Author note: A long time ago, I lamented as a writer how to make battles more epic and gigantic than they were written in GRRM books. For those who follow A different weasel makes a difference, you know how my efforts went.
That said at approximately the same time, I was seized by the idea of mixing elements from Warhammer 40 000 with ASOIAF. Not with the intervention of Chaos Gods (though it would be funny). But rather taking the direction of ASOIAF as a full-grown space opera. Tentative title would be the Galactic Westerosi Civil War.
I honestly don't know if it will grow one day to a proper timeline...but here is a prologue of what could be the beginning. Took me months to fix, but I think it's good now. New title is Let the Galaxy Burn. Enjoy.
The Road to Hell
My name is Samwell Tarly and I'm going to die...
I have lived too long, seen and did too many things for one life. When I was young, my friends called me the Fat One. Then they called me the Innovator. The Tamer. The Commander Without Fear. And finally, the Lone Sentinel. Before leaving this world, I would like to remember the history a last time. Like it really did, not like the tales and histories that are counted around a bonfire in far away stars. I've met them all: Rhaenys Targaryen, the Second Queen Who Never Was. Baela Targaryen, the Icefyre Queen. Stannis Baratheon, the Black Stag. Ser Barristan Selmy, the Bold. Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning. And so many others ... The Dawn Star. The Invincible Admiral. The Imp. The list is endless.
I've known personally Aegon Targaryen, the one who was then called the Prince Who was Promised. The one who was supposed to be Azor Ahai reborn. The man every priest of R'hllor proclaimed the Last Hero and the Bringer of Dawn. I was at his side when the Targaryen family tore each other apart in a bloody struggle to grab the power supreme of the Iron Throne. When worlds burnt and mighty fleets gathered to decide the fate of the Seven Stellar Sectors of Westeros.
I was with him and I know the legend too well. I participated in writing it, after all. But I omitted a lot of truths, to preserve the morale of the soldiers fighting for humanity's survival. Aegon was never this hero with silver hair and purple eyes, the perfect prince and knight as the bards sing of him today. Like too many Targaryens, Aegon was a liar and a monster, a man who would have murdered a man if he thought it gave him the right to bed the man's wife.
Yet this is not only the history of a man and his fatal flaws. This is the history of an entire galaxy. How, involuntarily, we lords of three hundred worlds led all humanity so close to Hell. And how others than us saved it...
The history. Ah, yes. I suppose it began with a young soldier, a long time ago on a tragic day of 283AC. Although I would not meet him for two decades, it was on this day Ayric Sarring's military career really began. In an orbital assault which changed the course of the Usurper's War...
The Lone Lieutenant I, 05.06.283AAC, Binary Twins System
"They say the orbital defences of the planet have been deactivated, Lieutenant. It's going to be a walk in a park!"
"You've never walked in one of the worst parks of Lannisport, heh Lan?" Replied Lieutenant 3rd class Ayric Sarring, trying to fight his annoyance at yet another stupid remark of the newest addition in his platoon. "And stop playing with your seat's security belts. In case of emergency, you will be the first to be pressured into a bloody paste!"
A chorus of genuine laughs welcomed this reply. At the same time, Sergeant Raff Preslan, who was sitting on Lan Kel's right, gave him a playful hit on the helmet to make sure the young recruit wouldn't try to open his mouth until they landed on the surface of Bridge's Edge, sole and only inhabitable planet orbiting the sun of Twin A.
Nevertheless, one look at the small tactical display of the assault shuttle confirmed the trooper's sentence. There was zero activity from the massive orbital installations, on which there were thousands of missiles, lasers platforms and other unpleasant surprises waiting for them. On a purely electronic point of view, the space around the planet Bridge's Edge was dead.
"Do you think the northern barbarians abandoned the system knowing we were on the move, Lieutenant?" Asked Trooper Gor who was on Ayric's opposite seat.
"Possibly. I doubt they knew it was our army who would come to take the system, but they had to know someone would come."
"So the war's almost over, eh?" Asked Lan Kel, whose silence had not lasted very long. "With the Usurper dead at the Trident, the war is finished! The River and Storm Sector are gone. Only the Northern barbarians and the Vale are remaining, and they will surrender soon if they do not want to be crushed!"
Only a loud silence answered the young idiot. "What?"
You have just proved you are an imbecile who believes every piece of Targaryen and Lannister propaganda who come this way, thought Ayric. Not that I was expecting anything else from you.
The Targaryen fleet had won at the Trident, yes, they had shouted it so much on the galactic network only a hermit on a far far away planet had missed the news. But only a moron (which apparently included Lan Kel) missed the fact the glorious "victory" at the Trident had created an endless list of casualties. Hundreds of thousands dead spacers, with more thousands injured who would never serve in a military force again. Ayric had heard a rumour every loyalist hospital ship had been commandeered by a Royal order no less to rush to the Trident to save the maximum of wounded. He was too low in the Army hierarchy to know if it was true or not, but it was a grim assessment of the first estimates coming from this massacre.
The Royal Fleet had not left the Harrenhal system since the Battle of the Trident, and it had been four months ago. Right now, the military forces of the Western Sector were the only offensive forces left fighting in the River Sector, having not been involved in this bloody slaughter.
Adding these simple facts, Ayric honestly doubted the war was as over as the memos coming from the higher-ups claimed. Even if the Twins System fell in one swoop, there was still the little matter of taking the legendary fortress world of Moat Cailin...
Suddenly the assault shuttle executed a 180 degree turn and every member of the platoon found himself the head under his body without warning.
"What the hell, Lanning!" Screamed Ayric in his radio to the pilot of his shuttle. "I know you were furious about that last card game yesterday but it's not a reason to make everyone here vomit! When this is over you will pay for this!"
After several interminable seconds the assault shuttle came back to its normal position and the voice of Rock Officer Lanning came on his radio in a panicked tone:
"Sorry, Sarring, but the orbital defences of the planet have just come online! And there are Northern heavy cruisers coming from the other side of the planet! They will have us in range of their missiles in a minute!
"Oh, crap." Ayric felt the sweat cooling on his neck.
"Can you manage to land us on the planet before every orbital gun is fully activated?" Ayric asked in reply.
"Maybe." The voice of Pilot Lanning was lacking any joy at the prospect of executing such a suicidal action. "But we will have to land with the ground defences shooting at the shuttle all the way. And the Northern army is no doubt waiting for you here."
"I rather take my chance against their army than return to the transports under the fire of an entire orbital installation and a space fleet!"
"Acknowledged. But this is one-way ticket, Lieutenant. If our fleet doesn't secure the orbital in twenty-four minutes..."
"Then we're dead anyway. Do it." Said flatly Ayric before cutting the communication and turning towards his squad, who had apparently heard enough of his conversation to know there was a massive problem and began to seal their red and gold battle-armours.
"It seems," Ayric Sarring said with a heavy dose of sarcasm, "that the northern barbarians haven't gotten the memo from Trooper Kel that they are supposed to surrender. A part of their fleet was hidden behind the planet, and they have just activated the orbital defences. So our landing is going to get a little rough."
The faces of the troops under his command were livid, and for good reason. Even the most stupid recruit knew of the vulnerability of the transport they were currently in. Assault shuttles built in the shipyards of the Rock and Lannisport had been specifically conceived to land troops once the space defences of a planet were in ruins and the ground defenders were under the guns of the Lannister fleet. Against an intact battery of defensive lasers or some big missiles used by the military ships, a simple shuttle's only chance of survival lied in fleeing away as fast as possible from the danger.
Sure enough, it was Trooper Kel who broke the silence.
"We are going to die!" He wailed. "The barbarians are going to shred our shuttle in..."
"Sergeant Preslan!" Ayric said with a very nasty smile.
"Silence Trooper Kel immediately!"
And the massive sergeant, by a large margin the most muscled man of the squad, smashed his armoured fist in Kel's helmet, the shock being such the trooper was knocked out instantly.
"Good. I had enough of his screams." Said Ayric, with relief on his voice. He supposed he should not feel good after just ordered one of his men to silence another, but Lan Kel's voice these last weeks had badly hit his nerves.
"It is not his fault, Lieutenant", whispered someone on his right. "He was one of the untrained ones who were rushed to the front after the casualties we suffered at Wayfarer's Rest."
Ayric winced. The point was well-made, but...
"It's been a month since he arrived in our squad. There has not been any exercise or mop-up operation he has performed correctly or missed any occasion to wail or complain. I understand our intervention in the war came at such short a notice..." Understatement of the year, when they had found themselves to the frontlines before they knew what happened. "But this is no excuse for his behaviour. He has signed to serve in the army of the Western Sector. If he can't handle it, then he can resign. Go home. I will not restrain him."
The conversation could have continued, except the shuttle then started a series of acrobatic manoeuvres which made the soldiers stuck on their seats by the belts pass in every possible position an uncountable number of times.
Then Pilot Lanning's voice came out of his existence on his helmet's radio.
"Sarring, this is Lanning. Landing in fifty seconds."
"Anything you can tell me?"
"This is complete chaos here." The Flying officer's voice seemed calm, too calm for the situation. "There are shuttles in flames everywhere, the transports are under attack by the enemy and we are targeted from the ground too now. You can expect a very hot welcome on the ground. Landing point roughly three hundred kilometres south-east-east of Walder the City. Now fasten yourself and prepare to run at my signal. Given the situation, I will not let my shuttle stay on the ground more than thirty seconds."
"Tell me you do not intend to go back to the transports." Said Ayric flatly.
His voice was answered by nothing. Lanning had already shut down his radio. Looking at the eleven other members of the squad in the compartment, he gave the orders.
"Landing in about forty seconds. Take everything you can carry and run out of the shuttle to cover. Enemy resistance is expected to be on the way."
"What do I do about Kel?" Asked Preslan, in an enthusiastic voice. "Do you want me to wake him up?" His voice left no doubt about the method he would use to administer the treatment.
"No. He is a dead weight, but better let him stay unconscious and carry him out of danger that way."
"We could let him stay on the shuttle." Proposed Trooper Avrel.
"Tempting. " Affirmed Ayric. "Very tempting, but there is little chance he would arrive in one piece to our transport for the court-martial he deserves. The situation in space does not look good. Sergeant Preslan will take him to cover."
Just at that moment the assault shuttle landed. Or more exactly, it crashed, as the violence of the landing resonated painfully in every soldier's bones.
"Everyone out!" Bellowed Preslan in a voice which tolerated no argument.
"Go! Go! Go! "Shouted Ayric, taking his laser rifle with the rest of his equipment and following his men, being the one the furthest away from the opening ramp on the right side of the shuttle.
Trooper Avrel was the first out, and began to shout "For Lannisport!" and shoot at something with his rifle. Emerging into the cold sun of Bridge's Edge, Ayric recorded with horror the shuttle had crashed just in front of a local medium-sized bunker, which by all accounts was pouring a murderous fire on his and several other squads.
"Use your plasma grenades! The rifles will do nothing against the bunker!" Ayric shouted in the radio.
He had not the time to say more. There was a loud explosion, and Ayric felt himself thrown far away on his back. Groaning, it took him five seconds or so to rise on his own. The spectacle which welcomed him back was one of disaster. The assault shuttle which had brought him and his squad here was a smoking metal wreck.
And in front of him, where several squads of regular infantry had charged, was a pool of corpses and blood. Here and there, around him, some Lannister soldiers, heavily recognisable in their brilliant red and gold uniform stood, dazed from the shock.
The bunker did not look as it had taken a scratch. And the absence of visible cannons combined to the precision of the strike could only mean one thing. It was not the ground troops who had fired against them.
"Orbital strikes! Take cover!"
Ayric ran before realising it was his own voice who had spoken. As long as the defenders of the bunker had their sight on him, they could call their friends in orbit and murder them instantly. Staying there would be his death.
Fortunately, the terrain where the shuttle had just landed was nearby a forest, and around him he saw hundreds of Lannister troops running in the same direction. If they could reach the woods, there was a chance they could regroup and...
A series of sinister figures emerging from the ground a few hundred meters just in front of him put an end to that idea.
Each of them wearing massive grey battle armour, the five Northern soldiers began to massacre the fleeing infantry, a task made even easier by the fact some of the fastest troopers to escape had thrown their weapons away to run faster. Three of them were using automatic laser guns, while the two others were using vibro-swords to tear apart the red-uniformed soldiers having closed too much with them.
One of the Northerners, cutting three troopers one by one with his sword in a succession of brutal moves, screamed "Our blades are sharp!"
Ayric stopped running, crawled to the ground holding his rifle, and then proceeded to shoot in anger at the men who just massacred so many Western infantry. A barrage of completely inaccurate but massive rifle fire added to his efforts, and soon all the Northmen fell one by one, plasma grenades and the weight of the fire salvo proving enough to destroy their protections.
Watching around him, though, the triumph was a bitter one. The plain was covered of dead men, and most of those wore the red and gold of Ayric's own uniform.
Standing up, Ayric started to run again, finally reaching the woods. Here and there, infantrymen like him were reaching the relative safety of the trees.
But so few, he thought bitterly. How many of us died in this... looking at his officer watch he sighed. Only five minutes? It had felt, far, far longer than that.
Trying to communicate with his platoon commander by radio, he was only met by silence. Same for the company level. It was only at the battalion level he heard someone speaking, but the sound was garbled and he couldn't make anything of the words. Cutting the radio, he continued to march rapidly for fifteen minutes in a direction he figured was the west given the late position of the sun on his back. If he was the enemy, he would have not let the occasion to exterminate the Western remnants. Better move away from the bunker and the Northern infantry the furthest he could.
Just as he had made this reflection, the horizon burned, and a new orbital strike fell on the edge of the woods he had just occupied twenty minutes ago. Loud sounds which could only be artillery and heavy barrage of weapons added their litany of destruction. Ayric could not stop staring, hearing in the distance the men of his own army scream in agony as they get slaughtered... and he could do nothing to stop it.
Ayric turned, to see Sergeant Raff Preslan emerge from the trees.
"I should have known you were going to survive, Sergeant." Said Ayric.
"The same, Lieutenant." Told Preslan in a voice a bit too emotional compared to the norm which made his heavy accent of the Lannisport slums reappear. "I disobeyed orders, Lieutenant. I let Trooper Kel on the edge of the woods and ran. There wasn't enough time..."
Ayric raised his left hand in dismissal. "It is not like it made much difference, no? If you had tried to carry him, you would likely be dead right now. For now, our mission is to ensure our own survival. We will think about our dead later."
"Yes, Lieutenant. Do you think they are other survivors from our squad?"
"Unlikely. They were in the middle of the strike. I survived by pure luck." Ayric was forced to admit that with a certain dose of bitterness. First real command, eleven men under his orders and after less than one hour only one is alive. Great performance. "Anyway, our command structure and our communications are just shot to hell. The enemy controls the orbital weapons and as long as they do, fighting in the open we will just be meat for the Northern troops."
"Never thought possible the Starks would be able to organise such a trap." Sighed Preslan.
"Unless I miss my guest, "said Ayric as he readjusted his military backpack."The troops we just fought were not Starks but Boltons."
"And what is the difference?"
"From the few military records of the different engagements I saw, the Starks kill you promptly and efficiently. The Bolton will enjoy torturing you a bit before giving you a long and painful death."
"Joy. I suppose we better not become prisoners of war, then."
"Absolutely not." Agreed Ayric. "Let's try to walk the furthest away from the battlefield we can. There is still two or three hours of day, if we avoid the patrols of the North, we have a chance of survival."
"Let's do this." Agreed the massive sergeant. "You know, if we survive, it will give a hell of story to tell to our children and great-children."
"I doubt it, Sergeant. Every child wants to hear the tales of glorious victories. If this campaign continues like it has begun, they will name it 'To Hell and back' or something like this. No children will want to hear it."
"So pessimistic at eighteen years old." Growled Preslan in an amused tone.
"We serve Lord Tywin Lannister of Casterly Rock, no? Our only duty is to die. Ours not to reason why!"
Laughing without much emotion, Raff Preslan took the lead and marched in direction of the west. Ayric followed him. Behind them, the screams of dying soldiers echoed, awful reminder of the military disaster the armies of the Western Sector had just suffered.
The Defeated Admiral I, 05.06.283AAC, Binary Twins System
"Do something, but do it NOW! My men are being slaughtered by the Boltons!" Screamed Lord Sumner Crakehall, General of the Western army and commander in chief of the Lannister 3rd and 5th army.
"Cut this communication." Ordered Admiral of the Lions Loren Lannister to his chief of staff.
"As you order, Admiral."
The voice and the image of Lord Crakehall disappeared from the main screen on the Proud Lion's bridge, replaced by the tactical display of the system of Twin A.
Red dots represented the Western formations and warships. Green was the colour used to represent probable or certain enemy units. At the moment, mused Loren, there was a lot of green on the display and not enough of red. And the planet itself was glowing of a threatening and dark green, where an hour ago thousands of red dots had approached it.
"What's the latest estimate of their strength?" He asked again.
"Our captors report one ship of the line, four armoured cruisers, four battlecruisers, eight heavy cruisers, nine escort carriers and a dozen or so of light and scout cruisers around Bridge's Edge. Designed this force Contact One. Two battlecruisers, five heavy cruisers, two light carriers and six scout cruisers in the outer asteroid's belt. Designed this force Contact Two."
Captain Tybolt Lantel raised his eyes and added: "We have confirmed the ship of the line is the Flesh Tearer."
"Bolton." Loren threw the world like an insult.
"Yes, my Lord."
"Are the other ships sworn to the Dreadfort?"
"Difficult to say." Replied Lantel, throwing one glace at the tactical display. "The Northern warships are generally built along the same specifications, so it's hard to guess which belongs to whom. But yes, I think these are only the Bolton warships, Admiral."
"Can we win?" Loren knew very well the answer, but he had to hear it from an outside source, if only to be sure his mind and his tactical sense still worked.
"Admiral," said his chief of staff hesitantly. "We have exactly one ship of the line, three battlecruisers, two heavy cruisers and one fleet carrier left. Bolton has massacred our entire fighter force and most of our light units by surprise when he emerged from the other side of Bridge's Edge. The ships of the line and the battlecruisers which were sent in the outer asteroid belt in pursuit of these fake transports were destroyed. Given our current strength, there's no way we can win an old-fashioned battleline engagement with the Northern Fleet, Admiral. We may be able to cause them some damage, but there's no way victory can be achieved."
"That was my opinion too." Loren whispered.
But what am I going to do, he thought. Lantel is right about the rapport of force, but if I abandon Lord Crakehall and the better part of two field armies on Bridge's Edge to the tender mercies of Bolton, Tywin will take a page from the Northerner's book and skin me alive! And that doesn't factor what Aerys would do to me if I fell in his hands.
In his mind, Loren freely admitted he had shamelessly used his power base at Lannisport to rise and obtain the officer grade in the Western fleet. Six months ago, he was unquestionably the most powerful general officer of the Lannisport system and in the top ten of the most powerful men of the Western Sector. His command, named Third Fleet, had consisted in 4 ship of the lines, 2 armoured cruisers, 12 battlecruisers, 24 heavy cruisers, 15 light cruisers, 50 scout cruisers, 2 Fleet carriers, 6 Light carriers, 20 Escort carriers. But that was six months ago.
Now, he was left with a handful of warships, all because Prince Rhaegar, the buffoon, had proposed he led the assault on the Twins, to, in the dragon's own terms, "avenge the slaughter of House Frey". And like an imbecile, I agreed. The chances of being granted one of the system of the Twins after the end of the conflict was slim, but it existed, and being the admiral to kick the Northmen out of the civilised sectors (one could hardly call the North and the Vale sectors civilised after all!) would have granted Loren a prestige few officers would have dared elevate against.
"Your orders, Admiral?"
Loren exhaled a loud breath. Leaving the system to Roose Bolton would be tantamount to open himself up to charges of cowardice and treason in face of the enemy from his political enemies at home. In time of peace, Loren felt confident he would have convinced any court-martial of his innocence. He was too powerful, too influential and was linked to too many noble families of Lannisport for anyone to risk a bad verdict. But with Aerys on a rampage to burn anyone who had the temerity to defy him and Tywin searching for scapegoats in every corner to appease his rage, any court-martial in these conditions would see his execution before the day ended.
On the other hand, if Loren attacked and was as badly beaten as he feared, there was no certainty Lord Tywin Lannister, very distant cousin and supreme Lord Paramount of the Western Sector, was not going to eliminate him and his family for having the temerity to lose his command.
But if he won, if he managed to beat Bolton with these odds, there was a tiny possibility he could salvage something of this fiasco.
"Tell the fleet to advance at maximum speed towards Bridge's Edge. I want to engage the enemy at the earliest opportunity!" Loren's decision was welcomed by a silence of death on the flagship bridge. His assistants and other members of his staff continued to work, but he could tell the signs they weren't agreeing with his decision.
"Admiral," Said Tybolt Lantel in a low voice to avoid being heard by the others members of the crew. "There's no way we will be able to neutralise the orbital installations in time to relieve the two armies. Why not withdraw temporarily and regroup our forces to reconquer the system?"
"And where," Said Loren Lannister in a black moment humour, "will we find the ships to do so? Despite what our dear friends at King's Landing shout on Galactic Targaryen News every day, our forces are stretched to the breaking point trying to hold the River Sector. There are no reinforcements available right now, and there won't be for months."
A bit of exaggeration from him, Loren agreed, but not that much. With the Greyjoys doing their usual piracy activities in the Sunset Void, a good part of the Lannister fleet was immobilised due to garrison duties, and the rest were busy fighting the remnants of the Tully war fleet in the River Sector. Loren's fleet had been the only formation immediately available, as the Royal Fleet would need at least six or seven months before being counted as an operational unit again.
"But if we take them head-on we're all going to die!" Protested Lantel.
"Don't be ridiculous, Junior Captain." Sneered Loren, taking great care to use the miserable rank of his subordinate. "I intend to fight a missile duel at long range with Bolton. One in which our superior missiles and electronic measures will give us the advantage, negating the enemy's numerical superiority."
Lantel did not look at all convinced. "Our technological advantage has never been confirmed by reliable sources, Admiral. There has been no major engagement until now between us and the Northern fleet in this war, and the tactical reports from the Trident haven't reached us here. We are going to be blind to their capabilities until the first salvoes start to fly."
"Then, what are you doing here?" Loren said dismissively. "You have work to do." Tybolt Lantel saluted brusquely before returning to his post on the right side of the bridge.
Loren's was not left alone, though. Not ten seconds after he had sent away Lantel, a lone brown-haired lieutenant came a memo in his hands, with a scared look on his face.
"What?" Asked Loren in his best 'it had better be important' voice.
"Major-General Damon Lannister has surrendered the 5th Army, Admiral."
Loren's mind for a second refused to acknowledge the meaning of the sentence for several seconds. "HE WHAT?"
This had to be a mistake. Lannister armies didn't surrender. Oh, the occasional squad or company could, faced with overwhelming odds and the men were usually court-martialled if they came back alive to the Rock or Lannisport. But Lannister armies made a point of never surrendering. "Hear me Roar" was the motto of the most powerful House of the Western sector, and every general or admiral worth his rank knew what would happen to his reputation and his life (and those of his family) should he prove himself idiotic enough to surrender.
The Lieutenant in front of him continued in a pleading voice. "Ser Damon's situation was desperate, Admiral, and..."
Loren cut him from one reverse of his hand. "Why didn't General of the Lions Lord Sumner Crakehall stop him immediately? Last time I checked, he, not this Damon I've never even heard of before, was in charge of 5th Army!"
"General Crakehall is dead, Admiral." Said the lieutenant with the face of a man who knew he was about to deliver a litany of bad news. "So is his entire staff, his four corps commanders and thirteen of his division commanders. The orbital bombardments have been astonishingly effective in targeting our senior officers."
Loren could not help but stare open-mouthed at the magnitude of the disaster. If what the lieutenant had said was true, the command structure of 5th army was no more. It was a debacle. No, not a debacle, it was a total humiliation, and at the hands and guns of Northern barbarians, no less. And it was him, the senior naval officer in command, who would take the blame and face the court-martial for it.
"And 3rd Army?" Loren Lannister found himself asking.
"Unknown, Admiral. The situation is extremely confused on the ground, and their communications are garbled by some installation which began to emit as soon as the assault began. We think it's a Frey project the Bolton troops managed to capture intact. We haven't been able to communicate with General of the Lions Tion Lannis and his senior corps commanders, but his army has taken heavy losses."
By the Seven, thought Admiral Loren. Have we really lost two entire field armies in so short a time? It's not possible! We can't have suffered so many casualties! Not in two hours! Not at the hands of Northern barbarians!
"Thank you for your report, Lieutenant. If you have further information on the state of 3rd Army, please warn me." Loren said through gritted teeth.
"Admiral, we are at our extreme missile range from the Northern warships!" Announced loudly Tybolt Lantel.
"Open fire!" Snarled Loren Lannister, turning his attention towards his chief of staff. "Priority target is the Flesh Tearer!"
"Fire Plan Four, Primary Target is the Flesh Tearer, aye!" Answered Lantel.
Loren grunted in satisfaction as fifty missiles erupted on his tactical display and rushed towards the Northern warships at sub-light speeds. Their red icons shined a malevolent colour, which briefly boosted the moral of the commanding officer of the Third Western Fleet. You will not take me by surprise again, Bolton, he thought.
Seconds passed, and the Lannister missiles, armed with the most powerful nuclear warheads money could buy, crossed the vast amount of space measured in thousands of kilometres separating them from their targets.
Loren frowned. Something was not right. The Northern fleet wasn't shooting back!
"Admiral, should I order the starfighters of the Winged Lion to launch an anti-warship strike?" Asked Tybolt Lancel.
"No." Said Loren with a sign of denial from the head. "Bolton's wall of battle is intact, I will not send the few starfighters we have left to a certain death." He didn't felt the need to add 'like we have already done with two field armies', but he was sure everyone on the bridge had nonetheless heard those words.
"The Northern fleet is launching anti-missiles now, Admiral!" Shouted a captain with golden long hair on Loren's left.
"Let's see..." Said Loren, coming back to the tactical display in front of him. Immediately, he frowned. Something was not right, there was too much anti-missiles fired!
"Confirm the numbers!" He snarled.
"Numbers checked. Confidence is very high." Replied a Commander on his right.
"May the Warrior protect us..." Prayed someone on the Admiral's left.
Every civilised navy, as far as Loren Lannister knew, had always adopted designs of warships which enabled them to launch similar salvoes of anti-missiles. There was a difficult equilibrium to play, after all. Too many, and the ammunition stocks would be empty in the middle of an engagement. Too few, and the warships were opened to every enemy strike.
But as his display made painfully clear, the Northern barbarians did not seem to be concerned with this minor detail. His initial salvo of fifty was countered with more than three hundred and fifty anti-missiles. Every Lannister missile was countered, each disappearing under four or five anti-missiles, and exploding far from any warship of his enemy.
That was why they didn't answer with their own missile salvo, realised Loren, shocked beyond measure. This Bolton bastard knew he could handle whatever number of missiles Third Fleet could launch at him, and he had played with him like a lion playing with his prey!
"Forget Fire Plan Four." The Admiral said, turning to give his orders to Lantel. "Tell the starfighters to prepare for an anti-warship strike. We are going to need their numbers to break through."
"The casualties are going to be huge." Cautioned Junior Captain Tior Lancel, his chief of Fighter operations.
"It will be better than..."
"Missiles! Missiles launch! Number: two hundred and fifty! Distance: Four hundred thousand kilometres!" Shouted a panicked lieutenant on the tactical section of the bridge.
Loren grimaced. Bolton had ceased to play and was closing for the kill. Still, two hundred and fifty missiles were nowhere near enough to saturate the massive defences of a ship of the line, especially from that far. It was not going to be good, but his depleted fleet would survive.
"Admiral," said Lantel. "The enemy is concentrating his fire on the Winged Lion."
"The bastard..." Said venomously Loren. Bolton had anticipated his strategy, and now was forcing him to launch a starfighter strike now or lose the opportunity forever.
"Do we launch the starfighters now?" Asked Tior Lancel.
"Yes." Said Loren, the bitter taste of defeat rising like bill in his mouth. "All missile launchers, fire at will. We need to cover their approach to ensure their strike will count." They will not have the opportunity to make another one, after all, he thought.
In the nine and a half minutes it took for the Northern missiles to arrive, the Winged Lion managed to launch ninety-eight starfighters out of his entire complement of one hundred and ten. Then the Bolton salvo hit like a hurricane. Lantel's observation was proven correct: the enemy commander had concentrated all his missiles on the fleet carrier.
Unlike a ship of the line, a fleet carrier didn't have the massive energy shields and armour plating a warship of its size should take for granted. Too much of its capacity was devoted to fighter bays, fighter repair facilities and others vitals mechanisms needed to make a fighter wing the redoubtable weapon it needed to be.
Third Fleet managed to intercept one hundred and two missiles in its defensive sphere. The other one hundred and forty eight got through. Six missed completely their mark, and four malfunctioned in their attack phase. As a result, the computers recorded the Winged Lion was 'only' bit by one hundred and thirty eight warheads, each built to rip apart a ship of the line piece by piece.
One instant the Winged Lion was there. The instant after, a new star flashed in the Binary system of the Twins. Loren Lannister watched his display in shock. Two million tons of warship and more than five thousand men, destroyed like they never had existed.
Nine minutes later, the ninety-eight orphans of the Winged Lion died in a storm of missiles without managing to scratch the paint of the Bolton warships.
"What do we do now, Admiral?" Asked a Lieutenant Commander in a tone which made clear he was on the verge of crying.
"Tell our heavy cruisers to redline their reactors and accelerate to their maximum speed. They must leave the system immediately and bring back the tactical data to the other Western commands." Ordered Admiral of the Lions Loren Lannister.
"Roose Bolton is never going to let them escape!" Protested his chief of staff.
"He will not have the choice." Loren's voice sounded hollow and without any feeling, even to him. "We are going to close the distance and engage the enemy more closely."
Junior Captain Tybolt Lantel looked his admiral directly in the eyes, and then very slowly, nodded in approval. What remained of the Lannister fleet would never survive at optimal missile range of the Northern fleet, that much was a given, but maybe some of the faster ships could survive and escape to warn the loyalist generals and admirals in the River Sector the assault on the Twins had failed.
"Missiles incoming! Two hundred and fifty missiles!"
Launching a spiteful look at his tactical display, Admiral Loren Lannister waited to see if his last chance of redemption worked. Seeing the waves of missiles racing to end the life of Third Fleet, the chances of that were getting slimmer and slimmer by the second.
The Lone Lieutenant II, 11.06.283AAC, Binary Twins System
The Bolton soldier fell with a gurgle, his grey armour shattered and his throat slit in one strike by the terrible sharpness of the vibro-blade.
"Good fight." Said breathlessly Ayric Sarring to his defeated enemy, who by the look of it had only seconds left to live. "You almost had me."
There was no answer from his opponent. Not that Ayric had expected one. The eyes of the Northern soldier, a pale black colour visible through the broken glass of his helmet visor, were open but there was no light in them anymore.
"The things we do in time of war." Sighed Ayric, relieving the dead man of his laser pistol and his laser rifle.
"That wouldn't have happened if our idiotic high command had given us the proper tools!" Grumbled Sergeant Raff Preslan behind him.
Ayric turned to see the last surviving man of his squad.
"I assume the last one has been dealt with?"
"Yep." Said Preslan with satisfaction, opening the protective visor of his helmet. "The Northman thought he could run faster than my laser rifle. He was wrong."
"Your borrowed laser rifle, Sergeant." Rectified Ayric.
"Well," said Preslan. "It's not my fault the forges of the Rock aren't able to make proper rifles, isn't it?"
Ayric grimaced. Sergeant Raff Preslan was always disrespectful of anything looking like authority, but in this case he definitely had a point. Both his and Ayric laser rifles had suffered severe malfunctions after respectively sixteen and eighteen hours on Bridge's Edge, and their laser guns had lasted even less time, in overheat after mere hours of skirmishes.
That was the reason Ayric had a Northern vibro-sword in his left hand and Preslan a Northern rifle in both. After raiding six or seven times the corpses of fallen Lannister soldiers to gain their rifles and learn with disgust their malfunctions were the rule, not the exception, the two of them had begun to dispossess the Northern infantry of its weapons.
Task which was easier said than done, thought Ayric, posing his eyes on the four corpses in grey battle-armour in the clearing where he had fought them. In spite of having caught by surprise by the assault of the two lone survivors of the 201665th squad, the four Northmen had fought back with ferocity and determination. Ayric had been forced to use his last plasma grenade to kill two of them, empty the generator of his captured Northern rifle completely in the third and finish the fourth soldier with the vibro-blade. Sergeant Preslan had finished the fifth one.
The Northmen, soldiers recruited on the world of Dreadfort or one of the colonies sworn to it, were not only extremely motivated and fought well, but their equipment was also working. It could not be considered at the cutting edge of the existing technology, being about fifteen or so years old, but it was a proved design which unlike the Lannister rifles, guns and grenades had proved extremely efficient to counter the dispersed troops of the 3rd Lannisport army.
"Let's take what we need and let's disappear in the woods again, Sergeant. The friends of these ones," he designated the corpses" are likely on their way. We haven't been really discreet."
"And they won't be friendly when they see the corpses." Agreed Ayric's subordinate.
Two minutes later, after having taken everything in terms of food, water and weapons owned by their defeated opponents, they were on their way again into the dark woods which covered the majority of this area of the planet Bridge's Edge. Ayric opening the way and Preslan following.
In the distance, a ray of white light illuminated the morning.
"One more orbital strike." Said Ayric. "Someone in our army has not been careful enough."
This vision was getting rarer and rarer eight days after the disastrous landing they had been forced to accomplish. The orbital strikes had come every couple of minutes or so in the first hours of landing's day, before decreasing to a frequency of one or two per hour. Today, this was only the third one he and Preslan had seen, and the sun would be at its zenith in one hour or so.
What it meant concerning the state of the Lannister armies on the ground, Ayric preferred not to think about it.
"Maxim One: who controls the orbital, controls the planet." Ayric whispered.
"One of the rare proverbs the officers of our army get right." Approved the Sergeant from behind him. "Lieutenant, can I ask you a question?"
"Ask, but I don't promise I will answer." Replied Ayric.
"Why do the Northern troops operate by squad of five?" Ayric frowned. This was not a question he would have expected from the massive colossus born in the under-city of Lannisport. But it raised a good point.
"There are three theories." Said Ayric. "One for the Faith propaganda , one for the Targaryen propaganda and the real one. Which do you want to hear?"
"All of them."
"The Faith pretends it's because the Northern are heathens and heretics. Due to their rejection of the true gods, they have embraced a number which is unholy for their squad numbers."
"And people believe that?" The voice of the Sergeant was incredulous and Ayric could not blame him.
Ayric laughed loudly in answer.
"You would be amazed at how many people in the middle classes of Lannisport believes everything coming out the mouth of a septon. Especially when it confirms their prejudices against the Northerners or the Ironborn. When I was at the Academy, I knew three or four members of my class who based their strategies and tactics on the words of the last Faith sermon they had heard. To the point they sometimes quoted it to the instructor."
"Idiots." There was enough scorn in Preslan's voice to cut a tree with it.
"It's not that bad." Said Ayric. "The Targaryen version is that the Northern armies have reduced the size of their squads after the massive casualties they took in the Trident system. But if you look at any battle which happened before it, guess what you see?"
"The Northern squads were already of five men each?"
"We have a winner!" Said sarcastically Ayric.
"And the real one?"
"There are five specialties in the Northern organisation at squad's level. So naturally there is one man formed for each by squad. It's not new: it's always been that way since their last reorganisation shortly after Aegon the Conqueror forced their King to bend the knee during the Conquest."
"So they are saying what they want about the Northerners because people already hate them?"
"I'm not sure people hated the Northerners before this war. I didn't even know the Northern sector existed before I entered the Army Academy of Lannisport at 10, and I never met a Northerner before we arrived on Bridge's Edge.
But I suppose it's very tempting to believe that because the Northerners come from planets which are generally colder than the norm and some have large beards, they are barbarians."
"They should go in the under-cities of Lannisport sometimes. I know some places, Lieutenant, where there are gangs ready to kill you if you look at them badly. They also have large beards and very scary tattoos. Totally uncivilised. No need to go to the Northmen for that."
"Oh, I know it."
In fact, Ayric knew it very well. His final ranking at the graduating exam of his promotion had been in the last quartile, 9256th out of 1038th, which was sadly not a surprise. His parents were members of one of the Merchants Guild at the shipyards of Lannisport, albeit not one of the most important channelling thousand billions of dragons every year. He was neither a commoner, nor a "smallfolk" like Raff Preslan living in the worst residential towers or the even worse inhabitations under the surface of the world, but at the Academy he was the second son of some anonymous merchant. In other words, the lowest of the low that was authorised.
Given the corruption reigning at the Army Academy to put every major noble at the top and the other minor nobles, aristocrats, courtesans and wealthy merchant families just behind, the less advantaged students had no chance to climb in the rankings. Ayric was willing to bet the final sheet published on the last day had nothing in common with the test performance of every student. And the Army was notoriously the less corrupt branch of the Western armed forces. The Navy and the Fighter Squadrons were much much worse.
As a result, newly graduated Rock Land Officer Ayric Sarring had found himself assigned to 'maintain the peace in the agitated sectors of Lannisport' while others jumped the ranks. It was a dreadful job, as the 'worst sort' you found in the derelict buildings, towers and under the ground of the vast planetary metropolis were too often armed to the teeth... and all too willing to shoot the men wearing the red and gold of the Lannister troops. He would have been wearing the same insignia and doing the same thing two years later, if Lord Tywin Lannister had not decided suddenly to intervene in what the Bard and Information Guilds had trumpeted as 'the Usurper's War' after the Battle in the Trident System.
Suddenly, volunteers officers to go to the frontlines had been in high demand, and Ayric had been bombarded from Rock Land Officer to Lion Land Officer in two standard weeks under the condition he demanded to join the newly created 3rd army of Lannisport. Thinking the risk was definitely less than a dangerous madman stabbed him in a dark park of his home planet, he had agreed and even been promoted again to Lieutenant 3rd class a standard month later.
Which explained why he was marching in the woods of a planet under enemy control. Sometimes, life was really not working like you wanted.
"How long do you think the reinforcements will take to arrive?" Asked Preslan, breaking the morose thoughts of Ayric.
"A month to a month and a half, I think." Truthfully, Ayric was unable to make a more accurate estimation. It depended of course how many warships of their fleet had escaped. The explosions they had seen in the star had indicated a massive engagement with a lot of losses. "We will have to hold until then."
"We will have to reach a city and steal their food stocks, Lieutenant. What we have and we took from these Northerners is enough for fifteen days, maybe a bit more."
"True. But that's why I have you with me, right, Sergeant?"
"I don't know what you're implying, Lieutenant." Said Raff in a sentence sounding too virtuous to be honest.
"Really? It wasn't you the others nicknamed 'Black Market' or 'the Pirate' aboard our transport?"
"Totally unfounded accusations, Lieutenant. You know of how the other troopers and spacemen are jealous of my talents."
Ayric could stop himself to snort at that. Unlike the common trooper, his rank was high enough to see the file of Raff Preslan, although not the confidential files which went with the name. What had been available to his eyes had been largely enough to make him interested. Very interested.
Raff Preslan had volunteered to serve in the Western Army at the age of sixteen in 269AAC. What had he been doing before that, Ayric didn't know, the files were only accessible to someone of Major rank and higher. His imagination, the sergeant ability in card games, playing with knives and the heavy accent of the Lannisport worst quarters had let him draw certain conclusions, though. Some of them downright unpleasant.
After having joined the Lannister regular army, Raff Preslan had been described a particular resourceful trooper, but one which was hardly paying attention to the rules, the doctrine or the respect noble officers felt they were due. The now-Sergeant had cumulated a record number of demerits and blames, despite serving with distinction in assault against Ironborn pirate bases and during the Defiance of Duskendale where his squad had taken a Darklyn installation in the outer system by itself.
With this kind of performance and the five medals for valour which went with it, Preslan could have been largely a Warrant officer. Maybe more.
But his lack of discipline and the dirty rumours which indicated his participation in providing anything to his fellow troopers and non-commissioned officers no matter the legality had stalled his career. Only the ongoing war had possibly, no certainly, saved Raff Preslan from a not so honourable dismissal from the service.
"I'm sure." Said Ayric in an unconvinced voice. "But we still have to reach Walder the City. What few maps we've been given makes clear it's the only major town in the vicinity."
"It's still more than fifty kilometres away, Lieutenant. And by the way, who in hell had the brilliant idea to name a town Walder the City?"
"The same imbecile who ruled the planet, of course. Lord Walder Frey himself."
"Would like to give him my way of thinking, Lieutenant. He and his nobles really sucked at building anything correct here."
"Afraid, it's not possible. The Northerners put their hands on him before us."
"Why it's always the other side that has the fun?"
The Defeated Admiral II, 29.06.283AAC, Binary Twins System
The light was blinding when they let him go out his cell. Two Northern soldiers in their grey battle-armour had dragged him out of the place he had been imprisoned, before giving him a shower, new clothes and more food than he had seen in all those days of detention.
Hopefully not the last meal of a condemned man.
After this, he had been handcuffed and forced to walk in the series of corridors where every spaceman or trooper he met was looking at him with curious, amused or disdainful expressions. Internally, Admiral of the Lions Loren Lannister raged and seethed. From the moment he had been captured in the broken wreck of the Proud Lion, these Northern barbarians had refused to show him the proper respect due to someone of his rank! This was intolerable! He was not a smallfolk or a commoner, whose only value was to charge and die unnamed on the ground. He was a Lannister of Lannisport, he was from the highest ranks of his planet nobility and his word was worth billions of dragons and could muster millions of men! Who did the Northmen think they were, treating him like a common peasant?
He was at this state of his recriminations when they made him enter on the flag bridge. Without being aware of it, he stopped his walk. The bridge of this warship had nothing in common of any Lannister or Western warship he had ever seen.
The rules of the Western navy had always conceived the bridge to be built in a rectangle-like manner, with the armament officers on the left and the rest of the ship sections on the right, with the exception of the astrogation section on the front.
The admiral and his staff had their own posts, in the centre of the bridge, elevated by a series of stairs in order to have a view of everyone working there and ensuring everyone did properly their job. It was the natural order things, according to Loren Lannister. The admiral had a full tactical display in front of him to evaluate the course of the battle, give orders and make sure they were followed. It also dismissed the possibility of being disturbed by some trivial things or another by a pesky subordinate: if someone of his staff wanted to talk to him, he had to mount to his platform in full view of everyone on the bridge. Usually, his post delivered a large view of the stars surrounding his space command, giving him a supreme importance every time they crossed the stars to deal with insurgents and other enemies.
The Northern bridge he saw now could not have been more different. First of all, it was small! About a third or a quarter of Loren's bridge on the Proud Lion. There were also relatively few crewmen, present, and judging by the relative few seats in the room, it was not because the barbarians had suffered any casualties. Loren glanced at one side which had to be the tactical section, and found himself wondering how in Hell the Northmen could do their work with less than a half a dozen officers.
Secondly, the bridge was not rectangle-like but more shaping like a rotunda. There were two entrances to enter it, one of which Loren was blocking by his presence right now, but these were the only gaps. All the sections of the ship were represented on the walls of this circle, with the full tactical display in the middle of the room where the main officers had their seats. There was no stairs and higher work posts to elevate the superior officers, no bay to watch the stars. There were some pictures flashing on the ceiling randomly of star novae and other galaxy-wide phenomena but the rest of the room was metallic, cold and simple.
Thirdly, it was extremely noisy. Lannister doctrine demanded complete silence for those being too junior to matter in the command of a warship or a fleet, with whispers and low voices being authorised if the situation justified it. But here, every person, no matter the rank was speaking clearly to one of his neighbours without fearing the wrath of his admiral or superior officer. Madness, in Loren's opinion.
Of course that led to his fourth point, which was by far the worst. On this bridge, working amongst the men of the Northern fleet were women! Women in uniform! Their clothes were similar to their male counterparts, but the long hair and their stature made no attempt to hide their gender. Loren didn't even try to hide the disgust on his face the very idea this inspired in him. The Lannister armed forces had a strict order forbidding any woman to serve in the military and this was a policy which Loren agreed with completely. Women were far too sensitive and too weak to be allowed to take part in decisions making the difference for millions in time of war. A woman's place was at home, ensuring the proprieties of their husband were well-kept and the children correctly raised while he was away earning billions and leaving his mark on the Westerosi stars. The last woman to defy this rule and tradition in the Western sector had been Ellyn Reyne, the so-called Red Lioness. After Lord Tywin Lannister had justly annihilated her and the rest of her traitorous family in 261AAC, the rest of the Western sector had understood the message and no women had been authorised to worm their way on a military spaceship again.
Judging however by the tall woman with long brown hair and dark eyes in front him wearing the insignia of a Northern Captain, the barbarians had never understood or thought to adopt the same policy for their warships. A part of Loren gloated internally, as it proved beyond doubt the Northern were as debauched and corrupted as the Dornish if they thought using women for their armies and fleets was a good idea. One other part of him, on the other hand, reminded him this fleet who accepted women aboard had crushed utterly the space forces under his command and made it looked easy.
"Admiral Loren Lannister?" The woman asked in a bored voice.
"Himself." Replied Loren, in his best martial tone, trying to remind exactly the woman who was in front of him. As a little part of her left mouth lifted into a sneer, he knew he had not impressed her.
"My name is Elvira Dread, Admiral Bolton's chief of staff." She glanced at the two troopers behind him. "He's late. The Admiral won't be pleased." Was it Loren's imagination, or the two men dissimulated behind their grey battle-armours froze for a second and the joints of their articulations tightened.
"Apologies, Captain." Growled one of the two grunts. "The prisoner took longer than we thought to be made presentable."
"Your funeral." Pointed the woman in a cold smile. "You're lucky Lord Bolton is in a good mood today."
She then burned back her attention to Loren himself. "Follow me, Admiral."
To his great surprise, Captain Dread didn't immediately walk towards the tactical display where Loren had supposed sat Roose Bolton. Instead she crossed the bridge and left by the other entrance at a fast pace, forcing Loren and his two guards to accelerate to not be left behind. They rapidly came in a well-lighted corridor and their progression continued for a few minutes.
In his thoughts, Loren passed this time wondering if he had not been wrong. If Roose Bolton had not been there, then maybe it had not been the bridge of his ship of the line after all. Nothing excused the presence of women on warships, but maybe the Northern Admiral had truly been ignorant of the odious behaviour of his troops towards him. Maybe the Northern nobles were civilised enough to be reasonable.
His thoughts came to a halt as the woman in uniform stopped before a door where two other men in battle-armour mounted guard.
"Captain Elvira Dread, escorting Prisoner Loren Lannister." Said the Northern woman. "I'm expected."
One of the troopers nodded, before pushing a button which lightened the part of the corridor his guide and Loren himself were waiting in a red colour. After three or four seconds, the colour turned to green.
"Identification confirmed." Blared a metallic voice. "You can enter."
Loren scoffed at this display of paranoia. He heard some rumours about certain lords were always fearful to be murdered by their own crew or by assassins waiting in the shadows, but Lord Roose Bolton was putting to shame. An advanced monitoring system in front of his quarters, really?
Entering the room, he saw his initial assumption had been wrong: these were not the Admiral's quarters but rather a simple conference room, which was near-empty at the moment. There was only one man present, standing and presenting his back to them as he studied a tactical display of the Twins Binary System.
"You're late." The man said in a cold, toneless voice.
Captain Dread offered no apologies and didn't even seem troubled by the emotionless tone of her superior.
"Prisoner Loren Lannister is here, Admiral."
"And not a second too early." Said Roose Bolton in a curious soft, low voice, abandoning his activity to turn and look at them.
Inwardly, Loren Lannister froze at the sight of the Lord of the Dreadfort System. He had met very dangerous men during his time at the Rock Naval Academy and his ascension in the Western navy, his supreme lord and distant cousin Tywin Lannister chief among them. Roose Bolton equalled them without much effort. Middle size, not very muscled, Roose Bolton was still presenting a fearsome appearance with his gaunt face and pale eyes. It was like the man's skin had never known the sun. His hair was dark, but not respecting the military fashion, rather stopping before it reached his shoulders. His uniform was the same grey of the Northern troops with the flayed man on a badge above the heart, though he wore a pale red cloak too and on his shoulders were the white three stars indicating the man was a Vice-Admiral in the Northern Navy.
"Admiral, thank you for agreeing to meet me."
"I doubt you are going to thank me after this meeting." Replied the Northern admiral in a low voice, his face showing nothing but there was a light of amusement in these pale eyes.
"What do you mean?" Asked Loren, not liking at all the start of this conversation. But it was not Roose Bolton who replied, it was the woman behind Loren.
"While the hostilities continue between us and the loyalists, the Northern High Command has communicated fifteen standard days ago a list of the prisoners, both army and navy we have in our custody by the intermediary of the Republic of Braavos."
Loren did not understand the problem. Yes, it was common policy to do this in any conflict ever fought, though the Princedom of Pentos or another Free System of the Essos Constellation was more commonly used to do such a thing rather than the Bastard Daughter of Valyria. Something like the Braavosi disliking dragonriders and their descendants.
"Naturally, Lord Eddard Stark refused all the prisoner exchanges proposed. Our confidence in the Iron Throne has been a bit shattered these last months." The voice of the Captain was literally dropping with sarcasm. "But Lord Tywin Lannister proposed back to ransom in his own name certain officers being in our custody. Your name being placed at the top of the list, Admiral."
Loren Lannister stayed speechless. After having lost his entire fleet in the space battle around Bridge's Edge orbit, there were a multitude of reasons why his cousin, the uncontested master of Casterly Rock, would want him back so soon in his presence. None of them were good.
"Sending me back to my liege lord just because you want me to die will not change the course of this war, Admiral." Said Loren Lannister, looking directly in the pale, unfeeling eyes of Roose Bolton. It would have been better if he could stop his voice from shaking. "I may be one of the highest ranked naval commander of the Western Sector, but there are others who will take my place in due time. And once the combined might of the Reach, Western and Royal Sectors unite and launch their grand offensive, your pitiful rebellion will be crushed in fire and blood."
"You raise an excellent point, Admiral." Said Roose Bolton always in this low and frigid tone, giving a nod to Loren. "Alas, with the dreadful losses the Royal Fleet took at the Trident, your space forces are sixty ships of the line short, with at least twenty more capital ships in reparation. The moment of your grand offensive, as you put it, will not begin until two or three standard years from now. So, no, our 'miserable rebellion' is not in danger of dying any time soon."
Loren could not stop the shock from showing on his face. The casualties and losses from the Trident had been awfully vague, but nowhere in the range Bolton seemed to imply. Had the Crown Intelligence Agency managed to hide the magnitude of the fiasco that completely?
Thinking rapidly, he tried to convince himself the Northern admiral was lying to force him to panic. The problem was that there was no point to it. Loren was a war prisoner, and even if he was freed he would never be in a position to have an influence on the grand strategy of the war.
"Was the ransom that great for you to hand me over?" Asked bitterly Loren.
"It surely was!" Replied Elvira Dread. "And as it is prize money, Winterfell will not tax the Dreadfort detachment on it."
Seeing the pleased face of the Northern woman, Loren snapped.
"I hope one day, the Lannister fleet will use you and all your civilisations of barbarians for target practise when we bombard you from orbit! My men will avenge me!"
"Unlikely." Replied Roose Bolton in an unconcerned voice, so low Loren had to concentrate to be sure he was hearing correctly. "The majority of your men have by now surrendered. As for the survivors, I think they have other preoccupations than your fate."
The Lone Lieutenant III, 30.06.283AAC, Binary Twins System
"What do you think killed these men, Lieutenant?"
"I don't know." Said Ayric in a very grim voice. "I really don't know." He repeated. "And I'm not sure I want to discover it."
In front of him and Preslan, was a true butchery. Not the kind of disgusting paste which was the result of an orbital strike or a massive artillery barrage, no. It was like a madman had amused himself to dissect men with a sort of macabre sense of humour. There were limbs, organs and blood everywhere.
"I count at least thirty men of our army, Sergeant." Ayric knew his voice was shivering, but he did not really care.
"The number of helmets on the ground."
"Ah." Preslan good humour and sense of repartee was completely absent. "Lieutenant, how in hell did they manage to do this? Our men were in full battle-armour. No vibro-blade could have cut them so... so..."
"Expertly? No. And this was not the work of a Valyrian blade, either. Look at the wounds they have!"
"If it's okay with you, Lieutenant, I'd prefer not to go nearer."
Ayric could not blame the sergeant. The clearing in front of them was red with blood, with a lot of mutilated parts hanging everywhere.
"No weapon in our armoury can do... well, that. And if the Northmen had such a weapon, they didn't showed it in the skirmishes we had against them."
In the few weeks since the catastrophic landing on Bridge's Edge, Ayric had learnt to fear the formidable skill and tenacity of the Bolton infantry. Not to mention their sense of cruelty when they wanted to retaliate against the Lannister forces when they took particularly badly the death of one of their comrades. Finding Lannister soldiers tortured and hanged at the trees of this cursed forest had become sadly common happenstance. But at no moment, the Northerners had come near this level of atrocity.
Walking around the site of the massacre, it was Raff Preslan who noticed first the bloody trail.
"Looks like somebody tried to run, Lieutenant."
"Apparently. Though he looked to be already badly wounded. You do not bleed like that with just a scratch." Ayric frowned. "The trace looks like it's going in the direction of this huge tree in the distance."
"Do we follow the streak, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, Sergeant. I don't really care who or what killed these men, but we're going to teach him a lesson. You don't massacre soldiers of Lannisport like that without paying the price."
"Not to say you aren't right, Lieutenant, but there's only one hour or so of sunlight. It's not bloody likely we will catch up with the monster which did this before the night.
"You're right." Ayric conceded. "But we're going to try."
Racing though the trees and the clearing, the two survivors of the 201665th squad did not take long to find the owner of the blood colouring the trail.
The corpse was leant back against one of the greatest trees Ayric had ever seen. His face was a figure where fear was present. The rest of his body had been torn apart. On its shoulders, the gold insignia identified him as a Warrant officer class 2.
"He has his rifle and his side arm at his feet, Lieutenant. Discharged. Whatever attacked him, he missed it or it didn't fear against laser fire."
"What bothers me is that he managed to escape from the clearing to this tree." Replied Ayric. "It's always possible he managed to slow down his enemy by rifle fire, I suppose, but he was badly injured. The thing managed to kill thirty Lannister troopers, so one more shouldn't have been a big deal."
"I think I know the answer." Replied Raff Preslan.
"And it is?"
"It was playing with his prey." Said simply the Sergeant.
Ayric opened his mouth to tell his subordinate to stop saying such absurdities, then thought better of it. The explanation was sadly all too likely true. The wounded Western non-commissioned officer had been pursued by an implacable predator. But had it been a human one or something else?
"Anyway it doesn't matter. The night is beginning to fall, and we need to find a place to camp. Without a trail we have nothing to..."
Ayric stopped talking as a man in grey battle-armour, emerged from the woods on his right.
"This is only the beginning..." rasped the Northern soldier.
"Lay down your weapons! Immediately!" Shouted Raff Preslan.
But the man looked like he had not hear the Sergeant injunctions.
Raising their laser rifles, both Lannister troopers began to fire at will at their enemy. To Ayric's stupefaction, it had no effect. The Bolton trooper was holding a sort of weird vibro-blade, with which he parried perfectly each laser shot.
"Our God has whispered amongst the stars..."
As he marched towards them, Ayric knew there was definitely something terribly wrong with the Northerner. The grey battle-armour was a wreck, and where the gaps in the armour could be seen, fatal wounds were clearly visible on his skin, with dried blood. The man was... the man was dead! And his eyes... through his destroyed protection visor his eyes were a flashing blue with no iris!
"He has announced his return..."
"Sergeant, take your vibro-sword and let's kill that thing!"
Ayric and Raff Preslan unsheathed the blades they had 'borrowed' to the Northern soldiers and charged to slice down the dead abomination. But with a terrifying agility, the creature with the livid blue eyes dodged in an impossible move and counter-attacked, unleashing a series of expert swordsman moves and forcing both Lannister soldiers on the defensive.
"He has spoken of extinction. The end of all life..."
In an attempt to catch his opponent off-balance, Ayric tried a powerful strike targeting the stomach of his opponent while Preslan continued to deliver massive blows, but the thing which was definitely not human anymore jumped impossibly high before landing right on its feet three meters away without looking the least bothered.
"This is only the beginning..."
"No." Shouted Ayric. "This is your end!"
In the same move, both he and Preslan launched three plasma grenades they had recuperated on the bodies of dead Lannister soldiers bodies in these last days.
Once the initial shockwave was passed, they charged again, only to be met by the vibro-blade of the monster. But this time the damage had been considerable. What had been a dead man was now missing his left leg, part of his left arm and there was no more armour.
The blade of their enemy however, looked perfectly intact and was now emanating a powerful cold and illuminated the battle with small blue lightning.
This is the thing he used to break through the battle-armour of the corpses we found earlier, thought Ayric. We have to end this fight now!
Fortunately, losing part of its body had seriously affected the reflexes of their opponent. Preslan was the first to find a gap in its guard, detaching a part of the armour on his stomach. Then Ayric managed in a complicated feint which had earned him several good points at the Academy to cut his right leg.
The corpse of the possessed Northman fell.
Preslan immediately separated the right arm and the terrible cold blade from the main body, sending it away from the dead's grasp.
"This is useless..." Rasped the being, which despite being dead seemed perfectly able to talk." Our victory is already certain..."
"Please do us a favour!" Snarled Ayric.
"Our God is coming..."
"Die!" Ayric activated two plasma grenades and forced them down in the mouth of his undead enemy.
He and Preslan ran away, although they were still thrown away by the breath of the explosion.
Turning their heads behind them, only a crater remained where their opponent had been.
"Let's get the hell out of here. I don't know if we managed to kill that thing, but we have no more grenades to throw at it."
"I think we did, Lieutenant."
"And why is that Sergeant?"
"The tree is smiling."
Turning to see the massive tree where the Lannister soldier had been killed, Ayric saw that Preslan wasn't kidding: there was indeed a massive carved face on the trunk of the tree, with red sap giving the illusion of red eyes where it had lingered. And it was smiling.
As a few red leaves fell from the white wood, Ayric realised the species this tree belonged to. He had never seen one himself, though their description was narrated in countless videos and recordings made by the documentaries proudly celebrating the victories of the Andals in the Westerosi stars.
"It's a weirwood, Sergeant. The First Men worshipped their gods here in ancient times."
"And did their gods answer?"
"I don't know." Admitted Ayric. "But I hope they did. This thing we just fought was dead, Sergeant. If more things like him come, a bit of divine aid would not be unwelcome."
Raising his head up to the sky, Ayric Sarring contemplated the stars beginning to lighten as the night fell on Bridge's Edge. For the first time in his life, their magnificent sight failed to raise his spirits.
The Twins Campaign of 283AAC, codename Operation Lightning Lion, was undoubtedly the worst disaster suffered by the Western Sector military forces in decades. While the analysts of House Targaryen and House Lannister classified all numbers, reports and the accurate information under the highest security seals they had, the Northern rebels were under no such obligation and the well-known Braavosi military expert Amando Tarel published in 21.02.292AAC his famous work The Flayed Lion, which gave even more precise numbers than the one given by Lord Roose Bolton and his subordinates.
Admiral of the Lions Loren Lannister had entered the Twins Binary System on 04.06.283AAC with an impressive fleet of four Ship of the Lines, two Armoured Cruisers, twelve Battlecruisers, twenty-four Heavy Cruisers, fifteen Light cruisers, fifty Scout Cruisers, two Fleet Carriers, six Light Carriers, twenty Escort carriers and fifty-six transports and supply ships. His fleet had a total of 158 847 men, the two field armies he brought with him (3rd Lannisport Army and 5th Lannisport Army) were adding 221 188 men to the total.
The major space and ground battle, fought between 6.6.283AAC and 7.6.283AAC, cost the Lannister Third Fleet all is hulls save two heavy cruisers which managed to escape with critical damage in an emergency jump the system of Twin A. The 5th Lannisport Army outright surrendered after having taken crippling losses. The 3rd Lannisport Army simply disintegrated. In two standard days, the Western Sector forces lost 192 145 men dead. 164 719 men, 41% of them heavily injured, surrendered to the forces of the Dreadfort and were interned on Bridge's Crown, the inhabitable planet orbiting around the sun of Twin B, until the end of the Usurper's War.
The Northern fleet lost two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, seven scout cruisers, two minesweepers and twenty-seven space-fighters. Between the space and land forces, Lord Roose Bolton lost 13 577 of his men, with more than three thousand wounded which would never come back into military service.
Some Lannister troopers would continue the fight in the wilderness of Bridge's Edge, ambushing Bolton patrols until the end of the conflict. Amongst them was one Lieutenant 3rd class Ayric Sarring. But for all intent and purposes, the resistance was inconsequential for the Bolton regulars garrisoning the planet.
While these casualties were still largely minor compared to the legendary battle of the Trident System, the disastrous conclusion of the battle fought in the Twins System was a reverse no less important in the grand strategic view. The Western forces had bypassed too many fortified systems in the River Sector to maintain the speed of their offensive: until Bridge's Edge it had seem to pay off. But with the destruction of Third Fleet, many of the River fleet remnants reappeared to launch raids on the loyalists' convoys and planets, while the citadel worlds of Riverrun and Raventree Hall were now proving thorns in the loyalist flanks.
The war which had been officially proclaimed as 'over' and 'won' by King's Landing officials when my father Lord Randyll Tarly and the Usurper Robert Baratheon killed each other at the Trident, was in reality taking a far less palatable conclusion.
The Northern and Vale lords refused to negotiate with the Iron throne as long as Aerys II was in power. And in that case, the war could continue to ravage hundreds of worlds for years. Ultimately, it didn't happen. But when I see what happened afterwards, sometimes I wonder if another outcome would not have been preferable.
As for Admiral of the Lions Loren Lannister, he was court-martialled on 16.03.284AAC and judged guilty of all the nineteen chiefs of accusations he was accused of. The commander of Third Fleet was executed on 22.03.284ACC at the Casterly Rock Army Headquarters by decapitation. With his death, he became the last and most famous casualty of Operation Lightning Lion.