“Necessity’s children are sometimes clever but always bloody.”
– Queen Yolanda of Callow, the Wicked (known as ‘the Stern’ in contemporary histories)
Godsdamnit, somehow she’d still ended up stuck in charge.
Legate – no, General now, because clearly someone Above was out to get her – Abigail had counted her blessings when she’d gotten word the Black Queen had come out of nowhere to save the day. The queen could take command, and she could go back to being as far as physically possible from the fighting while also not being expected to make any decisions that actually mattered. That was the trap, Abigail darkly thought. They lured you up the ranks with the promise of better pay and less people shooting arrows at you, until you got dragged so high you had to watch out for the noose instead. And she knew damn well what field promotion meant, thank you very much. It meant ‘do the work, Abigail, but we’ll only pay you what your last rank offered, and also best not fuck up or the Hellhound will eat your liver’. But she couldn’t exactly say any of that out loud, so General Abigail smiled all pretty for the very dangerous woman holding a staff that made people panic if they looked at it too long.
“I’m honoured, Your Majesty,” she lied.
Queen Catherine’s lips twitched the slightest bit. Abigail hid her flinch well. Could the Black Queen actually read thoughts and look into souls? Surely that was just a rumour. Still, best not to risk it and change the subject. You never knew with Named.
“The fire wasn’t our fault,” Abigail immediately said. “Wasn’t us who started it, either. I swear. The Lanterns ran out of the city after hitting the general staff and our people went after them. The chase ended up going through a grocer’s shop and there wasn’t no food in there, but there were candles and oil jugs.”
The Black Queen arched an eyebrow, saying nothing.
“It wasn’t us,” Abigail insisted. “I have five official reports showing it was some big Levant woman who broke into the room and tipped over the candles. We can’t be blamed for this, we even tried to stop the spread!”
Catherine Foundling’s lips twitched once more, and she patted the Abigail’s shoulder with open sympathy. She tried not to tremble at the touch. You were always less likely to get your blood frozen solid if you smiled.
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” the queen mused. “But I’ve been saying that for years, and no one ever believes me.”
The – temporary, if she had anything to say about it – general paled a little at the notion that she could end up getting a reputation like the Black Queen’s. Abigail had been in Summerholm when entire quarters burned green because the Squire needed to flush out a hero. Hells, she’d never have been dumb enough to enroll in the Legions if her family home and shop hadn’t been part of the cinders. Too late to bail now, though, she admitted to herself. She wasn’t sure if even temporary generals were allowed to retire. Maybe she could get herself thrown out, she mused. Might be time to consider getting ‘accidentally’ pregnant. The queen’s amusement passed quick enough, and Abigail straightened her back to look like she hadn’t been thinking of what was technically an attempt at desertion.
“How many Lanterns struck?” Her Majesty asked.
“We believe twenty,” Abigail said, comforted to be back on practical matters. “Twelve managed to escape the city, most of them killed while running.”
Only one of them had died during the attack, though it’d been a Hells of a kill. The Callowan wouldn’t forget the sight of Nauk Princekiller’s fangs having snapped straight through the neck of a priest anytime soon. Not when Light had melted his plate before he even got moving, drips of molten metal leaving a trail of how he’d leapt for the kill even dying. The general had been a bloodthirsty bastard, no two ways about it, but no one had ever called him a coward. Her thoughts stalled. General Nauk was supposed to be an old friend of the queen’s wasn’t he? From the War College, and the early Fifteenth. Abigail really hoped the Black Queen didn’t ask about the body, since she’d have to admit there was no splitting the corpse from the melted armour and no fire at hand would burn hot enough for both – the matter had been put aside for now, since there were more important things to take care of. It was odd, Abigail though, that something mattering to her mostly because it’d gotten the three veteran Legates that should be standing in her shoes right now killed could actually be tragic to someone else. Especially to the likes of the Black Queen, who had burned and buried dozens of thousands. Even monsters had friends though, she supposed.
“Is a second strike by them likely?” Her Majesty asked.
The Queen of Callow was staring at the battle map even as she spoke, dark eyes tracing the lay of the cohorts and fortified choke points. Abigail had done what she could. There’d been no keeping the Belles Portes quarter after the disorder of a decapitated general staff had allowed the Dominion to take the bridges and secure a foothold behind them, but she’d had houses collapsed on the outskirts of the quarter and kept them contained in there by her own jesha of two thousand until a better defence could be assembled. The Levantines had since driven the Third Army back to the outskirts of Beaumontant quarter and mounted a push that took Couteau D’Or, pretty much claiming the entire middle-southern and south-western partss of Sarcella. Since then it’d been a nasty slugging match, since the Dominion had run into the raised defences and goblin traps she’d ordered set up at that line.
The two fronts had quieted some, but that was just preparation for a serious assault in Abigail’s opinion. And if the next one passed her defensive lines? The Third Army was fucked, to put it bluntly. She’d been forced to send the reserves to the frontlines to slow down the fall of Beaumontant until the sappers were done, and with companies still stuck keeping an eye on the cavalry to the city’s sides there just weren’t enough soldiers left to take back grounds if they were lost to Levant. If the lines broke, it was all downhill from there. Or that’d been the situation an hour ago, anyway, Abigail of Summerholm thought with a hard smile. Now the Black Queen was back, so it was time for lakes to start dropping. It took Krolem clearing his throat to realize she still hadn’t answered the question Her Majesty had asked.
“We, uh, don’t believe so,” Abigail hastily said. “Senior Mage Dastardly has trip wards in place she believes will warn us if they do, but our priests say if they try anything that large again so soon they’ll burn out.”
The Queen of Callow blinked in surprise and tore her gaze away from the map. It was a pretty human gesture for some immortal evil-fae thing, Abigail decided. With the long, unbound brown hair and the lightly coloured cheeks, Catherine Foundling looked more like a young woman who hadn’t slept in a while than the infamous victor of Second Liesse and the Battle of the Camps.
“Our priests,” Her Majesty repeated. “We have priests, now?”
It was the temporary general’s turn to be surprised. Had she really not heard?
“The House of Light split after it came out what you did in Keter, Your Majesty,” Abigail said.
The Black Queen’s face went blank as a wax mask. The Summerholm girl pressed on with haste.
“After it was outed you went to the Crown of the Dead to kill the Dread Empress and prevent her making a deal, they called for a Callowan conclave,” she said. “They split over whether or not to name the entire Tenth Crusade graceless. About two thirds went against, but the Salian conclave’s decrees were declared heresy by unanimous vote. Wasn’t enough for some, though: the last third walked out and pronounced the Tenth Crusade to be godless Proceran intrigue. Nowadays they call themselves the ‘House Insurgent’, Your Majesty. Hundreds enrolled in the army as healers.”
For a moment the silence in the room was thick as oil, then the Queen of Callow glanced to the side. There was a half-empty bottle of wine at the edge of the table, leftovers from when Abigail had taken pity on Dastardly’s pain at having an entire cheek and eye grown back. It was her last bottle from Callow, too. The Black Queen grabbed it, sniffed at the rim and visibly brightened before taking a long swallow. A little sigh of pleasure followed.
“Oh, that’s the stuff,” Queen Catherine muttered. “Been way too long.”
She shook her head, afterwards, and got back to business. So no one’s going to die, Abigail mused. That’s nice. Tanners didn’t have to worry about things like that, she knew. No, Abigail, she thought, think of the ferret-faced cousins. Stick the course, how long can we really be at war anyway?
“Well,” the queen said. “You’ve had an interesting year, I see. We’ll set that aside for now, General Abigail. Your reserves aren’t marked on the map, how many have you held back?”
“They, uh, are, Your Majesty,” Abigail replied.
She leaned over and tapped her finger near the five cohorts holding the grounds between the fire and the edge of Beaumontant quarter. There was nothing held back because the reserves were on the front. The queen grimaced.
“I was afraid of that,” she said. “That’s going to get messy. These, are they paved roads or bridges?”
The Black Queen was pointing at the four grey streaks representing the bridges going into Belles Portes, and Abigail told her as much.
“How broad is the river?” Her Majesty asked.
“At the bridges, around twenty five feet,” the temporary general said. “It’s broader further west, going towards the source. Stays about the same going east, though a mile downriver it’ll start splitting and narrowing.”
The queen frowned at the map pensively. Abigail cleared her throat.
“If you’re thinking of using munitions on it, ma’am, we’ve already tried,” she said. “General Nauk had our sappers take a look, wanted to use that to repulse the first attack. It’s frozen too deep, though, took an entire cart of demolition charges and it didn’t spread all that far.”
“Munitions aren’t what I have in mind,” the Queen of Callow calmly replied. “General, if we hold until sundown our retreat is assured. Cracking the river will buy us that breathing room, but only if you can push the enemy out of the city first. We need a moat, not an obstruction.”
Abigail tried to think of a very polite, professional way of saying that this couldn’t be done but it wasn’t her fault. While she was considering what would work best, the Black Queen pressed on.
“I’ll be taking five hundred drow and Special Tribune Robber’s cohort with me,” Her Majesty continued in that same even tone, eyes remaining peeled on the parchment. “That grants you three thousand and a half fresh warriors to break the deadlock.”
“They’re dug in good, ma’am,” General Abigail said. “Unless the drow can scale walls barehanded-”
“They can,” Catherine Foundling casually said, like it was nothing out of the ordinary. “While light infantry and currently no more physically able than humans, they have extensive training in raiding tactics. I’d suggest you send a number of them here-”
The Queen of Callow’s finger tapped the boundary line between Beaumontant and Couteau D’Or, which by Abigail’s reckoning was a line of tightly-packed merchant homes facing outwards.
“- to split the Levantines up, then thin your right flank to reinforce your left,” she mused. “A hard assault on this ‘Couteau D’Or’ quarter will have them packed tight in the open when they draw back into Beaumontant, and a few sapper companies can bloody them into retreat from there.”
General Abigail squinted down. The right flank had better hard defences, it was true – she’d had a guild house’s lower level barred and turned the flat rooftop into a shooting galley for her crossbowmen – and it would hold against attack for a while even if thinned. With the recommended distraction and enough forces moved to bolster an assault on the left flank, this could possibly work. That’d still leave a pack of very angry Levantines with their blood up holding Belles Portes, though, and that quarter was the door to Sarcella. As long as the Dominion had their foothold there they’d keep bringing in troops. If the Levantines mounted a hard counterattack after the Third Army had left its defensive positions, the quarters it had taken might be just as soon taken back – and it wouldn’t stop there, Abigail knew. With the kind of losses that the assaults would bring, the Third Army might end up driven out of Sarcella entirely. That’d be the end of them, with the Levantine cavalry hacking them to pieces as they retreated into the plains.
“That’s only workable if the river is cracked,” General Abigail finally said. “And unless you intend on taking less than a thousand light infantry out onto plains where the Dominion fields at least that much in cavalry, to get to the river you’d need to go through Belles Portes – which we can’t take, until the river is cracked.”
The Black Queen smiled, thin and sharp and just a little mad.
“There’s another way through, as it happens,” she said.
Abigail followed where the gloved finger was pointing on the map. She choked.
“That’s the part that’s on fire, Your Majesty,” she said.
“So it is,” Catherine Foundling cheerfully said. “Get ready for the offensive, general. I’ll want it beginning within an hour.”
The Black Queen patted her shoulder once more and limped out of the war room, humming what Abigail was pretty sure was the opening notes of the Lord of the Silver Spears. She was also, the leader of – temporary leader, Abigail corrected – of the Third Army noted, still holding that half-empty bottle of Vale summer wine.
“Tribune Krolem,” she whispered. “I need you to looking into something.”
The orc leaned forward eagerly.
“Find out who you can lodge a protest to, if the Queen of Callow steals your wine,” General Abigail said.
The cattle-dwelling reeked.
Everything about the Burning Lands was mad, Mighty Jindrich decided. This land had never truly known order, not even in the days before the Tenets of Night, and while the Firstborn sought enlightenment through sacred strife – the worthy take, the worthy rise – the cattle had grown fat and insolent for that absence. The Mighty bared its teeth at small eyes peeking through a shuttered window, pleased at the squeak that sounded from inside the house. The shutters were wood, Mighty Jindrich saw. Most the house as well. How disgustingly decadent, that these Prokeren could afford to make a city mostly of wood. Even sigils of the Inner Ring were not so wealthy: it had taken an effort not to beat the cattle that had found it fit to burn wood, of all things. The Tomb-Maker had said that the Prokeren owned many forests, and that even if they allowed their wooden houses to rot and break they could afford to make new ones. Madness, waste and madness. Mighty Jindrich might have taken from the cattle what it knew not how to appreciate, had the First Under the Night not forbidden it.
The sigil-holder of the Jindrich let its eyes stray from the cattle-things trembling in their dwellings, instead turning to Losara Queen. Honour had been given, when the First Under the Night had picked Jindrich and many of its sigil to accompany it into battle. More so than could be truly grasped, for Losara Queen was the voice of the Night and so honour given by it was honour given by the Night itself. What more esteemed accolade could there be? The presence of the gobberin marred the situation some, but not so much that it grew beyond enjoyment. The green creatures were not true cattle, having many years ago warred against the nerezim with great fury and viciousness. They were being made to bear strange packs and drag carts, but no beasts of burden they. The leader of the pack, this Robber, it had spirit. If Losara Queen was to have servants from the Burning Lands, worse stock could be drawn from than a being that would mock Mighty at their own table. The pack following the Robber was just as dauntless, and already Losara Queen had ordered warriors of the Jindrich and the Cohort to sheath their blades thrice. This was pleasing, for sharing purpose with the weak and cowardly made for a weak cabal.
Mighty Jindrich threw back its head and hollered when their promised destination was reached, the sharp calls sounding out in defiance of the pale light. Its sigil answered in kind, approaching the heat and smoke of the blaze storming ahead without a speck of fear. The Mighty strode forward, elbowing some gobberin wearing strips on its shoulders and laughingly slapping aside the knife it pulled. The First Under the Night stood first before the blaze, as well it should. Even in the pale light of the sun Losara’s silhouette seemed shaded, soot and ash falling at its feet as it watched the flickering flame. Jindrich bowed respectfully before approaching. It had bargained with this holy one when it was still but a strange curiosity, a creature borne by these lands yet capable of slaying Mighty. It’d also intended to betray Losara as soon as the Rumena were dealt with, as was only fitting. Since then, Mighty Jindrich had been taught the extent of its foolishness. What could a Mighty hope to do, against the very herald of Sve Noc? Some ill-made things calling themselves Firstborn still murmured of Losara Queen being human, but this was crass ignorance. What human could possibly bear Sve Noc on its shoulders, speak for the Tenets?
No, Losara Queen was the get of Night itself. It would return the Firstborn to these lands and wrest a realm out of the hands of the Pale Gods, usher the Empire Ever Dark born anew. And Mighty Jindrich would be there to share in that glorious thing, drenched in the blood of those that dared to test the Tenets of Night.
“Losara Queen, we stand ready for war-making,” Jindrich said. “We will tread this blaze, should you wish it so.”
The holy one smiled, white teeth flashing like ivory in shade.
“Miracles don’t come cheap, Jindrich,” the First Under the Night said. “And there are only so many I can bear. Fortunately, I have something almost as dangerous to wield.”
The Mighty smiled, pleased at the sharing of wisdom.
“What may this be, Losara Queen?”
The holy one’s eyes crinkled in amusement, and it inclined its head behind them.
“Madmen, Jindrich,” the First Under the Night said. “Never underestimate what a few of those can accomplish when told something is impossible.”
Behind them the gobberin had opened begun empty the carts, to work with wood and steel to raising strange wooden structures and nail them solid. Skins reeking of vinegar were taken out from the bags, and boxes of snow prepared. Long staves of metal and wood, some with broom-like endings and others not, were prepared and made wet with a strange concoction kept in bottles.
“Prepare yourself, Mighty Jindrich,” Losara Queen said. “We’ll pass where the blaze is weakest, but to hesitate is death.”
“It was ever thus,” it laughed, and raised its fist to the sky.
All is Night, Mighty Jindrich yelled out, and its sigil echoed in kind. For a moment, it thought, that prophecy drowned out even the roar of the fire.
“I missed this,” Special Tribune Robber admitted.
There’d been some good laughs, since the Boss had gone underground to take over yet another nest of vipers in order to throw it at one of the other nests of vipers. He’d gotten to hunt Imperial agents in the streets like animals with the Guild of Assassins, stuck it to the Matrons while negotiating for munitions in Thief’s name and even gotten to see what happened when you sent back a High Lady’s threatening envoy by trebuchet. There’d been deaths, too, but no anyone he cared too much about. Well, Hakram had somehow managed to lose another hand but sad at was Robber was looking forward to the truly legendary amount of sarcasm the Boss would inflict him over it so it could be called a draw. Pickler was still both mind-blowingly lovely and completely out of reach, especially when putting shady dwarven gold to nefarious purposes, but that was just the way of life. Robber of the Rock Breaker Tribe, also known as the Lesser Footrest to Her Majesty the Queen of Callow, had started to figure he’d seen it all. He’d been to more places most goblins ever would, killed people in most of them and participate in the strategic arson of not one but several cities. He was no longer young, by his people’s standards, and he’d wondered if it might not be time to start thinking about a glorious death.
Then the Boss had come back, and she was as superbly mad as ever.
She’d left as some sort of bastardly immortal fae thing and come back breathing and smelling like a mortal, with an army of bloodthirsty treacherous magical dark elves she’d somehow become a religious figure for if he’d picked up on the chatter right. And she was going to use them to wage war on half the continent, so she could make it sign some sort of treaty then use that to attack the Hidden Horror as a united front. She also had in stand a blackwood staff that felt to his senses like some sort of silent, monstrously large predator and she was talking shit to some possibly god-like crows that no one but her seemed to be able to look at directly for more than a fraction of a heartbeat at a time. Robber had been close to those things for hours, and even avoiding to look at them he’d since been plagued with some of the most horrifying nightmares of his life. Gods, it was just like coming home. And now she’d decided that the best way to use tactical surprise was to attack through where no one had positioned troops, which had happened because the place in question was on fire. So he’d casually been informed that his cohort was to build several examples of a lighter siege turtle so that she could stuff seven hundred soldiers in them and run through a city fire, in order to crack a frozen river. All the while and enemy army and several larger cavalry contingents were on the prowl.
No one did crazy like the Boss. There was a reason goblins volunteered to enroll in the Army of Callow, and it wasn’t the Hellhound’s winning personality.
“You know, sometimes I wonder if there’s something in the water back in the Grey Eyries,” Catherine Foundling drawled. “It’d explain a lot about goblins. Isn’t lead supposed to make people go mad? How likely is it that there’s some in your wells?”
“I wouldn’t know, I’ve only ever drunk the blood of my enemies,” Robber shamelessly lied.
“That sounds rather unsanitary,” the Boss said. “Zeze says there’s all sort of humours in that.”
The inside of the modified siege turtle was stiflingly hot, even with all the preparations. Skins soaked in vinegar and water, boxes of snow to cool the air coming from the slight openings above and poles coming out of the shuttered panels that allowed enterprising drow to push down anything still on fire that came too close. Beneath the bottom rim, still-burning embers could be swept with broom-like poles when they were layered too thickly or skins of water used to put out open flames – though the smoke and vapour from that was wicked, and had already scalded a few unwary goblins. Each of the shells allowed for fifty people to hide under, fourteen brave turtles having tried the blaze. One had been struck by a falling beam barely twenty feet in, and less than ten of those inside had managed to crawl screaming back to the safety of outside the fire. The outer ring was the most dangerous part, though, they’d know that from the start. The fire had begun somewhere deeper in, and spread out more or less in a circle depending on where stone and space obstacles could be found. Past that part there’d been progressively less flame and more smoulder, though that hardly meant there was no danger. More than once the lack of air or the heat of what was left to breathe had made soldiers pass out.
The lucky ones fell inside the shell when there were enough in shape left to carry them. The others were left behind for the fire to take. The Boss had made it clear she couldn’t start calling on her tricks without putting the river work at risk, and there was no point in trying this at all if she exhausted herself trying to keep everyone alive. Another turtle was lost when its warriors misjudged what they were stepping on under the ash layer and got themselves over red-hot stone, a chunk of the drow immediately dropping with screams as their thinner boots got torched through and the turtle fell for lack of enough people holding it up. The structure turned into an oven within moments, and the four survivors only lasted long enough to make it out in the open – which wasn’t any more survivable than inside. Robber had been blessed enough to share a shell with the Boss herself, and she’d been utterly nonplussed the whole way through. Her face had darkened every time a turtle was lost, but they’d pressed on anyway. Everyone inside was sweating like a pig, including her. Robber watched the Queen of Callow pat down her cloak while hobbling forward and cleared his throat.
“Looking for something?” he asked.
In front of them a pair of drow shifted the panels open, knocking down a wooden wall half-devoured by flames and almost entirely blackened. The panels closed, and the turtle came forward. Soon they’d reach the last crucible, the second part of the outer ring – and after that, out onto the snow.
“Would you happen to have matches on you?” the Boss casually asked.
“Sure,” Robber snickered, reaching for his sapper’s bag.
Sadly all the munitions delicate in the face of heat had to be removed, but he still had a few goods left to peddle. Including a set of pinewood matches, which he handed to his queen. She let out a noise of appreciation then shoved her staff into the crook of her arm, produced from her cloak an already stuffed pipe and struck the match. Within moments it was lit, filling the turtle with the acrid scent of wakeleaf. She carelessly dropped the match on the ground, where it fell on embers and almost instantly began burning up.
“That is cruel,” Robber admiringly said.
And yet when he flicked his eyes, he caught most the drow smothering grins. Gods, they actually enjoyed the Boss being like that didn’t they? Kind of an asshole, and utterly indifferent to the fact that they were strolling through a bonfire of a city if it got in the way of her petty pleasures.
“I waited until we were on the last stretch,” the Black Queen defended herself.
She added something in the drow tongue afterwards, and the drow roared and sped up. Robber was pretty sure, by the tone, that it was along the lines of ‘put your back into it, I haven’t got all day’. After that it wasn’t long until through the thin openings made into the wood he was able to glimpse the silhouettes of tall granite statues, and a mostly open way to there. Which was for the best, given that some of his minions were starting to slow down and only kept from passing out by biting their lips bloody. There was a sudden crash behind, and the Boss called out in drow tongue: the porters at the back opened the shutters there, revealing a large wooden plank had scythed through the middle of the turtle right behind them. Catherine breathed in sharply at the sight, then cast a look in front. Not out of the woods yet, Robber thought. Another call in drow-tongue. The shutters were shut and the advance resumed. Eleven turtles made it out onto the snow, out of the fourteen who’d set out.
There were some, Robber thought, who’d call that a miracle.