“It is fortunate that virtue is its own reward, as it does not tend to accrue others.”
– Theodore Langman, Wizard of the West
The world had become as an oil painting and the Night was boiling in my veins.
Goddesses on dark wings claimed my shoulders, insolent shards of darkness refusing the ascendancy of the afternoon sun, and they said nothing. They didn’t need to. The expectation bloomed in the back of my mind like a swelling river: I’d offered them faith before they ever named me priestess, but now they required that purpose of me. Night still ran deep in the veins of the drow, however changed its nature, but none of their ancient favourites had been granted my office. First Under the Night, I thought. To others it might speak of supremacy, some perilous boast of standing closer to these quarrelsome goddesses than any other, but I knew better. I was first in that I was charged with the treading of unbroken grounds, as much a scream ringing into a dark tunnel as a priestess bearing their mandate. I was to stumble for them, make the mistakes and pay the costs so that my successors would not. These were still fair terms, by my reckoning. Alliance and the means to carry out my designs, for what I had freely given before they formally claimed it. But if they expected reverence of me, respect more than had been earned, then they would be disappointed.
“I never took well to prayer,” I murmured. “Either the secret whispers for help or the worn-down words they taught us to recite in the House. So I won’t offer you that.”
The sun above was searing, blinding. Fire from above none of us were meant to look in the eye. I breathed out and let the wind thread its fingers through my hair. The power came easy to me. It was holding it that was the trouble, for it was as temperamental as its mistresses: I’d ruled Winter, by the scavenger’s virtue of being last to hold sway over it, but the Night was not my domain. If I wanted the crows to smile upon me, I would have to swing them as sweet a song as I had it in me to sing.
“But that’s not what we’re about, is it?” I said. “The three of us. If you wanted someone who’d know your pretty rituals, you had thousands to raise. If you wanted devotion, or unquestioning faith, there just as plenty. You went through my mind mercilessly, that night, so you know exactly what you picked.”
My eyes left the sky and fell to the charging Levantines. Thousands in mail and leather and scales, steel blades and hide shields. Their faces painted with vivid strokes of colour, as true a language as the spoken tongues of their faraway land. They were close now, treading river grounds. I had chosen the broadest bent of the water for this, instead of where my armies had once tried to shatter winter’s work with the cleverness of the Grey Eyries. I raised my staff and let the darkness pulse with me.
“Here’s my prayer, Goddesses of Night,” I savagely smiled. “The three of us, together – let’s break something.”
Komena’s raucous, delighted laughter sounded in my ears even as the bottom of my staff struck the snow-covered ice. The oldest sister might see further, weave and scheme with cold judgement, but the younger one was my kindred in some ways. Even the span of millennia had not entirely faded the remembrance of what it felt like, shattering arrogance and host with the same single stroke. The soldier-goddess leaned into my intent more strongly than her sister, harsh and domineering where Andronike was skillful and subtle. The Night spread with a whisper before sinking its claws in the iced river, rending it mercilessly. Cracks tore open the frozen grounds, cold water sloshed out and hundreds of screams filled the air. Komena roughly withdrew her will from mine, leaving me gasping and leaning on my staff for reasons deeper than a bad leg. My sight swam, the glare of the sun failing to pierce through, and I had just enough presence left to hear Robber hesitantly stepping towards me. I warded him off with a raised hand. Gods, I thought. I felt like throwing up, like my veins were about to boil and melt. I’d never wielded a miracle this large during the light of day, and I wouldn’t do it again anytime soon if I had my way.
“Boss?” Robber called out.
“Took a bit out of me, that’s all,” I croaked out.
Too many breaths passed before I was myself again, but with eyes no longer rebelling I steadied my back spat to the side. The river had become a deep grave, I saw. There were chunks of ice floating in the water, but among them bodies were strewn. Fewer than had died, though that was no mystery: those with weightier armour had sunk straight to the bottom. The floaters had been savaged by broken ice. Some Levantines were still swimming and screaming, but I had little worry of survival. Taking a swim this deep into winter was as sure as death sentence as a swinging sword, unless some priest intervened. My last memories of the charge were vague, almost dreamlike – there were consequences, to calling upon that much Night and the aid of a goddess – but now I could more accurately assess numbers. Around two thousand had sallied out towards my little company, and less than half that died. Their mistake had been going into battle order, I mused. That’d broadened their line, turning the loss of a few hundred into something closer to a thousand. There were still a mass of soldiers mobilizing behind the survivors of the ill-fated assault, almost the full Levantine reserve, but I had no fear of that. They were on the wrong side of the river, after all.
The cavalry in the distance that had been heading for us earlier has slowed, and there seemed to be argument between its officers. They were on our bank, sure, but then they’d just watched me turn around a mile of ice into a deathtrap. And there’d be no reinforcements, if they tried their luck. I suspected they would be disinclined to find out if I had anymore tricks up my sleeves, which was for the best. I might actually fall unconscious, if I attempted to use the Night again, and not necessarily after I’d let loose a miracle. I wouldn’t risk it, not when anything capable of hurting the horsemen would be just as capable of ravaging my own soldiers if lashing out uncontrollably.
“That one wants your head on a pike,” Robber said, calling my attention back to the footsoldiers.
Or close enough. On the other bank, a rider stood surrounded by panicking captains. A young man, in beautiful plate that must have cost a fortune. He couldn’t even be twenty, I thought, though the ferocious-looking facepaint of iron grey and crimson made it hard to determine. He was looking at me with hatred and fear. The enemy’s commander?
“Might be able to end him with a volley,” my Special Tribune offered. “Best not to let snakes grow longer fangs.”
“So young,” I quietly said.
“You were younger, when you took your first command,” Robber shrugged.
Seventeen, and so sure I was ready to mend my little corner of the world. Gods, how lucky had I been to have the likes of Juniper and Hakram at my side? All of Rat Company, really, and those others handpicked by then then-legate Hellhound as well. But it wasn’t luck at all, was it? I suddenly thought. Heroes might have providence to furnish them with the tools of victory, but I’d had something of my own just as valuable. A patient man with green eyes, lending his weight where mine did not suffice and pulling a thousand strings to ease my way forward – so many of them I could not believe I’d found half, even after all these years.
“We learned our lessons quick,” I said. “We had to.”
Not always the right ones, I knew, but we had learned. We still did. The moment you stopped, Creation buried you.
“He’ll remember today, Boss,” Robber said. “You can count on that. And next time he comes swinging, he’ll be wiser about it.”
The warning was clear. It ran against goblin nature, to let a threat escape. And there’d been promise in this one, if he’d really been in command. Going for the general staff was a tactic that would have worked against almost any army on Calernia. He’d run into Grem One-Eye and Black’s reforms instead, the forced redundancies shaped by the knowledge that you couldn’t count on high command surviving a battle if heroes were on the loose, but the Dominion had never fought the modern Legions of Terror so the mistake was understandable. Pressing the offensive, as he’d obviously meant to, had not been unsound either. It would have been costly, but if General Abigail’s defences broken on even one front her army would have collapsed in short order. If he’d been slightly luckier, if I’d arrived a day later, he might very well have broken the Third Army completely. If you’d had maybe another ten years of seasoning, I thought. If you’d been trained better, learned to temper the bold with some patience… He could be a general of some talent, one day. No Juniper, mind you, but thankfully there were very few generals of that skill around. And if I gave him those ten years, one day the hate I saw might be turned on me with a wiser hand to wield it.
“Let him go,” I said.
Yellow eyes considered me carefully.
“This isn’t a victory, Robber,” I sighed, gesturing at the river full of dead. “It’s a waste.”
“Not like you to weep for the enemy,” the goblin said.
“Weep?” I mused. “No, hardly that. But every corpse we make today is a gap in the ranks when we turn to the Dead King.”
I sighed, then glanced aside. In the distance, I saw the cavalry had decided to ride around the river and return to the camp. Good.
“Come on,” I said. “Time to head back. General Abigail should be wrapping up inside the city.”
I began limping back to Sarcella, leaving ice and death behind. The hateful stare of the boy I’d spared followed my back, but what of it?
He wouldn’t be the first, or the last.
With the enemy riders away, there was no need to risk anything as foolish as trying the blaze a second time. Most the turtles were wrecked beyond use, anyway, and while Belles Portes had been under assault when we moved out I judged my forces too weak for a strike at the back of the Levantines still holding it. We took the long way around, the threat of the horsemen having removed itself, and long was no exaggeration. Though my drow tread snow like stone and goblins could scuttle through anything, I was exhausted beyond words and very much limping. It turned out that victory outpaced us: when we reached the eastern side of Sarcella, we were greeted by rowdy cheers. Word of the river’s break had spread faster than I could walk, and more besides. The cohort positioned to hold the eastern streets crowded us to deliver accolades, or at least tried to – I sent Robber ahead to have a quiet word with the captain about not approaching the drow. They looked a little stunned by the welcome, nonetheless, almost like children seeing the sea for the first time. The Everdark did not breed the kind of comradeship that the Legions and my armies used as mortar. Mighty Jindrich was strutting like a peacock and its sigil followed suit, which amused my legionaries to no end.
I left them to it, and took aside the orc captain in command of the cohort. The news were better than I had expected. General Abigail, it seemed, had vigorously prosecuted her offensive and then taken a gamble as well. She’d recalled the two thousand drow I’d left holding the north of the city and sent them to climb the ring of statues and arches around the city, to suddenly drop down at the back of the Levantines in Belles Portes. That’d neatly cut off both the bridges that still allowed a trickle of Dominion reinforcements to come through and the last way out of the force inside Sarcella. The enemy commander, facing annihilation, had been forced to surrender. I suspected the casualty rate for the drow who’d taken the climb and been forced to fight Levantines on both sides was a lot less sunny than the official version implied, but regardless I did not disapprove. Simply by ending the fighting early, General Abigail had likely significantly lowered overall casualties. The wary-eyed Callowan I’d promoted to the head of the Third Army had accepted the surrender as soon as it was offered, and Sarcella was now entirely ours. For now, anyway. There were still Dominion soldiers beyond the bridges, and the losses we’d taken during the offensive must not have been mild.
But it was only a few hours until sundown, now, so I had no fear of what was ahead.
After we advanced deeper into the city I sent Mighty Jindrich and its warriors back to the rest of the drow with a message to General Rumena, ordering it to pull back to the now-unguarded north of the city and away from the rest of the Third Army. It’d cover our bases, just in case, but that was only a side benefit. The longer my army and the Firstborn remained in close quarters, the higher the chances of blood being spilled rose – especially if I wasn’t there to supervise. The survivors of Robber’s cohort I relieved with my compliments, free to sleep or whatever no-doubt-against-regulations activity they got up to when they weren’t on duty. Robber himself wanted to stay at my side, but I had something else in mind and so refused.
“You keeping me away from the Dominion prisoners, Boss?” he pouted.
It was even odds, I mused whether or not he knew that make him look like a particularly horrid gargoyle. The amusement the sight caused was slight, though, and did not linger long. It wasn’t amusing at all, what I needed of him.
“No,” I softly said. “I need you to find out what happened to Nauk’s body. If they’ve burned it yet, if they had time for a Legion burial.”
The pout vanished, leaving behind a grim visage of wrinkled green skin. They’d had a complicated relationship, those two: adversarial and often petty, tainted by their largely one-sided competition for Pickler’s attentions, but there’d also been more to it than that. It’s been a comfortable kind of dislike, the kind so old and well-worn it had some kinship to friendship. And beyond that, Nauk had been Rat Company. He’d been with us from the start, the War College and those heady first days of the Fifteenth. That mattered, to those who’d been there. There weren’t as many of us left as I’d like.
“I’ll see to it,” Robber said, and for once his voice was completely serious.
“Please,” I said. “If the body’s still there…”
“I’ll arrange something, and send for you,” the goblin said.
It wasn’t a sweet parting, but this wasn’t sweet business. I ran into officers sent by General Abigail on my way to the Third Army’s headquarters, and learned the surrendered Levantine captains were being kept in the repurpose goal of Sarcella closer to the north, under heavy guard. The Dominion soldiers themselves had been disarmed, and while under watch had been provided healing by priests of the House Insurgent. I made my way to the headquarters as quick as I could, my leg was aching like someone had shoved an iron spike through. It was an effort not to visibly tremble from exhaustion, now that the miracle’s wake had fully settled over my shoulders, but I couldn’t show weakness in front of my soldiers. At least my shoulders were bare, now. The crows had left when I began the trek back to Sarcella earlier, presumably to look for fresh amusements. In this city full of corpses and ash I had no doubt they’d find something to their tastes. The merchant’s mansion that served as the location of the Third Army’s high command was a great deal fuller than the last time I’d swung by. It was surrounded by legionaries, and even inside soldiers were aplenty. The mood was celebratory, but while I offered smiles I did not linger. I was too tired to keep up the pretence of haleness for long, and I still had duties to discharge.
I made my way up to the war council room, finding what remained of Nauk’s general staff there and surrounding his successor. The general was the first to notice my arrival, rising up her seat looking like she would very much love to be halfway through a good night’s sleep right now. I could sympathize.
“Your Majesty,” she greeted me.
Huh, she’d done the salute perfectly even this exhausted. Whoever had drilled her at the recruitment camp must have left quite the impression.
“General,” I replied. “And all of you – you should be proud of what you’ve accomplished today. You went above and beyond my expectations.”
I was unsurprised to notice it was the orcs who were most pleased by that, demurely flashing fangs in a signal of humility.
“There will be another war council later, but for now I’ll need the room,” I calmly said. “I must speak with your general.”
Being sent out didn’t seem to dent their good mood all that much, and I smiled to take the sting out anyway. It wasn’t long before we had the room to ourselves, though I waited until footsteps could no longer be heard. General Abigail, I noted, seemed to be willing to look anywhere in the room except at me. I wondered whether she was always jumpy as a cat, or whether it was the result of days of march under harassment followed by battles and a spectacular assassination of her direct colleagues. She was a cagey one, this Abigail of Summerholm. Her eyes never quite stopped moving, as if always looking for a threat, and I’d yet to see her let her guard down entirely once even this far behind our defence lines. I would have thought her generally inclined to prudence, but the way she’d used the drow in the battle ran against that impression.
I’d been solid thinking, if risky, and raised my opinion of her as a tactician. It would have been safer to stick to a steady push, but overall casualties would have been higher by the time the dust settled. Add that to the clever trick she’d pulled using civilians to guard the back of Sarcella, and I had to admit she was one of the more promising commanders who’d risen over the last few years. Not yet enough to remain a general, maybe, but she had the potential to get there after a bit of blooding. Which Juniper had assigned her under Nauk to get, I remembered with a touch of rue. It seemed the Hellhound and I were sharing an opinion without needing to share a room. I dragged myself to one of the seats at the table and plopped myself down, brutally suppressing a sigh, and invited her to do the same. She did after the barest of hesitations.
“You did well today,” I said. “The river trick would have meant nothing if you hadn’t pushed them out beforehand.”
The black-haired woman forced a smile and a nod while muttering her thanks. I didn’t begrudge her that in the slightest. She’d sent quite a few of her soldiers to die, today, legionaries and officers she likely knew quite well. It never quite felt like a victory, when the butcher’s bill came in, did it?
“You’ll be remaining in command of the Third Army until we join up with the other columns,” I told her. “Possibly until we make contact with Marshal Juniper, if there’s no suitable replacement for you.”
“Ma’am, I’m not sure that’s a wise decision,” Abigail said. “I went up the ranks fast, and I didn’t go through the War College. All I got was the officer training in the camps, and it didn’t cover a general’s duties.”
My lips quirked.
“If a few years at the College were enough to make a general, my life would be much easier,” I said. “I’ll be handling the drow, and a few other forms of trouble as well. I can’t run the Third Army as well. You’ve acquitted yourself well, and you have the instincts for it. It’ll have to do.”
Her face fell, and once more I was struck with how young she was. I wasn’t all that older, truth be told, but it’d been a long time since I’d felt my true age. Gods, were we ever really that young? We must have been, when we fought in the Liesse Rebellion. I wondered if we’d looked as fragile to old generals like Istrid and Sacker back then as Abigail now looked to me.
“A lot of people could die, if I make a mistake,” she muttered. “That would be on my head.”
Doubt, I thought. She wasn’t so difficult to read that I could not pick up on it. And resentment at being thrust into this role. Both things could turn out dangerous, if allowed to fester. A lighter touch would be needed here, or maybe a personal one. There were times when twisting the arm was in order, but not here. An entirely unwilling general was of no use to me, and likely a liability to the soldiers she’d be commanding. Doubt and resentment, huh. I was no stranger to either, and in my experience they tended to have a common source in fear. We’d begin there. Propping up my staff against the table, I leaned back into my seat.
“In my first serious fight, I was beaten within an inch of my life by a procession of strangers and afterwards eviscerated by the Lone Swordsman,” I told her quietly. “I still have the scar from where he opened me up. I was close enough to death I managed to use necromancy to get myself moving.”
The other woman’s eyes widened, with both surprise and disgust. The latter was at necromancy – most of my countrymen still considered the practice disgusting and dangerous – but the former was not. It wasn’t common knowledge, how badly William had trounced me during the first part of our encounter. I watched curiosity seep in after the words sunk in, so I pressed on while the iron was hot.
“I ended up kicking him off the ramparts and into the Hwaerte, after catching him by surprise,” I said, “but it was a very, very close thing. There are some who’d call it fate, the way it all turned out. I tend to think of it as luck.”
“You were Named, even then,” General Abigail said.
Like that said it all, explained everything. I supposed it might, to someone who’d never slipped into a Role. It was a lot more eye-catching the way some of us scythed through soldiers like wheat stalks than the way a single story misstep might kill you in truth an entire year before the blade actually opened your throat.
“I was green,” I corrected. “Scrappy, good at some parts of what I did, but dangerously arrogant in my approach and I nearly died choking on a floor for it. But it did teach me a valuable lesson.”
I smiled mirthlessly.
“You’ll get eviscerated too, Abigail,” I said, and she didn’t quite manage to hide her flinch. “Not literally as I was, but one day you’ll make a mistake and it’ll be costly. You can’t avoid that day, no one can. And it’s good that you’re afraid of it.”
I met her eyes, brown to blue.
“Take that fear and use it,” I said. “To make yourself think. About how it could go wrong, what you could do to avoid it or survive it. And from there you plan so that you don’t end up in that pit in the first place. You do that well enough, and you’ll push back the day some.”
I paused, just a heartbeat.
“It’ll still come,” I frankly said. “It comes for everyone, Abigail. But if you can ward it off for a year or two, you’ll still have done better than half the generals on Calernia.”
A grimace split the other woman’s face.
“I could have been a tanner,” General Abigail mournfully said. “No one ever expects anything from those.”
“I served drinks in a tavern for years,” I told her, reluctantly amused. “And I ended up with a crown on my head. You’re getting off light.”
She paled, which made her sun-tanned cheeks look rather blotchy, but gathered herself with remarkable alacrity.
“I don’t suppose I am dismissed for rest, now,” she cautiously ventured.
“There’s no rest for the wicked, General Abigail,” I said. “Find us a bottle of wine and come back. We’ll be going over the orders you’ve given since you took command of the Third Army, and why you gave them.”
The black-haired woman let out a sound that might have been a whimper. I raised an eyebrow and she rose to find us something to drink, while I let out a sigh at the relief that was no longer standing on my bad leg.
Much like her I’d rather be sleeping, but if she was to be the first Callowan general in my army then she needed to be taught.