Chapter 20: Ashes

“We fought,
across field and river,
carrying the Tower’s writ
to the foot of the Wall.
We fought
and did not grow old.”

      – Spoken Kharsum verse attributed to Sharok the Blinded, chieftain of the Iron Bears (banned by Imperial decree)

I’d killed people before.

Occasionally I’d even enjoyed it. Some had died by my own hand, others by the consequences of my actions – or inaction. In a way one could even say that every death in the Liesse Rebellion was on my head. That particular truth had cost me a few sleepless nights, though as time passed the pangs of self-loathing came less and less often. I’d known guilt about bloodying my hands, though, that was the heart of it. And yet as I searched myself for that feeling, watching at over half a thousand men going up in flames, I found nothing. No, that wasn’t right. Not nothing, just… little. Gods, that might actually be worse. No tears need be shed for the likes of the Silver Spears, I told myself. They were Free Cities mercenaries playing hero in a Callowan war while on the take from the First Prince. The very kind of foreign soldiers who’d made Callow the battlefield for their “glorious” wars against Evil over the centuries, dying ugly deaths in the Wasteland and leaving my people to deal with the fallout of their failed crusades. There was a satisfaction to be found in evening that balance, I couldn’t deny.

After all, shutting the door on the fingers of foreign armies was one of the oldest Callowan traditions – one forged breaking the Legions against the walls of Summerholm and sharpened drowning the Vales in Proceran blood. That’s the comparison I’d like to make, but the truth is a little different isn’t it? I wasn’t Elizabeth Alban bringing down Regalia’s flying fortress or Jehan the Wise marching on Salia to hang seven princes and one: my paymaster was the Tyrant in the Tower, my teacher the very man who’d annexed the Kingdom by force of arms. My soldiers were not only Callowans but also Taghreb and Soninke, orcs and ogres and goblins. There’d been a time when seeing anything but humans west of Summerholm was a rarity, but those days were done and over with. Creation wasn’t any larger than it had been in the days of the old heroes, but it was more connected. Walls had been brought down by the Conquest that no one could build back up, lines blurred between friend and foe. For better or worse, I was the heiress to that legacy. To that terrifyingly rational breed of Evil that was not above imitating Good when it served its purposes.

It was a bastardly, calculating kind of philosophy – but then Juniper and I had just planned to burn six hundred men alive and shared displeasure at the number not being higher. I’m more bastardly than calculating, but I suppose the Hellhound can hold up the other side of that pot. I watched calmly as the forces pressing on the Fifteenth’s flanks melted like snow under spring sun, the crackle of green flames drowned out by a chorus of screams. My own soldiers weren’t in any immediate danger of being swallowed by the fire, though we’d have to evacuate the hills before a bell passed. Goblinfire could use anything as fuel, but it spread faster across certain types of ground. Sappers going through the College were taught a chart of observed spreads so they could make the calculations as Pickler had: allegedly wet mud was close to the bottom. Masego had noted the ratios on the chart displayed magically significant numbers, the implications of which escaped me at the moment. Nobody but a handful of goblin tribes knew how to make the eponymous fire, though, so I’d be sure to question him on the subject later.

I was starting to earn my reputation for using the stuff, so I might as well learn what I could about it.

With the flanks covered it was time to break the mercenaries for good. I supposed I could have gone back to the frontlines, but at this point there was no real need. The exhaustion was already beginning to set in, anyway, and getting the Fifteenth too used to relying on me to soften up the enemy wasn’t a great idea. They had to be able to operate independently of me: that was rather the whole point of having a legion to call my own. Juniper called for the horns to be sounded again and three deep, long bellows echoed across the battlefield. Beneath me the companies of the centre formed into a large wedge as the ogre lines moved back to the front to make the tip of the spear. The legionaries stepped forward, ramming themselves into the men-at-arms, and for a moment it looked like even after the horrors of the day the mercenaries would hold.

Nauk’s armoured ogres put an end to that illusion, brutally hammering their way through the core of the enemy formation and splitting it in half. Juniper grinned fiercely at the sight of it, knowing the battle was as good as done. Within moments the enemy soldiers around the edges panicked, the safety of having their comrades covering their sides ripped away from them. A few ran, and that was the finger to the scale: the panic spread across the ranks and the army collapsed. Some knots of stronger-willed enemy soldiers tried to stem the flood but my officers were War College graduates and knew full well how to handle an enemy rout – companies surrounded and overwhelmed the last remnants of resistance where they stood, allowing the runners to leave the field.

“Well,” Hakram said. “That’s that.”

“I did not think your goblinfire trick would be this effective,” Masego panted.

“It performed below predictions,” Juniper grunted.

She was very much trying to look like she wasn’t jubilant, but the look in her eyes betrayed her even if her face remained grim. Aisha, on the other hand, was not so reserved.

Bin hamar,” she cursed in Taghrebi. “Two to one, our backs to the river without a speck of horse and we still fucked them. And not even gently. This was rough stuff all around.”

“Colourfully put,” Apprentice replied, grinning in a way that showed off his perfect teeth.

“We’re not done yet,” I said. “We need to to take prisoners where it’s feasible, heal our own and get the Hells off these hills before we join them on the pyre. And you can be sure that we’ll find the survivors holed up in Marchford.”

“Foundling is right,” the Hellhound said, sounding a little perturbed by the act of speaking those words. “Hard part is over, but that just means the drudgework is beginning.”

“Merciless Gods, the two of you need to have a drink,” Aisha retorted. “The Tower sent a joke of a half-legion against a numerically superior band of hardened mounted killers and we put them over our knee for a good spanking. Take a moment to fucking enjoy it, at least!”

Huh, first time I’d ever heard her curse in Lower Miezan. Aisha wasn’t stuck up – formal, they insisted on calling it – like some of the noble children I’d come across, but she did make a point of following most rules of etiquette. Better breeding demands better manners, the proverb went in Callow. Or it did in the pretty parts of the city, anyway. Dockside, the saying had been a little different: inbreeding demands pompousness.

“Fine,” Juniper grunted, pausing for exactly three heartbeats. “There, I enjoyed it. We’re done. Now get me my casualty reports, Staff Tribune.”

I smothered a smile. I supposed I could find some comfort in the Hellhound forever having the general demeanour of an angry bear.

“Senior Sapper,” I called out to Pickler. “How’s the fire spread looking?”

The diminutive goblin grimaced. “Faster than we fought. Might have to dig a few trenches to buy us time.”

I took off my helmet and passed a hand through my sweat-drenched hair.

“Draft outside the sappers for that,” I ordered. “I’ll want goblin eyes out and about when night falls. Having them falling asleep would be counterproductive.”

“I’ll talk to Commander Hune,” she nodded, offering me a salute before haring off.

“Nauk’s kabili will have been mauled,” Adjutant spoke calmly from my side.

“He was already understrength,” I winced.

Nominally a kabili was supposed to count a thousand fighting men, the quarter of a regular legion, but most of the Callowan deserters had come from the large orc’s numbers. He’d been at about seven hundred when we gave battle, and since then he’d had to weather both the Proceran men-at-arms and their monkling spearmen.

“Our sappers and crossbowmen got off light,” Hakram noted. “The reserve too. We should still have over a thousand legionaries in shape to fight for Marchford.”

“And in that thousand we’ll have two goblin cohorts, Adjutant,” I sighed. “That’s four hundred soldiers I can’t put in the shield wall.”

“We’ll manage,” he gravelled. “We always do.”

We stayed quiet for a long time as I watched my legion secure the field. The enemy had fled mostly into the woods, but the Fifteenth had been ordered not to pursue. Our scouts would find the largest groups in the coming days and we’d take them apart piece by piece before marching on the city – defeat in detail, they called it in the College. Allowing them to bunch up again would be dangerous, even if we’d decapitated their leadership. Legionaries walked across the grounds in lines, finishing off enemy wounded and occasionally taking officers prisoners. They’d be furthest down the line for healing, but if possible we’d keep them alive: anything we could learn about the remaining Spears might come in useful. And if I could get actual proof that they were being paid by Procer… No, that might be too much to hope for. I doubted the First Prince would be sloppy enough to have the funds traceable back to her.

Leaving Hakram behind, I went downhill to survey the work of my legion up close. The stench of shit and blood was nauseating, even with the battle only just ended. Here and there I noticed limbs and bits of corpses missing – orc work, that. Their practice of feeding on the dead was looked down by even most Praesi, but it was tacitly allowed by the Legions so long as it remained limited to enemy corpses. The cannibalism was one of the reasons Praesi armies moved quicker on the march than most other armies on the continent: the supply train could be much lighter if after every battle half your army could make a meal of the enemy. Goblins occasionally took trophies – almost always eyes or ears, more rarely finger bones – but they didn’t actually eat them. Their diet was close to a human’s, where orcs ate almost only meat and might actually take sick if they were kept on bread rations for too long.

The sight of the hills from down where I stood was eerie. The curtains of smoke rising into the sky framed the sight of the Fifteenth carrying its supplies out of the way, oxen and men organized in careful routes under the vigilant eyes of their officers. On the field itself the healers were setting up shop in knots, triaging my wounded and carefully gauging how much power they could expend before being too exhausted to be of any use. Praesi medicine was far above the Callowan equivalent, and not just because mages were born in the Wasteland much more frequently than they’d been in the Kingdom. They’d inherited many old secrets from the Miezans, with their only superiors on Calernia being the Ashurans – whose own mage-doctors were highly sought after even across the Tyrian Sea. I found my feet taking me to the edge of the battlefield, where the corpse-stench was not as strong and I could stand where the Silver Spears once had.

I wasn’t quite sure what I’d come to find down here. Not absolution, of that much I was sure. Regret was the first step on that path, and I didn’t regret anything I’d done today. I’d been brutal but war was a brutal thing: flinching away from inflicting death to your enemies was to have your own soldiers pay the price for your squeamishness. We might have lost, had I not condemned those six hundred men to a painful death, and that was an unacceptable outcome. I’d come too far, compromised too much of who I was to allow the likes of the fucking Silver Spears to undo all of it. Maybe, I thought, it was just for the first time since I’d taken the knife Black offered me I actually felt like a villain. Like the monster of the story. And with that came understanding that had eluded me as a child.

The villains in the stories always had a trigger, a first spark to set the blaze. They’d been wronged, laughed at. They had a grudge to settle against Creation, and they were going to do it by toppling all those righteous kingdoms like a house of cards. They flew the banners of empires they’d crafted out of cold rage and egomania, sent their Legions of Terror to conquer everything from the sacred forests of the Golden Bloom to the burnt wastelands of the Lesser Hells. It didn’t matter what they took, I was beginning to grasp, so much as the fact that they took it. What did the Tyrants care if the heroes freed their monsters or destroyed their ancient magical weapon, if they brought down the Dark Tower on their head or sunk the ancient city they’d raised from the depths? At the end of it all, even if you lost you’d already won. I finally got it, then. You’d won because in a hundred years someone was going to look at the ruins of your madness and their blood was going to run cold. Like a child screaming at the night, you filled the silence so that someone would hear.

Maybe I had a touch of that madness in me too, because I looked at the field of corpses in front of me and I could see a fate written across the mud and the blood and the eerie green fire. The banner of the Fifteenth flew high, a streak of darkness defying the noonday sun, and my legionaries swarmed like ants over the wounded to silence their cries. Maybe I’d been born a little twisted and that was what Black had seen in me, back in the streets of Laure, because there was a feeling welling inside me that was like a laugh bubbling up my throat. I’d won today, won against odds a seventeen-year-old girl with barely a year of military training had no business beating. And yet here I was alive, more gloriously alive than I’d ever felt in my life. I could see the path ahead of me, the same I’d whispered of to Hakram: whether they be gods or kings or all the armies in Creation.

My Name bared its fangs in approval.

I shivered, wishing I’d thought of putting on my cloak, and returned to my legion.

“Three hundred dead,” Juniper growled. “Twice that in wounded.”

I took a long pull from the water skin, raising an eyebrow at the taste. I snuck a look at Hakram, who tried for innocent but came out looking more like an ugly green cat whose fangs were still full of feathers. Well, if he wanted to add aragh to the stuff I wouldn’t complain.

“How many of those will make it?” I asked.

The Hellhound glanced at Aisha, who grimaced.

“Hard to say. Mages have steadied some of our worst cases, but they had to prioritize. If I have to give you my best estimate, I’d say that by tomorrow the casualties will have gone up to around five hundred. Taking in the cripples and those who won’t be able to fight for a few fortnights, we should have about one thousand in fighting shape for Summerholm.”

Adjutant did not smile, which made his smugness even more obvious. I rolled my eyes, then frowned as a realization came.

“Shouldn’t Kilian be here to report on the healers?” I asked.

Aisha cleared her throat uncomfortably.

“She’s unconscious at the moment.”

My stomach dropped. “She’s wounded?”

“Drew too deep,” the Staff Tribune replied with a shake of the head. “Apparently she almost manifested wings this time.”

I swore under my breath. “She’s not in any actual danger, is she?”

“It’s happened once before, during war games against Morok,” Hakram gravelled. “She was fine after two days of rest.”

I was asking Masego to take a look at her regardless, I decided. Healing was far from Apprentice’s specialty, but he’d forgotten more about that kind of magic than most legion mages ever learned. From the corner of my eye I caught sight of Hune and Nauk striding in our direction. The orc commander said something and the large ogre shook with laughter, patting the top of his head fondly with her pan-sized hands. A tribune stepped up to Nauk and after saying something Hune sped off towards us.

“Legate Juniper, Lady Squire,” she greeted in that surprisingly delicate voice of hers. “You’ve won a great victory today.”

“We,” I corrected. “None of this would have been possible if you hadn’t held the-“

A bloodcurdling scream interrupted me. My eyes swivelled in the direction it had come from just in time to see Nauk’s open hand impact with his tribune’s mouth, sending teeth flying and the man himself sprawling into the mud. Painful convulsions wracked the orc’s body as his eyes clouded red. Half a dozen legionaries raised their shields and went to form a circle around him but I waved them away, striding towards the out-of-control officer.

“Nauk,” I barked. “Snap out of it.”

There was no trace of the orc I knew on that creature’s face. Just bottomless rage, and with a feral howl he lunged at me.

“The hard way, then,” I said.

It’d been a while since I’d gotten to fight someone without swords being involved and my officer was larger than any man or woman I’d ever fought in the Pit. Still, the principles remained the same – and my grip was a lot stronger than it used to be. I stepped aside and let the momentum of his charge carry him past me, turning to face him as he slid in the mud and roared. The next time he went for my throat, I was ready for him: I steadied my footing and caught his wrist, flipping him over my shoulder and down into the ground. He’d done most of the lifting for me, charging recklessly like that. He clawed at my legs but found no give in the steel – I sat on his back and pressed down his wrist, struggling to keep it under control. Even at this awkward angle he was ridiculously strong, more than I’d ever seen him be when he wasn’t under the Red Rage. I eventually managed to catch the other hand and forced it down with the first. He struggled while screaming at the top of his lungs, but his feet couldn’t reach me and all he managed was to smother his armour and face in mud.

Eventually his movements slowed, then stopped. His breath was even and he hadn’t roared in a while, though his chest still convulsed softly. I leaned forward to take a look at him: the orc’s eyes were still red, but for a different reason. He was quietly weeping into the mud. During the fight Hune had stalked back to us and she carefully picked up the battered tribune before setting him on his feet. I frowned and gestured for him to come closer – he did, after casting a wary look at Nauk.

“What did you tell him?” I questioned.

“Casualty report, ma’am,” he managed through his missing teeth.

I closed my eyes and let out a long breath. “Nilin?”

The man nodded and I slid off of the greenskin commander’s back.

“Come on, Nauk,” I murmured. “Up we go.”

With a grunt I hoisted him back to his feet. The large orc mumbled an apology, tone shamed, but I ignored it. There was nothing shameful about grieving a dead friend, and the two of them had been close as brothers.

“Go see Apprentice,” I ordered the tribune. “Get yourself healed.”

I sat Nauk down on a mostly dry log, ordered for a pair of legionaries to stay with him and gestured for Hakram to come to me.

“Find his corpse,” I ordered.

He nodded. “And then?”

I looked up to the sky, no longer finding it so promising. The victory had taken a bitter taste, and even bitterer was the knowledge this wasn’t the last time I’d lose a friend to the battlefield. Nilin, though, Nilin was the first. There was something special about that, a deeper loss. Maybe it was because he’d been a kind boy, almost too kind to be a soldier. And only a fortnight ago we were sharing a fire and bottle, joking about gravestones.

“Get the Prince and the Page,” I said. “Put the bodies on his pyre. If Nilin’s leaving us, then he’ll get an exit to be remembered.”

I paused, eyes turning cold.

“And Hakram?”

He turned.

“Tell Juniper to ready the goblin companies for pursuit in the dark,” I spoke through gritted teeth. “I am no longer interested in taking prisoners.”

21 thoughts on “Chapter 20: Ashes

  1. Cranky Cat

    Wow, I can barely describe the chills I’m getting. This whole chapter is one that is steeped in both reminiscence and foreshadowing. And the ending!, yet another fantastic ending to a chapter, encapsulating all the emotions Catherine is going through. It shows that ultimately brutality needs very little rational, but these types of actions have their own justifications. Overall, fantastic,I would gladly donate if it meant more chapters like this one!

    Like

  2. Karl Regner

    Some typos:
    “Their practice of feeding on the dead was looked down my even most Praesi,”
    “I’d been brutal but was was a brutal thing: “

    Like

    1. x

      More typos:
      The exhaustion was already beginning to set it,
      set in

      The cannibalism was one of the reason
      reasons

      their blood was going run cold
      going +to run

      Like

    2. Bart

      There was a satisfaction to be found in evening that balance, I couldn’t deny.
      replace the comma with “that” or “which”

      We need to to take prisoners
      remove second “to”

      Like

  3. “Their practice of feeding on the dead was looked down my even most Praesi”
    -> by even most Praesi

    Thanks for the chapter🙂
    I guess Squire is mad that one of those she knew actually died.
    And I wonder if Kilian will get to keep the non-human limbs that she manifests.

    Like

  4. Akim

    Again, hell of a chapter that turned the aftermath of a great battle into even better character development for cat and the whole group.
    .
    .
    .
    .
    And After a few silent lines for Nilin I thank you for not giving the whole “inner circle” hero armor.
    I guess now Nauks condition will really come back to bite them in the ass.

    Like

    1. jeray2000

      It shouldn’t, but it’d be a pain to come up with a special word for eating sapient life when cannibalism already does so well.

      Like

  5. stevenneiman

    “by tomorrow the [casualties->dead] will have gone up to around five hundred.” casualties refer to anyone not in fighting shape, not just dead

    What really strikes me about all of this is that Aisha commented that this battle was almost forgotten compared to the battle of Marchford, despite the fact that they brought down twice their number of more experienced soldiers and what had to be at least a mid-tier Hero. I can’t wait to see how the battle of Marchford tops that.

    Like

    1. Well… it might have been worse if not for the heroes… “mistake”… Pagan seems to be a low-tier as well and the priest probably low/mid-tier with very low combat skills (pure healer)…. they were lucky to a certain degree…. xD Or foundling’s half heroe nature (well… maybe quarter… or a bit lower. But it’s still there.) cancelled out the princes plot armor… who knows…. =P

      Summerholm…. there is a second traitor. They got another army from the…. legions of terror in their back led by heiress…. A Commander with Red-Rage, the strongest troops (in pure meele, apart from namebearers) are down, Killian is… “uncouncious” or will be in a bad shape…. Her “special” squat might have some more traitors or turncoats soon…. Half her army is out of the count too…. I actually could think of a few more things on the spot… but hey. There are enough problems around..~ And I feel like she will soon learn something she needs to learn looking at the situation… but hey. May just be my imagination xD

      But yeah… that’s gonna be interesting….. there is so much stuff that can happen, that I don’t even want to guess what the hell is going to happen… okay I still will probably… but hey whatever xD

      Thanks for the chapter xD

      Like

  6. Cap'nSmurfy

    Nice chapter. It was good to see the aftermath of the battle and while I didn’t enjoy it, it was good to see a meaningful death in all of this. Nilin, you will be remembered.

    Like

  7. I love Catherine’s grumbling admittance that she’d better well get to it and learn everything possible about goblinfire, already. Dammit. xD

    Also: happy Name is happy… and a bloody creepy creepoid about it.:/ Squire — learn about party poppers, if you’re going to celebrate: much less worrying, yet just as evil if you know what you’re doing. <_<

    Like

  8. Solous

    Thoroughly enjoying this story so far because of that wonderful premise good and evil, wrong and right is not so simple as black and white. Keep writing =)

    Like

  9. Unmaker

    Typos:

    We need to to
    We need to

    understrength
    (usually)
    under strength

    Reactions:

    “Two to one, our backs to the river without a speck of horse and we still fucked them. And not even gently. This was rough stuff all around.”
    Catherine’s and Juniper’s reactions to that are highly rational evil – calmly figuring out how best to finish the job and keep going. Scary as he**.

    Down to about 1000 warriors, 400 of which are goblins. Someone is going to be performing seige tactics heavily. She really needs reinforcements.

    Like

    1. Bart

      They can if they can grow back/reattach an arm — it’s basically the same thing but on a different level (much like a dinner fork and a pitchfork for hay are essentially the same things but on different scales). And, because Squire is living with her limp and not simply cutting her leg off and growing it back, I’d say that they probably can’t regrow teeth.

      Like

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