“Look at how edible you are. You’re basically asking for it.”
-Warlord Grog the King-Eater, addressing the king of Okoro during the sack of the same
“So what are we looking at?” I asked.
I took my helmet when Hakram offered it, clasping the chin straps as I checked the longsword sheathed at my belt. The moon was out in full, but it was hard to tell given how many torches there were out in the streets. Legionaries were evacuating the citizens of Marchford according to Juniper’s prepared plan as we made our way through the streets, half the Gallowborne behind me. The rest was still assembling under Tribune Farrier. They’d catch up eventually. I wasn’t sure whether I’d want them to follow me into the fray, anyway, but if nothing else they’d be able to bolster our lines.
“The first defensive perimeter collapsed almost instantly,” the tall orc said. “Hune’s men dug in behind the second one, but they’re out of their breadth here.”
I could see the blizzard that had overtaken the central plaza of my city even from where I stood, a column that went high into the sky like some cheap snow imitation of the Tower, so Adjutant’s words struck me as a bit of an understatement. I’d pit the Fifteenth against anything that had feet or claws, but you couldn’t stab the weather. Well, they couldn’t anyway. I might be able to work something out. In my experience, you could stab pretty much anything if you tried hard enough. Now there was a decent motto for the freshly-founded Noble House of Foundling. If I ever got around to having any descendants – and I wasn’t planning on it, at the moment – I’d have it put up on a spiffy banner for when they inevitably got into a fight way out of their league. A legacy to be proud of.
“No shit,” I said. “I meant what kind of forces are they fielding?”
“Infantry,” Adjutant said. “Every single enemy soldier should be considered a mage, and their weapons look primitive but they have no trouble cutting through ours.”
“You’d think people would get tired of that gimmick,” I sighed. “Anyone looks like they’re in charge?”
“Not as of the last report I got,” Hakram replied. “I’m guessing if there’s a leader they’re either still in Arcadia or hidden by the storm.”
We turned the corner, a line of legionaries moving aside with hasty salutes so they wouldn’t get in our way. I nodded absent-mindedly, not really paying attention.
“They have wings, right?” I asked, making a gesture that was meant to represent flapping butterflies but came across as mildly obscene.
“That’s how they overran the first perimeter,” Hakram agreed soberly. “Headed straight for Pickler’s scorpions to take them out then spread across the rooftops. Hune moved crossbowmen to box them in, it’s working for now.”
That did not feel like a long-term solution. Eventually they’d find a way to get through and there was no way I was allowing a bunch of fae to run wild in Marchford. Gods, just thinking of the cost of rebuilding after a rampage was enough to make me feel faint. Why were my enemies never considerate about collateral damage? Admittedly I’d ordered Marchford Manor torched myself, but I sure as Hells wasn’t taking the blame for the devils and that walking horror Heiress has set on the city.
“Mages can’t do anything about that?” I said.
“They’re busy making sure the blizzard goes up instead of covering the city,” Adjutant said. “They’re working on shutting it down entirely, but whatever’s making it packs a punch.”
“Sent a runner to Apprentice before I even caught up to you,” the tall orc interrupted me.
Hakram, you prince among men. Always on the ball. If there was someone could make this mess less of a mess – or at least someone else’s mess – it was Masego. I wasn’t all that eager to head into a snowstorm without someone who could make fire at my side, truth be told, cloak over my plate or not. If the Fair Folk wanted to make it snow, I wasn’t above retorting with a whiff of the ol’ brimstone. We were close to the plaza, now, and I could feel the temperature steadily dropping. Joy. The two of us slowed when a legionary popped out of the woodworks and immediately headed in our direction, dropping a knee when she got in front of me.
“Countess,” the young Callowan said.
“Up,” I ordered. “You were sent for us?”
“Legate Hune conveys her respect and would like to inform you the southern part of our formation is close to collapse,” the light-skinned girl said.
Gods, how old was she? Seventeen at most. Barely two years younger than me but she felt like a kid, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and one bad day away from getting on a battlefield she wouldn’t walk away from.
“She has reinforcements headed there?” Hakram asked.
“We’re stretched thin until Legate Nauk moves his men into place,” the messenger replied. “She fears what she can spare will not be enough.”
Well, fuck. Hune had three thousand soldiers under her command – one time and a half the size of what a kabili should be – and she was still hard-pressed? Given the relatively small size of the area she had to contain, that meant the fae were tearing through her men like wet parchment.
“We’re close,” Hakram said, eyeing me.
“We’re going,” I replied. “Tell the legate as much.”
The girl got to her feet and saluted as I turned to the Gallowborne behind me. The officer at their head was an orc, one of the few in my personal guard.
“Lieutenant Sark,” I called out.
“Ma’am?” the officer replied.
“Send word to Tribune Farrier: we’re headed south. He’s to back up the lines there immediately. Same for your men.”
The greenskin eyed me calmly.
“You’ll be going into the storm, ma’am?”
“Looks that way,” I grunted. “Gotta get at whatever’s in there.”
He grinned, showing off yellowing fangs.
“Good hunting, Warlord.”
See, stuff like that was like I liked having orcs backing me. No insistence on coming along or waiting for Apprentice, just an encouragement to go out and kill things that wanted to kill me. I didn’t waste time on any further talk: we moved double-time for where the enemy assault was apparently the strongest.
Legion doctrine for static defence was fairly straightforward. Establish a shield wall of heavies everywhere without walls, place sappers and mages behind it to disrupt enemy formations. Most of the killing was actually behind the melee, by bolts and fireballs shot into the massed enemies. Unfortunately, both the Miezan legions and the Praesi inheritors had crafted that tactic relying one one assumption the Fifteenth was currently paying for: that they would have more or better spellcasters on the field than the enemy. The Empire was the only nation on Calernia with a formal mage corps in their army, so they usually had at least twice the number of spellslingers the enemy did if not more, and the Miezan empire had been built on sorcery the likes of which had never been seen before or since. Neither nation had ever tangled with the fae, and it was showing.
Instead of the orderly shield wall I was expecting, I was currently looking at half a dozen clumps of legionaries desperately trying to fight off the enemy while fairies darted past them to take a bite out of my panicking sappers. The sharp cracks of munitions and disorderly crossbow fire announced the death of a few more of my goblins every few heartbeats. I was confused at how the fae could have managed to break a shield wall without one of their own until the first time I saw some dark-skinned man dressed in furs glow as he spoke and a human walking out of formation as if in a trance, just to get speared through the throat. The Winter Court was falling on my men like a pack of wolves, using ice and illusions and charm to break them apart and pick them off one at a time. The defensive formations of Hune’s men were not a rampart so much as a buffet the enemy could choose from at will.
Most of the fairies were shaped like eerie humans with wings, though not all. Wolf-like hounds made of ice and shade wove in and out of sight, tearing out throats and mauling men over their shields. The only saving grace of that disaster I was watching was that it wasn’t also in the middle of a blizzard. Silver lining, eh?
“That is not how I saw my night going,” I admitted.
“They’re probably smarter than devils too,” Hakram growled with distaste.
My longsword came out of its scabbard without a sound and I move forward with my shield raised. Adjutant’s axe and scutum immediately moved to cover my left flank as the Gallowborne spread out in ranks behind us. Hune’s sappers took cover behind them as soon as they could, retreating with relief, and then a heartbeat later I was in the thick of it. A pale-skinned woman in a flowing blue dress that shimmered like a mirror leapt in my direction, a bone sword in hand. I breathed in, breathed out, and felt my Name stir. The beast grinned, eyes opening: my veins warmed and the world slowed. Hello, old friend. Would it be strange to say I’ve missed you? The sharp point of bone was headed straight for my throat, uncaring of the gorget protecting it, and I wasn’t taking the risk of letting that blow land. The flat of my sword lightly tapped the fae’s wrist, nudging the strike away, then with a flick of the wrist came around to tear straight through my enemy’s throat. I had at no point ceased moving forward. A heartbeat later, the fae’s headless corpse fell to the ground behind me.
Weeping Heavens, it was good to be back in the field.
To my left Hakram sunk his axe into the head of a shadow hound, hard enough shards of ice flew and its muzzle hit the ground. With a grunt he tore it out, then brought down an armoured boot on the creature’s neck to make sure it wouldn’t get up. I could feel myself smiling, the battle-joy taking hold of me. Gods, after all this talking I’d been forced to do lately it was such a delight just being able to hit something. The Gallowborne were advancing steadily behind us, picking off any fae trying to charm them with crossbows before they could get too close. The fairies swarmed in the air above them, but my personal guard was made of sterner stuff than that. They’d been through Marchford and Liesse: a bunch of fae weren’t going to make them flinch. I left them to it, moving towards Hune’s besieged legionaries. Ragged cries of “Fifteenth” came when they saw me, and they threw themselves back into the fray with fresh ferocity. That drew some attention. The fae, strange translucent wings flapping, hovered in front of me. I genuinely could not tell what gender it was, if it even had one.
“Let go of your weapon, sweet one,” it crooned.
My shield smashed it in the face, breaking its nose with a brutal crunch. Huh, so fae did bleed red. You learned something every day. I started speaking again, so I hit it again with morbid fascination.
“Here, have it,” I replied drily, ramming my sword through its chest.
“Don’t play with your food,” Hakram chided absent-mindedly.
His axe went clean through a wild-haired fae with two spears of shadow, then when it fell the bottom of his shield came down on her head repeatedly until it was nothing more than bloody pulp.
“I’m not impressed with the calibre so far,” I said. “Enemies that weak shouldn’t have broken our lines.”
Immediately after saying that, I hunkered behind my shield and braced for impact. The tip of a bronze spear punched through the steel, an inch away from my right eye, and I grinned. I’d had a feeling that would hurry things along. I ripped my arm out of the leather straps binding it to the shield, stepping back as I took a look at my opponent. Male, wearing an armour of twisted dead wood. Couldn’t see much of him aside from long dark hair and entirely blue eyes staring at me like I was an insect. Eh. I’d gotten more scathing disdain from Praesi nobles, he’d have to step up his game if he wanted to make a dent. There was a bronze sword at his hip, still sheathed. I flicked my wrist and the contraption of steel wires Pickler had built me triggered, dropping my knife on the palm of my gauntleted hand. If I triggered it differently, it could even shoot the knife like an arrow. My Senior Sapper made the best toys. There were another three fae decked in the same armour at the new one’s side, fanning out to flank Hakram and I.
“Nauk described a female with the same gear as responsible for the last blizzard,” Adjutant said, hefting his axe over his shoulder.
“Four heavy hitters, then,” I frowned. “Someone’s looking to make an impression.”
The first deadwood soldiers ripped his spear out of my shield, then laughed. It wasn’t a human laugh, or even a person’s. It sounded like the ice of a lake cracking come spring, like frost sharply spreading over glass.
“Children,” he mocked, and though he was speaking no language I knew I understood him perfectly. “We are the footsoldiers of Winter. The Sword of Waning Day. Die screaming.”
“Oh hey, a pack of flunkies with a fancy name,” I deadpanned. “Never slaughtered my way through one of those before.”
They moved as one. Before the first exchange was even done I was very, very glad I’d scrapped with the Hunter before. I’d had precious little training against opponents using spears save for my fights with the hero, and if I hadn’t learned to read movements from that I’d likely have earned a gaping hole through my shoulder within the first five heartbeats of the fight. The two deadwood soldiers who focused on me were quick, light on their feet and worst of all they knew how to work together. Soldiers, I decided, might not be the right word no matter what they called themselves. They were like hunters, harrying a prey into position so the finishing blow could be struck. Unfortunately for them, they were going to have to reconsider their position in the food chain of Creation. I closed the distance with the one who’d spoken, getting in up and personal where his choice of weapon was more hindrance than help. I nearly ate a bronze shaft in the teeth but instead ducked under it, sliding my knife into the armour about where his lower ribs should be.
The goblin steel bit into the wood but failed to punch through. Not regular wood, then. Everybody always got these fancy enchanted things, it was godsdamned unfair. I had to dance away when a spear tip pierced through where the back of my leg was a heartbeat before, then sharply twist my footing when when the first deadwood soldier went for my throat. They were too quick, I thought. In plate I wasn’t able to keep up, and my armour might as well be silk for the difference it would make if they landed a hit. I heard Hakram bellow and glanced in his direction: he had a spear through the leg, though he’d traded that for his axe buried in one of the fae’s neck. Right between the helmet and armour. It did not slow the enemy down, to my dismay. The deadwood soldier simply ripped out the axe, tossed it away and unsheathed her sword. Adjutant spat to the side, threw his shield in her face and took the spear out of his leg. He did not look concerned in the slightest about how he was bleeding.
My momentary distraction was costly. I saw the spear blur from the corner of my eye and hastily slapped the shaft to the side with the flat of my sword, but I’d missed the other one: it punched straight through my plate, then my knee, then entirely through and into the pavement. I was stuck where I was like a bloody pig on a spit. The soldier who’d hit me unsheathed his sword as the other one, the one who’d spoken, drew back his spear as it became coated with frost. This was the most pain I’d been in in over a year, and for a moment I focused on biting down on a scream. Then I watched a frosted spear head moving with unnatural swiftness towards my head, the whole world narrowing down to that one threat. I was not going to be able to dodge that, I knew. All the lessons I’d learned from some of the most celebrated killers of our age flashed through the back of my mind, but I pushed the aside. Eyes crossing as I followed the trajectory of the spear, instead of trying to move my body I bid my time and then bit. I caught the very end of the point between my teeth.
If Black ever heard of this, I thought, he was going to drill me until I died. The fae shifted his footing to simply push the spear forward – which would be very, very bad – but I spat it out and parried the sword blow from his partner. This was going to end very quickly if I didn’t start moving again, so I flicked my wrist at the sword fae and forced it to duck smoothly under my thrown knife while with my now-free hand I tore out his spear, flooding power in my arm to compensate for the poor angle. Bleeding like it was going out of style, one leg hanging loosely and pretty much useless, I eyed my opponents.
“She struggles still,” the sword fae noted in voice that sounded like a deer’s death rattle, like an owl swooping down.
“Title of my memoirs,” I gasped. “On that note: Rise.”
Thick chords of shadow spread across my body as my wounds closed. A little more of that bundle of power inside me faded away. Luckily I hadn’t had to use much of it so far – I doubted I’d run into anything as useful to Take anytime soon. The sight of my wound disappearing in the span of heartbeat, healed perfectly, was enough to give the fae pause. The healing wasn’t painless, of course, it hurt just as much as the wounding had because the Choir of Contrition was obviously a bunch of bleeding sadists. That moment of surprise cost them. I forced power into my legs and in the blink of an eye I was on the deadwood soldiers with a spear, ramming his buddy’s own weapon through the small chink between his wood breastplate and the lower parts of his armour. The creature gasped in pain but I ignored it, twisting to meet the assault of the other fae. The sword was angled for my throat, which was smart of him: I’d just conclusively proved that hacking away at my limbs was useless. Nothing short of a killing blow was going to stop me. Unfortunately for him, sword blades going for me was something I was intimately familiar with. I caught his wrist, twisted it sharply and forced him to his knees. A hard stroke was enough to send his still-helmeted head tumbling to the ground. I glanced at the one with the spear through the belly, saw he was on his knees desperately trying to take it out.
“A year ago,” I said, “that struggle comment would have been a great set up.”
The point of my sword went through one of the eyeholes, came away wet with blood and some silvery fluid that turned into smoke. I got read to back up Adjutant, but he’d apparently turned the situation around. He tossed the corpse of one soldier at the other and, taking the spear by the shaft two-handed, began to brutally beat down the still-living fae.
“Hakram,” I muttered. “That is not how you use a spear.”
The fae tried to retreat but I kicked it in the back, having approached quietly, and Adjutant brought down the spear – without even needing to turn it around, since he’d been holding it upside down – to pierce the creature through the throat when she was down. We caught our breaths for a moment, him still bleeding and me feeling my Name’s power simmer down without an opponent to take it out on.
“I can’t help but notice the blizzard hasn’t gone away,” Adjutant finally said, bending over to pick up his axe.
I eyed the raging winds ahead warily. Behind us my legionaries had managed to get their line in order, only to be entirely relieved of pressure moments ago when the fae started fleeing back into the blizzard. While giving Hakram and I a very wide berth. That showed a remarkable understanding of how that fight would go.
“Could be there’s another one inside,” I said.
“Ten denarii there’s something even nastier in the middle,” Adjutant said.
“That’s not a bet,” I said, “that’s you stealing my hard-earned salary.”
I sheathed my sword.
“The one who talked,” I said. “He said something that troubles me.”
“We are the footsoldiers of Winter,” the orc quoted softly.
“If they’re not lying,” I said. “If those were really the rank and file…”
“How strong will an officer be?” the orc completed.
What did that even make the fae my legionaries were having trouble with? Skirmishers? Or civilians, I thought, and the shiver that went up my spine had nothing to do with the cold. Nothing here was adding up. I didn’t know much about the fae, but if they’d attempted to invade Creation before someone would have fucking written about it. I refused to believe there could be several hundred books about the godsdamned Licerian Wars, which hadn’t even happened on this continent, and not a single one about ‘that one time Arcadia poured out as an unstoppable flood of death’.
“There’s other gates in and out of Arcadia,” I said. “And they don’t seem to have trouble like this. There’s fae in the Waning Woods, sure, but they don’t invade places as an army. Refuge is a day’s walk away from a gate and they’re still on the map.”
“So why, then, is the Winter Court sending soldiers here?” Hakram asked. “Is it because this isn’t a proper gate?”
A wave of warmth washed away the cold a moment before someone cleared their throat. I turned.
“I’m rather curious about that myself,” Masego said. “And I know where we can find answers.”