“Spoken like a man I’ll have raised from the dead just to execute a second time.”
– Dread Emperor Malignant III
They’d meant to make a lake, but that was not what Juniper was looking down at. After the flow was cut the currents had slowed to a crawl, then settled, and what had once been a plain was now cold marshlands. Dotted by a handful of glaciers, for now, but eventually those would melt. Not in time for the battle to be affected, the Marshal of Callow decided. The massive chunks of ice could be relied on to block field of sight, but they should not be taken as a more than temporary cover. Not with the calibre of Named on the other side. With the sun beginning to set down, the marsh was empty save for shallow waters and corpses or not. Earlier in the day she’d sent the Watch to harass crusaders trying to fish out survivors, but she’d had to call them back when the heroes took the field again. Juniper licked her fangs behind closed lips, the ridge inside her mouth allowing easy access to clean. She’d been told by Aisha that the way it made the mouths of orcs look to human – too broad, too prominent, almost animal-like – was one of the reasons so many of them assumed her people were thoughtless brutes. It was, her old friend had said, an unconscious judgement. The Hellhound did not mind. There’d been many judgements made today, some more harmful than mere human stupidity.
She still remembered the moment she saw the gate open in the sky. The primal awe the sight had shaken her with, that reminder that she was a very small creature in a very large world. That there were entities striding amongst mortals that could flatten them with but a word or a gesture. It’d been difficult to gauge how many Procerans died the moment the water hit them. At least two thousand, she suspected. The gate had not been so high up in the air that gravity would turn it into some divine blow, but the sheer weight of the mass of liquid made that largely irrelevant. A hammer flattened an ant even if you were barely swinging it. All that power, wielded by a shifty sorcerer and barefoot woman who’d murdered a demigod. That’d always been Catherine’s walk, hadn’t it? The fine line between absurd and terrifying. A single moment and the entire lay of the battle had changed. Proceran advance had immediately collapsed, thousands fleeing the sweeping tidal wave pointlessly. The died anyway, drowning in armour. Another few thousand were still lying at the bottom of the marsh.
The crusaders had been struck with horror, but there were people on the other side who’d mastered their panic. Within two heartbeats, mage fire and white-hot heavenly flame had erupted in the centre of the cascading waters. Tons of liquid turned to scalding vapour, but the edges had kept pouring down. Slowed but not stopped. When the first glacier went through, it was split in two by the fires and further broken apart by what Juniper was fairly certain had been the Saint of Swords merely swinging her blade. It’d limited the damage caused by the massive ice structures, but then they’d been swept by the current too and began crushing everything in their way. Another two heartbeats and fences of light formed themselves across the portal to keep the water in, as the heavenly flames winked out. It hadn’t been enough. They lasted barely a heartbeat before shattering under the weight. From beginning to end, the entire affair lasted for eleven heartbeats.
Then the Grey Pilgrim struck.
It had defied easy description, and not only because anyone looking directly at it went blind in the aftermath. There’d been… a star, perhaps that was the only way to put it. Only instead of a distant radiant light it had been a knife. It carved through an edge of the portal, and the whole thing shuddered. Then it went straight through the other side and the sky blew up. A ring of power spread for miles, boiling hot rain falling across the battlefield for the better part of an hour afterwards. The fairy gate was broken, though now there was a strange circle-shaped glimmer above both armies. Juniper had not been pleased, at the time, but neither had she been furious. The gate had not been meant to be kept open for much longer anyway. Her mistake, she now realized, had been thinking in terms of mortal war. Her Warlord’s spell had taken the day away from that mould, and price had to be paid for such great power. Especially when that power was broken by a foe. There is a reason the Carrion Lord does not unleash the Warlock at the beginning of every battle, she thought. And now we learn it the hard way. The exercise of a villain’s power always left them vulnerable, and the backlash for this unmaking had been particularly brutal.
Catherine was not dead, they were fairly certain. Juniper had mages drag her out of sight and examine her the moment after she collapsed. But she was unconscious and… dreaming. The orc had been told that the queen’s body was now made of the stuff of the fae, but she had not truly grasped what that meant until she watched Catherine Foundling’s body shift around like a puzzle box. Square blocs of flesh erupted her chest, short spikes bent bone and muscle in every direction and Juniper had grown nauseous watching her commander’s face melt down to the skull and reform with an eerie keening sound. She still felt ill thinking about it. Orcs were flesh and bone, instinct and feeling. There was almost nothing of any of that left in Catherine. What had struck Hierophant had been subtler. They’d thought him fine at first, as he remained standing where he’d been. Only when he’d not replied to a question had the soldiers noticed that he was perfectly still. No longer even breathing. There was now a permanent rotation of two mages by the man’s bedsides weaving spell to mimic what his lungs had ceased doing. His heart still beat, at least. Neither of the two had woken up in the three hours since the Pilgrim had attacked them.
That left the Army of Callow very, very vulnerable.
So far there had been no attempt at a heroic assault, but there was no telling how long that would last. An issue compounded by the fact that none of Juniper’s mages could tell her when the two most powerful members of the Woe would wake, if they ever did. The army’s fortifications had withstood the waters well at least. The wards held, and the only place the palisade broke was on the left flank when a smaller glacier chunk hit the wall. Mages had been able to keep that contained with shields, enough that the entire battle line didn’t flood. It had been rebuilt since. Was this what you feared, Catherine, when you forbade Bonfire? Part of Juniper still believed that plan had been the best chance at a winnable war they’d had, but now she was being forced to admit there was more to wars with Named than tactics and strategy. It was a bitter pill to swallow to admit that she’d had a weakness in her thinking, but now that she knew of it she must fix it lest she make mistakes in the future. Juniper spat into the shallow waters filling the ditch before the palisade, then turned around. She was in overall command, now. And there were things to be done, the first of them having a conversation with a woman she despised.
For once, the Thief was easy to find. The thin woman was lounging outside the tent where the remainder of the Woe slumbered uneasily, propped up in a folding chair and sipping at a silver flask. Juniper sniffed out the scent. Brandy. Even her taste in alcohol was shit.
“Marshal,” the Thief drawled. “I had a feeling you’d be coming.”
And still she drank, Juniper sneered. Vivienne might have grown on the Warlord and the rest of the Woe, but the Hellhound had never taken to her and never would. The Thief was the worst parts of her people crammed together in a single arrogant frame. The orc had learned to set aside most the dislike of Callowans she’d been taught as a child, admitting to herself that they were no worse than the Soninke save perhaps for the occasional petty moralizing. But this one, she was a reminder of why it’d taken the orc so long to like Catherine. She was hollow in the bone. Orcs and goblins understood, without ever needing to be taught, that the heart of the world was kin and clan. The Legions had taught Juniper that kin did not necessarily mean blood, or clan her own people, and it was that shared understanding that had brought her close to Aisha – who had, herself, been forced to learn to divorce the loyalties of her childhood from those that were truly deserved. The Taghreb were perhaps the closest thing humans could come to reasonable. They understood tethers. Soninke, like Callowans, had no such loyalty in them. Instead they worshipped at some abstract altar of principle, a mortal-made god of meaninglessness. Climbing the Tower, saving the Kingdom: there was little difference save in petty details. The years had taught Juniper that though the people might be fools, individuals need not be. That the things she found so disgusting gathered mostly at the top.
But Vivienne Dartwick was the incarnation of everything she despised about Callow.
An admitted thief, one who took but did not contribute. Were she an orc, she’d have ended up in a cooking pot by now. And while she professed high ideals, unlike Catherine she didn’t even have the decency to bleed for them. The Thief was not a fighter, only a parasite. Like a tick she had nestled over new warmth when her previous host died. And had made herself useful enough since that she could not simply be carved up and eaten like she so richly deserved. Just looking at her made Juniper want to bare her fangs. The antipathy, she knew, was shared. The occasional contemptuous looks shot behind Catherine’s back made that eminently clear, though they were both professional enough that they worked together without trouble. Or had, anyway, when Catherine was awake. Without her between them the Hellhound had a feeling the knives would finally come out.
“War council is to be held,” Juniper growled. “You will attend.”
The Thief’s brow rose, almost mockingly.
“I am not a member of the Army of Callow,” she said.
“You’re a spymistress,” the orc said. “A hoarder of secrets. Now is the time to spit them out.”
“I know quite a bit that you don’t, Marshal,” the wretch agreed with an easy smile. “But little of import to the battle. Which seems, regardless, not in the process of being waged.”
Juniper’s blood ran hot, but she ground her fangs. She would not be baited so easily.
“We do not know when she will wake up,” the Hellhound said.
“Which makes most planning irrelevant,” Thief replied. “Without Catherine and Masego, we lack the teeth to go on the offensive. Plan your defence, Marshal. You do not need me standing at your table as a prop displaying your influence to do so.”
That the tick would so familiarly refer to people she’d once sought to kill had the orc’s fury spiking. She knew hat humans did not have the same understanding of blood feuds, but that insolent girl should be in pieces. Already once a traitor, she would turn again. It was only a matter of time.
“So instead of having some use, you’ll just sit there and get drunk,” Juniper scathingly said. “What a Named you are. I’d get as much use out of a fucking tavern girl.”
“Do you often fuck tavern girls, Marshal Juniper?” the woman asked smilingly. “My word, I had no idea. Still, this is a little bawdy for idle conversation don’t you think?”
Juniper’s fists clenched. Without ever moving, the Named had changed from a lounging wastrel to an amused aristocrat. She was making an effort to be be infuriating.
“I will remain here,” the Thief said, “and watch over them. If you do not believe there are agents of Malicia in this host, you are a bloody fool. My hours are better spent keeping an eye out for a knife than repeating numbers you already know for an audience of officers.”
There was much that Juniper wanted to reply. That having her at the council would allay fears, serve as a display of unity. That a fucking spymistress had no right to gainsay the orders of the Marshal of Callow, especially not on campaign. But there was no point, so she held her tongue. Turning around without another word, she left.
She had a battle to win, with or without help.
Rozala slumped into her seat, exhausted beyond belief. Night had only just fallen, but she knew the work would continue through the dark and unto dawn. In the first few hours, when chaos and panic had spread across the host, she’d desperately struggled to restore order. There was a very real chance the crusaders would have routed, if not for the heroes. They’d walked among the soldiers, helping and healing and soothing away fear. The Princess of Aequitan was still sure at least thousand levies would disappear overnight. After the tides stopped and the scalding rain ceased, the reports had begun coming in. Even now it was hard to tell how many had died, over less time than it took to boil a kettle of water. Early estimates were at nine thousand dead and at least half that out of the fight.
Rozala Malanza closed her eyes, and dealt with the truth that she had just commanded the most disastrous military offensive in living memory.
And the battle had begun so well. The Heavenly Fences had allowed her to trample nearly a seventh of the enemy army within the first hour, badly crippling the enemy’s ranged abilities: without the crossbowmen, the casualties involved in taking the palisades from the Army of Callow would have been greatly lowered. The siege engines would have taken their due, yes, but the Fences would have limited the damage. It would have been a rough affair, no two ways about it, but most definitely a battle she could win. And Rozala had made plans to hit hard and fast enough at least part of the enemy’s supplies could be seized before they retreated through a gate. Enough that starvation could be kept at bay at least a sliver of the way to Hedges. Now there was most a mile of frozen marshland between her army and the enemy’s, and her men were two days away from beginning to boil grass to have something to fill their stomachs. There was a very real chance she would have to order horses butchered, if it came to that, and she could already heal the other royals howling about their expensive war horses getting the axe to feed mere peasants.
The dark-haired princess shivered. Part of it was that she was still drenched and cold: after the first reports, she’d handed the reins to her officers and gone with the rank and file to drag survivors and wounded out of the water. It was the least of what she owed for today’s debacle. The other princes and princesses and followed suit, even Prince Arnaud who she doubted had ever done a hard day’s work in his life. It’d been a given they would, after word spread she’d gone out personally. They couldn’t be seen to care less about the soldiers, could they? The thought was uncharitable, but not necessarily untrue. Rozala’s mother had always taught her that command was her right, but also her responsibility. A general who spent lives frivolously was just a butcher, and the Malanzas were no such thing. Ambitious, perhaps, but their roots were that of ancient and famous generals. Her distant ancestor Lorenzo Malanza had been the one to conquer the northern half of the Dominion of Levant for First Prince Charles Merovins. His splendid victory at Tartessos was the subject of song to this day. And she had shamed that memory, she thought with a grimace. By her failure, but also the other reason her hands were trembling.
Gods, she’d been so small. And no great beauty either, with that strong nose and those razor-sharp cheekbones. She’d talked like a sloppy commoner, all insults and insinuations where the situation demanded poise. And Rozala had not been able to hold back, trading verbal blow for blow with the same nonchalant woman who had just dropped half a lake from the sky. The knowledge of how easily the Black Queen could have killed any of them had the heroes not accompanied the delegation would haunt her thoughts for years to come. What kind of a woman could do something like that, just speak a word and nigh-instantly slaughter thousands? The princess was not unfamiliar with war, but this was… something else. A titan stepping on ants. She did not blame those who would desert in the night. And now she understood the fervour in the First Prince’s eyes, when she spoke of the evils in the east. Rozala reached for the bottle of eau-de-vie she’d sent for, breaking etiquette by pouring her own cup and downing it in a single gulp. The liquor warmed her enough that she did not send a servant for a blanket. Neither did she change out of the wet clothing, though. Let her visitors remember where she had spent her hours.
The Grey Pilgrim was the first to arrive. Rozala rose to her feet, and bowed with genuine respect. The old Levantine had saved hundreds of lives after personally destroying the Black Queen’s weapon, wreathed in Light as he spread warmth and healing wherever he went. The former had been the most important of the two. How many would that have lost to the deathly cold, if not for the pulses of heat?
“Chosen,” the princess said. “I am in your debt for your toil. Any boon in my power to grant is yours to claim.”
A dangerous thing to offer Named, she knew, but looking at the exhausted old man who looked like was folding into himself Rozala did not hesitate. He had saved lives in her care, and Malanzas did not leave debts unpaid. The Pilgrim looked at her through eyes gone rheumy and clasped her hand with wrinkled fingers.
“You owe me nothing, child,” he whispered. “Would that I could have done more.”
“Through winter and summer, my word stands,” Rozala formally replied in the old Arlesite oath. “So long as the Heavens watch and Creation withstands.”
Whether he ever asked the favour of her or not was irrelevant. She would not allow kindness to go unanswered. The hero smiled sadly.
“This is not the first or last tragedy this war will bring,” he said. “Steel yourself, Rozala Malanza. The worst is yet to come.”
“A prophecy, Chosen?” Rozala asked.
“An old man’s intuition,” the Grey Pilgrim said, shaking his head. “Darkness grows. I fear greater evils than Catherine Foundling are yet to come.”
The dark-haired princess’ blood ran cold. Worse than the monster who’d faced half a dozen Chosen on her own and brought down the sky? She could think of few greater evils in existence, save for the Tower itself and the Kingdom of the Dead. Neither thought was comforting.
“I hear your guidance,” Rozala said, bowing her head in thanks.
“May I?” the hero asked.
Uncertain what he meant, the princess nodded in agreement regardless. The glimmer of light was barely visible, but warmth washed over her. Permeated every part of her body, chasing away cold and weariness and fear. Like she was sixteen again, fearless and ready to rise against Hasenbach to avenge her mother.
“It will be a long night,” the Pilgrim said, panting lightly.
She helped the elder into a seat afterwards, seeing his legs shake, and broke etiquette again to pour him a glass of liquor and press it into his hand. Chuckling ruefully, the Levantine sipped at it. He made a face.
“Eau-de-vie,” he said. “The things you Alamans drink. Ah, what I would not do for a good pear brandy. It always tastes like Alava.”
One of the great cities of the Dominion, Rozala recalled, nestled among tall hills. Famous for its orchards and its herds. It had held on a decade longer than the rest of Levant when the Principate invaded, and even after the city was besieged the inhabitants preferred to burn it and flee into the hills rather than live under Proceran rule.
“Your birthplace, Chosen?” she asked, returning to her seat.
“Levante is where I drew my first breath,” the old man replied. “But Alava is where I grew ton manhood. It is where I will die as well, if the Heavens ever allow these old bones to rest.”
“Creation will be lessened for the loss,” the princess said, and to her surprise found she meant every word.
“Creation will go on,” the Pilgrim smiled tiredly. “We are never quite so important as we like to think.”
She would have enjoyed quiet conversation with the man a while longer, but it was not to be. Prince Amadis Milenan strode into the tent, his embroidered tunic pristine and his hair perfectly coiffed. It was not enough to hide the tightness around his eyes. Behind him was a short man in a leather coat that went down to his knees, covering loose trousers and shirt of coloured silk. The Rogue Sorcerer, as he called himself. Of the Chosen, it was him Rozala knew best: they had spent long hours together planning the battle and his role in it as leader of the wizards. She had found him genteel and polite, surprisingly so for a man whose Name implied a certain uncouthness. The princess began to rise, but Amadis held out his hand.
“No need,” the Prince of Iserre said. “Not after this kind of day.”
The princess hid her surprise. She’d half-expected that after today’s debacle he would seek to undermine her position with recriminations. He still might, regardless of this unexpected olive branch, so her guard would remain up.
“Princess Malanza,” the Rogue Sorcerer greeted her, inclining his head before taking a seat.
“Chosen,” she replied, just as courteously.
Amadis let out a long breath after sitting down, a long moment passing before he spoke.
“This was,” he said, “not the way we had anticipated this battle would go.”
An understatement if there ever was one, Rozala thought. The use of we did not escape her attention. Blame was not being put solely on her shoulders.
“The failure was mine,” she said anyway.
“We’d prepared for many things, Your Grace,” the Rogue quietly said. “But the sky opening up to drop a lake was beyond our predictions. There is no fault in this, save in believing that our opponent would not be so monstrous.”
“I agree,” Amadis said calmly. “I cast no doubts on your competence, Rozala. Your initial success is proof enough of it. There will be no talk of removing you from command.”
The Princess of Aequitan inclined her head in silent thanks. Did this shake you enough you are taking this seriously Amadis? she thought. Or are you simply keeping me at the head of the host to scapegoat if the situation further worsens? No matter. For now, it was still her battle to fight.
“I must begin, then, with a delicate question,” she said. “This… gate. Should we expect another if we attempt a second offensive?”
If so, this campaign was over. Rozala would not throw away half a hundred thousand lives for pride, even if refusing to do so ruined her. They had learned the enemy’s trick, but the enemy would have learned theirs as well. There was no guarantee the Pilgrim would twice succeed in breaking the gate. The two Chosen traded glances.
“That is a complicated question,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “Against most other villains, I would say that forceful shattering of the gate might actually kill them. The amount of power and involvement in crafting such a thing is staggering, and the break would lead to vicious backlash.”
“Yet Catherine Foundling is not merely a villain,” the Pilgrim said. “She is a titled Duchess of Winter. Perhaps the last fae of that realm, if I interpret the Augur’s words correctly. She is no longer human, in a sense. What would destroy the likes of the Warlock or the Carrion Lord might not affect her at all. Her nature has grown other.”
“We have seen neither the Black Queen nor the Hierophant since the battle,” Prince Amadis noted. “To be frank, I was expecting an Imperial offensive while we were in disarray. We might very well have lost the battle if one had followed.”
“I’ll concede that much,” Rozala said. “Yet there might have been other limitations at work. I am no scholar of sorcery, but it occurs to me that such a great blow – even if it had not been shattered – might have incapacitated the two of them for some time. The duration, however, is beyond my ability to theorize. We may very well be facing another gate come morning.”
“We’ll know it’s coming, this time,” the Rogue Sorcerer darkly said. “It’s not impossible to contain the flow until the gate itself can be broken, though I’ll admit it’ll be difficult.”
The princess put her hands in her lap, resisting the urge to brush back her hair.
“There are too many uncertainties,” she said. “I am reluctant to commit to an assault when everyone I send might be drowned. And that is without addressing the difficulties of an assault. Wading through the marshlands will be difficult, and it might be weeks before the soil drinks the water whole. That means having to march around it, and likely splitting the host in two.”
“A probing attack come morning, perhaps,” Prince Amadis suggested.
Even a probe could see a few thousand men die screaming to find out the answer to a simple question, Rozala thought. The alternative, however, was retreat. Through hostile land, while so low on supplies they were barely worth mentioning at all. The Black Queen had offered to provide food for a march back, but there was no guarantee that offer would still hold after today. And if it did not, the amount of men she’d lose to a small-scale offensive would be a pittance compared to what hunger would kill. That was without even considering the reports that the Duchess Kegan’s army was crossing the river far to the north. The numbers there were said to be over ten thousand, and the Deoraithe were infamous for their skill at la petite guerre. Harassment and ambushes, without ever giving battle.
“This is not the kind of decision that can be lightly made,” the Princess of Aequitan said. “And not without knowing all the facts. I must recommend we send an envoy to their camp to find out if the queen’s terms still hold.”
Amadis’ lips thinned in displeasure.
“Surely you’re not suggesting retreat,” he said.
“I am reluctant to even consider it,” Rozala admitted. “Yet if the Black Queen is unharmed and the terms hold, it may be that we have no other choice. We cannot dally. Time works against us more than they.”
“I would accompany your envoy, if you permit,” the Grey Pilgrim said, breaking his silence.
He looked half-asleep, even now. The princess kept her scepticism away from her face. Had the Chosen not tried to take the villain’s life but a few hours ago? Still, she did not pretend to understand the ways of Named. For their sort, attempted killing might be no great enmity. The Prince of Iserre watched everyone at the table silently, then slowly nodded.
“Envoy will be sent,” he agreed. “And to speak with only the Black Queen, so her state may be assessed. Should she prove incapacitated, however…”
Princess Rozala grimly smiled.
“Then we will settle the score in full,” she said.
Malanzas, after all, did not leave debts unpaid.