Black Powder Bind
The smallest act of magic, well-wrought, can turn the tide of battle…
The next bard takes the rostrum. He is old and gray, leaning heavily on a cane on his right side. The wrinkles on his face suggest a hard life, but he has dignity in his stride. He wears the dress uniform of a member of the Unified Military, complete with Master Sergeant’s bars on his arm and a Mage Corps badge on his chest. Yet it is the symbol above it prompting whispers: A fearsome dragon curled around a shield — the insignia of the legendary Mighty 27th.
The man clears his throat. “I don’t have the flowery language or dramatic flair of my fellow bards,” he says. He takes out a worn pipe and fills it. “I’m just an old soldier, but I have what all old soldiers have: Stories about the brave legionaries I stood with in my time. Those still here, and those who’ve passed.”
He brings the pipe up to his lips. But instead of a match, he whispers a word to himself — and a spark of flame appears in the bowl of the pipe. A thrill runs through the crowd at this minor act of magic as he takes a long puff.
“This story is from decades past,” he says. Smoke billows from his mouth. “In the bad old days of Rorei the Young. Right when things started falling apart, and the Ecclesiarchs of Subaten declared their grand crusade against the ‘mad sorcerer king…’”
PART I: The Remnants
It was supposed to be a quiet scouting mission on the frontier.
They were to simply journey through Vitigis Pass and find a suitable location for a forward command base. Child’s play for a unit of the Mighty 27th.
Then a battalion of Subaten grenadiers appeared on the horizon, firing in perfect lines and lobbing balls of explosive powder. By the time they closed for a bayonet charge, the unit was already starting to rout. And when the sun set on their retreating forms, only three of the unit’s mages — Lieutenant Danil ‘ja Minaldi, Sergeant Sillato Redent, and Corporal Antin Rigo — were left.
Even now Antin could hear the screams of his comrades-in-arms when the first black powder bomb exploded in their ranks. It was his first taste of real combat; he’d only graduated from Basic a few months before. He had always imagined he would cut a striking figure, dashing and brave, as he clashed with the enemies of the Empire.
Instead, as soon as blood spurted from his neighbor’s throat and acrid smoke filled his nostrils, he broke and ran.
It was the only reason he was still alive. But the memory filled him with shame.
Antin snapped back to reality. Redent, breathing heavily from atop the horse, was leaning down close to Antin.
“Are you okay?”
Antin swallowed, nodded, and forced the memories down like a bad taste.
Lieutenant ‘ja Minaldi was talking to a woman they’d just awoken, still dressed in her nightshirt and rubbing the sleep from her eyes. With their torn clothes and bloodstained faces, the three of them must have made a sorry sight for this woman and the other villagers curious about the late-night disruption. Sergeant Redent was atop their exhausted horse, the only reason he’d made it this far with the nasty bullet wound on his leg.
“Welcome to the village of Rochdale,” the official said. “I’m the mayor.”
“I see.” The lieutenant’s head dipped a moment before he met the mayor’s eyes again. “I’m afraid I must request lodging for the night for myself and my men.”
The mayor hesitated and looked to the crowd behind her. Some whispered to each other while others pointed at the signet rings on the three soldiers’ fingers, one of the marks of members of the Imperial Mage Corps. Binders were rare on the Sindar Plains, and not always welcome. Yet there was no outcry amongst the villagers. Yet.
“Certainly, Lieutenant,” the mayor said. She was happy to avoid a conflict with armed soldiers, especially ones that knew how to Bind. “You’re welcome to stay in my home. I have a spare room my wife can make up for you” — an older woman in the crowd let out an irritated sigh the mayor ignored — “but I’m afraid we don’t have anything quite as comfortable for your men. They’re welcome to stay in my barn with your horse.”
“Perfectly okay, ma’am,” ‘ja Minaldi said, equally happy to avoid building resentment in a remote border town with so few men at his command. “The Empire thanks you for your hospitality.”
The woman led the three soldiers to their resting spots, and most of the crowd dispersed.
But when Antin happened to look over his shoulder, he saw one man stayed behind: A young man, but already years of hard labor had noticeably toughened him. His skin was tanned and his arms well-muscled, he was clearly a farmer. Yet the most striking thing about him was the look of hatred on his face.
He and Antin locked eyes briefly. The intensity of the man’s gaze unnerved Antin. He thought about the dead eyes of his comrades and the horrific shouts of the overwhelming Subaten forces, and wondered if this was the man who would kill him.
But then the young man turned and vanished into the night.
“A Subaten battalion so close to Vitigis Pass can only mean one thing,” ‘ja Minaldi said.
“They’re planning to seize a position on this side of the pass before we can fortify it,” Redent said.
‘ja Minaldi nodded. “And then we’ll be hard-pressed to stop them from sweeping across the Sindar Plains. Now that they know we’re scouting, they’re likely to accelerate those plans.”
It was the morning after they’d arrived in Rochdale. They were in the barn where Antin and Redent had made their quarters. Now, Redent sat on a bale of hay, wincing as he cleaned and redressed his raging red-purple wound. Antin was brushing the Lieutenant’s horse.
“How long before they get here, sir?” Antin asked.
“A week, perhaps,” ‘ja Minaldi said. His face was grim. “Two, if we’re very lucky.”
“And how long would it take us to get the army here?”
‘ja Minaldi frowned. “If the three of us march to the point of exhaustion, and the army musters at the drop of a hat? Possibly in a month.”
Redent laughed, long and loud.
Antin gaped. “But then… what should we do?”
“A rider on a strong horse,” ‘ja Minaldi said carefully, “could make the journey much quicker, and potentially get the army here in half the time. But we’ve only one horse. And considering the mayor’s relatively prosperous position in town” —he gestured toward the two old nags that were the only horses in the barn besides their own — “we’re unlikely to find any suitable replacements.”
“So one of us rides ahead while the other take a longer march?”
Redent snorted. “Corporal, did you get knocked in the head? A nice little town, right on the Boern with nothing but farmboys and old wives living there? Leave that undefended, we might as well surrender the pass to the Subatens.”
Redent yelped as he tightened his fresh bandages.
When he caught his breath, he continued: “I’d never make the trip with my leg, and you’re so green the commanders would laugh you out of their tent. There’s only one man anyone would listen to who’d survive the ride.”
Antin blanched. The panic he felt yesterday when the first shots were fired started to rise in his chest.
There was a long pause as Redent and ‘ja Minaldi listened to Antin struggle to control his breathing.
“This is the only chance to prevent the Subatens from securing control of the Sindar Plains,” ‘ja Minaldi said. “It sickens me to give this order. I’ve thought about it all night. And if there was another way—”
“Lieutenant,” Redent said. His voice was firm. “We knew what we signed up for when we enlisted.”
‘ja Minaldi nodded.
Antin could only sit silently. He thought he only had a long march ahead of him to reflect on his shame. Now he was assigned a suicide mission. Had he escaped from the chaos of battle only to die in some backwater anyway?
‘ja Minaldi put a hand on Antin’s shoulder.
“It heartens me to know such fine soldiers made it out of the ambush,” he said. “However. In case I do not return in time… We are empowered to temporarily conscript any citizen of the Empire in times of crisis. But such a militia would need training from real soldiers like yourselves.”
“Sir,” Antin said, “We have no supplies, or weapons to arm them with. What could we possibly teach them that would make any difference?”
The Lieutenant’s face stiffened. Redent chuckled without mirth.
“The one weapon we’ve got that the fanatics in Subaten refuse to use, Corporal,” Redent said. He spun his silver signet ring around his finger. “We teach them Binding.”
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