“I fear our tyrant in the east, but dread I reserve alone for what staying on our knees would make of us.”– Queen Eleanor Fairfax, founder of the Fairfax dynasty
General Abigail looked into the Baalite eye again, wishing generals didn’t have to be on horses.
It made her stand out, and people who stood out did have that unfortunate tendency to get shot. She couldn’t even use the damned thing to run away, because it made her stand out so people would bloody well notice. It was the sixth time since the Third Army had begun to mobilize that she was having a look at the enemy positions, but repetition wasn’t improving her prospects any. The drow had done good work, smashing up the enemy’s walls and collapsing their ditches, but the corpses had worked tirelessly overnight. The walls had been rebuilt into little more than stacked stones, more like a cattle-fence than a fortification, but the nice thing about cattle was that it wasn’t usually trying to stab you.
Somehow she doubted the undead would be so congenial.
“At least they’re low on bowmen,” General Abigail muttered. “Javelins aren’t as bad when it gets down to it.”
They did a number even on plate and they could scrap a shield, sure, but the range was lesser and you couldn’t carry anywhere as many of them.
“I don’t understand why Keter fields so few,” Staff Tribune Krolem gravelled at her side. “With their numbers, mass volleys would be near impossible to deal with.”
Except with them mage shields, of course, but those would be needed for the more exotic stuff the enemy had up its sleeves.
“Their dead are too dumb,” Abigail absent-mindedly told him. “The Binds, the one with souls still nailed to the corpse, they’re as clever as people. But the Bones? They can’t maintain gear for shit, certainly not something as finicky as a good bow. Javelins are simpler, and easier to make too.”
She glanced at her right hand, the tall orc looking like he was spoiling for a fight. It wasn’t his fault, Abigail reminded herself. Orcs were just born that way, with more teeth to compensate for the absence of the part where good sense went. Besides she’d probably like fighting more if she got to eat the losers afterwards, she figured. Tavern rates these days were basically robbery, so greenskins were definitely coming out ahead there.
“We’ll wait until the Sapper-General finishes her bombardment to advance,” she told Krolem. “And send our bloodhounds out, would you? I want this field cleaned up before our shield wall starts advancing.”
“On it,” the Staff Tribune saluted.
Good man. Some would have called Abigail paranoid for the precaution, but they couldn’t. Largely on account of them all being fucking dead while she was not. A nice empty field all the way to Lauzon’s Hollow, after Keter was allowed time to work its wickedness? Yeah, she wasn’t falling for that one. Her ‘bloodhounds’ were a suggestion she’d made to the Black Queen last year that got approved, to her surprise: mixed crews of regulars, priests and lesser magical talents that could sniff out the kind of hidden devilries the Dead King liked to leave lying around before her people walked into them. Leaving them to do their work properly would slow the advance, but Abigail didn’t exactly mind. She looked into the Baalite eye again, silently bemoaning her fate.
While it’d been a relief to learn that the Black Queen’s battle plan wouldn’t require the Third to charge at the mouth of Lauzon’s Hollow under enemy fire, she’d still ended up stuck leading the vanguard. Her inexplicably enthusiastic soldiers might think it was an honour to serve as the foremost meat shields – Dauntless, they’d all cheered, like the word meant they were no longer the people standing closest to swords trying to kill them – but General Abigail was not fooled. When you tangled with Keter, the front was the last damned place you wanted to be. Nowhere near was her own preferred locale, but she’d not had a great deal of success getting there.
Gloomily, the general leaned back on horse as the wings of the assault assembled to the east and west. The Second Army under General Hune would stay behind her and serve as both the reserve and the escort for the siege engines, while to the left the Procerans had assembled under Princess Beatrice and to the right the two leading members of the Blood had been granted a shared command. It made the west the weak flank, not as steady or numerous, but the Black Queen had sent most of the alliance’s horse there to prop them up. It would be some time yet before they had to advance, General Abigail knew, and when they did she’d at least have Named with her.
It was still with despair that she realized they’d somehow got her again.
She’d had a plan, a solid one. It was too late to back out of this whole general business now, as a pragmatic soul she’d been forced to recognize as much. Besides, Abigail of Summerholm hadn’t stuck out this bloody nightmare of a war to not retire with a full general’s pension: when she got home, she fully intended to never lift a finger again for the rest of her days and maybe drink herself into an early grave. It was her godsdamned godsgiven right to do so. So the plan had been adjusted. Abigail was going to make herself just enough of an embarrassment that they’d reassign her back home where she couldn’t make the Black Queen look bad in front of all the fancy nobles by being a lout.
It would be a delicate line to walk, being embarrassing enough to be sent away but not enough to be demoted, yet as the daughter of a long and storied line of loutish drunks Abigail had trusted in her blood to get her through this. It, uh, hadn’t panned out quite how she’d expected. People kept laughing when she said terrible things like ‘sure the Dead King horrid, but in his defence he’s been stuck living next to Procer for centuries’ and ‘makes sense the lake by the Dominion is from a hole in the ground, that’s pretty much the rest of the country too’ and instead of being made of pariah the amount of invitation to parties had tripled.
She’d dug deeper into loutishness, trying things like saying ‘you people’ and repeating the filthiest stories you could hear living in Summerholm as a brewer’s daughter, but it turned out these fancy Procer folk were shocking hard to, well, shock.
The only upside had been that these days Abigail might have to worry about nooses and the Black Queen eating her soul, but at least she didn’t often have to worry about being stabbed! Best thing about being a general was that when you got to a nice safe spot away from the frontlines, you got to call it strategizing. Very fond of strategizing, Abigail was. She did as much of it as was humanly possible. But now, as the Third Army spread out on the plains before Lauzon’s Hollow, the dark-haired woman finally understood the final treachery of her rank: even if she stood at theback of her army, that army could still be made to stand at the front of the coalition. She’d been had again.
The general looked into the Baalite eye again and sighed. It really was a shame about the horse, she thought. They might not have noticed her slipping away otherwise.
Though Robber had been told that his assignment was to serve as Pickler’s bodyguard, he suspected that what he’d actually been sent here to do was make sure that the Sapper-General of Callow did not end up murdering her assigned spotter: the honourable young lord Gaetan Rocroy of Cantal, also known as the Page. Robber admired the young man in a deep and sincere manner, which he’d not hid in the slightest. It’d taken him years of work to able to get under the skin of everyone he met, while the boy was pushing through on natural talent alone. It was a wonder to behold, really.
“Praesi measurements are quite inadequate,” the Page blithely said. “Outdated, even. It is the Salian paume that should be used, not the-“
Sergeant Snorer, who had been a sapper for more than decade, twitched so violently he snapped the thin copper wire he’d been adjusting. Crows, but the boy was an artist. The talent could not be suppressed, Robber would not allow it. It had to be encouraged, nay, cultivated! It would be a loss for Creation otherwise.
“Fire,” Pickler coldly ordered.
The Page had not quite got out of the way, so when the trebuchet’s counterweight came down he had to hurriedly hop to the side.
“Eyes on the stone, lordling,” Robber called out.
The hero glared at him for the presumption before doing what he was supposed to and serving as a good little spotter for the sappers of the Army of Callow. The boy’s eyes narrowed after the stone hit the side of a steep-sloped hill to the left of the hollow’s entrance.
“It shook,” the Page said. “Stone shattered on the surface. No large crack, though, you’ll need to get closer.”
There was a shared sigh by everyone here who’d studied ballistics. Eight hundred feet was well into the range of an imperial trebuchet, which was the model the Army of Callow used. If the stones weren’t enough to crack open the hills at this range, then ballistas – which shot further, but with significantly smaller projectiles – would do next to nothing if deployed. The choice left was either to keep hammering away with the trebuchets for hours or start pulling out more interesting ammunition. The Boss had made it clear that she wanted those hills torn open for her plan, and she hadn’t looked like she was in mood for an argument as to the practicalities involved.
“Iron framework inside, do you think?” Robber asked Pickler.
She licked her chops thoughtfully, chewing on the thought.
“If your assessment of how hollow the hills are is even remotely correct,” Pickler said, “then it is the most sensible theory. It could be wards, I suppose.”
“Boss mentioned when one of the siege engines they’ve got was ripped away, the top of the hill came clean off with it,” Robber noted. “She thought the platform was sculpted from the stone, but maybe…”
“It was simply anchored in metal beams that crisscross the summit of those caverns,” Pickler approvingly said. “It would be metal strengthened with spellcraft, to have had this particular effect, so more likely steel than iron.”
Long, spindly fingers – she had sapper’s hands, Pickler, delicate and deadly – drummed the side of the closest trebuchet thoughtfully.
“We’ll keep hammering away at the eastern hills,” the Sapper-General decided. “Nothing we have will crack the western ones right now. I dislike relying on sabotage, but it seems necessary this once.”
Without even a need to be ordered, the sappers around them heeded her words: the nine trebuchets were prepared for concentrated fire, pivoted on their platforms. Like a swarm of ants, the goblins to work. The Page looked quite discomfited, staring at them uneasily, so Robber decided to lend his help. Sidling up to the boy, he offered a wide and fanged grin.
“Do tell me about these paumes, good sir,” Robber asked. “Unlike my ignorant and hidebound colleagues, I am always open to heeding superior Proceran learning.”
The boy’s face lit up with enthusiasm, and from the corner of his eye Special Tribune Robber caught sight of a lieutenant kicking a trebuchet stone in fury.
Would Catherine be open to permanently assigning the boy to him, he wondered?
Roland de Beaumarais suspected that many would have envied the surface of his current situation – namely, walking forward slowly as four beautiful women were pressed up against him. The whole part about it also involving a tricky illusion spell and being surrounded by undead desiring to kill them all might have been considered something of a drag, mind you, and sadly he wouldn’t even be able to remember the experience fondly. Not when Sidonia kept elbowing him, as the Levantine heroine just had the most horridly bony elbows, or when the Silent Guardian was not stepping on his feet for the eight time.
Gods that plate armour was heavy, aside from the fact that the Guardian herself was in no way a small woman.
“My foot,” the Rogue Sorcerer croaked out in a whisper. “Please be careful.”
To the Silent Guardian’s credit, she looked somewhat apologetic and tapped his shoulder in apology. That already put her ahead of Sidonia, who’d just snickered when told she kept elbowing him.
“Stop whining,” the Blessed Artificer said. “You’ll give us away.”
That Adanna of Smyrna spoke the reproach without so much as a hint of irony to her voice was, in its own way, impressive. Roland made himself count to five so he would not indulge in a retort and then they resumed their slow advance. The paths that Catherine’s worrying goblin lieutenant had found proved true eventually, the third attempt allowing them to slip into a crevice that led into the great caverns below the hills. There’d been difficulties on the way, of course, but between Roland’s knack for ward-breaking and the Silver Huntress’ keen senses they’d managed to avoid giving themselves away.
It was inside they’d been forced to stay under illusion, as the place was crawling with undead. Even in the rare hallways Binds were always patrolling, and Roland pressed close to the wall as the other Chosen did the same to once more avoid the edge of his illusion being touched by a patrol of thirty undead soldiers in pristine armour. The caverns were shaking from the pounding of the Army of Callow’s engines was giving the surface, but while sometimes stones were loosened the place seemed in no danger of collapse. He could understand why Catherine had taken the risk to send them here, now.
Only a band of Chosen would be able to see this through halfway quietly, or without everyone involved dying in the process.
“We’re close,” the Silver Huntress murmured. “Only one level left. Adanna, you’re sure you can’t do it from here?”
The device the Blessed Artificer had prepared ought to be able to collapse the cavern’s ceiling, but she’d insisted it ought to be triggered as close to it as possible. There were hallway rings going up the sides, fortunately, and four nerve-racking levels up the five of them now stood close to the highest they’d be able to stand. There was a fifth level, but it seemed narrowed than the others.
“I could have done it from the bottom,” the Artificer peevishly replied, “but that would be rolling dice. I can only guarantee results from the level above us.”
“Then we go,” the Huntress sighed. “Steady and careful, all.”
The illusion Roland was currently using covered sound, so long as it was of sufficiently low pitch. It was why he’d picked something otherwise so unstable and finicky among his repertoire. Which was why when a great axe sunk into the wall just above his head, a tall Revenant in pale plate smiling mirthlessly as the spell shattered, he was rather surprised.
Halfway quietly was out, the Rogue Sorcerer mused. Time to see if ‘without everyone involved dying’ could still be salvaged,
There was a moment of silence as a massive lance of Light tore through the hilltops on the left side of Lauzon’s Hollow, spinning up in the sky like some behemoth’s spit until it thinned and vanished into a shower of motes. Trails of smoke followed behind, the heat from the priestly power having set small fires and scorched rock.
“You know,” Robber said, looking at the rising smoke, “when the Boss told me there would be sabotage, I figured it would be something a little more…”
“Subtle?” Pickler suggested.
“Yeah,” he faintly replied. “That works.”
Was that from the woman that looked like Wasteland get? Gobbler knew it couldn’t be the Vagrant Spear or the Silver Huntress – the former would have had Archer bragging up a storm, while the latter would instead probably have tried to kill Archer by now. The Rogue Sorcerer was a skillful meddler but no used of Light, and the Silent Guardian was by reputation a solid warrior but not particularly powerful. That left only the woman with the Ashuran accent and those golden highborn eyes that had Robber feeling wary every time he saw them. People with them were usually quite dangerous, when they got to live up to the Blessed Artificer’s age.
“It will do the trick, regardless,” Pickler shrugged. “Shame they didn’t get the enemy engine, but I supposed it will have to do.”
In front of them, the trebuchets snapped into motion. One after another they pounded at the hillside, until finally the thunderous crack the sappers had been working at for an entire bell finally resounded. The Page excitedly informed them there was a large fissure now. Another seven stones and finally the side of the hill collapsed. The iron bones that’d held it up were could still be glimpsed in the rubble, twisted and bent but rarely broken. The sight matched that on the eastern slopes, which had been smashed a more than half a bell ago.
“Hold fire,” the Sapper-General ordered. “The trebuchets are done. Begin advancing the copperstone ballistas as soon as the Third advances.”
Ignoring the Page who was asking whether he could finally leave, Robber picked out one of the trebuchets and began to climb his way up the beams. Unlike his fellows, he had an inkling of what was coming and he wanted as fine a seat to witness is as he could. Deftly raising himself atop one of the legs supporting the pivot, he watched as a great wyvern took to the sky from near the frontlines. Not a real beast that one, it didn’t move quite right, but his sharp eyes caught sight of two silhouettes on its back. The Summoner would be one, he knew, but he wasn’t sure for the second.
Archer ought to be with the Third, since it’d serve as vanguard, but you never knew with the Boss. Not like she was low on Named these days, anyway. The speculation served to entertain him as the wyvern flew forward, swarms and a wyrm rising to meet it in the distance. A death warrant for the two Named gone out, if it’d been meant to be anything except a distraction. It wasn’t, though, and with a pleasurable shiver Robber felt the air begin to thicken. He gulped down his breaths as if struggling against an unwilling Creation, the sheer powerbeing gathered always surprising him. It was good for this army to be reminded exactly what the Black Queen was now and then, the Special Tribune felt.
Cat played nicer, these days, so sometimes the westerners forgot who it was exactly that’d won the Tenth Crusade.
A large circular gate winked open in the sky above Lauzon’s Hollow, and to Robber’s delighted surprise a heartbeat later a second one did. Sahelian was finally earning her keep, then. The hollowed out hills on both sides of the pass had been torn open at the top and smashed in the front, so now all that was left was using that broadened field of engagement and giving a pitched battle – or so conventional wisdom would have suggested. That wasn’t the Boss’ way, though, not at all. She rarely settled for a single knife in the kidney, it was one of the more charming things about her.
So it was with utter glee that Robber began cackling when he realized that the gates in the sky weren’t connected to the Twilight Ways at all. The way water began pouring out of them was something of a hint.
Roland pulled deep on one his strongest offensive magics, forming fire and turning it dense and liquid before tossing a hundred droplets of it at the mass of skeletons coming after them. The Vagrant Spear, pulling the unconscious Adanna closer to her, turned just long enough to send a blast of Light at the armoured Revenant still pursuing them, cursing angrily in Ceseo when the dead hero shrugged it off like he had everything else they’d thrown at him. Nothing made a dent: not steel, not sorcery, not even Light. The Silent Guardian had managed to throw him off the ledge earlier, the most success they’d had, but he’d been back before long.
With more Revenants, of course, for the Gods despise Roland deeply and wanted him to die screaming.
Alexis put a seventh arrow in the shield-bearing titan of a woman coming after them with a halberd, that Revenant’s unsettling laugh echoing across the cavern even through the cacophony of an entire army mobilizing to kill them. Arrows clattered against the wall as they passed by a pillar, just a second too slow to catch any of them, but already they were being charged at by armored skeletons ahead and javelins were in flight from somewhere he’d not even looked at yet! Swallowing bile, already feeling the raw sting of his aspects being leaned on too harshly, Roland conjured a shield to take care of the javelins.
The Silent Guardian plowed into the skeletons a heartbeat later, smashing everything aside like a bull in a house of glass, but deep down the Rogue Sorcerer knew it wouldn’t enough. It was still two levels down before they’d get to the crevice they’d squeezed in through and there was simply no way they were going to last that long : opposition was hardening the further down they got. The Guardian screamed when a great barbed arrow punched through her mail, shot by some distant Revenant with a black iron bow, and though the Silver Huntress managed to turn aside a blow of the Revenant in pale plate and throw him off the ledge again, it was a temporary relief at best. Already the one with the halberd was coming at her, and now that the Silent Guardian was wounded and was going to start struggling with their front it would all be-
A wall of water came down from the sky, smashing through the holed that’d been melted through the ceiling of the cavern. The halberd Revenant was caught by a stream and smashed into the wall as the Huntress danced away just in time.
“That also works,” Roland admitted.
Mind you, if they didn’t figure a way out of this soon they were just going to drown instead. Still, this was already a distinct improvement. Thank you Catherine, he mused. Very timely of you. Screaming at each other so they could hear over the roar of the falling waters, the Rogue Sorcerer and the Silver Huntress agreed on a plan. If you could call an agreement to get the Hells out of here as quick as possible that. Water was beginning to gush down with them, and to their horror it was already filling the crevice they’d used to come in. They’d need another way out. Thankfully, even as they were wondered what in the Merciful Heavens that would be, scaffolding on the level above them collapsed.
A large flat piece of wood, one that must have served as a work platform, bounced down and rolled slightly downhill until the wounded and white-faced Guardian caught it with a hand. It was large enough for all of them, Roland noted, and quite likely to float. He met Alexis’ eyes, then shrugged.
“Do you have a better idea?” he asked.
General Abigail shivered.
It was not the first time she’d seen this horror unleashed. Even if her memory had allowed her to forget the first day of the Battle of the Camps, her nightmares would not have. The gates did not look the same, now sleek rinks of darkness rather than the thin slices into Creation the Black Queen had once wielded, but then as now the sky had opened and wept. Abigail remembered the hate that’d simmered under the fear, back in those days where it’d been the Principate they’d fought. The way she’d known that their queen was a monster but she was not a monster who had sought this war, that it had been forced on all of them by a handful of rapacious princes in their palaces across the Whitecaps.
But not even then had she believed the invaders deserved that cold, brutal and senseless end.
Not the sky wept again, two gates torn into the fabric of the world high above, and like jugs being filled the hills that’d been ripped open by siege engines received the deluge. Even stone shattered, when the water came from so high, and before long the hordes the Dead King had hidden within his caverns began pouring out on the tide half-smashed. The water rushed out of the broken hills, taking with it rocks and corpses and steel, and began to spread into the plains below. In the sky above Named skirmished with horrors and Revenants, Light streaking bright as the flood gates were protected from disruption. It wouldn’t last forever, Abigail thought, but it wouldn’t have to. That’d never been the plan.
Water stormed out of the pass itself now, having overrun the hills themselves and swept into the hollow between them, the tide bowling over the undead and smashing the fortifications at the mouth of Lauzon’s Hollow. The mud would make for unpleasant fighting grounds, Abigail thought, but it would hinder the undead as well. And it was the cost for something almost priceless: right now, as the waters kept hurling down from the gates, the Dead King’s waiting army had been essentially dispersed. All preparations, positions and traps and been unmade by the brute force of thousands of tons of water coming down from the sky. It would not win them the battle by itself, but as far as first strokes went it was a masterful one.
Let it not be said the Black Queen had come by her reputation dishonestly.
It was not even half an hour before the first enemy got through and took a swing at a gate, making it stutter, and within moments both gates had winked out of existence. Water kept pouring from a blue a cloudless sky, jarring to behold, but General Abigail knew what was required of her now.
“Krolem,” she said. “Have the advance sounded.”
“Ma’am,” the orc saluted.
Water still flowed but the plains were large and it had not rained in days: the earth would drink the tide in full, and it would not take so long as one might think. Abigail would not waste the advantage she had been given.
“Good, you’re not dragging your feet.”
The dark-haired woman almost fell down her horse, utterly startled, and froze in a different kind of fear when she saw exactly who it was that’d addressed her. The absurdly large bow would have been answer enough, even if the dark linen scarf and long coat had not been just as telling a sign. The Archer was not an uncommon sight around the camps of the Army of Callow, though Abigail preferred to avoid Named like the plague when she could.
“Pardon?” General Abigail got out.
“You’re attacking,” the ochre-skinned villainess said, smiling pleasantly. “Like Catherine wanted you to. Don’t be afraid to press your luck in the assault, general, we’re not done with surprises for the day.”
“I, uh, of course,” Abigail stammered. “You are to be the Named that comes with the Third, then?”
“Something like that,” Archer grinned. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.”
Abigail noted that her horse was looking at the villainess with fear-tinged distrust as well. A wise animal than she’d believed, she conceded.
“I’ll see you around, general,” the Archer winked. “Don’t go disappointing me, now.”
“I wouldn’t dare,” Abigail replied, a lot more honestly than she’d meant to.
Luck was on her side, and so the Named drifted away as she laughed. The general took the time to gather herself, straightening her back and breathing out. She had a battle to get through. In the distance in front of her, horns sounded as the Third Army’s ranks tightened into a shield wall and it began to advance. Noting its unease, General Abigail patted her horse’s neck and mercifully ignored the attempt to bite her fingers she received in return.
“If you get through this, Boots, I might take you with me when I retire,” Abigail of Summerholm muttered. “If you’re unhappy about being in this mess, that already makes you the second smartest animal in this bloody army.”
Onwards they went anyway, to swift death and graves shallow.