“I see how it is. We agree to single combat and of course you can still use your enchanted sword, but I bring a single massive flying fortress and suddenly it’s ‘treachery’ and ‘against the spirit of the agreement’.”
– Dread Emperor Perfidious
Ivah wore my colours painted on its face, as did the drow around it.
Silver on purple, a tree with twin incomplete circles under the branches. The Lord of Silent Steps – though the power of that title had waned in weight with the devouring of Winter itself – still stood tall and blade-thin, pale grey features split by vivid eyes that split the difference between silver and blue. The long overcoat and scarf it wore was flattering to its frame, though the face still remained so profoundly inhuman in some ways I could not help but find it unsettling. The drow had been made from a fundamentally different mold than humans, for all the superficial similarities. The colours the first member of my Peerage wore were unsettling in a different way, though, a reminder that as far as the Empire Ever Dark was concerned I still remained the ruler of the Losara Sigil and a member in good standing of the Sisters-blessed cabal making up the southern expedition. That I had left Ivah to rule and refrained from exercising that theoretical authority since we’d left the Everdark seemed to matter little in the eyes of the Firstborn. There seemed to be an assumption that as First Under the Night I simply found it beneath me to meddle too deeply in earthly affairs. The drow knelt when Akua and I arrived, conversation having died out before we even entered the thicket of trees.
“Well, you look slightly less pissy than before,” Archer announced.
I squinted at my friend in confusion.
“Why are you hanging upside down?” I asked.
Indrani was currently hanging off a branch by the mere edge of her boots, scarf and coat rumpled by the merciless grasp of gravity. None of the drow seemed to think there was anything unusual about this, a sure sign they’d been subjected to her presence for much too long.
“It helps me think,” Archer sagely replied.
I flicked a glance at the drow and they rose back to their feet.
“You don’t have to pretend she’s funny, you know,” I told them. “Deep down, she also knows that she isn’t.”
“It is not my place to comment on the wisdom of Mighty Archer,” Ivah replied.
There was a beat.
“Should it be granted to me,” the Lord of Silent Steps added.
I smothered a grin. Taking well-deserved potshots at Indrani was the sole common ground between all peoples of Calernia. I’d bet even the Dead King would yank her chain if given the opportunity. Archer let out a strangled noise of protest, trying to swat at the drow’s head, but instead got tangled in her own coat and began swinging precariously. We all pretended not to see Akua whisper something under her breath just before the branch Indrani was hanging off of suddenly broke and she fell with a yelp.
“All quiet this morning, I take it?” I asked Ivah.
I kept my eyes on it, though even through this careful precaution I could not help but hear Indrani muttering imprecations in half a dozen different languages. For a heartbeat I missed Masego so vividly my heart twanged. It should have been him, forcing her down the tree after she pulled at his metaphorical pigtails one time too many. I hid the sudden shift in my mood as best I could, forcing a smile as I faced Ivah.
“We appear to be alone in the region,” the drow acknowledged. “No runner left from Trousseau after we departed, and so one might presume our presence is still currently unknown.”
With the Sisters swatting aside everything remotely like scrying headed in our direction, it might not be wrong. I wouldn’t presume, though. Not with Above having so much skin in this race, and Choirs having grown so loose-lipped over the last few years.
“We’ll see,” I replied. “It’d be and advantage to remain in the woodworks until we strike, but rumours could have a use as well. It’ll depend on where the others armies are relative to us.”
I’d rather avoid a battle in Iserre if I could, given that ever corpse made here was a warm body that couldn’t be thrown at the Dead King, but given some of the players involved I might not have much of a choice about it. I fully intended on evacuating the Legions of Terror that my teacher had led into Procer, after all. Which I imagined would be a less than popular notion with some people, given that they’d been merrily burning their way through the heartlands of the Principate until recently.
“Cat,” Archer said.
I rolled my eyes, continuing to face Ivah.
“You’ve seen the lay of the land on the way to Rochelant,” I said. “Will it by bloody ice and snow all the way?”
“Cat,” Archer repeated, and this time her tone commanded my attention.
I pivoted slightly only to realize she wasn’t even looking at me. Her eyes were peeled on the horizon, to the south. I couldn’t see anything there, but then I was no longer Named. That hardly meant I was without tricks, though. I pulled at the Night, untangling a cool thread and sinking it into my eyes. It took a few blinks to adjust, but after that I could see just as well as Archer. I let out a breath of surprise when I caught sight of what she had. Riders, I thought. Nine of them, on tall grey horses with long manes and tails. The soldiers on them were in light armour, though sets swaddled in thick furs and heavy cloth hats. Those were spears at the side, I noted, not lances. And they had blades but no shields.
“Akua?” I said.
“Levantine,” Diabolist replied. “Though without colours visible I cannot not tell you from which region.”
“Well now,” I murmured. “Isn’t that interesting.”
The armies of the Dominion of Levant should be making their way through southern and central Iserre right about now, if the rumours were to be believed. Hot on the heels of Marshal Grem’s legions. So what were outriders doing this far out to the east of the principality? They were still about a mile and a half out, but these were flat plains so the chance they hadn’t seen the massive army of fifty thousand drow encamped was negligible. They were riding closer, though. Most likely trying to get a read on whose camp this was, which would be difficult to make out from that far out.
“I have questions for them,” I said.
I felt Indrani’s smile without needing to look at her.
“Thought you might,” she said.
I cocked my head to the side, still studying them. With the sun out and the imprecisions inherent to a working at that distance, trapping them would carry risks. Best to tinker with the odds a bit first.
“Archer,” I said. “Kill the horses.”
A good longbow, the kind the Deoraithe used, could have a range of about four hundred yards. Effective killing range should be about half that. Legion-issue crank crossbows, the finest on the continent, could reach three hundred and fifty yards and could be expected to score kills at around one hundred and fifty. I had just casually asked Indrani to kill nine horses in motion at over ten times that distance, and the grin on her face told me she did not doubt for a moment she could do it. I watched with fascination as Archer strung the almost comically large longbow she usually kept on her back. It’d been crafted in the Waning Woods, I knew, from some sort of magical tree. Then additional enchantments had been laid on it. Back in the old days, Nauk had once tried to draw the string back and nearly broken his arm trying. That the most physically powerful mundane orc I’d ever met couldn’t even get that string to move an inch told me everything I needed to know about the absurd amount of tension there was to her bow.
The thing was, I thought as I watched her work, was that most of this was Indrani. Oh, I felt the whisper of power than was an aspect invoked. See. But that just allowed Archer to wield the kind of eyesight and foresight the woman who’d taught her to shoot would have by simple virtue of her elven blood. The strength to pull the string came in part from her Name, which up close and personal allowed to he slug it out with the likes of Adjutant and titled fae. But if Hakram, or I for that matter, had been granted the exact same strength and sight we wouldn’t have been able to make those shots. The skills, the part that couldn’t be replicated? That was all Indrani. Years upon years of nocking and releasing until her fingers bled, until the movements became such a natural part of her there no longer needed to be thought involved. Indrani could and had made a bloody mess of most everything that came up to her when she had her longknives in hand. But it was when she had that bow in her hand that something about her thrummed, that it all came together and I remembered that Archer was more than just a name.
It was Name, and she held it for a reason.
Eyes fixed ahead, she breathed out and like poetry in motion she drew and released. Not a single movement wasted, not a single pause. It was almost hypnotic to watch, like waves on the sea – there was no pause or separation to any of the process. Nine arrows flew, a smirk tugged at her lips and before the projectiles even reached their apex I reached for the Night. My eyes were on the Levantines and I felt talons dig into my shoulders, the Sisters with me even if their crow-forms were not. Whispers sounding in my ear, I held my will into shape and forced the Night to match it. And then waited, watching the riders as the arrows struck home. The first hit between the eyes of the lead horse, sinking straight into the skull and killing it instantly. The ninth arrow went straight through the eye of the horse even as the rider began to realize its companions had been attacked. For every arrow to claim a kill had taken perhaps a single heartbeat, from beginning to end.
Sometimes I forgot how terrifying the people at my side really were.
“And now, for the next trick,” I said.
Under the Levantines the ground turned to ink-like darkness, growing from a single small mark to a broad circle. The Sisters held my hand, guiding the needle as I threaded it through the fabric of Creation, and when the gate opened every one of the outriders fell through it. If they’d still been on their horses, alert instead of trying not to be crushed by their own fallen mounts, the process might have been slow enough for them to flee it. Night had won over Winter, in the end, and so dawn had its costs. As it was, though? I let the Sisters guide my hand once more and another gate bloomed in front of our group. Seven heartbeats later, nine riders and their dead horses tumbled through. One was screaming in terror at the fall through the sky of Arcadia he had just escaped, though that ended when he felt an obsidian spear-tip pressing against his throat. He swallowed loudly as my sigil surrounded the lot of them.
“Good morning,” I smiled brightly. “I thought we might have a little chat, just you and me and all these heavily armed people surrounding you.”
My gaze swept across the soldiers, most of which were still in shock. Some had pulled muscles or broken limbs on arrival, the poor fucker to the rightmost having his horse right over his leg. Yeah, that was shattered for sure. It was only when I saw the uncomprehending gazes taking me in that I realized the slight strategic mistake I had not accounted for. I looked at Indrani and Akua.
“I don’t suppose either of you speaks any of the Levantine languages?” I grimaced.
Twin shakes of the head. So no Lunara, Ceseo and what was the third one again? Couldn’t remember at the moment. Well, it hardly mattered anyway. I couldn’t speak or understand any of them. I’d been meaning to get around to learning some tradertalk, which tended to be understood everywhere in southern Calernia, but I’d had higher priorities as of late.
“What I understand of Lunara is insufficient, but outriders sent to operate in the Principate’s heartlands should have at least one individual fluent in a Proceran tongue,” Akua pointed out. “If only to speak with the local inhabitants. I have some knowledge of tradertalk that could be of use, in the unlikely event this is not true.”
My eyebrow rose. Made sense, and worth a shot regardless.
“Any of you speak Chantant?” I asked in said tongue.
“Who the fuck are you people?” a middle-aged mustachioed man growled back.
It was a very impressive mustache, I mentally conceded. It was refusing to be cowed by the scarf meant to cover it, defiantly peeking out over the edge.
“And there were go,” I smiled, shifting to Crepuscular. “Ivah, go wake up General Rumena if it’s asleep and bring it back here. We appear to have gotten our hands on fresh intelligence.”
“By your will, Losara Queen,” my Lord of Silent Steps bowed.
I nodded back fondly, watching it move out swiftly to carry my orders. I turned back to the Levantines.
“Surrender your weapons,” I said, back on Chantant. “And remain seated on the ground. You are now joint prisoners of the Empire Ever Dark and the Kingdom of Callow.”
That’d been a calculated move. I hadn’t truly needed to bring Callow into it, or mention the freshly revived name of the ancient drow empire – which, given that the region was still known as the Everdark, meant didn’t take any real brilliance to be able to put together the identity of the grey-skinned warriors surrounding the prisoners. It told me something useful, though: everyone who stilled or went pale could understand the language I was speaking. Out of the nine, four gave a visible reaction. One did not, save for moving back to learn against a tree, but the calculating look in his eyes told me he’d not missed a thing. This one’s already thinking of how to get out of this mess, I decided. There were no visible marks of rank on any of them, but I’d guess he was an officer. Clever sorts could be useful, if inclined to talk, but they could also screw up an interrogation pretty badly if allowed to speak up. Best to separate these before we got into it.
“You’re the Black Queen,” the maybe-officer suddenly said.
In Chantant, too. Interesting.
“In the flesh,” I replied, the irony known to few quirking my lips.
The statement had been the offered opening of a conversation, if I was reading this right, but I remained disinclined to allow the prisoners to know what the others had and had not said. People were always more inclined to fold if they believed someone already had.
“Bring them back to camp after taking the weapons,” I ordered the drow. “Leave the one who just spoke behind.”
I cleared my throat before addressing the Levantines.
“You were told to surrender your weapons,” I said. “They will now be collected. Resist and you will be subjected to force. Obey and you will be treated fairly. I will not warn you twice.”
They were soldiers, I thought, but also sworn to a crusade. A warning wouldn’t be enough for all of them. One of the outriders tried to reach for his scabbard and got a spear through the palm for it, which had another screaming and struggling until one my warriors decked him in the mouth. Maybe-officer did not resist. I let the drow of my sigil escort the prisoners without a look and gestured at those who remained to step back. It was sunny morning out, the air was crisp and I met the gaze of the Levantine prisoner without blinking.
“Name, rank?” I asked.
“Wasim of Tartessos. I am second in this band,” he replied.
Tartessos was… the second northernmost city in Levant, if I remembered correctly, which was for some inexplicable reason built on the edge of the Brocelian Forest. I’d read in some history that the people from there were known to be hardy and ruthless, which considering the boiling cauldron of beasts they lived next to only made sense. I heard Archer unstring her bow before moving to lean against a tree, likely already starting to get bored and paying only the barest necessary attention to this. Diabolist, though, had been studying this Wasim the whole time in silence. I could trust her to pick on anything I’d miss.
“You are an outrider,” I said. “In the service of the Dominion?”
“I gave oath to the Lord of Malaga when there was a call to arms,” Wasim said. “By the will of the Holy Seljun, he holds command of half the forces of Levant.”
“Implying there is no unified command for the armies of the Dominion,” Akua noted in Crepuscular. “That could be of use. Levantine nobility rules its lands with only the barest homage paid to their Seljun, so their leaders might chafe at taking orders from anyone else.”
I inclined my head in acknowledgement, never taking my eyes off the prisoner.
“Where are the Lord of Malaga and his army, at the moment?” I asked.
How much are you really willing to tell me when I’ve made no threat?
“Marching for the capital of Iserre,” he replied.
“Lying,” Diabolist said.
“And we were doing so well, until that,” I said. “You struck me as a clever man, Wasim of Tartessos.”
I flicked my wrist at Archer. A heartbeat later a longknife was buried up to the hilt into the tree Wasim was lying back against. Less than an inch away from his jugular. I met his eyes squarely.
“Clever men don’t make the same mistake twice, do they?” I asked.
The soldier swallowed loudly.
“They do not,” he hastily agreed.
“Where are the Lord of Malaga and his army?” I mildly repeated.
“When I was sent out, they were preparing to take a defensive position to the southwest of here,” Wasim said. “Near the town of Maleims.”
“To defend against who, exactly?” I frowned.
“The League of Free Cities,” he said. “They march against the Tenth Crusade, led by the Tyrant of Helike and their madman Hierarch.”
My frown deepened. I’d been under the impression the forces of the League were much further south. They were either moving much more quickly than should be possible for a sizable army, or I’d been misinformed.
“Could be a detached force instead of the main host,” Archer suggested in Lower Miezan.
She’d regained a semblance of interest in this, it seemed. Probably because she’d gotten to throw a blade at someone.
“They came from the Waning Woods,” I said. “That means they don’t have a supply train. If they start splitting forces, either they split their limited foodstuffs as well or the detachment starts foraging.”
And there wasn’t much to live off of in this region. Sure they could start sacking towns and small cities for their reserves but even then the Legions of Terror had pretty much picked clean most of the principality. You couldn’t take much food from people already only the verge of starvation. It could just be a bad decision someone up the chain of command had done – either incompetence or lack of information – but that didn’t smell right to me. If they were that incompetent and ill-informed, they wouldn’t have made it through the Waning Woods in the first place.
“If we assume the League force was sent out with sufficient supplies, then something prompted that investment of resources,” I finally said. “Something we don’t know about, but the League’s generals do.”
“Wasim,” Akua said. “Was your band of outriders sent out with specific purpose?”
The Levantine man grimaced.
“We were to investigate rumours,” he said.
“Skirmishes between two armies,” Wasim admitted. “Legionaries and the League.”
I traded a look with Akua. There was no way, we both knew, that the legions under Marshal Grem could be this far east. But there was another army on the continent that fielded legionaries.
So what the Hells was the Army of Callow doing out here, and why the Hells was the League of Free Cities fighting it?