“Maybe I’ll lose one day. But not today, and not to the likes of you.”
– Dread Empress Maleficent the First
I pushed myself up to my feet, wincing as my knee almost gave under my own weight.
My forearm wasn’t as bad, though both wounds would require the attention of a healer before the day was done. At least I wasn’t in any danger of bleeding out even if I wasn’t going to be winning races anytime soon. My armour was a mess of mud and blood, but I was still alive. My first duel to the death with another Named and it couldn’t be called anything but a victory. There was a sweet taste to that truth. Another milestone passed. I bent over to pick up my shield, strapping it back on with a grunt and way too much fumbling for comfort. Around me the battle still raged but the Fifteenth was now carrying the day. Juniper’s cohort was driving back the Spears into the opening through the stakes Page had burned, one step at a time. There was a flash of light in the distance and Hakram roared triumphantly. I grinned at the sound and hobbled towards it.
The shield wall my legionaries had formed was advancing steadily, a rampart of steel the furious men-at-arms threw themselves against in vain. There was no formation to the footmen of the Spears. There wouldn’t be, I supposed. That wasn’t what they were meant for: they were just a battering ram used to hold down the enemy while the cataphracts rode them down. Without the silvery horsemen backing them, they’d ended up alone in an uphill melee against the finest infantry on Calernia – and they were bleeding badly for it. The cohort’s frontline split and Adjutant limped back to safety behind it, the opening closing as fluidly as it had come into existence. Hakram looked like he’d been rolling around in a bed full of charcoal and his armour’s metal was warped, but aside from that he seemed unwounded. He sketched out the distant cousin of a salute when I got to him, the two of us ending up leaning against each other more to stay up than out of affection.
“Got the Page?” he gravelled.
“Stabbed her in the throat,” I agreed.
“Cold,” he rasped out approvingly.
“The priest?” I asked.
“Bastard was a terrible fighter, but he did some thing that made him burn to the touch,” Adjutant replied.
He brought up his skeletal hand for me to see, the bones of it now blackened and burnt.
“Turns out those don’t feel pain,” he gravelled. “Choked the man out.”
“You know,” I mused, “I don’t always feel like a villain, but today I might have gotten a little into it.”
“Snappy sentence when you stabbed her?” he asked curiously.
“Helmet reference,” I explained.
He barked out a laugh. “That’s gonna stay a classic, you know,” he told me. “I’ll bet my good hand there’s going to be a song before the month is done.”
Gods, there probably would be. Legionaries made songs about bloody everything, it was one of the Legions’ oldest traditions. We stood there for a long moment, watching the men-at-arms losing ground. I frowned at the sight eventually.
“We can’t drive them away too far,” I said. “We need them in position for the second phase.”
“They’ll follow when we draw back,” Adjutant grunted. “It’s the other flank I’m worried about. No cohort to hold the line there.”
“The godsdamned Hellhound’s on it,” I smiled. “I’m sure she’ll figure something out.”
Carefully, we started making our way back to the Fifteenth’s unofficial headquarters. Of my senior officers only Aisha and Pickler were still there, and the Senior Sapper was conversing in low tones with several messengers, keeping an eye on the three fronts of the battlefield.
“Lady Squire,” my legate grunted. “I see you managed not to get yourself killed.”
“I’m touched by your overwhelming faith in my abilities,” I replied. “Are you sure you’re comfortable gushing this much in public? People will talk.”
The grim-faced orc rolled her eyes.
“I sent Apprentice to the right flank,” she informed me. “It was beginning to buckle.”
A cursory glance was enough to tell me this was no longer the case. The Silver Spears infantry had managed to push through the stakes, though going by the amount of corpses decorating the hill it hadn’t been easy. They’d been stopped flat anyway: an entire stretch of the slope had been turned into a hellish wasteland of jagged ice they were failing to pass. Masego was no longer even casting, his panting silhouette standing a little way behind the warped battlefield, but the Spears were fucked regardless. The men-at-arms were slipping all over the already-melting ice, some of them even getting a spike through the guts for the effort. My mage lines were breaking up any large groups of soldiers with fireball volleys while the crossbowmen picked off easy targets one at a time, taking their time to aim.
“That’s shooting ourselves in the foot,” I frowned. “We need them beyond the ice.”
“Lord Masego says he can melt it at will,” Aisha informed me. “We’re waiting for more forces to trickle to the sides before pulling the trigger.”
I hummed, casting my eyes to the centre. With the Spear Saints wiped out, Nauk and Hune had gained back the lost ground. The ogre lines had been pulled back, made to rest so they’d be fresh for the last push, but the Fifteenth’s heavies were making an object lesson as to why Praesi heavy infantry had torn through every force set against it since the Reforms. Commander Hune herself had taken the field with her men, swinging around a hammer with a handle large enough to qualify as a tree trunk. Of Nauk I saw no trace, though I’d be surprised if he was in the melee. He knew better than to risk going into the Red Rage when the fight was this close. With the centre line holding so well, the back of the mass of men-at-arms was starting to shift to the flanks. It wasn’t well-organized enough to be a command decision, from the looks of it. Soldiers were just looking for somewhere they could fight instead of waiting for the two dozen ranks in front of them to be done going through the grinder.
“How’d you know they would move to the sides?” I asked Juniper, watching from the corner of my eye as Hakram sent for a healer.
“Armies, like water, take the path of least resistance,” she quoted.
I raised an eyebrow.
“One-Eye, actually,” the legate said. “You should borrow a manuscript of his essays on tactics – they’re a mandatory reading at the College.”
I was probably due subjecting myself to that torture, yes. It wasn’t that I doubted Marshal Grem would have valuable lessons to teach: Black had outright stated he considered the orc a superior tactician to himself. But orcs writing in Lower Miezan were always a pain to read. Kharsum as a language added suffixes at the end of words to specify gender and numbers, which didn’t translate all that well in the common tongue of the Empire. As a result, their sentences were all over the place and occasionally physically painful to read. Before I could duck my way out of the subject, the Hellhound spat on the ground.
“Whoever’s in charge on the other side finally got their shit together,” she assessed.
I followed her gaze and saw what had prompted the observation: entire companies of men-at-arms were peeling off the back of their centre and wading through the mud towards our flanks. I let out a whistle.
“That’s more than we thought,” I noted. “With the people they’ve already got there it should be, what – about five hundred a flank? They’re thinning their centre badly.”
“It’s not a bad call,” Juniper grunted. “If Nauk and Hune push downhill they’ll be the ones tripping all over corpses and falling in mud. They just need to hold long enough to roll up our flanks and close the jaws on our heavies.”
“Arguably this is the best possible outcome, for us,” Aisha smiled thinly. “When the shock sets they won’t have a hero to keep them in the fight.”
Hakram waved over a dark-skinned boy towards me and the mage saluted, stuttering out a greeting before he got to work on my knee. I supressed a smile. Well, I supposed I’d been somewhat impressive today. For once I’d actually earned the intimidation factor on my own.
“They’ll flee,” Juniper growled. “That’s the problem. They’ll salvage a larger force out of this than I wanted. The cataphracts we were never going to wipe out, but if they cut and run with a thousand infantry and keep what’s left of their horsemen they’re still a threat when we come for Marchford.”
“We can’t afford a protracted fight,” Aisha reminded her. “We don’t have the numbers for it, and if they tire our men out too badly we risk an actual defeat.”
“I wish we’d been assigned siege,” the Hellhound grunted. “A few scorpions aimed at their centre would be racking up massive casualties right now.”
“I already got that from Pickler, thank you,” I sighed. “Until we’re a fully-manned legion, we won’t be given any. Not that we particularly need the engines: Marchford doesn’t even have walls, they pulled them down after the Conquest.”
“I could make some, if you give me the manpower to cut the trees,” Pickler contributed from where she stood.
“We have the nails and rope for that?” I asked.
“Ratface is a man of many talents,” the goblin equivocated.
“None of that is in the fucking lists he gave me,” Juniper cursed.
I smothered a grin. At this point my quartermaster didn’t have an actual reason to not own up to the trades he’d made – he was just pulling the orc’s pigtails because he could.
“We can finish that conversation after the battle,” I broke in before the situation could further degenerate.
I felt the flesh on my arm close and thanked the healer, who blushed and scuttled off to take care of Hakram.
“My sappers are ready, by the way,” Pickler told us. “You just need to give the word.”
The Hellhound grunted and sent a messenger for Masego: he’d be needed for this part. The lot of us were watching the men-at-arms mass out of range of our mages and crossbowmen when the Soninke arrived, slightly out of breath. How he’d managed to lose none of his thickness around the waist while on military rations was beyond me, but campaigning had yet to get him in actual shape.
“This whole battle thing is rather bracing,” he told us. “I think I could learn to enjoy it – it’s more about shifting the grounds than actually taking lives. Much more interesting of an approach.”
Considering he’d likely killed twice as many soldiers as I had today, hearing him say that was a little jarring. Still, I let it go. He’d been raised by a Calamity, that his take on this would be… unusual should be expected.
“You can get the ice from here?” Juniper asked.
“Distance doesn’t really matter,” he noted. “I just have to stop feeding the constructs – which I’ll need to do soon, for the record, if I’m to have enough left in me for the fire trick.”
I cast a look at my legate and she nodded.
“Do it,” I ordered.
“So assertive,” he spoke drily. “If you keep that up I might swoon.”
“My skills at seduction are second to none,” I agreed, ignoring the sound of Hakram failing to smother a laugh.
The bespectacled mage stared at his handiwork, waving a hand and muttering under his breath.
“And one, two, three,” he said.
In a single heartbeat, the entire field of ice collapsed into a flood of water. It toppled a few enemy soldiers, though actual casualties had been too much to hope for.
“Huh,” I said. “I expected it to shatter, to be honest.”
“I used ambient water for building blocs,” Apprentice explained. “The power was for the initial shaping, then to keep it cold.”
“Right. Can’t make something out of nothing,” I remembered. “It’s one of the original laws.”
“Sleeping with a practitioner has done wonders for your education,” the mage praised.
I flipped him the finger. He was going to pay for that comment at some point in the future, but for now there were other priorities. Juniper waved at one of her ensigns, the Taghreb putting her lips to a horn and blowing two sharp notes. Sappers advance. The sergeants on the other side managed to put a semblance of order into their lines before the entire right flank charged up the sodden grounds. To the left our reserve cohort was withdrawing uphill in good order, the flood of men-at-arms filling up the space behind them. In some ways that flank was in the most precarious situation: if the enemy soldiers spilled around them, they might get stuck in the crossfire.
“Standard,” the Hellhound called out without turning. “Sharpers, full volley.”
The orc’s voice was calm, her eyes sharp. I’d seen the way my legate could get awkward around people the few times she’d joined my minions for drinks, but on the field was utterly in element. A smile tugged at her lips, showing a hint of fang, and I realized she was enjoying herself. Not the killing itself, I thought, but the battle. Pitting her mind against the enemy’s, luring them into the trap she’d set for them. I’d always known that Juniper was a dangerous woman, on an intellectual level, but it had never quite sunk in. She didn’t really care who she fought, she just cared about the fight. I’d always thought Nauk was the most… orcish of my greenskin officers, but looking at my legate now I knew I’d been wrong. Just because she wasn’t using her own sword didn’t mean she wasn’t in love with war.
Four hundred small balls of clay flew through the air and the detonation that followed was deafening. It was the first time I’d seen real sharpers deployed in that amount. So that’s why they won the Conquest. How could even knights have stood up to this? On both sides, the front of the enemy’s line disappeared in chunks of metal and gore. I saw the shudder go through the Silver Spears at the sight of all those men just… ceasing to exist, the enemy host recoiling like it was a living thing. On the left flank our cohort broke formation to get away faster, setting up their shield wall again two thirds of the way uphill. There was no equivalent on the right, just sappers and crossbowmen scuttling away before they could get forced into an engagement. A howl of rage and anger erupted from the mercenaries at the sight of them fleeing after such a brutal hit: the mass of men-at-arms charged in their direction, eager for blood.
“They’re coming too quickly,” I said.
“Fucking amateurs,” Juniper spat. “Their left is still hesitating. They’re not even coordinating the assaults.”
The right was too far ahead. I closed my eyes. Could we pull off half the reserve cohort to serve as a stopgap? No, one hundred men wouldn’t be enough. Not with what the enemy was sending up, not even if they made it in time. Thinning our centre was just trading one danger for another. If they punched through Nauk and Hune we were done for.
“Fuck,” I spoke in a low voice. “Juniper?”
“Out of options, Foundling,” she admitted. “And we can’t afford to let them connect. If they manage to scatter our right, the battle is over.”
“We’ll get some on the left,” Aisha murmured. “Just not as many as we’d hoped.”
“Do it, Apprentice,” the Hellhound commanded after hesitating for a moment.
“I don’t take orders from you, legate,” the Soninke replied flatly.
“Do it, Masego,” I ordered.
He sighed. “You could have said please, at least,” he complained.
The bespectacled mage squared his shoulders, took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
“Though I hunger I am never sated,” he chanted in Mthethwa. “Through grass and ground I crawl, devouring all I behold. My blood knows the call, my flesh the craving. Nameless eidolons, thieves of Heaven’s grace, grant me flame.”
He snapped his fingers, and so his prayer was granted. Two small threads of flame grew out of the sound, growing in length and thickness as they coiled up his arm. The twin heads of snakes rose behind his back, flickering tongues of heat and smoke.
“I command you,” he hissed with a visible effort.
He raised his hand and the spellfire spread, the snakes growing in size until their heads were the size of a horse – and then shot forward through the sky in both directions. I watched in awe as they devoured what must have been half a mile each, arcing up until they reached their apex. And then dropped, hitting the ground in the spots we’d showed Apprentice. There was a heartbeat of utter silence across the battlefield and then the chain of goblinfire caches we’d buried in the hills exploded, drowning the flanks in green. Under my troubled eyes, six hundred men went up in flames before I could so much as let out a breath. The screaming began and I had, unless I was mistaken, just won my first battle
Gods forgive me.