“A single strike parts a champion from a corpse.”
– Praesi proverb
Dawn had come much, much too early.
I put on my aketon and fastened my bootstraps regardless. I’d been told the ache in my everywhere would die down when I settled into my “riding legs”, whatever the Hells that was supposed to be, and apparently Zombie was making it much easier on me than an actual horse would. Not that it felt like it. I dragged my ass down to the common room of the inn we’d ended up in and picked at my porridge half-heartedly, forcing myself to swallow mouthfuls of the increasingly lukewarm slop. I wasn’t that hungry at the moment, but a I knew that if I didn’t fill my stomach now I’d feel ravenous in a matter of hours. Captain was the only other person sitting at the table, methodically tearing through her second bowl without a word. Even while eating her eyes were never restful, always moving and scanning the corners of the inn’s dining room – the habits of a lifetime spent serving as my teacher’s bodyguard. With a grimace I put down my spoon and admitted that this was about as much food as I could force myself to swallow at the moment. Besides, I had questions to ask and this was as good a time as any: Black was nowhere in sight but I was due to begin my first sword lesson soon.
“So,” I spoke up, “the Sixth Legion.”
Captain eyed me curiously but didn’t reply. I hadn’t expected her to, really: even after only two days of travelling with the gargantuan warrior I’d gotten a decent read on her personality. She wasn’t the type to talk unless asked a direct question, not unless she was with an old friend.
“I know their cognomen is Ironsides,” I continued, “but besides a mention of how they held the left flank at Streges, the books don’t say more about how they got it.”
A cognomen was what we mere Callowans would call a nickname, thought the books had given me the impression that there was a little more to it than that. I’d taken the time to look up the legions that served as Summerholm’s garrison, after being told it was where we headed. The Sixth and the Ninth – Ironsides and Regicides. The second was fairly straightforward, but the first not so much. Captain put down her wooden spoon, resting it against the rim of the bowl.
“They broke a charge of the knights of Callow,” she gravelled out, her tone making it clear she expected this to be a tell-all explanation.
“That’s, uh,” I said, “good on them I guess? You’re saying like that’s a really impressive thing.”
The tall woman mulled over this a moment before speaking.
“You were born after the Conquest,” she finally said, “so you don’t understand the way wars used to go. You only heard of the Legions after we started winning.”
“I know the Empire tried to invade a few times before,” I defended myself. “I was taught about how Emperor Nefarious got his ass handed to him by King Robert before Black and the Empress got put in charge.”
“Don’t take it as a criticism,” Captain grunted. “The Legions went through reforms decades before you were born. Things were different back then. It used to be that the Empire didn’t fight Callowan armies on an open field unless we had them four to one.”
I couldn’t help but let out a whistle at that.
“That seems a little excessive,” I told her.
“We still lost about half of the time,” she gravelled. “Before the Fields, the only way a legion ever held against a charge by Callowan knights was by packing the ranks so tight they got bogged down.”
I winced. You didn’t need to be a master tactician to understand that that particular tactic was going to involve a lot of dead legionaries.
“So the Sixth are badasses who spit in the face of enemy charges,” I said. “The name’s already starting to make more sense.”
“There’s more to it than that,” Captain gravelled. “Istrid – the Sixth’s general – is an orc. So is most of her legion.”
“And that changes things because?” I asked.
“Greenskins weren’t allowed to be legionaries until the reforms,” the large warrior grunted. “Just auxiliaries that the Black Knights used as meatshields to take the heat off Praesi soldiers. And when the knights charged them…”
“They broke, and they broke hard,” I finished quietly.
It was easy enough to imagine the greenskin legionaries I remembered patrolling the streets in Laure, only without the armour and the large shields. I’d seen enough frescoes of Callow knights in the House of Light to know they were large men and women in full plate riding war horses decked in the same: it would have been like running a sharp knife through butter.
“And so there was Istrid and her legion of orcs, after a thousand years of her people being run down like animals,” Captain spoke quietly. “Standing down those knights from behind a line of shields, and this time they were not the ones to break.”
“Ironsides,” I murmured, trying out the word with a new kind of wonder.
I’d probably met cripples in the streets of Laure who’d been part of that ill-fated charge, I told myself. It was a sobering thought, but it didn’t quite manage to take away the mystique of the tale Captain had just spun with her curt sentences. That was the thing I hated – loved – the most of these villains I was travelling with: when you listened to them talk, they didn’t seem so much like the villains anymore. There was a twisted sort of justice to the Sixth Legion managing to be on the other side of slaughter, for once. We’re raised on stories of Praesi monsters, but I wonder what kind of stories they heard while growing up?
“Don’t focus too much on Istrid,” Captain spoke quietly. “Sacker’s the more dangerous one between the two.”
“Ninth Legion – cognomen Regicides,” I recited from memory. “One of their companies killed the Shining Prince, right?”
“They all wear red war paint on their throat to show how the idiot got his throat slit,” she chuckled. “It’s what she’s remembered for, but it’s not why she’s dangerous. She’s slated to take Ranker’s place when she retires, and you need more brains than brawn to make it to Marshall.”
“So she’s smart?” I guessed.
“Cleverer than a snake and twice as mean,” Captain grunted. “She’s a patient one, too – balances the way Istrid can get a little too eager for blood. It’s why they’ve been paired together.”
I grimaced. Coming from a woman who was on first name basis with the Dread Empress and the Black Knight, ‘twice as mean’ was a statement to take seriously. So let’s add General Sacker to the list of people I’ll need be very, very careful around.
“Speaking of Summerholm,” I segued in the most casual tone I could muster. “D’you have any idea why we’re headed there?”
Captain shot me an unimpressed look, so apparently not as casual as I’d hoped.
“Some kind of Name thing for you,” she gravelled. “Squires are so bleeding dramatic. Getting Amadeus settled into his Role was a pain too, though, no reason you’d be different.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Your Name was easier?”
“I was born into mine, back when I was the Cursed,” she grunted. “By the time I became the Captain, no one was dumb enough to challenge me for it.”
I eyed the gargantuan warrior frankly – she was already wearing her armour, and even without her hammer peeking over her shoulder she looked like a one-woman battering ram. “I find that pretty easy to believe,” I admitted.
She snorted and returned to her gruel, making it pretty clear she considered the conversation over. I tried to do the same, but nearly spat out the stuff when I realized how cold it had gotten during our little chat. Shoving the spoon back in, I pushed myself up and nodded my goodbye to Captain before heading for the door. The inn we were at – the Soldier’s Rest – wasn’t big or rich enough to have a real stable, so the horses had been tied to a row of posts right outside. Zombie stood perfectly still next to Black’s mount, his chestnut coat lacking the subtle rise and fall that the horses of the Blackguard showed every time they breathed. Just by coming close to it the eerie awareness I’d come to have of the necromantic construct unfolded in the back of my mind again: it felt like he was a puppet whose every individual string I could pull on at any time. That wasn’t the eerie part, though: I knew, somehow, how all those strings interacted. How pulling on the part that animated the left forward leg would affect the rest of the body, what parts I needed to tug on to set him to a trot or a full run.
It wasn’t like I’d ever studied horse anatomy, either. I had no real explanation for how I knew any of that except that my Name itself knew – and wasn’t that just enough to send a shiver up my spine?
“You’ll get used to it,” the voice came from behind me.
I tamped down the urge to jump out of my skin. Black’s idea of a sense of humour apparently involved sneaking behind me at every occasion. How the man managed that in a full suit of armour was beyond me. Probably involves some kind of Name bullshit.
“To raising things from the dead?” I replied, turning to look at him. “Gods, I hope not. That strikes me as a bad habit to form.”
The dark-haired man stood alone. No sign of any of his bodyguards, or even Scribe. Not that she’d say much of anything even if she was around. The plain-faced scrivener made Captain look positively chatty in comparison.
“I’m referring to the things you don’t know how you know,” he replied. “Names provide what you could call a… second set of instincts. Part of growing into yours is learning which parts to use and which parts to ignore.”
My eyes fell to the scabbarded sword he held in his hands. A short sword, much like the one strapped at his hip. Not quite Legion-issue – the pommel was inlaid with silver, though from this far I couldn’t see what it depicted – but close enough for training purposes. Without any warning, he tossed it at me. My hand came up before I’d even processed the sight, snatching it out of the air like we’d choreographed the whole thing.
“The reflexes are useful, so I think I’ll be keeping those,” I acknowledged. “I take it that’s going to be mine?”
He nodded. “Goblin steel, straight from the Imperial forges of Foramen. You won’t find anything of better make on the continent.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Not even dwarven stuff?”
The Knight snorted. “As if they’d ever sell anything but the mass-produced stuff to surfacers. Dwarven weapons are common because they’re cheap, Catherine, not because they’re quality material.”
I raised a hand in a gesture of appeasement. “Alright, alright. No need to go all Praesi pride on me.”
The silver inlays made up a grinning goblin’s head, as it happened. The smaller greenskins might not have the kind of fangs you could see in an orc’s mouth, but the leering goblin was showing an impressive set of canines. I shoved the scabbard into the leather straps made for it on my belt, wriggling it a little to make sure it fit properly.
“No shield?” I asked.
There was one hanging off his back, fastened by a clever metal contraption I’d taken a look at the other day. A large rectangular piece of plain steel, unadorned by any heraldry: it was similar to what legionaries used, the kind Sergeant Ebele had called a scutum.
“It’s waiting for you where we’ll practice,” he replied. “You’ll go without armour for today, but as soon as the armour Scribe requisitioned arrives you’ll be doing this in full plate.”
Joy. The aketon already made me feel like I’d gained twenty pounds, actual armour was going to turn me into Creation’s clumsiest upright turtle. I followed Black when he led the way around the inn – didn’t see what was so different between the ground in front and in the back, but it was too early to ask questions. Besides, the whole place was identical in every direction as far as I could tell. The two hundred miles between Laure and Summerholm were flat farmland with no city to speak of in between. The main road was good paved stone, at least: it’d been built by the Praesi after the Conquest, in case they ever needed to move troops quickly between the cities. People called it the Imperial highway, since from Summerholm it connected through Streges and its infamous fields to the Blessed Isle – and from there, across the Wasaliti River to the Wasteland itself. There was a field of beaten earth behind the inn’s wooden walls, and there was my shield: an actual legionary’s scutum, painted dark red, though I noticed it lacked a legion number. I picked it up and tested the weight: twenty pounds, maybe a little more? It’d get tiring to hold up until I built up my arm strength. The horizontal grip was good cedar wood and I tied up the leather straps hanging off of it to my wrist – put there to make sure it wasn’t easy to knock out of my fingers, I figured. Black was standing at ease on the field when I finally turned to face him, shield held up to cover his side and sword already in hand.
“So,” I said. “Teach me swordsmanship.”
He smiled. “I’m not going to teach you anything of the sort.”
“That seems a little counterproductive,” I commented.
“Swordsmanship,” he continued, “is the tame sport they teach noble children. It’s a matter of forms and rules, as useful on the battlefield as a blunted blade.”
The tip of his sword rose to face me.
“I’m going to teach you to kill, Catherine,” he said. “Kill well and quickly, while giving as few openings as possible.”
“Hurray,” I replied flatly. “Long live the Dread Empire, other assorted patriotic slogans. Can we start now?”
Still, even as I gave him the flippancy that little bout of melodrama had deserved, I straightened my spine and brought up my shield in a rough approximation of the way he held it. This was the sort of lessons I’d actually been looking forward to – even more now that I’d started learning the blinding headache that was spoken Kharsum. Only one night in and I was already much more amenable to the Miezan point of view of stomping that whole “other cultures” business into the ground. He actually looked a little offended I’d been largely unaffected by his impromptu spot of theatre, though he got over it quickly enough.
“The two most important parts of any kind of fighting,” he said, “are distance and footwork. Your fighting in the Pit should already have taught you the basics of distance, though you’ll need to adjust to the range of your sword.”
I frowned but nodded. Girls my height who got into fights either learned to deal with the fact that most opponents would have more reach and upper body strength than them, or they learned to enjoy the taste of blood in the mouth. The short sword wasn’t much of an upgrade, in that regard. Most people I’d end up fighting would have a sword too – and outside Praes, longswords and two-handers were the most popular weapons. Except for the Free Cities, I guess. That whole lot had a fixation with pikes and spears, though to give praise where it was due their phalanxes were supposed to be fearsome on the field.
“Shield up,” Black barked, and my arm rose immediately – mostly out of surprise.
I’d never heard him raise his voice before. The suddenness of it had my blood rushing through my veins while he advanced towards me, eyeing my stance critically.
“You’re right-handed,” he said, “so your left hip and leg should be braced against the back of the shield. Otherwise, you’re open.”
His sword whipped out faster than my eye could follow, swatting aside my hastily-placed scutum. The tip of his blade came to rest on my throat for the blink of an eye before he took a step back. I swallowed. That wasn’t a practice blade he was using: if he’d pushed it an inch further in, I’d be dying on the ground. Squaring my shoulders, I put the godsdamned shield up the way it was supposed to go. The upper edge came all the way up to my chin and the sides covered my entire body – it was reassuring, to have that length of steel between me and his blade. The position felt awkward, to be honest. The foot in front pointed towards Black but the one in the back had to be horizontal if I wanted to have any stability: swinging my sword would be tricky.
“Better,” the green-eyed man conceded grudgingly. “Now for the sword. Grasp the grip and press forward as you lift it out.”
It ran against my instincts to do it that way, but I could see the sense in it: it kept everything but my upper arm under the cover of the shield. I rotated my elbow down and brought the sword up, letting it rest to the side of the scutum. Ah, I understood suddenly. Of course swinging would be difficult: the sword wasn’t supposed to be swung. It was meant to stab forward in short thrusts.
“Legionaries fight on three lines,” Black said. “Low line goes like this.”
He crouched behind his shield, letting it cover him all the way up to right under his eyes. The tip of his sword was knee-height.
“Mid line goes like this,” he continued, rising up and bringing the sword up to his hip.
He took a short step forward and I eyed him warily. My newly-acquired Name reflexes had been of no help whatsoever last time he’d attacked.
“And high line like this,” he finished calmly.
His arm went back and the tip of the sword came to breast-height like a serpent poised to strike. I nodded sharply.
“Good,” he smiled. “First we’ll spend some time having you go through those motions.”
He stepped back.
“Low line,” he barked out.
I flinched at the sudden sound but crouched. I would learn this, and learn it well.
Several eternities later – or, more realistically, about two hours – I found myself pulling the cork out of a waterksin and gulping down the contents greedily. We’d acquired an audience somewhere between the stabbing drills and the footwork ones. If I had to hear steady timing, maintain the distance one more time, someone was going to get stabbed. And I had a sword now, so I meant business. Captain, who’d been the one to hand me the skin in the first place, patted me comfortingly on the shoulder. Gods, even her hands are huge. She must have ogre blood or something, humans don’t usually get that big.
“The first few weeks are always the hardest,” she told me. “You’re not doing bad at all.”
I took her word for it, though I couldn’t find it in me to agree out loud. I’d been in enough fights to know that I was good in a scrap – very good, even, for my age – and it had been a while since I’d felt as clumsy and slow as I had today. I was aware that comparing my own movements to the effortless way Black moved even in plate wasn’t a reasonable comparison, but it wasn’t stopping that nagging voice in the back of my head from making it anyway. And I’ll be worse when I get my own armour. I felt my fist clench and took another swallow to hide my grimace. I was definitely doing another set of drills tonight, preferably somewhere no one would be able to see me making a bumbling fool of myself. When I passed the skin back to Captain I found her scrutinizing me with those too-perceptive eyes of hers, and without saying a word she patted me on the back a last time before heading towards Black. The Knight was talking in low voices with Scribe, reading a folded parchment she’d handed him after he’d announced we were taking a break.
“Black,” she called out as she strode across the field. “Anything urgent come up?”
Green eyes flicked towards me before he replied. “Nothing new.”
Captain grinned, tossing the waterskin towards the wall and rolling her shoulders.
“Let’s have a bout, then. You’ve been putting the girl through the mangle, so at least show her what she’s headed to.” The gargantuan woman pulled the war hammer hanging off of her back, twirling it one-handed like she was holding a twig instead of a massive wrought steel bar. “Been a while since we had one, anyway.”
Well now. That sounded like it had potential. Seeing the Knight getting smashed by that hammer a few times would do wonders for my mood. The green-eyed man snorted.
“Fair enough. Terms?”
“Let’s keep Names out of it,” Captain replied. “Would defeat the point to go all-out.”
“Would also wreck most of the countryside,” someone muttered from my side.
I glanced and saw one of the Blackguards had come up to me. There were a handful of them milling about the place, though together they didn’t make up more than a dozen people. Where the rest had gone to, I had no idea. The man who’d spoken pushed up his visor to show his face: couldn’t have been older than thirty, with brown wide-set eyes and the dark skin tone typical of northern Praesi. Soninke, I corrected myself. They call themselves the Soninke.
“They get messy, I take it?” I prompted him.
It was the first time one of the Blackguards had struck up a conversation with me, so I fully intended to keep it going. Hells, it was the first time I’d seen one of their faces: they kept to themselves to the extent I’d started to wonder if they were avoiding me.
“The last time they had a spar without holding back, Captain knocked down a tower and Lord Black threw a whole statue at her,” he informed me cheerfully. “Hilarious at the time, of course, but the local baron was less than pleased.”
I chuckled. “I don’t think we’ve been introduced,” I said. “I’m-”
I scowled. “I really wish people would stop doing that.”
He grinned, showing off pearly white teeth. “I’m Lieutenant Abase,” he introduced himself, offering his hand. I went to shake it but he made some sort of strange clicking sound with his tongue and moved my hand up to his forearm.
“You’re not a civilian,” Abase told me. “Use the warrior’s salute.”
I raised an eyebrow but clasped his arm like he’d showed me. Praesi and their rituals. I’m surprised they can use a chamber pot without doing a special dance first.
“So,” I mused. “Any particular reason this is the first time I actually speak with one of you?”
“We’re quiet types,” the lieutenant replied drily. “And wary of strangers. Lord Black has several men’s worth of enemies.”
Wary of me, huh. Not sure whether I was offended or flattered. Still, I must have done something right, to finally rank words today. I was about to ask exactly what that was when movement at the edge of my field of vision interrupted me: Captain and Black were putting distance between them, striding to the edges of the dirt field. Scribe stood in the middle, looking superbly bored with the whole affair.
“Try not to blink,” Lieutenant Abase said. “You’ll miss it.”
Miss what? I wanted to ask, but Scribe was already speaking.
“On my mark,” she announced. A heartbeat passed, then she brought down her hand.
I blinked – probably because the lieutenant had brought it up in the first place – and in the fragment of a moment where my eyes closed, Captain crossed half the field. She left behind foot tracks and a spray of dirt where’d she been standing an instant before, barreling through the distance almost faster than I could see. Black had not yet moved, standing still with his shield up and his sword in mid-line, but the moment Captain got close enough to bring her hammer down he calmly sidestepped around the strike and pivoted so he’d be facing her back. The armoured woman’s weight and momentum carried her forward even after she landed on the ground, carrying her a few feet further down the field as she turned to face the Knight.
“Shit,” I whispered. “Did she really just jump thirty feet forward in heavy plate?”
“Quick on the offensive, today,” Abase noted, unruffled by what we’d just witnessed. “She must have been getting bored.”
“Weren’t they supposed to not use their Names?” I asked him. “What she just did is, like, physically impossible for a normal person. Just seeing it would give my numbers teacher a headache.”
“They’re not using them actively,” the lieutenant clarified. “Lord Black’s shadow isn’t moving and Captain is, well, still using her hammer.”
He didn’t elaborate further on either of those interesting tidbits, and I decided not to press him any further – not because I wasn’t curious, but because what the people in question were getting up to had claimed my full attention. Captain was attacking relentlessly, swinging the two-handed war hammer like she couldn’t feel the weight of it at all. And yet, she wasn’t the one controlling the flow of the fight. Black moved little and carefully, rarely more than a step at a time: he stepped barely out of the arc of her strikes and then swung around so he was facing her back. He’d yet to attack, but just the threat of him doing so was forcing Captain to keep moving. The sight of them was almost comical, from where I stood: the two of them were dressed in similar-looking plate, sure, but the olive-skinned woman stood at least three feet taller than him and had broader shoulders to boot. Neither of them wore helmets, so I could see that while a faint smile tugged at Captain’s lips my teacher’s face was expressionless. His pale skin made it creepy: he looked like he was wearing a mask made of marble. After another miss, Captain took a step back and raised her hammer high.
“That should do for the warm up,” she grunted before striking the ground.
There was a dull boom and the ground shook like it had been hit by a catapult stone: dirt sprayed everywhere, clouding my sight of the battlefield for a moment. When they came into sight again, Black was ducking under a vicious-looking swing. He ventured a kick to her knee but Captain danced back, the hammer coming back to swat him on the backswing. His shield came up to take the hit but the metal crumpled under the force and the impact was enough to throw him back a few feet.
“You’re getting slow in your old age,” she told him.
The dark-haired man shrugged and discarded the now-useless scutum. “You’re getting mouthy in yours,” he noted amusedly.
And then he went on the attack.
I’d seen him move like that once back in Laure, when he’d decided that stabbing me in the chest was an acceptable way to end a conversation, but seeing it from a distance was an entirely different matter. When Captain was at her quickest I could still make out a blur, but with him it was like he just… appeared in another place. Stepping inside the warrior woman’s guard almost absent-mindedly, he swept his blade across the space where her throat had been a moment earlier: if she hadn’t taken a step back at the last moment, her blood would have been spilling in the dirt. She brought down her hammer’s handle on his shoulder, but he spun around and smashed the pommel of his sword into her elbow. She grunted and the impact loosened her grip, but Black was already moving again. He spun again and stomped down on the back of her knee, forcing it down as his blade went for the side of her neck. Captain managed to bring up the hammer’s handle at the last moment and block it, but hers was not a weapon made for defence and it showed. Not that it mattered, given their difference in strength – the instant she got her footing back, Captain pushed him off without any visible effort.
It was what he’d been waiting for, unfortunately for her.
He drew away as she pushed, letting her pass through and steadying his arm in the high-line guard he’d spent half an hour showing me earlier: he thrust straight into the back of her neck. It was a killing blow, or it would have been if he’d pushed it all the way through. Instead he stopped after pricking the skin, stepping back and sheathing his sword with a flourish as Captain cursed in Taghrebi. I recognized the plural of goats somewhere in there, and to be honest I was kind of glad I had no idea what the rest of it meant.
“And that’s a kill,” Black spoke, the lack of smugness in his tone so flamboyant it looped around back to smug.
Captain grunted and let her hammer rest against the ground, fingers coming up to touch the minute wound on her neck. “That makes what, two hundred for you?”
“And still one twenty-one for you,” he agreed. “The gap is widening, it seems. Are you sure I’m the one getting slower?”
“You’ll need to beat Ranger at least once before you get to gloat,” she growled back.
I let out the breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding as the two of them continued to bicker amiably. So that was what it looked like, when legends fought. And not even a serious fight, I reminded myself.
“Triple drills,” I muttered to myself. “Triple drills, even if my limbs fall off.”