“Even madmen can win at dice.”
– Callowan saying
General Abigail rode poorly, though that was hardly a surprise. Most of my army was no better. Given that it was in majority Callowan, that was somewhat shameful: my people had once held a reputation for breeding the finest war horses on Calernia and riding them into battle with distinguished record. That’d been before the Conquest, though. A lot of Old Kingdom noble families had preferred butchering their own herds to turning them over to the Tower, and Black famously almost had an uprising on his hands when he moved to obtain horses from the mostly-untouched south of the kingdom. It was one of the few times my teacher had actually backed down. In practice, the old expectation that anyone of means as well as anyone of high birth would be able to ride with a lance had died out under the decades of occupation. A large part of what had birthed that custom in the first place was gone, namely the need for a large pool of trained mounted soldiers to fill the ranks should the Wasteland invade, but in my eyes the real culprit had been the lack of such mounts to be had.
What few war horses had remained were either closely kept by the last of the Callowan aristocracy or by law set aside for the use of the Legions of Terror – in specific the Thirteenth, which had been raised from Callowan bandits and rebels in the first place. Ratface had once told me, years ago, that for the smugglers who could pull it off selling a horse was about as profitable as selling the equivalent weight in spices. Wasteland aristocrats were willing to pay ludicrous sums for a purebred Liesse charger or even a dappled Vale courser. That’d been the thought, anyway, that the old herds and ways were gone. There’d been some satisfaction in the fact the knightly orders might be lost but at least they weren’t under Praesi banners, the kind of bittersweet victory that’d been rare after the Conquest and so even more dearly savoured. But then the Order the Broken Bells had crawled out of the chaos of the Arcadian Campaign, and given time it might spread that knowledge again. A pretty, thought, though in the present it wasn’t making either mounts or skilled riders appear out of thin air.
“Ghastly beasts, I’ll tell no lie,” Abigail of Summerholm muttered, eyeing her mount with distrust. “Bit unnatural, if you ask me.”
The horses I’d confiscated from the four thousand kataphraktoi numbered more than that. Less than military wisdom would have dictated a field force of cavalry should take with them, but six thousand horses was nothing to sneer at. Hakram had speculated that considering they weren’t moving with a remount for every cataphract they might just have a field camp somewhere in Iserre where the rest were being kept, but we’d had no time to look into it. Out of sheer practicality we’d already had to butcher a thousand of those no doubt very expensive mounts, which at least had put the orcs of the Third and Fourth in a rather good mood – fresh meat was a delicacy, out on campaign. But we’d also more than enough left for what might be considered luxury, namely mounting large contingents of messengers and officers. The matter was further complicated by the fact that horses not specifically trained out of it tended to panic around greenskins, but the humans in the general staffs had gained mount at least.
“You get used to it,” I said. “Though it’s been some time since I last rode a living mount, I’ll admit.”
I fondly stroked the rough coat of Zombie the Fifth and received a pleased exhale from the Helikean horse in reply. Zombie the Third was currently being punished by dragging a cart, which looked rather absurd for a winged horse and I knew she very much despised doing. The crime she was atoning for was that this morning I’d found someone had caved in the head, ribs and spine of Zombie the Fourth. She’d tried to look innocent, the wretch, but unless there was another hooved creature in my army jealous of my attentions then I had my culprit. Apparently you could take the Winter necromancy out of the fae horse, but actually you couldn’t and it would keep that vicious temperament forever.
“If you try to shake me off again I’ll have you made into boots,” General Abigail whispered, glaring at her horse and apparently under the impression I couldn’t hear her. “You know what? That’s your name now. Boots. How do you like that, Boots?”
Boots proceeded forward at an indifferent trot and I cleared my throat. The black-haired woman paled, reminded of my presence.
“I, uh, agree Your Majesty,” she hastily said.
I sighed. She hadn’t listened to what I was said in the slightest, had she?
“Oh, good,” I airily replied, offering her a smile. “Then I expect it’ll be done within the hour.”
I enjoyed the panic that seeped into her eyes a little too much.
“Is that,” she tried, “customary?”
Trying to find out what she’d agreed to by context. My long experience of pretending I already knew things while getting Masego to explain them allowed me to see through her admittedly pretty translucent wiles.
“In Ashur, I’d assume,” I gravely said.
“Yes,” she slowly said. “That is… well-known.”
“You can tell Adjutant you’re in need of our maritime charts for the Tyrian Sea,” I continued. “Gods be with you, Admiral Abigail.”
She let out a little whimper, which she tried to pass off as a cough. Then she stilled.
“We don’t have a border with the Tyrian Sea,” she realized. “Or a fleet.”
“Which will lend you the element of surprise,” I mused.
“Queens aren’t supposed to have people on,” General Abigail plaintively said.
I hid my smile by looking away.
“Call it royal prerogative,” I replied, then took mercy on her and changed the subject. “What do you think of your new officers?”
“The transfers from the Fourth are all old hands from the Legions,” the blue-eyed woman said. “To be entirely honest they didn’t need much settling, Your Majesty. And Legate Samid could do my job better than me, if you let him.”
Legate Samid served for fifteen years under General Afolabi, a Wasteland aristocrat, and first enrolled in the Legions at the beginning of Black’s tenure as the captain of Malicia’s armies, I thought. His loyalties are rather more complex than yours, my dear.
“Then learn from him,” I said. “And take his advice, when it has good sense.”
I’d ignored the implied offer to step down from her generalship and resume her legate duties, as I had the last five times she’d indirectly broached the subject. And would keep doing. Talented Callowan candidates for a general’s mantle didn’t grow on trees, much less those with no ties to any of the factions in my court. An abdication was a tricky matter even when a dynasty was stable, and considering mine consisted of me and a tumultuous reign of less than five years I hardly qualified. A popular Callowan general with a distinguished war record and no real ambition for power would go a long way in stabilizing what would follow in my wake. I set aside the thought for now. It was too early to tell if Abigail of Summerholm could really be used in that manner, and pushing too hard too fast would only spoil the broth.
“I won’t know the first thing about fighting heroes, ma’am,” General Abigail said.
“I’ve killed more than a few and I barely do,” I shrugged. “Besides, ideally we won’t be killing anyone.”
“That’s, uh, not the sentiment I expected to hear,” the black-haired general said.
“Any corpse we make down here is one less warm body to throw at the Dead King, Abigail,” I said. “And heroes, well, we’ll need more than a few of those to drive the Hidden Horror back into hiding.”
“Into hiding,” she slowly said. “Not to kill.”
“You ever seen a god die, General Abigail?” I said.
“Can’t say I have, ma’am,” she replied, lips tight.
“Neither have I,” I said, “but I suspect it would be messy business. Best we know our limitations, and not bargain for more than we can deliver.”
“I hear that,” General Abigail muttered.
About time to segue into more personal matters, I mused. I’d taken to digging into her past, when the opportunity rose, though what I’d learned was as amusing as it was appalling. Inquiried about her family had let to ‘My Ma brewed, and what Pa didn’t drink we sold.’ An open-ended question about why she’d enrolled had led to ‘Our place in Summerholm burned down, and all respect Your Majesty but have you ever smelled a tannery?‘ I’d been about to ask about the orc tribune – Krolem, his name was, I’d had Hakram look into him – that she brought with her everywhere when movement caught my attention at the corner of my eye. Enemy outriders? No, I saw as I squinted, some of our own scouts. The Third Army was at the head of the column for the day’s march, and with my personal banner being raised along with its own the scout officers were likely to head here for their first report. I’d not expected anything from them for some time, to be honest. Our best guess had Juniper’s camp half a day away, further west along the frozen river we were following.
“Unusual,” I said.
The general followed my gaze, but said nothing.
“Come on,” I decided. “We’re headed to the front of the column.”
I spurred Zombie the Fifth forward, peeling off from the side of the Third Army and outpacing the marching legionaries. Abigail followed more slowly, hissing curses at her uncooperative mount I pretended not to hear. It wasn’t a full scouting line, I saw as I approached. Only a tenth, all goblins, with the line’s sergeant among them. Whatever they saw, I thought, it was urgent enough they backtracked. I reined in my horse a dozen feet ahead of the front of my column, slowing him to a trot to remain ahead as the goblins approached. Abigail arrived just before they did, legs so tight against her saddle I winced to think of the cramps she’d have tonight. The sergeant – stringy, small and more yellow than green, the ritual scarring around her lips lending her a grisly touch – came forward and saluted.
“Your Majesty,” she said. “Sergeant Hurdler, reporting.”
“At ease, sergeant,” I replied.
I glanced at Abigail and saw she’d mostly composed herself. Good enough.
“You’re back earlier than expected,” I said. “Your report?”
“Whatever we got out of the Procerans, it was inaccurate,” the goblin said. “The Hellhound’s camp is about half a bell ahead, and when Lieutenant Reeler sent us back battle was already being given.”
Shit, I thought. There were hills to the west of us, split in the middle by the river our maps called the Odelle. Not all that tall, but enough they’d cut our line of sight. It makes sense, I grimly conceded. Juniper would want hills on one of her flanks if she could, knowing she’d be outnumbered in a battle.
“Battle,” I said. “Elaborate, sergeant.”
“Marshal Juniper raised a fortified camp on both sides of the river banks,” Hurdler said. “An army of Levantines and Procerans was assaulting the northern bank, last I saw.”
“Which was?” I pressed.
“A little over an hour,” the goblin said. “We could see from the taller hills.”
Fuck. I’d bet on Juniper against most generals, and on Grem One-Eye against the few left, but they wouldn’t just be fighting mortals. There would be heroes, and if what Hakram had told me about Vivienne was true then Juniper wouldn’t have any Named to pit against them. The Pilgrim alone might be driven back by the Wild Hunt, but the Saint? Laurence de Montfort had already proved she could savage the lot of them singlehandedly. Our Proceran prisoners had told us about cavalry skirmishes and ambushes, not a pitched battle over the camp. The enemy had moved quicker than we’d anticipated. My fingers clenched and I leaned back against my saddle, turning my face to the sky. I whistled, loudly.
“Ma’am?” Sergeant Hurdler said.
“Pass your report along to General Bagram and Lord Adjutant immediately,” I told her. “Dismissed, sergeant.”
She saluted, and left dragging along her exhausted scouts.
“General Abigail,” I said.
The blue-eyed Callowan was watching me warily.
“Your Majesty,” she replied.
“The Third Army is to march on those hills as quickly as you can make it,” I said, the staff in my grasp twirling to point at the slopes to the west. “You’re to fly the Third’s banner from the tallest hills. Send a messenger to Bagram, and fly the Fourth’s as well.”
“And General Bagram is to follow?” she asked.
“Pass this along to Hakram: Five Armies and One,” I said.
“That’s all?” Abigail blinked.
“It’s enough,” I amusedly replied.
“And you, ma’am?” she asked.
I glanced up, and saw exactly what I’d been waiting for.
“I’ll be going ahead,” I said.
In a splash of snow, Zombie the Third landed right in front of me. Wings still unfolded, she celebrated her release from punishment with a smug little canter. I gesture for one of the legionaries in the front rank to approach, some beardless boy who looked almost too small for his armour. I passed him my living mount’s reins and instructed him to lead it back to our supply train, but paused when I caught the sun glinting off his helm.
“Your name?” I asked.
“Edgar, ma’am,” he replied, sounding too young and too awed. “Of Laure.”
“Are you?” I smiled, and flicked a glance at Abigail. “Good, it wouldn’t do to have the Summerholm folk take all the glory. I’ll be needing to borrow your helmet, Edgar.”
The boy’s eyes widened in surprise, but he fumbled at the clasps and held it up like an offering. I set it under my arm, pulling my loose hair back into a ponytail with the leather tongue I still carried in my cloak. The legionary helmet settled on my head with a comfortingly familiar weight. I winked at Edgar.
“Last time I was on a field and royalty went without one of those, I had them shot,” I said.
The boy choked, and I grinned before limping to Zombie’s side, waiting until she’d folded her wings to hoist myself atop her. I turned to Abigail.
“See to it he gets another before battle, would you?” I told her, dipping my head towards the kid.
“I will,” General Abigail nodded. “Should I be asked your intent, Your Majesty, what should I say?”
I mulled over that as my mount spread her wings.
“I’m going to make a point, General,” I said. “Tactfully.”
I spurred on my winged mount and she raced ahead, leaping up and rising to the beat of long wings. We rose and rose and rose, high into the sky, until the sun was warming my bones and I judged the height was sufficient. The time for quiet was over, I thought. Night flooded my veins, sluggish under the glare of day, but it was enough to rip open an inky-black gate into Arcadia. Below us, as it happened. We dove through the gate into the realm of the fae. Sunny skies awaited us on the other side, the Summer sun’s disapproving light upon us, but what did we care? There was only the endless blue firmament and the descent, Zombie responding to the nudges of my knees and adjusting the angle so we would tumble through the destination I could feel in the back of my mind.
I pressed close against her back, cloak trailing behind me, and squinted against the howling air. My staff of ebony I clutched tightly, until I could feel the point the needle was to emerge from the cloth. Beneath us was spread out a fortress, banners of neither Court I had known raised tall over pale walls, and cries sounded at our approach. The tallest tower, I saw, was our gate out. The very summit. I grimaced. Well, too late to hesitate. Down, down, down, until I could almost make out the faces of the fae jousting in the courtyard below, laden with silks and elaborate armaments. My staff rose and sluggishly the gate out ripped itself open atop the tower. We plunged through narrowly, and in the beat that followed found ourselves diving through fresh skies.
The cool air of Procer whistled around me as the gate closed, and we joined the battle unfolding below.
It was a bloody mess that I witness sprawling out beneath me. I’d been afraid that the northern Levantines and Principate reinforcements had somehow managed to steal a march, but by the looks of it they hadn’t. Not exactly. In the distance I could see columns of soldiers heading south, spread out like glittering snakes of steel. This was a vanguard, not the full host. That’d be reassuring, though, if Juniper actually looked to be winning. The Army of Callow and the Legions under Marshal Grem had raised a fortified camp across the two banks of the frozen River Odelle, not only palisades but earthen ramparts and even platforms for their siege engines. The northern part of that camp, however, was a wreck. What must have been flat grounds once was now a disaster of collapsed tunnels, the outskirts of which were being fought over by legionaries and Levantine foot. The Hellhound had dug under her own camp, I thought. It would have taken goblins to do this much damage so swiftly. Odds were she’d meant to bait the enemy into the northern bank and then collapse it on them, possibly with munitions thrown in to make it a crippling blow. Something had gone wrong, though, because among the havoc I saw more of our dead than the enemy’s.
Our side was stuck in fighting retreat to the southern bank fortifications, but the legionaries were getting the bad end of that scrap – on uneven grounds, the lightly-armored Levantines were proving much more effective. Many of them carried javelins, I saw, and those were death on even good armour when properly thrown. Even when not, they turned shields useless by sticking in them. It wasn’t the kind of fight the reformed Legions of Terror had been built for, and the Army of Callow was daughter to that institution. The Order of Broken Bells was out on the left flank, but too far out: they’d been baited into pursuing lighter Levantine cavalry, by the looks of it. But it was on the right that disaster loomed. Proceran horse, a force at least seven thousand strong and advancing at a trot. I’d put my hand to fire it’d held back until now, and I could see why: if it charged down the Odelle, as it was moving to do, it would neatly cut the retreat of the legionaries fighting their way out of the wreckage. There’d been palisades put over the ice, Juniper wasn’t an amateur, but they’d been shattered beyond repair by something and sappers were struggling to raise fresh ones. They wouldn’t make it in time, I assessed. Not something solid enough to resist a hard charge by seven thousand hardened Proceran mounted killers.
Someone had hit my side exactly where they needed to for this to turn into a debacle, and I had my suspicions as to who. I wasn’t seeing the Pilgrim or the Saint anywhere but that hardly meant they weren’t there. Yet this could still be salvaged, I decided. If the legionaries in the wreckage didn’t get cut off, most of them should make it to the southern bank and then the siege engines would stop the enemy advance cold. Which meant that seven thousand horse had to be turned back. I worried my lip but pressed my knees against Zombie’s side and she angled her glide down to land ahead of the Proceran cavalry. Making the fairy gates hadn’t put me out of commission, but I wasn’t exactly fresh anymore either. I wouldn’t be able to pull a second Sarcella today, of that much I was certain, even if heroes decided not to interfere. Calling on a few vicious Night tricks might slow down the enemy, but I’d burn out long before I could make a real dent in seven thousand horsemen.
Five hundred feet before the enemy, Zombie’s hooves skimmed the surface of the cold field and left long spouts of snow like wings as she landed. I watched the Proceran banners trail in the breeze far ahead of me, vivid coloured stripes flying high above rows and rows of steel-clad soldiers. Some of those I had seen on the pages of ancient volumes. The red lion of Valencis, the strange green dragonfly of Lange. Other symbols I did not: a long-haired maiden clutching bow and arrows, a bronze wheel atop a pale column.
Four hundred feet.
One I had seen before with my own eyes, I realized, and not so long ago: a scarlet salamander on flaxen bed, the arms of Aequitan. The detail startled a laugh out of me. An old acquaintance was among them, then. Borrowed helm glinting in the sun, I twirled my staff and leaned forward. No miracle of Night came. Instead, using the length of ebony wood I traced a line in the snow ahead of me.
Three hundred feet.
Watching seven thousand killers ride towards me with no sign of slowing, I did the only reasonable thing left to me and went looking through my cloak. I snapped my wrist, black flame flickered, and I pulled at my pipe. I inhaled the wakeleaf with a little sigh of pleasure and breathed out a long stream of smoke.
Two hundred feet.
I grinned, broad and sharp and just a little mad. Now, the thing was, if it came to a scrap they might just kill me. They knew that. I knew that. Yet here I was, unmoving.
One hundred feet.
Catherine Foundling, out of breath and out of her depth, would be swept aside with a warlike shout. They weren’t facing that girl, though, were they? They were facing the Black Queen, the warlord who’d slain fae and bound them to her service. The monster who’d brought down the sky at the Battle of the Camps, faced a band of heroes alone and raised a lake’s worth of dead. They were facing every dark rumour I’d ever had put to my name, after watching me dive out of a pitch-black portal on a dead fae horse. And sure, odds were I was mad. Gone the way of the Old Tyrants, drunk on power.
But, a little voice would be whispering, what if I wasn’t?
I grinned, and smoked my pipe.
They flinched first.