“If I had an aurelius for every assassination attempt, I wouldn’t have to keep raising taxes.”
– Dread Emperor Pernicious, the Imperiled
Commander Joan Ansel had feigned anger when the ogre took command, for that was what her men wanted from her, but deep down all she felt was pathetic relief. This was all far beyond her ability to deal with. She’d been Royal Guard, once upon a time, and fought in the Siege of Laure until one of the gates gave and the Praesi ran loose in the capital. That record had seen her appointed to lead the city guard of Ankou a decade down the line, but her men forgot she’d been a captain back then. What did she know of leading armies, of field tactics and the like? Her job had been the hold the fucking wall with the company of soldiers that answered to her, and that duty she’d discharged and well. It hadn’t been her men that gave, when the Empire came knocking. This, though, this was all more than she could handle. The truth of how close they’d come to being wiped out by the enemy before the Legions ever caught sight of them still had fear running down her spine. Weeping Heavens, she’d still run if she could. Not that it was an option.
The fair-haired woman glanced back over the ranks and caught sight of that lone silhouette on horseback, a colourful cloak stirring in the wind behind it. The Black Queen herself had come to take charge, and she was said to have strong opinions on desertion. Joan hid a flinch under her helmet. They’d all heard how the Gallowborne had been snatched straight from the gallows and used ‘til they were spent on foreign fields. The woman knew Her Grace had been named Vicequeen of Callow by the Tower, that she did not hold the throne in her own right as the Fairfaxes had, but balls to that. It was open secret the Black Queen had slugged the Wasteland in the stomach until it spat out a crown for her to wear. She’s never lost a battle, Joan told herself. We won’t die today. She clutched that belief tight, watching the ranks of the dead advance. Thousands upon thousands, pale as the grave even in the morning sun. Their armaments weren’t pretty like those of the Legions, no matching colours and smooth lines. Just pieces of armour slapped together over a marching corpse, blades and spears and every weapon that could be gotten cheaply in hand. They did not look fearsome, until you saw there was only death in those empty eyes.
Her men, at least, had decent mail and good spears. The city guard used clubs and knives within Ankou to keep the peace, but it was tradition old as the kingdom that all of them drill with the spear every month. The city was the last holdfast between Callow and the fucking Procerans, if the Vales fell. It was expected to be able to hold until the kingdom’s armies arrived. Ankou has walls, she thought. Here there is only barley and black earth. Both would be stained red before long. Joan felt her hands shake with tremors they’d disdained when she was still young, but she’d been a dumb twat at twenty hadn’t she? Thinking Laure could hold against the godsdamned Carrion Lord and his pack of monsters. Now she neared fifty and knew better. There was no winning against the Wasteland. And the harder we fight, the harder we die. The thought was dark, but Joan had not felt this powerless in decades. The Imperial Governor in Ankou had been content to wring taxes out of the people and ignore them otherwise, until his term ended last year. They’d all gone on with their lives with no one bothering with them.
Now Joan was back in the Tower’s eye, sworn to die in its name.
“Commander Ansel,” the mountain said. “Your men seem dispirited.”
Joan swallowed and looked up at the ogre. Legate Hune, she’d said her name was. One of the Fifteenth’s top officers though not one she’d ever heard of, like the Hellhound or Hakram Deadhand. The creature was large as a dozen men, and those eyes were studying her like she was some sort of insect one misstep away from being squashed. Gods, she thought, why did I not retire? Coin would have been tight, but better poor than dead.
“They’ll hold, ma’am,” she stiffly told the monster. “They know the stakes.”
You didn’t need to be some great general to see the Black Queen had put Joan’s men in the centre because all she wanted from them was to hold. The wings on both sides were Legions, and it’d be them who decided the battle while Callowans died like dogs. But if the centre collapses, this turns into slaughter. The dead would split the Black Queen’s army in two and overwhelm it in small bits. The fair-haired woman knew this, but she wasn’t sure her soldiers did. And even if they do, are they going to give a shit when their faces are getting chewed off? Joan shivered. It was easy to see the disaster this could turn into.
“They will,” Legate Hune agreed calmly. “Pass this down to your officers: the legionaries of the Fifteenth are under instruction to kill any men fleeing the battlefield. Cowardice will not be tolerated.”
Joan’s eyes flicked to the Black Queen, still unmoving in the distance. Gods it was eerie how still she was.
“The Vicequeen will not gainsay that order, commander,” the monster said coldly. “You will find no saving grace there. She has no patience for the yellow-bellied.”
Easy for you to call people that, she thought. You’re a fucking battering ram unto yourself.
“We’ll hold,” Joan said, and hated how weak it sounded.
She breathed in and out, kept her hands against her side to end the shaking.
“Down here in the mud, it’s us who holds the line,” she whispered, and that one had some iron to it.
The old song spoke about dying free, though, didn’t it? She smiled bitterly. Well, songs were songs. Creation was never as pretty as they said.
Orim of the Tarred Dogs breathed in deeply. The air was crisp and clean out here, nothing like the squalid reek of Laure. He felt the part of him that was the general melt away, the chief he’d once been baring his fangs anew. Gods, it was good to be at war again. To have an enemy to chew up, an army to break and scatter and crush underfoot. It was the way orcs were meant to live, not playing fucking wet nurse to a mob of bleating Callowan cattle. Oh, he knew why Lord Black had garrisoned him in Laure. The day he’d spilled the lifeblood of five thousand Praesi on Wasteland grounds still rang in people’s ear, a whisper of fear and death if he was crossed. It had kept the likes of Mazus in line and the local waste as well. But having to be patient and kind and all those hundred tedious little duties had worn away at him. Orim was fifty-three, now, but today he felt young again. It was going to be a good day, and all he regretted was that he had to fight under a green girl instead of Grem or the Carrion Lord. What Lord Black saw in the Wallerspawn was beyond him. She had a way with killing, but the Empire had no shortage of killers. Few of them were so irritatingly high-minded about getting the job done.
His general staff arrayed around him, Orim studied the rebel army. The wights would not be easy meat, but this was a battle that could be won. The Wastelander boy leading the other side had thickened his ranks before approaching, massing the dead to match the line of Callowan levies. Deeper lines, though. The mixed Fifteenth and levies numbered ten thousand in total, but the rebels must have closer to fourteen or fifteen thousand facing them. It was like Istrid had thought, Mirembe was aiming to break the centre and split them. There was more to enemy tactics than a single wave though. A chunk of three thousand wights had been split from the rest of the host and was heading towards Orim’s own Fifth Legion. Behind the centre of the rebel army the living could be glimpsed, Praesi household troops and mages that couldn’t be more than two thousand. There were another three thousand wights in a ring around them, which was a damned shame. Istrid’s riders could have looped around to hit the Praesi if they hadn’t kept those.
“General Sacker seems to have the lucky draw of the day,” his Staff Tribune said.
Orim grunted in assent, though he didn’t look at the Taghreb. Sacker’s Ninth made up the left wing, and unlike his own legion there was no detached division heading for her. The orc licked his chops, the atrophied muscles of his face keeping his lips near-unmoving. A weakness he’d been born with, one that had seen him called Grim for how hard it was to smile. He’d been lucky it hadn’t been obvious when he’d been a babe. Orcs born flawed didn’t make it through long winters.
“Prepare to receive them,” he ordered. “Staggered welcome.”
His Senior Sapper snorted, then spoke to the flag-bearers. Twice red cloth rose, and it was fewer than thirty heartbeats before the scorpions began firing. Steel-tipped javelins tore through the first rank of the three thousand wights moving towards the Fifth like wet parchment. The undead were within three hundred feet, good killing range. The second volley flew twenty heartbeats later, this one angled to punch through more than one wight per projectile. The rebels had put cheap armour on their dead, but going through flesh and bone still took strength: it was a rare javelin that took more than two. The wights began to quicken their steps before the third volley launched, much as Orim had expected. If he’d had longer to prepare the chief would have made his sappers trap the advance, but the rebels had been too swift for that. No matter. Undead hordes had no skill to them, even the clever ones, and this one seemed to have no skirmishers to field. They’d bleed for that. The flags rose again and the Fifth’s sapper lines shot forward across the field. They slowed right before the enemy entered range, the sharpers thrown carving holes into the enemy ranks with loud cracks. The goblins immediately began to withdraw at a measured pace, munitions detonating every ten heartbeats with disciplined precision.
“We’ll have a more than a tenth of them gone before they reach our shield wall, at this rate,” his Staff Tribune observed.
“Close up is where undead shine,” Orim reminded her. “This won’t last.”
He’d learned that the hard way, when they’d marched on Okoro during the civil war. Skirmishers scythed through the first few ranks of enemy undead and he’d thought it was going to be a slaughter, but it had ended up so close a victory it might as well have been a draw. Undead did not tire, or break when they lost too many. You couldn’t flip their line the way you did the living because they didn’t panic and flee. They didn’t stop unless you broke them all, or the necromancers holding their leash. Three thousand wights against the four thousand men of his Fifth seemed like throwing away bodies but it wasn’t that. The boy on the other side knew whatever dead managed to reach their lines would keep Orim’s legion too busy to redeploy for at least an hour. He’d going to be hitting the centre’s right side, the orc thought. The wights sent against the Fifth had been meant to prevent it from reinforcing there: Mirembe was trying to create weakness for him to tear through. But that wouldn’t be enough, not with Istrid’s legion kept back to plug exactly that sort of gap. So what are you truly up to, Wastelander?
One hundred feet until the wights hit the shield wall. No crossbow fire had greeted them when they entered range, for that would have been a pointless waste of bolts. Nothing that light would put down the likes of them. Orim spat to the side and made his decision.
“Heavies to the front,” he said. “Senior Mage Dolene.”
“Sir?” the Soninke replied.
“No volleys,” he ordered. “A Hook, then Lob until told otherwise.”
Whatever the rebels were up to, it depended on him being pinned down. To unmake their design he must tear through the opposition as quickly as possible. The orc watched as the ranks of the Fifth smoothly redeployed, the sappers taking refuge as his men and orc in heavy plate came to the fore. They would tire swiftly, he knew, but regulars would not make as much of an impact. He would take the gamble. Mere moments before the wights smashed into his frontline fireballs bloomed, rising up at a sharp angle before being pulled down backwards into the first rank of the wights. Hook. Flame consumed the undead, intensely concentrated so it would bite hungrily into dead flesh. The horns sounded and his heavies let out a loud cry, shields raised as they charged into the enemy. There was a thundering crash of steel on steel and the mage lines crafted flame again, tossing them into the roiling mass of wights far from the frontline. Lob, the doctrine called it. Meant to weaken the pressure of the enemy so it could be devoured in waves.
The glare of the sun glinting on his helm, Orim the Grim watched the struggle of steel against dead flesh and his lips half-twitched into a grotesque smile.
General Sacker watched from her raised platform as the line of Ankou men bent under the weight of the undead and frowned. Her missing eye itched, the urge of scratching the scarred tissue ever an effort to master. Either the enemy was blundering, or they had. The Callowans had thin blood and there could be no turnaround expected from them, but the centre was holding in the face of the wights. Legate Hune’s legionaries steadied the parts of it that wavered, filling the gaps with red-painted steel and unflinching discipline. The Matron was almost impressed. Most of the Fifteenth was fresh out of the camps and of conquered stock to boot, which had seen her lower her expectations, but the men she saw fighting did so as proper legionaries. It is not merely Names that won them the victories, then. Something to consider. Any pack of goatherds could win a battle against an army if a demigod stood at their head, but the Squire had yet to act. This was the men of the Fifteenth alone and they were acquitting themselves more than passably. Had Sahelian’s dogs made the same erroneous assumption she had, perhaps?
It seemed unlikely. The Diabolist had fought Lord Black’s apprentice many a time, and seen the Fifteenth in action twice. Yet Fasili Mirembe’s army was headed towards defeat, should matters continue to unfold as they now did. Sacker’s men were cutting through the wights in front of them at a steady rate, sharpers and demolition charges opening holes she saw broadened with mage fire. Her regulars were pushing back the enemy, slowly but surely. And when they found nothing but field in front of them, they would turn to flank the wights facing the Callowans. Sacker’s remaining eye was not as sharp as it used to be when she’d been a young and red-handed Matron – alchemical concoctions could lengthen her lifespan, but not reverse the ravages of time – but she saw clearly enough. And what she saw was this: there were too few wights facing her Ninth. There’d been no need for Lord Mirembe to have fifteen thousand undead facing the ten thousand at the centre. Some of these now stood before her legionaries, but not enough to account for the numbers. Where had the rest gone?
When the battle had begun, there’d been a gap between Orim’s Fifth and the centre. When the Fifth became tied down Legate Hune had lengthened her line to avoid getting flanked through it. Studying the mass of silent yet writhing undead, Sacker found a current. The ranks are thinner where the gap was, the goblin thought. They’re massing wights in front of it to prepare for a push. Mirembe on the other side had to know it would not win him the battle even if he broke through there. Istrid would charge into there fangs bared and stabilize the centre. And after that? Sacker pondered. The Praesi still had a ritual up their sleeve, this was a given. Superior sorcery was their greatest advantage. They wait until Istrid is committed there. Orim won’t be able to disengage from the wights after him, even if they’re not a real threat to him. The orc had engaged the three thousand sent towards him aggressively, she’d noted, using tactics that Legion doctrine usually preached should be used against levies. The picture, slowly, began to paint itself. With the Fourth filling the gap, the only uncommitted force on the field would be Istrid’s riders. And if the rebels hit the Fourth with their ritual, not only do they reopen the gap but they’re costing us legionaries instead of Callowans.
Wolf riders alone would not be able to turn back the wights pouring through. They were not meant for hard fights like those. What, then, would be sent to prevent Sacker’s own legion from intervening? The old goblin’s eyes turned to the Praesi holed up behind the battlefield. Household troops, around a thousand. Half that number of mages and officers. And four hundred men in Helikean scale armour, most likely mercenaries. By themselves, not a threat. But able to withstand eight hundred wolf riders if those attempted a charge on the mages. Which left the three thousand wights currently deployed in a ring around the Praesi free to tie down the Ninth Legion while the left flank collapsed. It was a pretty little strategy, she would admit. Neatly designed to exploit the weaknesses of their host. It did not, however, account for the Squire. They cannot be so blind as to discount her, she thought. There is still an element missing. Whether it could be found would decide the victor of the day.
Abigail screamed herself hoarse, smashing her shield in a dead man’s face. The nose broke with a crack but the shit didn’t care in the slightest, hacking at her from the side. Good legionary mail had the blade bouncing off but it would leave a bruise. Sweat pouring down her face, she rammed her sword in the wight’s throat and felt the spine give to goblin steel. She hacked the head off while it continued wailing at her, her shield denting under the force of the blows. Even headless the wight kept on attacking, and something smashed into her helmet that had her vision swimming. She felt someone pull her back and a tall orc filled the empty space, forcing down the wight and letting the legionaries behind him hack it to pieces.
“Captain, you still with us?” a man’s voice asked.
Abigail wiped the spittle and sweat off her lips, focusing on the person it belonged to. Sergeant Tadaaki, whose dark face was creased with worry. She clapped the Soninke’s shoulder, feeling a wave of nausea coming over her.
She bent to the side to empty her stomach on the ground.
“Fine, sergeant,” she moaned after. “I am fine.”
No bleeding parts, so there was nothing to bother what few healers they had with. The disgusting taste lingering in her mouth, Abigail wiped her face and deeply regretted having tried her lieutenant’s ‘mystery stew’. Secret Taghreb recipe her fucking ass. Didn’t look any better coming out than it had going in. Never falling for that one again. That wasn’t godsdamned rabbit floating in the stuff, no matter what he said.
“Take a breather, ma’am,” the sergeant said. “I’ll handle the frontline.”
“Don’t get aggressive, Tadaaki,” she said. “We can’t afford the losses. Bloody militia’s shaky enough as is.”
“They’re your people,” the Soninke replied, flashing a grin.
Abigail spat the scum out of her mouth, hoping the man whose boot she’d dirtied hadn’t noticed.
“They’re Ankouans,” Abigail argued. “They’ve got more in common with goats than a good Summerholm girl like me.”
Everybody knew the people in Ankou were barely Callowan at all, what with all that breeding with Procerans. Sergeant Tadaaki left her to the sound of laughter. Good sort, that one, for a Wastelander anyway. Captain Abigail made her way to the back of the line and undid the straps of her helmet, taking it off long enough to let her sweat-soaked curls cool a little. Gods Above, she thought as she watched the melee ahead, what a mess. She could not believe she’d ever been drunk enough to think enrolling in the Legions was a good idea. Abigail had come within an inch of dying twice in the last year, and now held the dubious distinction of knowing what fae blood tasted like. Screaming while hacking at Summer warriors came with drawbacks when red flew. Well, it beat being a tanner at least. Her family home had gone up in green flames when the Black Queen tangled with the Lone Swordsman a while back and her uncle had made it clear that being allowed to live under his roof came at the price of going into his trade. Her two brothers had folded, but she’d decided she wasn’t going to smell like rotting corpse garbage for the rest of her life.
She was coming to reconsider that decision, but with three years left to her service that meant less than nothing. There wasn’t anyone in the Fifteenth that was idiotic enough to think that desertion was an option. The captain rolled her shoulders, wishing she could take off her mail for even ten heartbeats. Her aketon was drenched, and now that she wasn’t busy trying not to get killed she realized that her nipples itched something fierce. Ugh. She took a look at the melee to distract herself, knowing she’d have to go back before long. Tribune Ashan would report her otherwise, and Legate Hune was strict with disciplinary actions. The wights were chewing into the lines, but not as bad as she’d thought they would. The Ankouans were holding up pretty well, for a pack of hacks with spears. Probably helped they didn’t let the dead get too close. Her own company rotated the lines often enough no one was dropping from exhaustion, though the enemy was hard on regulars like her. They swung harder than living men did, and if their armour had been any better they’d have been a hundred Hells to put down. Still, overall she called this better than Dormer – though ‘less dangerous than fire-spitting immortals from a legend world’ was a fairly low bar to set, now that she thought about it. At least she hadn’t pissed herself this time, so there was that, though if the battle continued for another few hours there was no guarantee that would last.
It was because she was at the back of the line that she noticed it. She could see the rest of the army, compare where it stood to where her men did. Realize that her part of it was being pushed back, step by step. It wasn’t some great turning of the tide or anything like that. Just… pressure. Slowly increasing. And we’re bending in front of it.
“Shit,” she said feelingly, and fumbled the clasp of her helmet after forcing it on. “Shitshitshit.”
Tribune Ashan’s cohort, of which her company made up half, was the anchor for right side of the centre. If they broke, then the wights had nothing to stop them and the swarm was going to be coming from all sides. Unsheathing her sword, Abigail went back cursing into the fray and really hoped that someone, anyone, was noticing how close to disaster they were edging.