The Old Town of Stralsund was a dirty and smelly place, with filthy cobblestone streets, wooden piers jutting out into the filthy water like rotten teeth and all in all, not a very pleasant place to be.
The Swedes had descended on their newest acquisition like locusts. After the Hanseatic League turned over the city to the Swedish Empire, it had taken mere hours for the first Swedish officials to arrive through Bifrost gates. They set about to confiscate the entire treasury of the city to pay for the army that was en route, most of the trade goods in the port were confiscated as well and it seemed like half the city was forced to help out in one way or another. Mostly through having Swedish officials sticking their hands into their purses.
That was a year back. Now, things had more or less settled down, what with the Swedish army making their way south. The inhabitants and the old power players of Stralsund had salvaged what they could, but as a free city, it no longer existed. Above the turrets on the city wall now flew the gold-blue flag of the Swedish Empire.
Along the alleyways of the Old Town walked an imposing figure. Wearing a cuirass decorated with images of gauntlets, most people knew who she was. Major-General Stålhandske, commander of the Nyland Regiment of Cavalry, Hell On Horseback, scourge of Mecklenburg.
She had been in town for a while. Her regiment was being shipped back to Ostland and she had lingered here until the Archduke would return himself. Not that she liked the north shore of Danubian Empire, but she had wanted to stay for a bit longer. Maybe because during the time she spent campaigning in Mecklenburg, she had slept only three nights in a real bed, and she wanted to catch up on real beds before the long and dreary sea voyage back to Ostland.
And there was the question of drink and companionship. Though she most assuredly was noble, the lower nobility and the higher nobility didn’t have much in common. She didn’t want to spend more time in court than she had to, as long as she had a say in it. Though the King himself was a jovial and a pleasant man, he was still a king and one had to remain on ceremony in his company.
So, she had settled on a middle-tier tavern. Not one of the dockside alehouses, which barely consisted of three walls and something that might have been a roof, and not one of the fancy inns for rich traders, nobles and merchant princes. A honest but clean place where she could have a drink without standing out too much. And some company would be nice, though she didn’t have much expectations.
She spotted him outside the tavern. A tall man (though shorter than her) with a Castilian-style felt hat with an enormous brim, a leather cloak slung over his left shoulder, on which sat a young cat, a grey tabby, more ears and eyes than head. He had a sword on his belt along with two pistols. He was muttering something to the cat, and Stålhandske felt somewhere in her head the magic he used. Apparently he had some business he needed to explain to the cat. She paused for a bit, taking a second look. It certainly was the person she thought he was.
A young pickpocket crept up on her, and she brushed off his hand gently, almost as if to remind the cutpurse that there are far easier marks in this town than the strongest woman in the world. The pickpocket ran, startled.
“Good evening, Schoolman.” She said. The man turned to take a glance at her and stopped talking to the cat.
“Good evening, Major-General.” He replied while reaching with his right hand to pet the cat. “I was planning on having a drink. My guess is that your business here is the same.”
“Would you care for some company, Schoolman?”
“I would not mind, as long as you stop calling me Schoolman. It feels odd.”
“Try having a School of magic named after yourself. Never mind that whenever the high and mighty mention a Schoolman, they are talking about you.” She said with a smile.
“The high and mighty need someone of low birth but sufficient status to take care of their more unpleasant business. Someone like me.”
“Or me. But lets not dawdle here. I am thirsty.”
The tavern was rather brightly lit, surprisingly. In addition to ale, they served a perfectly good red wine from the Transrhein, which the Schoolman ordered. Stålhandske ordered beer, because she was rather fond of the local bitter. They found a small table with three chairs, and on the third chair the Schoolman set down his hat, and the cat almost immediately jumped off his shoulder into the hat and went to sleep, curled up into a ball.
“I think he was tired. Matter of fact, I was going here more for his sake than my own. Can’t be easy to be perched on my shoulder all the time.” The Schoolman said. “Got him from a man in Hålogaland. A Karelian.”
“Yes, they do like cats over in Karelia. I’ve heard it’s a cult thing”
“More than that. They have an actual Goddess there. Loviatar. The Queen of Disease. Since she loves cats, she’s made everyone in Karelia love them too.”
“Actual?” She asked, a bit puzzled.
“Yes. People sometimes see her walking about in the woods. Met a shieldmaiden once who had seen her. ”
“Now, that is something. And unnerving.” She said, repressing a shudder.
“I think we should not talk about her. Another subject, then. Have we actually ever talked before?”
“Just a few words. I pointed you to Archduke Tott’s pavilion one time when you had captured a defector. A Bifrost Priest, as I recall. Always wondered how you did that. They’re a slippery lot, always disappearing into the Gates and walking along the Rainbow Bridge to distant destinations.”
“Here’s my secret. Most wizards — no offense to you — use magic as a crutch. They neglect to develop other skills in favor of magic. Me, I am not a wizard. I know some charms and tricks, but nothing worth the name of magic. I know the secrets of counterspells and detecting magic. I am a fairly good shot with a pistol, I can outfight most people with a rapier. I learned wrestling tricks from the Norsemen.”, he said and paused for a bit. “What I think I am trying to say is that most wizards learn to be on top. I learned to fight from below.”
“A good answer. And unsettling too. I do not have high hopes for winning this war with magic. There are so many Germans here, and we have not yet even touched the armies that are massing in the south. I fear that our king has bitten off more than we can chew. Unless we make allies, unless the Danubian Empire collapses in on itself, we cannot finish this task at hand.”
The Schoolman sat quiet for a long while and sipped his wine.
“You are probably right. I know that even the wizards have taken losses here. There’s not that many Winged Wizards or Dragonspeakers in the army anymore. Most of them have reached the end of their contracts and are going home. I do hope that our king has something planned. ”
“My own involvement in this war in this wretched country is coming to an end though. I am leaving for Ostland with the Archduke, to see what we can do to safeguard the East against foreign incursions.”
She was interrupted by a drunken dragoon that approached their table. The dragoon had one hand on the hilt of his sword and a ugly scar running across his cheek.
“Who do you think you are, Dutchman, for bringing a filthy animal like that into this place?” The dragoon said, pointing at the asleep cat.
“I think I am Cornelis de Vries, Schoolman of the Winged Wizards.” The Schoolman answered, rising up. “And you should perhaps leave.”
The dragoon made a move, trying to pull out his sword, but was interrupted by the dagger that was now firmly shoved in through his eye socket. Stålhandske, still seated, had not even seen the Schoolman pull it out of his sleeve. The dragoon collapsed, dead.
“That was unpleasant. Though I think I made it more unpleasant than it should have been. ” The Schoolman said. “Despite the fact that I did enjoy talking to you, I should probably leave.”
“Should you ever come to Ostland in the future, look me up.” She said with a smile that revealed gleaming steel teeth. “My regiment will be there, and I could always use someone decent to drink with.”
“That I shall do.” The cat perched once again on his shoulder, the Schoolman left the tavern.