When dawn broke, the High Leger had to confess to himself he could scarce care less for the day at hand. He could say he was dreading it. Less experienced men would have been scared, with shit running down their leg while they offed themselves over the fields running straight at the enemy. But what damn good did that do. No, his dread wasn’t fear. More, he had had enough of men and women less important than he not doing what they were told, or forgetting what they were told, with all the discipline and poise of a wet wipe.
He cracked his neck, poking his head up from his desk where a dozen maps of the Ellgan fields had made his pillow for the night. Quite sure someone was on their way to rouse him, he watched the crack of his tent bluster in the morning wind.
Sure enough, the fabric parted and one of the lowlies entered. At once, the Leger raised a hand for it to keep its distance. ‘Yes?’ he said, not offering the Ick the courtesy of his stare. Instead, he pretended to bury himself in one of his notebooks.
‘They’re waiting for you at the briefing, Leger Kieffer.’
‘Well, they can wait a little longer, can’t they.’ Herman Kieffer stood and wafted his messenger away with a flap of his wrist. He moved to a mirror suspended from the roof of the tent and straightened his jacket and medals emblazoned across his left breast. By his own admission, he was an ugly man. He had a heavy brow that almost seemed to hang over his narrow, ratty eyes, like they were pushed back into his skull. He was sure it made him better at his job. When they were intimidated by his guise as well as his standing.
Kieffer decorated himself in a golden robe, with the sigil of his chapter on Mardoc woven into the fabric. He paid it a glance in the mirror. How far he had come from that cursed place. Men in jaded fabrics toiling on boats, fishing in the Nine Isles from sunrise to sunset in perpetuity. Each a stranger to land, never quite stationary. Their home had been a pontoon, lashed together by rope and meandering over open sea. It was awful and smelly but at times he missed the simplicity of a boat, an oar, and a net. When he need only command his own fingers to tie a sturdy knot and, and not the confidence of an unruly legion.
He dragged his hands across the violet sacks lurking beneath his eyes. Even the thought of battle could not stir him to alertness. Muttering curses in the coarse, winter air, he ducked from under his tent and into the clearing. The last dregs of the garrison were trudging to the rally point. Kieffer sighed at them and followed, clasping his hands over his mouth to guard against the cold. A frost had manifested on the grasses and trees, while the red sky was clear as ice.
The path narrowed, bordered by untidy hedgerows and into a second clearing where the denizens of the Sign were arranged into neat rows. The entire garrison, clad in crimson armour, hung on his words. Kieffer glided round the edge of the assembly, clutching his robe tails against the mud. A podium had been prepared for him overlooking the five thousand men and women. He canted over his stand and watched their faces. Many were as disinterested as he; it wasn’t their first rodeo. A few passed begging looks to their colleagues, in hopes of reassurance. Winter’s violations, the Pilgrims, watched pensively from the back, many still undressed with their arms folded dismissively. Behind them, Osse ridge sat plumply overlooking the valley, and beyond that, the fields rolled towards Castle Bakh. Could the whole bloody thing not just be over with, the Leger lamented.
‘Today,’ he began, caught for a moment by his voice booming out over the speakers circling the assembly. ‘Ellaga falls and rises again!’ The words well-trodden in his mind, but to each new circus, each new rotation, they would burst into rapturous applause as they always did. And so, it was. Their chorus of adoration cracked through the hilly skies like thunder. A frigate passed above and the blare of its engines stunted the crowd back into silence. Kieffer watched on amused.
The Leger reached into his pocket for a silver orb the size of his fist. He tossed it into the air. At the moment it should have started to fall, the ball came at rest, suspended above his head. It burst in a shower of light and a chart was projected onto the air behind him. It traced their course from the barracks at one end to the blob of Castle Bakh at the other, four miles hence. The intervening terrain was marred by valleys, forestry and a line of hills on either side. Kieffer had long studied it but he took a moment to refamiliarise himself with its eccentricities. One route was plotted out over the fields: where the Pilgrims would lead the main pursuit with ham-fisted inelegance no doubt, a battering ram to the castle’s gates. Secondary forces would infiltrate the mines from below, and from the low-lying forests, flanking the main grounds. Kieffer was unsure as to how much resistance he expected, in truth. Rare for a man of his experience. Intelligence said the machines were resigned to losing Ellaga. That was unsettling to him, more than it was reassuring, lest his men underestimate the task at hand.
But Kieffer was practiced at burying his doubts. He stirred his followers with strident tones. Dividing them and dismissing them team-by-team with details of the ‘plan’. They did not quell his unease in their attentiveness. For there was a fourth team, its task distinct from the others, and the success of the whole operation hinged on it.
This was the greatest source of discomfort for the Leger, and the thought twisted the walls of his stomach. Not least because he was the one to personally lead it. He supposed it was an occupational hazard. The more powerful Kieffer became, the more he found himself at the mercy of more powerful men, petty men with their petty politics. Where he was trusted to carry out their treachery and deceit. They were at war after all; should he be surprised to find the Sign’s tactics underhand?
When the last team was dismissed to arm, he dropped to his haunches at the podium. More frigates whirred overhead, blasting columns of air into the clearing. Whirlpools of dust scattered, and Kieffer felt a momentary peace. Then, a silhouette cut into his eyeline and the Leger sighed loudly.
‘Yes.’ It was a statement more than a question. Whatever it was, yes. He’d be there. He’d see to it. But could he not have five minutes first?
‘Commander Orsuff is convening Dark Section, Sir.’
Kieffer struggled to his feet. ‘I’ll be there.’
‘He needs a final brief on the target.’
 Dark Section is a term referring to a small, covert operations squad who were deployed to conduct highly secretive, specialist tasks on the field of battle. Their operations ranged from infiltration and intelligence-gathering to the hostage rescue and elimination of high-value targets