“Note: orc buoyancy is limited. Avoid fighting the damnable rebels near shoddily-built dams in the future.”
– Extract from the journal of Dread Emperor Malignant II
They called Summerholm the Gate of the East.
Should the Legions manage to bypass the Blessed Isle – as they had a handful of times in the past – it was the only walled city between the Empire and the heartlands of Callow. It was the one city the Praesi had to take, since it commanded the only bridge across the Hwaerte River. As far as I knew, the Wastelanders had only managed to conquer it twice: once during the Conquest and once over seven hundred years ago, under Dread Empress Triumphant. While my teacher had managed to reduce its walls through clever use of goblin engineering, Triumphant had simply made them obsolete by sailing her flying fortress right over them. I could see why she would have gone to such an extreme, now that I was in sight of those very fortifications. The side of the city we were facing was the least fortified, but even here the walls ran two concentric circles of stark granite over fifty feet tall. Crenelated bastions ran the length of them, most showing the silhouette of a siege engine, and even as close to sundown as we were there were soldiers manning them. Legionaries instead of the Royal Guard, though. Not that they’re any less well-trained – the opposite, if anything.
“They look like they’re expecting an army any moment,” I commented as I guided Zombie towards Black with a tug of the reins.
His own horse was also a necromantic construct, I was sure of it – there was a certain… smell to that kind of power that I was beginning to pick up on – but it was hard to tell what it actually looked like under all the steel it was covered in. With all the weight that meant I was pretty sure his mount could double as a battering ram in a pinch, though that would do to the horse under it did not bear imagining.
“Summerholm has always been the keystone to warding off invasions,” he replied. “It continues to serve that purpose, if under a different banner.”
I snorted. “And who’d be doing the invading, exactly?”
For better or worse, the Empire’s hold on Callow was unchallenged. There’d been no major uprising since the Conquest, and with Procer embroiled in that particularly nasty civil war of theirs they’d had other things on their mind. That left the Free Cities to the south, who’d only ever managed to stop attacking each other when they were being invaded, and the fanatically isolationist elves to the north hiding in their forest.
“There’s always someone plotting nefarious designs around here,” Black replied drily. “It’s something of an occupational hazard.”
I rolled my eyes. I had a feeling there was more to it than that but my teacher declined to elaborate any further on the subject though, so I elected to let the matter go. I’d bring it up again when I’d acquired a better education on all things Praesi, of course, but until then there was no real point to it. Besides, we’d gotten close enough tot he city that I could see the Legion camps sprawled all around it. The official roster of soldiers for a legion was four thousand fighting men, I dredged up from my most recent readings, though the Praecepta Militaria had stated there were usually about as many camp followers, merchants and servants trailing in their wake. It would have been impossible for a city the size of Summerholm to lodge two legions comfortably, so a pair of semi-permanents camps had been established outside the walls.
“Weeping Heavens,” I muttered, “It’s like a second city.”
However many civilians the Sixth and Ninth legions had started out followed by, the number had swelled out of control since. The central areas where legionaries slept were cleanly outlined according to regulations, overlooked by earthen walls and watchtowers, but around them small towns had sprouted into existence. Dingy huts made of wood and baked clay from the river banks made up up some of it, but there were twice as many pitched tents of all colours. Some avenues large enough for troops to go through had been established, but the rest of it was a messy labyrinth of small lanes. We were maybe an hour away from sundown but the place was teeming with activity, from the small courts were merchants were selling their wares in improvised market stands to the clumps of families making their evening meals in massive iron cooking pots. There was even a man trying to guide a herd of goats into a pen, though one of the does kept getting away to bleat plaintively at a very amused legionary.
“Summerholm is where Praesi and Callowans mingle the most,” Black spoke as our party started down the slope towards the camps. “All trade goes through it, so it’s fast becoming one of the richest cities in the Empire.”
“And there haven’t been any tensions?” I asked. “I heard the siege got pretty rough, towards the end.”
Summerholm hadn’t been sacked, not exactly – Legion regulations stated that rapists were hanged and looters lost a hand if caught with stolen property – but the final assault on the walls had been costly enough that no one on the Empire’s side had been particularly inclined to mercy when the surrender had been given.
“Rebuilding the city accrued some good will,” Black murmured. “And leaving eight thousand men and women in the prime of their life as garrison means that mixed race marriages were an inevitability.”
He paused for a moment.
“You’re not wrong, however. Summerholm is the pulse of Callowan sentiment towards the occupation: any rebellion with a chance of success will have its seeds planted here. Our agents have been keeping a close eye on things.”
Our agents. I’d avoided questioning Black on where he was learning all these things he wasn’t supposed to know so far, but since he was bringing up the subject…
“The Eyes of the Empire,” I said. “That’s what your spies are called, aren’t they?”
They were famous among Callowans, a shadowy threat to match the very visible one posed by the Legions. Everybody had a story about how one of their cousins or a friend of a friend had been snatched in the dark of night by the ruthless men and women who bore the lidless eye tattoo. I was pretty sure I’d seen one in the Nest, once. Well, either that or a man with a deplorable fondness for hooded cloaks. Black’s lips stretched into a sardonic smile.
“Ah, the Eyes,” he mused. “One of Scribe’s better ideas, that.”
I frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I have a great deal of spies in Callow, true,” he acknowledged. “So do Malicia and quite a few of the High Lords. But I assure you none of them go around hiding their face or bearing an incriminating mark.”
“But there are people like that going around,” I pointed out. “If they’re not yours, whose are they?”
“Oh, they’re mine,” Black replied. “But they’re not meant to actually gather information.”
I closed my eyes and rubbed the bridge of my nose. The way the man thought gave me headaches, but there was a twisted sort of sense in what he was saying.
“So while everyone is paying attention to the shady people looming in the corners…”
“No one thinks twice about the waitress serving drinks just close enough to eavesdrop,” he finished amusedly. “Every resistance movement in Callow worth the name checks prospective members for the eye before letting them in. Letting them catch a few ‘attempted infiltrators’ every year lets us slip in agents when we really need them.”
My teacher was kind of a bastard, I reflected, but I couldn’t deny that he was a clever bastard.
“And nobody’s ever seen through that?” I asked.
“Once you give people what they expect to see,” he shrugged, “they rarely bother to dig any deeper.”
I grunted, chewing over that particular tidbit in silence. He’d offered it almost off-handedly, but it seemed to be the way he approached a lot of things – playing on the assumptions of his enemies, making them think they had it right while preparing the knife in the back. Everything surrounding Names had a pattern to it, almost formulaic steps that every child learned from the cradle through stories of heroes and villains: people who adhered to those steps, whether consciously or not, became predictable in a way. It was something I could use to my own advantage, if I paid attention closely enough. Putting the thoughts aside, I returned to more immediate matters.
“So your agents in Summerholm,” I probed, “have they mentioned anything interesting?”
I already knew I’d have a welcoming committee waiting for me in the city: the three bundles of pressure in the back of my mind felt too close to be anywhere else. The fourth bundle, the weird one, was still a little ways off. It got stronger every day, though, which I took to mean it was headed in our direction. Black had avoided telling me too much about what awaited me in Summerholm, so far, but I had no idea whether that was because he was a cryptic jackass by nature or because there would be…. consequences if he did. Still, stumbling blind into the situation blind was a decent way to head for an early grave: I’d be much more comfortable going in with an edge, any edge. The dark-haired man graced me with a steady look.
“There are two major resistance movements in the city, at the moment,” he finally said. “The Sons of Streges – disaffected veterans, mostly – and a splinter group of the former Thieves’ Guild. My agents in both of them have stopped reporting.”
The tone was flat, a stark contrast to the way he usually seemed to take everything half-seriously.
“You think they got caught,” I said.
“They are either dead or held captive,” he stated. “There are ways through which they would have contacted the network, otherwise.”
I frowned. If a single agent had been caught it could have been a simple blunder on the person’s part, but every single one of them?
“Magic?” I questioned. “Truth spells are rare, but they’re not exactly unheard of.”
He shook his head. “There is no such thing as a reliable truth spell,” he informed me. “At best they can increase the odds of catching someone in a lie – and given how esoteric that branch of magic is, very few mages ever bother to study them. There are, as far as I am aware, none who have in Callow.”
It went unsaid that his awareness was as far and wide as it was feasible for someone with the resources he had at his disposal to manage.
“I’m having a hard time believing every single one of your spies screwed up at the same time,” I told him.
“So am I,” he said quietly. “Which means we may have a hero on our hands.”
Well, fuck. “That’s bad, right?” I asked. “Because it sounds bad. I thought you caught these types before they ever got in a position to do stuff like this?”
“Once in a while, one slips the net,” Black admitted. “Normally they out themselves shortly after by taking a stand for justice in some backwater village, but this one has made no ripples at all.” He frowned. “Or, more likely, made them somewhere they went unnoticed.”
I grimaced. “Careful or lucky?”
“I’ve found the more dangerous heroes are a little of both,” the Knight replied. “The infestation is still limited to a single Role, I believe – if they’d assembled a whole party it would have been noticed – so we’re dealing with a very specific type of hero.”
“That already sounds more manageable,” I said. I didn’t know if I had it in me to stab a Bard, honestly. The were always charmingly ineffective in the stories, it would have been like kicking a puppy. “So, some lone wolf kind of deal?”
“A gritty avenging type, I’d wager,” Black replied. “They crop up with unfortunate regularity.”
So, three strangers who wanted my head on a pike, Role shenanigans and a hero on the loose. Evidently, my first visit of Summerholm was shaping up to be a memorable one. I let silence fall down and our party headed for the camps, riding off the main road into the countryside.
People came to greet us before we got into the camp proper.
A dozen legionaries in heavy plate were escorting a orc woman going without a helmet. On foot, all of them – the Legions didn’t really have cavalry to speak of, except for the Thirteenth. Captain pulled up at my side and I shot her a quizzical glance.
“Istrid,” she simply gravelled as the legionaries got closer.
Black dismounted and I followed suit after a heartbeat, standing a back as my teacher strode towards General Istrid. The general’s skin was almost more brown than green, I noticed: she looked like she’d been carved out of rough old leather, though that was common enough in the older orcs. There was a wide scar on her cheek that pulled at her eye, fixing her face in a mocking rictus that looked impressively firece on someone in full legion gear. She was one of taller greenskins I’d seen, though not quite as broad-shouldered as most orcs her size would be: still, she towered at least two feet above me. And above Black too, I noted with amusement.
“Warlord,” she growled in Kharsum, offering up her arm the same way Lieutenant Abase had shown me a few days back. The word she’d used wasn’t the one I’d read in the books I’d been given, but the pronunciations was fairly similar – I suppose it might have changed since the manuscript had been written, or she could have been using a slightly different dialect. Black clasped her arm without hesitation.
“Istrid,” he greeted her in the same language, tone fond. “Couldn’t wait for us to make it to your tent?”
“I got bored,” she replied unashamedly. “You took your sweet time coming.”
“There was a situation Laure that needed seeing to,” the Knight spoke mildly.
The orc officer barked out a harsh laugh. “Heard about that. Finally hanged the fucker, huh? Been a long time coming.”
Ha! I was already feeling rather better disposed towards General Istrid – anyone who wanted to see Mazus swinging from a noose couldn’t be all bad.
“Good things come to those who wait,” Black told her.
“Now you’re sounding like Sacker,” Istrid growled. “You two will be the death of me. Never mind that – Captain, that you hanging around in the back?”
The woman in question patted my shoulder and moved to join them, leaving me to stand with the ever-silent Blackguards and Scribe. Black’s band of bodyguards was no longer as silent as it had once been around me, but they’d reverted to silent statues as soon as we’d come in sight of Summerholm. I glance towards Scribe who had, I saw, also dismounted. She was standing closest to me, and since it didn’t seem like my presence would be noticed any time soon I ambled in her direction.
“They seem pretty friendly,” I said.
She wasn’t a very talkative woman, Scribe. The most I’d ever heard her say was that handful of sentences the first time we’d met, and since then she’d always seemed so busy I’d hesitated to try and strike up a conversation. No parchments in her hands now, though, and it wasn’t like I had anything better to do.
“They’ve known each other for a long time,” she replied, to my surprise. “Istrid’s clan was the second to side with Black, when he was still the Squire.”
Huh. That certainly explained why they were still catching up like old friends sharing drinks instead of heading to the general’s tent.
“Known her for long too, then?” I asked.
I knew precious little about Scribe, except that she’d been around Black since before the Conquest. None of the stories I’d heard mentioned her except in passing, and it wasn’t like she’d surrendered any information about herself since we’d met. I knew disappeared for a few hours everyday and came back with fresh new correspondence, but where and how she got the letters remained a mystery. The plain-faced woman shook her head. “I came later.”
Like squeezing blood out of a stone, I thought. I shuffled awkwardly on my feet and tried to think of something to say, but was saved at the last moment by an outside interruption.
“Catherine,” Black called out. “Introductions are in order.”
I shot Scribe a mildly relieved look and headed for the cluster of old friends. General Istrid sized me up as I walked without even the pretence of subtlety and I straightened my spine out of habit. She wouldn’t take a stick to my fingers every time I slouched to make sure I had proper posture the way the House matron had, but then again I had a feeling that making a bad impression on the commander of the Sixth Legion would have more dire consequences than throbbing knuckles.
“Istrid,” the Knight said, “Meet Catherine Foundling.”
The tall orc frowned, then turned to look at him. “She looks like Wallerspawn,” she said in Kharsum.
I scowled, partly at her blatant dismissal and partly at the word she’d used – Waller was a term orcs used to mean Deoraithe but it wasn’t exactly a polite one. “Half,” I replied in the same tongue, painfully aware that my pronunciation was tetchy. “That a problem?”
That certainly got her attention. “Well,” she drawled, showing a row of sharp teeth, “at least you’re not shy. You sound Callowan, girl – where’d he dig you up?”
“Laure,” I replied. “You end up meeting all sorts of interesting types, when stabbing people.”
The general barked a laugh. “Ain’t that the truth. Well met, Catherine Foundling.”
She offered her arm to clasp and I reciprocated, somehow managing to keep my nerves off of my face. The general seemed a lot taller now that I stood in front of her and that rictus on her face hadn’t gone anywhere: she made for a rather intimidating sight, and the story of her staring down a charge of Callowan knights was still fresh in mind. Possibly she scowled at them and they decided they had better things to do somewhere on the other side of the Tyrian sea. Gods know I kind of wish I did.
“Let’s not make Sacker wait too long,” Captain spoke up as I stepped back. “Odds are she already has eyes on us.”
“Sucker’s bet,” Istrid grunted before turning to address her legionaries. “Stable the horses and find somewhere for the Warlord’s retinue to stash their gear.”
A chorus of salutes was her only reply and I handed off Zombie’s reins to an olive-skinned woman with sergeant’s stripes when prompted. General Istrid led the way to one of the avenues I’d glimpsed earlier, followed by Black and Captain – I glanced back to see if Scribe was following us, but she’d disappeared into thin air when I wasn’t looking. Wait, wouldn’t have had to pass next to us to get into the camp? A large hand settled on my shoulder, gently steering me forward. “She does that,” Captain gravelled. “It’s part of her Role to stay in the background. She’ll pop up again when she’s needed.”
How much of my not noticing Scribe had come from her being quiet and how much had come from the effects of her Role, I wondered? I muttered something that could pass as agreement and let the matter drop. Sundown was almost on us, and as a result activity in the wider camp had died down: the improvised markets were closing and people were trailing out of the camp and heading towards the gates of Summerholm.
I suppose it makes sense that not all of them stay here after nightfall. For another group getting through the crowds quickly might have been an issue, but everyone was giving us a wide berth. Nobody was quite so bold as to point fingers in our direction, but quite a few people seemed to recognize Black and Captain – whispers bloomed in our wake wherever we went. The weight of the attention made me uncomfortable: the feeling of the three other potential Squires hadn’t gotten any closer, but I had more than them to worry about now. There might very well be a hero somewhere in the masses, and if they were looking for a target I was painfully aware that I was the easiest one available. I was not, after all, so deluded as to think that half a Name and a week’s worth of training with a sword and board would make me a match for a veteran of the Conquest like General Istrid. The grip on the short sword at her hip was well-worn, and she walked like someone who thought of their weapon like an extension of their limbs.
We encountered two patrols as we delved deeper into the impromptu town, both of them stopping to salute as we passed by. More and more legionaries stood watch as we got closer to the actual Legion camp – well, one of them anyway. The standards spread out everywhere all bore the Sixth Legion’s number in Miezan numerals, so it was pretty obvious this was theirs and not the Ninth’s. By the time we made it to the large pavilion that apparently served as General Istrid’s council room, night had fallen. Torches were already burning, though they were hardly needed considering how many cooking fires there were out there: the trail of smoke in the sky must have been visible for miles. The inside of the pavilion was empty except for a large table of polished wood surrounded by comfortable-looking chairs. There was only one person inside: a small goblin woman, under five feet tall and so heavily wrinkled her face looked like a mask. General Sacker, I assumed. She looked almost half-sleep, her yellow eyes were half-lidded even as she gave me an once-over before turning towards my teacher.
“Lord Black,” she murmured from her seat, bowing her head ever so slightly.
She was so quiet I almost missed the words, but the green-eyed man nodded back without missing a beat.
“General Sacker,” he replied, “It’s been too long.”
She inclined her head again.
“Gods Below,” General Istrid interrupted with disgust, “the both of you sound like you’re attending a feast at the Tower. I’m going to need a drink, if we’re doing the fucking Praesi rituals.”
“Finally,” I muttered, “someone’s willing to say it out loud.”
Istrid shot me an amused look as she poured herself a cup some sort of amber liquor from one of the carafes on the table. When I returned my attention to the others, I found that General Sacker was looking at me – and there was no longer anything half-asleep about her demeanour as she studied me. I’d always heard calculating eyes referred to as cold and cool, but if anything the yellow gaze pinning me seemed to burn with focused intensity. Clever as a snake and twice as mean, Captain had told me.
“You’re from Laure,” General Sacker spoke in the same whisper-thin voice. “Interesting. Orphan?”
I wasn’t sure who the question was addressed to so I glanced at Black, but he’d already claimed a seat and was pouring himself a drink from the same carafe as Istrid, paying no attention to the conversation. Worst mentor ever.
“I am,” I confirmed warily.
Sacker nodded to herself. “Calloused hands, mhm. Fighting rings? Illegal in Callow, I do believe.”
Her tone didn’t make it clear whether she approved or disapproved.
“So I’ve heard,” I simply replied.
I had no idea what her game was, but it felt like she was toying with me and I very much disliked the feeling of it. My first instinct was to bite back, but I pushed it down. There was the fact that Captain had specifically warned me about her, of course, but there was more to it than that. General Sacker was old. By far the oldest goblin I’d ever met and that made her very, very dangerous – most of their kind never made it past thirty five, and looking at the general I guessed she was pushing forty. Older goblins were notoriously frail and sick but Sacker was still not only in command of a legion, but of a legion holding one of the most important fortresses in the Empire. She was, in short, not someone I wanted to fuck with.
“You can mess with her head later, you vicious old bat,” Istrid broke in cheerfully, apparently not caring about any of that in the slightest. “We’ve got fresher corpses to eat, like our little hero problem.”
General Sacker pursed her lips.
“There’s not definitive proof that we have a-”
That was when the pavilion exploded.