“The patient knife always strikes true.”
– Soninke saying
I let out a soft whistle. “That doesn’t look like a Legion design.”
“Bin hamar,” Aisha cursed in a low voice. “He must have had his cadets working through the night.”
I glanced at her curiously. My Taghrebi was still a little iffy, though I recognized the word for donkey in there. Still, Snatcher’s fortifications did warrant quite a bit of cussing. Fox Company had made camp over a hill in the centre of a hollow, though their defences extended quite a bit further than that. The first wall wouldn’t be too hard to take, I assessed. Three feet of stone and sand packed together tightly were topped by a row of sudis, with small openings slits for crossbowmen to shoot through. Demolition charges would punch through those in a matter of moments, though my own company was running a little short on those. Morok hadn’t carried any, and though Rat Company was once more topped off on smokers and brightsticks a shortage of heavier munitions had the potential to be very costly here. From the high grounds where Captain Bishara and I stood, however, we could see that the first wall was the least of our worries.
There were about a hundred feet of open ground after the wall, and one didn’t need my Name-improved sight to see some of it had been freshly dug. Rubies to piglets that Snatcher mined the Hells out of that. Too many places had been dug into for all of them to be covering a demolition charge, but there was way to tell which of them really were mined. If any of them were, I thought with a grimace. He might have left the more obvious marks as a feint and dug in his charges less obviously. Should the Wolves and my Rats manage to breach the first wall, then we’d have to charge across the flat grounds through the traps while getting shot at by Fox Company. And then we’d get to the fucking second wall. It was more or less impossible to see the hill the sapper-built fort had been based from, with the stone ramparts ten feet high hiding away the sight of it. The depth of the ditch the Foxes had dug right in front of said ramparts was hard to estimate, but even from where I stood I could glimpse the sight of the sharp wooden stakes jutting out of it.
Some kind of wooden tower had been erected in the middle of the fort, standing above even the ramparts – it looked more like a platform, actually, though its purpose eluded me for now. At the moment most of Fox Company’s legionaries were taking cover behind the first wall, patiently waiting for our own cadets to come into range. No attempt had been made on Snatcher’s side to initiate talks after we’d arrived, and neither Aisha nor I were particularly inclined to attempt them. At this point, giving the other captain more time to dig in would be shooting ourselves in the foot.
“I can have my company ready for the fight fairly quickly,” I grunted. “We’ll be taking the first wave, as agreed.”
That had been the second price I’d agreed to pay for Wolf Company’s assistance against the Lizards. When the time to assault Snatcher came, my soldiers would be the first into the breach – and so would be the ones running into all the nasty little surprises the goblin captain no doubt had in store. Aisha eyed me sideways.
“Rushing our attack might prove more costly than we can afford,” she demurred. “First we set up our camps, then we’ll hash out a planned offensive.”
I clenched my fingers and unclenched them. I could see the sense in what Bishara was proposing, but it did not suit my own plans.
“The longer we delay, the higher the chances Juniper stabs us in the back while we’re dealing with Snatcher,” I reminded her. “We know she has men in the area, and following our tracks here will be child’s play.”
Hiding away the tracks of two hundred legionaries, some of them in heavy plate, was not something any of us had been trained for. If Juniper wanted to find us, she would. The Taghreb girl’s lovely face was marred by a dubious look.
“It’s unlikely she has more than a single line shadowing us,” she replied. “Regardless, we will not be attacking blindly: I fully intend on scouting our backs before committing to the assault. You can have your men patrol the south-east, if you’re truly worried. Should she bring her whole company to bear, we can take her together before dealing with Snatcher.”
I smiled politely at her words, not believing a word of them. I trust you to hold up your end of the bargain against the Foxes, Bishara, but against the Hellhound? That’s a whole other story. Ensuring Snatcher would be knocked out of the melee as quick as possible was a priority for the Wolves, since their company score would hitch them up to third place if the Foxes lost their bid. But everything after that got trickier. Juniper and Aisha were friends, I knew. How much that would weigh in on her decision making I couldn’t be sure, but I did not think the other captain would think twice about selling me out to First Company. She could take on on Snatcher with their help instead of mine, and there was no denying that Juniper’s soldiers would perform better than Rat Company’s in the matter. And yet I couldn’t just tell her that. I sighed.
“We do it your way, then,” I conceded.
After a silent nod I made my way down the hill, returning to my company’s ranks. Hakram was already waiting for me, wonder of a sergeant that he was, and a few orders to him got my cadets started on making camp. I found Pickler in the midst of the flurry of sudden activity, Robber at her side. Good, I’d needed to talk with the both of them.
“Lieutenant, Sergeant,” I greeted them as they saluted. “I have work for you.”
The yellow-eyed little bastard immediately started grinning, though his commanding officer remained more sedate.
“What do you need, Captain?” Pickler asked.
“I want a tenth out on patrol,” I grunted back. “Start in our south-east quadrant but swing around to the south of Snatcher’s camp afterwards. Keep an eye out for First Company.”
“And if Snatcher makes contact?” Robber slyly inquired.
I held his gaze steadily. “Use your better judgement.”
To the sergeant’s left I saw Pickler wince.
“Dismissed,” I spoke, ending the conversation.
By the time Pickler’s patrol came back, half a bell had passed.
The bare bones of Rat Company’s camp had been laid down, the regulation-spaced wall of sudis spikes rising out of the stony ground. To the west of us Wolf Company had claimed a hill for its own, with Aisha’s tent pitched at the top with the wolf skull standard close by. There was something of a commotion when Robber’s tenth came back, for they had a new addition to their ranks: an unusually large dead goat was being carried by a pair of sappers, neck bloodied where one of them had stabbed it. The corpse was dropped next to my bedroll – I’d elected not to bring a tent, preferring to travel light – as the sergeant strutted around like a victorious conqueror to the cheers of my cadets.
“Fresh meat for the next meal, Captain,” Robber told me proudly. “Hatcher stuck a knife in its neck before it even realized she was there.”
The female goblin he’d just provided me the name for shuffled on her feet, obviously uncomfortable with the attention. I rose from where I’d been sitting going over our only map and clapped the cadet’s armoured shoulder amicably.
“Well done, soldier,” I praised her warmly and bit back a smile when her cheeks flushed darkly.
“Thank you, sir,” she squeaked out, managing a salute before she basically ran away.
I watch her scuttle into the rocks like she was fleeing the scene of a crime, eyebrows raised.
“Shy type, is she?” I asked the sergeant.
“You’re beginning to have a bit of a reputation with the troops, ‘Cap,” Robber replied cheerfully. “You know, what with all that charging into fireballs and punching out ogres.”
“That was only the once, and you know the ogre thing is a filthy lie,” I protested.
“That’s my favourite kind of lie,” the sergeant admitted shamelessly. “Which is probably why I’ve been spreading it every occasion I get.”
“You’re an insubordinate wretch, Robber,” I told him.
“Title of my report card three years running,” the sergeant replied cheerfully, and it took an effort not to be openly amused.
“I don’t suppose you’ve got anything to report aside from your adventures in aggressive goat herding?” I prompted.
“Funny you would say that,” he murmured. “Half the reason we put the goat in front was so that no one would notice we had eleven sappers coming back. Snatcher sent a messenger.”
“I thought he might,” I grunted. “You keeping an eye on him?”
“I’ve got two cadets watching his back,” the sergeant replied.
“Go get your Lieutenant,” I ordered, “and spread the word I want a senior officer meeting immediately.”
“You got it,” he grinned, sauntering away as he whistled the first few notes of a strangely haunting tune. I’d heard it before, I thought, though I couldn’t remember where.
They say the third step is the cruelest
Walk when the moon is at her clearest:
Love ends with the kiss of the knife,
Trust is the wager that takes your life
The words accompanying the tune came back easily enough. Not a song I’d ever heard at the Rat’s Nest, I decided. Might have overheard it in the streets of Laure, or maybe someone had sung it to me when I’d been too young to remember. I mulled over the matter until all my lieutenants were assembled, though a real answer eluded me. Nauk was the first to break the silence when everyone had arrived.
“We hashing out a plan to suggest to Bishara?” he asked.
“Not exactly,” I replied. “It’s time to let you all in on the second step of my plan for the melee.”
Ratface was the first to catch on.
“Gods Below,” he cursed. “We’re betraying Wolf Company to the Foxes, aren’t we?”
“Got it in one,” I replied amusedly. “Snatcher came to have a talk after I first met with Aisha. He had an interesting proposition for me.”
“Is there anyone we aren’t betraying?” the Taghreb lieutenant quipped dryly.
I paused, mulling it over, and watch his face turn pale.
“Define betray,” I equivocated.
“This is not a question that should require this much thought to answer,” he burst out.
Kilian cleared her throat. “Amusing as this is, I’d prefer a little more information. How will this be going down?”
“Ideally we’d split our forces in two for the assault, each half on one of the flanks of Wolf Company,” I explained. “When the signal is given, Snatcher will make a sortie into their centre and we’ll fall on them from both sides.”
“And we’re sure Snatcher will hold up his part of the deal?” Pickler questioned.
“He wants Aisha out of the melee very, very badly,” I grunted. “He knows she won’t stop until one of them is done.”
“It should be enough to keep him honest for now,” Nauk gravelled in approval.
“Speaking of Snatcher,” I continued, “we have a messenger from the man.”
I motioned for the Fox Company sapper to come closer, dismissing his two escorts with a nod.
“Your name, cadet?” Nauk growled.
“Latcher, sir,” the goblin replied serenely.
Even in the heart of another company’s camp, the Fox legionary seemed unruffled. I’d noticed more than once that his eyes never stopped moving, always seeking out additional details he could report to his own captain about the state of my company. A reminder that after Aisha was down for the count we’d be enemies again. The part of his armour where the foxhead stamp revealing where his allegiances lay had been cleverly scratched out, though if anyone from Wolf Company recognized his face that would be a moot point. I’d need to keep him carefully out of sight, and with his helmet on at all times.
“And what message does Captain Snatcher send you with, Latcher?” I prompted.
“Our company will be ready to hit Captain Bishara’s centre the moment yours sounds the horn twice,” he replied.
I hummed thoughtfully, drumming my fingers against my knee.
“I’m not seeing a door in the first wall, cadet,” I pointed out. “How will Fox Company be joining the battle?”
The goblin bobbed his head. “Some parts of the palisade are removable,” he informed us. “That said, most of our company will be staying at a distance to contribute through crossbows. Only our two lines of regulars will be charging into the fight.”
I’d expected about as much. Sending in goblin sappers into a sword fight would result in catastrophic losses for him and little change in the engagement’s outcome.
“It will do,” I grunted. “I expect we’ll be beginning our assault by Afternoon Bell, so you won’t have time to sneak back into your camp. You’ll be staying with Pickler’s line until then. Don’t draw attention to yourself.”
“By your will, Captain,” Latcher agreed softly.
Talking Aisha into my formation had been surprisingly easy, considering it was far from the optimal way to attack the wall. My guess was that as a new captain she’d been expecting me to blunder for some time, and that she’d decided Rat Company taking losses here would make us easier to mop up afterwards. I kept Nauk and his heavies in my half, in case there was another Red Rage episode, and put Ratface in charge of the other one. Pickler went with him and Kilian’s line was split in two, with her shields bolstering Ratface’s line while I took the mages and the lieutenant in question. I could glimpse Snatcher’s men behind the palisade, much more heavily concentrated than they had been this morning. I watched Ratface position his men just out of crossbow range and prepare his line as Hakram did the same with own with my forces. We’d be ready soon. The Wolves stood in the flat grounds of the hollow, ranks perfectly ordered and ready to move: Aisha had put her mages and sappers in the middle of a tightly-packed square, though given how quickly her company could move that meant very little. Taking the signal horn from my pack, I took a deep breath and prepared to sound the beginning of the battle. Sorry, Aisha, but this was my best option. The deep sound thundered across the badlands.
I had not been the one to blow it.
Armour shining in the sun, Wolf Company pivoted with parade-ground perfection to face my separated men and started to charge. Pushing down the urge to curse my heart out, I put my lips to the polished ram’s horn and sounded it twice. Four chunks of the palisade were immediately raised up and put aside, Snatcher’s lines starting to pour through. What the Hells was Aisha’s game here, I wondered. Had she been aware I was about to betray her? No, if she had she would have left more than a line facing the direction Fox Company was currently forming ranks in. It didn’t make sense for her to force a fight with me before we’d assaulted Snatcher’s fortifications. She’d probably beat me, but she’d still take losses and –
“Oh fuck my life,” I spoke out loud.
I turned to look at the northwest, the part of our back Wolf Company’s patrols had been supposed to be covering. A black standard with the silver crossed swords of the War College rose over the crest of the hills, First Company’s forward lines briskly marching in our direction. Well, that explains why she wanted to wait a bell until the assault. She was giving Juniper time to catch up. The thought was oddly calm, considering I was panicking at the moment. What should I do? Take a gamble and hope we could rout Aisha before Juniper arrived? No, even then we’d be stuck facing First Company with split forces and I wasn’t sure I could count on Snatcher to stick with me through the fight. He might just withdraw behind the walls and let us fight it out. I threw my helmet on the ground and let out a cry of anger.
I couldn’t let it end here. Not with everything that was at stake.
“Hakram,” I called out.
“Sir?” my sergeant prompted.
He’d been about to rejoin our line to prepare it for the fight with Aisha’s men, who were less than a hundred feet from us now. I spat on the ground.
“We withdraw,” I told him, the words feeling like ash in my mouth. “Follow Snatcher’s wall to the east, there’s bound to be another way in there.”
The goblin captain wouldn’t refuse me entrance, not when he had two other companies knocking at his gates. He needed the numbers. The real problem was that there was no way to get a message to Ratface to tell him to do the same on the other side. The tall orc saluted without a word, returning to our men to see my bidding done. Gingerly I picked up my helmet, watching as the half of my forces under the command of Rat Company’s former captain prepared to meet the charge of the Wolves. My own soldiers started retreating in their assigned direction a moment later, and I sounded the horn one last time as a warning to the rest of my cadets. It was for naught. The lines met, and over the horizon Juniper’s legionaries turned in their direction. I would have stayed to watch longer, but Wolf Company was getting close and there was a limit to how any people I could take on even with my Name. Fingers clenched, I ran to catch up with my legionaries and we fled.
Fox Company opened another chunk of the palisade to let us through long before Wolf Company was in a position to do anything about it, the captain himself coming to meet me almost immediately. Snatcher was tall, for a goblin: the top of his head went up to my chin. His skin was of a paler green than I was accustomed to, smooth and almost entirely without the usual wrinkles. Yellow eyes like Robber’s looked back at me, although his left one had a way of facing away from where he was looking. It made it hard to meet him eye-to-eye.
“Captain Callow,” he rasped out in an ever-surprisingly deep voice for a goblin.
“Captain Snatcher,” I replied tiredly, clasping the offered arm.
“Bit of a mess today,” he sympathized. “Didn’t think Bishara had it in her.”
“Neither did I,” I admitted. “A lesson to remember. Do you know what happened to the rest of my men?”
“They broke and ran when they saw Juniper coming to sweep them,” he replied. “We opened a gate for them on the western side when they fled in that direction. Most of your sappers made it through, as well as a few of Ratface’s cadets. Twenty-three overall.”
With my own survivors, that brought me down to seventy-one legionaries. Not as bad of a disaster as it could have been, but still a crippling defeat. I grimaced. Black had been right, damn his Praesi hide: one step of my plan had failed and now the whole thing was useless. I’d have to start planning from scratch again, and my position was horribly weak.
“Do they show any sign of wanting to assault?” I asked.
Snatcher shook his head. “First Company is taking over your camp. I doubt they’ll try anything until tomorrow morning.”
I frowned. “Why the wait? They still have at least a bell until sundown.”
“Juniper’s forces aren’t all here,” the other captain grimaced. “Her sappers are still missing. Building ladders and a ram, if I had to guess.”
“They’ll still be at a disadvantage going on the offence, even with those,” I noted. “Between your crossbows and my heavies we’ll be able to hold them off even if they attack several spots at the same time.”
“I have a few thoughts about this, as it happens,” the goblin smiled. “Walk with me, Callow.”
For a moment I thought he’d make like a Callowan and offer me his arm to slip into mine but he simply ambled on ahead. Probably better that way, I mused. Never seen a goblin riding a horse before, so knighthood would be a stretch. I caught up with him and we strolled next to the wall like this was a Proceran garden viewing.
“As you’ve no doubt noticed,” he started, “ the walls to my second ring of my fortifications are stone and dirt.”
I nodded, curious where he was going with this.
“And yet,” he spoke almost casually, “there is no sign of the digging efforts that would be necessary for such an accomplishment.”
My eyes sharpened. He was right: I’d been so focused on the possible mine field I’d never thought to wonder where the materials making his rampart from had come from. Some of it must have been from the ditch in front of it, but that wasn’t enough to explain ten feet high walls.
“You’ve been digging elsewhere,” I said.
Snatcher’s lazy eye wandered as he bared yellowing needle-like teeth in approval.
“Goblins weren’t always surfacers, you know,” he told me. “We once lived underground, before the dwarves drove us out and into the Grey Eyries.”
I clenched my fingers and unclenched them, letting my other hand rest on the pommel of my sword.
“Tunnels,” I realized. “You’ve been digging tunnels.”
“And they lead right to the two most likely camp sites for a besieging force,” he chuckled. “So tell me, Captain Callow: how would you like to even your score with Bishara?”
My answering smile was a savage thing. “I think you and I will get along very well, Captain Snatcher.”