Railroad Rising: The Blackpowder Rebellion
by J. P. Wagner
Copyright © 2015 by J. P. Wagner
Yakor pulled his horse up beside his master's and spat in the mucky road that wandered through the trees ahead of them. In this vicinity, much of the heavy northern forest had been cleared for the town, of which some rough and ramshackle buildings were visible just ahead.
Nor were the two of them alone on the road. Ahead of and behind them were a number of people, mostly men, and from their dress hunters and farmers off to attend some special occasion in the local city.
"Tenerack. As you noted by the smells, you could tell we were coming up on a major town for the last couple of hours. And, Lord Carrtog, since the only large town in the vicinity is Tenerack, I tell you this one will be it. And do you also remember what I've told you about it?"
The blond young man beside Yakor frowned his annoyance with the business of learning and lessons. "It was the center of resistance during the late war, and it is still suspected of being a center of resistance against the king. And since my grandfather counted up the odds and rode behind the old king, when the king declared the necessity of the recent border adjustment, he is now in the present king’s favor. Which means that if I promise my service to the wrong person, I may find myself facing one of my uncles or my many cousins across the battlefield.” Carrtog waved his hand, letting his horse follow the flow of people on the road, "Don't worry yourself, Yakor, we came here mainly because I wished to see a large city. We can look around, then go somewhere safe."
Yakor snorted. "I'd still prefer it if I could convince you to go somewhere safe first. Or even better … somewhere else instead."
Carrtog grinned. "But Yakor, we're heading off to hire on as mercenaries. That's not a safe occupation any time or place."
"You're right about that, of course. But a smart mercenary always tries to lessen the danger to himself whenever he can. Riding into Tenerack with only your faithful armsman by your side does not seem to me to be lessening the danger to you very much at all. I really don't look forward to going back to your grandfather and explaining to him that I couldn't convince you to use a bit of sense, and therefore lost one of his grandsons."
"As to that, Yakor, I'm only one of his younger grandsons, unlikely to inherit anything unless a war or a plague wipes out all the family ahead of me, an extremely unlikely event."
The bulk of the town was still hidden by trees and rising ground, but smoke was rising into the air ahead of them, and a stream of white suddenly shot up as well. A steam-whistle shrieked up ahead on the heels of that puff of steam.
It took the two a few moments to calm their horses, then Yakor grabbed the shoulder of one of the men hurrying toward the sound.
The man looked up at him. He was a broad and burly fellow dressed in the muck-brown tunic and trousers that marked him as lower-class with a short, hooded cloak over the lot, the hood almost covering his eyes.
"Far from home, aren't you, soldier? Everyone knows the king promised us a new railroad. The king himself has come to open the railway."
He spun round and went off at a near run toward the sound of the railway train.
"Well, now, Yakor," said Carrtog, looking after their informant, "That seems to be a sight worth seeing. If I'm not mistaken, when kings do this sort of thing, they tend to supply food and drink as well, even for strangers from far off."
Yakor snorted. "Of course, they may look suspiciously at traveling mercenaries, with no apparent local connection. If they don't seem welcoming, we move along without causing trouble. Agreed?"
"Oh, yes, agreed."
Yakor sent him a mildly suspicious glance, as they set their horses in motion. "I hope you don't have anything tricky on your noble mind."
"Goodness, no! I am the very model of decorous and genteel behavior!"
"When you say things like that I'm almost certain I should clout you across the head with the flat of my sword, and haul you away bodily! I might just do it, too! 'I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but my master occasionally takes these fits, and the only thing I can do is take him someplace quiet until the fit passes.'"
"I promise you, Yakor, I will behave myself." He pointed ahead to where the station stood forth, a brand-new building, no longer hidden by trees and other buildings. It was decorated with royal pennants, while in front of it sat a small train. "Ah, there it is! Much more fancy than the bit of a train that runs through my grandfather's holding of Tsingallik, down south, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is. But you must consider that this is more or less a bribe from the king to make the local people think well of him. For that reason, it has to look like a royal train."
Carrtog grinned. "As so often happens, Yakor, I believe you are correct. That must be one of the reasons why I put up with your surly nature."
Yakor cast his eyes heavenward. "All the Gods keep me! I bend all my efforts to keeping you safe, and as comfortable as out-of-work mercenaries can make themselves, and the only appreciation I get sounds more like a complaint."
"And I try to assure you that I have no intention of causing you trouble and I'm rewarded with suspicion and threats. We seem to be a pair of badly-matched scoundrels, don't we?"
Yakor smiled slightly. "It's probably too late for either of us to go back and choose a different companion."
"I suppose so. I expect we'll just have to bear with each other as well as possible."
As they spoke, and urged their horses nearer the station, the crowd assembled on all sides of them. Most of the onlookers gazed intently at the royal party standing on the platform that had been attached to the railway car just behind the fuel-carrying tender.
Carrtog suddenly lifted his left hand and looked at the ring on his third finger. "My ring's prickling, Yakor! Danger's on the way!"
"Nothing more specific than that?"
Carrtog shook his head. "It's not infallible, Yakor, but any time it signals me this hard, I know something's coming up." He continued to regard the ring: an ordinary looking pale yellow circlet which had been carved from a beef-bone and polished while certain incantations were recited over it.
"We should ride quietly away."
Carrtog shook his head. "Given the circumstances, I think we should at least warn the king’s Guard. I mean, the king’s here, and my ring signals trouble in an area known for disaffection toward the king, so isn't it the greatest likelihood that the trouble involves the king?"
"Now, why would I have expected anything different? You do realize, don't you, that the king’s Guard will likely take a wild-looking pair like us to be part of the danger?"
"I've got to at least try. You could hang back here and wait for me."
"I'll come up behind you, at a little distance, so I can rush in and drag you away if I have to."
Carrtog rode on without hesitating, and soon could see the whole scene. It was only a modest train, five cars, including a coal-car to fuel the engine.
The king had not ridden up on the train itself, Possibly, Carrtog thought, for fear of starting jokes about the railway being for the purpose of transporting kings, swine, and other livestock. The king and his retinue had arrived on horseback, in proper gentlemanly fashion. There were a few ladies with them, royalty and royal servants from the look of their clothing. Carrtog was surprised to see the princess, recognizable by the tiara on her head. Even she and her ladies-in-waiting appeared to have come on horseback, though Carrtog noted a wagon in the background, in case any of the royal bottoms required a rest from the rigors of the ride.
There were soldiers as well, all horsemen, all dressed in decorated metal back and breast with a powder-blue coat over the steel, as well as a gold-colored sash. These were the king’s Gentlemen. Their numbers seemed a bit low to Carrtog. Of course that made sense, if the king was coming here to make friends with the people by presenting them with a train and railway; best not show too obvious distrust for the locals by bringing along overwhelming force. He'd only seen King Bornival from a distance, but some things he'd heard about the man made this sound like a thing he would do.
He could spot the king on the platform amongst his men by his dress, which was similar to that of his Gentlemen but a touch more elaborate, little bits of extra decoration here and there. Carrtog also noted the captain of the troop; not only did he have a golden sash around his waist, but he wore a diagonal sash of bright red.
The crowd gathering around them seemed mostly to be made up of rough-looking men wearing short, hooded cloaks, and carrying large sacks. Were these part of the danger, he wondered. They all still look like farmers or hunters, or even tradesmen, taking a bit of time off for the occasion.
Carrtog pushed his horse forward through the crowd. The prickling of his ring grew in intensity, was this crowd about to turn into a riot? What did they have in those sacks besides their lunches?
He pulled up in front of the line of guards and said to one of them, "I must speak to your leader. Immediately!"
The fellow looked at him suspiciously, and without taking his eyes off Carrtog, he called "Captain Gwailants! Man wants to speak to you, sir!"
Shortly, the captain came over on foot, there being no room for horses on the platform. He was a hard-looking man, his face browned by the weather, and his short beard and mustache were all gone pepper and salt. His sword was unsheathed in his hand.
"Come up here and talk, and I hope for your sake that you have something important to say."
The guardsmen grudgingly let him through the line, and the first thing he did was to display his ring to the captain. "My ring tells me that there's danger here, sir."
The captain sneered and displayed his own ring. "It does, does it? Would it surprise you at all to know that I know that very well? Our king, however, has decided to ignore the danger in favor of making his political point."
"Oh." Carrtog felt deflated.
"Your news is not as vital as you thought, eh? Perhaps you should turn and leave us before—"
There was a shout somewhere in the crowd and what looked like a smoking ball of cloth came whirling through the air to land on the platform.
Carrtog felt a touch of confusion. Recognizing a battle-magic spell, he waved his ringed hand in front of him as if waving away the smoke. The confusion cleared from his mind. That first ball was followed by three others, thrown from other points in the crowd.
He spun to face outward, drawing his sword and shouting "Tsingallik for King Bornival!"
With any luck, that yell might convince the King’s Gentlemen all around him that he was on their side. On the other hand, members of the King’s Gentlemen seldom took risks with the king’s life; it was too likely that one or another of them would stick a sword into his side just to be sure.
Several among the guard swept hands before them — it was no surprise that a large number of them knew battle-magic, some likely knew much more than he did. Men among the crowd flung back their hoods, revealing caps of metal or leather, though a good number wore only a cloth bonnet like his own. There seemed to be only a couple who wore metal breastplates — the rest had a jacket of leather. The weapons they pulled from their sacks were mostly short swords and stout cudgels, but several had wheel-lock pistols.
The pistols were only accurate at close range and took some time to reload. Carrtog knew how to use a pistol; in fact, a pistol would have had more than one use for him at this moment given his training in battle-magic. His grandfather had offered him one before he and Yakor started off on their journey, but he had turned it down. The things were very expensive, particularly in a hinterland place like Tsingallik, and though he hoped at some time to earn the money to buy one of his own, he hadn’t wanted to ride away carrying one that his grandfather might well need worse than he.
The pistol-men in the crowd opened fire, the King’s Gentlemen replying. The powder-smoke began to gather, obscuring visibility, though not to the extent of hiding either of the two sides. Several men in the crowd went down. Carrtog noted that at least two pushing their way back out of the crowd, just trying to get away.
An attacker stuck a pistol into his face, but Carrtog managed a frantic chop just before the fellow pulled the trigger. The pistol fired off to the side, and the man staggered aside clutching his bloody wrist.
Carrtog thrust at him, but his sword glanced off the man’s leather jacket as he went sidewards. The thought went through Carrtog's mind that he should grab the dropped pistol, but good sense told him he didn't have time. Indeed, there was a man jumping forward, extending his sword in a thrust. Even as he reacted, Carrtog noted that something had taken off most of the man's left ear, leaving the blood streaming down his left side. He parried, and did his own thrust, then pulled his sword free, jumping back to avoid further attacks.
He called out once more, "Tsingallik for King Bornival!!" Then stepped forward, thrusting again.
He noticed that the attackers did not seem to be trying to kill the king or his party, but working to force them backward into the train car where the ladies and the rest of the retinue had already taken shelter. If the attackers were trying to force them inside, it seemed to him that the best thing to do would be to try to force their way out.
But with Captain Gwailants shouting "Rally round the king! Rally round the king!" It seemed that they would be playing into the enemy's scheme.
The King’s Gentlemen tried to close in around the king, and one glimpse that Carrtog was able to get of Bornival showed the man standing tall and grim, his bloodied sword in one hand, and blood soaking his left sleeve. Obviously, someone had gotten closer to him than his guard would prefer.
Carrtog could hear Yakor's wisdom telling him not to get trapped in a train-car with the enemy's target. But with the next surge of rebels he had little choice. He fell into formation with the king’s Gentlemen. Then they were all inside fighting to prevent the numbers of foe inside with them from growing. Strangely, several of the rebels were pushing backward out the door, while trying to prevent any of the royal party from leaving.
Shouts went up from outside the car, shouts that Carrtog couldn't make out, but he suspected a signal of some sort.
The train jerked into motion. There was a great groaning as the fastenings tore from the outside platform. Then the train was dragging the outside platform with it, leaving bits scattered along the way as they gained speed.