Interlude: Commanders

“When historians try to pin down Foundling’s methods they point to the Battle of the Camps or the Princes’ Graveyard, but those came later. After she’d learned her trade.  If you want to understand how she operated, look to the Battle of Four Armies and One – from the beginning to the end, she was playing an entirely different game from every other commander on the field.”
– Extract from “A Commentary on the Uncivil Wars”, by Juniper of the Red Shields

Nauk of the Waxing Moons was having an interesting day. He’d been woken up before dawn when the watch officers had been forced to break up a brawl between legionaries of the Fifteenth and the Twelfth: the enmity between Afolabi and the Boss had trickled down, and no one who’d been through Marchford and Liesse was inclined to leave any teeth in a mouth that talked shit about Catherine Foundling. The poor fuckers were lucky they’d not run into the Gallowborne when flapping their mouths: that grim collection of paleskins drew steel over things like that and didn’t sheathe until the blade was red. The legate had been in a mood when he’d stepped to the scene, but Hakram already had it in hand. The men from the Twelfth were handed to their officers for discipline – and with Marshal Ranker looking over Afolabi’s back no one was under the illusions they’d get off lightly – while his boys were dragged back into their part of the camp. Fighting among legionaries when in hostile territory drew sharper sanctions than just brawling: it would be a hard flogging for them. When Deadhand had said their punishment would be delayed until the return to Creation they’d smirked, but that had disappeared real quick when Hakram had added that to even it out he’d deliver the flogging himself.

Nauk fancied that the memory of his old friend stomping a fae noble by swinging a horse one-handed would scare them into acting like proper fucking legionaries for a few weeks at least.

“She made another enemy,” the legate grunted as he watched the last of them leave.

“He’s Soninke old blood,” Deadhand replied. “Was never going to be a friend. He’s more useful as an example regardless.”

The good thing about Hakram was that he didn’t believe in kissing ass. Never had. If he said the Boss’ decision to send a godsdamned general of Praes out of the room to clean her pipe like a misbehaving child had some sense to it, it meant he believed it. He wouldn’t have been afraid to disagree openly if he did – not with only Nauk around to hear, anyway. The legate spat to the side.

“If you say so,” he said. “The Wallerspawn weren’t moved, by my reckoning.”

The other orc’s brow rose. Nauk scoffed.

“She speaks with a Laure accent, Hakram,” he said. “She’s as much one of them as I am.”

“She’ll still smack you in the mouth if she hears you say that word,” he replied. “We have larger scores to settle than old grudges like that one. They’re our allies, at least for now.”

Easy for Deadhand to say. His grandfather hadn’t died taking a run at the Wall. The old scrapper had been too deep in the Red Rage to retreat when the Watch came out in force, and ended up with his head on a spike for it. It might still be there for all he knew.

“Deoraithe, then,” Nauk conceded in a grumble.

“Kegan’s hard iron, I’ll give you that,” Hakram conceded in Kharsum. “But she was watching, and she’ll remember next time she feels like pushing.”

“Politics,” Nauk snorted. “Glad you’re the luckless bastard stuck dealing with those.”

“Not that different from College alliances, when it gets down to it,” Deadhand replied, turning to gaze out into the night. “Everybody wants something.”

The legate grunted, conveying his general fucking distaste for Wasteland schemery.

“Grab what sleep you have left,” Hakram finally said. “Tomorrow’s a red day if there ever was one.”

Nauk of the Waxing Moons grinned, baring ivory chops to the night.

“Looking forward to it,” he said.

They got to the place by midmorning, and even as the rest of the armies dug in Nauk pawned off his duties to Commander Jwahir to study the grounds at his leisure. The Taghreb woman was a better hand at organizing, anyway. He’d picked her as his second for that very reason when he’d lost his brother so fucking senselessly at Three Hills. The same eerie road they’d used to get here continued to the north, supposedly reaching Aine and the seat of the Summer Court eventually. How long it would take to get there, no one had any idea. Apparently time was subjective in Arcadia, which sounded like the kind of shit the warlock’s get babbled about after a few cups. Not close enough for whatever was in there to reinforce the opposition in time, which was the important part anyway. There was no sign of the enemy for now, and they’d checked. The woods to the east were empty, and thick enough besides you couldn’t march in proper ranks through them. The hills to the west couldn’t be marched through from the other side, as far as the goblins could tell, but that meant fuck all when the opposition had wings. If Nauk was in a betting mood, he’d bet on Summer placing a nasty surprise in there to flank them where the lines were engaged.

At least this would be a defensive engagement. The kind of fight most of their host were best at. Wallerspawn liked to let the enemy come to them and they were heavy on bowmen besides, while Marshal Ranker’s gang of cutthroats had the sharpest sappers in all the Legions. As for General Afolabi’s Twelfth, their cognomen was Holdfast. They’d stopped a Callowan force twice their size from making it to the Siege of Summerholm, during the Conquest, by digging in and letting them die on their palisades. After losing a full kabili at the onset of the Liesse Rebellion and needing the Fifteenth to bail them out of the mess in Summerholm, those boys and girls would be eager to wipe off the black marks from their record. They’d fight with fire in their bellies no matter what came calling. The absence of reliable information about what that would be had been a stone in the large orc’s boot for this entire expedition. Apparently there was going to be some kind of princess, but what the Hells did that mean? The legate was more interested in numbers and those were still anyone’s guess. The almost thirty thousand assembled here were nothing to fuck with lightly, and Nauk would bet on them to handle up to twenty-five thousand Summer screamers no matter what nobles backed them.

Thirty thousand would be dicey, though. More than that and it was going to get bloody, and not in the way the legate enjoyed. The Fifteenth had been outnumbered before, at Three Hills, and outclassed at Marchford. But never both. Even the Boss would have a hard time pulling a win from that mess if it came down to it. Speaking of. Pretending he couldn’t see Jwahir looking for him with her report-face, Nauk legged it as discreetly as an orc his size could. Catherine was sitting on one of the decadent cushioned chairs they’d looted back at the fortress, lounging like a lazy cat with that dragonbone pipe of hers. Nauk occasionally wondered if she knew what even just this much dragonbone was worth: you could buy a mansion in one of the better parts of Ater for the gold it would earn at an auction. She blew out a stream of smoke as he rested his elbows on the back of her chair, the wooden frame groaning in protest.

“Nauk,” she greeted him.

She spoke his name the way it would be spoken in Kharsum. It was always eerie, when she used the tongue of his people. She had a flawless heartlands accent without having ever stepped a foot there – Name fuckery struck him as the guilty party there. The legate could the side of her face well, from this close. Sharp and high cheekbones that had gotten even sharper since she’d gone into Arcadia to exact her share of hide from Winter, tan skin had had gotten ever darker with all the marching in the sun they’d been doing of late. Whether she was pretty by human standards he had no idea – she certainly had her fair share of people panting after her, though she’d ever only given Kilian the doe eyes. Nauk knew better than to ask how that had turned out. It hadn’t escaped anyone’s attention that the two of them had been keeping separate beds for months and that they rarely spoke directly to one another anymore.

“Cat,” he growled back.

“Shouldn’t you be preparing your men?”

The tone was casual, but he knew to take it seriously anyway. The Boss was nowhere as much of a hardass as Juniper, but she liked to run a tidy crew. Even those who’d been with her since Rat Company were expected to pull their weight.

“Jwahir has it in hand,” he said. “I’ll look it over later. There a reason you haven’t made the portal?”

“I expect that they’ll appear not long after I do,” she replied, amused for some reason beyond him. “Better we dig in first.”

“Gonna be a rough one, this,” Nauk grunted. “Might take us more than a bell and a half to retreat if we’re under fire the whole time. And the last ones to leave will be given a bitch of a fight.”

He’d been standing close to her long enough to start feeling the cold now. Whatever she’d done in Winter it had changed her. Worse temper, though she’d never exactly been a delicate flower, and nowadays wherever she stood was always a mite frosty. Nauk didn’t mind. It reminded him of home, of the Steppes in spring just after the snows melted. From his height he could see the corner of her mouth twitch. The blade-smile. Someone always ended up bleeding out on the ground before too long whenever she made it.

“Princess Sulia will be in command, on the other side,” Cat said. “She was described to me once as having a “beautifully simplistic view of things”.”

“Don’t need to get fancy when you can torch everything all the time,” Nauk said, admiration and disgruntlement warring for his tone.

“Dealing with someone like that is a lot like dealing with a hero,” the Boss mused. “She’ll enter the field thinking she knows the story ahead of her, because that’s all she’s ever known.”

“I’m guessing that’s not a nice story, for us,” Nauk said.

“It’s a story about invaders taking a beating as they try to retreat,” she said. “Most likely capped with a last stand at the gate to cover the last of us fleeing.”

“We taking the rearguard, then?” the legate asked.

Would be a fight to remember, that was for sure. He wasn’t fond of the notion of sacrificing his jesha to cover other Legions and Wallers– Deoraithe, better he use that even in his mind, he wouldn’t put it above her to be able to smell shit like this – but if that was what was needed to win the war he’d grind his fangs and take the reaming.

“Oh Gods no,” Catherine laughed quietly. “Summer’s going into this with the perception that our strategy is all about limiting losses. I didn’t come here to flee limping, Nauk. I’ve come for blood.”

Nauk felt his shoulders loosen and chuckled. Not because of the words, though they’d been reassuring enough, but because of the tone. Quiet. Catherine Foundling was always at her most dangerous, when she got quiet. Time to make that known across two worlds, he figured.

“The girl was right,” Duchess Kegan said.

Adair shifted on his feet, watching the same sight she was. Countess Foundling had opened her gate but a half-hour ago, not long after the goblin had finished her preparations, and already the host of Summer was arriving. They were coming from the north down the road, as had been anticipated, but Kegan doubted that was the only direction they would strike from. This Princess Sulia had proved competent enough to annex most of southern Callow: she’d have more subtlety to her intent than a mere battering ram.

“About the timing only. She was wrong about the numbers,” Adair said softly. “My men say over fifty thousand.”

The ruler of Daoine closed her eyes, allowing herself the weakness only because no one but her old friend was close enough to see it. More than fifty thousand. They could barely afford to fight half that.

“Summer must have mobilized its full might to crush us,” she finally said. “There cannot be anything but sentinels left in Creation.”

“The Fifteenth and the Knightsbane’s command were on the move due south when we crossed the gate,” Adair noted. “She might have meant for all of us to serve as bait while they take back Dormer and Holden.”

“Neither force is large enough to hold the cities, if Summer attacks afterwards,” Kegan said, frowning.

“She is young,” Adair shrugged. “And yet to be defeated. That breeds arrogance.”

“She is not a fool,” the duchess murmured. “Let us be careful to avoid the mistake of taking her for one. It would be a costly misstep to make.”

And oh, what delicate dance it had been to deal with that terrifying child. Where the Carrion Lord had dug up this monster she did not know, for surely the stories about her being an Laurean orphan were a smokescreen for the truth. Obscure Imperial wards did not go on to win the kind of battles Catherine Foundling had, not after two years. Twice heroes had died at the girl’s hand, devils and demons scattered by mortal men under her command, a resurrection forcefully snatched out of the hands of a descending Hashmallim. These were the signs of a legend in the making. If the Black Knight had ever been linked to one of the People, Kegan would have believed Foundling to be a child of his own blood raised in obscurity to avoid the knives of the High Lords. As this was not the case, she must have been found young and trained away from prying eyes to be unleashed as a weapon to suppress future Callowan rebellions. The villain’s foresight never ceased to chill her blood, schemes decades in the making coming to fruit at precisely the right time.

Still, it seemed his weapon had gone slightly astray. She was on her way to becoming a power in her own right, and that meant she could be negotiated with. Kegan had early understood the same truth that Ranker – that rotten old bitch – clearly did: to prevent Foundling from realizing the strength of her position, the stick had to be used with only a rare carrot dangled. It was a careful balance to strike, given what they were dealing with. The Duchess of Daoine still felt her blood run cold when she remembered that slip of a girl glancing at a general of Praes, casually mentioning she could Speak to him if she wished. The implied threat had been lost on no one at that table. Cross me and I will take away your free will, easy as snapping my fingers. Gods, barely eighteen and she could already use her Name to impose her will on others. Not even the Carrion Lord had been this precocious and Kegan knew the terror of the man better than most. Her own aunt had been left an arrow-filled corpse in her own fortress when the Duni was still but a Squire, swatted down like a fly in inside of the most heavily defended fortresses on Calernia. Praes was not to be trifled with, not without very good reason.

The gruesome mantle of the Calamities was being passed to fresh Named, and though yet young these monsters would grow as dangerous as the old ones.

Adair stirred again and it claimed Kegan’s attention. She followed his eyes and saw the host of the fae spreading across the plain, facing the fortifications. Around sixty thousand she counted, revising upwards the earlier assessment. There were knights on winged horses that the duchess anticipated to be trouble even if they could not use sorcery, which seemed unlikely.

“The hills,” Adair murmured.

There was, Kegan saw, a single person there. In a hooded cloak, leaning back against the slope as they sharpened a sword with a whetstone. At this distance, not even the Watch could get much more from eyesight. Whoever they were, they did not seem inclined to move from the height. A chronicler? Kegan wondered. It seemed odd for a scholar to be armed, or be here at all. She was debating sending scouts to make inquiries when movement emerged at the head of the army of Summer. Two silhouettes, both mounted. One pale and dark-haired with a perfect beard, wearing robes of woven flame and sunlight. A sword rested at his hip, no other weapon visible. The other was taller and there was no doubt about her identity: the Princess of High Noon was as the tales told, hair like fire and terrible to behold. Swirls of heat marred the air wherever she moved. The Princess Sulia was bearing a banner of truce, and rode halfway between the two awaiting armies before slamming the wooden shaft into the ground. Foundling’s right hand found them not long after, the imposingly tall orc with the necromantic abomination at his wrist. He nodded politely, and etiquette dictated Kegan return the same. She did so grudgingly.

“Lady Foundling invites you to join the party that will meet with Summer,” he said.

“Then I will do so,” Kegan replied flatly. “This is more than we bargained for.”

“It always is,” the Adjutant smiled, sinisterly baring teeth. “You’ve seen the person in the hills?”

“We have,” Kegan replied.

“She instructs they’re to be left alone,” the orc said.

“Why?” Kegan frowned.

“The exact words were “if that’s who I think it is, we really don’t want to get in her way”.”

“Quaint,” the duchess sneered, not allowing the uneasiness she felt to show.

An ally of Foundling’s? No, it couldn’t be. All the Named that followed her were accounted for. And if it was a Winter fae the army of Summer would have moved to attack them. It could not be the Wild Hunt, since this was not the seasons for it – only in Spring and Autumn did these entities come into being. Too many factors were unknown to her on this battlefield and Kegan did not like it in the slightest. She joined the rest of the diplomats regardless. The Countess herself and Ranker were all of it: since the other side had not cluttered the grounds, there was no need for them to do so. The goblin’s face was a mask, but the girl herself seemed remarkably at ease. Like they weren’t walking to treat with demigods in the fullness of their power. Monster, Kegan thought. Only a monster would be half-smiling as they approached the fae.

“Princess Sulia, I presume?” Foundling said.

“Duchess of Moonless Nights,” the creature replied.

It hurt to look at her for too long, Kegan found. Like staring into the sun.

“Word does spread fast,” Foundling drawled, tone amused. “Who’s the man with the sharp beard?”

“I am the Prince of Deep Drought,” the fae said, and though his face was beautiful the hatred turned it ugly. “We finally meet, pawn of Winter.”

The girl clucked her tongue.

“I’m at least a rook, really,” she said. “There’s no need to be insulting.”

Was she really unaware that every time she spoke the fae shivered with the urge to kill her? Kegan wondered with dismay. Why had she even come to treat if she was only going to taunt them?

“You wanted to talk,” Ranker interrupted.

It was adding insult to injury for Kegan to ever have to feel thankful towards the likes of that withered old prune.

“Surrender,” Princess Sulia ordered, and there was a weight to the tone that almost made Kegan want to kneel. “All of you may still swear yourselves to Summer. Only the broken thing wearing Winter’s seal needs to die today.”

“It’s always refreshing to meet someone who’s worse at diplomacy than I am,” Foundling noted, seemingly impressed.

The Duchess of Daoine gritted her teeth. Was the girl still pretending she’d not carefully used Kegan’s enmity with Ranker to get her way more often than not, baiting them to argument only to come in as a “mediator” at the last moment? Not even the Carrion Lord was this smug a manipulator – the Knight had the decency not to pretend he was doing anything but taking what he wanted from you. The Princess of High Noon ignored the Named, instead turning her eyes to the sole goblin.

“You need not die pointlessly, mortal,” she said. “The laws of Summer will shield you after you swear allegiance.”

The goblin’s burned hand clutched tight until her sharp nails drew blood on her own palm. She met the fae’s eyes with a grin full of fine fangs.

“I am a Marshal of the Legions of Terror, you pretentious tart,” she said. “I live by only one law: one sin, one grace. You want my surrender? Come and take it.”

The fae’s eyes turned to Kegan, and she’d steeled herself. She felt what Ranker must have, the crushing weight on her shoulders that wasn’t even an exertion of power – the Princess of High Noon did this just by sparing a mortal a sliver of her attention.

“I am a Duchess of Daoine,” Kegan replied coldly. “I answer to neither god nor men, much less the likes of you.”

“Quarter will not be offered twice,” the Prince of Deep Drought said, tone sad. “It is not yet too late.”

“Speaking of that,” Foundling said, popping her neck with a gruesome cracking sound. “If you want to avoid me beating you like a rented mule it’s not too late to make peace. I’ll need hostages and reparations, of course, but you can still get away with losing only a hand.”

We are going to die, Kegan realized with crystal-clear clarity. We are going to die because whatever the Carrion Lord did to teach this child broke her mind.

“Did you think we wouldn’t notice the Prince of Nightfall’s stench wafting from the woods?” the Prince of Deep Drought mocked. “He only had time to bring a third of Winter with him. You are outnumbered still.”

The duchess glanced east, where there was still no sign of anything in the woods. Had the fae been tricked, or had the scouts? There was a game at play here and she knew neither the rules nor the players.

“I’m trying to be merciful here,” Foundling said, and the lie was so insultingly blatant Kegan almost cringed. “Are you really going to spit on my goodwill?”

The Princess of High Noon did and the ground where she’d spat caught fire.

“Ah well, I tried,” Foundling grinned, and it was an unpleasant thing to watch. “See you soon.”

The fae held to the terms of the truce, the enemy army not beginning to move before the three of them had returned to the fold. A part of Ranker was sharply curious about whether they were respecting truce terms as they were held in Calernia or whether the concept of truce as known to Calernia had initially come from Arcadia, which was widely held to have existed before Creation itself. A matter for another time. She’d slip the question in her correspondence with Tikoloshe, the staggeringly ancient incubus might have an inkling. The Marshal had planned the defences of the allied armies without the knowledge of there being reinforcements from Winter inbound, if there truly were reinforcements inbound. She’d had eyes on Foundling’s little raider ever since he’d first come to Denier, and though her scouts had lost track of him after the fortress her people had noticed the large amount of mages who’d disappeared with him. Was that the Squire’s plan? Using the Count of Olden Oak and some unknown ritual to pretend Winter had sent troops, faking the presence of some powerful Winter fae. Wekesa’s son took orders from her, so he might have coughed out a few secrets before she set out on her journey north. That would be deep cunning and deep planning, however, and she’d not struck Ranker as that kind of villain so far.

If false, it was the kind of bluff that could easily be called. It might gain them some time, but not much and not enough to affect the outcome. The evacuation had already begun, with the supply – and loot – carts leaving first. The former Matron saw the logic in it. They’d have to be taken across eventually, and this kept as much military strength on the field as possible for as long as possible. The Deoraithe regulars were slated to go through next, with the rest of the order to be determined as the battle unfolded. Ranker had been watching the Squire’s movements carefully since it had come out she had some scheme in play, but gotten little information for it. After the gate out was opened Foundling had some of her few remaining mages scry across, and established contact for a few moments before breaking off. Her own mages had been listening in, and no words or images had gone through. Ranker, she-who-has-the-bearing-of-one-of-high-rank in the stonetongue and one-meant-to-stand-above-others-mercilessly in matrontongue, had been through more red days than any other goblin alive. She’d been warring in the Eyries when the Calamities were still in their cradles, she’d killed her way through the civil war and the Conquest and a dozen minor actions besides.

For the first time in many years, though, she felt like she was walking in deepest dark. The Squire was mad, this was obvious. All Named were, the successful ones merely managed to make that madness methodical the way Amadeus and the Empress had. And even with those two, one could could glimpse the cliff edge and the sharp drop that followed. Sadly, that meant Ranker genuinely could not tell whether Foundling has been taunting the fae royalty because she was confident in victory or because she was too far gone to be able to conceptualize her own defeat. Even if this Prince of Deep Draught – and Gobbler take them all, weren’t these titles even more pretentious than the ones Wastelanders jerked each other off with? – was correct and there were Winter fae in the woods, unless there were a great many more hiding than the twenty thousand implied this was still not a winning hand for the allied armies. The only visible unknown factor was that madwoman in the hills, and Ranker had needed no instructions from the Squire to steer clear of that. Putting aside that nothing good had ever come of an army picking a fight with a single mysterious stranger, Ranker had seen that ugly hooded cloak before.

There were some kinds of crazy not even goblins were willing to touch, and that one definitely qualified.

The Marshal’s general staff gathered around her as the fae began their march, questions painted on their faces. Aabir, her Staff Tribune, took one look at her and grimaced. He’d known her for a long time, long enough to read the truth off her if she wasn’t trying to lie.

“She still hasn’t told us the plan,” he said. “This is madness, ma’am. How can we be expected to fight when we don’t know all the forces at work?”

“It makes sense, in a way,” Kachera Tribune Saddler said more cautiously. “We do not know how well fae can scry in their own realm. We cannot leak a plan we are not aware of.”

Ranker raised her black hand and was granted immediate silence.

“As as I see it, there are two options here,” she said. “One, Black’s Name rotted his mind and he went the way of the Old Tyrant, appointing a raging imbecile as his successor. If that’s the case, even if we’re not dead today we’ll be in a few years. There’s other wars around the corner.”

Procer, she did not need to say. They all had the rank to be in the know.

“And two?” Saddled asked, eyes blinking sleepily.

He was getting old, wasn’t he? And to think he was merely forty.

“Two, the Squire is the kind of brilliant that walks hand in hand with crazy and stupid,” Ranker said. “I’m choosing to put my faith in Black. Make your own choices, but whatever they are get ready for a hard ride. The fae mean business – expect to have two sorcerers on par with the Wizard of the West pounding us.”

Dangling a bit of hope, appealing on the worship of Amadeus that had become as much a part of the Legions as the singing and the drills and then an immediate threat to prepare for. It should be enough to keep their minds on the battle. Ranker wished she could be so easily distracted, but she was too old to fool herself. She climbed onto the platform she’d had raised to get a decent view of the battle, her bones protesting the indignity before she settled on a cushion. At her sides messengers, mages able to scry and signal officers stood ready for orders. Afolabi would have a similar set up on his side of the fortifications, and he was enough of a professional his grudge against Foundling would be put aside for the battle. You poor fool, she thought. You should be more worried about her grudge against you. The girl’s Callowan, they gnaw on those like bones. She dismissed the thought and turned her eyes to the battle, to Summer on the march. Ranker had prepared the plain for a hard battle, and today she would get to see how fae died.

The allied camp consisted of two ringed wooden palisades, with the gate in the centre. There was an avenue with smaller movable barricades going straight through, punctuated with two sets of rough but solid wooden gates. Ahead of the first palisade she’d had her sappers dig a trench ten feet deep with spikes at the bottom, which had unfortunately limited how much work she’d been able to order on the plain. There were weight-triggered demolition charges buried according to the Third Delay Pattern she had herself designed during the civil war, but she didn’t expect to see much death from those. The lily field was what would blood them, closer to the trench. An array of pits three feet deep with a sharpened stake at the bottom, hidden under branches and dead grass. The prince and princess had retreated into their ranks for the offensive, warier than the Marshal would have thought. The chit in the south must have bled them at some point for them to be this careful. Might yet work out to her advantage, Ranker decided. The first line was the same infantry they’d seen earlier in their expedition through Summer, and it kept advancing until across seven points in that line demolition charges blew.

The spray of blood and flesh had long ceased being exciting and turned into cold mathematics, coin put into tools that killed men but could have been spent otherwise. The assessments in her unspoken records shifted with every battle. Though the damages had been minimal, the enemy could only guess at the concentration of charges and it stopped them from advancing. Right out of the farthest bow range they’d shown at the fortress, as she had meant them to. The wings of the three first ranks of the fae lit up and Ranker glanced away, their trajectory already happening in her mind. The winged cavalry in the back wasn’t moving, as she’d guessed it would not. The Watch was being kept in reserve to deal with them, but it seemed that her assessment that the knights would only strike after the fight was engaged was correct. Ahead of her agonized cries sounded, so Ranker deigned return her attention closer to camp. Two for two, it seemed.  The Princess of High Noon had only figured that there would be demolition charges ahead of the trench, and so sent a first wave to clear them and gain a foothold. Instead they’d gone straight into the lily field and were bleeding out like stuck pigs with the sappers on the outer wall tossed sharpers to clear out those who’d landed on solid ground.

Now the fight began, as the second wave that had taken flight moments after the first landed in the shreds of meat and bone that were their comrades. The lily patches had been revealed, so they managed an actual landing this time. If Princess Sulia had meant for them to then attack the walls Ranker would have called her a fool, since they could have directly assaulted the walls. But that wasn’t the intent at all, was it? The third wave, right behind the second, was the one to assault. The second was bringing up bows, finally in range to use those devastating fire arrows that had harassed the allied camps on the march here. The Legions fired their crossbows straight into the bowmen in good order, while the Deoraithe standing between the first and second wall sent a volley into the sky at the fae headed for the wall. A costly trade off, Ranker saw. Legion crossbowmen took their toll but the enemy fired back and fires bloomed across the palisade, hurriedly put off with sand and dirt. There were damned holes in the outer wall, and when the enemy infantry came marching in they would have breaches ready for them. As for the bloody useless Deoraithe, they barely killed a hundred. Shooting fae in the sky was like trying to shoot a fish in the ocean.

The melee at the outer palisade began in earnest, but Ranker wasn’t worried about that. The legionaries would hold steady against numbers that low. The other waves in flight were more worrying, one to back the bowmen and the other the vanguard. But most worrying of all was the dozen fae that rode out of the ranks in a scattered line and raised their hands. A rolling wave of flame swept across the plain and the Marshal’s dead hand twitched. One after another, her charges blew from the sorcerous heat. A field full of potholes but clear of dangers ahead of them, the fae infantry resumed their advance. The Marshal felt a grudging sliver of respect for the Princess that was her opponent. She’d been willing to send a few thousand into the grinder just to keep the enemy busy while she prepared a clear way forward for the rest. That was the kind of decisiveness that won battles. Not, however, if she could help it. Ranker gestured for one of her mages to come closer.

“All mage lines,” she said. “Wave fireballs to knock the fae out of the sky before they land on the outer palisade. Steady, constant.”

The order went across smoothly and the broad balls of flame that bloomed got the situation under control. Trying to kill Summer fae with fire was like trying to drown a salmon, but the impact was enough knock them down. Those that try to fly above instead ate arrows as the Deoraithe finally began pulling their weight. Outer palisade was in hand, for now, but the fae army was hungrily devouring the distance as it charged forward. That was, Ranker saw, when Winter struck. The darker half of the Fair Folk did not come announced. It moved in silence, a tidal wave of warriors adorned with dead wood and black stone that struck the eastern Summer flank like a snake. At their head a one-eyed man rode a horse of shadows, the spear in his hand glinting of murder. They were impressive to watch, but the Marshal did not care how fucking impressive they were. She watched for numbers, and found only the twenty thousand the Prince of Deep Drought had sneered at. The same numbers pulled off the flank of Summer in good order, slowing the assault some but not by enough. If these were all the cards Foundling had to play, the battle was a loss slowly crawling to them.

The wave of infantry hit the outer palisade and the legionaries buckled. Deoraithe reinforced them, but there was only so much room and the fae kept coming. Ranker could see the rest of the battle play out in her mind. They’d hold, at least until Winter began to break. Then the pressure would strengthen and they’d lose the outer palisade. And then inch by inch they would die, painting the ground of Arcadia red. Summer would lose half its army, she thought. But it would win, and only wisps of the army that had come into Arcadia would escape through the gate.

“Marshal,” her Senior Mage’s voice whispered urgently.

She’d not heard him coming to her side, deep in thought as she had been.

“I’m listening,” she said.

“Lady Squire’s mages scryed across the gate again,” he said.

Ranker licked her teeth.

“Same as last time?” she asked.

“Just a contact, then nothing,” he agreed, then flinched and turned west.

The madwoman was still sitting on her perch, the former Matron saw. No, what had drawn her officer’s attention was the gate that had just opened in front of the hills.

“Kolo, what is that?” she said.

“A gate, Marshal,” the Senior Mage replied.

“I can see that,” the goblin snarled. “Where is it from?”

“Creation,” he whispered.

There was a sound then, that Ranker had not heard in twenty years. A horn, but not the large horns the Legion used. The kind of blowing horn that someone could carry in hand. Once, twice, thrice the call went out. All knights charge, it meant. That call had not shuddered across a battlefield since the Fields of Streges, and the Marshal was not ashamed to admit she felt the age-old shiver when the knights of Callow charged through the gate, killing lances down as they whistled through the air. The banner she did not recognize, a bell of bronze with a jagged crack through it set on black. Three thousand of the finest cavalry Calernia had ever seen ploughed into the western flank of Summer and Ranker began laughing.

“Oh, you conniving bitch,” she said breathlessly. “You never intended for us to evacuate, did you?”

Eyes bright, one of the only three Marshals of Praes rose to her feet.

“Orders,” she said, facing her mages. “My dears, do I have orders.”

158 thoughts on “Interlude: Commanders

  1. Geez. Catherine’s only beaten one demon, tricked one fae, and flipped off one angel, and people already think the Calamities must have trained her from birth. If things keep escalating, people are going to say she’s the illegitimate child of the Dead King and Empress Triumphant (may she never return) by the end of the series.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Poetically Psychotic

    I actually saw this one coming, not that I expect that to make it any less awesome next chapter. What was a delightful surprise is how the other generals see her as an enigmatic and possibly deranged mastermind, rather than an engine of brute force who has become exceptionally good at applying it in just the right place. The end result is the same, but trying to plan for one when your opponent is the other will only end in misery and blood.

    Liked by 2 people

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