“Those who live by the sword kill those who don’t.”
– Dread Emperor Vile the First
I woke up to the sound of fighting.
Pushing away my covers I reached for my sword-belt, hastily buckling it on as I hopped from one foot to the next. Squinting to make out the source of the noise in the camp fire’s dying light, I caught a dozen silhouettes making it down the hill towards my line. Legionaries, I saw, but the insignia on their shield wasn’t Rat Company’s. A night attack on the very first night? Reckless, but if the sounds of battle coming from the other side of the hill were any indication the enemy captain’s boldness might just have paid off.
“ON YOUR FEET, YOU LAZY BASTARDS!” I heard Hakram’s voice roar from further down, “WE’RE UNDER ATTACK!”
Grabbing my shield, I forced myself to focus and went to join my assembling soldiers. I’d thought that the assault before dawn would give me the time I needed to ease into legionary tactics, but it looked like I was going to be dropped straight into the deeper waters again. The thought brought a reluctant smile to my face as I pushed my way past the awakening soldiers to my sergeant. Business as usual, then. When had I ever gotten to learn anything the easy way?
“Sergeant Hakram,” I called out as soon as I glimpsed his face, “Report.”
“I have no idea what’s going on,” the orc rumbled. “I got woken up when the soldiers on watch went missing.”
I eyed the enemy soldiers calmly walking in our direction with a grimace. I’d miscalculated: that was a full line, not just a dozen. The shouts and ring of steel against steel coming from where Lieutenant Nauk’s line had been camping next to mine meant that they were in just as much trouble as we were. Was Captain Juniper trying to wipe out the company on the very first night?
“The standard, Sergeant,” I breathed out in understanding. “They’re going for the standard.”
Juniper didn’t need to actually knock out every soldier in Rat Company, just bring back our standard to her victory zone. Hakram let out a colourful string of curses in Kharsum, which I chose to interpret as agreement.
“Third Line!” I called out, “Double ranks, NOW!”
We couldn’t afford to get bogged down in a melee with the enemy line, not if First Company was going straight for the win. I’d have to get my soldiers on the other side of the hill and decide if this engagement could still be salvaged.
“Lieutenant?” Hakram prompted. “What are your orders?”
My line had formed up like a well-oiled machine while I was thinking. The First Company’s soldiers had stopped halfway down the hill and formed a wedge, patiently waiting for me to charge my line into their formation. Screw that. I’m not hitting a force on high ground with most my soldiers half asleep.
“Go help Lieutenant Nauk’s line, Sergeant,” I decided. “I’ll go for the standard myself.”
The orc frowned.
“Sir-” he started, but I cut him off.
“Hakram, there’s no time to argue,” I said. “Do it and I’ll catch up with you afterwards.”
The sergeant saluted, though he still looked sceptical.
“Good hunting, Lieutenant,” he replied, turning to get my soldiers moving.
The enemy was standing square atop the dirt path I’d used during the day, meaning I’d have to go around the sides: I slung my shield across my back on the leather strap reserved for that very purpose and went for the shadows. I’d have to be swift and quiet if I wanted to make it without getting caught, just like when I’d used sneak out of the orphanage to go fight in the Pit. The night was on my side, at least: the moon was covered by clouds, and while it might have helped the enemy sneak up on us earlier now it meant that away from the campfires I was as good as invisible. I circled as far away from the fighting as I could, but while skirting around a handful of abandoned blankets I got a glimpse of the melee I’d just sent my line into: Nauk’s silhouette stood out starkly against the flames. The lieutenant was half-naked and grappling with a pair of enemy legionaries, ignoring their blunted blades as he knocked their heads together and roared out a challenge. Hellgods, it was easy to forget how terrifying orcs could be when they cut loose. Two hundred pounds of pure muscle and bloodlust moved by the most vicious of instincts. No wonder the war parties from the Steppes had been such a thorn in Callow’s side, before the Wall was built. Shaking off the thought, I finished my trip around and got a high enough vantage point that I could see what was going on.
It was… less than promising. The standard still stood, but a melee was raging barely twenty feet from it and I could see Ratface’s forces were getting mauled. He’d managed to dig in his left flank with its back to the hill, but the centre was giving ground and there was no right flank to speak of: the line facing my men had probably slipped through the space to make sure Ratface wouldn’t get any reinforcements, if I had to guess. We’ve lost this, I was forced to admit. Even if my own soldiers managed to get Lieutenant Nauk’s moving, by the time they punched through the line waiting for them on the hill the battle would already be over. So think, I told myself. How can we turn this around? Moments passed, but nothing came to mind. Whoever Captain Juniper was, she’d thought this through perfectly. An enemy legionary tore his way through the centre and ran for the standard, and before I knew what I was doing I started running downhill. A handful of legionaries from the centre pulled back and managed to tackle the soldier, but that was the beginning of the end for Ratface’s men: First Company’s legionaries poured through the openings in the rank, breaking the whole formation apart in a matter of moments.
Forcing myself to go even faster, I ignored the melee and focused on the one part of this I could actually recoup: the standard. If First Company got their hands on it the game was as good as over, but if I could bring it back to my line and pull out under the cover of darkness we might just survive this disaster. Though what I could actually manage to do with so few soldiers was… No, I told myself. One thing at a time. Better to focus on the things I could do than those I couldn’t. Snatching up the standard from the socket it was in, I shot the melee an apologetic look before running off the way I’d come. The way back was quicker, since there was no point in skirting around the fighting. The melee around Nauk had gotten even messier in the last few minutes, but I could see it was turning to Rat Company’s advantage: the attacking line had tightened ranks and was slowly edging back towards the hill. A good call, if I’d actually meant to have my soldiers join the broader engagement. The company’s legionaries closed rank around me as soon as they saw I held the standard, a ragged cheer coming from their formation.
“Lieutenant,” Hakram greeted me cheerfully as he pulled back from the front line. “Nicely done. How’s the situation on the other side?”
“Done,” I replied. “First Company was flipping their line when I left – they’ll be on our asses in a few moments. Where’s Lieutenant Nauk?”
“Limping about,” the sergeant told me with a vague gesture. “They managed to break his leg, so he’s using Sergeant Nilin as a crutch. I don’t suppose you brought back any healers?”
“Didn’t even see one,” I said. “I’m pretty sure the mage line was the first to be hit.”
“Fucking Juniper,” Hakram cursed. “Bashal like this is why they call her the Hellhound.”
“CALLOW!” the yell came from behind me in the voice I recognized from earlier. “Decided to join the fight, I see.”
I turned with a raised eyebrow to see Nauk with his arm slung over a dark-skinned boy’s shoulder. Sergeant Nilin, I assumed.
“Had to pick something up,” I replied easily, hefting up the standard resting on my shoulder. The orc lieutenant eyed me cautiously.
“Ratface?” he asked.
“Probably a prisoner by now,” I grimaced.
“We hitting that line on the hill, then?” Hakram rumbled.
I passed hand through my hair, only now noticing I’d been running around without a helmet this whole time.
“No,” I decided. “We’re pulling out. How many soldiers do we have?”
“Half my line and most of yours,” Nauk grunted. “At least half a dozen wounded.”
I eyed the enemy line gathering up on the hill – the ones who’d formed a wedge earlier seemed to be joining them, and there was no way the forces just described would hold up against forty legionaries, half of which hadn’t even seen fighting yet.
“Let’s get out of here before they have time to form up,” I said. “Wounded first, I want them out of the way if this turns into a fighting retreat.”
Hakram saluted and disappeared into the mass of soldiers without another word. Not for the first time tonight, I was glad I’d gotten the tall orc as my sergeant.
“They’ll hunt us down if we go into the rocks,” Nauk spoke up, dark eyes considering as he faced me.
“That’s why we won’t be heading there,” I replied. “There’s enough woods in the valley to hide us until we have a better idea of what’s going on.”
The large – and still half-naked, I only now noted – orc looked at me for a long, silent moment.
“Sergeant Nilin,” he suddenly spoke, still looking into my eyes. “I’m ceding command of our line to Lieutenant Callow for now. Let’s get the bastards moving before we have half of First Company breathing down our necks.”
Letting out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding, I offered the orc a gracious nod before turning my attention back to the soldiers on the hill. They were nearly done forming ranks, I saw. With an ironic salute to the enemy, I followed my troops as they made their escape.
We hadn’t been walking for a quarter bell when Sergeant Robber popped out of the darkness. The goblin had half a dozen sword points resting on his throat in the blink of an eye but he merely grinned, supremely unconcerned.
“You guys are by far the largest group of survivors out there,” he informed me as soon as I made my way to the front of my line. “You must have pulled out early on.”
“I can recognize a lost battle when I see one,” I replied, tone neutral. “You’re alone?”
Robber whistled softly and another three goblins came out of the dark, one of them badly bruised but all of them bearing the leather satchel I knew sappers carried their munitions in.
“We’re all that’s left of my line,” the diminutive sergeant told me. “They even got Lieutenant Pickler. Got room for a few sappers in your little exodus?”
“Make yourself at home,” I replied.
Sappers. The first pleasant surprise of the night, which I rather thought we were due after the series of disasters we’d been inflicted. The goblins might not have been of much use in a shield wall, but they served an important purpose in the Legions: engineers, demolition specialists and even scouts when there was a need for it. Whatever the goblins were carrying in those satchels of theirs was worth its weight in gold, in our current situation. The other three goblins melded into the ranks without a word, but Robber remained at my side as the column started moving again. The goblin had assumed, correctly, that I’d have questions for him.
“You said there were other groups?” I asked.
“Small bands of five or less that fled when Ratface got taken,” the goblin said. “They were fleeing without a plan, most of them headed for the rocks. Juniper’s probably spreading out her soldiers to hunt them down as we speak.”
Well, so much for linking up with another group. I’d half-hoped that another officer would have managed to save a tenth and make out in the night, but to be frank I wasn’t all that surprised no one had managed. I probably wouldn’t have either, if the lines I’d been fighting hadn’t been stuck holding a vital position.
“We’re looking for safe place to rest,” I told Robber. “I know your Lieutenant sent some of your line scouting earlier – do you know anywhere we can use?”
The goblin nodded, though he looked less than enthused.
“I know somewhere from the last time we had a game. Would take us most of the night to get there, though,” he cautioned.
“The further into the valley we go the better,” I murmured. “They’re looking in the rocks, but they’re bound to catch on we went the other way eventually.”
“I hear you,” Robber said, absent-mindedly tacking on a “sir” to the sentence after a moment. “D’you know if they saw you take the standard?”
I grimaced. I’d been wondering that herself. I would have been seen when I’d first taken it, of that there was no doubt, but would they know I was in command of the missing line? Even if First Company interrogated their prisoners, no more than a handful of people would even know what I looked like.
“I don’t think so,” I finally said, “But I wouldn’t bet on it.”
“Yeah,” Robber muttered in agreement, “people who underestimate Juniper always get fucked. There’s a reason her company hasn’t lost since she became captain.”
I passed a hand through my hair, letting out a sigh. There wouldn’t be much sleeping tonight.
“Find us a camp site first, Robber,” I ordered the sergeant. “Let’s take it one day at a time.”
Bobbing his head, the goblin deftly jumped forward and called out for the soldiers at the head of the column to follow him into the dark.
The march into the valley proved to be one the most harrowing experiences in my life. I could understand why war was conducted mostly during the day now. It had been Hells on my troops to make their way through the slippery hill paths and even worse when we’d entered the forest, without even the moonlight to show us where they were going. Robber’s goblins were already proving their worth, their peculiar eyes allowing them to pick out the best paths unerringly in the dark. Twice we’d had to huddle out of sight as the goblins picked out enemy scouts, waiting in silence until First Company moved on. Some of the legionaries had suggested lighting torches after we’d crossed into the woods, but I’d nixed that idea in the bud: if Juniper had left anyone in the watchtower that was as good as marking our camp on the First Company’s maps. By the time we finally arrived at our destination, the first stirrings of dawn could be seen in the sky.
My exhausted soldiers dropped their packs and shields to the ground as soon as they could, barely bothering to spread out across the clearing Robber had taken us to. I could see why he’d choose a place like this: there was small stream running through the clearing where the legionaries would be able to fill their canteens and a handful of berry bushes I dearly hoped were edible. I’d had Hakram ask around for how many rations had been salvaged from the camp, and the amount was dangerously low. My body was urging me to follow the legionaries’ example and curl up under a tree, but I forced myself to move. There was still work to be done before I could allow myself to rest. I saw my wounded settled as comfortably as I could, cursing that we hadn’t managed to get even one mage from the battle’s survivors. I had a word with Sergeant Nilin to arrange for him to set up a watch and was pleasantly surprised to find Hakram had already done the same without my asking. I was beginning to see why Ratface had wanted the orc in command of my line.
“Grab some sleep, Lieutenant,” my sergeant told me quietly when I insisted to be added to my line’s watch roster. “Better to have your brain well-rested than another pair of eyes to watch for the enemy. You’ll be the one making the plans tomorrow.”
I agreed on the condition that he wake me up in no more than one full bell, pretending to believe his obvious lie when he agreed because I was too exhausted to argue. Setting down my bedroll close under an old oak tree, I lay down under the blanket and told myself I’d close my eyes for just a moment. There were just too many things left to do, I murmured to myself.
It was midmorning when Hakram woke me up, by the looks of the sun. I considered reprimanding him for having let me sleep in, but I finally decided against it: if I hadn’t woken up by myself it meant my body had probably needed the rest. I blearily tied back up my bedroll and went to wash my face in the stream. The camp was buzzing with activity, legionaries clustering in small groups to talk to each other in low voices: I got a handful of salutes on my way, which I nodded back to. The cold water finished waking me up, clearing away the last dregs of sleep. I broke a piece of the rations I’d brought with me on the flight last night and tore hungrily into them, deciding I’d go pick some berries later to finish the job. After asking Robber if they’re poisonous, I added mentally. I had no intention of spending the rest of the game moaning on the ground after managing to survive last night. I was pleasantly surprised – once again – that Hakram had roused up the other officers and was already waiting for me.
“No sign they found us” I prompted the other four as I sat on a flat stone.
“The sentries haven’t seen anything,” the dark-skinned boy I vaguely remembered being called Sergeant Nilin agreed.
“We should be safe for a day or two,” Robber told me. “I’m sure Juniper doesn’t know about this place.”
“Doesn’t mean she can’t find it, goblin,” Nauk rumbled from the ground where he’d been propped up against the tree trunk.
The goblin sergeant sneered in response but did not bother replying. I glanced at them curiously, noticing the undercurrent of hostility to the reply. From the corner of my eye I could see someone had tied a rudimentary cast around Nauk’s leg with cloth and branches, but every few moments the orc winced when he moved around too much. One less soldier to count on, I grimaced.
“How many legionaries in fighting shape do we have?” I asked the group.
“Twenty five I’d take into the field, and Robber’s three sappers,” Hakram informed me. “We’ve got a full tenth of wounded, but most are in good enough shape to serve as sentries.”
I passed a hand through my hair, sighing. That was less than I’d hoped, frankly, but still more than I’d expected.
“We’ll split the legionaries into three under strength tenths,” I said. “Sergeant Robber will keep his sappers as a separate unit.”
“That’s all well and good,” Nauk grunted, “but what are we going to be using them for? You got a plan, Callow?”
I grimaced: it was a bit of stretch to call my idea a plan, but it was the only thing I’d come up with so far.
“We need a prisoner to interrogate,” I replied. “Otherwise we’ll just keep on stumbling about blind.”
Hakram nodded, nonplussed.
“You’ve got a target in mind, Lieutenant?” he asked.
“If I remember well from yesterday’s map, there’s a watchtower in the middle of the valley,” I said. “If Captain Juniper spread out her forces to look for us, it might be undermanned.”
“There’s bound to be at least a sergeant there,” Nilin spoke quietly.
“Robber,” I asked, “how good are your sappers at scouting?”
The goblin hummed thoughtfully.
“Not as good as a real scouting line, but still better than most,” he replied. “You want us to have a look?”
“Unless anyone else has a better idea?” I prompted. No one replied. “Well then, gentlemen, let’s get moving.”
“My guy counted ten,” Robber croaked from my side, the both of us in cover behind a tree. “They still have no idea we’re here.”
I smiled. Twenty might have gotten messy, given how tired my men were from running all night, but ten? Ten we could take. We’d have to go in hard if we wanted to be gone by the time Juniper’s patrols heard the ruckus, but then I hadn’t expected this to be an easy fight. That’s never stopped me from winning before.
“Hakram,” I said, “take your tenth around behind the hill and wait until they’ve seen us to hit them in the back.”
The tall orc flashed me pearly-white fangs and saluted before turning towards his soldiers.
“Get your asses in gear, my pretties,” he gravelled. “We’re getting us a little payback.”
There were a few hard smiles among the troops and in a matter of moments they disappeared into the foliage, the dead leaves padding their armour keeping the metal from clanking. None of my ramshackle band of survivors had taken well to last night’s stomping, and I knew they were just itching for a chance to even the score. I decided to give it a while before I got my own tenth moving – rushing it was just as dangerous as lingering, at this point. Robber leaned closer, yellow eyes alight with the most malicious of mischief.
“I’ve got brightsticks if you want to make an impression, Callow,” the goblin wheedled, grinning at the idea of setting off the mostly harmless version of the goblin alchemy in the faces of the soldiers who’d taken his lieutenant. “Nothing like a little flash and bang to start a party.”
“How many?” I asked, keeping her voice down.
“’bout twelve, and half that many cussers,” Robber replied. “That’s plenty enough for a scrap like this.”
I closed my eyes, seriously considering it. Was it worth it to use the munitions this early in the game? I might need them later on, and the fight was already skewed in my men’s favour. But they might be just what was needed to finish the fight before the patrols got onto us, and the moment Juniper’s roaming lines found us the fight was as good as done. No. I won’t let fear do my thinking for me. We’ll use them when we can make them count. Opening my eyes, I shook my head at Robber.
“Callow –” he started.
“We’ll find a better use for them, Robber,” I interrupted him. “You have my word on that.”
The goblin fixed me with a hard stare, but after a moment he nodded.
“Aye aye, Lieutenant. Where do you want my sappers, then?”
“There’s three trails and you have three men,” I replied. “If anyone comes in uninvited, I want to know about it.”
The goblins in Robber’s heavily mauled tenth were too lightly equipped to be of real use in a melee and I had no intention of risking my last sappers in a straight up fight: I’d need every one of them when trying for the standard. Using them as sentries would have to do, even if it wasn’t the most glorious of duties. The goblin sergeant saluted in a manner so sloppy it seemed more like a mockery of the gesture before sliding his way downhill. I counted up to sixty in silence before gesturing for Sergeant Nilin to crawl up at my side.
“Lieutenant?” the dusky-skinned boy asked in a whisper.
“Get your legionaries ready, Sergeant,” I replied. “Let’s see how well they hold up when we’re the ones doing the ambushing.”
Letting him slide back down, I picked up my shield and pushed myself up. A moment later my tenth followed suit and I allowed the rank to catch up to me as Nilin’s men lined up behind us – we took a brisk pace up the hill and in an instant we were in sight of the watchtower. The sentry on top cried out in alarm but I had no intention of allowing them to form up.
“Shields up,” I roared, picking up the pace.
I unsheathed my sword and the sound of the men following suit was heard from all around me. I caught sight of Hakram’s tenth running up the other side of the hill without a sound and I laughed in delight a moment before the two sides of my ambush collided with the scattered soldiers from the First Company. A tall orc with a vivid scar running up his cheek stood before me but I slammed my shield against his, knocking him back and striking in the opening I’d made: the blunted blade hit the back of my opponent’s knee and forced him to kneel. I kicked him in the gut to make sure he wouldn’t get up, knocking him out for good with a strike to the temple. Raising my head to take a look around, I realized with a start that the skirmish was already done – most of the First Company cadets were out cold, but a handful were being held down at sword-point by my men. Hakram walked up to me grinning like a cat who’d gone through a whole birdhouse of canaries and slapped me cheerfully on the shoulder.
“That felt good, sir,” he rumbled. “Juniper’s face when she hears about this is going to be a work of art.”
I felt my own lips quirk into a savage smile.
“We’re still a long way from making up for last night, but we’ll get there,” I promised. “Do we have any wounded?”
“One of mine sprained her ankle running up the hill,” Nilin said as he walked up to us. “That’s the only one on our side – we got lucky.”
“Let’s hope our luck continues holding up,” I replied. “Grab their sergeant and let’s get out of here.”
“And the rest?” Hakram asked.
I sheathed my sword and shrugged.
“No point in interrogating them. Break an ankle on each and leave them for Juniper’s healers to fix. That should keep them out of our hair for a few days.”
Both sergeants snapped a salute and turned to bark out their orders. I grabbed a soldier by the shoulder and sent him to fetch Robber, mind already thinking on my next move. We’re not done yet, Hellhound. Not by a long shot.