“After Isabella the Mad was appointed to the command of the hosts of Procer to turn back the forces of the Tyrant Theodosius, the First Prince asked of her when she expected the war to be brought to a successful conclusion. ‘It should take,’ she famously replied, ‘about a hundred battles.'”
– Extract from ‘The Banquet of Follies, or, A Comprehensive History of the First League War’ by Prince Alexandre of Lyonis
It was around half an hour before Noon Bell that we got close enough to Sarcella to get a decent idea of what was happening inside. Well, aside from the fire. That one had been pretty obvious even from miles away, which in my surprisingly extensive experience of setting fire to things wasn’t a good sign for the people in the area. As it turned out the city of Sarcella itself was, well, almost offensively Proceran. How anyone could bother to shell out coin for an elaborate ring of ogre-tall statues and arches around their city but not a proper curtain wall was beyond me. Oh, sure, whoever that tall bald man in furs with a sword was might be nicer to look at on a sunny day, but that was the kind of thinking that got you invaded by the Legions of Terror. The damned things were granite, too, which I vaguely remembered being one of the cheaper stones floating around Principate markets. Bastards hadn’t even been able to afford marble or limestone, had they? There was still a tax on granite back from the days of House Fairfax, I was pretty sure, though it wouldn’t have been applied in over forty years – trade with Procer had understandably hit something of a low point after the Conquest. I supposed the saving grace of the whole affair was that granite statues would at least take more than a single glancing trebuchet shot before breaking.
Still, for all that at least Sarcella was slightly more defensible than I’d expected. It’d been raised on a few lazily-sloped hills, so there was some incline to work with, and unlike the flammable nightmare maze that had been Rochelant this city had a few paved and relatively straight avenues for troop deployment. Some parts of the outer city had houses of wood and stone clustered so tightly together they were impassable, a wall in fact if not in name. I couldn’t quite get a look at the furthest reaches of Sarcella, but it looked like it’d been the same parts of it burning for most of our march: with a little luck, the flames had run into row stone houses or a ditch of some sort. I really hoped it’d been accident, to be honest, because if it wasn’t odds were it’d been Nauk giving the order and if that was the case I might be responsible in a broader, metaphysical sense. Well, it was my army, but aside from that I doubted Rat Company officers had been so prone to tactical arson before they’d come under my command. Aside from Robber, anyway, who in these matters did not count since he was both a goblin and a sapper – the moment he’d chosen that career track at the War College he’d grown beyond saving. Regardless, most of the southeastern corner of the city was a hellscape of flames and smoke but it wasn’t spreading much further out. Which had done absolutely nothing to prevent the inhabitants of Sarcella from fleeing in a panic.
That was even more obvious than the fire, in a way, because the Procerans were crowding the road out Sarcella like a massive flock of startled birds. There were at least five or six thousand civilians streaming out of the city, with more behind, and they were moving at a slug’s pace. Few of them had carts to carry their possessions, and those that did got stuck on the muddy road out more often than not. The overwhelming majority were carrying everything they could of what they owned in bags or tied on their backs, a roiling exodus of people and goods. Some were even dragging furniture, with a least one very nice armoire put on planks and dragged by two middle-aged men. Probably the most expensive thing they owned, I mused. The river of fleeing Procerans filled the road in full, moving forward sluggishly, and as my gaze lingered on the armoire I realized why they’d been allowed to drag even furniture out of the danger. General Rumena caught up to me after I reined in my horse ahead of the first fleeing civilians, our six thousand warriors still further behind.
“This is madness,” the old drow said, eyes contemptuous as it watched the civilians. “Why was this allowed to happen?”
“Because Nauk’s tactical acumen has improved,” I replied. “Watch the city’s sides, Tomb-Maker.”
He caught what I had quickly enough. Levantine light cavalry out in the snow, at least a thousand on either side. Not massing for an assault, at the moment – if I had to guess, there’d be crossbows and spikes awaiting them at every street large enough for a charge. But if I were the enemy commander, I’d keep them there to force those crossbow companies into remaining there where they weren’t shooting at my soldiers. Maybe strengthen the cavalry numbers when things got heated on the main front enough that a simultaneous charge on both sides could serve as the killing blow for the entire Callowan army. Having to watch both sides as well as the city’s back, where the avenues where the largest and most open, would have been a waste of soldiers. So I was thinking Nauk had encouraged the Procerans to flee with their possessions, neatly filling that space with scared civilians the Levantines couldn’t ride down without starting the kind of major diplomatic incident that’d send cracks going down the Great Alliance. I was honestly impressed with my general. He’d never been a fool, but his cleverness had always been a military one. It now seemed his thinking had expanded to other theatres. Unfortunately, at the moment his clever trick was also preventing us from reinforcing him quickly. I weighed down my options in silence.
I could probably scatter the crowd with some application of Night, but should I? That’d be leaving a hole in Nauk’s defensive perimeter, most likely. There’d be enough of a risk I’d have to leave drow behind to hold that territory, and considering the size of those cavalry contingents it would have to be at least two thousand warriors. Light horse or not the Firstborn just weren’t used to facing down cavalry charges, and they lacked the bows, pikes and discipline to be naturals at turning them back. Slipping in through one of the flanks would take longer, though. Maybe an hour or so, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take that risk without a better notion of how the fight for the city was going. There was no point in arriving neatly if the delay cost us the battle. And that the fight was going, there was no doubt about that – I could make out the command horns and the faint sound of screams and steel even from where I sat. There was nothing quite as catastrophically loud as a hard battle, was there? Clenching my fingers, I spit to the side.
“Rumena, pick out two thousand warriors,” I said.
“Will you be spitting on them as well, First Under the Night?” the old drow drily asked.
“That one’s a bit of a stretch,” I replied without missing a beat. “Careful with those, you know your back’s not what it used to be.”
“At least one of us should live to reach old age,” Rumena smoothly retorted.
Damn it. Was it really too much to ask to get the last word against it even once? The fact that my bloody goddesses were quite literally crowing in the back of my head at this most recent of defeats only made it worse. My eyes flicked ahead. It wouldn’t be long before the first fleeing Procerans arrived in shouting distance, but I’d have the drow at my side before it came to that. I yelled at Rumena to fetch me Robber while it was at it, watching it stroll away to carry out my orders. I looked up at the noon sky, that vast spread of blue without a single cloud to temper the glare of the sun. It was good fighting weather, I thought. Mild for a winter day, and the snow might thaw a bit if it kept up. Twin shadows flickered into sight, gliding down with lazy grace, and I turned my eyes back to the Procerans as the crow-shaped slivers of godhood landed on my shoulders. They ran their metaphysical fingers down the spine of my thoughts, partaking of my intent.
“First time I ever saw Black use the trick, I wasn’t sure it was one,” I mused. “The second time, though? I promise myself I’d make it my own one day.”
“Not a subtle tool,” Andronike said.
“Yet versatile,” Komena opined.
We left it at that, for now. General Rumena came back holding a wiggling Robber by the scruff of the neck – impressive, considering it was day and my Special Tribune still had his armour on – before offering him up like some kind of furious green cat.
“Get on,” I said, cutting in before the goblin could complain. “There’s a war on, Tribune. Rumena, tell our warriors to stick close to me and not spread out.”
“As in all things your guidance is paramount, Losara Queen,” it replied.
I detected the faintest hint of sarcasm in that, due to my unparalleled courtly sentivities.
“Wait, you speak Lower Miezan?” Robber hissed out. “You prick, you pretended you-”
I cleared my throat, and with ill-grace the goblin scampered onto the back of my mount. I patiently watched until my six thousand drow formed into a rough column. The vanguard of the fleeing civilians had finally noticed our presence and distant shouts in Chantant and Tolesian sounded. Some angry, some curious, some afraid. I could have tried to engage, but to be frank I didn’t have the time to be gentle about this.
“Follow,” I called in Crepuscular.
My staff of ebony rose, and I reached for the Night. The Sisters helped me shape it, refine my intent and cut away the impurities until all that was left was fear. I felt Robber stiffen behind me, then almost defiantly loosen his limbs and grip. Zombie started at a gallop without further ado and the drow followed behind me.
With screams of blind terror, the inhabitants of Sarcella parted like the sea.
It was a simple enough working that maintaining it wasn’t too much of a strain, especially with the guidance of the Sisters, but I was noticeably tired by the time we reached the tall arch that was the broadest entrance into the city. There’d been a few incidents making our way down the road, civilians who reacted to even supernatural terror with aggression, but they were beaten down and thrown to the side without any deaths involved. One drow was nicked by a wildly flailing sausage knife and was loudly mocked by the rest of its sigil for the rest of the walk, but that was the closest thing to a casualty we incurred. To my approval, the sight of my army approaching by the largest road into the city was met with hastily assembled palisade and at least half a hundred crossbows. From atop my horse I could even see messengers running further in to ask for reinforcements. I rode up ahead of the drow, allowing the fear to die and my shoulders to loosen. I felt like I’d run a footrace – in a metaphysical instance where both my legs were still in good shape, it should be said – but I was tired and not exhausted. Tired I could work with. It was old hand to me. The Sisters took flight before we were hailed, more interested in taking a look at the killing than staying around for the formalities.
“Close enough, stranger,” an officer called out from atop the palisade. “Identify yourself. This city has been seized by the Kingdom of Callow, in the name of Her Majesty Catherine Foundling – are you friend or foe to her?”
I cocked my head to the side. A mop of blond hair could be made out from under the helmet, and that was definitely a Liessen accent tainting the hail spoken in very shaky Chantant.
“Yes, Boss,” Robber murmured, sounding utterly delighted. “Are you friend or foe to Her Majesty? I think a case can be made for both. Tough call to make, really.”
“You’re talking to her, lieutenant,” I called back in Lower Miezan. “Split those palisades and take me to General Nauk.”
“Come off it,” the Liessen laughed. “You’re way too short. If you’re the bloody Black Queen then I’m Empress of Procer.”
Blowing up the palisade was not an acceptable response, I reminded myself. It was my palisade, technically speaking, so it was doubly beneath me to do so. Robber shook convulsively behind me, trying not to cackle out loud. There was some talk coming from out of sight, behind the palisade, then a goblin’s head popped over the edge. I squinted. I’d seen that one before, though I couldn’t put a name to the face. He was one of Robber’s officers.
“Captain Borer,” the ingrate gargoyle behind me provided, still snickering.
“Open the way immediately,” the goblin ordered. “Your Majesty, welcome back.”
I inclined my head in thanks. The Empress of Procer turned white as a sheet. I barked out orders in Crepuscular for the drow to follow me in good order, then put Zombie to a trot as the wooden fortifications were dragged open. Captain Borer, unlike his commanding officer, snapped a textbook-perfect salute when I approached. There were less than a hundred soldiers here, most of them crossbowmen, though I suspected with the runners I’d seen move out earlier that was about to change. I glanced at the still-pale Liessen lieutenant, who’d joined the throng of officers gathering around me, and cocked an eyebrow.
“Your Highness,” I drily said. “What a surprise to find you here.”
He forced out a shaky laugh, but ended up choking on it for trying to swallow nervously while keeping it up.
“Who’s in command here?” I asked.
There were lieutenants and sergeants here, but no one any higher up the ladder. Unusual.
“That would be me, Your Majesty,” Captain Borer replied. “I am the sole captain of this front.”
Not a good sign, I thought. Not only was the goblin a sapper, he was part of Robber’s cohort – which was detached from the usual chain of command, by my personal authority. Sappers were usually passed over in favour of the closest same-rank officer when it came to combined commands, which was hinting at a severe officer shortage.
“You’re relieved, Captain,” I said. “Behind me are foreign troops from the Empire Ever Dark, to be considered auxiliaries for the duration of this battle. They’ll be holding the area in your place. Robber?”
The goblin leapt down with unnatural agility, landing with a flourish.
“Boss?” he asked.
“Gather your full cohort, then join me wherever the general staff has set up,” I ordered. “Captain Borer, I’ll need you to appoint a liaison to the drow. At their head is General Rumena, who’ll be advancing deeper into the city with four thousand infantry. Have it led at a location allowing for easy deployment to the fronts.”
“I’ll see it done, ma’am,” the goblin saluted.
There was a shudder of whispers through the assembled officers, looks were cast at the grey-skinned warriors still advancing towards the arch. The drow in the front ranks were looking back, looking distinctly unimpressed by the first human city most them had encountered.
“Merciful Gods,” a tall, dark-haired man with sergeant stripes said. “Drow. I thought they were stories.”
“Stories start from something, sergeant,” I amusedly said. “And our friends came out from the Everdark to fight on our side. Do pass the word along that they can be rather touchy, though. It’d be best if a little distance was kept.”
The stares I got at that made me rather uncomfortable. It was just a handful of officers, I thought, already part of my army anyway. And still I wondered if there’d be as much awe on their faces, if they knew how badly botched and misguided my journey into the Everdark truly had been. I doubted it. All they saw was old stories with strange weapons and eerie eyes come to swell our ranks. Shaking my head, I dismissed the thought.
“I’ll need someone to guide me to the general staff,” I said. “Is General Nauk holding command from there, or has he gone to the front?”
The awe was gone, whisked away in a heartbeat.
“Ma’am,” Captain Borer quietly said. “General Nauk no longer holds command. He was killed last night when the assault began. Legate Abigail is the current commanding officer.”
I was in front of my soldiers, I couldn’t show weakness. And still I closed my eyes. Breathe in, breathe out. Control. You can grieve when the city’s no longer burning, when your people are no longer fighting. He’d not been the same man I had called my friend, but I’d come to hope… Hope is always dangerous, I remembered. My eyes opened and my voice came out calm.
“I will need a guide, regardless,” I said. “Let’s get to it.”
I pulled my hood over my head, then Zombie impatiently stepped into the avenue and away from my officers. Thirty heartbeats later, I had my guide and I rode the city with dried eyes.
Pittance that it was, it was all I could afford to spare.
The high command for what I’d been informed was currently being called the ‘Third Army’ – presumably Juniper’s four separate columns each having been granted such a number – was clearly buckling under the weight of its responsibilities. It’d been a mansion, once, though clearly a wealthy merchant’s and not a noble’s as it was near the heart of Sarcella and not one of the more rarefied quarters. The location had been well-chosen, close to most of the arteries of the city and so easy to get messages to and from. I was ushered through a parade of wide eyes and gasps, until I reached what must have been the war room. It was at the very highest of the mansion, with broad windows overlooking the parts of the city either currently fought over or burning down. My attention, though, lingered on the fact that there were too few people here. A few aides, a few messengers, mages and hornblowers. But the actual officers? Less than ten. There were more tables loaded with scrolls and maps than there were people above the rank of tribune in here, which was stark statement as to the state of the Third Army. The presumed commanders saluted tiredly when I entered, obviously warned in advance, but I noticed the gaze of several brighten at the sight of me. I offered a smile, and turned to the only person in the room wearing a legate’s insignia.
Legate Abigail, I realized with a start, was younger than me. Barely twenty, by the looks of her. I’d come across her once or twice before Akua’s Folly, and later Juniper mentioned her to me before as the woman who’d drowned the incipient riots in Laure through strategic use of the royal palace’s cellars. She’d had a field promotion to legate after that, so she’d have the authority to keep the capital in order, but I was surprised the Hellhound had chosen to confirm the promotion afterwards. At most I’d expected her to move up from senior tribune to commander, after an actual legate relieved her. Were we really that hard up for high-ranking officers? I set aside the worry for now, looking over the younger woman discretely. Her black hair was slightly longer than Legion regulations allowed, but acceptably so for a foreign campaign. Sunburnt cheeks, watery blue eyes and a delicate nose. She had dark rings around her eyes like she hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in much too long, quite visibly exhausted. She was taller than me, I noted, but then who wasn’t?
“Your Majesty,” the legate croaked out in that thick Summerholm accent. “Gods, am I glad to see you.”
The general staff around her really was absurdly sparse, and what remained was in rough shape. There was a senior mage – Soninke, it’d be years before any Callowan was fit for that command – with a face whose rosiness betrayed recent mage healing and a staff tribune missing her right arm up to the elbow, but that was it. No senior sapper, no kachera or supply tribune. Two commanders, and one large orc tribune, but that was no proper general staff. What the Hells had happened here?
“Legate Abigail,” I replied with a nod. “Our drow allies found Special Tribune Robber’s tenth, and I hurried a march here with a first wave of six thousand reinforcements. I’m beginning to suspect the situation is worse than what was described to me.”
A few mirthless smiles bloomed at that.
“It’s a bloody mess, Your Majesty,” Legate Abigail said. “General Nauk swatted their first probe on Sarcella and the vanguard drew back, so we figured they were waiting for the rest of the army. But then they attacked last night, completely out of the blue. We think some noble showed up, riled them up for it.”
“Are you saying Nauk and the rest of his senior officers were lost on the frontlines?” I frowned.
“Them Dominion priests hit a meeting of the general staff,” she replied. “Lanterns, I think they’re called. One moment it’s night, then it’s bloody Light everywhere and most the room is dead. I was looking into a supply discrepancy so they didn’t get me and Oakes-”
“Legate Oakes,” the orc at her side provided in a gravelling voice.
“-Legate Oakes was walking the perimeter, so he didn’t get hit either,” Legate Abigail seamlessly adjusted.
I hid my amusement at the interaction, and the habitual ease it had come with.
“You’re senior to this Legate Oakes?” I asked.
“By a day, ma’am,” the woman ruefully replied. “Marshal Juniper said we were to serve under General Nauk and Legate Jwahir for proper blooding.”
“I guess we did get that, in the end,” she darkly said.
Well, wasn’t this a mess. It wasn’t like I had another commander to pull out of my sleeve – Rumena was arguably the most veteran, but it had not familiarity with Legion tactics and was needed to keep the drow orderly besides – so she’d have to do. I could take command myself, sure, but if this was as bad as it sounded like I’d be needed in the thick of it.
“Then you’ve just received a field promotion, General Abigail,” I grimly replied. “Congratulations. Now tell me how deep into the dark we are and, while we’re at it, why the Hells this city is on fire.”