“In war and politics, we are all as men sharing the same dark cave and stumbling along blindly. The keys to victory in either matter are patience and seeing just a little further ahead than your opponents.”– Luc Monseiller, thirty-second First Prince of Procer, largely remembered for the Great War that followed his assassination
A brawl. The last blows of the battle not even an hour past, and now they were brawling.
Sometimes I sympathized with Cordelia Hasenbach, for though I had fought her tooth and nail to keep the Truce and Terms from being beyond the reach of temporal laws I didn’t entirely disagree with her when it came down to it. I bent the rules for Named all the time, didn’t I? I’d made them beyond the authority of all but two of their own kind, allowed them to wield power over others and invested them with weighty responsibilities. But sometimes, Gods sometimes, they just went and did something that made it feel like I was biting down on a mouthful of embers. I knew the names and the Names, could discern the source of this stupidity, but to understand was not to excuse.
If they’d been soldiers under my command, this would end with a flogging and a demotion. If it had been allied officers, even nobles, I would have had them removed from command and sent away. But Names were rarer than noble blood, the power they gave more highly prized than titles in these days where the end times were howling at our door, so instead I would have to be lenient. To chide and discipline, as if dealing with children instead of hardened killers empowered by Creation. What hope was there for the Liesse Accords, when not even the Dead King at our gates was enough to force reason onto us?
I wrestled my mounting fury down as I limped through the dusty grounds of our camp, knowing calm would serve me better. It was exhaustion and anger talking, I told myself. There would be good days and bad ones in the era to come and no treaty could change that. It’d never been their purpose to fix the world, for that was too ambitious a charge for anything made by my hand. The Accords would do what they were meant to, and Calernia would muddle along with a few less atrocities splattered across the pages of its history. That alone would already be a better legacy than I had any right to claim, some would say.
In the distance, as I turned a corner, I heard cheering. The Night boiled in my veins, answering the livid streak of anger that seized me, and the closest legionaries shivered. I’d sent for a full company of armed soldiers, phalanges one and all, to accompany me. They were to serve as either escort or mailed fist, depending on my orders, and my mood was feeling more and more like clenching fingers. The cheering itself wasn’t bad, it was what it meant: that Named had decided to fucking brawl in public in front of any soldier that cared to watch. On the same day as a bruising battle with the Kingdom of the Dead, our corpses not even all burned. My fingers clenched.
Well, at least one was going to be one of mine so maybe flogging wasn’t off the table yet.
It was with that hard stomp particular to soldiers meaning business that my company entered the picture. A large crowd of soldiers – a few hundred, a thousand? – had gathered in a great ring. By their looks and armour they were from half a dozen different armies and oaths, a clean slice of our coalition shouting hoarsely as five Named brawled and coin changed hands. A quiet fell in the immediate surroundings of the phalanges, soldiers paling and hastily getting out of the way of authority having come to call. There was just enough of a quiet I finally made out one particular thread from the cacophony. An old ditty I’d learned as kid in Laure, beautifully sung by a cold-blooded monster.
“Maiden Mary, fair and merry
Your tears make poets sigh
But for a smile given sweetly
Tall banners will kiss the sky.”
The Rapacious Troubadour had a nasty sense of humour, it seemed. ‘Maiden Mary’ was a children’s song, but it dated back to the War of the Cousins – the civil war that’d put on the throne the same branch of House Fairfax that my father had later ended – and the Mary in question was Mary the Claimant. Queen Mary the Third, most scholars called her, as her Eastern Bells had won over the Southern Bells just long enough for her toddler son to die a crowned king and another cousin succeed him. I would have been impressed about the Troubadour knowing the song at all, if he’d not also been the same shit playing a song about civil war while Named fought in front of a crowd of rowdy soldiers.
There was blood on the floor, I saw, but at least no one was dead yet. Archer and the Silver Huntress were both bleeding, and I knew the look in Indrani’s eyes – she’d take a killing stroke without hesitation if she got the opportunity. The Silent Guardian and the Headhunter were both in better shape, the Guardian having nothing but marks on her plate while the Headhunter had suffered only a small cut on their cheek. The only voice of sanity in there was Roland, even now trying to force everyone apart and largely failing.
“- settles nothing,” I caught the Rogue Sorcerer saying. “You are only making it worse for-“
“Do it to ’em, Lady Archer,” someone with a heavy Liessen accent shouted. “Callow! The Sword and Crown!”
“Huntress,” an Alamans accent shouted back. “For grace and Heavens, Silver Huntress!”
The crowd roared, the crowd cheered, and the Rapacious Troubadour was still playing that fucking song.
“Maiden Mary, bright and lovely
What groom did you embrace?
Hand in hand, wooing roughly
Your troth is kingdom’s grace.”
Enough was enough. The mood might still be more joyous than bloody at the moment, but crowds were mercurial beasts – this could turn sour very, very quickly. I was still damned winded from the gates Akua and I had opened, but not so spent I couldn’t muster a resounding thunderclap when I struck the ground with the butt of my staff. The clap rolled across the ring, drowning out even the cheers, and I limped forward as the phalanges roughly shoved aside the few onlookers and gambled still in my way.
“Disperse,” I said, voice cold as steel. “Now, and I will not bother with arrests.”
A shiver went through the crowd, though my eye was on the fighting Named – which had ceased actively trying to stab each other, but were still close and holding weapons – and the mood was doused rather comprehensively. I’d half-expected someone to protest and to have to make an example, but instead already the edges of the crowd were fraying as people made quiet escapes. Like a crumbling stone, the whole ring would fall apart before long. There was a flicker of remembrance, just as the edge of my mind, as I recalled when I’d been a slip of a girl in Laure and I’d watched Black empty a hall’s worth of lords with but a handful of words. I’d sworn, that evening, that one day I’d have that power too.
It had taken years, but I’d gotten there. I wondered, though, what that wary wild girl from the orphanage would think of the woman I’d grown into. I thinly smiled, knowing that she might well have added me to the list of monsters in need of killing.
“Queen Catherine,” Roland started, “this is-“
“Utter stupidity,” I mildly said. “But your role in it was minor and well-meant. Walk back to your tent, Rogue Sorcerer.”
He caught my eyes, for a moment, and whatever it was he saw there it told him not to argue. My gaze lingered long enough to acknowledge his bow, then moved to the four remaining Named. I couldn’t see the Silent Guardian’s face under her helmet, but her stance was sheepish. As for the Headhunter, they – no, he if I understood the face paint correctly – looked rather unapologetic and entirely unembarrassed. He had an excuse for butting in, then, I decided. Which left the two who would have been the spark for the entire mess. Archer and the Silver Huntress.
“Who struck first?” I asked.
“She did,” the Huntress said, her high-pitched voice grown shrill with anger.
“I scored first blood,” Indrani dismissed. “You swung at me first, Alexis.”
“That is true,” the Headhunter jeered. “On both counts. And the Guardian couldn’t resist backing up her friend, could she? Hardly sporting, two on one.”
My gaze returned to Silent Guardian, who took off her helm and revealed a tanned and dark-haired head. While she looked like she rather wanted to smash in the Headhunter’s skull, to me she bowed in apology.
“You only intervened after blood was drawn?” I clarified.
She nodded. I hummed, eyeing the Headhunter.
“And you intervened out of your abiding love for fairness, I take it?” I mused.
“You have me pegged,” the Headhunter grinned.
“You tried to stab me in the back, you-“
The word the Huntress used was in tradertalk, but by the tone it wasn’t a compliment.
“You’re both dismissed,” I said, ignoring the Huntress. “For having participated in a brawl, you’re both docked pay for five months and you’ll be assigned menial work under an officer of my choosing.”
The Headhunter glared at me, opening his mouth, but his gazed dipped to my side – where my fingers, without my notice, had taken to clenching and unclenching. His mouth closed.
“Dismissed,” I coldly repeated.
The Silent Guardian offered a bow first, which I returned with a nod. The Headhunter did not go quite as politely, elbowing some of the last remaining soldiers in his way as he went. Of the Rapacious Troubadour there was no sign, I noted. The clever little shit had made good on his escape before I could rap his knuckles. Indrani and the Huntress were still facing each other weapons in hand, long knives for Archer and the spear for her old acquaintance. I cocked an eyebrow.
“Is there a particular reason you two are still holding weapons?” I mildly asked.
I saw Indrani suppress a wince. She knew better than the Huntress that particular tone of voice did not herald a good mood on my part.
“If she puts away her blades,” the Silver Huntress began, “I will-“
“If I must make it an order, Alexis the Argent,” I lightly interrupted, “I might just lose my temper and fucking drum the two of you of this army before the eyes of gods and men.”
With a quiet sliding sound, Indrani’s long knives went back into the sheaths. I turned a dark eye on her: she’d timed that, I knew, just so that the Huntress would look like a recalcitrant malcontent and she the obedient subordinate. Unlucky for her, I wasn’t buying it. The Silver Huntress blinked in discomfort, then reluctantly stabbed her spear into the ground. She folded her arms over her chest, looking rather defensive.
“I’m going to ask you two questions,” I said. “You will reply to them calmly and concisely, without interrupting each other.”
I got nod. Indrani’s almost playful, as if it were set in stone she’d get out of this without losing any feathers. My irritation spiked.
“Huntress, why did you attack an ally?” I bluntly asked.
She grimaced, though I’d wager more from the phrasing than remembrance of the punch thrown. The Lady of the Lake had not raised those girls to shame easily.
“She got Lysander killed,” Alexis the Argent harshly said. “Same old story: Indrani has a lark and one of us bleeds for it. Only this time it didn’t stop with bleeding.”
The anger in her voice was a hard, cold thing. I found the hate threaded in it unsettling, as it was too strong to be a fresh – this was an old poison, just brought to the fore with a fresh wound.
“I assigned her to the Third Army myself,” I evenly said. “And by the reports I’ve read, she fulfilled her duties admirably. As for the death of Beastmaster, I understand she fought and had an arm broken trying to prevent it.”
The Silver Huntress’ eyes hardened, turning to Archer.
“Ranger, Black Queen, it makes no difference,” Alexis bitterly said. “You’ll always find skirts to hide behind, won’t you?”
“Say that again,” Indrani hissed, hand going for a knife.
“Watch your tongue, Huntress,” I sharply said. “And Archer, I ordered you not to interrupt. Don’t make me repeat myself again.”
She looked mulish but did not argue. She’d been more interested in protecting her pride than my ‘honour’ there, I thought, so my sympathy was limited. I felt a faint breeze against my neck, gone in a moment, but did not let it distract me.
“Archer,” I said. “You were struck with a fist. Why did you answer it with a knife?”
Indrani’s lips thinned.
“I was insulted beyond reasonable expectation of restraint,” she said.
“You lying-” Huntress began.
My anger, never far, burned cold and sharp as once more an order I’d given within my rights was disobeyed. This, this I was done tolerating. The breeze came back, but it’d never been a breeze at all: it was a breath. Warm, coming through an open maw.
“Be silent,” I Spoke.
The Silver Huntress fought it. But as the Beast leaned over my shoulder, hacking out a laugh, even as she struggled her mouth snapped shut. I felt a vicious twinge of satisfaction that I did not indulge, but did not ignore. Archer’s face was slack with surprise.
“The two of you are damned disgraces,” I said. “On the same day where thousands fought and died turning back the Enemy, you attacked each other like drunken bulls before we’d even finished burning the corpses. Shame on you both.”
Indrani reared back like I’d slapped her. With a twist of will, I peeled back the order I’d Spoken at the Huntress. Her lips parted and she breathed out in pants.
“Huntress, you are no longer commander for the heroes in this army,” I said. “The Rogue Sorcerer, who tried to put an end to this bout of idiocy, will take your place. The White Knight will handle the rest of your disciplining. I offer him this as a courtesy, but should you break the Truce again I will have no choice but to cease being polite.”
My eyes moved to the other offender.
“Your pay is docked for this entire campaign,” I told Archer. “You are not to speak with any hero outside of official duties without the explicit permission of the Rogue Sorcerer or myself. If you draw a blade on an ally again, I’ll send you south like the child you insist on acting as.”
Her hands clenched, but she stayed silent.
“You’ve also lost the right to refuse assignments for six months,” I finally said. “You’ll be accompanying the Firstborn on the raid tonight, so return to your tent and prepare.”
Both of them glared at me sullenly, in that heartbeat eerily resembling each other for all their starkly different appearances. Grief was a bitter brew, I knew that better than most, and they were both fresh off the death of someone they’d cared for in a very complicated way. I understood why it’d come to this, I really did. But I was also a high officer of the Grand Alliance, sworn to enforce the Truce and Terms – which they had just broken in a spectacularly public and untimely manner. My duty was clear, and my anger not faked in the slightest. I stared them both down until they left, not bothering with a proper dismissal. The moment they left the Beast brushed against my shoulder, almost affectionately, and without a single lingering wisp it was gone.
I could Speak again, I knew. It hadn’t been a fluke. I could feel the way my will once more struck against Creation like a queen’s decree. One step closer, I thought, and breathed out. To what I did not yet know, but the shape I was beginning to discern was not unpleasant to my eye.
“Bleed them,” I ordered the Firstborn. “Under this moon, your only mandate is the reaping of deaths.”
With nightfall had come our opportunity to savage the Dead King’s forces badly enough that tomorrow’s fighting would be the final stroke of annihilation. The Twilight Ways would allow the drow the harass the enemy’s camp on the other side of the pass from every direction, all the while staying out of the jaws of the trap that’d been sprung on us the previous night: here would be no wards to keep us penned in, this time. Only skirmishes in the manner that’d been the lifeblood of the Everdark for a millennium, perhaps the only manner of war in which the Firstborn could be said to be the most accomplished of all Calernian peoples. And out the sigils went, under the command of Ivah and its subordinate sigil-holders.
We went with them, a band of Named under my own lead. Archer, naturally, for I meant to keep her out of trouble and the camp for a span. To some a place in such a raid was considered a prize and so I awarded it accordingly: the Vagrant Spear came with us and the Headhunter as well. Roland I’d dragged along mostly on account of his expertise in breaking magics, knowing it was never wise to bet on Keter not having that one last trick up its sleeve. The choices had also been a balancing act, which naturally some noticed.
“I’m sure it’s just a coincidence,” Archer sardonically murmured, “that your picks are even on both sides of the fence. Ever the diplomat, eh?”
It was not an approving tone. Even the band was a good one, well-fitted, I suspected that in her eyes politics having had a say in making it tainted it irremediably.
“Are you complaining I’m calming waters you helped unsettle?” I replied.
“I didn’t pick that fight,” Indrani told me flatly.
“You still fought it,” I said. “You could have taken the lump, walked away.”
Her face tightened with genuine anger.
“I don’t owe you that,” she said. “I don’t owe anyone that.”
“Then spare me the comments,” I curtly replied. “I’ll take shit for you, Indrani, but I won’t take it from you as well. If you want to talk of things owed, best remember that.”
Not the most pleasant exchanges to precede going into battle, though only Roland seemed to notice the tension between us as we sidled through the Twilight Ways. He did not ask, that very Alamans instinct for discerning when a question would not be well-received sparing me the irritation of having to offer even a cursory explanation. Before long we were back in Creation, anyhow, and the raid claimed everyone’s full attention. I’d left the command in Ivah’s hand, knowing my Lord of Silent Steps was perfectly capable of leading sigils in war without my breathing down its neck, so I had the freedom to pick where I wanted to meddle. I had some thoughts already.
I rather itched to get rid of the Pale Knight, if it could be done without paying a ruinous price.
That plan went the way of dust, though, the moment we emerged from the Ways and found that the enemy was retreating. The pass was still in the hands of undead forces, and if anything the northern end of the passage was more heavily defended than before, but we’d come out to the north of the enemy’s camp – in the flat plains between Lauzon’s Hollow and the Cigelin Sisters – so it was impossible to miss that there were departing columns. I sharpened my eyes with Night, seeking numbers. Maybe ten to twenty thousand massed to hold the pass in case we struck overnight, but the rest were mobilizing to leave. Hells, there were already scouting detachments north of us in the distance.
“Leaving?” the Headhunter sneered. “Fools. We’ll catch up through the Ways.”
She – it was she, tonight – would have been right if our soldiers were things of stone instead of flesh and blood, but it wasn’t the case.
“I’m not sure we can,” the Rogue Sorcerer replied. “Not after today’s battle.”
One of these days, I was going to have to ask Roland exactly what kind of an upbringing had forged a man like him. He was surprisingly well learned in a variety of subjects, including quite a few that mages in the Praesi mold would have considered beneath their notice.
“He’s right,” I said. “Our army’s fit to battle, tomorrow, but not to march.”
Practically speaking parts of the army would be – the Second Army and the Proceran detachments freshly returned, as well as a healthy chunk of the Dominion’s warriors – but it’d be risky to engage in pursuit with low numbers and it’d leave the force behind us very vulnerable. Unlike us, though, the Dead King did not have to give a shit about wounded or exhaustion or supplies. He could just order the march. There were three days between the Sisters and Lauzon’s Hollow, so if we took a day to recuperate and immediately marched maybe we’d arrive at the Sisters before he did. Maybe. But it’d be risky. If the Cigelin Sisters had been reinforced, we might end up walking into a positional disaster.
“Then what is to be our purpose this night, Black Queen?” the Vagrant Spear asked.
I chewed on my lip. I wasn’t comfortable risking a night battle with Keter, even assuming I could muster enough of my army to wage one alongside the Firstborn. That left only one logical move.
“We’ll not be hunting Revenants, after all,” I said. “Damage is our purpose. We thin their numbers as much as we can – Binds over Bones, constructs over anything else. We avoid Revenants unless they’re alone and keep close as a band. Understood?”
Archer, even after our terse exchange, remained entirely dependable.
“Understood,” Indrani replied, stringing her bow.
“We hunt,” the Vagrant Spear agreed.
Roland sighed, offering a nod, and the Headhunter rolled her eyes.
“I’ll take a kill if it’s offered,” she insisted.
“By all means,” I mildly replied. “Though if you disobey my order I will, naturally, discipline you accordingly.”
The Levantine villain met my eyes and I smiled thinly. I’d killed harder women than her, and without too much trouble. After a moment she nodded.
“Good,” I said. “Let’s get to it, then.”
It’d be a stretch to say that what followed was boring – the danger might be limited, but it still existed – but it did get… repetitive. And it was dull from the start. Moving on foot we struck hard at the enemy’s columns, targeting Binds and the occasional constructs or supplies before retreating back into the Twilight ways and popping out elsewhere. We were quick enough no Revenants came even close to approaching us, though part of that must have been from the Firstborn being a larger and significantly more damaging threat. We saw, maybe two hours in, that things were actually turning starkly in favour of the drow.
Mighty were burning entire swaths of the enemy with impunity and casualties were mounting among the dead with only paltry costs to the Firstborn. Some of the sigils got too bold, though, it cost them. Revenants, at first, but the struck sigil doubled down and called allies – only for the Grey Legion finally to make an appearance. It was a major enough development that I parted ways form my band temporarily and called a sigil-holder to me for a report. Lord Soln bowed deep, but talked briskly. It wanted to return to the fray.
“The ironclads unmake the Night, Losara Queen, much as the carved pillars did during our previous raid,” Lord Soln said. “It appears they have also been invested with a ward that prevents access to the Twilight Ways. That surprise was… costly. Between them and the Revenants, we were forced to pull back.”
“Give me a look,” I ordered, extending a hand.
The sphere of Night was promptly offered and my damning suspicions were confirmed. I’d seen the Grey Legion before, those hulking dead encased in armour so thick it more of a rampart. Those armours had been well-maintained and quite distinctive, so it was easy to tell that the Grey Legion had been quite recently refitted. So that’s what you got out of this, Neshamah, I thought. You tested the pillars and wards on our Firstborn, and when they proved effective you used that Crab lurking around somewhere to refit your Grey Legion into drow-killers. It wouldn’t matter much here, where we could harass away from their ranks and avoid them, but there would come a time in this campaign when the drow would have to stand and fight.
And when they did, the Prince of Bones and his legion tailored to kill Firstborn would be waiting for them.
“Go,” I told Soln. “Return to the fight. Pass my order that the Grey Legion is to be avoided, lest we allow the enemy to further refine ways to kill us.”
It was worse than those troops just being a hard counter to drow, I knew. It also meant that two of the three assets we had at hand that could possibly deal with the Grey Legion without horrendous casualties – namely Akua and myself – had just been made equally obsolete. Some tricks would work to a limited extent, like flood gates, but I wasn’t confident in smashing them by myself anymore. And our last answer to their kind, the Blessed Artificer, worked exclusively in Light. I was not so confident that the Dead King did not have something to counteract that as well, considering how much he’d invested in building up this army. Fuck.
Unpleasant as the revelation was, there was nothing to do but to continue our raiding. I returned to my band and we resumed our attacks, continuing to inflict bloody noses wherever we went until around Early Bell. We were all beginning to slow, close calls were getting closer and victories getting sloppier, so I called it at an end. The Firstborn remained until a full hour before dawn, only then retreating into the Twilight Ways. I slept for as long as I dared, which wasn’t much, and woke all too soon to be presented with corpses. Named and Revenants, this time. I took two aspects from the Beastmaster before it grew unfeasible to do more, but unfortunately I did not have the rights to the Sage’s body.
The way the Headhunter took heads from the foes they defeated fucked with my ability to steal aspects, I discovered with displeasure after a very frustrating hour pawing at Revenants fruitlessly, but I still got two out of the kill the Vagrant Spear had made. Disappointingly weak, those two, but I was never one to sneer at having another artefact up my sleeve. When the war council held session afterwards, once more with the full roster, there was no real disagreement over the decisions to be made. The morning’s scouting parties and found Lauzon’s Hollow abandoned, so we’d send out Named to smell out the traps no doubt left behind and after them a forward force to hold the end of the pass.
The full army would only begin moving tomorrow at dawn, when we took to the Twilight Ways in an attempt to catch up to the enemy. If we were lucky, our surprise strike would seize the Cigelin Sisters before the enemy arrived and we’d be able to pincer the Dead King between the fortress and our field army. If not, we’d have to get… inventive. There were still too many unknowns for a proper battle plan to be made, unfortunately.
There was a bit of a commotion before Noon Bell when the Gigantes delegation finally caught up to us, but the giants were polite and it did wonders for morale. I was sent a polite yet firm reminder that the Gigantes would not fight unless attacked, and could not be used as war casters by my order, but I had no qualms with that. Just as ward-makers they’d be worth a dozen times their weight in gold, which would be no small sum. The Gigantes, though, had been largely expected. I’d known they were coming from the messages received from Neustal. When there was once more a commotion at a sudden appearance though, it came as a genuine surprise to me. I figured it might have been an early supply convoy, at first, but Hakram swiftly send a phalange to inform me otherwise.
It was Scribe herself who escorted the surprise arrival into my tent, helping him into the chair with surprising gentleness. I dismissed her with a look afterwards – Hakam I’d trust with such a conversation, but she was not Hakram.
“Catherine,” the Grey Pilgrim greeted me tiredly.
Tariq looked a month past exhausted and all too frail even for a man of his age, which did not bode well. He was also supposed to be with Prince Klaus’ army, which boded significantly worse.
“Tariq,” I quietly replied. “Can I offer you a drink?”
I did not bother to ask if something had gone wrong, for he’d not be here otherwise. To my surprise, he took me up on my offer.
“Something stiff,” Tariq Fleetfoot asked. “It will keep me awake long enough to get through this conversation, at least. I’ve not slept in weeks.”
I silently revised my estimate of the trouble from ‘pretty bad’ to ‘fuck’ as I poured him a full glass of brandy and pressed it into his hand. He drank deep and offered thanks.
“We finally learned why the army in Juvelun did not chase us when we marched past it towards Malmedit,” the Grey Pilgrim told me.
“Did you,” I said, already grimacing.
“We also found that missing army of two hundred thousand,” the Peregrine mirthlessly smiled. “It was, after all, waiting for us in the latter city.”