“A victor has a hundred friends, every last born yesterday.”
– Helikean saying
Abigail of Summerholm – still a general, despite her best efforts – had finally figured it out. As the Gods despised her for reasons known only to them, her attempts at mild incompetence had instead been reward with successes that’d earned her a reputation as a ‘tactical prodigy’. Her continued protests that she was not such thing were being taken as humility instead of desperation, to the extend that Marshal Juniper had commended her for being ‘grounded’ and ‘not letting acclaim go to her head’. Abigail had never seen anything half so horrifying in her life as the Hellhound attempting an approving look, and she’d had goblin stew. Which was made by goblins and not of goblins, as she really wished someone had told her before she’d eaten a bowl out of fear of offending a whole swarm of sappers. Ah, but it’d been naïve of her to assume that simply trying to pass on her responsibilities to literally anyone else would be enough to see her demoted back to a set of responsibilities less gallows-adjacent. Indeed, from the towering heights of her fresh understanding she now grasped how guileless and green that manner of thinking had been. But she’d learned, oh yes she had. They were going to sweep her under the rug quietly, maybe even enlarge her retirement pension so she kept her mouth shut for the rest of her life, which as far as she was concerned was the ideal state of affairs. Of course, her most cunning plans still hinged on the Deadhand not getting them all killed before Morning Bell.
Which was, unfortunately, looking less likely by the moment.
“Six hundred, at least,” the Adjutant calmly said. “Personal armsmen of the Blood, by the looks of their equipment.”
The tall, broad-shouldered villain spoke in that way orcs often learned to after they’d been out of the Steppes for a few years: slower than they would in Kharsum, and careful to avoid being too loud. You could tell how long they’d been out of the homeland by the way they talked, since those fresh out of the Clans hadn’t usually yet figured out that a big orc speaking loud and harshly in a hard-to-understand accent tended to make humans a mite twitchy. Hakram Deadhand struck Abigail as the kind of person who went around spending a lot of time thinking about what other people thought before acting all cold and measured. She’d known folks like that more than once, they were the traders who’d done the best under the Praesi at Summerholm. Those who’d not choked on pride when it came to getting trade permits from the easterners, who’d not balked at serving legionaries and greasing the palms of Wasteland scribes. They usually weren’t nice people but they did tend to be able to afford nice meals, which in Abigail’s humble opinion was a lot more useful a trait.
“The Tartessos and Malaga captains were hard in a scrap,” General Abigail replied. “And they’re not even the people known for having heavy foot.”
Please, Lord Deadhand, she silently prayed, do not ask my two cohorts to take that damned hill. Four hundred legionaries, even veterans, trying to dislodge those armsmen would be like swinging a trout at a wall: amusing, except for the trout. She’d seen those bastards in Sarcella taking a run at sapper-dug positions and still make a dent, since they refused to die even when shot repeatedly and didn’t seem to have a single self-preserving bone in their bodies. It was always worse when one of their nobles was around, too, it put an unnecessary amount of additional steel to their already-steely countenance in the face of danger.
“That would be the Alava warriors, whose colours are also flying,” the Adjutant said. “I receive your point, general. An assault before reinforcements are had would be difficult.”
Huh. She’d not expected that to work. Did praying to people actually change things? She’d heard that there was talk about making the odd offering to the Crows these days, which she didn’t entirely disapprove of. The Gods Above asked for a lot, birds were probably much easier to bribe as far as deities went. Alms took hard coin, but you could get dead rats from any poorly-kept cellar.
“Haven’t been told why we set out either, sir,” Abigail said. “Er, lord? My lord?”
“Adjutant will do,” the ivory-fanged villain told her.
Ugh, he’d even done the fucking grin just like Krolem did. Someone really needed to have a sit down with all these orcs and explain to them that some big muscled bastard displaying enough sharp teeth to fill the mouths of at least three jackals wasn’t ever going to be taken as reassuring by anyone with any sense. At least the goblins were aware they were horrifying as all Hells when they did it.
“We are to serve as the escort for Her Majesty’s return to Creation,” the Adjutant said.
Abigail was well-learned in the ways of the Army of Callow, by now, so she didn’t need to have it spelled out for her. Of course it’d gotten worse, it always did it this bloody outfit.
“It’s on that hill isn’t,” she whined. “With all the warriors on it.”
And any moment now the Dominion was going to be reinforced by a battalion of demons, or a legion of angels, and still the Deadhand would say: take me that hill, General Abigail, or no general’s pension for you. And that was the thing, wasn’t it? Abigail had come too far to retire without the pension now, she refused to attend that many bloody strategic briefings and not make it out of this damned war set for life.
“Your intuition is as acute as rumoured,” Deadhand said.
The Summerholm girl didn’t squint at the villain, because that was a good way to get your eyes eaten, but she did wonder how long it’d taken the orc to perfect a tone of voice that so perfectly straddled the line between serene and sardonic.
“Thank you,” she said, cleared her throat. “Sir lord Adjutant.”
“As for why you in particular are serving as commanding officer for the cohorts instead of a commander or even a legate, it’s simple enough,” the one-handed orc gravelled. “You’re one of the few people Catherine has ever personally promoted. I was curious.”
Abigail looked up at the sky, casting out her despair for any god willing to hear her. How much would it cost, for people to stop getting ‘curious’ about her? She was willing to resume attending sermons, if that was what it took. Or offer, like, three dead rabbits to the Crows. She could probably get a few of those from goblins if she found a gaggle around a campfire and put up bottles to trade.
“I’m flattered,” she lied.
She was going to have to implement that plan faster than she’d earlier intended, the general thought. Gods forgive her, she might even have to accept that dinner invitation Grandmaster Brandon Talbot had sent her. Rumour was he extended that to every rising Callowan officer, but she’d thought to avoid the whole thing like the plague by claiming that a goblin had eaten the invitation. It would have held up, they ate basically anything if they got hungry enough or were dared to. Now, though, she’d have to use a nice public dinner with important people to say something horribly, absurdly racist somewhere too many high officers were seated for it to be ignored. She was still debating on what to say, that was the issue. She wasn’t going to start mouthing off about greenskins – not when she had so many of them close to her and bearing sharp things – and going after Wastelanders tended to earn retribution. Taghreb officers watched each other’s backs, and if there was a single Soninke in this damned army that couldn’t do magic or didn’t have a friend who could she’d yet to run into them.
No, it’d have to be about real foreigners. She’d been mulling over arguing that ‘all Procerans should be eaten, especially the children’. If she said that in front of enough people it’d have to be bad enough she was encouraged to retire, right?
“And now Rozala Malanza graces us with her presence,” Hakram Deadhand said. “This is going to get interesting.”
It was hard to make out much in the darkness, especially at a distance, but the Procerans were hard to miss: they’d brought their own torches, and not few. Even after the Tyrant of Helike had tumbled them down form Arcadia it looked like the princes had been able to put together a contingent of horse. Abigail had a hard time guessing numbers, given the swiftness they rode with and the movement of the torches, but there had to be at least two hundred riders there. Trailing behind at a slower pace, men-at-arms whose strength was easier to gauge were approaching in a column. Easily five hundred there, Abigail saw with dismay. This was about to turn into a bloody godsdamned mess, wasn’t it? The Dominion had six hundred foot, but it also had the hill and some of those hard warrior-priests who’d melted the Princekiller’s own plate over him. Princess Malanza of Wherever and Whatnot had that light Proceran horse and some decent fighting men for a sum of seven hundred but Abigail suspected charging up a hill at Levantine armsmen wasn’t likely to end well for Malanza, horse or not.
And then there was them, approaching with two cohorts of two hundred. One of regulars, veterans from Arcadia and the Doom, and the other a lighter force: sappers, mages, crossbowmen. The weakest force of the three, if you didn’t count that Hakram fucking Deadhand was part of it. She’d seen the orc Named thrown like a trebuchet stone at Akua’s Folly and walk it off before assaulting a rebel bastion near single-handed. The Adjutant could turn it into a fight, if not a very pleasant one.
“Our reinforcements might get there in time,” General Abigail tried.
And they might, pretty please, bring with them someone high up enough in rank this would no longer be her problem. The low hill the Dominion had taken and would allegedly be the Black Queen’s stepping stone back into Creation was roughly between the camps of Levant, Procer and Callow but the dark-haired woman would bet on the Army of Callow’s muster over anyone else’s without batting an eye. No one else drilled battle-muster save for the Legions, so if this got out of hand their own legionaries should get here quicker than either the Levantines or the Procerans. Of course, there were a lot more of those around so that’d only go so far.
“Unlikely,” the Adjutant said, eyes moving across the darkness.
He could see where she could not, Abigail knew.
“We’re mobilizing faster,” he acknowledged, “but they began earlier. This is the vanguard for all of us, and it’ll have to be by our hands it’s settled: by the time reinforcements are on the field Catherine will have returned and it will be over.”
Please don’t order me to take that hill, Lord Deadhand sir, Abigail desperately thought.
“I suppose we’ll have to take that hill,” the orc mused, and she whimpered a little inside.
He cast at her an almost knowing look before offering the barest flash of fang.
“Not alone, though,” the Adjutant said. “See the banner riding towards us? Rozala Malanza seeks audience.”
Princess Rozala rode her destrier hard, intent on snatching this disaster out of Below’s ruinous grasp before they all ended up paying for it.
Whatever it was the Blood had been up to in their closed council, in the wake of its end they’d not bothered to even acknowledge the presence of the messengers she kept sending to their camp. They’d gathered entire war parties of their finest warriors, sent for the Lanterns and marched out for the hill where Rozala’s mages said enough power was currently coalescing to burn a town to the ground. The Black Queen’s return must be imminent, her people had concluded, and its location was beyond dispute. Which meant the way the Levantines had made for it without missing a beat unlikely to be a coincidence. The riders she’d sent after the Dominion forces with orders to try anything short of baring blades to get an audience with the lords and ladies had been turned away roughly, though at least not in utter silence: they’d been informed that this was a sacred matter, and concerning only the Blood. No interference would be brooked. Heart clenching, Princess Rozala had sent forward the soldiers she’d been able to muster up until then and left Louis to assemble the second wave.
The Callowans weren’t blind, of course, so they’d sent out a force as well. Just two cohorts from the Third Army, but that force’s general had something of a reputation: the Levantines spoke of her with a measure of respect for the way she’d held on to the city of Sarcella even when taken by surprise and outnumbered. This General Abigail was also said to have slaughtered like lambs almost a quarter of the Levantine mages during the first assault on the southern palisade, which was no small thing. Rozala Malanza’s ancestors had fought binders often and known them to be dangerous foes when moved to war. Still, even led by a superb field tactician four hundred legionaries were not a major force. Not so great as the one fielded by Levant, at least, or even the hasty party the Princess of Aequitan had put together and led forth. Or so she had fought, until she’d seen the Black Queen’s own banner flying above the cohorts: silver on black, a balance bearing a sword and a crown. That the sword weighed heavier said much of the woman who’d taken that heraldry as her own, and how it was she’d come to be Queen in Callow – of Callow, Rozala corrected herself. Best not make that mistake around Foundling herself, her temper was well-known.
That the Sword and Crown flew could simply be sign that it was expected the Black Queen would return under it. Or it could mean that the Adjutant was with the cohorts, and that’d complicate things. In truth, it could be said that Hakram Deadhand was the least dangerous of Catherine Foundling’s woeful company. He lacked the terrifying great sorceries of the Hierophant, the Archer’s talent for sudden and surprising killing strokes and even the Thief’s rumoured endowment to steal anything from a fleet or river barges to some fae princess’ sorcery. The Adjutant was a lesser figure in the stories that’d made it across the mountains, as the nature of his Damnation would imply. Yet there was one thing all tales agreed on – of all the Woe, none were so implacably loyal to the Black Queen as her Adjutant. The others, Rozala felt confident she might have swayed into holding their hand. The Archer was drunken sot, for all her lethality, the Hierophant had read through then entire peace talks after the Battle of the Camps and the Thief had been cautious even before she’d been rumoured to have lost her power. The Adjutant, though? Be reputation, he was temperate and even-handed sort. Those, in Rozala’s experience, always tended to make the worst fanatics.
Few things were as troublesome as an otherwise reasonable man believing an unreasonable thing.
Escort riding close around her even as the rest of her vanguard advanced on the hill where the Levantines had taken position, the dark-haired princess veered hard to the side when she saw the Black Queen’s banner split from the rest of the legionaries. An escort of ten, the very same number she rode with, made for her direction at a sedate pace while the rest of the cohorts continued marching on the hill. Wary of too sudden an approach being taken as a charge, Rozala reduced the pace of her mount and shouted for her soldiers to do the same. Within moments they were in sight of the enemy envoys, and even before she drew her up reins and halted the Princess of Aequitan was silently cursing. There was no mistaken the burnt and darkened plate on the tall orc for anything else: the Adjutant was there, along with a young woman bearing the marks of a general and a retinue of Callowan regulars. The dark-eyed Arlesite would have called it a risk taken, bringing but a matching number of legionaries when she rode to them with horse, but knew better. The orc was Damned, and not fresh to his legend: he could likely kill them all without coming to breathe heavier for it.
“Hail, Lord Adjutant,” Princess Rozala called out in Lower Miezan.
“Your Grace,” the Adjutant replied in the same.
She flicked her eyes to the side, taking in the sight of the woman who was most likely this General Abigail of the Third Army. Black hair, tanned cheeks, watery blue eyes. More tavern girl than warrior-queen, and what was it with Callow and spawning all those wee dangerous women?
“I present you General Abigail of Summerholm, in command of the Third Army,” the Deadhand said. “You may have heard of her.”
“So I have,” Rozala replied. “Well met, general. Your deeds in Sarcella drew attention.”
“That was all Her Majesty,” the black-haired woman replied almost hurriedly. “Truly, I have done nothing worth remembering.”
Humble, the Arlesite princess wondered, or trying to remain obscure so that she would take her enemies by surprise in wars to come? Either way, she was one to watch out for.
“It appears, Princess Rozala, that the Dominion has seen fit to obstruct the return of my queen,” the Adjutant gravelled in that unsettlingly deep voice. “This seems to me a violation of the truce that was struck.”
“I am sure they merely mean to serve as an honour guard,” Rozala lied. “Though, of course, that honour should be shared between all of us. Indeed, I brought soldiers with me for this very purpose.”
The orc’s hairless brow narrowed.
“A threefold honour guard is your intention?” he asked.
“Of course,” the Princess of Aequitan said. “Is it not yours? Surely the Army of Callow would not seek to break the truce your very queen arranged.”
The Damned let out a noise that was either amused or contemptuous, Rozala knew too little of his kind to tell.
“I’ve no intention of sharing the honour,” Hakram Deadhand calmly said. “We’ll be clearing out the Dominion by force of arms.”
General Abigail let out a mocking bark of laughter, though her voice made it sound like strangely terrified trill.
“There is no need for such a thing,” Princess Rozala insisted. “I can accompany you to treat with the Blood and this can all be achieved without breaking truce.”
The orc studied her for a long moment, and then slowly bared his fearsome great fangs.
“The First Prince ordered you to keep Catherine alive and amenable,” the Adjutant serenely said. “You’d have tried threats otherwise. Well now, that’s a fascinating turn. How far are you allowed to go to assure that?”
“You assume much,” Rozala flatly replied.
“I suppose it doesn’t matter,” the orc said, snorting. “Send your people in a flanking position for the hill, on the eastern side. We’ll take the other flank. You and I can speak with those Levant lordlings from a position of strength.”
“You overestimate your position,” the Princess of Aequitan said, tone glacial.
Hakram Deadhand studied her, then laughed.
“No,” he said. “I don’t. Glad to have you on our side, Princess Rozala. I’ve great esteem for your campaigning in Cleves.”
And just like that, he turned and began to walk again. Though anger boiled in her stomach, the Princess of Aequitan found she had no means to deal it out. What could she do, strike out at the Black Queen’s own aide or let him lead his cohorts into a fight that could not be won? She’d been ordered to avoid provoking Catherine Foundling, and letting the Adjutant die would be very much the opposite of that. The Princess of Aequitan found that General Abigail was looking at her still, a strange expression on the Callowan’s face. She reached for something within her armour and Rozala tensed, half-expecting a knife, but instead it was a dull bronze flask. The general tossed it to her and patted her horse’s neck with what seemed to be genuine sympathy.
“I’d tell you it gets better,” General Abigail said, “but it would be a lie.”