“Seventy-three: always send the comic relief in front if you suspect there’s a trap. The Gods won’t allow you to be rid of them so easily.”
– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, unknown author
The Wandering Bard was drunk again, and William was very much beginning to miss his days as a solitary freedom fighter. Why the Ashuran had decided that three days into Imperial-held territory was the time to start drinking again was beyond him, but if she tried to grab his ass one more time he wouldn’t be held responsible for his actions. How did she even manage to drink so much, anyway? Her knapsack was large enough for five bottles at most, and she was halfway through her twentieth. If she’d managed to find a Bottomless Bag and she was using it for booze instead of something actually useful, William was going to have a fit. An actual bloody fit, with screaming and everything.
“She’s surprisingly eloquent, for someone so deep in her cups,” the hooded woman next to him remarked.
The Deoraithe observer went by Breagach, which he had a feeling meant something scathingly ironic in the Old Tongue. Still, she was by far the most tolerable member of the band of idiots he’d managed to assemble. It was a shame the Duchess still refused to get into the fight until her conditions were met, but that Breagach had stuck around was a good sign.
“I’d be more enthused if she wasn’t using that eloquence to try to get into Hunter’s trousers,” William replied.
“To be fair,” Breagach replied drily, “he has few other clothes to get into.”
She wasn’t wrong. The Hunter had already proved his worth by helping them avoid the Ninth’s wolf riders on two occasions, but that didn’t change the fact that the man wore fewer clothes than an exotic dancer. The other Named had shown up in Marchford wearing tight pants and a leather vest that left his pectorals on prominent display, the tribal tattoos adorning his entire body only barely giving out the impressions he wasn’t mostly naked. The silver bells and faerie trinkets that were woven into his hair chimed gently whenever he wasn’t trying to sneak around, a ridiculous counterpart to the grim-faced stoicism the man tried to display at all times. Tuning out the Bard’s horrifying attempts to break into a serenade while holding a bottle of gin in one hand and her lute in the other, William cast his eye on the rest of their company.
The Bumbling Conjurer was fiddling with his belt again, fighting a losing battle in trying to make a strap meant for a man twice his size fit his narrow hips. The Thief was slowly edging in the Conjurer’s direction while he was distracted, probably to rifle through his bags again. He wished he could say it was the first time she’d be robbing an ally, but the cheeky brat had been eating her rations on what he was pretty sure was the Duke of Liesse’s personal silverware. William cleared his throat and glared at her. She flashed him an unrepentant grin, flipping back her short dark hair and strolling away with her hands in her pockets.
The Lone Swordsman pushed down a sigh for what seemed to be the hundredth time. He had a suspicion that the nature of his Role made interacting with others heroes even more irritating. In some ways he’d been lucky to manage to find four other Named for what he had planned – five was the best pattern, for heroic enterprises – but keeping them on track was like trying to herd a gang of cats, at least half of which were assholes. The only saving grace was that the sixty soldiers Countess Marchford had granted him were as professional as it got, all of them former Royal Guard she’d taken into her service after the Conquest. Like him, they were itching to get into Summerholm and strike a blow for the Kingdom. Shapes were moving about in the dark up ahead, close to the Hwaerte’s bank, and his hand drifted towards the Penitent’s Blade. Breagach shook her head.
“Our scouts are returning,” she said.
William decided not to ask how she could see so well in the dark when even his Name-vision could not. He had a feeling she was a member of the Watch, or at least had been trained by it, and everybody knew the Watchers of the March had ancient sorcerous tricks up their sleeves. The five soldiers who’d gone ahead trickled back into their makeshift camp, the officer among them heading straight for him.
“Lieutenant Hawkins,” William greeted him.
“Sir,” the man replied, obviously resisting the habit to salute. “We have a problem.”
“My life is a series of problems, Lieutenant,” the Swordsman replied, more honestly than was strictly warranted. Breagach snorted. “What’s the situation?”
The older man coughed. “There’s an Imperial patrol headed our way.”
William’s eyes sharpened. “How many?”
“Just a single line,” the man replied. “We’re close enough to Summerholm they’ve lowered the numbers.”
The hero’s fingers closed against the handle of his sword, feeling its hunger wake. To think there’d been a time where he’d thought that using a blade of legend was a privilege instead of a burden.
“Could we go around it?” he asked.
“They don’t have goblins along, so it’s possible,” Hawkins admitted. “But it’d be risky, sir.”
The soldier glanced sideways at the Bard, who was currently trying to find a rhyme for ‘butt cheeks’ and cheerfully failing.
“We’re not the most… quiet group, with all due respect,” the lieutenant finished.
“Very politely put,” Breagach murmured.
William grunted in dismay. “Get the men ready,” he told Hawkins. “We’re taking them out.”
The lieutenant nodded, his hand twitching in a repressed salute once again before he marched away.
“General Afolabi will notice that one of his patrols went missing,” the Deoraithe said after Hawkins got out of earshot. “You took him by surprise at Marchford, but he is far from incompetent.”
None of the fucking generals were incompetent, that was the worst part about fighting the Empire. Countess Elizabeth has been stalemating with General Sacker when he’d left, which was why it was so important they struck true in Summerholm. With that bitch Heiress coming out of nowhere with her mercenary army to take Dormer, the rebellion was losing momentum.
“As long as we manage to make it to the city fast enough, there shouldn’t be a problem,” he grunted. “Thief has a way in, it’s why she’s here.”
“I did wonder why you had her along,” Breagach admitted. “She’s yet to contribute much of worth to this enterprise.”
“She’ll pull her weight when we get to Summerholm,” William replied.
Hopefully. Otherwise he’d just taken on a massive pain in his ass for no valid reason. The conversation was cut short when it became obvious their soldiers were ready to move out. The Lone Swordsman wasted no time telling the other Named to get in gear, simply glaring silently at them until they were uncomfortable enough to fall in line. Their scouts were nothing if not competent and the Bumbling Conjurer somehow managed not to set himself on fire, so they managed to steal a march on the enemy. After a soft-spoken conference with Hawkins, William agreed to split their party in three to better surround the legionaries: allowing even one of them to get away could ruin this entire enterprise.
The dark-haired hero reluctantly allowed the Thief to join another group, deciding that the Bard was the liability he needed to keep an eye on. Breagach remained with him as he hid with his twenty soldiers in the tall grass, no one even bothering to try to tell her what to do. She’d already made it perfectly clear that she did not consider herself under the authority of anyone here. The moonlight had yet to reveal the orcs, but if he closed his eyes William could hear them. They were still a way off, but at the pace he estimated they were walking he wouldn’t have to wait too long on them.
“That’s a nice sword you’ve got,” the Bard crawling up to his side.
William twitched. “I’ve already told you, I’m not interested in-“
“I didn’t mean that sword, sweetcheeks,” she chuckled, then raised an eyebrow. “Unless…”
“No,” the Swordsman retorted through gritted teeth.
“Shame,” the Bard sighed. “Decent way to get the tension out before a fight. But back to that mighty sword of yours. I can feel the enchantments on it from where I’m standing. Old stuff. Powerful stuff. Does it have a name?”
He eyed the other hero carefully. “The Penitent’s Blade,” he replied, not finding a reason to deny her the information besides her general existence being an irritant.
She let out a quiet whistle. “Now that’s interesting. Subtler than I would have thought, too. Not ‘a blade that inflicts penitence’ but ‘the blade of a penitent’.”
She hummed, dark eyes set in a darker face smiling under her lazily closed pupils.
“Someone’s been a very bad boy,” she murmured. “Not as squeaky clean as you look, are you?”
“That’s got nothing to do with you,” William replied harshly.
“It’s important for a bard to know what kind of story she’s in,” the Ashuran denied with an indolent smile. “See, normally I would have pegged you for being aligned with the Choir of Judgement, but there’s never more than one of those at a time. Thought you might be with the Choir of Fortitude instead, but I read you all wrong didn’t I? No, you’re aligned with the Choir of Contrition.”
“And why would you care?” the Swordsman replied.
“I don’t usually sing songs about boys and girl who shook hands with Contrition,” the Bard told him softly. “I know half a dozen, of course, but I never liked singing tragedies.”
“This isn’t a story, Bard,” William grunted.
“It’s all a story, Lone Swordsman,” the Ashuran replied with a mirthless smile. “And I don’t know of any one where a young boy cutting up people with a piece from a Hashmallim’s wing ends well for the boy in question.”
The Swordsman stilled, blood running cold. How could she know? There were some who knew of the Choirs, and it made sense a Name that ran so heavily on lore would know of it, but had she seen one of the angels? The green-eyed hero watched the Bard’s face carefully, then decided against it. No one who’d seen what he’d seen could ever remain so carefree. Gods, what he remembered from that night… Fire, brilliant fire. A light that sears deeper than darkness ever could. The House of Light had taught him that angels were beautiful beyond human ability to comprehend, but they had never said that beauty would be a terrible thing. It had changed him, bearing the full of a Hashmallim’s presence. Taught him the true price of atonement.
“You’re drunk,” William replied dismissively, hoping it was enough to end this conversation. “You should lay off the bottle for a while.”
The Bard chuckled “How can I, sweet thing, when there’s just so much to drink about?”
“The orcs are here,” Breagach whispered, and the Swordsman nearly jumped out of his own skin.
Shit, how long had the Deoraithe been there? He hadn’t heard her get close at all. He cast a wary look at her but the hooded woman was looking ahead, where the twenty legionaries were slowly making their way down a slope. Regulars, by the look of their armour. Heavies and sappers were only rarely sent on patrols.
“The other groups should have them surrounded by now,” William spoke.
The Hunter and the Conjurer would have the back, the Thief and Lieutenant Hawkins the side. With the Swordsman’s own group in front of them, their only way out led straight into the river. The officer in charge of the enemy line suddenly called a halt, and spat our curses in their disgusting excuse for a language.
“They saw one of us,” the Bard voiced. “Too late, though.”
William was inclined to agree. The legionaries slowly formed a square as his own soldiers emerged from cover, pulling the noose tight. The green-eyed hero got to his feet and his men followed suit, carefully moving forward. The enemy lieutenant called out something in orcish and her legionaries replied with a few scattered laughs before slamming their shields into the ground. Voice echoing as one, they started calling words out in the same tongue.
“Breagach,” William asked urgently. “What are they casting?”
The Deoraithe shook her head as the enemy slammed their shields again, the bang punctuating the end of a sentence.
“Not casting,” she murmured. “Singing. That’s the Chant of the Dead.”
Curiosity lit up the Bard’s eyes. “Never heard that one before,” she admitted “What are they saying?”
The hooded woman cocked her head to the side, then spoke in cadence.
Come to die.”
The shields hit the ground in a thunderclap.
Come to die.”
Like a hammer on the anvil, the shields rang.
Come to die.”
The shields came down one last time and Breagach translated the last verse almost solemnly.
Come to die.”
A shiver went up the hero’s spine. “You’re sure it’s not a spell?” he asked again.
“The Duchy has records of them doing this before,” Breagach replied. “It’s what their warriors sing when they know they’re not coming back from a battle.” The Deoraithe sighed. “Beautiful tongue, Kharsum. Well-suited to poetry.”
“Wolves howl at the moon,” William replied sharply. “That does not detract from the necessity of putting them down.”
Breagach half-turned in his direction, features hidden by the shadows of her hood. She did not reply. Indifferent to her opinion, the Lone Swordsman unsheathed his sword.
“FORWARD!” he called out.
His Name surged through his veins, singing a song of carnage. This was what he meant for, not shadow games and politics. Him and his blade against the Creation, setting it right one corpse at a time. He sped ahead of the soldiers, feet carrying him at a swiftness beyond mere mortals until he impacted with the legionary shield wall. The orc facing him grunted at the blow and stabbed low but William sneered and spun around him, slipping into the enemy’s formation. Casually, the Penitent’s Blade keened as it tore through the greenskin’s throat. Blood spilled over the ground but William had already moved on, kicking down another monster to widen the opening in their formation.
The officer moved towards him, roaring a challenge, but he spat in the creature’s face and his sword cleaved through her shield effortlessly. She cursed and tried to swing her blade but it was much, much too late. A flick of the wrist sent her head tumbling to the ground, the blood spray drenching him in crimson as he smiled. His soldiers hit the enemy line a moment later, forcing it in tight vice. The orcs were pushed back towards him like meat into a grinder, his blade scything through the screaming monsters as they fought and died like dogs. Red steam started rising from his armour as a white glow took hold of it, his movements quickening as he whirled among the Empire’s footsoldiers and claimed the lives that were the Kingdom’s due.
The orcs did not break, but it mattered little.
The last of them died to the Thief, the dark-haired woman carelessly slipping a knife in the monster’s throat in a flash of silver before stepping away to leave the body to fall. Silence reigned over the battlefield as William stood in the centre of a ring of corpses, the grisly monument to his skill unfolding like the petals of a bloody flower. The Penitent’s Blade pulsed under his grip, keeping time with his heartbeats. Yes, he thought, this will do. He could not deny it had felt viciously satisfying to take out his frustrations on targets so thoroughly deserving of it.
“See to the wounded, pack your gear,” he ordered the others. “We move out immediately.”
They had work ahead of them. To Summerholm they would go. In the enemy’s own fortress, where the Empire hid behind walls they had stolen to feel safe. And when they got there? They were going to break a legend.
They were going to kill a Calamity.