“War itself has no worth, as it is a temporary state. War ends, and therefore its fundamental purpose is to shape what comes after it. It then follows that a war fought without the ambition of a planned peace is inherently a mistake.”
– Extract from the treatise “On Rule”, author unknown (widely believed to be Prince Bastien of Arans)
Yannu Marave had been taught, as a boy, to make a spectacle of honour duels. There were some who might have called such a teaching arrogant, a presumption of superiority in all matters of steel, but those people were not of the Valiant Champion’s Blood. The Lord of Alava had followed those ways as a young man, let the crowds roar with thrill and fear as he made sport of warriors. He had done this while master of the field from the first stroke to the last, and taken much too long to understand the sickness and cruelty of the act. Yet a duel fought for honour, for decision, could not be a dull affair. The resolution must be striking, the victory evident, lest other warriors wonder if their own blade would have served the cause better. And so Yannu Marave had left behind the ways of the champion, of a duellist, and instead learned the arts of killing. As his forbears had mad study of the slaying of armies and beast, he had learned to take apart men of all stripes. Warriors in plate or leather, hunters and Lanterns and even the strange-stepping slayers of the Brocelian’s outskirts. All these, and binders as well. He had learned to kill these, kill them quick and clean and without a fuss.
And so he’d opened the throat of Akil Tanja within eighteen heartbeats of their duel beginning, flicking his hooked blade free of blood and sheathing it in the same smooth gesture.
Even as the corpse of the Lord of Malaga finished tumbling backwards and life left the man’s eyes, Yannu of the Champion’s Blood had calmly asked of his fellow lords and ladies of Levant if any other wished to contest the decision to attack again after nightfall. From the corner of his eye he’d seen Aquiline Osega’s hand dip towards her own blade, her Slayer’s Blood boiling at the thought of the match that could be had there, but the young woman mastered herself. The Lady of Tartessos was a dangerous woman, for her age, and would only become more so with the passing of years. She bore watching. The Lord of Malaga’s son and heir, Razin Tanja of the Grim Binder’s Blood, was not so patient. His sword ripped free of the scabbard, cutting through the silence that’d followed Yannu’s question.
“By smoke and dust, I vow enmity between us,” the boy rasped out, his voice cadenced with old words. “’til steel has sung and shield splintered, let there be no truce nor breaking of bread by our hands. On the blood of my father, I swear the last abjuration: by my hand the earth will spit you out from your grave, denied rest in barrow and shade.”
Razin Tanja’s face was still streaked with the iron and red of his line’s facepaint, and though tall and well-formed the boy was in no state to fight the duel to the death he’s just forced. He’d taken a wound today, Yannu noted, which had torn muscle near his shoulder. The healing done had been later and lackluster. Still, a murmur of solemn respect shivered through the assembled captains and Blood of the war council. Though Razin Tanja was said to have blundered and overstepped at Sarcella, that he would be so unflinching in swearing revenge over the same man who’d flogged him was garnering respect. From his own captains most of all, Yannu thought, and that was for the best. Razin Tanja could not formally become Lord of Malaga until his foremost kin gathered to acclaim him before Gods and men: respect and prestige would be his only true claims to command of the war captains of Malaga.
“So be it,” Yannu replied, dipping his head. “When your wound is fully healed, I will meet you on duel-grounds.”
“Why wait?” Lady Aquiline mildly said, eyeing the two of them smilingly. “Send for Proceran priests and have it done and over with. Let us settle all our affairs before battle is given.”
The Lord of Alava met her gaze with clear displeasure. So clever she’d cut herself, that one, and too eager to see her last remaining rival to command of the other Dominion force dead on the ground.
“Shut your fucking mouth, girl,” Lady Itima of Vaccei said, tone conversational.
Aquiline Osena’s stare turned poisonous, when she faced the woman who’d had her two younger brothers killed. Itima was an old hand, and of the Bandit’s Blood, so she was unimpressed by the sight and spat to the side in disdain.
“Yannu, confirm that little bore from Tartessos in command of her army and let’s get this over with,” the Lady of Vaccei said, glancing at him. “The longer she talks the more I feel the urge to make another cup out of an Osena skull.”
“Remain civil, Itima,” he chided her.
“There is no civility north of Tartessos,” Lady Aquiline angrily said. “Only poison and-”
“Fewer of your siblings than there used to be, eh?” the older woman grinned.
“Enough,” Razin Tanja hissed.
The two women turned to him with barely veiled surprise.
“My father lies dead on the ground, his corpse not even cold,” the boy said. “And you bicker over old feuds? I will wait until the end of this strife to exact my due from the Maraves yet you cannot even curb your viper tongues for an hour? Shame on both your lines.”
“Not yet lord,” Lady Itima drawled, “and already making enemies. Truly Akil’s boy, though with half the sense and none of the-”
“I name Aquiline Osena war leader of the southern host,” Yannu calmly interrupted. “Do any contest this?”
“Agreed,” Razin Tanja rasped.
“Agreed,” Lady Aquiline coolly said.
There was a pause.
“Agreed,” Itima Ifriqui conceded, reluctance purely for show.
They put it to the captains, afterwards, but with the Blood having spoken the matter was good as settled. Even the Malagans kept to the word of their young heir without qualms when enemies were there to see, though Yannu knew better to think Razin would not have to make private bargains with the most powerful to keep them following his orders.
“Then we are bound with common purpose of war,” the Lord of Alava said. “Let none stray until our enemy is broken.”
Already the sun was beginning to set, he thought. It would be a long night before their armies would be ready to strike at the Black Queen’s host, for soldiers were in need of healing and rest. Yet the time would come, and for the first time in many years an army of the Dominion of Levant would march out with the Peregrine among its number.
“The savages are cutting each other up,” Prince Arnaud of Cantal said with open disdain. “I believe one of their great lords was freshly butchered and even now is being set to flame.”
This small pavilion of hers, Princess Rozala thought, was near filled to the brim with royalty. She would have preferred to cut out near everyone here of the council being held, but with the situation what it was that would have been more trouble than it was worth.
“I have spoken with Lord Marave,” the Princess of Aequitan evenly said. “There was disagreement over strategy, and it was settled by an honour duel ending in death. Lord Akil Tanja was slain, and his heir Razin has taken lead of the captains of Malaga. He has been placed under command of Lady Osena, who is well-learned in the ways of war.”
“They’re Levantines,” Princess Bertille of Lange drily said. “How learned can they possibly be at anything?”
The ripple of laughter that went through the tent at the quip was enough to begin scraping at the bones of Rozala’s patience, which boded ill for the rest of this council. She was disappointed to note that the slightest trace of a smile had quirked Louis’ lips. It should not be held against him, she ultimately decided. Prince Louis Rohanon was a clever and decent man, but he’d still been raised Alamans. His ancestors had not fought a hard war to take Levant, unlike hers, or an even more brutal one to keep it. Rozala glanced at Princess Bertille and found the older woman watching her, an assessing look on her face. She was pushing, the Arlesite princess thought, to see how far she could go without being called to order. The temptation was there to immediately put her in her place – it would be as simple as ordering the other princess to take a walk, dismissing her before all the others – but Rozala knew this was not the hour for it. Bertille of Lange was useful to her, and would remain so for a long time. Best to only bare the knife when there was something to hold over her head.
“We will of course defer to your judgement in this matter, Princess Bertille,” Princess Sophie of Lyonis calmly said. “As is only natural, given your distinguished military record and extensive knowledge of the Dominion.”
The Princess of Lange reddened and Rozala Malanza had to smother a smile. Both at the harshness of the reply – Bertille had no military achievements to her name, and was not known as a great scholar – and the fact that Princess Sophie’s continued open dislike for her fellow royalty kept pushing them ever further into Rozala’s camp. Cordelia Hasenbach had picked her watcher for skill at arms and loyalty, not diplomacy. A mistake of some scale, as it turned out, for protracted campaign had tired the patience of everyone and tempers were beginning to flare more and more frequently.
“The Dominion is worrying me, all jests aside,” Prince Rodrigo of Orense spoke up. “They seem most unstable, Princess Malanza. Lord Marave’s scheme to attack the enemy camp was a failure, yet we are now expected to heed his plans once more?”
Rozala inclined her head in acknowledgement of his words, not in the least troubled by the question. After all, they’d arranged before the council for him to ask it.
“He spent only Dominion soldiery, if you’ll recall,” the Princess of Aequitan said. “Not ours. And this is not merely his own design – the Grey Pilgrim is at his side, preparing to fight the enemy we cannot.”
Even an oblique mention of the Black Queen was enough to chase any trace of mirth out of the tent. There were some here who’d not been at the Battle of the Camps, who’d not seen the crowned warlord of Callow split the clouds and drown men like flies or make sport of entire bands of heroes. There were some here who’d whispered behind closed doors that Prince Amadis Milenan and his armies had simply been cocksure and caught by surprise, and in the wake of that sloppiness tried to weave wild tales to avoid the blame. No one whispered such things anymore, Rozala thought. Not since half the people in this room had seen that spit of a girl tear out of the sky in a ripple of darkness only to nonchalantly set herself in the way of an army thousands strong without ever baring a weapon. Without raising her voice, or doing anything but smoking her eerie bone pipe and giving calm warning. Princess Rozala still thought of that afternoon, sometimes, of the death she’s seen in the other woman’s smile. It still had her shivering. The Black Queen was mad, but hers was a madness that had broken every army in her path. The Princess of Aequitan would not test her again without great care and many preparations.
“It’s still a fool’s notion, this night attack,” Princess Leonor of Valencis opined. “Chosen don’t hold ground, Princess Rozala. They can’t be relied on. When we take a swing at that palisade, the enemy will have goblins and drow waiting for us.”
Arnaud pompously cleared his throat.
“We don’t know for certain if drow see in the night, Leonor,” the Prince of Cantal chided, tone condescending. “Let us not make unwarranted assumptions.”
“They live underground, Arnaud,” Prince Louis sighed. “We can assume they see in the dark without it being unwarranted.”
“They could have very fine hearing,” Princess Bertille drawled. “Or mayhaps like bats it is their cry that is their sight.”
“Indeed, Bertille, indeed,” Prince Arnaud enthusiastically agreed. “My point exact.”
Sometimes Rozala wondered what it was like to be Arnaud Brogloise, the kind of person whose triumphant vanity would allow to take anything but the most obvious of mockeries as affirmation. It wasn’t like the Princess of Lange had even bothered with much of a pretence.
“The Chosen will be sent to match the Damned, Princess Leonor,” Princess Rozala said, dragging the conversation back to the earlier path. “We will not be relying on them for the fighting. I assure you, we have accounted for the drow.”
“That’d be why our priests have been in talks with the Lanterns for the last sennight, I take it,” Princess Leonor replied, eyes narrowing. “You won’t be saying more?”
Rozala flicked a glance at Louis.
“Lady Dartwick, the Black Queen’s spymistress, has agents in our camps,” the Prince of Creusens said. “We’ve caught and hung ten of these ‘Jacks’ already. As a result, it was decided that secrecy is to be paramount. If the enemy catches wind of our stratagems beforehand, I need not detail how much of a disaster this could become.”
“But you are aware of the details, Prince Rohanon,” Princess Leonor pressed. “And consider the notion sound?”
“I do,” Louis replied without hesitation. “Risky, but soundly planned and perhaps our only chance at winning this without tossing away fifty thousand foot taking that palisade.”
“Gods be merciful, then,” the Princess of Valencis sighed, “and ward us from the reaching claws of Below.”
“We will begin our advance two hours before dawn,” Princess Rozala informed them. “Camp fires are to be kept alight to mislead the enemy, and there will be no horns sounded for assembly. You will be all be tasked with seeing to your own soldiers, while I’ve appointed Prince Louis to command over the levies furnished by Her Serene Highness.”
“Glorious command indeed, my prince of Creusens,” Princess Bertille smirked.
The Princess of Aequitan’s eyes narrowed.
“As you’ve shown such spirit tonight, my princess of Lange, I expect you will have no trouble leading the tip of the wedge,” Rozala calmly said.
The other woman’s smirk vanished.
“There will be use for our horse then?” she said.
“We’re sending everything we have,” Princess Rozala grimly replied. “So is the Dominion. We’ll win or lose on the knife’s edge that splits night from dawn.”
Dark tidings, that, but they were Proceran and so they still toasted to the madness before dispersing to their duties.
Juniper, fresh awoken and only half-dressed, did not bother to ask Aisha if she was serious. Her Staff Tribune would not jest about such a thing, or wake her without being entirely sure it was happening.
“Their military intelligence shouldn’t be this bad,” the Marshal of Callow said.
She wordlessly leaned back to allow Aisha to tie her aketon, letting the Taghreb’s deft fingers handle the delicate clasps she could not reach. The touch was not distracting, but not enough that Juniper could not concentrate through it.
“Catherine’s readings of the Grey Pilgrim have been inaccurate before,” Staff Tribune Aisha Bishara noted. “It might be that these… goddesses from the Everdark have obscured the truths of the drow from our opponents.”
“If we’re lucky that’ll be the case,” Juniper grunted.
With the aketon properly on and no need for full armour quite yet, distance between them resumed and the Marshal of Callow’s mind turned to safer avenues than the golden glow of her old friend’s cheeks in the light of the torches.
“If we’re not lucky,” the Hellhound continued, “and that is to be our working assumption, they have a hard counter to the drow.”
“We are not without cards of our own,” Aisha reminded her.
“It’s still playing to the enemy’s tempo,” Juniper said. “I don’t like giving them what they want, Aisha, and that would be what we’re doing.”
“Should I order the Fourth Army and the assigned Legions to hold the palisades instead?” she asked.
The Hellhound breathed out, considering the lay of it. Would keeping the drow in reserve until the enemy had engaged better the situation? There was no way to tell, honestly. It’d be more prudent to bait out whatever plan the Grand Alliance had prepared early so that a defence could be mounted with it out in the open. Her warlord had made it clear that the tribes of the ‘Firstborn’ were heavies in the league of a Court’s field army, after night fell, but that kind of strength tended to be unreliable in Juniper’s opinion. She put more trust in overlapping lanes of fire and steady shield walls than in powerful but disorganized hordes.
“Keep them in reserve near the front,” Juniper finally said. “We’ll let the drow take the first crack at the enemy. But Aisha?”
Her Staff Tribune smoothly turned, eyebrow cocked.
“Sound the full muster,” the Marshal of Callow said. “Everyone in gear. This is it. I can feel it in my bones.”
Moro Ifriqui of the Brigand’s Blood, heir to Vaccei, checked on the leather strap keeping his javelins from jostling around his back with every step. It needed tightening, and though it was awkward to paw at the strap while keeping pace with the other skirmishers he forced himself anyway. Better a small embarrassment now than a mistake that might cost him his life in the heat of battle. The Vaccei warriors around him slowed when they approached the edge of the enemy’s range, where the spears of flame had been thrown at them from a great distance during the day. Knowing his role in this, Moro took the lead and bared the serrated sword that was sheathed at his hip.
“Honour to Levant,” he screamed. “Honour to the Blood. Honour to Vaccei!”
Screams repeated his words back at him, and twice more he repeated the ritual to fray the edges of fear and replace them with ardour instead. Only then did he scream for the advance, and the warriors marched into the field. Above them the Proceran priests wove miracles, globes of Light that cast down a glow over the stretch of plain leading to the palisade. Moro kept the beat of his warriors’ march steady, knowing it was not yet time for the charge proper, and as he moved forward cast wary looks at the pit traps the day’s fighting had revealed. Grimly, he thought to himself that without those being unearthed and the Proceran miracles lighting the way his charge would be little less than hurrying to honourable death. When the same massive sorcerous spears of flame that had been used during the day lit up the enemy camp, the heir to Vaccei felt a thrill of excitement and fear both running through his veins. Fear, for if he were to be touched by one of these his death would be instantaneous. Excitement, for there were no more spears now than there had been during the day and that meant…
Spread among the Vaccei warriors, the Lanterns laughingly called out their battle-hymns and jagged arcs of Light sprung upwards – fifteen, seventeen of them scything through the darkness of the night. They impacted the enemy’s sorcerous flames with a sound like claps of thunder, and though the miracles broke so did the enemy’s magic. Moro laughed, the battle-joy lending his feet wings, and picked up the pace. Behind him his warriors followed suit, the dauntless vanguard of the Dominion, and it was singing couplets from the Anthem of Smoke that the heir to Vaccei passed into the killing yard: the suspected outer range of the enemy siege engines. And it was true, for a mere two heartbeats later projectiles near invisible in the gloom began scything through the lines of his men. First the long darts and round stones of the ballistas, skewering flesh and shattering bones before a scream could even rip free of the throat.
“Scatter,” Moro yelled.
Had they been the lumbering, heavily armoured armsmen of Alava his warriors would have broken and died. But they were the followers of the Brigand’s blood, light-footed and fleet, ghosts in the dark and killers in the wet earth: the formation vanished in a heartbeat, becoming a loose mob of warriors charging forward at backbreaking pace. Moro laughed and veered wildly to the left, barely avoiding the geyser of snow and earth that was the introduction of the first enemy trebuchet. A woman behind him screamed when the large stone kept rolling and caught her, though the sickening crunch that followed told of a merciful quick death in the heartbeat that followed. The paints on his face running with sweat, Moro of the Brigand’s Blood forced his aching limbs to quicken and with another shout urged his warriors onwards. Through the first hail, and the most vicious. The enemy scorpions fired their long javelins with deadly accuracy that only cursed goblins would be able to muster in the dark, snuffing out lives wherever the whim took them. But beyond that, the warrior saw, there was open field.
At too odd an angle for the engines to be able to kill, too close to the palisade. In the glow of the Light globes he could glimpse the dry moat before the enemy’s rampart, and with a proud shout he ripped one of the javelins clear of his back. It was time to have the enemy taste Vaccei’s steel. Yet above the palisade, he saw, it was not legionaries that awaited but instead the grey-skinned devils his mother had told him were truly drow from the Everdark. Their gear was shoddy, he saw with a sneer, and would be no proof for a good javelin. Even better. One more step he took, and then a hand was laid on his shoulder from the front.
“Chno sve noc,” a guttural voice said.
Before the words were even fully spoken, his arm was gone up to the shoulder along with the javelin he’d been holding. Turned to dust, already gone in the wind. Moro opened his mouth to scream as a cold silver-blue pair of eyes contemplated him. The drow, for Ashen Gods it must be a drow, smiled and he saw a flash of obsidian before – before there was a spray of grayish blood all over him, and the creature fell split in half.
“Look alive, boy,” the Saint of Swords idly said, flicking the blood off her blade. “We’re just-”
Moro did not see her move, but suddenly her sword was angled differently and she was flying back, while a ringing sound like another blade had hit her echoed. Not, he saw with dismay, not another blade. The grey palm of a drow’s hand was extended where the Saint had stood, and slowly the creature straightened its back. The abomination was ancient, Moro realized, its skin horridly creased and its thick black veins visibly ridged. It wore a strange tunic of obsidian rings, belted at the hip, and its hair was snow-white and long.
“You again,” the Saint of Swords snarled.
The drow glanced at Moro.
“Boring,” it said in broken tradertalk. “Boring south cattle, no better Procer cattle. Run now.”
In the distance the rest of the drow began a strange ululating prayer. Rumenarumenarumena, they went, some sort of heretical hymn offered up to the sky. As the ancient drow turned its attention to Saint of Swords, Moro took the advice he’d been given.
Sitting on a stone, legs folded, the Grey Pilgrim watched the battle and waited. For now, all was unfolding as he had foreseen.
So why, Tariq wondered, were the Ophanim murmuring so worriedly in his ear?