“Only a child pretends there is value in defeat. Fool they who praise a bleeding wound.”– Dread Empress Massacre
Since we’d come crashing down into this godforsaken region three days ago, we had lost one thousand six hundred and thirty-two soldiers.
The last count came in from the Dominion midmorning, as they were less used to counting their dead. The Levantines had borne the brunt of those losses, almost a quarter of the men they’d brought east now dead. In the exchange we’d killed maybe a quarter of that number in enemy soldiers, mostly through skirmishes that had gone our way. The best that could be said of the last few days was that we’d avoided a rout, not that this narrow avoidance meant our situation was anything less than terrible. We’d camped near the northern shore of Nioqe Lake, beyond the long shadows cast by the Jini Plateau, and while we were somewhat safe at the moment our strategic situation had taken a sharp turn for the worse.
The mood was grim when our war council assembled. The usual few slunk their way into the tent: Vivienne and Brandon Talbot, Juniper and Aisha, Zola Osei. Of the two lordlings only one showed today, Razin Tanja. Aquiline was attending to their captains, who were not pleased with the way this campaign was going. It’d not escaped anyone’s attention that the Legions of Terror seemed to be focusing their efforts on the Dominion, which had brought old tensions to the fore – there was some talk in Levantine ranks of my Praesi legionaries being traitors, of there being some conspiracy afoot, and it needed to be stamped out. Aquiline tended to be more popular with their warriors, so it was only natural that we’d ended up with Razin.
“It is no longer feasible to take back our camp,” General Zola crisply said. “I can only argue in favour of retreat now, west to the half-road and then further north to grounds less at our disadvantage.”
“That marches us straight into the Gale Ribbon,” Aisha said, shaking her head. “Even with wards prepared we’ll take losses.”
“We could attempt to take the burned camp in Moule Hills for our own,” Brandon Talbot suggested.
“They’ll have mined that,” I grunted. “If not worse.”
It was against Legion regulations to use devils but I wasn’t sure how closely followed a rule that would be without my father around to enforce it. A lot of high-placed officers had shared his opinion, but many of those were now dead. I wasn’t sure the Black Knight would push back if Malicia insisted, which she might. The Empress would prefer burning contracts to losing men, at this stage of the war.
“And even if we swing wide away from Kala Hills to avoid giving battle, there is nothing to stop her from simply marching down and getting into a position to flanks us,” Aisha said. “Lady Black has made it clear that she will not let us entrench.”
“Is a ramp to access the plateau feasible?” Razin asked. “We could avoid the valley that so troubles us entirely by accessing the heights.”
Looks were shared. That was the closest thing to a good idea we’d heard so far.
“I’ll consult with Sapper-General Pickler,” I said.
“Even if it is something our sappers can accomplish,” General Zola began, “Marshal Nim will not leave us to build that ramp unmolested. We would need to stake out a more defensible position.”
I glanced at Juniper, who sat at the other end of the table in silence. She had been following the conversation attentively, but there was a peculiar look on her face. She had not once opened her mouth to give an opinion this entire council and did not break the streak to answer Zola.
“Send out riders to find one,” I ordered the general. “Even if Pickler says it can’t be done, it’ll be useful information to have under our belt.”
“I will see to the roster,” Aisha volunteered, smoothly rising to her feet.
She threw a worried glanced at Juniper, who did not meet her eyes. The council ended without much ceremony, the tent emptying until there were only three people left: Vivienne, me and the still-silent Hellhound. Brushing back a strand that’d slipped her braid, the princess was the first to speak up.
“You haven’t said a word all morning,” Vivienne stated.
Juniper let out a long breath, chair creaking under her.
“I haven’t,” she said.
A moment passed. She did not continue.
“We’ve had setbacks before,” I finally said. “And we’re far from defeated, we just-”
“I should resign,” the Hellhound interrupted me. “I can’t, I know it would be a bad look in the middle of a campaign, but I should. Command should informally be passed to Zola regardless.”
“That’s not even slightly a good idea,” I said. “Zola’s solid, but she doesn’t have the spark. Nim will eat her alive.”
Hakram had been right when he’d warned I should temper my expectations of Zola Osei, as he often was. Hune’s replacement was not her equal, much less Juniper’s. She was the kind of commander that made for a respectable general but fell short of marshal talents.
“Nim is eating me alive, in case you hadn’t noticed,” Juniper barked out. “How many times are you going to make excuses for me, Catherine? I’m losing.”
“I’m not making excuses,” I flatly replied. “We’ve made some mistakes and paid for them but-”
“I should have asked you to send Named out in the hills, not just scouts,” Juniper growled. “The Eleventh wouldn’t have caught us out. The Order should have been out near the vanguard, not near the supply wagons – they could have chased Nim’s horse before they shredded the Levantines.”
“You’re not an oracle, Juniper,” I bit out. “We’d be having a very different conversation if she’d sent the horse after the wagons instead, and she might have attacked the moment we flushed out the Eleventh so-”
“I am not,” Juniper of the Red Shields quietly said, “equal to this task.”
I slammed my open palm onto the table.
“What the fuck is this?” I snarled. “She played her cards better, Juniper. We lost a few hands. So what? The goddamned pot is still on the table for anyone to take.”
I heard her hands creak as large fingers tightened into fists.
“I’m not sure it all came back,” Juniper hoarsely said. “After Malicia pulled her hooks. That I’m still all of me.”
And just for that look in my friend’s eyes, I wished I could kill Alaya of Satus twice.
“It did,” I flatly said.
The Pilgrim had told me as much and I had no reason to doubt him. There’d been physical scars it would take her years to overcome, but her mind was fine.
“I will not be another orc cripple for you to lug about, Catherine,” Juniper hissed. “Don’t you see it’s even worse if it’s all there? It just means I was never in the same league. If I’m no longer fit, if I ever was in the first place, and-”
“Do you genuinely believe I wouldn’t have advocated your removal if I believed you unfit for your office?”
Vivienne’s voice cut through our rising anger like a knife. Juniper rocked back like she’d been slapped, but she was listening.
“Catherine loves you like family,” Vivienne calmly continued. “She might excuse weakness out of sentiment. Would I, Hellhound? We have an understanding, but we both know I would not put you above Callowan lives.”
“You’re not a general,” Juniper replied, but it was weak and by the tone of her voice she knew it.
She just wasn’t convinced. Didn’t want to be, maybe couldn’t be. I grit my teeth. Though I was not unfamiliar with the flagellant’s whip, this was not the time for my marshal to indulge in it. We were already in deep enough trouble without losing our finest military mind halfway through a campaign.
“Neither are you, at the moment,” Vivienne evenly replied. “Perhaps you should attend to those duties before further defeat ensues, Marshal Juniper.”
The orc’s voice was stilted as she excused herself, almost fleeing the tent. I slumped back into my seat. Vivienne rose to pour two glasses of wine, pressing one into my hand.
“Fuck,” I eloquently said.
It’d not been good in the first place, but I suspected I might have made it worse.
“I can’t fix this,” Vivienne told me. “It’s not who we are to each other. She doesn’t call me Warlord, or ever will.”
I drank, biting down on my first answer. It was bitter enough on my tongue it almost spoiled the wine.
“I’m not sure how to fix this either,” I said. “Winning? If we could beat Nim so easily we’d already be doing it.”
“There are some who agree with her, you know,” Vivienne murmured. “Not just our countrymen, who sometimes mutter for the wrong reasons. Officers that were brought in from the Legions. They say she came up too quick, more out of closeness to you than merit. That a few College tricks and being Istrid Knightsbane’s daughter aren’t enough to warrant her being raised so high.”
“I didn’t pick her name out of a hat, Viv,” I said. “Just yesterday she saved us a rout. How many officers would have figured out the Order needed to be sent to relieve us before the enemy cavalry even came out? It’s not her that’s the problem, it’s that we’re fighting the Legions of Terror on their picked grounds with the deck stacked in the favour. This was never going to be easy.”
I’d ridden Legion war doctrine like a warhorse over the back of half the fucking continent. It wasn’t going to stop being effective just because I wasn’t the only one on the field using it.
“I know that,” Vivienne said. “So do most people who matter.”
My heiress paused, offering me a wan smile.
“You might as well be asking me to build a ramp to the moon,” Pickler bluntly told me.
“I’m sure Ol’ Sorcerous would appreciate the way down, but my ambitions are slightly more grounded,” I easily replied.
Well, more or less. I only wanted to bind the entire continent to a treaty that would fundamentally change how Named would operate. You know, summer fair gift stuff.
“Funny,” my Sapper-General said, tone dry as sand. “I can’t do it, Catherine, at least not in the time you want it done. We didn’t have the wood to build a ramp that size in the first place and we lost too many of our stakes when we abandoned the camp last night. Unless you want me to build it out of stone we cut from the cliffside, it can’t be done.”
I eyed her with alarm. I’d not known our situation was so bad with the sudes. If we lost too many of the large stakes my legionaries carried to easily raise palisades then we’d be dependent on local wood. Of which there wasn’t much. The most we’d seen was the brushlands in the Kala Hills, which the Loyalist Legions now held.
“We can still raise palisades properly, can’t we?” I asked.
“Camp size’s been reduced. We’re toeing the line for sanitation,” Pickler admitted. “If not for the priests we’d be at risk of sicknesses.”
Well, it’d been a day for pleasant surprises so far. Why break that lovely trend?
“We need to do something, Pickler,” I got out.
“We’re not reaching that plateau, Catherine,” she said, then hesitated. “But I have an… idea. I need to look at some things first, though. See if it’s truly viable.”
I cocked an eyebrow.
“You’re not going to give me more than that?”
“No point in raising false hopes,” Pickler said. “I’ll find you when I’m sure.”
I was inclined to poke at her for at least a few scraps, but she was saved by the appearance of a phalange. The young Taghreb informed me that Archer was back in camp and she’d brought a package with her, which spurred my curiosity. I met with Vivienne as I limped my way back, as she’d been sent for too, the pair of us entering the tent together to the sight of Archer dumping a large cloth sack on the carved table. I paused.
“Is whatever’s in that bag breathing?” I bluntly asked.
“I would hope so,” Vivienne said. “That’s one of the abduction bags for the Jacks, if she got blood all over it I’ll be cross.”
Ah, Vivienne. Sometimes she said these things and I acutely felt the loss it was for my gender that she was only interested in the other one.
“Why, hello Archer,” Indrani brightly said. “Lovely to see you, how did your night go?”
I raised my staff then poked experimentally at the bag, ignoring her entirely.
“I think it’s a person,” I mused.
“She might have finally snapped and done in Masego,” Vivienne suggested. “There’s only so many times a woman can have her words nitpicked before blood ensues.”
“If you don’t stop I’ll put him back where I found him,” Indrani threatened.
I had to bite down on a ‘Masego? It’d be a walk, but I suppose you could’ that very much wanted to wriggle its way past my lips. It was rare that I got to gang up on one of the Woe instead of getting ganged up on, so it was only with reluctance that I moved on to business.
“And where would that be?” I asked.
Theatrically, Archer opened the bag to reveal the bruised face of an unconscious dark-skinned man in what I’d guess to be his early twenties.
“Kala Fortress,” Indrani said. “You’re looking at Sokoro Abara, third child of Lord Abara of Kala. Caught him while he was serving as a go-between between the fortress and the Legions.”
My brow rose. That was quite the catch. More than enough to make up for her absence last night, considering she wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the fight. I stayed silent a little longer, choosing my words.
“I know that look,” Indrani accused. “I did good but you want to insult me anyways so you’re moving around the sentence.”
“Of course not,” I lied.
“You did good, Archer,” Vivienne told her with a warm smile.
“You know,” my successor casually added, “for a sullen wench.”
I grinned even as wails of Callowan treachery began filling up the tent, already thinking about all the answers we were going to get out of that man.
Sokoro Abara was going to be a hard nut to crack, I figured.
Akua had once told me that a lot of Wasteland nobles trained their children in methods to resist torture and in my experience Praesi aristocrats needed to be made brutally aware that their situation was desperate before the veneer of arrogance even began to break. So we did the works: put him in a tent enchanted for darkness with the sole magelight facing him, had the Concocter feed him something to keep him slightly dazed and I handled the interrogation personally with only Vivienne at my side. Sokoro Abara woke up, blinking away the sleep, and then took in the sight of my being seated across from him and Vivienne standing behind me.
There was a pregnant pause.
“I’ll tell you anything you want to know,” he swore.
Well. I was feeling a little cheated, but there was a saying about gift horses. The young noble was quite frank about how he was not even slightly interested in dying or being tortured for his family’s sake, and instead offered information quite freely when asked. His position as the envoy between the fortress and Legions – he informed us quite bitterly that such a task had of course been beneath his elder half-siblings – and his confessed tendency to open sealed scrolls to read them meant he’d been in a good position to learn about the unfolding debacle.
“The Eleventh was in the hills for two days before you marched there,” he told us. “They went through Risas, using the shepherd paths. The Black Knight wanted them in position to strike at your army from behind should you fight in the valley.”
It was an odd feeling to know that our disastrous vanguard action had still been better than the likely alternative: picking a fight with Marshal Nim in the valley and getting smashed in the back by a full legion. Though it’d been a costly thing to learn that General Lucretia was hiding in the hills, better we learn it now than when a battle was on the line. He also had actionably useful information, of the recent kind.
“Lady Black ordered that the wells to both the east and west of the Kala Hills should be poisoned today,” Sokoro told us. “She had to ask us permission first, as it is still father’s land, but he bent over backwards to agree. Lady Warlock has offered to broker entering under Wolof’s protection on very favourable terms, so there’s little he won’t do to please her.”
My lips thinned. I could deduce why Marshal Nim would give the order easily enough. She wanted us to be stuck near Nioqe Lake, knowing that if we strayed too far from those shores we’d have no water source to draw from. Now that the Black Knight had put us in a corner, she meant for us to stay there.
“What do you know of Marshal Nim’s plans?” Vivienne asked.
“Not much,” Sokoro admitted. “She was raised under the Carrion Lord, you know. Like all his old soldiers she has high-handed manners even in the lands of her betters.”
I doubted this man was Nim’s better in any possible sense of the word – except passing through small doorways, maybe? – but I’d gain nothing from telling him that.
“Not much is still something,” I smiled.
He smiled back and asked for assurances about his captivity. I guaranteed him absence of torture and fair treatment if he talked – which he already had, but apparently did not know – yet when I offered right of ransom he scoffed.
“Father won’t pay,” Sokoro said. “I’d rather you promise wine instead, I imagine being a prisoner will be dreadfully dull.”
“We can arrange that,” Vivienne promised.
‘Not much’ hadn’t been him playing coy, unfortunately. He’d overheard useful bits but no plan. Nim’s legionaries were apparently convinced that she wanted to avoid giving us a pitched battle, which I had no trouble believing. The most interesting morsel was that apparently General Wheeler had been asked about raising field fortifications that would hem in the Army of Callow around Nioqe Lake. It was not a sure thing, but in my opinion it seemed likely she actually intended to try. Malicia did not want to wreck my army, just put me in a position where I was forced to negotiate. Bottled up against the shores of the lake with a larger force or impassable terrain encircling me as my supplies ran out would achieve that.
The best possible outcome of being forced into that corner was managing a stalemate until Sepulchral and the Rebel Legions arrived, but I had my doubts we’d manage as much. Besides, if it was the fight Marshal Nim was after then it was the last one we wanted to give her. Which meant moving before we got cornered.
Time to see if Pickler had a way for us to slip the noose before it got tightened.
“I told you that I can’t get us on that plateau,” Pickler hissed out in irritation.
“But you have something else,” I pressed.
“It’s a gamble,” my Sapper-General admitted. “But I believe it’ll work.”
She showed me to the inside of a tent where a tenth of sappers were chattering away as they worked, cutting away at wood and hammering in nails. It took me a moment to realize what I was looking at: one of our supply wagons, stripped of its wheels and bound tighter. Was that wax I was smelling?
“I can’t get you on the plateau,” Pickler repeated, standing at my side. “But there’s another way east. Nioqe Lake.”
“You want to make a pontoon bridge across,” I realized, then frowned. “We have enough wood?”
“If we use every supply wagon,” she replied. “And a significant portion of our stakes.”
She’d not been underselling it when she’d called that a gamble, then. If the enemy sunk that bridge, or even just prevented us from recovering it after we crossed, we’d be in heaps of trouble. As in, might seriously have to consider cutting a deal trouble: without wagons to carry our supplies we’d slow to a crawl even using roads. Out there on wild land, where there weren’t any, we’d be snails to the Black Knight’s hawk.
“How long would it take you to get it done?” I asked.
“We made a pattern, so I could have it ready for deployment by sundown if you don’t steal any of my sappers,” Pickler said. “Trouble is, Catherine, I don’t have a way to prevent them seeing us make it.”
Which would allow Nim to contest the crossing, the last thing I wanted. I clenched my fingers then unclenched them. There was a way. I didn’t like using it as a ploy, it felt disrespectful, but I’d do it anyway. The question was, then whether it was truly our way out. Sure, it’d get us out of Marshal Nim’s planned encirclement and on the other side of the lake if things went fine. What would we do once there, though? Taking a gamble to flee blindly was exactly the kind of mistake the Black Knight was waiting to capitalize on. She’d pushed her army hard, striking at us repeatedly over the same day and night, because she knew that our officer corps and general staff were of lesser quality than hers. We were, as an army, simply more prone to making mistakes when time grew short.
That was the difference training made.
The way I saw it, the point of crossing Nioqe Lake would be marching south afterwards. I’d been Juniper’s original plan to do as much, if from a significantly better position, and I still believed it was a sound notion. The problem now was Kala Fortress. It was a certainty the Loyalist Legions would move to cover it faster than we could get there – needing to fish out and rebuild our supply wagons ensured as much – so Nim was likely to entrench by the walls. That’d been true in the original iteration of the Hellhound’s plan as well, but our answer to that had simply been going around the Legions by marching further east before cutting south. That was no longer an option, because as I’d recently learned from our prisoner the Black Knight had ordered all the wells east of Kala Hills poisoned.
I wasn’t sure how far that order would be applied in practice but given that Nim had light cavalry to spare I wouldn’t bet on it being a small slice of land. We could last maybe two weeks without refreshing our water supplies if we began rationing immediately and nothing went wrong, which made risking an eastern march rolling the dice. If we got lucky it might rain and be the drinkable kind of rain instead of the brimstone kind that burned – a legitimate worry in these parts, Aisha had informed me – but that was a large if. Especially when the mage cadres of the Loyalist Legions had shown they were capable of large-scale weather manipulation rituals. Even if rainstorms gathered, there was nothing to prevent the Legions from just dispersing them.
No, the reliable water was south and down the half-road. And there was a set of fortifications on top of that road: Kala Fortress. If we could take it before Nim got there, we’d be in a very defensible position and sitting over her supply line. We’d be putting her in a corner instead of the other way around. I could maybe sneak a small force to that keep before the Black Knight got there, I finally thought, but nowhere large enough to actually take a well-defended castle. Which meant I needed to figure out how to bust open that lock before we got started on this plan.
“Catherine?” Pickler hesitantly asked.
I had gone silent for a long while, I supposed. I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them. Taking Kala Fortress wasn’t really the issue, was it? As in, it did not need to be in the Army of Callow’s possession. I just needed it not to be in the hands of the Loyalist Legions. And that was something I might just have the tool to achieve.
“Get started on the work,” I said, then bit my tongue. “Talk to Juniper and General Zola first, but you have my full backing for this. Unless they object stridently, it’s happening.”
Leaving her quite bemused at the sudden turn, I set to talking around the key to the lock.
Sokoro Abara widely smiled, showing slightly yellowing teeth. His breath smelled like the wine we’d promised him and Vivienne had evidently delivered on.
“I do have some friends behind the walls, Your Majesty,” he said. “Though it behooves me to ask why I should introduce them to you. I am, after all, a prisoner.”
“You misunderstand me,” I said.
He flinched, as if preparing for a blow, but none followed.
“There would be no need for an introduction, as you would be the one speaking to them,” I idly continued.
His eyes narrowed.
“You’d release me?” he asked.
“Release is a strong word,” I thinly smiled. “Tell me, Sokoro, how would you like to be Lord of Kala?”
He stayed silent a moment, considering. If the Army of Callow put him in that seat Malicia might take offence in the aftermath should she beat us, but that was a relatively distant concern. He could place himself under a High Seat’s protection should he grow too worried of retribution.
“Part of the castle and the soldiers would back me over my siblings,” Sokoro finally said, tone even. “Not over my father. He is a well-respected man. I also have… concerns about my mother’s safety.”
“Your father is an eminently mortal man,” I said. “And we can whisk away your mother before we strike.”
Scribe had gotten to make her latest Assassin. We’d use it. The dark-skinned man’s eyes brightened at my words. It was what he’d wanted to hear. Wasn’t like he was ever going to rise high except through my good graces: everything he’d said about his half-siblings implied a degree of enmity. He might get cast out after the death of Lord Abara, and that was assuming none in the castle decided to… err on the side of caution.
“And what would you have of me in return?” he asked.
“All I want is a friend ruling that fortress,” I smiled. “Perhaps your help in learning the lay of the land. Nothing onerous.”
He looked hesitant. Right, Praesi. I’d get more trust out of him if I bled him some.
“Full use of your water is what I want most, of course,” I said. “I’ll not require your soldiers to fight by the side of the Army of Callow.”
“I might be amenable to such an arrangement,” Sokoro Abara lightly said.
“Good,” I smiled, and to his alarm the darkness began thickening around us.
Faint sounds could be heard, almost like cawing, and my smiled broadened.
“I’ll want an oath out of you, my friend,” I said. “Just in case, you see. Trust is hard come by in these troubled times.”
“It is only natural,” he stiffly replied. “On what would you have me swear?”
Night began filling the room, Sve Noc granting this a sliver of their attention, and I answered him.
In a ring outside our camp, one thousand six hundred and thirty-two corpses were dragged out on the plains and assembled in great piles. Mages came out in lines, setting fire to them with what little wood we could spare for this – which wasn’t much. As a result they had to stay and keep feeding more mageflame to the dead bodies, which took powerful flames to burn. The result was plumes of thick, guttering smoke that rose up into the afternoon sky. Enough of them that it was as if a curtain had been pulled in front of the camp.
Pickler’s sappers had their cover.
Meanwhile I set about giving the enemy something to react to, instead of leaving them to operate unhindered. I first picked a place on open grounds with a good view at the Black Knight’s fortified camp. Hierophant came with me, in expectation of the enemy’s answer, and the two of us stood out like black-plumed birds out on the rocky plains. A bodyguard of twenty knights had ridden with us, but I’d refused more. There would be no point. I took the lead, pulling down my hood and beginning to murmur under the pounding sun. Night was like a lazy brat refusing to get up, but I had time to spare. I coaxed it out properly and the Sisters helped me with the alignment. Zeze could have done it through the Observatory, but I wanted him free to act.
The same ring of red light as last night appeared over our heads, but I’d told Masego to leave it. No need to warn the enemy of his presence too early. Once I’d gathered the power to me, though, I told him to get ready.
“I am all eyes, Catherine,” he replied.
High above the enemy camp I ripped open a gate into Arcadia. There was a reason we’d not tried to keep moving through the faerie realm after being stranded: out here it was a nightmarish mirror of the Wasteland. Impossible storms that toppled mountains, landslides that charged like armies and rains that drew furrows in the ground. That was without even getting into the… fauna. Maybe a few Named could slip through, but entire companies? It’d be madness to even try. There was no lack of water, though, and that was what I’d been after. After a few heartbeats a flood began pouring, just in time for power to begin rising in the enemy camp.
Time to see what Akua had cooked up to handle my signature trick. I let out a startled snort when, instead of some fancy spell, what appeared was instead another gate. About the same size and placed below mine, like a bucket for the flood to be poured into. Well, that was certainly a solution. Nice sorcery, it’d be a shame if something happened to it.
“Zeze?” I asked.
“Wrest,” Hierophant replied, and the world rippled.
The enemy gate rippled but did not break. I saw Masego frown and dimly felt power bloom in the distance again.
“Clever mage,” Hierophant murmured. “They are feeding the gate further magic so that I cannot fully wrest it-”
“Keep them stuck, then,” I grunted.
I was not without tricks of my own. My gate began to pull together, like a ball of twine being rolled up, and the flood of water ended. But with a grunt of effort I dragged the ‘twine’ to the side and down, only to begin unfolding it again. Sweat soaked my back and the gate was noticeably smaller than my first, but before long the flood began pouring again. About a hundred feet above Loyalist Legion camp, it hit transparent panes of sorcery. They buckled but held. Water began sliding down, revealing the broad shape of a dome. Masego tutted.
“The structure is too simple, Sahelian,” he said. “Here is why we want more intricate escapements.”
His hand whipped out, the ripples of his aspect strengthening, and the enemy gate blew up in blinding flash of light. The air thrummed with power as there was a sound of thunder, the enchantment protecting the camp shivering – and, in patches, failing. I’d kept my gate opened, and like an avalanche of bricks the water fell down on the enemy through a doze holes. Mages patched up the hole quick enough with shields, but not before we did some damage. I kept the gate open as long as I could, Hierophant swatting down a few other attempts to block it, but their mages were focusing on protection so there was no further break.
Didn’t matter. I’d got what I came for: I’d rattled their cage and something else they’d not notice until it was too late.
“The angle for your adjusted gate was far from the best you could have used,” Masego noted. “Too much to the east of the camp.”
“I aimed at what I wanted, don’t you worry about it,” I smiled.
I’d emptied half a lake on the eastern part of the camp, and though it’d rolled off the dome the important part was where it’d rolled off. Into Kala Hills, into the same paths the Eleventh had used to attack us last night. The same that Nim might be tempted to use as a shortcut to attack us when we crossed the lake.
Now they were a mess of mud and water, impossible to march an army through for at least a few days.
We launched a night attack.
It was the best way to cover our crossing, General Zola said. Marshal Juniper did not object. Five thousand of the Army of Callow and a thousand Levantine skirmishers marched out, every Named at hand save for me going with them. They were to shake the enemy and then retreat, actually fighting as little as possible. I even poured Night into a trinket and left it for Hierophant to wield: that ring of red light was a good way to feign my presence where I wasn’t. The Loyalist Legions would be very wary of attacking me after dark now that I’d had some time to prepare.
It was nerve-wracking to watch them march out without going with them, but I had other duties. Sokoro Abara was put on a horse and we kept our most mobile force in reserve: the moment the pontoon bridge was finished, the Order of the Broken Bells would ride across in full force. The knights were our change to get to Kala Fortress before the Black Knight could, much as they might be needed in the small battle about to take place in the plains.
It took hours, to my rising restlessness, before the bridge was done. We didn’t wait until it was; as soon as Pickler told me they’d reached the shallows on the other side, I saddled up and led the Order across. There’d been no news about the battle in the plains yet. We rode through the shallow water and then up the beach, the townsfolk of Risas barring their gates and hiding as we rode past. After that, the hasty ride in the dark was surprisingly boring. Sometimes a horse fell and a knight had to pull back and change their mount, but otherwise we went untroubled.
We rode down the eastern length of the Kala Hills, then swung around west to approach the keep itself. We rested the horses before coming into sight, not only to allow the beasts to catch their breath. Scribe and her almost-Named had come through for me: waiting for us in a fold of the rocks was Sokoro Abara’s mother, as I’d promised. I gave him a moment to reassure her – and confirm through someone he trusted we truly had assassinated his father – and then we saddled up again.
Kala Fortress was a grim old thing propped up against the side of the eponymous hills, with tall and thick wall of stones surrounding the small town at the bottom of a squat castle. Sokoro went in ahead with Assassin secretly shadowing him and contacted his partisans. There was some violence before they seized control of the outer gates, but once they were swung open my knights flooded into the town. We struck quick enough the castle gates were overridden before they could be closed, and with Sokoro serving as our emissary a surrender was not overly difficult to secure.
I had to blow up his sister’s head, she was the fight-to-the-end type, but the sight of that cooled ardours among the hardliners. Within the hour he was Lord Sokoro Abara and his half-brother in a cell, which was when I finally left out a breath of relief. Our part of this, at least, had gone well. It was past Early Bell, but we’d taken the fortress. Now all we could do was wait.
I got the news in waves. The first rider was sent by Juniper once the force we’d sent to stir up Nim had begun to retreat. The skirmishing had gone well and it looked like the Black Knight had preferred marching out with her full strength arrayed rather than pursuing us half-baked. She must have thought we were baiting her into a trap. The second rider informed me that the Loyalist Legions had sent out their entire horse to harass us when they’d realized we had raised a pontoon bridge but that our rearguard was holding. The crossing had begun and it was expected that the Army of Callow would be across before the enemy infantry arrived.
The third rider wasn’t from Juniper at all, it was from the Black Knight. We caught the man and killed him, but all it’d do was slow the realization that we were now at her back. The fourth rider brought harsher news: the enemy cavalry had set fire to the pontoon bridge before the last of my men crossed, leaving three companies stranded on the wrong side of the lake. General Zola had ordered them to surrender, which they had. The rest of the Army of Callow, however, had crossed. A detachment would stay to try to salvage as much of the bridge as possible, but the march to Kala had begun. The Black Knight sent a pair of companies to check the fortress, in the hours after, but I sallied with the Order and rode them down.
There were no survivors and Marshal Nim did not try us again.
By dawn my army was camped beneath the walls of Kala Fortress, the few sappers Pickler had been able to spare looking into setting up defensive positions. By Morning Bell our supplies had caught up. By Noon Bell horns sounded to call the beleaguered Army of Callow to fighting positions, because our forward elements had brought word: the Loyalist Legions had formed a battle line in the valley and were now beginning to march towards us. Lady Black had decided she’d rather fight than let herself be cornered.
An hour past Noon Bell, as I sat on Zombie’s back, I looked at the retreating Loyalist Legions and laughed until my belly hurt. It wasn’t us that’d given them pause, no. We were in good battle order, ready to receive them, but it was a banner that’d done the trick. Atop Moule Hills, on Nim’s left flank, a banner had been raised: a vulture cradling a white skull, with green and yellow lines emanating from it. And under the colours horse and infantry stood, poised on the heights and looking down at us.
Sepulchral’s vanguard had arrived even earlier than expected, and now everyone’s plans were merrily burning under the afternoon sun.