DargonZine 26, Issue 3

Ol Tamboch Narhin, Thread 5: The Rigors of War



This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Ol Tamboch Narhin

A country often has a characteristic for which it is known, such as Lederian wine, or Mandrakan marble. At times, opinions vary on the defining feature: Comarr is best known to some for it tobacco, to others for its cattle. Sometimes, though, the opinion is universal. Such it is with the Beinison Empire. The characteristic for which it is best known is war.

Beinison is old, and it has been at war for a very long time. As such, it makes sense that the Beinisonians would be good at it, and they are. Beinison would probably rule the continent if they could only set aside their internal politics for long enough to carry a campaign through to its logical conclusion.

Another factor inhibiting their dreams of conquest is the fear they have of one of their most unique weapons: the war-mage corps. Few other kingdoms or nations can field so dedicated a force of wizards, or one so large. Unfortunately, their training is purposefully limited, and they are taught more about unquestioning obedience than the fullest extent of their powers. Schools like Trevrai mold all users of magic in the empire into a single, stunted image, separating out those with enough of a spark to be rebellious into an advanced program. Thereafter, these limited war-mages are kept isolated in small units, away from not only the civilian imperial subjects but the rest of the soldiers as well. They are forced to rely on their commanders for everything, which enforces their loyalties to the empire and to the service.

This thread of our tapestry finds us back with Qawm, who has just graduated from Trevrai and has a life as a war-mage now to look forward to. By Baranurian reckoning, it is 882, more than 130 years ago.

 

***

 

Qawm had only ever known two places in his life: the hamlet of Lonial, where he’d grown up, and the Trevrai School for War Mages in the Fortress of Breil. He had left the fortress only two months ago bound for Cabildo, the capital of the Beinisonian Empire. It was like nothing he had ever experienced: utterly frightening. Visible from leagues away in its river valley, spread out all around the confluence of the Cabir and the Joaldo Rivers, its size dwarfed anything Qawm had even imagined.

He had seen maps in school, and while they hadn’t prepared him for the reality, he knew that the imperial palace stood between the two smaller rivers where they came together into the mighty Cabildo. That river led right to the sea, lined with shipyards on the left bank, and docks and warehouses like walls blocking out the rest of the city on the right. Across the Joaldo from the imperial seat were the towers of the temple district, stone spires reaching for the sky and rivaling the grandeur of the palace itself. And on the opposite bank of the Cabir were the estates of the highest nobility in the land, magnificently opulent to the point of being gaudy.

Qawm’s caravan of fellow war-mages quickly turned aside from the broad, flat avenue that ran directly up to the city’s main gates through the shanties, lean-tos, and rough shacks that spilled out a good distance from the walls. The side road they took climbed up the left side of the valley, and he could see rings of walls sprawling across that slope like a miniature image of the city below. He wondered at the purpose of the fortifications, since they seemed too extensive to be a simple garrison fort or other protection for Cabildo.

The wagon train reached the outermost wall, and Qawm noted that there was none of the untidy extension of buildings outside of the barrier that the main city exhibited. The group of travelers passed through the wide open, unguarded gate into the empty space beyond with no problem.

The second gate was as easily passed as the first, though there were buildings beyond. The caravan wound its way along the streets behind the second wall until it came to the third gate, and then repeated the process through yet another unsecured portal. By the fifth gate, there were actually guards posted; at the seventh, the travelers were stopped and their names were matched against a list. Qawm was concerned by the maze-like nature of the walls and gates, and when they were stopped at the eighth and ninth gates to compare names against more lists, he wondered why all of this security was necessary.

The tenth gate was different only in that after they had been name-checked and passed through it, the group was met by a man who looked impressive and official in his stiff, ornamented robes. When everyone was gathered inside of the gate, the man said, “Welcome, war-mages, to your new home.”

Qawm looked around at the straight streets, the identical buildings lining them, the square open spaces set here and there with an exacting regularity, and then at the series of walls that enclosed the whole area in layer after layer of stone protection. He nervously wondered just what his future was going to hold.

Qawm didn’t return his attention to the official man’s speech until it changed cadence. He hadn’t noticed the double-file of marching men who had arrived until the orator began calling out names and letters, and Qawm’s fellow graduates were led away in ones, twos, or threes by the marchers.

When his name was called, Qawm walked toward the official. One of the marchers intercepted him and said, “This way.” Qawm followed as the marcher set off, the call of names soon vanishing behind him as he got farther away from the gate.

He followed the marcher around corners, down streets, and through other turns and roads, and soon Qawm was completely lost. Everything was so uniform around him: all of the buildings looked the same, the open squares all had men and women marching back and forth across them, the streets had no signs or decorations of any kind. When the marcher stopped in front of a small building in the middle of a street just like all of the others, Qawm wondered how the man had known where to go. He looked for something distinguishing on the front of the building but saw nothing. He looked up to the roof, and as his eyes swept back down toward the ground he glimpsed a small, shadow-dark bird landing on the peak. He wrenched his gaze back up, but the small bird was gone.

He followed the marcher through the door and into the single room that occupied the whole building. There were eight beds against the walls and very little else besides a desk at the back and a table at the front. The marcher said, “Leave your bag by the door and follow me.” Qawm complied.

They didn’t have much farther to go. Qawm had figured out that the open squares surrounded every other street intersection, and the marcher led him to the nearest one, just half a block away. They stopped at the edge, and as Qawm watched the people moving in even lines this way and that across the space, the marcher said in a loud voice that wasn’t quite a shout, “New recruit reporting for Astorn.”

In the square, a tall, blond man shouted, “Squad!” A line of six people stopped marching and faced the blond man, who then said, “Ease!” The line visibly relaxed, their arms moving behind their backs, their legs spreading apart. Relaxed, but ready, thought Qawm.

The blond man beckoned, and Qawm’s guide marched over, pulling him automatically behind. The marcher stopped, saluted, said, “Presenting Qawm for Astorn’s squad,” then executed a precise turn and began marching away.

Qawm, a little confused, began to follow, but the blond man reached out and grabbed his shoulder. With a smile, he said, “I’m Astorn, your new superior. You’ll follow me and my squad now, not him. So, Qawm, you’ve come with the Trevrai graduates, yes?”

Qawm nodded, and Astorn smiled again. “Well, then, I’ll give you a little leeway, seeing as I know that they don’t teach much besides magic at that school. Let me introduce you to the squad before introducing you to your new way of life.

“These are Jific, Krolad, Fich, Nirak, Slaan, and Herrin, your squad mates.” Astorn pointed at the six men standing in front of them both. Qawm barely caught the names, and he didn’t think he would remember which went with which if they changed positions. “Herrin, step forward,” Astorn said, and the plump black-haired man on the end of the line stepped closer. “As the former new recruit on the squad, I want you to take Qawm here under your wing. Help him catch up to the rest of you. We won’t get more than one pass at review for Qawm’s new status, and I don’t intend to suffer any demerits on that count. Got it?”

Herrin said, “Yes sir.”

“Good, good. Qawm, just do whatever you are told and you’ll do fine. You won’t understand my commands at first, but Herrin will explain them. I expect you to do your best because the performance of any one squad member reflects on the whole squad, and you don’t want to disappoint any of us, now do you? The proper response is ‘no sir’. Got that, Qawm?”

“Ah, n-no, um, y-yes sir?” said Qawm hesitantly.

“A fast learner! Excellent! Get in line beside Herrin, that’s good. Teach him attention from at ease, Herrin, and we’ll practice that for a while, yes?”

 

***

 

Qawm had begun to settle into the routine of his new life during the past two-thirds of a month, and he was looking forward to the upcoming day as he sat in the mess hall eating his breakfast that morning. It was Sarthin, the last day of the six-day period into which the Beinisonian military divided every 36-day month. Every Sarthin, the wooden chits that constituted military pay – painted and scored to more easily split the pseudo-coin to make change — were distributed and everyone was given a half-day off in rotating shifts.

On his first Sarthin, almost a month ago, Qawm had intended to spend his time alone, as he had not been since the gates of the Fortress of Breil had closed behind him. First there had been his fellow graduates and the guides who had kept them all alive during the trip. Then there was his new squad mates who slept, drilled, ate, and even showered together. Qawm had seldom had more than a few moments to himself in the past few months and he had eagerly anticipated his first chance to be in his own company.

Herrin, though, had had other plans. The plump man had taken his duties as Qawm’s guide very seriously, and in addition to helping Qawm learn the basics of military drill, he’d undertaken to help his charge learn how to spend the emperor’s chits.

The military precinct of Cabildo was, to some extent, self-contained. Anything that a soldier, whether mundane or magical, might want was available somewhere within the walls Qawm had passed through. Back on that first Sarthin, Herrin had dragged Qawm to the idle district that was closest to the mage sector, where they had spent their time off frequenting the bars and shops, spending their chits freely. Qawm had not put up much resistance to Herrin’s plans and had even enjoyed himself to an extent, at least until their free time was waning and the plump man had tried to lead Qawm into the yellow-draped confines of a brothel to spend the last of their pay. Qawm had balked at the prospect of exploring such uncharted territory in so cold a fashion, and had bolted back to the barracks with a half-chit still unspent.

Word had spread of Qawm’s reluctance, and by the next Sarthin, the whole squad had bundled Qawm up at the start of their time off and had deposited him in the bower of Loruni, a redheaded, green-eyed prostitute, along with enough donated chits to last him the entire half-day. Loruni had been gentle, easing him into comfort with the situation, then comfort being naked, then comfort seeing her naked, and so forth. The inevitable had, eventually, come to pass, and when they came to retrieve him at the end of their liberty, his whole squad cheered had for him when Loruni winked at Astorn’s delicately worded question concerning that conclusion.

During each of the following two Sarthins, Qawm had spent some time with Loruni, for whom he had developed a liking that went beyond her abundant charms and which she seemed to return. He had also managed to set aside time to be alone, though it was easier than he’d expected it to be, since there were few options for entertainment in the military precinct that didn’t cost chits.

That was what Qawm was looking forward to today. It was the last Sarthin of the month, and in the twenty eight days since he had arrived, he hadn’t left the walls of the precinct. There had been little reason to, since the wooden chits he’d been paid in weren’t good for anything but kindling outside of these walls, nor had there, in fact, been the possibility of leaving. But on the last Sarthin of the month, the chits could be exchanged for good metal Beinisonian currency, and the mages were allowed out of the gates. Qawm hoped to do some shopping in the city today, helped by Loruni, who was also free.

Qawm finished his oatmeal, stood up, slapped Herrin on the back, waved to the rest of the squad, then left the mess hall. He made straight for the paymaster’s office, received his chits, stood in another line to change his markers for real money, and then headed out to Loruni’s place of employ.

He strolled through the identical streets with confidence, having figured out the trick which mainly involved having a good memory. As he neared the gate that would take him toward the idle district, he heard a quick rush of wings. He followed the sound and saw a small black bird land on the wall above the gate opening. The familiar harsh voice called out, “Luck!” just before the bird flew away again. Wondering what the bird meant, he continued on his way.

When he arrived at the brothel, he bypassed the front door and went around to the employee entrance. The man on guard duty there smiled a strange smile, and said, “Loruni’s waiting for you, Qawm. You know which one’s hers?”

Qawm said, “Yes, Yavin, she told me. Thanks.” He went into the building, up the stairs, and to the door that Loruni had said was hers. He knocked, and at the soft sound from within, he opened it and entered.

Loruni was sitting in a chair in the small, plain room, looking at her knees. She looked different to Qawm, more like one of the women in Lonial than the yellow-draped prostitute he usually spent time with. Her clothes were plainer, simpler, and there wasn’t a trace of yellow, the whore’s color, anywhere in the room.

She looked up as he shut the door behind him, and her eyes were red from crying. “Oh, Qawm,” she said, “I’m sorry. I must look terrible.” She turned away.

Qawm rushed over and knelt at her side. “What’s wrong, Loruni?” He reached for her hands and tried to hold them comfortingly.

She sighed, and said, “I … I don’t want to burden you, Qawm. I don’t think I’ll be able to go shopping with you, though. It’s … it’s my mother. She’s with the healers; she needs medicine, but I can’t afford it …”

Qawm felt an immediate urge to help her. He tried to think of what he might do, only realizing at that moment that not once during the five years he’d been in school had he been taught any healing magic at all. Amazed at the lack, he did the only other thing he could think of.

“I’ve got money,” he said.

“Oh, but I couldn’t, Qawm. You earned that by working hard, by being part of the empire’s defenses. You deserve to spend that on yourself!”

Qawm smiled, and said, “There’s nothing I need so badly that I can’t wait for next month to buy it.” He pulled his newly-changed currency from his belt pouch and held it out to her. “Take it, Loruni. Your mother needs it more than I. We can go right now and give it to the healers!”

Loruni beamed, and said, “That’s so sweet, Qawm. If you insist, I’ll take it. But I don’t think I can take you with me. I’ll want to stay with Mother for the rest of the day, and you’ve never been down into the city before. I’d hate for you to get lost on my account, and miss your duty call.”

She stood, drawing Qawm up with her. She kissed him on the cheek, and then on the mouth, backing him toward the door. He let himself be thanked over and over again, and he closed the door behind himself as he left, a silly smile on his face.

The smile stayed on his face as he returned to his barracks with a half-day full of nothing to look forward to, completely broke but feeling better than he had in a long time.

 

***

 

On another month-end Sarthin, six months later, Qawm was lying on his bed staring at the ceiling of the barracks, another stupid smile on his face. He heard footsteps walk in, and he turned his head to see Herrin enter, then stop and stare.

“Oh Qawm,” Herrin said, shaking his head sadly. “Again?”

Qawm sat up and said, “Her sister’s baby fell ill.”

“I’m sorry we ever chose that one for your initiation, Qawm,” said Herrin, coming over and sitting next to him. “I thought for sure that you would figure it out on your own, but I guess you’ve got too soft a heart, my friend. Come on, I’ve got to open your eyes.”

Confused, Qawm followed his friend out of the barracks and on a tour of the mage sector as well as quite a few of the ale houses in the idle district. Every so often, Herrin would stop and ask a soldier a question. Every time, the answer was something about Loruni, and each one was similar in two respects: it concerned giving money to Loruni, and it was accompanied by a scowl, if not also a very coarse word for her profession. It seemed that soldier after soldier had given her help for her mother’s or sister’s or brother’s funeral, for a healer’s fees for any one of a dozen close relatives, for weddings, for relocations, for all manner of quite contradictory events in the lives of Loruni’s kin.

It finally came clear when Qawm realized that Herrin never asked specifically about Loruni, yet her name came up every time. He wondered what she did with all of that money. She had to be rich by now. She didn’t have to wear the yellow unless … unless she liked her job. Unless she liked getting stupid soldiers to feel sorry for her, to pay her for her time as their mattress, and then for her sob stories too.

“I suppose,” Herrin finally said, “that it was a lesson you had to learn eventually, Qawm. Trust yourself first, trust your squad next, trust no one else. Harden your heart, my friend. At the very least, let someone else pay if at all possible.”

“Thanks, Herrin. I doubt I’d have ever figured it out myself.”

“Hey, that’s what your squad is for! We’ll keep you safe, even from yourself!

“By the way, I hear that we’re going to be shipping out before the end of next month. That means extra drills, surprise alerts, special training, and eventually what we’re all looking forward to, at least, according to Astorn, initially: combat! So you won’t even have to make the choice of whether or not to listen to Loruni’s next story. Lucky you, huh?”

 

***

 

Qawm marched in loose formation with the rest of his squad toward the front line in preparation for the battle that would start once the sun was high enough in the sky. His squad marched with the other squads that made up their unit, and the unit moved in coordination with the other units that made up their troop. The building blocks built up like that until the components of the army, the mages, the infantry, the cavalry, the archers, all came together in the fighting force assigned to put down yet another border skirmish.

Qawm was neither excited about nor afraid of the coming conflict. This would be his third campaign in the eight years since he’d arrived in Cabildo, and so far the might of the Beinisonian forces had kept the battles mostly one-sided. He had contributed in the usual way of the war-mages, providing support, demoralizing effects, concealment, and upon occasion, actual battle damage, but from a distance, safe from the attacking forces. It was actually rather boring at times, and in his more whimsical moments, it didn’t seem like quite enough of a payoff for all of the tedious drills and the meager pay he received for his service. Then again, at least he was still alive.

Qawm and his squad reached their assigned position, and settled in to wait until the conflict began. A river glimmered in the distance, flowing out of a forest, and the enemy was slowly forming up a short way outside of that forest in a ragged line. The war mage troops were on the right flank behind the archery troops, all well back from the actual front line. Everyone could see the enemy forming up, and gauging their speed, knew they had time. No one relaxed totally, but idle conversation rose around Qawm.

“Doom!” rang out harsh and squawking, but only Qawm’s head turned to track the sound. A streak of black arrowed across the sky above Qawm’s squad, circled around and came back. “Death!” the small black bird cried again, to no one else’s notice. Qawm followed the dark dart as it flew toward the forest in the distance. He shook his head, beginning to get a little worried; he hadn’t been visited by the bird in any of the other battles.

Time passed, and a pathetically small enemy line finally formed up just outside the forest. Runners began passing information throughout the Beinisonian forces as the front line started to advance. The enemy didn’t move as the vast force bore down on it, the war-mages and the archers trailing well behind. Qawm had no idea of exactly where this battle was taking place, except that it was to the east of Cabildo. He had heard only gossip about who their enemy was: Beinison’s eastern neighbor, Trovinok, was supposedly trying to reclaim territory that had once, fifty or more years ago, been theirs. Qawm knew that Beinison had built itself to its present size by conquest, and had to defend that growth over and over again. He wondered, though, why Trovinok, if the rumors were true, thought they could go up against the imperial might of Beinison.

As the front lines neared each other, Qawm began his normal routine of support spells along with the other war-mage units. He helped raise a fog from the river behind the enemy, he caused flashing lights in the middle of their lines, he sent loud noises among them as well, all designed to keep the foe disorganized. These efforts were relatively easy to carry off due to the multiple casters, or the relative harmlessness of the effects. The same things made them equally easy to counter or deflect, and there were other units tasked with doing that very thing to magic cast by the enemy. Judging by the total lack of distractions among their own troops, either those mages were doing a spectacular job, or the Trovinok simply had no war magic to throw against them.

The fronts met, and the familiar din of battle rose up, reaching even as far back as Qawm’s squad. The enemy began falling back, fading into the forest. The Beinisonian advance didn’t stop, but that was standard practice. Qawm was no tactician, but he knew that fighting in the trees was chancy and it was solely the small size of the opposing force that had led the soldiers to pursue the enemy. It was only when most of the infantry had vanished between the trees that the advance halted. Qawm knew that the normal order of battle was changing when riders began racing through the units around him delivering messages, and commanders started calling out changes of orders.

These instructions were relayed down the chain of command until finally Astorn called out, “Squad! Advance to the Sparok River, continuing routine covering protocols. When the banks are reached, gather and wait for more orders.”

Qawm joined in the automatic response of “Yes sir!”, and began to advance along with everyone else in the whole unit. He was concentrating on maintaining his spells, and so it wasn’t until he had actually reached the banks that he realized that the Sparok River was the river that flowed past the hamlet where he had grown up.

“Squad!” Astorn called. “Follow the banks into the forest. Provide support protocols if any friendly units are encountered. Use elimination protocols if the enemy is encountered. Do not advance beyond the hamlet of Lonial unless in the company of a combat unit.”

This time, Qawm did not join in the affirmative response. Lonial had once been his home. As his squad began to move, he followed them automatically, as he had been trained to do. As he passed into the forest that surrounded Lonial, he heard “Disaster!” squawked from above him. He looked up and saw the small, black bird perched on a branch. It called out again, “Destruction! Tragedy!” Then it flew away.

Qawm’s squad first encountered a friendly infantry unit, and joined up with them. As they settled into their support role, a group of enemy soldiers that was twice the size of the friendly force appeared from between the trees, and soon Qawm was using his offensive spells for the first time ever: stopping breath briefly, tripping opponents, launching stones and other debris with more force than a human arm could. He even attempted doing damage directly, with fire or cold, but only when a target was stationary long enough for him to complete the casting.

These spells were much more difficult, each one draining him faster than the simpler distraction spells from earlier. Because he could only draw so much magic from his surroundings, there was a limit to what he could accomplish. Drawing the sparks from the nearby infantry helped, since they were usually moving around, but he couldn’t draw from his fellow war-mages lest he disrupt their own casting.

Qawm thought he had been well trained, and in truth he had, but this wasn’t anything like training. He had seen the dead before, but he had never seen anyone die until that day in the trees around his former home. The friendly infantry took down two or more of the foe each before succumbing themselves one by one. Qawm tried to help them, tried to keep them from dying, but he found that casting without enough magic behind the spell hurt like nothing he had ever felt. Even so, he watched his own spells slay four, even as the last of the attacking Trovinok took their swords to his squad of war-mages. Qawm watched Herrin die next to him, then Fich, followed by Slaan, as he sucked up sparks and shot out spell after spell that were painful to cast and weaker than they should have been. Finally, no more spells came, and he drew his knife and made ready to use his self-defense lessons. He knew he didn’t have a chance against the sword pointed at him but he wasn’t going to give up. He found himself at least as surprised as that last enemy as Astorn put a hand to the Trovinok’s head, causing the man to slump to the ground in death, a scent of burned hair and flesh rising from the corpse.

Astorn gasped and fell to his knees beside his victim, and Qawm thought he saw smoke rising from the man’s hands. He didn’t even know the spell Astorn had used, and wasn’t sure he wanted to.

Before long, Astorn regained his feet and gathered the remains of his squad together. Qawm followed him as he continued to advance. They were crossing the bridge over the Sparok that led to Lonial when they were joined by more friendly soldiers. Qawm felt much more secure as they all crossed the bridge and followed the road to the hamlet.

The enemy were everywhere, and there seemed to be plenty of them. The soldiers Qawm’s squad traveled with circled Lonial again and again, following the enemy, retreating from them, gathering more Beinisonian troops, and attacking again. Qawm realized at some point that he had yet to see Lonial itself, and the enemy didn’t seem to be advancing from the direction of the village either. He spared himself a brief thought for his father and his childhood friends, but another attack drove such unnecessary things from his mind.

The sun had passed its highest point when word reached the force of soldiers that Qawm was with that there was a rock in a clearing that was going to be a rallying point. When they finally reached it, Qawm was glad to see Lion’s Rock once again. The clearing was full of soldiers of all types, each squad and unit forming up as best they could while the commanders conferred.

Qawm rested, restoring his magic by drawing sparks from the trees, grass, and even Lion’s Rock itself, just like when he had been a child. He knew that the other mages were doing the same, as they had all been trained, so they would be ready for the next set of orders. He strained his ears to hear the plans the commanders were making, but he couldn’t make out their words. When the cackled cry of “Doom!” rang out, he wasn’t surprised. He looked over to the trees and found the shadow-bird sitting there. “Woe!” it cried. “Calamity! Cataclysm!”

“Attention!” A loud voice, completely normal, rang out, drawing Qawm into the proper stance automatically. He shifted his eyes, but the bird had not yet flown away. One of the commanders continued, “The remains of the enemy have gathered to the south of Lonial. We believe that the bulk of the forces currently in the area are there. We have two more groups of soldiers, each as large as this one, gathered in separate areas. The plan is to lure the enemy into an all-out advance, present them with a single force to battle, and then trap them between that force and the advance of the other two. To that end, a small force is already on its way to engage the foe. It will then retreat toward Lonial, where this force will be waiting. We will draw them into an engagement and hold them until the other two forces are able to converge, whereupon we will destroy them totally.

“Squads, form up by units, and prepare to move out!”

Qawm kept his eyes on the shadow-bird as he moved into ready position. A runner entered the clearing, and the order was given. The bird darted off without another word as everyone moved forward out of the clearing, and in just a few moments Lonial came into view.

Qawm’s first thought was that it hadn’t changed at all. He picked out his father’s house, the central green, the headmaster’s place. He hoped that the residents had received warning in time to flee. That hope died when Qawm saw a shutter move in a window and a small face peer out. Was that a lone straggler, or had everyone been trapped in the hamlet by the advance of the enemy?

“Catastrophe!” the black bird squawked as it streaked overhead at the same time as the first of the Trovinok appeared at the other end of the village. The Beinisonians advanced in silence, while the enemy charged with a full-throated roar.

The battle descended into chaos as soon as the fronts engaged. The first evidence of Trovinok magery came in the form of an explosion of fire that suddenly bloomed in the middle of the Beinisonian ranks. Several more blasts went off, and Qawm despaired at the power for the explosions before he noticed the dirt and stones that scattered with the fire. Perhaps they weren’t facing a magus after all, he thought, but only some prepared explosives triggered by magic.

Astorn called out, “Suppress!”, and Qawm knew that the more experienced leader had already noticed what was really happening even as he joined his fellow war-mages in laying out a magic-absorbing blanket spell. The spell did its job, and for a few moments there was only the clash of swords and the shouts of wounded and dying soldiers.

The Trovinok changed magical tactics. Qawm watched balls of elemental forces being spun together by large groups of mages behind the enemy soldiers — mostly glowing spheres of fire, but some of shining ice. The balls were launched in plenty of time for Qawm and the other war-mages to erect defenses, but because of the power of these missiles, each one had to be targeted individually. The first few were snuffed out, but because that took almost as much effort as creating them must have, their tactics soon changed to deflection.

Unfortunately, this was not a perfect solution. At first, Qawm and his fellow war-mages did their best to direct the spheres away from their own troops and, if possible, back at the enemy, or if not, then into the surrounding forest. Somehow, though, the Trovinok began to increase their magical assault. Qawm watched the opposition mages stagger away from their creation circles, most likely exhausted, but they were always replaced with fresh wizards even as new circles slowly formed. Soon, it was all the Beinisonian war-mages could do to keep their own troops safe from the elemental spheres. Collateral damage was inevitable, and it wasn’t long before one of the shunted spheres hit the side of one of the houses and destroyed the wall, setting the rest of the house on fire.

Qawm tried to split his defense efforts between the friendly troops and the houses of his former home, but he was only one person. Then the second friendly force engaged the enemy from the flank, their war-mages launching attacks against the foe that were also deflected with devastating effect on Lonial.

The battle continued. A small band of reinforcing Trovinok arrived shortly before the third Beinisonian force joined the trap. Soon, the large, coordinated-effort spells ceased, the casters exhausted beyond quick recovery. Distraction magic flashed around almost as frequently as swords and arrows did, often to better effect. Qawm watched people die, helped kill others, saw residents of Lonial try to escape their blasted, burning houses only to fall victim to the automatic reflexes of combatants who had been fighting for most of the day.

The Trovinok forces were finally being whittled away when Qawm again heard his black-winged herald cry out “Watch!” from above. He looked up to see a small, wobbly, egg-shaped lump of fire lift away from one last casting circle and head right for his own squad. He croaked out, “Target!” and pointed, alerting those around him to the threat. He found enough sparks within himself to join in the deflection effort, and the ill-cast spell jinked away from its target.

He was ready to thank the bird for its help, when it cried out again. “See!” it said, and Qawm looked toward it in time to watch the diverted spell crash into his father’s workshop. He wanted to rush to the rescue, but his ingrained responses kept him at his duty protecting his fellow soldiers and destroying the enemy. Civilians caught in the crossfire weren’t part of the protocols that had been trained into him, and there was too much going on for him to abandon his drilled-in responses. Not even for his father.

The battle went on and on, until finally the last Trovinok soldier was dead; not one had surrendered. Qawm looked around at the carnage as scouts checked to be sure that there were no more enemy soldiers in the area. Dead bodies, Trovinok and Beinisonian, lay everywhere. Many of the houses of Lonial were destroyed; few had escaped some kind of damage. The casualties of Lonial were easily distinguished from the military corpses by the lack of armor or uniform. Qawm was glad that he couldn’t see any of the faces in the slowly deepening gloom of evening.

The sounding of the all clear released Qawm from his training. His duties were over for the day. He had to report back to camp eventually, but he was able to take his time doing so. Ordinarily, he would have headed straight back to his tent, well removed from the death of the battlefield, but he had to know first.

Qawm walked slowly toward the remains of his father’s house. The fire that the deflected spell had set had consumed most of the structure. There was a body by the workshop door, probably flung through it by the explosion. He knelt by it and gingerly turned the head so he could see the face in the remaining light. It was Tavin, his best friend in childhood, and his father’s apprentice.

He stood again, and stepped through the remains of the doorway. He had no trouble identifying the body that had collapsed in front of the workbench even through the charred clothing. It was Yarol, his father, who seemed to have been working right through the battle.

Qawm paused for a bit, staring at the remains of his childhood, then turned and walked out of his former home. He was sad that his father was dead, but he hadn’t ever expected to see Yarol again anyway. He had left Lonial, his father and his friends thirteen years ago, and it was only an accident that had brought war to his former home that day. Only an accident, and the strangeness of fate.

Qawm kept walking, across the body-strewn landscape of Lonial and toward the trees that had once been part of the boundaries of his world. Lonial was no more, fit only for the ravens and the rats, but it wasn’t any more dead to him now than it had been when his mother had yanked him away from it. He had never dreamed of going home once he had settled into Trevrai, and if he couldn’t now change his mind, it was all the same to him. The lesson that Herrin had urged him to take from Loruni’s games had been well learned.

He looked up as he left Lonial and entered the trees, but the shadows in the branches above him were natural. He continued walking toward camp, truly leaving his past behind.

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