“It is ever the temptation of chroniclers to ascribe great failures to a single turning point, a flaw revealed or enemy virtue displayed. This simplification of history ignores the starker truth of all great enterprises, that in the end though all leaders are captains of a ship they rule neither wind nor tide. Failure and victory are the collection of choices small and great, shaped by perspectives of the myriad making them.”
-Extract from ‘The Ruin of Empire, or, a Call to Reform of the Highest Assembly’, by Princess Eliza of Salamans
The fairy gate had opened half a mile away from the outskirts of Dormer, and that was where the two thousand legionaries of the Fifteenth made camp. It had taken us a week of marching through Arcadia to cross what was essentially the full breadth of Callow, not a fae in sight. I was still only beginning to grasp the full implications of what the boon I’d obtained from the fae royals meant for warfare in Calernia. So far I’d only used the fairy gates to move quicker within the bounds of Callow, but that was a self-imposed limitation. With Hierophant to chart me a path, I could feasibly muster an army in Marchford and have it pop out in front of the Principate’s capital bristling with steel. Keeping an army in the middle of enemy territory supplied without turning to banditry would be near impossible, but what did it matter? I could leave the same way I’d come when my foodstuffs ran out. If the Red Flower Vales could be kept in Imperial hands, I could strike at Proceran territory with impunity while the First Princes’ army were stuck besieging one of the most heavily fortified borders on the continent.
It was enough to have me shiver. There was precedent for the kind of power I wielded as the last Duchess of Winter, villains and heroes alike that had shown a capacity for destruction just as great. The gates, though? I couldn’t think of one.
The Fifteenth had returned midmorning to Creation and I’d wasted no time in arranging matters with General Istrid. Juniper’s mother had always been my favourite of the Praesi commanders in Callow. Within moments of our first meeting, two years ago, she’d expressed the opinion that Governor Mazus had been in need of a good hanging. Always a way to get on my good side, that. She wasn’t much like her daughter, aside from the rough manners that were so common with orcs. If anything, she reminded me of Nauk – or the other way around, since I’d become acquainted with her first. She rode out to meet me on one of the great wolves that her people used as mounts, meeting me halfway to Holden. She gave warm welcome, though not without some grousing.
“You sent us across the country from the real fight, Squire,” she growled after clapping my back.
Before I’d stolen my mantle, Named or not it would have jostled me. The woman had ferocious strength still, for one in her fifties.
“Needed you to herd them towards me, general,” I replied. “Otherwise the front would have spilled across the south, and there was no putting that genie back in the lamp when it got loose.”
“Sacker says the same thing,” General Istrid said, visibly disgruntled. “A real shame. I won’t ever get a good crack at the fairies, with that peace you shoved down their throats. At least we get a turn in the dance with the Diabolist.”
“I won’t say she’s more dangerous than a pair of literal gods,” I said, “but we’re in for a rough month. You heard about the necromantic ritual?”
The exact nature of Still Water was still under Imperial seal, so the official story was that Akua had used some kind of ancient ritual to turn the entire city into undead. Considering the trove of horrors that still lay dormant in the Wasteland no one had questioned it too much, but I was aware it was only a matter of time until the truth of it trickled out.
“They’re supposed to be high-grade undead, right?” she growled. “That’s fucked. Skeletons and zombies need a necromancer guiding them to be a threat, but a hundred thousand bloody ghouls aren’t something to sneer at.”
“My caster tells me they’re closer to the kind of undead the Dead King uses for officers,” I told her. “We’re calling them wights.”
“The highborn twit should have paid closer attention to her history lessons,” the orc laughed. “We proved that dead men and household troops are no match for Legion steel when we put the Empress on the throne.”
There was truth in that, I felt, but also dangerous assumption. As far as I knew there’d been no battle of the scale of the one looming ahead during the Praesi civil war. Akua would have at a hundred thousand wights and six thousand living under her command, by our estimates, and the forces I was gathering would be a little over sixty thousand. Even during the Conquest armies that size hadn’t been fielded in the same theatre, and for good reason. It was going to evaporate at least half the Imperial treasury to keep that many people fed and armed, and the aftermath was likely to turn a chunk of the Empires’ breadbasket into wasteland. Nations fought with smaller hosts for a reason, even when they could muster great ones. The ride to Holden was spent recounting the Arcadian campaign at the general’s demand, until I stood in council with the other two generals in the city. Orim the Grim and General Sacker were significantly less friendly in the manners, though never actually impolite. Sacker did have that sharp goblin sardonic turn of phrase, but refrained from verbally pulling my pigtails the way she had on our first meeting.
I’d risen in rank quite a bit since then.
General Istrid had begun preparations for a march the moment my mages had scried hers, and I was rather pleased to hear the twelve thousand legionaries would be ready to leave come dawn. There was a certain pleasure to working with veterans knowing their way around a war. The Fifteenth’s officers were getting there, but my legion was not a well-oiled machine yet. Part of that was on me, I knew. Even after the brutal casualties we’d taken in Arcadia and Dormer, the Fifteenth was still twice the size of any other legion and severely lacking mages. It was a rare month I did not thank the Gods for granting me both Ratface and the inclination to not look too closely at how he kept us supplied. Even Juniper had ceased slapping his fingers when he bent the rules a little, using the fact I’d effectively suborned the Guild of Smugglers to him as an excuse to wash her hands of the matter. It was not the place of an Imperial general, she said, to meddle in civil affairs. A little rich of her to say considering Marshal Ranker used to run Denier through the governor, but in theory it was supposed to be true.
I rode back to camp a few hours before sundown, declining the offer of a roof over my head in the city in favour of sticking with my men. I was still chewing on the conversation I’d had with Juniper before leaving. That Hune had made the right call, even if it had seen one of the few people I considered a friend halfway to the grave. Even if it had led to the Gallowborne being all but wiped out. The ogre legate was the only one of my senior officers I’d never truly reached out to. I hadn’t made a lot of mystery about that, it must be said. When I’d first crossed the Empress by resurrecting a knightly order, she’d not been one of the people I gathered to tell. The Hellhound had objected back then as well, though I’d dismissed her words by saying I did not trust her the way I did others. Nauk, I recalled grimly, had been the very example I used. It might have been a mistake, I now thought. By visibly keeping Hune out of my ‘inner circle’ even though she was the second highest officer in the Fifteenth, I was making a self-fulfilling prophecy. Trust freely granted, in my experience, had a way of making people trustworthy. Of making them want to live up to that trust. I’d never attempted that with the legate.
It might not be too late to rectify that mistake, though. I still didn’t like the call she’d made, I admitted to myself. But it was a dislike that was borne of reasons personal. I do not have a monopoly on ruthlessness employed to save lives. I’d raised the Fifteenth out of people I knew, had shared struggles with, and they had since the beginning been given a measure of my trust. Hakram, Nauk, Ratface, Pickler, Robber. Even Juniper and Aisha, who had been opponents in the College but ones I respected. Hune had been brought in at the Hellhound’s word and so never fully welcomed into that fold. It was part of a larger flaw in the way I did things, one the Empress had already warned me against: I rarely gave power to those I did not personally know and like. It was telling, perhaps, that Anne Kendal and Juniper were respectively the effective ruler of Callow and the commander of the largest military force within its borders. But I could not continue along these lines if I wanted my homeland to ever climb out of the hole. No matter how skilled the few I fully trusted were, they were not enough to form the ruling class of an entire kingdom. I shook myself out of the thoughts and sought Hune instead of continuing down the spiral and of excuses and recriminations.
The ogre wasn’t with her officers. I found her at the edge of the camp, tucked away between two low hills and kneeling on the ground. Even like that she still towered several feet above me. I remained at a distance, though when I saw her lips move I sharpened my hearing to listen in. I’d had a casual disregard for other people’s privacy even before I began employing spies. Pouring wine into a wooden bowl, she murmured to herself.
“O Faceless Gods, I give you thanks,” the legate said. “For crossing survived and refuge found, for the breaking of the chains of men.”
Breaking a small loaf of black bread with fingers large as sausages, Hune crushed it into crumbs she dispersed next to the bowl. Crossing survived, huh. I knew ogres were not native to Calernia. They’d been brought over as slaves by the Miezans, and ended up joining the Dread Empire when the first Maleficent founded it in exchange for land to live on.
“Neither poor nor rich, neither free nor bound,” she murmured. “For the promise made to our ancestors, I offer bread and wine.”
My brows creased when I saw the crumbs rot and the wine turn to vinegar. Hune was not a mage. No ogres were, they could not be born with the gift. This was the closest to the miraculous powers wielded by priests I had seen on the Empire’s side. I knew there were cults in the Empire that sacrificed to the Gods Below in exchange for powers, but I’d never actually seen the Hellgods extend their hand to Creation before. It was chilling to watch, light as their touch had been. A reminder there’s more than one side of the old war looking at us. The ogre emptied the bowl onto the grass and brushed her hands clean, picking up the empty wineskin before rising back to her feet. She did not seem all that surprised to see me. Ogres, as far as I knew, did not have senses better than a human’s. She might just have been expecting me. Reaching me in a few strides, Hune lowered her massive torso in a bow.
“Lady Squire,” she said.
“Legate,” I replied. “Didn’t take you for the pious type.”
Her face did not react, neither irritated nor amused.
“I am not Praesi,” she said. “My people have their own ways.”
“So I see,” I said. “I’ll admit to some ignorance on the subject. Never found a lot of books written about ogres the way there are about orcs and goblins.”
Hune studied me calmly.
“We are not numerous enough to merit scholarly attention,” she said. “Are you seeking reports, ma’am? I gave instruction to my commanders to have them prepared, but I remember the details if you would prefer them spoken.”
“No, your officers already have me in the loop,” I awkwardly said. “They’re, uh, quite thorough. The precision of it will shave a few hours off Ratface’s workload when we link up.”
“I am sure your words will please them,” the ogre said. “How may I offer service?”
I was honestly unsure if she was politely putting me off or not. There’d been some people currying favour with me when the Fifteenth was founded, before Juniper had put her foot down. Even after, though, it was rare for people not to lean into an opportunity to talk with me when they could. I left matters of promotion to the Hellhound without meddling, but I was still arguably one of the ten most influential people within the Empire. I was a little at a loss at how to deal with whatever this was. I wondered if the Empress had felt the same, when she’d summoned me to the Tower for audience and I’d bluntly pushed through the small talk.
“Sit with me for a while,” I finally said. “If you’ve no pressing duties.”
“I can spare some time,” Hune said, her tone hinting at neither displeasure nor expectation.
I ended up with my legs going down the slope, thinking of how ridiculous we must look from a distance. Even with my plate making me seem larger, it would take ten of me put together to even remotely rival the legate in mass. I ran a hand through my hair, wondering exactly how I should go about this. It’d been easier, with the others.
“Are we to revise the command decisions I made in Dormer, my lady?” the ogre broke in while I was still debating.
Ah. She’d picked up on that, had she. Hard to play coy about displeasure when mine literally lowered the temperature.
“No,” I said. “It’s been pointed out to me that my objections were personal. Childish, arguably. I apologize for how I acted.”
“You were not impolite or unprofessional,” the legate said. “Even if you had been, you are Named. It is your prerogative to speak as you wish.”
“Doesn’t mean I should,” I replied. “So have the apology anyway.”
“There is nothing to forgive,” Hune said calmly. “Was there anything else?”
I turned to her and studied her face. There was something brutish about the ogres looked, the way their features were slightly broader than a human’s would be if they were the same size. It made them look a little slow, but there was nothing dim about those deep and dark-set eyes meeting mine.
“You don’t like me very much, do you Hune?” I asked.
The ogre’s face shuttered.
“I am an officer in the Legions of Terror, under your command,” she said. “If my demeanour offended you in any way, I apologize and stand willing for any punishment you deem fit.”
Catherine Foundling, I thought ruefully, charmer of the year.
“It’s not a crime to dislike me,” I said. “And I’m not offended. I’m honestly surprised at how well along I’ve gotten with the people around me. I wasn’t exactly the most popular girl at the orphanage.”
“You are apprentice to the Carrion Lord, named Vicequeen of Callow by Her Dread Majesty,” the ogre said woodenly. “Praises are your due.”
“I’m not all that interested in praises,” I said. “But I’d like to know what… this is about.”
I waved my hand vaguely. There was a flicker of irritation in her eyes, but I couldn’t call it a victory. It was too shallow. The kind of irritation you had for a fly buzzing in your ear, not something I could use to bridge a gap.
“Ma’am, I am your subordinate,” Hune said. “This is unnecessary.”
And that was the heart of it, wasn’t it? I didn’t consider my people to be subordinates, or at least not just that. They were the people I drank and laughed with, the people I shared a fire with. There’d been less of that since I’d begun gathering Named around me, it was true. But I’d not allowed those relationships to go fallow either.
“I ask more of my officers than others do of their own,” I said. “I try to give more as well.”
“We,” the ogre said bluntly, “are not equals. You hold power of life and death over everyone in the Empire, save a hallowed few. This pretence, my lady, is tedious.”
“So this is about power,” I said.
The sigh the legate let out was cavernous. I was pretty sure a single one of her lungs was the size of my entire torso. Should have done this when it was dark out, I mused half-seriously. Seems to work better that way.
“Is this an order?” Hune asked.
I nodded. I would have preferred not to make it one, but evidently that wasn’t an option.
“Then with your permission, I will speak frankly,” the legate said. “You are dangerous.”
“Usually when people call me that they mean it as a compliment,” I said. “I’m getting the feeling that’s not the case here.”
“The treaty with the Tower that granted us the Hall of Skulls and adjacent lands comes with mandatory service in the Legions,” the ogre said. “There has not been a war since the Declaration where my people did not fight and die.”
“I’m not unfamiliar with being on the wrong side of Praesi rule,” I said.
“With all due respect, ma’am, that is untrue,” Hune said. “You were born in the wealthiest city of the Empire’s breadbasket and raised by an institution whose education is on par with that of lesser nobility.”
“The orphanage saw lean month toos, Hune,” I said. “We had Governor Mazus running the city for years before he got the noose.”
“Every month, one of my people is murdered and drained of blood after coming too close to a lord’s border,” Hune said. “When the Green Stretch has a bad year, families sign themselves into servitude to avoid shortages. The Reforms barely lowered the amount of warriors that must be provided for service. We are strong enough to be of use and too few to be worth appeasing. Callowans hang when they rebel or resist, ma’am. We earn death by existing.”
“That can be changed,” I said. “Hune, none of this is set in stone. It’s not inevitable. It only works as long as we let it.”
“And speaking words such as these, you have raised a host that answers to you before the Tower,” the ogre said. “You promised freedom to the greenskins, insurgence to the many colours of men. And yet two things you have brought in fact: ever greater titles to you, and war wherever you tread.”
“Because it’s working,” I replied bluntly. “There’s opposition because we’re gaining ground. We push hard enough and it’ll break. We’re not going against infinite strength. At some point they have to bend or lose.”
“That may be,” Hune said. “Perhaps you will deliver all you have sworn. But you are not the first silvertongued monster birthed by Praes. We have seen them come and go, and what has changed? In the end all of them smile, and ask us to die in their wars.”
“I’m not asking you to die,” I said. “I’m asking you to fight. If not for me, then at least for something you want. To do more than just… linger.”
“We fought heroes,” the legate said. “Then devils. Then the courts of the fae. Now we march against a madwoman of the old way. What meaning have any of these to me? I took oath, and will serve in the Fifteenth until I die or my term ends. But you ask me to bleed for strangers and thank you for it. That is not the due of a soldier. It is the due of a servant.”
“I don’t want servants, Hune,” I said sharply. “I want comrades.”
“Servants are what you have, my lady,” the ogre said. “Your causes are their causes. You are Named, and so this is only natural. But I took oath to the Legions of Terror and not the army of House Foundling.”
“I’m not asking you to commit treason,” I said.
“We are riding with knights,” she replied bluntly. “Half the Fifteenth is Callowan. You strong-armed the Dread Empress into naming you ruler of this land. Do not misunderstand me, Lady Foundling, I wish you well in these ventures. The world may be better for your victory, should it come.”
Her dark eyes narrowed.
“But I will not die for another woman’s dream,” Hune said.
Slowly, she rose to her feet.
“I apologize for any offence I have given,” the ogre said. “May I be dismissed?”
I bit my tongue and nodded. I watched the legate stride away and passed a hand through my hair.
So much for mending that bridge.