“I’ve yet to encounter a situation that couldn’t be improved by a copious amount of lies and body doubles.”
– Dread Emperor Traitorous
Well, it’d taken two years and some change but I was finally on the right side of a cavalry charge. And all it had cost me to get there was a lot of murdering, and that one spot of high treason.
The thoughts were flippant, but the sight before me killed the urge to continue in that vein. Three thousand knights of Callow were breaking through the western flank of the fae, taking death with them wherever they went as they carried the banner I’d named on a spur. I’d read about the chivalric orders, the men and women who had once been the pride of the Kingdom, and I thought I’d understood the kind of weight they could bring to bear. I’d been very, very wrong about that. Two thousand fae died in the blink of an eye, pierced by lances and trampled by destriers. It wasn’t that the knights were gifted with eldritch power, not like the Watch. They were mortals through and through, though trained in war since they could walk. Neither were they like the paladins of the Order of the White Hand, sworn to fight Evil and made able to call on lesser miracles for it. Or so the old books said, anyway. The Order had been long buried by the time I was born, Black destroying it in an exceedingly thorough manner so that no hero would ever rise from their scattered ranks. No lost daughter of the White Hand would ever claim an old birth right and bring rebellion to Callow.
No, they were just Callowans. I watched a gout of flame splash against the breastplate of a long-haired woman and leave it untouched. Just Callowans, but no babes in the woods for it. The knights of Callow had not been forged by the old wars with the Principate, though enough of those were fought. No, they were the answer of the Kingdom to the sorceries of the Wasteland. There was a reason a Warlock could not simply wave his hand and burn a thousand of them to ashes. Clad in steel and prayer, the old song went. Hymns from the House of Light were carved into their armaments, mere grooves in steel until sorcery touched them. Then they glimmered, and magic slid like droplets off a duck’s back. It was not immunity: they could still be harmed through the protection, often had been, but it was telling that when Black had thought to break them he had turned to orcs and pikes instead of whatever madness Warlock could have unleashed. In front of goblin steel, the armaments of the knights were armour like any other. There was a lesson in there. The chivalric orders had been founded to check a threat, and when the nature of that threat changed they were caught flatfooted and destroyed.
Today, though? I’d found them an enemy that could not, would not change.
“Captain Firasah,” I said, and the mage at my side stiffened. “Word from the other side?”
“She has gone through, ma’am,” the one-eyed Taghreb replied.
Firasah had been one of the mage officer who’d tried to scry the Summer forces when the Fifteenth had still been in Summerholm. She was one of the lucky ones – she’d excised her eye before the burns from the backlash could spread across half her face. Not all the mages had been so fortunate. She’d hesitated when I’d told her we would be scrying Winter while on the march, but as I’d thought my title shielded the mages from the frozen fury that had poured through the connection. It had done little to soothe the Prince of Nightfall’s temper, when I’d found him, but the bait of Summer crippled I had dangled had been too tempting for him to resist. The lateness of the arrangement had limited what forces he could bring, though, more than I would have wished. Another ten thousand fae would have made it all much easier. He’d taken another royal with him along for the ride: the Princess of Silent Depths. They’d asked for prizes and to know my plans.
Naturally, I’d lied.
“Good,” I replied quietly, closing my eyes.
I’d begun this battle thinking I was aware of every string being pulled. Winter was out for blood and plunder, unquenchable hunger in their bellies. Kegan and Ranker wanted to leave Arcadia as soon as possible, convinced this fight could only be measured in shades of defeat. And Summer? Summer wanted to crush me. To turn the quibbling mortals who’d dared step foot in their domain to ashes. I’d understood that before the other two commanders in my army, because I had an advantage they didn’t. I still remembered that hard-bitten hatred I’d felt after crossing the gate, when I’d gazed upon the moonlit field. It didn’t matter, whether or not it made tactical sense for the Princess of High Noon to withdraw from Creation to assail us. She had to. It was in her nature. I was of Winter, and Summer could never shy from a challenge as brazen as the one I’d issued. This battle had always been a certainty. It was a matter, then, of stacking the odds in my favour. I needed a story, or at least an engagement that had the shape of one. A larger Summer force blundering into a trap had served that purpose, leaving me only with the need to, well, make an actual trap.
So I’d spared the Count of Olden Oak, though through his actions he had earned an ugly death at my hands one day. Because a fae of count rank could open gates. Not gates like mine, sadly, but their ability to sort of step through the boundary protecting Creation could be extended to a group. Like half of Robber’s cohort, along with enough mages to keep the Count of Olden Oak suppressed by layered wards. Iron knives had to be taken to him to convince him of making the gate, sadly, since the flame of Summer inside him made Speaking ineffective. Robber had been able to take care of it. He’d gleefully informed me that the College had an entire week of classes dedicated to the subject, along with the question of ‘how much torture is too much torture’. The answer was apparently more complicated than I’d assumed. The goblin’s assertion that it was an old cadet favourite along with the class about why ‘vast and terrible powers’ were not a valid reason to lack a supply train, I chose not to think too much about.
When back in Creation, his orders were to scry Juniper in a hurry. Depending on where the Fifteenth was relative to where he emerged with the Count, there could be two options. The first was that the legion would be too far too join up in time for the battle, in which case he was to simply call for the knights to ride in haste ahead of the infantry. The other was to bring all he could across and smash the fae flank according to the directions I have him. I’d confirmed, before the beginning of the fight, that the second situation had come to unfold. On the other side of the portal that had just opened the entire Fifteenth was arrayed, and by now they would have begun to cross. So would Apprentice and Archer: the person who’d been on the other side of the scrying I’d arranged the moment I opened the gate was Masego, Captain Firasah was certain of it. Good. Then I could proceed according to what I’d meant this fight to be instead of a lesser scenario. Wiping out Summer in full here would be too much to hope for, I was aware. We were too deep in their territory for that. But if I played my cards right, I might just get what I needed to fight this war on my terms.
The thing was, when I’d left Marchford I’d been thinking of taking a force through Arcadia as a risky gamble that would allow me to steal a march on the Diabolist. After all, everybody knew fae were stronger in Arcadia. Able to use more of their power. The assumption of every commander in this war had been that I would try to fight them in Creation, where the grounds were more to my advantage. But were they really? The thought had been in the back of my mind since Laure. I could concentrate the Legions and the army of Daoine in the south and try to smash the Summer Court there, but that would be costly. We’d lose thousands in that fight, and thousands more would be too wounded to be of any use when I put down Akua. If I got Winter involved, that meant letting rapacious fae loose in Callow under the command of an entity I’d have a hard time handling, much less killing if it came to that. And even if I won, then what? Maybe we chewed half their number before they retreated having cost us twice that much, and then they would just pop out from somewhere else. The Fifteenth and whoever else I dragged with me were perhaps the most mobile force on Calernia at the moment, but the fae had the same advantage and they were better at using it.
So if I didn’t want them to waltz past my army and burn Callow from the Waning Woods to the Silver Lake, I needed to dictate where they had to go. The way Juniper had done to me in our first war games, giving me her flag so she could be certain where I’d be instead of waiting out the days to a draw. The first place and moment I knew they’d be for sure? Here. Today. I had to bleed them hard here, because Arcadia was the only place where I could make their numbers meaningless. As long as I had the story on my side today, I could butcher them in droves in a way I simply couldn’t in Creation without losing thousands myself. I couldn’t end them here, that was true. There would be a second battle, and to be able to dictate when and where that one happened I was going to have to get a little… reckless. This was the only chance I’d get, which meant we were returning to the old standard of all or nothing. I’d never lost that bet before, and I didn’t intend on starting today.
Most everything had been going the way I wanted it to, which was why I’d been less than surprised when Ranger had shown up. There was no doubt it was her: I knew that cloak for my Name dreams. I’d swiftly given orders to not provoke her in the slightest – as I understood it she refrained from killing Praesi for sport more out of courtesy for Black than any real fondness, and that might go out the window the moment someone irritated her. I’d thought she might be here for the Prince of Nightfall, to collect a second eye for her jewellery, but she’d not stirred when he’d come out. And she’d made no move against Princess Sulia, which had been my other guess. That was… not good. Were it someone else I would have presumed she was waiting for the fae to tire themselves out against each other before sweeping in, but that went against my understanding of Ranger. If she was here for a fight, she’d wanted whoever she was fighting at their peak. The longer she refrained from getting involved the more nervous I got, but what the Hells could I do about it? I was pretty sure I could take Archer, if I needed to, but the other Named had been pretty frank about the kind of margin her teacher outclassed her by.
That had pretty blatant implications about how that fight would go if I picked it, which I really didn’t want to.
I opened my eyes and watched the battle. I still had cards to play, more than the opposition probably thought, but if I wanted to make this a win I’d have pick the right moment. To the east, Summer and Winter clashed. The centre of Winter’s line was made up of a chunk of five thousand of my old buddies the deadwood soldiers, and they were chewing up the Summer regulars real bad. The flanks, though, were made up of the same rabbled that had assaulted Marchford – and they were taking a bloody beating. The tricks that had worked on my legionaries left other fae indifferent, and unlike the Summer fae those twits didn’t fight in a proper battle line. Warriors against soldiers, I thought. My ‘allies’ had to take out their heavies early when the left flank wavered, a thousand Riders of the Host on their murderous unicorns charging out of the woods to slam into the enemy and take off the pressure. The winged knights of Summer took flight, though, and with matching numbers on both sides there was only one way that scarp would go. The battle in the sky above them wasn’t going beautifully either.
Princess Sulia and her easily offended patsy had lit up their wings and flown above to scrap with the Prince of Nightfall and the Princess of Silent Depths, and watching that go down made me want to wince. The Winter prince opened with filling the sky with a howling blizzard, which the Princess of High Noon promptly screamed out of existence. Just screamed. Not even fire or anything. That must have been embarrassing. Watching the Summer royalty fight was giving me a notion of what it must have been like watching Apprentice and I go all out. Sulia kept the Winter royals busy up close and personal while the Prince of Deep Drought lashed out with sorcery. The Princess of Silent Depths slowed them down some when she called on some kind of power whose weight could be felt even from where I stood, bringing down crushing pressure that dented the ground under them – pulping fae from both sides in the process – and nearly knocked the Summer pair out of the sky. Didn’t last long, though, and Princess Sulia retaliated by hacking her arm off and smashing the Prince of Nightfall’s nose with it. I would have admired her style, if I wasn’t next in line on her kill list.
It was unfolding like a lesson on why Winter got whipped whenever it came to a battle, and though they were holding for now – Silent Depths made herself a brand new arm out of ice and promptly tried to strangle the prince on the other side with it – that hourglass was going to run out eventually. Couldn’t let that happen, much as I would have liked for the Prince of Nightfall to become an object lesson about why trying to use me was a bad idea. I still had a use for them.
The east was going more smoothly. Regulars of the Fifteenth were establishing a beachhead as they continued crossing, though it would take a while before there were enough to be effective. Apprentice had told me months ago he’d be able to turn fae into portal-makers of my own calibre, given a prisoner of sufficient rank, but I couldn’t help but notice the portal he’d finagled was noticeably smaller than mine. I suspected there was another lecture about the ins and outs of turning fae into fodder for runic arrays on the horizon, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. As for the knights of Callow, well, they’d carved their way through what must have been four thousand fae before withdrawing in good order. They would have taken more if the fae in front of them had not taken to the air instead of docilely allowing themselves to be run down. Now the Summer soldiers were attempting volleys, but even their tricky little fire arrows weren’t swift enough to catch up to good cavalry on the move. The knights rode out of range, losing only score of men to the fire: heavy plate armour was nothing to sneer at, and without the fire sorcery those arrows were little different from mundane ones.
They formed up again and began wheeling around to take the fae in the back, to my delight. A few thousand Summer regulars had hastily formed a line where they’d been charging before, only to find themselves facing nothing. It took the edge off the mass attacking the walls of my camp as well, and on that side Afolabi’s legionaries were teaching the fae how the Twelfth had earned its name. I might not like the man, but when it came to war he knew his business. I could already see a threat forming, though for now the advantage was ours. The fae who’d been readying themselves to weather another cavalry charge had nothing but a few hundred legionaries of the Fifteenth in front of them, and if they took it into their head to take that gate there wasn’t much Juniper could do about it from her side. I’d have to give them something else to worry about.
“Captain,” I said. “Get the message across: they’re to meet me on the field. They just need to find the loudest screaming.”
“Ma’am,” Firasah saluted.
I rolled my shoulders under the plate. Shame I couldn’t have prayers carved into it like the knights, but considering I’d kind of sold my soul to the Gods Below odds were all I’d get from that was charred skin. Well, maybe not sold. It’d been a little too casual for that, wasn’t like I’d had a scribe make the transaction official. Pawned felt more accurate. I sent a runner to Nauk and watched as all around the central avenue of the camp barricades were set aside. Hakram came to me side not long after, fresh from the fighting on the outer palisades. His axe was slick with red and his pauldron cut straight through. His good mood was evident.
“Sortie?” he asked.
“About that time,” I agreed, tying my hair in a ponytail.
I shut the claps of my helmet and slid on my gauntlets, flexing the armoured fingers carefully. Good. They might not be much help against a proper fae blade, but they did ensure that whenever I punched something it broke.
“Duchess Kegan sends word that she’ll have regulars and the Watch follow,” Adjutant said. “Since those winged knights aren’t coming from us.”
“Nine thousand total,” the tall orc said. “Marshal Ranker is of the opinion that pulling off more will weaken the walls too much.”
When it came to sieges, at least, I was inclined to follow the old goblin’s lead. She’d been the one to mastermind the taking of Summerholm and Laure, during the Conquest.
“They’re pulled as close and thick as we’ll get them,” I noted.
“She said the same thing,” Adjutant grinned, like the ugly green cat who’d caught the bluejay. “First blooming before we begin our countercharge.”
“You know, I’m sure there’s a lot of things Summer is ready for,” I mused. “Magic, flying fortresses, Named. Goblin engineering, though? I doubt it’s one of them.”
Nauk’s two thousand formed into an avenue-wide battering ram, heavies at the front, and the Deoraithe readied behind them. I took the front, with Hakram at my side and the remains of the Gallowborne clustered around me. Behind us, near the centre of the camp, the sound of gears and pulleys releasing filled the air. A dozen ballista bolts tipped with cold iron screamed through air, followed a heartbeat later by trebuchet stones. The Gallowborne opened the gates wide for me, and in front of us I saw scores of fae bleeding on the ground even as the ranks ahead were punctured with rocks the size of horses. Ranker had been kind enough to soften the opposition for us, and would continue pounding at the flanks as we drove forward. Gods was I glad the fae disdained machinery.
“FIFTEENTH,” I called out, unsheathing my sword. “FORWARD.”
All the Hells broke loose, but for once we were the damned.