I picked myself back up, and the men cheered. I smiled grimly. “That’s one troll band that won’t be eating any more people. Casualties?”
“Nothing serious, milord,” Sergeant Thomas reported. “The shields stopped most of that one blow the big troll got in. These new ones work a lot better than the first set.”
Yeah, those had been a disaster. Turns out making the face of a shield violently repel anything that tries to touch it isn’t such a great idea, especially since Newton’s Third Law applies to magic too. We’d had a whole string of accidents involving shields knocking things over, smashing their users in the face and generally playing havoc with their surroundings. The damned things were almost as dangerous to their users as the enemy, so I’d been forced to spend several precious days of enchantment time working out a better design and making new ones.
At least I’d known better than to try giving anyone else a personal force field amulet like the one I wore. With my force sorcery it was second nature to constantly adjust my defenses based on the needs of the moment, but for anyone without that advantage it would be like being trapped in a transparent prison. I was getting better at designing enchantments other people could control, but I had a long way to go before something that complex would be feasible.
“Glad to hear it, Sergeant. It sounds like Gronir’s people have run off their troll, so we should be clear for now. Captain, signal the convoy to approach and maintain a watch in case the surviving trolls come back. I’m going to see who we’ve rescued here.”
Marcus nodded. “Yes, sir. Sergeant, detail two men to accompany the wizard.”
A few men were carefully peering out the hole in the side of the inn when I approached. They were a lot better geared than most of the men-at-arms I’d seen in this land, wearing full chainmail hauberks and fairly elaborate helmets instead of the simple chain shirts and pot helms that seemed to be the norm. They also had proper boots, and each man had a sword at his side in addition to the assortment of spears, axes and crossbows they carried. I’d found the latter weapons were generally more useful for monster hunting, since a sword blow that would kill a man only annoys the larger beasts.
In the middle of the group was a tall man in full plate armor, with the helm off to reveal a craggy face with a full beard of red hair. He strode boldly towards me.
“Well met, stranger!” He boomed. “Carl Stenberg, Adept of the Red Conclave. That was some impressive battle magic there.”
“Those things take a lot of killing,” I replied. “Daniel Black, wandering adept.”
His eyes lit up in recognition. “Ah, the mysterious man with limitless earth magic? We had word of you back in Kozalin, but then the priests stopped getting reports from that town you were in. Lanrest, I think it was. I don’t suppose you know what happened to the place?”
“A dragon and an army of frost giants. I got a few people out, but not many. Baron Stein and Holger Drakebane both went down fighting.”
Fighting me, actually. When they thought I’d been killed in a goblin raid the Baron of Lanrest had immediately kidnapped Avilla with the intention of forcing her into his service, while the High Priest had dragged Cerise off to his temple for a binding ritual. Killing them both seemed like a reasonable response to me, but according to Cerise the other nobles of the kingdom probably wouldn’t see it that way.
The girls were both witches, worshippers of ancient Greek goddesses instead of the younger Norse pantheon that seemed to dominate this alternate version of Europe. That made them free game for anyone who wanted to kill or enslave them, and indeed the church of Odin had a long history of binding witches into magical slavery. Given that their powers were far too useful to keep hidden during the current crisis, the only way to keep them safe was to make it look like they were already taken. Which, of course, didn’t work if people thought I was dead.
Obviously I wasn’t going to tell Carl any of that, but we’d invested a bit of effort in putting together a story to use when we reached Kozalin. Assuming no one in our little band of survivors talked, but my worries on that score diminished with every crisis we weathered together.
Carl frowned. “I’m sorry to hear that. I’m sure you did all you could, but we can’t save everyone. I take it you’re headed to Kozalin, then? Coming to answer the Conclave’s call?”
“More or less. I won’t be much help with that weather magic I heard you’re working on, but concentrating as much firepower as possible in one settlement seems like a good survival strategy. Are you headed there as well?”
“‘Firepower,’ eh?” He chuckled. “I like that one. Yes, I think it’s about time to pull out of here. I’ve been using the inn as a base to recover supplies and survivors from the surrounding villages, but it’s been four days since we found anyone alive and the monsters are getting worse.” He paused, and shook his head. “I’ve never seen trolls in such numbers. How bad was your trip?”
“Bad. The whole countryside is overrun with goblin raiding parties, most of them with trolls and shamans in tow. We haven’t seen frost giants since leaving Lanrest, but there was an ice worm in the Sava River and we’ve hit roaming packs of felwolves everywhere. The only good news is the weather’s gotten so cold even the goblins don’t come out at night anymore.”
He shook his head. “If that’s the case I’m surprised you got anyone out at all.”
There was an exclamation of surprise from behind me, and I grinned. “Oh, I applied a bit of magic to the problem.”
Walking through deep snow obviously wasn’t practical for a large band of refugees, but the hover-barge we’d used to escape Lanrest was too wide and clumsy for overland travel. So early in our trip I’d replaced it with a half-dozen smaller vehicles. Each one was essentially a stone box on skis, with a little driver’s cab in front and a larger cabin area behind it. The driver’s cabs had glass windshields, and the main cab generally had two or three small windows and doors at both ends.
The interiors were pretty cramped for the number of people we had to house, but they provided good protection from both the weather and the occasional monster ambush. Of equal importance was the fact that I’d been able to teach some of the refugees how to operate the simple steering wheel and lever that controlled their movement enchantments, so I could spend my days working on more gear instead of driving the group around.
They weren’t especially fast, since I didn’t want my inexperienced drivers to plow one into an obstacle and kill themselves. But the broad skis gave them a surprisingly low ground pressure, and they could negotiate the relatively flat terrain of southwestern Varmland at a steady jogging pace indefinitely. With two feet or more of snow on the ground no one was going to be matching that on foot, or even mounted.
But the boxy masses of grey stone were an intimidating sight to those who weren’t familiar with them. It took a few minutes to reassure Carl’s men that they weren’t a threat, although I noticed that the wizard himself wasn’t especially concerned.
“Moving shelters? Impressive,” he admitted.
“It got us this far. So, is there room in the courtyard to park them? I’m assuming you’ll want to leave in the morning?”
It was late afternoon, so that seemed like a safe bet.
He studied the vehicles a moment longer, and nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, that sounds like the best plan. I think we can fit three or four of those things in the courtyard, and block off the hole in the wall here with another one. You’re welcome to whatever you can salvage from the inn, as well. The owner died a week ago, and we’ve gathered a lot more materials that my men can move. There was supposed to be a detachment of royal troops arriving with more sleds two days ago, but I’m guessing they ran into the trolls.”
“Could be,” I replied. “Does your team have a healer? If not, maybe I should take a look at your wounded.”
Of the sixteen men left in his band Carl had seven seriously injured, and it seemed like half of the thirty or so peasants who’d taken refuge in the inn needed attention as well. I had to limit myself to stabilizing the wounded and giving a quick boost to the sick, and it was still nearly dark by the time I was finished. Fortunately Captain Rain was perfectly capable of getting our people settled in without my supervision, although of course there wasn’t room for more than a few at a time to come indoors.
That wasn’t a problem we normally had, but we could cope. We blocked off the ruined gateway into the courtyard with one of the vehicles, just to make sure nothing nasty snuck in during the night. Then we hung canvas roofs between the ones in the courtyard to help trap heat, and set up a couple of big space heaters I’d made the week before in the mostly-empty barn.
Each heater was just an x-shaped base supporting a tall pole of stone, with three broad iron fins jutting out near the top. They were enchanted to heat themselves red-hot when a small lever on the pole was flipped up, and cool back off when it was down. They put out as much heat as a small bonfire with no need to gather firewood, which made one more thing we didn’t need to stop to forage for. They also warmed the interior of the drafty stable to a tolerable level, and while I wouldn’t want to sleep on smelly straw I’d learned that peasants weren’t especially picky about such things.
It also made a decent spot for an impromptu planning meeting.
Gronir arrived first, since he and his little group of half-feral hunters were already in the barn. They were all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after their fight with the troll, exchanging congratulations and re-enacting snippets of what had apparently been a pretty intense battle. I’d seen them bring down plenty of smaller threats with the wolf pack tactics they’d been developing, but a mountain troll was by far the toughest thing they’d ever tried it on. Even injured those things could easily outrun a man, and any hit it managed to land would likely be fatal.
But Gronir’s pack weren’t exactly human anymore.
The first time we’d killed a felwolf Avilla had cut its heart out and made steaks of it, using a ritual designed to endow anyone who joined the feast with a small fraction of the monster’s powers. Most people just got a little shot of endurance and cold resistance for a few days until it wore off, but a few of the refugee band I’d been leading had embraced the change eagerly enough that it became permanent. Gronir had somehow figured out what she’d done, too, and since Lanrest he’d persuaded her to do it again whenever the opportunity arose.
One felwolf heart split among nearly a hundred refugees had barely been a noticeable effect. Five more split among seven men and three women had them well on the way to transforming into some kind of human-wolf hybrid. They were stronger and a lot tougher than normal people now, with sharper senses and an odd ability to run quickly over the top of the snow instead of sinking into it like the rest of us. I suppose that last bit had something to do with the magic that let a wolf the size of an elephant avoid the obvious square-cube law problems.
It was a little unsettling, but I wasn’t going to begrudge anyone an edge that might help them survive in the middle of an apocalypse.
Gronir had grown a couple of inches since I’d met him, but he was still a bit short of my own six feet. With a wiry build, narrow face and eyes that never stopped moving he was the sort you’d expect to see cast as a snitch in some gangster movie. He wore the grey shirt, trousers and cloak Avilla had managed to assemble for all the members of our little quasi-werewolf pack, with the black lightning bolt I’d adopted as my livery embroidered on the shirt.
Daria came with him. The little thief who’d helped us in Lanrest had immediately fallen in with Gronir’s group, and there wasn’t much doubt the two were a couple now. She nodded politely to me, and set herself to combing Gronir’s hair while we waited for the others.
She’d also gained a couple of inches since Lanrest, all of it in her legs. Her chestnut hair hung loose around her shoulders instead of being braided like most of the townswomen, and her manner was a lot less timid than when we’d first met. Becoming a wolf-girl seemed to agree with her.
Marcus and Oskar arrived together, deep in a discussion about how best to arm the rest of their men when I had time to make another batch of magical weapons. The two were quite a contrast.
Captain Rain was a minor noble from one of the kingdom’s richer cities, and the leader of the last few survivors of the 5th Margold infantry company. He stood just shy of six feet tall, with aristocratic features and an athletic build. He wore most of a suit of plate armor, absent the helm and a couple of other bits that hadn’t survived our trip, along with a thick cloak and a heavily-mended surcoat. The broadsword at his hip was his only weapon, although it was rather more effective since I’d put a force edge enchantment on it.
In contrast, Oskar was a blacksmith who’d ended up leading an impromptu citizen militia back in Lanrest. He was a huge bear of a man, probably six foot eight, with massive muscles and a wild mop of red hair. His full beard was getting long enough that his wife had started braiding it for him, and the axe he carried looked like it had been sized for a troll. He didn’t bother much with armor, just a leather jerkin heavy enough to stop goblin arrows. For most of our journey he’d been in command of the militia force that formed the last line of defense for our caravan’s women and children, while Captain Rain led the smaller group of professional soldiers who did most of the fighting when we had a choice about it.
Avilla and Cerise were the last to arrive, and I noticed that the blonde hearth witch was leaning on her lover for support now. I was really getting worried about her.
Cerise was thriving in this environment, but since she worshipped the goddess of black magic and murder that was hardly surprising. The dark-haired witch threw her cloak back the moment she entered the barn, uncovering a scandalously short dress that barely concealed anything of her lithe beauty. It especially failed to hide the tail peeking out from beneath her skirt, or the inhumanly perfect smoothness of her pale skin. She swept the room with a predatory gaze, heedless of the lingering chill, and smiled warmly at me.
Usually Avilla would have managed to outshine her anyway, despite her more restrained demeanor. But the buxom hearth witch wasn’t human, and unlike us she couldn’t survive on a diet of scavenged grain and wolf steak forever. Her magically animated body had a long list of special needs, and while we could supply some of them we hadn't had much luck scavenging sugar, honey or cinnamon from the ruined farming villages we’d passed.
She’d held up well enough for most of the trip, but she was losing weight and her ever-present smile had grown strained. None of us knew how long she could go without, but I was starting to worry that she was near her limit. Fortunately we were almost to Kozalin, and I was sure a city that size would still have supplies of luxury goods. At least for now.
“Marcus, Gronir, that was good work with the trolls,” I began. “A few more refinements, and I think you’ll be able to handle that sort of thing without me.”
“You plan on going somewhere, boss?” Gronir said with a toothy grin.
“No, but the more firepower we have the better I’ll feel about our chances,” I answered. “We’re almost to Kozalin, and a lot of things are going to change when we get there.”
Avilla frowned. “You don’t think it will be safe?”
I shook my head. “Safer from monster attacks, but we’ll have politics to worry about instead. I’m not going to get caught off guard again. Marcus, are you going to stick with us?”
“Yes, sir. I don’t see we have much chance of getting home, if it’s even still there. We’re with you for the duration, although we do need to work out a contract.”
“That’s fair,” I agreed. “We’ll talk details when we get there. It looks like I can get an introduction to the Conclave from Adept Stenberg, and from there I’m sure I can get in touch with whoever is in charge of the city. Avilla, unless things look at lot worse than expected I’m planning to build us a permanent home within a few days”
She smiled wearily. “Thank you, Daniel. Having my own hearth again will help a lot.”
“Good. I expect we’ll be able to find what you need in the city, but get your girls to check over the inn’s supplies anyway. There’s more here than the Adept’s men can transport, and they’re fine with us taking whatever we need. Oskar, I’d like some of your men detailed to help with that. Our own supplies are a little low, so let’s restock while we can.”
“Yessir,” Oskar agreed. “If they have rope, we’ve got plenty of room on top the wagons for more boxes and barrels. Is this new place going to be a tower, like in Lanrest?”
“More like a castle. I’m hoping the city will hold, but I want a position we can defend even if it doesn’t. You can assure your men that we’ll have a place for everyone who’s still here, and I hope to make things a lot more comfortable as well. Unless there’s someone you want to get rid of?”
Everyone shook their heads at that. We’d started out with a number of troublemakers among the group, but by this point they’d all either shaped up or been left behind at one of the surviving towns we’d passed.
Or died. I still felt a surge of guilt every time that happened. But I couldn’t be everywhere at once, and even if I could I was a long way from being invincible.
“I think we’re good,” Oskar said.
“Yeah, we finally ran out of dumbasses,” Cerise agreed. “I guess I get to start calling you ‘Master’, Mr. Dark Wizard sir?”
“When it will support the story,” I chuckled.
“Um, is there any chance of getting fresh clothes here?” Avilla asked. “Or even just cloth and thread? A lot of our people still don’t have much.”
“If it’s here and the Adept’s people haven’t already claimed it you can take it,” I told her. “First priority is food, but clothing, weapons and armor are right after that. We’re on our last day of travel here, so I guess we can crowd up the transports a little more if there’s a lot of good stuff to take.”
Marcus frowned. “Sir? If we’re planning to travel with the people here, how will they keep up? I can’t see them making more than three or four miles a day on foot, and we’ve still got fifteen miles or so to go.”
“Yeah, I’d thought of that. I’m going to pull an all-nighter and make some cargo sleds we can tow. It’ll slow us down a little, but not like keeping pace with people on foot. Just get a look at what’s available here before I’m done with the first one. If there’s anything good I want to claim it before Stenberg realizes he’s not going to be limited to what his men can carry on their backs.”
There were chuckles at that, but Avilla and Oskar exchanged concerned glances.
“Again, sir?” Oskar said uncertainly. “You sure you’re not pushing that a little too hard?”
I sighed. “It needs to be done, Oskar. I can catch a nap in the morning while we travel, so I’m not completely out of it when we get there. Hopefully things will slow down once I’ve got a stronghold built, and I can sleep for a couple of weeks.”
It was a nice thought, but somehow I doubted things would work out that way.