Arranged on the large relief map in front of Justan were some
twenty-seven comspheres, placed in positions corresponding to the locations
of his field commanders. To the side lay four more, among them his
priority link; these were for longer-distant communication. Suspended from
the ceiling, with an overview of the whole tent, was the last of the
ensemble: a security monitor, in order that the royal bodyguards could
undertake The King's continued surveillance without being a distraction. It
was to this all-seeing comsphere that Porett initially attached from his
He looked around. On a table behind Justan lay further maps,
papers, details. A large colourboard rested on an easel beside the entrance,
and at it stood General Nolley - or, as she appeared these days, Queen
Mitya. Porett had seen her this way already, but was still impressed:
Farmer had cut an excellent likeness. Nolley was coping well, too - she was
the same height as Mitya, so no problem there, but her hair was cropped
whereas the illusion's was regally long. This meant the figment wasn't tied
to anything natural, so couldn't shadow reality's behaviour, would look
false when it didn't flay out if she turned quickly. No-one else was in the
room, but chairs, cups and pads of notepaper clued that there'd be staff
called for later, probably to maintain the map.
At least in Nolley Justan would have a good tactician to advise
him, which is more than he would have had with the real Mitya. She'd
known even less about warfare than Porett, although she had been prone to
occasional flashes of inspired flair; perhaps she could have swung a battle
with a well-observed comment? He'd never know.
Justan was pretty much guaranteed to win this one anyway. It
wasn't going to be the complete stupefying blow that everyone had been
hoping for, because the enemy still had a sizeable army of Western Voths
tied down in central Purasan, and that would need to be defeated separately.
However, intelligence reports which Porett had snooped in on earlier
suggested that the Messenger was throwing everything else into battle,
including as-yet undrilled hordes of religious fanatics. If Justan could
neutralise those today, that would amply compensate him for missing out on
the Voths; if not, he'd have a huge problem with them later once their
training was complete.
"Has it started yet?" It was his real-world self asking.
"Soon, I guess." The connection was one-way; his words
weren't heard by The King.
"How's it looking?"
He lifted his virtual hands. "No-one seems to be panicking,
even though we appear to be outnumbered two-to-one. Most of the
opposition are irregulars, though, from what I can make out, so maybe
that's why our lot are complacent."
"Could be. I'll let you get back, then." He tapped out.
The comsphere-Porett returned to his observations. Justan was
bent over the map, studying it intently. He'd unquestionably have preferred
to wait until he could draw on the full power of the Estavian regiments
before tackling the Messenger, but the timing of this battle had outwardly
been forced on him by repeated, calculated enemy incursions across the
River Erva. As it was, the only representatives of the democracies that
Porett could mark were the archers and charioteers from Akrea's otherwise
Justan would win, however, because he had something of
immeasurable benefit on his side: magic. It was known that the Messenger
did have a few renegade magic-using personnel, but nowhere near enough
to make an impact. The King, however, had something like sixteen units of
highly-trained specialists at his disposal, three of them at double-strength,
plus two special operations squads of elite, prosthetic-intensive mercenaries,
and a close-quarters spell-combat group. The only problem Porett foresaw
was the potentially suicidal tendency of the wild, strongly-motivated,
Message-frenzied mobs, which might make victory more bloody and
protracted than was strictly necessary. Still, the more crazies that were
manked, the better for it the world would be...
He looked over Justan's shoulder at the scale model. The Erva
ran basically south-north, with Justan's people on the east bank. It
channelled into a valley between two small, flat-topped hills, the western
one signed as the location of the Messenger's headquarters. Porett didn't
suppose the Messenger himself would be there - he wasn't a fighter - but
he'd heard Nolley mention that the Holy Standard was flying aloft, all the
Justan's own command post was situated on a small hillock to
the southeast. Between it and the northeastern rise ran the main Rhiev to
Dreimen road, which crossed the Erva at a bridge in the centre of the map.
As the Erva was very fast-flowing this far upstream, there was no other
crossing point for days in either direction. Indeed, only because of the
damming effect of the valley could piles have been sunk into the riverbed
even here. Hence, this was the natural place for two adversaries to meet:
whoever held the bridge stitched the whole southern theatre. That was the
reason Justan had been obliged to fight, despite his having withstood all the
Messenger's previous attempts to goad him into invading prematurely; just
why the Holy Army was making a battle of it now, though, when defeat
clearly loomed, Porett found inexplicable.
In addition to his hill, Justan had two other natural features to
his advantage, both areas of woodland. The larger one extended across the
south of the battlefield, from near the river up to the mound where the
command tent was pitched. The smaller wood part-straddled the northern
What made all this interesting to Porett was the fact that it
would be the first battle for over twenty years involving magic. In Justan's
planning discussions with his campaign staff, to which Porett had
contributed by comsphere, there had been the expected extremes: complete,
unimaginative caution versus lunatic, impossible experiment. The King had
taken the middle ground, using well-tested spells and artefacts to
complement his existing forces, but with a few fanciful extras thrown in for
later assessment. He had been realistic about his dependence on magic for a
victory, but also stressed that without sufficient regular troops its effects
would be rendered utterly inconsequential. This had all satisfied Porett from
a business standpoint, as established equipment was manufactured by
established firms; politically, though, he was far more pleased by the fact
that Ansle hadn't even been officially informed of the pending battle, let
alone invited to express an opinion on its management. Justan was using the
MSR as if he'd paid for it himself.
Porett found himself somewhat concerned over the fate of the
Davian contingent in the coming encounter; he felt uncomfortably
responsible for their predicament. Justan would almost certainly want them
to take heavy casualties, so that they'd be incapable of effective response
when they learned of the death of their queen. As it was, their cavalry did
look safe enough between the hill and the road, but Justan's body was
obscuring the centre of the map where the infantry was likely positioned.
Porett switched to the field comsphere they were using, reconnoitred.
The portents were bad. Not only was the Davian infantry
disposed on the road, but it stood at the very front, with the clear goal of
advancing across the bridge and storming the Messenger's centre. If the
enemy commander was stupid enough to allow this, then the Davians would
inflict much damage and split the opposing forces in two. Porett felt that
improbable. The sensible approach, advocated in the scant handbook he'd
read a day earlier, would be to pull back when the Davians attacked, send
cavalry round their flanks, and encircle them. He turned back to the
overhead comsphere so as to assess Justan's response to such an
After a while, he realised how it had been anticipated. Judging
by the presence in the south of the more mage-biased of the two special
operations units, magic would be used to ford the river while the Davians
were being massacred, and the opposing cavalry could then be attacked
from behind. This same group of cavalry would inadvertently shield
Justan's advancing warriors from hostile arrow fire as they made the
crossing, and his own flanks would be protected by heavy cavalry which
(the presence of a closed comsphere indicated) was concealed in the nearby
Justan continued to study his deployment, immersed, preoccu-
pied. Nolley was frowning at the colourboard. "Why do the Purians call
their light infantry `gnats'?" she asked, suddenly. Porett delighted in the
romantic, Davian roundedness her voice had been given.
Justan didn't look up. "When the Estavian empire was at its
peak, there was only one kind of foot-soldier. Everyone at that time spoke
the same form of Estavian, imposed on them by their conquerors, but,
following the imperialist factions' loss of power and the subsequent
withdrawal of the Estavian legions, the language branched: each nation
often invented its own words for new concepts. What we generalise simply
as `light' and `heavy' units were named in other ways elsewhere. As
Davian queen, you'll be aware that your poetic countrymen use the terms
`fleetmen' and `strengthmen'; the Purians have `gnats' and `wasps'". He
scribbled something on a notepad to his right.
"Their javelin fetish..." She picked up a sheet of paper, began
checking it against what was written on the board.
Justan's movement gave Porett a chance to assess how the main
forces were arrayed. He could see that bringing up the rear behind the
Davians was the Muraki heavy infantry, by reputation the best regiment in
either army. Justan wouldn't want to risk it needlessly, so it'd probably
advance only to the bridge, holding there while the Davians did their work,
then hitting hard when its time for triumph came; it could also prevent the
Davians from spontaneously retreating if they realised they'd been snicked
Visible support was from Svalan, Vothic and Akrean archers on
the northeastern hill, where they'd have a good view of the bridge and of
the Messenger's command post. Porett himself had suggested that the
archers have magical back-up, to supplement their arrows with other
missiles; Justan had acquiesced. The whole group was protected, more
conventionally, by the Soatian light cavalry; this shared the flat-topped hill
with them but was ready to sweep down if things were going well, to
follow on behind the Davian cavalry presently waiting between the hill and
On the left flank, south of the bridge, the two divisions of
Muraki light infantry were masked behind an illusion of trees, with Muraki
archers further back. The Messenger's scouts would know something was
amiss, but hopefully not its precise nature. This had been one of Farmer's
ideas, and although Porett had expressed doubts as to its feasibility, it did
seem to be working rather well. Illusion technology must be getting ahead
of him, he'd maybe gobble a few papers next week, catch up a tad.
Under the cover of the archers, the main assault troops could
advance to the river. Once they'd crossed it - how, exactly, Porett didn't
yet know - they'd be able to clear a path for a second wave of Svalan and
Galurian foot soldiers. Support would come from the inferred heavy cavalry
hidden in the southern wood; more, unhidden cavalry and auxiliary units
were held back behind them, lest the Messenger's forces breached the lines.
The Akrean chariots were alongside the road, ready for a winning charge
when the time was theirs.
Artillery came in the form of stone-throwing ballistas northeast
of the smaller wood, with a second group located in a ruined fort forward
of Justan's headquarters. Heavy, magic-driven catapults were with them,
the spellbinders having started casting the necessary gestures the previous
day so as to have them prepared in time for the battle. Porett was
particularly proud of the fact that it was his company's sequences that
Justan had selected, over those of Magicorp: although half a percent longer,
they had a much broader safety margin; this meant that miscast-correction
was easier, and that the chances of an accident were close to zero.
Magicorp's alternative was so brittle that a lapse by one mage could have
heavened the whole unit.
"I don't see why they haven't put more archers on the hill,"
murmured Nolley. "They have those cavalry units instead."
Justan looked over to the section of the model that represented
the enemy ranks in question. "We're supposed to think they're expecting to
fall on anyone foolish enough to cross the bridge."
"But why aren't they to the south of the road? Why aren't all
the archers on the hill? That whole southern area is practically devoid of
horse troops, there's just one unit of Western Voths way back over there."
She pointed to the southwesternmost part of the table.
"Yes, that's been worrying me, too." He tapped on his
notebook. "There are two groups of Purian light cavalry, lined up between
the road and the hill, that don't seem to be doing anything; besides, the
Purian heavy cavalry is holding back on the road, also ready to charge if -
when - we cross the bridge; it's all too unbalanced."
Nolley stared closely at the positions, the Mitya illusion perfect
as she furrowed her brow, thought. "What if the horses were a screen, to
stop us seeing something back here, behind the hill?"
Justan raised an eyebrow. "It's a possibility I had considered,
but what units are they missing?" His eyes swept across the map. "The
Northic group is facing the Davians, the small Vothic contingent is split
between the hill and that far corner. Also on the hill are Heran archers,
with more down by the river, opposite the Muraki trees. We've covered all
the cavalry divisions. Irregulars, well there are three masses of them:
Northic on the hill, Purian and Heran in the southwest. So what's not there
that should be?"
Nolley shook her head. "I don't think it's a simple misdirection
trick, there's definitely something afoot. I've been doing some calculations,
and it's possible that the units we're seeing have been skimmed, are a tenth
under-strength, with the cream lying in wait behind the Purian cavalry,
ready to surprise us."
"Could be," Justan mused, "or they might have more untrained
troops." He shook his head. "My dread is that it's the rest of the Western
The general thumbed her chin. "I'll find out." She turned to
Justan returned to the three-dimensional, Agritech-modelled
miniature battlefield, tapped a comsphere. "Send in operations, it's nearing
time to start..."
* * *
The first volley of zipped rocks landed smack in the middle of
the Northic horde on top of the Messenger's hill. The mass spread out to
avoid being flattened, and people now obstructed the range-finders for the
Messenger's own ballistas. Porett found their nervous lack of discipline
somewhat amusing: irrationality, the essential component of religion. A
second magical missile hit just slightly further south, and panicked the
Heran light cavalry into breaking ranks. The Soatian archers opened up on
the Vothic mounted knights now waiting just in front of the Herans, and the
Messenger's own archers responded. Battle commenced.
By the time the Davians reached the bridge, there was a gap
opening up before them. The Northic infantry had taken punishment from
Akrean arrows, so when the Davians had released their spears they'd fallen
back under the onslaught. Their own archers were better at closer quarters,
but still wasted flights across the Erva to try and break up the Davian
Justan's command centre was alight, some comspheres open,
others glowing for attention. Unobtrusive assistants continually moved
models as the latest information arrived from observers in the field, updated
the positions to reflect reality. Hurriedly mocked-up black figurines
indicated the suspected Vothic army in the northwestern corner of the
Porett sped from comsphere to comsphere, here with the
Akrean archers, there with units of the MSR. The excitement was
immediate, compelling, even though he wasn't at risk. He found himself
rooting for the Davians more and more, but during lulls he did keep
skipping back to the now-open Galurian cavalry sphere - their commander
was the handsomely attractive Lady Zovia of Zovia, and she'd mounted her
com-2 on her saddleknob.
The King tapped in, Porett reacted, heard him tell the southern
special operations team to start moving out of the woods as soon as the
camouflage spell was ready. Risky: a full cam took three days to cast, had
only fifteen minutes' duration; it did afford almost perfect invisibility at
mid- to long-range if the terrain was right, but that still wasn't 100%.
Justan signalled his other special ops to descend into the valley.
Porett span to their sphere for an explanation, saw it: there was a rope
across the Erva, must have been rigged the night before. Makeshift, but it
saved waiting for the southern fording spell - if that was indeed what Justan
In the centre, the first Davians were now across the bridge,
fanning out to make room for the heavier troops. Porett watched with
mounting glee - they were making rags of their Northic foes. The two
masses of archers on their left had now redirected their aim even further
away to the Muraki longbows, with whom they had begun exchanging
arrows across both the river and the tree-disguised infantry. Porett wanted
to go two-way, encourage the Davians, let them know someone cared,
The artillery continued to pound the Messenger's hill, harrying
the ill-placed cavalry and growing ever more accurate. The magical rock-
throwers in front of the smaller hill hadn't flicked anything yet, the long
lead-in time for casting making synchronisation difficult, individuals having
different gesture-rates. Sometime in the next quarter of an hour, Porett
estimated. And then -
"Yes!" he suddenly heard himself yell, as a huge mop of a
Heran was kicked into the river.
A small squad of Uscaran mercenaries had been found
underneath the bridge, Justan ordered them killed, no reason. Had capture
been their intention? Their real goal some kind of disruption behind the
lines? Porett aborted, returned to the oversee comsphere, sought a picture
of the battle as a whole. It seemed that the enemy horse groups were
remaining in place, except for the southwestern brigade of Voths, which
was steadily circling the restless, irregular throng of Heran serfs, was
moving round alongside the more orderly Heran archers. So the action was
still in the centre, then. He tripped back just in time to see the follow-
through Davian forces strike. Hot! Go! Like a poker into snow!
The Northic bows fell back, as he'd predicted. How long before
the cavalry counter-charge? Ten minutes? He switched back to the
command tent, caught the tail of an instruction to the illusion-shielded
Muraki infantry, "break and scatter for the river." Why - ? Oh, the Heran
peasants would move to face them off, hinder the advance of the Vothic
cavalry, give the Davians more time. Clever. So Justan maybe didn't want
them wiped, then? His ghost-heart surged hope.
The southern special ops' com-2 glowed, he slid to it
unhesitatingly. They were at the Erva, watching the Herans move away on
the opposite bank. Five minutes it would take to complete the icers, and
they'd still be under camouflage at the end of it. Icers! Of course! Justan
told them to go ahead, and to patch through to the Galurian cavalry when it
neared time for the charge from the woods. Charge?
The northern specials squad was across the river, positioned in
the valley, unseen, below the Western Vothic archers. They were
unpacking what looked to Porett like satchels, removing the components of
a small ballista, assembling it. Some were carrying the ammunition -
pebble-sized shots, bottled in water to stop them from sticking together.
Sleep shots? Neat idea: once catapulted into the air, the water would
separate off - they'd disable anyone they touched.
Back to the Davians. The Northic heavy infantry was holding
them, at some cost. Probably both groups were wondering why the
oncoming Murakis had stopped at the bridge. Porett wavered: it would be
simple for his other self to cook a Justan figment, order the heavies to
advance. Simple, yes - but outrageously stupid!
Behind the Northic line, the Purian foot soldiers were moving
aside, ready for their cavalry to charge. Porett bounced to Justan, saw
Nolley ordering the second artillery battery, " - concentrate fire on the road
beyond the Davians, delay the answering assault as long as possible." If
their magic-controlled rocks were now on stream, that meant a couple of
usefully accurate lobs were likely. He willed them to splat a particularly
mean-looking Northic sergeant, who'd earlier come close to splintering the
young Davian coms-op.
The Muraki archers, positioned behind their light infantry and
no longer protected by the illusion of a forest, were nevertheless still taking
down large numbers of Herans on the west bank. Shaft after shaft found its
mark, but the disorganised mob was making no attempt to shield itself.
Then again, Porett concluded, with the number of people it contained it
could probably take the losses.
Things were looking good. The opposition was relying on
runners, flags and horns for communication, couldn't react as quickly to
events as Justan's own forces. The King could soon have his southern
troops across the river and routing the Messenger's followers at will, they
wouldn't have time to throw up any defence. Porett felt confident. He was
sure, now, that the Vothic army from the north had mustered behind the
veil of curiously stationary Purian horsemen; victory here would be total,
would leave all the Holy Empire defenceless. Oh the possibilities for Porett
The Davian comsphere was aglow, searing for Justan to answer.
He had Nolley take it as Mitya, her soothing, Vadessa-accented voice an
antidote to suspicions of betrayal.
The word came through, the Galurian lancers had left the forest
and were beginning their headlong charge towards the river! The view from
the specials' sphere held Porett tight: the mages were in the final sequences
of their icemaking spells, slowing and speeding up their gestures to coincide
casting, achieve maximum effect. The leader glanced around, nodded, and
simultaneously they released the magic. Porett leapt to an observer's
com-2, watched as a sheet of crackling ice flashed across the Erva, digging
into the banks, anchoring itself as it expanded. He held his imagined breath
as moments later Zovia's Galurians hit the surface, rode over into the heart
of the incomprehending Purian horde, skewered it out.
The sound of horns went up, he could hear them even from
back in the tent sphere. Justan signalled the Muraki infantry south of the
bridge to make their crossing, relieve the Davians, the slower, heavily-
armed Svalans following up behind. Javelins joined the arrows hailing
down on the Herans as his orders were obeyed. Porett was gripped: the
planning, the execution...
Back in the centre, the Purian heavy cavalry was charging
through the ranks of Northic infantry, Followers trampling their own so as
to deal final death to the crossed Davians. Damn and damn and damn! The
day would doubtless be sung of as a glorious episode in Davia's proud
history, but to Porett it looked a hideous sacrifice. He closed his eyes. Or
was it? Considered objectively, the Davians had attained an outstanding
foe/friend casualty ratio, and they'd still have their cavalry at the end of it,
if not their infantry. But the treachery, the injustice.
His attention was seized again by events. The enemy's Vothic
archers on the hill were reported as neutralised, the combined efforts of
Justan's own Voths' longbows and the sleep shots. The northern section of
river was now reasonably safe, and a magic squad was ordered down to
back up the special ops team with a cluster of remote binders. Porett
wanted to see how these would turn out, whether the enemy had been
taught how to break them or not; he resolved to call back in maybe five
minutes, when the mages would be ready. Meanwhile, because the missile
battle across the valley had gone so well, Justan was moving the Soatian
auxiliaries round, ready to assault the enemy base if the specials could
knock the fight out of the remaining, Heran bows. They almost certainly
wouldn't be reinforced in time, and the surviving Davians could make
"Ta-loss! Ta-loss!" A chant was going up across the river. "Ta-
loss! Ta- "
Every comsphere went dead. Porett was left hanging in
nowhere, instantly cut. He flashed red in panic, brought his other self
racing to tap in.
"Something's happened, I've lost contact, am I visible?"
"Yes, have you tried a reconnect? Did you feel anything?"
"Nothing, no, no pain, it wasn't her, I'll check what's affected.
You raise Justan's secure link, make sure it's not just me."
The Porett in the physical world dashed off for Caltra's com-2.
The Porett in the com-3 began his scanning of the spheres...
* * *
Six hours later, magic returned; it was as if it had never gone.
Porett had ascertained that the blanket was effective over an area extending
no more than a few hundred paces from the Messenger's troops - even
Justan's main field hospital a little way up the road had been free of it. The
scenes there had been madness, the mages desperately cutting wound-
sealers to staunch the flow from limbs that had lost their prosthetics, nurses
slapping white gel substitute into open tears of flesh.
The moment he felt the hospital comsphere re-establish its link
to Justan's tent, Porett diverted there too. Justan was seated alone in the
glow from a stick-fire, tossing a piece of modelling fabric onto it; Nolley
was just coming through the entrance folds, carrying some papers rather
awkwardly. Her Mitya visage was back in place, although a little flickery
below the right elbow.
"Now I hadn't expected that." The King rubbed his chin,
nodded towards her. "So magic wasn't broken here, merely suspended."
Nolley looked down at herself. "Uh." She faltered, adjusted to
the reimposed Mitya meta-voice. "It must have been back only moments -
are the comspheres working?"
He turned, but peered beneath the table. "Your prosthetic is
alive again, how charming. I don't suppose it'll last very long, but at least
you'll outlive it." He looked into the hospital's com-2. "Not like the
pitiable devils who had them stuck onto unhealed stumps."
She straightened, then relaxed, rôle-played again. "The Heran
prisoners told us everything willingly. There was no need for force, they
wanted us to know, they revelled in it." She passed him the sheaf of notes.
"I'll read the details later," he answered, tapped at a light-set.
"What's the gist?"
Nolley was blinking in the sudden glare, seated herself. Porett
surmised that she quite enjoyed the informality with Justan that Farmer's
illusion permitted, although she must have realised that the anti-magic
bomb now furnished a legitimate reason for Mitya to be dead: anyone
might have a secret pros...
She answered. "Well, it seems that the Messenger informed his
entire army, everyone, that Taloss - their goddess of war - would protect
them from magic. They believed him, and he was right."
"They're telling the truth, but we don't know the mechanics of
how he did it. However, we do know that magic is involved - it's not
supernatural. We can discount godly intervention..."
Justan sighed. "Would it be quicker if I read the notes, or are
you eventually going to tell me?"
Nolley squirmed, uncomfortable. "The signal for spells to stop,
the call for Taloss to intervene, was the smashing of a comsphere. The
person who broke it was Giqus."
A pause. "So, that's what happened to the old rogue..."
* * *
Over the course of the evening, Porett built up an account of
what had ensued after the devastation smote.
Initially, Justan's front-line units had been able to hold their
ground, despite the lack of sorcerous artillery support. However, the
Messenger's troops had acquired the morale of justified faith, and had
poured in to kill with a frenetic insanity.
Justan had used his mounted bodyguards as couriers, to
communicate orders to his army. Porett wasn't sure whether this was a
prepared contingency or reaction to events: it certainly hadn't occurred to
him that the com-2s would fail, any more than he'd imagined an earthquake
might open up the ground beneath Justan's tent or something. Whatever,
the back-up communication lines had worked, and The King had been able
to pull back all his forces from across the river while the ice lasted, holding
the eastern bank until the enemy could no longer follow. Maybe half of the
Davians had made it.
A few of the archers brought down from the ridge to provide
cover for the evacuation had been switched to using pitch-fire on the river
ice. Although the heat would indeed help break up the artificial crossing,
the main purpose had been for the smell and smoke to spook enemy cavalry
units. By all accounts the plan had succeeded: although a good many Heran
irregulars had still got over, they were speedily diced by the waiting Svalan
swords. Two of their chiefs were captured for questioning, and it was from
these that Nolley had obtained the Taloss story that Porett had heard her
convey to Justan.
After the ice had become too treacherous even for the Message-
inspired Herans and Purians, activity had concentrated on the bridge. Being
open, it had been increasingly difficult to hold against the forked perils of a
sky full of arrows and blindly determined waves of quick, shortsworded
skirmishers. Justan had realised that the only two ways that the battle could
end were either by the enemy's capturing the bridge, or by the structure's
complete destruction; the latter was plainly his favoured result. He'd
therefore set his axe-wielding Galurian auxiliaries to the task of felling trees
in the southern forest; the Akrean charioteers had dragged the unstripped
logs over to the river and rolled them from the bank, whereupon they'd
floated downstream to lodge under the bridge supports. After three hours,
the Erva had been effectively dammed; its waters had then risen, and two
hours later had burst. The already ice-weakened struts could offer nothing,
were swept away. At that point, the Messenger's trumpets sounded for the
last time, and his forces withdrew. Shortly afterwards, magic reappeared.
Paradoxically, Justan's reputation among his troops had been
enhanced by all this. His quickness of thought and inability to panic had
limited the damage inflicted on his army, and the enemy had been kept
from taking the Erva. The King had accepted publicly that this was a
defeat, but to those of his soldiers who were convinced that they were going
to be shred-ripped by maniacal Followers it was something of a miracle that
he'd actually saved them. Plus, while the majority of the country's military-
magic experts had been fruitlessly debating possible causes of the
catastrophe, Justan himself had been concerned with the practicalities of
rescuing two thousand Muraki foot soldiers and four hundred of his finest
Galurian cavalry from the maw of death. What's more, he'd done it; even
Porett was mildly stirred by the achievement.
* * *
Next day, the freshly-merged Porett watched as Justan mounted
his new stallion, a gift from the Lady Zovia; his previous horse had had
booster muscling in its shanks.
After the battle, The King had ordered Chancellor Ansle to
convene an emergency meeting of the Academy's theoreticians, to estimate
the likelihood that something like this might happen again. Porett had just
spied in on the reply: yesterday's events had probably been a one-off.
Whatever trick it was the Messenger had played, he needed the symbolic
rejection of magic by one of its major figures to use as ignition. He
therefore couldn't do it again in future without another one.
Porett had reached a similar conclusion himself, but didn't pre-
empt Ansle's committee by telling Justan in advance. Besides, he fancied
that The King also had more than a vague idea of the basis for what had
occurred, and had arranged the conference primarily for Ansle's ego's
benefit so as to ensure continued support for the MSR.
Nolley rode her warhorse up alongside Justan. She no longer
sported the Mitya illusion, Porett's predictions in that area having been
precise in their accuracy. Neither did she have a new prosthetic, although
he'd listened to her arranging a preliminary appointment at N/Clinics
pending her return to Cala.
She saluted, left-handed.
Justan didn't turn. "Next time my forces raise their swords," he
said, "it will be immaterial whether magic works or not. The Holy Army
has suffered too many casualties to advance again in earnest for some time,
yet in a few weeks the Estavians and Akreans will be ready to combine with
the home regiments to outnumber the Messenger's depleted band by a
factor of two. This loss has at least bought me the advantage."
Nolley concurred. "I'll have the command assessment finished
by tomorrow, but it's looking like you will have enough quality to colonel
the unassigned Estavian regiments."
Justan raised his hand, looked down at the boy holding the
comsphere. "Tap that out now and take it away."