“So spoke His Dread Majesty in the wake of battle, even as the High Lords praised him: ‘Speak not flattering untruths. Another such victory and I will rule an empire of ghosts.’”
– Extract from ‘Commentaries on the Campaigns of Dread Emperor Terribilis the Second’
When Juniper had sent our skirmishers out, we’d been able to scrape together four thousand including the Watch. Crossbowmen, human and goblins, with one thousand deadly Deoraithe longbowmen at the back – when the enemy began returning fire, these were the ones I wanted the lightest casualties for. They were too useful and too few to waste on opening exchanges. Malanza sent forward nine fucking thousand men, and we were pretty sure that wasn’t even all she could field. The opposition apparently had much the same thought as we’d had, because the first wave to come in longbow range wasn’t principality troops: it was levies. I sucked in a breath, eyes making them out perfectly regardless of distance. Men too old and too young, with hunting bows instead of the kind of weapons a battlefield required. Some even had slings, which Juniper noted out loud some Arlesite principalities were known for. The Watch nocked, drew and fired without a word. At least a hundred levies died in the first mass volley as the Proceran skirmishers advanced, closing range. Conscripted peasants taking arrows so that the personal forces of princes would not. The sight of it had me gritting my teeth.
“It’s sound tactics, no matter how much you glare,” Juniper said. “Gets the people who can properly return fire in range without losses.”
“I know,” I said, fingers clenching. “I know it is.”
But how many kids and greybeards who’d just died had actually wanted to be on this field? I couldn’t know for sure, but Principate rulers had full right of conscription as their Gods-given birth right. They didn’t even to justify it, not like nobles had in the Old Kingdom – where only foreign invasion had granted that temporary privilege to aristocrats. The sickening thing was that many of them probably did want to be there. Because priests and princes had told them this was a holy war instead of Hasenbach trying to kill two problems with one stone or Amadis and his cronies making a play for the throne. I wasn’t so much a hypocrite as to damn them for it. I was well aware that the main reason my own army fielded only enlisted was that I’d had neither the funds nor equipment to raise and keep the amount of soldiers a general conscription would have brought. My fingers remained clenched anyway. Making decisions where part of my forces were openly deemed more expendable than others hadn’t grown any more pleasant with time, that unspoken admission that some lives were worth more than others.
“More kids than I’d thought,” my Marshal said after a moment, eyeing the enemy through a scrying bowl. “That’s interesting. Either she’s sounding out whether we’ll flinch at killing those, or they came closer than we thought to scraping the bottom of the barrel.”
“Hasenbach’s problem is a surplus of fantassins, not a lack,” I said.
“These aren’t fantassins, Catherine, they’re levies,” the Hellhound said. “Those boys we’re putting holes in look like they should be working fields and trades, not fighting in a war.”
“You think they’re having manpower issues?” I sceptically said. “So far, between the three armies, they’re fielding about one hundred and twenty thousand men. Their population can take that. We know that for a fact, you’ve read the same reports I have.”
“On parchment, maybe,” Juniper grunted. “But looking at them now I have to wonder. The civil war hurt the south pretty bad and they didn’t even have a full decade to recover. The north was spared, but it has to keep soldiers on the walls to deal with the ratlings. We might need to consider the possibility that Hasenbach didn’t forge her Grand Alliance just to keep her borders secure. That she might have needed the troops as well, and that if she loses enough soldiers some parts of Procer will collapse.”
My reflex was to disagree, but I forced myself to stop and think. There was some sense in that. The First Prince’s issue with fantassins was that she had several armies’ worth of them floating around without a war to fight or skills to ply in peace time. I’d taken that as meaning she had manpower to toss into the flames, but that was not necessarily be true. It might not be a surplus of people so much as surplus of the wrong kind of people. If Juniper was right and killing levies meant scything through the same men and women who should be keeping Procer functioning… Well, there was a chance that down the line principalities would have bow out of the crusade because they literally could not afford more losses. Which was a mixed blessing. Parts of the Principate withdrawing would ease off the pressure on Callow, but it might also lead to internal instability in Procer itself. Which, in some ways, would be helpful. Procer, if eating at itself, wasn’t mucking around in my homeland. But it also gave Black and Malicia a much freer hand, which was almost as dangerous. And if the instability takes Hasenbach off the throne… Honestly, I wasn’t fundamentally opposed to that. The chances of the next First Prince or Princess being as dangerous as Cordelia Hasenbach were fairly slim. On the other hand, I knew Hasenbach. I’d made a study of her, we had a personal relationship. Whoever replaced her would be an unknown and that carried risks.
There were already too many of those in this war, and wind picking up a third of the way through the tightrope was bad news all around.
While I’d been wrestling with the thoughts, the skirmish had turned bloody. We had range and rate of fire on the enemy, but they outnumbered my people by more than twice over. The first half hour was a one-sided massacre. Between the Watch and the crank crossbows, we carved a red swath through the levies. But then the professional soldiers of the the enemy got in range to shoot back, and I stirred uneasily atop Zombie when I saw wooden shafts begin raining down. Goblins were a smaller target than humans and my men were spread out loosely according to Legion doctrine, while the enemy remained in tight packs. That helped some, keeping the exchange of lives at about parity even with the lopsided numbers. The hard truth, though, was that Malazanza could afford to trade her entire skirmishing contingent for mine and walk away with a strategic victory.
“Juniper,” I said.
“Another two volleys, Foundling,” the Hellhound said.
“We’re barely denting the principality troops,” I sharply replied.
“Levies we kill now aren’t covering the first wave against our palisades,” the Marshal of Callow replied. “It’s a worthwhile trade.”
Another two volleys, like she had said, and then the horns sounded the retreat. The Watch, I saw, had not lost so much as a single man. When the enemy had advanced, they’d retreated equally and kept killing all the while without missing a beat. If Ratface’s discreet following of Deoraithe spending over the last year had not made it clear how ridiculously expensive training and arming them was, I would have been livid with envy. As it was, I was merely very jealous. The enemy skirmishers had little stomach for pursuit. They’d killed and wounded nearly a thousand of my crossbowmen, but at three times the cost – and most of those dead, not just bleeding. Juniper’s order to withdraw was coming just ahead of the point in the cold lay of arithmetic where the skirmish would become costlier than it was useful.
“Marshal,” one of her aides spoke up. “Enemy cavalry is moving.”
My eyes flicked to the side. Malanza had been traditional in the arraignment of her forces. Three thick waves of infantry in the centre, with four thousand cavalry on each side and another four thousand in reserve at the back with what looked like a few thousand principality troops. A hard-hitting reserve that she could pour into whatever breach her foot managed to make. The cavalry contingents on both sides were on the move, though. Riding ahead of the crusader host, converging on my skirmishers from the flanks. Only at a trot for now, but when they got close enough they’d charge.
“Probe?” I asked the Hellhound.
“If they don’t hurry the fuck up, our soldiers are back well within siege range before the horse gets anywhere close,” Juniper said. “That’d be… costly, for her. They might be trying to bait out the Broken Bells.”
“Talbot could hit one of the flanks hard and withdraw before her foot gets there, or even the other cavalry wing,” I noted. “This seems like…”
Trumpets sounded from the other side, and after a few moments of milling around the enemy skirmishers began to pursue.
“That’s,” I began, but closed my mouth.
What the Hells was Malanza up to? She had to know that if her archers got in killing range of our trebuchets and ballistas it’d be a godsdamned massacre. Even if her cavalry hit at the same time. We’d lose crossbowmen, sure, but a heavy formation of advancing enemies would be a sapper’s wet dream. And she’d lose twice as many soldiers when her people broke and fled, especially if the Broken Bells sallied to hit them on the way out.
“Juniper?” I tried.
The orc did not respond. She’d gone utterly still, eyes fixed on the approaching enemy. She barely even breathed or blinked.
“Her infantry isn’t moving,” Juniper said.
“I can see that,” I replied flatly.
The meat of Princess Malanza’s infantry had yet to move, still standing in the distance.
“Her infantry isn’t moving,” the Hellhound slowly said, “because it doesn’t need to.”
Which made no sense to me. Not with the forces the enemy had set in motion. Cavalry and skirmishers, this close to our engines?
“Full retreat,” Juniper barked at the closest horn blower. “Break formation.”
The officer blinked, then sounded the calls. I did not know the orc’s reasons yet, but I did know better than to gainsay her instincts when it came to battle. The crossbowmen scattered and legged it as the Watch ceased firing and put their supernatural swiftness to full work. What was the play here? Already the Deoraithe were in siege range, and the goblins among the crossbowmen weren’t that far behind. The greenskins could scuttle quick as spiders no matter the terrain. It’s not about the forces, then, I decided. They still matter, but only as part of a larger tactic. Something was missing, and that thought was a familiar one. Juniper and I both had it before, when wondering why Rozala Malanza would try to take her army through a narrow passage my men could hold the end of. And the conclusion, I remembered as my blood ran cold, was that she’d had something up her sleeve we didn’t know about.
Three heartbeats later we learned.
From the beginning, we’d dismissed the notion that the crusaders would use their priests the same way we did mages, for sorcerous artillery and shock tactics. Brother and sisters of the House of Light were not supposed to take the lives of others. We’d theorized there would be some willing to break those vows, and that they would be a threat to deal with. But aside from this, we’d believed the priests would be a purely defensive and support asset. Our failure, Rozala Malanza taught us, had been one of imagination. Ahead of the retreating Watch, panes of light bloomed. At least forty feet tall, though thin. A fence, I realized. They are fencing them in. Pane after pane formed, boxing in our retreating skirmishers in the span of time it’d take me to light a pipe. An opening was left, at the back. Where the enemy bowmen paused and put their formation in order, as on both sides of them the Proceran cavalry began to charge.
“Tell Pickler to fire at will,” Juniper barked at the closest mage.
The message passed and the twenty heavy ballistas fired their stones. The first volley hit the fence at a high angle, and the stones broke without even visibly affecting it. The trebuchets threw their load in the moment that followed, arcing high over the fence straight at the enemy archers. They never reached the crusaders. More fences formed over their heads. Some rocks shattered, others bounced off. The broken remnants remained on the light, as if it were a physical thing. I gestured for another mage to attend me.
“Get me Hierophant,” I said.
The rectangular silver mirror in the man’s hands shivered after he got out his incantation, revealing Masego’s face. He was currently with the mage lines, and already I regretted not having him at my side.
“Hierophant,” I said. “You see the fences?”
“Miracle work,” he said. “Interesting use of priestly powers.”
“Shut them down,” I said. “Now.”
He nodded, and after a shiver all the mirror showed was my own reflection. My fingers clenched as I watched the first volley from the Proceran bowmen hit my skirmishers, all on the left wing. They’re concentrating their volleys, I thought. Annihilation tactics. They did not intend to leave any survivors. My soldiers returned a ragged volley of their own, save for the Watch. Throwing hooks above the fences, the Deoraithe found physical purchase and began to climb. I had hope, for a moment. Until the fences above the Proceran archers angled to drop the remaining stones harmlessly in front of the crusaders and disappeared. They shortly after reappeared above the fences keeping my skirmishers boxed in, cutting cleanly through ropes and hooks. Fuck. The colder, calm part of me noted that they’d had to dismiss some fences to add them elsewhere. That implied there was a limited amount they could make. Commanded by Masego, my mage lines gave answer. Seven massive spears of lightning began to form above our fortifications, strengthening with every heartbeat.
“Pickler,” Juniper growled behind me, standing in front of a scrying bowl. “I want continuous fire on those archers. Don’t stop even if it doesn’t go through.”
On the other side of the field, sorcery flared up.
Hierophant had torn through their mages for two days before they stopped trying to scry, and it has cost them at least twenty practitioners. They had easily ten times that many left, though, and Archer had confirmed at least one of the heroes looked wizardly. If it came to a sorcerous pissing match, I would still bet on my own men. They’d been taught rituals by Hierophant, and more than a third were both Praesi and Legion-trained. Procer was a magical backwater, if it came to trading blows they should come out on the losing side. Which was, I saw as the enemy sorcery took shape, why Malanza had ordered them to do nothing of the sort. Praesi magical shields tended to be translucent and tinged blue, when not entirely transparent. The Proceran equivalent was opaque and yellow. Four layers came down in front of the fences even as the spears of lightning shot out. My mages were better, as I had thought. All four layers broke under the screaming storm of lightning. But by the time the sorcery reached the fences it had been weakened enough they merely shuddered under the impact. Layered defence, the cold part of me noted. Clever. The rest of me bit my lip until it bled, as I realized the crusaders were just going to slug it out like this again and again until all my skirmishers were dead.
“Juniper,” I called out, the orc turning to meet my gaze. “Broken Bells?”
She cursed virulently in Kharsum but nodded. The horns sent out our five thousand knights into the fray, palisades opening to let them stream out. Would it be enough? No, I already knew. It wouldn’t. But it might lower the damage of this from disaster to wound. Talbot had his knights form into a wedge the moment they had the room, galloping out to the left to hit half the enemy cavalry even as Pickler’s engines hammered the fences above the crusader archers repeatedly. They held anyways. I knew better than to get my hopes up, and my pessimism was rewarded when the forward sides of the fences keeping my skirmishers contained winked out. They reappeared in a long diagonal in front of the advancing Broken Bells and my fingers clenched once more. Not a single of the knights died, but the length of the fence was unbreakable and forced them to take the long way around. Keeping them away long enough that the enemy horse would reach my skirmishers unimpeded. With a mixture of grief and pride, I saw that my crossbowmen were in formation and returning fire. They took the losses from the enemy archers, ignoring them for a hard volley into the tip of both Proceran cavalry contingents. Horses fell and screamed, men went down. The charge continued. The remainder of the Watch split in half, heading for the edges of the fences on both sides.
Masego, I knew, would not take lightly that he had been thwarted even once. The lack of lightning spears forming in the sky to answer the yellow shields that had come down a second time heralded that he would have gotten… creative, and when my old friend unleashed his wrath he did methodically. A jagged shard of red light bloomed and struck the first shield. The yellow sorcery shattered, but the shard remained. Another shard formed, and struck the back of the first shard like a hammer on a chisel. The second shield broke. It was working, but too slow. The Watch was getting away but the Proceran cavalry hit my skirmishers and it was a massacre. They tore through the first three ranks like wet parchment before the momentum was even slightly slowed. Another shard formed and the third shield broke when it hit – and then the fourth shield as well, a heartbeat later. They were accumulating strength, I grasped. The light fence shuddered but held. In the handful of heartbeats before the fourth shard formed and hit, at least a thousand of my men died as I watched in silence. When the light finally broke it was too late for them to even run. The riders were already among them.
“Pickler,” Juniper said quietly. “All ballistas are to fire into the cavalry. Keep the trebuchets on the the archers.”
I opened my mouth, then closed it. The orc’s face was grim as she met my gaze. The siege engines, we both knew, would kill our crossbowmen as well as the cavalry. But those men had been dead the moment the Proceran horse reached them, the cold part of me assessed. This way, at least, the ranks furthest back could be salvaged. The salvo pulped soldiers and horses alike when it hit. Theirs and mine both. I felt wintry, vicious rage well up in my veins. For a moment I indulged the wind-like whispers and the poisonous comfort they brought, but then I dragged my mind back to clarity. Pickler managed another handful of hits on the enemy horse, but less than a hundred died from them. They were already retreating and cavalry was hard to hit with mostly static engines. Especially when fences bloomed to cover their retreat, as Malanza smoothly arranged. My surviving men fled back to the palisade. We had sent four thousand onto the field, Juniper and I.
A bare thousand returned, more than half of it Watch.
“We have,” Juniper spoke into the graveyard silence of the general staff, “underestimated Princess Malanza.”
In the distance, trumpets sounded again and the Proceran infantry began to advance as the forces that had engaged pulled back. In front of them, seven lone silhouettes took the lead. Good, I coldly thought.
I was in a killing mood.