“What Foundling does isn’t thinking outside the box so much as stealing the box and hitting her opponents with it until they stop moving.”
– Extract from “A Commentary on the Uncivil Wars”, by Juniper of the Red Moon Clan
I crouched down and peered into the dark.
I couldn’t see where it linked up with the tunnels dug by Snatcher’s sappers but there was no doubt that it did: there’d been no assault on the walls and I hadn’t heard any munitions being used. Most likely First Company had taken the Foxes while they were spread out and preparing an assault of their own, decapitating the leadership before they could muster up a real fight.
“Hurried work,” Pickler noted from where she was crouching next to me, “but still stable. Juniper makes up for limited sapper assets by quality.”
First Company’s camp – the one my own legionaries had built – had been empty. Tents and bedrolls were still in place and often with rocks and debris slipped in so from a distance it would look like they were full, but there was not a living soul among the rocks. I sent Robber to link up with the rest of Rat Company as soon as I saw Juniper’s banner on the walls and went to follow the tracks coming out of the back of the camp. They led to the entrance of a tunnel hidden behind a nearby hill, freshly dug. Which solves the mystery of where First Company’s sappers had been holing up. I sighed and forced myself back up. The night’s excitement was already catching up with me, though the ever-expanding list of issues I had to solve would keep me far away from my bedroll for the foreseeable future.
“Collapse the tunnels, Lieutenant,” I finally said. “That trick isn’t going to work for anyone twice.”
Unclasping the cheek flaps of my helmet, I set it down and took a moment to straighten up my ponytail. The part of the helm that covered my neck kept pushing down the leather strip keeping it together, though I usually didn’t notice until the fighting was done. I might have to get it cut soon, I thought. It kept getting in the way, and I didn’t have the time to straighten the knots with my old beaten-up comb the way I’d used to: the whole mess was so tangled up it could have been used as a rope. Or a noose.
“It’ll be done in a quarter bell,” Pickler spoke quietly. “A little more, if you want us to be thorough.”
“Thorough is good,” I grunted. “Have Robber do the same for the tunnels leading in Wolf Company’s camp, I’m not giving Juniper multiple ways out of that fortress.”
Sure, I could have used the tunnels too. But now that the element of surprise was gone she would just drop a handful of smokers in them whenever she caught sight of us and let us choke our lungs out in the dark before sweeping up whoever was still standing. Well, crawling. The point still stood. I didn’t think she’d risk an assault herself, considering we could do the same to her, but I wasn’t going to be taking chances with the Hellhound. Snatcher evidently had, and how had that ended up for him? I made my way up the hill, ducking around a stone spire that looked a little too unstable for my tastes and allowed myself to drop on the ground after checking the close-by bush for snakes.
Ratface had informed me that pretty much everything out in the Wasteland was either poisonous or out to eat your liver – and possibly your soul – before he’d been taken prisoner. Something about how everyone who took over the Tower let out the experiments of the last Tyrant into the wilds, which seemed like a horrible idea to me and therefore entirely in line with the usual Praesi way of doing things. I closed my eyes and lay back against the rock, taking comfort in the fact that I was out of sight and therefore none of my troops could see me totally at a loss for what to do. Nauk had pulled out of Fox Company’s fortifications before Juniper had taken them and been entirely unaware of their taking over when Robber had made contact with him. I’d ordered him to take our survivors in the hills beyond either of the already-made camps as soon as he finished looting Wolf Company’s supplies.
It would have been more comfortable to stay in one of the camps instead of pitching our tents out in the wilds, but by now Juniper was bound to have gotten her hands on the ballista. I wasn’t sure what the range on that thing was, but Snatcher had believed it could reach First Company’s camp and that meant we weren’t sticking around. Not that ducking out of sight was going to accomplish anything in the long term: Juniper was still holed up in that fucking fortress, with only token casualties and a godsdamned siege weapon to point at my company should it attack. There was no sign of the prisoners taken during our little betrayal reach around from earlier, though I’d found the tents where they’d been kept, so I was still down in the fifties when it came to my effective fighting force. Which nearly half of is sappers, and those are worthless in a melee.
What did I have that Juniper did not? She had more men, a better position, and considering she must have ransacked Snatcher’s stocks like I had Aisha’s we should be about even on munitions. I’d have more demolition charges, considering Wolf Company had taken a Siege inventory, but my cadets would have to get close to use those. And I’ll eat my helmet if she didn’t grab all the crossbows she could from Fox Company’s men. My plan had been an elegant thing, when we’d started out the melee. Betray Morok to Aisha, betray Aisha to Snatcher and betray Snatcher to use his fortifications against Juniper. The moment Wolf Company had turned on me, though, it had all gone up in smoke. I’d been on the back foot ever since, and the moment I’d thought I was getting a modicum of control again the Hellhound had turned the entire thing on its head by ending Fox Company in one swift blow.
Gods, I was tired. Tired and out of ideas to use against a captain who it was becoming obvious was just better at Legion tactics than I was. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, really. Juniper had trained for years in the College and she was the daughter of one of the most talented generals in the Empire. And yet, on some level, I’d still expected things to turn out to my advantage. They had back in Laure, when my murder had turned into an apprenticeship to Black, and once again in Summerholm when the cock up with the Lone Swordsman had turned into a mess I’d been the most effective at exploiting. Chaos was something I was good at dealing with: rolling with the punches was a skill I’d perfected through my years in the Pit and it served me well when things spun out of control.
The hard truth was that, right now, my bag of tricks was empty. None of the things I’d learned on my own were of any use, and what had Black taught me since I’d become the Squire? A lot of history, some generalities and the basics of swordsmanship. My Name was a recalcitrant little brat and even if it had been cooperating I barely even knew how to use it. I closed my eyes and forced myself to think about nothing, letting the cool night breeze lick at my face. This was the most restful thing I could manage short of actually napping, and I was too wired for that right now. How long passed as I drifted away I couldn’t be sure, but eventually I heard someone make their way up the hill through the same path I had. I opened my eyes but didn’t bother to get up. Hakram eventually found me, raising a hairless brow when he saw me sprawled without even the pretence of dignity.
“Taking a break?” he asked.
“This is my thinking pose,” I lied.
The tall orc snorted, then took a seat next to me.
“Anything urgent?” I murmured.
“Not right now,” he grunted. “First Company’s not moving and Pickler is finishing up with the tunnels. You should probably call an officer meeting soon.”
“And tell them what?” I scoffed. “That I have no idea how to get us how of this mess?”
It helped that we weren’t looking at each other. I wasn’t sure I would have managed to admit that if we’d been face-to-face. I liked Hakram, probably the most out of all of my officers. He had a steadiness to him that I found soothing, and even outside the games he was good company.
“Nobody’s expecting miracles out of you, Callow,” he finally said. “You already got us much farther than anyone else would have.”
“I’m also the one who got Rat Company in this mess in the first place,” I replied bitterly. “Pickler was right. If I screw this up your careers are going to suffer, all because I thought I was better at this than I actually am.”
It was oddly relieving to admit that out loud. I hadn’t quite grasped the kind of damage putting Rat Company’s score so horribly in the negatives would do to my cadet’s placement in the Legions. And yet I could be honest enough with myself to admit that even if I had, I would have made the same gamble.
“You knew the risks,” my sergeant gravelled. “And took the chance anyway. Why?”
There was nothing confrontational about the orc’s tone. He was, from looks of it, genuinely curious. Trusting implicitly that I’d had a good reason for what I’d done.
“We win this and I’ll get command of the Fifteenth Legion,” I confessed quietly.
He did not point out that there was no Fifteenth Legion currently in existence, or even a Fourteenth for that matter. I was grateful for it: I was still vague on the details myself, and did not feel like having to explain any of it.
“And if you lose?” Hakram asked instead.
“Heiress gets it,” I replied. “She played me, in the Tower. Called it a wager when it was the most one-sided deal I’ve ever heard of – and I lived under the rule of Governor fucking Mazus.”
“That’s how they do things, Callow,” the orc breathed out slowly. “They give you one out to have the pretence of fairness and then tighten the screws. Then they smile and ask how can it be their fault, when you had a way to win but failed?”
There was something bitter in the orc’s voice, an old anger that might not have ruled him but was never far from the surface. It was something I could relate to.
“You ever want to change the world, Hakram?”
He laughed quietly. “World’s always changing, Callow. We roll the boulder up the mountain until it falls down the other slope, and then we start again. If you’re lucky, it doesn’t crush anything you care for on the way down.”
“And that’s all we can hope for?” I grimaced. “Not to be crushed?”
“For people like me?” Hakram gravelled. “Yeah. It is. But you’re not like me, Callow. For some reason, you seem to think you can fix this mess. I don’t know if you really can. Hells, I don’t know if anyone can.” I could feel him smile without looking. “But I’d like to see you try.”
He pushed himself up and offered me a hand.
“So get off your ass, Callow, and start scheming again. We’re not down for the count yet, and I’ll be damned if we don’t go out making a bloody mess of it.”
I looked into the orc’s dark eyes and felt a spike of guilt through my stomach. It had been easier to think of the legionaries I wanted to command as tools before I got to know them. I took his hand and let him drag me up.
“Catherine,” I finally said. “Call me Catherine.”
We made our way back down the hill and I got my head back in the game. I called a meeting as soon as I found a runner, though I didn’t bother to limit it to senior officers this time. There were few enough of us left, and I’d had my own sergeant attend every one of them so far anyhow. Kilian’s sergeant had been taken prisoner with Ratface but the former captain’s own second-in-command was still with us, a stocky female orc named Tordis. She’d remained quiet so far, her brown-red eyes shifting from one lieutenant to the other as they finished giving their reports.
“We set up everyone on half-watches since it’s unlikely the Hellhound will move again tonight,” Nauk finished in a grunt. “Camp’s not fortified, but with our position it’ll be hard for them to sneak up on us.”
Nilin looked exhausted, I noticed. His eyelids drooped every few moments and twice now I’d seen him pinch his own wrist. Pickler and Kilian seemed in a better state, though it was admittedly hard to tell with the goblin. As for the sapper lieutenant’s main minion, he’d been chewing on something through all the reports which I took mean he was just fine.
“We won’t be doing anything until the sun is up either,” I told them. “Rest up your cadets as much as possible, we’ve got a rough patch ahead of us. That said, Robber, what the Weeping Heavens are you eating?”
The small goblin noisily swallowed.
“Goat,” he replied. “The one we hunted. First Company roasted it and left some scraps when they moved out.”
I raised an eyebrow but passed no further comment. Rations wouldn’t be a problem for us: we’d taken both Morok’s and Aisha’s, so we should have enough for at least another four days. More, actually, considering we weren’t at full strength. I’d given thought to trying to starve Juniper out of the fortifications, given that there was no time limit in this melee, but we’d come to a head long before that. Hunting for more game would be unnecessary, though fresh meat might improve morale if I had the time. Huh. Fresh meat.
“You’re a brilliant little bastard, Robber,” I told him.
“One of the fundamental truths of Creation,” he agreed without missing a beat.
I ignored his gloating. “We’ll be sending hunting parties out with dawn,” I told my officers. “As many as we can.”
Pickler eyed me like I’d grown a second head.
“May I ask why, Captain?” she said hesitantly.
I clenched my fingers and unclenched them. “I’m going to fell some trees to make some carts.”
By Noon Bell the next day I had laid out in front of me three goats, a pretty mangled antelope and what looked like a rabbit with horns. Wait, did it also have fangs? Why would – no, it didn’t matter. Trying to figure out why a Dread Emperor had created a breed of carnivorous rabbits would gain me nothing except a splitting headache. The creature would be useless for my purposes anyway, though I supposed that was my own fault for not being more specific.
“I don’t know where this is going,” Robber announced cheerfully, “but the fact that step one involves slaughtering the local wildlife has filled me with great expectations. Sir.”
In an entirely predictable turn of events, my praise had gone to Robber’s head with swift efficiency. The better part of my sapper line was standing in the sun looking at the line of corpses with politely confused expressions. I’d seen Pickler open her mouth and then close it without saying a word several times from the corner of my eye.
“One of the goats first,” I muttered to myself.
I knelt next to the closest corpse and closed my eyes, reaching for my Name. It felt faraway still, but not as much as it once had – the last few weeks had begun to repair the bridge I’d damaged, one morally dubious decision at a time. This was different in nature to tapping into one of my aspects, where I let the power flow through me and harnessed it for my own purposes. I was submerging myself into my Role, reaching for those cool depths I’d touched only twice before. For a moment nothing happened, but then I felt it. That great weight pushing against me, the coldness unnatural to Creation that somehow managed not to feel wrong. I smiled and felt a sharp prick against the palm of my hand, like I’d been jabbed by a needle. The coldness spread to the goat’s corpse. I got back on my feet and, after a heartbeat, so did the goat. I tugged at a string and its head turned to look at me. Another exertion of will and it stepped forward, then back.
“Necromancy,” Pickler spoke after a blink of surprise. “I did not know you were a mage.”
“I’m not,” I admitted. “This is Name shenanigans, I’m not entirely clear on how it works.”
The goblin lieutenant was openly dubious but managed to rally valiantly. “So we now have a goat. This is… progress?”
“You’re going to carve it up,” I told her. “And put munitions in it.”
There was a moment of silence until Robber’s convulsive laughter filled it.
“Oh Gods,” he gasped. “Juniper’s got a fortress and our answer is suicide goats.”
“I’m not sure if that’s technically accurate,” I frowned. “I mean, they’re already dead.”
Another burst of laughter. “Undead suicide goats,” he corrected himself breathlessly. “Very sorry, Captain. For the record, I don’t care whether we lose this one anymore. This is already a victory in every way that matters.”
Engaging him any further would just be seen as encouragement, I decided. I turned to Pickler, who looked like she wasn’t sure whether to be appalled or impressed. I had a feeling it was not the last time in my career a subordinate was going to be looking at me this way.
“I want the first one to have enough munitions stuffed in that it can blow cleanly through the palisade,” I told the lieutenant.
Pickler cleared her throat. “Punching our way through the first wall will be pointless if the entire First Company is arrayed behind it,” she pointed out. “We’ll still be outnumbered and outclassed.”
“We’re not going to be fighting them, Lieutenant,” I grunted. “The only thing we have going for us right now is a ridiculous amount of munitions and the ability to make expendable carriers for them. I intend to abuse that as much as possible.”
She nodded, uncertain but unwilling to argue.
“We’ll still need to get a mage in range to detonate the… goats,” she reminded me.
It took a visible effort to speak the last word of that sentence.
“I’ll escort Kilian onto the field,” I replied. “I need line of sight myself for fine – Robber stop godsdamned touching it.”
I could feel the goblin’s fingers poking experimentally at the corpse’s skin, which added that layer of additional creepiness to an already eerie feeling. The sergeant grinned unrepentantly in my direction.
“Permission to name the goats, sir?” he asked.
“Denied,” I replied without so much as a speck of hesitation.
“Both Morok’s Revenge and I are very disappointed in your decision, Captain,” he told me, patting the goat’s head comfortingly.
“Morok’s Revenge?” I repeated, already regretting the quizzical intonation before I’d even finished saying the words.
“It’s the ugliest and least impressive of the three,” Robber provided cheerfully.
I really needed to have a closer look at Legion regulations. It was an Evil institution, there was bound to be a loophole that allowed you to strangle irritating minions in the bylaws.
“Well. He’s not wrong,” another of the goblins muttered.
“Oh, we can have another one referring to Bishara,” a third contributed excitedly. “Something like ‘Aisha’dnt Have Done That’.”
The meeting quickly devolved into my sappers throwing around progressively more absurd names for our secret weapons.
“Pickler,” I spoke flatly, turning to the embarrassed-looking lieutenant who was watching the madness spread through her cadets. “I expect you to find a truly vicious punishment for the one that made the pun.”
Without a single look back I walked away, massaging the bridge of my nose and ignoring the indignant cry of “we’re not naming it ‘Ratface’s Ex’, he’s not even here to hear about it” for the sake of my sanity. Sappers. Mad, every last one of them.
Keeping my tenth in a ramshackle testudo formation meant we could only move slowly, but it was necessary nonetheless: I didn’t want any of the soldiers on the wall to see our trump card until it was too close for them to do anything about it.
“Incoming,” Kilian hissed, a streak of fear in her voice.
I popped my head out from behind the cover of the shields, immediately seeing the stone sailing across the clear afternoon sky. First Company had overshot – it was in no danger of hitting us and landed on the hill behind my tenth. The geyser of sand and stone caused by the impact made it very clear that none of us would be getting back up if Juniper landed a shot properly, though.
“Pick up the pace, cadets,” I ordered.
From the looks of it Juniper had put two lines up on the palisade Snatcher had helpfully built for her, which wouldn’t have been as much of a problem if even from where I stood I hadn’t been able to glimpse that the cadets were armed with crossbows. I knew the Hellhound could easily have fit twice as many legionaries behind the wall, which probably meant she was trying to bait me into an assault. If I’d truly been in straits as desperate as the ones she believed, it might even have worked.
“Another thirty feet, then we disperse,” I told the legionaries in a whisper.
A few of us would probably get shot by crossbow bolts – we were already in range, actually, but limited ammunition meant Juniper had likely ordered her legionaries to hold off until they could make the bolts count – but if it was a choice between that and continuing to present a good ballista target then there was no need to think about it twice.
“Even a glancing hit will set it off,” I reminded Kilian in a murmur. “The demolition charge alone would have done the trick but they added a few sharpers just in case.”
The sappers had spent quite some time tinkering with the munitions after carving up the corpse. I’d become a little curious about what it would look like when Morok’s Revenge went out in a blaze of glory.
“Ten feet,” I warned my cadets after peeking out from behind the shields.
I counted my breaths in silence, glancing at Kilian every few moments to verify the ballista wasn’t about to make us a moot point. The redhead’s face remained outwardly calm, tough the way her fingers held the grip of her sword so tightly her knuckles were paling was something of a giveaway for her true state of mind.
“On my word, disperse,” I whispered.
My legionaries immediately scattered, leaving Kilian and I standing beside an already moving undead. The mage lost no time in chanting her incantation as I willed the goat to move more quickly, crossing the last dozen feet separating it from the palisade in moments. There was a cry of alarm from the soldiers behind it but it was late, too late, and the fireball flew from Kilian’s outstretched hand. It clipped the side of the animated creature, and that was enough. There was a flash of light and then thunder struck, the explosion outright shattering a chunk of the palisade at least ten feet wide. The redheaded lieutenant and I started legging it without missing a beat, though a part of me wanted to stop and gape. Neither of us stopped before we were well in cover behind another hill: I dropped down, catching my breath and making a quick headcount. None of my cadets had been shot, it seemed. Lucky us.
“The explosion should not have been that large,” I got out breathlessly. “Or that intense.”
“It’s because of the Name, I think,” Kilian panted. “Munitions are alchemy, they can feed on other power sources.”
I closed my eyes. So, my trump card was more effective than previously anticipated. I could work with that.
“Send Nauk a runner,” I told the lieutenant. “We start phase two immediately.”