The tent could fit twenty people without feeling crowded, but Vinnian Pompus paced in it like it was a cage half that size. While the others drifted in and out to see the troops’ progress, the young noble stayed inside, stalking around and knocking maps and scrolls from the vast table that had been hauled all the way from his family estate. Vinnian would think he looked like a proud, prowling warrior, Aven knew, but he was far from that. She hadn’t see him for years and she was already sick of his antics.
Once upon a distant season, Aven would have seen the face of Vinnian Pompus and been glad of the sight. When she was still shy of ten summers, the extended Szawa clan would make the trek to the Pompus estate that sprawled over the Scarwood hills. They would come twice a year. The first in the colder months when the hills filled with snow, and then again for the Feast of Supplication, when the trees became tinder-dry in the heat.
Summertime was best. While the adults gathered in the Great Hall and told their war-tales, Vinnian, Aven and her cousins would run through the ancient vines that grew in orderly queues down the southern slopes, their bare feet kicking up dust and stirring lazy clouds of midge-flies. Vinnian always in the lead – he was the oldest, and strongest – but Aven always close behind. Fast for her age, and determined too. Vinnian had strength, but Aven no fear.
The last hundred strides of the race was the most dangerous, and therefore the most desired. There, the creek cut deep into the dirt, scooping out a gully that was maybe three men tall. In the winter the ground was so slippery with puddles that that the unspoken finish line would be pulled back to the edge of the grape-fences. In the summer though, the pock-marked ground was dry; dangerous and likely to turn ankles, but not sludgy and bloated by treacherous snowmelt.
Aven and Vinnian were the only children who could clear the gully. He with strength, she with cunning and fearlessness. He would power down the slope, taking mighty steps that easily cleared the vicious gap. She had learned to bound between the tall rocks, stepping up with squirrely leaps that slowed her path but gave her height. At the top of the largest boulder she would step out into space. She would hang there for a moment, or for an eternity. She never knew how long she would stay there, weightless.
The sun would fill her face and hair, and she would close her eyes and stretch out her hands, trusting in her velocity. And then would come the sudden roughness of the leaves and branches of the oaks that
reached out to her from the far bank, and time would reassert. She’d swing, hands stinging with the foliage, until the tree-limbs arced down and her bare toes touched soil. Regardless of her run, she would be greeted by the beetroot-tinged cheeks of Vinnian, his hands on hips, breathing roughly from the thrill of it all.
The trek back up the hill always took an age, but that mad sprint down the hill was always worth it. Then it would be dinner in the Great Hall of Pompus-upon-Scarwood, Vinnian’s mother talking to Aven’s father about the wars they had fought, the Standards they had borne, the magic that had wreathed their heads and felled their enemies. There would be plans of battles to come in lands unknown, riddled with foreign tribes and obscure sorceries.
But all that was long ago. Aven had grown up, and Vinnian too. His rank made him lazy and sour, and meaner each season that passed. A few years ago, young Kasten Szawa had stumbled into the Scarwood ravine and broken both arms. Vinnian had pushed him, everyone knew, just to hear the cries. All of the young Wolves were silent – the Pompus heir was their alpha, in some manner – but Aven saw less of her cousins after that day at the creek, and her father travelled alone to the estate. Indeed, this was the first time Aven had seen the young Pompus since then.
The seasons since Scarwood ravine had not treated Vinnian well – he had gotten taller and stronger, but his ugly spirit showed through on his face. A sparring match with a slave had gotten out of hand last autumn, and Vinnian’s cheek bore a rough scar from a wooden sword that had broken upon it. Vinnian had lost some of his looks. The slave would have paid for it in blood.
‘Who are we even fighting this week?’ Vinnian pouted.
‘Boar, I think,’ Aven answered.
‘Boar was last battle. We’ve headed north from there. Elk territory,’ said Percian. It was an easy answer for him – the old surgeon was standing by the map-table that dominated the centre of the tent, and had been tracing the sigils and tribe-marks with his long fingers.
‘All the tribes around here are the same anyway,’ sneered Vinnian. ‘I don’t even understand why Mother needed to bring so many battalions. I could win against the Elk myself.’
‘General Pompus doesn’t underestimate her enemy, lad,’ said Cannan. Cannan was the general’s seneschal, in charge of balancing the books and ensuring the gold coins of High Varka ended up in the right hands. He was also Percian’s brother, older by minutes. Aven had spent much of this expedition studying the contrasts and differences between the siblings. Both had the same iron-grey hair, worn to the shoulder as was the style of many a Wolf aristocrat. But where Percian was drawn and gaunt, Cannan was round. The surgeon may have been more purposeful in movement, but he lacked a degree of control that seemed to suffuse his older brother. Cannan had spent years dealing with the gold of those either higher-ranked or better-armed than he; he knew when to interject and when not, when to agree and when to shut up. His brother didn’t fuss about such trifles, and smiled or scowled as his heart took him.
‘They’re only Elk, Cannan,’ said Vinnian. ‘You don’t even need a proper army. I could take them out with this tent alone – sawbones, nurses, slaves and children.’
‘You know why you’re here, boy? Because your mother doesn’t want you mouthing off while she’s trying to make decisions that mean Wolf-lives,’ said Percian.
Vinnian’s face reddened, leaving his sparring scar nearly white. ‘Mother is abiding by the rules. I have one more season before I can be officially blooded. Ninety days time and then I’m allowed in, as by High Varkan law.’
‘Ninety days? When I was your age my father had let me sit in the command tent more times than I could count on a hand. Cannan too. You’re not invited in for the bloody reason you don’t know your place,’ replied Percian.
‘Surgeon, you speak to me like that and you will bleed more than one of your patients,’ said the young noble, his hand at the pommel of his pugio. The dagger might have been more ceremonial than functional, but Vinnian’s intent was clear. Aven moved unthinkingly, as if to insert herself between the young Pompus and the surgeon. She felt a tug and stopped; Morrow had grabbed her cloak-hem in her firm hands. Don’t be a fool, her companion’s eyes said.
‘Out, brother,’ said Cannan. His tone was decisive. Percian rolled his eyes and left the tent, sweeping past the Pompus slaves who were busying themselves sorting the papers that Vinnian had carelessly knocked off the table. Vinnian sneered at the retreating back. ‘The surgeon only speaks to me like that because he is declawed by age. He relies on a sharp tongue because he has no teeth to sink into his prey.’ Cannan looked as if he would speak, but thought better of it. No need to stir up cooling blood.
The tent was perched on the edge of a hill that reared up from the woods. To the north and west, it was almost as tall as the pines that grew here. To the south and east, the hillside dipped shapely down to the broad, dried-up riverbank where the Wolf troops currently massed. Pompus’ army had been following the old river’s track for weeks. This deep into the frontiers, it was the closest thing to a proper road that the scouts could find. Now, a few hours after dawn, the Wolf camp was almost packed. Fires had been doused, canvas tents stowed, blades readied.
Percian was standing nearby, absent-mindedly watching the comings and goings from the tent on the far side of the bank. It was similar in size to the one that Percian and now Aven had left, but was gilded in gold and had a hand picked contingent of the Chosen standing guard outside. Lady Pompus was in there, along with Aven’s father and the other commanders. By now, they would have determined who would lead the troops down the riverbed, who would lead the rearguard, and who would take their soldiers into the forest, cutting a quiet path through the dense wood and circling around any foes.
‘What do you think the plan is, then?,’ said Percian.
‘If it’s anything like the last few major battles,’ said Aven, combing her memory, ‘we’re only a few hours march from the next fight. The scouts would have returned late in the night. They’ll have discovered a fortifiable location that looks down onto a nearby village.’
‘And that’s where the battle will be?’
‘Not quite. I heard the vanguard leave just before dawn. They’ll already be there won’t they? Cutting down trees, digging trenches, building the fort? Then by the time this lot are ready to march, the garrison would be half-done. By midday, a raiding party will be sent down, or the local tribe will notice the vanguard. Either way, the battle gets drawn up to the hill. Fires get lit, more local tribesmen come along – and then…’
‘Then the mid guard sweep into the village. Split the attention, the rear-guard encircle the area to smash whoever’s left, and the scouts pick off anyone who gets too far into the woods.’
‘As good an answer as I’d expect from that idiot in the tent,’ said Percian, ‘but I was after something more from you. My fault, I was being obtuse. When I say what’s the plan, I mean why are we here?’
‘What, heading into Elk territory? Well, because they’re unconquered I suppose.’
‘Ah, “because it was there”, yes? Enough reason to invade enemy lands?’
‘That’s what the Wolf Empire does. We’ve been doing it for centuries.’
‘You would think we would have found a place to stop, by now. The Wolf has been at war for as long as it can remember.’
Aven looked down at the troops below. The ground beneath their feet was mud now, churned up by thousands of iron boots.
‘We don’t know who we are without war,’ she said.
‘True in the abstract. We are defined by battles, or allow ourselves to be. We don’t let the generals hang around in the capital, so they get sent out to the provinces. Win more wars, claim more territory, burn more villages. But that eventually becomes a problem. A general gets too successful, and High Varka worries.’
‘So they send them out further,’ said Aven.
‘That’s right. Deeper in, eventually hoping they’ll be outflanked or outnumbered.’
‘A suicide mission? The General must learn about it, if she doesn’t already.’
‘Nothing so obvious. You send soldiers on a foolhardy mission and they’ll realise it too quickly,’ said Percian. ‘Still, Pompus didn’t get that far up without understanding the bastardry of politicians. She understands the game. She has the choice of battling further on and either dying or racking up more victories, or turning around and facing the wrath of the City.’
‘Based on how she’s going, it looks like we’ll run out of tribes to fight,’ said Aven.
‘Very true,’ said Percian. ‘Now imagine, how do you think the politicians feel about that?’
‘They would want to clip the General’s wings. Not enough to betray the Wolf-soldiers, but enough to even the odds. Make sure that the General knew not to get cocky and think she could turn this army around.’
A distant shouting caught their attention. The command tent was a flurry of activity; the Chosen were scuttling about gathering their arms, while the assembled commanders came out to look at the horizon. Pompus would be in there somewhere, Aven’s father too.
‘You think that’s part of the plan?,’ said Percian, pointing.
Aven followed his outstretched hand, to a distant plume of smoke. It would be the fort, or even the village.
‘Looks like someone got a little cocky,’ she said.