“Swift wars are long in the making.”– Stygian Proverb
The army set out from Neustal on a warm, sunny morning.
I’d been up since before dawn, when our outriders had set out – the Osena and Volignac light horse – so I was well into my day when the columns got moving. The Dominion forces of Razin and Aquiline served as our vanguard, an ‘honour’ they’d asked for and few had cared to contest. Given how light on their feet Levant infantry could be, raiders at heart that they were, my main concern had been that they’d get too far ahead of the rest of the army. To ensure otherwise I’d put General Hune and her Second Army behind them, since the lordlings were likely to curb their enthusiasm if they were leaving her in the dust.
Behind the Second I put our Alamans forces, the veteran Volignac army and the fantassin companies Princess Beatrice had picked in my name. With the Firstborn under my Lord of Silent Steps behind them, they made up the ‘centre’ of our army on the march. At night I’d let the drow loose on my enemies, but during day marches they needed to be protected. While beyond the drowsiness around dawn the Firstborn weren’t harmed by daylight, it really was a waste to have them fighting by day considering how much more effective they were by night.
Our rearguard would be the Third Army under General Abigail: if there was anyone likely to see an ambush coming a mile away and leave no stone unturned looking for it, it was my sole Callowan general.
The Proceran troops were still filing out of the front gate in a semblance of good order – it looked like Princess Beatrice had spread out her own infantry between fantassin companies, using the rhythmic pace-setting of her drummers in an attempt at setting a marching beat for all Alamans soldiery – under my watchful eye when Hakram came to see me. Not in the stronghold as I’d claimed one of the watchtowers overlooking the trenches, half a mile away from Neustal, as a temporary base while the army got moving. It was a good vantage, and I’d been killing time talking with Pickler when Adjutant arrived.
There was no real way for him to come up, considering the top of the watchtower was accessible only by ladder, so I wove myself a few solid tendrils of Night. I anchored them to the edge of the tower rampart and went over the edge, guiding them to gently lower me in a landing before the orc. The sight was common enough that my escort – knights of the Broken Bells – did not even visibly react. Night was a lot less eldritch a power to their eyes, these days. People could get used to anything if it happened regularly enough.
“Catherine,” Hakram greeted me. “Here are the last dispatches before we leave.”
He offered me a few parchments with his skeleton hand and I took them. I noticed the Apprentice wasn’t around, even though he’d ended up accepting her presence as a helper. He must have left her behind for the trip.
“Thanks,” I replied, folding them open one after another.
The first was ordinary diplomacy: well wishes from Hasenbach and the Highest Assembly in our offensive. The second slightly more important, word from the Iron Prince that the dead had begun testing his army with large-scale night raids as it went up the mining roads. So far his pickets had caught them in time, but Prince Klaus believed it likely that his preparedness for a battle was being measured. That was promising, considering we quite wanted the undead army holed up in Juvelun to come out and fight him.
The last might be the most important of the three, though it was by far the least ornate. Just two sentences scribbled in a familiar handwriting: It went well, the work has begun. I am on my way. I allowed myself a thin smile. Good, that was a load off my back. I passed the parchments back to Adjutant.
“We’ve sent word to Papenheim we’re on the move, right?” I suddenly asked.
“I handled it this morning, as soon as the first soldier walked out the gate,” he agreed.
Thank the Gods he’d handled that, it’d entirely slipped my mind. Looking at him I began to speak then closed abruptly closed my mouth. My conversation with Vivienne last night had been fruitful, including her finding a candidate for talks with General Sacker – the steward I’d left to rule Marchford in my name, who was both minor nobility and fluent in Mtethwa as well as familiar with goblins from the tribe settled in my holdings – and suggesting the Jacks begin infiltrating the deserters’ camp. The part that’d surprised me, though, was that she’d also been in favour of arms sales to the orc clans rebelling in the Steppes.
She’d even urged me to discuss the matter more in depth with Hakram instead of dismissing it as I had, something that’d weighed on my mind since. Vivienne might not have stated it outright, but there’d been more than politics behind that piece of advice. Was now really the time, though, just as our offensive was beginning? If I don’t make the time, I’ll never have it, I chided myself.
“Adjutant,” I said. “When we discussed our options in the Wasteland, yesterday-“
“The decision was made,” Hakram calmly cut in. “There is no need to revisit it.”
“Maybe there is,” I said. “Put in an hour for it tonight, in my schedule. Give me an idea what the monetary costs might be of selling or sending armaments.”
His eyes narrowed.
“Vivienne is meddling,” the orc gravelled.
It wasn’t a question.
“She made a suggestion,” I shrugged. “I found worth in it.”
His face grew very hard to read for a moment.
“Pity is a poor basis for a queen’s decisions,” Adjutant stiffly said.
“That’s not what this is,” I sharply said.
“Have your reasons for choosing differently yesterday become any less true?” Adjutant said. “No. Nothing has changed, save that you spoke with Vivienne.”
“I’m not saying I’ll do it,” I bit out, “I’m saying I might have dismissed the possibility too quickly, and I want to know more about what would be involved.”
I was trying to stay calm, but it was like he was trying to put the worst interpretation possible to anything I tried. I’d had to deal with that from others, but coming from Hakram of all – I made myself breathe out. That was kind of the problem, wasn’t it? I wasn’t used to this from Hakram because he’d always made it easy for me. Having this conversation with someone else wouldn’t have felt nearly as grating. I was not sure I liked what that said about either me or him. He studied me, face once again unreadable.
“I’ll see to it,” Adjutant said. “I have two subordinates in the adjunct secretariat capable of making the proposal skilfully. They can handle the matter.”
The tone had gotten challenging by the end of the last sentence. The unspoken part was easy enough to parse: if this is a legitimate interest, it won’t matter I’m not the one doing the talking. And if it wasn’t a legitimate interest, then he wanted nothing to do with it. I forced myself to remain expressionless and nodded in agreement.
“Is there anything else?” Adjutant asked.
“No,” I quietly replied. “You can go.”
I shouldn’t have listened to Vivienne, I thought. This path was a dead end. I couldn’t use the authority of the queen to fix the troubles of the woman. I clenched my fingers as he wheeled away downslope, towards the two phalanges waiting to help him into the litter he used to get around where the chair wouldn’t work. It was not a pleasant, realizing that I had no idea how to even begin to mend this. If it can be mended at all, a treacherous voice whispered in the back of my mind. No amount of gestures would grow his limbs back or change that he’d lost them in my service.
Forcing a calm expression back on my face – people were watching, people were always watching – I pulled on Night and went back up the watchtower. I still had a war to fight, and it cared nothing for my worries.
By Noon Bell we were all on the road and the first reports from the outriders were trickling back in.
I’d abandoned the watchtower as soon as the drow were out of Neustal, instead taking Zombie on a ride and joining the Second Army. Morale in the ranks was high, though considering the backbone of the Second had been with me since before the Tenth Crusade I’d expected as much. I traded jokes and wild boasts with soldiers as I rode at their side, a Taghreb sergeant startling a laugh out of me when he confessed he’d promised his wife a mansion in Keter after the war – his fellows jeered it was why he was still here, afraid to come home and face her displeasure at failing to deliver – but eventually moved to ride at General Hune’s side.
The ogre was not one for small talk but I hardly minded. She wasn’t Juniper or Aisha, I had no good old days to get misty over when it came to Hune Egelsdottir. In a way it was refreshing, the simple clarity of our relationship: queen and subordinate, nothing more or less. It was with her I entertained the first reports from the outriders. The Volignac horsemen had gone east and west, since as natives to these lands they knew the grounds better, while the Osena had been sent straight ahead up Julienne’s Highway. The benefits of the road ensured the latter came back first even if they’d gone further out.
There were few dead ahead, they’d told me. Three different warbands of maybe a hundred skeletons had been glimpsed about two hours of riding ahead, but no larger force. A band of two hundred riders under a cousin of Lady Aquiline had decided to forge further ahead to see how far he could go before encountering resistance, though only after swearing once more to obey my orders against skirmishing: he’d turn back the moment fighting became inevitable. The Beastmaster had kept going with him, so I was likely to get a good look ahead out of the venture. The Volignac scouts returned later and with uneven timing, bearing equally uneven news.
To the west the lowlands seemed empty save for small undead warbands like the Osena outriders had seen, though there’d been half a dozen instead there instead of a mere three. The Hainaut lowlands were full of small hills and dips, though, and the Dead King a patient foe: it was a favourite trick of his to hide small bands like these and then suddenly assemble them in a larger army to hit a weak point in our defences. This time, though, the threat seemed to be coming from the east. A Volignac captain reported seeing a force of two thousand undead, mostly skeletons and Binds with a few ghouls, wandering to our northeast.
“Most likely a force meant to ambush one of our patrols,” General Hune rumbled, and I agreed.
In a way that was a good sign: the detachment wouldn’t be out here if Neshamah knew we were coming, as with our numbers and equipment we could easily smash it with paltry casualties. The Dead King was not so wasteful as to throw away two thousand for no gain, profligate as he was with bodies. I asked the captain if the undead had seen his riders.
“I do not believe so,” the mustachioed man replied, “but the Enemy is a cunning foe, Your Majesty. I cannot be certain.”
I wanted the Dead King unaware of our march as long as possible, even though it’d been impossible to hide that we were gathering troops in Neustal. Part of the reason the army under the Iron Prince had begun to march a week before us was to draw the enemy’s attention, after all. The trouble was that the Hidden Horror could see through the eyes of his undead, and the moment he got a look at the army marching up Julienne’s Highway he was going to send his closest army to halt our advance at the natural pass called Lauzon’s Hollow.
We wanted that to happen, as if that army wasn’t drawn forward our surprise strike at the Cigelin Sisters behind it would likely fail, but we wanted it to happen as late as possible. We didn’t know exactly what Neshamah had in reserve, so if he had too long to prepare a response it wasn’t impossible for him to fortify both Cigelin and the Hollow. That wouldn’t necessarily make it impossible for us to win, but it would make that victory… costly, to say the least.
Fortunately we’d established Neshamah could only ‘see’ through one corpse at a time, as it required a focus of his attention. But the Arsenal – more specifically the Repentant Magister and Hunted Magician – had also proven there was a working seeded inside Binds and Revenants that allowed them to ‘call’ for the attention of their master if they believed it warranted. So the tightrope to walk now was how we could wipe out that force of two thousand undead to our northeast without prompting them to tattle to their master. If we sent too large a force they were sure to do so, and if our heavy hitters – Akua or myself – went out personally the result would be the same.
We couldn’t just ignore it, though, since with Binds in command they were sure to scout in our direction sooner or later. A pack of zombies or bones could be counted to display staggering stupidity, but Binds could actually think. There was a reason it was standard Grand Alliance tactics to target them first if we could find them among the horde.
“If we wait after nightfall the drow can wipe them out cleanly,” General Hune suggested.
“That’s rolling the dice,” I replied. “There’s no guarantee they’ll wait that long to move towards us, and half the day still lies ahead.”
The undead did favour night fighting when they had the choice and Binds around to make it, since unlike humans the necromancy that allowed them to see was not particularly affected by the dark, but it was hardly a rule. So far the Dead King should not have been alerted to our advance, as riders on the distance were hardly anything new. The Grand Alliance fielded regular mounted forays into the territory he held. Yet there was always the change he’d notice that a lot of his warbands had seen quite a cumulatively large amount of outriders today. There was no way to tell if that was the case, though, so no real point in worrying about it.
“A Dominion raid, then?” Hune said.
Could work, I mused. The Osena elites, the slayers, they were skilled at ambushes. And with one of Razin’s kin having died in ambush recently, Keter might even buy this was just a vengeance raid if we added some of his warriors to the force sent out. It thinned our vanguard, though, which I didn’t like even if the road ahead was supposedly bare. I had other tools to use, though.
“We’ve got raiders of our own,” I replied. “Send for Special Tribune Robber, would you? And Sapper-General Pickler as well.”
Robber’s band of marauders was still a mere cohort of two hundred, though the audacity of his raids with them meant few of the goblins in it were the same as when he’d first been given the command. I wouldn’t send him alone against two thousand undead, though, especially given that ghouls were just as quick on the feet as goblins and a lot meaner in a fight. It was time we gave Pickler’s new copperstone ballistas a proper trial in the field – which Neshamah should buy as a reason for a raid north, if he ended up looking in – but to add a bit of muscle I’d throw in regulars backed by Levantines.
They’d get pissy about honour otherwise, so I might as well borrow a warband of two hundred Osena slayers as well as an escort for the engines in the form of a cohort of regulars from the Army of Callow. That’d mean around nine hundred soldiers, which I was comfortable sending out considering they were drawn from several parts of my column instead of thinning out one in particular.
I spoke to my goblins first, Robber proving eager for the task and Pickler insisting on going along with her ballistas. I couldn’t deny having her there would be useful when it came to assessing their performance, so I allowed it. Hune detached a cohort of regulars and briefed them herself while I went to the Levantines. Aquiline proved flattered that I would call on her elites in particular, which meant she was disinclined to argue when I requested her officers heed the instructions of the senior Army officer on the field – in theory Pickler, though in practice it’d be Robber. The forces were mustered within an hour, my Special Tribune running off ahead to pick his grounds.
Eventually the rest of the forces mobilized set out east after him and I stayed seated on Zombie, resisting to urge to ride her up in the sky and have a quick look. I had another ride with the ranks just to distract me with the urge. I missed fighting, I could admit it to myself. I’d learned to use other means, as violence had so rarely been enough to get me through the kind of messes I stumbled into, but there’d always been something viscerally satisfying about smashing your enemy personally. Instead I had to wait like a decorative lump as Noon Bell slowly crawled towards Afternoon Bell, receiving continuing outrider reports and waiting for news of the skirmish in the northeast.
Robber came back half an hour before Afternoon Bell, dusty but flushed with preening malice, and I knew it’d gone well before the little shit even opened his mouth.
“They fell for it, Boss, like Alamans told there’s a wine cellar at the bottom of the well,” my Special Tribune cackled.
It’d gone off without a hitch, he explained. His raiders had harassed the dead by snipping at their flanks with a few ambushes, then fled into their chosen killing grounds as the enemy ghouls pursued. The Osena slayers hidden along the paths had scythed through the ghouls like wet parchment, then joined the flight with just enough of a delay that the commanding Binds were tempted into committing the entire force to pursuit. That brought them to flat grounds where Pickler’s waiting ballistas pounded them to smoldering dust with their copperstone munitions. The regulars came forward to prevent the dead from leaving the flat grounds, hitting from the front while the slayers and goblins turned to hit the flanks.
It’d been a massacre.
Maybe two hundred skeletons led by the last Bind had fled but they were being pursued even now and bones were slower on the feet than even tired goblins. The entire affair had cost us fewer than forty casualties, making it a remarkably one-sided beating. When word spread through the ranks, I thought, it would raise morale significantly. There was nothing like an early win to make soldiers eager for further battles.
“I guess you get to eat with people instead of the horses this week, then,” I mused. “Congratulations on the victory, Robber.”
“I was going to what now?” the Special Tribune said, sounding alarmed.
“Don’t worry about it,” I winked. “I’m sure your right to eat anything other than oats is not at all contingent on bringing me more victories.”
I winked again, just to piss him off, and ignored his increasingly loud attempts to question me over what he’d done to warrant this treatment. Verbally stepping on him put me in as good of a mood as the victory itself. It really was the little things in life, wasn’t it? I didn’t bother sending someone to ask Pickler for a report on the performance of the copperstones, as to be frank I’d be getting one whether I wanted to or not. The smile stayed with me until I got a visit from the Silver Huntress.
“There are dead on the horizon, Your Majesty,” the Huntress said in that startlingly girlish voice of hers.
I cocked a brow. Like Indrani she had an aspect related to sight over long distances, but I’d kept the two of them close to the van to sniff out ambushed instead of sending them out too far. For the first day, at least, I considered that a better use. So how had she seen something no other Named – or myself – had?
“You saw them?” I asked.
“Word from Beastmaster,” Alexis replied, shaking her head. “He sent a falcon.”
“Ah,” I hummed. “In that case, if you’d elaborate?”
She pointed a finger upwards. To the sky. Shit.
“Buzzards or vulture?” I asked.
The former weren’t much of an issue, just large undead birds the Dead King liked to use as scouts. A ‘vulture’ was a necromantic construct, though, and though much smaller than a wyrm we’d seen a lot more of those on the Hainaut front. For their size – none was smaller than a house – they were damned quick, and hard to put down. Usually Keter used them to pick off patrols or strike behind our defensive lines, but on occasion they could serve as a sort of heavily armoured scout.
“One vulture,” the Huntress said, “with a flock of buzzards around it. Headed straight towards us down Julienne’s Highway, he says.”
And there went my good mood. The Dead King had noticed something was up, then, and he wanted to confirm the nature of threat with eyes up in the sky. I closed my eyes and thought. Those couldn’t be allowed to come too close, but at least the Huntress had warned us with time to spare. If we smashed the flock and vulture we’d still keep Keter from having direct eyes on us. Our overall campaign plan wasn’t threatened, I thought. Even if the Hidden Horror knew my force was going up the highway, it wouldn’t take away the strategic threat that was Prince Klaus’ host taking Malmedit out east and collapsing the tunnels there.
Now that Neshamah had caught on to my own army’s advance, though it was effectively impossible to beat his own force to Lauzon’s Hollow. The force Keter had stationed between Cigelin and the Hollow was under a hundred thousand, we believed, but it was a mere three days’ march between those two fortresses and the dead could walk through the night. It’d take them a day at most to move to one to the other from their current camp, hence why I’d wanted surprise on our side: even after today’s march, our quickest possible pace on Creation would take us another six days getting to Lauzon’s Hollow.
That was not truly a setback: that Keter would find my army had been a given, even if this was much quicker than I preferred. You couldn’t walk seventy thousand people up a road and expect them to go unseen. By swatting the birds out of the sky we could still keep our numbers somewhat obscured, anyway. And strategically speaking my entire army was bait, in a sense, since the first blow in the offensive would actually come from our reserve sallying from the Twilight Ways and taking the Cigelin Sisters while my host drew the defensive army into Lauzon’s Hollow.
Nothing had truly been lost, I knew, save that the Hidden Horror had more time to prepare his defences than I’d wanted to give him. So why did I feel so uneasy?
“Go find the Summoner,” I finally said, opening my eyes. “And tell him I have need of his services: something that can fly and carry two people.”
The Silver Huntress slowly nodded.
“Am I to go with him and destroy the dead?” she asked.
She seemed rather pleased at the thought of combat, if not the company.
“Not alone,” I replied. “They’d see you coming from miles away and scatter.”
She cocked her head to the side, waiting for me to continue speaking, and I was startled with how closely it resembled the way Archer did it.
“I’ll be going as well, to weave an illusion that’ll hide us,” I said. “Archer will share my mount.”
If the Dead King was going to learn something was headed his way no matter what, I grimly thought, I might as well give him something to really worry about.
All my affairs had been packed off for the road, so I had no tent to use.
I rode up to one of two wagons holding my affairs, though, and asked the phalange handling the reins to slow for a bit. I made my way inside, waking the magelight and going through my clothes. I no longer wore plate, these days, but I’d not forgotten my growing fragility: I dug out a plain steel breastplate and a helmet from a coffer. The helm was a nice bit of smithing, open-faced in the legionary manner but worked to have subtle golden inlays above my head evoking a crown. It’d also been forged to accommodate a ponytail, since I wasn’t going to be fighting anyone with loose hair.
The wagon was shaky even at the reduced pace and armour was always tricky to put on alone, so I waited for Indrani join me – I’d sent for her before coming here – and instead grabbed something else from the coffer: a sword belt, with a sheathed blade on it. I slid the goblin steel out an inch, fingers tightening around the longsword’s grip. Well-weighted, made especially for me. I’d refused a sword once, in Liesse-Become-Twilight, and I would not walk back that choice. But this was war, and sometimes a staff and a prayer were not enough. I slid it back into the sheath and was tightening the belt around my hips when Indrani entered.
She cocked a brow at the sight.
“So it’s a fight, then,” Archer grinned.
“Help me put my armour on,” I replied after hesitating a beat.
I’d almost not gotten the words out. It was not her, who usually helped me with this. Perhaps sensing she was treading tender grounds, Indrani was efficient about it. The breastplate settled comfortably over my torso, and after I tightened the clasps on my helmet she made sure the ponytail went out through the proper furrow at the back of my neck.
“War boots,” Indrani reminded me after.
I’d still been debating that, as it happened. I’d never been a splendid rider and I was more comfortable in the saddle without steel on my boots, but then Zombie was not a difficult mount. Might as well. I sat on a trunk and reached into the pack by the side of it, only to freeze in surprised. There were my old campaign boots there, those I’d been dragging with me since I’d emerged from the Everdark, but also another pair. New, by the look of the leather, but pressing on them with my hands it was clear they’d been broken in. Scribe, I thought. It’d been idle talk when I’d mentioned the detail to her, but details were her trade.
“Cat?” Indrani asked.
They were just boots, I told myself. And still I took the old ones.
“Give me a moment,” I replied. “As soon as we’ve got these on, we’ll gather our war party and head out.”
The Summoner was a backbiting, entitled prick but he did have a lot of combat utility.
Masego had been fascinated by his magic – said the man had, in a sense, failed so badly at both diabolism and fae-binding that he’d ended up making something entirely different from both – but also added it’d be effectively impossible for anyone but a dedicated apprentice to learn, so the man had stayed on the front instead of heading to the Arsenal. His ‘summoning’ was effectively shaping creatures out of magic that had limited sentience, with those summoned repeatedly gaining greater substance and intelligence as they ‘hardened’.
It didn’t sound like much, until you realized that given access to enough time and magic the man could make effectively any kind of creature he could think of. We’d later learned he had limits to the quantity of magic he could actually sink into a summoning, which did set a ceiling to the possible size of the summoned creature. His bigger ones tended to be highly unstable, too, so it was often better to aim below the ceiling and end up with something of better quality. Considering the man was whiny and grasping but not particularly violent, I might have ended up halfway fond of the Summoner if he’d not also kept insisting he was Callowan. What he actually was, though, was the son of a nobleman gone into exile and a Proceran lady. He’d never even set foot in Callow.
All his hinting that as a Callowan villain he should be my favourite achieved was increasingly strain my patience. Today, though, I had good reason to cut through the stupidity without coming across as overly high-handed. His summon, a wyvern-like creature without scales and imbued of a ghostly glow, was eerily. Not one he’d used often, then. I cast a curious look at it, then at the villain who’d crafted it and the Silver Huntress by his side. I reined in Zombie by their side, Archer in the saddle behind me. She waved at the Silver Huntress, whose face tightened in reply, and I elbowed her sharply.
It didn’t do shit through her mail, but the message was received anyway,
“Your Majesty,” the Summoner smiled. “I am pleased that you found use in my-“
“There will be time for courtesies later, Summoner,” I said. “The enemy is on the move, and we do not have the time to spare. I need you and Lady Alexis on the back of your creation, and close to me: I will weave an illusion with Night that will obscure our approach.”
Indrani snickered behind me, not all that subtly, but the look on my face clearly did not brook argument. They climbed the creature, the Summoner nestling close to the neck and the Silver Huntress further back. Zombie eyed the other mount involved with disdain, horrible little snob that she was. I spurred her to get closer and she obeyed even as I began to pull heavily on the Night.
“I have tread black stone and halls grown cold, freed of restraint by the blessing of my patron,” I murmured in Crepuscular, weaving the Night around us, “Though feeble, I have devoured might. Though listless, I have stolen the wind. I call on you, Andronike, to veil eyes and ears so that I might triumph in your name.”
The Night pulsed with approval, and I felt a breath around the back of my neck as the eldest of the Sisters leant her touch to the blessing. The air in a wide sphere around us, at least forty feet in diameter, grew hazy and smoky. The Summoner let out a little gasp.
“Stay close and don’t leave the sphere,” I ordered. “It won’t last forever, so let’s get moving.”
Zombie’s wings opened with a flourish, the wyvern-thing hastily imitating her, and with a gallop she began our rise upwards into the afternoon sky.