“Of course not, did you see the height of that drop? That is the last we’ve seen of the Shining Prince, I assure you.”
– Dread Empress Sinistra IV, the Erroneous
Historically speaking, villains leading assaults against a numerically inferior force situated atop a hill did not lead to the kind of outcome I would prefer. That was a problem. On the other hand, if I didn’t lead an assault against those hills Summer would still have a decent chunk of its army left when the Queen arrived. That would be a much bigger problem. On the other hand, if I ended up with most my armies dead by the time we got a royal visit I would be fucked regardless. The Queen wouldn’t negotiate with a host on its last gasps, even if hers was wrecked. It would also give a lot of power to my ‘allies’ in Arcadia I’d rather they didn’t have, given that they were literally incapable of not being treacherous. Kind of like High Lords, really, only they were less smug about it.
“This is a dilemma,” I noted, squinting ahead.
The Immortals had come out to play. Pouring out of the castle on shining wings, they’d propped up the regulars holding the ring of walled properties around it and by the sound of the horns that were now blaring they were about to begin a counterattack. I’d pit the Fifteenth against regulars any day, especially if we had dug in positions, but the golden fae were another story. By my reckoning, they were physically on par with what I’d been able to do when I’d still been fresh to my Name. There were, unfortunately, ten thousand of them. No, I corrected silently. Less than that. Both Masego and I must have taken out a chunk of their numbers in Arcadia and I could hardly believe they’d scythed through both Nauk’s men and fought of the Watch simultaneously without taking some losses of their own. Let’s be generous, I thought, and assume nine thousand are left. That felt a lot like saying it wasn’t as bad to have a sword tearing into your lung rather than entirely through.
“We can’t retreat,” Hakram said.
Brawling with another titled noble fae had not done wonders for Adjutant, it was plain to see. He had a nasty cut across his cheek that was going to scar even after healing magic had been poured into it and he had a black eye already turning dark green. The fact that the pauldron on his armour was loose hadn’t escaped my notice either. That likely meant his opponent had dislocated his shoulder so hard it had ripped out the steel bands. For all that, he was standing and steady. Couldn’t ask more of him. His words only sunk in a moment later. He wasn’t wrong, not exactly. If the Fifteenth gave ground now we were abandoning fortified positions in favour of a street fight with opponents that could fly. They were a lot better at skirmishing than we were, I had to admit. On the other hand, I’d put my hand to fire that after the first wave of regulars softening us up the second would be Immortals. Those would tear through walls like wet parchment.
“Masego,” I said. “Scry me Juniper.”
I’d gathered most of the Woe on a flat rooftop before we went on the offensive, in part to catch our breath and in part to try to find a weak point for us to break through. Masego had also taken the time to dig the arrows out of my back and heal the wounds, prompting the inevitable jokes about having been stuck with fae wood by Archer. It’d taken long to get everyone there, to my dismay. We must be past First Bell by now, and if the presence of so many fae hadn’t warped the passing of time too much that meant we had only about two hours until dawn. At this time of the year, two hours before Morning Bell was when the sun started peeking through. Hierophant no longer needed his trinkets to scry, I saw. He drew a circle in the air that shimmered like water and heartbeats later one of the mages attached to Juniper’s headquarters appeared on the other side. My general shouldered him aside before long, her face looking comically large in the circle.
“Catherine,” she said. “What went wrong?”
If the situation was slightly less dire I would have made something of that, but I didn’t have the time to spare. The fae were mobilizing.
“Immortals reinforced the outer ranks,” I said. “They’re preparing for a push, if I’m not mistaken.”
The request for advice went unsaid, but she heard it anyway. The orc grunted in displeasure at the news.
“Begin Operation Candlelight immediately,” she said. “And hit the walls before they sally. If we don’t keep up the pressure we lose Old Dormer.”
I grimaced. We both knew that would mean brutal casualties for the Fifteenth. I’d known this was not going to be a clean battle or an easy one, but sending so many of my men to die still left a bad taste in the mouth.
“What’s the situation on the other fronts?” I asked.
“Deoraithe are getting fucked to the east,” she bluntly said. “Fae drew them in and set the entire sector on fire. General Afolabi had scattered the host at our back, but they’re still harassing. There’ll be no reinforcements form the Twelfth or the Fourth.”
“Shit,” I said. “Kegan tried to send in the Watch, didn’t she?”
“Had to threaten putting her in chains to shut that down,” Juniper growled. “They’re already headed your way, not that she’s happy about it.”
The Duchess of Daoine had always been the largest liability in this. There’d been a risk she’d scrap the entire operational plan if she thought she was losing too many men. We’d made a deal for her to help me with the fae in exchange for a crossing and backing against Diabolist, but she’d always put the interests of the Deoraithe above everything else. I had a feeling Juniper’s threat had been a lot more colourful than just chains, and I was glad she’d lost her temper. If Kegan started acting out the delicate balancing act that was this battle could very well collapse on our heads.
“See you on the other side, Hellhound,” I said.
“Don’t die an idiot, Foundling,” she dismissed, and the scrying link died.
“She’s growing on me, I’ll admit,” Archer noted.
“You say that about everyone that insults me,” I sighed. “Hakram?”
“I’ll get this started,” the orc replied.
I let him leave without comments. It was Legate Hune that had the scrying connections to Robber and his cohort of miscreants, though the orders about resuming the offensive would have to be carried to Nauk as well.
“So, candlelight. Are we romancing the fae now? Bold move,” Archer mused.
“We’re going to burn them out,” I said. “Assaulting the castle was always going to be bloody as all Hells, so we planned to hem them in with goblinfire.”
“Doesn’t that burn uncontrollably?” Archer said.
“It can be delayed with ditches,” Masego noted.
“Ditches dug through pavestone?” the woman mocked.
“It does,” I broke in before that could degenerate further. “It’ll be a race for us to break through the front before we’re neck-deep in green death as well. To be honest I’d rather burn them out entirely, but Hierophant says we need to hold the beachhead to contain the Queen.”
“Summer has prepared a crossing point,” the mage said. “She’ll still be able to cross without it, if after a delay, but then we would not know where. That complicates warding a great deal.”
Archer cleared her throat.
“So, just to be sure, the plan is to set fire to a castle and then charge into it?” she said.
“That’s oversimplifying a lot,” I protested. “There are nuances.”
“Your general’s going to be pissed you disobeyed,” she grinned.
Yeah, that battle was already lost. Better get out with as much dignity as I could manage. I strode to the edge of the roof and sharpened my vision. Hakram had waste no time, I saw. The Fifteenth was already forming ranks for the assault and moments later green bloomed in the distance. Then again. To the left and the right of the castle. There would be another foyer behind it, I knew, though the ramparts hid it away from me.
“All right, we move,” I said. “We’ve got until dawn to kill us a duke.”
At this point I wasn’t holding a shield so much as an arrowcatch that occasionally got set on fire. I wiggled my fingers around the latest arrowhead, that had come a little too close to comfort to carving straight through my thumb. Goblin steel didn’t do much to block those when there was that much sorcery behind them.
“Hierophant, if I become a godsdamned porcupine because you’re being a perfectionist I will be cross,” I snarled.
Archer, standing behind Hakram and the tower shield he’d claimed for the assault, put an arrow in the eye of the enterprising fae who’d come so close to lowering my amount of fingers. She was a vision, it had to be said. Movements perfectly smooth and fluid, she let loose a shot with every breath and I had yet to glimpse her fail to make a kill. She was clearing out the walls wherever she aimed as swiftly as the fae filled the gaps, quicker on the draw than even Pickler’s repeating scoprions had been. Adjutant wasn’t doing nearly as well, a dozen arrows stuck in his shield and one gone through his boot. Which he’d had to stomp around to put out the flames that had immediately spread, something I would have enjoyed watching if I wasn’t busy standing around like Creation’s angriest practice dummy.
“This is complicated work,” Hierophant said.
“Gods Below, just burn our way through,” I yelled.
The Soninke needed to hurry the Hells up. Around us the Fifteenth was assaulting the walls with ladders, and dying in droves as they did. It wasn’t that the ramparts were difficult. They were garden walls, more or less. But the fae had gathered archers behind them and were shooting massed volleys down on my legionaries. Half the ladders had gone up in flames before touching the walls and the fae on them were fighting furiously to keep us from establishing a beachhead. And these are the fucking regulars, I thought. The Immortals withdrew deeper in. The broad avenue that led straight to the castle passed through a fortified gate that Summer had closed and would laugh in the face of a ram: it had a heavy steel portcullis in front of it, protected by thick arches of stone. We’d need sorcery to punch through that, but Masego was dithering like a bloody milkmaid.
“Ah,” Hierophant sighed. “Disappear.”
I raised my shield to catch another arrow that would have taken him in the throat, glancing over the side. A wave of darkness had engulfed the gate and the rampart bordering it, solidifying for a moment before it disappeared. It left behind absolutely nothing. No stone, no wood, no steel. It was as if nothing had ever existed there at all. Gods. Had he annihilated everything? No, I could feel something at the edge of my senses that was not unlike Arcadia. He’d shunted the entire gate off in another dimension.
“FIFTEENTH,” Nauk’s voice roared from behind me. “TIGHTEN RANKS, YOU UGLY GRASS-LICKERS. FORWARD!”
The answering shout was deafening, thousands yelling and steel brought up. Woven inside, though, I could hear the soft buzz of arrows that still fell like rain.
“Into the breach,” I shouted at the rest of the Woe, barely audible over the pandemonium.
Hakram moved to cover my left and Masego hunkered up behind us, runes of light blooming with but a gesture. Archer put one last arrow through a fae’s open mouth before joining up and together we advanced. Our way through the absent gate was uncontested, but in the walled avenue it led into ranks of fae were awaiting us. Black had once compared leading Named into battle to leading a chorus, and as we struck I finally understood why. We were, as a group, greater than the sum of our individual skills. The grooves were already there for us to settle into, as if they’d been carved before we even begun. Archer opened the song. She did not waste her arrows on the rank and file, instead surgically putting down any fae that looked like an officer. Even as we tread the pavestones, they dropped with every heartbeat. Hierophant added his voice to the melody, whispers in the mage-tongue weaving rings of darkness in the fae ranks that bloomed and tore through mail and flesh. The chaos was our cue. Adjutant and I dug into it with relish, a storm of steel and strength that shattered and broke the straw men standing in our way.
My blood sang with the song, the heat of it something not even Winter could deny me. With every stroke and every stride we painted death across the face of Summer, Archer’s long knives joining us in the steps without missing a beat. I could feel it without ever laying eyes on it, the swing of Adjutant’s axe I could duck under to overextend a screaming soldier and carve through his throat with a flick of the wrist. Hierophant’s sorcery flashed across the melee like coils of ruin, passing so close I could feel the caress of the power unleashed without it ever touching me. I could not tell the passing of time, every sight flowing into the other by what could have been an hour or a heartbeat. I felt myself grinning, teeth bared as Summer gave. Fae let themselves die on my blade merely to slow it, others striking in that instant of killing but what did I care? I was not one blade but many, my body just a vessel for my will. Dust swallowed the dead man whole, the edge of the axe dug into the chest of the thing that would have slain me even as I spun and and slit the throat of the fae to my side with inhuman precision. Not a drop of exertion wasted, as if slaughter could be measured and quantified.
The four of us stood surrounded by a field of corpses when I returned to myself, not a single living fae in sight. I was panting, though instead of exhaustion I felt invigorated. This, I thought, had been deeper a religious experience than anything I’d ever felt in any House of Light. The sensation ebbed and the absence of it was hollow. Sound returned, the fighting of legionaries behind us and the slow breathing of the Woe around me.
“Shit,” Archer croaked softly. “That was… Fuck.”
Hierophants’ eyes were bright, though his mind faraway. Adjutant looked oddly serene, shield resting on his shoulder as he leaned on the haft of his long axe.
“Yeah,” I muttered, and speaking at all felt like I was whistling in a graveyard.
I shook myself out of it before long, and assessed our situation. Making a unified push into the upper city had always been a fantasy, I knew. There were avenues up here, made broad for carriages, but aside from the path that led straight up to the castle the rest was a maze write by the whims of the powerful who’d once lived here. The Fifteenth had taken the outer walls as we’d been killing what I now grasped had been the reinforcements meant to drive my legionaries back. Now the knife fight began, my men having to spread through dozens of gardens and manors as Summer fought them for every inch.
“Castle’s where we need to be,” I said, pointing my sword at the faraway silhouette of the tall towers.
I could glimpse spreading green in the distance, a reminder that the fae were not the only enemy we had to beat. The goblinfire had made certain they would not be able to flank us, that they would be forced to fight us in a narrow corridor, but with every hour that corridor became narrower for us as well. Resistance would become harsher the deeper we went in. Archer wiped her longknives on the cloak of a decapitated soldier before sheathing them, running her tongue against her lips. My eyes could not help but linger on the sight as I wondered what kissing her would feel like, and peeling that leather off her. Shit, fighting didn’t usually get my blood up this way. It had just felt… intimate, more than killing ever should. I looked away before she could notice. Nauk came to the rescue, thank the Gods, leading up a cohort of legionaries with the Gallowborne at their head. The large orc whistled at the sight of the corpses strewn around us, Tribune Farrier coming to stand at his side.
“Not that looks like it was a proper fucking fight,” the legate said. “See that, you wretched layabouts? That’s the kind of work I expect from you.”
There were a few barks of laughter.
“Legate, Tribune,” I greeted, sheathing my sword as I took in the sight the two.
Nauk was grinning and splattered in blood. He’d been leading from the front again. Farrier’s mail was scorched on the side, but aside from that he was in good health.
“We’re making a push to the castle,” I said. “I take it this is our reinforcements?”
“Hune’s bastards are handling the flanks,” Nauk replied. “Scraped up my only intact cohort and brought your reds and gold along to spice the wine.”
“Your Grace,” John Farrier said, offering a nod that bordered on a bow.
“Catherine,” I sighed.
He’d become irritatingly formal since it had been made open knowledge I’d been named Vicequeen of Callow. It had taken me the better part of a year to wean him off that the first time, and I wasn’t looking forward to fighting that war again.
“Keep your eyes open, boys and girls,” I called out. “We’ve got their second line ahead and the Immortals behind that. You’re in for a rough night.”
“Hells, ain’t that every night in this outfit?” someone called out from the ranks.
“Wouldn’t be the Fifteenth if we didn’t get proper fucked before sunup,” someone else laughed.
Well, they weren’t wrong.
“Gallowborne take the lead,” I told Farrier. “If we run into the Duke, you run.”
“Ma’am,” the dark-haired man protested. “We’re-“
“Ants, to a thing that powerful,” I flatly said. “You have your orders.”
He nodded, though he didn’t seem pleased about it. Nauk was eyeing him approvingly. Loyalty didn’t really count for orcs unless you were willing to die for it.
“We done braiding our hair?” Archer drawled. “I’m getting bored.”
“There’s nothing wrong with braids,” Hierophant muttered, putting his own braids in order.
I wisely decided not to touch that and instead gestured for Nauk to call the march. It would have been much harder, I thought, without Archer. We were ambushed from rooftops twice on our way forwards, but between her bow and the line of sappers that was distressingly eager to wreck noble houses given half an excuse we weren’t given a serious challenge. That was when I started to get worried. We should have, by now, run into either a barricade or another heavy knot of fae. I let my stride lapse.
“Something’s wrong,” I said.
“I am no tactician,” Masego said, “but it seems poor planning to allow your enemy to gain foothold on your walls. We might have simply spent the strength of Summer, Catherine. They might no longer have nobles to field against us.”
I shook my head.
“Remember how many people there were, at the masquerade in Skade?” I said. “Summer should have at least that many.”
“Duke hasn’t come out, either,” Archer frowned. “He didn’t seem this shy when we tangled.”
I closed my eyes and considered the battle as if I were not part of it. The front in the plains was effectively over, by Juniper’s report. The fighting in the east had turned brutal, but given the numbers Duchess Kegan could field it was highly unlikely the fae there had turned the tide. Unless they had flown away, as they’d allegedly done earlier. No, they can’t do that quietly. Either one of us would have seen a few thousand glowing wings in the sky or Juniper would have scried Hune with a warning. The forces left in play, then were the remaining regulars in the upper city and the Immortals. And the Duke, followed by whatever nobles he’s got left. If I was a Duke of Summer, needing to keep a fortress at all costs and three of sides around it already on fire, what would I do? Immortals would be my sharpest knife, so I couldn’t waste them on attrition. So I’d put the regulars on the wall and send the nobles to bolster them.
No, he can’t do that. He already sent out three Counts and a handful of solid barons and we just tore through them in less than an hour. Sending nobles against the Woe would be trying to put out a bonfire with oil. Named couldn’t advance alone, though, or at least not do so and expect to hold any grounds they took. Which he must suspect we needed to, with how hard we’d been going after the castle. So what he’s aiming for is the soldiers. Then why not push harder to hold the walls? Why hadn’t we had a rougher fight going in? I mind mind, I watched the Fifteenth die in droves to enter the upper city and then take the fight to the maze of walled and sprawling domains, harassed by a much more mobile enemy every step of the way. But giving ground. Juniper had said, earlier, that the fae to the east had drawn in the Deoraithe before setting fire to the city. They’re doing the exact same thing here, I realized. Only they won’t burn their own fortifications, they need those to scatter the legionaries. Once they reel us in… In a line across the upper city, golden banners rose high in the sky.
In utter silence, the Immortals advanced.