“Never back the Praesi in a corner, son. That’s when the devil-summoning starts, and it’s all downhill from there.”
-King Jehan of Callow, addressing the future King Pater the Unheeding
Snatcher had suggested we wait until sundown for the sneak attack, and I wasn’t inclined to disagree.
I had a lot of work before me, as it happened. I needed to get a real headcount of my remaining cadets, go through our stocks to see what we had left munitions-wise and brief my remaining officers on the new plan. We were in no danger of being eliminated through officer attrition, given that my only missing lieutenant was – once again – Ratface but I’d already figured out that numbers were the way Juniper was aiming to take me out. Wise of her, considering I’d take quite a few legionaries to put me down if she cornered me badly enough. My Name was still being a temperamental bitch about coughing out power, but I had a feeling that if the opposition got too overwhelming it would trigger my Struggle aspect again. Though how much help that would be against a group is still up in the air.
Though he remained tight-lipped on more general Role lore, I’d managed to get some tips on using my own from Black. He’d told me that aspects always needed specific conditions to be tapped into, and usually had at least one flat limitation. Learn, for example, only applied when I was consciously being taught. Trying to pick up a sword trick in the middle of a duel would fail every time. As for Struggle, he’d been less helpful in puzzling it out: it had not been one of his aspects back when he’d been the Squire, and though he’d made a study of Names their powers had a way of varying wildly from one Named to another. His guess was that the aspect was meant as an equalizer: when I was outclassed, my Name would put me on even footing with my opponent for a short amount of time. There was no way to be sure whether he was right or not until it was put to the test, but his theory had felt… right. Like it fit in a wider pattern.
Names were supposed to respond with who you were, and I’d known from the moment I’d accepted the Calamity’s offer that most of my battles would be uphill ones. That my Name had responded to my desire for a way to even the playing field made perfect sense to me. I was worrying, though, that it would not react the same to multiple opponents. When I’d taken Rashid by surprise and stabbed his sorry ass we’d essentially been duelling. When I’d jumped over the log in the last war game I’d not been tapping into the Struggle, I was pretty sure. Just making use of what little power my damaged connection to my Name had made available at the time. Would the aspect trigger if I was facing multiple opponents that were, strictly speaking, weaker than I? I had my doubts.
Already I knew that it only reacted to direct threats, or it would have reacted when Heiress was outmanoeuvring me in the Tower. I was kind of hoping my third aspect would involve a loud alarm blaring in the back of my head whenever the Soninke noble was fucking me over, but I doubted it would be that easy. There was a sort of twisted duality to my Name and hers, one that brought to mind one of the first afternoon lessons with my teacher. Most of the time we went over my assigned readings and he clarified points or expanded on them, but once in a while he’d strike a debate over a subject and the afternoon was spent discussing it. I’d learn to both dread and look forward to those particular lessons: I always came out having learned something useful, but the conclusions could be… morally flexible, to put it mildly.
That time, the subject had been the nature of power. “Dread Emperor Terribilis once said that power is the ability to see your will done,” he’d begun. “Using that as a touchstone, I would classify power in two broad types: soft power and hard power.” Soft power, he’d elaborated, was the use of indirect methods and influence. Convincing and coercing others to do your bidding through persuasion or social pressure. Though I disliked her on a personal level, on an objective one I could see that Heiress excelled at that kind of work. She’d managed to turn all the other claimants against me back in Summerholm with minimum effort and no risk to herself. When we’d met face to face on the Blessed Isle the use of force had been a backup plan, not the main thrust of her effort: instead she’d offered me something she thought I wanted, in a way that would marginalize me as an obstacle to her plans.
Hard power, by contrast, was where I lived at. Direct application of force to dictate your will on others. The way Black had phrased that made me uncomfortable, but there was some truth to his words. In the end, I was not above imposing what I thought was right and wrong on others at the edge of a sword. Even what could be called my one foray into soft power, when I’d decided to use the Lone Swordsman as a way to set Callow on fire an advance my cause, had been something I’d managed to accomplish by forcefully beating the hero first. I still remembered the way every one of the claimants for Squire had gone about things differently, almost as if the Name was pitting different methods against each other to see which was the most worthy. In that light, I did not think it was a coincidence that Heiress and I used fundamentally different ways of getting what we wanted. We were in a competition, clearly, I just wasn’t sure for what.
Not that it changed anything. Heiress had been sharpening knives meant for my back before we’d ever met, and I did not think she was done interfering in the melee yet. The blood magic delay and my shitty starting position felt like her hand at work, but that could not be the only string to her bow. The two incidents I suspected she was behind had damaged my performance, yes, but so far she’d always gone for more thorough plots than that. All the moves she’d made before had the potential of taking me entirely out of the equation, which meant there was likely a third stroke coming for my neck. But from where? So far she’d interfered through the College, which made sense: it was an old institution, one where her family was likely to have pre-existing contacts. Pickler had already killed my initial guess of her bribing one of the participating captains, which left… outside interference?
That seemed unlikely, with the way Black was bound to be watching all of this like a hawk. Heiress was good, but not good enough to pull the wool over the eyes of one of the fucking Calamities. I sighed and put the matter aside. It was an unfortunate fact that I had a lot more difficulty predicting Heiress than she apparently did predicting me. One who prefers soft power is weak to direct confrontation, I remembered Black murmuring over a cup of wine, but one who uses only hard power is easy to entrap. As in all things, balance is paramount. It didn’t matter, I decided as I clenched my fingers tightly. However sharp the jaws of the trap my rival would have closing on me, I would pry them open and throw the whole bloody contraption at her head. Adjusting my sword belt – it had loosened a bit while running away from Wolf Company – I put my helmet back on and returned to my cadets.
My initial count of seventy-one legionaries had been overly optimistic. I had that many cadets present, certainly, but not all of them were in fighting shape. Damnably, most of the legionaries unfit to fight were in my heavies. Getting trampled by a tenth of ogres was not something you recovered from in a day, and though Kilian’s mages were fairly talented they were nowhere close to the kind of ability you’d need to truly heal broken bones. They could put them back into place and patch them up, but any hard impact would break them right back – and make them that much harder to heal the second time. Flesh could only soak in so much magic before it became saturated, the redheaded lieutenant explained to me. Trying to push in sorcery past that point would lead to… bad things. All in all, I had about fifty-five soldiers in fighting shape. Most of my own line, the mage half of Kilian’s and miraculously all of Pickler’s sappers. The goblin lieutenant did have a talent for ducking out of the way before trouble reached her, one probably helped along by the way her sergeant snuck around and compulsively eavesdropped on everything.
“We don’t have the numbers to overwhelm Wolf Company anymore,” I told my remaining officers. “Not even a surprise attack will change that.”
“We’re going for the officers, then,” Hakram graveled.
“Finding them will be the real problem,” I grunted back. “Even if we manage to penetrate the camp quietly, which isn’t a given, we’ll only have so much time before the alarm is sounded.”
Pickler gently cleared her throat. “There shouldn’t be a problem, Captain. Aisha’s sapper line is lacking, so they largely stick to the book. Their camp layout is Legion standard.”
“I’m not seeing the significance of that,” I admitted.
Nauk snorted out a laugh. “It means their officer tents are in designated spots for quick assembly,” he grinned savagely. “If we move quick enough, we could have all their senior officers out before the pack wakes.”
Well now. I’d been due some good news, and this seemed to qualify.
“I’ll need four other people to sneak in with me,” I decided. “One per target officer. Any of you have recommendations?”
“Sergeant Robber,” Pickler immediately offered, not noticing the disgruntled look taking hold of Nauk’s face. “He’s good at quiet work, and you won’t find anyone better at taking out sleeping soldiers.”
Her tone seemed to imply that the last part of that sentence had been a compliment. Goblins. The Tribes had very definite ideas about the way wars should be fought, and most of them would have the knights of Old Callow sputtering in mortal outrage. Thankfully, I’d never been afflicted by that whole chivalrous ethics mess. The Fields of Streges had made it very clear which way worked better when it counted, and in the end that was all that mattered.
“That’s two,” I noted. “Anyone else?”
“I’ll give you Nilin,” Nauk grunted. “My line’s not gonna be seeing action anyway, so he shouldn’t be needed.”
“Hakram?” I prompted.
“I’d go myself,” my sergeant graveled, “but someone needs to attend our line. Take Nomusa – not too tall, for a Soninke, and she packs a punch.”
I turned my eyes to Kilian and found her frowning.
“I’ll come,” she finally said. “You might need a mage, and I can be quiet if I need to.”
I hesitated before accepting that. Two sergeants, a lieutenant and the company’s captain were quite a few assets to risk on a strike that might very well fail. On the other hand, if we don’t succeed we’re pretty much fucked anyways. All or nothing, huh? Should I be worried how often that ends up being my play?
“Nauk, you’ll be in command in my absence,” I ordered, tacitly accepting Kilian’s offer.
The orc in question cleared his throat. “Where do you want Rat Company deployed, then?” he asked. “Not to get too obvious, but the moment the Wolves are out Snatcher no longer needs us.”
And there lay the thorniest of the thorns in my godsdamned side. Fox Company needed us to bolster their ranks on the walls only so long as there were two companies besieging them. If there were only Juniper and I left, I couldn’t be sure Snatcher wouldn’t decide to take his chances with the Hellhound and backstab Rat Company. As things stood, with most of my troops already behind the first wall I was pretty sure I could take his fort from him. But there’d be casualties, and then I’d be stuck in the same position he’d let me in to avoid: alone on the hill with Aisha and Juniper out for my blood. Not a feasible option, especially considering there were tunnels connecting to both their camps. The plan Snatcher had proposed was that I would strike at the Wolves under the cover of night while he made his move against First Company. On the surface that seemed to be on the level, but he’d left himself a door. He’d have the option of pulling out after Aisha was done and leave me to deal with a pissed off Juniper, shutting the tunnels down behind me. Something to avoid as much as possible.
My options were either to leave my survivors inside with him and have them ready for a fight in case he betrayed me or to have Rat Company bail out the moment I headed into Aisha’s camp. I was leaning more towards the second: even if this whole thing went south, I’d still have enough troops left to find another angle to victory. And if I manage to drop Aisha while leaving the Foxes mostly intact behind their pretty little walls? I’m not sure it’s me Juniper will be pointing her blade at. That the Hellhound got to work cracking open Fox Company’s defences while I found a better position for the final confrontation was the best outcome I could hope for. Not that there was any chance of me getting there now, since just by thinking that I’d pretty much sent an engraved invitation to the Gods asking them to piss all over my plans.
Still. It was worth a try.
“Wait fifteen Hails after my team moves out and then take the company north,” I told him after chewing over my options a little longer. “Avoid fighting.”
The large lieutenant shot me a bewildered look.
“What the Hells are ‘Hails’,” he growled.
Kilian snorted. “It’s the time it takes to recite one of their fancy House of Light hymns,” she explained, eyeing me amusedly. “Wrong gods for this neck of the woods, Captain.”
“Right,” I coughed, somewhat embarrassed. “I, er, don’t know the equivalent for the Gods Below.”
“About six basic line drills,” the redheaded lieutenant said after pausing an instant to close her eyes and think. “The Hellgods don’t really go for hymns, as it happens. Probably safer to stick with Legion exercises.”
Clearly I’d need to actually learn those at some point. My lessons had been rather sparse in that regard, as it happened. After teaching me the bare essentials of fighting as a legionary, Captain and Black had focused on other kinds of swordsmanship. I’d never actually seen my teacher use a scutum outside of those first few mornings: Black usually favoured a smaller kite shield with his short sword and taught me with the same.
“Duly noted,” I grunted. “That should be it for the moment, unless anyone else has a point to raise?”
No one did, and they took heed of the implied dismissal. I motioned for Kilian to stick around as the others started leaving, not bothering to vocalize the order. The pale-skinned girl looked surprised but she sat back down without a comment. I waited for the other officers to be at a safe distance before clearing my throat.
“There’s a thing I’d like clarified before we head into combat,” I told her. “I’ve heard you can be incapacitated if you draw too much on magic – something about creature blood?”
The lieutenant sighed, fine lashes fluttering over hazel eyes.
“Hakram?” she asked in a resigned tone.
I snorted. “Surprisingly enough, no. Got it out of Nauk.”
“Like he’s one to talk, the bloody failed berserker,” she muttered.
“I don’t mean to pry into personal matters,” I said. Not strictly true, but I figured I might as well pretend not to be nosy. “I just want to know how it might affect things.”
Either she bought that or she was polite enough to pretend to. Pushing back a strand of red hair into the sides of her pixie cut, the lieutenant took a deep breath.
“My grandmother was one of the Fae,” she said.
I blinked in surprise. “Like the ones in the Waning Woods, or does that mean something different in Praes?”
She eyed me cautiously. “I keep forgetting you’re Callowan,” she admitted. “The Fae are… not popular around here, even in the Green Stretch.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I mean, they kill Callowans too whenever one’s stupid enough to go too deep into the forest but it’s not exactly a big deal. They never wander out and the path to Refuge is supposed to be safe.”
“The benefits of having a former Calamity ruling your city,” Kilian noted. “The blood’s pretty diluted, but I still got some things out of it. Mostly the unusual hair and some mage tricks that require control beyond what most humans can manage.”
“I’m not really seeing downsides, so far,” I pointed out. “Well, besides the racism. But that was kind of given already, what with you being Duni.”
“Isn’t it just?” she replied bitterly. “You’d think with the fucking Black Knight being one of us they’d start holding their tongues, but it doesn’t seem to have changed anything.” She took another deep breath, forcing herself to return to the original subject. “Anyway. You’ll note I don’t have wings, which Fae are supposed to have. Whenever I draw in too much power my body tries to make some, which fucks with my head and occasionally makes me lose control over the magic.”
“That sound bad,” I contributed helpfully.
“Pretty bad,” she agreed with the ghost of a smile.
“But you know your limits?” I probed.
“Learned them the hard way,” Kilian grimaced.
“All I needed to know,” I told her, clapping her shoulder in reassurance. “I’ll let you brief your tenth, I need to have a talk with Captain Snatcher.”
She nodded and I rose to my feet, rolling my shoulder under the chain mail. Wearing it for so long was killing my muscles, especially without a proper aketon under to soften the weight. Legionaries were issued something thinner than the padded jacket I was used to, though admittedly mine was meant to be worn with mail.
“Captain,” Kilian suddenly called out.
I half-turned to meet her eyes. “Lieutenant?”
“Thank you,” she said, looking away.
“Any time, Kilian,” I replied quietly.
I hated the part of myself that coldly noted she was more loyal to me now than ever before, but I did not ignore it. Guilt is fine. Healthy, even. But I will not let it stop me. Thumb rubbing the hilt of my sword, I went to find Snatcher. There were still details to hash out, and all of my ambitions would be for naught if I lost today.
Arranging a meeting ended up a more complicated matter than I would have thought. Snatcher was inside the fort, and that meant going across the – possibly – mined field. I asked one of the sergeants still at the wall and he informed me that my fellow captain had left instructions that I be escorted to him if I asked. I was guided across on a hilarious overcomplicated path by a cadet in what I suspected was far from the most efficient route. I did my best to commit it to memory anyway: for all I knew, I might need to use it before the melee was done. To my surprise, I came to find the goblin captain doing manual labour. The wooden platform I’d glimpsed earlier today was being linked to the ground by a minimalist ramp: Snatcher was part of a group of half a dozen goblins laying the finishing touches on it. He gestured for one of the sentries to replace him when he saw me, patting down his clothes to get some of the dust out of them.
“Captain Callow,” he greeted me. “I take it you’re done briefing your officers?”
“They’ll be read when the time comes,” I agreed. “Just one last thing to go over with you – I’ll be taking a small team through the tunnels, not the entire company. Lieutenant Nauk will be taking most of my cadets north while I’m targeting Aisha’s officers.”
I did not phrase it as a request because it was not up for debate. Snatcher studied me with a calm face.
“Fair enough,” he conceded. “I’ll notify my officers. One of my cadets has volunteered to guide you through the tunnels.” He paused. “If I may say so, Captain Callow, you’re a rather quick study. It has been a pleasure to work with you.”
“The same to you,” I replied, somewhat surprised to find I meant it.
Snatcher was a pleasant enough sort, and by far the politest goblin I’d ever come across. Talking with General Sacker had been like having a knife at my throat the whole time, I couldn’t help but think that Pickler was only ever half-listening when I spoke and the less said about Robber the better. I enjoyed the malevolent little sergeant, true, but if he ever met politeness in a dark alley he’d knife it and rob the corpse.
“All of the Deoraithe attending the College show promise,” the other captain noted. “It’s a shame so few of you actually serve in the Legions afterwards.”
I’d had no idea whatsoever that there were any of the People around, but I kept my surprise off of my face. Why the Hells would Deoraithe go through a Praesi officer school?
“You’re the first Praesi I’ve heard referring to them as anything other than Wallerspawn,” I replied instead, subtly steering the subject away from my ignorance.
“The Grey Eyries are a long way from the Wall,” he replied. “Unlike the Clans, the Tribes have no bloody history with the Duchy of Daoine and no grudge to go along with it.”
I nodded slowly. That was good to know. It was hard to break the habit of thinking of the Empire as a monolithic entity: even now that I’d learned of the different forces at work inside of it I still had a tendency to assume general opinions remained the same regardless of ethnicity. I considered leaving the conversation at that, but my eyes flicked to the platform and I decided to push my luck.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” I spoke, “what is that thing for? I’ve been wondering since Rat Company first set camp.”
Snatcher smiled a tad nastily, though the nastiness did not feel like it was directed at me.
“My little surprise for Juniper,” he replied. “Did you pay attention to the stocks?”
I nodded. “Though I don’t recall anything shedding light on this.”
“It’s a common mistake to only keep track of the munitions,” the goblin said. “It leads people to miss things like my requesting a large bowstring, nails and iron plate.”
A large bowstring? What would he use that for? I frowned. Fox Company was, at its core, a sapper company. The function of the sappers in the broader Legion was the use of goblin munitions, the building of fortifications and…
“I thought siege weaponry was forbidden,” I said.
“Bringing one is forbidden,” Snatcher corrected me. “The regulations say nothing about building one.”
Another detail fell into place.
“So that’s why my scouts found tracks coming from the woods. You were bringing back materials to work with.”
“It was a gamble,” Snatcher admitted. “There was no way of telling whether or not our battlefield would have lumber on it, and I must admit the ballista we’ve cobbled together is rather crude.”
A ballista. Weeping Heavens, and to think I’d believed his company would be the easiest to deal with. And since the better part of his company was goblins, starting bombardment during night time would make no difference to him. He interpreted my silence as worry, and to be honest he wasn’t entirely wrong – I really hoped Juniper was the one who ended up having to take this fort, because I didn’t think my own men could pull it off.
“No cause for alarm,” he assured me. “We’ll only begin firing after either you’ve taken out Wolf Company or conspicuously failed in doing so.”
“Very kind of you,” I faintly replied.
Thanks all the Hells I hadn’t stuck to my original deal with Aisha: it would have been a bloody rout.
I already knew all of my team except for Nomusa.
I recognized her from my line when she met us at the head of the tunnel, but we’d never actually talked before. She was Soninke, like Hakram had said, and only a head taller than me – which qualified as short by the standards of her people. She was missing a finger and there was a nasty burn mark in the hollow of her cheek I decided not to ask about. Nilin I already knew, having shared drinks with him in the aftermath of the last game, and smiled at him when he arrived. Robber had already been there when I’d arrived, skulking around and managing to look suspicious without actually doing anything concrete. It was a skill he’d perfected through years of hard work, or so he’d informed me cheerfully. Kilian was the last to show up, slightly out of breath. When she fell behind me in silence our guide for the night finally opened his eyes and rose to his feet.
“My name is Hatcher,” he informed us curtly. “I see none of you brought your scutum, which is good – the tunnel is tight enough without dragging along a shield. It’ll be dark in there, so keep close to me.”
Without further ado he scuttled into the hole in the ground. I was the first to follow and a short drop later I was on solid ground again, crawling on my knees. For once in my life I was glad of my height: even Nilin would find the tunnel a tight fit, and Hakram wouldn’t have managed more than a few feet before getting stuck. We waited until everyone dropped and so began our wriggling in the dark. Progress was damnably slow and the air felt thin, but after an eternity of making like worms the tunnel broadened a bit and Hatcher told us to take a break.
“We’ve passed the first wall,” he told me. “Only a bit further now.”
“Do you know where in the camp we’ll be coming out?” I muttered back.
“The tunnel splits around there in four different directions,” he replied. “Most are close to the middle, but you’ll be going in blind.”
“Lucky us,” I grunted.
Without my Name I would not have seen him glare at me in the dark. Soon after we resumed the crawl, and around what I estimated to be the tenth Hail the tunnel broadened again, splitting in the directions as he’d mentioned. Hatcher tapped a hand against the wall of the centre one.
“That one’s the best situated,” he spoke. “You should send two people there, split the others.”
“You heard the man,” I murmured. “Nilin and Kilian, take that one.”
“The rightmost tunnel goes a bit further,” Hatcher told me. “I’ll show you the way.”
Presumptuous of him to assume I’d take that one, but I saw no point in arguing. Robber and Nomusa headed into theirs while I followed the Fox Company legionary. The tunnel tightened again, much to my dismay, and our progress slowed. I peered over Hatcher’s soldier and my blood ran cold when I saw that up ahead was a dead end. Trap. Shit.
“Just a moment,” Hatcher spoke. “Something wrong with the ceiling here, I need to have a closer look.”
His hand slowly moved towards a small hole in the wall ground under him, where I glimpsed clay balls. My hand went for my sword and slowly, silently, I unsheathed it.
“You ever been to Summerholm, Captain?” Hatcher asked.
“Only the once,” I replied, shifting around to get a better angle to strike.
“Never been, myself,” he casually spoke. “But my cousin did. She never came back, Squ-”
I rammed the pommel of my sword into the back of his head before he could finish the monologue covering his motivation. Amateur. He yelped but the angle had been awkward and he wasn’t knocked out. He dropped the sharper though, and that was what mattered. He threw himself at me but I was ready – releasing my sword I caught his hands and forced him down. Hissing furiously, he bared his teeth and tried for my throat but I head-butted him violently. His nose broke and I did it again, twice as hard. He screamed but his struggling weakened, eventually ceasing entirely.
“I’m guessing you’re talking about Chider,” I spoke quietly.
“Murderer,” he garbled out.
“The hero was the one to kill her, actually,” I replied. “Though I won’t deny I would have done it myself if it came down to it.”
“They’ll get you,” he sneered through the blood. “Sooner or later, someone will. Little Callowan playing the Squire. You’re a joke and everyone knows it.”
“Let me guess,” I sighed. “You got the information through an anonymous source right before the beginning of the melee?”
A flicker of doubt went through his eyes but, as desperate sorts are wont to do, he doubled down instead of folding.
“No idea what you’re talking about,” he mocked.
How many other knives had Heiress pointed at me this way, I wondered? How many other legionaries in the melee were out to kill me if they could? I’d need to watch my back very, very closely.
“The part that confuses me is how you thought you’d get away with this,” I admitted. “The College is scrying this whole thing as it happens.”
“Can’t scry underground, you ignorant sow,” he spat.
“Ah,” I said softly. “That changes things.”
There was a look in the goblin’s eyes I recognized from the Pit. The one sore losers got, the kind of opponents who knew they’d lost the fight but were already thinking of the next one. He wasn’t going to stop. He’d come for me again. Not tonight, not even tomorrow but one day he would try his luck a second time.
“You know, the first night I met him, he told me it didn’t get easier,” I told the goblin softly.
A trickle of power ran through me as my Name stirred, strengthening my grip. Hand moving with swift purpose, I broke Hatcher’s neck.
“It was,” I decided, “a very kind lie.”
Softly, I closed the cadet’s eyes and let out a long breath. I picked up my sword and sheathed it, turning around to crawl back the way I’d come from. I still had a game to win. And no time to think about what a stupid, meaningless way it had been for that cadet to die.
I surfaced after having taken the tunnel I’d sent Nilin and Kilian through, the one closest to the centre of the camp.
The exit was hidden behind a stone much too large to move easily, covered so it wouldn’t be seen at a casual glance. I pushed myself out and knelt in the dirt, holding my breath to hear there were any sentries close by. A few heartbeats later, satisfied there were none, I rose up to a half-crouch and took a better look at my surroundings. I was a little to the south of where I needed to be, if I remembered Pickler’s drawing correctly. The captain’s tent was supposed to be in the very centre of the camp, where the two main avenues crossed. Aisha had been the target I’d chosen for myself, as she was the most likely to have guards around her – I had a few trump cards at my disposal that the rest of my team didn’t if things got out of control. Admittedly the cards were fickle and still rather displeased with me at the moment, but they were still nominally in my hand.
Wolf Company seemed to be largely asleep and there shouldn’t be any sentries this deep inside the camp, but I still moved carefully. I passed by two rows of tents nestled close to each other, pausing when I saw torchlight lighting up the space ahead. I peered around the corner of a tent and grimaced when I saw that there was still light in what looked like Aisha’s tent. Worse, there was a pair of legionaries standing next to the entry flaps – orcs, and not small ones either. Would it be worth it to circle around and try my way by the back? The longer I waited the higher the chance of getting caught, of course, but it might be wiser to take a chance than go for the noisy front assault. I was late already, thanks to Hatcher’s failed assassination plot, but I shouldn’t be a problem as long as – I tensed, waiting for the alarm to ring. Silence.
Huh, I mused. This might actually go as planned.
A horn sounded a heartbeat later and I decided that if I ever came face to face with a god I was going to stab it somewhere painful. Casually I started walking in the direction of Bishara’s tent, not quite hurrying but definitely not slowly. The guards had snapped to full attention the moment the horn sounded, and fuck had one of my legionaries failed? This wouldn’t work if we didn’t get all of the senior officers. I saw the closest orc glance at me and then to something in the distance – that’s right, nothing to see here, just one of your legionaries assembling – but the gaze snapped back.
“INTRUDER!” she yelled, but I was already running. “TO THE CAPTAIN!”
She barely had the time to bring her shield up before I bodily slammed into it, knocking her back. The other guard tried to strike my neck but I angled my head and it bounced off my helmet. The hit still hurt, but I gritted my teeth and stumbled through the flaps to the tent. Aisha was inside, tightening her sword belt without having even bothered to put on a shirt.
“Callow?” she squawked. “What the-“
The flat of my blade, swung two-handed, struck her on the temple before she could reach for her sword. A moment later someone struck me in the back and I was thrown to the ground, rolling to get to my feet as a very angry orc tried to bash my head in with their shield. I ducked behind Aisha’s cot, sneaking a look at Wolf Company’s captain while a pair of furious orcs turned the wooden frame to kindling. She was out like a light, most likely concussed.
“This has been great,” I told the legionaries, backing away to the edge of the tent, “but this is getting a little serious for me. I’m not sure I’m ready for that kind of commitment.”
“I’m going to take this out of your hide, Rat,” the male orc spoke in a surprisingly mellow voice.
And that was my cue to make a daring escape. I kicked the tent pole I’d managed to position myself next to. It did not fall.
“Dug into the ground, huh,” I spoke into the incredulous silence. “Bummer.”
Well, what was going to follow was not going to be pleasant. I could already hear reinforcements closing in. Actually, I could hear them screaming. In dismay.
“I don’t suppose one of you could check the sky?” I asked. “I think-“
Thunder rumbled. Sheathing my sword, I raised my hands up in surrender and carefully walked back out of the tent – one of the orcs shouldered me as I went by, but I was a magnanimous winner and so allowed it to pass without comment. The night sky was streaked with the beautiful image of Wolf Company’s standard, a red streak across it. The sweet taste of victory was a little harder to enjoy with a crowd of hostile legionaries gathering around me, but after a moment Nilin pushed his way through them and to me with a wide grin on his face.
“Captain,” he said, sounding almost disbelieving. “We did it. I mean, I thought maybe we could pull it off, but we actually pulled it off.”
His babbling was actually somewhat endearing. I clapped his shoulder with a smile of my own.
“We should have one Hell of a spectacle starting soon, sergeant,” I told him. “Captain Snatcher’s minions made a ballista, and by now they should be ready to bombard First Company.”
“So that’s what the platform was for,” he mused. “I’d been wondering.”
Kilian came around a corner and I waved her over, ignoring the multitude of glares coming in my direction. She put a spring to her step and joined us, Wolf Company parting for her as they started dispersing.
“Lieutenant Kilian,” I grinned. “Come on, we need to find a good vantage point.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Why would we-”
Thunder rumbled. What? I looked up, and next to the red-slashed wolf a fox glared back down on me. Ignoring my legionaries, I headed for the peak of the hill Wolf Company had built their camp on. First Company’s camp looked untouched, the few fires surrounded by tents in it slowly dying down. What had happened? Snatcher hadn’t so much as thrown a stone. Wait, where are the sentries? Not a single legionary was patrolling the perimeter. There should have been someone, if only because of the ruckus my team had made hitting the Wolves. Slowly I felt my stomach sinking and I turned my eyes to Fox Company’s walls. In the distance, over the fort’s ramparts, a standard bearing crossed silver swords flapped lazily in the night breeze.
“Well,” I said. “That’s going to be a problem.