“Irritant’s Law: inevitable doom is a finite resource, and becomes mere doom when split between multiple heroic bands. Nemeses should never simultaneously engage a single villain.”
– Extract from ‘The Axiom Appendix’, multiple contributors
I sat at a table across from Baron Henry Darlington of Hedges and Baroness Ainsley Morley of Harrow, shared a smile with them and wondered which one of them would be the first to try to sell me out to the crusaders.
I knew for a fact that Procer had approached the both of them long before a hole was punched through the Whitecaps. Hasenbach’s people were good, but the Observatory was better and no one had any real idea yet of exactly what it could do. You couldn’t counter something you didn’t know about, as I had learned the hard way. I’d been keeping a close eye on these two, through both the Jacks and sorcerous means, and even though Morley was the one who’d just had to flee her own city my bet was on Darlington being the one to try for a deal. He was the older of the two, in his late forties, and though he’d had a reputation as a knight of some skill in his youth his belly made it clear he’d traded swords for mutton chops a long time ago. Morley, the Jacks had informed me, was in her thirties but had inherited the barony from her father only a year before the Liesse Rebellion. Her lands were larger than Darlington’s but her personal holdings smaller and the rest split among vassals who’d been rather unruly after her ascension. If the betrayal came from the Harrow contingent, I’d wager that it would be from one of her sworn lords and not Morley herself. Both of them were being very cordial as we shared a drink – water for me, that tricky little oath – but they were also quite bad at hiding how surprised they were I’d reached Hedges so quickly.
Seven days through Arcadia, and my twenty thousand strong Army of Callow began marching out into the pastures to the south of the city. The Observatory had confirmed that the crusaders were only starting to come out on the Callowan side of the passage through the Whitecaps. Slower than expected, but then our estimates had been based on Legion marching speeds. Revised downwards, of course, but apparently not quite enough. There’d been some alarm when we popped out of the woodworks, but I’d been one of the first out the fairy gate and to be blunt if we’d meant to take Hedges there wasn’t shit either of them could have done about it. The city was more of a glorified town, and its defences were laughable. The curtain wall was a short and worn-down compared to almost every other city in Callow, since the north had never really faced the threat of Praesi invasions. Their enemies had been each other, which involved more cattle-theft than sieges even in the old days before unification, and on rare occasion Daoine. The Deoraithe were not prone to expansion, but before they were brought into the fold by Eleanor Fairfax they’d not been above the occasional raid or punitive expedition to express displeasure at the royal family in Laure.
“I’m impressed by how quickly you got your people out, Baroness,” I told Morley. “And how thoroughly.”
There was a slight tinge of discomfort in their eyes at the reminder that I knew exactly what was going on in their lands and they had no real idea how. Darlington cleared his throat.
“Perhaps prematurely, Your Majesty, if you’ll forgive my saying so. It seems to me it might have been possible to contest Harrow.”
I took that more as an indication that he’d rather pitched battles not take place at even the outskirts of his lands than sympathy for Morley, but then he’d gotten on my nerves often enough I wasn’t inclined to think well of him. I sipped at my cup.
“They’ve moved slower than anticipated,” I conceded. “There are, however, concerns you might not be considering. Do you both know what a Hell Egg is?”
Morley paled but Darlington was unmoved.
“Some Praesi devilry, no doubt,” he said.
“It’s true then,” Baroness Ainsley said quietly. “The Lost Standard, it actually exists?”
“I have it on good authority it’s in the lands around Harrow,” I told her. “But my attempts to locate it have been fruitless for now.”
Darlington was lost, and by the look on his face that was not a state of affairs he was willing to tolerate for long.
“And what Wasteland tale is this?” he said. “I did not take you for a superstitious sort, Your Majesty.”
“Considering the Diabolist used one of those very standards against me at Marchford, superstition is perhaps the wrong term,” I very mildly said.
It was rather delightful to watch it sink in. It was a well-told tale what I’d faced in the defence of what was now my personal holding.
“There’s a demon in the north?” he hissed.
“My father told me that Triumphant left old madness behind her, when I was a child,” Morley said. “I thought it a legend, but are these not times where old stories breathe again?”
“I won’t fight heroes on grounds where releasing a demon is a risk,” I told them frankly. “The moment the crusaders forged a beachhead near Harrow, it became indefensible. I’m sorry for what that puts your people through, Baroness, but-”
The woman shook her head.
“No, Your Majesty,” she said. “Nothing was lost but pride and coin. If anything, I must thank you sincerely for your prudence. I would rather see my coffers emptied than my people…”
She trailed off, and I didn’t finish that sentence for her. Where demons were concerned, the least said was always the better.
“They’re my people too,” I said quietly. “I would rather not fight this war at all, but diplomatic resolution has been refused.”
“Procer,” Morley said feelingly.
And though I suspected Darlington wished me dead at least once a day, even his lip curled in distaste at the mention of the Principate. We did like our grudges, us Callowans, and Procer had earned more than a few. That passing moment of common feeling did nothing to blind me to the very real possibility that one or both of these two would try to sell me down the river before the month was out.
“I would offer my men for the battle, Your Majesty,” Morley finally said.
“It’d be a pleasure to fold your horse under the Broken Bells,” I told her. “I’ll send Grandmaster Talbot your way. But if you mean to send foot as well, I’ll need Legion officers overseeing. Marshal Juniper will not agree otherwise.”
The latter was a little sketchy, under current Callowan law, but Juniper was the highest officer in the Army of Callow and theoretically had the same broad authority that the Shining Princes and ruling Fairfaxes had once held in war time. This particular request, though, had consistently seen me stonewalled by the same two nobles in front of me. Even after amending the request to having observing Legion officers it had remained a sticking point. Baroness Kendall had argued the matter wasn’t worth forcing, given the limited amount of men these two could bring, and she’d had a point. Better not to have them at all than have them only as unreliable addition.
“That will not be an issue,” Baroness Ainsley grimly said.
Some of my surprise must have shown on my face, because she offered a rueful smile.
“Morleys have held Harrow for three hundred years, Your Majesty,” she said. “I will not surrender my lands to some prancing Proceran shit without a fight.”
“We’ll be glad to have you,” I said.
That’d been… unexpected. And, though I’d like to think better of her, was enough of a change it raised my suspicions. Still, it wouldn’t do to look a gift horse in the mouth too openly.
“They sent an envoy,” Morley suddenly said.
My eyes sharpened as I studied her. She looked embarrassed but determined.
“The Procerans, they sent an envoy,” she said. “To offer terms.”
Baron Darlington had gone very, very still. I drank a mouthful of water then calmly set down the cup.
“Good ones, I hope?”
“I would be allowed to keep my lands,” she said. “A marriage to one of our betters would be arranged for one of my children as well. They wanted Henrietta, which was rather telling. They’re more interested in us taking their names than the other way around.”
“Let me guess,” I drawled. “You were to join with the army and pass information. Maybe change sides halfway through a battle?”
“They were slightly more circumspect,” the baroness said. “But the implications ran along those lines. They… it was a way to weather the storm, Your Majesty.”
I watched her closely. She’d not agreed, no. She wouldn’t have spoken up otherwise. But she’d not chased them out either. I’d already known that, but I was surprised she was willing to share. You dislike me, I thought. We both know that. But in the end for all that you see me an evil I am Callowan evil and that still matters, doesn’t it?
“Treason,” Darlington said thickly. “How horrid. It is mother’s milk to the men of Procer, we have always known this.”
“I do not hang women for entertaining envoys,” I softly said. “And would rather have honest, open opposition than a snake in the grass. Hasenbach will make offers again. She needs to, because she knows it is madness to try to hold Callow by force while warring with the Wasteland. But make no mistake, she needs to hold Callow. And we all know Procer does not easily relinquish lands it takes.”
Morley nodded slowly. She was not a handsome woman, and the stark relief on her face did her no favours.
“My duties prevent me from lingering,” I told them, and slowly rose to my feet. “Baron Darlington, an officer from the general staff will seek audience to discuss our supply lines.”
“They will find me a welcoming host, Your Majesty,” the man said, rising to his feet as well.
I nodded at Morley, then paused. I looked into Darlington’s eyes.
“A redheaded man,” I stated, “with a Liessen accent. He stayed two days.”
The man’s face went bloodless.
“Always assume I know,” I gently said.
I left only utter silence in my wake.
I’d decided, when first stumbling upon this particular wall, that it was too low to be meant as a defence. And too far from the city besides, though the low hill overlooking the outskirts of Hedges would have been good grounds to raise a guard tower. Most likely it’d been used to keep cattle penned in, though by the looks of it years had passed since it’d last fulfilled that purpose. With the cool evening breeze and the view, it made a pleasant enough place to sit as I awaited the people I’d sent for. This was my first visit this far up north, and to be honest the entire region seemed rather bare to me. Green and brown fields made muddy by the melting snows spread as far as the eye could see, touched by only sparse thickets of trees and the occasional low slope. Hedges itself was a far cry from the large cities of the south. Larger than Dormer in overall size, perhaps, but most that space was empty and the city itself was visibly poorer. No paved streets, here, only mud tracks. And fewer stone houses than any other Callowan city I’d seen, most of them wooden structures with straw rooftops. Aside from the run-down curtain wall that sloppily circled outer Hedges, there were no real fortifications to speak of. Even the baron’s keep was only a glorified hill with towers and a hall.
I puffed at my pipe and blew the smoke into the wind, watching twilight catch up to the Army of Callow encamped behind me. Cooking fires were already lit and the tents raised, a series of palisades preparing the soldiers for an attack unlikely to come this early. Juniper had insisted on full fortifications, though privately she’d told me it was more to drill the men in the raising of them than out of true worry got an enemy strike. A plume of wakeleaf streamed further and further away until it thinned out of existence, and I felt a smile quirk my lips. I’d have to give him this, even if my senses had only grown sharper he was still giving it a worthy effort.
“The mud gives you away,” I said. “Should have tried it without boots.”
“I have very delicate feet, Your Majestic Queenship,” Special Tribune Robber cheerfully lied, rising from his crouched position beneath the hill’s angled slope.
I hid the spasm of grief that passed through me when I looked at him. Robber was fifteen, now. Most goblins didn’t make it past thirty-five, and past thirty they began to swiftly go decrepit. I’d always known at as a villain, if I didn’t get killed, I’d likely outlive most my closest friends in the Fifteenth. Looking at the thickening eyebrow ridges and the fresh wrinkles around his mouth, I was imposed a fresh reminder that the goblins among my companions would be the first to go. Pickler wasn’t showing either of those marks, but then she was from a matron line. Those were supposed to be almost a breed apart. I waited until he was plopped at my side, swinging his legs like a greenish murderous child, to reply.
“You know, lying to your monarch is technically treason,” I informed him.
“I heard if you commit it enough time it cancels out,” Robber mused. “I should probably keep doing it, just to be on the safe side.”
“That’s the kind of talk that’ll get busted back to Lesser Lesser Footrest,” I said, eyebrow quirking.
“Oh come on,” he whined. “Where am I going to find another sworn enemy’s father to murder?”
“Well, if anyone can it’s going to be you,” I snorted.
I inhaled the smoke as he remained silent, though never still. It was something I’d learned to notice about goblins: they always seemed to be moving, even if only slightly. Like they were afraid they’d drop dead if they stopped.
“We’re about to start having informational issues,” I finally told him. “Too many priests and heroes with the Procerans, and that’ll screw with scrying. Even the Observatory’s.”
He grinned, wide and vicious.
“Are we still pretending that thing’s just a pretty bunch of scrying pools?” he asked. “’cause the Catherine Foundling I know doesn’t shell out that much gold for anything she can’t swing at an enemy.”
I smiled thinly but did not reply. The little discovery Masego had made that he called absolute positioning was potentially one of the nastiest tricks up my sleeve, but it was one I intended to sit on as long as possible. The moment I used it I would grow sharply as a threat in everyone’s eyes. I couldn’t afford that, not until I had all my pieces in place.
“We can narrow down their positions with the negatives,” I said. “But we can’t go in with sparse eyes against an army that large. How are the mages we assigned you?”
“They’re coming along nicely,” Robber said. “They don’t even scream anymore when they wake up with a knife to the throat in the middle of the night.”
“Don’t break my mages, Robber,” I sighed. “You know we don’t have any to spare.”
“You do me grave injustice,” he mourned. “I’m teaching them important life lessons, like ‘crying never helps’ and ‘sleeping deep is sleeping dead’.”
“You’re not getting new ones if you screw these ones up,” I warned him. “There’s nothing left from the Hedge Guild to draft.”
“It’s my Gods-given duty to educate tender-hearted Callowans like them,” he righteously told me. “Speaking of, I heard this thing about northerners. Is it true they-“
“Every single joke about northerners and sheep has also been made about goblins and goats,” I warned him.
“Calumny,” he protested. “That hardly ever happens unless the goat is shaved and painted green.”
I rolled my eyes.
“All right, if you’re comfortable enough fucking around then they won’t be an issue,” I said. “Juniper will put scouts on the field, but I want a set of eyes deep behind enemy lines. You’ve just volunteered for that duty.”
“I am the most dutiful goblin ever born,” Robber agreed, clearly pleased. “Tell me we’re not just skulking, though. It’s been a while since my people stabbed anything, they’re getting restless.”
“I’m keeping you as a dagger,” I said. “That means low profile until I use you.”
He blew his tongue at me, which was mildly unsettling considering it was pitch black.
“Boo,” he said. “Boo Catherine boo.”
“Have Captain Borer write you up for insolence,” I ordered. “The exceedingly well-document fact that you are a filthy wretch aside, we both know sending you to roam when there’s a crew of heroes on the loose is like feeding a wolf meat scraps.”
“They can’t kill us if they don’t fight us,” he shrugged.
“I thought you’d say that,” I grunted. “But I have worries, and Juniper shares them. So we’re assigning you a partner.”
“Tell me it’s Larat,” he begged. “The man is like a goblin that was fed particularly violent rocks.”
Wait, could goblins actually eat – no, Catherine, never go down the Robber rabbit hole. There are no answers at the bottom, only headaches and befuddlement.
“No,” I replied. “She’s actually coming up right now.”
Yellow eyes flicked downhill and then I was given the opportunity to delight in the vicious little bastard actually looking uneasy.
“Gods no,” he said. “That’s sadistic even for you, Queenie.”
“Evening Cat,” Archer grinned. “And you too, Robert.”
“You know that’s not my name,” the goblin hissed.
“I’m very sorry, Bobber,” Indrani said. “I swear.”
“You can’t send her with us,” Robber said. “She bit off Akua’s head!”
“She did what now?” I warily asked.
Robber looked shifty, which considering he could skulk in broad daylight without trying was an almost miraculous achievement.
“I’m not saying it happened, but it’s possible a betting ring technically illegal under Legions regs just spontaneously emerged,” he said.
“Akua was a scorpion,” Archer cheerfully informed me.
“Not just a scorpion, you brute, she was a purebred Wasteland Rattler,” the goblin insisted. “And her full name was Akua Sahedon’t.”
“You bit off a scorpion’s head,” I enunciated slowly, looking at Indrani.
“The Lady always said it’s important to establish the pecking order early in a relationship,” she replied. “Wouldn’t you agree, Borer?”
“That’s someone else,” Robber muttered peevishly. “And I had a month’s pay riding on Akua killing Willie Angels.”
So my sappers were importing no doubt massively oversized Wasteland scorpions, naming them after old opponents of mine and pitting them in death fights. I truly wished I could say that was the worst thing I’d ever caught them doing, but this was a bad time to start lying to myself.
“I’m going to pretend I never heard this,” I decided out loud. “Mostly because, well, Hakram’s not around and I’m sure as Hells not filing a report about giant scorpions if I can avoid it. As your beloved queen, I order you to pretend to get along when I’m within hearing range. There, I fixed it.”
“I love it when she gets all authoritative,” Archer told the goblin.
“I hope you also enjoy scorpions in your bedding,” he whispered back at her. “Akua had babies, before you callously murdered her.”
“See, he’s already offering me snacks,” Indrani smiled. “Herbert and I are great friends, Catherine. Just the best.”
I closed my eyes and wished very hard they would disappear, but when I opened them they were obstinately still there. One of these days, that was going to work and they were all going to be sorry.
“Robber, get your people ready,” I ordered. “You’re leaving in half a bell. Archer…”
“No need, I’ve already prepared supplies,” Indrani replied, hoisting up what was quite clearly a wineskin full of – by the smell of it – hard liquor.
“Just don’t forget your bow,” I sighed.
Gods go with them, though hopefully not the ones Above. The kind if work I had in mind for these two would be frowned upon, upstairs.