“War is a breed of conflict decided by the allocation of resources. Through better apportionment a lesser nation can defeat a greater, but never if decision-making is of equal standing on both sides.”
– Extract from “The Modern Legion”, a treatise by Marshal Ranker
Come nightfall I held council. We’d ended the march two hours before sunset when the scouts found grounds suitable for a camp, and the legionaries had taken to building it with veteran expertise. The Fifteenth’s two thousand under Hune had raised palisades in the centre, with the camps of the other three legions forming a triad of spokes coming from it. Wide avenues were made for swift troop deployment, watches set before the wooden walls were even finished and scouting lines scattered around in case the enemy attempted to steal a march in the dark. I’d hesitated about the camp, but decided not to gainsay General Istrid when she suggested we should stop. Another two hours of marching wouldn’t gain us much ground, but proper fortifications would make a real difference if the Diabolist’s host tried a surprise offensive. That I’d call a war council was to be expected, given that the decision to march had been made that very morning and was a major departure from our previous operational plan. I’d spent the daylight in conference with mages and Thief, trying to get a better picture of the opposition, and I was glad I had. I would not have enjoyed looking like a reckless fool in front of these particular commanders, though there might be some grain of truth to that.
More reckless than fool, I liked to think, but that was the kind of judgement best passed on the dead.
I had three of the foremost Imperial officers in Callow facing me. General Istrid Knightsbane, commander of the Sixth Legion. Ironsides, their cognomen was. To orcs, perhaps the only one of their own that could top the reputation of Istrid’s legion was Grem One-Eye’s, for they’d earned that title breaking a charge of Callowan knights. General Orim – the Grim, his men fondly called him – led the Fifth Legion, cognomen Exterminatus. They’d earned that name during the Praesi civil war, executing near five thousand Praesi prisoners to ensure they wouldn’t be slowed on the march. The third and last was General Sacker, commander of the Ninth Legion. Cognomen Regicides. Her goblins had been the ones to kill the Shining Prince when he’d ascended to the throne of Callow halfway through the Fields of Streges. The red paint on her throat was kept by all her men as well, a reminder they’d slit open the throat of royalty without flinching. Hune and myself were green, compared to that assembly. The Fifteenth had been founded only two years ago, and though it had a score of victories under its belt most of my men were still just a few months out of the training camps. The fights I’d put them through so far had hardened them, but it would be years before they had the wealth of experience of the three legions now with me.
I cleared my throat when all were seated, and one of Hune’s aides provided scrolls to the three generals. Sacker seemed amused at the formality, Orim indifferent and I bit back a sigh when I saw Istrid was reading through hers too quickly for it to be anything but a glance.
“We’ve confirmed two things about the enemy,” I said. “The first is that they number between twenty and twenty-five thousand, with two thousand at most being living.”
“Always the way, with undead armies,” Istrid grunted. “They keep enough necromancers to have a leash and a few elite troops but nothing more. If they mix the forces too much they’ll start needing a supply train, and dispensing with those is one of the major advantages of raising the dead.”
“I’ve had intelligence that Diabolist had no more than six thousand living in he entire forces as of five months ago,” I said. “If we manage to wipe that two thousand, it’ll cripple her army before we move on Liesse.”
“I don’t like the numbers,” General Orim bluntly said. “If we were dealing with bones or shamblers we could handle two to one, but these ‘wights’ are supposed to be upper grade.”
“We let this go unchallenged and they’ll wipe the Ankou levies, Orim,” General Sacker spoke, her voice a dry whisper. “Then raise them still fresh. No coincidence, that number of mages. If we do nothing they gain another eight thousand foot, already armed and armoured.”
“Setting that aside, allowing a third of our Callowan reinforcements to be killed before the battle even begins will have stark effect on morale,” I flatly reminded them.
Considering I’d ordered those city guards to march in the first place I balked at the idea of letting them get attacked without reinforcing for personal reasons as well, but there was no point in speaking of that to these three. All of them had been part of the Conquest, I doubted they had many qualms about spending Callowan lives.
“It was foolish of their commander to circle by the south,” Hune said, the stone we’d dragged inside for her to sit on pushing into the ground. “They should have gone north and joined with the Southpool levies.”
Even half-crouched, her head touched the ceiling of the tent.
“That one rests on my shoulders,” I said. “I ordered them to muster as swiftly as possible, which is why the Southpool men were already on the move. Their commander took what she saw as the least risk-prone route, however incorrect her judgement.”
“Can’t expect too much of civilians in armour,” Istrid said, which was not excuse but perhaps lessening of blame.
Disinclined to let the conversation linger here, I moved it along with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
“Second thing we’ve confirmed: the enemy commander is Lord Fasili Miremebe,” I told them. “Formerly heir to Aksum. If someone can be considered the Diabolist’s right hand, it’s him.”
“That crazy old witch Abreha disinherited him?” General Sacker croaked. “Breaking with the Truebloods in full then. Bold, for her. She usually hedges her bets.”
“Don’t you spoil this campaign with talk about bloody politics,” General Istrid grunted. “I take it gating to their back isn’t an option? I doubt we’d be treading the plains if it was.”
It was my first instinct to keep them in the dark about my exact capacities, but I forced myself to ignore it. Paranoia had a place, but war councils wasn’t it.
“I’ve never been in the region before,” I said. “In those cases I need Hierophant at my side to chart a path through Arcadia. In theory I could try, but there’s no telling how long we’d be in there or exactly where we’d come out.”
“I can still be used to retreat, at least,” General Orim growled. “Being able to leave beyond pursuit is already major advantage.”
My brows rose. I’d never actually considered that. In part because I’d never lost a pitched battle, but also because I did tend to think on the offensive. General Sacker had been reading through the scroll carefully while we talked, and only spoke again when she’d finished.
“The Mirembe boy has only middling military record,” she said. “One internal purge at his great-aunt’s behest, held the left wing when Sahelian was manhandled during the Liesse Rebellion. Are we sure the information is correct?”
“It was supplied by Her Dread Majesty,” I said. “I can’t guarantee it, but I am disinclined to doubt.”
I’d had my own people dig into Lord Fasili as well, of course. Aisha had connections in Praes and had called on them, but they’d not unearthed anything the Empress’ spies had not and not everything they did. I had been worth the effort anyway, if only to confirm part of what I’d been given by the Tower. Blind trust had never been a virtue in my eyes, and was much worse than that if offered to a villain.
“Tutored by Asmund of the Dark Teeth Clan and Lady Taslima Ubid,” General Orim said, frowning at his scroll. “I know one of these names.”
General Istrid let out a noise of surprise.
“Asmund, the senior tribune from the Third?” she said. “Thought he was dead.”
“Lost a hand and resigned his commission after they put him under the Quartermaster,” the other orc told her.
“Taslima was on the general staff of the Eleventh,” Sacker croaked. “Senior Mage.”
“There’s a reason I had that on the final report,” I said. “Legate Hune?”
“Fasili Mirembe has studied the Legions,” the ogre stated bluntly. “In depth, from officers that fought during the Conquest. He will be prepared for our tactics.”
I inclined my head at the legate.
“I very much want him dead,” I said, not bothering to phrase it delicately. “If we manage to off Diabolist’s best general before the battle proper, her forces will be shaken when we assault. She’s only got so much talent left to call on.”
“It’ll be tricky catching up to them in time,” General Istrid said. “Their men don’t get tired on the move, and it’s not impossible for them to march through the night.”
“Not often,” General Orim said. “They can’t let their necromancers get too tired or they’ll lose hold of the undead.”
I cleared my throat.
“We don’t have the sorcery to scry through their wards on hand,” I said. “But I can scry Hierophant, who most definitely can. From our current positions, if the pace remains the same, we should meet with the Ankou troops two days before they do. Our current guess at when battle would take place is nine days, barring the unexpected.”
I watched rueful smiles bloom across the faces of the three greenskins facing me.
“Unexpected. Heh,” General Sacker whispered.
“Ah, to be young again,” Istrid mused.
I’d told Thief, not too long ago, that Akua had been too straightforward of late.
I learned how correct I’d been exactly one day too late, when I was scried in panic by the Fifteenth’s mage lines in the south. Liesse had spewed out a second army in the middle of the night, while we were encamped. After the ritual ended I remained alone for a long moment, and considered how badly I might have just fucked up. When I’d gone to collect the three legions before taking a fairy gate north I had tipped my hand. Diabolist now had an estimate of how long it would take me to ferry troops and she’d planned accordingly. As of now, the host under Fasili had kept the same pace and my own was only two days away from linking up with the Ankou troops. I closed my eyes and considered the parts in movement. If we kept marching west, we lost two days. Keeping in mind how long it would take me to pass through Arcadia if things went well, if we did this then Akua’s second host of twenty thousand would very likely have time to attack the men coming down from Southpool. Four to one against mages and undead? They’d be shattered within an hour of the first sword being drawn. The rest of my forces were in southern Callow, and if I left now to try to get them on the field up here would be pointless. Both the Ankou troops and the Southpool ones would be wiped by Akua’s armies before I even finished gating back to the rest of the Fifteenth.
I should have seen it coming, when I ordered the muster. Diabolist wasn’t an attacker by nature, not exactly. She was an opportunist. She’d waited until she could get a read on how quickly I could move, then gone to pluck the low-hanging fruits. The worst of it was that there was no real way to warn either of the Callowan forces. They weren’t Legions, they didn’t have mage lines for me to contact. The colder part of me considered the decision to make even as the rest remained in shick. If this was to be purely about numbers, I knew what call I had to make. Southpool was sending five thousand men, Ankou eight thousand better trained and better equipped. She didn’t even need to do anything. She just waited for me to blunder, and I did. There were advantages to being the swiftest player on the field, but costs as well. If you were the first to move then your actions were out in the open. But I hadn’t thought it would matter. I’d believed, deep down, that Akua would remain holed up in her lair and let me come to her. Because that was what villains did, wasn’t it? They raised the flying fortress and let the heroes knock at the gate. And now people were going to die because I hadn’t been careful enough. I only realized I was crushing the goblet in my hand when the wine wet my fingers. I called for my commanders as soon as I was no longer frosting every surface in sight.
“We’re losing one of those armies,” General Istrid bluntly said.
There wasn’t any hemming and hawing from the others. I could see in their eyes that the five thousand from Southpool had been written off before I was done speaking the sentence.
“Though her stratagem was a surprise, the deployments remain real,” Hune noted.
I invited her to elaborate with a look.
“Fasili Mirembe is within reach,” she said. “So are his necromancers. Their loss would still be a blow to her defences.”
“Five thousand levies for a third of her mages or more,” General Sacker croaked. “It is an acceptable trade.”
“That’s if we can decisively beat the boy,” General Orim grunted. “If he retreats in good order after a cursory skirmish, we will have been fully duped.”
“So we strike hard,” General Istrid growled.
Or is that what Diabolist wants? I thought. For us to commit here, where she knows we’re coming and has time to deploy every manner of nasty trick? The first time I’d ever seen Akua, when he’d spied on her conversation with Black, she’d called herself a skilled commander. I’d chalked that up to arrogance since, since she had no real victories to her name, but the arrogance might just have been mine. I’d never seen Akua Sahelian fighting an actual war before, had I? Before the battles had always been just a tool for positioning, a way for her to implement her plots. Now she’d bared her knife, and on our very first round she’d been the one to draw blood. As ever when dealing with Diabolist, the spiral of second-guessing and doubt was as dangerous as her actual actions. Whether Fasili and the mages were bait or not did not matter, in the end. Fighting him with the Ankou troops was still the best decision I could make. It niggled at the back of my mind that thinking about the best decision Juniper could make was exactly how I’d predicted her actions, during our war games, but was that alone enough to have me gate for the Southpool men instead? No, I admitted. It was almost presumptuous, to call joining up with Ankou reinforcements the best move. All it is is the lesser mistake of the tow before me.
“We keep going,” I said, and the words felt like ashes in my mouth.
I did not ask any gods for forgiveness. The ones that would grant it were my foes, and the ones I worked for knew nothing of the word.
It was a close thing, and I only avoided disaster by leaning into my instincts. Two hours before sunset, on the day before we joined the Ankou troops, I passed down instructions not to make camp and to continue marching after dark. Guided by magelights and goblins, our host of fourteen thousand pressed on until midnight. The pace slowed in the dark, but I was feeling an itch on the back of my neck. A sense of danger not yet revealed. Three hours of rest were granted before we resumed the march, and so narrowly avoided disaster. We found the Ankou city guard out in the field shortly before Morning Bell. We found the host of the dead as well, lines tirelessly advancing under the light of the rising sun.
“And that’s why when a Named tells you to keep marching, you fucking do it,” General Istrid said, and spat to the side. “This would have been a bad one, mark my words.”
We were both mounted again, the orc remaining at my side as our legions spread out. My helmet kept under my arm, I gazed at the enemy host.
“They marched through the entire night,” I said. “Gods, if you hadn’t warned me they could…”
“Their necromancers will be tired,” the Knightsbane said. “But our legionaries are as well. We’ll have to be real careful with that shield wall, Squire. Formations are what lets us win this. If they break them we’ll be in deep shit. Your countrymen can’t be relied on, not with dead on the other side and numbers that high.”
“You underestimate them,” I replied. “This is Callow, general. We’ve seen the dead walk before. We’ve turned them back, again and again.”
“From walls,” the orc grunted. “This is open field, and I don’t see no fucking knights. Just scared guards in cheap mail with spears they’ve only ever drilled with.”
“That’s why we spread Hune’s men through them, to serve as a spine,” I said.
I’d put the legate in charge of that entire division of the host, replacing the commander from Ankou. That ten thousand combined would serve as our centre, with the Fifth serving as the right wing and the Ninth as the left. Both legions had left a gap between themselves and the Callowans, bait for Fasili to send his wights through in an attempt to isolate our forces. Istrid’s own Fourth we were keeping in reserve behind the rest, with her wolf riders as an independent command.
“Twenty-three thousand on their side, twenty-two thousand on ours,” the Knightsbane growled. “We’re in for a bloody day.”
“If we can wipe their casters they fall apart,” I said.
Without the necromancers controlling them the wights would lack organization. They’d still fight with the intelligence of living soldiers, more or less, but without officers or orders. Numbers mattered less when they belonged to a mob.
“They won’t leave their mages unprotected,” General Istrid said. “I’m guessing they’ll go back to old Legions tactics from before the Reforms. They’ll keep five thousand back in a square around the casters and come in a wave, then rely on sorcery to punch a hole and try to flip our lines.”
“We don’t have enough mages and sappers with the Fifteenth to break a wave,” I murmured. “Hune’ll keep the fireballs back until she has to plug a gap to avoid exhausting her mage lines.”
“They’ll have a ritual prepared,” the orc laughed. “Those wily old Wasteland foxes always do. But I ain’t worried, to tell you the truth.”
I glanced at her, raising an eyebrow. General Istrid’s lips split into a vicious grin, ivory fangs glinting in the morning sun.
“Whatever sorcery they’re going to pull out, Squire, I doubt it’s going to be worse than you.”