“We sowers of ruin, straight-backed and proud,
Told them arrant, and arrantly kept our vow:
‘No bargain is there, between hunter and flock;
No peace between the rabbit and the hawk.’
We sowers of ruin, reaped all that was sown,
For as Mieza’s sons toppled our waning thrones,
They arrant said: ‘no bargain now, o lords of war,
For no peace can be, between spear and boar.’
We sowers of ruin, the reapers that were reapt,
Sing the elder song still, for we must not forget:
No bargain is there, between hunter and flock,
No peace can there be, between lash and orc.”
– “Ruin, Sown”, a spoken verse in Kharsum attributed to Yngvild Bittertongue, chieftess of the Red Shields
Lord Yannu Marave of the Champion’s Blood felt his scalp prickle. The last time the Lord of Alava’s instincts had been screaming this loudly, he’d come within a breath of having his crush skulled by a culebron whose scales he’d failed to notice among the leaves of the Brocelian. Yannu had been a young fool, back then, but raised his shield on impulse and so avoided dying to a whip of the tail so strong it put hammer blows to shame. He could not help but wonder if there was not kinship between the dangers of then and now. A fool was once more about to step on the tail a hidden serpent and die for that mistake. That he now stood at the heart of a great army instead of journeying alone into the deeper barrow-woods to bring honourable deeds to his Blood made little difference. As Yannu’s station had risen, so had the dangers accompanying it.
“They’re camped here,” Moro of the Brigand’s Blood said, tapping his finger. “On the other shore of the river.”
The heir to Vaccei had gained a few fresh scars, fighting at his mother’s side against the Marshals. What had already been a hard face on a hard man was now frightful to behold, the red marks left by goblin steel running jagged through the umber-brown and basil-green face paint of his line. The effect was strikingly attractive, though Yannu was careful not to let his gaze linger. He was over a decade older than the other man, after all.
“The river’s called the Odelle,” Princess Rozala Malanza noted, frowning as she bent over the table to have a closer look. “As I recall, the source is further east and the depth shallow. It’ll be frozen over.”
The Princess of Aequitan had been a pleasant surprise, the Lord of Alava thought. No Alamans intriguer, that one, but a hardened Arlesite commander who had already fought the greater of their foes on the field not so long ago. Wild rumours still spread about what had taken place as the Battle of the Camps, but not so wild that the Peregrine had not confirmed some of the lot. The Black Queen, if she had truly returned, would be a fearsome enemy. The part of Yannu that belonged to the Champion’s Blood was eager at the thought of measuring his prowess against hers. The part that was the Lord of Alava was wary instead, for it had fought against the Marshals for months and learned they had sharp talons indeed.
“If they have ended their march, then they must believe their eastern columns are close to joining them,” Yannu said. “We may be facing as many as sixty thousand eastern legionaries, along with however many there are of these grey ghosts.”
“Between our hosts, we have eighty thousand,” Princess Rozala said. “And if Lord Tanja makes his way as swiftly as promised with Her Highness’ southern army, that’s another sixty thousand hitting them from the other side of the river.”
“Likely double the enemy’s numbers, unless the Black Queen is somehow fielding an army that leaves no tracks in the snow,” Moro of the Brigand’s Blood said.
Word from Sarcella and Akil Tanja put these grey devil-ghosts at less than twenty thousand strong, though it was said some could wield strange sorceries. Yet they were also said to be no stronger than men, blade in hand, and just as mortal. Poorly armed as well, more tribes than companies.
“We should strike at the Hellhound’s camp before the rest of her divisions arrive,” Princess Malanza said. “Best for all of us we face that army without Catherine Foundling in it.”
“There would be great honour in taking the Black Queen’s life,” Moro told her bluntly.
The look in the younger man’s eyes spoke of esteem lowered for shying away from a worthy struggle. Yannu would withhold judgement instead. The Peregrine and the Regicide had promised they would take the field against the Arch-heretic of the East should she bare her blade, but the Lord of Alava still remembered the stories from the rise of the Barrow Lord. The warring of Bestowed was never kind to their lesser, and the Black Queen was said to be one of the greatest living villains. Even in death she might wreak great slaughter.
“The lucky ones died when the lake fell on their heads, at the Camps,” Princess Rozala said, tone calm yet not less sharp for it. “Those that drowned, though? It wasn’t as quick. They had long enough to realize there would be nothing to save them.”
The dark-haired princess smiled pleasantly.
“Which would you prefer to happen when you turn comes, Levantine?” she asked.
The heir to Vaccei twitched, no doubt reaching for one of the many poisoned blades on his person, but the Arlesite’s hand was already on the pommel of her sword. It was never very far from it, Yannu had noticed, and she seemed uncomfortable when it was.
“Enough,” he said. “Moro, you would bare a blade on an ally when the Peregrine is among us?”
The man’s lips pressed together in disquiet, as well they should. The Pilgrim might not be at this council, but the incarnate soul of Levant had made it clear as rain to all of them that his blessing had been given to the Grand Alliance. To dishonour the living inheritor in Blood and Bestowal of the Dominion’s father would be… Even should the Peregrine not take Moro’s life, the sheer weight of the shame might see the man slice open his own throat.
“There is nothing to be gained from threats, Princess Rozala,” Yannu said, eyes then moving to the Proceran. “We are to fight side by side on this field and more to come.”
“Apologies, Moro,” the dark-haired woman curtly said, dipping her head.
The heir to Vaccei returned the courtesy, just as curtly. It was for the best that Lady Itima had not been the one given slight to, for the Lady of Vaccei would not have left it at that.
“I stand by my words nonetheless,” the Princess of Aequitan said. “We must strike now, before they gather.”
“I am reluctant to engage without our full might,” Yannu admitted. “The armies of the League are marching towards us, Princess. If they are to try our flank while we face the Marshals then I would have all our soldiery arrayed against the enemy.”
Rozala had, amusingly enough, inquired if the Tyrant of Helike had sent envoys to make a bargain with Yannu’s host not long after she joined her army with the Lord of Alava’s. He’d replied that was indeed the case, and that those envoys could easily be found: the corpses, after all, were still hanging from the personal banner of the Lady of Vaccei. Lady Itima’s line had faithfully kept to the hatred the Vengeful Brigand had held against foreigners, and not hesitated to slaughter any sworn to the likes of Kairos Theodosian.
“If we get them to retreat from their camp, we can seize it and close ranks with Lord Tanja’s force there before the League arrives,” Princess Rozala suggested.
“Or their returning columns could find us engaged assaulting a fortified camp and spring an ambush before Tanja is close enough to reinforce,” Yannu pointed out with a frown.
Her insistence puzzled him, for she should well know that the Marshals were capable of plying nasty tricks against opponents made sloppy by haste. Had she not fought the Hellhound herself and come out the lesser captain? The Lord of Alava had lost hundreds to a vicious charge of Callowan knights before learning to keep his own horse close to his skirmishers, and would not go after his foe so brashly again.
“If we lose the initiative we risk this entire campaign stretching out for months,” the dark-haired princess reminded him, sounding frustrated.
There it is, the Lord of Alava thought. It had been a rare occasion for all the great captains of the allied armies to hold common council, for both Malanza and he were aware that old enmities would see blades bared should close company be kept. Yet on the two occasions it had, Yannu had studied the princes and princess of Procer. Seen the difference, the subtle currents that ran among them. That Princess Rozala was first among equals was clear, beyond even her right of command, and that the Princess of Lyonis was her appointed warden was just as clear. What had been more interesting, to Yannu of the Champion’s Blood, was that even within the Princess of Aequitan’s faithful there was more subtle division. The princes of Creusens and Cantal were closer in her trust than any other, and both of those men had… telltale marks. Louis of Creusens had pulled a knife without hesitating on a servant when she’d approached him from behind, halfway to her neck before he stopped himself. Arnaud of Cantal spoke loudly and often, but sometimes also fell into long silences where he moved not a finger. As for Rozala Malanza herself, Yannu had noticed when seated she never crossed her legs. She wore leather boots, and always kept their thin soles squarely against the ground. Like she was feeling for tremors.
All three of these, the Lord of Alava had been told, had gone north to the Principality of Cleves to fight against the armies of the Dead King.
“I was told that the lines in Cleves held,” Yannu said, watching the Proceran closely.
Princess Rozala’s jaw clenched.
“When the sea pulls back before the coming wave crashes, the shore has not held,” she replied. “We bought a month, Lord Marave, maybe two. Our defences will break sure as summer’s turn if we wait longer than that. You have not…”
Yannu saw her lips moved in a whisper, counting out in Tolesian. Only after reaching twelve did she resume speaking.
“In Callow I fought fae and dead and villain’s wroth,” the Princess of Aequitan finally said, voice tight. “Believe me when I say that was a child at play. The Dead King comes for us all, Yannu of the Champion’s Blood. And every day we waste warring against mortals the Enemy gains a deeper foothold.”
Eyes hard, the dark-haired princess matched him gaze for gaze.
“I’ve had to claw back that shore from the Hidden Horror’s clutches once before,” she said. “Gods have mercy, but I do not know if there are enough soldiers left in Procer to do so a second time.”
It wasn’t the determination he saw in those dark eyes that moved the Lord of Alava. He has seen will in others, and smashed it to bloody pieces when it stood in his way. Mortals failed, mortals broke: a moment of resolution was just that, a moment. It always passed, and more often than not pain and steel hurried that passing. Neither was it the fear, for fear was an old friend to him. Yannu’s Blood was meant to strive for fearlessness, for the same reckless courage that was the Valiant Champion’s mark, but he had never forgot that day in the Brocelian where a splintered shield might have been a splintered skull. Audacity without patience, without watchfulness, was just another way of being frivolous with lives. Fear was the voice that kept your eyes open when bravery became arrogance, and he would not part from his even for a chance at Bestowal. No, it was the heartfelt belief Rozala Malanza had for her own words. She genuinely believed that the bell might toll for the Principate if they lingered here too long in Iserre.
“Then we march to battle,” Lord Yannu of the Champion’s Blood conceded.
“It’ll be ten days to reach the camp,” Moro said, stirring from his silence with hooded eyes. “If we hurry.”
“Then we hurry,” Princess Rozala grimly replied.
They had been, Hakram had to admit, shrewdly outmanoeuvered.
Juniper’s dispersion scheme had been solid, and it had certainly worked for the initial stretch of the march. The Third Army had baited the Lord Tanja’s host towards the east while the Fourth followed along parallel lines further north in Iserre, both keeping lines of communication open and keeping watch for a sudden march south by Lord Marave’s army. What messengers the Fourth Army had been able to receive from the Hellhound’s own two columns headed westwards had told them that the Levantine army under Lord Marave was pursuing them while leaving Marsha Grem and his legions to gather themselves. Until then, all had proceeded according to Juniper’s predictions: all she had to do was join with the Legions of Terror and force the Levantines back with a minor battle, to create a gap. Then the Third and Fourth Army were to shake off their own pursuit by Lord Tanja and hurry through that gap, assembling the entire allied force together. From there they could begin a fighting retreat to the northern passage, where the garrison under Duchess Kegan of Daoine would be awaiting them.
The opinion of the general staff had been that, considering the League of Free cities was invading from the south and the Dead King hitting northern Procer in force, the Legions and the Army of Callow would not even be hounded all the way through the retreat north. After the Grand Alliance saved face by ‘driving out the eastern invaders’, they’d been predicted to focus their efforts on containing the League of Free Cities while sending everything they could spare north. It would have been a campaign cleverly salvaged from the unexpected blow of losing the fairy gates when already committed deep in Procer, one fought with minimal losses while cleanly getting out the majority of the Legions of Terror under Marsha Grem.
Instead, the Fourth Army suddenly found its ability to send messengers north to coordinate with the Hellhound cut when a detachment of Helike kataphractoi began roving north of it. The messengers south sent to warn Nauk and the Third Army about League interference never made it, and were found with arrows in their corpses by General Bagram’s scouts. Adjutant had pushed for the Fourth Army to immediately move south and join with Nauk before marching north together, and the Fourth’s general agreed. One day into the march, however, a messenger form Juniper stumbled bloody into the camp with cataphracts in close pursuit. The First and Second Armies, the man said, had been taken by surprise and scattered when the Grey Pilgrim joined with Lord Marave and struck with miracles. The messenger had been an old subordinate’s of General Bagram’s, and the seals were in order. Gritting his teeth, Hakram had backed the decision to hurry and relieve Juniper – without a cohesive army to gather around, the legionaries of the First and Second would be hunted down like animals by the Levantine cavalry, scattered across the plains and vulnerable.
Seven days in, the messenger began bleeding out of the eyes and choked on his own tongue. The priests from the House Insurgent saw nothing wrong with him besides the obvious, but the ranking Senior Mage did when the corpse was dissected. A small stone inscribed with runes was dislodged from where it’d been ebbed at the bottom of the man’s spine, and examination under ritual confirmed the magic involved was illusory in nature. One of the few Soninke among the mage cadres eventually noted the runes had patterns in common with Stygian sorcery, and then it all fell together. They’d been had, the messenger was some poor bastard the Tyrant of Helike’s men had captured and tinkered with the memories of discretely enough neither priests nor mages had caught it until too late. A few years back, Adjutant thought to himself, the trick wouldn’t have worked. But the Army of Callow had expanded wildly beyond its capacity to field experienced mages, and the native Callowan practitioners that’d been brought in to try to remedy that were amateurs compared to Praesi warlocks. And Stygia’s Magisterium, as the success of the deception made clear.
Debate raged among the general staff of the Fourth Army, after that, for most of an evening. Some argued that if the purpose of the ruse had been to isolate the Third Army, it likely had been already destroyed by now. A strike by the cataphracts would likely slow down Nauk’s ten thousand enough that the Levantines would surround and destroy them utterly. Those same officers argued that marching south now would essentially mean throwing away another quarter of the Army of Callow for Levant and Helike to defeat in detail. Others suggested that it was the Fourth Army itself that was the target, and the ploy’s true nature was that the northern Levantines had let the Hellhound go and were instead marching south to pincer the Third and Fourth while Helike kept them all blind. Some even theorized that First and Second Armies truly had been broken, and this was all the Tyrant’s trick to lead them to dismiss the notion and hurry south while the rest of the Army of Callow was annihilated. It was bloody chaos, and not for the first time Hakram wondered at how young their highest rung of officers was.
The veterans brought in from the Legions that’d joined after Second Liesse were keeping it all functional, but there were too many officers who’d gone only through rough training camps before taking up their commission. But General Bagram was no greenhorn, and neither was Hakram himself. The debate ended with the decision to link up with the Third before the situation was further assessed, though careful scouting would be necessary in case the Third Army truly was destroyed and it was a Levantine force south of them. The Fourth Army moved out in good order, and a mere three days in ran into a Helike ambush. Somehow they’d avoided three lines of scouts, and that smacked to Adjutant of either sorcery or Named interference, but the result was brutal no matter the means employed. Three hundred dead, twice that many wounded, and the kataphractoi retreated with less than a score casualties on their side. The entire Fourth Army was boiling with fury at the humiliation, but it was only the first of many assaults to come. On its entire march back the way it’d been tricked marching, the army was relentlessly harassed by Helike. Night and day assaults, at irregular intervals, and in the end General Bagram had to order a fortified camp raised every evening or risk losing entire companies.
It was slowing them down even further, forcing them to end the march earlier in the day and exhausting the legionaries for the effort. Hakram suspected that might very well be the point, and by now was halfway convinced Nauk would be either up to his elbow in Levantines or days dead by the time they arrived to reinforce the Third. If any of it was even left. The anger of that stayed with him, and chased away the need for even what little sleep his body still required. His hours he spent either in talks with the general staff or out on watch with the legionaries. It was maybe halfway to Midnight Bell that he saw the glint of armoured riders in the distance, before even goblins caught it, and he immediately sounded the alarm.
“Shit,” Captain Mower cursed, peeking over the edge of the palisade, then added a very absent-minded ‘sir’.
The old goblin saw the same thing, and did not gainsay Adjutant when he ordered for crossbow companies to be brought to the fore. And half-companies of regulars too. The cataphracts had yet to try a charge, but that did not meant they would refrain if they saw an opportunity.
“So, what’s it going to be tonight,” Hakram said, teeth clinking softly. “Fire or exhaustion?”
“Bet you it’s fire, sir,” Captain Mower said. “Been too long since they tried those pitch arrows.”
The goblin spoke the word ‘pitch’ with the kind of utter disdain that would make a High Lord proud. He was a scout officer, not a sapper, but in Hakramès experience that’d never stopped Eyrie get from looking down at the unprofessional savagery of people not using proper goblin munitions for this kind of work.
“They gain more to less risk by forcing us to wake in the middle of the night then hitting us during the day at peak exhaustion,” Adjutant said. “The surprise with the scorpions killed a few dozen last time they got close to the palisade.”
“They won’t fall for that twice,” Captain Mower sighed. “Almost makes me miss Akua’s Folly, at least the wights weren’t mounted.”
“I’d even settle for Dormer,” Hakram gravelled. “And the bloody fae could fly.”
“That’s the Black Queen’s service for you,” the goblin grinned. “It ain’t the Army of Callow if we’re not fucked a different way every time.”
There was a ring of inexplicable cheers from the rest of the line at that, as the captain had raised his voice to carry. Catherine’s popularity with goblinkind never ceased to unnerve him. Robber had once told him it was because she was ‘the closest thing a human can get to a Matron, but you know the fun kind of Matron not the other kind, and it sort of helps she’d probably murder the other Matrons given a chance, although let’s be honest so would the other Matrons’. It’d been surprisingly coherent, given how much drink his friend had in him by that point. Not that Robber ever answered these kinds of questions by anything other than blatant lies unless he’d been plied with liquor and petty crime first. Pickler wasn’t any more of a help, as he’d been the one to inform her of the phenomenon in the first place. She’d never noticed.
“Well now, that’s new,” Captain Mower suddenly said.
Hakram’s attention snapped back to the present. Behind him the thin stripe of regulars was already standing at attention while the crossbow companies formed up behind them and checked their gear. That much was to be expected: they’d had a harder teacher than mere drills to get them to do it all quick and clean. What wasn’t expected was the way the Helike cataphracts had stopped about a hundred yards away from the palisade. They were – wait, that wasn’t a Helikean. There was a rider between the enemy and the camp, alone. Adjutant’s heart stirred, but what brought it home was the sudden shouts of surprise coming from deeper into the camp. A wooden post was snapped out of the frozen ground and alarm sounded again as long wings began beating. A frankly chilling whinny sounded into the night and Zombie the Third took flight, the wooden post she’d been tied to swinging under her hanging by the bridle.
“Not new at all, Captain,” Hakram Deadhand grinned, all teeth and malice. “She’s back.”