“My dear Chancellor, I didn’t murder my entire family and use their blood to turn myself into an undead abomination to be told I couldn’t do things.”
– Dread Emperor Revenant
We’d wasted another sennight at Denier, to my displeasure. In part haggling terms with Duchess Kegan, who must clearly have been a fishwife in a past life, and in part because we were waiting on the Twelfth Legion to finish its march towards us. Those four thousand men were still led by General Afolabi, who I’d met once before when the Lone Swordsman was making trouble in the city the Twelfth garrisoned. I’d been unimpressed by his inability to handle the mounting tensions in Summerholm, he’d been unimpressed by the fact I’d launched an ambush on a hero in his own backyard without warning him. Neither of us were particularly pleased to see the other, but if I had to traipse through Arcadia I’d rather do it with thirty thousand men than twenty-six thousand. Besides, I rarely had to deal with him directly: he was under Marshal Ranker’s command and his legionaries stuck to their own camp. It took us another three days to ferry the Deoraithe army across the river with fishing boats and barges, the mounting delays driving me up the wall.
The longer we tarried here the longer Diabolist had to set up her end game. I was anybody’s guess how long we’d be in Arcadia, and more importantly where the gate out would be. After all, I didn’t control that part. Masego had given me a very complicated explanation on the subject involving alignments, symmetry and what had struck me as a bit of religion no matter how much mathematics he brought into the mix. My own understanding was a bit simpler: my will was a needle. By opening a gate I was punching through the fabric that was between worlds into Arcadia, but where the needle had to punch through to get me out of Arcadia was determined by where I’d come from and where I wanted to go. No doubt there were sundry metaphysical implications to all of this, but if I wanted to be babbled incomprehensively at I could just buy people drinks. Hells, considering I’d basically taken control of the treasury for Callow I could actually afford that these days. Progress.
Our supply situation had been another headache, and I’d never missed Ratface more than when Ranker sent a copy of our stores for the campaign to my desk. The Marshal and General Afolabi had essentially emptied Denier and Summerholm’s granaries to ensure they could operate alone for a few months, but there was a major difference between driving those supply carts down Callowan roads and through the wilderness of Arcadia. Getting the matter sorted took another two days, then another two when Duchess Kegan insisted on bringing he own carts across the river instead of relying on Legion ones. My officers learned to enjoy their wine cold, because the temperature in the room when I heard about that descended sharply. There’d been talk from the Deoraithe of keeping a different supply train instead of keeping all the rations together, but after I glared the meeting table frozen they’d ‘magnanimously’ declined to further pursue the matter.
And now here we were, over a fortnight after when I’d wanted us to leave, assembling the allied armies in the darkness before dawn. The largest gate I could open was an equilateral triangle seventy feet at the base, so there was no possibility of going through in ranks. It would have to be a marching column, which had prompted another round of what I refused to even call bickering. I knew bickering, it was the true tongue of all my closest friends. There was fondness in bickering, a give and take. This was just an ugly brew of distrust and spite spilling over what should have been an exceedingly straightforward manner. Marshal Ranker had wanted her two legions to go through first, and General Afolabi had backed the notion. Duchess Kegan had suggested her own infantry be the first to cross, heavily implying the goblin couldn’t be trusted not to set up an ambush for her army on the other side. Ranker had then wondered out loud if there’d been enough left of the body of Kegan’s younger brother to identify him after Grem One-Eye killed him at the Wall, during the Conquest. Before that could get any uglier, I’d slammed my fist on the table.
It had promptly broken, because these days I was pretty sure I could punch through iron if I put my mind to it. That wasn’t worrying in the slightest.
Anyhow, that had gotten their attention. I’d told them that it was my fucking gate so my people were going through first, led by myself, after which Ranker’s Fourth would follow. The Deoraithe would go through next, and General Afolabi’s legion would be in charge of the rearguard and covering our supply train. Tactically speaking this entire disposition was shit and nobody liked the compromise, but apparently breaking furniture made people less prone to arguing with you on minor details. Robber had since informed me that rumours went around the camps about my temper, nowadays, but I doubted even Black would have been able to handle this level of futile squabbling with a smile. As for Juniper, well, she’d have sent them to cool their heels by digging holes and filling them at least twice by now. Gods, I missed the Fifteenth. The wretches gave me lip, sure, but at least they did whatever I asked them to without arguing for a quarter bell first. Still, here we finally were. The blood in my veins cooled and power wafted off my armour like smoke even as the gate shuddered open before me. I found myself panting when my mind finally returned to itself, leaning against the neck of my horse. I waited ten breaths for the tiredness to leave me before looking at the Gallowborne around me.
“Forward,” I ordered.
We went through. Moving into Arcadia was a hard feeling to describe. It wasn’t a pressure, not exactly. It was like being stripped away of a second skin you didn’t know you had, leaving you feeling oddly naked even when wearing full plate like I was. I’d ridden ahead of my retinue so I had a moment to get my bearings before they caught up to me, breathing in the scene. It was night here too, but nothing alike. The fields south of Denier were cabbage and radish, mostly, while here it was long grass as far as the eye could see. A lazy breeze had the fields shivering while in the sky above us a full moon hung. I would have known we were in Summer even if I were blind, just from the irrational hatred I could feel welling up inside of me. The power I’d gained in Skade did not like being here at all, and the hatred sharpened when I glanced up at the moon. Really? I thought. The moon? My title was Duchess of Moonless Nights, so I saw the logic in it, but come on. I’ve fought some pretty absurd things since I became a villain, but I draw the line at the godsdamned moon.
I spurred Zombie the Second ahead as the Gallowborne came through behind me, immediately spreading out in formation and following behind me. In the distance, a few miles ahead, I could see tall and pale towers reaching for the sky. I frowned as I looked: the power I felt from that place was a mere shard of what Skade had felt like, so this was unlikely to be the seat of the Summer Court. But it was likely there’d be fae there, and the faint presence of the exit gate I could feel in the distance was beyond it. Far behind it. Shit. I’d had strong suspicions I’d have to fight my way through the third Arcadia voyage, but an expedition into the heart of Summer was beyond my worst expectations. Fighting the Summer Court in their own territory was not a recipe for success. But what choice do I have? We’d have to move quickly, before Summer could muster its entire army and strike at us. Force march directly to our way out, ignoring the fae as much as possible – getting drawn into a campaign out here would be consigning the thirty thousand soldiers I’d managed to assemble to the grave. It wasn’t long before the entirety of the Gallowborne were behind me, and the moment the first of Nauk’s legionaries set foot into Arcadia I began moving forward.
I wished Hakram was at my side, but I’d had to leave him back in Creation to make sure no idiocy would unfold between the ‘allies’ while my back was turned. The great tragedy of Adjutant was that I could only have one of him.
“Ma’am, are you certain we shouldn’t wait for reinforcements?” Tribune Farrier asked quietly from my side.
“I need to be sure there’s no army waiting to ambush us,” I replied. “If we have to give battle when most our forces are stuck on the other side of that portal, I have no words for how fucked we are.”
The dark-haired man nodded obediently, though he did not seem convinced. Since I was astride a horse I was the only one whose head was above the grass, and I allowed myself to luxuriate in the feeling of being the tallest person around for once as we moved towards the towers. My retinue moved warily in a square formation I was near the middle of, the greenery making the lines wobbly: this was not land made for marching. I could see no trace of any roads, and to my mixed relief and dismay no road conveniently appeared after I had that thought. When nearing a mile away from the gate, I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth. No sign of anyone, but the grasslands made it hard to gauge that accurately. There could be ten thousand fae crouched down somewhere and none of us would notice until we stumbled over them. My instincts screamed trap, though in all fairness they almost always did. That healthy level of paranoia had kept me alive through a few years of being mortal enemies with Akua Sahelian, though, so I wasn’t inclined to dismiss it out of hand.
“It’s quiet,” one of the soldiers behind me said.
“If any of you finishes that thought, I’m feeding them to Nauk,” I said sharply.
I reined in Zombie and the entire formation slowed as I leant down to hide my profile, waiting for the hammer to fall. Nothing, huh? Nice try, but I wasn’t falling for that again. I waited for another thirty heartbeats and sweet, sweet vindication came in the form of a volley of arrows taking flight from our left. A trickle of power touched my eyes and my sight sharpened, gauging the number of shafts. A hundred, maybe? Not many more than that. The Gallowborne reacted professionally, falling in the testudo formation mere moments before the projectiles finished their arc. If they’d been mere arrows, that would have mostly nixed any notion of inflicted casualties. Unfortunately, on the way down trails of fire bloomed behind the arrows and they hit the shields with streams of flame. I had no room to manoeuver, stuck inside the formation as I was, and I wasn’t going to risk an arrow-catch while fighting bloody fae. I threw myself off Zombie the Second moments before a pair of arrows hit his neck and flank, detonating with burst of red and yellow flame. My mount died instantly, and I swore filthily in Taghreb. Those utter bastards.
Did these pricks even understand how much a good warhorse cost? Some of us actually had to pay for things, not just play pretend with a fucking illusory economy. They’d damaged him enough I probably wouldn’t even be able to raise him from the dead: I still needed mostly intact muscled to make a corpse move, necromancy or not. Only a handful of my retinue died to the first volley, though I saw that the arrows punched through steel shields and detonated afterwards to burn even when they couldn’t kill. Rising to my feet, I unsheathed my sword and ripped my heater shield from Zombie’s falling corpse. A second volley was in the sky before we’d recovered from the surprise of the first and I winced in anticipation – I could see what they’d meant to do. First wave damaged the shields, second hit the unprotected soldiers. This was going to hurt. I hid my surprise when I saw the arrows fall in a half circle around us instead, though I grasped what they were actually doing the moment I saw the tall grass going up in flames. Sorcery drove the flames to complete the encirclement rather than burn aimlessly faster than I could say I really hate fighting mages. So they wanted us to stay penned up and die.
“GALLOWBORNE,” I called out. “SHIELD WALL AND FOLLOW ME.”
I strode to the wall of flames ahead, shield up, and let the frozen river of power that was my third aspect come to the fore. I wasn’t using it – I’d not ye grasped it well enough for that – but just using the power was enough for my purposes. The fire stood three feet taller than me, but that hardly mattered: with a hiss I unleashed ice onto the flames, smothering them and carving a path ten men deep.
“Lion Devours Gazelle,” a man’s voice calmly stated ahead.
I charged through, the shield wall behind me, and saw silhouettes emerge from the grass even as a third volley flew at us. This one did not arc in the sky: it was shot straight forward, and though the impact was not as strong the bursting flames shot holes straight through my ranks. Pale blades like ivory were unsheathed in perfect silence as four dozen fae formed into two lines in front of me. The fae were tall and lovely, dark-haired and wearing a tabard marked with an oak over their silvery chain mail.
“Charge,” I barked.
The longer before we closed in melee, the more they’d thin us out with arrows. The Gallowborne were but a step behind me as I ran, the sensation of over a hundred steel boots thumping the ground in unison sending a shiver down my spine. I felt hot breath against my neck, the Beast licking its chops hungrily. It was eager for blood, after the frustrations of the last month. Truth be told, so was I. The man ahead of me struck lightning-quick, fearless, but he was no Duke of Violent Squalls. Not even a deadwood soldier. I stepped around the blow and flicked my wrist, tearing through his neck between the helm and the mail. The face of the woman behind him was splashed with crimson but she did not flinch: she went for my neck without missing a beat. The flat of my blade touched hers, redirecting the blow, and my shield hit her in the stomach. She coughed blood and before she could react the pommel of my sword hit her in the eye – I felt the skull cave under it, but my boot stomped down on her throat and crushed it to be sure. In front of me, I saw nothing but grass. I turned and saw the same all along the line: my retinue’s charge had been met for a moment, then the fae had disengaged without even attempting a proper melee, melting into the greenery.
“Oh shit,” I realized.
The fourth volley killed at least twenty of the Gallowborne. They’d fallen out of formation when trying to force the fae into close range fighting. Ahead of us four dozen fae formed into two ranks, pale swords in hand. We’d been at this for perhaps a quarter hour and already almost a third of my retinue was dead or wounded.
“Shield wall,” I ordered.
Lion Devours Gazelle, the unseen commander had called it. Piece by piece they eat us. The fae had perfectly grasped the weakness of my force, compared to his. We had few crossbows – a mere three lines – and no good line of sight to use it. Range was theirs, and the moment my crossbowmen revealed themselves they’d be eating a volley. Trying to get up close would just result in the same thing every time: a quick and fruitless melee followed by the Summer fae disengaging just before the archers fired. Bleeding us one skirmish at a time, taking us on a merry chase until all that’s left is a trail of corpses. By the size of the last volley and the number of swordsmen who’d faced us, I’d guess they weren’t more than a hundred. We’d had double their numbers in hardened veterans when the steel came out, led by a Named. Another quarter hour of this and our numbers would be even. Another quarter hour after that and they’d outnumber us. There was nothing I could do about it save attempting to charge them by myself, and they’d just spread out to shoot at me from every direction while a handful of swordsmen kept me pinned.
“They beat us,” I said, the words leaving a sour taste in my mouth.
Farrier was to my side, cheek burned red and an arrow wound on his shoulder, and I saw surprise flicker on his face.
“Countess,” he said, “we can still-“
“The longer we’re at this, the more soldiers we lose,” I cut through. “Call the retreat.”
I hadn’t noticed in the heat of the fight, but they’d been drawing us further out. Towards the towers in the distance. A hundred is about the size for a heavy patrol. I’m not liking the odds there isn’t an army waiting for us there, even if it’s not a large one. If we went any further and they had reinforcements coming, we were as good as dead. They’d fire at us while we retreated and we’d take losses from that, but if I got stubborn here I was risking a wipe-out. I’d lost fights before. Been outmanoeuvred by Juniper, been beaten by Black’s superior skills or crushed by Captain’s overwhelming might. But never before had I been so harshly outclassed when it came to tactics, and I did not like the feeling one bit. So this was Summer. The season of war, I’d heard it called. I’d seen nothing like the people I was facing now in Winter, and the thought had me uneasy. These weren’t warriors they were soldiers and soldiers fine enough to be the match of the Legions. We can’t linger in Summer, I thought. We’ll lose the entire army if we misstep even once. Farrier had barked hard enough that my men were already retreating in a semblance of good order, and I saw some of them were picking up the corpses of their comrades.
“Leave the bodies behind,” I ordered, tone bitter.
“Countess, you can’t possibly mean that,” a lieutenant said, tone aghast.
“We can’t afford to be slowed down,” I said.
I watched the silhouetted of the fae in the distance, their swordsmen already dispersing into the tall grass. Getting ready for another volley already.
“We’ll be back for them,” I said, clenching my fist.
There wasn’t much I could do right now, but there was one thing left. I reached for the power of Winter inside me, grasped as much as I could and poured it into my sword until the metal frosted. I kept taking more and more, until I felt my blood go from cold to freezing. Any further than that and it would turn to thick red slurry inside my veins. Gritting my teeth, I swung the blade ahead of me. Ice sprouted into wall ten feet high along the arc of the swing, even as exhaustion flooded me. I’d used too much tonight already and now my armour felt like an anvil on my back.
“Hurry,” I said, raising my voice. “It won’t slow them down for long.”
By the time the fae ceased pursuit, there were barely a hundred members of the Galloworne left.
There would be a reckoning for this.