Interlude: When Iron Rests

“What poison is to medicine, war is to empire: apportionment is the balance of life and death.”
– Extract from ‘The Ruin of Empire, or, a Call to Reform of the Highest Assembly’, by Princess Eliza of Salamans

Word of the surrender had rippled through the ranks, drawing out cries of dismay and anger before they both turned to disbelief.

There’d been tension between the Legions and the Army of Callow, when some loudmouths in the former had started to say this was just an elaborate way to sell out the Legions of Terror to the Grand Alliance, but Vivienne had been ready to quell such stupidity. Plants in the ranks had done as instructed, gone on the offensive and accused the complainers of being traitors in Grand Alliance employ. Enough of those arguments had turned to brawl that sergeants got involved, so now the most volatile of the rank and file were cooling their heels under arrest until this could be played out to the end. On the side of the Army of Callow there’d been mostly outrage and laying blame, which to Vivienne’s mix of grief and amusement had been laid along predictable lines. Callowan recruits blamed the Hellhound, or more frequently Marshal Grem One-Eye – whose role in the Conquest still had him closely associated to national wounded pride. Most of the eastern recruits, though, both the fresh and those brought in from gutted legions after the Doom, tended to point the finger at Vivienne Dartwick.

Hardly unexpected: she the most visible civilian authority over the Army of Callow, a known former noble and former heroine. And for the greenskins, most damnably of all she had no famous feat of violence to her name. It was something to look into remedying, in the long term, though it was hardly a priority at the moment. The amusing part of all this, of course, was that while it’d been Catherine who’d pulled the rug out under everyone’s feet with that sudden turn no one seemed to be blaming her in the slightest. Vivienne had absolutely no intention of changing that, since there were only a few things keeping the Kingdom of Callow together and one of them was the myth of the Black Queen undefeated, the kingdom’s own crowned villain whose uninterrupted string of victories had become the backbone of a nation. It would have to be maintained, Vivienne thought, in the years to come – marshals and generals and even the Woe could lose, but the Black Queen could not. But that was beyond the horizon, and Vivienne Dartwick’s troubles were current.

The solution she’d found had been to let the current of older faith guide the rumours she sowed. This was not a defeat, it was a trick being played by Queen Catherine on her enemies. And Gods be merciful, Vivienne thought, but she couldn’t even be sure that was a lie. The drow  had been laid low by that sudden star in the sky, all but the most powerful of them battered into slumber for at least a few moments, and even the highest of these ‘Mighty’ had been forced to flee in the face of the enemy’s swiftly resuming advance. Legionaries had moved to hold the walls in good order, but within moments of that Marshal Juniper had been informed that surrender had been offered to the Grey Pilgrim and then accepted, bringing this battle to a close. Vivienne had spent the following hour putting out fires, but now the situation was stable enough she’d finally been able to head the general staff’s pavilion. Truthfully she could have done more, and would have preferred keeping her finger on the Army of Callow’s pulse, but Juniper’s last messenger had mentioned a message from Catherine with the royal seal. Those summons she could not deny, and so she had come.

“Adjutant’s still missing?”

Marshal Juniper looked vaguely irked at her immediate question, though not enough to chide her for it. What Vivienne had expected to be a formal war council in how to deal with the fact that the Grand Alliance had fully surrounded the camp and was now ordering disarmament and the bringing down of the palisade turned out to be rather less crowded. Marshal Juniper, with her perennial accessory Staff Tribune Aisha Bishara, Grandmaster Brandon Talbot for the Order of Broken Bells and Marshal Grem for what some had begun to call the Legions-in-Exile.

“Whatever duty Her Majesty sent him out on, Lord Adjutant is still discharging it,” Tribune Bishara said.

Vivienne kept herself from grimacing. Hakram had been a useful interpreter of Catherine’s occasionally seemingly outlandish decisions even before the Everdark, but nowadays the orc’s talent for understanding the thoughts of their leader had become a priceless asset. The journey into that dark place had changed Cat in deep ways, and much could be argued of whether all these changes had been for the best, but regardless of debate it was undeniable Catherine kept her cards a lot closer to the chest than she’d used to. Adjutant’s presence would have been a boon, Vivienne already suspected, for what was to come. None of the others were seated, so she remained standing as well and simply joined them at the table.

“Now that everyone’s in attendance,” the Hellhound said, flicking a displeased glance at Vivienne that was met with a raised brow. “This was handed to me by a rider of the Wild Hunt, along with knowledge of the surrender and instruction to abide by it.”

The orc tossed out a leather sheath bearing the royal seal of Callow, which Tribune Bishara daintily picked up afterwards.

“Unless there is an objection?” the Taghreb politely asked.

A round of shaking heads. Talbot might have objected, Vivienne thought, it if it’d been another officer but he’d always been a little sweet on the Hellhound’s helper. The wax seal was broken, parchment taken from the sheath and carefully unfurled. The dark-haired Callowan caught a glimpse of the curved, eye-pleasing calligraphy and repressed a snort. Hakram’s hand, that, not their queen’s. Which might be for the best, considering most of the time Catherine’s handwriting only skirted the edge legibility. She’d actually been taught properly at the orphanage, Vivienne knew, but Cat had always written like her thoughts were trying to crawl out through a hand too slow to keep up.

“I, Catherine Foundling, anointed queen of Callow by the grace of the Heavens and first of my name-” Tribune Bishara began.

Marshal Juniper cleared her throat.

“The meat, Aisha,” she growled.

The Taghreb’s head dipped in acknowledgement and she shifted halfway through the sentence.

“So, there’s an old story about the Ol’ Unconquered,” Aisha Bishara said, “that they call Theodosius’ Dilemma.”

The Taghreb’s tone was cultured and elegant, if so very eastern, but the words she spoke reeked of Catherine’s slow, almost lazy drawl. Vivienne knew it to be at least in part an affectation, as their queen was perfectly capable of formal address in her crisp Laure accent. She liked to use the casualness, the thuggish country bumpkin swagger, to prey on people’s expectations. Noble expectations, mostly, Vivienne privately admitted. Their queen had spent most her life carrying a sharp contempt for the aristocracy that becoming the foremost aristocrat in Callow didn’t seem to have changed in the slightest. Something wordless fluttered through the pavilion at the tribune’s words, though, sparing only Grem One-Eye. Backs straightening, shoulders loosening, even half a vicious smirk tugging at Grandmaster Talbot’s lips. They had not been left behind, that was what their stance said.

The Black Queen had a plan in the works, and someone else was about to have a very bad night.

“So in the First League War – which is a horribly inaccurate name, actually, because the League of Free Cities proper hadn’t even been founded yet and, wait, Hakram, scratch that whole part out, they don’t need the history lesson,” Tribune Bishara said.

She added, in a carefully unamused undertone, that the Lord Adjutant had not in fact scratched out anything.

“So in the First League War, Theodosius kept slapping around southern Procer like it was his deeply unloved goblin stepchild until it’d lost so many battles it’d gotten physically impossible for the princes to deny they were losing the war,” the Taghreb read. “At that point, the First Prince was getting worried about losing a third of Procer without war even having formally been declared, so you all know what happens: the Highest Assembly votes to ‘defend the south from foreign invasion’, everyone sends armies to reinforce and the First Prince makes a pointed suggestion that someone be appointed to run this mess that Theodosius hasn’t already cheerfully brutalized.”

Vivienne’ eyes swept the tent, and found most were raptly listening even though most should already know of this bit of history. It was certainly… colourfully narrated, but otherwise common knowledge in those who had some learning of history. And even beyond that. The life and deeds of Theodosius the Unconquered were a favourite of young boys and girls with dreams of military glory even in cities where no Helikean had visited in living memory.

“That gets us Isabella the Mad, and sets up Theodosius’ Dilemma,” Tribune Bishara spoke. “Because Isabella, she doesn’t offer a pitched battle or take back principalities: she just tosses one wave of soldiers after another at any forces that splits from Theodosius’ main army. And Hells, his people win most of those skirmishes and Ol’ Theo gets a few ambushes in himself. But every time he wins, he loses soldiers and Isabella loses nothing much. He’s winning so much it’s destroying his army, and so he has to make a choice.”

Vivienne’s mind raced ahead, for while she was not great student of military affairs she could see the shape of the dilemma outlined. It was not as important, she reflected, as the fact that instead of instructions Catherine had chosen to repeat a lesson that most of the people in this pavilion already knew. Would Marshal Grem? Maybe, as odds were that the Hellhound and Tribune Bishara had learned of this at the War College and the older orc was said to have been influential on the lay of the lessons taught there. Which meant the story was most likely meant for her or Brandon Talbot.

“Theodosius could fight a battle that couldn’t be won against nearly five times his number,” Aisha Bishara said, “to force a decisive outcome to the war. Or he could keep tearing through Isabella’s detachments for months and months, hoping for a better chance as his own numbers dwindled with every victory. We all know, famously, the choice he made.”

The Maddened Fields, to this day considered the only defeat ever inflicted on the first Tyrant of Helike.

“Theodosius bet on his legend, on being able to beat the odds and forge a miracle,” Tribune Bishara continued. “Isabella bet that she could ride attrition to a symbolic victory, and it was a brutal wager but she got what she wanted. They say that when Theodosius’ army retreated in good order, there were more than a hundred thousand corpses on the field.”

The tribune’s brow rose in surprise.

“Less than twenty years later, Jehan the Wise hung seven princes and one,” Bishara said.

Before the implications of that could properly sink in, the Taghreb repeated a stroke of madness.

“I grant to Vivienne Dartwick the title of Lady Dartwick, with all assorted honours and privileges; in addition I name Lady Dartwick the heiress-designate to the crown of Callow.”

Vivienne closed her eyes, ignoring the stir from the others in the tent. Why? No, that could be picked at later. Why now? The granted titled was clearly just a way to legally allow the second part without making her a member of the ironically-named House of Foundling. So what, as heiress-designate of Callow, could Vivienne do that she hadn’t been able to do a moment ago?

“Lady Dartwick,” Grandmaster Talbot quietly said. “The Royal Guard no longer exists, nor any knightly order save mine, yet-”

Yet I am, theoretically, equal in status to a princess of Callow and first the line of succession, Vivienne thought, opening her eyes. The Shining Prince, in all but name, and those were the Marshals of Callow before such a title existed.

“- yet the laws never excluded the Army of Callow nor any other addition to our forces,” she finished softly. “Which means I am, in the queen’s absence, the supreme commander of all armies sworn to Queen Catherine.”

“You can revoke the surrender,” Juniper said.

In the moment that followed, Vivienne almost did. It might just be Catherine’s plan, a surrender to check some advantage of the Pilgrim’s while she schemed some way that allowed her to both surrender in good faith yet keep her armies fighting. Diabolist could still use the wretched ritual that would bring back the drow to the field, and now the enemy’s armies would be surprised and in disarray. Less than twenty years later, Vivienne thought, Jehan the Wise hung seven princes and one. That was a warning. About winning wars at any price, about what came after. About Callow further humbling a weakened Procer and-

“Oh,” Vivienne Dartwick breathed out. “Oh.”

“Lady Dartwick?” Marshal Grem asked, brow cocked.

“I’ll need a horse and an escort,” she said. “I’ll need to talk with the Grey Pilgrim and Lord Marave besides.”

“Why?” Juniper asked.

“Delay disarming as long as possible,” Vivienne instructed the Hellhound absent-mindedly, “and keep the soldiers ready for fighting.”

“Dartwick,” the Marshal of Callow growled, “what are you doing?”

“If I’m right,” Vivienne said, “then I’m about to trade the full release of our armies for our help against the League of Free Cities.”

“Now, Hakram, I want to be perfectly clear,” the Tyrant of Helike announced.

Adjutant was still hung upside down by his feet, though given that the tripod was now being carried forward at a brisk pace by a swarm of chittering gargoyles the motion had set him to rotating. He patiently waited until the turn brought him face to face with Kairos Theodosian before solemnly nodding.

“Your mistress, I fear, intends to betray me most immediately,” the Tyrant said, not entirely succeeding at hiding his tone of deep approval.

“That does not seem like her at all,” Hakram lied.

The boy gestured dismissively, though with a trembling hand.

“It was a delightful bit of pettiness from her to send me someone whose fingers I cannot meaningfully break, after that little affair with my kataphraktoi,” Lord Kairos idly continued, “but that is that and this is this. Should the Black Queen turn on me – and she will – I will brutally murder you, if you’ll forgive my language”

“You are forgiven,” Hakram calmly said. “Though this seems absurd. Catherine Foundling has ever been a close and trusted ally to you, my lord.”

“You’re not even afraid,” the odd-eyed king complained. “I really should have listened to what my father said about Callowan spite, this is most unreasonable of her.”

“Your father had words on the subject of Callowan spite?” Adjutant asked, cocking his head curiously.

“I wouldn’t know,” the Tyrant cheerfully said. “After I cut his throat all he could manage was wet gurgling noises.”

Hakram made a mental note of the admission. It would go into the growing archive the Jacks kept on the Tyrant of Helike, though whether what the boy had said was true or not remained debatable. The orc found him exceedingly hard to read even for a human. Silence lingered between them, though in the distance the hum of raging storms served as canvas for it.

“I cannot help but notice, Lord Tyrant, that we are not heading out into Creation,” the orc ventured after a moment.

Unlike the rest of the League’s armies, he left unsaid. The last of the armies, a ramshackle mob moving in old infantry formations Hakram was fairly sure hadn’t seen use since the Humbling of Titans, had marched through a well-illuminated breach  almost half an hour past. Of the hosts of the Free Cities, all that seemed to be left was the Tyrant’s own personal guard of a thousand. And gargoyles, admittedly, too many and too similar in appearance for the orc to be able to count. Kairos Theodosian looked amused, his red eye suddenly twitching shut and remaining that way.

“I have sent all I need to send,” the Tyrant of Helike said. “General Basilia is more than a match for the Pilgrim’s pet countrymen and the unpleasant surprise your mistress is still sitting on.”

“Might I inquire as to our purpose, then?” Hakram politely asked.

“It would be a terrible blunder to feed a spy my most secret schemes,” Lord Kairos chided him. “Do you expect me, Deadhand, to immediately unveil my every furtive advance merely because you showed a modicum of polite interest?”

A moment passed.

“Yes,” Adjutant replied.

“Is this what loves feels like?” the Tyrant mused, then raised a hand. “Don’t answer, Hakram, it’s not like you’d know.”

The orc cocked his head to the side. The insult did not particularly sting. Perhaps if it’d been slung in the early days of the Fifteenth, when he’d still wondered if the wariness in Juniper’s eyes when she looked at him was not uncalled for, but now? Those doubts were long buried, and it would take more than a madman’s jeering to unearth them. It was not, however, the first time the Tyrant of Helike jibed of Hakram’s leanings towards detachment. That he would keep prodding from an angle that would yield nothing was interesting, and suggested two things: first, that Catherine had been right on the subject of Kairos Theodosian having some skill related to perception of others. Second, that what the Tyrant was seeing in Adjutant unsettled him enough to keep picking at it like a scab.

“Soon, I do think,” the Tyrant of Helike said, looking up at the ruinous sky.

“Soon what?” Hakram dutifully asked.

“You see, Adjutant, the histories will speak of tonight as a triumvirate of treachery,” Kairos Theodosian airily explained, “but that will be most inaccurate. Your mistress and I are having the most delightful match of shatranj while the Pilgrim and his kingdoms of the blind stumble around waving swords and miracles.”

“But, Lord Tyrant, is the Grey Pilgrim not the Named currently closest to victory?” Hakram asked, purposefully keeping his tone as dull and unenthused as possible.

He was, the orc guilty admitted to himself, beginning to enjoy this a little too much.

“You would be most wrong, Adjutant, most wrong,” the Tyrant said. “Tariq Isbili’s mistake is that he believes because he set the initial terms of this fight he still knows all of them. And so he putters around down in the snow and mud, while the real prize of the night is around us. He could get everything he desires, Hakram – and indeed I suspect your mistress is inclined to grant most his wishes, save those that inconvenience her – and still be made of fool of.”

Adjutant kept his face calm, though for the first time that night his heartbeat had quickened.

“Oh yes, my dear green friend,” Kairos Theodosian grinned. “I know what your mistress is up to. Seven crowns and one, yes? She has the recipe for the making of a Court, and the Hierophant provided the final ingredient of that heady brew by cutting an unclaimed realm from the fabric of Arcadia and casting it down towards Creation.”

Hakram stayed silent, unwilling to risk revealing too much through the lie he chose to speak.

“Here’s a secret for you, Adjutant,” the Tyrant of Helike whispered, leaning closer. “The thing that waits for you in the depths of Liesse stolen isn’t just your friend. I would be a great deal more wary of what it intends, were I you. For if this night does not go to the Black Queen or to myself, well, it is another friend of mine that will get his due.”

The boy retreated, loudly cackling.

“Ah, but I digress,” he said. “I did say that your mistress and I were playing shatranj while poor old Tariq was stumbling, did I not? Allow me to elaborate. The Pilgrim anticipated there would be trouble in Creation, Hakram, and so tossed a ball up and out of sight so that providence might allow it to land when it was needed, should it be needed.”

“You are saying,” Adjutant said, “that he sent a force through Arcadia.”

“Exactly,” Lord Kairos agreed. “And, old hand that he is at turning tides, he kept a heroic charge up his sleeve in case matters were truly dire.”

The orc’s jaw tightened. In the distance, coming out of the storms with tall banners, a glittering tide of horsemen advanced. Proceran banners, Levantine banners, the full horse of the Grand Alliance’s armies. Including, Hakram thought, every prince and princess in the hosts.

“What is that delightful Callowan saying again?” the Tyrant of Helike mused. “Ah, yes, I remember now.”

The boy’s eye shone wet crimson, when he turned to grin at Adjutant, as if it had already partaken of the blood about to be spilled.

“Finders keepers,” Kairos Theodosian said.

Interlude: And Pay Your Toll

“Oh no, please stop wrecking everything! Like that urn in the corner, with the djinn bound inside. No, the other one, with golden – oh, woeful day, this wanton destruction of priceless artefacts is so inconvenient to me personally and absolutely no one else.”
– Dread Emperor Irritant I, ‘defending’ the palace of the High Lord of Aksum from heroes

Tariq did not reply. He knew hesitation was herald of defeat, in contests such as this, yet he could not hasten to answer. Not with the stakes at play here – he, this army, this entire continent, none of them could afford a misstep here and now. A surrender had been offered, but could still be either accepted or refused.

The Pilgrim’s first and deeper instinct was to accept. If it was a lie she’d offered, a trick being played, then accepting would allow him to turn this spin of the yarn on her. A false surrender, when he still had the forces in motion that he’d sent out? The backlash of such a ploy would be bloody for the villain who’d played it. But that was the wrong way to think about this, he decided, because it assumed that Catherine Foundling was a fool. And she wasn’t, unfortunately. She was reckless often and at times arrogant, but also frightfully prone to learning from her mistakes – those, at least, that were not born from the flaws at the very heart of her. It was possible, he considered, that she’d pit providence against the weight of his broken oath. Wagered that events would not tumble forward in a way that allowed him to uncover the conspiracy, should there be one. Yet it was not a good wager, for her, since taking it at all meant she’d fallen into the role of the Grand Alliance’s villainous adversary. No it was nearly certain that the offer of surrender was genuine, which only made it all the more dangerous.

It would break the pattern of three, if he accepted. A victory for her, in claiming back her teacher’s body through ploy, and then a much greater victory for him this night, in scaring her into surrender – that would be the end of it. It was a draw that would take Tariq where he needed to go, arm him with the only blade left that might still be capable of killing Catherine Foundling should it prove necessary. If she’d opposed him more directly in this battle, even made act of presence, the Pilgrim would have come forward as well and leaned on the weight of their pattern to nudge events towards the certainty of a draw. But she’d remained veiled, hidden and plotting. And she saw right through me, Tariq thought, abashed. For all that he had told himself he had the measure of the Black Queen, evidently he’d been wrong. If he was to avoid compounding his mistakes, he must discard that belief and approach the situation with fresh eyes. Catherine Foundling had caught sight of the pattern of three he’d spent so long arranging, and most likely suspected the importance of it to him. Should this, then, be seen as an olive branch?

She would not allow a foe the power over her Tariq had sought to obtain, yet she understood why he found the need for it. And so a concession was made, surrender unconditional on the field, offering to his old hands the thread that might just untangle the thorny knot that was the confluence in Iserre. A knife bared, his purpose denied but then a lesser prize offered. It fit, as it would not be the first time that the Black Queen dealt with others using that blunt but potent approach.

Like an old mule he’d been approached, and this was the apple dangled: an end to Iserre that would be to the benefit of the Grand Alliance, in matters earthly. With refusal, then, would come the stick that would be used to thrash him. A more provisional offer might have allowed the Pilgrim grounds with which to refuse, but unconditional surrender meant that the burden of consequence had been passed entirely to him. There could, to be put it bluntly, be no better offer. If it were a trick that would not matter, for to be Good was not to be the kind of fool that fell into every trap: even devils could cite the Book for their purposes. But if it was not a trick, as he believed, then by refusing Tariq would be tossing to the side every sacrifice made tonight. Every death that had pressed down on his shoulders so he could bring morning’s light to the sky. Would the miracle wane and die? The Ophanim murmured uncertainly in his ear, even they unknowing. He suspected not, but it would at least be made fragile. Judged hollow by Creation, and so become exactly that. The Black Queen’s answer, the coiling darkness that lay at the heart of her camp and had been carefully woven into a theurgic ritual, would rip through it. Perhaps reverse the situation entire, unleashing her drow anew in the fullness of the might.

The Grey Pilgrim was no leader of warbands but he had known wars and felt the power of the Everdark’s children fill the night. If they struck out again with their strength restored, the battle would resume with her forces at a distinct advantage. A second victory for Catherine Foundling would end the pattern of three just as surely, which meant his choice was now effectively between two different unmakings of a plan that had taken more than a year to carry out. Exasperation welled up at the thought. All that toil, broken within months of her return to the surface as if on a whim. Tariq leaned into the emotion, let it course through his veins and then pass out of him. There was no use to growing angry at being outplayed: on the contrary, that kind of fragility tended to lead Bestowed into a spiral of decline. He’d seen too many times to count. Mind clear again, the Grey Pilgrim considered what the Black Queen wanted him to believe was his choice. Victory for him, on her terms. Likely victory for her, still on her terms. The old man’s brow creased as he considered it. There was something about this… theatricality that rubbed him wrong. For a villain, he thought, Catherine Foundling had always been admirably reluctant to sacrifice soldiers on false pretences.

What she considered those to be was where the villainy began, but that was another story. Ah, Tariq hummed. So there it is. The Black Queen had spent lives in her service, those of the drow, by sending them into the fight suspecting a miracle would snatch away their powers and leave them exposed. Unusual for her, and she would not do it without a reason. So why had the drow been sent, he mused? To force his hand with the bringing of dawn, certainly, but there’d been no need for such a brutal display as what had taken place. Thousands dead, so quickly, was not war: it was a point being made. They had been sent to make an impression. To swat down multitudes like flies and add weight to the choice the Pilgrim must now make. To create, in a word, urgency. Such a thing would only be necessary, he decided, if there was a deception afoot.

“Where is your liege, Hunstman?” the Grey Pilgrim asked.

“Another question was not the answer sought, Peregrine,” the fae languidly replied. “Your verdict?”

She wasn’t in Creation, Tariq grasped then. Admittedly the surrender offered had only been for those under her command and not the Queen of Callow herself so her presence was not strictly required. But if she wasn’t here, how did she expect to bring down dawn should he refuse her surrender? There might be other drow with power enough, but none with the requisite weight to carry it out. If the Hierophant had still been at her side then Tariq would not have considered the matter further, but the boy currently was in the depths of Arcadia making a ruinous altar of his grief. The Wild Hunt could not wield miracles of darkness, and who did that leave? No one but Bestowed or the most powerful of warlocks should be able to weave a working rival to his, leaving the confines of story, and the only place where the Black Queen would have been able to encounter such a helper since her disappearance should be the Everdark. It was, he reflected, deeply unlikely anyone but Catherine Foundling on her side could bring an end to his dawn – her patron murderesses notwithstanding, for should they intervene directly so would the Choir of Mercy. Old mule that he was, he’d been offered the apple and the stick. But it appeared that the stick might be little more than glamour, a shadow on the wall. If he refused, and dawn held, then…

That would be contingent on her failing to return, but her absence was telling: whatever her scheme, it required her to see to something else. Instead of an olive branch extended, he thought, this might instead be the affected nonchalance of a villain raising the stakes on a bad hand. Trying to scare the opposition into retreating by displaying unflinching certainty. The pieces were there, Tariq thought, for this to be the answer. Yet it was not certain, and in assuming that the Black Queen was gambling he would be doing the very same thing. If the only consideration was whether it was possible to obtain a promised victory on Catherine Foundling, then this was the choice to be made. Refusal, and pushing through. That was not, however, the only consideration. He could it be, when Keter was on the march? Could he truly justify, the Grey Pilgrim asked himself countenance refusing such an offer of peace? Refuse it when it delivered all he asked save for a knife at the throat of the very woman offering it – a knife, it must be said, that he now stood little chance of obtaining no matter his decision. The scope of the scales, Tariq thought, were close to beyond his ability to grasp.

The Black Queen that could be would be the end of Calernia. Between the Kingdom of the Dead and the Kingdom of the East, the continent would be made a ruin of endless war. Yet in combating the Black Queen that could be, was he blinding himself to the truth of the Black Queen that was?

Could there be any justification for the tossing away of the only pattern of three he would ever have with Catherine Foundling? There might not be another way to kill her if she further grew beyond Tariq’s means. By staying his hand he might be letting slip an entity he could no longer put down.

In refusing an offer of peace from Callow when the Dead King was on the march, was he not aiding the Hidden Horror regardless of all other concerns?

Innocents were going to die.

Innocents had died, some by his own design.

The Ophanim were at his side, helping his tired old bones stand straight, and though in their whispers there was sorrow there was also something other. Trust. They trusted him, the murmurs said, to make the choice. They had seen as he saw, tread in his wake for the seemingly endless days and night he had been the Peregrine. They’d been at his shoulder for his every mistake, his every bitter triumph, and still they trusted. Sometimes that was the only reason he woke with dawn, the knowledge that hand in hand they could still do more. Sometimes that was the weight that pressed down on his chest and choked his lungs, the strain of that unearthly trust. Tariq had tread with angels in his wake for so long he’d forgot how it had felt before.

“Should you not have answers?” he asked, voice choked. “Are you not the Watchers Kindly, the burning wisdom of many eyes?”

Old friends, he thought, help me. Help me see, for once more I am lost. But they had no answers for him, would not take the burden from his shoulders. But they stood at his side, holding up his tired from, for in the end they were the Choir of Mercy and though they could not save him they would at least share in his suffering. Tariq thought of the city of his birth, suddenly, of that summer so long ago when the plague had choked it with death. In those days where it had all been so simple, when healing could be the sum of him. When he’d not been charged with clawing Creation back out of the darkness’ hands, just to bring a little light into it. Tariq, who had last felt true warmth before the final breath of the woman who’d used to smile as she called him of no import, looked up at the sky and watched the star that shone there. Somewhere along the way, he thought, he had gone from bringing small lights into this world to bringing great ones.

Sometimes he wondered if Creation was truly better for it.

“Do you really,” he murmured, “trust me to make that choice?”

The Ophanim thrummed. Agreement, absolute in that way only angels could be. The Grey Pilgrim turned to the Black Queen’s messenger.

“Tell the Queen of Callow I accept her surrender,” he said.

“This,” the Kairos Theodosian mused, “appears to be a goat.”

Hakram kept a calm look on his face, remaining as dignified as an orc could be while hanging upside down tied by the feet. The Tyrant’s outriders had clapped him in chains and dragged him back to the League’s army in them regardless of his claim to be an envoy from the Queen of Callow, though it wasn’t until the Tyrant himself arrived that Adjutant was forced to watch a procession of gargoyles drag in a tall tripod and trip over each other assembling it for what had to be at least half an hour. He’d then been hung upside down from the centrepiece, and only now had his gag been removed.

“Greetings, Lord Tyrant,” he serenely said. “I am the Adjutant, here as envoy from your ally the Queen of Callow.”

“She wrote some very unkind things about me, Hakram,” the Tyrant accusingly said.

He tapped at the parchment his soldiers had taken from the orc’s affairs along with the goat, the same missive he’d both penned in Catherine’s name and been charged with bringing to the League when given the signal. The process had been more tedious than difficult: the barren plain this corner of Arcadia had been turned into meant he’d been able to see their columns arriving from miles off, though that hadn’t quickened his journey in the slightest.

“I am sure,” Hakram lied, “that they were meant in a spirit of friendship.”

The goat he’d had confiscated looked at him and bleated, which the orc had to admit was fair. It’d been a hard sell. No one seemed to have thought to leash the creature, so it was ambling around this formal war council of the League of Free Cities at will and tracking cheap white paint over the furniture.

“What kind of things?” a tanned woman in dark robes asked, leaning forward with interest.

“Magister Zoe,” the Tyrant gasped. “That is most inappropriate to ask. That man is a known spy, he could be peddling all sorts of calumnies.”

The formal war council of the League of Free Cities, Hakram thought, was about as much as flaming wreck as he’d expected given the fractious nature of that alliance and the general reputation of the Tyrant heading it. The orcs jaw tightened when his suspicion was confirmed and the woman who’d spoken was revealed as a magister of Stygia – what a dignified word for a slaver – thought at least it made placing the others easier. The gangly old man at the very right of the long table who was putting the proceedings to ink was likely to be the representative from Delos, a member of its Secretariat. The young ruler of Nicae, Basileus Leo Trakas, was recognizable as much from the formal apparel as the drawings the Jacks had obtained. The two richly-dressed men glaring daggers at each other should be the rival Exarchs of Penthes, the last two survivors of the shambles the Carrion Lord had made of that city’s ruling class. A middle-aged man in ill-fitting armour was looking rather confused and kept looking over his shoulder like he expected someone to be standing there. The representative from Bellerophon, Hakram suspected. That left only one city without a seat at the table, though someone had nailed what looked like a tome of the Book of All Things to the back of a chair just to the left of the Delosi scribe. Interestingly, the Hierarch himself did not seem to be in attendance.

“Lord Deadhand, it is most uncouth of you to be staring so at the honourable delegate from Atalante,” the Tyrant suddenly chided him.

He was, Hakram realized with horrified fascination, talking about the book.

“I apologize,” Adjutant said. “I have never seen anyone from Atalante before.”

Kairos Theodosian grinned, like he was mischievous boy, and leaned forward before lowering his voice to a conspiratorial pitch.

“It’s actually the Book of All Things nailed to a chair,” the Tyrant of Helike confessed. “I just have a gargoyle read a verse once in a while, I don’t think anyone’s noticed the difference.”

Before a heartbeat had passed, Hakram had decided how to tailor his approach. Like dealing with a drunk Catherine, if the jokes about hanging people who irritated her were actually deadly serious.

“Have you considered having a puppet made?” Adjutant replied in the same tone.

The Tyrant snorted out a giggle, his bad arm trembling under his robes. Hakram kept his distaste off his face: the villain smelled like sickness and crazy, both of the dangerous kind.

“I like you,” Kairos Theodosian smilingly said, but then the smile vanished like mist in morning sun. “Is what I imagine she thought I’d say, anyway.”

Hakram remained calm. The boy was unstable, but not without cunning, and Catherine had already taken the measure of him. She would not have sent him here, at the Tyrant’s mercy, if she thought it would get him killed.

“She does seem to enjoy taking up broken toys, your mistress,” the Tyrant of Helike mused. “A filthy habit that, if you’ll forgive my language.”

The villain cocked his head to the side, his sanguine red eye unblinking.

“But by the looks of you, Hakram, you were debris long before she got her hands on you,” he idly continued. “Magister Zoe, what do you call it again when they just look like a person but lack every other meaningful characteristic of one?”

“Foreigners,” the Stygian drily replied.

The Tyrant of Helike shot Adjutant a friendly, complicit look with a grin that good as whispered see what I have to deal with, like moments earlier the villain hadn’t been feeling for a weakness with his words like water poured on glass in search of fault. This was, Hakram thought, a man as dangerous as he was mad. He smiled back, keeping his fangs hidden by his lips.

“You really are a piece of work,” the Tyrant of Helike admiringly said.

“Pieces, by now,” Hakram replied without missing a beat.

The madman cackled loudly, and even a few of the others smiled.

“So tell me about this goat,” Kairos Theodosian said, “and why it looks like it was half-heartedly painted just before it was brought here.”

“And in wickedness does Evil sow the seeds of its own defeat,” a gargoyle mewled, staring up at a page of the Book of All Things.

Everyone ignored it.

“Your ignorance is understandable, my lord Tyrant, given the recent isolation of Callow,” Hakram said. “This is not a goat: he is, in fact, a purebred Liessen charger.”

Stares moved to the goat, which bleated fearfully at the sudden spurt of attention and ran under the table – she smeared white paint all over the robes of the Stygian magister before being chased away with a kick, which Adjutant silently approved of.

She has udders,” Basileus Leo patiently said. “Goat udders. Because she is a goat.”

“Leo, you’ll cause a diplomatic incident at this rate,” the Tyrant replied, sounding appalled. “Besides, my dear ally the Queen of Callow has personally sent me a mount. How could it not be a splendid destrier of Callowan stock?”

Interesting, Hakram thought once more. It had been one thing for him to call the Tyrant of Helike an ally, another for the king to admit it. The orc had been under the impression that while there was an elected Hierarch, foreign diplomacy was their strict prerogative and to go against that would be treason. Yet none of the others seemed bothered by the implicit admission in the slightest – which meant either the Tyrant’s plot were known and permitted, or the Hierarch’s authority was a sham and Kairos Theodosian was the true ruler of the League. Something many had suspected, including Hakram himself, but did not align with Catherine’s own impression of their relationship.

“I wash my hands of this,” the Basileus sighed. “Do as you will, Tyrant.”

“So, Catherine wants us to take a crack at the Grand Alliance,” Lord Kairos said, completely ignoring the other ruler in favour of Hakram. “Interesting offer.”

There was a pause.

“I refuse,” he added nonchalantly. “So, now that that’s done with, tell me true: if you had to be drowned, would you prefer it was in wine or in oil?”

“We were afraid you would hesitate to act, given the circumstances,” Hakram amicably said. “No grudge will be held, I assure you.”

“Circumstances,” Lord Kairos mildly repeated. “Such as?”

“The battle ought to be over by now,” Adjutant said. “The Grey Pilgrim will have woven a miraculous star and broken the strength of the Firstborn, forcing my queen’s unconditional surrender.”

A pregnant pause.

“She doesn’t have that much give in her,” the Tyrant said, red eye narrowing.

“My lord,” Hakram grinned, baring his teeth, “I penned the letter for her.”

The villain peered at him closely, as if looking into his soul, and the orc had to refrain from flinching. There was something… discomforting about the intensity of that mismatched gaze.

“It appears someone will have to saddle my goat,” Kairos Theodosian mused, “for we now must ride out in glorious battle.”

Interlude: Death They Cannot Steal

“Ah, the classic imperial dilemma: which caused the other, the rebellion or the tiger pit?”
– Dread Emperor Callous

There were two kinds of horror to be found in war, Razin Tanja had learned.

The first he had met and fought in the streets of shadowed Sarcella, the dark dismay of loss being dealt by the hand of a surpassing foe. Even outnumbered and ambushed, thrust into the backfoot, the Army of Callow had snapped out with jaws of steel and turned what should have been a dazzling victory into a brutal and exhausting slog of death. The heir to Malaga had seen that same skill put to work tonight, when the foot of the Grand Alliance had tried the enemy’s fortifications. Volleys from myriad engines of war scything through warriors of Levant and Procer alike, long darts skewering even the most heavily armoured of soldiers. Worse than those had been the stones of the trebuchets, whose frightful nature lied not in the first impact but in the skill of the engineers using it: most the time, the angle let the massive stones bounce and keep rolling, crushing ten times the warriors even the best-aimed of collisions would have reached. No, this Razin had all watched from atop his horse with clenched fingers and clenched jaw but he would not dishonour the bravery of the dead by mourning the necessity of their deaths. They had known, these warriors, what it meant to charge a position held by the armies of the Black Queen. That no one of the first wave would ever make it to the palisade, and likely none of the second either.

They’d come forward anyway, though. Captains of Tartessos and Malaga first, and the pride of that last one had choked him for those armsmen had fought the Black Queen’s own favoured army before, they understood exactly what awaited yet they’d come forward without flinching, without hesitation. Both Lady Aquiline and he had swallowed unkind words on the subject of Proceran courage when they’d found the commanders of their Proceran allies gambling over which of theirs would take the lead, taking it as attempt to pass off the duty. It was good that he had kept his tongue from wagging, though, for he learned moments later he’d had the wrong of it. They had all volunteered, every last one. The officers, men and women from half a dozen principalities, had turned to the dice to settle the matter for none was willing to concede the honour of the vanguard to another. Arlesites, Lady Aquiline had murmured in an aside to him, praise and condemnation both. These were of the same breed of soldiery that’d once invaded Levant in a relentless tide of butchery. But the two of them, one of the Slayer’s Blood and the other of Binder’s Blood, could understand looking at these people why Levant had been taken at all. Why their forbears had been needed, to humble an empire that could boast soldiers like those. Razin was certain he’d caught one of them – a tanned woman of southern stock, not even thirty but already high officer with a face that was a ruin of scars – cheating at the dice game used to determine who would lead.

It was such a small detail, he thought, and yet as he watched the horror ahead he could not help but fixate on it. That woman had gone as far as using loaded dice to claim the honour, and now she might very well be dead. To the second kind of horror, the hateful one. The dreadful, animal fright that came from witnessing something so far beyond you it could not be fought. Couldn’t be bargained with, or even fled. All that was left was to kneel and pray, to hope for its own reasons it would deign to spare your life. Razin had known that terror once before, truth be told. It had watched him from a river’s bank, wreathed in shade and might, and judged him with cold eyes. There had been no doubt, in that gaze, that his life could be snuffed out with a thought. No fear that the hatred burning in his blood could ever be a peril worth regard. No, in that moment that was the wake of death, the air still filled with the screams of the drowning, the Black Queen had for her own unfathomable reasons decided to spare Razin Tanja’s life. The heir to Malaga had clung to that, while his father took the Blood’s Scourge to his back, for what earthly torment could be half as shameful as the knowledge the greatest villain of their age had not found him worth killing?

Yet it was of that woman whose name he’d never learned cheating at dice Razin thought of, when the drow unleashed their malevolent works, and not of the frightful Queen of Callow. For a heartbeat it had seemed like the assault on the palisade would be a siege as that kind of battle was known to them: harsh and costly, but not beyond victory. Then the devils of the Everdark had struck, and not from the palisade. The drow did not sally out like warbands or armies. Instead they rose from the shadows among the ranks of the Grand Alliance’s warriors, and without warning or mercy they began to slaughter. There could be no other word for it than that, Razin thought. There were not so many of the enemy, perhaps a mere hundred, but they were tearing through warriors like an axe through kindling. Darkness rose in shapes and armaments, rained from above and swept from below, a hundred different sorceries for a hundred different drow, but whatever the singular craft each was an exquisite art of war. Polished and without flaw, for even when dozens and even hundreds charged at the enemy all that changed was the number of corpses made. Within the first quarter of an hour, Razin Tanja thought, almost two thousand warriors must have died. Not, not died.

Been swatted out of existence, like bothersome insects.

That quarter of an hour was what it took for the Grand Alliance’s answer to be brought to the fore, and all Razin could think was that it was a quarter hour too late. The sight should have moved him, and he could feel the sharp breaths and fervent prayers of those awed by the sight, but even as a scattered line of priests opened shuttered lanterns the sight of that casual slaughter stayed with him. And with the worry of how easily they could return to such horror, should their answer fail. It didn’t, Razin saw with relief. No, instead across the entire strip of night where the golden Light kept within the lanterns was revealed the drow flinched. Their strange sorceries weakened, lessened in scope if far from broken, and the Dominion of Levant began its counterattack. Slayers, the tempestuous retinue of the Lady of Tartessos, strode forward. Fewer than five hundred, all in light leathers and bearing the sharp tools of their trade and their ghastly face-tattoos of green and bronze. The Silent Slayer’s own colours, and those of her Blood after her. Above perhaps all others, the slayers of Tartessos espoused the most ancient and honoured tradition of Levant: the killing of monsters.

Even as the deathly gifts of the Praesi engines kept raining down on the advancing warriors, the beast-killers spread out in bands and began plying their trade on the darkness-wielding drow. Razin’s fingers had begun to loosen, though they tightened again when one of the enemy’s trebuchet stones landed far beyond what should be possible. Then out of the spray of earth and snow came blood-chilling laughter, and massive figure wearing a carapace of darkness strode out. It batted the head off a soldier almost casually, and without missing a beat began tearing through the centre of the army’s lines. This would break them, Razin realized, mind racing as he saw what would follow. Lantern-bearing priests retreating to weaken the monstrous drow, only to leave a hole in the line at the front that the lesser monsters would take advantage of. After that the slaughter would resume, and…

“Captain Elvera,” Lady Aquiline calmly said, turning to her second. “You have command.”

“My lady,” the old woman said, “you cannot mean-”

Aquiline Osena removed a lantern from the saddlebag at her side, and hooked it on her belt without opening it. There would be Light within, Razin decided.

“I am of the Silent Slayer’s Blood,” Lady Aquiline replied. “I cannot mean otherwise, Elvera.”

Foolish, Razin thought, for she was not just a fleet-footed slayer but the commander of this entire host. Still, Aquiline’s line was not one known for wits. All the founders had granted different gifts to their Blood, Akil Tanja had once told his son. Valour for the Champion, cunning for the Brigand, skill for the Slayer, wisdom for the Pilgrim – and that grandest of bestowals for the Binder’s own, that privilege known as knowledge. Or so the heir to Malaga thought, until he caught the high esteem all of Aquiline Osena’s captains were not watching her with. They not only approved, Razin realized, but they had expected it. Let neither queen nor prince rule over our dominion, Farah Isbili had once said. The second of the Holy Seljun, and first true ruler of Levant, for her father had not lived to reign for long. For while crown devour honour, one’s blood is not so easily gainsaid. Razin had been raised to understand this as the truth of blood being the true nobility of Creation, what set apart the wheat from the chaff. In having a past to measure up to, a litany of deeds, the great families of Levant were made worthy to rule. They must prove this worth anew with every generation, true, but they always did for blood was not so easily gainsaid. Yet now Razin thought of a woman who’d cheated at dice to earn the privilege of being among the first to die and wondered.

Would you be proud of us, Honoured Ancestor? the heir to Malaga silently asked the night sky. Of the works of my father, of his father before him and his mother before that. Will you be proud of mine, you who stared down an empire with nothing but death and indignation tattooed on your back? He thought of the legends he’d been raised to, of the five heroes who’d snapped the arrogance of Procer over their knee. He thought of that day’s own council, of Yannu Marave’s blade opening Father’s throat and the vicious barbs traded by the others. Would any of them truly be proud, Razin wondered, of what the Dominion had become?

“Captain Fustan,” he said. “I give you command in my stead.”

The bearded man, most respected of his father’s captains, looked at him in surprise. So did Lady Aquiline.

“Your intent, Tanja?” she asked.

Razin inclined his head towards the dark-clad creature in the distance, scything through men like a sickle through wheat.

“It took five to topple an empire, Osena,” he simply replied. “Two ought to be enough for a single drow, no?”

No, he echoed in his own mind. They would not be proud, not a single one of them.

That creature, Laurence de Montfort mused, was going to take a lot of killing.

“Bring out your weapon,” the Saint of Swords said. “I’ll even let you, to even things out.”

A lie, that. She fully intended on sending the drow’s head rolling on the ground if it got even slightly distracted. She spoke the untruth without hesitation, for she’d never been encumbered with the delusions of fair play that plagued some of her peers. The moment you bared a blade on someone with the intent to kill, there was nothing else left to consider. Honour was just a way to pat yourself on the back, a pretty face put on the ugliest of all weaknesses: uncertainty. Her opponent face creased with amusement when it bared its teeth, putting in relief the painted stripes of ochre and gold radiating from its lips.

“Why would I need one?” it spoke in guttural Chantant. “Children are disciplined by hand.”

The Saint looked into the thing’s silver-blue eyes and recognized the glint within. It had fury waking up her blood. She’d last seen it on that woman’s face, when she’d glanced at Laurence’s spilling entrails and sighed without even bothering to say a word. Is that all, the glint whispered. Is this the sum of you? It was the gaze of something ancient and fearsome taking it the brief glow of a firefly before it died, only to dismiss it as of only passing interest. She was going to enjoy cutting this one very much, Laurence admitted to herself. Without another word, the Saint of Swords struck. Two steps forward, half-step to the side, her entire withered frame coiling to put full weight behind the blow at the end. But the drow, this Rumena, it moved just as swiftly as her.

Its hand slapped the side of her blade, and it spun low – Laurence, without missing a beat, leapt up. The open palm that would have slapped her knee passed through only void, and she twisted so she could angle her body in midair and strike once more. Instead of having its skull split in two, the creature dropped even lower and waited a beat for the tip of the sword to pass it. None of that, the Saint thought, and this was not the first time she was tasked with killing something with better reflexes than her. The slightest piece of her Name’s power had her kicking at air with enough strength for her swing to swing back just as Rumena began to rise, the drow immediately sinking into a puddle of shadow and vanishing from under her. It rose again half a dozen feet from Laurence, just as she landed lightly in her feet.

In the distance, its fellow abominations were singing its name. Behind her, the Saint’s crusaders were opening lanterns filled with golden Light. Neither of them paid any heed to the audience, for they mattered less than dust.

“Have your godlings taught you anything but how to flee?” Laurence mildly asked.

“Your pale idols are worse than wrong,” Rumena replied just as mildly. “They are prey.”

They’d gotten the measure of their opponent with the first pass, so there was no caution in how they began the second. The drow foot tapped the ground, once, and beneath the Saint the ground blew up. She was already in the air when it did, leaping forward, and over what felt like hours but took less than a heartbeat she sunk into her aspect. Listen, she thought, and the word reverberated through her. And she did, the same way she had when straddling the line between life and death all those years ago. Hearing the Ranger’s footsteps as she walked away, and only then understanding how deaf she had been all her life. Moving against the rhythm of Creation, when she should have been moving with it. The Saint of Swords pricked her ear, and heard the dissonant cacophony of the drow striking at her.

She moved with purpose. A flick of the wrist created a wound for her to push off of, angling her descent so Rumena’s extended hand would pass her flank, then another to take the arm off before the shoulder and even as it drew back – quick, strident tempo – she leaned forward so the next stroke would slice neatly through the neck. The head tumbled on the ground half a heartbeat before she landed, but she did not sheathe her sword. There had been no silence, no precipitous fall. The drow was not dead. A wild, discordant slide, like a fiddle being struck, and the Saint was almost too slow. A prick against her shoulder, like the touch of a needle, and through that fine vessel she felt a sea of death and decay. Millennia of red slaughter and careless rot made into a gnawing bite. Laurence’s blade cut through just enough skin for blood to gush out, and just in time. Even half an instant later and her entire body would have become a pile of blight and bile.

She took the drow’s eye on the backswing, for its impertinence in trying an ambush on her. Carved through the insolent blue stare with relish, and smiled as the roiling darkness in Rumena’s socket failed to heal her cut.

“Careless,” the drow smiled.

The song hacked out a tempo like crows cawing, and before Laurence could move the air in her lungs turned to acid.

Ten of them, armed and readied and bearing a golden lantern, struck at the beast.

Seven slayers, a binder and two of the Blood. Not even drakes and manticores could have lightly ignored such a war party, but the darkness-clad drow tall as an ogre moved like lightning and struck like thunder. Razin’s sword was in his hand, his breath steady, and as his binder baited their foe he waited for his moment. A screaming salamander made of starlight and snow screamed at the enemy, and within a heartbeat its large head had been dispersed by a massive fist. The darkness-clad arm went straight through and hit the ground, which was the signal. Lady Aquiline opened the shutter and the golden Light touched the enemy. It screamed in pain, and its carapace visibly thinned. The slayers moved, then, feet whispering against the snow. One, two, three – the harpoons tore through the weakened darkness, giving solid purchase to the long ropes tied to them. In woodlands like the Brocelian, Razin knew, these would be fastened to trees to trap the hunted beast and restrict its movements. Open grounds like these, though, required different tactics. All three slayers pulled at the arm, to trip the creature forward, while the remaining four smoothly split into pairs and moved to flank it.

“Attack,” Razin ordered his binder, gauging the time to be right.

The woman gave no sign she’d heard him, but her horse whinnied in fright and cold and the bound soul of the salamander dispersed, slithering back to the tattoo it was bound to. The sorcery was replaced by an arrow-like burst of translucent magic that flew for the drow’s head, leaving the darkness shuddering on impact. Even where he was seated, the heir to Malaga felt a ripple go over his skin. He wondered how many thundering roars had been stitched together, to make that curse. Whatever the number, the spell distracted the drow even as it was beginning to recover from its surprise. The rope-holding slayers dragged it down and forward, and then the others struck on the exposed flanks. Long barbed spears were thrust into the sides and cracked through the carapace. The drow screamed again and without needing to be ordered the binder tossed at it a blinding orb – sunlight caught and woven. Sniffing a kill, the slayers on the sides unsheathed their straight long sword and prepared for killing blows.

With a deafening wail the drow’s carapace of darkness detonated outwards.

Razin paled as he saw what the wave of sorcery had wrought: the four slayers who’d been closest were half-gone. Their leathers and armaments untouched, but flesh and bone outright evaporated where the drow’s darkness had touched them. A grey-skinned silhouetted landed in the snow, harpoons still in its arm, and fresh darkness bubble out of its skin as it laughed. Blood cooling, Razin Tanja sheathed his blade and dismounted. From his horses’ side he claimed three long knives, which he hooked to his belt, and a small orb of ivory. The binder glanced at him, face tainted with worry at the way their hunt had turned debacle in the span of a single breath.

“Distract it when you can,” Razin simply said.

He rolled his shoulder – still tender from goblin steel – and approached at a measured pace. The remaining three slayers were struggling to bring down the creature before its armour-like darkness could be formed anew, two abandoning their rope for barbed javelins to be thrown. The drow snapped out to catch one with its teeth, breaking the steel tip with a loud crunch before spitting out the remains, and the other javelin went straight through. Or so it seemed, for it never emerged on the other side. A heartbeat later it was spat back out the drow’s chest headfirst and took the slayer who’d thrown it right in the eye. Razin winced at the sight.

“Ready, Tanja?” a voice spoke at his side.

The heir to Malaga glanced there and his brow rose. Aquiline Osena wore no mail not plate, only a tanned vest of leather going up to her throat. Trousers of thick dark linen with small plates of steel sown on went down into good leather boots, though it was not the clothes or even the slayer armaments on her back that were the most striking part of the ensemble. Beautiful patterns of green and bronze war paint covered not only her face but every inch of her skin. Lady Aquiline looked half a fae, though one born for the hunt. Razin calmly unsheathed his sword.

“Shall we, Osena?” he shrugged.

The barest trace of a smile touched her lips.

“Let’s,” she agreed.

The drow roared, and under the golden Light of the lantern they advanced.

Laurence de Montfort stumbled.

She fell to her knees, hands trembling, as she began choking on the acid filling her lung while it burned her form the inside. Her sword slipped her fingers, and Rumena smoothly closed the distance. Its sound in the song was too light, the Saint thought. It was another fake, like the one she’d killed earlier. What a cautious bastard. Mind sharpening through the atrocious pain she was in, the Saint of Swords joined her will to the current of Creation. Decree, act and outcome in the same word. Tariq had told her this was a domain, once, but he did not understand it like she did. It was simply her own faith, a tenet made absolute and so perfectly harmonized with Creation. She had decreed that ‘Laurence de Montfort is a sword’, and so she was. It’d taken her decades, to make this as true a part of her as flesh and breath, but in the far north fighting the ratlings she had shaped that decree so that it covered every part of what she was. She could have decreed more, she knew, other rules and laws, but the purity of a single truth would have been lost.

A sword did not need to breathe, neither did Laurence de Montfort.

A sword did not burn or dissolve, neither did Laurence de Montfort.

But a sword cut, and so did Laurence de Montfort.

The shadow-thing that the drow had sent to approach her was split in two by a finger and she rose with her fingers steady and holding her sword. What had once been within her was gone, for it no longer aligned with the decreed truth of Creation, and as it had never been there no wounds were taken. Standing in front of her, hands folded within sleeves, the painted drow waited patiently. The eye she’d cut out was growing back – it’d ripped out the wounded flesh so it would, the song told her.

“Come, drow,” the Saint of Swords said. “Let’s see if your faith is strong enough even I cannot cut it.”

“Come,” Rumena replied, “before one of us dies of old age.”

Razin’s knife slid uselessly against the dark obsidian-like carapace, failing to find purchase even after the third time he stabbed at it. The drow beneath shook him off effortlessly, not even paying attention, and the dark-haired warrior only half-succeeded at landing on his feet: he fell backwards after touching the ground, cursing, and the only thing that saved his life was that without a pause he rolled to the side. A bladelike appendage punctured where he’d been a moment earlier, leaving a smoking hole in the ground.

“The eyes,” Aquiline yelled. “Aim for the eyes.”

She was not speaking to him but to their binder, who tossed a bolt of hazy heat close enough to the drow’s eyes that it drew back. Razin rose to his feet, rolling his still-tended shoulder to limber it. What had once been a humanoid carapace silhouette in a carapace, if a large one, had since grown into something rather more monstrous. Two crablike legs made of a strange hardened darkness not unlike obsidian now held up an armoured torso of the same, while what had once been arms had turned to something reminiscent of an insect.  Like a mantis, Razing thought, and damnably quick. Of the three harpoons that had first stuck the drow, only two now remained though with the way it has shifted they now protruded from its shoulder instead of arm.

Aquiline Osena ran across the snow, a flicker of fluid movement and even as the drow struck out she caught the end of a rope in hand. Slayer, silent-sworn, he thought. Moonlight and miracle’s cast caught on her clenching arm, painted bronze and green, as she tugged at the monster and threw a barbed javelin at its eye. Grace and terror, peerless in hunt, Razin remembered from the Anthem of Smoke, and the sight was as burned into his eye. It had not occurred to him, until then to find beauty in either the act or the woman. Now he could not unsee it, and something in him trembled at the knowledge. The javelin caught the corner of the drow’s eye, and it screamed in pain, but there was a cry – the last of the remaining slayers was torn through, and thrown at Aquiline. The rope slipped her grip, and Razin began moving without thought. The lantern had fallen off her belt so he tossed his knife aside and snatched it up even as she rose to her feet behind him.

“Take the kill,” he called out as he passed her.

The drow’s obsidian eyes turned to him and it struck without hesitation, bladed limb tearing at the ground as Razin laughed and danced to the side. No binder he, even if the Binder’s Blood, but he had spent hours in the training yards to make up for that shame. Now those hours were sparing his life. It leaned forward to strike again, and this time they were so close there could be no true avoidance – the drow ripped through bone and shoulder flesh, but the heir to Malaga had avoided just enough to…

“Honour to the Blood,” Razin Tanja hissed, and smashed the Light-bearing lantern in its face.

A heartbeat later, Lady Aquiline’s sword went straight through the heart of the flare of light as she screamed a war cry, and wet black blood sprayed on Razin’s face. The creature fell back, its darkness collapsing on the snow to reveal a slumping corpse with a sword through the forehead, and the lord and lady fell exhausted on their knees to each other’s side.

“Lady Aquiline,” he greeted her. “You made a good kill.”

“We, Lord Razin,” she replied, eyes hooded. “We made a good kill.”

The look shared overshadowed even the bleeding pain of his shoulder, for a moment, but it turned to horror when with a wet squelch the drow’s body began to heal and spat out the sword. It began to rise, as did they, but it paused as if struck

Far above them all, light had begun to bloom.

It was time.

The Grey Pilgrim could feel it: if he acted now it would be an intervention safeguarding those in his charge. Sitting with his eyes closed, he could still feel the growing weight on his shoulders. The vigor – always sweet, always passing – of a younger man filling his body. The writ of this had not been offered to him by the Choir, it was no tragedy unfolding caught by Mercy’s myriad eyes and made known to his own. This tale had been of his own making from beginning and it would still be that when the end came, Gods forgive him for it. With every death the burden on his Role, the stakes of his existence in this story, had increased. Now, though his spirit felt like a spine on the eve of cracking, he had the necessary reach. It was a bitter irony that the deaths of soldiers had been the balance’s harsh swing in his favour yet the true burden he must bear had been of no consequence at all. Catherine Foundling had given the slip to every story that could bind her to an ending, and so left herself only one path: reign eternal, consumed and consuming, a herald of long prices and hard measures having made mantle of the woes of Creation.

The Black Queen had wriggled out of every binding and shackles, broken the sole irons he’d once set around her wrists. No redemption could be demanded by one who had forsaken her, not even for a greater good, and the broken oaths between them were yet another finger on the scales. Not so heavy, he knew, that it would doom him. But she’d be always a little luckier, a little harder to reach so long as that imbalance stood. In a less dangerous villain that would be merely inconvenient, but this one? She’d always had an astonishing intuition in those matters, and whatever else the Everdark had made of her it had also made her cautious. Patient enough to take a step back and let others take the lead if it meant offering fewer openings to foes like the Pilgrim.

“I wish that you had answers for me,” he said. “That you knew whether in my efforts to prevent our doom I am forging the very instrument of it.”

The Ophanim murmured in his ear, mournfully contrite. Before, in Callow, the Choir of Mercy had been able to see through the skein of her. Where threads may lead, choices that may or may not be.  And with his own eyes, his sight of what moved the Queen of Callow, together they had considered what she might yet become. Now, though? There were entities at her shoulders that did not brook such perusals. And what entities they were, colossal towers of misery and murder stitched together with prayers to Below. Goddesses of wails and horror, swimming in a shadowy sea of their own kind’s blood. The Black Queen had clasped hands with these abominations, and from what he could tell done so willingly. Knowing what he knew, not knowing what he did not, what choice was there but the ugly business of this night? If there was even a single chance that Catherine Foundling would be the keystone to the death of Calernia, Tariq must ensure it would not come to be. And so now Tariq was forced to countenance this hour of barren deaths, lest a thousandfold worse might be allowed to pass.

The Grey Pilgrim opened his eyes, looking up at the darkness before the dawn.

“We have sung together before, old friends,” he softly said. “Will you sing with me, once more?”

Murmurs, worried.

“I will not die,” he reminded them. “It will hurt me, this is true.”

His gaze moved ahead at the battle where so much blood was being spilled.

“Yet so does that,” he said. “And this will end it.”

Comforting hands on his shoulder, and with that assent he let out a weary breath.

“Pilgrim of grey,” Tariq sang.

The Ophanim hummed along, a choir distant and melancholy. A chorus of ever-weeping eyes who were charged with ever seeing the worst of Creation, yet still ground their fingers to the bone saving what they could. The hummed along to the Anthem of Smoke, that song that was the flesh and blood of Levant.

“Fleet-foot, dusk-clad, the wanderer,
His stride rebellion and stirring ember.”

It did not feel like peace, when they hummed with him. They were no servants of that, neither Choir nor man. Theirs was the duty of steering the world away from the brink, and none could be spared in the observance of that work. It was an endless procession of bitter choices, of lesser evils in the service of greater goods they might never witness. It felt like a lullaby, gentle and wistful but never without disquiet.

“In his grasp the light of a morning star,
Tattered his throne, tattered his war,” they sang together.

They called it the dawn star, in the Free Cities. In Procer it was morning’s herald, in Ashur the sun’s prow. In Levant, though, in the land of Tariq’s birth, though it had once been known as the morning star it was no longer called that. It was said that the Proceran prince who’d ruled the southern reaches of the Dominion had laughingly told the people that naught by the sky falling would ever make the Principate surrender its conquered prize. It was said, too, that the first of the Grey Pilgrims had been among those listening. A mere boy, when he heard, but he never forgot. And after Above clad him in grey, the boy become a man returned to that laughing prince and, plucking a star from the night sky, lit the first bonfire of rebellion from the tyrant’s palace. In Levant for many years now it had been known as the pilgrim’s star: the peregrine. Tariq was not the first Grey Pilgrim to wield it, and he would not be the last. From the first of his Bestowal, there had been one inheritance and in the wake of the song the old man softly offered it up to the sky.

Shine,” the Peregrine said, and the peregrine did.

Blood burning from the Light coursing through like a river, Tariq gasped out in pain and only the merciful hand on his shoulder kept him from collapsing. Miracle and aspect wove themselves together, the single greatest working of his life, and his vision dimmed with exhaustion. Above him the morning star hung in the sky, and with it dawn had come. The drow broke, creatures of the night that they were, and the battlefield held its breath.

“Now,” Tariq croaked. “Now you have no choice, child, lest they sweep through your servants.”

She would bring nightfall where he had brought dawn, and their powers would find each other matched. It would be neither day nor night but an eclipse in passing, and the Black Queen would be as shattered by the scale of it as he was. It would be a stalemate, a draw, and Gods willing the pattern of three would be set in stone – as would be the victory promised to him, so grimly earned.

Instead the air tore open in front of Tariq and a man rode through.

No, not a man. One of the fair folk, astride a steed that seemed half marble and ice, and that fae’s eyes were cold where his smile was warm and friendly. His red hair was like a streak of flame as he inclined his head in greeting, hand never nearing the sword at his belt.

“Pilgrim of grey, I bring to you greeting and missive from my most tenebrous of lieges,” the fae said.

The Pilgrim rose to his feet, slowly, and took the scroll being offered to him. It carried the royal seal of Callow, he saw. He broke it, took the parchment from the leather and after reading the single paragraph rocked back like he’d been hit. Surrender. Catherine Foundling was offering unconditional surrender. It would be a great victory, if he accepted. Victory.

Gods damn that vicious child.

Interlude: Trust Is The Wager

“War itself has no worth, as it is a temporary state. War ends, and therefore its fundamental purpose is to shape what comes after it. It then follows that a war fought without the ambition of a planned peace is inherently a mistake.”
– Extract from the treatise “On Rule”, author unknown (widely believed to be Prince Bastien of Arans)

Yannu Marave had been taught, as a boy, to make a spectacle of honour duels. There were some who might have called such a teaching arrogant, a presumption of superiority in all matters of steel, but those people were not of the Valiant Champion’s Blood. The Lord of Alava had followed those ways as a young man, let the crowds roar with thrill and fear as he made sport of warriors. He had done this while master of the field from the first stroke to the last, and taken much too long to understand the sickness and cruelty of the act. Yet a duel fought for honour, for decision, could not be a dull affair. The resolution must be striking, the victory evident, lest other warriors wonder if their own blade would have served the cause better. And so Yannu Marave had left behind the ways of the champion, of a duellist, and instead learned the arts of killing. As his forbears had mad study of the slaying of armies and beast, he had learned to take apart men of all stripes. Warriors in plate or leather, hunters and Lanterns and even the strange-stepping slayers of the Brocelian’s outskirts. All these, and binders as well. He had learned to kill these, kill them quick and clean and without a fuss.

And so he’d opened the throat of Akil Tanja within eighteen heartbeats of their duel beginning, flicking his hooked blade free of blood and sheathing it in the same smooth gesture.

Even as the corpse of the Lord of Malaga finished tumbling backwards and life left the man’s eyes, Yannu of the Champion’s Blood had calmly asked of his fellow lords and ladies of Levant if any other wished to contest the decision to attack again after nightfall. From the corner of his eye he’d seen Aquiline Osega’s hand dip towards her own blade, her Slayer’s Blood boiling at the thought of the match that could be had there, but the young woman mastered herself. The Lady of Tartessos was a dangerous woman, for her age, and would only become more so with the passing of years. She bore watching. The Lord of Malaga’s son and heir, Razin Tanja of the Grim Binder’s Blood, was not so patient. His sword ripped free of the scabbard, cutting through the silence that’d followed Yannu’s question.

“By smoke and dust, I vow enmity between us,” the boy rasped out, his voice cadenced with old words. “’til steel has sung and shield splintered, let there be no truce nor breaking of bread by our hands. On the blood of my father, I swear the last abjuration: by my hand the earth will spit you out from your grave, denied rest in barrow and shade.”

Razin Tanja’s face was still streaked with the iron and red of his line’s facepaint, and though tall and well-formed the boy was in no state to fight the duel to the death he’s just forced. He’d taken a wound today, Yannu noted, which had torn muscle near his shoulder. The healing done had been later and lackluster. Still, a murmur of solemn respect shivered through the assembled captains and Blood of the war council. Though Razin Tanja was said to have blundered and overstepped at Sarcella, that he would be so unflinching in swearing revenge over the same man who’d flogged him was garnering respect. From his own captains most of all, Yannu thought, and that was for the best. Razin Tanja could not formally become Lord of Malaga until his foremost kin gathered to acclaim him before Gods and men: respect and prestige would be his only true claims to command of the war captains of Malaga.

“So be it,” Yannu replied, dipping his head. “When your wound is fully healed, I will meet you on duel-grounds.”

“Why wait?” Lady Aquiline mildly said, eyeing the two of them smilingly. “Send for Proceran priests and have it done and over with. Let us settle all our affairs before battle is given.”

The Lord of Alava met her gaze with clear displeasure. So clever she’d cut herself, that one, and too eager to see her last remaining rival to command of the other Dominion force dead on the ground.

“Shut your fucking mouth, girl,” Lady Itima of Vaccei said, tone conversational.

Aquiline Osena’s stare turned poisonous, when she faced the woman who’d had her two younger brothers killed. Itima was an old hand, and of the Bandit’s Blood, so she was unimpressed by the sight and spat to the side in disdain.

“Yannu, confirm that little bore from Tartessos in command of her army and let’s get this over with,” the Lady of Vaccei said, glancing at him. “The longer she talks the more I feel the urge to make another cup out of an Osena skull.”

“Remain civil, Itima,” he chided her.

“There is no civility north of Tartessos,” Lady Aquiline angrily said. “Only poison and-”

“Fewer of your siblings than there used to be, eh?” the older woman grinned.

Enough,” Razin Tanja hissed.

The two women turned to him with barely veiled surprise.

“My father lies dead on the ground, his corpse not even cold,” the boy said. “And you bicker over old feuds? I will wait until the end of this strife to exact my due from the Maraves yet you cannot even curb your viper tongues for an hour? Shame on both your lines.”

“Not yet lord,” Lady Itima drawled, “and already making enemies. Truly Akil’s boy, though with half the sense and none of the-”

“I name Aquiline Osena war leader of the southern host,” Yannu calmly interrupted. “Do any contest this?”

“Agreed,” Razin Tanja rasped.

“Agreed,” Lady Aquiline coolly said.

There was a pause.

“Agreed,” Itima Ifriqui conceded, reluctance purely for show.

They put it to the captains, afterwards, but with the Blood having spoken the matter was good as settled. Even the Malagans kept to the word of their young heir without qualms when enemies were there to see, though Yannu knew better to think Razin would not have to make private bargains with the most powerful to keep them following his orders.

“Then we are bound with common purpose of war,” the Lord of Alava said. “Let none stray until our enemy is broken.”

Already the sun was beginning to set, he thought. It would be a long night before their armies would be ready to strike at the Black Queen’s host, for soldiers were in need of healing and rest. Yet the time would come, and for the first time in many years an army of the Dominion of Levant would march out with the Peregrine among its number.

“The savages are cutting each other up,” Prince Arnaud of Cantal said with open disdain. “I believe one of their great lords was freshly butchered and even now is being set to flame.”

This small pavilion of hers, Princess Rozala thought, was near filled to the brim with royalty. She would have preferred to cut out near everyone here of the council being held, but with the situation what it was that would have been more trouble than it was worth.

“I have spoken with Lord Marave,” the Princess of Aequitan evenly said. “There was disagreement over strategy, and it was settled by an honour duel ending in death. Lord Akil Tanja was slain, and his heir Razin has taken lead of the captains of Malaga. He has been placed under command of Lady Osena, who is well-learned in the ways of war.”

“They’re Levantines,” Princess Bertille of Lange drily said. “How learned can they possibly be at anything?”

The ripple of laughter that went through the tent at the quip was enough to begin scraping at the bones of Rozala’s patience, which boded ill for the rest of this council. She was disappointed to note that the slightest trace of a smile had quirked Louis’ lips. It should not be held against him, she ultimately decided. Prince Louis Rohanon was a clever and decent man, but he’d still been raised Alamans. His ancestors had not fought a hard war to take Levant, unlike hers, or an even more brutal one to keep it. Rozala glanced at Princess Bertille and found the older woman watching her, an assessing look on her face. She was pushing, the Arlesite princess thought, to see how far she could go without being called to order. The temptation was there to immediately put her in her place – it would be as simple as ordering the other princess to take a walk, dismissing her before all the others – but Rozala knew this was not the hour for it. Bertille of Lange was useful to her, and would remain so for a long time. Best to only bare the knife when there was something to hold over her head.

“We will of course defer to your judgement in this matter, Princess Bertille,” Princess Sophie of Lyonis calmly said. “As is only natural, given your distinguished military record and extensive knowledge of the Dominion.”

The Princess of Lange reddened and Rozala Malanza had to smother a smile. Both at the harshness of the reply – Bertille had no military achievements to her name, and was not known as a great scholar – and the fact that Princess Sophie’s continued open dislike for her fellow royalty kept pushing them ever further into Rozala’s camp. Cordelia Hasenbach had picked her watcher for skill at arms and loyalty, not diplomacy. A mistake of some scale, as it turned out, for protracted campaign had tired the patience of everyone and tempers were beginning to flare more and more frequently.

“The Dominion is worrying me, all jests aside,” Prince Rodrigo of Orense spoke up. “They seem most unstable, Princess Malanza. Lord Marave’s scheme to attack the enemy camp was a failure, yet we are now expected to heed his plans once more?”

Rozala inclined her head in acknowledgement of his words, not in the least troubled by the question. After all, they’d arranged before the council for him to ask it.

“He spent only Dominion soldiery, if you’ll recall,” the Princess of Aequitan said. “Not ours. And this is not merely his own design – the Grey Pilgrim is at his side, preparing to fight the enemy we cannot.”

Even an oblique mention of the Black Queen was enough to chase any trace of mirth out of the tent. There were some here who’d not been at the Battle of the Camps, who’d not seen the crowned warlord of Callow split the clouds and drown men like flies or make sport of entire bands of heroes. There were some here who’d whispered behind closed doors that Prince Amadis Milenan and his armies had simply been cocksure and caught by surprise, and in the wake of that sloppiness tried to weave wild tales to avoid the blame. No one whispered such things anymore, Rozala thought. Not since half the people in this room had seen that spit of a girl tear out of the sky in a ripple of darkness only to nonchalantly set herself in the way of an army thousands strong without ever baring a weapon. Without raising her voice, or doing anything but smoking her eerie bone pipe and giving calm warning. Princess Rozala still thought of that afternoon, sometimes, of the death she’s seen in the other woman’s smile. It still had her shivering. The Black Queen was mad, but hers was a madness that had broken every army in her path. The Princess of Aequitan would not test her again without great care and many preparations.

“It’s still a fool’s notion, this night attack,” Princess Leonor of Valencis opined. “Chosen don’t hold ground, Princess Rozala. They can’t be relied on. When we take a swing at that palisade, the enemy will have goblins and drow waiting for us.”

Arnaud pompously cleared his throat.

“We don’t know for certain if drow see in the night, Leonor,” the Prince of Cantal chided, tone condescending. “Let us not make unwarranted assumptions.”

“They live underground, Arnaud,” Prince Louis sighed. “We can assume they see in the dark without it being unwarranted.”

“They could have very fine hearing,” Princess Bertille drawled. “Or mayhaps like bats it is their cry that is their sight.”

“Indeed, Bertille, indeed,” Prince Arnaud enthusiastically agreed. “My point exact.”

Sometimes Rozala wondered what it was like to be Arnaud Brogloise, the kind of person whose triumphant vanity would allow to take anything but the most obvious of mockeries as affirmation. It wasn’t like the Princess of Lange had even bothered with much of a pretence.

“The Chosen will be sent to match the Damned, Princess Leonor,” Princess Rozala said, dragging the conversation back to the earlier path. “We will not be relying on them for the fighting. I assure you, we have accounted for the drow.”

“That’d be why our priests have been in talks with the Lanterns for the last sennight, I take it,” Princess Leonor replied, eyes narrowing. “You won’t be saying more?”

Rozala flicked a glance at Louis.

“Lady Dartwick, the Black Queen’s spymistress, has agents in our camps,” the Prince of Creusens said. “We’ve caught and hung ten of these ‘Jacks’ already. As a result, it was decided that secrecy is to be paramount. If the enemy catches wind of our stratagems beforehand, I need not detail how much of a disaster this could become.”

“But you are aware of the details, Prince Rohanon,” Princess Leonor pressed. “And consider the notion sound?”

“I do,” Louis replied without hesitation. “Risky, but soundly planned and perhaps our only chance at winning this without tossing away fifty thousand foot taking that palisade.”

“Gods be merciful, then,” the Princess of Valencis sighed, “and ward us from the reaching claws of Below.”

“We will begin our advance two hours before dawn,” Princess Rozala informed them. “Camp fires are to be kept alight to mislead the enemy, and there will be no horns sounded for assembly. You will be all be tasked with seeing to your own soldiers, while I’ve appointed Prince Louis to command over the levies furnished by Her Serene Highness.”

“Glorious command indeed, my prince of Creusens,” Princess Bertille smirked.

The Princess of Aequitan’s eyes narrowed.

“As you’ve shown such spirit tonight, my princess of Lange, I expect you will have no trouble leading the tip of the wedge,” Rozala calmly said.

The other woman’s smirk vanished.

“There will be use for our horse then?” she said.

“We’re sending everything we have,” Princess Rozala grimly replied. “So is the Dominion. We’ll win or lose on the knife’s edge that splits night from dawn.”

Dark tidings, that, but they were Proceran and so they still toasted to the madness before dispersing to their duties.

Juniper, fresh awoken and only half-dressed, did not bother to ask Aisha if she was serious. Her Staff Tribune would not jest about such a thing, or wake her without being entirely sure it was happening.

“Their military intelligence shouldn’t be this bad,” the Marshal of Callow said.

She wordlessly leaned back to allow Aisha to tie her aketon, letting the Taghreb’s deft fingers handle the delicate clasps she could not reach. The touch was not distracting, but not enough that Juniper could not concentrate through it.

“Catherine’s readings of the Grey Pilgrim have been inaccurate before,” Staff Tribune Aisha Bishara noted. “It might be that these… goddesses from the Everdark have obscured the truths of the drow from our opponents.”

“If we’re lucky that’ll be the case,” Juniper grunted.

With the aketon properly on and no need for full armour quite yet, distance between them resumed and the Marshal of Callow’s mind turned to safer avenues than the golden glow of her old friend’s cheeks in the light of the torches.

“If we’re not lucky,” the Hellhound continued, “and that is to be our working assumption, they have a hard counter to the drow.”

“We are not without cards of our own,” Aisha reminded her.

“It’s still playing to the enemy’s tempo,” Juniper said. “I don’t like giving them what they want, Aisha, and that would be what we’re doing.”

“Should I order the Fourth Army and the assigned Legions to hold the palisades instead?” she asked.

The Hellhound breathed out, considering the lay of it. Would keeping the drow in reserve until the enemy had engaged better the situation? There was no way to tell, honestly. It’d be more prudent to bait out whatever plan the Grand Alliance had prepared early so that a defence could be mounted with it out in the open. Her warlord had made it clear that the tribes of the ‘Firstborn’ were heavies in the league of a Court’s field army, after night fell, but that kind of strength tended to be unreliable in Juniper’s opinion. She put more trust in overlapping lanes of fire and steady shield walls than in powerful but disorganized hordes.

“Keep them in reserve near the front,” Juniper finally said. “We’ll let the drow take the first crack at the enemy. But Aisha?”

Her Staff Tribune smoothly turned, eyebrow cocked.

“Sound the full muster,” the Marshal of Callow said. “Everyone in gear. This is it. I can feel it in my bones.”

Moro Ifriqui of the Brigand’s Blood, heir to Vaccei, checked on the leather strap keeping his javelins from jostling around his back with every step. It needed tightening, and though it was awkward to paw at the strap while keeping pace with the other skirmishers he forced himself anyway. Better a small embarrassment now than a mistake that might cost him his life in the heat of battle. The Vaccei warriors around him slowed when they approached the edge of the enemy’s range, where the spears of flame had been thrown at them from a great distance during the day. Knowing his role in this, Moro took the lead and bared the serrated sword that was sheathed at his hip.

“Honour to Levant,” he screamed. “Honour to the Blood. Honour to Vaccei!”

Screams repeated his words back at him, and twice more he repeated the ritual to fray the edges of fear and replace them with ardour instead. Only then did he scream for the advance, and the warriors marched into the field. Above them the Proceran priests wove miracles, globes of Light that cast down a glow over the stretch of plain leading to the palisade. Moro kept the beat of his warriors’ march steady, knowing it was not yet time for the charge proper, and as he moved forward cast wary looks at the pit traps the day’s fighting had revealed. Grimly, he thought to himself that without those being unearthed and the Proceran miracles lighting the way his charge would be little less than hurrying to honourable death. When the same massive sorcerous spears of flame that had been used during the day lit up the enemy camp, the heir to Vaccei felt a thrill of excitement and fear both running through his veins. Fear, for if he were to be touched by one of these his death would be instantaneous. Excitement, for there were no more spears now than there had been during the day and that meant…

Spread among the Vaccei warriors, the Lanterns laughingly called out their battle-hymns and jagged arcs of Light sprung upwards – fifteen, seventeen of them scything through the darkness of the night. They impacted the enemy’s sorcerous flames with a sound like claps of thunder, and though the miracles broke so did the enemy’s magic. Moro laughed, the battle-joy lending his feet wings, and picked up the pace. Behind him his warriors followed suit, the dauntless vanguard of the Dominion, and it was singing couplets from the Anthem of Smoke that the heir to Vaccei passed into the killing yard: the suspected outer range of the enemy siege engines. And it was true, for a mere two heartbeats later projectiles near invisible in the gloom began scything through the lines of his men. First the long darts and round stones of the ballistas, skewering flesh and shattering bones before a scream could even rip free of the throat.

“Scatter,” Moro yelled.

Had they been the lumbering, heavily armoured armsmen of Alava his warriors would have broken and died. But they were the followers of the Brigand’s blood, light-footed and fleet, ghosts in the dark and killers in the wet earth: the formation vanished in a heartbeat, becoming a loose mob of warriors charging forward at backbreaking pace. Moro laughed and veered wildly to the left, barely avoiding the geyser of snow and earth that was the introduction of the first enemy trebuchet. A woman behind him screamed when the large stone kept rolling and caught her, though the sickening crunch that followed told of a merciful quick death in the heartbeat that followed. The paints on his face running with sweat, Moro of the Brigand’s Blood forced his aching limbs to quicken and with another shout urged his warriors onwards. Through the first hail, and the most vicious. The enemy scorpions fired their long javelins with deadly accuracy that only cursed goblins would be able to muster in the dark, snuffing out lives wherever the whim took them. But beyond that, the warrior saw, there was open field.

At too odd an angle for the engines to be able to kill, too close to the palisade. In the glow of the Light globes he could glimpse the dry moat before the enemy’s rampart, and with a proud shout he ripped one of the javelins clear of his back. It was time to have the enemy taste Vaccei’s steel. Yet above the palisade, he saw, it was not legionaries that awaited but instead the grey-skinned devils his mother had told him were truly drow from the Everdark. Their gear was shoddy, he saw with a sneer, and would be no proof for a good javelin. Even better. One more step he took, and then a hand was laid on his shoulder from the front.

“Chno sve noc,” a guttural voice said.

Before the words were even fully spoken, his arm was gone up to the shoulder along with the javelin he’d been holding. Turned to dust, already gone in the wind. Moro opened his mouth to scream as a cold silver-blue pair of eyes contemplated him. The drow, for Ashen Gods it must be a drow, smiled and he saw a flash of obsidian before – before there was a spray of grayish blood all over him, and the creature fell split in half.

“Look alive, boy,” the Saint of Swords idly said, flicking the blood off her blade. “We’re just-”

Moro did not see her move, but suddenly her sword was angled differently and she was flying back, while a ringing sound like another blade had hit her echoed. Not, he saw with dismay, not another blade. The grey palm of a drow’s hand was extended where the Saint had stood, and slowly the creature straightened its back. The abomination was ancient, Moro realized, its skin horridly creased and its thick black veins visibly ridged. It wore a strange tunic of obsidian rings, belted at the hip, and its hair was snow-white and long.

“You again,” the Saint of Swords snarled.

The drow glanced at Moro.

“Boring,” it said in broken tradertalk. “Boring south cattle, no better Procer cattle. Run now.”

In the distance the rest of the drow began a strange ululating prayer. Rumenarumenarumena, they went, some sort of heretical hymn offered up to the sky. As the ancient drow turned its attention to Saint of Swords, Moro took the advice he’d been given.

He ran.

Sitting on a stone, legs folded, the Grey Pilgrim watched the battle and waited. For now, all was unfolding as he had foreseen.

So why, Tariq wondered, were the Ophanim murmuring so worriedly in his ear?

Interlude: Graves We Have Yet To Fill

“The middle years of the Uncivil Wars can roughly be described as a series of conflicts fought to determine peace terms. The tragedy of those years, in retrospective, can be said that while the overwhelming majority of them desired peace no two Calernian powers could agree on what exactly the terms of it should be – and so to war they all went, convinced every step of the way that the others were at fault for it.”
– Extract from the personal memoirs of Lady Aisha Bishara

The third volley did not work better than those before it.

The spears of flame rose into the sky like quarrels loosed, before the guiding sorceries of the legion mages who’d performed the ritual pulled them down. The arc was sudden but graceful, the crackling fire in red and gold tearing straight through the five largest apparitions the Dominion had sent forward. Earth and snow dispersed at the explosion of heat and light, the grounds beneath what had been the shape of strange creatures scorched through a vaporized layer of a frost. There were about a hundred of the damned things, General Abigail thought, but it wouldn’t have been too bad if a ritual volley actually put the abominations downs. Instead she winced as she watched the flames of her mages disperse in turn, leaving behind only small droplets of eldritch power hovering in the air. A heartbeat later the ground beneath the droplets began breaking up and the creatures that’d been broken began reforming.

“It’s not getting any slower, ma’am,” Krolem said.

“I can see that, thank you,” she acidly replied.

Fuck. At this rate the entire web of traps the army’s sappers had worn themselves to the bone digging during nights and hiding before dawn came would be trampled into irrelevance by some strange godsdamned Levantine magic. She squinted at the creatures again, noting how the massive manticore in the lead acted like it was actually hungry. That had to be blasphemous, right? It was all looking a little too much like necromancy, and you weren’t supposed to do that if you were on the side of a crusade these people were on.

“I’m not arguing the House Insurgent is right, mind you,” she muttered. “But this needs looking at, is all I’m saying.

“Ma’am?” Krolem asked, sounding confused.

Had he been talking? Abigail had no idea, but now was not the time to look like she was losing it in front of the troops. The Black Queen’s barn-burning oration at Sarcella had riled them up like young dockworkers who’d just gotten their first pay. If they thought she was the weak link in this army, Abigail thought with a sudden urge to grimace, they were going to tear her apart. Possibly literally given the amount of orcs there were in the ranks. Look calm, Abigail, she told herself. It’s all under control.

“Quite right, Krolem,” she slowly said. “Spot on. On that note, I need you to request a deployment order from Marshal Juniper.”

She sent him off after a quick elaboration, fairly sure the Hellhound would refuse her request and so in the after-battle reports she’d have an excuse for her failure to perform. That it would put her straight at odds with the Marshal of Callow would be even better, she giddily thought. Marshal Juniper might even demote her, or drum her out of the army.

A girl could dream, couldn’t she?

Forward, Akil Tanja had ordered.

The Lord of Malaga was no fool, to send his binders forward unprotected, but neither would he spare them contribution. After Lady Aquiline had requested the deployment of his finest war-sorcerers to clear the approach of traps, he’d immediately sent for his son. Razin was in need of deeds to redeem himself, if he was to remain the heir to Malaga, and opportunity would arise soon enough. For that purpose Akil had ordered the boy to gather captains enough for two thousand warriors, all bearing shields, and appointed him to command before sending him to reinforce the binders. They would need that protection soon enough, the Lord of Malaga knew, for the bound spirits that had been sent forth were reaching the end of their leash. No other power of Levant had made as deep study of the arts of binding like the Grim Binder’s line, and though Malaga was hardly the only city to send binders to war for the other families such a thing was rare and always in small numbers. That had obscured some of the limitations of their craft, which would become clear very soon if Akil was not careful with his orders.

The binding of a soul or spirit was done with one’s own blood mixed with the ancient flower-dye, tattooed on one’s skin with needles of barrow-bone. The patterns of these bindings had been refined by Akil’s ancestors, to require less breadth and shackle the bound more tightly – and cease sickening the blood of those who used them recklessly. The sharing of those secrets with those who entered the service of the Tanja was why so many practitioners came to Malaga, with the finest among them allowed to read the tomes of the Obscure Library in exchange for oaths to answer calls to war by the ruling lord or lady of the city. Yet since the founding of the Dominion, no binder saved those Bestowed had ever succeeded at sending one of their bound entities further than three hundred feet from themselves. Akil was talented in the art, as befitting of his blood, and so the silver-winged hawk he’d bound as a boy he could send as far as two hundred and twelve feet without the shackle turning on him. Yet it was a rare thing for any binder to reach more than two hundred feet, and even most of those allowed to peruse the Obscure Library remained in the antechamber of that hurdle.

This mattered today, if only because soon the spirits of his binders would have to halt their advance. Ordering them to advance would remedy the issue and allow them to clear the entire field all the way to the enemy fortifications without further casualties, but it would also leave them vulnerable. Razin and the shield-bearing warriors he’d assembled would see to that vulnerability, he’d decided. It would leave his son close to the front, too, and so able to lead the assault against the same force that had humbled him at Sarcella.

At the head of his host the Malaga binders were surrounded by rings of steel, and as he had ordered forward they all went.

“Why?”

Marshal Juniper of the Red Shields was frowning. General Abigail’s tribune – a good Hoaring Hoof Clan boy by the look of his jaw, she’d noted with approval – cleared his throat in that way young officers always did when they had no good answer but had to answer anyway. Silver-quick, the wistful thought that Nauk truly had ruined that army down to the bone came and went.

“So she didn’t say,” the Hellhound cut in before he could reply.

Tribune Krolem sheepishly flared his teeth, and did not deny it.

“Only a thousand?” Juniper asked again, to confirm.

“Yes ma’am,” Tribune Krolem agreed.

The Marshal of Callow’s instinct was to send him back with an order for General Abigail to make a proper proposal including for what she wanted the soldiers, but she held her tongue. Catherine had raised the other woman up for a reason, and it would not be anything as simple as birth. If her warlord had simply wanted to put Callowan hands on the reins of her armies, Juniper suspected Brandon Talbot would have been the chosen candidate. Instead, though, she’d chosen an enlisted legionary who’d shot up the ranks. Not someone with ties to nobles or fame in the kingdom. Catherine had seen something in the younger woman, and though Juniper of the Red Shields did not she’d not long ago had reminder of the value of trust.

“She has them, then,” Marshal Juniper said. “See Tribune Bishara for the proper writ and be on your way.”

The boy moved quick, like she’d stung him, but Juniper had already put him out of her mind. Marshal Grem’s curious eye on her she ignored as well, her own attention now solely turned to the southern front. What was the first commander Catherine had handpicked since Juniper herself scheming, exactly?

Shit, Abigail thought, look at the writ Krolem had just handed her with a sinking feeling in her stomach. The Hellhound had actually agreed? Why would she – no, don’t panic, she told herself. This could still be salvaged if she watcher her step. On one hand, she’d actually be expected to produce results now. On the other hand, as long as she tried to pull off a vaguely coherent plan and failed she’d probably still manage to avoid the noose. Gods, Abigail knew she should have made her request more unreasonable, if she’d gone overboard the Marshal would have refused. But no, she’d just to had hedge her bets and make it look like her theoretical plan had been reasonable just to improve the chances the Black Queen wouldn’t feed her liver to buzzards after this was all over with. Her mother was right, she’d never learned to quit while she was ahead. Sure, Ma had lost an eye and a finger brawling with Annie Sutherland over who made the better beer, but just because she was a lunatic didn’t mean she was wrong. Fucking Sutherlands, anyway, strutting around like Annie having been in the Royal Guard meant she knew anything about brewing.

“She did know a thing or two about knives, though,” she conceded in a mutter.

“It is a great honour, ma’am,” Krolem, who was still there, rumbled approvingly.

“Yes,” Abigail echoed with a stiff smile. “Honour. Just the word I was thinking of.”

The Callowan general hid her rising horror with the practiced skill of someone who’d been forced to be around the Queen of Callow and pretend not to be terrified the whole time. All right, so the damned Levant magic beasties didn’t die to fire and that probably meant they wouldn’t give a damn about siege engines either. Munitions, maybe? Couldn’t really do that without using sending sappers in, which seemed ill-advised, but it was only the First Army that had the ‘spitters’, those strange devices Sapper-General Pickler used to lob munitions over long distances. Goblinfire was a restricted substance as of last year, though, so Abigail would need authorization from the Hellhound to send for any and that’d be suspicious as all Hells since Krolem had just been there. Options, she needed options.

“Where’s our Senior Sapper?” she asked Krolem.

“She’s checking in on our engines,” the tribune gravelled. “Though she asked me to pass her continued protest as to the amount of munitions we passed on to Special Tribune Robber.”

“Why?” Abigail said, feeling another spike of fear.

“His cohort isn’t part of the Third Army, it’s detached,” the orc said.

“Why did we pass munitions to Special Tribune Robber?” she clarified.

“You don’t need to test me, ma’am,” Krolem reproached. “Your signature was on the forms, the general staff is aware you planned some contingencies – just not what they are.”

Oh Gods, Abigail thought, realizing that the Black Queen’s favourite goblin assassin had forged her authorization for something involving munitions and she had absolutely no idea what. O Gods, Abigail silently repeated, turning to prayer in her hour of need, I know I’m in the service of a villain but isn’t this still a little much?

Razin Tanja crouched down to the side of the pit.

He’d return to the front of the formation soon enough, but for now he… Well, he wasn’t sure exactly what it was he was doing. There was something about this situation that felt like a stone in his boot. The Third Army had defended Sarcella with dogged viciousness, making the Dominion pay in blood for every street. They had done so even after being taken by surprise in the middle of the night after the assassination of their commanders, which while Razin still thought little of Callowan heresy had nonetheless impressed him in regard to that people’s discipline. Now that same army was facing them from a tall palisade after having days and night to prepare, and all they had prepare was a few pits with stakes at the bottom? No, he could not believe that. Certainly the fighting would harden the closer they came to the rampart, but this was too little.

It was not a complicated trap to build, Razin decided as he studied it. A stake at the bottom, the slopes inclined so anyone falling would be led towards it. Some sort of thin weave had been used to keep the hole covered, but it’d been crumpled by the claws of a bound wyvern and the weave had fallen below. That part was the most cleverly made, the heir to Malaga mused, for the weave had made the grounds look perfectly untouched until it was touched. Now the rings of shield-bearers escorting the binders were going around the revealed traps, advance slow but steady. The two sworn swords behind him were shuffling impatiently, but Razin refused to be hurried. He rose just enough to move, circling around the rim of the hole, and wrestled down the embarrassment he was starting to feel. It was a simple pit trap, and he might be making a fool of himself by insisting on taking so long a look at one.

The man’s fingers clenched. No. He would not bend so easily as that. Pride had already led him down a dead end once. If a little humiliation let him make certain there was no deeper trap then he’d suffer the bite and do so unflinchingly. The sun shining from behind him – the afternoon at his back warmed him even in his armour – gave him half a breath’s worth of warning, and that meant he survived the first blow. Coming out in a spray snow and earth from a hidden nook within the put, a howling goblin tossed something at Razin’s sworn swords while leaping up with a knife bared. The heir to Malaga caught the blade with his shield even as he tumbled backwards, the wildly cackling creature continuing to stab away as it landed on him. There was a loud crack behind them and something wet landed on Razin’s cheek. The yellow-eyed monster bared needle-like teeth and slid the knife between two armour plates, but the Levantine socked it in the mouth with an armoured fist. Wincing at the shallow wound, Razing Tanja rose even as the goblin spat out blood and laughed, reaching for something in its leather satchel.

It never got to finish the movement, for the heir to Malaga rammed the hunting knife he’d adroitly palmed through its left eye.

Back on his feet a heartbeat later, Razin grimaced when he saw the bloody mess the thrown munition had made of his two escorts from the shoulders up. Blood and bone and brain fluid stained the snow around the two corpses. Gaze turning to the rest of his command, he heard the crack of further munitions and grimly admitted to himself the Third Army of Callow had once more succeeded as springing an ambush on him.

Special Tribune Robber assessed the situation with a proud stare.

Sure, they’d been forced to come out early when one of his minions had revealed their presence before the enemy was fully past their force. On the other hand, even springing this too soon they’d gotten a full two dozen of those Dominion sorcerers. Dipping low, Robber leaned forward a bit to better slit the throat of the blinded warrior he’d caught with his brightstick. Popping out of the holes and hitting fast with munitions, his cohort had done a lot damage in the span of thirty heartbeats. But not, he mused, enough to secure a comfortable retreat. The strange spirits the Dominion mages had sent ahead to continue ripping up traps were hurrying back, and between those and the warriors recovering from the surprise two hundred goblins all spread out had no real chance of fighting their way out. He whistled, loud and clear, three times. Scatter, it meant. Smothering a grin, the Special Tribune began the run back to the tender embrace of the palisade held by the Third Army. A great day’s work, if any of them survived.

Still a good day’s work, if they didn’t.

“They won’t make it,” Krolem said.

They most definitely would not, Abigail silently agreed. Already more than twenty goblins had been slain by warriors running them down, but those had been the few whose hiding place had been within the Levantine formation. The rest has scattered to the wings with that insolent goblin aplomb, not that it would save them. They were quick, Special Tribune Robber’s sappers. Far quicker than humans on foot, especially on trickier terrain like snow. But they were not quicker than the enemy’s creatures, not even close, and with more than seventy of those left there was no doubt about the outcome of the chase. The monsters were drawing back already, closing the gap with inevitable haste. Maybe ten would make it out alive, General Abigail guessed. If that.

“Brave man, Special Tribune Robber,” her aide added, tone thick with respect.

Fuck, Abigail thought, with a fresh well of horror. The Black Queen’s favourite goblin assassin was about to get himself killed, and the only parchment trail there would be of it bore her signature. Faked, sure, but who’d ever believe that? She was going to get blamed for this wasn’t she? She was going to get blamed for this and some godsdamned buzzards were going to eat her liver. She needed to get at least that one goblin out alive. Striking with rituals again? No, wouldn’t work. They’d gotten quite good at avoiding those, and there were too many beasts anyway. Slowing down less than ten at a time wouldn’t get her anywhere. What did she have? Siege engines, which wouldn’t do anything more than the rituals, legionaries and – oh, oh. Abigail might just survive this yet.

“Still got that writ, Krolem?” she nonchalantly asked. “Send them out now.”

“Ah,” the orc breathed out, looking at her with shining eyes. “I understand now, ma’am. You’ve played the Dominion like a fiddle.”

“That is absolutely what I did,” Abigail baldly lied.

Akil Tanja’s fingers had begun clenching with the first explosion and had not loosened since. He had not anticipated that the goblins in the Black Queen’s service would burrow like worms within their own traps, and neither had his son. Malaga had lost nearly thirty binders for that mistake, men and women whose powers had each taken decades and a fortune to forge. Dead, faster than it took to drink a cup of wine. Now the wretched creatures were fleeing, but they would be run down. If any of them was taken alive, he would have the damned creatures hung from his battle-standard after personally crushing their malevolent skulls. At least Razin had drawn the enemy’s blood and asserted control swiftly, which should prevent his reputation from being tarred too much by this unpleasant turn.

“Movement by the enemy, my lord,” one of his captains announced.

The Lord of Malaga followed the man’s gaze and found the Army of Callow was opening the southern gate of the camp. Reinforcements to extricate the sappers? They would arrive too late. Akil rather hoped the enemy commander was fool enough to send legionaries forward. The spirits bound by his war-sorcerers could kill soldiers as easily as they could clear traps, and any legionary killed down on the plains was one that would not be fighting from atop the palisade. The wooden grate opened, and Akil Tanja’s lips thinned at what he saw. Horsemen, the first of the column carrying a tall banner: a bronze bell with a jagged crack going through, set on black. Lord Akil had read of these: the Order of Broken Bells, the sole remaining knightly order of Callow.

“Call them back,” the Lord of Malaga said. “Now. And hurry the skirmishers forward.”

Two of his captains peeled off like he’d swung at them with hot iron, both bearing orders. From where he sat astride his horse, Akil was forced to watch it all unfold without being able to intervene. The Callowan knights thundered out of the fortified camp without missing a stride, forming up as they advanced. There must have been at least a thousand, Akil saw with rising dread. The skirmishers were on foot, the binders and their escort too far ahead. They would not arrive soon enough. The only hope of the binders – of his son – was that the bound spirits would slow the enemy knights long enough for a retreat. Razin must have understood the point as keenly, for the bound creatures abandoned pursuit of the goblins within moments and turned sharply to the side. Facing them, the knights of the Broken Bells slowly lowered their lances and quickened from canter to full gallop. The sight of it, Akil thought, was moving. Callowan knights in their prayer-carved armours, charging a host of beasts. The Lord of Malaga tensed for the impact, eyes fixed on the lances.

He flinched in disbelief, when the knights rode through the spirits like they were mist.

Sorcery sliding off their armour like water off a duck’s back, the Knights of the Broken Bells broke through and kept charging.

There was something deeply satisfying, Abigail mused, about watching Callowan knights trample enemy foot. It scratched an itch she hadn’t known she had. The enemy mages tried other sorceries, after their nasty little trick failed, but flames and curses were nothing new to the cavalry of Kingdom of Callow. Compared to the Praesi, she thought, these Dominion folk were fumbling amateurs. The commander of the Order’s detachment had split his horse into two wedges of five hundred and rammed them straight at the enemy shield walls, shattering men and shields alike. The knights had then withdrawn in good order, after the initial momentum of the charge was spent, and formed up as they turned the enemy flank and simply charged again. The Dominion had sent two thousand foot to escort its sorcerers, but by the time General Abigail sounded the retreat for her cavalry more than half that number was lying dead on the ground. It might have been more, if enemy reinforcements hadn’t hurried. Where sorcery would fail javelins might just succeed, so reluctantly she’d pulled back the Order. Abigail was leaning against the top of the palisade with her elbows and watching the cavalry retreat in good order when she heard her tribune return.

“Special Tribune and his cohort have been settled, ma’am,” Krolem said.

She nodded absent-mindedly. The goblin she’d needed to keep alive as alive, beyond that they were hardly her concern.

“It’s about to get ugly, Tribune,” she said, gazing at the massing enemy.

The skirmishers remained spread out, but the foot behind them was now locked in thick formations. They were getting ready for a run at the palisade.

“Ma’am?” the orc said.

“Get the engines aimed,” Abigail of Summerholm grimly said. “They have a path to us mostly cleared, now they’re going to take it.”

Lord Yannu Marave patted his horse’s mane, and fondly held out his palm to feed her the last piece of bread from the loaf when she turned. He’d been told of the debacle to the south by the outriders he’d left to keep an eye on the situation, and it had darkened his mood. A few hundred warriors were a drop in the sea of what would be lost before this was all done and over with, but binders were a rare breed. They might have been of great use in the war to the north, had the Lord of Malaga’s blunder not effectively pissed away half of them. Yet there was no point in losing his temper, he knew. This was merely the first movement of an intricate dance, and his side had never been meant to win it. In the distance he watched the skirmishes of Vaccei and their Lantern guides make it to the edge of the slaughter yard, and only then raised a hand. One of the lesser horns was sounded, and the warriors came to halt. As well they should – any further and they would be in what he suspected to be the outer range of the enemy’s engines. In truth he should probably should have let them continue advancing until that suspicion was confirmed, but in the end he would rather overestimate enemy range than throw away lives on such a petty confirmation.

He had what he needed of this northern front and if any of Akil Tanja’s captains had eyes they would have what he needed of that front as well.

“I would have your judgement, Peregrine,” he calmly requested.

The Grey Pilgrim did not answer immediately. Instead the holy man gazed at the distant ring of raised stones, that incongruous crown atop a tall barrow.

“She will not step in even if the palisade is assaulted,” the Pilgrim finally said. “Perhaps not even if the camp is breached, as you had arranged.”

And so, Yannu knew, this meant the Peregrine would not intervene either. It had been made clear to the Lord of Alava what the consequences of the Grey Pilgrim acting first might be, and he would not have such disaster brought upon them all.

“Then the offensive I had planned is doomed to failure,” Yannu of the Champion’s Blood said, unruffled. “And we must resort to the second string to our bow.”

A shame. He’d enjoyed the cleverness of the scheme, the use of the Saint and the Sorcerer to take the cavalries through crumbling Arcadia and strike at the heart of the enemy camp while assault on the palisades tied down most of their troops. Yet one must now grow too fond of plans, lest they be followed even when they no longer suited. As was the case here, to his understanding. Neither the Grand Alliance nor the Black Queen wanted to risk the heavy casualties of a committed duel to death, which meant every manoeuvre on this field was in fact was a jostling for position in some greater game. One where the victor could twist the arm of the defeated without having sown too great a field of corpses first. It was Yannu Marave’s duty to help the Peregrine triumph in this struggle, nothing less or more.

“Sound the retreat for all hands,” the Lord of Alava ordered his horn-bearer.

The Peregrine looked at him strangely, as if the holy man was watching someone both a stranger and an old friend. It might truly be so, Yannu thought, if the old stories about his distant kin Lady Sintra were more than merely that.

“You will be challenged over this,” the Pilgrim said.

“I have been challenged before,” Yannu Marave said, neither boastful nor wary.

He might have to kill Akil Tanja, the Lord of Alava mused, or at least the man’s champion. The Lord of Malaga had taken enough losses today anger might lead him to such a blunder. Perhaps even a second champion would need killing, when he told the others that they would resume the attack during the night now that the safe paths to the palisade had been cleared. Ah well, these things happened. Nothing for it but swinging the blade.

Victory was born of blood, and only ever earned through it: this Yannu Marave knew true as any other child of Levant.

Interlude: West, Ever Pursuing

“Note: investigation in why sharing a problem is said to halve it remain inconclusive. Perhaps more varied trials are needed, as the tiger always ends up killing both subjects no matter the order they’re put in the cage.”
– Extract from the journal of Dread Emperor Malignant II

Lord Akil Tanja of the Grim Binder’s Blood crouched over the thinning snow and passed a hand through it, the twinge in his knees a reminder that this was not his first war but it might just be his last. He was not so old as to crumble into dust at the first touch of wind, but life away from the comfortable confines of Malaga had taken a toll on him. There were practices for a binder of his talent that might allow health to seep back into his flesh but the Lord of Malaga had always disdained their likes. He would not play chasing-games with his age by binding and devouring creatures, not even those that would survive such a perverted act. The rueful reflection on his age was forced to the side by the calm voice of his sworn enemy and ally.

“And?” Lady Aquiline asked.

“The earth beneath is still frosted,” Akil said. “These are war-grounds. Let there be blood.”

“Let there be blood,” the Lady of Tartessos agreed with a crisp nod.

Neither of them considered giving the Proceran captains marching with their host a voice in this decision. Had Prince Renato of Salamans survived the battle with the Stygian army there might have been need to do so out of courtesy but the man had died to the Magisterium’s dark sorceries – after taking a wound he’d melted from the inside over the night, Akil had heard – and the remaining commanders were neither highborn nor powerful enough to force the issue. They would follow the Dominion in battle, like it or not.

“They say the One-Eye will be there,” Lady Aquiline Osena of the Slayer’s Blood said. “That would be a worthy head to claim, do you not agree?”

The Silent Slayer’s quarrelsome brood, Akil thought, had always shown a distasteful obsession for the killing of famed foes. The one-eyed greenskin who had been named Marshal of Praes many years ago was perhaps the most famous alive of his kind, but if Akil understood correctly the orc must also be an old beast by now. Hardly a challenge for a sharp young killer like the Lady Aquiline. That she had spoken of an aged orc but not of the Hellhound or the Deadhand was telling, in his eyes, for while those two’s fame was fresher the ending of it would have been worthier dead. Fairer. The Lord of Malaga spat to the side before rising from his crouch.

“Shake the bushes before shooting at the sparrow, Osena,” he replied. “Marshals do not fight from the front and they have raised a fortress from nothing, these easterners.”

The lair of the Black Queen’s armies had been an impressive thing to behold, when Akil had first taken stock of it. Beneath a tall barrow crowned by raised stones a maze of death had been raised from wood, steel and earth. A deep ditch led into a palisade – a base of beaten earth, topped by spears – where legionaries kept watch night and day. Behind that first line flat grounds spread into flat killing grounds, ending in another palisade that prevented easy access to terraces filled with siege engines and crossbowmen. Deeper behind that walled camps filled with tents and protected by teeth-like bastions of earth and wood jutting outwards mad up the last line of defence that would be manned by mortals. Lord Marave’s messengers had spoken of strange lights above the barrow, after nightfall, and so Akil did not need to be told where it was that the Black Queen had made her den. These would be hard defences to crack, he knew, and Lady Aquiline’s loose talk of claiming heads displeased him. Marshals of Praes were not easy meat, nor were the villain queen’s own champions.

“Now is not the time to lose your stomach, Tanja,” the Lady of Tartessos chided. “You heard Careful Yannu’s stratagem same as me, and did not speak against the soundness of it.”

That it had been the scheme of Lord Yannu Marave had only made Akil hesitate all the more.  Aquiline Osena had not shared a border with the Champion’s Blood for most her life, unlike Akil himself, and so she could not understand why the way they called the man not Reckless or Brave but Careful Yannu should be troubling. The Lord of Malaga had fought two honour wars against Lord Yannu’s predecessor and found him a hard fighter but no great trouble. He’d sent a war-party into Alavan territory under Careful Yannu only once, though, in the moon that followed the man’s ascension to lordship.

His own cousin and boyhood playmate Jaira had led it, for she was skilled with sword and bindings both and clever in the ways of war. Yet unlike his predecessor, Yannu had not fought the raiders as they passed through the flatlands taking riches and honour. No, he’d waited until they were returning north laden with loot and prisoners. Then he’d caught them while they were fat and slow under cover of night, butchering them wholesale. Without warning, without honour duels, without anything other than death weighed and measured. Jaira had been the only survivor of the night, and Lord Yannu had dragged her to the border before opening her throat in sight of the warbands Akil had sent to reclaim his cousin. He’d then left without even hearing out the calls to duel by the warriors of Malaga.

The point made had been harsh, but so was the man: Careful Yannu was willing to let his holdings bleed if it allowed him to position himself for a killing stroke. And once crossed, he would not stay his hand in retaliation no matter who had first given insult. The Marave were steel-cast madmen who answered to only Gods and Pilgrim, and barely even those. The notion of one blessed with both their line’s talent for killing and a good mind for strategy was worth respect and wariness both. Madness and cold method were dark mothers to dark days. Lord Akil Tanja had not fought a second honour war against Alava since that pointed lesson and slept easier for it.

And now he was being told to place the fate of his captains, of his soldiers, in the hands of the Lord of Alava. A man known to sacrifice for the killing stroke, and do so without hesitation. He was tempted to refuse, to force a conference where another plan would be laid out before battle was given, but Lady Aquiline was watching him with those cold eyes. Waiting, patiently, for a misstep that would allow her to wrest command of the host from him. Razin’s mistakes had been paid for, but the taint of failure still hung over the Tanjas. If the Lady of Tartessos went to the unsworn captains, claiming he had lost his nerve, Akil could not be certain of the outcome.

“I have already said,” Lord Akil replied, “that there will be blood, Lady Aquiline. We will follow the stratagem of Careful Yannu and make war on the Enemy.”

And still, he could not help but glance at the pale and empty vista behind his host. That long expanse of snowy plains, which had until morning been broken by the eldritch sight of a passage leading into Arcadia. It was gone, now, though the remembrance of the harrowing journey through that storm-wracked hellscape would haunt them all for years to come. The League of Free Cities had not followed them through the breach, after hounding them through it, yet Akil could not help but wonder if they had not taken another path after. If there might yet be more to this battle that the armies of the Black Queen and those of the Grand Alliance. Lady Aquiline had sent for the horn-bearer granted to them by the Holy Seljun while he looked, and though she looked hungry for the honour she did not overstep.

The young boy passed him the strange carved horn inherited from days long before the Dominion, an old artefact said to have made from the tip of a guisanes‘ horn. The legendary gargantuan bulls whose stride had shaken the world and flattened hills into plains were perhaps more myth than history, but it was said a shadow of their thundering might remained in wonders crafted from their remains. Whatever the truth of it, when Lord Akil Tanja of the Binder’s Blood sounded the horn his magic shivered inside him as the deep call echoes across the plains. In the distance, after a long moment, the sister-horn in the hands of the other Dominion host offered a shuddering call in reply.

Banners rose and without further ceremony the battle began.

Marshal Juniper of the Red Shields watched her enemies advance in silence. The sight of so many soldiers on the move would have been impressive for someone who had not fought in the Arcadian Campaign or slogged through the brutality of Second Liesse, but after these Juniper had found it took much to awe her. Yet for all that the armies before her lacked the ostentatious wings and sorceries of the Courts or the relentless horror of the Diabolist’s wights and devils they were no less dangerous for it. Flesh and steel did not splash so colourful across the pages of histories as the means of monsters and villains but they worked. And the Grand Alliance had brought much of both to bear on this field and this day.

“They don’t seem to have organized beyond attacking together,” Grem One-Eye said.

The sound of Kharsum spoken crisp and clear was like a breath of fresh air straight from the steppes. Juniper let that taste of home settled in her bones before growling in agreement. The armies of the Grand Alliance had not joined before moving against her fortifications, to her relative surprise.  It might have taken them a few days to restructure after merging ranks, but they would have been stronger for it and there was not much she could do to better her own position with the means at her disposal. Her warlord had hinted that the League might be on its way to join the melee as well, Juniper noted. If her foes believed that arrival imminent, it might explain this hasty assault. This was speculation, however, and ultimately of no import to her. It was the facts that mattered. An army of eighty thousand was approaching from the northwest, under the command of Lord Yannu Marave and Princess Rozala Malanza. An army of sixty thousand was approaching from the southeast, under the command of Lord Akil Tanja. The first two commanders were known to her, and their armies as well. Of the latter commander, however, almost nothing was known save for his name.

“The northern force is the weaker one,” Juniper said. “Much of the foot from Vaccei is light and Malanza fields mostly levies. If a rout is to happen at all, it will be from there.”

The orc at her side grunted his agreement. They watched the enemy form up, and with cold eyes the Marshal of Callow sought weaknesses. The northern army advanced cautiously, which did not surprise her – she’d traded blows with them before. The Vaccei skirmishers advanced in a deep but loose screen ahead of the Proceran foot Princess Rozala had brought: a hodgepodge mixture of levies, fantassins and principality troops. Dartwick’s spies had brought back word that as much as six tenths of the Principate infantry should be levies, which was promising, but thoughts of an easy rout were put to rest by the two wings of infantry flanking the Procerans. The Lord of Alava, Yannu Marave, had brought to the crusade some of the finest heavy infantry Juniper had ever seen. Only four thousand in whole, at least, but it was marching ahead of lighter armsmen from Alava and Vaccei in much greater numbers. A sharp sword to open a breach, Juniper thought, after the skirmishers found a weakness.

“Malanza has the horse again, looks like,” Marshal Grem said.

The banner told it true, though she found the other orc made as wary as she felt by the way the near ten thousand horse – mixed Proceran and Levantine horse, though vastly more so Proceran than the other – the Princess of Aequitan led was peeling off from the rest of the army and moving towards the south. The mass of cavalry was moving slowly, but in good order.

“She didn’t make the plan for this,” Juniper said. “She’s much more aggressive a commander than that, she’d keep the horse close on the flanks to try a charge if opportunity arose.”

“Lord Yannu then,” Grem said. “Shame. He’s a hard one to bait.”

“Too much to hope for he spends the Vaccei foot against the palisades, I suppose,” Juniper muttered.

The older man twitched in amusement. The daring raids and ambushes from the Vaccei warriors and their vicious warleaders of the Bandit’s Blood had not endeared the Levantines to either orc. Juniper found her eyes drifting south, to the other army, and found her back prickling. Most of what she saw there she had expected. The enemy was moving with skirmishers ahead, though the screen was much smaller than the northern army’s, with two massed forces of infantry behind it. One Proceran and one Levantine. The Principate foot here should be mostly professional soldiers, Juniper thought, which explained why unlike in the northern army’s formation they’d not been placed between steadier soldiers to hold up their spine. The detail that had her hackles raising was the detachment of cavalry splitting off from the army, a solid seven thousand moving north. From a bird’s eye view, the Hellhound considered, within the hour there would be a point where her camp was as the centre of a neat square.

“They think they have a way to breach the palisades,” the Marshal of Callow said. “Interesting.”

The Marshal of Praes squinted his one eye, gazing at the moving cavalries. He arrived, she suspected, at the same conclusion she had: they were being positioned to hit forces defending the palisades from sudden angles after a path suddenly being opened for them.

“The reserves are readied,” Grem One-Eye said, baring his fangs. “Let them try.”

A moment later the skirmish lines of the northern army entered the first killing yard the Marshals had prepared for them and the slaughter began.

Moro of the Brigand’s Blood had lost thirty warriors in the time it took to drink a skin of water. He was not stranger to death dealt and received, but the sheer suddenness of it took him by surprise. The traps had been cleverly hidden, he thought, covered with a thin layer of snow and earth. And they must have been dug at night, for even with watcher his mother’s had not known of them. Not all warriors who’d fallen in the pits had died to the sharp stake at the bottom, but all had taken wounds – and their screams had brought hesitation where before there had been only courage. The warriors of his lands, Moro would admit to himself, were not used to being on this side of the traps and were not taking it well. The heir to Vaccei had called a halt, and sent for what he thought might just be the solution to the troubles. It wasn’t long before the priests answered his call, for the Lanterns were never far from the vanguard of strife. A full battle-party of thirteen had come in answer, to his pleasure, and the eldest among them sought him out.

“Honoured Son,” the woman greeted him. “You seek illumination?”

“I seek to walk within the Light,” Moro agreed. “For me and mine to follow its paths.”

The woman’s face-paint, golden and pale, hid her expression well. He could not tell whether she approved or disapproved of his request, which while not presumptuous was still a request – for some of the Lanterns just that was enough to give offence. They were a touchy lot. Regardless, after a heartbeat she suddenly whipped around and a lance of Light struck out. Twenty feet forward, it broke through a thin layer of snow and earth to reveal the trap under.

“Follow, then, Moro of the Brigand’s Blood,” the Lantern said.

Her companions spread out, and at the fore of Moro’s own warriors came men and women bearing long perches. They would reveal these traps, he smiled, for the Enemy had been foolish enough to lay them far out of crossbow range.

General Hune Egelsdottir waited until it was clear no more of the warrior-priests would reinforce the frontlines.  She glanced at her senior mage, mildly amused by how eager he seemed to be to act.

“Fire,” she ordered. “On special assets only.”

Behind her, rituals bloomed as the mage cadres finally received the authorization to act. One, two, three, four, five: she long spears of flame formed and were sent out like massive arrows. Without scrying to adjust the trajectory it was unpleasantly imprecise business to use these sorts of rituals, as shown by the rituals. All were impacts – the ogre made a note to commend the officers leading the rituals – but only three of the priests were turned to cinders.

No matter, it was only the first volley.

“Again,” the general of the Second Army ordered, the faintest trace of a smile on her face.

Lord Yannu Marave sat atop his horse and thoughtfully chewed the mouthful of bread he’d ripped from the loaf, eyeing the falling javelins of flame.

Princess Rozala had told him the Army of Callow had used such ritual sorceries before, though allegedly it had not since the Hierophant had left its ranks for destination. It would have been sloppy, however, to assume that meant without the Bestowed they could not. So he hadn’t, instead preparing the same manner of defences the Proceran armies had at the Battle of the Camps. The priests from the House of Light, that tame Proceran breed, were shuffled to the front and ordered to form protective panes of Light. The Vaccei warriors were not yellow-bellied, and so did not need much haranguing before their advance resumed.

Grem One-Eye leaned forward and Juniper grinned, broad and fierce. They had, she believed, noticed the same detail. Though the ritual sorcery had been checked by priest intervention once more, there’d been a departure from the way that trick had been used at the Camps. Instead of massive layered shields covering the entire frontline, this time the Grand Alliance had resorted to a mere half dozen large panes protecting where the rituals had been striking. Dartwick’s spies, the Hellhound was forced to admit, had actually provided useful military intelligence.

“They’re spread thin on priests,” the Marshal of Praes laughed. “Too many wars, Hasenbach, too many wars.”

The Marshal of Callow did not reply, for her gaze had turned south where battle was finally being joined. General Abigail, the Hellhound had decided, was in need of thorough tempering. Her command at the southern front should serve, for a start.

The pit traps had not been part of the warnings Lord Marave had passed, but Aquiline Osega was not moved by the loss of a few dozen skirmishers. In the hunting of a foe strong and cunning, such deaths were inevitable. The Lady of Tartessos had been riding behind the last of the slingers and javelinmen, a handful of captains at her side, when she ordered the assault to be halted. Inevitable losses or not, she would not countenance simply throwing soldiers at the traps until a safe path emerged. Her favoured captain, dearest Elvera – who had such a dark reputation, with some, but to Aquiline remained the smiling woman who’d taught her how to reply to scraped knees with broken teeth – quietly reminded her that with Lord Yannu’s force advancing there could be no long halt without leaving his army exposed to the full attention of the enemy. Feeling out the traps with perches would take too long, Lady Aquiline had decided. No, it was time for bold steps. The rider she sent to that hard-eyed old monster Akil Tanja returned with the answer she’d wanted: the binders of Malaga would take the lead.

Reining in her horse, it was an effort for the Lady of Tartessos not to show the thrum of excitement she felt at the notion of seeing the finest sorcerers of Levant in the fullness of their war-making. When had been the last time Creation witnesses such a thing, she wondered? Not since the Sepulcher War, at least, and perhaps not even then. A mere hundred men and women in thick coats of leather and iron grey cloth marched to the front, skulls and bones and claws bound by fine brass chains. The spread out in a line, and one of them raised a hand. There was a grinding scream, like a hundred blades being scraped against each other, and a translucent drop formed in the air a few feet in front of the binder. The ground beneath it, snow and earth and snow, was sucked upwards by some invisible force that broke it all down to grains. The other binders followed in the first one’s wake, drops forming one after another and the scream becoming utterly deafening. And still Aquiline did not look away for a moment, for in front of her spirits were being given shape.

The first one shaped a wyvern, the winged creature with the long stinger-tipped tail letting out a scream all too-real before it began to advance and strike at the ground to reveal traps. The snow and earth it was made from shifted like true flesh and sinew, for the spirit the binder had called forth still remembered the body it has once worn. It was a company of beasts that was brought forth, manticores and griffins and culebron. Even a few creatures she did not recognize: her, the Lady of Tartessos, whose true domain was the savage Brocelian!

The beasts of snow and earth sprang forward, implacable and relentless.

General – despite her best efforts – Abigail of Summerholm idly wondered if you got a worse penalty for deserting when you were a general. She’d assumed it couldn’t get worse than hanging, and that could only happen the once, but considered the amount of Wastelanders enrolled in the Army of Callow she just couldn’t be sure. Well, there was nowhere to run to anyway so it was all academic in the end.

“Burn those up, boys,” she called out.

Krolem relayed the order more proper-like, wonderful aide that he was. Behind the generals rituals bloomed, but Abigail just had this sinking feeling it wasn’t going to be enough.

It wasn’t pessimism, she told herself, if you were part of the Army of Callow.

Chapter 31: Fall or Flight

“In boldness find salvation, for stillness is the herald of death.”
– Princess Beatriz of Salamans, most famous for turning her trial for high treason by the Highest Assembly into election to the office of First Princess

“I need you to write three letters for me,” I told Hakram.

Three letters: one was a knife, one was a bet and one was a lie. Wielding those like the sword and board that had once been my favoured armaments, I would win or lose before the week was out. Comfortably settled in my perch atop the barrow of a people long scattered to the winds, I poured myself a cup of wine and kept a steady eye on Hakram. The writing desk I’d had hoisted up here had not been built with orcs in mind, that much was evident. My second was broader than the wooden frame, and could not lean his armoured elbows against it without the whole thing starting to groan like a dying calf. It was a rather amusing sight, the tall orc bent over the desk with a long quill in one hand and looking for all the world like he could be lifting the whole thing with the other. The oil lamp atop the frame was an island of tangible flickering warmth in the surrounding glow of the magelights that had been brought here and hung from the raised stones. The sight of the Mavian prayer wreathed in that pale halo was an eerie one, a reminder that once upon a time fae had tread these grounds and made bargains with those who had raised this strange work. It felt fitting, in a way, for like my old friends of Summer and Winter tonight I intended treachery.

“Which first?” Adjutant asked.

I sipped at my cup, let the warmth of the wine pool in my belly.

“To the Tyrant,” I said. “As follows: Kairos, you misshapen treacherous weasel, you should have been drowned at birth. I expect whatever spawned you tried but already the Gods had grown gills on your neck, foul monster. Sadly this must have allowed you to crawl out of the refuse pile they tossed you in to come trouble me today.”

The sound of the quill dipping into the inkpot followed by the scratch of it against parchment filled the silence that followed. Hakram’s admittedly superb calligraphy should lend a touch of elegance to the whole tirade, I decided.

“Therefore,” I continued, “in the spirit of our close and cordial alliance, I offer my support for the demand that will be made by the League of Free Cities in exchange for its acquiescence to a peace conference. That support will have the full weight of my force and influence behind it.”

I drummed my fingers against the arm of my chair as I waited for Hakram’s hand to catch up to my words, only resuming when his scrawl stilled.

“Naturally, this is contingent on your own support in extricating the Army of Callow and its allies from their current difficulties,” I said. “Should you refuse, I will be forced to withdraw from Procer entirely and begin preparing the east for the wars that will come in the wake of the Principate’s destruction.”

Adjutant finished writing before raising a hairless brow at me.

“You think he’ll believe that?” the orc asked.

“He will,” I simply said.

After glancing at the certainty on my face Hakram did not argue the point any further, simply conceding with a small dip of the head.

“And add one last thing,” I mused. “Lower down, like we’re trying to be discreet. ‘I have heard that recently you lost a great many horses, which is a tragic happenstance. As I would not have such a dear and noble friend without a mount, I offer you this purebred Liessen charger to ride into battle instead. May he serve you well.'”

Adjutant looked at me oddly.

“We don’t have any purebreds,” he told me. “They’re too costly to field. The Order uses mostly halfbloods and Vale breeds.”

“I’m aware,” I said. “I need you to find the shoddiest, sickliest goat we have and paint it white. Not well, though, just kind of half-heartedly. Try to make it a female one if you can. Send it along with my letter, when the time comes.”

The orc cleared his throat a little too quickly for me to buy him looking at me this disapprovingly.

“This is how you deal with Kairos, Hakram,” I told him nonetheless. “He’s not like Malicia or the Dead King, he doesn’t give a damn about respect or rules or making deals that’ll last longer than a moon’s turn. I offered him steel and honey and an elaborate insult – it should do the trick.”

“We’re not made of goats, Catherine,” Adjutant reproached.

“Fine,” I sighed, disgruntled. “If you can’t find a suitable one just find a stray dog and glue horns on. Diplomacy isn’t cheap, Hakram, you should know this by now.”

“As you say, my queen,” the orc serenely replied.

I gestured obscenely at him before watching him blow the last lines of my letter dry, fake my signature without missing a beat and finally roll the parchment when it was all done. It went into a small leather sheath, ad a red wax candle was lit from the lantern’s flame before he dripped it atop the scroll. The royal seal was pressed until it made its mark, my sword and crown on a balance, and it was put away. His eyes returned to me and I put down the cup I’d finally managed to empty.

“To the Pilgrim,” I said.

“Full honorifics?” Hakram asked.

I mulled over that a moment.

“No,” I finally said. “Grey Pilgrim will do, it’s in that function I’ll be addressing him.”

The tall orc nodded, and began writing anew.

“I, Catherine Foundling, first anointed Queen of Callow of my name,” I said, “formally offer the unconditional surrender of all forces under my command to the Grey Pilgrim, Tariq of Levant, also known as the Peregrine. Let there be no further bloodshed between your armies and mine, and through that surrender peace be obtained for us all.”

It was with a low whistle that Adjutant finished writing the last sentence, with a practiced hand adding signature and seal when I shook my head to make it clear there would be no other addition.

“The third?” he asked, afterwards.

“Addressed to the full war council of the Army of Callow, including summons for Vivienne Dartwick,” I said.

Hakram went still, for a moment, and when he moved it was to eye me warily.

“In your formal capacity as queen?” he asked.

“That’s the one,” I casually agreed. “Put up the formalities, make this an official decree with my seal, and take one of the larger sheaths. I want to write to them about Theodosius’ Dilemma, the whole story.”

Adjutant cleared his throat.

“Those of us who went through the officer track at the War College have already heard it,” he said. “There was a tactics class on the subject.”

“Some of them won’t know it,” I said. “So we’ll be thorough, yes?”

“Yes,” he gravelled in agreement.

For the longest time there was only my voice cast over the scratch of quill against parchment, as I told the story mostly the same as I had read it. There was, however, to be an addition afterward. Hakram’s hand stilled, and when he looked to me for instructions I have him one last sentence.

“I grant to Vivienne Dartwick the title of Lady Dartwick, with all assorted honours and privileges;” I said, “in addition I name Lady Dartwick the heiress-designate to the crown of Callow.”

I hadn’t gone as far as naming her a princess of the royal house as that would mean, legally speaking, that she was either my adopted sister or daughter. Both thoughts were rather unsettling for all sorts of reasons. But by first granting her noble title, even if that title was landless, I could make her my successor without breaking Callowan law. Didn’t much like the thought of expanding the aristocracy, even for Vivienne, but the only two ways to make her heiress-designate without making a bloody mess of feudal law had been that or bringing her into the royal house. The two ways of doing that were adoption and marriage, neither of which I believed to be palatable to us, so Lady Dartwick it was.

“It’s a dangerous game, Cat,” Hakram warned me.

“It’s the only kind we ever play, Adjutant,” I said. “And the letters are only to be sent when I say, so don’t worry.”

“That would be a first,” the orc drily replied, but his hand moved nonetheless.

Three sheaths of leather were hidden away after he finished, bearing my seal, letters awaiting within.  A knife, a bet, a lie. Instead of crawling into bed afterwards I spent half the night gazing at the stones where Robber had hung parchment for me. All the while silently feeding Night to the staff in my lap that was not a staff but a sword, a sword that was not a sword but a prayer.

When I finally fell into slumber I slept only fitfully, dreaming of laughing crows.

Years ago I would have been in the thick of it. Tripping over every discovery, blood going warm and cold with the twists and turns of Fate as I struggled to bend it to my will. I was older now, though, and though perhaps not all that much wiser I was at least more patient. I’d learned the value of not tipping your hand too early when playing these sorts of games. And so it was sitting in my stolen chair, pulling at a mug of steaming tea, that the news found me. It was Vivienne who carried them up the barrow, steps quick and alarmed.

“A breach had opened to the southeast,” she told me. “An army is going through, its banners from Levant and Procer.”

I inhaled the fragrance of the tea and did not reply, letting her pace back and forth. So it was finally starting.

“Who was the first out?” I asked out loud.

“Our outriders weren’t close enough to-” she began.

I raised a hand.

“I wasn’t asking you,” I gently said.

Larat stepped out of the circle of stones with the languid grace of a hunting cat. The huntsman who’d once been the Prince of Nightfall walked against what I instinctively felt to be the cast of this circle, the way its power had once been leaning. It was like watching a man stroke a cat the wrong way, only I could almost feel it in my bones. Truly, my treacherous lieutenant had taken to petty vexations the way fish took to water. His long cape streamed behind him lazily, dark as night and sewn with jewels. The furs and leather he wore were fastened at his waist by a sash of scarlet cloth, from which hung that sheathless sword he favoured.

“A hero, most tenebrous of queens,” Larat smiled. “Named and finder of paths, strutting for the rest of the cacophony to follow.”

“His actual Name, Larat,” I said, unimpressed.

“A sorcerer of roguish inclinations, my liege,” the fae replied, raising hands to appease me. “Fleeing, then finding and now all aflutter from the sight of us.”

“The Rogue Sorcerer,” I grunted. “Yeah, that sounds about right. They’ll need a mage for this, and last I heard the Witch was up north.”

“That’s all you have to say?” Vivienne said. “Catherine, the situations is getting grim. It’s an army of nearly sixty thousand that crossed, and already Malanza’s own host is sending riders to make contact.”

I sipped at my tea.

“How long before the pursuers come out, do you think?” I asked Larat.

“Within the hour there will be a break,” the huntsman grinned, a slice of pale malice between red lips. “And the parade of fools will merrily stumble out.”

“Cat?” Vivienne slowly said.

Her eyes were moving back and forth between us, like she couldn’t quite decide who to look at.

“Kairos is crazy enough to take a shortcut through a crumbling half-realm likely run by Masego having a breakdown just to get here earlier,” I said. “On the other hand, are the crusaders? Would they take that risk just to go quicker? No, they wouldn’t. But Kairos wants them here as well, and he dictates the military strategies of the League. Which means…”

“He cornered them,” Vivienne said, eyes alight with sudden understanding. “To give them the choice of a battle where they’d likely be annihilated or taking a chance on a path through Arcadia.”

He’d been able to do this not because he was a peerless military genius, I knew, or because he had some oracle at his side. It was simply that the Tyrant of Helike had most likely been trading information with near every other army out in Iserre, and so alone of all the commanding generals he’d had the bird’s eye view of what was happening in the region. Given that, and the cadre of skilled warlocks that the Stygian Magisterium was made up of, it was far from impossible to both corner the other Grand Alliance army and ensure there was a breach nearby when he did. Desperation would do the rest.

“And the crusaders got a guide for the journey, perhaps the only wizard that could truly help them in all of Iserre,” I said. “That is Above’s due, the cast of providence. But that wizard also carries something I want, because Below always gets its due. It all comes to a head here, Vivienne.”

My friend rested her hand on the back of her neck, pressing back a few curls of hair that’d not been brought into her crown-like braid. I’d caught the twitch in her fingers with muted amusement, recognizing it as Vivienne wanting to pass a hand through her hair before remembering it’d been styled.

“What are you actually up to, Cat?” she finally asked. “Juniper’s been on edge.”

“Because I’ve left her to decide how an engagement should be fought, if it happens,” I said.

“Because you haven’t been part of the planning,” Vivienne frankly said. “Until now, you’ve been at the table for every campaign. That you’d take a step back after chewing us out has us a little perplexed.”

Larat’s lone eye was on us, the huntsman nonchalantly leaning against a stone as he listened to our conversation. I debated dismissing him, but I’d been the one to send for him in the first place and I still had a conversation due with the unofficial captain of the Wild Hunt.

“If I didn’t believe the two of you capable of discharging your responsibilities, I would have demoted you,” I replied. “It’s that simple.”

Blue-grey eyes narrowed as I gave answer to only the least important part of what she’d asked. I sighed and raised a calming hand.

“You can’t be in the know for it,” I said. “It wouldn’t work if you were.”

“We don’t have a great history with complicated plans,” Vivienne reminded me.

“It’s not complicated,” I said.

She looked skeptical, which only served to irritate me.

“It isn’t,” I sharply said. “It’s not a series of events building on each other, it doesn’t fail if there’s a part that doesn’t happen. It’s a set of counterweights that only move if there’s a push.”

“I don’t mean to question you,” she delicately said.

Larat snorted, too loudly for him not have meant for the both of us to hear it.

“That’s exactly what you’re doing,” I flatly said. “And in principle I don’t mind, but in this instance your having incomplete information is part of the design. Which makes it all the more pointless when you press for answers that I can’t give you without making the plan irrelevant.”

“That is mildly polite way,” Vivienne said after a moment, “to tell me to shut up and move along, isn’t it?”

“I understand you’re worried,” I said. “But I’m telling you this has been accounted for.”

A mirthless smiled quirked her lips.

“So either I trust you or I don’t,” she said.

Part of me wanted to sharply point out that Hakram was almost as much in the dark and he’d not needed this kind of coddling, but I held my tongue. I did not mean Adjutant for the same kind of purposes that I meant for Vivienne, and so it was unfair to both to try to expect the same behaviours of them. I could not put the dark-haired woman in front of me in positions of command and authority repeatedly and expect her not to act like someone in them. She, and Callow itself, couldn’t remain under my shield forever. One day I would have to abdicate, and when that day came I would not brook chaos and disorder in my wake. That meant there had to be a worthy brow for the crown to be settled on, and that brow would not belong to someone who feared to ask questions when it was inconvenient. So I held my tongue, and let my irritation bleed out in the silence that followed.

“The Everdark changed you, didn’t?” Vivienne finally said.

My brow rose, but she did not elaborate.

“I’ll talk to Juniper, make sure she understands there’s nothing to worry about,” she continued. “Good hunting, Black Queen.”

“You’ll know what to do, when the time comes,” I said. “I trust in that.”

She sketched a bow before retiring, and it had my fingers clenching. How was it, I wondered, that losing her Name had made her harder to read? Larat’s lone eye had been watching us eagerly that entire time, drinking in the complexities of the relationship hungrily. It was the kind of thing Winter fae had delighted in, and my huntsman might no longer claim any allegiance to that dead court but roots were not so easily discarded. That vicious coldness would always be at the heart of him.

“Larat,” I said. “Approach.”

“My queen,” the fae replied, bowing after a flicker of a smirk.

The raven-haired huntsman stepped forward, light-footed and sure, and smoothly knelt before me. I drummed my fingers against the staff in my hand, idly wondering whether I’d gotten to the point where I should kill him. Did he suspect my thoughts? I couldn’t be sure, but it was with interest he looked at my ebony staff.

“Curious?” I asked.

“No threat to me, that softest of deaths,” Larat said.

I leaned forward and smiled.

“Are you sure?”

The urge to deny me flickered across the fae’s pale face, but a moment pass and that denial never left his lips.

“You make sport of me, my queen,” he said.

“Clever little fox, you are,” I said. “But not as clever as you think. We made a bargain, and it’s your way out, but we are bound by more than that.”

“To my oaths I will remain true,” Larat said.

“Of course you will,” I said. “You don’t really have a choice, do you? It took me a while to understand, but the details put it all into place.”

“We gave our word willingly and without qualms, my queen,” the one-eyed fae reproached me. “Why do you now remonstrate?”

Remonstrate,” I laughed. “How offended you are, now that I know I own you body and soul. Winter – my Winter – died and suddenly your gates are a spinning wheel of destinations. Come now, did you think I wouldn’t learn of it? I am more than you liege, Larat, this entire time I’ve been your patron. The source of your power. You took a chance when you left Arcadia reforged, made yourself into a Wild Hunt that was not matched to a Spring and Autumn. So to stay here in Creation, you needed a little more than just calling yourself that. You needed an anchor.”

“Have we not served you faithfully, O Queen of Night?” Larat said.

“It must have been terrifying,” I mused, “to realize one day that your oaths bound you to more than the Winter in my veins. That there was an ocean of darkness, now, and that within it swam creatures in every way your superior.”

Superior?” Larat hissed, and the anger was bare and terrible. “These-”

I smiled, inviting him to continue, but the former Prince of Nightfall curbed his tongue. Too late to avoid confirming what I’d suspected yet not known for certain. Ah, pride. Of all the weakness of the Fair Folk it had always been my favourite.

“Seven crowns and one, laid at your feet,” I said. “That is what I promised you, and that is what you will receive. Rise, Larat.”

I rose, and let a sliver of Night pulse through my veins. The Wild Hunt was summoned, and my own mount with it.

“Don’t worry, old friend,” I told the fae with a warm smile. “I’ll see to it that you get everything that you deserve.”

I wondered if it was a trick of the light, or if I was truly glimpsing fear in that sole eye. No matter. When night fell I would ride with the Hunt, and the three of us – Pilgrim, Tyrant, myself – would find out whose cunning would cut deepest.