“A good sword will find a use, or make one.”
– Levantine saying
This was to be an iron day, Captain Elvera could feel it in her bones.
Twenty years she’d served as an officer under the Lord of Tartessos, then a further eight under his daughter the Lady Aquiline – and before that she’d been part of a Brocelian band, as both spearwoman and striker. It was the last of those experiences she drew on now, trusting the instincts that had seen her survive iron days ranging from chimeras maddened to an entire flock of ensorcelled drakes. Something nasty was about to come for the army that had been under her command until yersterday’s dusk, and they were not prepared. Elvera might be old and slow, these days, but she’d seen more bloodshed than the rest of this army of pups put together. They thought a few honour feuds and sanctioned hunts had them prepared for war, but it had not. The Army of Callow had spent most of a night and day making that viciously clear to anyone with eyes to see. It was just her luck that Razin Tanja, of the Binder’s Blood, had been stuck with blindness for want of glory. Just a fucking boy, she thought, not without bitterness. Some eighteen summers youth who saw a way to hallow his already hallowed line in sending soldiers charging to their deaths at Callowan hands.
Bones creaking as they would not have twenty years ago, the captain walked the streets of Beaumontant quarter with her twenty sworn swords at her side. A trail of smoke from the east, the quarter still aflame even now, marred the blue sky like stroke of charcoal. Under it the soldiers of the Dominion of Levant clustered behind thick planks of wood and half-broken houses, never daring to look across the divide for long. Callowan crossbowmen had proved to be mercilessly accurate from their distant perch, the sallow-eyed goblins never hesitating to put a bolt in any soldier out of cover for too long. Elvera saw no need to tempt such a fate by advancing too close, having already taken a good look when she led the assault that failed there that very morning. While red-clad legionaries had slowly retreated under the charge of the armsmen of Malaga and Tartessos, the damnable Callowan sappers had torn down two streets’ worth of structures and raised palisades between the houses standing behind – leaving an open killing field of stone and wood trapped with blasphemous munitions and vicious steel traps. Elvera had lost three hundred men trying to force a way through before she called a retreat under crossbow volleys and spellfire.
The Callowans knew war, these days, in a way few soldiers of her homeland did. Captain Elvera was old enough to have fought in the Sepulcher War, when the Barrow Lord rose from the depths of Brocelian Forest and struck out with his host of bespelled beasts, barrow-spirits and Blood traitors. She’d taken a hammer blow to the arm that never quite healed right dragging Lord Romeran away from the onslaught, and for that earned both captain’s rank and the suit of plate she still wore – enameled with the colours of the Slayer’s Blood, a rare honour. She’d even fought in the thick of it at River’s Bent, holding the shore sword in hand until the Bestowed slew the Barrow Lord in honourable combat and the Peregrine freed his soul from its earthly prison. That’d been war, but Levant had not known its like in the many years since. The Kingdom of Callow had and its soldiers carried those hard lessons with them. There’d been rumours, of course, fanciful tales that made it even as far as Tartessos – of fairies riding on wings of flame, of a city aflight and spewing out armies of ravenous dead, of a gate opened into the very Hells that unleashed endless hordes of devils. Elvera had not put much trust in these, knowing how stories grew with telling and miles, but now she wondered.
The captain had breached shield walls, under morning light, and seen under the helms more than just Callowans. Greenskins and Wastelanders standing elbow to elbow with warriors born to the Kingdom of Knights, striving and killing and dying together. Singing those harsh, bitter songs the Callowans were so fond of. Ten thousand of these without a speck of horse, their commanders slain by the Lanterns in the dark of night, had turned what should have been a rout into a bloody and costly stalemate. There was spine in that army, Captain Elvera thought, perhaps more so than in her own. She’d seen too many green boys and girls empty their stomachs in the mud when they came across the butcher’s yard in Belles Portes quarter, where the wounded and dying had been brought for what healing could be had. The stink of shit, death and bile had not sickened Elvera’s nostrils in many years, but at least she had known it before. The eager young captains and their just as young warriors had not, and it had made them flinch. Not that Razin Tanja, heir to Malaga, had been moved by the wails and spilled entrails. No, the boy was already ordering preparations for another push against Callowan defences.
The Tartessian slowed her walk when she reached the outskirts of Beaumontant, near the streets leading into Couteau D’Or. The Tanja boy would be holding council with captains there, but she was in no mood for exhortations and castigations from some pup of a southern Blood. Instead she spoke with the soldiers she’d led into the jaws of the jackal that very morning, preparing them for what was to come. Those officers had broken their bones on Callowan defences earlier, and so were more willing to listen to an old woman’s advice than most. They gathered around her, the sworn swords of captains that were attending to the noble boy who’d taken command from her.
“A simple shield wall will get your people killed,” Captain Elvera said. “The sappers prepared the grounds to break up tight formations, and their mages will use fire to batter at what holds.”
“It’s the traps that have been bleeding us the worst, Red Ella,” a middle-aged man with a heavy Malagan accent replied. “They’ve sown caltrops everywhere and the spikes go straight through leather soles.”
Elvera let the use of her old sobriquet pass without comment. She wasn’t so long in the tooth as not to slap the insolence out of a soldier’s mouth if need be, but these officers had never known the sobriquet as the insult it’d been meant to be – just a name other old soldiers called her by, when the ale was plentiful.
“Better those than the buried explosions,” a young girl in heavy scale grunted. “Those’ll shred a man up to the waist, and sharp pieces shoot out to carve at those near. I’ll call anyone a fool who says we’ve seen the last of those.”
If they had the mages or the war hounds of the Lord of Malaga’s host with them, the Callowan killing field could have been taken apart slowly but surely. But the vanguard had been ordered to attack without them, and so soldiers would die instead. Dark as the thought was, there was nothing Elvera could do about this and she would not further darken a dark day by speaking ill of the boy commanding this host. Even if he was a glory-thirsting Blood throwback from the least reputable of the founding lines. Command of the army had already been taken from her, she would not take an axe to morale or risk being sent away from the front by speaking out of turn.
“I’ll speak plain,” she said. “Whoever you send in front will likely die. We’ll have to bridge the gap with corpses before we can get to them with blades. Split in smaller bands with shields above the heads and move fast, that ought to thin the costs. But make no mistake, this will get bloody.”
The talk did not please them, though they had expected no salvation from her. Elvera had made no mystery of it that she thought it foolishness to attack the dug-in Army of Callow inside a city with so slight a numerical advantage. Even without walls. If they’d had a three or four thousand warriors more then encirclement and assault would have been a sound scheme, but they did not.
“We should wait for the Lord’s army,” a voice called out from the back.
There were mutters of agreement. For all that the captains were attending to Razin Tanja, they were not all so certain of his scheme to press the attack and this had bled into the lower ranks. The Malagan captains would follow one of their native Blood through Crown and Tower, but there were Tartessos captains as well – furious still at her removal from command – and those captains who had answered the call of the Holy Seljun, not the Lord of Malaga. The latter of these would not easy throw aside the notion of a patron meant to inherit a title, but neither would they destroy their own companies without concrete promises made. The boy’s initial strokes of brilliance had earned him some renown, it was true. Using Proceran smugglers who knew of secret tunnels into Sarcella to bring a war-party of Lanterns into the city and kill the enemy commanders had been inspired, Elvara would freely admit, and not a risk she would have taken in his place. Lanterns were powerful, but few and precious. Striking at Belles Portes while the Callowans were in disarray had been good sense, and if not for a sudden enemy delaying action might well have won the city.
Pressing now, though, when the enemy was ready and waiting? The heir to Malaga was making his inexperience plain for all the captains to see, and it would win him no friends. And yet this kind of talk would not do at all, for an army without a leader was just a mob bearing arms.
“We have bled the Army of Callow harshly with our attack,” Captain Elvara replied. “Let none gainsay this. That is worthy feat, and with wisdom we may yet accrue greater honours.”
If her plate was not enchanted, she would have died in the heartbeat that followed. The barbed javelin struck at the hollow of her throat, where only a leather collar protected her, but Elvara had years ago paid a binder to make the material strong as iron. The bone tip of the javelin broke, though it still took her breath. Even in her surprise the old captain followed her instincts and ducked behind a fence – just in time to avoid an adeptly thrown sling stone that would have caved in her forehead.
“Attack,” she roared out. “Back to your soldiers! Tartessos, follow my lead.”
A score of officers were already dead by the time she finished speaking, and a few of her sworn swords with them. More were slain trying to flee, though the clever broke into houses to avoid that fate. Elvera risked a glance over the edge of the fence and caught sight only of grey-skinned silhouettes in furs stalking across rooftops before another javelin had her ducking back down. They were seizing the roofs between Beaumontant and Couteau D’Or, she realized with dismay. That’d be throwing away soldiers unless it was the prelude to a strike on one of those quarters, which meant that in defiance of all common sense the Army of Callow was back on the attack. Cursing under her breath, the old soldier prepared to make a run for it. Someone needed to get the Tanja boy out of the way before he got himself killed and the army’s spirits dropped into the pit, and who else save her was there? It was going to be an iron day, she’d felt it hours ago, and now that the iron had been in the fire long enough it’d grown red and burning.
Captain Elvera traced the Mark of Mercy with wrinkled hands, then steeled herself and ran out of cover.
Edgar was kicked awake, none too gently, and blearily rolled over.
“I was just resting my eyes, I was,” he immediately claimed.
A heartbeat later he remembered he’d been allowed his rest, captain’s orders, and his fear turned to resentment. The legionary pushed himself up, leaning against the wall, and began to glare at the source of his pain. Just as quick, resentment turned back to fear.
“Get up,” Sergeant Hadda grinned, baring twin rows of fangs. “The war’s back on, boy.”
Edgar counted himself lucky that after the hard fighting of the night and morning he’d been exhausted enough to pass out in his armour, aches in the back or not. Sergeant Hadda was not the kind of officer you ever wanted to keep waiting when she gave an order. He fumbled for his sword-belt under the orc’s amused gaze, and after slipping it back on ended up going through the pile of straw that’d been his bedding in order to find the helmet he could have sworn he’d set down to his left. The old sergeant took pity on him eventually, pointing it out, and Edgar hastily brushed aside the last of the straw inside before slamming it on.
“Thought we were pulled back until Afternoon Bell, sarge,” he said, warily eyeing her as he pulled the clasp together.
Depending on the orc’s mood, questions would either lead to pretty heavy-handed mockery or a fount of useful information. A sergeant was low as an officer could be, in the Army of Callow, but Hadda been in the Legions of Terror long before she took oath under Queen Catherine so she had all sorts of old friends in places. She tended to know more about what was going on than even Captain Pickering, to the man’s frustration.
“Everyone’s called back to the fronts,” Sergeant Hadda said. “Including us poor, exhausted souls. We’re about to teach Dominion meat why you don’t pick fights with the Legions.”
Like a lot of soldiers who’d been in the legions that were brought into the fold after Second Liesse, Hadda tended to speak of the Legions and the Army of Callow as the same thing. As far as they were concerned, Edgar had been told, the Black Queen was the Carrion Lord’s anointed successor so there was no distinction to be drawn. As a proper Laure boy he’d found that to be a mite unpatriotic, but then he supposed greenskins were new to the fold. Hadda had been good to him, anyway, for all the rough edges. She’d looked out for her tenth, taught them the little things like ‘don’t gamble with goblins’, ‘not all Soninke are warlocks’ and ‘if you fight a Taghreb the entire family comes after you’.
“Merciful Gods,” Edgar muttered. “Everyone said Legate Abigail was planning a retreat, not an assault.”
It’d been a shame the Princekiller got killed by them heretic Dominion priests, but he’d thought it nice that a Callowan was leading the Third Army now. It’d been a point pride, when he’d talked with other Laure enlisted. Sure enough the Legate was from Summerholm, and the folks from the Gate of the East tended to be prickly and proud as cats, but they’d all agreed Summerholm stock was good at warring. And Legate Abigail was a true veteran, he’d heard, from the days of the Fifteenth – she’d fought in the Arcadian Campaign and at Akua’s Folly. Heavens willing, she might end up confirmed by Marshal Juniper as the general of the Third Army if they all got out of Sarcella alive. Sergeant Hadda’s scarred, leathery face split into a nasty little grin.
“General Abigail, now,” the orc said. “But that’s not the real treat of the day. Put some spring to your step, legionary – the Black Queen’s back, so we’re about to turn this fucking battle around.”
Edgar let out a low whistle. It was always a mixed bag, hearing about Queen Catherine. She’d filled a lot of graves since she’d appeared during the Liesse Rebellion, and no small amount of them had been Callowan ones. But she’d also smashed to pieces all the scavengers that came after the Kingdom, after she wrested it out of the Tower’s hand, and it was hard not to take pride in that. Edgar still remembered the sharp satisfaction he’d felt after hearing them sorcerers who’d done the Doom of Liesse had gotten crucified one and all. The queen might be a bit of tyrant, but the Fairfaxes hadn’t been all sweetness and light either. Sometimes you needed a hard hand to get it done, like Jehan the Wise hanging seven princes and one. But all that was back home, and before the fucking Procerans had declared her Arch-heretic of the East. The Principate tried the Vales and it tried the north, and when it got whipped like a dog it pulled the same trick it had in the old days. The Callowan House had called it ‘perverse service to earthly powers’, and that sounded about right to him.
Aye, there might be a time where the Black Queen got a little too black and Edgar found himself joining the rebel cause. But if the fucking Procerans thought their fucking princes and their fucking priests could unseat an anointed queen of Callow then they were in for a rude awakening. Maybe this time they should hang fourteen princes and two, and then another one too for Old King Selwin they’d done in at the Red Flower Vales. Edgar kept to the Heavens, as all Callowans should, but he kept to the long price as well and this one had been a very long time coming. One of these days they’d get around to evening the scales with the Wasteland too, for the Night of Knives and older slights as well, but that could wait some. The greenskins had been done in by the Tower too, bastards as they could be, and they should get their due along with the rest. Edgar did not mind at all the notion of sharing a fire with someone like Sergeant Hadda where the Tower used to stand. He didn’t speak out none of that, of course. He was just a legionary, so he ate his slop with the rest of the tenth and joined up with the rest of the cohort to march up to the outskirts of Couteau D’Or quarter. He’d been worried, when going to sleep, that they might all get caught in the city and killed. Edgar wasn’t worried anymore, though.
Say what you would about the Black Queen, she’d never lost a battle.
He clutched that knowledge tight as the cohorts gathered behind the defences, ranks and ranks of legionaries in red. It was all right to be afraid, he knew. On the other side of the killing grounds there would be warriors waiting, and Edgar had seen enough of his fellows die to learn that being clever or good with a sword wasn’t always enough to save you. He’d seen better fighters than him die because they’d been a little too slow raising their shield, because they’d slipped in the mud or even just because they’d been on watch when the Helike cataphracts struck. You couldn’t own that, you couldn’t force it: it was in the hands of the Gods Above. But he wasn’t just Edgar of Laure, a boy in armour in the third rank from the front. He was a legionary in the Third Army of the Kingdom of Callow, and in this strange city in this strange land they were going to win. He could feel it, and the others felt it too. It was in the air, the harsh taste of retribution in the making. He could see in the eyes of the orcs, burning red. He could see it in the way the soldiers from Laure and Ankou, from Vale and Summerholm, they were all standing like they wanted to lean forward. And the Wastelanders they had it as well, the Taghreb and the Soninke, with their calm faces and their hard eyes – like they knew how this would end and they were already savouring it.
He didn’t know who started singing, but Edgar did not hesitate to join his voice to it. There were times when the old rebel songs, the likes of Here They Come Again and Red The Flowers, they were what needed to be called out. But here, slowly beginning to advance against the soldiers of the Dominion? They’d give the Black Queen her due, just the once, for this song was hers and no one else’s. The tune of In Dread Crowned swelled up, as crossbow bolts flew and legionaries raised their shields. Step, step, step: the beat was in his bones, the rhythm of it. They advanced through the flat grounds, arrows and stones harmlessly glancing off. Edgar unsheathed his blade, smelling the scent of magic unleashed.
“Be they high or resplendent our oaths stand taller still
And in the west do quiet lie graves we have yet to fill-“
Balls of flame detonated against the enemy, and the Third Army charged into the chaos with a roar.
It was madness.
The Callowans were on their last rope and everybody knew it, but they might have held on to some part of the city until nightfall and spared themselves slaughter if they’d remained in their hiding holes instead of sallied out. Razin did not know whether to be delighted or infuriated they had not. He’d had plans in the making to land another crushing blow, and had been talking the most recalcitrant captains around to backing it: another push against Callowan lines accompanied with cavalry raids on the side, all to mask another strike by the Lanterns against the high command of the heretics. There would be no recovering from that, discipline or no. The war leader of the Lanterns had been most willing to send her warrior-priests into the fray, and the heir to Malaga had been slowly squeezing the Tartessos captains into silence when the damned Callowans struck instead. Some few thousand grey-skinned devils had been summoned and sent to disrupt his positions in Beaumontant and Couteau D’Or, though too few to truly be a threat. He’d immediately ordered them chased out from the rooftops they were skulking on, loyal captains heeding his calls and arranging for archers and slingers to disperse the abominations, but no sooner had the exchanges began that the Army of Callow attacked. It had been… grisly.
Razin Tanja was of the Grim Binder’s line and inherited her famous poise even if he had not been graced with her equally famed sorceries, so he’d not let the horror of it reach his face. But it would be a long time before her forgot the sight of it: those implacable rows of steel shields advancing in tight formations, heretics of all stripes singing their strange songs as they slew. The way crossbow bolts had fallen like summer rain, punching through all but the finest scale and plate. Foul eastern magics of flame and lightning arcing over ranks to blacken stone and sweep aside men like kindling. All the while whistles were sounded by their calm-faced officers, calling lines of legionaries forward or back like it was a parade ground and not as hellish a fight as this city could stomach. The strange devils had waited until Razin’s soldiers were on the backfoot before leaping down the rooftops and fiercely charging into the men of Levant, and that’d tipped the vase over the table’s edge. A rout had followed, Razin himself only escaping unscathed because that old dog of the Resafa, the one they called Red Ella, had him seized by her sworn swords before ordering them so slay any warriors impeding their way out.
Beaumontant was no safer, he’d soon learned. The Callowans had begun an offensive there as well, and the streets were packed tight with soldiers whose captains had died in Couteau D’Or or were still struggling to reach their companies. The chaos reached its apex when the Army of Callow reached the outskirts of Beaumontant from the side of Couteau D’Or as well, having wrought great slaughter. Panic spread at the realization that the Dominion’s force was now surrounded on three sides: on two of them red-bladed Callowans, and the third the blaze the heretics had started trying to kill the Lanterns during their retreat. Only behind them, in Belles Portes, did the Dominion still hold ground. But many of the wounded had been set there, for lack of an easy way to carry them out of the city after the assaults of the night and morning, and the makeshift infirmaries made did it difficult to get reinforcements through. It’d been a disaster in the making even before the Army of Callow began tossing its munitions – and Razin swore would see those declared blasphemy by Lanterns and House if it was the last thing he did – into the disorganized soldiers.
The second rout was even bloodier than the first. The heir to Malaga left the city in haste, passing the duty of holding Belles Portes to the doddering Captain Elvera in his absence, and went to stir up the rest of the army. The Callowans had struck a hard blow, he would give them that, but with that vain gesture they had doomed themselves. Their legionaries would be exhausted, their mages on the edge of burning out and their stocks of munitions running low. This had been a harder-earned victory than Razin would have preferred, but it would be a victory nonetheless. Father would forgive his impetuousness in seizing command of the vanguard without permission if he returned with the destruction of a Callowan army to honour their Blood. The wounded would be brought out onto the plains, to rest in the army’s camp, and then he would muster the might of Levant to crush these heretics. There were still seven thousand kept in reserve, and order would be sent to the riders probing the east and west to strike when given the proper signal. Razin was about to send summons to the Lanterns, to offer them the privilege of leading the counterattack at his side, when he was accosted by one of his lesser captains.
“Honoured Son, there is trouble,” the old man said after a cursory bow.
His mail was old and the leather lacking luster, which betrayed the nature of his soldiery where lack of an accent failed to provide. One of the captains who had answered the call of the Holy Seljun, not the lords and ladies of Levant. Razin forced himself to be courteous and offer back a nod of respectful acknowledgement. He already knew that after this battle was won the captains from Tartessos would seek to sully his name, and that support from those unsworn would do much to help his reputation. If all but the captains of Lady Aquiline sang his praises, the condemnations of her soldiers would be seen for the base defamation that they were.
“Have our captains of the horse sent word?” he asked.
“No, it was our camp watch,” the man said. “An enemy force has emerged from the southeast of the city.”
It took a moment for Razin to grasp what was being said, and just as long to fully disbelieve it.
“Through the fire?” he said. “Have the men been drinking?”
“I thought the same, and so sent trusted armsmen of my own to look,” the old captain replied, but shook his head. “The Callowans passed through using strange wooden engines covered in skins. There truly is a force of nearly six hundred, goblins and devils. They are led by a human, however.”
“A warlock from the East,” Razin frowned. “It would explain the appearance of these grey-skinned devils. The mage must be slain, it might make the abominations still in the city turn on the enemy.”
The old captain hesitated.
“Honoured Son, this I did not see with my own eyes,” he cautioned.
Razin almost gestured impatiently, before remembering himself, and so instead forced a smile.
“Speak, captain,” he encouraged.
“Some of my men say the human wore a cloak,” the old man said. “One of black cloth, but with strips of many colours.”
Razin Tanja of the Binder’s Blood paled. There was only one villain known in this age to wear such a strange garment.
“Ashen Gods,” the boy croaked. “Gather your men, captain. Gather everyone. We must slay the Black Queen before she pulls her foul tricks.”
Fear pulsed in his blood, but as Razin had his servants saddle his horse he found there was excitement buried deep beneath. If he could kill the black-hearted Queen of Callow, it might just break the back of her armies for good and sent the lot of them scuttling back across their borders. What an honour to the Blood that would be. It would not do to be reckless, he reminded himself: he was of the Binder’s line, not the Champion’s. He gathered two thousand men before setting out, the rest assembling behind with orders to catch up, and horns were sounded for the captains of the horse in the eastern plains to join battle as well. Razin was informed that the Lanterns were already gone to the fight for Sarcella, but messengers would fetch them. Better to share the glory than make a bold corpse. The Black Queen’s goblins and abominations had already slain a few brave outriders, by the looks of it, but the march of her warband was otherwise unimpeded. Captains riding at his side, summoned in haste, Razin watched the few hundred fools keep advancing even in the face of his superior force.
“It may be a distraction,” one of his officers mused. “Just some Callowan forced into a cloak, meant to delay us reinforcing the city.”
“Or she has gone mad in her arrogance, as her ilk often does,” Razin idly replied. “Perhaps she thinks her warriors will be enough to defeat us.”
“We so sure they won’t be?” another captain said. “I mean no disrespect, Honoured Son, but we’ve all heard the rumours about the Battle of the Camps. The sky falling, the dead rising with blue eyes and fairies riding across water…”
There were calls of cowardice, which Razin tacitly allowed to quiet the naysayer through shame. The heir to Malaga would put no stock in such stories, especially not ones so fanciful. First the tale was that the Black Queen had warred against the fae, now that they warred for her? Powerful necromancer as the villain might be, she could not raise corpses that did not exist. As for this tale of the sky being brought down, it could be no work of hers. Perhaps some Wasteland ritual she simply claimed to be her own effort, the scale of it inflated with every telling. Procerans always excused their defeats by making giants out of gargoyles, it was well-known. A splatter of laughter spread across the captains, commanding Razin’s immediate attention. It was not directed at him or the yellow-bellied naysayer, he saw, but at the Black Queen’s foolishness. She’d called a halt and now her warriors were spreading out in a circle around her, taking up defensive positions.
“Mad indeed,” one of the captains mocked. “Shall we order a charge, Honoured Son?”
Razin’s eyes narrowed at the sight of her. The cloak was well-known, but never before had he heard of the Queen of Callow wielding a crooked black staff. Especially not one so… unsettling to look at. Perhaps she did have a trick left to pull.
“Battle lines,” Razin Tanja ordered instead. “Our force will take the centre. Send word to the captains behind us that they are to split and flank the Black Queen’s warriors.”
He glanced into the distance, where the thousand cavalry he’d sent out at dawn was slowly making its way. Yes, this would do. No matter the dark magic, near seven thousand footsoldiers of Levant followed by a cavalry charge at the back would be enough to end this. Razin would not lead from the front, just in case, and allow one of these eager captains the honour instead. It mattered not who slew the goblins and devils, so long as the heir to Malaga was part of the warriors who slew the villain queen. The soldiers spread out as ordered, battle-prayers on their lips, and the assault promptly began. Razin remained with the second wave of the centre, listening to the hurried march of the rest of the troops behind him. Stride after stride the warriors closed the distance, and he watched victory in the making with bright eyes. The grey-skinned devils tightened their lines in front of the villain, the bloody goblins taking cover behind them, but it was the Black Queen he was staring at. Loose hair unbound and toyed with by the wind, she was staring at his soldiers and leaning against her long staff. Eventually she looked up, and Razin followed her gaze. There were shadows in the sky, two of them. Crows, he realized with a start. Corpses would draw carrion, but these were no such birds and flew with graceful purpose. They dove, and like twin blot of night landed on the Black Queen’s shoulders.
There was something surreal about the sight, he thought. The smiling, slim woman whose hair cascaded behind her, the cloak of story around her. Those ink-black and terrible crows on her shoulders, feathered out of shadows. Razin watched the crooked staff rise, then fall with a thunderous crash. Shadows whispered across the snow, until the sound of cracks scuttling across a river drowned out even that.
Razin Tanja of the Binder’s Blood had just sent the better part of two thousand men to drown, and in that stroke he had lost the Battle of Sarcella.