“No matter how hallowed the crown, it fits only one head.”
– Proceran saying
There were no maps. That was the great dangers of Arcadia, I was learning. Well, that and the fact that it was a shifting hellscape filled wit quarrelsome demigods. I’d not realized until now how much planning a march depended on the maps provided to Fifteenth by the Tower: we had no idea what was ahead of us now, and any reports brought back by scouts might have become inaccurate by the time we reached they place they’d been. I knew where we needed to go – could feel it in the back of my head like an unmoving iron spike – but that knowledge came without a precise idea of the distance I needed to march. Based on the last two times I’d travelled to Arcadia I was guessing about six days, but that was a guess. We could be here for a fortnight if I was misjudging the situation. We’d set out with rations for three weeks, expecting to resupply when we met up with the Fifteenth back in Creation, and we had since… expanded our granaries. The regulations for the Legions of Terror forbade looting, but I was Named: I could overrule those whenever I wished. They were mostly meant to avoid antagonizing local populations when the Empire took territory, anyway, so I was breaking the letter more than the spirit.
And Hells, since for once in my life I wasn’t fighting in my own homeland I’d ordered Robber to loot this fucking fortress to the bedrock. Taking anything heavy would only slow us down, but there was plenty of jewellery, gold and silver lying around. It would have been better to have Ratface along for that – the Taghreb was capable of squeezing silver of of stone, given a bell – but he was more useful to me at Juniper’s side, preparing the second phase of our campaign against Summer. Night fell all too quickly as the armies camped around the fortress, torches and bonfires lighting up the dark. I’d claimed the basilica where I’d beaten the Count as my command centre, and it was where I’d be holding my meeting with the senior staff of the combined armies. Passing the banquet hall I’d glimpsed on my way up earlier in the day I raised an amused eyebrow at the sight of two goblins with knives prying out the gilding from the corner of the high table before shoving the gold in a bag. Enterprising lot, Robber’s cohort. I decided not to ask how they’d gotten so good at ripping off precious metals from objects, since I’d really prefer not to know.
The Summer Court was torching southern Callow, it was sonly fitting that their own treasures would pay for the rebuilding of it. The Deoraithe were too proud to ask for a cut and Ranker was from the generation that had drafted the regulations I was breaking, so amusingly enough it was all going in my war chest.
The entire fortress had been ours a half-bell after I’d smacked down the Count, Nauk’s men sweeping in and the other two Legions taking the walls on the sides when the fae there pulled back to deal with my men. Ten corpses and a bloodied but satisfied Adjutant had been waiting for me when I first left the basilica – he’d gotten his aspect, he’d said, but he’d rather keep what it was exactly under wraps for now. The fae personal guard looked like they’d been hacked to death with his axe, not some power, so I was rather interested in what had allowed him to bridge the gap. It could wait, though. If there was one thing I’d learned about aspects in the years since I first became the Squire, it was that they were trump cards best kept quiet until they could shine. The knowledge that I had Struggle, back in the day, had allowed the Lone Swordsman to plan around it. Best to leave Hakram’s new weapon unknown until it could be slapped down on the table at our enemy’s detriment. The officers were already waiting for me when I passed the still-open copper doors, settled around a large circular table clearly stolen from another part of the castle. It still had dried blood on it, not that anybody seemed to care. No insulting slogans had been carved on the surface, though, so it probably wasn’t a goblin who’d found it. They liked to leave a mark, my little monsters.
This particular meeting had required broader attendance than the usual triumvirate of Ranker, Kegan and I: a hooded figure from the Watch stood silently behind the seated Duchess. At the Marshal’s side an old acquaintance was frowning, General Afolabi. He seemed displeased that Nauk was in attendance, representing my jesha from the Fifteenth. I could see his point – as a mere legate the large orc was by far the lowest-ranked person here – but he could put his objections in a pipe and smoke them, for all I cared. Speaking of. I took out the dragonbone pipe Masego had once gifted me and ripped a small pouch of wakeleaf. I’d earned it, after today. I struck a match on my aketon and inhaled in puffs until fire caught, tossing aside the blacked pinewood. In my absence, Adjutant had been more or less in charge. Though his official rank in the Legions was technically below that of a tribune, by virtue of being Named and my right hand there was no one here who could gainsay him about much of anything.
“Done stripping the place clean?” Ranker said as I claimed the seat across from her.
I inhaled with a sigh of pleasure, then blew the smoke idly.
“Jealousy is unseemly in a woman of your rank,” I replied with a smug smile.
Hakram cleared his throat.
“You all know why you’re here,” the orc gravelled. “Casualty reports first.”
“Twenty-nine dead,” Kegan said calmly. “The wounded will be back on their feet by morning.”
Merciless Gods, and they’d been the ones to scale the walls. Everyone and their sister had a bloody arcane weapon, these days. It was a good thing I’d reinstated a knightly order, because otherwise I was going to be the only one on the field without some awe-striking shock troops to deploy.
“Two hundred and change dead,” Nauk volunteered. “Mages are handling our wounded, maybe another fifty will need to stick with the supplies for the rest of the march.”
“Less than a hundred for the Fourth and the Twelfth together,” Ranker said. “The Fifteenth took the brunt of the assault for us.”
Two thousand fae in a heavily fortified position, and we’d wiped them out with fewer than five hundred casualties in the span of a day. I could get used to being the one with the numerical advantage, if things went that smoothly every time.
“From my interrogation of the Count of Olden Oak I learned that these were Summer regulars,” I said. “A border garrison to check Winter aggression. Half their number was stripped when the Princess of High Noon invaded Creation.”
“If this is the quality of soldiery we’ll be facing, perhaps this entire matter has been overly planned,” Duchess Kegan noted.
Marshal Ranker hacked out a laugh.
“This was a siege, you twit,” she said. “Not what those boys are meant for. On a plain with equal numbers and some nobles to back them they’ll be trouble.”
The hooded man behind the Duchess stirred at the insult but Kegan settled him with a glance. I watched the interplay without a word, pulling at my pipe. The wakeleaf was blunting the sharper edges of my mood, perhaps for the best.
“I agree with the Marshal’s assessment,” Hakram said. “They showed their mettle when they tangled with the Gallowborne: if they catch any of our infantry without crossbows or mages, it will go very differently.”
“Which leads us to the crux of this matter,” Afolabi said. “Where are we headed, Lady Squire? Surely you made inquiries with your prisoner.”
The Count of Olden Oak was currently a guest of the Fifteenth, tied up under seventeen layers of wards and a rotating watch of mages. I’d been forced leave so many to the task that to take care of my wounded I’d had to send for mages from the Fourth.
“We’re headed for the lands of the Princess Sulia, as some of you are already aware,” I said. “When politely asked, our friend revealed that it’ll be mostly a straight march to there. Only two obstacles in the way: a river and the keep of the Count of Golden Harvest. We’re in luck for the second one – the Count is currently in Creation, along with most his troops.”
“Is there a bridge or a ford?” Ranker asked, leaning forward.
“There’s supposed to be a bridge, if we keep down the road that led us here,” I said. “I wouldn’t count on it still being standing, though. They had time to send messengers before we took the fortress.”
“As long as the bare bones of s structure remain my sappers can take care of it,” the Marshal dismissed.
“We’ll be relying on you, then,” I acknowledged, spewing out a stream of smoke. “Even if the river was swimmable we have too many supply carts for that to be valid way across.”
“We should begin marching before dawn,” Duchess Kegan said. “We’ve already wasted a day on this castle. The longer we tarry the higher the chances the armies in Callow are recalled.”
None of us was eager at the idea of fighting the higher ranks of the Summer Court on their own ground. In Creation their power was limited, but out here? There were some entities numbers meant nothing again and the Princess of High Noon struck me as one.
“Forced march,” Nauk grunted in agreement. “We’re in their lands now. Our way to get out of this with most our feathers is to be gone by the time they’d done mobilizing.”
“We’ll exhaust our soldiers if we follow your… plan,” General Afolabi drawled in disdain. “And risk ambush, if we move hurriedly. Legionaries dead on their feet will be ill-equipped to handle fae harassment.”
“The orc is right,” Duchess Kegan retorted flatly. “Better we lost a few hundreds to ambushes than thirty thousand to a hopeless pitched battle.”
“Nauk,” I said, and though my tone was calm it sounded out like a clap. “The orc’s name is Legate Nauk of the Fifteenth Legion.”
The Deoraithe met my eyes, displeased, but I matched her stare. We both knew I was in the right in this. Eventually she nodded, lips thinned.
“Legate Nauk is correct,” she conceded.
I smiled mirthlessly, blowing out smoke. If she wanted to keep on good terms with me Kegan would need to watch her fucking mouth around my people.
“Whatever the pace, we need eyes ahead,” Ranker spoke into the silence. “The Fourth and the Twelfth have scouting contingents. Your detached cohort under the Special Tribune can join them.”
“I have another task for them that’ll take them away from the army,” I refused. “Consider them unavailable for the foreseeable future.”
“What are they doing?” Afolabi asked.
I raised an eyebrow at him.
“The matter is sealed, General,” I replied. “I will unveil it when I deem it necessary.”
“This isn’t the time to play mysterious,” the man said through gritted teeth. “We’re in hostile territory with no path of retreat. Recklessness will get us killed. Your last gamble torched a third of Summerholm, Squire. We cannot afford a repeat performance.”
From the corner of my eye I saw Nauk’s fist clench and he half-rose form his seat but Hakram sent him a quelling look. I drummed my fingers against the table lightly, taking the pipe out o my mouth.
“You’re leading to something,” I said. “Spit it out.”
“Marshal Ranker has the rank and the experience to make the proper decisions,” the Soninke said. “Command of the expedition should be formally ceded to her.”
I glanced at the goblin in question. She didn’t seem surprised, but neither did she seem appreciative. Not her idea? Hard to tell.
“No army of Daoine will ever take orders from Praesi,” Duchess Kegan replied coldly.
“Marshal Ranker?” I prompted, tone light.
“You’ve yet to make a major mistake,” the goblin said. “Doesn’t mean you won’t.”
Mhm, there were subtleties to that reply. She wasn’t disagreeing with Afolabi, but she was distancing herself from the push somewhat. Either she was leaving herself room to throw him under the carriage after using him as a catspaw or she truly had nothing to do with this.
“You fucking Wastelander prick,” Nauk growled. “Do you really think you-“
“Nauk,” I interrupted without looking at him. “Sit down.”
He did. He’d heard me use this voice before.
“I’ve perhaps been too lenient,” I said. “I do have less experience than most the commanders at this table, hence why I’ve been taking advice. But allow me to make something perfectly clear, General.”
The temperature in the room descended sharply, and for once it was on purpose. I met the Soninke’s eyes, and to his honour he did not flinch.
“I am in command,” I said, cocking my head to the side. “Here. In Callow. Wherever we meet for the rest of your natural life. I’m not going to threaten you over this, or seek revenge for the slight. To be frank, you’re just not important enough for me to spend that much time on you.”
The man blanched in anger. I set my pipe on the able and slid it towards him.
“I could Speak to you,” I noted. “But I don’t really need to, do I? Whine all you like, we both know the chain of command here. So what you’re going to do instead is head downstairs to the kitchens, to clean my pipe. When you’re done, you may come back and sit at the table.”
I tapped my fingers against the table impatiently.
“Now,” I ordered.
Choking on his rage, the man snatched the pipe off the table and strode away. That was the last sliver of attention I gave him.
“As Marshal Ranker said, we should send scouts to have a look down the road as soon as possible,” I said, continuing as if nothing had happened. “Duchess Kegan, given the speed the Watch has shown I would trouble you to send a detachment of it ahead to check on the state of the bridge.”
“I’ve a hundred used to going into the Steppes to map orc movements,” the Deoraithe replied, tacitly agreeing.
It wasn’t that she was cowed, because she wasn’t. Neither was Ranker, for that matter. They’d both dealt with scarier villains than me, though I was playing catch up in that regard. But I’d just made it clear that, if pushed, I was willing to push back. I might still be too young for them to see me as an equal but I was, at least, not someone to be fucked with lightly. It would be enough for now. I glanced at Hakram, and he began speaking again.
“Now,” he began, “for the forces we’ll dedicate to guarding the supply train.”
We were back on the road by dawn the following morning. The first day was uneventful, but that very night we first saw the signs of trouble to come. None of the armies involved had set up a fortified camp before dark, given the pace we were putting the soldiers through. It would only slow us down, and given that the Deoraithe did not practice the same doctrine the meat of our army would be unprotected besides. Double watch and a ring of fires had been deemed barley sufficient, but if we’d not posted goblins out we would have still missed the fae studying us in the dark. Only a handful and far out of the light cast by the fires, but to goblins the dark made no difference. No attack followed, but from then on it was clear there was an enemy force watching us. That we could only guess at the size and position of it was dangerous, given how good at ambushes Summer had already shown itself to be. The lack of attack, though, led me to a theory. Arcadia ran on stories, didn’t it? More than that, on story logic. Time and distance were dictated as a consequence, unless a bigwig like the King of Winter decided otherwise.
If I was right, then it would all play out when we got to Princess Sulia’s lands. One the last day, at the last moment. I spent most of the second day’s march trying out the notion, thinking of how it could be turned to my advantage. No sign of the fae in daylight, though the Watch detachment Kegan had promised came back with news: they’d found the bridge. As expected, it had been scuttled ahead of us. Ranker spent an hour asking the cloaked soldiers for details before declaring she could have a bridge able to support two carts at a time up in a bell and a half. I’d eat into the day’s march, but swimming was apparently not an option: the current was harsh and the river broad. When we camped out for the night I sent for a tenth of mages, half of what the Fifteenth had left – the rest had all gone with Robber. More than once during the night I wished I had Masego or even Kilian along, instead of these ones. The difference in skill showed badly. I emerged only around morning bell, exhausted, and found I wasn’t the only one in that state. The fae had hit us during the night, in a manner of speaking.
A handful of soldiers had appeared at the edge of the camp and shot fire arrows at the tents of the Fourth, retreating before a response could be mustered. The damage was minimal so Ranker had originally thought this to be the work of a few reckless fae scouts, but when the attack repeated at the edge of the Twelfth’s camp the Marshal and the Duchess understood exactly what was happening. Both goblins and Deoraithe were familiar with the kind of tactics a smaller mobile force could use against a larger invading one. Every hour or so fae popped out of the woodworks and shot their arrows, not to kill or even burn supplies but to keep our soldiers awake. They were eroding strength through exhaustion, and not even the Watch was able to catch up to them on their home grounds. They succeeded in their ploy, to my irritation, and there was little I could do about it. We allowed the soldiers to rest for a few hours during the afternoon when we finally reached the bridge and Ranker put her sappers to work. So far we’d been left untouched during daylight, but I was of the opinion they were trying to make us drop our guards during the day in anticipation of a strike. The other two agreed.
Attacks intensified during the third night, to my mounting frustration. We’d camped on the other side of the river in case they torched the bridge Ranker had built during the night – it was wooden – and it proved a farsighted precaution. It went up in flames mere hours after nightfall, cutting off our best path of retreat. Putting together our scout reports, we’d come to the conclusion that there were only about three hundred fae currently harassing us. A flea on the lion’s back, but the lion was having a hard time getting a good night’s rest. This time they went for out sentinels shortly before dawn, and we had to rouse the infantry to force them to retreat. It was on the fourth day they attacked, though not exactly in the manner we’d predicted. A full two thousand fae led by a noble tore into our scouts ahead of the column. I hesitated to sally out myself, since I wasn’t sure if it was a distraction while another force readied to attack the glaring weak point that was our supply train. I sent Adjutant instead, but by the time he arrived the fae had disappeared and left only charred corpses behind. They hit our scouts twice more that day, and though I was furious I eventually pulled back them back closer to our armies.
The Twelfth had already lost two hundred scouts to the mess, and the Fourth half that. Almost as much as the total casualties we’d incurred taking the fortress, without a single scalp to show for it. Ranker wasn’t a Marshal for nothing, though. That night she cooked up a few surprises for the enemy. Half past Midnight Bell the sound of buried demolition charges resounded, catching the enemy sneaking around our back by surprise. The sappers waiting on the fae quickly found themselves outmatched, but they’d not been meant to win that fight: the Watch sallied out in full to hit the fae, carving out a few hundred corpses before they managed to flee. There was a sense of relief in the camps after that when the fae didn’t dare to continue the harassment that rose my wariness. Ranker’s too, as it happened. They struck again at dawn, while the soldiers were still half-asleep, but at the Marshal’s suggestion we’d filled the supply wagon with soldiers and when the five hundred fae recklessly going for the carts arrived they were greeted by a steady crossbow volley. This time we managed to take prisoners, and the interrogations that followed were… illuminating.
We’d crossed the domains of two nobles already in our march, both of them gone to war with the host of Summer. Warned ahead of our arrival by the messengers of the Count of Olden Oak, the skeleton garrisons left behind had followed at a distance while sending runners ahead for reinforcements. The garrisons of all the surrounding demesnes had gathered under the Lady of the Verdant Orchard, four thousand in full, and taken to delaying and harassing us until a larger army could be assembled to wipe us out. Word had been sent to the heart of Summer, Aine, and to the Queen herself. What would come of it our prisoners had no idea, but I didn’t want to stick around to find out. If the Queen of Summer took the field we were fucked beyond Lower Miezan’s ability to express. With a better idea of what was on the other side, the decision was made to pick up the pace. As the prisoners had said, the fortress of the Count of Golden Harvest was empty of all life. It broke my heart to leave the place unlooted, but I didn’t have the men or time to spare for it. It was a calculated risk to keep marching past nightfall on the fifth night and it paid off: the fae raiders stripped another hundred men off our skin, but we managed to reach the edge of Princess Sulia’s domain.
We fortified the camps, for that last night, and heavy but rotating watches allowed the soldiers to rest up before the last day and the battle I could feel in my bones was coming. Following that iron spike in the back of my head, I led the host to a wide grass plain by midmorning. This, I knew instinctively was where I could open the gate out. I took my time surveying the grounds. To the north the road continued across the plain, but our surroundings were not so uncluttered. To the west hills rose, low and round in the beginning but growing too steep to march through the deeper they went. To the east a sunny forest sprawled out for miles, the trees thick enough one could easily hide an army in there. It felt like a trap, though one whose jaws had yet to close. Last time we’d needed six hours – a bell and a half – to get the army through the gate. Which meant we had to hold this plain for at least six hours in the face of whatever came knocking. Ranker and Duchess Kegan came to join me as our armies spread across the span of grass, the three of us silent for a while before I spoke up.
“Defensive positions,” I said. “When Summer comes knocking, I want them to be warmly received.”
“Good grounds, for a battle,” Ranker murmured. “If all you’ve promised comes to pass.”
“Let’s hope it does,” I replied. “You’ll be a very farsighted corpse by sundown if it doesn’t.”
“The sole saving grace of this affair,” Kegan said.
I couldn’t help but snort, but the amusement left me quickly. This was it. The day that decided whether I’d wrecked my chances at quelling the mess in Callow or not. Let’s find out which of our traps has the sharpest teeth, Princess of High Noon.
Two hours later I opened the gate and we both rolled the dice.