“Fear is the prerequisite to any genuine learning; anything that can be learnt without questioning the foundations of your world is essentially decorative.”– Dread Emperor Sorcerous
It was easy to forget that the Grey Pilgrim was, for all the power of his Name and the favour of the Ophanim, very much mortal. An old man with an old man’s frailties, whose relentless march towards my camp had brought to the brink of collapse. His loose grey robes looked half made of dust and even drabber than usual, his rheumy blue were clouded with exhaustion. It made me uncomfortable to look at, someone of that strength so openly at the end of their rope. His brandy was sipped at carefully and he declined my offer of sending for a warm meal, claiming that exhausted as he was he’d probably retch it right out. After gathering his bearings some, the Peregrine needed no prompting to begin speaking.
“The campaign went well, at first,” Tariq said. “The Enemy’s raids were heavy and sustained, but we held strong through the days and the nights belonged to the Firstborn.”
I’d poured myself a cup of brandy as well before dropping back into my seat. I had a feeling I was going to need a stiff drink before this conversation came to an end, and maybe second when it had.
“The last messenger I got from your column told me the army was preparing to pass Juvelun,” I said.
The Iron Prince’s part of the campaign plan had been relatively straightforward, when it came down to it. His smaller column – fifty-four thousand to my seventy – had left days earlier than mine from one of our defensive strongholds to the east of Neustal, just north of the town of Cassain. It’d then quickly advanced north along the old mining roads. Our intention had been for Prince Klaus’ army to draw the undead army at the town of Juvelun into battle, as the town sat over a passage through the hills towards the central valley where the capital lay, the army holding it also being the undead force closest to said capital.
Unfortunately the army in question had refused to leave Juvelun, instead remaining in a dug-in and defensible position that it would be difficult for Prince Klaus’ numerically inferior army to invest. We’d anticipated that was a possibility, though, and planned accordingly. To the north, further up the mining road, lay the city of Malmedit. To the Dead King it was a place of some strategic importance, as the mine shafts surrounding the city had been connected to tunnels he’d had dug through the northern hills and he now used Malmedit as a major staging area to pour warbands into the lowlands of Hainaut.
If the Iron Prince made it to Malmedit he could collapse the tunnels, which would be a significant setback for Keter. Knowing that, our working assumption had been that if Prince Klaus’ army kept marching north towards the city the undead army in Juvelun would have to engage him: the Dead King would just be pissing away his eastern road into Hainaut otherwise. Yet we had, it seemed, made a grievous mistake along the way.
“The plan seemed a success for the first few days of the march on Malmedit,” the Peregrine said. “Raiding parties began harassing our supply lines, and though young Hanno kept them open sword in hand our generals believed this to be the prelude to an enemy attack against our back.”
The old man paused, pressing down an errant tuft of white hair from the sparse crown around his head and sipping at his brandy.
“Yet the days passed,” the Grey Pilgrim said, “and that attack failed to take place.”
I grimaced. That’d be the point where I would have smelled a trap, so I refused to believe that a commander as experienced as the Prince of Hannoven had not.
“I’m guessing he ordered a heavy war party forward as reconnaissance,” I said.
Suspicious as he would be, Prince Klaus wouldn’t have turned back at the first suspicion. The Dead King could have been bluffing, or simply writing off Malmedit as a lost cause while focusing his attention elsewhere. In his place I would have encamped relatively close to the force I knew I could handle in a pitched battle – the Juvelun army – and sent out a strong contingent to probe the enemy’s defenses ahead.
“Six thousand horse,” Tariq agreed. “With the Witch of the Woods as magical muscle and two champions to escort her. One day shy of Malmedit itself they ran into the enemy’s own vanguard.”
I drank from my cup, fingers tight around the silver. With horses and that calibre of sorcery on their side, they would have gotten away mostly clean. It was the strategic situation being described that had me aghast. The Grey Pilgrim had earlier intimated that the army two hundred thousand we’d thought in the far north of the principality had been the one waiting for our eastern column in Malmedit, which meant pressing an attack forward against it would have been suicide. The Iron Prince would suddenly have found himself stuck between a massive force to the north and a smaller one to the southwest, the latter even being able to cut his supply lines if it was willing to bleed for it – and when was Keter ever unwilling to bleed?
“How bad was it?” I grimly asked.
“Even using the Twilight Ways, the war party only returned quickly enough to give us two days of forewarning,” the old man said.
Which sounded like a lot, if you’d never commanded an army. But I had and so I knew they were ungainly, lumbering things. Especially when being made to turn around.
“You retreated, I assume,” I slowly said.
“That was our intent,” Tariq said. “Until the Young Slayer and the Harrowed Witch found an enemy raiding party to our south yet strangely heading away from the army, further south. They followed it down and-“
My eyes narrowed. The pieces were falling into place.
“- found the dead dismantling the mining road,” I finished quietly.
The old man nodded. So that’d been Neshamah’s game: by ripping up the road, he was making sure that even if the Iron Prince’s army tried to march back to our defensive lines it’d be slowed enough that his large ambush army marching south from Malmedit would be able to catch up to it. That left only the Twilight Ways as a way out, but even that was… risky. Not on a tactical level, I meant. With two days of warning, an evacuation would be quite possible: so long as he wasn’t under attack, with a pharos device Prince Klaus should be able to shift his entire army into the Ways in a few hours. On a strategic level, though, his disappearance could lead to a disaster.
If the Iron Prince bailed on the eastern theatre of our campaign entirely, there would be nothing standing between a massive army of two hundred thousand – maybe even three hundred thousand, if the army in Juvelun joined forces when it passed near – and our dangerously bare defensive lines. Our reserve was already marching on the Cigelin Sisters, meaning all that was left there was the reinforcements from Daoine under Vivienne and a fresh wave of Proceran conscripts. Klaus could instead take his army back to our defensive lines, but if he did then he was leaving my column out to hang: all enemy armies would converge on my army and even with the Ways there was no possible way for him to reinforce me in time.
He read us like a book, I admitted to myself. The Dead King had seen us coming and now we were being made to bleed for it. I couldn’t even claim that at least that fucking surprise army in Malmedit had flushed out Keter’s hidden hand: we’d found that missing force, sure, but only after the other force of one hundred and fifty thousand in Luciennerie had vanished into thin air. The wily old monster had managed to keep the story of his ‘hidden threat’ going even after revealing another hidden threat – he’d baked a second cake while eating the first one, so he quite literally got to eat his cake and have it too. Gods but I hated fighting the fucking Dead King.
Tariq had kept silently sipping at his drink, letting me wrestle my thoughts into place, but when he saw my attention fully return to him he set the cup down.
“And after?” I simply asked.
I’d been able to make decent guesses as to what the Iron Prince would have done until then, with the benefit of multiple sources of information and insight, but now we were out in the wilds. I’d never fought the old prince on the field, and records of his campaigns against the ratlings and the dead were near nonexistent – Lycaonese marked only victories, defeats and tallies of the dead. Anything else was considered pettily boastful. And while the Iron Prince’s victories during the Great War were much better known, they’d been won waging a very different sort of war. I wasn’t sure what I would have done in his place, much less what would have gone through the Prince of Hannoven’s mind at that crossroads.
“A war council was called,” Tariq said. “And after some debate, it was agreed on that the wisest course would be to attack the enemy army in Juvelun to break through.”
My brow rose and I forced myself to think. I could see the sense in it, squinting a bit, from his point of view. Assuming my column broke through with swift victories at the Cigelin Sisters and Lauzon’s Hollow, seizing Juvelun would allow us to link our armies in the central valley of Hainaut. The undead army from Malmedit would still be able to march south on our defences, but at that point our unified force could answer by leaving a strong garrison at Cigelin and then outmarch that army of the dead through the Ways. A neat trick, turning the destruction of the mining road against those who’d done it. Sure he’d take losses taking Juvelun from pushing out the dead, an uncomfortable amount of them, but it would salvage the strategic situation.
The problem was that Klaus Papenheim didn’t know that the army in Luciennerie had disappeared: I’d tried to send messengers, but I very much doubted they’d made it through the gauntlet the Grey Pilgrim had described. Another army had vanished into thin air, and rubies to piglets that it was going to reappear near the capital around the time we finally took the Sisters. You know, right between a bloodied Papenheim and my own forces as the even larger Malmedit army marched on the Iron Prince’s back. That was going to turn into a bloody, ruinous mess.
“You were there for the battle?” I asked.
“I left before,” Tariq said. “Of all our Bestowed it was agreed I had the best chance of making it to you unharmed and in good time, so the duty fell to me. The battle for Juvelun will have taken place by now, but the outcome is known to neither myself nor the Ophanim.”
I slowly nodded.
“You arrived in time,” I admitted. “What you just told me will influence our pace quite a bit: I can no longer afford to take my time wiping out the remains of the enemy here and reducing the Sisters if the other column is in danger of a wipeout. We’ll have to hurry forward.”
Which was compounding risks with risk, I grimly thought. Already the Iron Prince had rolled the dice on taking Juvelun, and now I was going to have to rush taking Cigelin or his efforts might be in vain. The illusion of control we’d had when this campaign had begun, that bold armada of plans and schemes, was now dead and buried. We’d gained tactical victories but we were headed towards a strategic disaster. The only way to salvage this now was to push forward and through. If we don’t, all that’s left is measuring the scale of the losses we’ll incur. I drained the rest of my cup, letting the warmth pour down my throat, and set the silver down.
Gods, silver. Who would have thought I’d end up drinking in that one day, when I’d first started sneaking sips of beer at the- I froze. Oh, oh. Fuck me, I’d had the clues all along hadn’t I? I knew the movements, I even knew how the enemy thought of us. I’d just not put them together, taken that last step.
“It’s a rat trap,” I murmured.
Limpid blue eyes narrowed at me, the exhausted old man turning back into the Peregrine in a heartbeat. The marks of bone-deep weariness were still there, but the flame had lit again.
“Explain,” Tariq demanded.
“Back when I worked in a tavern,” I said, “the owner would make these little rectangular boxes with the front almost open and bread at the end. It’d have a ‘door’ angled like this-“
I formed a roof with one palm, and angled another palm inwards to represent the door.
“- so that the rats would go after the bread and push the door up a bit. Only when they were inside the box-“
“They found the ‘door’ couldn’t be pushed to let them out, as the wood only bent one way,” the Grey Pilgrim quietly interrupted. “I’ve seen their like before, they are used in Levant as well.”
“That bridge up north is our bread,” I said. “It’s not fake, I wouldn’t think. If it does get built we’re in a load of trouble, and we might actually lose this war the regular way. But that’s not why the Dead King built it.”
“He wanted us to enter the trap,” Tariq said.
He wasn’t getting it, though, I could hear it in his voice. A trap was a trap, to him, and it’d never been in doubt we’d fallen for one. I spelled it out more bluntly for him.
“You don’t make a rat trap to protect the bread, Pilgrim,” I said. “You make it to kill the rat.”
The old man frowned.
“He means to destroy our armies,” the Grey Pilgrim slowly said. “The battles, the bridge, even the capital – none of it means anything to him. Even if he loses all of Hainaut, so long as our armies are destroyed he doesn’t care.”
“It’s all expendable,” I agreed. “The army that disappeared from Luciennerie could be assaulting our defence lines around now, with an even larger army headed down the mining road to attack the eastern strongholds – with our own armies so far, and kept in the dark by lack of scrying, he might actually have had a shot at breaking through and into Brabant. But he didn’t even try, because what he wants is to trap us in the central valley and annihilate us. Not in one big battle where the odds are so utterly stacked against him-“
Which we’d probably win, given the amount of heroes in our ranks.
“- but in smaller engagements that will bleed us dry, be they victories or defeats,” Tariq muttered.
He didn’t disagree with my assessment, finger circling the rim of his cup.
“But why the sudden obsession with the armies in Hainaut?” he finally asked. “What changed?”
I’d been wondering the same thing.
“The Gigantes came up on our side,” I tried.
“Not in force,” Tariq said. “They commit to help, not alliance.”
“He might not know that,” I said.
“Might is a thin foundation to build on,” the Peregrine said. “Perhaps the Hierophant’s work in the Arsenal?”
“It might spook him into coming after us this hard,” I admitted. “Masego knows a lot more about him than can be comfortable for the likes of the Dead King. But the secrecy around Quartered Seasons was well-kept, Tariq. We were paranoid, and there’s been breaches but I don’t believe Malicia got through and so he should still be largely blind.”
The Peregrine smiled sadly.
“You fight the Bard, Catherine,” he said. “Neither walls nor locks nor oaths are enough to keep her from learning secrets if she wishes to know them.”
“You think she sold us out to the Dead King?” I skeptically said. “If there’s one person I’d buy she wouldn’t sell us out to, it’d be him. What would she even-“
I froze the dreadful thought that came all too soon. The Grey Pilgrim sighed.
“So he comes after us with his entire hateful might,” Tariq said. “So we suffer a stinging defeat at his hands and, like children in the dark, we pray for deliverance by our own guardian angel.”
I rose to pour myself a second goddamn drink, and when the Pilgrim silently extended his own empty cup I filled it without qualms.
“I thought you trusted her,” I finally said.
“I did,” Tariq tiredly said. “And now I don’t. If you live long enough, Catherine, you will find that time warps even the bonds you believed unshakable. And that we are never so wise as we think, even when we believe ourselves to be fools.”
I held my tongue, even though it would have been pretty easy to stick a dagger or two in him now considering how badly we’d butted heads over the Intercessor over the years. It’d been a rough year for everyone, and there was no need for allies to make it worse.
“I got the shivers when you said that,” I finally said, “and it makes me sick to even consider. So I’d tend to think you read this right. But he’s not coming at us with his full might, Tariq. I’ve seen the battles up north he wages against the drow, and they’re…”
I blew out a breath. In the back of my mind old words came to me as a harsh refrain. Where are the devils, Catherine? the Intercessor had once asked me. Where are the hosts that darken the skies, and the demons he has kept leashed for centuries? Where are the rituals that poison the land and the sorceries never before seen?
“Well, he’s pulling out tricks there we haven’t seen down here,” I said. “And I know he has more: we haven’t seen either devils or demons yet, for one, and he’s perfectly capable of calling on both.”
The old man shook his head.
“He cannot use either,” Tariq said. “It would represent too steep an increase in strength on his side of the scales, Catherine. Providence would allow us to bridge the gap, and the last thing the Dead King wants is a war of equals with such power in play: it would put his forces at a genuine risk of annihilation.”
The Grey Pilgrim leaned back into his seat.
“He has been most careful to limit his efforts to grinding us into dust by attrition for good reason,” Tariq continued. “It is a method of victory that involves very little risk for him and has proved difficult to handle.”
I frowned. That… held up somewhat, I supposed. I honestly wasn’t sure what providence would be able to spit out to even the odds, but arguably that was rather the point. I’d known for a long time there was a risk to villains winning by too large or obvious a margin – invincibility as a prelude to failure, my father had once phrase it – but I’d not considered that on the scale the Pilgrim had. It was the crusading mindset, I supposed. It was not only battles and Named that had a story, but the crusade itself. It was what I knew of the Dead King’s rise to power that had me inclined to believe the Peregrine: carefulness had always been his priority back then, even if it meant slowing his advance.
He’d always preferred giving his enemies no opening to swift victories.
“This changes things,” I finally said.
He wetted his lips, sipping at the brandy.
“Does it?” the Peregrine asked. “Retreating serves no purpose. We are committed to war, even knowing his intentions are different than we’d expected.”
I went rifling through my pockets for my pipe, the long shaft of dragonbone that Masego had gifted me years ago comforting to the touch. A packet of wakeleaf, still from the White Knight’s gift, was carefully stuffed and I lit the leaf by tapping a finger against the rim and letting black flames slither in. I breathed in deep, the acrid smoke filling my lungs before I breathed out a long stream of it upwards.
“If it’s our armies that are in his sights, it means he’s gotten sloppy elsewhere,” I said. “His resources aren’t unlimited, and while it might seem like this trap has been years in the making I’d wager it’s a lot more hastily assembled than that.”
“The Intercessor would not have wanted him to win cleanly, that is true,” the Pilgrim mused. “The more costly the victory to him the better, in her eyes, and that means a warning as late as she could feasibly give it.”
I grunted in agreement, pulling at my pipe and blowing out a ring of smoke.
“We thought he’d guard that bridge up north like it was his own baby,” I said, “but I’d wager it’s been stripped clean. Sure we still can’t account for the Luciennerie army, but it can’t teleport – there’s no way it could have gone all the way up there so quickly.”
“You’re suggesting a raid,” Tariq said, sounding genuinely surprised.
“I am,” I replied. “First we’ll need to reunite with Prince Klaus’ army, but when do I believe we need to send at least one band of five up north to demolish that bridge. We won’t get that opportunity twice.”
“You suggest sending away five Bestowed, and they would have to be among our most powerful to have a real chance of succeeding, before a series of battle that promise to be the decisive clash of this war,” the Pilgrim slowly said. “That is… bold.”
Which meant he’d wanted to say foolish, I amusedly thought, but my favourable record against him had earned a more diplomatic phrasing.
“We can argue the point later,” I dismissed, “but I’d be a mistake to find out at this late hour we lack the stomach to take opportunities when they are afforded us. Regardless, we now need to move forward as quickly as we can and link with Prince Klaus’ column. If you rest through the rest of the day, will you be fighting fit tomorrow?”
“A few hours will have me back on my feet,” Tariq hesitatingly said. “I have never needed much sleep, and less so after I was blessed with the friendship of the Ophanim.”
He kept hesitating, so I cocked an eyebrow at him. It finally moved him to speak.
“You seem… invigorated,” the Grey Pilgrim said, and raised a hand as if to ward off a protest. “I mean no ill by it, only that a conversation that would have set others to despair seems instead to have lit a fire in you.”
Had it? I pulled at my pipe, considering it, then ultimately shrugged.
“This is the most confident I’ve felt about this campaign since it started,” I admitted.
The old man started in surprise.
“I take it you’re not making sport of me,” Tariq said.
I nodded and, to my own surprise, he snorted.
“Ashen Gods, why?” he asked. “I do not believe this will end in tears, though many will be shed along the way, but little of the news I brought you strike me as sources of confidence. The Enemy has fooled us and led us into great peril.”
“It was always going to get ugly,” I frankly said. “But now we knew the forces in motion, Pilgrim. We know – or have a good guess, at the very least – why the Dead King is acting now, what it is he is after and where all those things sit in the greater tapestry of the war. For the first time since our armies went marching north, we are no longer blind. We can finally find a way to win, and I mean properly win. Not just survive by the skin of our teeth or settle for a bloody draw.”
My fingers were already itching for ink and paper as well as a quiet place to think. Oh, we were in the pit for sure. I was pretty sure the Iron Prince was about to get stuck between two large armies while I caught up, and if either of us made a mistake then this could turn into the single worst military defeat the Grand Alliance had suffered since the beginning of the war. Hells, it could turn into the kind of defeat it was simply impossible to recover from by sheer dint of lives and resources lost. But this pit, it was an old friend. I’d been here before, through my own mistakes and the machinations of others, and the feeling of the bottom of the barrel under my feet did not scare me.
I grinned at the Grey Pilgrim, baring my teeth ferally.
“It’s the eleventh hour, Peregrine,” I said. “Midnight Bell is on the verge, and when it rings we’ll all have to pay our dues, but the song isn’t over. Not yet.”
“You have a plan, then?” Tariq Fleetfoot asked.
Blue eyes in a tanned face met my gaze, and in there I found a light that was not Light – no, that one was entirely his own. It was cold and patient and ruthless in a way that even some of my kind would blanch at, qualities that a lifetime of service to the Choir of Mercy had sharpened into a razor’s edge. There wasn’t a lot a man like the Grey Pilgrim wouldn’t do, for the sake of the world. Looking into those eyes, I wondered if there was really anything at all.
“I have the bare bones of one,” I said. “It begins by taking back the initiative.”
“There are still enemies ahead of you,” Tariq said. “The remnant of the army that held Lauzon’s Hollow, as I understand it, now heading towards the Cigelin Sisters.”
“And that force needs to be destroyed,” I agreed, “but I don’t need our entire army to do that. Not when our reserve under General Pallas will be joining the fray as well.”
“You would split your host in two,” the Pilgrim said. “And then take half to relieve the Iron Prince?”
“We’re going to do better than that, Tariq,” I said, rising to my feet.
I went looking through my desk, opening drawers until I found what I wanted: a small scroll, inked by Scribe’s own hand. It was a neat, lovely map of the Principality of Hainaut whose accuracy meant it was probably worth as much a herd of horses. I unfolded it across the table, gesturing for the Pilgrim to come closer as I set down a bottle on one corner to keep it down and an empty inkwell on the other.
“If Prince Klaus won the battle for Juvelun,” I said, tapping the town with a finger, “then right now he’s marching into the central valley of Hainaut, what the locals call the highlands.”
“And you believe an enemy army, the one that was once in Luciennerie, will have travelled unseen to strike him by surprise there,” the Pilgrim said.
“I do,” I said. “But I also think that the Dead King believes us more conservative in our attack than we actually have been: there’s nothing about the way his troops are moving that even hints at his being aware that the Cigelin Sisters are about to be attacked by General Pallas. So from his point of view, even if a hero likes you manages to bring word about what happened to the Prince Klaus’ column I’ll still be stuck here clearing out the dead heading towards the Sisters.”
It actually shed some light on why the army defending Lauzon’s Hollow had been so willing to retreat, even considering the bloody nose I’d given it. At this point holding the Hollow was no longer a strategic priority for him, it was a lot more important to tie down my army for a few more days while he finished mopping up Klaus Papenheim’s column. And the worse was that the Dead King wasn’t even wrong about my needing to clear out the dead ahead of us. It wasn’t a force that I could afford leaving at my back while taking the Ways to reinforce the Iron Prince. If I did, I would then be stuck with a massive army behind enemy lines and with no supply lines. Hells, at that point he would barely even need to fight: he could just keep harassing us and let starvation do the work for him.
Fortunately, General Pallas was still in the wind and about to make her bite felt.
“I’ll be leaving behind the Third Army and half the Firstborn along with some of the Proceran fantassins, but most of my army will be headed…”
I trailed off, leaning forward and squinting at the map before finally laying a finger at the height of halfway up the stretch of Julienne’s Highway connecting the Sisters to the capital, but a little to the east.
“There,” I finished.
The old man’s gaze followed my finger, taking in the map as he considered it all in silence.
“And what is it that you intend to do in the middle of nowhere?” the Grey Pilgrim finally asked.
I breathed in deep of the wakeleaf, enjoying the burn and taking my time before spewing out a stream of grey smoke. I smiled coldly at the Peregrine.
“Why, Tariq, but we’re going to ambush the force about to ambush the Iron Prince.”