“One can no more win a battle than one can ‘win’ a hurricane or a house fire. It can, at best, be a disaster withstood better than some others also suffering it.”– Dread Empress Sanguinara, the Shrewd
The blades had gone back to the sheaths, so as always the generals were left to the grim business of counting the corpses.
With the protective wards set down the rest of our army had crossed into Creation and a camp begun being built, but even so General Hune had prepared casualty reports by the time I returned. A little over nine hundred dead for the fight taking the beachhead, more from the Dominion than the Army of Callow. Significantly more wounded, but we weren’t low on priests so that ought to be a temporary measure in most cases. Given that there was sure to be fighting tomorrow, our standard orders that mages would not currently offer advanced healing stood. Not too unexpectedly, the raid I’d led into Lauzon’s Hollow had turned out more costly than the first battle of the day.
Almost twelve hundred drow had died on those grounds, Lord Soln’s battle claiming the largest share of dead – it’d run into heavily entrenched positions and waiting Revenants. A costly affair, losing more than a tenth of our current force of Firstborn on the first stroke, but the payoff had been worth it. We couldn’t be sure of the enemy’s casualty numbers but around six thousand at the hands of my raiders was a conservative estimate, and that was without taking into consideration the targeted objectives we’d gone after.
On wyrm was destroyed entirely, stormed by a hunting pack of Mighty while I’d been gone, and one of the siege engines made essentially unusable. Soln had devastated the enemy’s fortifications in the front and one of its sigil-holders slain a Revenant, while Sudone had done more damage than the two of us put together. Three ritual sites had gone up in flame along with the mages manning them before it found a fourth too well-fortified to assault and turned instead to setting fire to every structure in sight. It’d even collapsed the mouth of the pass leading out of the Hollow on its way out, which if nothing else ought to slow down the enemy’s repairs overnight.
I sat down with Senior Mage Dastardly from the Third to get my rib seen to as I heard Hune’s assessment of the situation in camp. We were building quickly but too fragile for her tastes, not that there was much of a choice. While Dominion folk and Procerans – the Volignac soldiers and the fantassins drew lots – could be put to work digging ditches, most couldn’t be trusted to raise palisades or assemble watchtowers. It just wasn’t the way either of their peoples waged war, they had no training in it. I called a war council after thanking Dastardly for his work, first to reiterate the watch arrangements – goblins and drow would take the first few shifts, but as soon as we had enough torches and magelights up the forces that’d not fought today would begin sending watchmen – but secondly to share what I’d learned during the raid.
“The surrounding hills have been hollowed out,” I told them. “To what extent I can’t be sure, but at the very least the valley where the village once lay is significantly larger now.”
Meaning the enemy would be able to cram a lot more soldiers into it when we tried to break through.
“More worrying is this,” I continued, pulling at Night.
I drew out the silhouette of the two siege engines I’d never quite gotten a look at.
“Larger than even goblin works, much less those of the dwarves,” Princess Beatrice observed.
Spoken like someone who’d never seen an actual dwarven army on the march, I thought. The stuff they peddled up here was the dregs of their arsenals.
“What does it do?” Lady Aquiline more bluntly asked.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Neither fired, and they were slow in turning towards us. I’d wager they were being pointed at the grounds in front ahead of the Hollow and that the machines are slow to turn.”
“Not surprising, given the size,” General Abigail muttered. “Old Bones doesn’t usually use this stuff either, Your Majesty, it’s all monsters and spells. I don’t like the looks of it at all.”
Several people leaned forward as the Callowan general, famed for her sharp military instincts, expressing such wariness. They’d not been taking it all that seriously until now.
“Do we have a way to silence it before the assault?” Lord Razin asked.
“We can’t take horses up those hills,” Grandmaster Talbot said. “Gods know we tried, last year. We never found any proper paths for soldiers to go up, either.”
“I intend to send Special Tribune Robber into the hills to see if there are paths to use,” I said. “But I’ll not pin great hopes on the attempt. The area will be swarming with undead, regardless: even Mighty in the fullness of night were unable to seize those positions.”
I hadn’t been able either, and lost Zombie in the process, but I wouldn’t admit to that in front of these people. The myth of my unconquered strength was much too useful to begin chipping at now.
“It might be worth trying a second raid will the full strength of the Firstborn when the detachments return,” Captain Reinald suggested.
“Playing the same trick on Keter twice always ends the same way,” Razin Tanja firmly said.
Good boy, I thought. He was learning, our Lord of Malaga.
“The detachments will begin arriving tomorrow afternoon at the earliest,” General Hune said. “And it would be ill-advised to attack before the following morning. We still have time to consider other methods.”
“The Dead King won’t wait until then to begin attacking,” I said. “Don’t rely entirely on the common watch, you should all keep your own as well. Tomorrow we’ll begin bombardment of the entrance to prevent fortifications from being raised again, but in essence our position remains defensive. We are preparing for a decisive thrust, not spending our strength.”
The trouble would be figuring out how to make our thrust decisive, I’d already gleaned. The Dead King had struck with all his might against Cleves in the west, betting that he could break through there before we could reclaim Hainaut, so he wouldn’t be looking to outright win the battle here: just delaying us for too long would be victory enough. It was hard to dislodge a skilled enemy waiting you out in a fortified position like the Hollow even when they weren’t outnumbering you, and attempting to force the pass would be bloody business. There would be a need for some cleverness here.
The only good news so far was that there was no hint our enemy had caught on to our reserve using the Twilight Ways to strike directly at the Cigelin Sisters, behind our current tussle. I was actually temped to just trade artillery shots with the undead here until the Sisters were seized, actually, since their fall might force the enemy to move from the Hollow. That was just me getting squeamish about casualties, though, I suspected. At the moment time was more precious to us than soldiers, ugly as the truth was. I called the war council to an end shortly after, exhausted but not yet done with my duties.
I held back Princess Beatrice, since I had a question for her.
“Ever heard of a Chosen named Adehard Barthen?” I asked. “He would have been a White Knight.”
“I have not, Your Majesty,” Beatrice Volignac admitted. “Though history was never my strong suit. The name sounds northwestern but that might not mean much: the Principate is not a small realm.”
“It was worth a try,” I sighed. “Kindly ask around if you know anyone of such scholarly incline.”
Might be worth sending word back to Neustal to see if Salia or the Arsenal could dig up anything for me. It’d been a while since I’d lost a fight that badly, and this White Revenant wasn’t even supposed to be the main threat here: that would be the Prince of Bones and his Grey Legion, neither of which had yet made an appearance. Which was worrying me. The Headhunter had not been able to confirm their marks were still there, as I’d not risked Named too close to the enemy defences yet. The last fucking thing I needed was a fresh Revenant with knowledge of my war plans.
Hakram was in not long after, the Apprentice trailing his shadow as agreed. The Ashuran was young, and her face of a cast too hard for people to call it pretty. I sympathized, having been there myself at her age – only without magical powers to make up for it, unless you counted compulsive mouthing off as one. Adjutant came with a mug of hot tea – sweetened with honey – and reports I’d been wanting. I drank of the first, enjoying the warmth seeping into my bruised lips, while gesturing for him to summarize the second.
“Start with the Rapacious Troubadour,” I said.
“As ordered, the Vagrant Spear preserved a Bind and delivered it into our custody,” Hakram gravelled. “The Troubadour then interrogated it in his particular manner.”
“He means the Troubadour ate the soul and went sifting through its memories,” I idly told the Apprentice.
“That is revolting,” she said, wrinkling her nose.
I hummed in agreement.
“Damned useful, though,” I said. “So, what did her get?”
“Confirmation that the Grey Legion and the Prince of Bones are here,” Adjutant. “Eyes on at least twelve Revenants. He also believes, form the movement of troops glimpsed, that the Dead King has been waiting for our offensive.”
I grimaced. Much as I hated to hear that, it fit what we’d seen: the strikes to the west into Cleves had come too quickly after the beginning of our offensive for it to be a coincidence. He’d waited until our armies were committed elsewhere to attack.
“Speaking of Revenants,” I said, “I want you to look into a name: Adehard Barthen. White Knight, possibly from the northeast.”
“I’ll see what I can dig up,” Hakram gravelled. “Difficult foe?”
“Couldn’t crack him before I withdrew,” I admitted. “And Zombie’s gone.”
He let out a soft noise of sadness.
“I’d begun to think that malevolent old thing was unkillable,” Hakram said.
“So had I,” I murmured.
I shook it off, sipping at my tea. This was no time to get sorry over a dead horse dying again, there was a war on.
“Firing platforms?” I asked.
“Pickler says they’ll be ready by morning,” Adjutant replied. “Our artillery will be in place by Early Bell at the latest, though come daylight she maintains her request for Named spotters.”
“I’ll think about it,” I grunted.
I hated to use any Named like that, as it felt like using a magic wand as an arrow, but some of our less combat-ready contingent might be gainfully used that way. I wasn’t going to be sending the Page out into the fray anytime soon, for example, so an argument could be made there.
“The trouble, sir,” Apprentice reminded him.
“I had not forgotten,” Adjutant replied, sounding somewhat amused.
He was in a much better mood than when I’d last seen him, I noticed, and I didn’t even know why.
“The Blessed Artificer went to have a look at our wards,” Hakram said. “Or tried to. Akua sent her packing, in her own polite way.”
“The Artificer has threatened to lodge a complaint under the Terms,” the Apprentice said. “It’s been the talk of the Named in camp.”
“Akua Sahelian is not Named, which makes that threat utterly meaningless,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “And if the Artificer wanted a look at our wards, she should have sought permission from the appropriate officers first. This isn’t the Arsenal.”
“Don’t I know it,” Apprentice muttered under her breath.
I smothered my amusement. Evidently, while pragmatic about trading the assignment as Hakram’s bodyguard and assistant for my backing in being reassigned to the Arsenal afterwards she wasn’t quite as sanguine about the trade as she’d been pretending. I hardly minded, if anything it’d keep her motivated to ensure Adjutant made it through this in one piece. After downing the rest of my tea and dismissing the two of them, I crawled into my cot and tumbled straight into a mercifully dreamless sleep.
I woke up much too soon, one of the Night-workings I habitually lay around my tent having been tripped. When an attendant came into my tent moments later and I slipped back my knife under the pillow, it took his announcing of Scribe as the courtesy it was: the villainess would have been perfectly capable of coming in without tripping a damned thing, or being seen by my guards. The nights were cool enough I’d gone to bed in a shirt, which cut down on dressing time, but I’d not washed before sleeping so I was unlikely to be smelling of roses. Eh, she’d deal.
“I”’ generously assume you woke me for good reason,” I bluntly said, sliding into a seat.
“News from the west,” Scribe replied. “From Princess Rozala.”
I grimaced. Yeah, that was well shaving an hour off my bedrest for.
“Hit me,” I sighed.
“You might recall that the diversionary force Princess Rozala sent out of Coudrent to pin the enemy army at Luciennerie was routed,” Scribe said.
“Not before seeing the Dead King was on the march, though,” I said. “I take it the siege of Coudrent has begun?”
“It has not,” Scribe calmly corrected. “In fact, the last reports from outriders insist there is no trace at all of an offensive against Coudrent.”
I blinked in surprise. Wait, what? It wasn’t that a feint was impossible there – I could think of half a dozen ways it could be done without even using magic – but rather that if that one hundred and fifty thousand strong army wasn’t headed west, where the Hells was it?
“Is it coming down the blue road instead?” I asked.
Vivienne was in for a ride, if that was the case. We had a stronghold straddling the blue road, north of Arbusans, but even with reinforcements holding it against such numbers was going to be rough. I frowned before Scribe even replied, already suspecting what the answer would be.
“There have been warbands, but no sign of an army,” Eudokia said.
Less than three bells ago, I’d been convinced that the Dead King’s plan had been to strike hard into Cleves while delaying us in Hainaut so that whatever gains we might make were made worthless by an entire front collapsing to our west. But that only makes sense if he attacks along both lines, I thought. Even if Trifelin fell right now – and it was by far a harder fortress to force than Coudrent at the moment, to boot – Cleves would be able to rally and mount a defence.
Which meant I had been gravely, utterly wrong about what Neshamah’s campaign plan was.
“Fuck,” I cursed. “We were had. I don’t know how yet, but we were had.”
Dragged into full wakefulness by dread, I turned a hard eye to Scribe.
“Wake up Adjutant,” I said. “I want my full war council up and here within the hour.”
The Scribe nodded, but did not immediately depart. My brow cocked with impatience, as I probably needed to get some pants on if I was going to be entertaining royalty. I had fond memories of doing otherwise, admittedly, but it was best left as a one-off.
“I hear you have been asking about an Adehard Barthen,” Scribe said.
I gestured curtly for her to go on, since it was a rhetorical question we both knew the answer to.
“Though I cannot speak to this Adehard in particular, the House of Barthen is ancient Proceran royalty,” Eudokia said.
“Unless I missed a name when I made myself memorize the Highest Assembly – and I did not – you mean ancient in a very literal sense,” I noted.
“Relatively so,” Scribe hedged. “It preceded the House of Goethal on the throne of Brus, but collapsed after the death of nearly all adults of the line in the Sixth Crusade. In the short-lived civil war that ensued, the Goethals seized power while having essentially no real claim to the throne save force.”
Well, I thought, that was something.
“Anything related to them and a greataxe?” I asked.
It was an unusual enough weapon for an Alamans noble it was worth asking. She stilled a moment, as if deep in thought.
“The heraldry of House Barthen was a white axeman on green, wearing armour,” Scribe finally said. “And their words translated roughly to ‘None May Mar’.”
My eyes narrowed. I’d not scored so much a single wound on the dead White Knight, had I? And my inability to damage his plate – mar it, so might say – might have a deeper source than simple sorcery.
“Talk with Hakram,” I said. “Look into it together. Artefacts like a set of pale plate and a greataxe would be details of interest to me.”
If I was going to be fighting this one again, I wanted all the knowledge I could on my side. Scribe took my words like the dismissal they were, leaving me to limp around looking for a clean pair of trousers and quickly wash myself of the worst of the dried sweat from the night’s fighting. My hair went into a loose ponytail and I went looking through my desk’s drawers for nuts and dried raisins, which while far from a meal would have to suffice until something more filling could be arranged. I unrolled my maps of Hainaut on the carved table, setting down painted iron blocks for the forces once more.
I wasn’t seeing the solution, and it was like an itch I couldn’t scratch. I honestly couldn’t make sense out of the Dead King’s campaign plan here. The army here in Lauzon’s Hollow to stop us made sense, no arguing with that, but the rest wasn’t adding up. There were too many little details going against the grain. Like Prince Klaus’ best efforts to bait out the army holed up in Juvelun failing even though at first his advance had been harassed quite aggressively, for one. The way that attack on Trifelin, which Princess Rozala had turned into a bloody fortress, had been obvious enough in coming we’d known it would for weeks if not months.
And not the supposed march on Coudrent turning out to have been a feint, which made some sort of sense, but less so that there’d apparently been no follow-through. Where had the army in Luciennerie gone? It should be hurrying down the blue road at breakneck pace right now, in an attempt to move quickly enough even through the Twilight Ways we’d be too late to reinforced. Instead an army of hundred and fifty thousand had disappeared. In principle, going into the countryside and off the roads it was possible to cut through the hills and reach Cigelin or the capital from Luciennerie.
In practice, that same lack of roads meant that the journey would be so slow that if my army broke through Lauzon’s Hollow in the next three days we’d still get to the capital ahead of the Luciennerie reinforcements, and with time to spare. My host was capable of beating such a force on the field, especially from a fortified position like the walls of Hainaut. Would the army in Juvelun move to the Cigelin Sisters and try to slow us down there instead? But that’d be throwing away another army, I thought. Neshamah had bones to spare, but he wasn’t exactly in a position to be pissing away armies like this either.
Honestly, even just taking Hainaut back up to the Cigelin Sisters while sealing the Malmedit tunnels out east and investing Luciennerie to the west would be a major victory for us. It wouldn’t deal with the bridge up north, which would still need to be destroyed, but that could be attempted from our new fortified lines – which would include, for the first time since the beginning of the war, a shared frontline between Hainaut and Cleves through Luciennerie. That’d be bad fucking news for the Dead King, and this entire gamble did not seem like his kind of stratagem at all. Which meant I was still missing something.
It had to be about that force of two hundred thousand, the one still missing. It’d last been seen north of the capital, and obviously it wouldn’t be able to move quickly when it was so large a force, but maybe it’d gone west? It might hit Trifelin, still being besieged, as a second wave. Hells, it might even try to attack the shore elsewhere entirely by going through the bottom of the lake. I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them. No, I decided. That wasn’t it. There’d be sense in that strategy – the Luciennerie army would then finally attack our defence lines after having delayed, forcing us to commit there and not reinforce Malanza – but that was, as the Intercessor had reproached me, still thinking like a general. Neshamah wasn’t trying to win a war, not like we would.
He was trying to exterminate vermin.
Battles and strategic victories meant little to him, it was only the destruction of our forces that mattered. And he wasn’t going to get that out west in Cleves, not when so many of the prominent Named and our finest armies were here in Hainaut and taking risks. The killing blow would come here, on this front. I could feel it in my bones, even if I still could not discern the shape of the doom to come. My war council filed in just as warm meals and steaming mugs of tea were brought in for everyone – Hakram’s eye for detail had not failed me – and I filled them in as everyone dug in. Not everyone understood the trouble we were in, unfortunately.
“I’ll not complain at fighting fewer enemies,” Captain Reinald said. “Let the Princess of Aequitan turn them back from her nice, cozy fortresses.”
“The dead will not grow wings, Black Queen,” Lord Razin said. “We’ll find this missing army sooner or later.”
I eyed him with displeasure.
“Or they’ll find us, Tanja,” Lady Aquiline flatly said. “This is grim news.”
Good girl, I fondly thought. She was learning, our Lady of Tartessos.
“In the worst case scenario,” General Hune said, “the force that routed the raiders from Coudrent could have been a simple large detachment – fifteen or twenty thousand, enough for a full-scale assault to be inferred by scouts – while the rest was already marching east. They could already be closing in on the capital, or even the Cigelin Sisters.”
I hadn’t even considered that, in truth. I nodded appreciatively at the ogre, even though she’d made it plain we might be in more trouble than I’d thought.
“Word should be sent to the Iron Prince,” Princess Beatrice suggested.
“It will be,” I said, “but there’s no guarantee the messengers will make it there, much less back to us with an answer. He’ll be north of Juvelun and approaching Malmedit by now.”
Meaning his back would be very much exposed, and the roads about as safe as having a drink in the Tower.
“No point in talking much about it, is there?” General Abigail shrugged. “Only one thing left to do.”
I suppressed a grin at the sight of every eye in the room turning towards her. See, the thing about that little jewel of a find was that while she was deeply paranoid – a healthy survival trait, in the Army of Callow – and just a little on the side of cowardly, she was also a significantly better commander than she believed she was. Her trouble was, in essence that her points of comparison were the finest generals of our time. She had the stuff, though, the spark that meant you had the potential to be one of those. The War College couldn’t teach you that, and while today Hune might be the better commander in every regard a decade from now I’d bet on Abigail of Summerholm nine times out of then. Something like anguish struck the other woman’s face when she realized that her conclusion had not, in fact, been obvious to everyone else in the room.
“Proceed, General Abigail,” I drily said.
“If we can’t figure out what the Dead King’s up to, then we have to punch through as quick as possible,” she hesitantly said. “Doesn’t matter what his plan is, if we throw a sharper in the middle of it.”
She’d put her finger to the pulse of it. Tempting as it might be not to act until we’d figured out what Neshamah was up to, it was too late for that. The armies were already marching, the bets had been put down. Now the only way out was through.
“My thoughts exactly,” I agreed. “It has now become imperative to break through even before the reserve strikes at the Cigelin Sisters.”
It’d allow us to secure the lands between the Hollow and the Sisters swiftly, and make sure the army holding Lauzon’s Hollow was annihilated instead of dispersed. I had no intention of allowing chunks of it to break off after we won the field and cut our supply lines after we moved on. We’d bottle them up in the lands between the two armies and eradicate them before moving on the capital together.
“Prepare for battle,” I ordered my war council. “As soon as the artillery is ready to begin firing, we will begin probing for a weakness to assault.”
There was no arguing with that, so as soon as the meals were finished they returned to prepare their men. I’d been blunt with my commanders mostly for the sake of clarity, as hurried or not I did not intend to throw soldiers into the meat grinder of a straightforward assault of the Hollow. It had become undeniable, however, that we no longer had the time to be too sly about forcing out the enemy. I was left to rely on the possibility that my first leanings might have paid off, so when a bone-tired Robber returned to camp an hour after dawn I had him brought to me directly. Dusty and bloodied, he still came in with a swagger. It did not hold for long when I asked for a report, though.
“I’ve got something,” Special Tribune Robber admitted. “But I’m not sure you’ll like it, Boss.”
“It beats the nothing I currently have on the table,” I frankly replied. “Talk.”
“There’s no goat paths left,” the goblin told me. “Keter got clever about it, broke up anything that might serve as a road soldiers could use coming from the outside. Went over the hills by climbing, but the place is full of ghouls and mages. I lost most of a line to some pretty well-hidden wards.”
I cocked an eyebrow.
“Blew up the dead,” he said. “Keter’ll get no word out of my lot, even in death. It was the sharpers that let us find out what we did, actually. You mentioned the hills were hollowed out some, Boss, but it’s a lot more than that. They made the sides of the pass into a massive cavern camp, I reckon.”
I grimaced. I’d not thought that the Dead King would have invested so long in building up the Hollow, or that we would have missed it. Hells, with work of the scale he was mentioning the dead must have been at work even before we seized the pass last year. They’d hidden their tracks well, if even heroes had missed them.
“You can get in there?” I asked.
“Sure,” Robber of the Rock Breaker Tribe grinned. “We know a thing or two about digging, goblins.
He elaborated further under my questioning. Having assessed that trying the hilltops any further would just get more of his people killed to no gain, he’d instead spent most of the night getting a sense of the lay of the structures under the hills. The malevolent imp had three points of ingress for me and a sketch of what he believed the lay of the artificial caverns might look like – a copy of which was already in Pickler’s hands. Good, that’d spare me sending him to do that afterwards.
“Taking those would get real messy, Boss,” Robber told me. “Legions don’t do well on grounds like those, not against things like Tusks and Beorns. We need an open field for our mages to handle their like.”
“I’m aware,” I mused. “But if you’re right, the enemy will have hidden a significant part of its army under the hills.”
Waiting to surprise us after we’d taken the hollow, I decided. First they’d bleed us taking the entrance, and after we pushed the dead back beyond the old village they would have sprung the trap. The raid of last night paired with my favourite marauders had sniffed out the jaws, though, so we might be able to turn this on them. I drummed my fingers against the table, closing my eyes and forcing myself to think. The Dead King’s army had a superior position, superior numbers and it’d been preparing for this fight for long enough it’d still have a few nasty surprises up its sleeves. What did my army have that could overturn all those advantages?
“Maybe they’ll turn around and walk home, if we’re lucky,” Robber mused. “Stranger things have happened.”
My eyes opened. That was an answer, yes. Luck and goblins.
Didn’t sound like much, but you could do a lot of damage if you used those right.