Ghosts of the tristan ba.., p.1
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       Ghosts of the Tristan Basin: A Powder Mage Novella, p.1
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           Brian McClellan
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Ghosts of the Tristan Basin: A Powder Mage Novella

  Ghosts of the Tristan Basin


  All material contained within copyright © Brian McClellan, 2016.

  All rights reserved.

  This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places and scenarios are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. All resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

  Typesetting and ebook conversion by

  Eight months before the events of Promise of Blood...

  Taniel Two-shot crept through the murky, chest-deep water of the Tristan Basin, eyes scanning the surface for the tell-tale ripple of boas and swamp dragons. He clung to the shadows of the big cypress trees, his rifle, kit, and powder horn held over his head. The sounds of the droning insects, bird calls, and the occasional splunk of an animal slipping into the water were drown out by the heavy thumping of his own heart, echoing in his ears like a kettle drum.

  Despite his reservations about the local wildlife—it was not unheard of for the unwary to be pulled beneath the water, never to resurface—Taniel had more immediate concerns. There were eighty Kez soldiers nearby, if his Palo guides were to be believed, each of them armed with the very best muskets and accompanied by local guides of their own.

  One of them stood on a dry hummock of land not twenty paces away from Taniel’s position, his back toward the water.

  Taniel’s toe caught an exposed root and he felt his heart leap into his throat as he drifted forward, chin dipping dangerously into the water. He resisted the urge to gulp loudly for air and instead pushed off with his other foot, keeping his head and rifle above the surface. The movement caused a slight disturbance against the base of the nearest cypress.

  Up ahead, the Kez soldier gave no indication he’d noticed.

  Taniel paused and held his breath as the ripples subsided, then continued forward. The bank rose sharply, and Taniel’s bare shoulders, then chest, then the belt of his buckskins emerged from the water. He set his rifle and equipment on the bank of the hummock, drawing his belt knife.

  It took him three strides before he was on top of the Kez guard, snaking one hand around to cover the man’s mouth and pressing the blade of the knife to his throat with the other.

  “One sound and you’re dead,” Taniel whispered in Kez. “Nod if you understand.”

  The soldier stiffened at the touch of the knife. This close, Taniel could smell the sweat and fungal rot of his skin, and the lingering odor of shit from a case of dysentery. The soldier was probably in his mid-twenties—older than Taniel by at least five years—with large, black sideburns and a fresh scar on the side of his chin. He gave a slight, trembling nod.

  “Good,” Taniel said. “My name’s Captain Taniel Two-shot, and I’m running a pretty heavy powder trance right now. I could kill you but I’d rather not, so let’s do this easy, all right?” He removed his hand from the soldier’s mouth. “What’s your name?”

  “Private Jibble, sir.”

  Taniel took the powder charges from Jibble’s kit and tucked them into Jibble’s jacket pocket, patting them gently then disarmed him. He fetched his own kit and rifle and returned to the soldier’s side.

  Jibble stood stiff as a board. A slight tremor in his voice betrayed his fear. “You’re the powder mage?” he asked in a whisper. “The one who killed Privileged Slattern?”

  Slattern. Taniel recognized the name—a mid-ranking Privileged sorcerer in the Kez cabal. Taniel ignored the question and waited in silence, keeping his eyes on the swamp.

  Nearly a full minute passed before a short, slight figure emerged from the cypress trees further up the hummock. She was a member of the Palo tribe that had been helping Taniel and his company of irregulars in the war against the Kez. Though she looked like a Palo, with bright red hair and skin covered in ashen freckles, she was an outsider, like him, and her strained relationship with her tribe meant she had become his constant companion here in Fatrasta.

  Her small build always made Taniel think of her as young, barely a teenager, but there was a clever defiance in her green eyes that always left him a little uneasy. Besides, he’d seen what she could do with the machete strapped to her thigh.

  A bit of reed stuck out from between her teeth, and the front of her buckskins were soaked with blood.

  “It’s your lucky day, Jibble,” Taniel said to the soldier.


  Taniel jerked his chin at the girl. “You got me instead of her. What took you so long, Pole?”

  Ka-poel grinned at him in that way that he found unnerving, gesturing at the blood on her buckskins.

  “The other guard?” he asked.

  She drew a thumb across her throat, meeting Jibble’s eyes as she did. The soldier swallowed hard, glancing from Taniel to Ka-poel as if he wasn’t sure who to fear most. Ka-poel pointed at Jibble, cocking an eyebrow at Taniel.

  “No,” Taniel answered quietly, “we’re not going to kill him. Not if he’s smart.”

  Ka-poel gave a casual shrug, as if she didn’t care one way or the other.

  “Their camp?” Taniel asked.

  Ka-poel pointed, then held up ten fingers. A hundred yards due east, on a big hummock that his own men used from time to time. It’s back was to a deep channel, and its flanks were protected by almost impenetrable cypress groves. Not something Taniel wanted to fight through.

  “All right.” Taniel nudged Jibble gently in the small of his back with the barrel of his rifle. “Let’s go nice and quiet. Pole, tell the others to get ready.”

  Ka-poel pursed her lips and gave a loud, shrill whistle, warbling it at the end like a glade sparrow. She waited three seconds, repeated the call, then waited another eight before doing it once more. The call was answered a moment later. Ka-poel gave Taniel a nod to proceed toward the Kez camp. She fell in beside him, her hands in lapels of her buckskin vest like she was a gentleman out for a stroll in a city park.

  The camp was a collection of mud-caked tents and bedrolls tossed out on the hummock in an unorganized fashion. The stench of disease hung over it, and they passed a row of half a dozen men squatting over a shallow latrine, their heads between their knees, moaning pitifully. Taniel spotted three corpses tossed unceremoniously off to one side.

  They were almost at the center of the camp before anyone noticed them. A soldier sitting on a root beside the largest of the tents looked up from his whittling, his eyes growing large.

  “Enemy contact,” he said in Kez, scrambling to his feet. “Enemy contact!” He produced a musket from behind his makeshift seat and leveled it at Taniel.

  The camp fell out, men and women emerging from their tents or coming in from guard duty, muskets and swords at the ready. There was a general, panicked shouting as they searched for the enemy, looking every which way, expecting an army to come pouring out of the cypress.

  An older gentleman emerged from the biggest tent. His shirt was undone at the collar and his face was pale, but his posture was impeccable as he pulled on his jacket, keeping a pistol in one hand at all times. A pair of pins on his jacket collar identified him as a major. He took stock of the situation at a glance, then eyed Ka-poel’s bloody buckskins and gave Taniel a look up and down. He tossed the pistol away and took a long step from the closest soldier.

  He’d heard the stories. He knew exactly what he was dealing with. “Order in the camp!” he bellowed.

  Slowly, the chaos died down, and Taniel soon found himself staring down the barrels of at least fifty muskets, as well as the major’s unwavering gaze.

  “What’s going on here?” the major demanded.

rivate Jibble licked his lips. “Sorry, sir. He came upon me on guard, sir.”

  “Were you sleeping?”

  “No, sir! He was as quiet as a… well, as a ghost, sir.”

  A murmur spread throughout the soldiers at the mention of the word “ghost.” The Kez major considered this for a moment, then addressed Taniel in Adran. “Who are you and what are you doing in my camp?”

  “My name,” Taniel said, speaking loudly in Kez, “is Taniel Two-shot. I’m a captain with the Tristan Ghost Irregulars.” There was a shuffle and creak as fingers tightened on triggers and footing was reassured. “In case you were wondering,” Taniel continued. “I’m the one who killed your Privileged three days ago.”

  “We know who you bloody-well are, powder mage,” the major said. “My name is Major Daxon je Buker and this is the 108th regiment of his majesty’s Peacekeepers. You kill my guards and come into my camp with a loaded weapon? Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t order my men to open fire.”

  “I’ll give you two,” Taniel said. “First off, my men have this hummock surrounded. Second, I could detonate all of your powder with a single thought, killing or wounding everyone here before they could pull their triggers.”

  “Then why haven’t you already?” Buker asked.

  “Because like you I’m a soldier. Not a butcher.”

  “You’re a powder mage,” Major Buker responded with more than a little disdain. “Don’t pretend like you’re one of the rank and file. Besides, if we were surrounded my guards would have notified me already.”

  “Like this one?” Taniel asked, poking Jibble in the small of the back.

  Buker eyed Taniel and Ka-poel for a long moment, as if weighing his options. The muskets of his men had already begun to waver, but there was a steely stubborness in Buker’s eyes that made Taniel a little bit nervous. To be honest, he’d be hard-pressed to detonate all of their powder simultaneously. It took a lot of concentration to do so and a spark would very likely reach its bullet before he could warp the blast.

  And powder mages weren’t immune to bullets no matter the propellant.

  Beside him, Ka-poel mimed shooting Buker with a pistol. “You’re not helping,” he told her quietly.

  Buker shot her a look of disgust. Kez nobles rarely thought much of the local savages. Taniel’s time among the Palo had taught him that the feeling was mutual. He didn’t have to wonder how long Buker would last if left along in the swamp with Ka-poel.

  “Surely you know why we’re here?” Buker asked, clasping his hands behind his back and thrusting out his chest.

  “To take my head to the Kez governor, I’d assume,” Taniel said. It wasn’t the first company the Kez had sent into Tristan Basin to find him and his irregulars, and it wouldn’t be the last.

  “We’re here to hunt you, and you’d still accept our surrender?”

  “Certainly. War is war. No hard feelings, and all that.”

  Taniel shifted his aim slightly so that the bullet would go under Jibble’s arm and strike Buker in the chest if he was forced to pull the trigger. If this all went to shit, he would take the major down with him.

  Buker didn’t seem to notice. He looked around the camp, his eyes lingering on the men who didn’t have the energy to pull themselves off the latrine even in the case of an alarm. “If we surrender,” Buker said, “I expect my men and I to be properly cared for as prisoners of war, and ransomed as soon as possible.”

  “Agreed,” Taniel said.

  Buker’s chin sagged. “In that case, I formally surrender. Men, lower your arms!”

  The sighs of relief amongst the soldiers were audible as muskets and swords were dropped.

  “Major Bertreau,” Taniel called into the swamp. “You may relieve the Kez of their arms!”

  Dozens of men in buckskins, bayonets fixed on their rifles, emerged from the trees and began to round up the Kez, gathering their weapons and supplies for inventory. They were accompanied by an equal number of their Palo allies. Taniel watched them work their way through the camp, noting the way the Palo studiously avoided Ka-poel, before he allowed himself to let out a quiet sigh and lower his rifle.

  Sergeant Mapel, a squat, dusty-skinned bulldog of a man with a neck like a tree trunk, was the first to approach Taniel. He took Buker’s sword and pistol, grinning broadly. “Good work, captain,” he said.

  “Thanks. Go easy on them. I don’t see any of their Palo guides. If I had to guess, they were abandoned right about the time they all started coming down with dysentery. Would have been a piss-poor fight if it had come down to it.” Taniel glanced at Ka-poel and shouldered his weapon. She shook her head. She didn’t see any enemy Palo either.

  Mapel shrugged. “Still think you should have just picked ‘em off, one by one.”

  Taniel had no love for the Kez, but his own ire tended to be directed at the Privileged and nobility. He didn’t need to kill every common soldier he came across. Unlike Mapel.

  “What should we do with them?” Mapel asked, nodding at the Kez prisoners.

  Taniel pursed his lips. “Give them a dozen Palo guards and send them down to Gladeside. Sooner they’re out of our hair, the better.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Where’s the major?” Taniel looked around, realizing he had yet to spot Bertreau.

  “Called back to camp”

  “For what?”

  “We’ve word from the outside. Seems the Kez are on the move in our neck of the woods—or swamp, as it may be—and they’re planning for something big. Supposedly there’s a whole brigade on the Basin Highway.”

  Taniel was already heading toward a canoe before Mapel had finished his sentence.

  The Kez had yet to mobilize any large forces this far inland. If they were, it couldn’t mean anything good for the Tristan Ghost Irregulars. “Pole!” he shouted over his shoulder. “Come on!”

  The Ghost Irregulars were camped on a hummock about a mile southeast of the Kez. It wasn’t as good of a position as the Kez had chosen, but it was far better organized. There were no fire or latrine pits to mark their passing, and the men slept in hammocks with mosquito netting, few of them further than a dozen paces from their canoes.

  The camp was quiet when Taniel and Ka-poel pulled their canoe onto the hummock. One of the few remaining guards—a lad of no more than fifteen named Heln—tipped his tricorn hat and took Taniel’s kit and rifle. “How’d the raid go, captain?” Taniel nodded in return. Heln had been with them since the beginning. He couldn’t shoot worth a damn, but he had sharp eyes and ears. Watching him try to flirt with Ka-poel was one of Taniel’s favorite pastimes.

  “Well enough,” Taniel said. “Only casualty was one of the Kez guards.” He looked across at an unfamiliar canoe lying in the mud. “Whose is that?”

  Heln ducked his head toward the only tent on the hummock, which belonged to Major Bertreau. Just as he opened his mouth, a figure stepped out of the tent, putting on a fur cap, and strode toward Taniel.

  He was an older man, with a grizzled beard grown to mid-chest. He wore the same frontiersmen fashion as Taniel, but the fringe on his buckskins was mostly worn away and the knees and elbows had long since been patched and repatched. He had the scarred, weather-beaten complexion of one who’d been out in the bush for a long, long time. Maybe an explorer, or a trapper, but either way it explained how he’d managed to find the Ghost Irregulars.

  Taniel extended a hand as the stranger approached. “Good afternoon,” he said, hoping to get a quick word about what was happening back in civilization.

  The stranger glanced at Taniel, then Ka-poel, his gaze remaining on her for long enough that Taniel almost called him out for it. Then he moved on, ignoring Taniel’s hand as he tossed his kit into the bottom of his canoe and pulled it out into the water. In moments he was gone, paddling through the cypress.

  Taniel watched him go, scowling, then exchanged a look with Ka-poel. She shrugged.

  The flap to Bertreau’s tent was thrown back again, and
the major appeared. She was a slender woman in her mid-thirties with tired gray eyes. She wore the yellow uniform of the Fatrastan militia instead of the buckskins the Palo supplied, and had scarring all around the base of her neck—a story Taniel still hoped to get out of her some day.

  “Heln!” she bellowed, fanning her face with her tricorn. “So bloody hot out here. Heln, send someone to fetch Two-shot, I…” she paused. “Oh. You’re here already. Good. Is that asshole gone?”

  Taniel glanced the way the stranger had left. “Took off,” he said.

  “Double-good.” Bertreau shook her head. “I don’t know where they dig these people up. Trappers make great scouts, but some of them spend years without talking to another person and it addles their wits.”

  “And their manners,” Taniel said.

  “Don’t get me started. Did you take the Kez camp?”

  “We did. The boys are cleaning it up as we speak. We’re sending the prisoners to Gladeside with a Palo guard.”

  “Good, good,” Bertreau said dismissively. “Glad it went quick.”

  Taniel scowled. They’d been tracking the Kez for two weeks now, and all she had to say was ‘good’? He jerked his head toward where the messenger had disappeared into the cypress. “What news did we get?”

  “News?” Bertreau asked. “Nothing. Asshole didn’t even bring us the post. We did get orders, however.”

  It was Taniel’s turn to make a sour face. The bit about the post stung. Unlike the others, he wasn’t just a few hundred miles from where he’d grown up. He was an ocean away from home. It had been nearly a year, and he had no way of knowing if news had reached his fiancée or father that he’d joined the war.

  “Orders?” he asked. “I was beginning to think there wasn’t anybody in charge of this war.”

  Bertreau rolled her eyes at him and removed a worn envelope from her jacket pocket. The paper was brown and faded, curled on the edges from the humidity, and the broken seal was in the shape of a rose on white wax. “We’ve been out here a long time, but not that long. Governor Lindet is still in power. She’s calling herself Lady Chancellor now—not sure if I like the sound of that, but not much I can do about it.”

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