“When approaching a siege, a general must draw distinction between tactical and strategic importance. The costs of a victory on the tactical theatre of a campaign may yield defeat on the strategic one.”
– “Considerations on Warfare”, by Marshal Grem One-Eye
Most towns and cities in the south were lightly fortified, but Dormer was an exception. While it was true that since House Alban had united Callow there’d been relatively little war in the south, the barony had roots than ran much further back than that. In the days when the Kingdom of Liesse had held sway over the south, clashing with a stubbornly independent Marchford and the encroaching Kingdom of Laure, Dormer had been made vassal to the rulers of the south by force of arms. That submission had never sat quite right with the rulers of the city, and they’d rebelled against the kings of Liesse several times. It all went back to the Wasaliti river and the island it flowed down to: Mercantis. The barons of Dormer had old ties to the City of Bought and Sold, and grown wealthy as the middlemen between it and the rest of Callow. Wealthy enough to afford tall walls, and later a fortress to overlook their demesne. There’d been little need to keep improving these after the unification of Callow, though, and revenue had been hurt by the tariffs set from Laure that had the coin going into the pockets of House Alban instead.
The city had grown beyond the ancient walls, with most of it now outside the grey stone and the fortress behind it. It was not a particularly large city, truth be told. At its peak after the Conquest there’d been perhaps fifteen thousand souls living there. Now there were more than twice that number of fae holding it, and no trace of the Callowans that should be there. A disquieting thing, that, but also a relief of sorts. If some of my countrymen had remained inside, I would have hesitated to use some of the more brutal tactics in my arsenal. Considering the opposition, that might have been costly. I’d beaten Summer once before, in Arcadia, but I’d done so relying on tricks and a story. I wouldn’t have the benefit of either here, and that meant having to crush them the old fashioned away. I did, however, have some advantages on my side. The first was that this was a siege.
I’d grown up thinking of the Legions of Terror as a field army, but that was a somewhat false perception. It was true the Legions were most remembered for the Fields of Streges, when they’d near wiped out the armies of the kingdom, but most the battles in the Conquest had been sieges. The Blessed Isle, Summerholm and Laure. The campaign against Daoine in the north had not been so clear-cut, but it had involved taking the Wall. To understand the Legions as an institution, I’d come to realize, I had to keep in mind what Black had crafted them for: conquering Callow. Warfare in the kingdom had been deeply influenced by the nature of constant invasions, most of them Praesi. The cities of the west and the north were hard fortresses meant to resist Praes until House Fairfax could send an army to turn back the Legions, and so Callowans had grown adept at making fortresses. Our mages had learned protective magics and wards, passed down sorceries meant to banish devils and disrupt great rituals. Our armies fielded more heavy cavalry than any other on Calernia and around the professional core that had been the Royal Guard, massed volunteers had formed the bread and butter of Callow’s hosts. All of it evolved to beat the large mage and villain-led hordes that used to be the staple of Praesi armies.
When the Conquest had begun, what House Fairfax faced was an entirely different beast. Orcs no longer used as meatshields for better-trained humans but armed in good steel and taught to stand in ranks. Goblins, once little more than expendables sent to die against walls or let loose on the countryside, instead turned into crossbowmen and sappers. Mages no longer standing at the back to unleash rituals but massed in the ranks to replace a few dangerous tricks by continuous deployable firepower. Summerholm, the famous Gate of the East, had fallen not to devils and flying fortresses but trebuchets and ballistas backed by full encirclement. The Legions of Terror had been built to take some of the most heavily-fortified cities on the face of the continent, and while the tight formations they used on the field were less effective in city streets, those narrow passages where were munitions and mage lines shone.
The second was that I was dealing with an enemy who knew little of this breed of warfare. The winner of the war between Summer and Winter was decided either behind closed doors or on a battlefield, not by borders and walls. The forces of the Count of Olden Oak had taught me a hard lesson when I’d taken the Gallowborne scouting in the grass, but when we’d assaulted his fortress his army had crumpled under the pressure. Summer was not meant to be on the defensive, and what I’d come to consider the greatest weakness of the fae was that they were not adaptable the way a mortal host would be. They would have learned from our clashes in Arcadia, of course. They weren’t that crippled by their nature. But when faced with an unknown, something unprecedented, they tended to revert back to pattern. That made them predictable, to an extent, and the handful of monstrous tacticians I had on my side could make a lot out of the enemy being predictable.
I knew better than to think I knew all the cards the other side had to play. Even putting aside the fact that the Queen of Summer was on her way and she’d be a whole mess of her own, I’d glimpsed powers in the dream that had followed my becoming Duchess of Moonless Nights that I’d yet to see them deploy. They were out of princes and princesses to lead them, but there was at least one Duke left and they were not entities to take lightly. Summer, by now, would be desperate to take back the Princess of High Noon. They wouldn’t be pulling any punches, and even though crossing into Creation would have weakened them this time I didn’t have Winter to use as fodder on my flank. It’d be my armies that took the brunt of the losses, and like the Summer Queen I couldn’t afford to take too many of those. Not when Diabolist was still on the loose, growing more dangerous by the day. On the other hand, I also couldn’t afford to be overly cautious. If the fae in Dormer weren’t in deep trouble by the time their Queen popped out, she wouldn’t even consider treating with me. Which I really, really needed her to do. Actually taking her out was beyond my capacity. The best Hierophant could do was delay, and when that failed it would swiftly begin going downhill for us.
It was Marshal Ranker that opened the dance.
After the first few fae patrols were repulsed by sheer numbers, Summer had retreated to the city. No sign of the Immortals yet, which we’d taken to mean they would be behind the walls. Thief and Archer were already gone to deal with that. Out in the streets and houses we’d could only see Summer regulars, and those were the first obstacle moving forward. Hard to gauge numbers on grounds like those, but there should be at least thirty thousand. Using the buildings as cover, they would turn Dormer into a butcher’s yard if we advanced. So we take away the cover. The trebuchets let loose and the ballistas with them, ripping through the centre of the outskirts. Houses collapsed, a handful of fae crushed, and the sappers began their work. The ballistas were faster by a fair margin, but it was the trebuchets that did the heavy lifting. Stone after stone, they began reducing the outer city to rubble.
“And now we see if they take the bait,” Hakram gravelled.
I hummed but did not reply. The Gallowborne had given the two of us wide berth, save for Tribune Farrier. He carried my banner, though he’d pass it when we entered the fray. Juniper had predicted that after we began smashing the outer city the fae would try to grab back the initiative by breaking our siege engines. For the average Legion of Terror, that would have been a problem. We were lighter on archers than most Calernian armies, since mage lines effectively served the same function. Wouldn’t be the case for us, though. We had something the Empire had never fielded before: the army of Daoine. Flatly inferior to legionaries when it came to heavy infantry, save for the Watch, but when it came to archers? They’d used longbows to defend the Wall for centuries, and fae were nothing new to them. It might be greenskins that had tried their borders most of the time, but Praesi had made attempts too. There wasn’t as much difference between winged devils and fae as the latter would like to think.
“And there they go,” I muttered.
Ten thousand wings lit up and the Fair Folk rose into the sky. The height of the flight would be the most pressing issue, here. It wasn’t like the Deoraithe could shoot halfway to the moon, while fae could just pour arrows downwards while staying out of range. That was our first trap. Hierophant wouldn’t be taking the field for most of this battle because I needed him to control the three wards he’d prepared, and I watched the soldiers of Summer as they flew straight into the first of those. They didn’t have time to ever fire a volley before a buzz so loud it was half a thunderclap filled the air. Their wings winked out for two heartbeats, then the buzz sounded again and they reappeared. Only a handful fell, making it to the ground before being filled with arrows. An oscillation ward, Masego had called it. He’d essentially made a massive rectangle in the sky where ever two heartbeats the flow of sorcery would be disrupted. I’d asked him if he could just shut them down, but apparently that would have been too much of a drain to maintain. Even with the new Name he still had limits.
What it accomplished was make it exceedingly hard for the fae to just hover over the engines and leisurely set them on fire. If they wanted to make a dent, they’d have to descend into arrow range. Our little surprise spread chaos in their ranks. Half kept trying and failed repeatedly while the rest went down out of the ward’s area and began to trade fire with the Deoraithe. They had the better of it, to my distaste. Kegan’s soldiers were spread out, tight ranks would have been a written invitation to be hit with the fire arrows, but a loose formation was far from the equivalent of flying in the godsdamned sky. As soon as the situation steadied below, the fae who’d been struggling with the ward joined the others and I watched as five knots formed led by fae nobles. By the feel of them, nothing higher than a baron.
“That,” I said, “is going to be trouble. Ritual?”
“Close enough,” Hakram grunted. “No more than twenty in each formation. We’ll hold.”
We’d better. The battle was going to get a lot harder if we lost those trebuchets. All five knots formed large spears of flame easily the size of ten men in a line, and after a heartbeat they shot down at our five trebuchets. My fingers clenched as the projectiles fell, crackling loudly until they hit thin air. The shape of blue domes covering our engines shone as the fae sorcery tried to tear through, and though they shivered in the end they held. Close. Much too close for comfort. The entirety of the Fourth’s mage contingent was feeding those shields and the fae had almost broken through anyway.
“If they keep pounding away at us with those I’m not sure we’ll hold,” I murmured.
“Hope Marshal Ranker read them correctly, then,” Hakram replied.
The old goblin, when going over the battle plan, had made one prediction: they will not be willing to get into a slugging match. Whoever led the host of Summer would be trying to minimize casualties at all costs, and that meant backing away from tactics that were effective if they got too expensive. The Deoraithe continued to trade arrows, losing two men for every fae they took, and I grimaced. We couldn’t afford to slug it out for too long either. Another volley of flame spears descended, and finally we have answer. The Fifteenth’s mages had gone through the College same as any other legion’s, with one major difference: Masego. Who was occasionally willing to throw my mage lines a bone in the form of a ritual, if he was in the right mood for it. In Marchford, when it had become clear that our numbers in legionaries had far outgrown the quantity of mages that traditional legion structure dictated we should have to match it, Juniper and I had diverged from standard doctrine. We’d consolidated them under Kilian and drilled them in use of rituals. Now we’d see if that was going to pay off.
Two massive javelins of lightning formed above our shields and struck across the sky. The fae scattered around them even as the Fourth’s mages desperately tried to keep the fae fire from reaching the siege engines. The javelins blew and streaks of lightning spread, killing scores of Summer soldiers but failing to disrupt any of the knots that forged the spears. And so now we begin our staring contest, you Summer fucks. There were only so many times the javelin ritual could be cast before my mages started burning out and dying. They knew that. I knew that. What they couldn’t know was how many times they could. If they were lucky, they might shatter our shields and torch our siege engines before their losses got too high. Or we could trade blows for an hour as they racked up casualties they couldn’t afford. Another wave of fire, lightning gave answer. My mages aimed at a knot this time, and killed a few. Useless, as it turned out. If the way a handful of fae from the ranks went back to fill the numbers was true indication, any of them could participate. It must be the barons that were the key.
Two more exchanges. On the last we lost a trebuchet, damn their stubborn hides. The moment the spear went through and touched wood the entire damn engine turned to ashes faster than I could blink. My mages weren’t fools, though. On the first round they struck the sides with javelins, herding fae towards the centre, and when they struck there with the second they did real damage. After one success, the fae dug in. A mistake. At least a dozen of Ranker’s mages must have died when the shield broke, but the rest went to reinforce the other shields. Another two exchanges where they failed to break through, and I smiled coldly. They’d blinked first. Of the ten thousand who’d come there must have been a little less than eight thousand left, a trade that had cost me at least two lines of mages and over two thousand Deoraithe archers. More of the Summer soldiers had died to the lightning ritual than the bows, by my count. We’d starkly underestimated their agility.
The fae did not retreat. They flew north, and landed on the plains behind us. That, we had seen coming. There were few things more dangerous to a besieging army than being hit in the back as they stormed the walls. I’d wanted to keep at least two out of the three wards Masego had judged he could handle to bolster our offensive, but Juniper had talked me out of it. There was no point in breaking through ahead if our back was collapsing, she’d said. Our second trap was in that very field where they’d landed. The Fourth under Ranker and the Twelfth under General Afolabi stirred and began to march against the fae at our back. They numbers less than eight thousand, considering Ranker had a chunk of her sappers manning our engines and all her mages shielding them. The Fourth would be significantly weakened because if it. But the cognomen of Afolabi’s Twelfth was Holdfast. Defence was their speciality, and that was what the two legions had been charged with. A holding action keeping the fae tied up. Masego abandoned the ward in the sky and activated the second one. Wind howled across the plains, surging forth from a line ahead of the two legions. Though it wouldn’t kill anything, by our reckoning it should make flight all but impossible and for the fae to keep in tight ranks exceedingly difficult.
There was a drawback, of course. It needed Hierophant’s full attention to keep active, and that meant it would cease when the Fifteenth made for the walls. That was the bet we’d made: by the time the engines had finished demolishing us a clear path to the walls, the fae at our back would be in bad enough a position that the two legions holding them would no longer need the help. Risky, Ranker had called it. If we were wrong we’d have to pull back some of the Deoraithe to bolster them, and there was chance if we did that we wouldn’t have the numbers to punch through into the inner part of Dormer. It was coin flip. We could not, in the end, predict everything. For one, none of us had thought they’d sent fae nobles out this early. When we closed on the walls had been my own call, and that mistake had come mighty close to fucking us over. Even now, I winced at the notion that General Afolabi was going to have to deal with five barons. The ward could only help so much. If I hadn’t sent out Archer already I would have told her to back him up, but the chalice had already been filled.
Even under bombardment by Summer, the engines had not paused. How long had passed, since the battle had begun? At least an hour, maybe more. The trebuchets had levelled us an avenue and cleaned fae out of it, but it would take hours longer yet. We should be done before nightfall, unless we were disrupted. Behind us the two Legions of Terror dug sixty feet behind the edge of the wards and let the fae come to them. It was bloody work. The Summer soldiers found that the empty space beyond the ward was a meat grinder of sharpers and crossbow bolts leading straight into tight ranks of heavies, and hundreds died before they stopped rushing into the killzone. After that, though, they wised up. Masego’s ward was a line that couldn’t cover the entire plain. It couldn’t even be a curve, since apparently for arcane reasons that would have been much harder to maintain. The fae began going around and the fight turned truly nasty. General Afolabi pulled back sappers and crossbowmen to back up the regulars he sent to block them, but that weakened his centre. Enough that two of the barons got a foothold.
Those were, to put it bluntly, beyond the ability of munitions to deal with. One of them lit up like a golden bonfire of gold and torched through a solid hundred heavies before being driven back by the Twelfth’s mages. The other one screwed with the ward, bending the wind across a dozen feet of the line until it turned around and blew into the lines of the legion. Fae began pouring through immediately and it all went to the Hells after that. Twice, as the hours passed, I almost went to reinforce them. Both times Hakram held me back. We couldn’t afford for me to start using my aspects yet. I would say this for Afolabi’s legionaries, they stood their fucking ground. When the fae formed a beachhead and it looked like the centre was going to collapse, four lines of heavies went into the thick of it with lightning bolts clearing them a path. There were a few sappers behind their shields, and though half the heavies got wiped in a single stroke of the sword of the baron twisting the wind the goblins threw a dozen demolition charges at him and blew half his head off. Of that near one hundred legionaries that went in, less than twenty made it back to their lines. They’d bought General Afolabi the room he needed, though. The moment the ward returned to full effectiveness, he plugged the gap and forced back the other baron with concentrated spellfire.
An hour before Evening Bell night began to fall, and by then the field was littered with dead. But Ranker had accomplished what she’d set out to do. A straight line to the northern gate of Dormer had been carved out of rubble, the fae still in the outer city split on both sides of it.
“Our turn, now,” I quietly told Hakram.
“Do or die,” he said.
I gestured at the Gallowborne, and the Fifteenth stirred to march. To war, to Dormer, to doom. Whether it’d be theirs or ours, I could not yet tell.