“Always mistrust these three: a battle that seems won, a chancellor who smiles and a ruler calling you friend.”
– Extract from the personal journals of Dread Emperor Terribilis II
The fort at the end of the valley had stood there in one form or another since the beginnings of the Dread Empire, or so Hakram told me. Before the Dark Tower’s authority had been firmly established, it had served as a choke point to hold off roving orc clans and Taghreb raiders. In later eras it had become the last defence against armies coming from the Kingdom of Callow before they could march on Ater itself, the last stand Evil could take before Good came to knock at the front door. It had been over a century since the last Crusade, however, and in the interregnum the Legions of Terror had taken to using the fort as a defensive position in their war games.
Still, it wouldn’t do to forget that they built this for an actual war, not a fake one, I mused. Cadets were responsible for the upkeep of the fort, meaning every company knew its workings inside out: my soldiers were no exception, though only Robber and his sappers had been able to hash out a detailed plan of it in the sand. The description they’d given me was… daunting.
The fort itself was situated on the flattened top of a hill, its walls thirty feet high and a little more than half as thick, but the true terror of it came from the outside fortifications. Right in front of the walls a ditch about fourteen feet deep had been dug and filled with stagnant water. After a thin strip of land another identical ditch had been dug and filled with jutting wooden spikes. The open field leading to the ditches was dotted with the vicious traps the legionaries had nicknamed “lilies”: pits three feet deep with a sharpened stake waiting for unwary soldiers at the bottom, hidden under a layer of branches and dead grass.
All companies had assaulted the fort often enough to know the pattern of the traps by now, but it still forced the ranks of attacking companies to break. From what Robber had told me, trainees still died in accidents regularly – it was considered a good omen for a company to not lose any freshmen cadets in their first game of the year.
“You’re sure their mages won’t shoot at us while we’re going through the lily field?” I asked Hakram.
“It’s considered bad form to do it,” the sergeant gravelled. “Companies that hate each other’s guts might go ahead anyway, but we’re not feuding with the First.”
I raised an inquisitive eyebrow at the orc.
“Who are we feuding with, then?”
“No one,” Hakram replied, sounding rather chagrined. “We’re at the bottom of the company rankings, so no one’s bothering.”
I let out a vaguely empathetic noise.
“Rat Company’s been last for a while, then?” she asked.
“Since before Ratface took over as captain,” her sergeant agreed. “He’s done his best, but unless we manage a miracle today it’ll still be his twelfth defeat: he’ll lose his captainship.”
I kept my surprise away from my face – from the casual way Hakram had dropped that tidbit, it seemed like it was common knowledge among the rank and file. It certainly cast the captain’s hostility when I’d first met him in a new light: no wonder he’d been furious, being assigned an untaught lieutenant on the eve of a game that had his rank on the line. Not my fault he lost the last eleven, though, so he could have been less of an ass about it.
“So, have we got an idea how many are in there?” I asked, changing the subject.
“No way to tell,” Hakram grunted back. “Gotta be a least thirty of them, but there could easily be more.”
I grimaced. Going in blind was hardly the way I would have preferred to take a crack at the fortress, but we were running out of options fast. At least Robber’s sappers had fashioned us four ladders over the night, meaning we’d be able to manage to assault multiple walls simultaneously. How much that would really help them if the enemy was as numerous as they were was arguable, but it was still better than nothing. Speaking of the devil, the goblin sergeant was swaggering his way up the hill towards us.
“That’s Lieutenant Trapper on the wall,” he announced, his tone implying that particular fact was significant.
I raised an eyebrow.
“I’m sure you have a point,” I told the goblin, “but so far I’m missing it.”
“Trapper’s only the fourth senior-most of the First Company lieutenants,” Robber replied. “So that means…”
“They can’t have more than two lines in there,” I finished thoughtfully. “Otherwise someone else would be in charge.”
Robber hummed in agreement, palming a smoker from his satchel and twirling it through his fingers. I frowned and readjusted her plans. Forty legionaries we could manage, with a little luck. It all depended on the nerve of the officers holding the walls, of course, but Robber’s deduction was the first bit of good news I’d heard all day.
“How do you know about Trapper’s seniority?” Hakram asked, breaking me out of my train of thought.
“Oh, that’s easy,” the yellow-eyed sergeant replied nonchalantly. “We know each other from the Great Goblin Conspiracy meetings.”
My sergeant barked out a laugh but after a moment of awkward silence he shot an uneasy look at Robber.
“There’s not really a Great Goblin Conspiracy, is there?” he rumbled.
“Would I tell you if there was?” the goblin replied with a wicked smile, throwing his smoker up and snatching it out of the air.
Robber saluted lazily and swaggered off back to join the tenth I’d assigned him to. I did my level best not to snicker at my sergeant, but from the disgruntled face the orc was making I guessed some of my amusement was showing. Studying the steel-capped legionaries standing on the southern wall of the fort, I decided to make a last minute change to the assault. We still didn’t know how many crossbowmen First Company’s garrison could muster, but as far as I could figure our best shot at setting foot on the walls was splitting up the enemy with multiple assaults. Nilin’s tenth would assault from the west, Kilian’s by the east and Nauk’s would take the gate. If anyone could manage to land a ladder while getting shot at by a whole line, it was the orc lieutenant. The pair of mages I’d rescued yesterday was too exhausted to be of any use, so they were hiding in the woods with the standard: I’d given them orders to hide until the games were over if the assault failed. Better a tie than a defeat, if it came to that.
“We won’t be backing Nauk at the gate,” I told Hakram. “Our tenth will hold back until we see an opening. Give our sappers to Kilian and tell her I want the whole eastern wall turned into a cloud of smoke when she assaults.”
The greenskin sergeant cocked is head to the side and eyed me thoughtfully as he tried to puzzle out the meaning behind the corrected instructions.
“You’re banking on Trapper panicking when he loses sight of what’s going on in the east and giving us an opening,” he stated after a long moment of silence.
I blinked in surprise.
“How are you still a sergeant?” I asked.
“Failed Foreign Languages two semesters in a row,” Hakram admitted. “Fucking Old Miezan. Can’t make higher than sergeant if you’d don’t pass everything.”
“Lucky for me,” I murmured.
I shuddered to think of how much harder this whole game would have been without the tall sergeant quietly covering for all the gaps in my military education. I got a pleased grin for my comment and Hakram walked away to spread my last orders, leaving me alone to watch my plan come to life.
“Let’s see how steady your nerves are, then, Lieutenant Trapper,” I whispered to myself, watching Nilin and Kilian’s troops start moving through the lily field.
The first crossbow shot from the walls clattered uselessly against the shield of one of Nilin’s soldiers in a matter of moments, though I immediately heard a sergeant barking for First Company to hold their fire. Praesi crossbows can hit a target to up to three hundred and fifty yards, effective kill range at one hundred fifty, I recited mentally. The lessons had been a pain to learn, but I was beginning to understand why Black had put so many military treatises in the pile. The attacking tenths still had at least fifty yards to go before they would start getting shot at in earnest, but the officers were already calling up for the legionaries to form the testudo. The first rank stopped and raised their shield, the second one propping theirs up to form a roof over their heads. It would slow them down and it was nowhere as effective as if it had been full lines forming up instead of tenths, but it was still better than going in bare. Twenty yards to go, then ten and finally the order came from the enemy on the wall.
“First Company, take aim,” a sergeant bellowed.
I clenched my fingers and unclenched them, resting the palm of my hand on my short sword’s pommel.
“First Company, FIRE!” the call came.
The twang of crossbows unleashed filled the battlefield, the bolts whistling eerily as they tore through the air. From the corner of my eye, I saw one of Nilin’s legionaries get caught in the knee and fall to the ground with a yell but Nauk’s tenth was the one they were trying to take out – the orc lieutenant took a blunted bolt straight to the chest but he laughed it off and replied with an obscene gesture. Still, two of Nauk’s legionaries were hit, one dropping his shield with a yelp and the other slipping to the ground without a word, knocked out cold. The legionaries fell out of the testudo the very instant First Company was done shooting, sprinting across the lily field as fast as they could. They’d be safe for a minute or two: crossbows might be easier to wield and pack more of a punch than longbows, but their rate of fire was horrendously slow. With a little luck Kilian and Nilin would be past the ditches by the time First Company was ready for another volley.
Nauk’s tenth was already at the feet of the gates and trying to prop up their ladder but it kept getting pushed away by a pair of legionaries with forked poles. The lieutenant barked out an order and a pair of smokers spun through the air to land on top of the gate, letting out streams of thick grey smoke. Unlike real smokers it wasn’t poisonous, but it was still hard to breathe in. First Company immediately tried to throw those back but a pair of cussers followed and blew an enemy legionary straight off the rampart. Robber’s handiwork, at a guess. I winced: a fall from that high was sure to earn broken bones. Turning my attention to the west, I saw Nilin was failing at getting his own ladder up. First Company had somehow managed to set it on fire and his tenth was too busy trying to put the flames out to press their assault. Magic. Mages always made everything more complicated. Eyes flicking to the east, I saw Kilian was making good progress. In a matter of moment she would… and there they went, the smokers had landed on the wall.
“Come on, Trapper,” I murmured. “You could lose the east if you’re not careful, and we both know you’ve got too many soldiers covering Nauk.”
A minute of tense anticipation passed as I waited with baited breath until a handful of legionaries hurried through the battlements to link up with the eastern wall. I grinned.
“Gotcha,” I said.
Turning to Hakram, I saw he was milling around the tenth I’d been holding back.
“Sergeant, get our tenth ready to move. We’ll give them a minute to get entangled before we hit the wall next to Nauk.”
“Aye aye, Lieutenant,” the sergeant saluted.
The legionaries picked up the ladder and spread in two lines of five. Fastening my helmet’s leather straps, I checked my blade a last time out of habit and made my way to my soldiers.
“We go in hard and fast,” I addressed them as soon as I was close enough. “Wounded get left behind, we head straight for the standard.”
My tenth managed an awkward salute while keeping a hand on the ladder and I took the lead, my shield already brought up. It would have been shame to get this far only to be taken out by a lucky crossbow shot. I’d already decided we’d stick to the road as long as possible before veering to the right. Nauk was making enough of a mess around the gate that First Company would have more pressing problems on their hands than my tenth. I kept the pace brisk, but there was only so fast the legionaries could go while carrying a ladder – twice I had to slow down so I wouldn’t pull ahead too much. By the time they got to the first ditch the smoke on top of the wall was starting to clear and I could see a handful of Nauk’s legionaries desperately fighting on top of it to protect the ladder they’d managed to land. Good, I thought. Keep them busy for me, Lieutenant. I slid down the slope and threw my shield on the strip of ground separating the first ditch from the second, picking it up as soon as I’d made the climb.
My soldiers were following close behind, Hakram exhorting them to hurry every step of the way, and in a matter of moments they’d propped up their ladder. It was a good thing every company knew how tall the walls were, I had a feeling the sappers’ ladders would have come up short otherwise. I was second up on the ladder behind a pale-skinned girl whose name I did not know and I winced when a enemy legionary popped up at the top of the battlements and unloaded his crossbow straight in her chest – the girl managed to divert her fall off of the ladder so I didn’t fall with her, but it had been made clear enough that speed was of the essence. I jumped over the edge of the battlements to be greeted by the sight of half a dozen First Company legionaries headed my way. The boy with the crossbow had already taken out his sword but he was too slow. I punched him in the jaw and threw him off the wall while taking out my blade. Hakram suddenly appeared at my back, sword in hand, and with a shared grin we ran towards the enemy. We didn’t need to win, we both knew, just delay them long enough for my tenth to make it up the wall.
Shield impacted against shield and I was forced to take a step back, but my adversary’s defence was sloppy: I landed a hard blow against the side of the helmet and turned aside a sword stroke from another legionary. Another of my soldiers joined the fight and then another, the whole tenth trickling in before too long had passed. I might not have liked Ratface, but I had to admit that the captain had drilled his legionaries superbly. First Company’s legionaries backed off when they saw they were outnumbered, one of them running for reinforcements, but I had no intention of pursuing. The whole melee had cost us only one wounded and I offered the dark-skinned legionary a sharp nod before running off towards the stairs. Keeping the map of the fort Robber had traced in mind, I knew I’d have to take my tenth through the melee on the eastern wall before reaching a way down: time to see what Kilian had managed to accomplish. The smoke on the battlements had faded away to wisps, making it easy to see the sergeant’s men were busy giving First Company a hard fight: Kilian’s tenth had wounded and had been outnumbered from the start, but they were fighting with a ferocity that surprised me. Maybe I’d underestimated how badly Rat Company’s legionaries wanted a win. My tenth took to First Company’s flank like fire to kindling, tearing through it in a matter of moments and scattering the enemy.
“You sure know how to throw a party, Lieutenant,” Kilian herself gasped as she made her way towards me, cheek badly bruised.
“It’s all about the guest list,” I replied amusedly. “Think your men have it in them to head for the standard?”
“HEAR THAT, GIRLS AND BOYS?” Kilian roared out. “LIEUTENANT CALLOW WANTS TO KNOW IF YOU’VE STILL GOT A WIN IN YOU!”
The noise of blade slapping against shields and cheers drowned out everything else for an instant, my own legionaries joining in without hesitation.
“That good enough, sir?” Kilian asked with a cheeky smile.
“It’ll do,” I agreed. “Fall into rank, we’re moving out.”
The inside of the fort was about what Robber had described: a low stone house up against the northwestern corner to house prisoners and a series of tents surrounding the wooden palisade that made up the centre. I could see over it from my current vantage point and the enemy standard was right there in its socket, without so much as a single guard. If we hurried enough I’d be able to pull out my troops before casualties got too bad. Ordering my men to pull up the ladder that had brought Kilian’s tenth to the top of the wall, I took the lead once more and started running down the stairs. I’d have to set up a cordon of legionaries to make sure we weren’t flanked.
The gate to the inner fort wasn’t even locked, my soldiers found out to their surprise: they must not have been expecting an assault. This whole thing was going off much more smoothly than I’d thought it would, to be honest. No point in looking a gift horse in the mouth. I left the enemy standard in Hakram’s capable hands and got my legionaries moving towards the western wall: as far as I could see Nilin was making no progress on it, but we could use his ladder to escape. That was when the first hitch in my plan appeared. Yells came from the cordon I’d set up and I cursed when I saw what was going on. The survivors from the east and what seemed to be at least half the soldiers who’d been fighting Nauk were hitting my flank, the distinctive silhouette of Lieutenant Trapper haranguing them into pushing forward. The whole thing could turn into a rout in a matter of moments, I knew: all it would take was First Company breaking apart my men and then it would just be a matter of taking out scattered groups of my attackers. There was only one thing for it, I’d have to…
“Lieutenant,” I was interrupted by Kilian, “it doesn’t have to be you.”
I blinked in surprise.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I hedged.
“Someone has to hold the rearguard,” the sergeant replied flatly. “But it can’t be you.”
“You think I can’t handle it?” I challenged her.
“I think Lieutenant Nauk was right,” Kilian retorted, meeting my eyes squarely. “You’re the one holding this together. Let me handle it, Callow – there must be a reason you got me back in the first place.”
Tempting, oh so tempting, but could I really let anyone else do this? Rat Company didn’t really need me to get the standard back to camp and claim victory. I closed my eyes, furiously trying to find another solution, but all I could think of was a pair of pale green eyes looking back at me. The only clean victories are the one in stories, Catherine. I let out a string of curses that drew a raised eyebrow from Kilian. Sacrifice has never come easy to me, and sacrificing people under my command left an even worst taste in my mouth. But that’s why you sent me here, isn’t? So I’d learn that sometimes you being charge means making decisions like this.
“Fine,” I grit out. “Give them Hells, Sergeant.”
Kilian saluted grimly and unsheathed her sword, heading out for the melee.
“LEGIONARIES!” she screamed. “TO ME!”
Hakram tugged at my elbow urgently and I clenched my fingers. Without another word I ran off towards the stairs to the western wall, my tenth falling in behind me while Kilian’s delayed First Company. Time to get out of there.
The way out had been surprisingly easy, Nilin’s tenth managing to land their ladder within moments of my soldiers hitting the wall. I’d gotten my men through and linked up with Nauk while the orc was making his own escape, having somehow managed to unlock the front gate. We’d hurried away after getting back our own standard, well aware that if we lingered too long the rest of First Company was bound to find us. The walk back to the initial camp site had become more and more leisurely as we neared their objective, though, my soldiers laughing and teasing their way up the valley. And yet I couldn’t find it in me to join the merriment. The victory had been too easy, and the more I thought about it the more this was beginning to feel wrong – it was too much of a coincidence that so many troops from the First Company would be out on patrol at the exact moment my own cadets had hit the fort. Hakram had said that Juniper liked bold strokes and swift victories, that it was likely she’d been so frustrated by them surviving that she’d overcommitted on patrols, but I was beginning to think he’d been wrong.
The way the mage line had been hit first had been bothering me for a while: if Captain Juniper meant to take out Rat Company, why hadn’t she gone for the scouts? With them silenced she might have managed to overrun the entire camp before the alarm was rung. Unless that wasn’t what she was after, I thought. Crippling the company by taking out our healers the first night makes more sense if she was aiming to just chip at us day by day. But on that night, when the First Company’s soldiers crept around the camp, they’d found that Ratface had ordered a half-watch and realized they could do a lot more damage than just taking the mages. Juniper hadn’t bet it all on a night assault that could easily have gone wrong, she’d taken an opportunity when she saw an opening. And if that was true… then there’s no way she overcommitted on patrols. There’s something I’m missing here.
“If I couldn’t find my enemy,” I mused out loud to myself, “how would I catch them?”
What did Juniper need to win? Our standard. Just as we needed hers. But as long as Rat Company’s survivors were on the move, she might as well have been looking for a needle in a haystack: Spite Valley was full of hidey-holes, and a more defensive-minded leader than I might have elected to wait out the remaining time in one and let the game be a draw. But I showed her I wanted to go on the offensive by hitting the watchtower, I realized. So then why were there so few soldiers guarding the prisoners? … there’d been no senior officers among the prisoners at the prison camp, now that I thought about it. And only two mages.
Enough to patch up all my wounded, sure, but we’d still been barely forty afterwards and my two healers had been too exhausted to be of any use for the assault. I’d thought it was a coincidence at the time, that the more important prisoners had been kept elsewhere. But if that was the case, why had there been any mages at all? She was giving me those. Building up my confidence so I’d attack the fort. So I’d taken my men to the fort, and at the cost of almost half of my force taken the First Company’s standard. Now I had only a little over a line left and I was headed back for the deserted Rat Company camp, where I’d put down the enemy standard and officially claim victory. If couldn’t find my enemy, how would I catch them?
“I’d dictate where they have to go,” I whispered, a shiver of dread going down her spine.
“What’s that, Callow?” Nauk called out cheerfully, the standard still resting on his shoulder.
“RAT COMPANY,” I roared, “FORM UP!”
Hakram, bless his soul, instantly started slapping around the disbelieving soldiers around him until they formed a wobbly square. Nauk pushed through the shifting cadets to get at my side, a sceptical look on his brutish face.
“That just gave away our position to any patrol in the area,” he growled. “Care to explain?”
“They already know we’re coming, Nauk,” I breathed out. “Think about it – hasn’t it all been going too smoothly?”
“So we got lucky,” the orc grunted out. “It happens.”
“We haven’t been lucky, we’ve been played,” I retorted, eyes scanning the woods around us. We were already in sight of the cluster of hills where we’d camped on the first night. Was it too late? Were we already far enough into the trap that there was no backing out? If we managed to get away with both standards, we might still be able to turn this around.
“You’re thinking too hard, Callow,” Nauk growled. “Juniper’s good, but there’s no way she’s that-”
In an unpleasant concession to the universal laws of irony, that was the very moment that the soldiers emerged from the woods on both our sides. A line per flank, I guessed, and the garrison we’d escaped from back at the fort had probably been shadowing us during the whole trip, just out of sight.
“Hellgods,” Nauk spat out. “That’s all sorts of fucked.”
A handful of silhouettes appeared at the crest of the hill we’d been about to start scaling, first among them a large orc in legionary armour who idled her way down the dirt path. So there was another line waiting for us uphill – they’d probably caught Robber when I’d sent him scouting ahead with his sappers. Rat Company closed ranks, shields up and faces grim. They still had fight in them, I knew, but none one was expecting to win the battle anymore. The joy had gone out the company the moment the first enemy soldiers had come out.
“So which one of you would be Lieutenant Callow?” the lone orc called out in a smoky voice as soon as she got halfway down the hill, resting a hand on the pommel of her short sword.
“I’m guessing that’s Captain Juniper?” I said in an aside to Nauk.
“The Hellhound herself,” the orc grunted. “Think we could grab her if we charged?”
I snorted, shaking my head.
“Too obvious,” I replied. “She’s planned it all out so far, I doubt she missed a ploy that obvious. Guess it’s time to meet the woman of the hour.”
I tapped the soldier in front of me on the shoulder and the company parted to let me through. I made my way to the bottom of the hill before deciding it was far enough.
“So, you’re Captain Juniper,” I said. “I’d make a pithy comment about expecting you to be taller, but you’ve got at least two feet on me.”
“Funny,” Juniper replied with bared teeth. “I’ll get to the point, Lieutenant, we’re both busy girls. The Tactics manual says I should offer you a chance to surrender, since you’re both surrounded and outnumbered.”
There was a pregnant pause.
“This is where you refuse with a scream of defiance and I get to crush you lot while still getting full marks,” Captain Juniper prompted.
I eyed my opponent thoughtfully, letting another silence take hold. Juniper had chosen everything about the encounter so far: the terrain, the troop disposition, even the time of day. That little petulant voice in the back of my head was urging me to throw back the offer of surrender in the orc’s face and give her a fight to remember, but I knew better than that. Even before I’d spent a month getting taught by the most dreaded strategist of the age, I’d known better than that. Never give the opponent get what they want. If you let them dictate the flow of the encounter, you’ll lose every time.
“No,” I decided. “We’ll surrender. No point in dragging this out, you’re right. Give me a minute and I’ll talk Lieutenant Nauk into it. Do I just give you the standards or is there a protocol I don’t know about?”
Juniper eyed me distrustfully, clearly taken aback. It was all I could do not to smile.
“First you give us back ours, then I send someone to collect yours,” she replied. “Don’t try to be cute, the moment one of you steps out of line my legionaries are charging. I’ll be waiting up the hill.”
Dismissing the idea of such wanton treachery with a vague hand gesture, I made my way back to Rat Company’s ranks. The company’s remaining officers gathered around me.
“Lieutenant,” Hakram rumbled. “You can’t seriously be considering a surrender. I know the odds are bad, but –”
“Don’t be an idiot, Sergeant,” I whispered, “I have a plan. Pick another two men to accompany me when I give the Hellhound back her standard.”
The orc hid a grin and saluted. I turned to face Nauk and Nilin.
“So, gentlemen,” I said cheerfully. “How long do you think you can hold against the bastards?”
Nauk let out a belly laugh.
“For you, Callow? We’ll last ‘till sundown,” he grinned, looking like the world’s meanest, ugliest green cat.
“A quarter hour,” Nilin ventured more pragmatically, ignoring the dirty look the orc shot him.
I clenched and unclenched my fingers, trying to limber them up. A mostly pointless gesture, but I’d found it helped me think.
“A quarter hour will have to do,” I decided. “By then I’ll have either failed or succeeded anyway. Give them Hells, boys.”
They saluted with grim looks on their faces, but there was an energy to them that had been missing a moment earlier. Funny the way even the slightest hope could fundamentally change the mood in the worst situations. No wonder heroes kept talking armies into taking doomed last stands. Hakram and the two soldiers he’d picked – the pale dark-haired girl I’d seen kick Nauk and a female orc even taller than my sergeant – caught up with me before I left the ranks.
“So what’s the plan, Lieutenant?” Hakram whispered.
“We get close, then we charge towards the victory point,” I replied in a low voice.
“Simple,” the sergeant mused in his gravelly voice. “I like it. And when we get surrounded and stabbed?”
I shot the sergeant an amused look.
“That’s also part of the plan, I’m afraid.”
I was rewarded by a handful of snickers. I’d hoped I’d stumble upon a miraculous last-minute master plan, but it seemed my brain was fresh out of those. Well, it beat surrendering anyways. Grabbing the standard the female orc was offering me and propping it on my shoulder, I took the lead and started for the top of the hill. Juniper had deployed her line just behind the crest so I could see the tip of their helms but not what they were doing: clearly the Hellhound wasn’t out of tricks yet. I would just have to trust my suicide squad would be quick enough on their feet to get out of it. We were maybe a dozen feet away from the top when I gave my soldiers a warning look and whispered “Now.” We broke out running. I heard Juniper scream an order but refused to pay attention, my whole focus on covering the last of the distance separating her from the enemy line.
That was when the logs started rolling down.
Every one of them a whole tree with the branches cut, thick as man and heavy enough to crush anything in their path. Well, I’d chosen right when I’d decided not to charge the company up the slope, I mused with a strange degree of detachment as the first one thundered down towards me. So this is as far as I could go, then, I thought. Beaten by a pile of dead trees after having been played like a fiddle at every turn. All the plans I’d hatched over the last three days, all of the triumphs I’d fought for – snatched away in an instant. I could already see the way it would all go in my mind: Juniper’s line would charge down the slope behind the logs and snatch the standard from my unconscious body before closing the jaws of the trap on Nauk and Nilin. They’d fight well, but in the end they’d still lose. No, the thought came. I’m not done. I can still do more. I am more than this. I did not come this far to be slapped down by a heap of firewood.
I felt thunder dance across my skin and the world spun into focus. The logs tumbling down slowed to a crawl and I grit my teeth before jumping, sailing into the air and landing behind them in a crouch. I heard Hakram’s grunt of pain and the crack of bones as a log caught him in the chest, but I kept moving. No time to look back – Juniper’s line was already charging down, but the hill had made it impossible for them to tighten their ranks. They were full of openings, and the Name I’d claimed as my own howled in my mind as I slipped behind a charging legionary, tripping him with his own standard. There was another one behind, an orc who tried to strike me down but I laughed, heady with battle-joy, and the shaft of hardened wood slapped away the short sword before whipping around to take him behind the head. I pushed forward and suddenly I’d passed the enemy line, all I needed to do was run and-
“What the Hells was that?” Juniper snarled, impacting into my side with her shield raised.
I rolled with the fall and pushed forward as soon as my feet were back under me but the captain was there again, blocking my way.
“Me,” I replied, “winning.”
I ducked under a cautious sword stroke and unsheathed my own blade. The power was already leaving me, slipping through my fingers like sand, but I would not fail when I was so close. I could hear legionaries doubling back to take me from behind, there was no time to waste – throwing the standard behind Juniper, I unslung my shield from my back and stepped forward. The orc captain was quick, I thought as Juniper tested my shield-side with a careful probe of the blade, but compared to the people I’d been getting my clock cleaned by for the last month the Hellhound was an amateur. Shield met sword and I pushed forward again, stabbing forward only to find my own sword bouncing off the orc’s armour. Undaunted, I stepped to the side and whipped my blade at Juniper’s head. The orc’s eyes widened at the speed of the strike and she stepped back, raising her shield to counter the stroke she knew was coming. That was all the opening I’d needed: dropping my shield I ran for the victory point, dropping low to snatch the standard as I did. I heard Juniper curse from behind me but the orc was slow, too slow, and with a roar I passed by the fallen command tent and rammed the First Company’s standard into the socket meant for it. There was a heartbeat of silence before Juniper rammed into my side, crushing me under her weight, but then lightning streaked across the sky once, twice.