Copyright © 2003
(A Somewhat Belated Entry For The Virago Blue Challenge)
It wasn't that long after The Great War, and a lot of people still distrusted magickers of any type, but I'd been there when the king bound The Wizard to his oath, and I knew the terms of the treaty. The key item had been the new oath that every apprentice witch, warlock, wizard and mage must take, using his True Name:
"I, <state your True Name>, vow not to harm humankind or their allies, nor through inaction, allow humankind to come to harm; not to harm my liege lord, nor through inaction, let my liege lord come to harm save where such actions or inaction might cause harm to humankind; to obey the orders of my liege lord or those appointed by him over me, save where obedience would harm humankind or my liege lord; and not to harm myself or allow myself to be harmed, save where that would harm humankind, or my liege lord."
That Oath was administered as part of an incantation and placed a geas on the Oath-taker, and was done before the Oath-taker had power enough to deflect it or suborn it; it was administered under conditions which precluded the influence of an outside party to do so as well.
To an independent observer, it might have made our kingdom too civilized. True, we had more thaumaturgists per capita than any other kingdom I've ever heard of since Lost Atlantis, but they were royally sanctioned, licensed, and approved. My grandfather might mutter that in his day, no town would ever suffer a witch to live within the city limits, but we live in modern times. His muttering cantrips for warding off evil were as unnecessary as tits on a boar hog.
Me, I'm a soldier, and practical. Believed all my life in cold steel as the best way to settle an enemy's hash. But if you think I turned away the support of the Lightning and Fireball Artillery Companies in combat, or even turned down a sharpness spell on my blade, you're crazier than grandpa.
Besides, little cousin Reanna, Grandpa's third wife's second (by her first husband) son's daughter, had apprenticed at the Academy, and gone into military intelligence. She had a touch of the second sight, and the tools and training to make a good little spy. Grandpa might not approve, but I sure wasn't surprised - she'd been spying on me for years.
Anyway, being part of the band that stormed the Wizard's Keep (and surviving it) was good for my career. I became one of the lieutenants of the Captain of the Royal Guard, got showered with gold (a very brief shower, but enough to wash away all my family's debts and let grandpa retire), and gifted with a parcel of land on which to settle when I got old and grizzled. I turned down being ennobled - didn't want to pay taxes or wear them fancy costumes. No barony for me!
But like I said, "too civilized." We had us a standing army of almost a thousand trained men-at-arms, and could call up twice that number in an emergency, including allies under various levels of obligation. We had supporting corps of thaumaturgists, like the artillery corps and the corps of engineers. There wasn't a kingdom within two hundred leagues that could challenge us in the field. So, the bulk of the army was used in police duties and training exercises, or dealing with the occasional rogue dragon or ogre.
When the Captain summoned me to the chambers of the Military Pentagram, I was eager for an assignment. Barracks duty is the worst kind of duty for a soldier. Not that I'm some bloodthirsty barbarian, but let's face it - when all you have to do is polish your armor and sharpen your weapons, people start to expect you to do just that. I've never believed that an army needed to be pretty, it just has to hack the enemy down before it got hacked down itself. I needed to get away from headquarters and back in the field.
"How's your sword arm, Lance?" Captain "Cleave" Mida asked me as we traded warrior's salutes, fist to buckler. He always called me Lance, rather than some form of my True Name. Come to that, most everyone did. Harkened back to the Wizard's Keep, when the Wizard's minions counter-attacked and Fletch screamed, "They're boiling out of the castle!" I'd shouted something stupid to rally the men; most quote me as saying, "Let's lance the boil!" The name stuck. Of such inane babbling are legends made.
"Can't complain, Captain Cleave." Well, I could, but not to him. If I was famous for a silly rally cry, he was famous for slaying the troll that threatened the king's back. With a single blow. "Got a job for that arm?"
"I just might," he answered. "Military intelligence has gone all oracular on us, and nobody can make heads or tails of that gobbledygook. There might be something happening, and that's enough to give us cold-iron types gray hair. Nothing for it but to go and look."
You know the deal with oracles - they never say what they mean, and there's always six different ways to interpret what they said. Once the eggs hit the skillet, you find out the seventh way, and it always looks obvious... in hindsight. And you always want to choke the shit out of the scribe who recorded it, because half the time the problem might have been solved earlier if they'd written they're instead of their, or nose wet instead of no sweat. Remind me to tell you what I did to the scribe who wrote lair when he should've said layer.
So: "You want I should take a company out in the field to figure out whether the scribe should be flayed or filleted?"
Captain Cleave looked annoyed. "It can't be a whole company. Politics and shit involved." He frowned. "MI is sending a specialist, and she needs an escort. Squad sized. She asked for you, specifically."
"She asked for me?" It was my turn to frown. I know everyone knows the names of the Heroes of the Wizard's Keep. The freakin' Bards and Balladeers had a field day for years making sure nobody could forget. On the plus side, it was pleasantly easy to never sleep alone unless I wanted to. On the other hand, you couldn't scratch your nuts without someone speculating about an old battle wound and trying to sell you a magic salve. Fame ain't all it's cracked up to be.
Setting that aside, I only knew one person in MI and...
"She asked for you by your True Name." Well, that settled the who. Had to be Reanna, nobody else could know - there were spells on top of spells to keep that private. It wouldn't do for one of the King's associates to be influenced by a binding spell.
"She's a seer," I said, acknowledging her identity. "I suppose we'll be along to keep her from bein' disturbed while she's touchin' artifacts and seein'."
He nodded. "You'll keep her unmolested while she unravels the mystery."
I wished later that I'd paid closer attention to his choice of words.
The rest of that meeting involved dry boring details like where we was to go and how little of the privy purse we could take with us so's not to have to pill... er, forage through the countryside, and what kind of skills might be useful to have along. By the end of the day I had picked my volunteers and told them to be saddled up and outside the drawbridge by sunup. I was looking forward to seeing my cousin again-she was rarely home when I was, not that I got home all that much. On reflection, I hadn't seen her since her eleventh year.
The sun found me and my select companions mounted and waiting outside the moat at the end of the drawbridge. I'd already inspected the troops and was satisfied with their arms and armor. Their mounts were small but sturdy ponies that'd have no trouble in the hinterlands; there were four extras to serve as pack animals and spares. Some of them had served with me in other campaigns and knew what I expected. The rest took their cue from the veterans and were at ease.
That ease seemed to evaporate when we saw a small party working their way across the drawbridge. My own nerves ratcheted up when I saw the hooded figure on the peculiar mount. Surely that couldn't be... but it was, I saw. I recognized the face - I'd glimpsed it often enough peeking through windows or from the loft when I'd invited a woman to share my pallet. My cousin Reanna, the agent for military intelligence, was riding a unicorn.
Gods and demons! Was this supposed to be a secret mission? How could we possibly blend in as just another band of soldiers on an errand for the king with her riding bareback on a unicorn? I mean, I recognized that face, but the rest of her had acquired a certain curviness I didn't associate with my little cousin. In fact, there were several features I couldn't associate with little, period. My cousin was a woman grown. At least in some respects. Well, she was riding a unicorn.
I ain't a bumpkin. I'm as aware that certain spells and powers are greatly enhanced by a certain lack of familiarity with earthy pleasures as any court mage or priest. But Reanna had to be, let me think... that can't be right... twenty years old?
But it must be, even if it couldn't. Twenty years a virgin. Her magic must be awesome!
And that's when the mission truly struck home, and I remembered the Captain's words. We were going to be traipsing all over the countryside, fighting where and when we must, following where she might lead, for the sole purpose of saving Reanna's privates.
I got over my own shock and tuned in on the combination of muttering and speculation around me. Shut 'em all up with a harsh glance. Then I urged my pony forward to meet the my cousin and her spymaster.
.... There is more of this story ...