“Trust is the victory of sentiment over reason.”
-Extract from the personal memoirs of Dread Emperor Terribilis II
The High Lord of Kahtan was a skilled general, Black was willing to admit.
It was unfortunate those skills were being used against him but expecting fairness of the world was to pave a road towards bitterness. The Taghreb aristocrat had learned the correct lesson from the Burning Cliffs: he’d avoided the narrow passes west of Okoro, taking Chancellor’s army through the flat expanse of Jugomo’s Folly instead. There would be no drowning the superior forces in goblinfire this time, not that he’d expected the trick to work twice. That was fine. Another three clans had been come over to their side in the aftermath of the last victory, bringing them up to a little under four thousand soldiers. Though ‘soldiers’ was a generous term to use for the newly arrived orcs, truth be told. Unlike Grem’s Howling Wolves and Istrid’s Red Shields there was little discipline to these fresh arrivals. Grem had told him in private they’d been on the losing side of the constant raids between the Clans. By throwing their lot in with Dread Empress Malicia they thought to better their fortunes. They might just accomplish that, should this day not end in crushing defeat.
“I have them,” Warlock laughed suddenly. “A Wolofite warding scheme, really? Nobody’s bothered to use those since the Second Crusade. All blood and no finesse.”
Wekesa had half a dozen water bowls placed in a loose circle around him, the candles in between casting shaky light on the images that had appeared over the surface of the liquid. Black allowed a sharp smile to flicker across his face. High Lord Mawasi might have been a vigilant man, but his mages were subpar. That would come back to haunt him. Istrid crouched by one of the bowls, ignoring Warlock’s warning look, and squinted at the shapes inside.
“You were right, Grem,” she grunted. “They split in four.”
One-Eye showed no sign of surprise. Black had yet to see the orc’s tactical judgement fail and doubted he ever would.
“Mawasi wants to be able to concentrate his forces easily when they make contact,” he gravelled. “If they manage it, we’ll lose.”
Chancellor had sent twelve thousand killers into the Steppes to end what the nobility had taken to calling the Whore’s Rebellion. Not that Malicia was actually with them: she’d gone to Thalassina to talk the ruling High Lady into supporting them.
“None of the commanders will be willing to commit to a real fight until the others are there,” Ranker murmured, her slight shape stirring in the shadows. Even young as the goblin was, her face was already creased. “The High Lord will have forbidden it.”
Black knuckled an old denarii with Dread Empress Vindictive’s face on it, allowing the silver to spin between his fingers.
“They will,” the green-eyed man said calmly. “Chancellor made a mistake, when he put a price on my head.”
Whoever killed the Black Knight would be granted gold enough for a dozen kings as well as a noble title, such was the word out of Ater. The kind of price men would kill for. The kind of price men would die for – and Black fully intended to see this done.
“We start with the eastern division,” he told the others.
One-Eye frowned. “You want to bait them. With what?”
Black finished spinning the coin with a theatrical flick of the wrist, snatching away the silver.
“What they want most, right now,” he replied. “My head.”
I woke up in Rat Company’s dormitory with a gasp.
The dream had been weaker that the last, the connection not as deep: the ghostly sensations I’d felt in the wake of the other time were missing. Was it because I’d accidentally weakened my Name, or had it always been supposed to be this way? Not for the first time, I wished Black wasn’t so tight-lipped on the subject of Roles. He’d already taught me plenty on the history of Praesi Names and even a few tricks about putting heroes down, but when it came to my own Name he remained frustratingly vague. No doubt there was a reason for it, but that didn’t make it any less irritating. The dreams were meant to teach me lessons, that much I’d divined on my own. Drawing from the experiences of my predecessor, it showed his victories so that I could emulate the ways that had worked and avoid those that hadn’t. So what was this one meant to teach me? Defeat in detail, but I’d already known that was the only way I could win the melee. That Warlock could break through scrying wards was an interesting tidbit I’d have to ask Lieutenant Kilian about, but I had a feeling it was related to his Name: it was dubious at best my own mages would be able to replicate the feat.
My head, Black had said. That was where the memory had ended. He’d used the greed of his opponents to bait them into making an ill-advised move. While I’d never gone over the battle with my teacher as we’d done for some others, it was one of the most famous engagements of the civil war: the Battle of the Four Defeats was in every history book that covered the time period, often mentioned as the point where the war started to turn in Dread Empress Malicia’s favour. So how could I apply this to my situation? I pushed my covers aside and sat up in the cot, surrounded by still-sleeping cadets. Dawn had yet to rise. My mind was still sleep-addled and slow, and as I rubbed my eyes I came to the conclusion that this was not something I was going to figure until I was more than half-awake.
I slipped out of the bunk and picked up the pair of trousers I’d lazily dropped next to it last night. Not folding my clothes and neatly sliding them in the exact space assigned for them was technically against Legion regulations, but who was going to report me? Every company had two dorms assigned, one for each gender. Which dorm you got changed according to your ranking, meaning that instead of beds and a nice view Rat Company got cots and a former warehouse that still smelled vaguely like olive oil. The part for women was the same size as the one for men, though it wasn’t full. A cursory look at the company’s rolls had told me that about four in ten of my soldiers were women, which was actually slightly under the average for the College. Forcing myself awake, I ran a hand along the ugly red scar that the Lone Swordsman had left me. The skin was strangely sensitive, and sometimes it felt like if I exerted myself too much it would open up again. Sighing, I picked up a roll of cloth and bound my chest. Slipping on a loose cloth shirt over it, I left the dorms before I could wake up anyone. My legionaries would need their sleep.
There was a well in the plaza just outside, easy to make out even in the half-light preceding dawn. Someone was already using it, to my surprise. A half-naked Ratface pulled up the bucket and splashed his face with water as I approached. He turned when I got close, nodding a silent greeting to me.
“Do you mind?” I asked, pointing at the bucket and scrupulously not looking at his muscled chest.
It would be inappropriate to ogle one of my subordinates, I reminded myself. Even if it’s very easy to imagine rivulets of water running down to…
“Go ahead,” he replied after flicking the water off his shoulders.
I sharply put the thoughts aside, rinsing my face as I got back my bearings.
“I got word from my friends,” the lieutenant said as he sat on the edge of the well. “We’ve got the munitions ready for the swap.”
“Good,” I grunted back. “Did Snatcher finally pick his load?”
There were two official munition templates for a company as taught in the College. The first was commonly known as “Siege”, heavy on sharpers and demolition charges. Aisha had claimed one within hours of the melee was announced. The second was called “Field” and was broader in scope, though it had a proportionally large amount of smokers. Hakram had informed me that several manoeuvres were taught in the classroom related to their use, but I hadn’t had the time to look into them. Both Juniper and Morok had gone that route.
“Yeah. He didn’t use one of the templates, though,” Ratface replied. “Brightsticks and demolition charges, mostly, though there’s a few smokers as well. He’s up to something.”
“He’s a goblin,” I murmured. “They’re always up to something.”
He shot me an amused look but said nothing. Silence reigned for a few moments and it was starting to get awkward when I cleared my throat.
“I have a question,” I said. “It’s a little personal, though, so feel free to tell me to bugger off it you want.”
The Taghreb boy raised an eyebrow.
“I’m all ears,” he said.
“Why Ratface?” I asked. “I know you get to pick the name you enrol under, but it seems a little…”
“Insulting?” he replied with faint smile. “That’s the point.”
The lieutenant let out a long breath.
“It’s not like half the College doesn’t know the story already,” he finally spoke. “I”m a bastard, Callow.”
I opened my mouth, but he turned sharp eyes in my direction.
“I’ve already heard all the jokes, so spare me,” he said.
“No idea what you’re talking about,” I lied.
Ratface rolled his eyes, not seeming all that offended.
“My father’s one of the lords sworn to Kahtan. Old family, one of the tribes from before the Miezans,” he continued. “He married late and slept around before he did – hence my existence.”
I grimaced. With a beginning like that it was hard to imagine the story ending well.
“I had a pretty easy childhood, all things considered,” he mused. “Not like I ever lacked for anything. But eventually Father married and spawned a legitimate heir.”
“And that put you in an awkward position,” I murmured.
“My half-sister is ten. Sweet girl, spends a lot of time braiding her pet goat,” he shrugged. “I don’t blame her for any of this. Father eventually decided to simplify the line of succession and one night I woke up to a knife in my back.”
He half-turned, showing me a short crescent mark just a few inches away from his spine.
“The soldier botched the job,” he grimaced. “And panicked when I woke up. I managed to get away, stole enough from the vault to buy my way into a caravan and pay for my first year of tuition here.”
It would have been indiscreet to ask how he’d paid for the other years, so I held my tongue.
“Doesn’t explain why you picked Ratface, though,” I pointed out.
The Taghreb smiled coldly.
“I’m told I’m the spitting image of my father at the same age,” he replied.
I laughed and he cracked a much warmer smile.
“Come on, Callow,” he said. “Let’s grab something to eat. Only a few hours left until they want us ready for the game, and I’m not marching to wherever the Hells we’re going on an empty stomach.”
I stood in the middle of a rocky plain with no recollection of how I’d gotten there.
Dusk was already beginning to darken the sky. Behind me Rat Company was spread out in a marching column – I could see the tracks indicating we’d walked here, but I couldn’t remember actually doing it. To the west the rocks rose in a slope and led into a canyon I could barely make out. There was a forest of tall dragon trees and ferns to the north, getting progressively thicker. The east was closer to what I’d been told to expect of the Wasteland, badlands of silt and shale forming tall rocky outcroppings that cut my line of sight. I felt a little woozy and there was a small cut on the palm of my hand, already mostly healed: I got a strange sensation from it, like a bee buzzing in the back of my head. I took me a moment to recognize the feeling. Blood magic. I swore under my breath. So someone fucked with my memories. I strode over to my legionaries who were still standing around with blank expressions, though by the time I got close some of them were already snapping out of it. I picked out Hakram near the head of the column – he was still in a trance, so I slapped him across the face. His eyes snapped back into focus and he let out a bestial snarl, the rage only leaving his expression when he realized I was the one standing in front of him.
“Callow?” he gravelled. “Where are we?”
“I have no idea,” I admitted. “Do you remember how we got here?”
The tall orc frowned. “No,” he replied. “And this thing is itching like you wouldn’t believe.”
He showed me his forearm, where a small cut had also been made. Not only me, then.
“Last thing I remember is…” he trailed off.
I forced my mind to focus. “When we shed blood on the tablet,” I finished.
The College instructors had us assemble in front of a large stone tablet, a different one for every company, and drip a few drops of blood on it. The Headmistress had mentioned it was intended to recreate the fog of war, though she hadn’t elaborated. After that it was a blank until just now.
“They sealed our memories,” I grunted. “So we don’t know where we are or where the other companies are starting from.”
“Not entirely true,” a voice intervened softly.
Lieutenant Pickler walked up to us, stride unhurried. In her hand she held a rolled up leather scroll with a broken seal. I picked out crossed swords that were the emblem of the College on the wax pieces, something I shouldn’t have been able to do in the gloom. Ah, getting the sight back. About time my Name started making itself useful again.
“Map?” I asked bluntly.
Pickled nodded. “Our starting position is marked, though only ours.”
I accepted the offered scroll and took a look at the inked map. We were in the southernmost part of the area, it seemed. A few miles of flat ground behind us, with the canyon I’d glimpsed earlier snaking its way in an arc towards the northern end. The forest extended for longer than I would have guessed, though eventually it led into another wide plain. The badlands apparently covered the entire eastern half of our battlefield, a labyrinth of hills and depressions. If one of the companies isn’t setting up fortifications somewhere in there as of this moment, I’ll eat my helmet. Hakram leaned over my shoulder to take a look with almost insulting ease. Hadn’t one of the Empresses outlawed being taller than her? Maybe it was time to start looking into that.
“We have the worst starting position,” my sergeant assessed bluntly.
He was right. No terrain to fortify unless we marched somewhere else in the dark, which would leave us exhausted tomorrow. Any company with a scout on higher ground would be able to find us within moments, and with the way goblins saw in the dark even nightfall wouldn’t be enough to cover us. This doesn’t feel like a coincidence, I grimaced. Could Heiress have meddled with the position I was assigned? I couldn’t remember the process at the moment, so it was hard to tell. Doesn’t matter. Can’t change the facts now. It was impossible for me to implement the deals I’d made where we currently were, regardless, which meant we’d have to march past nightfall. Close to the forest.
“Lieutenant Pickler, prepare a scouting tenth,” I ordered. “We’re going north as quickly as we can.”
Surprise flickered across the smooth-skinned goblin’s face, but her amber eyes remained calm. She saluted and went to attend her troops. Hakram waited until she was gone before clearing his throat.
“Is that wise?” he asked. “We’re carrying enough sudis to make a fortified camp here. If we carry them through a forced march we’ll be slower tomorrow.”
The pair of large wooden stakes carried by every one of my legionaries would start weighing heavy on them after a day’s march, well-drilled or not. He was correct in that. But we couldn’t afford to be where we currently were when dawn came. I took off my helmet and passed a hand through my hair, the pony tail it was kept in unpleasantly soaked with sweat.
“We need to meet up with Morok as quickly as possible,” I told him. “Any company but Snatcher’s catches us on an open plain and we’re done for.”
“You sure we can trust him?” my sergeant gravelled. “He’s Blackspear Clan, Callow. They’ve never made a pact they didn’t break.”
“I wouldn’t trust him with a handful of coppers, Hakram,” I admitted. “But I’ve got a decent read on what he wants right now. Not sure I can answer for what he’ll be thinking in two days, though.”
That was my largest problem at the moment: what I’d planned was time-sensitive. Black had once told me that the great weakness of plans with several stages was the difficulty of getting the timing right. Miss the window of opportunity for one stage due to unexpected complications and the whole thing would come tumbling down. Usually on your head, with the way villain’s luck went. Better to use several small schemes to stack the odds than a single complicated one giving you a marginal chance at victory, he’d said. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to play the game that way. The odds were stacked against us too badly for a handful of quick tricks to be able to see the company through the fights. I needed to move quickly enough that the circumstances I’d made my pacts in hadn’t changed, because if they did then this was going to turn into an actual melee and Rat Company was basically fucked.
“Get our line moving, Sergeant, we’re taking the lead,” I ordered. “Double-time. If we want to win this, we’re going to have to pay the long price for it.”
He frowned. “Long price?”
I blinked in surprise. Would have thought that one made it across the border.
“Callowan expression,” I explained. “A long price is one you have to keep paying for. People use it to mean paying unpleasant dues.”
“Long price, huh,” he grunted thoughtfully. “Well it’ll be a long night, I’ll give you that.”
Our pace was slower than I would have liked, and became slower still when night fell.
Hakram kept my line steady while we moved forward in the marching order I’d let him organize. He’d used what was apparently the standard for Legion expeditions in hostile territory: regulars in the front, sappers and mages in the middle, then a line of regulars in the back again. The line behind the second regulars, Nauk’s, was a little different. They were called heavies: their armour was plate rather than chain mail, and their shields much thicker. I’d taken the time yesterday to inquire what the companies we were up against had in their roster, and been left rather troubled by the answers.
Snatcher’s Fox Company was in some ways the least dangerous, as almost half of his forces were goblins. Shield wall against shield wall even my soldiers would wreck them. But he had the highest concentration of crossbowmen in the College, and his legionaries always fought from behind fortifications. Aisha and her Wolf Company had borrowed from old Taghreb tactics, putting mobility above all else. They had no heavies at all, but they’d pulled off outrageous victories by hitting the opponent out of nowhere. Lately she’d been drilling her soldiers in siege tactics, determined to take third place in the rankings from Snatcher.
If the Wolves were all about swiftness, then Lizard Company was about brutal, unrelenting might. Morok’s entire force, save for a tenth of mages, was made of heavies. He had no legionaries formally trained as sappers, which would have made assaulting fortified positions hard if not for his trump card: he had a tenth of ogres. Fifteen feet tall and clad in a small mountain of steel, they were living battering rams that used massive war hammers. First Company was an all-rounder, the traditional company composition for the College. A line of sappers, a line of mages, two of regulars and one of heavies.
The same as us, except they’d won every battle they’d been in instead of accumulate defeats like Rat Company. Ratface had outright admitted to me that he’d modelled the Rats after Juniper’s company, hoping to recapture some of her success. Doomed to failure, that. It works for Juniper because she’s at her most effective when she has a broad toolbox: she uses different lines to solve different problems. But unless you have someone like Juniper giving the orders, all you have is a company with no real strong point. No weak one, either, but that’s not enough to beat an opponent that knows what they’re doing.
It was hard to tell how long it took us to make it close to the woods. Several hours, at least but how far past midnight we were I had no idea. Robber spent most of the march scuttling about with our scouts, regularly checking in to tell me there was no sign of anyone else. Perhaps the only saving grace of our starting position was that it would be next to impossible for any of the other captains to ambush us. Plenty of ground to see them coming, and while Robber’s tenth was not meant to be a scouting one they’d been used for that purpose often enough to pick up the basics. I had us halt in sight of the canyon’s entrance, near the beginning of the forest. My legionaries dropped their packs to the ground with vocal relief. The break was a short one, though. I had my senior officers in council within moments.
“We should back further away from the canyon,” Ratface opened bluntly. “Or else go entirely into it.”
“Not inside,” Pickler immediately replied. “I could bring that thing down on our heads with an hour’s work, and so could most of the other companies. We should move, though. Too easy to sneak up on us here.”
“Callow ain’t an idiot,” Nauk grunted. “You got a reason for this, Cap?”
Pickler graced him with a surprised look, apparently unused to disagreement from the large orc.
“We’re staying here,” I spoke flatly. “This isn’t a mistake, I chose this place specifically.”
Hakram eyed me carefully.
“We’re baiting someone,” he guessed.
I nodded. “We’re waiting on Morok before moving out, so we’ll make camp here. Half-watches for the night. That aside, Kilian, how far up can you shoot a fireball?”
The redhead blinked in surprise. Every mage cadet had to be able to cast two spells by the end of their first year: basic field healing and a standardized fireball. Those that couldn’t were forced to drop the mage curriculum and repurpose as regulars. Older years learned more advanced healing, a few different offensive spells and the most talented were even taught to scry, but those two basic spells were the bread and butter of cadet magery.
“That depends,” she replied after a moment. “If I tweak the incantation to strengthen momentum over power I might be able to manage five hundred feet. Wouldn’t even drop a bird, though – it’d be more warm air and light than fire by that point.”
“I’d still look like a fireball, right?” I confirmed.
“Good,” I grunted. “Send up three in a row.”
There was a moment of utter silence.
“Captain,” Ratface started slowly, “with all due respect, that…”
“Every other company will know exactly where we are,” Pickler finished.
Nauk barked out a laugh. “Now that’s one way to start the party,” he growled. “I like it. Come at us, you fuckers. See what happens.”
“What will happen is we’ll lose,” Pickler hissed at him. “She bid eighty-four points – we screw this up and Rat Company will be in the red for the next eight years. What do you think that will do for our careers? I’m not getting posted in Thalassina with the Thirteenth to break up bickering merchants.”
I took a deep breath, determined not to lose my temper.
“Enough,” I Spoke, and they went still as statues. “This isn’t the Highest Assembly, and you aren’t Proceran princes. If I give an order it will damn well be obeyed.”
I stared them down.
“Do you understand me?”
Whatever was holding them by the throat let go and I received a handful of shaky nods. Kilian eyed me warily – she was probably the only one with enough arcane education to understand how I’d managed this.
“I know exactly who’s coming,” I told them. “I’ve planned for it. We’re all tired and tempers are rough, but if we start arguing about everything we’re as good as done.”
“You’re the captain,” Ratface murmured.
They saluted and all went to attend their lines except for Kilian, who stepped a few feet away and started muttering under her breath. She snapped a hand upwards and a ball of bright red flame went sailing up in the air. It was hard to judge if it had really gone up to five hundred feet, but it’d clearly be visible from everywhere in the area. Another two followed quickly. After a moment, a single ball of blue flame rose in the distance.
“The canyon,” I muttered to myself.
So that was where Morok was. I’d yet to hear Hakram leave, so I wasn’t surprised when he cleared his throat.
“You’re playing your cards pretty close to the chest, Callow,” he gravelled.
What little I had of it, anyway.
“I had a dream, this morning,” I told him instead of a true reply.
The orc shot me a quizzical look.
“It was trying to teach me a lesson,” I mused. “I think I might be getting it, now.”
“Anything useful?” he asked curiously.
“If we’re to win this,” I said, “it won’t be by playing the game. It’s the players I need to play.”
“I take it that made sense in your head,” he snorted, flashing me his fangs in a small smile.
“Something like that,” I agreed. “Before you get to work, I need you to tell two things to Lieutenant Pickler.”
He leaned in close.
I only managed to grab a few hours of sleep before dawn came. Rat Company had formed a square of jutting spikes around its camp, sharp end outwards. There was a large entrance facing the canyon for quick deployment and two smaller ones on the adjacent sides. I’d somehow managed to miss a rock under my bedroll and it had dug into my back the whole time, so it was with a bruised back that I put my armour back on after Robber woke me.
“They’re here,” he told me, biting into a piece of jerky.
“The entire company?” I asked, tightening my sword belt.
“That’s my guess,” he replied. “They’re not deployed in a way that makes it easy to count them.”
I nodded, and to my mild irritation he lingered.
“We’re playing with fire, aren’t we?” he grinned. “Knew you’d make this interesting.”
“Don’t you have things to do, Sergeant?” I grunted.
“Eh, nothing urgent,” he dismissed. “Pickler’s sorry, by the way.”
That got my attention. I glanced at him and for once his face was lacking the usual malicious grin.
“She’s not the kind of person who apologizes,” he continued, “but she knows she stepped out of line. After you made us bury the stuff, she got the same look on her face she usually makes when she screws up a weapon design.”
I passed a hand through my hair, putting the pony tail into a semblance of order.
“I know I’m asking the company to take a lot on faith,” I finally said. “I’m not going to hold grudges over a moment of doubt, as long as it doesn’t happen again.”
“Must be that soft Callowan upbringing that makes you so forgiving. No wonder you lot got conquered,” the little shit grinned. “I’ll pass the message along.”
I flipped him the finger and he scuttled off after a horribly sloppy salute. Inexplicably, I was now in a better mood. In the distance I could see Lizard Company kicking up a trail of dust as they marched out from the canyon. I noted with approval that, now that Morok was less than half a mile away, all my legionaries were up. The last ones to wake were hurrying to put on their armour. I fished out some dried and salted meat from my pack, taking a bite with distaste. Goat jerky. Ugh. I left my shield with my cot, strolling towards the middle of the camp: there was slight rise there, and I claimed a flat rock for my throne. Eventually Ratface made his way to me. Without a word, he offered me a water skin: after last night’s confrontation, it felt like something a peace offering. I took it without comment and gulped down some tepid water. We let a long while pass in silence, my soldiers slowly assembling in ranks as Morok’s company marched towards us. In the light of day, it was easier to make out our surroundings. We were a little closer to the forest than I would have liked, though it was too late to do anything about it now. Ratface eyed Lizard Company’s ranks as they came closer, his face settling into a frown.
“He’s got his ogre tenth right behind his first line,” he spoke with a frown. “That’s not standard practice.”
I handed him back his water skin.
“No, it isn’t,” I agreed.
Two hundred feet away Lizard Company paused, its lizard skull standard coming up to the front. And then, without so much as a sound of warning, they charged forward. A stir went through my soldiers, a few of them cursing out loud.
“The fucker’s betraying us,” Ratface bit out. “On the first day? Who even does that?”
“He got this look on his face, when I threatened to hand our munitions over to Juniper,” I informed the lieutenant absent-mindedly. “Tried to hide it, but I’ve been dealing with tricky sorts lately. He was thinking about what he could do if he had them.”
Kilian’s line was standing in front of the entrance about to get charged, her ten mages standing behind the ten soldiers with the oversized shield that served as their mobile cover.
“You’re being very calm about this,” Ratface accused.
Less than a hundred yards now.
“I’d be hypocritical of me to get angry about him betraying us,” I mused.
I tore off a chunk of jerky and swallowed it. Fifty yards. Too late for Morok to pull out.
“After all,” I continued, “I betrayed him first.”
The moment before the vanguard of Lizard Company stepped foot into our camp, a hundred voices howling like wolves sounded from the woods. Armour shining bright in the morning sun, Wolf Company charged out of cover right into Morok’s flank.