“Better behind a Tyrant than before them.”
– Praesi saying
The right to lead the vanguard, as always, belonged to Nauk.
The orc legate was not as clever as Juniper or careful as Hune, but when the time came to hammer in a door there was a reason he was the man we sent for. More than any other orc I knew, Nauk had no give in him. He was stubborn and aggressive and his men loved him – even the humans, which was no given for a greenskin commander. In Arcadia he’d lost three fourths of his jesha to Summer regulars and the Immortals, and his men had stood their ground without flinching. How many hosts in all of Calernia would have done that, in the face of those kind of casualties? The Battle of Four Armies and One had effectively ended his command and we’d had to repurpose another jesha for him to lead, but he’d taken the reins swiftly. It helped that half the two thousand he now led had been under his nominal authority before I’d taken him north to Laure. Still, if it had been another officer I would have been wary of making them the tip of the spear when their forces were still unblooded and fresh to his command. Not with Nauk, though. What Summer did not kill today would become my vanguard in the wars to come.
My sword hissed against the sheath as it was bared, Hakram hefting his axe at my side. It would be the two of us, in the beginning, without the Gallowborne. The kind of fights I’d be seeking were not ones you took mortals into, however well-trained. Behind us the legionaries of he Fifteenth advanced in tight ranks, shields hefted. Heavies in the front with sappers behind them, about to find out if the tactics Juniper had crafted to deal with fae were effective or not. Our engines had demolished us a clear path to the walls and split the Summer regulars in two, but it would have been madness to assault the ramparts without a solid beachhead. That meant getting in the thick of it, for good or ill. The enemy was not slow in giving answer. Darkness had fallen, but for a heartbeat it felt as if day had come again: across the city flames bloomed and arrows rose into the sky. I was familiar with that trick by now, the fire-driven arrows that detonated upon impact. Watching them tear through the Gallowborne had made sure I would never forget.
Masego’s third and last ward activated with a sound like a massive siphon. The arrows flew unabated, but the flames were whisked out of existence. Fire suppression ward. It would cripple our mages as well, prevent them from using fireballs, but Summer lost far more to this than we did. That Hierophant had triggered this one meant the legions at our back had lost their best defence, and all I could do was pray they’d thinned the fae enough they’d be able to hold without it. The dice were thrown, now, and there was no use giving it any further thought. Juniper would handle the rest. Arrows clattered against shields behind us, the testudo formation drilled into the legionaries sparing them from the worst of it. I heard Nauk scream for his men to pick up the pace and left him to it. Hakram and I had other duties before us: we were, it could be said, going hunting.
“Where to?” the orc gravelled.
I’d closed my eyes, letting Winter flow through my veins, and opened them only when I found an answer.
“West,” I said. “Close to the river. Baron or unusually strong lord.”
“It’ll be good to shake the rust off before we take on the real threats,” he drily said.
We left the road and took a corner around what smelled like an abandoned tannery. Wasn’t surprised it was this far out. Most Callowan cities had laws forcing trades that produced fumes that dire to remain on the outskirts, no matter how useful. The streets out here were little more than dirt paths between wooden shacks, most not even broad enough for the two of us to pass through together. Though our entry had not gone opposed, Summer did not disappoint: by the time we reached the first broader street, we ran into our first ambush of the night. The only warning was arrows whistling, betraying the location of silhouettes standing over thatched roofs with bows in hand. I stepped to the side without missing a beat and Hakram had been moving before I’d even noticed. Archers on top, but there would be more. A dozen emerged from abandoned houses at our front and back, swords in hands, as the archers smoothly nocked their second volley.
“See Adjutant, they do love us,” I mused. “There’s a party and everything.”
“Don’t play with your food,” the orc chided.
We split without needing to warn each other. Fighting with Hakram was like having a third arm, had been ever since he came into his Name. The archers were not amateurs: they aimed where we’d be, not where we were, and even adjusted for swiftness above that of mortals. Not well enough, though. I was quicker than I’d been before Masego had tinkered with my heart, and Adjutant had reflexes that were above even my own. He used his Name more efficiently than me, I’d come to suspect. Hakram barrelled into the fae swordsman, axe splitting open a skull before the arrows even struck ground. As for me, I glanced at a sidewall and made the wager it would survive my weight. A leap saw my foot land on the side of it, then another had me landing in the midst of the archers. They reacted smoothly, swords bared in the blink of an eye, but there were only six. My shield swung out to crush the skull of the one closest to me, and it might as well have been an eggshell. I turned a blade aside and carved open the fae’s throat, spinning to turn the swing into another. They barely had time to raise their swords before three were dead.
The ease of it scared me. They had been difficult to deal with, once. Now I broke one’s wrist with my shield, pierce into the second one’s eye with the tip of my blade and the third made to retreat. A flick of the wrist and a blade of ice and shadow took her in the back of the neck, snuffed out instantly. The last fae did not even have time to curse before my shield smacked into his face, breaking the chin and crushing the windpipe. Magic made flesh or not, there was no walking that off. Hakram was a whirlwind spinning amidst struggling fae, taking a life with every stroke, but I glimpsed arrowheads through a window at his back. They had, it seemed, kept back archers. I let out a long breath and pushed a sliver of power into my legs. The leap sent me sailing into the air, tearing through the wall and landing on my knees in a shower of shards. Three inside, I saw. One lost his wrist to the first flick and I spun. Second was thrown out the window with his skull crushed by a shield bash. Didn’t even need to kill the third. I backed out of the house and let it collapse onto him. That’d been a load-bearing wall, apparently.
“Retreat,” a musical voice called out.
I was watching the man it belonged to before he even spoke. The fae around Hakram scattered, though not before his axe harmstrung one’s leg and his boot came down to crush her skull. The fae was the one I’d felt earlier, a tall pale man with grey hair that looked made of granite.
“How many titled nobles do you have in the city?” I asked.
“Enough to break you,” the fae smiled. “Her Majesty will take your head personally.”
Shame I didn’t have the time to hack off that one’s limbs and bring him back to Masego so the mage could dig out the information.
“Well,” I said. “One less after this.”
I didn’t actually see the arrow coming, and that was telling. It was utterly silent, and all I managed was to have it strike my shoulder instead of my back. It punched straight through plate and I grimaced. He hadn’t come alone, and no regular had done this. I broke off the shaft and ice spread over the wound, sealing it shut.
“I think,” Hakram said calmly, “that there will be no need to seek them out.”
On the outskirts of Dormer, five fae stood around us. One was on the rooftops, green-haired and from the looks of the longbow in his hand he was responsible for that friendly tap I’d just received. Two more in the streets, dark-skinned and wafting smoke. They looked liked twins, one a man and the other a woman, each armed with a short spear and a blade. The last one looked like a Yan Tei, honey-skinned and utterly hairless. She had a short sword in one hand, and a thin wheel of pale steel in the other.
“All right, so,” I hummed. “Correct me if I’m wrong.”
I pointed my blade at the twins.
“Baron and baroness,” I said, then moved to the longbow man. “Count.”
I mulled over the rest a heartbeat.
“Smug weaponless man’s a jumped-up lord, and the one who brought a wheel to a swordfight’s a countess, but one ahead of the curve,” I finished.
“I am not jumped-up,” the grey-haired fae hissed.
“That’s exactly what you’d say if you were, though,” I gently told him.
The smoking twins grinned, and Gods was I glad Archer wasn’t there to make something of that. The one who’d looked at what made wagons move and thought ‘I bet you could make a weapon out of that’ offered a half bow.
“I am the Countess of Wrathful Skies,” she said. “Second-in-command to this host. Should you surrender presently, I can guarantee you will not be tortured prior to execution.”
“Ah, the Praesi gambit,” I mused. “Always a crowd-pleaser. I’m going to have to reply with the famous words of the Duke of Violent Squalls.”
Silence reigned for a moment.
“You have not said anything,” the man with the bow said.
You had to love that about the fae, if nothing else: you could always count on them to feed you the line.
“Neither did he,” I said. “Because I killed his smug ass.”
Now that the usual diplomatic niceties were done with, I imagined negotiations were about to break down. Best get ahead of that.
“Think you can handle the twins?” I called out to Hakram.
“Long enough you’ll kill your way through the rest, at least,” the orc agreed.
And then they tried to shoot him, because they were just terrible diplomats. I got a better look at the arrow, this time. Entirely wood, and wreathed in green light. Likely had to do with the Count’s full title, whatever that was. In the heartbeat where Adjutant moved so the shot would skim his pauldron instead of tear through his shoulder, the rest of them moved. Grey hair called on something that had the ground around him denting and every stone in sight turning to dust. The Countess’ wheel began spinning and lightning gathered along the sides of it, growing larger by the instant. The smoke wafting from the twins thickened into a cloud that enveloped them entirely. I cracked my neck. This, I thought, was going to be a memorable ride. Best get it over with quickly, or we’d be too battered to handle whatever Duke actually ran this show.
I went for the archer first. If he was actually a Count it was dubious he’d be a pushover in close quarters, but neither Hakram not I could afford to be watching for arrows at all times while dealing with the rest. Moving faster than anyone should be able to within the bounds of Creation, the green-haired fae had another arrow flying before I’d even made it to another roof. For a moment I thought he’d missed, but he’d never aimed for me at all: the house I was going to use as a stepping stone fell apart in a cloud of dust and I cursed. All right, so they weren’t idiots. Which was a real shame. Idiocy was a trait I prized in people trying to kill me. Wrathful Skies attacked before I could change my course, landing at my side wreathed in lightning. When she struck, it was with two blades. One made of steel, going for my throat. The other, lagging slightly behind, was made of lightning. I made he mistake of parrying the short sword and in that instant the lightning connected with our weapons, coursing down my blade and sending down horrid pain and convulsions across my body.
First time I’d ever got hit by a lightning spell. I would not recommend the experience to anyone. I managed to duck the arrow the other fucker shot at my back, but when it struck ground instead green sorcery glimmered and it grew pins like a porcupine.
“Shit,” I eloquently grunted, and threw myself to the ground.
A storm of arrows burst out and flew in every direction. A least five hit my plate, and if I hadn’t gone down would have gone straight through the aketon into my flesh. I rolled to avoid the lightning wheel coming down on my head but that thing was trickier than it looked: when it touched the street a wave of lightning spread from the point of contact and had me convulsing again. This, I thought, was not going according to plan. Because all of this clearly just wasn’t enough, stone powder coalesced above me and formed a massive obelisk that… dropped. Lightning first, I thought, gritting my teeth. I reached for Winter and frosted shadows formed an envelope around my body. They got burned through as swiftly as I willed them into being, but that bought me just long enough to scrabble out of the way of the obelisk. It turned to powder immediately, but I had other problems on my hands. I dropped my shield, since in the face of lightning it was just a liability, and grabbed the Countess of Wrathful Skies’ wrist when she tried to swing down at me. Steadying my footing, I rotated and threw her right into the trajectory of the arrow that was meant for the back of my neck.
A green shimmer and it was gone, because the bastards weren’t going to make it that easy on me. Stone powder formed around me in the shape of a bubble. Containment, huh. At least they were taking me seriously. I released the shadow envelope and backed away, but the powder followed. Their first mistake of the night. He should have readjusted instead. The Countess had landed on her feet and her wheel rose up, gathering ever more lightning. Another arrow flew silently towards my chest, but I wasn’t falling for that one twice. My wrist flicked with unearthly precision and I slapped it aside. When the smaller arrows burst out, it was too far for any of them to hit me. He did not retire that trick. Might be he can’t when it’s already been loosed. The stone had caught up to me, by now, and Wrathful Skies had a streak of lightning floating above the wheel that looked like it was going to sting. My opening.
“Take,” I said.
The Countess’ eyes went wide as I claimed the sorcery above her head, for just one moment wresting it from her control and tossing it straight at the fae lord trying to contain me. Struck him right in the chest with dark satisfaction. I was moving before my most dangerous opponent could react, and the lack of arrow to duck had me surprised until I heard Hakram’s hoarse grunt. Shit. I didn’t have time to spare a look as I avoided stepping stones entirely and leapt straight at the archer. I got a boot in the helmet for it but caught it with my hand even as I began to fall, drawing on Name strength so even from that awkward position I managed to snatch him off his foot and swing him down behind me. Right into the face of the the Countess of Wrathful Skies, as she prepared to run me through. The two of them were smashed to the ground in a pile of sprawling limbs. I thinned my lips, well aware I couldn’t afford to use Fall on these two even if it would be a near-guaranteed kill. I needed it for the Duke. Shot a spear of ice at them out of spite and immediately moved towards the lord.
He was back on his feet, in a narrow alley between two houses. The powder formed a wall in front of me but I sped up and went through before it solidified. Hastily he dragged it back to him and shot spears of stone at me, the first at feet height and then rising. Panting, I threw myself into a slide and narrowly went under the bottom stone. I landed in a crouch in front of him and even as his skin turned to stone my sword came up. Straight though the belly. He gasped and I rose as I withdrew the blade, cutting straight through his neck in the next swing. The head rolled on the floor, and there went the first of my opponents. The walls to my side groaned, and I cursed when I saw the arrows groaning from them. Fuck, could he pull that on all wood? Furious at the waste, I dug into Winter and froze both walls before he could get the arrows flying. Another twist of will had the walls collapsing, and even as the houses followed I turned to face the other two remaining. The Countess kept her lightning wheel close, and not powerful enough to be worth stealing. She’d learned. Not that I’d Take it lightly, anyway.
I could get another two uses out of that aspect tonight at most, and every one I used on these was one less I could pull against the Duke.
“Yew,” the Countess said. “Travel. She’ll target you otherwise.”
“I would never,” I lied.
The possible count hesitated, but then lay hand on a wooden wall and disappeared. Well, fuck. That was going to be a pain to deal with. There was smoke in the distance where Hakram was fighting the others, and I could hear rhythmic singing in a dialect of Kharsum I was unfamiliar with. If he was well enough to sing, I decided, I could afford to be careful dealing with these two.
“You are Duchess of Moonless Nights in truth,” the Countess said. “Reports of your power were greatly understated.”
“I’m just putting my whole heart into it, this time,” I sharply grinned. “So, have you distracted me long enough for him to line up his shot yet?”
“Why,” the fae drily replied. “I would never.”
What I’d meant to do was duck the arrow then kick it into the Countess’ face to make me an opening. It started going wrong on the first part: while I avoided the arrow by a hair’s breadth, it was already growing pins. I had to roll through a window into a house to avoid the storm, and Gods Below was that a mistake. Everything began growing spikes a heartbeat later.
“I have made better tactical decisions in the past,” I conceded out loud.
I managed to tear through the door in time to avoid the worst of it, but worst was a relative term when even the bloody door was shooting arrows at me. About six of them stung their way straight into my back, through plate and aketon both. A lot more worryingly, Wrathful Skies was waiting for me in the street with the wheel raised. There wasn’t so much sorcery there it would be worth stealing, and that moment of reluctance cost me. A dozen tendrils of lightning struck out and the better part of them managed to hit me. The really dangerous part, I managed to realize even as my body screamed, was that the spell was continuous. The other fae slid out of a wall to my side and nocked an arrow but let it gather green light. Ominous.
“Take,” I gasped.
The Countess immediately cut the lightning, but it wasn’t her I was going for. For an instant I felt the green light and knew whom it belonged to: the Count of Green Yew. His title spoke to growth and wood, to- pain spiked my thoughts, scattering them. There was no fire in this, but it was still born of Summer. Anathema to what I had become. It had been enough anyway. The power I’d taken disappeared from the bow and I shoved it into the same door that had wounded me. Tendrils of wood rose and caught the lightning, freeing me. A heartbeat later the arrow struck where I would have still been, but I was already moving. The Countess’ sword rose to parry my own, but it was only steel at this very moment and in a contest of strength, I trumped her outright. Her blade driven back she began to step back but I caught her throat with my bare hand. Lightning flickered as she called it back from her wheel into her body but it was much, much too late. My fingers clenched and a sickening crack resounded as I snapped her spine and pulped her throat. Before her body had dropped to the floor I was turning to the Count of Green Yew, but he was already gone.
Retreat? It would be hellish to go through this city with the fae popping out of every house to take a shot at us. No, can’t be. Summer doesn’t retreat, not like that. He could, however, have decided to kill Adjutant so the twins would be freed to act against me. Shit. Aside from the fact that if Hakram died I was going to murder every last one of them, from the first fucking regular to the Queen herself, fighting blind like the smoke-using fae must impose was one of the ways I most hated fighting. I’d grown too use to relying on my Name-sharpened senses. There was no time to dawdle. The smoke cloud was easy enough to find, and I legged it towards there. I kept a eye on my surroundings as I did, wary of an ambush, but I had forgotten one fact about fae: they flew. Three arrows landed in a triangle around me, and the pins grew a heartbeat later. Heart sinking, I froze them. I’d already used more than I’d wanted to, and I still had one other major draw to deal with before I got to the Duke. At this rate I’d be dead on my feet by the time I got there. On the other hand, at this rate by the end of this all that would be left of the Summer Court was going to be three guys and a graveyard.
Small comfort. The Count of Green Yew was flying half a mile above me and already nocking an arrow. Making my way up there was going to be tricky, against an opponent that specialized in range combat. The first house I chose to use as a stepping stone was collapsed before I even touched it and I had to resist the urge to flip him the finger. Discarding the fanciness, I created a circle of shadow in the air and leapt atop it. I was going to stab the bastard even if I had to claw my godsdamned way up. The second circle I made, even as I dismissed the first, was torn through by an arrow. I fell back to street level and took a deep breath. That fucker. I was going to have to make multiple platforms every time, wasn’t I? Drawing the power, I blinked at what I saw above. He has to see that, I thought. But the Count shot another arrow at me instead, and even even as I danced away I was laughing.
The lower edge of the trebuchet stone caught him at rib height.
I got a glimpse of red splatter and white bones before it got out of sight, and faintly made note to find out what goblin had made that shot so I could order them promoted. Hells, if I could accomplish that as vicequeen without burning too many bridges I was going to have them made count. They’d sure as Hells earned it. It was harder to find Hakram than I’d thought, after, because the smoke had dissipated. I found Adjutant panting and bloodied in a marketplace, his armour black as coal and his face bearing nasty wounds that were going to scar. His dead hand gleamed strangely, at least the parts of it I could see. Most of it had been shoved through the baroness’ eye cavity. Gods. My second didn’t fuck around, when he got serious. He ripped it out in a shower of gore and crouched, almost too exhausted for words.
“Had to use Rampage,” he croaked. “Kept Stand. Think they were weak for barons.”
I offered him my arm to grasp and helped him to his feet.
“Dipped a little too deep as well,” I said. “Hopefully the others were more conservative, otherwise even if we take out the Duke we’ll be wiped when the Queen comes through.”
“Plan’s not to fight her,” he said.
“And those always go so well,” I drily replied. “You up for a run? We need to catch up to Nauk.”
“I’ll live,” he said. “No inner bleeding. Is it possible to bruise your kidney?”
“I think mine is permanently blue,” I said amusedly.
We made our way back to the main path, and only had to stop twice for him to retch. There wasn’t a lot of blood in it and Hakram was an orc, so I wasn’t overly worried. His people were built resilient, and Named took that to an extreme. That part of the city had already been secured, though the vanguard was long gone. It was the Deoraithe that held it now and they made way for the both of us. Emptying his stomach had put Hakram back on his feet, more or less, so he was spared the indignity of my holding him up all the way to the front. Nauk found us before we fond him. The fae, I saw, had razed a ring of houses around the city wall. There must have been a moat as well, once, because I saw a pit around even the gates that had been burned clean. It was empty now. The Fifteenth had dug in their positions around the edge of the wall, trading sporadic crossbow fire with the fae above. No sign of the Immortals on the walls, which was relief and worry both.
“Cat,” Nauk grinned. “Good hunting?”
“We cleaned house in the west,” I said. “Can’t answer for the rest.”
“Whatever you did there, it collapsed their flank,” the legate said. “We hold most of that side now. To the east we’ve got ten thousand holding a neighbourhood near the walls. Deoraithe failed to break through, but they’re contained.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“And the rest?”
That left ten thousand missing.
“They tried another run at the trebuchets,” Nauk said. “We lost another two and half our ballistas, but they were beaten back. Saw them fly behind the walls.”
I grimaced. That was a lot more fae in the inner city than I’d wanted to deal with.
“The Immortals?” I prompted.
“We think they hold the castle,” the orc said. “To make sure the Queen has foothold when she crosses.”
I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them.
“Doesn’t matter,” I finally said. “We break through now. What time is it?”
“Midnight Bell was an hour ago,” Nauk replied.
Then we needed to hurry. Behind the walls would be an even uglier fight.
“Scry Masego,” I ordered. “He’s to dismiss his last ward and join us for the push.”
The legate bared his fangs.
“Wade in their blood, Catherine Foundling,” he said.
“Gods, I hope not,” I replied. “Hakram spends long enough cleaning my armour as is.”
The grin I got was worth the words, considering the casualties his advance must have caught. When I found Adjutant again the Gallowborne were already with him. Tribune Farrier saluted, and promptly handed me a shield. It had, I noted, my very fresh heraldry painted on it.
“Figured you might break your first one,” the dark-haired man said.
I thanked him decided not to tell him it was actually fine and that it had just entirely slipped my mind to double back to pick it up. I rolled my shoulder and took a look at the walls. Those might take hours to breach, if we let the trebuchets do the heavy lifting. Even more now that we’d lost over half of them.
“Cluster tight around me,” I ordered Farrier. “Shields up. They’ll be aiming at us all the way.”
“They always do,” the Callowan smiled. “And yet, here we are.”
I smiled back, though the affection was short-lived. There were a lot of new faces among the men, and I knew exactly why. I took the lead, Hakram at my side and the Gallowborne at my back. The fae on the walls only fired a few arrows at us, though that’d change if they saw we didn’t retreat. I closed my eyes and let Winter loose. I took a step, and ice rose. One step after another, a stairway of ice rose in front and then above the gates of Dormer. It was, I knew, wide enough for three hundred men to go up. It was burning through my reserves, cooling my blood. It was also how my armies were going to take the city.
I advanced, and the Fifteenth advanced with me.