“Surprise is not a fixed quality. Yesterday’s coup is tomorrow’s blunder.”– Theodosius the Unconquered, Tyrant of Helike
Princess Beatrice Volignac of Hainaut believed in being honest with herself even when it was painful to do so.
Particularly when it was painful. Even when back when she’d only been the sister of the ruler of Hainaut, she had known that there would be great dangers in refusing to look the realities of Creation in the eye. It was why she did not bother to pretend that she was anything but fat, even when her high birth meant that flatterers offered up sweet lies insisting otherwise by the basketful. She was fat and she would not slim up. It was the way of things, something she did not like but would have to live with. Allowing herself to indulge in a fantasy world at the expense of reality was just being childish, and childishness in a woman of her rank was the road to an early grave.
And now she was not a mere princess’ sister anymore, she was the Volignac. Julienne had gone off and chased a death worthy of song, leaving Beatrice with two grieving nephews as well as a crown she’d never expected she would have to wear. This was Procer and here blood mattered – especially when it was as old as that of the House of Volignac – so Beatrice was still being treated as royalty, but she had no illusions about what she truly was: the leader of a large armed gang, dependent on the charity of the high throne and foreign powers for her survival. She was royalty only so long as no one cared to challenge it, and should the army she’d salvaged from ruin perish it would be the end of Hainaut as a realm. There could be no return when one’s rule extended only to ashes and refugees.
And so Beatrice had thought herself cleverer than those Langevin whoresons in Cleves, at least, whose smidgeon of safety had deluded into thinking that they could afford to plot when the very end times were at their doorstep. The staggering stupidity of Gaspard Langevin’s manoeuvering still surprised her – had the man truly forgot that more than half the forces defending his lands were foreign, that some of the very same Firstborn he wanted to slight had bled for Cleven grounds? It’d been a comfort, cradling that knowledge. And yet now, as Beatrice Volignac’s fingers tightened around her lance, she was forced to acknowledge that in some ways she had been a fool as well.
Queen Catherine Foundling of Callow was an easy-going woman. That temper was legend, true, but it was not easily provoked and when in a good mood the young queen was both amiable and impulsively generous. She was free with honours others in her position would have clutched tight. The Queen of Callow’s obvious lack of schooling in the mores of one of high birth was an occasional figure of fun in Proceran circles, for she was cunning in the way that a peasant or a tradesman was cunning – without polish, without elegance. Beatrice was not fool enough to consider the Black Queen of Callow a mere savage, but between the cordiality and the lowbrow habit she’d come to forget who it was that she was dealing with.
Then hills were cracked open, the sky opened and an army was smashed by celestial deluge all in the span of an hour.
Beatrice remembered the stories, then, of the Battle of the Camps. Of the Doom of Liesse, of what Callowan veterans fondly called the ‘Arcadian Campaign’ – as if it were not utter howling madness, to have invaded the realm of the fae – and at last of the Princes’ Graveyard, where sport had been made of her kind as none had dared since Theodosius the Unconquered. The Black Queen did not bother with the proper courtesies, Princess Beatrice remembered, because after the Graveyard there was not a living ruler left who could demand them of her. The Princess of Hainaut let that sink truth sink into her bones, breathed deep of it. It would not be forgot again, she swore.
Princess Beatrice let the fear settle down, reminding herself that this once the horror was on her side, and turned her gaze to the enemy. Already the Third Army under its canny fox of a general was advancing at a brisk pace, red-painted shields locked tight in a shield wall. The waters had not yet finished flowing, but they’d slowed and would soon die out. Behind them would be left muddy grounds and a roiling mass of undead, an unprotected and hindered formation that the Army of Callow was already punishing with sustained artillery fire. The rumoured ‘copperstones’ fired by the Sapper-General’s ballistae burned with bright Light where they hit, incinerating bone and unmaking necromancy.
The battle plan, as it currently stood, dictated that the flanks of the coalition army would wait a span before advancing as well. Beatrice understood the purpose, for she had made some study of war: it was hoped that the enemy reinforcements already pouring out from deeper in the pass could be drawn back into the water-emptied caverns by the Third Army’s hasty advance, in an attempt by Keter to pincer that force as it pulled ahead of the rest of the coalition army. This was a risk, on the surface, but in truth it was the Black Queen’s attempt to limit casualties on their side as much as possible. She wanted, in Beatrice’s opinion, to draw the dead into fighting her at the mouth of the pass.
There, where Keter’s number could not be brought to bear as they would in a broader field, the Queen of Callow wanted to eat up an army of one hundred thousand one bite at a time. The battle lines would stabilize once the flanks caught up to the Third Army, and when they were the artillery could be brought to bear on the massed undead facing the coalition. In a very real sense, the Grand Alliance soldiers would not be the executioner’s axe but the chopping block: their purpose would be drawing out the enemy and keeping them in the artillery’s killing field, not necessarily to do a great deal of damage themselves. The young queen’s art of war was not famed without reason, though the Princess of Hainaut did not believe it would be quite so simple.
It never was, with Keter.
Yet blind worries were no reason to stand paralyzed, so when Princess Beatrice Volignac received the word from their supreme commander she passed down the order to her captains. Trumpets sounded, a bright clarion call, and the drumrolls began as the last army of Hainaut began its advance intermixed with companies of fantassins. To the east the Levantines mirrored her advance, and just as the Third Army reached the edge of where the waters had touched – where the dead had been swept up – the march of the flanks finally began. The Queen of Callow’s plans were proceeding nicely so far, Beatrice saw. A stream of reinforcements had hurried out of the deeper pass to prevent the Third from just sweeping through, and when finally it made contact with the shield wall of the Third Army both forces slowed in the morass of mud and steel that the water had made. The undead did not have sharp enough teeth to smash a Callowan shield wall, though, so the stream split.
The caverns, torn open for al to peer into them, were beginning to fill with undead attempting to go around the enemy’s shield wall. Instead of just fighting in front, the dead were trying to bring their numbers to bear by attacking on the flanks as well – for now only splashing harmless at the sides of that stout eastern square formation, but the undead were gathering numbers to mount more serious assaults. The enemy was moving too quickly, Beatrice thought as she watched with narrowed eyes. Light skeletons, without armour and barely armed, had been sent out first and en masse as they were not so prone to getting stuck in the mire.
The Princess of Hainaut sent for one of her captains and ordered that the roll of the drums be quickened, setting a quicker march. If she waited too long, she feared that the Third Army might be entirely surrounded before reinforcements arrived. That would be a disaster, especially should the well-armed Callowan soldiers rise in the service of Keter. No wonder Callow was bereft of all beauty, she sometimes thought when looking at the pristine armaments of the Army of Callow. All the wealth there had gone into war. Would that Julienne and their father before her had practiced that same folly, which in these dark times was no folly at all. The House of Volignac had more use for plate than palaces these days.
The Princess’ eyes drifted to the hills in the distance, beyond the fighting, where she had been told that a great siege engine still awaited. It had yet to fire a single shot, but as far as she knew the Chosen had not destroyed it. What was Keter waiting for, then?
“We’re through with the easy part now, ducklings,” Sergeant Hadda growled. “Shields steady and mind your right. Don’t get smart, it doesn’t pay off against the skellies.”
Edgar breathed out, feeling the usual tremor of fear going down his spine. He’d be all right when the shield wall made contact with the enemy, but until then he knew from experiences the nerves would stay with him. Orders had come from above for the fourth cohort – of which Captain Pickering’s company was the second company – to move to from the back to the left flank, to prevent the enemy outflanking the army. Felt odd to be turning his back to the dead in front of them, coming out of the Hollow, but then Edgar was just turning to look other undead in the face wasn’t he?
“Liked it better when we were just smashing the downed bones,” Edith muttered at his side. “Like a dangerous chore, but still better than the fucking shield wall.”
Edgar snorted. A dangerous chore had been a good word for it. The Black Queen had called forth the tides to smash the enemy’s hidden army, and when it’d washed up in a sea of mud and roiling undeath the front ranks of the Third Army had sent forth the priests of the House Insurgent. Streaks of blinding Light had hit the struggling skeletons and ghouls, carving smoking furrows into the mud, but it’d been the task of the legionaries following behind them to shatter any bones they saw sprouting out. Not harmless work, this, for sometimes skeletons played deaded than they were and nasty surprises of mud and steel came at you from below. But like Edith – surprisingly sensible, for a Liessen girl – had said, still a damned sight better than the shield wall.
There, sometimes luck just meant you didn’t get back up in the Enemy’s service when you died.
The company moved into place as smoothly as was possible on muddy ground, a line of twenty moving to the front. Edgar’s own line made up the second rank, which meant they’d see fighting before long. Over the shoulder of a shorter soldier, he saw pale bare skeletons with only spears in hand deftly going through the mud. Companies filled in to the side of Edgar’s own, broadening the shield wall before the enemy could sweep around it, and he breathed out quietly. If he’d been in the first rank, he wouldn’t have dared to take his eyes off the enemy even when he caught movement above. In the second, though, he risked a glance.
It wasn’t the Summoner and another Named engaging vultures up in the sky, as now that the flood gates had closed they’d fled. Too low, anyway, and too quick. It was with quicksilver surprise that Edgar realized he was looking at artillery fire. Some sort of enormous spear had been fired, or perhaps a pillar? Whatever the truth of it, a great length of dark stone fell into the back ranks of the Third Army, killing a dozen with the impact. Edgars’ fingers tightened with fear at the tight, for the black stone was glowing with runes. A heartbeat later, there was a crackling sound and a burst of sorcery followed by screams, half a company dying in a heartbeat in a mess of lightning.
Another pulse, and the dead rose.
The companies in the back of the Third turned to face the fresh threat – and while another pillar was shot at them, it burst in midair as if artillery fire of their own had somehow caught it – but the pulses kept coming. Always the same two, lightning and necromancy, but it was a potent combination and the streaks of Light and sorcery thrown at the pillar did nothing. Edgar of Laure breathed out and looked away. Fear ran in his veins as the distant sound of great drums began to thrum, but he could no longer afford to look anywhere but forward. The first wave of skeletons charged forward in utter silence.
“Dauntless,” Sergeant Hadda screamed.
“Dauntless,” they howled back, and for a moment the boast chased away the gloom.
Gods, Indrani grimly thought. That’s a new one.
What the Hells was that pillar? She recognized the stone from their trip into the Crown of the Dead a few years back – she’d never seen that exact tone of black anywhere but in the deepest reaches of the Dead King’s fortress – but it was the first time she’d ever seen this particular breed of nastiness. It was a pretty simple setup, but the alternating pulses had already chewed through two companies and all attempts to handle the situation ended up turning into oil tossed at the flame. Not that she could afford to spare much time looking. The enemy’s siege engine was still firing the damn pillars, and there were only so many heavy arrows in her quiver – three, actually, and she was already on her last. That would mean three pillars swatted out of their trajectory, at least, but somehow she doubted Keter would be running out of ammunition the same time she did.
Nocking the last heavy arrow, Archer suppressed a grimace as she saw another blackstone pillar let loose. She breathed out, steadied her aim, then drew and released. Indrani didn’t even bother to watch if she’d hit, already knowing she would. Normally she’d have a few more heavy arrows, but today Cat had sent her out to handle constructs so it was unravellers she’d loaded up with. Useful things, those, but unlikely to dent a pillar. Pickler’s copperstone ballistas were still chewing up the undead coming out of the pass so the Third wasn’t in danger of collapsing anytime soon, but casualties were already mounting and that slippery eel General Abigail had left Archer behind at some point.
Glancing ahead, Indrani found that beorns were massing in the pass. House-sized abominations resembling bears, damned hard to put down and surprisingly agile for their size. They also carried bellyfuls of undead soldiers, which made them a bloody plague for regulars: it was like a living battering ram spewing out soldiers. Archer bit her lip. She couldn’t anything more about the pillars, it’d have to be one of Catherine’s contingencies that handled it. She could begin hammering away at the constructs, though, so even as another pillar was shot in the distance Indrani reached for an unraveller and nocked it.
In that, at least, she could tip the scales.
You have no assignment, the Black Queen had told him. Follow providence where it leads you.
Balzer, who men now knew as the Sage, had done so without qualms. Even the Peregrine had been burned by that villainess’ wiles and he would not gainsay them when they stood on the same side. So the Sage had retreated into himself, closing all shutters so that nothing might obscure the sensation of the slight nudges of Fate. And Fate had led him not to stand with the Dominion’s warriors, with whom he shared blood, or the Procerans he had sworn to protect from the Enemy’s attentions. It was with this strange Third Army that his steps had taken him. Not even to fight on the front, though Balzer knew many secrets of destruction beyond those of his fists, but to stand at the back.
He understood why only when black stone fell from the sky as a pillar and death bloomed around it.
Balzer had learned many secrets, for which some called him wise and others had decreed him a sage – even Sage, in time. But enlightenment was not a shared road, it was the struggle within: lonely, endless, forever reaching for unattainable perfection. So he was not surprised when the priests of the House Insurgent molded their faith bright and threw it against the black stone to no avail. No candle could light up the ink-black sea. And what could sorcery do, be it flame or thunder? Only a fool sought to beat a devil at devils’ tricks. In this, though, he could lend aid. The Sage waded through the fresh undead, smashing skulls through helmets as he glided through their ranks, and before long beheld the pillar from up close.
“What a malevolent thing you are,” the Sage murmured, eyes narrowing.
Kill, the black stone sang. Take. Kill. Take. Its insistence washed over him like morning mist, even the touch of lightning – the Light within him was greater than what the Enemy’s work could bring to bear. Balzer pressed his palm against the stone, disliking its feverish warmth but not lingering on such ephemeral things. Like the river, he must flow and never cease. It was the opposite with this thing of stone and dread, for it was a shell hosting pulsing hate and greed and nothing more. Shells always had weaknesses, and the Sage found this one’s before long. Undead grasped at his back, but he was swift and his oneness with Light blinded their eyes.
“Begone,” Balzer ordered, and struck.
In his right hand he held the power to Destroy, learned from years of studying the lingering wisps divine wrath had left behind on this world, and it was this he unleashed against the work of Trismegitus. The black stone shattered under his fist, revealing a howling sorcerous heart, and this he snatched and snuffed out. For a moment, when it died, he thought he had heard a word. Not enough to Divine anything from it, but perhaps with meditation… The sky above spewed out another pillar of black stone, falling among soldiers to deliver thundering death. Ah, opportunity. The Sage smiled.
Today was a good day, he decided, and sought the next pillar of black stone.
Lord Razin Tanja of the Binder’s Blood threw down his shield, for the javelin might not have punched through but it’d made it good as useless anyway. That was the third shield he’d gone through since the battle began, and he’d already had two horses killed under him: Keter was in fine form today. His sworn swords, which had served as the vanguard, were holding steady ahead of him. Malaga was upholding its honour today, though it was Aquiline who was adding deeds to the Rolls for her Blood – she’d taken a few slayers and Lanterns to kill a Tusk that’d passed by the Archer’s punitive barrage, giving the killing blow herself.
It ought to put her in a better mood, wiping away the disgrace that’d been getting wounded on the first real day of fighting of the campaign.
The dead were holding firm under the assault of the Dominion, the Lord of Malaga found when he scrutinized the battle lines. The warriors of Levant weren’t making enough of a dent to push back the enemy, though they were themselves in no danger of losing ground. Much as Razin would have preferred a more glorious bent to the battle, he could not deny that the Black Queen’s plan was working: the copperstone ballistas of the Army of Callow were tearing through entire companies of the enemy as they poured out of the pass to reinforce, focusing on the centre in front of the Third Army.
It was not a great honour for his warriors and Aquiline’s to be used as mere hooks keeping the metaphorical fish from wriggling out of the ballistas’ reach, Razin Tanja thought, but if it led to victory he would make his peace with it. The Procerans had been tasked with the same on their wing, anyhow, so there was hardly a surfeit of honour to go around – only Abigail the Fox, that ruthless and cunning general who’d bled his binders so starkly at the Graveyard, had claimed any by being given the pivotal role of the day. Still, there was no reason for the Dominion not to try to seize a better position. Razin sent for his captains and ordered a push at the very edge of the right flank, led by Lanterns and axemen. One of his sworn swords brought him his fourth shield of the day, and the Lord of Malaga pondered whether he should rejoin the ranks. The men fought better when he fought with them.
The decision was stolen from him when Keter acted first. From the broken ceiling of the caverns a great cacophony came as a devilry kept back was suddenly unleashed: the surviving swarms from the first day, birds and bats and insects, flowed out like a tide with ear-breaking shrieks. The Lord of Malaga swallowed a curse. Of all the armies of men, the Dominion struggled with these horrors the most.
“BINDERS,” Razin Tanja screamed. “BINDERS, ON THE SWARMS.”
The Summoner snorted derisively when he saw those Dominion savages fumble around with their so-called sorcery. Half-baked diabolism was what it was, this use of souls as anchors for bodies made of their surroundings – in this case, largely mud and stone. Not all the binders could forge flying creatures, either, further proof of their fundamental incompetence. Cedric reminded himself that not all could equal his own mastery, but it was a half-hearted thought and almost more a boast than a commiseration.
“You are certain your creature is capable?” the Concocter asked.
Beneath them, his summoned wyvern batter of her wings as she sped towards the undead swarms. The Summoner cast his colleague a scornful look.
“A little late for asking, yes?” Cedric sneered.
She rolled her eyes, the insolent wretch. Gods, but the Black Queen simply did not recognize his worth – always she used him as a horse-handler for some inferior Named, when he could have done it all on his own.
“My concoctions will work as promised,” the Concocter flatly said. “The only possible point of failure here is your work.”
The Summoner scoffed.
“My works is always beyond reproach,” he said. “It is why I have been judged too valuable to send to the Arsenal, unlike some others.”
She probably would have argue with this self-evident truth, so Cedric ordered his summon to bank hard upwards and leaned closer to its neck. The containers the Concocter had loaded its belly with made the construct less manoeuvrable, but he’d learned to compensate. It would not matter, anyway, he thought. Unlike what his colleague believed, the containers would not simply be spat out. Cedric manipulated his summon to constrict its ‘stomach’ when they neared the edge of the swarms, breaking a container even as it opened its mouth. Like the old dragons of legend, his summon breathed out a gout of something – though it was a gas instead of fire, rather lessening the effect.
The gas did its work, the Summoner was forced to admit even as he began leading the wyvern into making a long pass through the mass of undead creatures, spewing out clouds all the while. The brew attacked the necromantic constructs almost as holy water would have, eating at them and disrupting the spell holding them together – it was particularly lethal on insects, but even the birds collapsed after a heartbeat of exposure.
Yet another victory to be laid at his feet, the Summoner thought with smug satisfaction.
General Abigail figured this must be a little like how a chicken would feel, if it were still alive when you put it on a spit to roast.
Just enough movement to give you the illusion that you might make it out, when in fact you were just spinning around so that you could be roasted more evenly. Sadly still on her horse, the general hid another wince as she watched another pack of ghouls leap over the shield wall at the front and land atop the shield panels of the mage cabals, then wiggle through a weakness in them. The Third Army was being made to stand and take the bloody hits to the Sapper-General of Callow could pound the enemy into dust with her ballistas, a strategy that Abigail would admit to herself she would have been very fond of if it didn’t involve her standing so close to the killing field.
Boots, that bloody horse, seemed to have grasped that they were in it together at least until the end of the battle – it was cooperating, and had not tried to bite her in at least an hour. From that unfortunately dangerous vantage point, General Abigail watched the field. It’d been hours since the battle began, long enough that some of the mud was beginning to dry, but for all the efforts on both sides it remained a stalemate. Revenants had tried to smash the front lines a few times, but Named had met them head on and gotten the better of them. Most the time, anyway. Some devil in pale plate had killed a villain and only retreated when the band under the Silver Huntress reappeared to force him back.
It’d be a while still until sundown, Abigail figured, but there would be no clear winner today. The trouble was that even with rotations he people were getting damned tired, and the Procerans likely had it worse on their flank: half of them were mercenaries, and unlike the Dominion on the right they didn’t have the numbers to be able to keep back a reserve. It might all turn nasty, if they weren’t careful, and even with the Second Army still being held in reserve a lot of damage might happen very quickly if the left flank went sour. The trouble was that, when it came to what she could actually do to help prop up the left flank, General Abigail saw only the one option and she wasn’t exactly eager to take it.
“Might not be as bad as what happens if we wait, though,” she muttered at her horse.
She considered the risks. Gods, much as she hated to admit it doing nothing might be the more dangerous of the two. The Volignac soldiers were a hardy lot, but the mercenaries didn’t have the same stomach for the right. If some started running… Abigail still held back on doing anything until she saw the first fantassin company break, cursing and giving orders to her general staff even if the mercenary company managed to rally and return into position. It was only going to get worse the longer she waited, and with Abigail’s luck everyone up here was going to pull a runner except her own damned army.
After dismounting she gathered as many companies of heavies as she dared to pull to her and arranged for a wedge. She sent for the Third Army’s standard, picked some poor bastard to carry it into battle and waited for the orders she’d given to trickle down to the House Insurgent and the mage cabals. The change was noticeable, when it happened: from defensive to offensive. The priests struck out with mass volleys as shields winked out and were replaced by great spears of flame either.
“Gods,” Abigail faintly muttered. “How bad could it really have been, being a tanner?”
Too late to back out now, she knew. After pulling all those heavy companies to her, if she gave the command to someone else they’d turn on her for cowardice. Ah, she realized with a start, but there was a way to avoid fighting. She found the poor bastard she’d given the army standard too and sent him back to the ranks with a smile, taking it up herself. See, with that thing in hand she wouldn’t be able to use a sword so no one could expect her to – shit, Abigail, realized, she could no longer use a sword. And Keter might go after the standard to hurt morale. She’d made herself a target again.
“Are you ready, general?” Krolem asked.
They were all looking at her, Abigail saw, waiting for her order. The swallowed a whimper, which came out sound a little like a giggle. Some of her officers looked impressed.
“Forward,” General Abigail ordered. “Into the breach, Dauntless.”
For once, she was lucky: the answering roar of approval drowned out how shrilly terrified her voice had really been.