“Note: investigation in why sharing a problem is said to halve it remain inconclusive. Perhaps more varied trials are needed, as the tiger always ends up killing both subjects no matter the order they’re put in the cage.”
– Extract from the journal of Dread Emperor Malignant II
Lord Akil Tanja of the Grim Binder’s Blood crouched over the thinning snow and passed a hand through it, the twinge in his knees a reminder that this was not his first war but it might just be his last. He was not so old as to crumble into dust at the first touch of wind, but life away from the comfortable confines of Malaga had taken a toll on him. There were practices for a binder of his talent that might allow health to seep back into his flesh but the Lord of Malaga had always disdained their likes. He would not play chasing-games with his age by binding and devouring creatures, not even those that would survive such a perverted act. The rueful reflection on his age was forced to the side by the calm voice of his sworn enemy and ally.
“And?” Lady Aquiline asked.
“The earth beneath is still frosted,” Akil said. “These are war-grounds. Let there be blood.”
“Let there be blood,” the Lady of Tartessos agreed with a crisp nod.
Neither of them considered giving the Proceran captains marching with their host a voice in this decision. Had Prince Renato of Salamans survived the battle with the Stygian army there might have been need to do so out of courtesy but the man had died to the Magisterium’s dark sorceries – after taking a wound he’d melted from the inside over the night, Akil had heard – and the remaining commanders were neither highborn nor powerful enough to force the issue. They would follow the Dominion in battle, like it or not.
“They say the One-Eye will be there,” Lady Aquiline Osena of the Slayer’s Blood said. “That would be a worthy head to claim, do you not agree?”
The Silent Slayer’s quarrelsome brood, Akil thought, had always shown a distasteful obsession for the killing of famed foes. The one-eyed greenskin who had been named Marshal of Praes many years ago was perhaps the most famous alive of his kind, but if Akil understood correctly the orc must also be an old beast by now. Hardly a challenge for a sharp young killer like the Lady Aquiline. That she had spoken of an aged orc but not of the Hellhound or the Deadhand was telling, in his eyes, for while those two’s fame was fresher the ending of it would have been worthier dead. Fairer. The Lord of Malaga spat to the side before rising from his crouch.
“Shake the bushes before shooting at the sparrow, Osena,” he replied. “Marshals do not fight from the front and they have raised a fortress from nothing, these easterners.”
The lair of the Black Queen’s armies had been an impressive thing to behold, when Akil had first taken stock of it. Beneath a tall barrow crowned by raised stones a maze of death had been raised from wood, steel and earth. A deep ditch led into a palisade – a base of beaten earth, topped by spears – where legionaries kept watch night and day. Behind that first line flat grounds spread into flat killing grounds, ending in another palisade that prevented easy access to terraces filled with siege engines and crossbowmen. Deeper behind that walled camps filled with tents and protected by teeth-like bastions of earth and wood jutting outwards mad up the last line of defence that would be manned by mortals. Lord Marave’s messengers had spoken of strange lights above the barrow, after nightfall, and so Akil did not need to be told where it was that the Black Queen had made her den. These would be hard defences to crack, he knew, and Lady Aquiline’s loose talk of claiming heads displeased him. Marshals of Praes were not easy meat, nor were the villain queen’s own champions.
“Now is not the time to lose your stomach, Tanja,” the Lady of Tartessos chided. “You heard Careful Yannu’s stratagem same as me, and did not speak against the soundness of it.”
That it had been the scheme of Lord Yannu Marave had only made Akil hesitate all the more. Aquiline Osena had not shared a border with the Champion’s Blood for most her life, unlike Akil himself, and so she could not understand why the way they called the man not Reckless or Brave but Careful Yannu should be troubling. The Lord of Malaga had fought two honour wars against Lord Yannu’s predecessor and found him a hard fighter but no great trouble. He’d sent a war-party into Alavan territory under Careful Yannu only once, though, in the moon that followed the man’s ascension to lordship.
His own cousin and boyhood playmate Jaira had led it, for she was skilled with sword and bindings both and clever in the ways of war. Yet unlike his predecessor, Yannu had not fought the raiders as they passed through the flatlands taking riches and honour. No, he’d waited until they were returning north laden with loot and prisoners. Then he’d caught them while they were fat and slow under cover of night, butchering them wholesale. Without warning, without honour duels, without anything other than death weighed and measured. Jaira had been the only survivor of the night, and Lord Yannu had dragged her to the border before opening her throat in sight of the warbands Akil had sent to reclaim his cousin. He’d then left without even hearing out the calls to duel by the warriors of Malaga.
The point made had been harsh, but so was the man: Careful Yannu was willing to let his holdings bleed if it allowed him to position himself for a killing stroke. And once crossed, he would not stay his hand in retaliation no matter who had first given insult. The Marave were steel-cast madmen who answered to only Gods and Pilgrim, and barely even those. The notion of one blessed with both their line’s talent for killing and a good mind for strategy was worth respect and wariness both. Madness and cold method were dark mothers to dark days. Lord Akil Tanja had not fought a second honour war against Alava since that pointed lesson and slept easier for it.
And now he was being told to place the fate of his captains, of his soldiers, in the hands of the Lord of Alava. A man known to sacrifice for the killing stroke, and do so without hesitation. He was tempted to refuse, to force a conference where another plan would be laid out before battle was given, but Lady Aquiline was watching him with those cold eyes. Waiting, patiently, for a misstep that would allow her to wrest command of the host from him. Razin’s mistakes had been paid for, but the taint of failure still hung over the Tanjas. If the Lady of Tartessos went to the unsworn captains, claiming he had lost his nerve, Akil could not be certain of the outcome.
“I have already said,” Lord Akil replied, “that there will be blood, Lady Aquiline. We will follow the stratagem of Careful Yannu and make war on the Enemy.”
And still, he could not help but glance at the pale and empty vista behind his host. That long expanse of snowy plains, which had until morning been broken by the eldritch sight of a passage leading into Arcadia. It was gone, now, though the remembrance of the harrowing journey through that storm-wracked hellscape would haunt them all for years to come. The League of Free Cities had not followed them through the breach, after hounding them through it, yet Akil could not help but wonder if they had not taken another path after. If there might yet be more to this battle that the armies of the Black Queen and those of the Grand Alliance. Lady Aquiline had sent for the horn-bearer granted to them by the Holy Seljun while he looked, and though she looked hungry for the honour she did not overstep.
The young boy passed him the strange carved horn inherited from days long before the Dominion, an old artefact said to have made from the tip of a guisanes‘ horn. The legendary gargantuan bulls whose stride had shaken the world and flattened hills into plains were perhaps more myth than history, but it was said a shadow of their thundering might remained in wonders crafted from their remains. Whatever the truth of it, when Lord Akil Tanja of the Binder’s Blood sounded the horn his magic shivered inside him as the deep call echoes across the plains. In the distance, after a long moment, the sister-horn in the hands of the other Dominion host offered a shuddering call in reply.
Banners rose and without further ceremony the battle began.
Marshal Juniper of the Red Shields watched her enemies advance in silence. The sight of so many soldiers on the move would have been impressive for someone who had not fought in the Arcadian Campaign or slogged through the brutality of Second Liesse, but after these Juniper had found it took much to awe her. Yet for all that the armies before her lacked the ostentatious wings and sorceries of the Courts or the relentless horror of the Diabolist’s wights and devils they were no less dangerous for it. Flesh and steel did not splash so colourful across the pages of histories as the means of monsters and villains but they worked. And the Grand Alliance had brought much of both to bear on this field and this day.
“They don’t seem to have organized beyond attacking together,” Grem One-Eye said.
The sound of Kharsum spoken crisp and clear was like a breath of fresh air straight from the steppes. Juniper let that taste of home settled in her bones before growling in agreement. The armies of the Grand Alliance had not joined before moving against her fortifications, to her relative surprise. It might have taken them a few days to restructure after merging ranks, but they would have been stronger for it and there was not much she could do to better her own position with the means at her disposal. Her warlord had hinted that the League might be on its way to join the melee as well, Juniper noted. If her foes believed that arrival imminent, it might explain this hasty assault. This was speculation, however, and ultimately of no import to her. It was the facts that mattered. An army of eighty thousand was approaching from the northwest, under the command of Lord Yannu Marave and Princess Rozala Malanza. An army of sixty thousand was approaching from the southeast, under the command of Lord Akil Tanja. The first two commanders were known to her, and their armies as well. Of the latter commander, however, almost nothing was known save for his name.
“The northern force is the weaker one,” Juniper said. “Much of the foot from Vaccei is light and Malanza fields mostly levies. If a rout is to happen at all, it will be from there.”
The orc at her side grunted his agreement. They watched the enemy form up, and with cold eyes the Marshal of Callow sought weaknesses. The northern army advanced cautiously, which did not surprise her – she’d traded blows with them before. The Vaccei skirmishers advanced in a deep but loose screen ahead of the Proceran foot Princess Rozala had brought: a hodgepodge mixture of levies, fantassins and principality troops. Dartwick’s spies had brought back word that as much as six tenths of the Principate infantry should be levies, which was promising, but thoughts of an easy rout were put to rest by the two wings of infantry flanking the Procerans. The Lord of Alava, Yannu Marave, had brought to the crusade some of the finest heavy infantry Juniper had ever seen. Only four thousand in whole, at least, but it was marching ahead of lighter armsmen from Alava and Vaccei in much greater numbers. A sharp sword to open a breach, Juniper thought, after the skirmishers found a weakness.
“Malanza has the horse again, looks like,” Marshal Grem said.
The banner told it true, though she found the other orc made as wary as she felt by the way the near ten thousand horse – mixed Proceran and Levantine horse, though vastly more so Proceran than the other – the Princess of Aequitan led was peeling off from the rest of the army and moving towards the south. The mass of cavalry was moving slowly, but in good order.
“She didn’t make the plan for this,” Juniper said. “She’s much more aggressive a commander than that, she’d keep the horse close on the flanks to try a charge if opportunity arose.”
“Lord Yannu then,” Grem said. “Shame. He’s a hard one to bait.”
“Too much to hope for he spends the Vaccei foot against the palisades, I suppose,” Juniper muttered.
The older man twitched in amusement. The daring raids and ambushes from the Vaccei warriors and their vicious warleaders of the Bandit’s Blood had not endeared the Levantines to either orc. Juniper found her eyes drifting south, to the other army, and found her back prickling. Most of what she saw there she had expected. The enemy was moving with skirmishers ahead, though the screen was much smaller than the northern army’s, with two massed forces of infantry behind it. One Proceran and one Levantine. The Principate foot here should be mostly professional soldiers, Juniper thought, which explained why unlike in the northern army’s formation they’d not been placed between steadier soldiers to hold up their spine. The detail that had her hackles raising was the detachment of cavalry splitting off from the army, a solid seven thousand moving north. From a bird’s eye view, the Hellhound considered, within the hour there would be a point where her camp was as the centre of a neat square.
“They think they have a way to breach the palisades,” the Marshal of Callow said. “Interesting.”
The Marshal of Praes squinted his one eye, gazing at the moving cavalries. He arrived, she suspected, at the same conclusion she had: they were being positioned to hit forces defending the palisades from sudden angles after a path suddenly being opened for them.
“The reserves are readied,” Grem One-Eye said, baring his fangs. “Let them try.”
A moment later the skirmish lines of the northern army entered the first killing yard the Marshals had prepared for them and the slaughter began.
Moro of the Brigand’s Blood had lost thirty warriors in the time it took to drink a skin of water. He was not stranger to death dealt and received, but the sheer suddenness of it took him by surprise. The traps had been cleverly hidden, he thought, covered with a thin layer of snow and earth. And they must have been dug at night, for even with watcher his mother’s had not known of them. Not all warriors who’d fallen in the pits had died to the sharp stake at the bottom, but all had taken wounds – and their screams had brought hesitation where before there had been only courage. The warriors of his lands, Moro would admit to himself, were not used to being on this side of the traps and were not taking it well. The heir to Vaccei had called a halt, and sent for what he thought might just be the solution to the troubles. It wasn’t long before the priests answered his call, for the Lanterns were never far from the vanguard of strife. A full battle-party of thirteen had come in answer, to his pleasure, and the eldest among them sought him out.
“Honoured Son,” the woman greeted him. “You seek illumination?”
“I seek to walk within the Light,” Moro agreed. “For me and mine to follow its paths.”
The woman’s face-paint, golden and pale, hid her expression well. He could not tell whether she approved or disapproved of his request, which while not presumptuous was still a request – for some of the Lanterns just that was enough to give offence. They were a touchy lot. Regardless, after a heartbeat she suddenly whipped around and a lance of Light struck out. Twenty feet forward, it broke through a thin layer of snow and earth to reveal the trap under.
“Follow, then, Moro of the Brigand’s Blood,” the Lantern said.
Her companions spread out, and at the fore of Moro’s own warriors came men and women bearing long perches. They would reveal these traps, he smiled, for the Enemy had been foolish enough to lay them far out of crossbow range.
General Hune Egelsdottir waited until it was clear no more of the warrior-priests would reinforce the frontlines. She glanced at her senior mage, mildly amused by how eager he seemed to be to act.
“Fire,” she ordered. “On special assets only.”
Behind her, rituals bloomed as the mage cadres finally received the authorization to act. One, two, three, four, five: she long spears of flame formed and were sent out like massive arrows. Without scrying to adjust the trajectory it was unpleasantly imprecise business to use these sorts of rituals, as shown by the rituals. All were impacts – the ogre made a note to commend the officers leading the rituals – but only three of the priests were turned to cinders.
No matter, it was only the first volley.
“Again,” the general of the Second Army ordered, the faintest trace of a smile on her face.
Lord Yannu Marave sat atop his horse and thoughtfully chewed the mouthful of bread he’d ripped from the loaf, eyeing the falling javelins of flame.
Princess Rozala had told him the Army of Callow had used such ritual sorceries before, though allegedly it had not since the Hierophant had left its ranks for destination. It would have been sloppy, however, to assume that meant without the Bestowed they could not. So he hadn’t, instead preparing the same manner of defences the Proceran armies had at the Battle of the Camps. The priests from the House of Light, that tame Proceran breed, were shuffled to the front and ordered to form protective panes of Light. The Vaccei warriors were not yellow-bellied, and so did not need much haranguing before their advance resumed.
Grem One-Eye leaned forward and Juniper grinned, broad and fierce. They had, she believed, noticed the same detail. Though the ritual sorcery had been checked by priest intervention once more, there’d been a departure from the way that trick had been used at the Camps. Instead of massive layered shields covering the entire frontline, this time the Grand Alliance had resorted to a mere half dozen large panes protecting where the rituals had been striking. Dartwick’s spies, the Hellhound was forced to admit, had actually provided useful military intelligence.
“They’re spread thin on priests,” the Marshal of Praes laughed. “Too many wars, Hasenbach, too many wars.”
The Marshal of Callow did not reply, for her gaze had turned south where battle was finally being joined. General Abigail, the Hellhound had decided, was in need of thorough tempering. Her command at the southern front should serve, for a start.
The pit traps had not been part of the warnings Lord Marave had passed, but Aquiline Osega was not moved by the loss of a few dozen skirmishers. In the hunting of a foe strong and cunning, such deaths were inevitable. The Lady of Tartessos had been riding behind the last of the slingers and javelinmen, a handful of captains at her side, when she ordered the assault to be halted. Inevitable losses or not, she would not countenance simply throwing soldiers at the traps until a safe path emerged. Her favoured captain, dearest Elvera – who had such a dark reputation, with some, but to Aquiline remained the smiling woman who’d taught her how to reply to scraped knees with broken teeth – quietly reminded her that with Lord Yannu’s force advancing there could be no long halt without leaving his army exposed to the full attention of the enemy. Feeling out the traps with perches would take too long, Lady Aquiline had decided. No, it was time for bold steps. The rider she sent to that hard-eyed old monster Akil Tanja returned with the answer she’d wanted: the binders of Malaga would take the lead.
Reining in her horse, it was an effort for the Lady of Tartessos not to show the thrum of excitement she felt at the notion of seeing the finest sorcerers of Levant in the fullness of their war-making. When had been the last time Creation witnesses such a thing, she wondered? Not since the Sepulcher War, at least, and perhaps not even then. A mere hundred men and women in thick coats of leather and iron grey cloth marched to the front, skulls and bones and claws bound by fine brass chains. The spread out in a line, and one of them raised a hand. There was a grinding scream, like a hundred blades being scraped against each other, and a translucent drop formed in the air a few feet in front of the binder. The ground beneath it, snow and earth and snow, was sucked upwards by some invisible force that broke it all down to grains. The other binders followed in the first one’s wake, drops forming one after another and the scream becoming utterly deafening. And still Aquiline did not look away for a moment, for in front of her spirits were being given shape.
The first one shaped a wyvern, the winged creature with the long stinger-tipped tail letting out a scream all too-real before it began to advance and strike at the ground to reveal traps. The snow and earth it was made from shifted like true flesh and sinew, for the spirit the binder had called forth still remembered the body it has once worn. It was a company of beasts that was brought forth, manticores and griffins and culebron. Even a few creatures she did not recognize: her, the Lady of Tartessos, whose true domain was the savage Brocelian!
The beasts of snow and earth sprang forward, implacable and relentless.
General – despite her best efforts – Abigail of Summerholm idly wondered if you got a worse penalty for deserting when you were a general. She’d assumed it couldn’t get worse than hanging, and that could only happen the once, but considered the amount of Wastelanders enrolled in the Army of Callow she just couldn’t be sure. Well, there was nowhere to run to anyway so it was all academic in the end.
“Burn those up, boys,” she called out.
Krolem relayed the order more proper-like, wonderful aide that he was. Behind the generals rituals bloomed, but Abigail just had this sinking feeling it wasn’t going to be enough.
It wasn’t pessimism, she told herself, if you were part of the Army of Callow.