“The Heavens have a way of favouring the general with the better army.”
-Theodosius the Unconquered, Tyrant of Helike
At a regular pace, the Fifteenth would have gotten to Liesse in twelve hours.
We managed it in two bells instead, eight hours, by letting the slower supply train slip behind. Juniper would never have taken the risk if the rebels had shown a willingness to sally before, but they hadn’t. They’d remained behind the walls of Liesse and now we knew why. They’d waited until we were close enough that if we fled out of the angel’s range, we wouldn’t have time to do anything else. And then we’d have to deal with over a hundred thousand conscripts for the Heavens. My senior staff was all in agreement: if an army that size suddenly appeared in the middle of southern Callow, the entire campaign was screwed. The Legions of Terror would have to retreat north to consolidate and bring reinforcements from Praes and western Callow. Which would leave the Wasteland without supervision and the borders with Procer unmanned. If this was just a peasant army we were dealing with the whole affair might be settled before the Principate’s forces came back north after dealing with the Dominion, but those people would be Hashmallim-touched. They would not break, retreat or surrender.
The summoning had to be stopped. So here we were, two hours or so before Afternoon Bell, setting up camp a mile away from the walls of the city. There was no point in trying to encircle Liesse so we didn’t bother to even make a token effort. There were only forty or so hours left before it all went to shit, we’d have to come in swinging and break through the defences to cut this off at the source. To avoid a panic, the rank and file had not been informed of what exactly was going on inside the city – just that the Lone Swordsman was attempting a ritual that couldn’t be allowed to finish. The sense of urgency would hopefully drive my legionaries to push through even when things got bad, because there was no doubt that they would.
The situation we’d been put it was… dire. We were horribly outnumbered, for one. The walls were manned by what Juniper had identified to be the Baroness Dormer’s army, a mix of retinue soldiers and southern levies. They were heavy on bows, and they’d know how to use them: Callowan professional armies like the defunct Royal Guard had been heavier on knights than archers, but farmers weren’t above hunting deer and rabbits to put on the dinner table. Smaller and swifter targets than my legionaries, if not as well armoured. The walls themselves could be pounded into rubble given long enough, but time was the thing we lacked most. The one redeeming factor in all this was that Liesse wasn’t a castle, it was a fortified city. Beyond the initial wall there was no immediate second circle of fortifications: it was houses and shops, a maze of old streets and avenues. Deeper inside, closer to the lake, there was the Ducal Palace. It had been a fortress once but after centuries of peace its rulers had come to prioritize luxury over defensibility. Which won’t matter, if we can’t get into the actual city.
“Not even a portcullis on that gate. Goddamn Liessen don’t know what a real fortress is,” Captain Farrier spoke up from my side. “The south has always been too soft.”
The Gallowborne followed me everywhere now. Twenty of them dogged my footsteps everywhere I went, no matter the hour. They even guarded my tent.
“Where are you from, John?”
The man blushed. He always did, when I called him by his given name.
“Summerholm, ma’am. Gate of the East.”
Where Legions go to die, he didn’t say. The old boast rang hollow these days, with legionaries patrolling the streets of the city.
“They’ll find a stomach for this fight,” I said. “They have a hero with them.”
“Lone Swordsman, huh?” the man mused. “Heard about him. Pretty boy, did a speech in Marchford about freeing Callow. Took the First Prince’s silver, though. So much for that.”
“He’s not the brightest man I’ve met,” I said. “But he’s a regular monster with a sword. I’ve seen Calamities fight and he’s nearly in the same league.”
“Hopefully you won’t torch the city to get him, this time,” Farrier smirked.
I rolled my eyes. If only that were an option. With the city this densely packed the tactics I could actually use were sharply limited: even the trebuchets would have to be carefully aimed not to hit the streets. Civilian casualties would be horrifying otherwise. Won’t be an issue if Masego comes through, I thought. Apprentice had gone to take a closer look at the gates, to see if what we had in mind was feasible. There would spells inlaid in the fortifications, of course. There wasn’t a defensive wall in Callow that was without that kind of protection – otherwise any powerful mage could tear through stone, given half a bell to work. Mages in Callow were rarer than in the Wasteland, though, and so the spellwork wasn’t refreshed as often. Large Imperial cities got new warding schemes every decade or so, according to my books, but in the Kingdom the wards had remained the same until they were broken. And Liesse hasn’t ever been invaded by the Legions, so it should be as old as it gets.
Masego would tell me soon. Until then there were other matters to look into. I wasn’t forced to wait long until Hakram came back with the man I’d sent for. Neither did I need to turn and look to see they were coming: all the Gallowborne had put their hands on their swords the moment they appeared.
“Lady Squire,” the man they called Arzachel greeted me with an insolent smile.
The mercenary was allegedly from Valencis, one of the southernmost principalities in Procer – the one bordering the Titanomanchy and the giants that lived in it. He looked almost like a Taghreb, though his skin wasn’t quite as tanned and the cast of his face was unfamiliar. The southernmost Procerans were called Arlesites, I remembered. Famous for their gallantry and tendency to be at war with all their neighbours, both inside and outside the Principate. With his elaborate moustache, forked beard and the wicked falchion at his side he looked like the kind of man who’d sup on babies. He was also still eyeing me with open disrespect.
“It would be proper for you to kneel,” I said.
I felt Captain Farrier hide a smile. Callowans had not been fond of Procerans even before they’d failed to lend help during the Conquest.
“I’m not a very proper man, milady,” the man shrugged.
I shared a glance with Hakram. Without the need for actual words, the tall orc laid the bone hand that had brought him his nickname and forcefully pushed Arzachel to his knees. The man spluttered and reached for his falchion, but within two heartbeats all twenty of the Gallowborne had unsheathed their swords. Arzachel cast a look at them, then spat.
“Will that be enough?” he sneered.
“You can stay there,” I replied flatly.
“You treat all your men this way, Lady Squire?” he said.
I hummed. “Not a single one of them. That’s why you’re here, actually. You’re not one of mine, you’re Akua’s – and she’s about to betray me.”
“Doubt it, but even if she was it’s got nothing to do with me or my men,” he said immediately. “We ain’t getting involved in Praesi scheming.”
“Then you should have better considered your choice of employer,” I replied without a shred of sympathy. “You’re here, and you’re a liability that cannot be left unattended.”
My tone had remained casual, but there must have been something about it that gave him pause. The smugness and self-assurance slid off his face.
“You still need my men,” he said cautiously. “You kill me and they won’t follow.”
“Yes,” I agreed softly. “I’m told they’re remarkably loyal. They’ll listen to you whatever you decide to do. That’s why your head in a basket isn’t serving as a prop while I talk to one of your lieutenants.”
Arzachel went very, very still.
“I’ve got under forty hours to take Liesse,” I said. “I don’t have time to waste on you, to find a more elegant way to do this. Elegant’s never really been my thing, anyway.”
“Lady Squire,” he said, “I-“
“Shut up,” I Spoke. “Akua’s clever and she’s got some talent on her side, but I’ve got the single most powerful mage of our generation taking orders from me.”
Hakram smoothly unsheathed a knife and crouched at Arzachel’s side, forcing up his palm and nicking it. Blood dripped into a glass vial he held up in his other hand before rising to his feet and corking it.
“When he comes back,” I continued, “I’m giving Apprentice the vial with your blood in it. He’ll be under orders to use the nastiest way he has to kill someone if you so much as twitch in a way that looks treacherous to me.”
The Proceran’s eyes widened in fear. He was trying to speak but his lips wouldn’t move.
“Man’s got an affinity with fire,” I mused. “Reckon he might boil your blood in your veins.”
“Bad way to go,” Hakram gravelled, thick fingers slipping the vial under his breastplate. “Not at quick one, either.”
“Now,” I smiled, “you might be telling yourself ‘Heiress is a mage. She’ll put up something to protect me from that.’ Here’s thing thing, though: sure, if you talk to her she might put up a ward. She’s skilled. What she isn’t is an endless power sink – if Apprentice swings hard enough at that protection, it’ll break. She’s got other plans, Arzachel. How much do you really think she’s willing to invest in saving your skin instead of her own objectives?”
Adjutant hoisted the Proceran to his feet, patting his shoulder amicably.
“Off we go, mercenary,” he said.
Arzachel turned to leave but I raised my voice again, stopping him in his tracks.
“Oh, and one last thing.”
I allowed my Name to flare up, the beast howling in laughter as I felt my shadow stir behind me. I had a feeling that if I looked it wouldn’t my own silhouette outlined on the ground.
“Your men are auxiliaries in the Legions of Terror,” I said. “Regulations apply to them now. If any of them loot or rape when we get into the city, it’s the gallows for them and the officer who failed to keep them in line. Dismissed.”
“Blasting those gates would be pointless,” Masego said, wasting no time on small talk.
Juniper grunted in displeasure, glancing in my direction.
“Thought you said the wards in Liesse would be dusty relics,” the Hellhound said.
“They are,” Apprentice intervened. “I’m fairly sure that scheme predates Triumphant.”
Hakram and Pickler pressed knuckles to their foreheads, murmuring may she never return. Juniper didn’t bother with the formula, absent-mindedly moving her hand in the gesture. Masego drummed his fingers against his side irritably. He wasn’t any more inclined to superstition than I was, maybe even less.
“It’s simple in nature, but it’s lasted this long because it was cleverly designed. The runes inlaid on the iron take magic and move it into the walls it’s linked to. Those have been designed with some standard dispersal spellwork – anything trying to blast that door would have to be strong enough to bring down the entire set of walls at once.”
There were rituals that might be able to do that, I knew. Praesi had been horrifyingly skilled with rituals even before they’d been occupied by the Miezans, the unchallenged masters of that branch of sorcery. They usually required mass sacrifices, though, and I had neither the people nor the willingness to bleed them. Pickler spoke up.
“The trebuchets are positioned,” she said. “Give me the word and we start hammering away.”
“We won’t need that,” Apprentice said. “Simple in nature, remember? The scheme doesn’t deal with the physical aspects of manifested sorcery.”
I raised an eyebrow. “And for those of us not too clear on what that meant?”
“If I send fire at it, the flames won’t damage the gate. The flames themselves are magical energy, turned into a physical manifestation. But it’ll still be affected by the heat emanating from the flames, since the heat itself isn’t sorcerous in nature.”
Kilian had tried to explain something similar to me once. She’d said that sorcery was, in a way, using your will to lie to Creation. You convinced it that your magic was actually fire or ice or light or a curse, and that it should react accordingly. The bigger or more complex the lie, the more willpower it took. I had a feeling this was all an extreme oversimplification, but it was enough for me to get the gist of what Apprentice was saying.
“Melting the gate would require hours of constant, very high temperature fire,” Pickler pointed out.
“So we don’t use fire,” I said. “Masego, you used a trick in Summerholm. Can you do it again?”
He blinked, then frowned. After a moment his eyes lit up.
“Clever,” he praised. “Yes. Though we’ll need an impact afterwards.”
“You’ll get to use your trebuchets after all, Senior Sapper,” I said, and the goblin grinned.
For a moment she looked just like Robber about to slip a lit brightstick in someone’s pants. I nearly shuddered. Goblins. That this one preferred siege weapons to slitting throats in the night didn’t make her any less dangerous.
“It’s after the way is open that worries me,” Adjutant spoke up, grounding me back in the present. “There’s heroes in the city, they’ll have set up surprises. And there’s no trace of the Stygian spears on the walls.”
“They know we need the gate to invest the city in time,” Juniper said. “They’ll be waiting on the other side, in full phalanx. If there’s a competent commander on the other side, there’ll be archers on the streets and rooftops behind them.”
It would be like walking into a meat grinder. The ring of spears would remain an unmoving rampart skewering anyone coming at it, and with a constant stream of arrows falling on my legionaries they’d be unable to form up in enough of a mass to just push their way through. We’d expected to have to face the Stygians, though, and over the last few fortnights the Hellhound had developed her own tactics to deal with them.
“Sappers and heavies,” Juniper continued. “Crack open the formation with sharpers, then keep them split. We’ll use the Procerans to soften them up first, thin the numbers.”
“We have my little surprise, if it comes to that,” I said.
“You’ll need that to deal with the brat,” the Hellhound replied. “Keep as many trump cards in reserve as you can. Getting the latter parts of this battle done without you would be troublesome.”
“How sentimental of you, Juniper,” I said, but I also nodded to concede the point.
William was due a victory, but victory was a very broad concept. My being defeated in single combat might discharge that obligation and then leave him vulnerable to an ally picking him off – after the pattern of three was over, our lives were no longer bound to each other’s hands. The trick would be surviving the defeat. I’d had a lot of time to chew over the idea, to think up contingencies. I imagined most of them would fail, which was why I had a lot.
“Speaking of brats,” I said. “Heiress. The counters are ready?”
“Kilian has her orders,” Juniper gravelled.
“I had a look at our Proceran friend earlier,” Masego said amusedly. “He’s bare of protection, and I believe the slight warming of his blood for a moment was enough of a warning to ensure good behaviour.”
“He was shaking when he left,” Hakram said. “There was kind of a… pressure, when Catherine dismissed him. Even I felt it, and I wasn’t the target.”
I hid my surprise. I’d been on the other side of that trick once, the night I’d met Black. I’d seen him use it several times since, inflicting raw terror on people just by focusing his Name in their direction. Had I reproduced it accidentally? I’d need to look into that later. It was too useful an ability not to try and add it to my arsenal. Finding volunteers for testing might be a little hard though, I grimaced. Shaking away the thought, I met the eyes of my officers.
“We’re as ready as we’ll ever be. Another half bell for the legionaries to rest, and then we get this stone rolling.”
Afternoon Bell was ringing inside Liesse but no one paid the sound much attention.
My horse moved according to my will, trotting slightly ahead of the assembled lines of the Fifteenth. I’d considered making a speech before we struck the first blow, but what would be the point of it? My legionaries knew what needed to be done. They knew why, and they knew who we’d face doing it. Anything else was just posturing. Hakram was on foot at my side, the two of us surrounded by the full contingent of the Gallowborne. Masego was idling somewhere behind us, talking in low tones with his task force of mages as we waited for our last guest to arrive. She made us wait as long as she dared. Heiress arrived with her usual panache with her minion Barika in tow.
Akua was wearing ridiculously gorgeous armour, as was apparently her habit. This one was lamellar steel, with whispers of gold standing out from the red aketon underneath. It split on her upper thigh, revealing beautiful greaves set over high supple leather boots. Even her horse was covered in armour that was prettier than my own very plain – and somewhat scarred, because people kept shooting me – plate. Her horse was also alive, unlike Zombie. Whether that was a victory for me or not I still wasn’t sure. Refusing to stare at the sight of her, I fished out my dragonbone pipe out of one of my saddlebags and filled it with an herb satchel, striking a pinewood match on my own saddle to light it. I puffed out a mouthful of white smoke, eyeing her unkindly.
“You realize this is a military campaign, not a court session,” I said.
“It is the burden of nobility to be superior in all things,” she replied gravely. “Not that I would expect you to understand this, given your… origins.”
“Pretty armour,” Hakram spoke up mildly. “Crossbow will punch right through it, of course. There’s a reason we use mail and plate nowadays.”
Heiress graced him with a disdainful glance, but did not bother to reply. I breathed in the smoke then blew it out in her general direction. She wasn’t close enough to feel it, but the general pettiness of the gesture was still kind of satisfying.
“I assume you summoned me for something resembling a reason?” Akua said.
“A generous assumption,” Barika added in her wake.
“Barika Unonti, isn’t it?” I smiled. “How’s the finger?”
She looked like she wanted to show me one finger in particular but she controlled herself. Smugly, I blew out another mouthful of smoke. It was good to know that my talent for pissing off people hadn’t dulled since my days in the Pit.
“Your presence had been requested here so that you can offer technical advice on our offensive, Heiress,” Hakram lied blatantly in my name.
We had her here so that if she looked like she was about to double-cross us the goblin munitions buried under her feet could be detonated and a full company of eager Callowans got to stabbing her, should Apprentice fail to explode her head first. That was actually a thing he could do, I’d found out today. Explode people’s heads. What a world we lived in. It was a good thing I wasn’t a mage, I decided, because I wasn’t sure how good I’d be at resisting the temptation to use that spell whenever I had to deal with nobles.
“How flattering of you,” Akua said drily. “Not at all a waste of my abilities.”
I smiled. “See, you’re giving me advice already. Clearly you were born for this.”
Before the conversation could devolve any further, Apprentice strolled away from the other mages and broke in.
“Everything’s ready,” he said.
Heiress smiled in his direction, showing perfect teeth on her perfect godsdamned face.
“Lord Masego, how pleasant to see you,” she said. “I’ve been meaning to say that you and I should share of cup of wine soon. We could learn much from each other.”
The dark-skinned mage peered at her over his spectacles.
“Agreed,” he said quietly. “I’ve been meaning to dissect a Named for years, Heiress. Who knows, you might even survive the experience.”
Emptying the smouldering remnants of my pipe on the ground, I smothered a grin as the other Soninke’s face went blank. Considering Masego had been in the thick of the fighting against the demon, Heiress wasn’t going to be making any ground there in the foreseeable future. I cleared my throat, turning to the closest line of Gallowborne.
“Escort Lord Apprentice on the field, please,” I ordered. “Shields up. You should be out of arrow range but it pays to be careful.”
The twenty men clustered around Masego in a lozenge as they strode ahead of the army, watched silently by the rebels on the walls. They were too far away for me to hear when Apprentice told them to stop, or to hear him when he started incanting. Heiress leaned forward in the saddle, watching carefully.
“He’s calling on a contract,” she said.
“So he is,” I agreed.
“Magic won’t break the gate,” Akua said. “It is warded to ensure as much.”
“See, that’s the problem with you traditional Evil types,” I said. “You see a gate and it’s a personal affront for it to be in your way – so you have to batter it down. You think in straight lines. Even you, Akua. Your whole thing is scheming, but you only ever scheme to remove the obstacles straight in front of you.”
The front tip of the lozenge formation scattered as a globe of ice-clear water emerged from Masego’s hand. It flew forward steadily. Arrows streaked from the ramparts and the bastion above the gate but it was a small and moving target. It hit the gate without a sound and ice burst from the point of contact, swallowing the whole surface in a heartbeat. I did not spread to the walls, covering only the gate with inhuman precision.
“It is now frozen and closed,” Heiress said. “Truly, your tactical acumen is without peer. You have a mage who can call on Cocytus at his age and this is the best plan you can craft?”
In the distance, a trebuchet swung. The stone was too high – it hit the crenulations of the bastion above, taking the tip of it clear off and impacting inside the city. I really hoped the rebels had evacuated the outskirts of Liesse. In the distance I heard Pickler scream at the top of her lungs that if the next stone was off by that much the third projectile would be the goblin responsible for it. The second stone was better aimed: it hit the gate, cracking the ice. The metal behind it groaned. As the sappers loaded a third projectile, I smiled at Heiress.
“Gate’s warded, yes. The hinges, though? The hinges are just metal. And what happens when metal is exposed to the coldest temperature devils can muster?”
“It gets brittle,” Hakram said before she could.
The third stone hit, and with a ripping sound the gate… fell down. The hinges had broken and nothing held it up anymore. I smiled unpleasantly at the aristocrat.
“As you said, my tactical acumen is truly without peer.”
The Fifteenth roared its approval behind us as Masego returned to the safety of our lines and the Battle of Liesse began in earnest.