“Civilized men disapprove of murder, of course. Unless it involves banners and great numbers: then it becomes one’s patriotic duty.”
– King Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand
We knew Thief had succeeded days before she returned. The crusader host had begun a hard march south, at a harder pace than they’d ever taken before. Malanza was working her soldiers to exhaustion, and we knew exactly why: Vivienne had emptied their stores. Larat had gated General Hune and her army at their back once since then, to break the supply lines again, but they’d not even bothered to send an army to chase the ogre’s soldiers away. The implication was that the foodstuffs coming from Procer were too few and infrequent to feed the number of hungry mouths she now had to deal with, and Thief confirmed as much when she stumbled back into camp.
“Heroes were busy with you or your minions,” Vivienne said. “I had almost a full hour before someone noticed the stores were emptying.”
“They didn’t pursue?” I asked.
“They tried,” she shrugged. “But they had nothing that could see through my aspect, apparently. Or at least no Named that could and came close to me.”
And with that, the preparations for our battle were done. We had Princess Rozala Malanza’s army exactly where we wanted it: tired, undersupplied, and forced to march on Hedges or starve. There was serious debate among the general staff about retreating even further south to stretch those advantages out, but in the end we decided against it. Any further and we were entering the heartlands of the Barony of Hedges. Assuming we won the battle, some defeated soldiers would flee into the countryside and the last thing I wanted was a few thousand deserters ravaging the region out of desperation. The Army of Callow folded back into a single entity, with the addition of a thousand members of the Watch. That brought us to slightly over twenty-two thousand soldiers, in whole. Against over fifty thousand crusaders, twelve – perhaps eleven if I’d mangled Two Knives enough, but I wasn’t relying on that when they had healers – heroes and who the Hells knew how many priests. Enough that scrying the crusader host directly had been a wash for months, anyway, and given the sprawling stretch of their war camps it had to be a least a few hundreds. My side boasted a few sharp knives as well, at least: Hierophant, well-trained mage lines, five thousand of the finest heavy cavalry on Calernia and Pickler’s vicious war engines.
The first enemy banners came in sight midmorning.
Yellow striped across red, with three white lions. That was the Prince of Orne’s own, if memory served, and the lesser banners beneath it kept to those same three colours. In the Principate, the heraldry of lesser nobles beneath a prince had use of only that’s prince’s palette. That led to an orgy of improvisation, most of it patently absurd to look at – like the red lion with a yellow pig in its mouth set on white I first saw not a half-hour later. The vanguard was pure Alamans. First came the horse, with rich armour and richer pennants, then a mass of five thousand fantassins. I’d not forgotten the lecture had given me on Proceran soldiery. Most their armies were levies raised and kept only for the length of the latest war, poorly equipped and barely trained. Vulnerable to shock tactics, why was why Procerans tended to put such an emphasis on light cavalry. Peasants with shitty spears tended run when a wedge of glittering charged at them. The second kind of soldiery was the one before me: fantassins. Former levies who’d lost everything in the wars or gained a taste for the soldier’s life, and now served in companies of their own making – though usually on the take from one prince or another. Leather and mail armour, wooden shields and longswords. Most of them were also carrying javelins, though, and that was more worrying. A well-thrown javelin would punch through a Legion regular’s mail if it came from close enough.
The last was principality troops, the personal armies of the many royals of Procer. Heavy infantry, mostly sword and board soldiers though their shields were lighter and smaller than Legion standard issue. They also had archer companies, which might get nasty. Legion crossbowmen tended to shoot further and stronger than any archer not using longbows, but I had relatively few of them and the rate of fire for a properly-trained archer was better. Juniper had raised crossbow companies when forging the Army of Callow, but in skirmished like that numbers often carried the day and those wouldn’t be on our side. The last principality soldiers were the cavalry. Light horse, most of them, since only the Lycaonese relied on heavy charges and there were none among the opposition. Our last count had the opposing cavalry at almost eleven thousand, more than double the Order of Broken Bells. Baroness Ainsley’s two hundred knights did little to even the odds, though they were still welcome.
The enemy vanguard stayed a mile away, not even remotely inviting an engagement. I wasn’t surprised. We’d waited for the crusader here for a day, and Juniper had my army at work the entire time. Field fortifications had been raised, trenches dug and siege engines set over low hills of beaten earth. Attacking us in our entrenchments without numerical superiority was suicide. Not that it prevented a few hundred enemy horse from parading out of crossbow range, banners waving in the breeze. Juniper sent out the Watch to clear them out, and they retreated after the first volley – which, sadly, killed no more than a dozen.
“Trying to gauge longbow range, you think?” I mused, eyes flicking to the Hellhound.
I was astride Zombie while the stood by her command table, surrounded by her staff. Easy for her to do, I thought bitterly. If I was on the ground, I wouldn’t even see beyond our reserves. Everyone was so fucking tall, it was really unacceptable.
“They should already have a notion,” the orc growled. “Not like it’s changed much in the last few hundred years. No, they were just arrogant little pups out to posture.”
And they’d lost half a line of their buddies for it. And that’s why you don’t let nobles run an army, I thought. Or at least not Proceran nobles. The Old Kingdom had done fairly well relying on its own.
“I dislike just leaving them out there,” I noted, gesturing at the five thousand infantry in the distance.
“Bait,” Juniper said. “There’ll be heroes, I bet. And if we sent enough soldiers to swat them away, we’ll weaken the fortifications for when the real army arrives. Let them come.”
I sighed. She was probably right. It didn’t make any more pleasant to stew in the sun while the crusaders lumbered towards our battle. By noon, the amount of cavalry in the distance had doubled. The spread of colours among banners had expanded. Blue, black, green. Wyverns and dragons and horses. Our own were less… exotic. The Fifteenth’s banner still flew, with my own personal heraldry besides it: scales, with the sword and the crown. The Order of Broken Bells had its own as well, but aside from that the only departure was the flock of starlings on blue that belonged to House Morley of Harrow. The infantry swelled as the hours passed, and before Noon Bell was at an end the enemy had fully arrived. I puffed at my pipe, watching the mass of shining steel ahead. There weren’t as many on the field today as there’d been at Second Liesse, but there were more soldiers. It was going to be a very different kind of battle.
“You think they’ll open with Named?” Juniper asked.
I shook my head.
“They’ve got veterans on the other side,” I said. “Heroes that have been around for long enough to know you don’t open with Named. The first will come out the moment we start winning on one side of the field.”
It would take careful managing, we both knew. Heroes could not be left alone. Most of them would scythe straight through even hardened infantry and their mere presence could turn a rout into a stubborn line of defence. On the other hand, my side didn’t have the numbers to hammer down every hero that popped up. In a contest of Named, I was short more than a few. And Thief hardly counted, considering she wasn’t a fighter. Hierophant and I could punch pretty hard, but on the other hand if our army started needing us to win then it became essentially guaranteed that some hero would cut us down. Best case, we’d be driven off the field, but best case wasn’t something to count on when there was the Saint and the Pilgrim on the other side.
“Priority’s teasing out whatever they intended to use as the northern passage if we blocked them,” I said. “That’s too dangerous an unknown to allow Malanza to keep sitting on it.”
I’d gotten an oath about the opposition not calling on angels, but the Pilgrim would never have agreed to that if his crew didn’t have other weapons to wield. With Praesi, it was the sorcerers you had to worry about. With the Procerans, though? My money was on the priests. I leaned forward, watching the crusaders in the distance, and frowned. Was that? Yeah, no two ways about it. They were moving carts and pitching tents.
“They’re making camp,” I told Juniper.
The orc snorted.
“How prudent of them,” she said. “Malanza must think there’d a decent chance it’ll take more than a day to exterminate us. I doubt she’ll be going for attrition with her boys’ stomachs going empty, but she’ll be generous in trading soldiers.”
“Our camp is the largest concentration of foodstuffs between here and Hedges,” I said. “If she’s desperate…”
“She knows we can gate out if it gets to that,” Juniper replied, shaking her head. “No, this is just her hedging her bets. We’ll see the first skirmishers moving out within the hour, mark my words.”
The Hellhound, for once, was proved wrong. She’d not misread the military, as it happened, but the political. A party of four riders under truce banner rode out, stopping halfway between our camps. I went to meet them. I could have brought Juniper and Hierophant, or even Baroness Ainsley as the ranking noble with the army, but that would just be posturing. On this field, I was the one making decisions for my side. Zombie trotted out cheerfully, the sun pounding down at us until I sat in the saddle across from the crusader delegation. There were some familiar faces there. The Saint and the Pilgrim, though they were at the back. The old woman discreetly sliced her finger across her throat when I glanced at her. Charming. The Grey Pilgrim inclined his head in greeting and I did the same, before taking in the other two. The man was much older than the woman, at least late forties. Prince Amadis Milenan, at a guess. To my surprise, he was good-looking. I’d expected some caricature of a Chancellor, but instead what I got was very well-groomed older man with fair hair and a chiselled jaw. The other – Princess Rozala Manlanza, most likely – was maybe a few years older than me. Dark eyes and darker curls, with the kind of wicked easy smile that belonged more on Laure tavern girl than foreign royalty.
“Afternoon,” I said. “I’d say welcome to Callow, but I see you’ve already made yourself at home.”
I punctuated with a nod at the army behind them.
“Queen Catherine,” the older man said, bowing ever so slightly. “I am Prince Amadis Milenan of Iserre.”
“So I’d guessed,” I said. “I already know the two greyhairs in the back. Should I assume the curvy one measuring me up is Princess Malanza?”
“Are you trying to seduce your way out of this, Black Queen?” the woman in question asked, sounding amused.
“Unfortunately I have a strict non-invading Callow clause for people I let into my bed,” I said. “I’ll take that as a yes, by the way. You took your sweet time getting here, Malanza.”
“My supplies inexplicably disappeared into thin air,” the princess drawled. “Slowed us down some. I don’t suppose you’d happen to know where they went?”
“Must have been rats,” I said sympathetically. “Callow’s had a vermin problem, these last few months.”
“What a coincidence,” Malanza said. “We’ve come to remedy that very issue.”
Shit. Now I kind of liked her. I’d probably feel a least a little bad about putting her head on a pike down the line. Prince Amadis cleared his throat.
“I must implore you to excuse the uncouthness of my general,” he said. “The prospect of battle wearies her, as it does all of us.”
“I’m not a stickler on etiquette,” I smiled. “Trying to sell chunks of Callow, though? That does get on my nerves a bit.”
Not a trace of dismay passed on the princes’ face, though I knew he couldn’t be pleased about the Watch turning on him. Duchess Kegan had been less than impressed by the man, as it happened. He’d promised her both Laure and Denier when she’d pushed, which she’d taken as meaning he would have double-crossed her the moment he could.
“Preparing for peace is hardly treachery,” Amadis said. “You are outnumbered in both Named and men, Queen Catherine. Let us not spill blood unreasonably. I have terms of surrender to offer, should you be willing.”
I glanced at the Grey Pilgrim, whose serenity was unruffled by this. Did they seriously expect to fold now?
“You would have to abdicate, naturally,” the Prince of Iserre said. “But I would title you Princess of the Blessed Isle, and grant you the eastern half of the lands currently in the rule of the governorship of Summerholm.”
“Huh,” I said. “And you heroes would respect those terms?”
“We would,” the Grey Pilgrim said, sending the Saint a quelling look when it looked like she’d speak up.
“It this the part,” I mused, “where I’m supposed to be thankful about you trying to make me your marcher lord at the frontier with Praes? Let’s not even touch the part where you’re carving up Callow between your supporters, because then I’ll lose my fucking temper and we’re under a truce banner.”
“You cannot win this war,” Prince Amadis sharply said. “This must be obvious by now.”
“Malanza’s face is blank,” I said, pointing at the princess. “That’s because she’s trying not to smile. That should tell you more or less what I think of your offer. Now, here’s mine.”
I let out a long breath.
“Go home,” I said. “I’ll even provide enough supplies you don’t starve on the way out, though you’ll have to pay for them and there’ll be a ‘I shouldn’t have fucking invaded another country’ markup. You’ll find nothing here but death, so just go home and settle your pissing match with Hasenbach out of my homeland. If you cross the passage, I will not pursue.”
I glanced at the princess of Aequitan.
“That holds for after someone runs him through,” I told her. “Leave, and you will not be harassed on the way out. I don’t particularly want to fight this war, Malanza. It ends the moment you let it.”
“Are you threatening me under peace banner?” Prince Amadis Milenan calmly said.
“I’m telling you I’m about to stop being nice about this,” I told him. “I’ve bent over backwards to limit the damage, but if it comes to a battle a lot of people are going to die for very stupid reasons. And to be blunt, they’ll be yours more than mine. We could avoid that entirely and both be better off.”
“This is a crusade, Catherine Foundling,” the Saint of Swords said. “Not a petty invasion. You do not make truce with holy war.”
“There’s no point in talking to you, Saint,” I sighed. “You’re Ranger with a shiny coat of paint and a socially acceptable pretext for killing.”
The old woman’s face darkened.
“You’re going to lose a hand for that,” she said.
“Amateur,” I dismissed. “I’ve spent years dealing with Wastelanders, you second-rate bully. You think you’ve got a single threat that can shake me? I used to answer to a woman who uses a fucking demon as a gatekeeper has an entire hallway of forever screaming heads. Your notion is bad is her starting point.”
I barrelled on before she could reply.
“I’ll keep to the terms I agreed on with the Grey Pilgrim,” I said. “Where are we falling on prisoner exchanges?”
“No guarantees,” Malanza said. “Should there be worthwhile trades to make, you will be approached under banner.”
Translation: she was sitting on any men of mine she caught unless I got my hands on someone high up enough the ladder it would be politically inconvenient to leave there.
“There doesn’t have to be a battle,” the Saint said. “You and me, girl. Here and now. We settle it the old way.”
I glanced at her skeptically.
“Last time we scrapped you beat me like a rented mule,” I said. “I’m not getting anywhere near you without a mage company and half a dozen ballistas. Pass.”
“Cowardice is an ugly thing,” the old woman smiled.
“The chorus of the side with the bigger swords,” I shrugged. “If that’s all, I have an army to lead.”
“Such generous terms of surrender will not be offered again,” Prince Amadis warned.
“I’m feeling generous too, Proceran,” I smiled. “So when I sent your head on a pike back to Salia, your soul won’t be bound to it.”
And on this particularly diplomatic note, I spurred Zombie away and returned to my host.
Within the hour, skirmishes on both sides advanced.