“That there is little reason to war should be no surprise, for war is never the choice of reasonable men.”– Basileus Stavros Trakas of Nicae
It wouldn’t be cheap.
The pair from the adjunct secretariat had been dismissed, leaving me with a pile of papers where the words ‘maybe’ and ‘should’ came up uncomfortably often. While the phalanges who’d spoken to me – an orc and a Callowan, nice touch that – had been well-versed in the details, looking at the plans I recognized the careful method that lay behind them. This was Hakram’s proposal, and not one he’d begun working on recently. Too much groundwork had been laid, and some of those numbers would have taken months to get. I was honestly astonished he’d managed to get his hands on estimated fighting strength for the greatest of the Clans, as the Jacks were completely blind in the Steppes.
As far as proposals meant it was well-crafted, and made it clear that not only was propping up an orc state in the Steppes achievable but it would benefit Callow in several practical ways. Establishing treaties with orc leadership and trading ties with western clans would ensure that raiding of my kingdom did not resume down the line, while a mutual defence pact would mean that if the Dread Empire turned on us both Wolof and Okoro would be knocked out of the war before the first sword was drawn. The Clans weren’t rich in much besides amber and fur, but trading those goods south in Mercantis would mean steep profits for Callowan traders given the demand for both.
There’d be no need for actual Callowan military involvement either, as simply arming the Red Shields and the Howling Wolves up to Army of Callow standards would allow them to sweep through Malicia’s allies in the Clans and become a thorn in the Tower’s side in northern Praes. From there different manners of support could be offered, grain and cattle and craft goods, while the Clans stabilized as an independent polity and pressured the Wasteland with their raiders.
But there were… issues. For one, orcs didn’t have a great record when it came to keeping to treaties – especially treaties binding multiple clans, considering the independent bent of their chiefs. The trade outlined would become profitable in the long term, yes, but in the short one it was a drain on the already strained treasury of Callow. It’d also represent an escalation of our current manner of war with the Tower, struggles abroad through intermediaries, to something significantly more aggressive. There was a difference between backing rival parts of the League and arming rebels in Malicia’s backyard. This would prompt retaliation, one that Callow was currently ill-equipped to handle.
And the truth was that, in the end, I couldn’t be sure the orcs even would stay an independent nation for long. If Black claimed the Tower then given his popularity up north he shouldn’t find it overly difficult to bring the Clans back into the fold. Meaning I would have pissed away gold, political capital – it was going to be a difficult sell in Laure to arm greenskins largely at our expense, to say the least – and risked retaliation all to strengthen soon-to-be Tower loyalists. Sure they’d be a pain in Malicia’s neck for a while, but was that small a gain really worth such a significant investment? Much as I would have preferred for the answer to be a different one, deep down I knew it was not. I sighed and leaned back into my seat, the lights of the camp around me dimly visible through the entrance flaps of my tent.
I poured myself a finger of brandy, and tried to think of a reason for me to back this that wasn’t just making Hakram happy. He’d been good, for a very long time, about never putting me in a position like this – having too choose between him and duty. So damned good I’d allowed myself to forget he wanted things at all. That was a dangerous thing to ignore in my right hand, the keeper of so many of my secrets. But I couldn’t just empty my kingdom’s coffers just to please him, could I? Gods I rather wanted to, if only so things between us could go back to normal, but it wouldn’t be that simple would it?
No, I suspected that if anything accepting when I had so many qualms would only make things worse.
I cast a baleful look at a sheet of parchment detailing the costs and benefits of arming orcs in Callowan steel instead of sending them shipments of dwarven armaments bought in Mercantis, passing a hand through my hair. I’d refrained from calling on Akua when considering this, wanting no contrary opinion tainting my thoughts, and forced myself not to send for Scribe – even though she’d likely have better force estimates for the Clans than anything my people had been able to dig up, on top of the lay of the more recent politics.
“I can’t accept this,” I admitted to myself quietly.
It was a stark enough admission that I punctuated it by guzzling down the brandy, the burn in my throat and belly distracting from the unpleasantness. I wiped my lips afterwards, reaching for a quill and inkwell, and pawed around until I found a sheath of parchment I could use. I couldn’t accept this, I thought but I could at least make it clear why I couldn’t accept it. It was better than just refusing, and letting silence have the day. The words came easy, when I got into it, and I found further reasons to hesitate even as I wrote.
For one, the Clans were currently dependent on Praes for many goods and the northernmost Soninke holdings much closer than Callow – how could I be assured the Steppes wouldn’t just be pulled back into an eastern alliance down the line by simple dint of needing what the Wasteland could provide quicker than my people could provide it? Callowans were not known as great merchants, and there was no port up the Wasiliti for our river barges to land that wasn’t in Praesi hands. I needed answer to more than a dozen questions just as crucial, and so I asked them all. I cannot in good conscience commit to this proposal at is stands, I added at the end. I would, however, be willing to entertain a revised one addressing my concerns.
I bit my lip, a few drops of ink dripping down as my hand hesitated. I look forward to seeing your work, I began, then crossed it out. I expect I will soon see… No, I thought, and crossed it out again. I hope that, crossed. I believe that there is merit to this, I finally allowed, and look forward to the improvements.
The queen would not allow the woman to say sorry, so this was as close as I’d ever get to saying the word to Hakram.
I slept uneasily and woke up already tired.
Though we both knew he’d read my answer, Adjutant did not speak a word of it as we ate breakfast and I did not press the matter. While I’d slept the campaign had continued, the ten thousand Firstborn still with my army hunting down nearby wandering bands of undead in the lowlands and wiping them out under moonlight. They’d retreated back to camp before dawn and were now sleeping through it as the remainder of our column prepared to resume the march. I’d be leaving the Third under General Abigail to protect them while our march picked up again, the Levantines once more serving as vanguard.
I’d pulled at the leash yesterday and gone out to fight, but I’d not get such an opportunity again anytime soon. There was no Juniper for me to hand command to as I went hunting for trouble, much to my displeasure – it was my command, for better or worse. The detachments of fantassins and drow we’d sent out yesterday had dug in through dawn but would begin sweeping the region clear of undead soon enough: I got regular reports from both Ivah and Captain-General Catalina about their progress. It looked to be slim pickings, with the enemy force holed up in Luciennerie having sent no raiders down the blue road that we could find.
That worried me.
Why was the Dead King not reacting to our advance? There were three forces that were in position to prove a threat for the offensive. First was the hundred thousand army ahead of my column, no doubt well on its way to Lauzon’s Hollow by now. Another of at least one hundred thousand was holding Juvelun to the east, but we were trying to bait it out with Prince Klaus’ army. A force at least as large as the others was in Luciennerie, though, and while Princess Rozala was supposed to send raiders out to worry it the absence of reaction from there was raising my hackles.
Luciennerie was a fortress, it wouldn’t be easy for raiders to take even if a few dozen thousand dead were sent down to march on our defensive lines north of Arbusans. It was what I would have done, in the Dead King’s place: mounted a large enough assault on that defence that my column was forced to strip away detachments to reinforce. It’d weaken us before the clash at the Hollow, and in the worst possible case the Dead King would break through the fort and force our arriving reinforcements from Callow and Procer to face him in a costly field battle before his marauders were driven back.
So why was there only silence from the northwest?
My Lord of Silent Steps had correctly estimated that east of Julienne’s Highway was the region I wanted cleared most thoroughly, and it had acted consequently: the Firstborn had gone out there in force overnight and savaged the enemy warbands in the area thoroughly. They’d also paid particular attention to keeping the connection between the mining roads of the east and the Highway clear, which I send a commendation for. So long as that road remained open, the Iron Prince could keep sending us messengers even when he got into territories where scrying broke down. My column’s advance went uncontested through the rest of the day, the field ours in every direction according to the reports of my scout. Some of my commanders came to believe we’d caught the Hidden Horror by surprise with our advance, that our timing had been apt.
He might have been focusing his attentions on the offensive against Cleves, they said, the one headed towards Trifelin. Our two-pronged offensive might have caught him with his forces deployed in the wrong places. Some of General Hune’s staff argued for us to increase the speed of our offensive because of this theory, and the notion was popular with Princess Beatrice and her army. They were eager to reclaim their capital from Keter, it was a point of pride for them. I stamped down on their ardour, as unless their guesswork was confirmed I saw no reason to change our campaign plan. Just because we could not see the Dead King’s preparations did not mean they weren’t waiting for us.
On the third day of the march, early in the morning, I got word from Prince Klaus. When he’d sent his messenger his army had just passed Juvelun, where to his dismay the enemy army had refused to engage even when he’d skirmished provocatively. Our early hopes that the raids on his army were the prelude to a greater attack seemed in vain. With the hope of baiting the enemy into a field battle easily gone, he’d followed our contingency plan and begun a forced march towards Malmedit. That would force the enemy army to either follow or risk losing the tunnels there, but noted it would not be difficult for him to keep in contact with my army form now on.
He wished me luck, and in silence I wished him the same. It was not without risks, marching on Malmedit: it left his supply lines open for the enemy to raid, or to block entirely if they decided to leave Juvelun and advance against his back.
It was only half a bell before sundown that I finally got an explanation as to why Luciennerie had gone silent. Princess Rozala sent word by scrying that not only had Keter begun the expected offensive against Trifelin, where she’d fought a field battle and was now suffering a siege, but that there seemed to be another attack afoot. The raiding detachments she’d sent to harass the army in Luciennerie had been ambushed and driven back, but not before catching sight of a Keteran host marching towards the fortress they’d come from. The same one anchoring her eastern flank, Coudrent. My fingers clenched until the knuckles went white when I heard the news.
If the fortress fell, Cleves was in trouble. The dead would have access to the soft underbelly of the principality, and not only would they be able to cut the supply lines of the far-flung capital of Cleves but they’d also be able to strike at the besieged army in Trifelin from behind. It’d be a crippling blow. One that could potentially turn our currently steadiest front into a howling disaster over the span of a bare few months. There were Named in Coudrent, though, and a significant defensive force. The fortress would not fall easily. Still, it now looked like the Dead King had decided to gamble on breaking Cleves before we could retake Hainaut.
He must have realized that we’d weakened the defences there to strengthen our offensive here, in troops and Named. It was a bold strategy from an opponent usually more inclined towards patience, but then he could afford the losses better than we could: every battle refilled his ranks while ours dwindled. It would have been a mistake to hide this from my highest officers, so on the same evening I called another war council. It was taken with equanimity on the surface, but it was only skin deep.
“It might be best to end the offensive for now,” Razin Tanja reluctantly said, “and instead reinforce Coudrent through the Twilight Ways.”
I cocked an eyebrow, almost impressed. It’d be a strategic blunder to do that, in my opinion, but it showed forethought on his part that’d been entirely absent back when we’d tangled at Sarcella. He could recognize, at least, that losing Cleves would be a greater loss than winning Hainaut would be a gain.
“The Hidden Horror could be baiting us,” Aquiline reminded him. “We do not know much of what happened out west for certain.”
“If anything this reinforces the need to advance swiftly,” Grandmaster Talbot argued. “If we smash our way up the Highway, the enemy might be forced to withdraw the forces they sent out or face losing Hainaut largely uncontested.”
“Beg your pardon, lord, but it’s only uncontested if the army in Juvelun does what we want and chases the Iron Prince,” General Abigail said. “Might be we could take that for granted before, but I’m not so sure we can now.”
“Agreed,” Princess Beatrice said, startling my general. “Though I would suggest that is even more of a reason to push forward quickly. Unless we become a serious threat on the Enemy’s hold of Hainaut, he has no reason to reconsider his offensives. The army in the Hollow needs to be shattered, and soon.”
I stayed silence, wanting all here to air their thoughts, but I tended to side with Beatrice Volignac in this. There were still four days of marching between us and the Hollow, if we stayed on Creation, which was starting to look like too long. The Dead King wouldn’t have made a move against Coudrent if he didn’t believe he could take the fortress, Named or not, and to be honest I was starting to suspect the attack on Trifelin was not to take the place – Rozala Malanza had made it into a butcher’s yard for anyone trying to take it – but instead to pin down the Princess of Aequitan’s army so it couldn’t relieve Coudrent.
“We can’t fight a battle with our column spread out as it currently is,” General Hune pointed out. “We’ll need to recall the drow and the mercenaries first and that’ll take at least a day.”
A generous estimate. The distances involved were not small, there were no real roads to speak of out there and the forces in question were significantly spread out. Even if we sent the order in an hour, I doubted we’d gather everyone here by tomorrow. I’d bet the morning after, the dawn of our campaign’s fifth day, if we were lucky and the fantassins ran themselves ragged.
“It will slow us down to wait for them,” Aquiline pointed out.
“Attacking an entrenched force with superior numbers without our full strength would be foolish,” Hune bluntly replied.
“We don’t need to launch an assault outright,” I noted. “We can set up camp facing the Hollow and prepare for battle, and order the detachments to catch up to us there.”
It’d have the benefit of having those detachments sweep through the upper lowlands on both sides as they joined us, flushing out undead warbands still in hiding.
“And if the enemy comes out to fight?” Princess Beatrice asked.
“Gods, if only,” I wolfishly smiled.
General Abigail let out a small trilling laugh, which sounded either keen or terrified. Her fear aside, I strongly believed that in a field battle we’d smash right through the force the Dead King had sent to hold the Hollow. It was one thing to assault a strong position, another to face bones and Binds on the plains – where our cavalry could come into play and we could force them to come to us as our engines pounded at them.
“Send out the recall orders, we’re to gather directly before Lauzon’s Hollow,” I ordered Hune, then turned my gaze to the rest. “As for our column, prepare your forces for a march through the Twilight Ways. Morning Bell tomorrow is the timeline for beginning to open the portals.”
Which meant we’d probably start moving around Noon Bell, realistically. Even the simplest of things became incredibly complicated to achieve, when out campaigning, and time was always the first casualty. My tone was firm and there was no argument, the war council dispersing to see to their orders. We could all feel it, I thought, how much more had come to rest on our shoulders with the latest news. If we failed and Cleves fell, then the Principate would follow. Maybe not the same year, but it would all be downhill from there.
“So we don’t fail,” I murmured.
The words were cold comfort as I went to sleep.
Noon Bell turned out to have been wildly optimistic. For once it wasn’t even the fantassins that ended up being a pain in my ass, it was the drow. With Ivah gone their discipline had thinned and they dragged their legs when it came to getting their supply carts in order. Which in turn slowed down the Third Army, which was meant to march into the Twilight Wats after them, and when it became clear that halfway to Noon Bell we were still far from marching the armies that’d gathered had to be released – we couldn’t just make the soldiers stand in the sun for hours like scarecrows, hundreds would get heatstroke and discipline would break down.
The upside was that when the Silver Huntress and her party returned from their jaunt into enemy territory, just a little after Noon Bell, I was still there to take their report. Haranguing sigil-holders had stopped being a productive use of my time about two hours ago, so I’d sat down for lunch and had covers set for the Named so they could join me as they gave their account. Unsurprisingly, the tore at even such plain fare with great enthusiasm. I waited until they’d filled their stomachs some before nudging the Silver Huntress into starting to talk.
“We got close to the Hollow,” Alexis the Argent said. “It was swarming with soldiers, so even sneaking near the road wasn’t an option, but we went up into the hills to the east so we could have a look from there.”
She paused, swallowing a piece of jerky and washing it down with a mug of ale.
“The Headhunter was the one who found the goat path that allow us to,” the Huntress conceded. “She did good work.”
The villain in question only grinned at me, showing crooked but white teeth.
“The rise we found overlooked the army, Your Majesty,” the Vagrant Spear said. “The dead are raising fortifications, making ready for us.”
Bad news, but not unexpected ones. The dead tended to do as much when they had the time and expected to fight a defensive battles. Unlike the Army of Callow, though, Neshamah’s undead hordes did not usually have dedicated engineers or artisans that could serve the same purpose. Sometimes Binds with know-how managed something a little more elaborate than raising palisades and digging ditches, but it was rare.
“Anything to worry about?” I asked.
“Ditches and walls, the usual,” Roland told me. “They are concentrating on where Julienne’s High passes, but there were several layers being dug when we had our look.”
All the more reason to move on them soon, I thought. Even without giving actual battle, when we got close I’d be able to send raiders to disrupt their preparations. I glanced at the Silent Guardian, but though she was clearly paying attention she had nothing to add by gesture. There’d be no talk out of her, of course. Her Name was not an exaggeration – she’d been born mute, way I heard it.
“The Grey Legion was there,” the Headhunter said.
She grinned at me again, as surprise appeared on the face of her companions. Evidently, she’d not informed them.
“You saw them?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“I have a Mark on two different soldiers of it,” the Headhunter said. “Both were in range.”
I nodded. She’d always been vague about what her range actually was with the aspect, or how many of those marks she could have simultaneously, but I’d gathered it was at least several miles.
“You never said a word,” the Vagrant Spear indignantly said.
“I’m not your mother, Bloodlet,” the Headhunter sneered. “I won’t hold you by the hand when you fail.”
I whistled sharply, which interrupted before that lovely little spat could escalate.
“You can wait until I have my report to tussle,” I bluntly said. “Do you have numbers for me?”
“Around ninety thousand infantry,” the Silver Huntress said. “Mostly skeletons, though there was a large contingent of ghouls and we won’t have seen them all.”
“Constructs?” I asked.
“Two wyrms,” she grimaced. “And the usual for a frontline force: beorns and tusks, a few vultures and irregular horrors. At least a hundred total, and more they’ll have kept hidden in reserve.”
Not as bad as I’d expected, although the wyrms would be a problem and the Grey Legion was going to complicate everything just by being there. Either Akua or myself would have to be kept in reserve and fresh for when they came out, else that was going to be a damned costly battle. There just wasn’t anything our infantry could do against those things, not even my legionaries.
“Anything else come to mind?” I pressed.
“There were Revenants there,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “At least ten. And there was a shape in the distance, behind the Hollow, that I believe might have been a Crab.”
That got my attention, since we’d ever only had unverifiable reports about those existing.
“How sure are you?”
The Headhunter snorted contemptuously.
“Not sure enough to want to risk venturing too far,” the villain said.
“Our orders were to avoid combat,” the Silver Huntress sharply said. “And we obeyed them. As to the Crab, Your Majesty, it was impossible to tell if it truly was one from so far. There was magical interference as well, we believe.”
A ‘Crab’ was what we’d called the method the Dead King used to keep his armies halfway functional out in the field, when he had no cities to support them. It was a massive skittering necromantic construct, but not one meant to fight: the inside of its armoured shells was supposedly filled with forges, workshops and warehouses. A small moving city meant to allow repair, the creation of fresh constructs and safely carrying necessary goods. Masego believed they were also one of the methods the Dead King used to scramble scrying, as a sort of moving ritual site. We’d never gotten a close look at a Crab, though, as they tended to be kept relatively far behind enemy lines and jealously guarded.
I’d be a significant blow to the Dead King’s ability to wage war in Hainaut if we destroyed one, though. There wouldn’t be a swift replacement either: Given how expensive and difficult making a construct the size of a small city would be, we were pretty sure there were no more than ten of them in existence. My eyes moved to Roland.
“You didn’t answer the question,” I noted.
“I strongly believe it was one,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “The spell I used is essentially a Baalite eye made through sorcery, and though it doesn’t show much at great distances what it does show is reliable.”
I nodded in acknowledgement, drumming my fingers against the table. I tended to put trust in Roland’s judgement, cagey and tricky bastard that he was. While bagging the Crab wouldn’t be a greater priority than, well, actually beating the enemy army ahead of us I’d keep its existence in mind. It’d be quite the prize to destroy one of those.
“Noted,” I said, then changed the subject. “Our approach to the Hollow has changed, we’ll be moving out through the Ways as soon as possible and leaving our detachments to catch up to us near the enemy. That makes planning our answer to the Revenants and the enemy’s trump cards – the Grey Legion and the wyrms – all the more important.”
“There could be more Revenants,” the Silver Huntress reminded me. “We cannot be sure.”
“That’s war,” I shrugged. “You can never be sure. But we can plan for what we do know. I’ll want a more detailed report on the Revenants you saw once you’re done eating, and I’ll be calling an assembly of all Named with the column tonight.”
That got their attention, considering they were all included in that.
“We’ll be discussing match ups for the Revenants,” I told them, “and how we might best deal with the constructs you’ve identified.”
Much as I’d prefer not to, we might have to reveal the unravellers to deal with the wyrms if we couldn’t get a clean kill otherwise. I’d not get soldiers killed to keep the element of surprise – in other situations I might be willing to make that trade, but not when preserving our strength was so important. The battle ahead of us wasn’t the last we’d fight this campaign, and likely not even the hardest. I’d intended on hearing our suggestions from them ahead of the assembly, but it was not to be: before I could prod of them into giving an opinion, Adjutant wheeled his way into the tent.
I caught his eyes, and he indicated for us to move outside.
“You all did good work,” I told the seated Named, rising to my feet. “And brought back knowledge that might be the key to victory in the coming battle. The Grand Alliance thanks you all, and you will commended at the assembly tonight.”
It was easy enough to take my leave, since even the most polite among them were hungry and in front of a meal, so I left them to it and joined Hakram as he wheeled his way out.
“Word from Neustal,” he said. “Fresh from a runner. The Gigantes wardsmiths have arrived.”
Finally, I thought. The Titanomachy had been slow in coughing those out, at least when it came to the Hainaut front. Those who’d gone to Cleves had arrived almost a month ago.
“Good new,” I said.
“Their leader sent word to ask whether they should follow behind the column or stay in Neustal until sent for,” Hakram told me.
I mulled on that a moment. Was it worth the risk? Honestly, yes. I’d probably be able to squeeze a few things out of them if they were there when we attacked the capital, and until then they’d be useful in repairing and fine-tuning the artefacts they’d already sent us.
“How many of them are there?” I finally asked.
“Twenty-two,” Adjutant replied.
I let out a low whistle. That was more than I’d expected, at least the Titanomachy wasn’t being stingy with manpower – which, if what Hanno had told them about them was true, was the single they prized the most. There honestly was no way that our troops had missed anything numerous or powerful enough to threaten twenty-two Gigantes when sweeping through the lowlands here, so there went my last qualms.
“Send them up,” I said. “Though with warnings that this is still a war zone, if one we believe secure. If they want to wait until the next supply convoy so they can share the escort, they should feel free to.”
They’d still get to the city of Hainaut around the same time we did, by my reckoning.
“I’ll see to it,” Adjutant replied.
I opened my mouth, to ask about my answer to the proposal, then closed it. I’d already made things worse by pressing too hard once, I thought, it might best let him set the terms of engagement going from here.
“I’ll see you later then,” I simply replied.
It ended up being near godsdamned Afternoon Bell that the last of our soldiers entered the Twilight Ways, which was the final nail in the coffin of my optimism for this campaign.