“The meaning of the exercise of war is the destruction of your foe’s ability to wage it. ‘Victory’ does not exist as an independent entity; it is merely the manifestation of the enemy’s defeat.”
– Extract from ‘Considerations on Warfare’ by Marshal Grem One-Eye
It would come down to steel and blood. The Thief had failed, not that Juniper held much hope for success. The woman was not as clever a liar as she believed, and the enemy was cunning. Much as she disliked the former heroine, the orc refrained from spending a quarter hour verbally ripping her to pieces. She had more important duties to see to, now that near forty thousand crusaders and their heroic hired killers were on the march. Heroes, huh. Much like knights, Juniper had never thought much of them. All a knight could claim to be was a killer on a horse. The rest was pageantry. And heroes, well, the Hellhound had never cared for the smell of hypocrisy. ‘The Heavens told me to do it’ did not qualify as a valid excuse under Legion regulations, and those were the closest thing to fair laws Creation had ever seen as far as she was concerned.
“She bought us a few hours, at least,” Aisha said.
The two of them were alone in the tent, at least until the rest of the general staff arrived. Juniper cast a look at the Taghreb, eyes lingering on soft skin of her bare wrists. Such delicate appearance, for such a dangerous woman. The urge to sink her teeth into the warm veins warred with the urge to feel the softness with her own rough hands. The orc cleared her throat.
“For all the good it’s done,” she said. “We’re in for a red day.”
The olive-skinned Staff Tribune flicked her an amused glance.
“The Fifteenth’s eternal motto,” she teased.
The orc did not allow the laughter in those bright eyes to distract her.
“We have a choice to make,” she growled. “Static or moving.”
Princess Malanza was splitting her host in half, roughly fifteen thousand on each side of the marshlands advancing in thick columns. It’d been too much to hope for the crusaders would try going through the water. It didn’t take Grem One-Eye to see that’d mean easy targets for Juniper’s engines, and Rozala Malanza had already proved she was no fool.
“Legion doctrine dictates retreat to a hardened position, when met with superior force,” Aisha said.
Their current position was as hardened as field fortifications could allow, so the traditional call would be remaining behind the palisades and preparing for a hard fight. It meant, though, surrendering the initiative to the enemy. And the Hellhound had been burned playing number games with this foe before. She was wary of a repeat.
“We could have local superiority, if we sent enough men to hit a single column,” Juniper said. “And possibly break that side before the other one gets anywhere close.”
“Without heroes on the field, it would be risky,” the Taghreb said. “With them, it nears wishful thinking.”
Her Warlord had picked a fucking bad time to take a nap, that much was undeniable. Were there even half as many heroes, Juniper would not hesitate to strike anyway. Twelve, though, was too many for her tastes. Even if all they did was prop up morale wherever they stood it might be enough to tip the balance. If the Saint of Swords or the Grey Pilgrim happened to be with either army, massacre was the word that came to mind.
“We let them march without contest, and by afternoon we’ll be surrounded and up to our neck in Named,” Juniper said. “Even if we don’t give battle, we have to slow them down.”
“We have munitions,” Aisha pointed out.
They’d both known that, but the point of this conversation was not her friend pushing for a plan. The back and forth allowed Juniper to sharpen her own thoughts, using Aisha’s words as a grindstone.
“There’s a thought,” the Hellhound mused. “Not as a weapon, but as ground denial. Plaster one flank with goblinfire and hit the other column with our full muster.”
“We’d be leaving our camp exposed,” the Staff Tribune said. “We risk a wipe if they have a way to cross the marshlands or get around the goblinfire.”
“They’re leaving their own exposed,” Juniper noted. “They’ve got at most a few thousand soldiers there that’re fighting fit. And they’re serving as Malanza’s strategic reserve. Which means this isn’t just testing our defence, she’s aiming for a full victory.”
“Assuming they know our queen is incapacitated, they might be under the impression they need to hurry before she awakens,” Aisha said.
“That has sense,” Juniper said. “And if true, it means the enemy is committed. They will not withdraw because of losses.”
“Malanza’s not been shy about trading casualties so far,” the Taghreb shrugged. “This is not fresh observation.”
Juniper shook her head.
“No,” she replied. “It is. If you’re right then static defence is not an option. They’ll not retreat with sundown no matter how many we kill, just send wave after wave against the palisades through the night. They’re in it to the death, and that means the only way we make it through this is by forcing a retreat.”
Aisha’s eyes narrowed.
“And the only thing that would make Princess Malanza call one is the risk of a defeat so major her army would not recover from it,” the Staff Tribune said.
“Which we can’t inflict by force of arms,” the Hellhound said. “Or by Named superiority.”
That meant the effect had to be obtained indirectly, through strategic means. Juniper licked her chops hungrily. It was a puzzle. One where the slightest misstep would doom her army and likely Callow with it.
Gods, she’d missed this.
Captain Pierre Dulac squinted into the sun. The Callowans were fucking crazier than he’d thought, because he was looking at a force of at least four thousand. The Brabantine had served in the army of Prince Arnaud for a decade and a half now – loyalty to the principality of one’s birth was all well and good, but the Cantalins paid better – and fought in four of the Great War’s largest pitched battles. He’d been known to make the boast that he’d killed someone from every principality in Procer, after a few drinks, and for all he knew it might even be true. He had, to put it bluntly, gotten a handle on the waging of war. No fantassin lived long enough to make it to his current rank if they didn’t, much less rise to command of a free company as he had. Which was why he was surprised the enemy had abandoned perfectly good palisades and the cover of their war machines to sally out against the column he was the vanguard of. Spitting out the ball of redleaf he’d been sucking on all morning, the captain slowed his march so his second would catch up. Pierre often led from the front when on the march, though he’d gotten old enough he left the sword-waving to younger sorts when battle started.
“Captain,” Lieutenant Francesca, better known as Belle, greeted him.
The southerner was a massive beast of a woman, built like an ox and hairy as one. Some Lycaonese fuck had taken off the tip of her nose with a blade at the Battle of Aisne, which only added to the gruesome spectacle that was her. Not a nice woman. She was quick to use the knife and cheated at dice. But the men were fucking terrified of her, and that had uses.
“Tell me my leaves didn’t go bad, Belle,” he said. “I’m not hallucinating that army, am I?
“I see them,” the lieutenant grunted.
“Fuck,” Pierre feelingly said. “I was hoping they’d stay holed up and we could trick another company into leading the first wave.”
“Callowans,” the woman shrugged. “Hicks one and all. You want to send a messenger to the prince to ask for orders?”
The captain grimaced. He’d rather not if he could avoid it. Their column was following the western bank of that creepy magic swamp, from a bird’s eye view, and unlike the other army they had no cavalry backing them. Princess Malanza had gone to command the host with horse, like a good little Arlesite trying to win wars one charge at a time, and that left Prince Arnaud and Princess Adeline sharing command over this column. Pierre didn’t know shit about the Princess of Orne, but everyone and their sister knew Prince Arnaud was a proper twat. He was a twat who paid well and on time, so Pierre’s company remained in his service, but the fantassin wasn’t eager at the notion of following the military wisdom of the Prince of Cantal. Like all princes, he wasn’t known to send his retinue into the breach when there were spare fantassins lying around. Better to take a look on their own terms, the captain figured, without any ‘inspired’ instructions about when they could retreat.
“Rustle up the last ten men who pissed you off, Belle,” Pierre Dulac said. “We’re going to have a closer look at whatever they’re cooking up.”
Tribune Abigail of Summerholm should have known someone was out to fuck her when she got offered the promotion after Akua’s Folly. Sure the pay increase was nice, and word had got around she’d been in the frontlines during both the Arcadian Campaign and Second Liesse – which made it really easy to trick strapping young lads from home into her bed, if they were as dumb as they were pretty. Plenty of those floating around, it was the type that made shit life choices just like her and enrolled in the Army of Callow. On the other hand, she’d been transferred from the command of General Hune to that of General Nauk. The godsdamned Princekiller himself. The orc looked like a torch had eaten half his face, and acted like he was going to eat half Creation to even that out. Of course they’d put her under the command of the one man in the Army of Callow who was guaranteed to be sent over and over again into the worst possible messes. Abigail had bought a sack of leeches in Laure and paid someone to drop them in Tribune Ashan’s bedding when no one was looking.
That fucker was the one who’d recommended her for promotion.
Worst of all, her cohort was green as grass. Oh, sure, the Hellhounds had drilled them to collapse and taken everyone through a brutal gauntlet of field manoeuvres and war games. But they’d not looked death in the eye properly until yesterday and this was already beginning to shape into a worst fucking mess than Akua’s Folly, which was really saying something. Three thousand dead legionaries within the first hour, because the priests on the other side had found some loophole in the Book of All Things. See if I ever give alms to the godsdamned House of Light again, the tribune grimly thought. Could have been her down there, if the Hellhound had decided on different tactics. The Black Queen had seen their priestly fuckery and raised them mass slaughter, which had been good for morale. Until rumours she’d been wounded by the spell began circulating, anyway. Another rumour had immediately started going around that it was a trick and she was baiting the crusaders, but Abigail could recognize the work of the Jacks when she heard it. The Queen of Callow was having her beauty sleep while the enemy marched. Rank hath its privileges.
“Tribune,” someone spoke from behind her.
Abigail spat and turned to look at Captain Krolem. The orc was standing stiffly, broad arms visibly itching to salute. It’d taken her a while to wean him off that. Fresh meat from the Steppes, this one, passed through a recruiting camp in the Fields and now a proper loyal subject of the crown of Callow. Now that the Tower had forbidden recruitment in Praes, his sort was rarer addition.
“I’m listening,” she said. “But if it’s the fucking sappers again-”
“It isn’t, ma’am,” the orc assured her. “Our outer line reports enemy movement.”
“So they have eyes,” Abigail noted. “Definitely picked the right people for the watch.”
“Aside from the column,” the orc clarified. “A single tenth of Procerans. Scouts, we believe.”
Ah, shit. Her cohort was far ahead of where the sappers were plotting whatever Marshal Juniper had sent them here to do, but she had instructions from the Princekiller to stomp hard on any crusaders coming to have a look. General Nauk had made it clear his forces would not be retreating until the sappers were ready, and someone out to kill Abigail had decided it was a great idea for her cohort to be out on the front lines. At least she wasn’t the poor bastard whose cohort was stuck next to the creepy murder swamp full of dead people to anchor the flank. Hells of a silver lining.
“Send out a line,” she told the captain. “And since I’m in such a giving mood, they can eat whoever they kill.”
“Kind of you, ma’am,” Krolem replied, sounding absolutely serious.
Of course he was. Tribune Abigail worried her lip and stared at the column in the distance. An hour, maybe, before the enemy was in engagement range. They’d been waiting out here for two. Maybe the Heavens would smile on her for once, and the sappers would be done soon. She looked up at the sunny sky, grimacing.
“Come on, you assholes,” she said. “I got to sermons thrice a year, that’s gotta count for something.”
“Only four thousand, Your Graces,” Pierre said, bowing again.
He wasn’t sure if etiquette required it, but with royals it was always better to be on the safe side. The Princess of Orne had turned out to be young and easy on the eyes, not that he allowed himself to look. That was a good way to end up blinded. Neither she nor Prince Arnaud had bothered to dismount from their horses to receive his report after he was ushered into the presence of greatness. He was pretty sure each horse was worth at least ten times the war chest he’d accumulated after over a decade of soldiering. They were, he grimly thought, probably better fed too. His company had bought food and kept a hidden stash since, because relying on the largesse of princes was a good way to end up starving, but even their own reserves were beginning to run out. The horses, he could not help but notice, looked perfectly healthy. Better a prince’s mount than a peasant, eh?
“And you did not approach close enough to ascertain what they were doing there,” Prince Arnaud of Cantal said, pawing at his wisps of a beard.
The disapproval was clear, as was the implied question of why he had not. Somehow the fantassin doubted that the answer of ‘the orcs they sent out looked a little too eager’ would earn him much favour here. He cleared his throat.
“As my men and I had already come close enough to see their formation, I judged it more important to return and make sure that knowledge was brought to you,” he lied.
It was one thing to kill for Prince Arnaud’s silver, another to die for it. The man didn’t pay that well.
“Prudent,” the Princess of Orne said, tone neutral. “And what can you tell us about their formation?”
“They’re digging in, Your Grace,” Pierre said, bowing again. “There was no reserve, but there were troops detached on their flank to prevent easy encirclement. It looked like they were preparing to fight.”
Princess Adeline frowned.
“With four thousand?” she said. “We’ve more than thrice that number.”
The captain had not been addressed directly, and so decided not risk speaking up.
“Were there many mages, Captain?” Prince Arnaud asked him.
“Not on the front lines, Your Grace,” Pierre replied. “I cannot speak for further back.”
“It seems a rather obvious trap,” the Princess of Orne mused.
“They might be a mere sacrifice to slow us down,” Prince Arnaud said.
“Or a feint by the Callowans,” the other royal said. “Trying to give us pause without any true threat.”
“We can simply smash through,” Prince Arnaud said lightly. “Why even bother with battle order, against such feeble opposition?”
Pierre winced. Going in half-cocked against the bastard child of the Legions of Terror would get a lot of people killed before numbers won the day. The captain had never fought legionaries before, but he’d heard stories.
“Let us not blunder at this late hour, Arnaud,” the Princess of Orne coldly said. “A careful approach is needed. We give battle only when properly arrayed.”
“if you insist,” Prince Arnaud indifferently said. “Fuss, if you feel the need. The Principate will prevail regardless.”
Pierre Dulac silently wondered when they going to remember they had not dismissed him. And, perhaps, if it was time to politely inquire whether the Princess of Orne was still hiring.
Princess Rozala Malanza watched the enemy host through her mother’s old Baalite eye, the clever arrangement of lenses within the wooden tube allowing her to study in detail even at a distance. Ashurans demanded a fortune for every single one of these, but the imitations from Nicae were of much shoddier quality. That the Thalassocracy would remain so tight-fisted over a device they had not even invented themselves – it came from across the Tyrian Sea – was typical of that grasping gaggle of merchants and sailors.
“More than twelve thousand,” she said.
“They mean to give battle?” Prince Amadis frowned. “Would it not have been a superior notion to do so from atop the palisades?”
“Maybe,” the Princess of Aequitan hedged. “The Legions of Terror are known for their skill at sieges, but this is the Black Queen’s army. They made their reputation on pitched battles.”
“Then why even raise them?” the Prince of Iserre murmured.
“Something’s changed,” Rozala said. “Their general has a plan.”
“One would assume,” Amadis drily replied. “I don’t suppose you could hazard a guess as to the nature of that plan?”
The dark-haired princess frowned. The enemy should have perhaps nineteen thousand soldiers left. Assuming at least two thousand had been left to guard the baggage train, the soldiers in front of them represented around three quarters of the Army of Callow. That left a rough quarter unaccounted for, a fact that was making her uneasy. The enemy could not hope to hold back the other column with those numbers, they’d be encircled and slaughtered to the last. And, to be frank, if defeat in detail was to be attempted it was Adeline’s host that should have been the target. Rozala had stripped it of cavalry specifically to tempt such a blunder since the Saint of Swords was with that army.
“They could be attempting to delay us until sundown,” Rozala finally said. “To prevent us from encircling their camp, counting on my being reluctant to conduct war after dark.”
“You do not sound convinced,” the Prince of Iserre observed.
“It would be the first major mistake by their commander,” she said. “I was taught it is a rule of war that when a skilled enemy makes an obvious mistake it is no such thing.”
“It may no longer be the same commander,” Prince Amadis said. “Their Marshal would hold authority, in the Black Queen’s absence.”
“Juniper of the Red Shields,” Rozala muttered. “Hasenbach’s reports did not mark her a fool. She is alleged to be one of the finest graduates of their War College.”
“A skilled second does not necessarily mean a skilled first,” the man replied. “I will not question you in matters of war, but what seems like foolishness might simply be youth and desperation.”
She might be young but she’s fought just as many battles as the rest of us, the princess thought. Yet the Princess of Aequitan could not remember a single of these where the incipient Black Queen was not holding overall command. It was a plausible explanation that Amadis had offered. Yet she still felt as if she was being invited to make a mistake. It was irksome she could not quite put it into words. It was… an alignment. Rozala knew that dwindling supplies were forcing her to be aggressive. She’d only risked splitting the host in two because heroes accompanied both halves, and there should be no villains left to fight them. The Wild Hunt might strike unexpectedly, so she’d left soldiers to guard her camp and wounded, but everything else she had to field was on the march. Her armies were moving in strength, but there was a certain fragility to that strength. All of this together was bringing muted dread she could not explain.
“We wait,” she finally said. “The other column has orders to signal if they engage the enemy or find their path unobstructed. We will proceed when we receive either.”
An hour passed with two armies eyeing each other across the field until sorcery rose into the sky. Three red streams. Princess Adeline was attacking an enemy force.
The choice was out of her hands, then. She could not allow the army before her the possibility of disengaging or reinforcing the other side of the marsh.
Watching the streaks of red in the sky from her open tent, Juniper allowed the reports spoke to her to go unanswered. The enemy on the left flank was moving to engage Nauk. The enemy on the right was moving to tie up the army she’d put in front of them. She looked down at the map on the table, the figurines she had set down.
“That,” she murmured through her fangs, “was a mistake.”
The Hellhound smiled, and in her mind’s eye she loosed the arrow.