“Casualties are a consequence of properly employed tactics, not the intent. To merely bludgeon away is to reduce the conduct of war to arithmetic.”
– Theodosius the Unconquered, Tyrant of Helike
Hakram had once told me about an old orc proverb: even a child can devour a bear, one mouthful at a time. Apart from reminding me that most orc sayings tended to involved blood or death in some way – and that orcs apparently weren’t afraid to eat things with even larger teeth than they, to absolutely no one’s surprise – it’d struck something of a chord at the time. As a rule, I’d tended to be the underdog in fights since becoming the Squire and never had that been truer than when my waltz with the Tenth Crusade began. Fifty thousand Proceran soldiers had come through the pass, and though Juniper had been dismissive about the quality of most that host she’d cautioned that numbers had a weight of their own. Even if we traded soldiers at a rate of one to three, halfway through that battle my army would collapse as an effective fighting force while the Procerans just got started with deploying their reserves. From a strict military perspective, we couldn’t afford the casualties that thoroughly shattering the crusader army would cost us. From a political perspective, if took the gloves off I’d effectively kill any chance of Callow retaining its independence in the long term.
We had to beat Princess Malanza without beating her too badly, without losing too many men or resorting to any of our uglier tricks.
The Hellhound had complained of having her hands tied often and loudly, if in private, but under all that barking there’d been a visible thread of pleasure. She might have hated that politics played any part in this campaign, but I suspected she enjoyed the challenge of having restricted tools. It was forcing her to think beyond her traditional methods, to put the steel trap of a mind under all the glaring at work. We’d begun planning our battle before we ever entered Arcadia, refining it with every fresh report from the Jacks and the Observatory. The Unconquered had famously said that grand designs in war were a thing of vanity, but to us they were even more than that: with the number of heroes the other side was fielding, any plan too complicated was essentially guaranteed to fail. As long as there was even one critical component that had to succeed, that specific time and place would be crawling with angry, literally Heavens-sent foreigners out to fuck up our day. We couldn’t reiterate the old traps we’d used in Three Hills and Marchford: no matter how clever the bait, if we closed the teeth we’d find that steel gauntlet beat fangs.
So we hadn’t made a plan, not exactly.
It could be argued to be a dozen of them, instead, or even just a general operational doctrine. If having a pivot meant we lost, then we had to either avoid pivots entirely or make them impossible to reach. And we had the means for that, for all our other flaws. That was our real trump card, when it came down to it: the fairy gates. Or more specifically, the mobility they lent my troops. I doubted they understood everything I could do with those, or even that I wasn’t the only one who could make them: the Wild Hunt could open its own, if it was led by Larat. So far I’d used Arcadia to cut down time on long journeys, but that was only the surface use. Closer to the enemy I could still use them to disappear an army into thin air and reappear close by quicker than was physically possible. Just because I’d not used the gates for short journeys didn’t mean I couldn’t. The first step had been splitting the Army of Callow into three columns. Two of six thousand, and one of nine and chance – the largest one was the central one as well, and fielded all of Baroness Ainsley’s reinforcements. The two armies on the wings had split from the central host, moving east and west.
We’d set out the silver, now were were going to eat the bear one bite at a time.
The crusading army was large. It had nearly twelve thousand horse to my own mere five thousand. It had priests and wizards and heroes. It was also slow. We’d only realized how slow it really was when it crossed the northern passage, and carefully confirmed it over the weeks since. Of that fifty thousand men, more than a third was levies. Men and women in the prime of their life, certainly, and in good shape. But farming and marching were different kinds of labour, especially when weighed down by arms and armour. The Hellhound had described our conflict as two hounds with a chain around their neck, sallying out to fight in the place where both our chains allowed us to reach. The anchor on our side was Hedges. We couldn’t allow them to take the city, since it opened them a direct path into the heartlands of Callow. The anchor on theirs was their supply line. Snaking across the Whitecaps, the wagon caravans moved day and night to bring enough food across that the crusaders wouldn’t run out of foodstuffs before they reached a place where they could take local supplies – either by sacking granaries or foraging the countryside. But the passage was narrow, and they had fifty thousand bellies to feed. The foodstuffs from Procer were slowing the rate they were burning through their reserves at, but it wasn’t stopping it.
If our strengths were insufficient to carry the day, Juniper had said, then we had to play to the enemy’s weaknesses. And the two that were exploitable were the sluggish pace and sprawling supply lines. Now, Malanza had already proved she was no fool. She had to know it would be child’s play for me to take the Order of Broken Bells out and hit the pass up north while she was still too far to prevent me from putting everything to the torch and leave a small garrison behind to make sure the river stayed dammed. We believed she’d gambled on her having enough supplies to reach Hedges even if we did, which meant she’d be picking up the pace soon to force a battle there. Taking a swing at our anchor to force us to be where she needed us to be, essentially. Except instead of facing the single host manning walls she must have expected to see arrayed before her, she now had three field armies to contend with. And those armies were moving closer to hers, making a loose half-circle so she’d be blundering into encirclement if she didn’t break us apart.
“And now we find out what kind of a commander Malanza is,” Juniper said.
The two of us had remained with the central army, the beating heart of the net we’d cast over the region. The crusader army was too far in the distance for us to see even the fire smoke. Seven days away, by our estimate. We’d been prudent in case she had the means to make them pick up the pace. Scrying had allowed the western and eastern army to keep the same distance on the sides.
“The Jacks finally confirmed the Watch linked up with them two days ago,” I said. “Kegan is keeping her part of the bargain.”
“They won’t be trusted,” the orc grunted. “Not if what you told me about the Grey Pilgrim is true.”
“They don’t need to be trusted,” I reminded her. “They just need to be there.”
I’d sent instruction down to Hakram to kick up a fuss at the border with Daoine to add some weight to the gambit, but my hopes were not high. Procer, unlike the Empire and I, did not have the benefit of having mages capable of scrying within Callow. Which meant information travelled back to Malanza and to the First Prince with a considerable delay compared to us. They might not even learn about Adjutant’s agitation in time for it to matter, but the possibility still existed and that was enough to warrant the attempt at disinformation.
“So, what’s your guess?” I asked after a moment of silence.
“She either splits her forces to engage us separately or she goes straight for the head of the snake,” Juniper said. “There’s risks to splitting. She’s not sure how quick we can redeploy and our foot’s usually better than hers. Smaller armies make that count more.”
“So you think she’s headed for us,” I said.
“It’s what I’d do, if I were her,” the Hellhound said. “Otherwise she’s engaging on terms we dictated. She swings at us, though, and she can assume we’ll pull down our other two armies to reinforce us. She still gets the battle she needs.”
“We can’t give her open field all the way down to Harrow,” I conceded.
“The woman has been having too leisurely a march so far, Foundling,” Juniper sharply grinned. “Time to kick the hive. First blow tonight.”
I nodded slowly.
“East or west?” I asked.
“Sending your vicious little minion to the east first loses us at least four days,” she grunted. “West, has to be. I don’t want to give her a breather or too much time to think.”
“I’ll talk to Larat,” I said. “The Hunt’s been raring to get off the leash.”
“Lots of that going around,” Juniper said, a tad drily.
I frowned at her.
“You’re going somewhere with this, I take it?” I said.
Juniper spat to the side.
“Don’t take this wrong, Catherine, but you’ve lost the taste for it,” she said. “Any fool can see that.”
“I’m not sure what you’re saying,” I admitted. “That I’m trying to stab people less? Juniper, saying fuck it and chewing through the opposition no matter the consequences is what got us in this mess in the first place. We’re not playing with the kind of stakes where mistakes can be afforded anymore. One slip is all it takes to tumble down on our heads.”
“You put on a crown so you have to play Wasteland games,” the Hellhound grunted. “I don’t like it, but I get it. But a year ago, Foundling, you would have been licking your chops at the thought of a battle like we’re planning. You were hungry for it. Now you’re just…”
“Tired,” I finished quietly. “Tired and afraid.”
“It’s not pretty to look at, Catherine,” my Marshal said. “Now’s not the time for the fire to go out. The enemy’s at the gate and going at them half-hearted is going to get a lot of people killed.”
My fingers clenched, then slowly unclenched. If Juniper was willing to say this much, she’d been sitting on it for some time. And she wouldn’t be the only one of my officers thinking it.
“When I was nine, I think, I was sent to the market by the orphanage matron to pick up our meat for the month,” I told her. “When I got there, I saw the butcher getting roughed up by city guard. They wanted him to join one of the guilds, so Mazus would get his cut.”
“So Imperial Governors were shit to your people,” the orc shrugged. “Not exactly a revelation, Foundling.”
Compassion had never been one of Juniper’s strengths.
“I stood there,” I told her. “I knew, bone-deep, that there wasn’t a fucking thing I could do about it. So I just watched.”
Juniper bared her teeth.
“You have the fangs now, Catherine,” she said. “Keeping them pearly white means nothing’s changed.”
“I used to believe that,” I admitted. “You know who broke that fight up? Legionaries. A pair of orcs. They beat the guards badly enough one had to be carried away. I think that’s when I decided, before I really knew it, that I was going to join the Legions. So one day I’d be the one handing the beatings instead of just standing there.”
“So why the fuck are we giving Procer a pass for invading, then?” Juniper growled. “Those princes, those heroes. It’s like we’re worrying more about keeping them alive than our own soldiers. No one put a knife to their throat to make them cross that pass, Catherine. Banner went up in Salia and they signed on. I’m not preaching devilry at you – that sort of blow always comes back around. But we have all these nasty tricks we’re just sitting on, and I can’t think of a good reason why. So Procer gets pissy if we kill their boys? They’re already riding on a godsdamned crusade. Burn them all, and the First Prince too. I’ll say this for the Empress, at least when she screws us she doesn’t expect us to apologize for it.”
“You’re still angry I shut down Bonfire,” I said, and it was not a guess.
“I love it, you know,” Juniper grinned unpleasantly, all teeth and malice. “Having this unholy mess up north and still having to beat the opposition with my hands tied. Ain’t no one ever fought a war like that before. We will be remembered. But you know how we got all these fancy titles? ‘cause we were willing to go as far as we needed to. We brawled in the mud to get up here, Catherine, and suddenly we’re too good for it? We’re going soft. And soft ends up in the cooking pot, sooner or later.”
“That’s the thing, Juniper,” I said quietly. “This is the strongest I’ve ever been. I have armies, wealth, a kingdom. I have the Woe, sharpened fighting heroes. I have the Wild Hunt and the last good claim on Winter. Even in wildest dreams as a kid I never thought I’d get this much power.”
I bit my lip.
“I thought that was enough,” I told the orc. “Having the biggest stick. That once you had that, everything else fell into place. But while I was using that stick to whack the opposition, running all around Callow, an entire city went dark.”
Juniper opened her mouth, but I gestured for her to let me keep speaking.
“No,” I said. “Really think about it. An entire city. More than a hundred thousand people, Hellhound. Because we were good and we were strong and we got cocky. There is an entire part of a kingdom gone forever because I thought being feared and powerful would see us through. It didn’t. It won’t now, either.”
“You can’t let Liesse fil your shadow, Catherine,” Juniper said, almost kindly. “Wasteland get always fucks the world. It’s the only trick they have.”
“I have to, Juniper,” I said. “I’ve walked out ruins still breathing again and again, so I stopped thinking we could lose. But we did lose, last year. We killed and got killed, and all we had to show for it at the end was a mass grave.”
“We killed Diabolist,” the orc said. “We shut the door on the Fae.”
“We beat them,” I said. “That’s not a victory. We just stopped them from making the larger mess they had it in them to make.”
“Then you learned the wrong lesson,” Juniper said. “And we should have pulled the trigger on Bonfire the moment the army was halfway ready. We’re still fighting their kind of war, Catherine.”
“No,” I said, and ice crept into the tone. “They think that, no doubt. Some of your officers might think that too. But make no mistake, this is my play from opening to curtains. I’ll negotiate with the other side, because it gets me better results than crushing them outright. Because peace is a better path to what I want than setting cities aflame. But I still have it, Hellhound. The urge to just step on them. The victory I’m after simply happens to require more than corpses.”
The Marshal of Callow studied me for a long time, before giving a sharp nod.
“So long as it’s not squeamishness,” she finally said.
I looked up at the afternoon sky, the spring sun that failed to warm me.
“You’re right, about the fear,” I said. “I am afraid. That was the hardest learning, that power doesn’t solve anything, it just… broadens the scope. Raises the stakes. I got on top of the pedestal, and now that I’ve had a good look around what I’m seeing is making me want to flinch.”
I was not blind to the gathering storm. The Empress was feeling cornered, and she’d already proven the kind of measures she was willing to take if she thought survival was at stake. Black had holed up in the Vales for winter, cut from his old anchors, and in a way that made him more dangerous than he’d used to be. When he came out swinging, and he would, there was no telling who he’d be swinging at. The Free Cities were a pot about to boil over, led by two madmen whose intent was anyone’s guess. And the whole muster of the West was gathering, preparing to hit Callow in waves. And in the middle of it all, I had to break the ugly story that had ground both Callow and Praes under the wheel for millennia.
“Fear’s good,” Juniper said. “Fear is blood and life. But it’s too late to flinch, Warlord.”
“I know,” I murmured. “And so we got to war again.”
We parted ways after that, and began our work. The thing was, what we were doing wasn’t rewriting the book. The tactics at work were old ones, used by armies for centuries. On the other hand, none of those armies had had fairy gates to work with. All it took was asking Hierophant to scry our western commander – the freshly-promoted General Nauk, as it happened. And so after nightfall, the six thousand men of the western army disappeared from the field. They reappeared three days of march behind the crusading host, and the wolf riders that had once been General Istrid’s began to raid their way up the Proceran supply line. They took cattle and grain, poultry and bread, but left the men who surrendered untouched. Didn’t even take them prisoner. Juniper’s notion, that, not sentimentality. Leaving them behind mean more mouths for Malanza to feed. The Princess of Aequitan sent twelve thousand men north to bring Nauk to battle, mostly horse and fantassins, but by the time they arrived the army was long gone. It reappeared to the west a few days later. That’s right, Malanza. Now you know for sure I have two gate-makers. So let’s find out if your heroes can discern where they are, shall we? The hive had been duly kicked.
Now we got to see what came screaming out.