The Horseman, Part Six

Warning: this piece contains sexual situations.

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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Part Six

Thane Tannersson was tired.  He tried to remember when he had last slept.  Had it been two days before, or three?  He couldn’t remember.

On top of his exhaustion, he smelled like a wet rat.  His uniform clung to him.  The only consolation was that all of the field marshal’s aides were in the same condition.  As was the field marshal.

Field Marshal Dale leaned over the map table, studying the dispositions of units, both Army and Navy, scattered across the islands of the Sea of Whales and the northern half of Okhar.  He peered at the unit counters as if they were about to reveal mysteries to him. The field marshal’s aides and vice-commanders all clustered around the map-table, talking in low voices.  Other soldiers, scribes and couriers, occupied work-tables along the margins of the room, either in the process of writing dispatches or waiting for them to be written.

“So, nothing new from the Southern command?  Dale asked Thane, not looking up.

“Not since the report from Army of the Center two hours ago, sir,” Thane said.

“Is the weather clear over the sea?” Dale said.

“Reports are that the weather is clear all the way to Mico-hane, and then south along the Beso,” Thane said.  “Nothing to interfere with our telegraphs.”

Even so, they both knew the reports the High Command received in Alisan were inevitably hours old, at best.  The Electorate had spent years building up a network of signal stations on the numerous islands of the Sea of Whales, in some instances fortifying and supplying islets that were little more than rocks, all so that they could read about events hours after they happened.  Even so, it was better than the alternative– even steamers took three days to cross the sea from Okhar to the shores of the Electorate.

But at times like these, Thane reflected, a commander yearned mightily for the legendary speaking stones of the Ancients.  He sensed an irresolvable frustration in the field marshal, a desire to know what was happening now, at this moment, in places hundreds of miles away.  He knew Dale well enough to know the field marshal would much rather have been in Okhar than stuck at Supreme Headquarters, a thousand miles from the fighting.

Thane glanced at the situation board himself.  The enemy offensive they had been tracking for the last five days had pushed well up the Gar, closing on the line of the Hano, which, in turn, flowed into the Beso, the main axis of the Khetuni conquest of Okhar.  Fror-manu and Geta-bren had both fallen; Jer-kamu was besieged.  A double-dozen outposts and forts along the Gar had fallen, fallen silent, or been besieged.  Khetuni reserves had moved to meet the enemy, but reports about their contact with the Okharians were slow to reach Alisan.  Frustrating, indeed.

“So, gentlemen,” Dale was saying, addressing everyone, “we are in one of those distressing lulls that come in the middle of a crisis.”

“Sir?” a major said.

“The delay in information–  until we receive further word, we can’t even be sure our reserve divisions have contacted the enemy.”  Dale shook his head.  “As for orders– well, at this distance, gentlemen, we are little better than spectators.  We just have to trust that Marshals Karl and Lhand see clearly what needs to be done, and do it.”

Thane thought that that statement implicitly outlined Dale’s doubts about Karl and Lhand.  However, he said nothing, while other officers murmured, “Yes, sir.”

“Some of you men,” Dale said, “have been working for two or three days straight.  Most of you are dead on your feet.  I can smell most of the rest of you.”  That provoked a rueful laugh around the table.  “Commandant Samuel, arrange a rotation of our staff here, if you please.  I want a third of these men off-duty for the next day, starting with the ones who have been here the longest, and then next third can go on off-duty.  We’ll do this until some immediate crisis erupts or we have more definitive news of the counter-offensive.  I want you gentlemen to go home, get a bath, get a meal and get some sleep.”  He looked around the table.  “Do I hear any objections?”

“No, sir,” was the general response.

“It will be done, sir,” Commandant Samuel said.

“Very good,” Dale said.  “I will see you fortunate gentlemen soon enough.  Dismissed.”

 

Thane would have ridden down to his family’s townhouse, but he didn’t trust himself not to fall asleep in the saddle.  Instead he rode the cable trolley down the hill, and then walked, with dragging steps, the five blocks to his family’s home.  He was supremely happy to round the last corner and see the house’s edifice, gray and soot-stained, standing at the end of the street.

Lemon, the youngster on door-watch, let him in at once.  “Master!  We were worried!” the boy said as he pulled the door open.

“Why?” Thane  said.  “It’s not the first night and day I’ve spent at Headquarters.” Or night and day and night and day…..

“But we’ve been hearing stories….” Lemon said.

“Oh, be about your duties, you silly boy,” said the rotund woman who came into the anteroom at that moment.  Lemon blanched and fled.

“Pari,” Thane said, smiling, “you shouldn’t bully the boy so.”

“Master,” the head housekeeper said, “if the boy can’t take my handling, he’s in for a rough life.”  She peered up at him; there was a foot’s difference in their height.  “You look practically wrung in two, master.  Have you time for a proper bath and a meal?”

“A little more than that, Pari,” Thane said.  “I might even get some sleep.”

“Ah!  The gods have favored you indeed!” Pari said.

 

Thane very nearly didn’t make it to the meal.  He soaked in the tiled bath, luxuriating in the steam and the scent of soap, until the water cooled and his fingers began to prune.  One of the man-servants laid out a clean uniform for him, and getting dressed in crisp blues and reds that didn’t stink of himself was a gift almost as great as the bath itself.

After the bath Terre the cook sat him down in the outer pantry, since it was well after the mid-day meal, and served him meat pies and bacon and boiled eggs and butter and sour bread.  He had no trouble keeping pace with the appearance of each dish, starting in on his second meat pie without slowing down.

“The Army needs to take better care of its officers,” Terre said.  “How do they expect you to win wars when they don’t allow you to eat?”

“Wars are always hard on mealtimes,” Thane said, swallowing a mouthful of flaky crust and savory beef.  “Then again, your average Army cook can’t begin to compare with you, Terre the Wonderful, Terre the Artist.”

“Oh, hush with you and your flattery, master,” Terre said, as she turned back toward the kitchen.

Thane was mopping up the last pool of gravy with a crust of bread when his sister Janie came down to the pantry.  “Well, if it isn’t the Princess of Late-Risers,” Thane said.

“Don’t be mean, brother,” Janie said, glaring at him.  “I’ve been up for hours, at my studies.  Grammaticus Lucius is a slave-driver.”

“Ah,” Thane said.  “I do count myself fortunate I only had to contend with the drill-sergeants of the Academy.”

Janie made a face, then sat down across the table from her brother.  “I didn’t really expect to see you anytime soon,” she said.

“Marshal Dale had to let some of us go, or have us drop in our tracks,” Thane said.  “I drew the lucky straw.”

“That’s a first,” Janie said.  Thane braced himself for a cutting follow-through, but it did not come.  Janie’s heart didn’t seem to be up for their usual back-and-forth; in fact, his sister looked worried and distracted.

“What’s ailing you, little sister?” he asked.

She looked up at him.  “Um…there are stories going about.”

“‘Stories’?  What sort of stories?  And going about where?”

“Among the Headquarters staff’s families,” Janie said at once.  “I’ve been talking to Colonel Wolston’s wife, and Major Rals’ daughter.  They…they say that the Okharians are attacking everywhere, that the Army in the South is retreating.  They say the war is lost.”

Thane felt his face grow hot.  “Really.  That’s a lot to say when it’s obvious they don’t really know what they’re talking about.”

Janie looked surprised.  “Isn’t the enemy attack bad?”

“Oh, it’s bad, little sister,” Thane said.  “I can’t tell you details that Command hasn’t released, but the Okharians are pushing us hard.  But they’re not attacking everywhere, the whole army isn’t in retreat, and we’re a long way from losing the war.”  We’re a long way from winning it, but there was no point in telling his sister that.  “Lady Wolston and Lady Rahls need to be careful about spreading unsubstantiated rumors.”

“They’re saying wilder things in the markets,” Janie said.  “One tale I got from a fruit-seller this morning was that the Okharians used black magic and turned the walls of our forts to sand.”

“That’s just silly,” Thane said.  “The only magic the Okharians possess is their guns, which they copied from us, anyway.”

“People are also saying that the Okharians are using Kunai machines,” Janie said.

Thane took that in for a moment.  “Believe me, sister, if the Okharians had the power of the Ancients at their beck and call, we’d all be speaking Okharian right now.”  He shook his head.  “You need to not listen to people, Janie.  Especially ignorant ones.  They’ll just confuse you.”

“I suppose.”  Janie said nothing for a moment.  “But I’ve been thinking….”

“Oh, don’t go straining yourself,” Thane sniped.

Janie glared at him, but she didn’t follow through with her usual counter-attack.  Instead she said, “I’m worried.  About cousin Mankin.”

“Ah,” Thane said.  When she was younger Janie had been much taken with their half-Attau cousin, both when they all lived in Brema and while Mankin attended the Lyceum in Alisan and was often about this very house.  Thane had never figured out if it were Mankin’s exotic half-blood, or just the fact that he was a decent enough looking fellow who always treated his little cousin as an equal.  Since Mankin was their second cousin once removed there had been talk between the different branches of the family of marrying the two, but Thane’s father had bigger ambitions for his only daughter.  Among other things, he had brought Janie to Alisan with a view to marrying her off well.  Then Mankin had gone off into the Army.  Janie had moved on to other suitors.  Except perhaps, Thane now thought, that had been a surrender to necessity rather than a preference.

“His last letter said he was at a fort, far far south,” Janie said.

“So he was—is,” Thane said, making a hasty correction.  “Senso-marta.  It’s a little fort, almost at the end of occupied Okhar.”

“Have you…have you heard anything about it?” Janie asked.

Thane reached over and laid a gentle hand on his sister’s shoulder.  “No, we haven’t,” he told her.  “Nor are we likely to any time soon.  There are a lot bigger battles going on at the moment.”

That did not seem to reassure Janie.  “If he’s so far south….”

“There’s nothing to be gained by worrying,” Thane said.  He ducked his head, met his sister’s eyes.  “And nothing we can do about it, even if we knew.  We’ll just have to wait and see.”

“That’s hard,” Janie said.

“Yes, I know,” Thane said.  “But that’s war.”  He tried to smile at her.  “Besides, don’t sell Mankin short.  He’s a very cunning fellow.”

 

Thane tried to study for a while in the house’s library, but his weariness dragged his eyelids downward as if they were weighted with cannonballs.  He went to bed early, while there was still light in the late summer sky.

He woke to his name being called, and the light of a single candle.  It was Lemon, carrying a candle on a holder.  “Master Thane, Master Thane,” the boy said.

“What is it?” Thane murmured, trying to open his eyes.

“Your learned father requests that you attend on him, once you’re up and breakfasted,” Lemon said.  “In his study, if you please.”

Thane managed to get his eyes open and keep them there.  “What’s the hour, boy?”

“Just before dawn, master—about the fifth hour,” the boy said.

“Ugh,” Thane said, without thinking.  Then his brain finally caught up.  “Did my father say what he wants to talk about?”

“No, master,” Lemon said.  “Your learned father did not share the reason with me.”  He sounded as if the question was ridiculous.

“Never mind, then,” Thane said, and swung his legs out of bed.

 

Under-Cook Jade had a simple breakfast ready for him, gruel and bread and bacon, which Thane took his time eating.  He’d be damned if he were going to suffer indigestion because his father wanted to see him before the sun was up.  Still, the summons worried  Thane.

He went upstairs to his father’s study.  This was where he father worked on his briefs and legal filings, and consulted with his partners and friends.  It was also where Thane had typically gone to receive his father’s admonishment, which sometimes involved a birch switch.  Those days were long in the past, but Thane’s tailbone remembered.

He knocked on the door, and his father’s voice called, “Come in.”  Thane pushed the door open and stepped in.

The study was not overlarge.  Small windows set high in its eastern wall let in a glow of light.  Most of the rest of the wall-space was covered by bookcases, which were filled with tomes of all sizes, legal commentaries and histories and precedents, huge volumes containing the Code of the Five Consuls, histories of the old Imperium and the College of Electors.  There was nothing of the new sciences, nor the old rituals of the Khetuni, and certainly nothing of the popular romances that booksellers in the markets and shops could hardly keep stocked.  If Thane ever saw his father with an adventure tale in his hands, he was sure he would swoon like a high-born girl at her first ball.

Allan Tannersson was behind his desk, scribbling away with one of the new-fangled steel-nibbed pens.  He did not look up at once, apparently intent of finishing his thought.  The morning light coming from the high windows was not yet bright enough to do real work by, and so a chimney lamp burned on his desk.

“Sit down, son,” Allan said.  Thane seated himself in the chair with the cracked leather covering, and exercised patience.

His father finished his writing, set his pen aside, lifted the paper and blew on it to speed the drying of the ink.  He examined his handiwork with a sharp expression, as if expecting to find fault with his own words.  Thane’s father was growing more gray by the month, it seemed, but there was nothing wrong about his eyesight, or his wits.

“I am sorry to wake you up so early, son,” Allan said, still perusing the page in his hands.  “But I have to be in court first thing this morning, and I wanted to speak with you.”  He laid down the paper and peered at Thane.  “Did you sleep well?”

“Very well, Father,” Thane said, “although I have a deficit to catch up on.”

“I suppose so,” Allan said.  “When do you have to report back?”

“Tomorrow morning,” Thane said, “unless something breaks in the meantime, which is entirely possible.”

Allan regarded his son with a closed expression.  “There are some wild rumors running loose about the war….”

“Yes,” Thane said, “Janie told me about some of them.  The real situation is not nearly so bad.”

“But bad enough?”

“It’s early,” Thane said.  “Marshals Karl and Lhand should be able to rally our reserves and counter-attack, but we won’t know the outcome for several days.”

Allan let go a sigh.  “This war has dragged on too long.  Much too long.  We need to make peace with Okhar.”

“They’ve rejected every feeler we’ve put out,” Thane said, “and they probably will until they feel they’ve regained enough of their homeland to restore their honor.  Which is to say, all of it.”  Thane sat back in the chair.  “But I doubt you called me up here, Father, to lure me into discussions of grand strategy.”

Allan’s lips quirked.  “No, I didn’t.  Son, the subject of your marriage has come up again.”

Thane hadn’t expected that, and it took him a moment rearrange his mental deployment.  “Again?  Who is the inquisitor this time?”

“Your grandmother Deidre,” Allan said.  “I lunched with her yesterday and it was nearly all she cared to talk about.”

Thane restrained himself from growling.  “All respect to my honored grandmother, but I have other things that occupy me at the moment.”

“Other officers of your rank marry,” Allan pointed out.

“But not always happily,” Thane replied.

Allan frowned.  “I do not understand your generation’s infatuation with ‘happy marriages’.  Marriage is something to get on with, happy or not.”

“You were happy with Mother,” Thane said.

His father hesitated, and in that hesitation Thane saw Allan’s eyes soften with memory.  “We were…fortunate,” he said.  He seemed to catch himself, and put the memory away.  “It’s not something to count on, and the wise man does not factor it in when making this sort of decision.”

“And what are the factors of a proper marriage?” Thane said, although he knew what his father would say.

“Mutual respect,” Allan said, “a proper marriage settlement, and the support of both families.  Marriage is about alliance and the continuation of the family name.  Everything else is secondary.”

“So you’ve told me before, Father,” Thane said.  “All right—allow me to put it this way.  As a serving officer it would not be fair for me to marry while we’re at war, not to my wife and not to our children.  I’m liable to be sent back to Okhar someday.  The separation alone would be hard, but it would be worse if I were killed.”

Allan held up a hand.  “As for that, son, I’m working at making sure you don’t have to worry about going back to Okhar.

Thane stared at his father.  “What do you mean?”

“Don’t think I’ve been negligent protecting your interests,” Allan said.  “Since we’ve come to Alisan I’ve built many good relationships with various folk in the Ministry of War.  I’ve spoken to General Gery and others about the possibility you can remain at Headquarters for the foreseeable future.”

Thane didn’t try to hide his dismay.  “I wish you hadn’t, Father,” he said

“Eh?” Allan said.  “Why do you say that?”

“Father, we’ve had this discussion before,” Thane said, exasperated.  “I’m properly grateful to be here in Alisan and not in some flea-bitten fort in Okhar, fighting sand and the Okharians both.  But I want to get ahead on my own merit, not because you’ve pulled strings.”

“That’s a harsh way to put it,” Allan said, sharply.  “There’s nothing unnatural about a father trying to look out for his son.”

“No, there isn’t,” Thane said.  “But an officer who gets a reputation for relying on influence forfeits the respect of his fellow soldiers—and, as paradoxical as it may seem, commanders tend to pass over those officers when they hand out the hard assignments.”

“You can’t help the family if you’re stuck in some Okharian hell-hole,” Allan said.

“I disagree, Father,” Thane said.  “I help the family every time I do my duty, wherever it may be, however hard it may be.  You can’t buy that sort of ‘influence’.  Please, leave my future assignments to the Army’s sole discretion.”

Allan glowered, but merely said, “We will speak of this later.”

Thane sighed.  “I’m sure we will.”

 

Later that morning Thane went out, this time riding.  The horse he picked was a patient, rather stolid gray known as Lop-ear for the odd way his ears bent down.  It wouldn’t have been advisable to ride one of the family’s more excitable horses across the city, as the streets were crowded and noisy, and Thane didn’t need to have to handle a fractious horse this morning.

He crossed the King’s Way and skirted the Lesser Market.  He went slowly, picking his way through the traffic on the verge of the market—people hurrying to buy necessities for the day, tinkers pushing carts and shouting their wares, gangs of municipal workmen trooping off to whatever task they had been assigned for the day.  He wasn’t the only rider this morning, but most of the capitol’s citizens walked, or rode the cable-cars that ran up and down the streets that led to the Citadel.  Thane pulled Lop-ear up short to let one of the cars pass, and then stopped the horse again to let a steam-hauler puff by.  Those contraptions were new enough to startle other horses, but Lop-ear merely raised his head once to look, and then resumed his plodding.

They climbed the Street of Larks.  At the crest, where the street began its descent into the Old Quarter, Thane caught a glimpse, through the morning haze, of the factories and workshops in the distance, on the other side of the river.  It seemed to him that there was a new smoke-stack near the steelworks, but he couldn’t swear to it.  Fortunately, he reflected, tracking Alisan’s growing industry was not one of his many assigned duties.

He rode down through the Old Quarter to a quieter street that ran along the river.  This lane was lined with older tenements and newer brick buildings that showed only blank faces to the street, apart from doors on the ground-floor and small signs above the doors.  It was appropriate, Thane supposed, for Houses of Discretion.

He dismounted before the door of the House of Moonlit Joy, and knocked.  A spyhole opened, and then closed; bolts were thrown open on the other side, and the doors swung back.  Thane led Lop-ear in.

A tongueless groom took charge of the horse, and Thane tossed him a silver coin as a tip.  Another porter of the house, this one deaf and dumb, led him back into the depths of the house, through narrow passageways that smelled of wine and sweat and echoed with the murmurs of men and women engaged behind closed doors in the oldest commerce between the two halves of humanity.  Thane tried to put the sounds out of his mind and focus on his business.

The porter led him up a set of stone steps, worn with the passage of many feet, to a door.  The servant slid the bolt aside, pushed the door open, and left with a grin.

Thane went in, closing the door behind him.  “I’m sorry I’m late,” he said.

Dala sat up on the bed.  Her robe was loose around her; the motion laid bare one shoulder.  The pale brilliance of her skin took Thane’s breath away.  “I would have waited a year,” she said.

 

Later, when they lay spent in each other’s arms, Dala stroked Thane’s back.  “I was worried you were not coming at all,” she murmured to him.

“Why?” he asked.  He planted soft kisses on her cheeks, her neck, her breasts, and she shivered.  “I’ve never missed being with you.”

“And yet…ah!…you are only mortal,” she said.  “And a man under orders.  I’m worried that the trouble in the south would keep you at Headquarters.”

“It nearly did,” Thane said.  “But Marshal Dale took pity on us ‘mere mortals’, and gave a raft of us leave.  I’m due back tomorrow.”

Dala was silent for a moment, and Thane realized she was looking past his shoulder, into some distance only she could see.  “What is it?” he asked.  “Am I doing something wrong…?”

“No, no, beloved,” Dala said.  She kissed him.  “Silly man.  No, it’s just that I’m worried.”

“About what?”

She seemed to swallow.  “Are they going to send you to the front?” she asked.

“Not that I know of,” Thane said.  “They have no shortage of officers at the front, but you never know.…”

“Don’t say it!” Dala said, and she clung to him again with a sudden ferocity.  “You might make it come true!”

“Oh, Dala, please,” Thane said.  “That’s sounds like something my family’s old housekeeper would say.  The truth is, in the Army you never know.  I could get orders tomorrow, but most likely Dale is going to keep his aides close at hand—if nothing else, to avoid having to break in new men.”

Dala looked into his eyes, and not for the first time Thane wondered if there was something mesmeric in her gaze, considering the way he seemed to tremble on the verge of melting.  “I could,” she said, “have a word with my father….”

Thane would have thought that nothing could have made him pull away from this woman, but those words did.  He raised himself on his elbows, and then sat up.  “Not you, too,” he whispered.

Dala sat up as well.  “What?  What is it?”

“Why is everyone trying to make sure I’m safely wrapped up in a cocoon?” Thane said.  He clenched his jaw, biting down on harsher words.  “My father wants to do the same thing, but he doesn’t have your enticements….”

Dala’s face clouded.  “That’s cruel,” she said.  “Is it unnatural for a woman to want to keep her beloved safe?”

Thane sighed.  “I’m sorry.  Of course not; but using your father’s influence to shield me will not keep me safe.  Quite the opposite– it’s liable to ruin me.”

Dala stared at him; and then her lips began to tremble and her eyes to fill.  “But…I’m just so scared,” she said.  “The stories coming out of Okhar…I just don’t want you hurt….”

Thane gathered her into his arms, holding her close.  “Love, love,” he said.  “You fell in love with a soldier.  When you did you took on the risk I might go off one day and not come back.  It’s just the way things are.”

“Oh,” Dala said.  “Hold me.”

Thane did, and their embrace turned into something more.  Dala clung close to Thane the whole while, as if afraid to let him go too far.  They went slowly this time, and Thane wondered if they really could meld themselves together.  He and this woman fit each other; there was no other way he could describe it.

When they were done they lay together for a long while, not speaking, catching their breath.  Just being there with each other seemed so natural and right that Thane had to remind himself that he had other duties.

“I have to go,” he told Dala.  “My family….”

“I know,” Dala said, resigned.

Slowly, with many kisses, they let go of each other.  Thane dressed while Dala watched.  “Don’t you have anywhere to be?” Thane said.

“Uninteresting places,” Dala said, “doing uninteresting things.  Hanna is covering for me, but I’ll be going, too.”

She stood; the sunlight coming through a high window played across her breasts, and Thane had to resist the urge to pick her up and carry her back to bed.  “I don’t know when we can see each other again,” he said, regretting every word.

Dala began to dress herself.  “I’ll try to find a time and send you a message.  My father’s been distracted by this business, just as much as your Marshal Dale.  The political side….”

“Makes me glad I am a soldier,” Thane said.  He bent down and kissed her.  “Love,” he said, “you know I am ready to meet with your father, any day, any hour….”

“No, no,” Dala said.  “Not yet.  Trust me, Thane—I will find the right moment, but that is not now, and not anytime soon.”

Thane sighed.  “Usually it’s the man dodging the commitment….”

“I’m not dodging anything!” Dala said, flaring up.  “You know we face special difficulties.”

“I know,” Thane said.  “I am sorry.”

They kissed one more time.  Thane went down to the courtyard.  He would have dearly loved to leave with Dala, to openly escort her back home, but for now they indeed had to go their separate ways.  Thane reached the courtyard and stood waiting for the groom to bring his horse.  He sighed.

Being the secret lover of the only daughter of the Elector of Alisan really did have its complications.

 

To be continued…..

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