“The rat it bites the rat
On the tail, the tail, the tail
The rat it does grow fat
And swell, and swell, and swell
But a rat will bite the rat
On the tail, the tail, the tail
So we’ll sing the chain again.”
– “Growing Horns”, a Lycaonese nursery rhyme
The first blow struck in the Battle of Great Strycht was an illusion.
Glamour, to be precise, woven by my own will. I’d seen no need to waste strength by making it too elaborate, so it’d remained a simple streak of blue light high up in the ‘sky’. In of itself it did nothing, but it didn’t have to: it was a signal. If my army stepped into the city uninvited, we were the enemy. The ones everyone would be aiming at, and even the few sigils who’d struck pacts with us would think twice before coming out on our side. Whether it was to see if we could match the opposition or simply to bleed us a little first to have a better position after the battle didn’t matter, since I couldn’t afford those kinds of losses. No, I needed blades to already be out when we struck. Thankfully, Ivah had provided me with the means to ensure that. The Rumena Sigil, Gods bless their ambitious souls, had decided that the barbarians knocking at the gate was the right moment to make a play for the control of Great Strycht. My Lord of Silent Steps had learned as much after grabbing one of their lesser Mighty and interrogating it thoroughly. Not so thoroughly, though, that it had died from my lieutenant’s attentions.
So we’d made the songbird sing a second time, this time in front of the inner circle of the Jindrich Sigil. They’d been the natural targets for sowing dissension, and not just because they’d already made a deal with me. See, the Jindrich were the second most powerful sigil in the city. They’d opened negotiations because they were under attack by a cabal of lesser sigils going after their water reserves and agreed to take oaths under condition of those enemies being humbled, but they weren’t bound to me. Not really. It was an alliance of convenience for them, and those were not to be relied upon. But this changed things. As the second best, the Jindrich would have to be annihilated of the Rumena were ever to fully take over Great Strycht. More than that, we’d hinted that the sigils attacking them were doing so at the invitation of Mighty Rumena – which, for all I knew, could be true. It didn’t matter if it was false, though, because from the perspective of Mighty Jindrich it made sense and confirmed its worst suspicions. It was not hard to get people to believe the worst of each other when they’d been feuding cyclically for a few hundred years.
So my alliance had become a little less shaky, and I’d put it to work. The Rumena had been the kings of the island for a very long time, and never been all that nice about it: to the extent that there was technically a cabal including most everyone else dedicated to keeping them from devouring the rest of the city. That meant they had a lot of enemies, and that the Jindrich had… well, allies was a bit of a stretch. Sigils they’d fought with more than against for the sake of keeping the Rumena in check. Mighty Jindrich had reached out through envoys and warned them in advance of the plot, which was exactly what I’d needed. If my people had done that, it would have been taken as naked plot to incite civil war. Which, dues where they were due, it was. Coming from Mighty Jindrich, though? It had a reputation as an implacable berserker, not an intriguer. Put that together with our songbird, and you had all the necessary ingredients for a discreet coalition. Once it’d been assembled, the hard sell had been making it wait. Understandably, the drow preferred being on the offensive if there was going to be a battle: Mighty were no strangers to collateral damage, and they’d rather it happen on Rumena territory than theirs.
So Mighty Jindrich had ‘tricked’ me. It had assured its allies that it’d managed to convince me to send a force into the field to back them up, small enough the risks of it turning on them afterwards was minimal. But there was a catch. It’d only managed to wrangle that loan on a specific day. Namely, the one where the Longstride Cabal was suspected to be arriving – not that they knew that. The rest of the coalition had reluctantly agreed to the delay, weighing that my own people sharing the losses was worth the risk of discovery implicit to sitting on a plot like this for a few days. I was pretty sure that when the time came, Mighty Jidnrich would actually turn its coalition on us if it thought we’d been weakened enough to be beaten. That was fine, though, because I’d betrayed it first. Ivah had dug up from the prisoner that the Rumena had approached ambitious rylleh instead their target sigils and we’d helped clean up those leaks by providing the names we have. Not of the exact rylleh, sadly, since we didn’t have those – the prisoner hadn’t been that high up in the Rumena Sigil. But sigil names had been given and their sigil-holders had picked out the most likely treachery candidates for killing before they joined battle.
But we’d held two names back. Akua had removed them from the head of the prisoner just to be sure it wouldn’t sing an inconvenient song even if prompted. I’d been inclined to think that even if we did nothing the enemy would find out, but best to be sure. It was now a certainty the Rumena knew there was an attack coming, and that meant they’d be intercepting it on their own chosen grounds. And so an illusory streak of blue light got the first round of betrayals started even as my army moved out. It was the signal for the coalition to begin its attack, for the Rumena to begin their counter-attack and my own plans to begin.
The drow were a fair hand at betrayal, but I had the Fairy Godmother of Treachery in my service.
My drow set out in warbands, treading the half-dried lakebed quietly. Soldiers would have moved in formation, according to precise orders, but I had none. Only warriors, and those couldn’t be made into neat companies with designated officers. They’d move and fight as tribes, led into battle by the members of my Peerage. I’d studied the grounds for days and spoken with drow better learned in Everdark warfare than I, ultimately coming to the conclusion that there would be four different skirmishes that would dictate the outcome of this battle. Two would take place to the east, near the islands-turned plateaus of the Jindrich and the Hushu – respectively our main allies and the leaders of a cabal of four mid-tier sigils that’d remained aloof from the intrigues unfolding across the city. That sector would be the most volatile, since the two different skirmishes could easily turn into a single broader pitched battle if we weren’t careful. That the Hushu and their allies would get involved was a given, but on what side they would fall in this was anyone’s guess. Those fronts had been named, respectively, Spear and Dice.
One would take place to the north, in what had once been a lake-within-the-lake. The drow called it the Flowing Gardens, as it’d once been an entire district of small stone islets covered in sculptures and greenery. A place of leisure for the ancient drow, where pleasure ships had lazily drifted between enchanted metalwork that sung songs when touched by the breeze. It’d been centuries since those days, though, and now the Flowing Gardens were an eagerly fought-over battleground. The district had both water and food, after all, and the entire thing had been fed lakewater through a complex system of canals and sluice gates: holding those was a sign of power among sigils. My confiscating of Lake Strycht had lowered the waters within until the majority of the sections had become little more than large scummy ponds whose dirty waters were still fought over brutally by the minor sigils occupying the district and its outlying regions. Most members of my ‘allied’ coalition under Mighty Jindrich were from there, and my assessment was that the Rumena were going to hit them hard and early to keep them from assembling. Which would draw opportunists from the warlike sigils in the region, making it a beautifully chaotic mess. As a front, it’d been named for what it was going to turn into: a Pit.
The fourth and final front would be in the centre of the city. It would be the slowest to come into being, and at the start wouldn’t even exist. The Rumena Sigil’s territory was to the west, a five large and comparatively rich islands serving as the heartlands of their tribal possessions, but the fight would never get that far. The forces going after Mighty Rumena and its warriors after being freed from other fronts would pass through the central district of the city, since it was the quickest and easiest path, which meant that was where the ambush would be waiting. It was good grounds, I’d been told, for that kind of fighting. The centre of the city was filled with old temples and administrative complexes, set on a massive plain of solid rock. Every single building was separated from the others by deep grooves carved into the stone, more or less small canals, and the drying of Lake Strycht had turned the place into a labyrinth of bridges and corridors on three separate levels. A good spot for the Rumena to await an enemy force, after they’d devoured the sigils currently occupying it. It’d be hard to concentrate troops there, and either attacking Mighty would stick together and risk lesser warriors being casually wiped out or they’d separate and a hundred small duels would erupt on bridges and alleys.
We’d called that front the Woods.
I stood on a promontory as my army moved out, beginning the trek to the battles, and below me stood those that would lead them in battle. There’d been a fresh addition to my Peerage, a twelfth member. The Agus Sigil weren’t part of Strycht proper but they’d held territory close, and been half-mad with thirst when Lord Zarkan found them. Mighty Agus had not been difficult to talk into becoming Lord Agus, though it seemed uncomfortable with its new role and wary of the rest of the Peerage. With good reason, I thought. Before oaths were taken, most of those drow would have wiped out its sigil in an afternoon’s work and done so without batting an eye. It was the weakest of my lords, and knew it. The others did not share its mood, though. There was the scent of eagerness in the air, like they were itching for the fight. They probably were, I admitted to myself. Drow were not the kind of people to leave power unused after it was gained, and they had gained much from bargaining with me. I took a moment to gaze down at them in silence, wondering how many would survive the day.
“Today,” I stated, “we take Great Strycht.”
There were hard smiles at that, but no cheers. That was not the drow way.
“I won’t waste your time with a speech,” I said. “You all know what I’m about – we’ll be dancing on the edge until the last beat.”
I had their attention, though not because of any eloquence on my part. What came next was what they’d waited for all this while.
“And now what you actually want to know,” I smiled. “Lords Nodoi, Losle and Zarkan: yours is the Dice front.”
Zarkan was hard to read, because it hated my guts and that was usually the main thing to be found rather than anything more nuanced, but the others were easier. Relief. They knew their job would be mainly containment.
“Lords Slaus, Vasyl and Sagas, yours will be the Spear front.”
Nods, poorly-hidden surprise. Given that Mighty Jindrich would be there, the expectation had been that either Soln or Ivah would take the lead there. They were, after all, the two most powerful of my Peerage. And those I trusted the most, though that was not a hard hill to climb. I had other plans for those two, though.
“Lords Soln, Lovre, Vadimyr and Agus, you will be serving as our strategic reserve,” I said. “You’ll be hanging back for the initial stretch of the battle.”
Disappointment from Lovre and Vadimyr, I found. They’d been the most recent additions until Agus, and were eager to prove themselves in a battle that wasn’t waged against my own army. Agus was pleased, unsurprisingly. Soln, though? Soln understood. It knew I wasn’t finished speaking.
“For the duration of the fight, the three of you will be under the command of Lord Soln,” I said. “To be deployed as it judges necessary depending on how the fronts unfold. Unless I give an order otherwise, Soln’s words are good as mine.”
That they liked a lot less, save for Soln, since it was the closest I’d ever come to raising one of them above the others. They’d have to get used to it, I thought. This was not the last large-scale battle we’d fight, and some order would have to be forced onto our manner of warfare.
“Honour was given, Losara Queen,” the Lord of Shallow Graves smiled.
“You know my intent,” I simply said. “See it done.”
It wasn’t a coincidence I’d picked those four. Soln had the closest thing to battlefield acumen there was to be found in my pack of warlords while Lovre and Vadimry had led raiding sigils. Their Mighty were the most battle-hardened I had at my disposal, and the most used to fighting in a group. Agus would be a weak link wherever it was sent, but putting it on the roster would allow Soln to send warm bodies into a growing mess without committing my best troops.
“Lord Ivah,” I finally said.
“My queen,” the Lord of Silent Steps replied, inclining its head.
“You’ll be with Archer and myself,” I said. “We’re taking the Pit front.”
“By your will,” Ivah smoothly replied.
I gave them a last look.
“They’ll remember today,” I said. “What part of that story you end up being is up to you, my lords.”
They bowed, and to war we went.
They army marched together most of the way before splitting up front by front, sneaking through mud and reeds. We stayed out of sight, as much as could be done on largely open grounds, and my own sigil was the last to part with the reserve under Lord Soln. I came out of that journey pleasantly surprised. I’d never considered drow to be proper soldiery, but this kind of business was well suited to their skills and I’d underestimated them in some ways. Oh, I still winced at the idea of them in a shield wall. But the march we’d just done in an hour would have taken half a day for legionaries. Even dzulu could keep up a pace that would exhaust humans and orcs for hours without tiring, and they’d walked across mud like it was solid stone. Never a step missed, or a boot stuck in a mire. More interestingly, they’d done this so quietly I could hardly believe they were an army on the march. My Peerage would be a threat on the battlefield, but I was beginning to grasp how dangerous lesser Mighty and dzulu could be out of it. They climbed up slopes like spiders, leapt from stone to stone with the grace and easy of hunting cats.
How hard would they find it to climb a wall in the dead of night?
But those, I told myself, were thoughts for another day. Ivah guiding our warriors, we circled around the eastern fronts to get to ours unannounced. Going through the territories of sigils would have been quicker, but also risked skirmish. I did not want to start spending lives before we even got to the Flowing Gardens. The war had begun without us, it was plain to hear. The sounds of fighting carried across the void and echoed, making it hard to tell who was winning – if anyone at all – but it was too early in the day for anyone to be trying for knockout blows. For now the sigils would tentatively send out their lower ranks to probe the waters, hesitant to commit their most powerful Mighty until they had a better idea of what the opposition had brought. The main force of the Rumena should be busy taking over the central district, too, with only traitors and hunting bands out on most the other fronts. Save, I had guessed, the very front I was headed towards. Here they would want to break the core of the coalition early, before wind could touch its sails and they got a real battle on their hands. Still, with a little luck the fighting here would be limited between the two sides while the undecided local sigils watched on.
As it turned out, I was not going to get lucky.
My sigil crept through the mud quietly until we reached what now looked like a stone wall but must have once been the edge of a constructed island. Ivah had been ordered to lead us to the outermost edge of the district, close to one of the smaller sluice gates, and it had delivered. Its days spent marauding in the dark had given it a good notion of Great Strycht’s layout. I left my warriors at the bottom of the wall, going ahead with Archer and Ivah. The masonry here was fine and the stones polished by centuries of water, but I would have been able to climb this without too much trouble even before I’d become the Squire. We went up without a sound, Indrani disdaining my offer of a palm to jump off of in favour of a running leap. The top of the wall was a long rock pier, flanked by a structure where the sluice gate could be raised or closed, but it wasn’t either of those that drew our attention. The sound here hadn’t carried well, I decided, probably because all the sectioned parts and the ponds had broken it up. But now that we were up here, we had a decent look at the battle unfolding in the Flowing Gardens and it was a fucking mess.
“I’m counting at least eight sides,” Indrani murmured, kneeling behind a large stone cleat.
“More,” Ivah said. “Some sigils have yet to intervene. You can see their lookouts lurking at the edges of the fighting.”
It discretely pointed a finger and I followed the direction. Yeah, it was right. I could make out the silhouettes hiding within giant glowing ferns. I hesitated, just for a moment, because the place was a bloody nightmare. It was hard to tell where sigils began and where they ended: every islet was a melee, most fought between several sigils. There were two pairs of warbands going at each other with what had to be rylleh that I knew for a fact weren’t part of the coalition. They’d just… seen an opportunity, I supposed. The Rumena I could make out from the rest, mostly because they were slightly organized and winning most their fights. Either they’d come with some of their finest, I thought, or their lower ranks of Mighty were heads and shoulders above everyone else’s. It took me a few moments to figure out who was leading their expedition, since their forces were split. But near the southern edge of the Flowing Gardens there was a warband of maybe two hundred drow everyone was avoiding like the plague, and a triumvirate of Mighty positively reeking of Night that stood atop an islet while overlooking the mess. I got confirmation of my suspicions when one of them faced down and spoke at one of its warriors, a runner leaving immediately towards one of the detached Rumena warbands.
These were their officers, then.
“Archer,” I said. “Find a perch.”
“Gotcha,” she shrugged. “At will?”
“Try to draw in the bystanders,” I said. “Clip their lookouts, see if that gets them moving. After that…”
“Yes ma’am your queenliness,” she grinned.
She legged it, already stringing her bow as she went.
“Ivah, reach out to our beloved allies,” I said. “I don’t want to get in a brawling match with the people we’re supposed to be propping up.”
“As you say, Losara Queen,” the Lord of Silent Steps murmured. “And after?”
“Return to the sigil,” I said. “I’ll be busy making friends.”
That got a hard grin out of it, all teeth and malice. You learned that from us, I thought, and it almost troubled me. We were not teaching the drow kind lessons, and one that there would be a reckoning for that. It vanished into thin air, the glamour fine enough even I lost track of it, and slowly I rose to my feet. I looked down at my awaiting warriors, still at the foot of the wall.
“Over the top,” I ordered. “Forward, Losara Sigil.”
Even as they began to climb behind me, I cast an eye at the Rumena officers. Good, they hadn’t noticed me yet. Time to make my entrance. I let Winter loose and smiled, inhaling deep of the smell of blood and fear wafting from the battlefield.