My little team had no name initially, although our commanders began to call us the Foolish Fires. We went out into the area through which our enemies would approach and filled it with inexplicable phenomena. The sillier the better, in some ways. We did rains of fish, talking scarecrows, ghosts, dreams leading to treasure, black dogs on the moor, faerie knights on bridges, all the classics. By the time the main mass of Diedne forces reached the Black Forest, every human, tree or squirrel would have, we hoped, seen something inexplicable.
The goal was simple: fill the area with information, so that the Diedne could not look into everything. Every hour spent checking on a rain of fish was an hour in which we were building defences. Every time a druid left the host to check out a faerie knight on a bridge, he was wasting his time. Sometimes psiloses lurked near our illusions, to catch the druids unawares while they were distracted. Sometimes combat forces waited for a druid to check out an illusion, and ambushed him. The counterattacks were not the point of the wave of illusions, though. The point was to make them stop looking at details. The druids were forced to ignore the least likely rumours, because they didn’t have the time or forces to follow them up.
The problem for them, of course, is that we’d tailored the information. The likely rumours were, preponderantly, ours. We’d scripted our stories quite carefully, using what the Trianomans knew about the Diedne war plan. We had a lot of luck getting them to chase around stories of humaniform faeries, because they were desperate for Corpus vis, much as we were. Some of our army’s biggest errors were just ignored by the Diedne, because they assessed them as less likely than our illusionary scenarios.
Let me give you an example. A Flambeau magus came to discuss co-operation with the War Council. He rode in a coach with burning wheels. He had a train of liveried retainers, one of whom was playing a trumpet. The Diedne didn’t even stop him. Their spies had told us that the Flambeau had quit the army in a rage, and his method of travel seemed so garish that they assessed him as another illusion. Some of our illusions were the baits for ambushes, so they just decided to clear a path. It sounds stupid, but what else could they do? They only had so many eyes, and we were overwhelming them with flashy, meaningless things.
Toward the end, we did put in some strikes. I remember Callida did this thing where she turned spiky balls of bronze into sheep carcasses. The monsters in the Diedne army were needing to be fed, so some of them swallowed the meat. When the shapes shifted back at sunset, some of the creatures died. Apophany had spells that affected the Gift. I’m not sure how the worked, because I made sure I was out of sight and hearing, but at least twice a Diedne was eaten by a hungry monster because they lost control of it after becoming, however temporarily, mundane.
We could tell they were getting desperate. Some of the Diedne were letting their monsters eat people. I wondered if I was to blame for that. People are hard to fake. It’s easy to make a rock look, feel, and even taste like a dead cow. It’s very hard to make a rock into a convincing human. It can be done, but the rituals required are very expensive, and none of us had the vis to waste. I told myself that the Diedne were choosing what their monsters ate, but really, they were reacting to a situation we’d created.
They probably thought it was just a temporary exigency. Once they lost some monsters taking Durenmar, they reasoned, they could stop doing it. Once they had Durenmar’s supplies they’d stop doing it. Actually, though, they didn’t. They never found themselves at the point where they could truthfully say “If we had fewer hydras, it wouldn’t make that much of a difference. Let’s set them loose, and stop feeding the rest on people.” I cannot be sure, of course.
As we were finishing up one of these missions, we stopped by a little village tavern. Well, not a tavern as such: just a place where a peasant had tapped a spare barrel for their village and put out some benches. Callida and I didn’t do any of the talking, because the other three all had the Gentle Gift. At one point I went off into the bushes a slight distance to relieve myself. Standing under a tree was a young nobleman I’d seen at the inn.
He was incongruously handsome. It wasn’t just that he was wealthy, although his raiment proclaimed that even in the middle of a war, determined people could still get crushed velvet cloaks made. His skin was flawless. His teeth were perfect. He’d been sitting in the place of honour by the fire, and there was no scent of smoke upon him.
“Hello.” he said “Might I speak with you privately for just a moment?”
“I’d prefer not to be disagreeable to you, but my kind have quite fixed rules against dealing with yours.”
“You can hold some cold iron while I talk if you’d like.”
“Oh, I know that’s neither necessary nor efficacious. I can’t stop you speaking, can I?”
“No, but we prefer consent.”
“I can just head back to the group. You seem to prefer this be for my ears alone. That will stymie your goal.”
“We have started badly. If I give you my name, I think it will give you pause sufficient to listen.”
“Do you really think I can’t tell that’s just bait?”
He smiled “I am the Errant.”
“Any of you might claim to be the Errant.”
“So you know me by reputation, Mirarius?”
I wasn’t rattled that he knew my name. Of course he did. I was only seeing him now because the trick was already done.
“Any of you might claim to be the Errant.” I said, because I knew it was polite, non-committal and annoying.
“Even if you are the Errant, there’s no reason to suppose you will aid me as you aided the hoplites in the Corruption.”
“Ah, but there is reason. I am immutable in my nature. You may depend on my vices.”
“Pride, in your case?”
“Yes. So, I say to you, that the Diedne will call upon the Infernal powers from Ynys Glannauc, as the war ends.”
“I will pass that on to my superiors. Thank you for your assistance, which is of course freely given, and for which no agreement at all is recognised.”
He laughed at me then. “Of course. Thank you. It is a weight off my mind to confide in one of you.”
“How can you do this? Your kind have no patience. They cannot plan.”
“When a dissipated nobleman sends his boy to the shop for wine, he is no less dissipated in the half hour the boy takes to return. One does not see him, sitting in his house, and listening for the footstep of his returning servant, and think his character reformed.”
“I am not your servant.”
“I know how semantics distress your kind. Let me keep my peace. You will disrupt the work of my rival. I will feel incredibly pleased with myself. We will both be happy.”
“You do sound like him.”
“Even if I’m not him, why not just check the quality of my tale? See if the priest of that little Welsh island are happy. Stand on some distant mountain and test the air.”
“I’ve thanked you. Is there anything else you wish to say? Any other customary form you need me to follow to keep the peace between us?”
“No, I imagine you’d like to demand I leave, now?”
“Out dark spirit?”
He laughed, and walked away.
When I returned to the table Apophany asked me what I’d been told.
“Where’s the lie in it?” she asked.
“Is it that he’s pretending it’s a prophecy?”
“It could be. Even if it is some sort of trap, our superiors will want to know that it is out there. The Druids do have a large covenant on Anglesey.”
“How do you know where the island is? I’ve never heard of it.”
“The great lie that makes good all the others will be told there.”
“What does that mean in plain language?”
“My mission in life is to prevent the war that will follow this one. I will do it on Anglesey. I don’t know much more than that.”
“I’m going to tell a convincing lie. It will prevent an epochal War. I know very little else. I have been practicing lying since I was a little girl, so that when the moment comes, I will be a proficient liar.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t tell people? It makes it easier to sell. You have this whole “comprehensible Criamon” thing working for you.”
“Good advice.” she smiled.
We finished our meals, and decided not to head home immediately. We had not planned to, and I didn’t want to deviate from my schedule because of a conversation with one of them.