“An enemy may suffer a hundred defeats yet avoid being defeated; seek not victories, only victory.”– Extract from the ‘Ars Tactica’, famed military treatise of Dread Emperor Terribilis the First
I’d barely set foot back in Creation and already I was itching to return to the Ways.
The Second’s outriders had run into a patrol of Prince Klaus’, bringing back the uplifting news that the Iron Prince had crushed the dead in a decisive engagement. Soldiers had named it the Battle of the Pools, as it’d been fought near a dry bog where the mud had hardened and stagnant water remained trapped in pools. Way I heard it told, Old Klaus had baited the dead into open grounds with bold skirmishing by Dominion slingers and then forced a clash of shield walls while his cavalry went to hit the flanks. It’d been a close-run thing even so, before the reinforcements I’d sent under Princess Beatrice were found by the White Knight and led into a charge that hit the enemy in the back and completed the encirclement. That’d secured a full wipe of enemy forces, which had numbered more than thirty thousand. It was the kind of clean successes that came rarely in this war.
It’d brought some cheer back to the Second Army, as had the prospect of soon being reunited with the rest of the coalition forces. Klaus Papenheim’s reputation as one of the finest military commanders of our age had been proved as well-deserved once more, considering he’d led his beleaguered army in securing two major victories against numerically superior enemy armies – and the first time the dead had even been entrenched! I’d expected that it was a triumphant war camp we’d link up with, perhaps even with ale rations having been let loose in celebration of the victory. Instead, as the Second Army began to cross back into Creation, the word that trickled back to me was that of a somber, tense camp. The fantassin companies with the Iron Prince were, I was told, on the verge of mutiny. They were refusing to march until officers that had been arrested were returned to them.
There’d been trouble, it seemed, within the other column. I got the lay of the land before crossing, wary of putting forward my foot without a good idea of what it was I was headed into. Apparently the Battle of Juvelun, where Prince Klaus had pushed the undead out of the eponymous village where they’d dug in, had been a rough affair for the fantassins and gotten Prince Etienne of Brabant killed. The dead had retreated from the defeat with some semblance of order and began to muster further into the valley for a counter-attack, which had forced the Iron Prince to strike at them before they could mass enough to prove a threat. Except part of his army had balked at the order. The mercenaries felt they’d been ill-used and might be once more, while the Brabantine conscripts weren’t eager to march out tired into another bruising engagement when they’d lost their prince in the last one.
There had been stirrings of unrest, so the Iron Prince had arrested or slain the potential mutineer officers and promptly forced a march against the enemy before the situation could further worsen. It’d worked, at least to the extent that this kind of measure could work. They’d fought, for lack of allies or other options, but the moment the dust had settled the mutineer sentiment returned – only twice as hardened, as they’d been browbeaten last time and were wary of a repeat. The conscripts had been settled somewhat, temporary Lycaonese officers having been forced on them while their formations got mixed – to prevent cliques sticking together – and separated in different parts of the camp. It’d not entirely worked, though, as some clever soul had found a loophole in Proceran desertion laws. It was, technically, no such thing if you signed on with a fantassin company sworn to the same fight. There’d been an influx of fresh ‘recruits’ after word was spread, which had only raised tensions.
Still, while I saw the sense in some of the grievances voices my sympathy was significantly dampened by the fact that the fantassins had effectively slowed Prince Klaus’ march west to a crawl for several days before refusing to march entirely. What little time we’d managed to gain on the enemy through bloody losses and use of the Twilight Ways had been effectively lost. Even if we began the march on Hainaut city this very evening, we wouldn’t arrive there more than a few days before the dead. I’d been hoping for a significantly larger margin so that we might repair the defences of the capital as much as possible before Keter besieged us there. Even now, every heartbeat wasted limping through the muddy camp grated at my sensibilities. Each beat saw the dead grow closer, saw our lead narrow and our hopes of victory dim.
The chatter died when I hobbled into the pavilion. I leaned on my staff, step after step, and felt the eyes of all assembled fall on me. I saw the Iron Prince first, at the end of the long table: the white-haired general had risen to his feet and he offered a short bow, to which I returned a nod. The Heavens had their men as well, a tired-looking Hanno of Arwad on his feet besides Tariq. Their greetings were silent and I returned them just as quietly. The last man at the table seemed like he’d aged a decade since I’d last seen him, as if some capricious god had kicked the vigour out of his bones, but the dark hair and elaborate moustache of Prince Arsene of Bayeux could not be mistaken. He did not seem pleased to be here, I decided, as was only fitting.
Old Klaus had raised him to his war council with the understanding that the Alamans would be able to handle his own people, even the fantassins, and in that duty he had failed most utterly. Little of this reflected well on him, in either our eyes or those of the officers he’d stood for. The Prince of Bayeux had been able to keep his soldiers and reputation off the chopping block in this war, until now, but it seemed that at last the blade had pricked the skin. He wasn’t going to get out of this without losing a few feathers, I thought, though it was not my place to go pulling at them.
My eyes then swept to the rest of the men and women in the pavilion, of which there had to be at least forty. None of them were seated, though neither were they shackled as I’d half-expected them to be. There were a few Lycaonese guards around, but not many – I supposed there would have been no point, with the likes of Tariq and the White Knight in the pavilion. The arrested officers did not look like they’d been mistreated, the only bruises I found being faded, and though they were visibly filthy I saw no trace of sickness among them.
“Your Majesty,” the Prince of Hannoven greeted me. “Your return is a pleasant turn.”
“So was the news of the victory at the Pools, Your Grace,” I replied.
Only two of my guards followed me in, looming silently behind. I turned a steady eye to the assembled prisoners, noting several bowed.
“Yet this was not,” I mildly added, “how I expected my time to be spent after our hosts joined again. The request I received was rather mild on details, in truth. If one of you would elaborate?”
“Your Majesty,” the Prince of Bayeux spoke up, calling my attention with a bow of his own. “If I may?”
“At the behest of these officers in the service of the Grand Alliance, I carry a plea for your judgement,” the prince said.
He had a nice speaking voice, I thought. Practiced, but the smoked honey in there was a natural gift. Didn’t make me like what I was hearing from in the slightest. I cocked an eyebrow.
“It was my understanding that the Prince of Hannoven, who held command, already passed judgement on them,” I said.
“This is true,” Prince Arsene agreeably said. “However, no formal trial was held and as both the supreme commander in Hainaut and high officer of the Grand Alliance your authority supersedes his.”
Meaning they didn’t like what Old Klaus had decided, so they were coming to me in the hopes of a milder sentence. If not an outright amnesty.
“In principle that is correct,” I noted, then glanced at Hanno. “White Knight, a question if you don’t mind?”
Hanno slowly nodded.
“Did these officers refuse to obey a direct order from their lawful commander?” I plainly asked.
The White Knight looked like he’d wanted to grimace but held back.
“They did,” Hanno admitted.
“Then the matter is settled,” I coldly said, eyes returning to the prisoners. “Hang them all.”
There was moment of utter surprise in the room, until the officers began to clamour. I picked our pleas, in Chantant and Arlesite, but also curses and insults. Some even tried to argue, yelled that there had been a mistake, but all I saw when I looked at them was three days lost. The deaths that the time pissed away would cost us. I mutilated the Second Army for you, you fucking vultures, I thought. And now you want to mutiny and wiggle your way out? I’d slit the throat of every last one of you and not lose a wink of sleep over it. The yelling continued with no sign of abating, even the guards tried to restore order, and I lost what little patience I had left.
“Shut up,” I Spoke.
With a snap their mouths closed, like puppets whose strings had been pulled. I felt the gazes of both heroes in the tent move to me in surprise, which surprised me in turn. The Pilgrim, at least, should have known I could now Speak again. I had disciplined the Silver Huntress using the talent. Yet after a glance their way, I saw that it was not the Speaking itself that’d startled. His mouth had wavered. Just for a heartbeat, I figured, but for the barest of moments my words had had an effect on the Grey Pilgrim. It was me who was astonished, as I’d not tried to exert my will against him in the slightest. The rules behind Speaking were opaque even to me, but usually it only worked on people weaker than you. Even then it wasn’t a guarantee, some sort of claim to authority over them tended to make it easier. And I’m not much stronger than the Grey Pilgrim, I thought, if I am at all.
What that implied…
I withdrew any strand of will lingering against the four men at the table, freeing them of struggle. The Prince of Hannoven looked wary, but Prince Arsene was outright gasping. He rasped out a breath.
“Your Majesty,” he got out. “This is a mistake. You did not…”
“I see no reason to change my judgement,” I mildly said. “Mind you, it was never formally requested or given. If this talk of appeal was revealed to be only a tasteless jape…”
“Then I would walk out of this tent and leave this in the trusted hands of Prince Klaus Papenheim,” I said. “I imagine you could appeal to him for mercy, were he in the mood to grant it.”
I glanced at the prince in question, raising a questioning brow. He gave a discreet nod, to my mute surprise. So he was willing to find a use for this lot that didn’t involved feeding crows. Fine. They were his, and his to deal with as he wished.
“Perhaps,” Prince Arsene said, “that would be best.”
I watched him, saw how now that his breathing was in order he was once more mastering himself. Saw how he was looking around trying to look for an angle, for a way to still come out on top. And maybe on another day I would have said nothing. Let it go. Procer would be Procer, and not even the end of times would make saints out of princes. Instead I found my fingers drumming against my leg the first few beats of Stars From the Sky, and I ground my teeth. I could almost smell the mud and blood and ash, hear the screams as the Second Army retreated foot by foot under bloody onslaught.
“Say it,” I quietly ordered.
The dark-haired prince blinked in confusion. I met his eyes, unsmiling.
“Your Majesty, I do not und-”
“Say it,” I repeated, and my tone was cold as ice.
His lips thinned.
“It was,” Prince Arsene of Bayeux got out, “a tasteless jape.”
I let silence linger a moment so that the embarrassment could properly sink it.
“Don’t ever waste my time like this again,” I said.
I turned and limped out of the pavilion without speaking another word.
It wasn’t a formal war council in the sense that we wouldn’t be tactics or arrangement tonight. When it came to that, the crowd of captains and commanders involved would require a far larger tent than this. Instead it was the keystones of the various forces within the Grand Alliance army defending Hainaut that’d been assembled for the talks. For the Dominion stood Lord Razin Tanja and Lady Aquiline Osena as well as the commander the Lord of Alava had sent to lead his warriors, Captain Nabila. For the Principate three royals had come: Old Klaus for the Lycaonese, Princess Beatrice of Hainaut and Prince Arsene of Bayeux for the Alamans. For the Firstborn, both General Rumena and Ivah had shown up. Rounding up the hosts, Calm-faced General Zola stood for the Second Army while I held claim on both Callow and Below.
As the heroes had sent both the White Knight and the Grey Pilgrim, I’d also called for the Barrow Sword to stand for villains – as far as I was concerned he’d proved himself as a lieutenant during his tenure as part of the Iron Prince’s army, and I fully intended to keep using him in that capacity. In other circumstances such a gathering of the prominent would have led to an inevitable amount of chatter and hobnobbing, but not this evening. All of us felt the cold breath of Keter against the back of our neck and it had cut through the usual practices. Already skirmishing with undead warbands was starting, a sure sign it was time to get the Hells out of here and into the Twilight Ways before we had another battle on our hands. One we might not win, this time. I cleared my throat to call for attention, the panoply of warlords and royals granting it.
“We’re all here, so let us begin,” I briskly said. “No one in this room requires introduction, so we’ll directly attend to the matter at hand.”
Adjutant had arranged for our maps of the principality of Hainaut and its outskirts to be sent, and attendants had artfully displayed them on the great table around which all of us were arranged. Much of where the enemy was shown by markers to have armies was now guesswork, considering three battles had been fought in quick succession over the last week – General Abigail’s assault on the Cigelin Sisters, the Second Army’s holding action at the Battle of Maillac’s Boot and the Iron Prince’s fresh victory at the Battle of the Pools. We still didn’t known if Abigail had taken the Sisters, but given her forces and the reinforcements involved she ought to have succeeded. Casualties involved on either side were unknown, while the Second hadn’t exactly had the time to count corpses as it retreated into the Ways at the end of the battle.
By now the great valley of central Hainaut, a great bowl in which the capital of the principality stood near the centre, would be a tumultuous mess of warbands and marching columns and smashed undead armies. Out east the great undead army of at least two hundred thousand that’d pursued the Iron Prince since his ill-fated march on Malmedit was gaining on us, likely past the village of Juvelun by now. Our reunited army needed to get moving and fast, if it wasn’t going to get stuck between the great force coming from the west, which the Second had bled to delay, and the even greater army pouring down the heights of Juvelun. The only question that remained to be answered was where our coalition army should march to. I believed the right answer to that was the city of Hainaut, the capital itself.
Yet while in principle I had the authority to simply give the order to march and expect to be obeyed, in practice trying to cram my plan down the throat of the people in this tent was only possible if they were inclined to swallow. That meant convincing them, or at least settling their most pressing objections.
“As all of you can seen, the valley of Hainaut is swarming with undead,” I bluntly said. “Soon there will be a strict minimum of about four hundred thousand corpses running around the region. Remaining where we are now encamped is a recipe for disaster, as it would ensure we would be harassed and ultimately encircled by a massively superior enemy force.”
None argued the fact, as it was plainly on the maps and markers to any eye practiced in the trade of war. I swept the council with my gaze.
“More concerning is the fact that we are now running low on supplies,” I said. “The column under Prince Klaus was entirely cut off from its supply lines for over a week, so it burned through its entire reserves. The forces I brought north will be sharing our own supplies, naturally, but that’s not a solution – it’s throwing a cup of water at a bonfire.”
And that was after we’d even cheated a little when it came to supplies. Unlike us General Abigail was still going have access to the supply line coming up from our defensive lines to the south, so I’d stripped the larders of the Third Army and its fantassin helpers dangerously bare before marching north through the Ways. It’d felt like kicking her in the ribs at the time, but I was now rather pleased I’d decided to play it safe.
“The adjunct secretariat, after collating the numbers given by all you, believes we have around six days before rationing becomes necessary,” I said. “After that, we have perhaps a week at half-rations before our larders are empty.”
“And if we begin rationing from the start?” Prince Klaus asked.
“Three weeks, maybe a little more,” I replied.
Half-rations, though, meant that our people wouldn’t be at their sharpest. Given that our main advantage against the dead lay in the qualitative superiority of our rank and file against theirs, that was a bold gamble to make.
“We must act, and act now,” I told them. “That much can’t be argued with. What must be done, however, deserves a degree of argument. The floor is open to any who wish to speak.”
There was a beat of hesitation, as if no one was quite certain they wanted to be the first to put a foot forward.
“You will have a plan, Losara Queen,” Ivah said. “As is ever your way.”
“I do,” I agreed. “But this council is meant to be a fair hearing for any of you with an answer to give.”
Captain Nabila, who I could not help but notice was only a few inches taller than me – if significantly broader and more stockily built – cleared her throat.
“I was told that Abigail the Fox took the Cigelin Sisters, along with the forces we had held back until now,” she tried.
“We can’t be sure she did, but the odds are good,” Prince Klaus told her.
“Then we should thrust westwards, towards Cigelin,” Captain Nabila said, tone firming. “The dead are in disarray, and we have great numbers. We can smash lesser warbands on our path, and when we arrive at the Sisters supplies can flow in from the south again.”
The Princess of Hainaut stirred.
“They’ll tarpit us if we try that march, Captain,” Princess Beatrice said.
“I do not understand your meaning,” the painted Levantine frowned.
“They will fight like barrowmen,” Aquiline Osena clarified. “Throw corpses at us to slow us down until they gather a great enough force to slay us in one stroke.”
The captain hummed in understanding, nodding decisively.
“If we stay in the countryside we’ll be going through bogs and swamps,” Princess Beatrice added. “We’ll be moving slow regardless. And if we cut to Julienne’s Highway as quickly as possible, our line of attack becomes glaringly obvious.”
And predictable tended to get costly, when you fought Keter.
“It seems wise to cede the grounds,” Razin agreed, eyes narrowing. “We cannot take or hold them. Yet the westward march itself is a sound idea, I would argue. If we retreat to the Cigelin Sisters through the Ways, we can muster with the forces of General Abigail and prepare for a decisive engagement there.”
“Keter will not grant it,” General Rumena said. “It will withhold the blow and leave hunger to disperse us without a single blade being raised.”
Razin, I thought with a degree of approval, had good instincts. If smaller armies had been involved, his answer would have been a good one. The problem was that, as the Tomb-Maker had pointed out, we wouldn’t actually be able to feed that army if it was gathered together. It was one of the reasons we’d split our offensive into two columns in the first place – the force I’d originally advanced with, some seventy thousand soldiers, had been stretching the limit of what our logistical train was physically able to provide for. All armies involved had taken losses, sure, but at the end of the day we’d still be asking of that same apparatus that’d struggled with my column alone to now also handle the second column and our reserve on top of it. No, Razin had good instincts but it showed that the Levantine wars he’d been raised to fight just didn’t involve the same scale of armies being dealt with.
“Turning back towards Juvelun would be suicide,” Prince Arsene said. “No doubt our pursuers from Malmedit have already restored the fortifications there. We would have to take those grounds from a larger army once more, only this time while being struck at from behind as well.”
“Juvelun is lost ground,” Prince Klaus agreed. “And it no longer has strategic value even if we did take it – we forced that gate to be able to march into the valley, but it’s too late to try and keep it closed for the army that pursues us.”
“We could still attempt a strike at Malmedit,” General Zola said.
That got the attention of most everyone here, including myself.
“If the burden of numbers is too much for our supply train, we must split our forces again,” the dark-skinned general said. “A large detachment can be sent to strike in surprise at Malmedit and collapse the tunnels, as was originally meant, while we consolidate the rest of our forces at the Sisters. If this draws the dead to us at the Sisters, as seems likely, that same detachment can then march in haste to Juvelun and seal the valley around the dead.”
There were some murmurs of approval, and I cocked my head to the side. It was the answer of a classic War College general, I thought. Strategic goals had been sent and were to be met, using our relative advantages – mobility by the Twilight Ways, in this case – over the enemy, and concentrating strength at where we were weakest to negate the enemy’s advantages. It was the kind of war that Black and Grem One-Eye liked to fight, measured and clever and very well-organized. Her answer, however, was also wrong. General Zola Osei understood war through the eyes of a professional, so it was only natural that it was the complete opposite that would find the fault in her answer.
“That’s a dead end,” Aquiline Osena said.
Surprised eyes turned to her, several disapproving. The Dominion had impressed with the bravery of its warriors, during the war, but not the acumen of its generals.
“She’s right,” I agreed.
Aquiline offered me a smile that might have passed for grateful, if you squinted a little. I winked back.
“It’s a clever trick, but it doesn’t win us anything,” the Lady of Tartessos said. “The tunnels at Malmedit are useless now, there’s no army left to go through them – we know where all of them are. Even if it works and we close the valley by holding Juvelun, what does it get us? The dead are already where they want to be.”
“It’s an approach that tries to mitigate the damage, not achieve victory,” I agreed.
If we were trying to mitigate though, it was a solid plan. It would secure us a very advantageous position for an offensive next year and ease the burden of our defense by giving us chokepoints to defend instead of a long line in the lowlands. The issue was that the payoff would come next campaigning season. See, Black and Grem they’d taught a generation of officers to fight their way – as I’d thought earlier, measured and clever and very well-organized. Except that we couldn’t afford to fight this clean, this careful. If that bride up north got built, we’d be losing Hainaut. We needed to win the campaign now, before winter came, and that meant we’d have to take risks. The same kind of risks that my father abhorred, that would have gotten him killed if he’d tried them against a hero at my age.
But I wasn’t him, and the war I was fighting wasn’t the same either.
The Iron Prince sighed, looking at the maps.
“Agreed,” he finally said. “If we don’t win this campaign now, we might not have the warm bodies to do more than hold come next summer.”
Grim, but he wasn’t wrong.
“Can victory still be achieved?” Princess Beatrice calmly asked.
If anyone else here had spoke those words, I thought, half the people in the tent would have marked them a coward. None dared, though, when the woman speaking them was the princess of this very land we stood on. Few of us here had more burning hatred for the dead, or lost more at their hands. Idly I wondered if she was asking the question because she had genuine doubts, or simply because she’d recognized that if she didn’t ask it no one else would dare to.
“Yes,” I calmly replied.
“Then where is that that you would have us march exactly, Black Queen?” Prince Arsene impatiently asked.
“Hainaut,” the White Knight quietly said. “The capital, that is.”
Hanno had remained silent for so long I figured half the people in here had forgot he was even there. As for Tariq, as far as I could tell he’d spent more time using that nosy little aspect of his to have a look at the insides of the people than actually listening. I smiled mirthlessly at the hero, knowing that it wasn’t military learning that’d led him to the conclusion. After all, it was not only strategy that’d led me to decide the capital was our shot at winning this.
“The capital is where I would have us march,” I agreed. “As soon as possible – tomorrow at least, tonight if at all possible.”
“Would the issue of supplies not remain?” Razin Tanja asked. “The grounds between the Cigelin Sisters and the capital are still in the hands of the dead, and I had thought it impossible to arrange a supply line through the Twilight Ways.”
“It is,” General Zola frowned. “Your Majesty, I have seen the same numbers as you. We simply do not have enough mages and priests for this – past a certain distance and a certain amount of soldiers, the amount of wagons we are able to send at the speed we can send them mean keeping the force supplied is not possible.”
“That is true,” I said, “so long as you need individuals capable of making gates to actually take the journey.”
Meaning, if we had to send a priest or mage with every wagon – more realistically, a few priests and mages with every caravan of wagons – then there came a point where, if we kept sending wagons, all the available priests and mages would be in the Twilight Ways. Either headed to the place getting supplied, or heading back to the place where the supplies were being sent for. If the army was small and where it was camped close to where the supplies came from, that wasn’t an issue. The journey was quick, and you could either avoid having a stretch of time where there were no more supplies coming in or make it so short it hardly made a difference. The trouble came when the army was large, as ours was, and the distance between the origin of the supplies and their destination was large. This was, unfortunately, also the case.
You got rid of that problem, though, if the gate-opened didn’t actually need to make the journey. If the wagons could simply get there on their own.
“But that is needed, my queen,” General Zola said.
“Unless we open a permanent gate within the capital,” I said.
The room went still. It would be a risk, I’d not deny it, because if we lost the capital afterwards then the Dead King would have a gate into the Twilight Ways to study. On the other hand, the capital of Hainaut was probably the single most fortified city in the principality and once my sappers got to work it’d become even more defensible. We’d also be able to feed a significantly larger force in the city than our physical supply train would allow for. All we needed for the journey was for someone to open a gate near wagons somewhere in Procer and thread into it the destination of the ‘Hainaut gate’, and those supplies would get to the capital eventually. We wouldn’t hold the road to the capital but it wouldn’t matter, because so long as you had a mage around everywhere was a road to Hainaut.
“Those are difficult to make, I was told,” Prince Klaus said. “Could we even make one quickly enough?”
“Us, I’m not sure,” I admitted. “But you might remember we have fresh allies, since our summit at the Arsenal.”
“The Gigantes,” Princess Beatrice breathed out. “Is that why you sent them with my forces when we relieved the Iron Prince?”
In part, though I’d also been worried about exposing them to the dangers the Second Army had been about to face – or leaving them with General Abigail, where there would be no Named to pull them out of the fire if Revenants attacked in surprise.
“The Dead King might not assault the walls even if we seize the capital,” Prince Arsene said. “A long siege to grind us down would suffice.”
“A siege with its back to the army at the Cigelin Sisters,” Klaus Papenheim replied. “And all the while we could sally out at will through the Ways, with strong walls to return to after. We can only hope they will try what you suggest.”
“They will not,” the Grey Pilgrim said, breaking his silence at last. “Mark my words, and that of the Choir I am sworn to: once the gate is opened in the capital, the enemy will know no rest until that city is razed to the ground.”
No one, I noted with grim amusement, saw fit to argue with that. There was some more talking, afterwards, but I had them and most of the people in the tent knew it. By the hour’s turn I had the agreement of everyone there. So on we went to Hainaut, to the last flip of the coin that would decide whether this summer was the dawn of the Grand Alliance’s victory or defeat.
That in the city doom awaited none would deny, but like everyone else I rather wished I could know ahead whose doom it was going to be.