Chapter 54: Wake

“I imagine the High Lords would be inclined to protest the mind control, if I hadn’t seized control of their minds, which just goes to show this was the right decision all along.”
– Dread Emperor Imperious

I’d believed, once, that the way Black thought was what made him different from his predecessors. The manner he tallied gains and losses, let the numbers guide his decisions instead of more sentimental inclinations. I’d thought it a strange thing, that a man born in Praes could think that way at all. But I’d understood, as I watched a thousand men die in a manner I tacitly allowed as part of an overarching strategy, that it’d been a false perception. Most Praesi thought that way already, when you dug a little deeper. That was the principle behind a sacrifice, wasn’t it? Breaking something of worth so it would bring you something else you found of greater worth. A few thousand people for a flying fortress? Well, the Empire had a lot of people but few sorcerous war machines. Tendrils of something eldritch touching your mind for a demon summoning? Power was prized over sanity, when one intended to climb the Tower. My teacher had just taken a concept at the heart of everything Praesi and brought it to its logical, cold-eyed conclusion.

The House of Light said men could be worse than devils, for devils were driven to Evil by their nature and not by choice. That it was greater sin to turn away from the light than be born of the dark. Choice, that was the word the priests exalted above all others. That men had the right to make decisions granted by the Gods and that what they did with this right defined who they were. For the Children of the Heavens sin is in action, not in birth. I didn’t believe that, not really. Malicia was a monster not because she’d fed a civil war that lasted decades and killed dozens of thousands, but because she was someone who had it in her to make that decision. Her sin, if I was to insist on such a word, was that she was a woman with that capacity. Even if she’d become a cloistered sister in southern Callow and never hurt a fly until she died, she would still have that bleak thing within her. Evil was not an act so much as it was a state of mind, a way of thinking I had been raised to despise even against the best efforts of the Imperial orphanages.

But I had the bleakness in me too. It was almost pathetic it had taken me so long to admit to that fact, that it had taken writing off a thousand men under my protection as bait before I could no longer deny it, even deep down. I’d sacrificed the Ankouans, and men of the Fifteenth as well, to draw out the ritual Akua’s hounds had up their sleeves. I’d have done the same with General Istrid’s men or any other of the soldiers on this field, because that ugly bloodletting had seemed to me the path to victory. Was this what you saw in me, Black? The same absence where better people have qualms. The decision had been no different – no worse – than sending the vanguard into the jaws of Summer at Dormer or forcing a battle against the full might of the Court in Arcadia. But the selfishness of this one had been bare, beyond even my ability to paint over. It should have grieved me, but aside from dull shame the sight of the dying had done nothing to move me. If I cannot be kind or just, then I will at least be victorious.

I had sacrificed my last illusion of being a decent person for a win, and I could not even muster regret at the the thought of that. Maybe Diabolist had spoken truth, when she’d said I’d become like Praesi. The gap between them and me was not as wide or deep as I would have liked. I heard Hune approach through the silence, her heavy footsteps unlike any other, but did not turn to greet her.

“Legate,” I simply said. “You have a report for me?”

Ahead of us were the remains of the day. My little necromantic trick, turned from dagger to sword by Winter’s mantle, had turned the tide at exactly the right time. While I led my own dead smashing the wights, the legions on the flanks had begun breaking through. Istrid’s Fourth had been the first among them, but closely followed by General Orim and the Fifth. Ranker’s legion had not been far behind them, a quarter bell at most, and the moment the Ninth was free move the battle had been over. With four breaches in the enemy line their formation had collapsed and then the rebels had grown desperate. They’d fled, of course. Dying for the cause was not a Wasteland virtue. To prevent pursuit Lord Fasili had thinned his centre and thrown everything he could at the marching veteran legions while he and his fellow living escaped. It hadn’t been enough. Orim had sent a division of one thousand to delay the wights meant to block him and pursued, only backing down when Fasili threw his last reserve of three thousand wights at the Fifth. Akua’s general had brought twenty-three thousand soldiers south and fled with barely two thousand when the Battle of Dead Dawn ended.

To my fury, I’d been unable to engage in pursuit. With the necromancers gone the wights had gone wild, turning on each other as well as my soldiers, but their numbers had not dwindled swiftly enough. I could have followed on foot, or with a confiscated horse. But I’d weighed the gains and losses. If I pursued, there was a chance I could kill Akua’s best general. It was not a given I’d be able to, though, since he had hundreds of mages and at least one ward he believed could trap me. If I remained, I could significantly lower casualties on my side by carving my way through the disorganized wights with my procession of dead soldiers. Uncertain greater gain or certain lesser one. A year ago I would have pursued, but I’d been taught the price of recklessness since then. Powerful as they might be, villains who faced armies on their own died to them more often than not.

“Two hundred and thirty-three fatalities from the Fifteenth,” Hune said, delicately handing me a scroll. “Twice that many wounded. Numbers are still coming from the other three legions and the Callowans lack even basic registries, but I am projecting at least two thousand dead Ankouans from the debriefs.”

A quarter of the initial Ankouan force gone before Afternoon Bell even rang. The colder part of me assessed that, even with the five thousand men from Southpool sure to have been lost, this battle had still seen me come out ahead in the grim arithmetic of war. On the surface, at least. Diabolist could afford to lose more troops than I could. At this rate of exchange, I’d be the last woman standing in my army and she’d still have over a third of hers. Or what we thought was hers, anyway. Inside the walls of Liesse was barred to scrying and trying to guess the amount of people there’d been in the city when it rose into the sky was a logistical nightmare. Refugees didn’t exactly declare their intent to travel, nor fae offer casualty reports.

“Then we’ve decisively proven the Legions can beat wights when the armies field similar numbers,” I said after a long moment.

“I would mitigate that statement,” the ogre said. “A third of our number were Ankou watchmen. That said, Liesse is a fortified city. The nature of the engagement there will be different.”

“You’re worried about her mages,” I said, hazarding a guess.

It wasn’t a stretch to do so. They had me worried as well.

“They will have had months to prepare the grounds,” Hune said. “Superior spellpower and numerical advantage will weigh heavily against us, ma’am.”
“Superior spellpower,” I smiled wanly. “Not something they can claim, I think, so long as we have Hierophant.”

“One man,” she said.

“One Named,” I replied.

“They have one of those as well, Your Grace,” the ogre reminded me. “Had I not been informed there are temporal concerns at work, I would have advised for a protracted siege instead of an assault.”

Temporal concerns, huh. A roundabout way of saying everybody was worried about what Akua Sahelian would be able to cook up if we didn’t kick down her front door quickly enough. The ogre’s notion wouldn’t have been wrong on a tactical level, if we set aside Diabolist. But it would have been a mistake on a strategic one. The longer it took us to put the rebels down, the higher the chances Procer would attack while half the legions were tied up around Liesse. The ogre wasn’t high enough up the ranks to be in the know for that, though I’d wager she’d heard some rumours. They were cropping up often of late and I doubted it was a coincidence. The Empress, I suspected, was preparing public opinion for the wars to come. Even if she had a plan in the works that involved never fighting those at all. Malicia was not the kind of woman inclined to leave any of the angles uncovered. I had no intention of discussing any of that with the ogre, through, so I changed the subject.

“Fasili Mirembe,” I said. “Your opinion on him?”

“Skilled,” the legate immediately replied. “Clearly studied Legion doctrine in depth. He accurately gauged how long it would take the legions to deal with the wights set against them. His tactical judgement is solid as well. The Ankouans were the correct target for his ritual.”

“Terror tactics,” I murmured. “He was banking on a Callowan rout to win this.”

“They have evidently made plans to limit your ability to act on the battlefield, ma’am,” Hune said. “I am somewhat at a loss as to how they were fooled by a decoy.”

“That was Thief,” I said. “Keep quiet a Name’s power and it can be hard to differentiate between them, from a distance. It won’t work twice, but it shouldn’t need to. Using wards against Masego is like trying to drown a fish.”

“I confess a degree of wariness over how heavily we rely on Named for for our tactics,” the ogre noted.

She sounded, I thought, almost like my teacher. Never rely on an artefact or a power for victory. They will always fail you. There is no such thing as being invincible, but lack of glaringly exploitable crutches will do wonders for your lifespan. There was truth in that, but the number of Named on my side was my main advantage. I would be a fool not to exploit it to the fullest.

“We’ll meet him again in Liesse,” I said, winding the conversation back to Lord Fasili.

“I would rank him as inferior to most Imperial generals, General Juniper among them,” the ogre said. “Though battles are rarely so clear-cut as to allow such gaps in ability to be a deciding factor.”

She was right about that. On open grounds with identical armies, it would change quite a bit. But in a massive pitched battle around Liesse? That was a different story. I had faith in the Hellhound, but I did not think she would be better at leading a traditional Wasteland army than an intelligent man who’d been raised to do that very thing. We still come out ahead by miles when it comes to experienced officers. They’ll be dependent on magic to control the wights, and that’ll make it hard to manoeuver quickly. Juniper had been crafting a plan of attack for Liesse for quite some time now, refining and improving it every day. I would trust in her, as she trusted in me. I silently watched the legionaries piling up corpses all over the field, preparing the pyres that would be lit before nightfall. Wights broke after they were damaged enough, whatever sorcery animated them ceasing to function, but some of the corpses still struggled as they were dragged away. They would burn anyway.

“Do you think you’re a good person, Hune?” I suddenly asked.

“That’s a human way of looking at the world,” the ogre said. “Drawing lines and saying that standing before or past them defines who you are.”

“Then how do ogres think of it?” I said, glancing at her.

The legate smiled thinly, fat lips tightening in a line.

“We are what Creation lets us be,” she said. “That we get to decide is the first and oldest lie.”

“I was taught differently,” I said.

“And how much control did you have over that?” she asked.

She shook her head before I could reply.

“I must return to my duties, Your Grace,” she continued. “I leave you to your musings.”

I inclined my head in dismissal, not eager to keep her around. I had another conversation ahead of me, after all. As she strode away I sought the six hundred and forty-nine remaining undead I had raised, a writhing bundle in the back of my mind. I could see through their eyes, guide their hands and feet, but there was… danger in that. There were too many, more than I could truly handle. Orders that were more thought than word could direct them as a pack, but if I went any deeper I was certain there would be consequences. A god, perhaps, would not have been troubled by those. But stealing one’s mantle had not raised me to godhood: all it had done was allow me to claim some of that power as my own. Safety lay in shallowness. It was my instinct to release the dead from service now that the battle was over, but I thought twice of it. I’d proved in the past that I could go a great deal of damage by filling dead animals with munitions. Six hundred purely expendable troops were too useful of a tool to dismiss without good reason.

“I know you’re around,” I said.

Thief clucked her tongue, and appeared ahead of me. She was sitting on a dead man’s back, though from this angle I could not tell whether it’d been one of mine or a wight. She pulled at a waterskin, looking somewhat ill.

“I’ll never get used to the smell,” Vivienne Dartwick said. “The reek clings to you, somehow.”

“I thought the same after my first real battle,” I said. “I barely notice it now, to tell you the truth.”

Thief’s answering smile was sharp.

“And that doesn’t worry you?”

“Not only villains fight battles,” I said. “Or have noses, for that matter.”

She didn’t press the subject, nor I had not expected her to. Talking with Vivienne, I thought, was much like sparring. All deft footwork and probing for weaknesses, a game where victory and defeat were ever moving targets for both players.

“A great victory,” Thief drawled. “Should I offer you congratulations?”

“A skirmish,” I said.

“Forty thousand men fought on this field,” Vivienne said.

“Not even a third of either real armies,” I said. “Minor parts of the whole. That makes it a skirmish, no matter how large of one.”

“If this was just a skirmish,” Vivienne said. “Then why did Diabolist risk her best general?”

My fingers clenched, then unclenched.

“I,” I murmured, “have been wondering about the same thing.”

Looking at all of this, there were parts that weren’t adding up. I could generously assume that I’d lost five thousand men today. Diabolist, on the other hand, had lost twenty thousand. Even with the five thousand Southpooleans she would kill and raise, I’d come out of this round ahead by ten thousand souls. It wasn’t a horrible trade, for her. The more troops I lost the fewer I had to assault her walls with. But she sent Fasili, and hundreds of mages. Knowing she could lose them. Akua never did anything with only one intention in mind.

“The wards they tried to pen me in with,” Thief said. “I could have strolled out at any time. They weren’t keyed to me, if you get my drift.”

“You think she wanted to find out if she could put me in a box at will,” I said.

“I’m no general,” the dark-haired woman said. “But I get the impression that, army for army, she has you beat. What you’ve got over her is a bunch of Named, and arguably you’re the most powerful of them.”

I wasn’t so sure of that, to be honest. When it came to killing single opponents, maybe, and Named in particular. But Hierophant could wipe a company from the face of Creation without losing his breath, these days. And Archer was, well… Hard to contain, for lack of better term. She was the living incarnation of the proverbial grain of sand in the machinery. Adjutant wasn’t overwhelming by himself, but that wasn’t his Role in the first place. He was supposed to empower another Named, and though he worked best with me he could serve that function with others as well.

“It would be reckless of her, to risk so many mages just to answer that question,” I said.

“If you’d been stuck behind the wards,” Thief said, “would this battle have been won?”

I grimaced. Maybe. But then, maybe not. And if Diabolist had wiped three legions and a contingent of the Fifteenth right before our last battle, well, there went my chances of taking Liesse. This campaign could survive the loss of the Ankou city guard. Fourteen thousand legionaries were another story.

“There’s too much we don’t know for sure,” I finally said. “Guesswork and schemes are her bread and butter, we won’t be coming out on top if we keep playing this her way.”

Thief was silent for a long moment, staring at me.

“You want me to go to Liesse,” she said.

I slowly nodded.

“Not to fight,” I clarified. “But I need eyes in the city before attacking it. I’ve tried to seize the initiative repeatedly, Vivienne, but she’s always been a step ahead of us.”

“It won’t be like my last visit there,” Thief said. “She knows I’m part of your little band of miscreants. She will have measures in place.”

“I know,” I said quietly. “I’m asking anyway.”

“This is the part,” she said, “where you use your eloquence to talk me into this.”

I looked up at the blue sky and smiled bitterly. I could manipulate her, I thought. I’d glimpsed levers to pull in our past conversations. I had a grasp on the kind of threats and pressures that would make her cave. But this, the urge to bend her to my will that I was feeling in my bones? That was how villains forged the same blade that’d kill them. I didn’t know if that sharp instinct was from my Name or Winter, or more distressingly neither of them at all. But I would not give in to it.

“Do you think you’re a good person, Vivienne?” I asked instead.

“Good is irrelevant,” Thief said. “There are debts, paid and not. The rest is garnish.”

“A hundred thousand Callowans,” I said. “Killed and made servants. That, I think, may be the debt of our lifetime. Help me settle it. Please.”

Vivienne said nothing at all, and drank from the water skin. She wiped her lips and chuckled darkly.

“I used to think there wouldn’t be a need for idiotic heroics, on this side of the fence,” she said. “How I miss that assumption.”

I didn’t push any further. It had, in the end, to be her decision. Anything else and there would be a cost, sooner or later. I do no want servants, I thought, the conversation I’d had with Hune on a hill still fresh in my mind. But some part of me whispered that kindness was as much a leash as fear, in its own way, and that what I wanted mattered a great deal less than what I actually did.

“Don’t dawdle south,” Thief said. “I’ll be cautious, and retreat if the danger’s too great.”

“That’s all I can ask,” I said, and the matter was settled.

By nightfall, the pyres were burning. A hundred candles of cooking flesh in the night. Thief went north, to the enemy’s lair. I had the three legions under General Istrid escort the Ankouans to our mustering grounds, and returned south with the remained of my men. To the Fifteenth, to Juniper and Hierophant and the plans that would make or break Callow.

And, I found out, to Black.

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Interlude: Skirmish II

“Mark my words, the Imperial banner will be flying above Summerholm by midsummer.”
– Dread Empress Regalia II, shortly before initiating the Sixty Years War

“Sound the horns,” General Istrid said.

The Red Rage pulsed in the back of her head, the song of slaughter sweetly beckoning. She’d learned to ignore it, since she’d taken her oaths to the Legion all these years ago. Still the urge was always there, to let the howl loose and sink her fangs into one quarry after another until all was left of her was the joy and the blood. Orcs never really went tame, even when you drilled them and clad them in man’s armour. Her warlord understood that, had never tried to make them anything but what they were. Instead he gave them enemies and taught them to be better killers, to wed savagery to discipline and something greater than themselves. Some of the younger greenskins nowadays thought that great thing was the Empire, but they’d been born in different times. Istrid of the Red Shields worshipped only at the altar of the Legions of Terror, the greatest killing machine Calernia had ever seen. What was Praes, to her? A pack of squabbling humans decked in silks and too much gold. Should she ever get the order, she would burn everything they had raised to ashes and salt the grounds of their ancestral homes.

It might just come to that. The Rage pounded her temples like a drum at the thought. Black’s scrappy little apprentice had men singing of revolution these days, and even Her Dread Majesty was getting her hands dirty in the Wasteland. After they dealt with this Sahelian girl, the old order was going to see revisiting. She savoured the killing yet to come, for many reasons. The Red Shields Clan was not unbroken lineage like the Howling Wolves or the Ivory Fangs, but the shamans still spoke histories from the dead clan that had birthed her own. Of the days when greenskin hordes sacked Wolof and Okoro as they wished, took tribute from the kneeling kings of Aksum and fought great battles against Deoraithe in the Golden Bloom. Even before the Miezans the strength of her people had been waning in the face of high walls and cunning sorceries, but Creation was a wheel ever spinning. Every dog had their day, if they were patient enough. Her people’s felt like it was coming.

The Fourth did not use Praesi-made horns for their signalling. Istrid had her own crafted from the bones of the great drakes whose remains still littered the Steppes, great carved things that took an ogre to blow them. Their call was deep and shivering, the hollow cry of creatures long dead to this land. It was the promise of death, and Istrid’s legionaries marched to it against the last gasps of the old order.

Squire’s legate had done what she could but these Callowans were watchmen, not Royal Guard. When the wights pressed where the line was thinnest and the men of the Fifteenth started dying, the left side of the centre wavered. Istrid had ordered the horns sounded before it could collapse entirely, and watched as her legionaries steadied the front before edging the Callowans aside. Her Fourth had earned their cognomen at Black’s own word, after the Fields, for turning back the mounted killers of the kingdom. Ironsides. It had a lot of people thinking she’d raised her legion for defence, for taking a hit and swinging back. Ignorance, that. Istrid Knightsbane had climbed her way to the heights where she now stood by massacring everything in her way, be it rivals chiefs or Wasteland lords or the chivalry of Callow. She’d raised her army in her image: brute force made host. She had fewer sappers than any other legion in service, only the requisite number of mages and the Fourth was the only Praesi host with more heavies than regulars on the rolls. There was a reason they paired her with Sacker, she knew. Her old friend would use finesse where she did not, temper her more belligerent instincts. But there would be no need for deep thinking, today.

In front of her dead men stood and she would shatter them. That was all there was to it.

The orc tightened the clasps of her helmet and licked her chops. Her personal guard clustered around her, as eager for the fight as she, and Istrid glanced at her seniormost legate.

“Bagram,” she announced. “Command’s yours.”

“Wade in their blood, Knightsbane,” the orc replied, flashing fangs.

Just a little too long in doing that for it to be entirely proper, but the old bastard had always been flirtatious. Istrid limbered her aging shoulders with a roll and unsheathed her blade. Ahead of her the lines impacted with a heady fracas and she picked up the pace. Legionaries moved aside for her until all that was ahead was the dead, a teeming mass of pale flesh and steel that came in silent waves. The orc stomped the ground and let out a hoarse yell. A hundred of the same gave reply, greenskins from steppes both Northern and Lesser. Berserkers like her. There were some who said there was no longer a place for the Red Rage, in this orderly little world the Tower was building. No place for the old dumb brutes from the north.

Bone and flesh torn asunder,” she whispered in Kharsum, letting the old words wash over her.

Her father had spoken them, and his mother before her. All the way back to the Broken Antler Horde and the years where Creation had stood in awe of the orcs.

Caked in doom and mask of cinder
Stand ye ever red in tooth and claw
Like empty, great and gaping maw.”

The old rhyme eased her into it, the way it was meant to. Istrid’s body shook with spasms as a scream not her own filled the air. Muscles tightened, bones creaked and the world turned to shades of crimson. The wight ahead of her struck, but so did she and her sword ripped through bone and flesh, bending steel and smashing it into another undead.

“FORWARD,” she bellowed, laughing madly.

And so they went, doom upon all the world.

Abigail kept cursing even as the mage healed what was left of her eye. She could still feel the teeth going into her flesh, ripping and tearing as she struggled to get the wight off of her. It said a lot about the day that she was one of the lucky ones. Her entire line had been wiped out trying to steady the fucking Ankouans when it looked like they were going to rabbit: with the guards giving ground her twenty had been surrounded and torn through in moments. If a mage line hadn’t burned her a path to retreat, she’d be in some wight’s mouth like the rest of her soldiers.

“Cowardly shits,” the captain spat. “I hope she hangs them all.”

“Unlikely,” Lieutenant Salome noted. “And if you continue speaking, I cannot promise you’ll ever see again.”

Abigail shut the Hells up, though she was starting to have opinions about Legion healers. They worked slower than the brothers and sisters at the House of Light and their bedside manner was a lot less pleasant. They weren’t as good at healing, either. The lack of gentle persuasion about attending sermons more often wasn’t enough of a trade-off for maybe losing half of her total eye supply.

“There,” the solemn Taghreb said. “That should be enough. Keep in mind this is a patch job, Captain. Actual restoration would take hours of precision work, and will have to wait until this is no longer an active battlefield.”

“I know the triage protocols,” Abigail griped. “I sat through the fucking lectures.”

The Legions had to be the only army in the world where they made you sit like a schoolgirl after the drills. It was a good thing she know how to read, too, because it was a requisite if you ever wanted to make tribune. She had her eye on that promotion, as it happened. Officers of that rank weren’t expected to be on the frontlines as often, which should do wonders for her life expectancy.

“Legate Hune left instructions for the soldiers that were in your section to present themselves for redeployment,” the olive-skinned mage told her. “Try not to get killed, Captain Abigail. It would be a shame for my work to have been pointless.”

“You’re all heart, Salome,” the dark-haired woman drily replied.

Much as she disliked the notion of going back into the thick of it, the Callowan had expected she’d be sent for. Half her company still lived but it wouldn’t be headed back to where it had been bled – that space was now occupied by the Fourth, which had come out swinging. And screaming. Gods Above, so much screaming. It must have been an orc thing. The legionaries were turning around the situation there, at least. Their frontlines had been stacked with heavies and they’d slammed into the wights like a runaway cart, gaining back all the grounds that’d been lost in the span of a quarter bell. Now they were carving a wedge into the undead, which she assumed was the preludee to an all-out assault. Abigail made the rounds and collected the remains of her company from the tender attentions of the healers or the grounds where they’d dropped down exhausted before making her way to command. Senior Tribune Locks was the one who met with her, the reason for his ridiculous Legion-assumed name made clear by the dark curls going beyond his helmet.

“We’re keeping you in reserve for now, captain,” the Soninke told her. “Most likely you’ll be joined with another company that took casualties and sent to steady the levies.”

Steadying the godsdamned Ankouans is how I lost half my company, you smug prick, she thought.

“Looking forward to it,” Abigail said, playing up her Summerholm accent so the sarcasm wouldn’t register.

She spent half a bell after that standing behind the lines like she was on death row, but she couldn’t complain. Better the wait than the fight. She was no tactician, but at the moment she’d wager the judgement that things were looking up for her side. The Fifth on the right flank was still stuck dealing with wights, but the undead were beginning to thin. The Ninth was going through the enemy slower but with fewer casualties, and the Fourth was digging into the undead like this was summer solstice and they hadn’t eaten all week. It could be generously said that the centre was holding, though not much more than that. There’d been no glaring fuckups that would require her to be sent back into the mess, and she told herself she’d light a candle in a House for that. As long as it cost copper, anyway. She wasn’t putting down silver for the folks Above, not unless she got a promotion and her hooks into a pretty boy that was supernaturally flexible in bed.

She was made to regret the blasphemy immediately.

There’d been a bunch of fancy Wastelanders looming behind the undead since the blades had come out and they’d finally stirred themselves to act. The move they made was on the Black Queen, and Abigail had to give them praise for the balls of it if nothing else. Catherine Foundling had a reputation for brutally murdering her way through problems, so it was pretty brave of them to so openly embrace that label. Blinding panels of light formed around the Squire in the distance, slowly spinning. Abigail would have looked closer but it hurt her eyes to, and not just because of the light. The shapes she could discern were hardly shapes at all, and even glancing was enough to have the beginnings of a migraine forming. To be honest, she wasn’t too worried about this. Trapping the Black Queen was kind of line trying to put a bonfire in a box – it’d work for that short moment until the whole thing caught fire and then your hands were on fire as well and by then it was way, way too late to do anything about it. Unlike some of her dumber countrymen Abigail didn’t think there was anything gloriously patriotic about trading a Praesi monster in charge for a Callowan one, but Heavens was she glad to be in the Fifteenth and not in the ranks of whatever poor fucking fools were fighting it.

There was something to be said for being on the winning side, and monster or not Foundling had a history of being the last woman standing on the field.

The thing was, the light panels stayed there. No howling blizzard tore them open. This, Abigail thought, did not bode well. The rest of the army must have agreed because a shiver went through the ranks. Not the old legionaries, they were made of sterner stuff, but the Ankouans were wavering. And the men of the Fifteenth were… It was hard to put into words. You didn’t have to like the Black Queen to put your trust in the legend. In the stories about the girl who’d tricked resurrection out of angels and swept her way through armies and heroes alike. Abigail had seen her in Dormer, when she’d raised the stairs of ice and swept the Summer fae off the walls. It had been like watching a force of nature, not a person. Sometimes the captain still woke up with cold fingers even when she slept by the fire. You couldn’t see something like that and not believe, even if only a little.  So why isn’t she breaking out of the cage? The Praesi took advantage, and if there’d ever been the history of Callow writ in a sentence that was it.

Abigail had heard stories about the Conquest. Every kid did, not matter where in the country they were raised. But those had been about battles and sieges, cunning ploys and foul deeds. This isn’t anything like that at all, she thought. Darkness was made smoke above the chanting silhouettes of faraway mages, and that smoked moved. It slithered across the cloudless sky, spreading smoothly like ink in water, and it was only when it reached the army it clustered into a ball above it. Then it exploded again, into a hundred dark tendrils that swept through the centre of the host. Wherever the tendrils passed, men died. Choking and screaming, clawing at their throats as the smoke went into their bodies and poisoned something inside them. Black tears streaked down their faces, leaving ash-like trails. Abigail’s blood ran cold, and in that moment she understood why old men called Praes the Enemy. This was not war, it was… She didn’t know a word ugly enough for it.

How many had died, over these ten heartbeats? A thousand, at least. There was a gaping hole right in the middle of the army, and already the wights were pouring through. Abigail almost thought she heard a snap, when the morale of the Akouans broke. They were going to leg it, she thought. They guards were going to flee and they were all going to die. The smoke thinned and began to disperse, leaving only a field of corpses behind. That, and one soldier. That one survivor took off her helmet, shook free a ponytail, and the captain’s heart caught in her throat.

“Rise,” Catherine Foundling ordered, and the dead men obeyed.

The word had been spoken half a mile away, and still Abigail heard it like had been whispered into her ear. Akouans and legionaries rose to their feet, cold blue eyes shining, and the dead fell upon the dead. Something old and harsh rose up in the captain’s veins, something she had thought herself beyond. It wasn’t pride, because who could take pride in one of their own matching the Wasteland horror for horror? But it was something close to it, when she thought of the sneering mages on the other side who’d swatted down thousands likes insects. Be afraid, she thought. Like we are, like we’ve always been. Be afraid of the monster coming for you all, because there is not a speck of pity or mercy in her.

“Kill them all, Black Queen,” Abigail whispered hoarsely, and meant every word of it.

Sacker watched frost spread across the ground, dead men claw at the dead, and felt her body shiver in a way that had nothing to do with the sudden cold. She’d seen Lord Black in the fullness of his power, turning the men behind him into a sword no army could withstand. This was something else. It was the madness and might of the Old Tyrants turned to sharp purpose, and the part of her that loved the Tribes above all else wept at the sight of it. O Carrion Lord, what have you wrought? The Squire was a host unto herself, a wrathful child who’d stolen the mantle of a lesser god and would wreck the world with it until it fit her vision of how things should be. The goblin was a true daughter of the Grey Eyries, daughter and great-daughter of Matrons, and she knew old histories and the dark truths they carried. No Empresses had been so terrifying as the ones that though they were in the right. That thought they were doing the necessary thing. The Praesi knelt at the altar of Dread Empress Triumphant – may she never return – and named her the greatest Tyrant that ever was or would be. But she’d been a storm to be waited out, nothing more.

There would be no waiting out Catherine Foundling, she knew. The girl had been taught by the most patient of monsters, and surpassed his greatest weakness. Lack of power.

Is this to be your legacy, Amadeus of the Green Stretch? Will you leave us with one last laugh at our expense, knowing the world will burn in your wake? Sacker held more respect for the Black Knight than she’d ever thought she would give either a human or a male, but even so she did not think he deserved a pyre as great as the whole of Calernia. It was all made even more bitter brew by what what she knew, that the Squire would be needed in the wars to come. They needed the likes of her to turn back Procer, to smother the Tenth Crusade in the crib. I hate you a little, old friend, for the knowledge that you shaped a situation where we would have no choice but to embrace her. Every inch of Sacker told her that she needed to kill this girl, kill her right now before she crossed a line they could not return from. But to follow her instincts would be to cripple the Empire and the Tribes with it on the eve of the greatest war they had seen in centuries.

The goblin let fear and grief hold her for a moment, before she wrested back her mind. There were orders to give. The rebels had played their hand and seen it faul. It was only a matter of time until Istrid and Orim broke through, and when they did the battle would be good as won. All that remained was to play out the rest of this.

“Raise the banners,” General Sacker told her staff. “Heavies in front, mages are to Lob at will. Let’s end this farce.”

It should have felt like a victory, but all she could think about was what lay ahead. Her people kept to the Gods Below, as the Praesi did, but they had given the oldest face of these deities a name: the Gobbler. It was said, among the Tribes, that when the Creation was born the Gobbler had spewed out all the peoples of the world. The last and smallest of them, crawling from the open and exhausted maw, had been the goblins. It was whispered to the daughters of Matron lines that they had been the last to come and that they would be the last to go. That they would be spared the calamities of greater peoples, hidden away in their deep places.

Watching Winter spread through the dead, freezing and shattering everything in its path, for the first time since she’d been spawned Sacker doubted this truth.

Interlude: Skirmish I

“If I had an aurelius for every assassination attempt, I wouldn’t have to keep raising taxes.”
– Dread Emperor Pernicious, the Imperiled

Commander Joan Ansel had feigned anger when the ogre took command, for that was what her men wanted from her, but deep down all she felt was pathetic relief. This was all far beyond her ability to deal with. She’d been Royal Guard, once upon a time, and fought in the Siege of Laure until one of the gates gave and the Praesi ran loose in the capital. That record had seen her appointed to lead the city guard of Ankou a decade down the line, but her men forgot she’d been a captain back then. What did she know of leading armies, of field tactics and the like? Her job had been the hold the fucking wall with the company of soldiers that answered to her, and that duty she’d discharged and well. It hadn’t been her men that gave, when the Empire came knocking. This, though, this was all more than she could handle. The truth of how close they’d come to being wiped out by the enemy before the Legions ever caught sight of them still had fear running down her spine. Weeping Heavens, she’d still run if she could. Not that it was an option.

The fair-haired woman glanced back over the ranks and caught sight of that lone silhouette on horseback, a colourful cloak stirring in the wind behind it. The Black Queen herself had come to take charge, and she was said to have strong opinions on desertion. Joan hid a flinch under her helmet. They’d all heard how the Gallowborne had been snatched straight from the gallows and used ‘til they were spent on foreign fields. The woman knew Her Grace had been named Vicequeen of Callow by the Tower, that she did not hold the throne in her own right as the Fairfaxes had, but balls to that. It was open secret the Black Queen had slugged the Wasteland in the stomach until it spat out a crown for her to wear. She’s never lost a battle, Joan told herself. We won’t die today. She clutched that belief tight, watching the ranks of the dead advance. Thousands upon thousands, pale as the grave even in the morning sun. Their armaments weren’t pretty like those of the Legions, no matching colours and smooth lines. Just pieces of armour slapped together over a marching corpse, blades and spears and every weapon that could be gotten cheaply in hand. They did not look fearsome, until you saw there was only death in those empty eyes.

Her men, at least, had decent mail and good spears. The city guard used clubs and knives within Ankou to keep the peace, but it was tradition old as the kingdom that all of them drill with the spear every month. The city was the last holdfast between Callow and the fucking Procerans, if the Vales fell. It was expected to be able to hold until the kingdom’s armies arrived. Ankou has walls, she thought. Here there is only barley and black earth. Both would be stained red before long. Joan felt her hands shake with tremors they’d disdained when she was still young, but she’d been a dumb twat at twenty hadn’t she? Thinking Laure could hold against the godsdamned Carrion Lord and his pack of monsters. Now she neared fifty and knew better. There was no winning against the Wasteland. And the harder we fight, the harder we die. The thought was dark, but Joan had not felt this powerless in decades. The Imperial Governor in Ankou had been content to wring taxes out of the people and ignore them otherwise, until his term ended last year. They’d all gone on with their lives with no one bothering with them.

Now Joan was back in the Tower’s eye, sworn to die in its name.

“Commander Ansel,” the mountain said. “Your men seem dispirited.”

Joan swallowed and looked up at the ogre. Legate Hune, she’d said her name was. One of the Fifteenth’s top officers though not one she’d ever heard of, like the Hellhound or Hakram Deadhand. The creature was large as a dozen men, and those eyes were studying her like she was some sort of insect one misstep away from being squashed. Gods, she thought, why did I not retire? Coin would have been tight, but better poor than dead.

“They’ll hold, ma’am,” she stiffly told the monster. “They know the stakes.”

You didn’t need to be some great general to see the Black Queen had put Joan’s men in the centre because all she wanted from them was to hold. The wings on both sides were Legions, and it’d be them who decided the battle while Callowans died like dogs. But if the centre collapses, this turns into slaughter. The dead would split the Black Queen’s army in two and overwhelm it in small bits. The fair-haired woman knew this, but she wasn’t sure her soldiers did. And even if they do, are they going to give a shit when their faces are getting chewed off? Joan shivered. It was easy to see the disaster this could turn into.

“They will,” Legate Hune agreed calmly. “Pass this down to your officers: the legionaries of the Fifteenth are under instruction to kill any men fleeing the battlefield. Cowardice will not be tolerated.”

Joan’s eyes flicked to the Black Queen, still unmoving in the distance. Gods it was eerie how still she was.

“The Vicequeen will not gainsay that order, commander,” the monster said coldly. “You will find no saving grace there. She has no patience for the yellow-bellied.”

Easy for you to call people that, she thought. You’re a fucking battering ram unto yourself.

“We’ll hold,” Joan said, and hated how weak it sounded.

She breathed in and out, kept her hands against her side to end the shaking.

“Down here in the mud, it’s us who holds the line,” she whispered, and that one had some iron to it.

The old song spoke about dying free, though, didn’t it? She smiled bitterly. Well, songs were songs. Creation was never as pretty as they said.

Orim of the Tarred Dogs breathed in deeply. The air was crisp and clean out here, nothing like the squalid reek of Laure. He felt the part of him that was the general melt away, the chief he’d once been baring his fangs anew. Gods, it was good to be at war again. To have an enemy to chew up, an army to break and scatter and crush underfoot. It was the way orcs were meant to live, not playing fucking wet nurse to a mob of bleating Callowan cattle. Oh, he knew why Lord Black had garrisoned him in Laure. The day he’d spilled the lifeblood of five thousand Praesi on Wasteland grounds still rang in people’s ear, a whisper of fear and death if he was crossed. It had kept the likes of Mazus in line and the local waste as well. But having to be patient and kind and all those hundred tedious little duties had worn away at him. Orim was fifty-three, now, but today he felt young again. It was going to be a good day, and all he regretted was that he had to fight under a green girl instead of Grem or the Carrion Lord. What Lord Black saw in the Wallerspawn was beyond him. She had a way with killing, but the Empire had no shortage of killers. Few of them were so irritatingly high-minded about getting the job done.

His general staff arrayed around him, Orim studied the rebel army. The wights would not be easy meat, but this was a battle that could be won. The Wastelander boy leading the other side had thickened his ranks before approaching, massing the dead to match the line of Callowan levies. Deeper lines, though. The mixed Fifteenth and levies numbered ten thousand in total, but the rebels must have closer to fourteen or fifteen thousand facing them. It was like Istrid had thought, Mirembe was aiming to break the centre and split them. There was more to enemy tactics than a single wave though. A chunk of three thousand wights had been split from the rest of the host and was heading towards Orim’s own Fifth Legion. Behind the centre of the rebel army the living could be glimpsed, Praesi household troops and mages that couldn’t be more than two thousand. There were another three thousand wights in a ring around them, which was a damned shame. Istrid’s riders could have looped around to hit the Praesi if they hadn’t kept those.

“General Sacker seems to have the lucky draw of the day,” his Staff Tribune said.

Orim grunted in assent, though he didn’t look at the Taghreb. Sacker’s Ninth made up the left wing, and unlike his own legion there was no detached division heading for her. The orc licked his chops, the atrophied muscles of his face keeping his lips near-unmoving. A weakness he’d been born with, one that had seen him called Grim for how hard it was to smile. He’d been lucky it hadn’t been obvious when he’d been a babe. Orcs born flawed didn’t make it through long winters.

“Prepare to receive them,” he ordered. “Staggered welcome.”

His Senior Sapper snorted, then spoke to the flag-bearers. Twice red cloth rose, and it was fewer than thirty heartbeats before the scorpions began firing. Steel-tipped javelins tore through the first rank of the three thousand wights moving towards the Fifth like wet parchment. The undead were within three hundred feet, good killing range. The second volley flew twenty heartbeats later, this one angled to punch through more than one wight per projectile. The rebels had put cheap armour on their dead, but going through flesh and bone still took strength: it was a rare javelin that took more than two. The wights began to quicken their steps before the third volley launched, much as Orim had expected. If he’d had longer to prepare the chief would have made his sappers trap the advance, but the rebels had been too swift for that. No matter. Undead hordes had no skill to them, even the clever ones, and this one seemed to have no skirmishers to field. They’d bleed for that. The flags rose again and the Fifth’s sapper lines shot forward across the field. They slowed right before the enemy entered range, the sharpers thrown carving holes into the enemy ranks with loud cracks.  The goblins immediately began to withdraw at a measured pace, munitions detonating every ten heartbeats with disciplined precision.

“We’ll have a more than a tenth of them gone before they reach our shield wall, at this rate,” his Staff Tribune observed.

“Close up is where undead shine,” Orim reminded her. “This won’t last.”

He’d learned that the hard way, when they’d marched on Okoro during the civil war. Skirmishers scythed through the first few ranks of enemy undead and he’d thought it was going to be a slaughter, but it had ended up so close a victory it might as well have been a draw. Undead did not tire, or break when they lost too many. You couldn’t flip their line the way you did the living because they didn’t panic and flee. They didn’t stop unless you broke them all, or the necromancers holding their leash. Three thousand wights against the four thousand men of his Fifth seemed like throwing away bodies but it wasn’t that. The boy on the other side knew whatever dead managed to reach their lines would keep Orim’s legion too busy to redeploy for at least an hour. He’d going to be hitting the centre’s right side, the orc thought. The wights sent against the Fifth had been meant to prevent it from reinforcing there: Mirembe was trying to create weakness for him to tear through. But that wouldn’t be enough, not with Istrid’s legion kept back to plug exactly that sort of gap. So what are you truly up to, Wastelander?

One hundred feet until the wights hit the shield wall. No crossbow fire had greeted them when they entered range, for that would have been a pointless waste of bolts. Nothing that light would put down the likes of them. Orim spat to the side and made his decision.

“Heavies to the front,” he said. “Senior Mage Dolene.”

“Sir?” the Soninke replied.

“No volleys,” he ordered. “A Hook, then Lob until told otherwise.”

Whatever the rebels were up to, it depended on him being pinned down. To unmake their design he must tear through the opposition as quickly as possible. The orc watched as the ranks of the Fifth smoothly redeployed, the sappers taking refuge as his men and orc in heavy plate came to the fore. They would tire swiftly, he knew, but regulars would not make as much of an impact. He would take the gamble. Mere moments before the wights smashed into his frontline fireballs bloomed, rising up at a sharp angle before being pulled down backwards into the first rank of the wights. Hook. Flame consumed the undead, intensely concentrated so it would bite hungrily into dead flesh. The horns sounded and his heavies let out a loud cry, shields raised as they charged into the enemy. There was a thundering crash of steel on steel and the mage lines crafted flame again, tossing them into the roiling mass of wights far from the frontline. Lob, the doctrine called it. Meant to weaken the pressure of the enemy so it could be devoured in waves.

The glare of the sun glinting on his helm, Orim the Grim watched the struggle of steel against dead flesh and his lips half-twitched into a grotesque smile.

General Sacker watched from her raised platform as the line of Ankou men bent under the weight of the undead and frowned. Her missing eye itched, the urge of scratching the scarred tissue ever an effort to master. Either the enemy was blundering, or they had. The Callowans had thin blood and there could be no turnaround expected from them, but the centre was holding in the face of the wights. Legate Hune’s legionaries steadied the parts of it that wavered, filling the gaps with red-painted steel and unflinching discipline. The Matron was almost impressed. Most of the Fifteenth was fresh out of the camps and of conquered stock to boot, which had seen her lower her expectations, but the men she saw fighting did so as proper legionaries. It is not merely Names that won them the victories, then. Something to consider. Any pack of goatherds could win a battle against an army if a demigod stood at their head, but the Squire had yet to act. This was the men of the Fifteenth alone and they were acquitting themselves more than passably. Had Sahelian’s dogs made the same erroneous assumption she had, perhaps?

It seemed unlikely. The Diabolist had fought Lord Black’s apprentice many a time, and seen the Fifteenth in action twice. Yet Fasili Mirembe’s army was headed towards defeat, should matters continue to unfold as they now did. Sacker’s men were cutting through the wights in front of them at a steady rate, sharpers and demolition charges opening holes she saw broadened with mage fire. Her regulars were pushing back the enemy, slowly but surely. And when they found nothing but field in front of them, they would turn to flank the wights facing the Callowans. Sacker’s remaining eye was not as sharp as it used to be when she’d been a young and red-handed Matron –  alchemical concoctions could lengthen her lifespan, but not reverse the ravages of time – but she saw clearly enough. And what she saw was this: there were too few wights facing her Ninth. There’d been no need for Lord Mirembe to have fifteen thousand undead facing the ten thousand at the centre. Some of these now stood before her legionaries, but not enough to account for the numbers. Where had the rest gone?

When the battle had begun, there’d been a gap between Orim’s Fifth and the centre. When the Fifth became tied down Legate Hune had lengthened her line to avoid getting flanked through it. Studying the mass of silent yet writhing undead, Sacker found a current. The ranks are thinner where the gap was, the goblin thought. They’re massing wights in front of it to prepare for a push. Mirembe on the other side had to know it would not win him the battle even if he broke through there. Istrid would charge into there fangs bared and stabilize the centre. And after that? Sacker pondered. The Praesi still had a ritual up their sleeve, this was a given. Superior sorcery was their greatest advantage. They wait until Istrid is committed there. Orim won’t be able to disengage from the wights after him, even if they’re not a real threat to him. The orc had engaged the three thousand sent towards him aggressively, she’d noted, using tactics that Legion doctrine usually preached should be used against levies. The picture, slowly, began to paint itself. With the Fourth filling the gap, the only uncommitted force on the field would be Istrid’s riders. And if the rebels hit the Fourth with their ritual, not only do they reopen the gap but they’re costing us legionaries instead of Callowans.

Wolf riders alone would not be able to turn back the wights pouring through. They were not meant for hard fights like those. What, then, would be sent to prevent Sacker’s own legion from intervening? The old goblin’s eyes turned to the Praesi holed up behind the battlefield. Household troops, around a thousand. Half that number of mages and officers. And four hundred men in Helikean scale armour, most likely mercenaries. By themselves, not a threat. But able to withstand eight hundred wolf riders if those attempted a charge on the mages. Which left the three thousand wights currently deployed in a ring around the Praesi free to tie down the Ninth Legion while the left flank collapsed. It was a pretty little strategy, she would admit. Neatly designed to exploit the weaknesses of their host. It did not, however, account for the Squire. They cannot be so blind as to discount her, she thought. There is still an element missing. Whether it could be found would decide the victor of the day.

Abigail screamed herself hoarse, smashing her shield in a dead man’s face. The nose broke with a crack but the shit didn’t care in the slightest, hacking at her from the side. Good legionary mail had the blade bouncing off but it would leave a bruise. Sweat pouring down her face, she rammed her sword in the wight’s throat and felt the spine give to goblin steel. She hacked the head off while it continued wailing at her, her shield denting under the force of the blows. Even headless the wight kept on attacking, and something smashed into her helmet that had her vision swimming. She felt someone pull her back and a tall orc filled the empty space, forcing down the wight and letting the legionaries behind him hack it to pieces.

“Captain, you still with us?” a man’s voice asked.

Abigail wiped the spittle and sweat off her lips, focusing on the person it belonged to. Sergeant Tadaaki, whose dark face was creased with worry. She clapped the Soninke’s shoulder, feeling a wave of nausea coming over her.

“I’m f-“

She bent to the side to empty her stomach on the ground.

“Fine, sergeant,” she moaned after. “I am fine.”

No bleeding parts, so there was nothing to bother what few healers they had with. The disgusting taste lingering in her mouth, Abigail wiped her face and deeply regretted having tried her lieutenant’s ‘mystery stew’. Secret Taghreb recipe her fucking ass. Didn’t look any better coming out than it had going in. Never falling for that one again. That wasn’t godsdamned rabbit floating in the stuff, no matter what he said.

“Take a breather, ma’am,” the sergeant said. “I’ll handle the frontline.”

“Don’t get aggressive, Tadaaki,” she said. “We can’t afford the losses. Bloody militia’s shaky enough as is.”

“They’re your people,” the Soninke replied, flashing a grin.

Abigail spat the scum out of her mouth, hoping the man whose boot she’d dirtied hadn’t noticed.

“They’re Ankouans,” Abigail argued. “They’ve got more in common with goats than a good Summerholm girl like me.”

Everybody knew the people in Ankou were barely Callowan at all, what with all that breeding with Procerans. Sergeant Tadaaki left her to the sound of laughter. Good sort, that one, for a Wastelander anyway. Captain Abigail made her way to the back of the line and undid the straps of her helmet, taking it off long enough to let her sweat-soaked curls cool a little. Gods Above, she thought as she watched the melee ahead, what a mess. She could not believe she’d ever been drunk enough to think enrolling in the Legions was a good idea. Abigail had come within an inch of dying twice in the last year, and now held the dubious distinction of knowing what fae blood tasted like. Screaming while hacking at Summer warriors came with drawbacks when red flew. Well, it beat being a tanner at least. Her family home had gone up in green flames when the Black Queen tangled with the Lone Swordsman a while back and her uncle had made it clear that being allowed to live under his roof came at the price of going into his trade. Her two brothers had folded, but she’d decided she wasn’t going to smell like rotting corpse garbage for the rest of her life.

She was coming to reconsider that decision, but with three years left to her service that meant less than nothing. There wasn’t anyone in the Fifteenth that was idiotic enough to think that desertion was an option. The captain rolled her shoulders, wishing she could take off her mail for even ten heartbeats. Her aketon was drenched, and now that she wasn’t busy trying not to get killed she realized that her nipples itched something fierce. Ugh. She took a look at the melee to distract herself, knowing she’d have to go back before long. Tribune Ashan would report her otherwise, and Legate Hune was strict with disciplinary actions. The wights were chewing into the lines, but not as bad as she’d thought they would. The Ankouans were holding up pretty well, for a pack of hacks with spears. Probably helped they didn’t let the dead get too close. Her own company rotated the lines often enough no one was dropping from exhaustion, though the enemy was hard on regulars like her. They swung harder than living men did, and if their armour had been any better they’d have been a hundred Hells to put down. Still, overall she called this better than Dormer – though ‘less dangerous than fire-spitting immortals from a legend world’ was a fairly low bar to set, now that she thought about it. At least she hadn’t pissed herself this time, so there was that, though if the battle continued for another few hours there was no guarantee that would last.

It was because she was at the back of the line that she noticed it. She could see the rest of the army, compare where it stood to where her men did. Realize that her part of it was being pushed back, step by step. It wasn’t some great turning of the tide or anything like that. Just… pressure. Slowly increasing. And we’re bending in front of it.

“Shit,” she said feelingly, and fumbled the clasp of her helmet after forcing it on. “Shitshitshit.”

Tribune Ashan’s cohort, of which her company made up half, was the anchor for right side of the centre. If they broke, then the wights had nothing to stop them and the swarm was going to be coming from all sides. Unsheathing her sword, Abigail went back cursing into the fray and really hoped that someone, anyone, was noticing how close to disaster they were edging.

Chapter 53: Manoeuvring

“War is a breed of conflict decided by the allocation of resources. Through better apportionment a lesser nation can defeat a greater, but never if decision-making is of equal standing on both sides.”
– Extract from “The Modern Legion”, a treatise by Marshal Ranker

Come nightfall I held council. We’d ended the march two hours before sunset when the scouts found grounds suitable for a camp, and the legionaries had taken to building it with veteran expertise. The Fifteenth’s two thousand under Hune had raised palisades in the centre, with the camps of the other three legions forming a triad of spokes coming from it. Wide avenues were made for swift troop deployment, watches set before the wooden walls were even finished and scouting lines scattered around in case the enemy attempted to steal a march in the dark. I’d hesitated about the camp, but decided not to gainsay General Istrid when she suggested we should stop. Another two hours of marching wouldn’t gain us much ground, but proper fortifications would make a real difference if the Diabolist’s host tried a surprise offensive. That I’d call a war council was to be expected, given that the decision to march had been made that very morning and was a major departure from our previous operational plan. I’d spent the daylight in conference with mages and Thief, trying to get a better picture of the opposition, and I was glad I had. I would not have enjoyed looking like a reckless fool in front of these particular commanders, though there might be some grain of truth to that.

More reckless than fool, I liked to think, but that was the kind of judgement best passed on the dead.

I had three of the foremost Imperial officers in Callow facing me. General Istrid Knightsbane, commander of the Sixth Legion. Ironsides, their cognomen was. To orcs, perhaps the only one of their own that could top the reputation of Istrid’s legion was Grem One-Eye’s, for they’d earned that title breaking a charge of Callowan knights. General Orim – the Grim, his men fondly called him – led the Fifth Legion, cognomen Exterminatus. They’d earned that name during the Praesi civil war, executing near five thousand Praesi prisoners to ensure they wouldn’t be slowed on the march. The third and last was General Sacker, commander of the Ninth Legion. Cognomen Regicides. Her goblins had been the ones to kill the Shining Prince when he’d ascended to the throne of Callow halfway through the Fields of Streges. The red paint on her throat was kept by all her men as well, a reminder they’d slit open the throat of royalty without flinching. Hune and myself were green, compared to that assembly. The Fifteenth had been founded only two years ago, and though it had a score of victories under its belt most of my men were still just a few months out of the training camps. The fights I’d put them through so far had hardened them, but it would be years before they had the wealth of experience of the three legions now with me.

I cleared my throat when all were seated, and one of Hune’s aides provided scrolls to the three generals. Sacker seemed amused at the formality, Orim indifferent and I bit back a sigh when I saw Istrid was reading through hers too quickly for it to be anything but a glance.

“We’ve confirmed two things about the enemy,” I said. “The first is that they number between twenty and twenty-five thousand, with two thousand at most being living.”

“Always the way, with undead armies,” Istrid grunted. “They keep enough necromancers to have a leash and a few elite troops but nothing more. If they mix the forces too much they’ll start needing a supply train, and dispensing with those is one of the major advantages of raising the dead.”

“I’ve had intelligence that Diabolist had no more than six thousand living in he entire forces as of five months ago,” I said. “If we manage to wipe that two thousand, it’ll cripple her army before we move on Liesse.”

“I don’t like the numbers,” General Orim bluntly said. “If we were dealing with bones or shamblers we could handle two to one, but these ‘wights’ are supposed to be upper grade.”

“We let this go unchallenged and they’ll wipe the Ankou levies, Orim,” General Sacker spoke, her voice a dry whisper. “Then raise them still fresh. No coincidence, that number of mages. If we do nothing they gain another eight thousand foot, already armed and armoured.”

“Setting that aside, allowing a third of our Callowan reinforcements to be killed before the battle even begins will have stark effect on morale,” I flatly reminded them.

Considering I’d ordered those city guards to march in the first place I balked at the idea of letting them get attacked without reinforcing for personal reasons as well, but there was no point in speaking of that to these three. All of them had been part of the Conquest, I doubted they had many qualms about spending Callowan lives.

“It was foolish of their commander to circle by the south,” Hune said, the stone we’d dragged inside for her to sit on pushing into the ground. “They should have gone north and joined with the Southpool levies.”

Even half-crouched, her head touched the ceiling of the tent.

“That one rests on my shoulders,” I said. “I ordered them to muster as swiftly as possible, which is why the Southpool men were already on the move. Their commander took what she saw as the least risk-prone route, however incorrect her judgement.”

“Can’t expect too much of civilians in armour,” Istrid said, which was not excuse but perhaps lessening of blame.

Disinclined to let the conversation linger here, I moved it along with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

“Second thing we’ve confirmed: the enemy commander is Lord Fasili Miremebe,” I told them. “Formerly heir to Aksum. If someone can be considered the Diabolist’s right hand, it’s him.”

“That crazy old witch Abreha disinherited him?” General Sacker croaked. “Breaking with the Truebloods in full then. Bold, for her. She usually hedges her bets.”

“Don’t you spoil this campaign with talk about bloody politics,” General Istrid grunted. “I take it gating to their back isn’t an option? I doubt we’d be treading the plains if it was.”

It was my first instinct to keep them in the dark about my exact capacities, but I forced myself to ignore it. Paranoia had a place, but war councils wasn’t it.

“I’ve never been in the region before,” I said. “In those cases I need Hierophant at my side to chart a path through Arcadia. In theory I could try, but there’s no telling how long we’d be in there or exactly where we’d come out.”

“I can still be used to retreat, at least,” General Orim growled. “Being able to leave beyond pursuit is already major advantage.”

My brows rose. I’d never actually considered that. In part because I’d never lost a pitched battle, but also because I did tend to think on the offensive. General Sacker had been reading through the scroll carefully while we talked, and only spoke again when she’d finished.

“The Mirembe boy has only middling military record,” she said. “One internal purge at his great-aunt’s behest, held the left wing when Sahelian was manhandled during the Liesse Rebellion. Are we sure the information is correct?”

“It was supplied by Her Dread Majesty,” I said. “I can’t guarantee it, but I am disinclined to doubt.”

I’d had my own people dig into Lord Fasili as well, of course. Aisha had connections in Praes and had called on them, but they’d not unearthed anything the Empress’ spies had not and not everything they did.  I had been worth the effort anyway, if only to confirm part of what I’d been given by the Tower. Blind trust had never been a virtue in my eyes, and was much worse than that if offered to a villain.

“Tutored by Asmund of the Dark Teeth Clan and Lady Taslima Ubid,” General Orim said, frowning at his scroll. “I know one of these names.”

General Istrid let out a noise of surprise.

“Asmund, the senior tribune from the Third?” she said. “Thought he was dead.”

“Lost a hand and resigned his commission after they put him under the Quartermaster,” the other orc told her.

“Taslima was on the general staff of the Eleventh,” Sacker croaked. “Senior Mage.”

“There’s a reason I had that on the final report,” I said. “Legate Hune?”

“Fasili Mirembe has studied the Legions,” the ogre stated bluntly. “In depth, from officers that fought during the Conquest. He will be prepared for our tactics.”

I inclined my head at the legate.

“I very much want him dead,” I said, not bothering to phrase it delicately. “If we manage to off Diabolist’s best general before the battle proper, her forces will be shaken when we assault. She’s only got so much talent left to call on.”

“It’ll be tricky catching up to them in time,” General Istrid said. “Their men don’t get tired on the move, and it’s not impossible for them to march through the night.”

“Not often,” General Orim said. “They can’t let their necromancers get too tired or they’ll lose hold of the undead.”

I cleared my throat.

“We don’t have the sorcery to scry through their wards on hand,” I said. “But I can scry Hierophant, who most definitely can. From our current positions, if the pace remains the same, we should meet with the Ankou troops two days before they do. Our current guess at when battle would take place is nine days, barring the unexpected.”

I watched rueful smiles bloom across the faces of the three greenskins facing me.

“Unexpected. Heh,” General Sacker whispered.

“Ah, to be young again,” Istrid mused.

I’d told Thief, not too long ago, that Akua had been too straightforward of late.

I learned how correct I’d been exactly one day too late, when I was scried in panic by the Fifteenth’s mage lines in the south. Liesse had spewed out a second army in the middle of the night, while we were encamped. After the ritual ended I remained alone for a long moment, and considered how badly I might have just fucked up. When I’d gone to collect the three legions before taking a fairy gate north I had tipped my hand. Diabolist now had an estimate of how long it would take me to ferry troops and she’d planned accordingly. As of now, the host under Fasili had kept the same pace and my own was only two days away from linking up with the Ankou troops. I closed my eyes and considered the parts in movement. If we kept marching west, we lost two days. Keeping in mind how long it would take me to pass through Arcadia if things went well, if we did this then Akua’s second host of twenty thousand would very likely have time to attack the men coming down from Southpool. Four to one against mages and undead? They’d be shattered within an hour of the first sword being drawn. The rest of my forces were in southern Callow, and if I left now to try to get them on the field up here would be pointless. Both the Ankou troops and the Southpool ones would be wiped by Akua’s armies before I even finished gating back to the rest of the Fifteenth.

I should have seen it coming, when I ordered the muster. Diabolist wasn’t an attacker by nature, not exactly. She was an opportunist. She’d waited until she could get a read on how quickly I could move, then gone to pluck the low-hanging fruits. The worst of it was that there was no real way to warn either of the Callowan forces. They weren’t Legions, they didn’t have mage lines for me to contact. The colder part of me considered the decision to make even as the rest remained in shick. If this was to be purely about numbers, I knew what call I had to make. Southpool was sending five thousand men, Ankou eight thousand better trained and better equipped. She didn’t even need to do anything. She just waited for me to blunder, and I did. There were advantages to being the swiftest player on the field, but costs as well. If you were the first to move then your actions were out in the open. But I hadn’t thought it would matter. I’d believed, deep down, that Akua would remain holed up in her lair and let me come to her. Because that was what villains did, wasn’t it? They raised the flying fortress and let the heroes knock at the gate. And now people were going to die because I hadn’t been careful enough. I only realized I was crushing the goblet in my hand when the wine wet my fingers. I called for my commanders as soon as I was no longer frosting every surface in sight.

“We’re losing one of those armies,” General Istrid bluntly said.

There wasn’t any hemming and hawing from the others. I could see in their eyes that the five thousand from Southpool had been written off before I was done speaking the sentence.

“Though her stratagem was a surprise, the deployments remain real,” Hune noted.

I invited her to elaborate with a look.

“Fasili Mirembe is within reach,” she said. “So are his necromancers. Their loss would still be a blow to her defences.”

“Five thousand levies for a third of her mages or more,” General Sacker croaked. “It is an acceptable trade.”

“That’s if we can decisively beat the boy,” General Orim grunted. “If he retreats in good order after a cursory skirmish, we will have been fully duped.”

“So we strike hard,” General Istrid growled.

Or is that what Diabolist wants? I thought. For us to commit here, where she knows we’re coming and has time to deploy every manner of nasty trick? The first time I’d ever seen Akua, when he’d spied on her conversation with Black, she’d called herself a skilled commander. I’d chalked that up to arrogance since, since she had no real victories to her name, but the arrogance might just have been mine. I’d never seen Akua Sahelian fighting an actual war before, had I? Before the battles had always been just a tool for positioning, a way for her to implement her plots. Now she’d bared her knife, and on our very first round she’d been the one to draw blood. As ever when dealing with Diabolist, the spiral of second-guessing and doubt was as dangerous as her actual actions. Whether Fasili and the mages were bait or not did not matter, in the end. Fighting him with the Ankou troops was still the best decision I could make. It niggled at the back of my mind that thinking about the best decision Juniper could make was exactly how I’d predicted her actions, during our war games, but was that alone enough to have me gate for the Southpool men instead? No, I admitted. It was almost presumptuous, to call joining up with Ankou reinforcements the best move. All it is is the lesser mistake of the tow before me.

“We keep going,” I said, and the words felt like ashes in my mouth.

I did not ask any gods for forgiveness. The ones that would grant it were my foes, and the ones I worked for knew nothing of the word.

It was a close thing, and I only avoided disaster by leaning into my instincts. Two hours before sunset, on the day before we joined the Ankou troops, I passed down instructions not to make camp and to continue marching after dark. Guided by magelights and goblins, our host of fourteen thousand pressed on until midnight. The pace slowed in the dark, but I was feeling an itch on the back of my neck. A sense of danger not yet revealed. Three hours of rest were granted before we resumed the march, and so narrowly avoided disaster. We found the Ankou city guard out in the field shortly before Morning Bell. We found the host of the dead as well, lines tirelessly advancing under the light of the rising sun.

“And that’s why when a Named tells you to keep marching, you fucking do it,” General Istrid said, and spat to the side. “This would have been a bad one, mark my words.”

We were both mounted again, the orc remaining at my side as our legions spread out. My helmet kept under my arm, I gazed at the enemy host.

“They marched through the entire night,” I said. “Gods, if you hadn’t warned me they could…”

“Their necromancers will be tired,” the Knightsbane said. “But our legionaries are as well. We’ll have to be real careful with that shield wall, Squire. Formations are what lets us win this. If they break them we’ll be in deep shit. Your countrymen can’t be relied on, not with dead on the other side and numbers that high.”

“You underestimate them,” I replied. “This is Callow, general. We’ve seen the dead walk before. We’ve turned them back, again and again.”

“From walls,” the orc grunted. “This is open field, and I don’t see no fucking knights. Just scared guards in cheap mail with spears they’ve only ever drilled with.”

“That’s why we spread Hune’s men through them, to serve as a spine,” I said.

I’d put the legate in charge of that entire division of the host, replacing the commander from Ankou. That ten thousand combined would serve as our centre, with the Fifth serving as the right wing and the Ninth as the left. Both legions had left a gap between themselves and the Callowans, bait for Fasili to send his wights through in an attempt to isolate our forces. Istrid’s own Fourth we were keeping in reserve behind the rest, with her wolf riders as an independent command.

“Twenty-three thousand on their side, twenty-two thousand on ours,” the Knightsbane growled. “We’re in for a bloody day.”

“If we can wipe their casters they fall apart,” I said.

Without the necromancers controlling them the wights would lack organization. They’d still fight with the intelligence of living soldiers, more or less, but without officers or orders. Numbers mattered less when they belonged to a mob.

“They won’t leave their mages unprotected,” General Istrid said. “I’m guessing they’ll go back to old Legions tactics from before the Reforms. They’ll keep five thousand back in a square around the casters and come in a wave, then rely on sorcery to punch a hole and try to flip our lines.”

“We don’t have enough mages and sappers with the Fifteenth to break a wave,” I murmured. “Hune’ll keep the fireballs back until she has to plug a gap to avoid exhausting her mage lines.”

“They’ll have a ritual prepared,” the orc laughed. “Those wily old Wasteland foxes always do. But I ain’t worried, to tell you the truth.”

I glanced at her, raising an eyebrow. General Istrid’s lips split into a vicious grin, ivory fangs glinting in the morning sun.

“Whatever sorcery they’re going to pull out, Squire, I doubt it’s going to be worse than you.”

Chapter 52: Tensile

“What cannot bend is fated to break.”
– Taghreb saying

I wouldn’t say aragh had grown on me, but it was the most common of the strong stuff that was peddled among legionaries. That had always been a source of wonder to me, that men and women who already carried so much weight over so many miles would still find it in them to slip a bottle of drink somewhere in there. Booze always found a way, didn’t it? I hadn’t asked Ratface to get me one, but it had magically appeared in my quarters after I’d gotten paring knives to stop disappearing from our supplies. My quartermaster was a tricky bastard with many an axe to grind, but it was little things like this that endeared him so much to me. Trust a Praesi to understand sometimes after a shit day you could need something a little stronger than wine. I poured myself a finger’s worth in a silver goblet that Robber’s men had ‘found’ back in Arcadia, aware I’d be going through at least a third of that bottle but unwilling to actually pour myself a full glass. It would have felt like to blunt an admission. I knocked it back and let out a groan at the the fire going down my throat, shaking my hair.

“Gods, that would outright kill a child,” I rasped out. “Should I pour you one as well?”

Thief was pouting when she came into sight, going from not to there in a heartbeat’s span. She sat astride the table, leather creaking on wood, and presented a golden chalice. I looked closer at it. Those were bells engraved on the side, weren’t they? The heraldry of House Fairfax.

“Did you steal this in Laure?” I asked. “From my own treasury?”

“Stolen?” she said. “How dare you, sir. This was bestowed upon me by the Vicequeen of Callow herself, for services rendered.”

“I paid upfront, actually,” I grunted, but I poured and the aragh sloshed in her ill-gotten goods. “Orphanage never covered how to negotiate with thieves, which in retrospective is an oversight on Black’s part.”

Thief tried the liquor and grimaced, coughing.

“You drink this?” she croaked. “On purpose?”

“You get used to it,” I lied.

The look she shot me was more than a little sceptical, but she got down her second swallow without her windpipe rebelling. I leaned back into my chair and granted myself a second finger’s worth.

“How do you do it, anyway?” Thief asked. “Tell when I’m there. I was under cover of an aspect, and I’ve stood inches away from men in broad daylight without them batting an eye.”

“I guess you could call it a Name trick,” I said. “You never had a teacher, did you?”

“Not one Named,” Thief frowned.

“Then I will share my hard-earned knowledge with you,” I affably said. “You know how when you came into your Name there was this set of instincts just under your skin?”

The brown-haired woman cocked her head to the side.

“It felt more like a hand guiding mine,” she said.

“Close enough,” I said. “When you’re about to get wounded or killed, you’re going to get a tingle just like it.”

She nodded slowly.

“I had no intention of striking you,” she pointed out.

“Yeah, but you were looking at me,” I said. “It does the same thing just… fainter. Black had people following for weeks back in Ater until I learned to pick up on it.”

“Then if I moved without looking?” she said.

“Probably wouldn’t be able to tell you’re there at all,” I said. “I didn’t get the impression this was common knowledge, anyway. I doubt most Named we’ll face will know the trick.”

Thief finished her chalice and presented it for filling. Feeling magnanimous, I deigned to comply.

“Are you sure you should have told me that?” Thief asked suddenly. “If I turned on you, this could allow me to land my first strike unseen.”

I took another mouthful of aragh, the roughness of the drink now beginning to be replaced by a vague sense of warmth across my chest. I waved lazily.

“Will you?” I asked instead of replying. “Turn on me?”

“If I deem it necessary,” Thief said, and for all that she spoke nonchalantly her eyes were serious.

“You say that like it’s a rare thing,” I told her. “You think Masego obeys my every order? Gods, let’s not even talk about Archer. Even my soldiers have lines in the sand they won’t follow me past.”

“You did not mention Adjutant,” the other Callowan said.

“Hakram’s the only person in this misbegotten world I trust unconditionally,” I replied, perhaps too honestly. “If he turns on me, I’m fucked regardless. No point in worrying about it.”

“He does more than you know,” Thief said.

“That’s what trust is,” I said. “Not needing to know what he does. I’m guessing the two of you had an unpleasant conversation at some point. Is there anything you want to bring to me? I’ll listen if there is.”

She studied me for a while, then shook her head.

“Nothing I can’t handle,” she said.

I raised my cup in a toast, then polished off the remainder.

“So what do you have for me?” I asked.

“Less than you want,” she shrugged. “There’s twelve thousand of them, I only had time to have a look at the upper officers.”

“And?” I prompted.

“Nothing out of the ordinary, as far as I can tell,” Thief said. “If there are planted commands they are too subtle for my senses. I have difficulty feeling sorcery aside from wards, so it’s possible.”

“I hate dealing with Akua,” I sighed. “The bag of tricks she inherited is a bitch to handle.”

“I’m unsure why you would believe these legions would be her target,” she said. “Did you not send them away from the front?”

“She had to know I’d be pulling together all the forces I can before taking a swing at her,” I replied. “Istrid’s legions are going to be the core of our offensive against Liesse. If they break halfway through the assault we’ll be in deep trouble.”

“The Fifteenth still seems a better opportunity,” Thief noted. “It was raised recently and has a reputation for battlefield promotions.”

“The Fifteenth has been under Masego’s eyes for over a year,” I said. “She tries to enchant one of my senior officers and Hierophant will catch it. These three legions have been out of my sight for months.”

“And you believe she’ll have agents somewhere in them?” Thief said.

“I know she does,” I grunted. “That’s not even up for debate, it’s the base for half the plays I’ve seen her pull over the years.”

I filled my cup again, then hers when she hinted at desire for a top-off.

“Diabolist has been too… open,” I said. “She’s a chip off the old tyrannical block, I won’t deny that, but Akua’s wheelhouse has always been the indirect. The massive army of undead, whatever traps she cooked up around Liesse – those are dangerous, but they’re not the only arrows in her quiver. They’re blunt instruments when she’s a girl with a thing for daggers.”

“She spent months preparing for the ritual in the city,” Thief said. “I would look there for her sharpest blade.”

I drank and grimaced, though this once not because of the aragh.

“That’s been worrying me as well,” I said. “I mean, I’d have to be insane not to worry about a fucking ritual involving centuries of accumulated souls, but there’s more than that. Diabolist thinks what she’s prepared is going to put her on top of the pecking order, and she may have blinders but she’s not stupid.”

“I don’t follow,” the dark-haired-woman admitted.

“Think of it this way,” I said. “Akua has a large army and backers in the Wasteland, but not enough to handle the Empire at full tilt. Say we march up to Liesse, she pulls down the sky on our heads and our entire force is annihilated. She still loses, because she’s fresh out of a god and the Empire’s still standing. Weakened, sure, but there’s other armies it can field and other commanders too. She’s not winning, she’s delaying a defeat.”

Thief’s eyes narrowed.

“You’re implying she can use the ritual more than once,” she said.

“Pretty much,” I said. “This doesn’t make sense otherwise. And isn’t that the stuff of nightmares? Either the ritual works once but it has a permanent effect – but she didn’t rant about ascending to godhood when we talked, so I don’t like the odds – or whatever she can pull, she can several times. And it won’t be just a few either. If I die she’s up against Black, and he’s not the kind of man who shies away from a long slugging match.”

“Great sorcery always comes at a cost,” Thief said, but there was unease on her face.

“She won’t care, if she’s not the one paying,” I said. “We’ll have to go into that fight facing the possibility she has both her current armies and a deployable catastrophe in her pocket. We can’t face that and win with traitors in the ranks, Thief. It’ll be a razor’s edge as is.”

My fellow Callowan looked grim.

“I’ll take a closer look as we march, extend it to your men as well,” she said.

“Please do,” I said, indolently toasting her. “And while we’re on the subject, it’s getting tiresome to call you Thief all the time. I assume you have a name?”

“Juliet,” she replied without batting an eye.

I squinted at her.

“That was a lie,” I said. “Your heartbeat quickened.”

“Alas, you’ve seen through me,” she drawled. “Samantha.”

My squint deepened.

“Did you force your heartbeat to quicken just to sell this current lie?” I asked. “Because that’s genuinely impressive.”

“Did I? Vivienne,” she said.

“Your heart went faster again,” I sighed. “Now you’re just screwing with me.”

“I would never dare defy you, Your Grace,” Thief said, sounding wounded.

“I’ll call you Boris,” I threatened. “Don’t think I won’t. Robber will have a song about it before the moon’s turned and that’s a promise.”

She brushed back her bangs, seemingly amused.

“Vivienne Dartwick,” she said.

Huh, that sounded highborn. Wouldn’t have pegged her for one, though it wasn’t impossible. There’d been a lot of former nobles who’d fallen on hard times after the Conquest.

“Had a feeling it was that one,” I baldly lied.

My money had been on Juliet and I’d been coming pretty close to pretending I’d used a Name trick to know it was the truth. And they said I’d never learn prudence. I turned to offer an another refill but found only thin air. I waited for a long moment, but couldn’t feel her eyes on me.

“I might have shot myself in the foot there,” I admitted.

I ended up drifting from the path Masego had charted me. The fairy gate opened a few miles southwest of where I’d meant it to, though honesty compelled me to admit that might be on me more than Hierophant.  Was I going to present it that way when we next spoke? No, absolutely not. Still, holding the destination in my mind when I opened the first gate was proving tricky when I’d never been there before. It was hardly a disaster, though. We’d have camp ready for sundown instead of Noon Bell, and a few hours of delay were hardly worth a second thought when I’d managed to lead fourteen thousand legionaries from Holden to central Callow in the span of a mere nine days. General Istrid was of the same opinion.

“That is a nasty trick you’ve got,” the orc gravelled. “The Procerans are going to piss their pants the first time you appear in the middle of their fields without warning.”

The two of us had gone with the vanguard, which for once was not made of my men. Istrid was riding a wolf the size of a pony, though noticeably broader. My own Zombie the Third had me standing taller than the orc, for once, since the great wolves stood closer to the ground. Mine also had wings, not that it was a competition. If it had been, though, hard to beat the flying undead horse. Her full contingent of wolf riders had preceded us, a horde of eight hundred that brought out old primal fears just to look upon. Beasts like those with riders just as green had been a plague on Callow for centuries, no match for the kingdom’s knights on the field but able to ravage large swaths of territory and withdraw if they were not checked quickly enough. The reminder that they were on my side rang a little hollow when Istrid’s own mount occasionally snapped at my own with fangs the size of daggers.

“Might not work out that cleanly,” I said. “Black tells me they have a Named future-teller on their side. I figure there’s decent odds there’ll be an army waiting for me on the other side of the gate.”

Neither of us bothered to pretend war with Procer wasn’t around the corner.

“Then they have to pull off thousands from the border to wait for you,” Istrid grinned savagely. “Their armies don’t march so quick, Squire. You hop south, then you hop north and just like that their army’s split in three – or the Fifteenth’s torching their fields and poisoning their wells. Big place, Procer. Won’t be easy to defend.”

I hummed and did not disagree. I wasn’t convinced, though. If Cordelia Hasenbach got her Crusade, that cause would attract more than armies. There’d be heroes too, and those had a knack for being in the right place at the right time to wreck the plans of people that worked on my side of the fence. The Fifteenth had been right behind the vanguard and I glimpsed Hune’s tall silhouette, surrounded by a dozen smaller ones as she advanced. I must have let my gaze linger a little too long, because Istrid noticed.

“Thought you liked them smaller than that,” the orc snorted.

“Wasn’t that kind of look,” I said.

The general wasn’t exactly someone I wanted to discuss who I kept bed with, so I did not elaborate. Although, to be fair, the Istrid Knightsbane had been happily married for several decades so in that regard she was definitely doing better than me. The orc’s very daughter had informed me that the word in Lower Miezan really was married and not ‘mated’, no matter what some Praesi books said. It wasn’t an exact translation from the Kharsum term, which was closer to bound-in-fortune, but the meaning was the same even if the customs differed some.

“Oh, I see how it is,” General Istrid grunted with amusement. “Got on your nerves, did she?”

I cast a steady look at the orc, who seemed rather unimpressed.

“We had something of a disagreement,” I diplomatically said.

“She doesn’t like you,” the orc said, fairly bluntly.

I winced.

“That’s a possible interpretation of it, yes,” I said.

“You’ve been running with Named too long,” the general said. “That sort of thing matters with a pack of villains, but she’s an officer.”

“I can work with people who don’t like me,” I said. “Hells, Juniper didn’t when we started out.”

“She’s a sweet girl, my daughter,” Istrid casually dismissed. “Ogres are harder to deal with.”

I stared silently at the general. Juniper. Juniper, sweet? I’d seen her chew out a man so harshly over sloppy gear that he’d teared up. Even Robber tread lightly when she was in a bad mood, and the goblin regularly rode undead creatures I’d stuffed with explosives into active battlefields.

“The commander for my riders,” the orc elaborated. “Finest one I ever got, leagues above the woman I had during the Conquest. I still want to break his teeth every time his smug lips open. Don’t have to like him or trust him, though, because in the end we’re both under the banner. Doesn’t matter if you can’t stand your legate, it’s the Legions that come first – trust in that instead of the woman.”

Except my banner isn’t exactly Malicia’s, is it? It stood on the same side, I’d made sure of that as much as I could. But our interests weren’t all aligned. The ogre hadn’t been wrong when she’s said the Fifteenth was more likely to heed my orders than the Tower’s, if it came down to it. That Hune probably wouldn’t felt like a liability, but not one I could do much about. Setting aside the fact that the Hellhound would dig her heels in if tried to have the ogre transferred, I couldn’t exactly use ‘loyal to the Empire above me’ as a reason to act. I wasn’t sure I should, anyway. How likely was it that she was the only soldier in the Fifteenth who thought this way? We had a lot of Callowans these days but most my officers tribune rank and above were from the War College, and that meant greenskins and Praesi. I didn’t like the thought of having a lightning rod for those who shared the belief, but there were risks to not giving those people voice at all. I clenched my fingers and unclenched them. It would have to wait after the war, anyway. Changing the second in command of the Fifteenth right before the largest battle it’d ever been in would have been sheer stupidity.

“I got a lesson in ogre opinions,” I sighed. “Not a pleasant conversation, though it was worth having.”

“Nim’s never been accused of being too much of a laugh,” Istrid contributed. “There’s a reason she was assigned in the Wasteland. Mok’s better.”

Marshal Nim, that was who she referred to. The ogre that led the Seventh Legion and held overall command of every legion in Praes. The other was General Mok, commander of the Third and currently at the Proceran border under Grem One-Eye. The two most powerful ogres in the Empire, not that you’d know to hear Istrid speak of them.

“Surprised one made Marshal,” I finally said. “I didn’t get the feeling from Hune they particularly wanted to get involved with the rest of Praes.”

“Oh, they talk a good talk,” the general conceded. “But they like a good scrap as much as anyone. They can’t farm for shit in their hills, anyway, so they have to bring in the food with coin.”

“Thalassina’s pretty close,” I noted.

As the main trading port in the Wasteland, it was from there the grain imported from abroad poured through. There would be advantages to that, if trade was what kept the Hall of Skulls fed.

“Though that can’t be pleasant all the time,” I added after a moment.

The disadvantages of having a Praesi High Lord this close to your backyard rather spoke for themselves. Istrid snorted.

“They can talk when they share a border with Wolof,” she said. “Or the fucking Wallerspawn.”

A moment later she remembered my tan wasn’t all from the sun, and cleared her throat.

“No offence meant,” Istrid said.

I wasn’t eager to get into an argument with an orc about who exactly was in the wrong when it came to centuries-old border wars that had occurred often enough Daoine had seen fit to build a giant wall, so I let that one go. Probably for the best, since we were interrupted not long after. One of my mages hurried at our side, bringing word from the latest scrying. Diabolist was on the move, undead had poured out of Liesse. They were going, I was told, south. Towards the eight thousand men Ankou had sent out at my order.

It looked like the Second Battle of Liesse was going to have an opening act.

Chapter 51: Overlooked

“It is ever the temptation of chroniclers to ascribe great failures to a single turning point, a flaw revealed or enemy virtue displayed. This simplification of history ignores the starker truth of all great enterprises, that in the end though all leaders are captains of a ship they rule neither wind nor tide. Failure and victory are the collection of choices small and great, shaped by perspectives of the myriad making them.”
-Extract from ‘The Ruin of Empire, or, a Call to Reform of the Highest Assembly’, by Princess Eliza of Salamans

The fairy gate had opened half a mile away from the outskirts of Dormer, and that was where the two thousand legionaries of the Fifteenth made camp. It had taken us a week of marching through Arcadia to cross what was essentially the full breadth of Callow, not a fae in sight. I was still only beginning to grasp the full implications of what the boon I’d obtained from the fae royals meant for warfare in Calernia. So far I’d only used the fairy gates to move quicker within the bounds of Callow, but that was a self-imposed limitation. With Hierophant to chart me a path, I could feasibly muster an army in Marchford and have it pop out in front of the Principate’s capital bristling with steel. Keeping an army in the middle of enemy territory supplied without turning to banditry would be near impossible, but what did it matter? I could leave the same way I’d come when my foodstuffs ran out. If the Red Flower Vales could be kept in Imperial hands, I could strike at Proceran territory with impunity while the First Princes’ army were stuck besieging one of the most heavily fortified borders on the continent.

It was enough to have me shiver. There was precedent for the kind of power I wielded as the last Duchess of Winter, villains and heroes alike that had shown a capacity for destruction just as great. The gates, though? I couldn’t think of one.

The Fifteenth had returned midmorning to Creation and I’d wasted no time in arranging matters with General Istrid. Juniper’s mother had always been my favourite of the Praesi commanders in Callow. Within moments of our first meeting, two years ago, she’d expressed the opinion that Governor Mazus had been in need of a good hanging. Always a way to get on my good side, that. She wasn’t much like her daughter, aside from the rough manners that were so common with orcs. If anything, she reminded me of Nauk – or the other way around, since I’d become acquainted with her first. She rode out to meet me on one of the great wolves that her people used as mounts, meeting me halfway to Holden. She gave warm welcome, though not without some grousing.

“You sent us across the country from the real fight, Squire,” she growled after clapping my back.

Before I’d stolen my mantle, Named or not it would have jostled me. The woman had ferocious strength still, for one in her fifties.

“Needed you to herd them towards me, general,” I replied. “Otherwise the front would have spilled across the south, and there was no putting that genie back in the lamp when it got loose.”

“Sacker says the same thing,” General Istrid said, visibly disgruntled. “A real shame. I won’t ever get a good crack at the fairies, with that peace you shoved down their throats. At least we get a turn in the dance with the Diabolist.”

“I won’t say she’s more dangerous than a pair of literal gods,” I said, “but we’re in for a rough month. You heard about the necromantic ritual?”

The exact nature of Still Water was still under Imperial seal, so the official story was that Akua had used some kind of ancient ritual to turn the entire city into undead. Considering the trove of horrors that still lay dormant in the Wasteland no one had questioned it too much, but I was aware it was only a matter of time until the truth of it trickled out.

“They’re supposed to be high-grade undead, right?” she growled. “That’s fucked. Skeletons and zombies need a necromancer guiding them to be a threat, but a hundred thousand bloody ghouls aren’t something to sneer at.”

“My caster tells me they’re closer to the kind of undead the Dead King uses for officers,” I told her. “We’re calling them wights.”

“The highborn twit should have paid closer attention to her history lessons,” the orc laughed. “We proved that dead men and household troops are no match for Legion steel when we put the Empress on the throne.”

There was truth in that, I felt, but also dangerous assumption. As far as I knew there’d been no battle of the scale of the one looming ahead during the Praesi civil war. Akua would have at a hundred thousand wights and six thousand living under her command, by our estimates, and the forces I was gathering would be a little over sixty thousand. Even during the Conquest armies that size hadn’t been fielded in the same theatre, and for good reason. It was going to evaporate at least half the Imperial treasury to keep that many people fed and armed, and the aftermath was likely to turn a chunk of the Empires’ breadbasket into wasteland. Nations fought with smaller hosts for a reason, even when they could muster great ones. The ride to Holden was spent recounting the Arcadian campaign at the general’s demand, until I stood in council with the other two generals in the city. Orim the Grim and General Sacker were significantly less friendly in the manners, though never actually impolite. Sacker did have that sharp goblin sardonic turn of phrase, but refrained from verbally pulling my pigtails the way she had on our first meeting.

I’d risen in rank quite a bit since then.

General Istrid had begun preparations for a march the moment my mages had scried hers, and I was rather pleased to hear the twelve thousand legionaries would be ready to leave come dawn. There was a certain pleasure to working with veterans knowing their way around a war. The Fifteenth’s officers were getting there, but my legion was not a well-oiled machine yet. Part of that was on me, I knew. Even after the brutal casualties we’d taken in Arcadia and Dormer, the Fifteenth was still twice the size of any other legion and severely lacking mages. It was a rare month I did not thank the Gods for granting me both Ratface and the inclination to not look too closely at how he kept us supplied. Even Juniper had ceased slapping his fingers when he bent the rules a little, using the fact I’d effectively suborned the Guild of Smugglers to him as an excuse to wash her hands of the matter. It was not the place of an Imperial general, she said, to meddle in civil affairs. A little rich of her to say considering Marshal Ranker used to run Denier through the governor, but in theory it was supposed to be true.

I rode back to camp a few hours before sundown, declining the offer of a roof over my head in the city in favour of sticking with my men. I was still chewing on the conversation I’d had with Juniper before leaving. That Hune had made the right call, even if it had seen one of the few people I considered a friend halfway to the grave. Even if it had led to the Gallowborne being all but wiped out. The ogre legate was the only one of my senior officers I’d never truly reached out to. I hadn’t made a lot of mystery about that, it must be said. When I’d first crossed the Empress by resurrecting a knightly order, she’d not been one of the people I gathered to tell. The Hellhound had objected back then as well, though I’d dismissed her words by saying I did not trust her the way I did others. Nauk, I recalled grimly, had been the very example I used. It might have been a mistake, I now thought. By visibly keeping Hune out of my ‘inner circle’ even though she was the second highest officer in the Fifteenth, I was making a self-fulfilling prophecy. Trust freely granted, in my experience, had a way of making people trustworthy. Of making them want to live up to that trust. I’d never attempted that with the legate.

It might not be too late to rectify that mistake, though. I still didn’t like the call she’d made, I admitted to myself. But it was a dislike that was borne of reasons personal. I do not have a monopoly on ruthlessness employed to save lives. I’d raised the Fifteenth out of people I knew, had shared struggles with, and they had since the beginning been given a measure of my trust. Hakram, Nauk, Ratface, Pickler, Robber. Even Juniper and Aisha, who had been opponents in the College but ones I respected. Hune had been brought in at the Hellhound’s word and so never fully welcomed into that fold. It was part of a larger flaw in the way I did things, one the Empress had already warned me against: I rarely gave power to those I did not personally know and like. It was telling, perhaps, that Anne Kendal and Juniper were respectively the effective ruler of Callow and the commander of the largest military force within its borders. But I could not continue along these lines if I wanted my homeland to ever climb out of the hole. No matter how skilled the few I fully trusted were, they were not enough to form the ruling class of an entire kingdom. I shook myself out of the thoughts and sought Hune instead of continuing down the spiral and of excuses and recriminations.

The ogre wasn’t with her officers. I found her at the edge of the camp, tucked away between two low hills and kneeling on the ground. Even like that she still towered several feet above me. I remained at a distance, though when I saw her lips move I sharpened my hearing to listen in. I’d had a casual disregard for other people’s privacy even before I began employing spies. Pouring wine into a wooden bowl, she murmured to herself.

“O Faceless Gods, I give you thanks,” the legate said. “For crossing survived and refuge found, for the breaking of the chains of men.”

Breaking a small loaf of black bread with fingers large as sausages, Hune crushed it into crumbs she dispersed next to the bowl. Crossing survived, huh. I knew ogres were not native to Calernia. They’d been brought over as slaves by the Miezans, and ended up joining the Dread Empire when the first Maleficent founded it in exchange for land to live on.

“Neither poor nor rich, neither free nor bound,” she murmured. “For the promise made to our ancestors, I offer bread and wine.”

My brows creased when I saw the crumbs rot and the wine turn to vinegar. Hune was not a mage. No ogres were, they could not be born with the gift. This was the closest to the miraculous powers wielded by priests I had seen on the Empire’s side. I knew there were cults in the Empire that sacrificed to the Gods Below in exchange for powers, but I’d never actually seen the Hellgods extend their hand to Creation before. It was chilling to watch, light as their touch had been. A reminder there’s more than one side of the old war looking at us. The ogre emptied the bowl onto the grass and brushed her hands clean, picking up the empty wineskin before rising back to her feet. She did not seem all that surprised to see me. Ogres, as far as I knew, did not have senses better than a human’s. She might just have been expecting me. Reaching me in a few strides, Hune lowered her massive torso in a bow.

“Lady Squire,” she said.

“Legate,” I replied. “Didn’t take you for the pious type.”

Her face did not react, neither irritated nor amused.

“I am not Praesi,” she said. “My people have their own ways.”

“So I see,” I said. “I’ll admit to some ignorance on the subject. Never found a lot of books written about ogres the way there are about orcs and goblins.”

Hune studied me calmly.

“We are not numerous enough to merit scholarly attention,” she said. “Are you seeking reports, ma’am? I gave instruction to my commanders to have them prepared, but I remember the details if you would prefer them spoken.”

“No, your officers already have me in the loop,” I awkwardly said. “They’re, uh, quite thorough. The precision of it will shave a few hours off Ratface’s workload when we link up.”

“I am sure your words will please them,” the ogre said. “How may I offer service?”

I was honestly unsure if she was politely putting me off or not. There’d been some people currying favour with me when the Fifteenth was founded, before Juniper had put her foot down. Even after, though, it was rare for people not to lean into an opportunity to talk with me when they could. I left matters of promotion to the Hellhound without meddling, but I was still arguably one of the ten most influential people within the Empire. I was a little at a loss at how to deal with whatever this was. I wondered if the Empress had felt the same, when she’d summoned me to the Tower for audience and I’d bluntly pushed through the small talk.

“Sit with me for a while,” I finally said. “If you’ve no pressing duties.”

“I can spare some time,” Hune said, her tone hinting at neither displeasure nor expectation.

I ended up with my legs going down the slope, thinking of how ridiculous we must look from a distance. Even with my plate making me seem larger, it would take ten of me put together to even remotely rival the legate in mass. I ran a hand through my hair, wondering exactly how I should go about this. It’d been easier, with the others.

“Are we to revise the command decisions I made in Dormer, my lady?” the ogre broke in while I was still debating.

Ah. She’d picked up on that, had she. Hard to play coy about displeasure when mine literally lowered the temperature.

“No,” I said. “It’s been pointed out to me that my objections were personal. Childish, arguably. I apologize for how I acted.”

“You were not impolite or unprofessional,” the legate said. “Even if you had been, you are Named. It is your prerogative to speak as you wish.”

“Doesn’t mean I should,” I replied. “So have the apology anyway.”

“There is nothing to forgive,” Hune said calmly. “Was there anything else?”

I turned to her and studied her face. There was something brutish about the ogres looked, the way their features were slightly broader than a human’s would be if they were the same size. It made them look a little slow, but there was nothing dim about those deep and dark-set eyes meeting mine.

“You don’t like me very much, do you Hune?” I asked.

The ogre’s face shuttered.

“I am an officer in the Legions of Terror, under your command,” she said. “If my demeanour offended you in any way, I apologize and stand willing for any punishment you deem fit.”

Catherine Foundling, I thought ruefully, charmer of the year.

“It’s not a crime to dislike me,” I said. “And I’m not offended. I’m honestly surprised at how well along I’ve gotten with the people around me. I wasn’t exactly the most popular girl at the orphanage.”

“You are apprentice to the Carrion Lord, named Vicequeen of Callow by Her Dread Majesty,” the ogre said woodenly. “Praises are your due.”

“I’m not all that interested in praises,” I said. “But I’d like to know what… this is about.”

I waved my hand vaguely. There was a flicker of irritation in her eyes, but I couldn’t call it a victory. It was too shallow. The kind of irritation you had for a fly buzzing in your ear, not something I could use to bridge a gap.

“Ma’am, I am your subordinate,” Hune said. “This is unnecessary.”

And that was the heart of it, wasn’t it? I didn’t consider my people to be subordinates, or at least not just that. They were the people I drank and laughed with, the people I shared a fire with. There’d been less of that since I’d begun gathering Named around me, it was true. But I’d not allowed those relationships to go fallow either.

“I ask more of my officers than others do of their own,” I said. “I try to give more as well.”

“We,” the ogre said bluntly, “are not equals. You hold power of life and death over everyone in the Empire, save a hallowed few. This pretence, my lady, is tedious.”

“So this is about power,” I said.

The sigh the legate let out was cavernous. I was pretty sure a single one of her lungs was the size of my entire torso. Should have done this when it was dark out, I mused half-seriously. Seems to work better that way.

“Is this an order?” Hune asked.

I nodded. I would have preferred not to make it one, but evidently that wasn’t an option.

“Then with your permission, I will speak frankly,” the legate said. “You are dangerous.”

“Usually when people call me that they mean it as a compliment,” I said. “I’m getting the feeling that’s not the case here.”

“The treaty with the Tower that granted us the Hall of Skulls and adjacent lands comes with mandatory service in the Legions,” the ogre said. “There has not been a war since the Declaration where my people did not fight and die.”

“I’m not unfamiliar with being on the wrong side of Praesi rule,” I said.

“With all due respect, ma’am, that is untrue,” Hune said. “You were born in the wealthiest city of the Empire’s breadbasket and raised by an institution whose education is on par with that of lesser nobility.”

“The orphanage saw lean month toos, Hune,” I said. “We had Governor Mazus running the city for years before he got the noose.”

“Every month, one of my people is murdered and drained of blood after coming too close to a lord’s border,” Hune said. “When the Green Stretch has a bad year, families sign themselves into servitude to avoid shortages. The Reforms barely lowered the amount of warriors that must be provided for service. We are strong enough to be of use and too few to be worth appeasing. Callowans hang when they rebel or resist, ma’am. We earn death by existing.”

“That can be changed,” I said. “Hune, none of this is set in stone. It’s not inevitable. It only works as long as we let it.”

“And speaking words such as these, you have raised a host that answers to you before the Tower,” the ogre said. “You promised freedom to the greenskins, insurgence to the many colours of men. And yet two things you have brought in fact: ever greater titles to you, and war wherever you tread.”

“Because it’s working,” I replied bluntly. “There’s opposition because we’re gaining ground. We push hard enough and it’ll break. We’re not going against infinite strength. At some point they have to bend or lose.”

“That may be,” Hune said. “Perhaps you will deliver all you have sworn. But you are not the first silvertongued monster birthed by Praes. We have seen them come and go, and what has changed? In the end all of them smile, and ask us to die in their wars.”

“I’m not asking you to die,” I said. “I’m asking you to fight. If not for me, then at least for something you want. To do more than just… linger.”

“We fought heroes,” the legate said. “Then devils. Then the courts of the fae. Now we march against a madwoman of the old way. What meaning have any of these to me? I took oath, and will serve in the Fifteenth until I die or my term ends. But you ask me to bleed for strangers and thank you for it. That is not the due of a soldier. It is the due of a servant.”

“I don’t want servants, Hune,” I said sharply. “I want comrades.”

“Servants are what you have, my lady,” the ogre said. “Your causes are their causes. You are Named, and so this is only natural. But I took oath to the Legions of Terror and not the army of House Foundling.”

“I’m not asking you to commit treason,” I said.

“We are riding with knights,” she replied bluntly. “Half the Fifteenth is Callowan. You strong-armed the Dread Empress into naming you ruler of this land. Do not misunderstand me, Lady Foundling, I wish you well in these ventures. The world may be better for your victory, should it come.”

Her dark eyes narrowed.

“But I will not die for another woman’s dream,” Hune said.

Slowly, she rose to her feet.

“I apologize for any offence I have given,” the ogre said. “May I be dismissed?”

I bit my tongue and nodded. I watched the legate stride away and passed a hand through my hair.

So much for mending that bridge.

Chapter 50: Preparation

“Doubt is the mother of failure.”
– Dread Emperor Terribilis I, the Lawgiver

In the end, it took me three days to get eyes on Liesse. Marshal Grem One-Eye had sent out mages as soon as the city was glimpsed over the horizon, and my own mage lines kept coordinated with his own until we had four scrying links covering the major angles of the Diabolist’s lair. What I saw did not bode well. The city had gone up with its walls largely intact and significant portions of the grounds under it and lost neither as it went down. The surrounding territory had been worked over with magic so that Liesse now stood atop a steep hill. Thousands were digging trenches and traps in the plains around it, working day and night without pause because they needed none. They were Callowans, but they were also dead. Without fanfare or a cackle, without a sound at all, Akua Sahelian had killed more of my people in a night than Black had throughout the entire Conquest. Men, women and children. The young and the old – Still Water drew no difference, and neither had she.

I’d been a viciously dark mood since I’d gotten proof of it, and the mood had only gone darker when I’d seen what she was up to. Devil-summoning arrays had been carved on the walls, large siege weapons like those of the Legions placed onto bastions and additional wards were made every hour to fortify the city against magical interference. Hierophant had already confirmed I couldn’t open a portal directly within the walls, not that I’d ever seriously thought there was a chance of it. The Summer fae would not have dithered attacking her for months if they’d had that as an available option, and I was still much less skilled than they at using fairy gates. I disliked wasting time in Dormer, but Juniper had flatly informed me that after a brutal battle like the last one the men needed time to recoup and recuperate.

It wasn’t just a matter of dealing with the wounded, though there’d been a great many of those. Our supplies had been running thin, and it was only Ratface’s promised river barges coming through the city harbour filled with steel and goblin munitions that had the Legions in proper fighting fit again. Aisha had been a little less blunt in reminding me I’d had our troops going through forced marches and battles one after another for months, but no less firm. Even if it gave Akua time to dig in, the truth was that the Fifteenth simply hadn’t been in a state to take the fight to her right away. As I saw to my house, Ranker and Kegan saw to theirs. The duchess kept to herself, but I saw almost too much of the old goblin for my tastes. It was her that suggested we had siege weapons of our own prepared in Laure and Southpool rather than rely on only our own, and when she began approaching the problem that way the Hellhound followed with aplomb.

For one, there were three legions in Holden under her mother that were sitting ducks unless I intervened. General Istrid had been sent there at my own order to prevent the Summer court from making a beachhead other than Dormer, and discharged that duty perfectly. But her twelve thousand men were now months away from the actual fighting, with a supply line that was chancy at best. Even if she began marching north immediately, she wouldn’t be able to reach Liesse before the battle was weeks past. Could I afford to allow twelve thousand veteran legionaries to sit over a strategically useless position while I fought Akua? No, I could not. Not if the assault on the city was going to be as brutal as I suspected.

The only question then, was where I would transport them. The gates allowed me to significantly quicken the logistics of assembling a host that was spread throughout Callow, but they weren’t a perfect solution. For one, I needed to be with the moving armies. And much more importantly, I couldn’t actually use Arcadia as a staging ground. Whether the terms of my bargain with the fae court would protect my soldiers when they weren’t actually travelling was irrelevant, since that wasn’t how gates worked from my end: whenever I made an entrance, there was a corresponding exit. I couldn’t actually get out of Arcadia by another place, as far as I knew, and our previous alternative of having Hierophant use fae nobles as portal-openers was no longer an option. Our prisoners had all been rather forcefully released by the Summer Queen when she still bore that name. And, last of all the weaknesses, going through Arcadia still took time. It as a shortcut, not fucking teleportation, which as probably for the best. Even with the mantle of a Duchess on my shoulders I was pretty sure attempting teleportation of any kind would flat-out kill me.

And so, sitting with Marshal Ranker and General Juniper, we planned out our little shell game. Akua had eyes on us, we on her. The side that would have the advantage when the battle began was the one who’d hide the knives better. Callow had already been put under martial law long before I went south, and as things stood I was both vicequeen and highest-ranked Named remaining of the region. I was also wielding my authority with the explicit backing of Her Dread Majesty – there was not a single in person in my home who had solid ground to stand on in refusing an order of mine. Would that I could enjoy that power even a little: I had wanted nothing more than to have it since the age of thirteen, when I’d made the decision to start saving up for the War College. I couldn’t, not when the first order I gave was for immediate muster of the city guard in Southpool, Ankou and Vale. There was immediate pushback, argument from the Callowan governors I’d overseen the very appointment of that none of those men were trained soldiers.

I ordered for them to come anyway. Southpool was on the weak end of the scale, with only five thousand, but Ankou’s city guard traditionally served as militia when Procer attacked the Vales and even though the city was smaller it boasted eight thousand and better equipped. Vale was the largest of the three, and though it put up only six thousand men I sent Grandmaster Talbot to squeeze blood out of that rock. Vale had always been the heart of central Callow, and though no great trade city as an agricultural one there were few equals to it on Calernia. There was wealth there, and though second-rate compared to the real wealthy cities of Callow it had historically been enough to support a great many soldiers and knights – some of the earliest chivalric orders had been founded there, they said. I left Talbot work his patriotic sorcery on the powerful of the city and another three thousand came out of that, including about a hundred knights. Gods, it was like those had been hiding under every rock. It was pleasing, in a way, that the governors were willing to fight for the people under their care when I would order those people to the grinder.

A shame I was not in a position to entertain their worries.

The place of muster for the city guards was set a little to the east of halfway between Southpool and Vale, which meant the Ankouans would have to pass south of Diabolist’s lair and lose at least a week to it. Wouldn’t matter, since I’d be busy ferrying Legions meanwhile. My options there had been more limited than I would have liked. The legions under Marshal Grem, for one, weren’t going anywhere. I’d approached the subject of peeling off at least one, but the reports I’d been given in return were… stark. There’d been increasing skirmishes with the border principalities over the last months and Procer was massing soldiers in Bayeux. The Marshal’s assessment was that if there was any large troop movement on the Empire’s side, the Principate would try an assault on the Red Flower Vales. Fucking First Prince. It didn’t matter if she was bluffing us or not, since we couldn’t afford to chance losing the narrow valleys that would give us a fighting chance against Proceran invasion. The Wasteland wasn’t going to be any help either. Malicia’s meat-puppet had made it clear the legions in her backyard needed to stay there, to keep the highborn in line and more importantly keep the fucking mess Akua’s mother had made in Wolof contained.

Much as I would have liked another twelve thousand soldiers, I couldn’t blame the Empress for not pulling them out when the alternative was devils spilling out in the Wasteland. The only reinforcements from the Legions at hand were the same I’d sent into Holden, and they were nothing to sneer at. I’d met all the generals in command there – Istrid, Sacker and Orim – and all three had been through the crucible that was the Conquest, but more importantly the civil war before it. Almost every one of my highest tier of commanders in this campaign would be familiar with Praesi war tactics of the kind Diabolist was likely to pull. That knowledge wasn’t as reassuring to have on my side as another ten thousand soldiers, but it might end up saving more lives. Already I winced at the notion of sending guards into the kind of madness Akua would have prepared for them. There was no choice. The usual voice in the back of my head that insisted there had been and I had made it saw itself buried. I would allow myself doubt and grief when the wars was done. Until then, all they would so was slow me down in what had very clearly become a race of sorts.

Either Akua Sahelian would finish her scheme and break the Empire, or I’d mass enough strength to put her down.

There was a part of me, the same that had been taught by Black, that kept to the iron-clad belief that she would fail in the end. That whatever she was juggling would backfire on her, either because she’d but off more than she could chew or because I’d break her stride. But as the days passed, I had to concede it was a possibility I might fail. I couldn’t quite manage to believe I would, but then I doubted any of the rulers Triumphant had crushed had thought they’d end up a note in the margins of history either. I knew better than most how dangerous Diabolist was, and how disparate the forces I was bringing against her was. There was advantage in that bastard mixture of Deoraithe, Callowans and Praesi I was leading. But there was weakness too. I failed, Hells even if I won but died winning… Well, I would be leaving behind me a mess that might be beyond salvaging. In rising to prominence I’d crossed a lot of lines and ripped open quite a few old wounds. None of that would be undone in the wake of my death, but I’d no longer be there to even try to guide the currents.

I wondered if Black had that same sense of cold fear, when he looked at the Empire. The ugly realization that a lot of what you’d built was dependent on you to remain functional, and that if some farmboy with a magic sword put six inches of steel through your throat it would bring ruin on hundreds of thousands. Recklessness, for all that it often cost me, had seen me win one uphill battle after another. Never without some of my blood spilled on the ground, but I’d forged victory out of being the only person in a fight willing to cross the line. Whether it was allowing my own death to get out of a Heaven-mandated defeat or lying my way to the contraptions of godhood, audacity had allowed me pull through situations that should have seen me dead or broken. But I could, I was coming to realize, no longer operate this way. Before all it took was for one gamble to fail, and the whole house of cards I had built around myself would come tumbling down. I’d gone out of my way to make myself, if not essential, then as close as anyone could be in Malicia’s empire. But that cut both ways. If I get myself killed, everything I bound to me suffers.

I’d bound quite a few things to me, by now. Armies and institutions, even the very hierarchy that now ruled Callow. When you became someone of consequence, if only followed that your death would have those same consequences.

I’d never been good with fear. I’d always pushed through it by heading into the breach repeatedly until I stopped flinching, steeling myself by taking the weakness as a personal insult. But this… this was no longer dealing with a fear of heights by standing at a rooftop’s edge the way I had when I was a girl. If I slipped and fell, Callow went up in flames. It wasn’t a fear for my own death as much as fear of what it would mean, and I was finding it much harder to push down. That was the problem with learning the currents that guided an empire from behind the scenes – you could never unsee it, after. It was not a pleasant thing admit I knew no other way to fight. Black had once told me I needed to start thinking ahead if I did not forever want to be fighting to the tune of my opponents, and I liked to think I’d learned how. To an extent. But it was one thing to sit with the Empress and plan the unmaking of the Summer Court, another to plan the steps of a waltz with the Diabolist. Fae had rules they could not break. They were, in some ways, predictable.

All that Akua had binding her was having been raised with all the blind spots of the old breed of Praesi villainy, and those weaknesses were not meant for villains to exploit. One slip and it was all over. I’d long become used to gambling with my own life, and once when I had been younger and more ignorant even gambled with Callow’s fate through my clash against the Lone Swordsman. I was older now, and if not wiser at least a great deal more aware. If I threw the dice and they came up wrong, then from Harrow to Dormer my people suffered for it. If there is no Named to use to bind Callow to the Empire, they start to use harsher methods. I hated the thought, and the hesitation it brought with it. One of the old monsters who’d held the Tower had once said that the worst sin a villain could commit was to hesitate. She’d been right. I had won and kept winning because I had made a blade of temerity and struck out at my enemies with it. After a year of trying to keep Callow together in the face of slaughter and invasion, I wasn’t certain how long I could keep doing that.

The thought came, unbidden, that this was not a coincidence. That Her Dread Majesty had uses for a hunting hound, but only so long as it could be leashed. And hadn’t she done exactly that, by giving me the very same authority I asked for? I did not allow myself to think if it too much, not right now. I could spend months trying to discern the intent of the likes of the Empress and still end up grievously, hilariously wrong in my conclusions. But. I would, one of these days, sit with Hakram over a bottle and ponder this. Because it would have been arrogant to believe that the Empress had spent decades trying to suborn Callow with soft methods but would never try tactics that had proved so effective on me as well.

The itinerary that was ultimately settled on was simple. I would take Legate Hune and a detachment of two thousand into Arcadia, taking a fairy gate to Holden where we’d link up with General Istrid and her three legions. From there we’d take another gate to the muster point north of Vale where the guards form the adjoining cities had been ordered to gather. Then I’d make one last trip south, to hopefully shave off a few weeks from my host’s march to the north to assemble with the rest. I’d always taken Nauk with me on journeys like this, and the Gallowborne as well. One was unconscious and more than halfway into the grave, and there remained only five of the cohort of two hundred that had once made up the other. Aisha had already suggested I disband them and assemble another retinue, but I’d refused. They’d died for me, John and his men. I would not spit on that by replacing them before the moon had even finished waxing.

“Senior Mage Kilian will have to remain with the Fifteenth,” Juniper said, “but her second should go with you. I want our own mages on the ground, to keep scrying in our house.”

“We have to assume Diabolist can listen in on all of those,” I grunted. “The Empress certainly can.”

“Ratface made his own codes that differ from Legion protocols,” Aisha said. “I would think that our conversations, at least, will be hard for her people to decipher.”

“She’ll still be expecting most our troop movements,” I said. “The Callowans I ordered to muster were warned she might make a sortie, but that only takes us so far.”

“I am not certain she will,” Juniper growled. “There would be obvious benefits to hitting our forces before they’re gathered, but the heart of her strategy remains to defend Liesse until she can deploy her ritual. She might not want to take the risk, considering you can pop out of Arcadia at any time to hit the city.”

“Assuming she can’t track me when I leave Creation,” I said. “We don’t know that she can’t.”

“I would not plan strategy around the assumption,” the Hellhound conceded. “But overestimating an opponent is just as dangerous as the opposite. If we are too careful to guard against means she does not have, we uselessly limit ourselves.”

I sighed.

“Yeah, true enough,” I said. “Pinpointing exactly what she can do has proved to be something a problem, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter that much. If we’re too slow we’re fucked anyway.”

Juniper rasped out a laugh.

“Won’t be the first time we fight against the hours as well as the enemy,” she said. “I doubt it will be the last. You leave with dawn?”

“That’s the plan,” I said, and turned to Hune. “Your people will be ready?”

“Orders were already given,” the ogre replied.

I looked away quickly, knowing if I kept staring anger would well up again. I had axes to grind with Hune, though I’d forced myself to keep my mouth shut about it. She’d done nothing that was against regulations, or outside her authority. Didn’t make me any happier about it.

“Dismissed, then,” Juniper grunted. “Catherine, a word?”

This hadn’t been an official staff meeting, and so there were only four of us in the command tent. Aisha gave my general a warning look before following the ogre out.

“I’m listening,” I told the orc.

“What the fuck is your problem?” she bluntly said. “You’ve been treating Hune like she ate your horse ever since Dormer. If you have something to say, say it. I’m her commanding officer.”

My eyes hardened.

“You don’t want to knock on this door, Hellhound,” I warned.

“I just did, Foundling,” she growled. “Out with it.”

I’d gained enough control that the wood under my fingers did not freeze, but not enough it didn’t fog as the temperature cooled.

“We had two trump cards to play, when taking a swing at the upper city,” I said flatly. “The Watch and the knights. She sent both to the flanks against the Immortals instead bolstering my own push.”

Juniper eyed me in silence.

“I get one,” I said. “The Immortals were taking their tool. But if the knights had backed me, Nauk would be awake right now.”

The Hellhound’s lips curled into a snarl.

“If you were an orc, you’d be on the floor bleeding from the mouth right now,” Juniper said, tone eerily calm. “And if you say anything like that ever again, I’ll resign my commission.”

My fingers clenched.

“Explain,” I said through gritted teeth.

“She made a call,” the Hellhound said. “As commander on the field. She did not do it lightly, or with unsound reasons. Just because you’re angry Nauk got wounded does not give you the right to treat her this way. She isn’t your friend, Catherine. She is an officer in the Legions of Terror.”

“I took four hundred men when I advanced,” I said. “You know how many came back.”

“And she saved twice that many by sending our heaviest hitters against the Immortals,” Juniper barked. “She made a tactical decision. It was the right decision, and I would have made the same. You had four Named with you, one way or another you were getting through. The others were expendable.”

Juniper rose to her feet and paused when she passed me by, laying a hand on my shoulder.

“It’s good,” she said gruffly. “That you care. The Empress wouldn’t. But you need the harden the fuck up, Catherine. We’ll both have a lot of dead friends before this is over.”

She left me to ponder that in the silent tent, eyes closed. Callowans had a lot of songs about the glory and righteousness of sacrificing yourself for the kingdom. I knew quite a few. None of them spoke of sacrificing those you loved though.

As always, the songs were thin gilding over the ugly truths of what I’d have to do.