“A hundred battles, even victories, will always lose you the war.”
– Theodosius the Unconquered, Tyrant of Helike
When I’d been told that General Rumena was at a forward position, in my mind’s eye I’d envisioned a Legion outpost: neat palisade with a dry moat in front, raised tower to serve as a better vantage point. Stone for everything instead, if it was meant to be a long-term outpost and funds allowed. I should have known better, by now, to expect more than a pack of tents and heavy screens of scouts.
“Your people are sloppy, Boss,” Robber said. “Nettles me a bit they caught my boys at all.”
The tone had been casual and the words mild, which was a telltale sign he was considering knifing a few drow to even scales the goblin way – which was to say, inflicting twice as many wounds as you’d received and then rubbing dirt in to make sure infection took. I might have taken it as face value, the posturing and the easy cutting lines, if I hadn’t seen him raw after losing people right before the beginning of the Battle of Three Hills. For all that Robber liked to put himself up as a goblin’s goblin, much like me he’d never quite learned how to make losses stop bruising. Juniper had always disapproved of that. Soldiers died, and it should not be taken lightly or misused but that was the nature of being a soldier. She’d always had the knack for keeping it distant. There were some people who had that in them, I supposed – Hakram did, and once upon a time Ratface had as well. Akua acted as if she belonged among those, but sometimes I did wonder. Is that who you are, or what you trained yourself to be? I didn’t turn around to look at him where he sat side-saddle on my horse, all bunched up behind me, but I pitched my voice to be well understood.
“I’m not happy some of ours got killed, Robber,” I said. “But there will be none of that. Like it or not, you came in quiet and ran into a watch that acted exactly as a watch should.”
“They don’t see so well in the day, though,” the goblin mildly said.
“About as well as humans,” I said, then dipped my tone towards a warning. “And I could warn you they’ve got entities behind them the sun doesn’t blind but I won’t have to, will I? Because I gave you an order.”
His teeth clicked softly as his mouth shut. He wasn’t happy about this – neither was I, even though I knew the fault did not lie on the side of the drow – but he knew better than to push. Legionaries baring blades on drow was the very last thing I needed right now. As Special Tribune, the goblin had the standing to sit in on most war councils: he knew better than most how precarious the situation was for the Army of Callow right now. Juniper had done well, in all fairness. Being stuck between two hostile armies that together made up near the double of your forces was no easy mess to squeak out of, if the enemy generals weren’t fools. And they were not, in this case. But her carefully laid plans had failed to account for one of the madmen on the stage, and now a crippling blow was coming. If we didn’t move fast enough to prevent it, anyway, which was the opposite of my intention. We’d get there in time even if I had to march the drow until they collapsed. I had absolutely no intention of losing ten thousand legionaries and the general that was the finest vanguard in Callow bar none.
There’d been a time where I would have been more effusive in describing Nauk, but the man under assault to the south wasn’t the same one I’d shared meals and fires with. If anything, the occasional similarities made the whole situation more disturbing – they put in relief everything that had changed when the Warlock had ‘healed’ him. I might not have to stay this way, I thought. Hope was always dangerous, but the thought refused to leave me. Warlock, for all his power and learning, had been a mage. Healing was an academic matter to them, a thing of physicality and measured energies. Most of what Summer’s fire had taken from Nauk was not anything the Sovereign of the Red Skies could bring back. I was no mage, and the more I learned the more I realized the endless depths of what I did not know. But these days I had goddesses at my back, and miracles in my hands. What sorcery had failed to return might not be beyond the reach of the Night. Winter had been match for Summer, hadn’t it? And Winter had been consumed. But hope was dangerous, and so I had kept my own council.
I rode into the camp at a brisk pace, having barely slowed from the gallop that brought me there, and ignored Robber’s malicious cackle at the splashes of muddy snow that drenched warriors too slow in getting out of my way. There was no missing where General Rumena itself would be: at the heart of the camp, within a tall pavilion, twin heartbeats of power whispered to me. The Sisters had known of my coming for some time, though conversation was difficult if we strayed too far from each other. They should have felt the urgency of my purpose, though, and Komena at least had served as a high-ranking officer many years ago. Between her and Rumena, I was not beyond hope that the six sigils whose banners I’d spied had prepared for immediate advance upon my arrival. I reined in Zombie with a thought when we arrived in front of the pavilion, sending a shiver of Night down my bad leg to make leaping down into the snow tolerable. It would ache later, I knew, but what patience I had left was better spent on other matters. Special Tribune Robber followed suit in his freshly-cleaned leathers and mail, shortsword at his side and crossbow at his back. The sapper’s bag hanging off his other side was still full, the drow not having bothered to paw at the munitions after making sure there were no maps or papers.
The goblin swaggered at my side as I entered the tent, baring his needle-like teeth at every warrior eyeing him. Well, he wasn’t one of the candidates I’d had in mind when I’d considered how to establish friendly ties between Callowan forces and the southern expedition. Maybe I should even consider this a good thing, I mused. The sooner the drow learned that trifling with goblins tended to end up in bear traps and mocking laughter the better, and who could get that point across faster than Robber? The war council awaiting me inside had few familiar faces aside from Rumena’s, as it turned out. Mighty Jindrich was the only one I knew even remotely – he’d apparently survived the mess in Great Strycht largely on account of being too angry to die – though names were hardly impossible to know considering their sigils spelled them out. Room had been left at the low table of obsidian and granite for me to join them down on the carpet, but instead of moving to do so I cast a look around. In the shadows of the upper pavilion I caught sight of a pair of crows. Their dark eyes rested on me, but they did not speak either in thoughts or words. The Sisters, it seemed, were currently disinclined to meddle. From the corner of my eye I caught Robber looking exactly where I was, though from the way his gaze swept over the goddesses without slowing I suspected he’d not been allowed to glimpse anything.
“General Rumena,” I greeted, leaning on my staff. “Many Mighty. At my side stands Special Tribune Robber, an officer in my service. He will be seated with us for this conversation.”
A few of the Mighty seemed displeased, but they stowed that away when my stare moved towards them. There was a reluctant bit of shuffling about until room for two was made. The sole goblin present’s amused smirk was a nearly physical thing. He might not speak Crepuscular, but he knew how to read a room.
“Losara Queen, First Under the Night,” General Rumena pleasantly greeted me in Crepuscular. “And… company. Please, claim seat at this table.”
“Our nice drow friends invited you to sit, Robber,” I translated in a mild tone. “And you’re going to be nice to them in return, aren’t you?”
“I will offer them every diplomatic courtesy you’ve taught me, Boss,” he smoothly agreed.
Well, there had to be at least one or two of those. Right? Not willing to take the plunge of thinking too deep about that, I sat myself down at the table and silently declined an offer of rodleva. While a few of the drow were sipping at polished cups of the brownish, warm mixture I’d never taken to it. That it involved butter made from the milk of a creature that looked cousin to a lizard would have put me off even if the liquid didn’t smell like cheese sent to the gallows and left for a week under the sun. Given the finer nose of goblins, no doubt Robber was taking it as torture.
“I won’t waste time on idle talk, given the situation,” I said. “I’ve had a fresh report from the Special Tribune including the location of an army in my service that it less than a day’s march from here. I assume our scouts have already found it?”
Rumena inclined its head.
“That and more,” it replied. “There is a force of horse-riders in the area that has been hunting our warriors.”
I frowned. If the Dominion already had cavalry this far behind Nauk’s back, his situation was worse than I’d been given to understand.
“Levantines?” I said.
“They do not bear the sigils as drawn by the Mighty Shade,” Rumena said.
Akua had used charcoal and skins to draw everything she remembered of Levantine heraldry, which was largely the great bloodlines but still much better than the previous nothing we’d had. I flicked at a glance at Robber, who was currently engaged in a staring contest with a very pleased Mighty Jindrich.
“Special Tribune,” I said. “When you left, did the Dominion have cavalry at the army’s back?”
The goblin let out a whistling breath.
“No,” he said. “But it might not be them, Your Majestic Terribleness. The riders, did they have bows?”
I almost translated for Rumena, until I remembered it spoke Lower Miezan just fine. It nodded when I met its eyes.
“Helike cataphracts,” I said. “Shit.”
I’d had a conversation with Juniper, once, about which Calernian cavalry was the finest. It’d been the knights of Callow in my eyes, of course, and the Hellhound had conceded that on open field and charging that was the case. She’d noted, though, that there was one other mounted force on the continent that would be able to take my countrymen apart. Helikean kataphractoi were more lightly armoured, as a rule, and unlike Callowan horse rarely used lances. They were, however, exceedingly well-trained in the use of curved bows meant to be used while mounted. There’d been no war between the League and Callow that would see the two forces conflict, and Helike as a city-state certainly couldn’t afford to field as many cataphracts as there’d been knights in the heyday of Callowan chivalric orders. But with matched numbers, Juniper had been of the opinion that given room to manoeuvre the Helikean horsemen would be able to slowly whittle away at Callowan heavy horse while taking minimal losses. And considering no other army on Calernia fielded mounted archers, there was no mistaking these for anyone else no matter the banner.
“Let me guess,” I sighed. “Less than four thousand overall, no infantry with them?”
“That is so,” General Rumena agreed.
Well, there was the rest of the Tyrant’s army. I’d suspected it wasn’t the full muster back in Rochelant, but I’d expected what remained to stay with the the League’s armies. Silly me, not anticipating Kairos would send his city’s entire cavalry contingent to stir up the pot as much as physically possible.
“All the more reason to link up with General Nauk’s forces,” I finally said. “If we want to drive them off on foot, we’ll need Callowan crossbow companies.”
Come night, it was true, a few packs of Mighty could probably tear through the Tyrant’s horsemen. But then somehow I doubted they’d risk that. They’d raid during the day, harass the expedition and retreat before a counterattack could be mounted. The drow didn’t have proper companies, after all, they had tribes. Some of those had archers and javelinmen, but getting a cohesive volley fired at the cataphracts would take too long – unless we took all the archers out of their sigils and made companies of them, which would be difficult. Not even a year ago most of these people had been at each other’s throats, and they weren’t used to taking commands from anyone but their own Mighty. Who’d be quite infuriated at having their warriors taken from their command, besides. I could see it done, of course. I had the Sisters at my back and General Rumena commanded respect from all but the most stubborn. But they weren’t trained to fight this way, and I was wary of eroding my goddess-given authority by using it too much. It was one thing to follow a high priestess to war against the contemptible surface peoples after the enterprise was blessed by the Night itself, another to remain all nice and supportive when said high priestess started chipping away at your subordinates. Proof, I supposed, that not even open divine favour was enough to get me out of fucking politics.
I needed the Mighty supportive, if I was to get steer this war to the right kind of ending.
“How soon can we set out?” I asked.
“Seven pridnis,” Genera Rumena replied without missing a beat. “Though we number only six thousand, Losara Queen. Fighting under pale light will carry risks.”
About two hours, I thought. We still had most of the afternoon until the sun set, but we wouldn’t get there today so that wasn’t what he meant. Our destination was past the town of Lancevilliers to the south. Even accounting for the second wind the drow would get after nightfall, the lethargy coming with dawn meant we wouldn’t be able to both arrive at Nauk’s position in Sarcella and be in fighting fit before at least Noon Bell. Unless I used a gate, which would get us there in hours but also light up the destination for anyone looking. I wasn’t ready for the Saint and the Pilgrim quite yet – if I drew them to that battle, I might just end up losing more than just the ten thousand under Nauk.
“We’ll have to regardless,” I said. “I ordered Mighty Breznej to send reinforcements our way before leaving, but we can’t afford to wait for them. Send back runner with an order to catch up as fast as they can, with a warning about the Helikeans.”
In a silent flutter the crows landed on my shoulders, and there was no further talk after that. Open divine favour, I mused, did have its perks.
We got to Lancevilliers before nightfall, not that it made much of a difference. The town was half-empty and there was no one in there remotely inclined to get in the way of an army. I would have preferred to avoid Proceran eyes entirely, but even a snowed-in road made for a quicker march than the countryside. I left behind a hundred drow led by Mighty Sudone to – gently, I made very clear – interrogate the locals for anything they might now. The southern expedition itself had standing orders not to a lay a hand on anyone but soldiers unless they were attacked, and to refrain from looting. The first one had been a hard sell, though the second surprisingly not. The Firstborn were amusingly skeptical that anything of human make could ever rival the works of their own kind, and centuries of barter economy meant they put little stock in silver and gold. Furniture and furs turned out to be the main temptations: both wood and furred creatures were a rarity underground. I’d leaned on Rumena to allow for supply requests to be lodged with the Mighty when it came to furs, given the weather, but for the furniture I had no sympathy. We weren’t going to start dragging around nice Alamans bureaux anytime soon, no matter how nice they looked in tents. I’d also laid down a rule against rape, though that’d mostly been a formality. Drow hardly even slept with their own kind, sexual interest in humans was nonexistent.
Ivah had once informed me that its kind considered the most visible characteristics associated with men and women – beards, breasts – to be somewhat vulgar. It had said that in a tone implying it was paying me a compliment, which when I’d grasped why had achieved something of the opposite effect. Sadly, Archer had yet to tire of talking about it.
Our pace significantly quickened after dusk, even dzulu moving at a pace Robber found impressive. Well he’d compared them to goblins, anyway, which in his eyes probably counted as a compliment. Not many non-goblins would agree, I suspected. Mighty Sudone and its hundred caught up a few hours in, bearing wild rumours but nothing of any real use. I used our time to brief General Rumena and its cadre of sigil-holders on the military happenings of the last few months in Iserre as related to me by Robber. How the Army of Callow had ended up stuck between two hosts of forty thousand Levantines I covered only the broad strokes of, focusing on their current inability to gate out. What had followed was, in essence, my marshal trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the enemy commanders and partially succeeding. The Dominion had moved to crush Juniper, the army to the north throwing a delaying force in the way of Grem’s legions before sending the rest of its number after her own forty thousand legionaries. The southern Levantines had not bothered with such subtlety, marching in full battle array towards the Army of Callow. The idea was, by the looks of it, to end the Callowan army before turning against the other forces in the principality: Grem and the League. The Hellhound wasn’t that easy to end, though. She’d decisively marched south and forced a minor battle against the lower Levantine army before she could be stuck in a pincer.
Reluctant to risk an all-out battle before the northern reinforcement arrived and their numbers grew overwhelming, the southern Levantines had given ground after the day’s battle. My soldiers did have something of a reputation, when it came to facing rough odds – and the Levantines had not boasted that. Juniper had then split the Army of Callow into four columns of ten thousand and fled under cover of night. Two columns had gone eastwards, to slip around the northern Levantines, while the remaining two had gone westwards and made sure they were loud about it. One of those columns was under General Nauk, the other General Bagram. The latter had taken a moment to place – he was an orc, once General Istrid’s second-in-command. Until recently he’d been tasked with holding Summerholm, but evidently he was moving up in the world. Nauk had been tasked with baiting the southern Levantines into following him, while General Bagram was to serve as reserve and guard his back in case the northern army wanted to try assaulting the western columns. It was classic Juniper, I thought when Robber first told me about it. Depending on enemy action, she could redeploy and put the hurt to them however she wanted.
If the northern Levantines went after the Hellhound’s two columns, she only had to keep them marching until Grem’s force could hit them in the back and the pincer manoeuvre became Callow’s. If they continued marching to join up with their southern comrades, the four columns would escape the noose and join up with Grem’s host. If the southern Levantines went after Nauk and Bagram, they’d be led in a merry chase until Juniper and Grem came down south together to relieve the western columns. If they marched east or north, instead, once again the four columns escaped disaster and linked up in northern Iserre. It’d seemed to work, at first. The last Robber had heard of the eastern columns, they had the northern Levantines after them. The problem had come when Nauk’s column was hit from the back even as the southern Levantines came after them. Helikean cavalry had ambushed his rearguard, slowing his advance just long enough for the Levantines to gain grounds and begin their own cavalry raids. Messages from General Bagram had ceased, presumably because cataphracts were killing the messengers, anf his column had never come to reinforce Nauk’s. What followed was a ragged retreat, eventually tumbling into the minor city of Sarcella which fell to the column without a fight.
Sarcella had no walls, most its people had fled because of the roving armies in the region and the city garrison had apparently ‘retreated towards a more defensible position’ the moment they saw an enemy host approaching. Knowing he was in a bad position, Nauk had raised field fortifications in Sarcella and held the grounds against a probing attack by a Levantine vanguard of around sixteen thousand – which didn’t want to commit to more before the full forty thousand were there. He’d planned to start the retreat once more after forcing an opening, but rumours of a large force marching towards his back had forced him to delay and send scouts lest he blunder into a battle he could not win. Said force was my drow, which was biting irony. Taking reinforcements for foes might very well see a quarter of the Army of Callow slain in the heartlands of Procer.
There were still things unaccounted for. No one knew where the Hells the column under General Bagram was. I doubted even Helike cataphracts could tie down two forces over twice their size, but the Tyrant might have more tricks up his sleeve. I’d been inclined to think that between reports of my drow army – an unknown – and the kataphractoi it might just be that General Bagram had written off Nauk’s column as done for and begun full retreat, but Robber had given me the first bit of good news in a while when explaining why that was unlikely. Adjutant was with the column, nominally as an observer but in fact because he was keeping an eye on the two western columns. Tyrant or not, I’d put my faith in Hakram coming through. If he wasn’t backing up Nauk there was a good reason for it. That, or he was on his way already. Gods, let it be the second. Even assuming Nauk’s forces hadn’t been mauled too badly holding Sarcella against a second assault, I was only bringing six thousand drow as reinforcements. And one goblin, I supposed. None of us could be sure whether or not the entire Dominion force of forty thousand had arrived yet, or if it was still only the vanguard, but if it had… Well, under the light of day the Firstborn were disorganized light infantry with poor armour and disparate weaponry. Six thousand of those in addition to what remained of Nauk’s army might not be enough to see us through to the night and the accompanying swing of the balance.
Dawn cost us four hours, to my seething impatience, but I used the time to nap and get my hands on a decent steel longsword. I’d fed my sword-within-the-staff throughout the night, but I had no intention of using it yet. I could wield it as a staff, but polearms were hardly my specialty and I was a lot more fragile than I used to be. Best to put the odds on my side in every way. We moved out the moment it was physically possible to, and by Morning Bell we could see Sarcella.
It was hard to miss it, what with the way it was on fire.