“Grand designs in war are a thing of vanity. Victory goes to the general that blunders the least.”
– Theodosius the Unconquered, Tyrant of Helike
I’d known from the beginning that the ogres would be the biggest problem. No pun intended. I rather loathed puns, actually. The main two military treatises I’d sunk my teeth into were the Ars Tactica and the Praecepta Militaria, though the smaller Commentaries on the Campaigns of Dread Emperor Terribilis the Second had been a lot more interesting – and useful – to read. None of the three went into how to deal with a tenth of heavily armoured ogres, though. Good ol’ Terribilis had subdued a band of giants when dismantling the crusader kingdoms, but unlike him I couldn’t afford to put a small city to the flame and shoot anything that crawled out.
I’d asked Black to find me some of the manuals used under the Kingdom of Callow, but he’d told me that there was no equivalent to the War College in my homeland. Nobles who’d wanted their children to have a military education either had them join a chivalric order or serve in the Order of the White Hand for a few years. Given that the Order had been wiped out with remarkable thoroughness and that chivalric orders were now illegal in Callow, there would be no help coming from that front.
So I’d looked into Juniper’s old games. She’d beat Morok every time they fought, after all, and while Rat Company wouldn’t be anywhere as smooth in executing her techniques we theoretically had the right tools to use them. In short, she outmanoeuvred the tenth. She’d systematically baited Morok into grounds she’d prepared to turn the size of the ogres into a disadvantage or outright mined them with demolition charges. With the tenth dispersed or knocked down, she had her mage line concentrate fire on individuals until they were down for the count. The fact that the Hellhound had never used sharpers on the ogres indicated they probably wouldn’t be effective, something I’d taken heed of.
That was one of the two reasons that, officially speaking, Rat Company had gone with the Siege template. Morok had been until recently under the impression that his betrayal would come as a surprise to me. So he won’t be expecting the main entrance to be mined. That the other munitions we could supposedly bring to bear against him would be ineffective had just been additional bait for him to betray us. The second reason was how I’d managed to have the hundred Wolf Company legionaries running down the hill to flank Lizards. Going with Siege was as good as declaring my intention to go after Snatcher and his fortifications – which had been one of the main conditions Bishara had extracted in exchange for her help against Morok. The other condition was much more costly, but I wouldn’t have to worry about that for a while yet.
“Ratface,” I spoke. “Go back to your line. Things are about to get interesting.”
The Taghreb lieutenant nodded and picked up his shield before leaving, rolling his shoulder to stretch it out. My eyes remained on the skirmish. I’d had Pickler bury demolition charges under the entrance Morok had his company charging through. Though I’d been worried he’s send more expendable troops in first after being burned by Juniper in a similar manner – as he was currently doing with a forward tenth of heavies – she’d told me it wouldn’t be an issue. She’d fiddled with the triggers so that they wouldn’t blow unless a large enough weight pressed down on them: unless she’d made a mistake, the charges should ignore the first ten heavies entirely. With a frown I watched the ten heavily armoured legionaries slow as they got to the entrance, sheathe their swords and reach for- I got to my feet.
“KILIAN,” I yelled out. “FIRE, NOW!”
I saw the redheaded lieutenant glance in my direction, my voice managing to carry over even from where I stood, but by the time she started incanting it was too late. Morok’s heavies sent sharpers rolling over the mined grounds, the clay balls detonating a moment later and triggering our demolition charges. Fuck. Ten fireballs sailed right into the ensuing cloud of dust and rock in a mocking aftermath: it was impossible to tell if they’d hit anything. More importantly, the ogre tenth had a free path right into my mages. Aside from my sappers they by far my most vulnerable line. And if the healers get taken out there’s no one to get my wounded back on their feet.
“Captain,” a voice came from behind me. “Orders?”
Hakram and the rest our line had come to stand behind me while I was distracted. The tall orc looked unworried even though our first line of defence had just disappeared into literal smoke. His calm soothed my own nerves and I took a deep breath.
“Have Pickler drown the gap in smokers,” I ordered after a heartbeat. “Are Ratface and Nauk in position?”
Getting my legionaries in fighting order without them looking like they were in fighting order had been a tricky proposition. I had Ratface’s line to the left of the main entrance and Nauk’s to the right, hopefully read to close like a jaw on the first men of Lizard Company to pass through. Kilian and her mages were right in front of the enemy, with Pickler’s line close behind them. My own men I’d held back as a reserve to plug gaps or use a possible flanking force, should an opportunity present itself.
“They’re ready,” my sergeant gravelled after sending off a messenger to Pickler.
In the distance I saw the forward heavies charge out of the smoke, unharmed. Godsdamnit, couldn’t Kilian have taken out at least one?
“Have them form a wedge with the point facing us,” I ordered. “Quick.”
That should leave a broad enough kill zone that Kilian’s mages could do damage by continuously pouring flames into the melee. A dozen smokers fell into the gap just as I finished speaking, obscuring the visibility that had just begun to clear. Looking outside the boundaries of my own camp just as Morok’s heavies rammed themselves into Ratface’s line, I saw that Aisha’s men were finally about to hit Lizard Company’s left flank. Mages in the back of her company threw fireballs into the enemy a heartbeat before the lines made contact, Wolf Company’s regulars pouring into the gaps the impacts created to pry open the formation.
Morok was redeploying his company to secure his left, a line hurriedly moving to extend the flank so that Aisha couldn’t just encircle him. Come on, you ugly bastard. You know if Aisha manages to go around that you’re done. Sent the ogres in to make a dent in her troops. The ogres emerged from the smoke, hammers held high. I closed my eyes. What was his play here? He wasn’t committing enough men to do more than hold Wolf Company for a few moments. So he was pushing straight into us. Why? He was an asshole, not an idiot. He wouldn’t go for vengeance in the middle of a melee.
“He wants the camp, Captain,” Hakram suddenly said. “He’s trying to push us out and use the fortifications to hold off Wolf Company.”
I opened my eyes.
“Ready our line,” I grimaced. “If it goes sour for them, we’re going in.”
Already Ratface’s line was having trouble dealing with the tenth of heavies: they weren’t losing ground, but they weren’t pushing them back either. A flurry of fireballs hit the ogres as they strode forward, but it barely slowed them – Kilian hand’t though to concentrate on a single target. The flames slid off the plate and then the ogres impacted into Nauk’s heavies. Oh, Weeping Heavens. Back at the orphanage, I’d once seen a girl drop a heated plate on a block of butter. Seeing the ogres crumple the first rank of heavies with the initial swing was eerily reminiscent of that. Shields broke, legionaries fell and the only reason they were stopped was because the second rank heavies got in close. I saw Nauk take a swing straight in the shield arm and though I couldn’t actually hear the bones break from where I stood my imagination provided a vivid approximate. The lieutenant fell to the ground, dropping his shield, but that was when things got… weird. The large orc spasmed once, then twice, and I heard Hakram breathe in sharply.
“Sergeant,” I began, “what’s-”
Nauk let out a blood curling scream and rose to his feet. I’d once seen him take on two legionaries with his bare hands but there’d been a degree of control to him back then, for all his roaring. There was no trace of that now. He jumped on the back of the ogre who’d struck him, abandoning his weapon, and started hammering into the legionary’s helmet with his bare hands. The first strike saw the hands turn into a bloodied mess and it got worse from there.
“What the actual fuck,” I said in a faint tone.
“You ever wonder why Nauk was never in the running for captain?” Hakram said quietly. “That’s why. He’s got the Red Rage.”
“He’s a berserker?” I asked.
My sergeant shook his head. “Berserkers can… well, not control it but direct it at least. He can’t. He’ll keep fighting everything until he drops, friend or foe.”
As if to drive the point home Nauk’s armoured boot impacted with the face of one of his own soldiers, sending him sprawling. His line was on the verge of collapse and already more heavies were nearing the camp, aiming to reinforce the tenth locking down my left flank.
“We performed a lot better against Juniper’s soldiers,” I frowned. “Ratface shouldn’t be doing this badly.”
“They’re not underestimating us anymore, Captain,” Hakram gravelled. “You took the fort with even numbers, last game. People took notice. They’re taking us seriously now.”
“Balls,” I said, feelingly. “Damage control time. We’re going to back up Nauk.”
The greenskin sergeant barked out orders and we set to a brisk walk. Pickler’s line parted for us silently and I allowed my line to pull a little ahead as I stopped for a word with the lieutenant.
“Captain,” the goblin grimaced. “I should have taken sharpers into consideration. This is my mistake.”
“We can do the blame game after this is done,” I grunted back. “Pull out all the stops, Pickler. I want brightsticks and sharpers in the lot of them as soon as they fill the wedge. Wait for my signal.”
She nodded. I felt Robber sneaking behind me before I saw him, turning to fix the diminutive goblin with a steady look. He threw me a sharper and I caught the clay ball with my free hand, raising an eyebrow.
“If you get one under the armour they’ll take one of the big guys out,” he grinned. “Go do your thing, Captain. I’m looking forward to the chaos.”
Of course he was. I was half-tempted to throw the thing right at his head, but now was not the moment to be petulant. I put a spring to my step and caught up with my line just as they got to Nauk’s. I slipped my way through one of the gaps in the ranks right before my regulars filled it, heading straight for the nearest ogre. Was that lieutenant’s stripes I saw on the shoulder? As usual, luck was enjoying pissing all over my day. All right, Catherine. This is just like sparring with Captain, if she was half a dozen feet taller and intent on really beating me up. The gargantuan mountain of steel moved in my direction, face impossible to see under the close plate helm. The ogre struck with vicious speed, hammer coming for my shoulder in the blink of an eye. Calmly, carefully, I took a half-step back out of range. My opponent slowed the swing, getting closer, and that was when I pushed forward. All in the timing, the way Black had taught me. I slipped inside my enemy’s guard and slapped the flat of my blade into the ogre’s helm. It bounced off with a sharp ring.
Well, that was useless. I danced around a kick that would have sent me sprawling, trying to get a hit in on the knee joint but being forced to back away by an awkward swing of the hammer. Given the size of the thing, even a weak hit would have enough weight to it to mess me up. My fingers tightened against the sharper Robber had given me as I tried to circle around the ogre, dodging another hammer stroke by the skin of my teeth. The malevolent little sergeant hadn’t given me anything to light it with, I suddenly realized. Not that I had a free hand to use even if he had. Robber, you asshole. I snuck a look back at my line and saw they were somehow managing to hold back the enemy advance, swarming the ogres with numbers and taking hard losses as they did. Ahead of me Kilian’s mages were holding off down enemy advance with a near-continuous stream of fireballs but Morok’s heavies were forming into a shield wall and when they managed that would be the end of that. Regulars wouldn’t be able to power through a sorcery barrage, but heavies certainly would.
My inattention was rewarded by the ogre’s hammer clipping my shoulder. It was a glancing hit at best, but it still spun me about like a leaf. I managed to stay on my feet but a moment later I got kicked in the chest. I fell on my knees and absently wished I hadn’t just eaten, because that jerky was doing its level best to resurface. Did I just feel the chain mail loosen?
“All right,” I croaked out as I pushed myself back to my feet. “That’s enough.”
The ogre huffed out a metallic laugh. Snatching up the sharper I’d dropped after the kick, I ran in my opponent’s direction. Come on, these are pretty horrible odds. Doesn’t it count as a Struggle? My Name stirred slightly, but there was no sudden influx of power. Fine, a trickle was all I needed anyway. Gritting my teeth, I watched the hammer rise and counted down. One, two, three steps and – there it went. Apparently done playing, the ogre swung down in a stroke that would have shattered my shoulders in several smaller and painful bone shards had it landed. Too slow, though. The hammer struck the ground a little to my right and I jumped onto the ogre’s chest, ramming the sharper into the joint between the neck and the shoulder. Hanging on for dear life I forcefully took hold of that small thread of power my Name had granted me, forcefully pushing it into my hand. My fingers crackled with pitch black energy and I punched the sharper as hard as I could.
This was, admittedly, not the most elegant plan I’d come up with.
The impact blew me clean off the ogre. I landed painfully in the dust, breath pushed out of my stomach and my ears ringing. I grinned when I felt the ground shake, opening my eyes to the sight of my toppled opponent. That’s going to be one nasty concussion, my friend, but that’s what healers are for. I got to my feet and coughed out a bit of dust, taking a bleary look around. It seemed I’d landed somewhere around the wedge. I glanced to my left and my blood ran cold. I had landed in the wedge, I realized. In the middle. Just before Morok’s heavies pushed in with their shield wall.
“That’s their Captain,” I heard a girl’s voice call out from the enemy ranks. “She’s on the priority target list.”
Rat Company replied by sending a volley of fireballs right into the shield wall, though they were noticeably less bright than they’d been at the beginning of the fight. My mages were getting tired. Spitting out a bit of stone stuck in my mouth, I wiped my lips and took a look at the rest of the fight. The ogre tenth was on its last legs, overwhelmed by numbers and the lack of back-up Kilian had managed to accomplish. Two of them were still fighting but my legionaries and Nauk’s were piling up on them so much they could hardly move. I just needed to distract the enemy long enough for them to be taken out.
“Gods, this feels unpleasantly heroic,” I muttered to myself.
I took a deep breath and limbered my fingers.
“CAPTAIN MOROK,” I called out. “COME OUT, YOU WRETCH. YOU AND ME, OUT HERE ON THE FIELD.”
There was a heartbeat of silence.
“She did punch a sharper,” someone mused out loud. “That’d scramble anyone’s brains.”
I shot the Soninke boy in question an offended look.There was no need to get personal about this. I snuck another look at the melee to my left – one ogre remaining now, and it was in trouble. Come on, Morok. You’re one of the proud ones. You can still salvage how this looks by taking me out.
“LIZARD COMPANY, FORWARD,” the captain in question barked.
And the bait had failed. Godsdamnit, I hated it when my enemies were competent. It made everything so complicated. I took a moment to look suitably defiant at the enemy before praying Pickler was close enough to hear me over the sound of the fighting.
“PICKLER, NOW,” I yelled.
For a moment nothing happened and I looked like a complete imbecile, standing in front of about thirty enemy heavies with my sword pointed forward. Then a dozen clay cylinders arced above me, coming to roll at the feet of Morok’s forward line. I closed my eyes right before the blinding light hit, turning a clean pair of heels to the enemy and getting the Hells out of there before they could run me down. By the time I’d gotten back to my line, the last ogre was down and Pickler’s sappers had tossed a round of sharpers into the enemy ranks. It made me wince to think that we’d wasted at least half of our munitions on what had been supposed to be our easiest battle, but there was no helping it. Lizard Company would not have been so high in the rankings if they were easy to deal with. I saw Hakram drag back an unconscious Nauk behind our lines and drop him none too gently, turning to salute me when he noticed my return.
“How are we doing, sergeant?” I panted out, sheathing my sword as I took cover behind my assembling men.
“Between the rest of the heavies and our own cadets capable of fighting, we make up most of a line,” he gravelled.
That barely qualified as good news, but I’d still take it. I pushed back a sweaty lock of hair that had slipped out from under my helmet.
“Send a messenger to Kilian,” I told my sergeant. “I want her tenth of shields sent to back up Ratface. We need to start pushing them out of camp.”
“I’ll see to it. But it might not even be necessary, Captain,” the tall orc grinned savagely. “Smoke’s clearing out. Look at what Bishara’s up to.”
I did. The handful of smokers I’d ordered thrown into the entrance at the beginning of the battle had finally started to disperse. Wolf Company had slipped around Morok’s extended flank with almost contemptuous ease, flipping an entire line and using the momentum to drive the other one right into the stakes surrounding my camp. Lizard Company had sent another tenth into the mess to try to salvage it, but it was already collapsing under the pressure. In a matter of moments the Wolves would be hitting the back of Morok’s heavies right as they tried pushing their way through my wedge.
“There’s no way he can swing this,” I realized. “He needs to pull back or he’s out of the game.”
The conditions for the elimination of a company were very straightforward: either every officer in a company of lieutenant rank and above had to be incapacitated, or else eight soldiers out of ten in the company. Rat Company had, by the skin of its teeth, managed to take out a line. Aisha’s legionaries had done the same to another two lines and were getting started on a third. If Morok didn’t pull out now, the Lizards he risked elimination by numbers. Which was exactly my intention, actually. The number of prisoners and enemy wounded this skirmish would result in was so large that the manpower cost of keeping an eye on them would be crippling. We wouldn’t be able to move that many people quickly or easily, and we didn’t have a defendable stronghold where we could put them away. The Lizards needed to be broken here and now, or they’d leave a bloody mess for me to deal with.
Morok seemed to agreed with my assessment. His companu sounded the retreat, the tenth Ratface was still struggling with pulling out in good order. Immediately I ordered my own line to push forward, signalling for the former captain’s to do the same. The grounds were uneven where the demolition charges had been blown, but both lines formed in the best order they could. We held position at the mouth of the entrance as Wolf Company moved to complete their encirclement. Only a matter of time now. There was a sudden flash of lightning from Aisha’s mage line and a bolt struck in the middle of the enemy’s formation. I couldn’t see who they’d hit and the effort seemed something of a waste, but a few heartbeats later thunder rumbled in the distance. Lizard Company’s standard appeared as a giant image in the sky, a red streak across it. Eliminated. She must have aimed for Morok.
I raised my sword in victory, my company cheering behind me.
Clean up was as much work as the actual fighting.
Legionaries from both victorious companies were picking through the packs of the vanquished one, putting aside the goblin munitions in a great pile we’d distribute later. Aisha had agreed on splitting them half and half when we’d struck our deal, though it had taken a great deal of wheedling on my part. She’d given in in the end, though, since if the both of us were to assault Snatcher’s fortifications then I could hardly be expected to send my cadets into the breach with depleted stores. Mages from all companies were already at work on the wounded, the Rats and Wolves because we’d need to get moving before too long and the Lizards because they needed to be able to march to their pick up point before being escorted back to Ater. The mood was festive on the winning side, legionaries trading good-natured jibes and boasts as I finished taking casualty reports from my lieutenants.
The butcher’s bill wasn’t as bad as it could have been: Ratface had played it out conservatively and barely had a handful of wounded to his name. Nauk’s line had been the most brutally hit and the orc lieutenant was still out of it. Sergeant Nilin was handling his duties until the healers managed to drag him back to consciousness. Overall there were twenty seven wounded among my men, the majority of which would be back on their feet after a session with our healers. The four that were more severely hurt were still able to march, though they wouldn’t be fighting again in the melee. That’s fine. It could have been worse, and I can still use them for sentries. I dismissed my officers when I saw Aisha strolling down the main entrance with a handful of her own legionaries escorting her. Ratface cast a long look in her direction before saluting and returning to his line. I only barely refrained from sighing. Now was not the time for the lieutenant to start mooning over the captain of Wolf Company.
“Captain Callow,” Aisha greeted me with a smile. “Well fought.”
I clasped the forearm she offered me.
“You did most of the heavy lifting on this one,” I acknowledged. “All we did was hold the line.”
“Your inspired trick with the smokers hurt him more than you think,” the Taghreb captain assured me. “It was clever of you to keep him from concentrating his force with the smoke so the fireballs would be able to keep him away.”
I’d done what now? Ordering Pickler to throw the smokers in had been a knee-jerk reaction to Morok blowing the charges, not something I’d given a lot of thought to. I’d originally meant for Lizard Company to fill the wedge I’d made so that my sapper line’s munitions would have the greatest possible effect, though in retrospective I could see how that would have ended badly. If Morok had managed to bring that many troops inside my camp he would have broken through my lines for sure, and it would have been all downhill from there.
“I try,” I replied neutrally, doing my best to hide that my ‘tactical ingenuity’ was news to me. “How were casualties on your side?”
“Light,” the olive-skinned girl noted. “We’ll be ready to march in a quarter bell.”
“I’ll need at least twice that,” I replied. “My mages are running out of juice and the ogres did a number on my heavies.”
“They have a way of doing that,” Aisha said sympathetically. “Is that why I’m hearing chatter about you getting so angry you punched an ogre into unconsciousness?”
I closed my eyes and rubbed the bride of my nose, imploring the Heavens for patience.
“That’s not what happened,” I told her, “I mean, I can understand it might have looked like that from a distance but I used a sharper.”
The other captain patted me on the shoulder, dark eyes glittering with amusement.
“It’s all right, Callow, you don’t need to pretend with me,” she consoled me. “There were already rumours about your grudge against them, anyhow, what with you castrating one in single combat.”
“I used to think the girls at my orphanage were the worst gossips in the world,” I sighed, “but then I came to the College.”
The dark-haired girl snorted, though after a moment her face turned serious again.
“I became worried when you were late in giving me the signal,” she said. “What happened?”
“We had a bad starting position,” I grunted. “Middle of the plain to the south.”
Aisha raised an eyebrow.
“And you didn’t manage to get here before sundown? I thought Ratface drilled your cadets better than that.”
“Before sundown?” I asked dubiously. “The sun was already setting when we snapped out of the blood magic.”
The Taghreb girl blinked in surprise.
“That’s strange. We were all awake around Afternoon Bell,” she told me.
Oh, fuck you Heiress. Seriously?
“Must have been a mistake with the casting,” I grunted, unwilling to give a real explanation.
The other captain looked unconvinced, but she didn’t press the subject.
“Regardless,” Aisha spoke, “it gave me time to scout around thoroughly. First Company was on the plains on the other side of the forest yesterday, though where they are now is anyone’s guess. Morok seems to have started in the canyon, which means Fox Company is east of us.”
“In the badlands,” I grimaced. “Burning Hells. He’ll have fortified wherever he ended up to a ridiculous extent.”
“On one hand,” my temporary ally noted, “it means he won’t have been able to have cut many trees from the forest, if any. But he might have eschewed that entirely and built in rock instead, which would be… troublesome.”
“We need to find him before he ends up making an actual castle, then,” I grunted. “I’ll tell my mages to hurry it up.”
“That would be appreciated,” Aisha nodded. “I’ll have one of my lieutenants handle the distribution of the munitions.”
There was only so much magic Kilian’s minions were able to squeeze out in a day, unfortunately, and their earlier pyrotechnics had used up the lion’s share. Given how physically exhausting casting could be, I wouldn’t even be able to set a fast pace when we marched: after last night’s moonlit stroll and the morning’s fighting they would be physically incapable of moving that fast. I ended up remaining within the bounds of my original prediction of a half bell, though it was a close thing. The entire allied force took a turn towards the south east for the first leg of our journey, Wolf Company being well aware of how easy it would be to charge out of the woods into someone’s flanks after having done that exact thing. I put Ratface’s line in the lead this time and left Hakram to take care of mine, keeping a newly-awakened Nauk company instead. The large orc was sheepish about the entire Red Rage debacle and apologized at least twice before I dismissed the whole thing.
“Hakram told me it’s why you were never in the running for captain,” I told him.
“Can’t have the man in charge fly into rage every time he’s too badly injured,” Nauk grunted. “Been lucky enough to have Nilin with me since my first semester – he knows how to pick up the slack when I lose it.”
“Ratface is too conservative when he commands,” I noted, “and I can see why it might be a liability to have you in charge. Kilian and Pickler, though, why did they never step up?”
It would be a lie to say I hadn’t been appalled by how abysmal Rat Company’s score was. I had a hard time reconciling that with their performance in our first war games, though after the battle we’d just gone through I could see that one of the reasons my band of survivors had been so effective was that we’d been badly underestimated by the First Company. The fact that Ratface’s line of twenty regulars hadn’t managed to drive back a single tenth of heavies was a grim indicator of how my cadets would actually perform in a straight up fight.
“Kilian’s got some kind of condition from her creature blood,” Nauk told me. “Sometimes she draws too much magic and start speaking in tongues.”
Creature blood? Something to ask my sergeant about. Anyhow, that was already half of my senior officers who could find themselves incapacitated if things got a little too hot. No wonder they fold every time the other companies turn up the pressure..
“Pickler?” I prompted.
The large orc looked uncomfortable, which would have been an amusing sight on his thick-skinned face if the subject wasn’t so serious.
“She failed out of Advanced Tactics,” he admitted. “If it ain’t related to engineering she doesn’t care for it.”
Of the problems with my officers, that was the least damaging. The goblin served effectively enough as the lieutenant for my sapper line, I just had to ensure she never ended up having to make decisions too broad in scope. I clapped Nauk on the back, carefully avoiding his still-tender arm, and moved back to the head of my column as I chewed over what I’d learned. Flawed officers, but nothing I couldn’t work with. I just had to find the right way to use them.
By the time sundown came we’d gotten fairly deep into the badlands.
Wolf Company’s scouts had found a day-old trail a few hours back that led straight to the forest – and then another fresher one, with much deeper tracks. Snatcher’s men had brought back timber to wherever he was holed up. The scouts tried to follow the tracks back to his camp but after a patch of bare rock they simply disappeared. Of course it wouldn’t be that easy. Robber climbed his way up a rock spire and reported that the slope in the south east went downhill: there was no sign of any camp down there, though of course it was possible Snatcher had hid away behind one of the many stone hills. After conferring with Aisha we decided to head towards the northeast regardless. The grounds got more difficult to navigate in that direction, and that was best sort of territory for Fox Company to settle in.
We made camp right before nightfall, neither of our companies putting in the effort to fortify the hollow we claimed as our spot. I wasn’t sure what Aisha’s reasons were, but I was simply reluctant to put my legionaries through more hard labour after the day they’d had. I needed them as fresh as possible for the assault on Snatcher’s fortifications, the mages especially. Still, I drew the line at ordering half-watches. There were still two other companies marauding about and while I doubted anyone would attack me while my alliance with Wolf Company was still active I wasn’t going to be taking any risks. Not with Juniper still out there. My night of sleep ended up being a short one, as Hakram woke me up while the moon was still out.
“Callow,” he gravelled. “We have a problem.”
I cursed and reached for my sword belt, tossing away my blanket.
“Wolf Company?” I asked immediately.
Without my Name I probably wouldn’t have been able to make out the way my sergeant grimaced.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Doesn’t seem like it, but…”
I finished putting on my boots and frowned at him.
“What happened, Hakram?”
“Seven of our sentries have disappeared,” he told me.
The vast majority of my camp was still asleep, and casting an eye around I couldn’t see anything that qualified as unusual activity. Wolf Company wasn’t assembling, so it didn’t seem like they were planning to betray us. Not yet, anyway.
“Our munitions are still untouched?” I asked.
“First thing I checked,” the sergeant replied. “Nothing wrong there, Pickler inspected them herself.”
So whoever was behind this wasn’t planning an attack. Then why are they doing this? Normally taking out sentries would be a prelude to a night attack, but my opponent wasn’t pressing their advantage.
“Juniper,” I realized suddenly.
“Then why didn’t she raid deeper into the camp?” Hakram wondered.
“Because she’s not after our munitions,” I cursed. “She’s just trying to lower our numbers.”
The Hellhound knew I had a Name, knew what kind of damage those could cause. So to mitigate that advantage she was going to keep grinding down my forces as much as she could before giving battle. What did it matter if I could take a tenth of heavies on my own, if I had a single line to back me up against the entire First Company?
“Double the watch,” I ordered tiredly. “No one patrols alone and send word to Captain Bishara that First Company has men in the area.”
My sleep was uneasy after the wake-up call, but there were no more abductions that night. There was no more time to worry, anyhow: by Noon Bell the next day, we’d found Snatcher’s camp.