to her, in her own tongue ‘We are honoured to be receiving your attention,’

Jagerin wrinkled her face in displeasure, it was bad enough being on the end of sardonic humour instead of delivering it, having your outfit identified although, considering the man’s badge was predictable, was still uncomfortable. Elites were not supposed to be so easily named. The man meanwhile went back to the Mitch. Good, he could deal with the fellow, she needed another smoke and time to think.

‘So Banner Sergeant, 5th Rapid Deployment Brigade. Are you authorised to explain the origins and rationale behind this unusual co-operation?’

‘The FDS is here to monitor the activities of and assist in forestalling any aggression by the SRD forces,’ he hoped the man was sharp enough to appreciate the monotoned official response was simply a way of getting out of giving a straight answer. He was relieved the fellow broke into a wry smile. Meanwhile the corporal was fidgeting again. Faigai shrugged at her.

‘I am going into the village,’ she said getting up ‘There is a mother and a new born baby who may need help,’ she tapped the pouch hanging from her belt ‘The BDD always come prepared,’

The two men watched her walk off, the local security officer sighed.

‘As well trained as BDD troopers of the their Long Range Reconnaissance Units are, I very much doubt if she has mid-wife skills. Still at this stage Propaganda and Hearts and Minds are the games to be played. I expect she will appear helpful and that is what matters,’

‘Sir.’ Faigai asked ‘I do not suppose you can tell me why this event is the concern of the local Security Services?’

‘Since neither of you are obviously stiff necked liaison officers but soldiers whose pasts are whereas not as murky as mine or my colleagues do not bear examination and your teaming appears to something caused by chance; that was a very good veiling you pair did along the road by the way, we missed you completely. The shepherds appraised us. Taking all those factors into account are you ready to have a long conversation? We have coffee. Your sort of course. Not our strong sort to be slowly sipped,’

Fergai’s experience of being out in The Wilds had taught him that initial civility was no bad tactic.

 

He looked upon his wife with love, pride and of course some concern, she was weary from the labour and yet she tenderly fed their child. Their beautiful child. How would he keep them both safe with the regime and now two hostile armies to contend with…. and the lack resources?

One of the women who had aided his wife through the delivery bustled back in, there had been some strong conversation going on outside, when it came to labour and birth men deferred to the women who care for and surrounded the mother. The woman, tough stocky and weathered gestured to the new entrant.

‘It’s alright,’ she said brusquely ‘Despite all appearances she is a woman and allowed in,’    

He knew enough to tell the difference between this darker green of the SDR slovosskian and the mottle of the FDS, and so greeted her in her own language.

‘May I ask your reason for being here?’ at this her unsure expression eased and she started to rummage into a small bag hanging from her belt, before stopping and looking about the candle lit room.

‘Is there water to wash my hands?’ she asked very politely, not the usual abrupt demand of those carrying weapons, in this case all manner of weapons it appeared. ‘I have some modest gifts but do not want to give them with these being filthy,’ she gestured a little embarrassed by the state of her hands.

‘There,’ he replied taken aback and pointed to a pot of still clean water, at which she glanced to his wife and babe then to the woman guarding the room solely by her presence, this done she knelt and at the pot and vigorously washed her face and hands. The village woman observed that free of dirt the girl looked quite presentable, if she wasn’t one of the interlopers she’d make a presentable bride, her hands certainly looked used to hard work.

Jagerin  returned to him, now confidently rummaging in the bag.

‘These,’ she said bringing out five small green packs ‘Are concentrates. Empty them into boiling water, stir,’ she started to make the movements ‘And they will make a nourishing soup, for your wife, replace some of the loss the effort of birth has taken out,’ she placed them into his hands ‘These,’ smaller blue backs with a white star on each ‘Are to ease pain. Place in cold water. Stir. Only one a day and only when the pain is very bad,’ she nodded for his understanding which he gave ‘And finally,’ three white packs ‘In here are wet wipes for cleaning and cooling the face,’ she glanced to the woman ‘And other part of the outside of the body,’ she made some brief, possibly immodest gestures, to which she received a matronly grunt of understanding. Jagerin had not felt so nervous since her basic training. The gifts seemed appreciated though.

‘Thank you,’ he said ‘Are all slovosskian soldiers so generous?’ catching on the hesitancy and despite of himself he grinned, then all attention was on his wife asking if she could see the visitor closer and speak with them.

 

‘I expect you will be wondering how to explain this to your officers. If you try and leave out the cop-operation with a slovosskian elite scout they more experienced of them will notice certain gaps not usual in a man of your experience,’ and enjoying some sort of private, not so jolly joke the man left him. 

Fergai prided himself in a small way of having some political knowledge, not so much of this land, yet; but of how things worked in the broad way. This situation should be one of those you reported straight back followed by the expected interrogation by the bright intense eager young folk the colder sharper of The Cloaks liked to send out to test the lands. You would probably have to accompany your interrogator out into The Wilds and try to keep them alive. ‘Should be one of those’ . Here there were twists though and he would have to consult. Consult? The full weight of his twenty-six years, eight in this gig, dropped on his shoulders; he was definitely getting too damn old for this sort of…

She was wearing the sort of overwhelmed expression universal amongst soldiers on receipt orders. Not the stupid sort which caused sourness or the very complex ones that left the ranks in a derisive ‘Yeah, like that’s going to go well’ mood. She’d been told, something he reckoned similar to him, when someone actually bothered to sit you down and give you the whole picture, one which despite all previous experiences might just work… 

‘You look as I feel,’ she said drawing alongside of him ‘We need to exchange information,’ there was a fumbling amongst the nest of pockets, followed by a soft swearing ‘You have any of those dainty sticks you Mitches like to call smokes,’

‘I’ve got some vapes. Clear as a stream, will flush out those tars you’ve been coating your throat and lungs with,’

‘Like inhaling kettle water. Still, they will do,’

Together, left alone they sat against a shed and smoked, looking to the clear bright moon for inspiration to start.

To be continued…