“In war, begin as you would end.”
– Marshal Nim
No campfires tonight – it would give away their location too easily, not that Seneca’s dogs weren’t already on the trail. Ranker’s goblins were proving invaluable in keeping an eye on how closely the High Lord’s household troops were following them, her small warriors made light of foot and hard to find by years of raiding the other tribes. The enemy had somehow managed to block Apprentice’s scrying, something the dark-skinned man told Squire meant they likely had a mage of more than middling talent with them. The green-eyed man had expected as much: Seneca’s pockets ran deep and so far he hadn’t proved shy about shelling out the gold to see this little company of theirs dead. The High Lord was the Chancellor’s creature to the bone. They were six hundred strong now that Ranker had joined them, the raiders of the Blackfoot tribe coming to swell the ranks of Red Shields and Grem’s Howling Wolves. Not even half a Legion, but it would grow in time. If they survived the night.
“I don’t like the odds on this one, Squire,” Grem grunted from his side.
The one-eyed orc was chewing on what looked like dried meat, sitting on a rocky outcropping.
“We’ve got as many warriors on the field as they do,” Istrid replied with a hard look. “If we run when we’re this close to our backyard, One-Eye, we’ll never live it down.”
“We’ll still be living, at least, which isn’t guaranteed if we give battle,” the scarred chieftain of the Howling Wolves told her. “Numbers might be even, but a third of our number is goblins. That changes things – no offense meant, Ranker.”
“None taken,” the small yellow-eyed Matron replied, her tone flat. “I’m inclined to agree with you, if anything. A High Lord’s personal retinue is not something to trifle with.”
“And yet we’re going to crush it,” Squire said, and though his voice was calm there was something about it that gave all of them pause.
The man’s pale skin made him look like a ghost in the moonlight, his armoured silhouette casting shadows against the rocks. He looked up at the stars while he played with the clay ball he’d appropriated earlier, feeling the weight of the gaze of the followers he’d assembled settling on him. Apprentice laughed quietly, a grin that was all malice stretching his full lips.
“You have a plan, of course,” the mage spoke up. “So go on, my friend, amaze us with your latest bout of madness. Are we going to argue with a dragon again? I have to say, that was one of my favourites.”
“Good thing it wasn’t a long conversation,” Cursed tacked on in that matter-of-fact way of hers. “I didn’t like the way it was looking at me.”
Squire scowled. They had nothing to complain about, it had worked out perfectly fine in the end.
“All of you are here because you want to change things,” he told them instead. “The Empire is the culmination of over a millennium of defeats – time after time we try the same plans with new faces, somehow expecting that this once it will be different. That this once, we’ll beat them, bring down the king and scatter the knights and send the wizard packing back to his tower. Aren’t you tired of losing? I know I am, and I’ve just begun.”
He met their eyes one by one, gaze unflinching.
“It’s always going to be this way, you know,” he told them. “One uphill battle after another, the odds stacked against us a little worse every time. If we give them a fair fight, we’ll lose – it’s as simple as that.”
The green-eyed man smiled, and it was a wicked thing.
“So let’s cheat,” he said, lazily throwing up the clay ball and catching it. “There’s a new age coming, and we’re going to drag them into it – kicking and screaming, if necessary.”
A handful of grim smiles was his answer, and somewhere in the back of his head he felt Fate laughing. Let it. He’d be the one to get the last laugh.
“You want a plan, Apprentice?” he said. “We’re going to play with fire.”
My eyes blinked open wearily, the sight of my tent’s ceiling greeting my return to consciousness. No light was filtering through the slit in the goat skin walls, meaning I’d once more woken up before dawn. The bed felt empty without Kilian in it. We’d been together for less than a month, and already I missed the intimacy of a warm body by my side whenever deprived of it. I slipped out of my bedroll and pushed myself up to my feet, padding across the ground to reach for the carafe of water someone – Hakram, most likely – I had left on my bedside table. I poured myself a cup, downing the liquid in a single gulp to shake myself completely awake. Unlike with regular dreams there was no need to be afraid that the memory of the one I’d just had would become less clear with time: I knew from experience it was as good as branded into my mind. I’d be able to examine it at my leisure afterwards. And there were quite a few tidbits to examine, weren’t there? They clay ball that the younger version of my teacher had been playing with was the easiest detail to figure out: they were standard issue in the Legions now, filled with goblinfire.
The Fifteenth had been issued half a wagonload before we’d left Ater, and I knew that Ratface had gone behind my back and traded some of our extra rations for more. How exactly he’d managed that I had no idea. Supply requisitions were a bureaucratic nightmare even when the Legions weren’t on an active campaign, so likely bribery had been involved. Hakram had been right: Ratface might be a middling tactician at best, but when it came to securing supplies he had a way of getting results. I’d have to call my wayward quartermaster out on it at some point, of course, even though I rather approved of the initiative – we needed firepower more than we needed the extra rations they’d replaced. But it wouldn’t do to let him get into the habit of doing things like this, not without running them by me first. Better I deal with it than delegate the job to Juniper. I don’t want to quash his initiative entirely.
“Squire,” a familiar voice gravelled from outside my tent, “you decent?”
I rolled my eyes at that. For an orc, Hakram had surprisingly genteel notions about propriety. The orphanage I’d been raised it had been crowded enough that being half-naked in front of people I was unfamiliar with left me indifferent. Anyhow, with spring not yet in full swing this part of Callow got chilly at night – I always went to sleep dressed, since claiming wood to start a personal fire struck me as something of a waste.
“I’m wearing pants, if that’s what you’re asking,” I replied, somewhat amused.
“I suppose that will have to do,” Adjutant grunted back, slipping inside the tent.
His appearance hadn’t really changed since the night he’d fully come into his Name: he was still one of the tallest orcs I’d ever met, taller than Nauk even if he wasn’t as broad-shouldered. Dark green skin and dark eyes, with a small scar on his right cheek he’d told me was from a hunting accident when he’d been a youngling. Most of the changes had been mental – he’d been calm since the moment I’d first met him, but ever since he’d become the Adjutant he’d become positively serene. Like he knew exactly where he was meant to be, and was standing in that very place. I envied that, in some ways. Certainty was not a luxury someone in my position could afford.
“Shouldn’t you be sleeping?” I asked as he gravitated towards the fold-up chair closest to me.
“Don’t need as much sleep anymore,” he told me.
Huh. I hadn’t known Roles could do that – I’d noticed fairly early after claiming my Name that I could have a sleepless night and function anyway, but that wasn’t the same thing. I was just better at dealing with tiredness than the average mortal, I still needed a good night’s sleep to be at my best. Captain and Black had been the same, from what I’d noticed. And as for Scribe… well, I wasn’t actually sure Scribe ever slept. I’d never seen her idle once in all the months I’d known her.
“Had another of those dreams, have you?” Hakram asked me with a knowing look.
I raised an eyebrow.
“How can you tell?”
“You always look like you’ve been given an answer and twice as many questions, afterwards,” he replied.
A fair enough assessment, I had to concede. The dreams that came with my Role tended to be relevant to what I was doing at the time, though admittedly the chronology of them could be a little tricky. I hadn’t seen Ranger or Scribe in any of them, for example, and I was pretty sure the Heir was still alive in the period I’d just glimpsed.
“I believe I just saw the birth of the Legions of Terror as we know them,” I admitted after a moment of silence.
Hakram blinked in surprise, then let out a low whistle.
“You saw the Battle of the Burning Cliffs? They still tell stories about it, you know,” he said.
“They do?” I replied, surprised in turn.
The battle hadn’t seemed like as big of a deal as the people behind it, to be honest, but then Captain had warned me more than once that things had been very different in the Empire before the Reforms.
“It’s how Knightsbane and One-Eye got the Clans to back the Black Knight in the first place,” Hakram told me. “A High Lord’s household troops wiped out to the last man in a single night? It was unheard of. If they could do that with two warbands, everyone wanted to see what they could do with twenty – or a hundred.”
I let out a thoughtful noise.
“Didn’t actually see any of the battle,” I admitted, “just the moments before it. It was enough to make me think.”
“Now there’s words to send a shiver up a warrior’s spine,” my Adjutant murmured. “Think about what?”
“They all wanted something, and they started following Black because he was the best way to get it,” I said. “So what do the people who follow me want?”
Pouring myself a second cup of water, I reached to do the same for him but he shook his head.
“Juniper wants to be the next Marshal,” I told Hakram. “Nauk wants a war. Masego mostly wants to see interesting things and Ratface wants his father’s head on a pike. I don’t know Hune or Pickler well enough to even guess.”
“Pickler wants to test all the designs she’s been fiddling with since she was a kid,” Hakram gravelled. “Hune, I have no idea. She doesn’t have any friends that I know of, and she kept a low profile even back at the College.”
I sipped at my glass. Too many questions, too few answers. I needed to get a better read on my officers before making any sort of move, and I was starting to run out of time. I needed to be ready by the time the Liesse Rebellion ended, and Black had told me we had a hard limit on that. Dawn’s first rays were starting to poke through my tent’s entrance, and in silence the two of us got started with our day. There was work to do, as always.
It had rained during the night.
The ford Juniper had picked out as our way across the river had swelled to knee-deep, with a current that could be tricky to manoeuvre. Still, it would have to do: the only bridge across the Left Fork had been destroyed and my scouts had been reporting more and more sighting of horsemen keeping an eye on us. We were getting close to the Silver Spears, and I had no intention of allowing them to dig in behind the walls of Marchford. I allowed the rest of the troops enough of break to fill up their canteens and rest their legs as First Company started to cross, climbing down from Zombie gingerly as they did. Massaging my legs, I allowed myself a discreet grimace after making sure no one was looking in my direction.
“You regretting that fancy horse now, Callow?” the voice came from behind me, and I turned to offer Nauk a half-hearted glare.
“Is that any way to talk to a superior officer, Commander?” I replied, rolling my eyes at the wide grin I got for my trouble.
The spectacularly large orc had continued to call me “Callow” even after my Name had become common knowledge, though he’d dropped the military rank when we’d finished with the War College. It wasn’t a mark of disrespect, Hakram had assured me – if anything Nauk was one of my more fervent supporters among the Fifteenth – so I’d never seen the need to take issue with it. Besides, watching Juniper get on his case for lack of decorum was always good for a laugh.
“We got any word from Robber and his minions?” he asked as he plopped himself down on a half-soaked log close to me.
I frowned, shaking my head. I’d told Commander Hune to send a line of scouts across the ford half a bell ago to see if there were any nasty surprises ahead, and they were about due to report. The three muddy hills the crossing led into made it hard to get a good look at what was ahead, besides the thick woods that flanked either side of the road. Keeping eyes ahead would be key here: the Silver Spears were heavy on cavalry, and they could move about a lot faster than we could.
“Hellhound on the trail,” Nauk grunted suddenly, and I glanced in the direction he was leaning his head towards.
Juniper was headed in our direction, Masego and Hakram at her sides. As usual the grim-faced legate walked like she had been blessed with a higher purpose, eyes always sweeping around her to look for any flaws in our legionaries’ kit. I watched as she stopped to chew out a dark-skinned girl for having strapped her sword-belt incorrectly, suppressing a smile when Hakram rolled his eyes behind her. Moments later Juniper was standing in front of me, offering a cursory salute before starting to speak.
“I had the heavies set up in front of the ford in case the enemy decides to pay us a surprise visit,” my Commander said, skipping the polite small talk. “We also have a picket at our back in case they’ve managed to find another way across the river.”
I let out a noise of approval. It was satisfying to see that the girl who’d played us like a fiddle during the College war games was still as sharp now that we were in a real campaign.
“We’ll need to cross soon regardless of whether Robber’s back or not,” I told her. “There’s only so much daylight we can afford to waste if we want to keep up with the Spears.”
“Agreed,” she grunted back. “Though we should be careful: he might be late because he’s run into the enemy.”
Neither of us needed to spell out that if that were the case there was no need to expect Robber back at all. If his scouts had been caught on foot by a mounted patrol, there was only one way that engagement could reasonably be expected to go. Scouts weren’t sappers: they did not carry enough munitions on them to stop horsemen for long.
“Send another tenth ahead to see if they’re coming back,” I decided after a moment. “We get moving right after.”
She nodded, snapped off another salute and headed off to see it done.
“I hope you don’t also expect me to salute,” Masego drawled. “I have a medical condition that makes it next to impossible.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Is it the same disease that makes you think you’re funny?” I asked
“Ah, it’s a cruel woman that leads us my friend,” the dark-skinned boy told Hakram, dramatically laying a hand over his heart.
“Were you talking again, warlock’s get? I tend to tune out the background noise.”
Masego’s brows rose.
“And here I thought you were just a good listener. Truly, my life is a comedy of errors,” he commented. “And speaking of my failings, Squire, I’m afraid that my scrying still won’t go through.”
“Wizard or priest, you think?” I asked.
“Priest, I’d put my hand to fire on it,” he grimaced. “That could get tricky when we give battle – some of them can have magic slide right off of them if they want it to.”
“As long as knives still work, we’ll be able to deal with the problem,” I muttered absent-mindedly.
It was becoming clear that Black had sent me after a bigger fish than I’d thought. Just their numbers in cavalry with a Named hero at their head would have been bad enough, but if they had casters too they would a force to be reckoned with. Not that my legion was without teeth when it came to that aspect of warfare. We had a fairly decent mage contingent – led by a very cuddly redhead – and Apprentice was worth another twenty mages by himself . I’d yet to see anyone match the likes of the ice spell he’d used in Summerholm. In the distance I could see the Fifteenth shaking itself awake from its rest, Juniper sending the heavies across the ford while the sapper companies slung their munition haversacks back across their shoulders. I eyed my still-saddled horse with a sigh.
The better part of an hour passed before we got word back from the scouts.
The last of Hune’s companies was halfway through the ford, the rest of the Fifteenth splayed over the hills in a wide arc. Standing on top of the tallest of the hilltops, right by the standard, I’d been in the middle of a discussion with Hakram about the night’s camping site when movement by the north side of the woods drew my attention. The party we’d sent to find out what had happened to scouts emerged from the trees, a handful of dishevelled goblins among them. I felt my stomach drop: I could only see a few from the original line I’d sent, and it looked like no one else was coming. Robber went straight for the standard, ignoring the murmurs in the rank and file as he made his way towards me as far as he could. I wasn’t the only one to see him, apparently: Juniper was by my side in a matter of moments, and before the goblin tribune made it to the top of the hill Nauk and Masego had already joined us. I would have preferred Hune being here too, but she was personally supervising the company that had yet to join us.
My fingers tightened when I got a closer look at the tribune: Robber looked like he’d been rolling through a pile of brambles and dead animals, which wasn’t all that unusual, but the barely-restrained panic in his eyes was another story. The goblin thrived on chaos – the only times I’d even seen him in a truly good mood was when he was about to spring a vicious trap on someone. It would have been enough to make most people wary of him, but I had a handle on the way Robber’s mind worked: as long as I gave him someone else to focus his malevolence on, he’d never be my problem. Given how many enemies I’d managed to accumulate in my short tenure as Squire, I rather doubted it would ever become an issue. I let him catch his breath for a moment before speaking up.
“Tribune,” I prompted. “Report.”
“We’re fucked,” he grunted, wiping blood off his cheek.
He added a hasty “ma’am” at the end of the sentence after seeing the look on Juniper’s face.
“It’s good to see war has left your usual good cheer unaffected,” I replied flatly. “But I’m going to need more detail than that.”
He ran a still-bloodied hand on top of his hairless head, either not noticing or not caring about the black trails he left on it.
“We found your mercs easy enough,” Robber spoke. “Problem was, they also found us.”
I grimaced. There was really only one explanation for why he would have come back with four men when I’d sent him out with a full line, but still I’d… hoped.
“Where are they?” I asked.
There’d be time to feel guilty about sending those legionaries to their death later. Until then, all I could do was make use of the information they’d given their lives for to make sure the same didn’t happen to the rest of my legion.
“About half an hour away,” the yellow-eyed lieutenant said. “And Boss… I don’t know where you got your info on their roster from, but it’s way off. The two thousand foot is there, but Clapper said she counted at least eight hundred horse. Maybe more.”
I let out a curse at that, and from the look on everyone’s faces it was a shared opinion. I rubbed the bridge of my nose, running through my options. Was it feasible to retreat back across the river? No, not if they’re this close. It would be disastrous if the Fifteenth got caught while it was spread between the two banks.
“They planned this,” Juniper soberly said, breaking me out of my thoughts. “They were waiting for us to cross so they could force an engagement with our backs to the river.”
Masego cleared his throat daintily.
“As the only one here who hasn’t had military training, might I inquire as to why exactly that’s making everyone look so grim?” he asked.
“If they hit our lines hard enough – which they definitely have the numbers for – they’ll be pushing us into the river one step at at time,” Hakram told him. “That would be… bad.”
The dark-skinned mage’s face retained its pleasant smile, but I could see it had gotten a little too stiff. Apprentice might not have been an officer, but you didn’t have to be one to grasp Adjutant had been understating things.
“Go get yourself healed, Robber,” I finally said. “We’ll need anyone who can hold a sword for this one.”
He looked dead on his feet and odds are it had come close to being more than a look. The green-skinned sapper saluted, but when he met my eyes I saw there was something lurking under the fear I’d glimpsed earlier. He was furious, the kind of vicious fury that twists your stomach until it bubbles up to your face.
“You gonna get them for this, Callow?” he asked.
Juniper was halfway to hoisting up by the scruff of his neck, the expression on her face thunderous, when I raised a hand to stop her in her tracks.
“I promise you this much, Robber,” I told him. “They’ll pay the long price before the day is done.”
Whatever it was he was looking for in my eyes, he found it.
“Good,” he murmured with a hard nod.
I watched him scuttle down the hill for a moment before turning my attention to Juniper, who looked like she was only barely managing to refrain herself from speaking. I thought we’d already taken care of that.
“I gave you permission to speak freely when the Fifteenth was formed,” I told her. “I don’t remember taking that back.”
The legate bared her teeth, and from the corner of my eye I saw Masego discreetly taking a step back. Wise man, Masego.
“There’s a reason we have ranks, Squire,” Juniper growled. “You let them talk like that to you every time their buddies die and the authority breaks down. He’s not your friend, he’s your soldier. Soldiers die, it’s what they do.”
Nauk looked about to speak up but Hakram caught his eye and shook his head. Good. His little feud with Robber had been amusing back at the College, but out here I had no patience for it.
“If I wanted to run a regular legion,” I said, “you’d be right. As it happens, I have no interest in running a regular legion.”
The tall orc opened her mouth, but I pressed on.
“Regular legions don’t win battles like the one that’s coming, Juniper. And this isn’t the last time we’ll be facing odds like these. You think Black raised the Fifteenth because we needed the manpower? We’re going to be the tip of the spear in this war. And the next. And the one after that,” I spoke flatly. “If Robber ever oversteps his bounds with me, it’s not you he’ll have to be afraid of – you can be sure of that. But what I want out of all of you, I’m not going to get it by flogging people who look me in the eye.”
“Hear hear,” Hakram spoke softly from my side.
There was a long, tense moment and then Juniper inclined her head.
“My apologies, Lady Squire. I spoke out of turn,” she said.
“You spoke honestly,” I replied. “And you need to keep on doing it. I’m not going to be right every time, and when I’m wrong I’ll be relying on you to point it out to me.”
I’d known from the beginning that there would be times when Juniper and I rubbed each other the wrong way. And yet there’d been a reason that it was her I’d wanted her as legate for the Fifteenth instead of Nauk or Hakram. It wasn’t that she was likely the best officer to come out of the College in our generation, not just that anyway: it was also that she was utterly unafraid of me. She watched her mouth around me because I had a Name and she’d been taught to respect those, not because I intimidated her. It was a dangerous thing for a villain to become used to unquestioning obedience. Juniper nodded again, and her face settled back in that neutral expression I found so hard to read.
“I recall a mention of victory during that lovely little chat you two just had,” Masego cut in with a forced smile. “I like victory. We should discuss victory more.”
I closed my eyes with a sigh, grateful for the way Apprentice had defused the tension still gripping the scene. So here we were now, I thought, with our backs to the river on a muddy hill and a force twice our size coming our way. Putting aside the cavalry, they had at least our number in Free Cities men-at-arms and at their head was a man with the power of a Name behind him. The Silver Spears meant for this place to be the killing grounds where they would trample over the Fifteenth, break our backs so badly that my ramshackle half-legion would be taken out of the campaign before it had even truly begun.
My eyes might have been closed but I could see the grounds my legionaries were arrayed on as clearly as if they were open, my mind slowly filling in where the mercenaries would come from: the full weight of their infantry in the centre with the cataphracts split between the flanks. The cavalry would pick out my companies of sappers and tear through them like parchment, their own footmen pouring into the gaps and sweeping over my legionaries from all sides. I could imagine the grisly scene playing out so easily, and yet… And yet I could not find it in me to be afraid.
We had half an hour before they enemy was in sight and for some that would make no difference, but the men and women under my command were Praesi legionaries. They might have been green, they might never have seen battle before, but at the end of the day the soldiers under my command carried the legacy of the armies who’d scattered the strength of Callow and carried the Imperial banner all the way to the walls of Laure. And this, this moment and these odds and this feeling of savage glee I could feeling welling up in me as I realized how our back were pressed up against the wall? It was my own inheritance. I’d known from the moment where I’d taken the knife Black had offered me that I was setting out on a path of uphill battles, and now it was finally starting. Watch closely, teacher of mine. This is where it starts. Because if those prancing knights with their glorified pigstickers thought they were going to beat my Fifteenth, they had another godsdamned thing coming.
“Ah,” Nauk grunted with a distinct undertone of satisfaction. “Looks like we’re going to win this one.”
“I’m sorry,” Masego replied wryly, “I must have missed something. Are we not outnumbered on top a pile a mud with no way of retreating anymore? Because that would be something of a relief, really.”
I opened my eyes and ignored both of them, finding that Hakram was still standing at my left looking like a serene green gargoyle. There hadn’t been so much as a hint of worry on my Adjutant’s face from the moment Robber had come back to report, I suddenly realized. He’d never doubted that I would find a way to turn this around. When you give your trust you give it in full, don’t you?
“She’s doing the face, warlock’s get,” Nauk continued, “Doesn’t matter what they throw at us now – we’re going to eat them alive.”
Coming from most people I would have taken that as a figure of speech, but with orcs it was always hard to tell.
“I don’t do a face,” I cut in, mildly offended. “Hakram, tell them I don’t do a face.”
My Adjutant cleared his throat and refused to meet my eyes.
“You do that thing where you almost smile and you show a little teeth,” Juniper told me frankly. “It looks really creepy on a human.”
“I bet heroes never get that kind of backtalk from their minions,” I muttered. “They probably don’t have to raise their own horse from the dead either. Villains get such a raw deal.”
I got a handful of smiles out of that and I clenched my fingers before unclenching them, thoughts already flying.
“Juniper,” I said. “Get Hune up here. I’ve got a plan, and we’ve got no time to waste.”
Our half an hour of preparation passed much too quickly for my tastes. It will have to do, regardless. Besides, my sappers had worked wonders with what little they had on hand: deployed on either side of the hills, they’d covered the muddy grounds in front of them with rows of stakes jutting out with the sharp end first. And just the right height to slide into a horse’s belly. I was banking everything on the Silver Spears ramming their cavalry into the light sapper companies on my sides instead of the heavies and regulars I’d made my centre out of. Just the stakes wouldn’t be enough to stop a cavalry charge, of course, but between them and the crossbows all sappers were equipped with? Even if we didn’t stop them cold, we’d bleed them severely. Possibly enough to rout. Gods Below, let them rout. Because if they don’t… I had another handful of tricks up my sleeves, but having to pull them out that early in the battle would cast the entire plan into doubt. The Forlorn Hope had seemed like another disaster waiting to happen, in a fight that would be this delicate, so I’d taken Juniper’s advice and spread their lines across the ranks.
The Silver Spears were milling in the distance, sergeants haranguing their men-at-arms into a semblance of ranks. They’d started trickling in slowly not too long ago, though that trickle had turned into a flood soon enough. Still, there was something vindictively satisfying about their lack of discipline: none of my legionaries would have needed that much screaming to get into a proper line. The mercenaries might be an impressive sight, with their silver armour and forest of pennants, but when it came down to a melee I had no problem believing that my bunch of ugly misfits would run them through. Whoever was in charge of the other side’s disposition had decided to run with the classics: two staggered waves of infantry in the middle, with their cavalry split in a roughly even manner between their flanks. Robber’s scout had been correct in her suspicions: there were at least nine hundred cataphracts down there.
If they played it well, the sheer amount of people they could throw into the grinder might be able to break my legion through attrition: we’d planned around that as much as we could, but in the end there was only so much Juniper and I could do. Some commanders might be squeamish at the idea of blooding their forces that badly for the win, but that wasn’t something I could count on when it came to the Silver Spears: the way they’d been hitting the supply lines of the Empire spoke of a streak of ruthless pragmatism, no matter how heroic they looked. And speaking of heroes, theirs seemed to be galloping ahead of his forces. Did he want a face-to-face meeting before the beginning of the hostilities? I didn’t feel particularly inclined to grant that, all things considered.
It wasn’t that I expected any kind of treachery on their part, though I’d be a fool to dismiss the notion entirely, but I knew from my little chats with William that talking with those types was an exercise in frustration. On the other hand, if I was rude enough I might be able to bait this so-called Exiled Prince into attacking recklessly. Something to consider. Said Prince was a pretty boy, I saw as he kept on riding closer. Long, flowing golden hair and a pale disposition that made him look a living marble statue – a little too perfect for my own tastes, but not half-bad to look at. Nothing on Kilian, though. He had a minion riding at his side with what I assumed was the Silver Spears’ standard, a pennant with a silver knight riding on a field of white. You’re not even fielding knights, you pretentious jackass, I thought uncharitably. Even your standard is full of it.
“The other one has a Name too,” Masego murmured from at my side. “Not a strong one, but still dangerous – probably an attendant-type Role, by the looks of the power. Equerry, maybe, or Page.”
I grimaced. That could complicate things. I was confident enough I could take on one Named by myself, but two was a whole other story. Hakram had yet to come into any of his aspects, so besides being a lot harder to kill than most orcs he wouldn’t be much help in that regard. Before I could even start of thinking about a way to take them out, though, I was stopped by the simple fact that the two of them kept on riding closer to my lines.
“Hakram, sword out and ready the reserve,” I barked. “They’re up to something.”
I pushed myself up, already looking for my horse, but the pair of heroes slowed about two hundred yards away from my battle line and then stopped. Maybe-Page rammed the standard into the mud and brought the horn dangling off his shoulder to his lips, letting out a loud almost crystalline sound. I could feel the shudder that went through my men at the sound of it and the power of my Name flared up angril.
“What the Hells was that?” Juniper cursed.
“Priestly stuff, I think – your usual “sound will strike fear in the heart of the wicked” package.”
“FOUL MINIONS OF THE DARK,” the golden-haired hero called out, “I AM THE EXILED PRINCE, LORD OF THE SILVER SPEARS, RIGHTFUL HEIR TO THE THRONE OF HELIKE!”
“Is he… is he starting a monologue?” I asked, just in case I’d somehow been trapped in an illusion.
“Huh,” Apprentice mused. “I didn’t think people actually did that. I mean, I’ve read about it, but this is a little surreal.”
“I COME TO OFFER YOU THE CHANCE TO END THIS WITHOUT NEEDLESS BLOODSHED. LET THE WITCH THAT COMMANDS YOU STEP FORWARD AND MEET ME IN SINGLE COMBAT!”
“I wish I was a witch,” I sighed. “My life would be so much easier if I could set people on fire with my mind.”
Juniper shifted uncomfortably to my left, a look of confusion painted on her face for the first time since I’d met her.
“Is he serious?” she asked me. “Why would he risk that when he has the larger force?”
“He’s royalty, Legate. It’s not a trap – all that crown-wearing has simply atrophied the part of the brain us mere peasants get common sense from,” he told her.
Hakram had already prepping the reserve, I could see from the corner of my eye. Good, there was no need to rush into this. The Exiled Prince, apparently content that his challenge had been delivered, was sitting ramrod-straight on his horse and waiting for an answer. Single combat, huh. Someone had been reading too many stories.
“Juniper,” I murmured. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but he’s about a hundred and fifty yards away from our front?”
The Hellhound squinted, estimating the yards like I had a few moments ago.
“Give or take ten yards,” she assessed. “Why?”
“That’s effective killing range for our crossbows,” I pointed out.
The legate grunted. “And?”
“I was thinking,” I said patiently, “about shooting him.”
There was a moment of silence and everyone turned to stare at me. What? It was a perfectly reasonable plan.
“Can we… can we actually do that?” Hakram spoke, voice hesitant.
I drummed my fingers against my leg.
“I can’t think of a reason we couldn’t. He’s not here under a flag of truce, and even if he was we have no treaties with the rebels.”
“It seems rather unsporting of us,” Apprentice drawled, though he sounded more amused than actually opposed to the course of action.
“We don’t get points for fair play at the end of the battle, Masego,” I replied anyway.
Juniper grunted thoughtfully.
“Would get them moving for sure,” she finally said. “Might even make them angry enough to get sloppy with their battle order. Should I send for a sharpshooter?”
“Nauk’s close to the front, and he’s a fairly good shot,” I declined.
Hakram sent one of our messengers down the hill with the order and I watched the soldier make his way through the ranks until he came by the armoured silhouette of Commander Nauk. Even at this distance I could see the surprise in his body language, and when he turned to gaze up in my direction I mimed shooting a crossbow. Nauk shrugged and requisitioned one from a goblin, cranking it and settling the bolt in. There was a heartbeat before it flew, and as the murderous bolt sailed through the air I could already see the angle was wrong – it would hit the Prince’s upper chest, not the throat or the head. And anything short of a killing wound, a hero will shrug off. The way Hunter had managed to swing around his spear while missing a hand and bleeding out heavily had made that clear enough. At the last moment, though, just before it could hit the hero’s chest, some unseen force yanked it up at an awkward angle and it punched into the man’s throat. I blinked, struck speechless. In the background Masego started laughing convulsively, and I turned to shoot him a questioning look.
“You managed that with a spell?” I demanded.
If he could do telekinesis at that range, he should have told me – if he could mess about with an arrow, he could definitely choke the guy.
“Wasn’t,” he got through the fits of laughter, “wasn’t me. His armour…”
He finally got the laughter under control, though a shit-eating grin still split his face in two.
“His armour – it’s enchanted to turn away arrows. Only it’s part of a set, I’d guess, and since he wasn’t wearing his helmet…”
Understanding sunk in after a moment. The enchantment had redirected the crossbow bolt away from his chest, and right into his throat. The mercenaries were stirring in the distance like a hornet’s nest that had just gotten kicked, but in that moment I couldn’t help but burst out laughing.
So much for the Lord of the Silver Spears.