“The best revenge isn’t living well, it’s living to crucify all your enemies.”
– Dread Emperor Malevolent III, the Pithy
Nilin looked younger without his armour on.
With his eyes closed he might have looked like he was sleeping, if not for the gaping wound across his stomach. I hadn’t had to order him cleaned or his insides put back inside, and for that I’d be grateful to Hakram until the day I died. Orcs took death differently than humans, he’d told me. They preferred avenging to mourning, one of the many reasons the Steppes were such a spinning wheel of blood feuds whenever the Empire wasn’t at war. Open displays of emotion were seen as a shameful act dishonouring the dead. Nauk’s reaction to the death of a boy he’d been close as a brother to was strange by the standards of his people, and Juniper eyed him with silent disdain whenever she thought no one was looking at her. Witnessing that sent a flare of rage through my veins every time, but I’d held my tongue: I could not expect to command a host hailing from five different cultures without occasionally encountering ways I found repulsive.
Soninke and Taghreb funerary customs were alien to me, influenced by centuries upon centuries of rubbing elbows with necromancers. In Praes men and women could sign away rights to their bodies for gold, selling their dead flesh as materials the corpse-raisers would use in their work. An abomination, by the standards I’d been raised to. Of all the traditions of the Wasteland none was so despised by Good nations as necromancy. The hatred had been kept fresh in Callow by the multiple undead plagues unleashed on the kingdom by past Warlocks, while in Procer the Lycaonese had been warring with the Kingdom of the Dead since before the foundation of the Principate. Signing away your corpse was against regulations, however, and so Nilin was to burn. The Soninke preferred to bury their dead in large labyrinth-mausoleums of baked mud, but out here on the field legionaries got a Legion burial: fire and the promise of more death to come.
Lumber had been cut from the woods flanking both sides of the road for most pyres, but for this one things had been arranged differently. Dead cataphracts were piled up in a makeshift pyramid, with the two corpses Nilin rested on recognizable even from where I stood: the Exiled Prince and his Page, both still in full armour. As the highest ranking officer present the right of lighting the pyre went to me, but doing so would have felt… wrong. Nauk was the one to dip the torch in the still-burning goblinfire and toss it onto the stacks. Green flames spread over the flesh and metal with unseemly haste. Kilian had hobbled her way to the funeral against her healer’s advice, leaning heavily against my shoulder as she clasped her hand in mine. The redhead was paler than I’d ever seen her, exhausted and still shaking with the odd tremor. She stood by my side as night fell and our friend’s corpse turned to ashes.
“We were taken into Rat Company at the same time, you know,” Kilian eventually said. “Back then Nauk scared me – always loud, always looking for a fight – but Nilin and I always got along. We bought books at the same shop in Ater, traded them when we were done.”
She smiled sadly.
“I suppose I’ll have to find someone else to talk history with.”
Grief looked pretty on her but then I suppose most things did. I squeezed her hand, because what could I possibly say? Juniper was the first to leave. Hakram followed not long after, heading out to see my will done. Every single member of the former Rat Company who’d made it into the Fifteenth passed by at some point in the burning, many stopping by the flames to whisper something into the crackle.
“What are they saying?” I asked Kilian quietly.
“They’re giving Nilin a secret or a promise,” she replied. “Something to bargain with on the other side.”
It was such a deeply Praesi thing to do, I reflected, and for once the thought was fond. I kissed the side of my lover’s neck, letting go of her hand and found myself walking up to the pyre.
“I’ve never done this before,” I told Nilin, by now little more than blackened bones wreathed in green. “The priests from the House of Light handle the funerals, back home. Consecrate the graves and shepherd souls on their way to the Heavens.”
I already knew what I wanted to say, but spitting it out was proving more difficult than I’d thought.
“I’m sorry,” I finally whispered. “You were my friend, one of the first, and this cost you. But if I had to make the choice again, knowing it would end like this, I still would. I could say that we’ll win, that I’ll make your death meaningful, but how will that help you? They’re empty words anyway. We both know I would have done all I can to win regardless.”
I wondered if all the offerings he’d been given had been so bitter or if it was just my own. Shame was not a feeling I’d felt in a while, not since I’d come to Ater, but I recognized the sting of it then and there.
“Here’s something you can use, at least,” I spoke quietly. “I let him go, the Lone Swordsman. I’m the one who started all of this.”
Maybe it was just my imagination, but I thought that for a moment the nearest flames to me flared up. Until we see each other next, Nilin. I trudged back to Kilian and we stood there until the moon reached its apex, silently taking comfort in each other’s presence. Nauk was still standing by the fire when we left, silent face lined with grief.
I did not meet his eyes.
Before my teacher had conquered Callow, Marchford had been defended by walls.
I could still see the marks where they’d stood as I rode into the city: the sappers who’d brought them down hadn’t bothered to remove the foundations. The Countess had fought with the royal army and so her demesne had been stripped of its defences and of some of its privileges – she’d barely been allowed to keep enough men to keep bandits out of her lands – but the city itself had remained in the hands of the House of Talbot. It had been the Tower’s policy after the Conquest to keep the number of Imperial governorships to a minimum, so that the transition would be smoother. The Countess’ contributions in the defence of Summerholm had ranked her city a Legion garrison, though, later slaughtered in the opening move of the rebellion. And now she’s said to be engaged to the Duke of Liesse, our would-be-king. That a fucking exile who’d bailed without ever facing the Legions on the field claimed to have a right to the throne of Callow rankled me. Especially since he’d lived out the decades since in comfortable exile across the Vales.
Six days had passed since what the men now called the Battle of Three Hills, and our advance on Marchford had gone suspiciously smoothly. My goblin companies had been hunting the remaining Silver Spears in the dark every night, but they found fewer of them every time. Interrogation of the prisoners we’d taken at the battle had yielded that the commander of the men-at-arms had apparently survived the massacre, meaning the mercenaries still had someone to rally around. While I doubted the Spears would give us battle again, now that they’d lost their main leaders and been given such a sharp lesson by the Fifteenth, I did not want them escaping to join the main rebel army. If they fled back to Mercantis to lick their wounds I’d make my peace with it, but having to face the bastards on the field in a few months was out of the question. Juniper had predicted they’d retreat to Marchford and choose their way from there, but as I led a company through the deserted streets of the city it became clear she’d been wrong.
There were no soldiers here, and you’d think there were barely any people at all. According to the Imperial census Marchford had a population of ten thousand, though many of the residents only lived there temporarily. Many of the inhabitants were miners from the silver mines in the hills, whose families moved with them to the mining sites when a fresh vein was found and only returned to the city when they were out of work. The county itself was rich, and it showed in the way the city had been built. Stone was more common than wood and the layout of the avenues had been planned, unlike the maze of dead-ends and cramped alleys that was Laure. To the south I could see the wide grounds of Marchford Manor, and even to my Name-sight they were deserted. There were still people in the city, but they’d fled at the sight of the Fifteenth and barricaded themselves inside their homes. I lingered at the crossing of an avenue, considering my options.
I glanced at Captain Ubaid, the young man in charge of the company escorting me. One of Commander Hune’s men, who’d apparently distinguished himself at Three Hills by killing three men-at-arms and dragging one of his wounded back behind our lines. He had sharp eyes and Hakram had remembered his marks at the College being above average, if not exceptional. He looked about as wary as I felt, casting cautious looks at the empty streets. If I wanted to set an ambush for an enemy commander, I’d wait until they were too deep in the city to turn back. Or was I being overly cautious? The locals seemed terrified of us, and there’d been no resistance at all as we advanced.
“Send a runner back to Legate Juniper,” I ordered. “We’ll be pressing on to the manor without waiting on her. She’s to garrison the city and proclaim martial law.”
“Ma’am,” he hesitated. “That seems… ill-advised. We’re surrounded by thousands.”
“We’re surrounded by scared civilians, captain,” I grunted. “Look at them – they don’t have the stomach for a fight. I’d wager the Countess took all the men of soldiering age with her when she left for Vale.”
“As you say, Lady Squire,” he deferred.
A legionary peeled off from the company to carry my message. I noted with a mix of approval and amusement that Ubaid tightened the formation as we headed south, positioning the men so that they could form a testudo in moments. Good. Just because they have a villain with them doesn’t mean they’re safe. Callow’s taught the Legions that lesson again and again, over the years. The path to the manor was bare of fortifications, and not because of any edict of my teacher’s. The hills surrounding Marchford were a natural defence that had served the city for centuries, impassable to armies save for a few goat paths the locals kept knowledge of to themselves. Back when Callow was a mess of petty kingdoms, the rulers of Marchford had fought most their battles at the ford the city was named for, only rarely facing siege in their seat of power – as a result they’d put their wealth into men and swords instead of the kind of walls Summerholm boasted. The paved road brought us to a pretty hilled garden dotted by lovely pavilions, where fountains of white chalkstone gurgled merrily. Granite statues of stone knights guarded the last stretch to the manor gates, still smiles splitting their bearded faces.
“Lovely place,” Captain Ubaid spoke drily. “Lucky they poured all that silver into the fountains instead of soldiers, or we’d have a fight on our hands.”
“Would that we did,” I replied. “That’d mean less men with Liesse.”
The stables were empty and looked like they’d been for quite some time. For appearance’s sake I left Zombie in one of the stalls, though I could have left him standing in a flower bed for all the difference it made. It wasn’t like he was going to wander. Marchford Manor itself was quite large, all beige limestone and wide glass windows. Not coloured stuff, though, so unlikely to be imported from Procer. Wide oaken doors opened without trouble when a pair of my legionaries pushed, revealing a half-dozen people in livery. Ah, finally someone to talk to. The maids I dismissed immediately as irrelevant, but one man with a closely-cropped beard wore a steward’s uniform. I entered the manor flanked by Captain Ubaid and one of his lieutenants, both of them sword in hand. The sight of the bare steel had the locals flinch in fear.
“I’m Catherine Foundling,” I announced flatly. “You may know me as the Squire. Who’s in charge here, exactly?”
The bearded man swallowed loudly but stepped forward and bowed.
“I’m Fourth Steward Greens, my lady,” he replied. “Responsible for the manor. And the city, I suppose.”
Fourth Steward. I frowned and struggled to remember the orphanage etiquette lessons I’d breezed through. He wasn’t in charge of the stables, that would be the third, so –
“Latrines,” I spoke amusedly. “You’re the sanitation man.”
“That would be me, your ladyship,” he agreed nervously.
My lips twitched.
“Do you have the authority to surrender the city to me, Fourth Steward?” I asked.
“I do,” he replied. “I think. But whether the people will observe that surrender is beyond my means to ensure.”
Heavy patrols, then. I didn’t intend to order the massacre of fellow Callowans but public order would have to be maintained. I resisted the urge to grimace. Scared people can do stupid things, and we’ve got them too scared for my tastes.
“Then kneel, Greens,” I ordered. “As of this moment, Marchford is returned to the Imperial fold.”
He did, and just like that I’d won a city.
Countess Elizabeth’s solar was almost decadently comfortable. It had been stripped of all the more obvious signs of wealth and what I assumed to be the most expensive paintings were missing, but even after that it was one of the most luxurious rooms I’d ever held council in.
“The city’s been stripped bare of men and food,” Ratface told the senior officers. “They barely have enough to feed themselves.”
“I’ll double the watch on our supplies, then,” Nauk growled. “Nip any notions of looting in the bud.”
I sipped at my cup of Vale summer wine, resting against the back of my cushioned seat as I studied him. He seemed steadier now, but there was something angry to the orc that hadn’t been there before. As if Nilin’s death had stripped him of the last check on his recklessness. Still, now was not the time or place to speak to him about it.
“Still no sign of the Silver Spears?” I asked Commander Hune instead.
“We’ve interrogated some of the locals,” the ogre replied softly. “Some passed through, including what remains of the cataphracts, but they’re all gone – into the hills, I’m told. Less than eight hundred in total.”
“We can’t pursue in there with the Fifteenth,” Juniper stated. “Goblins might manage the paths but I’m reluctant to commit scout companies without backup.”
She was right, much as I disliked admitting it.
“We’ll table that for the moment,” I said. “Hakram, how’s the city?”
The Adjutant hummed. “Quiet, for now. But they’re afraid we’ll put everyone to the sword to hurt the Countess.”
I closed my eyes and let out a sigh. Would they even have considered that, before Heiress had set half of the duchy of Liesse on fire? Hard to tell, but I was ever inclined to blame the other villain for the messes I found myself in.
“I want Legion regulations observed to the letter,” I spoke flatly. “If there’s any scuffles with the citizens, come down harshly on everyone involved.”
I got a chorus of acknowledgements in response. Pickler cleared her throat afterwards and I raised an eyebrow.
“If we’re going to be staying here for a few days, I’d like sanction to build siege engines,” she said.
I cast a look at Juniper. The grim-faced orc frowned.
“Dragging a trebuchet around would slow us on the march,” my legate finally said.
“I’ll keep it light,” the Senior Sapper replied. “A few scorpions, maybe one of the smaller ballista models. Think of what you could do with those, when we finally tangle with the Liesse host.”
The Hellhound glanced at me and I shrugged.
“Sanction given,” she gravelled. “You can have the sappers and a company of regulars to gather the wood.”
I was about to redirect the subject to patrol schedules when Masego interrupted. I started – he wasn’t even sitting at the same table as us, having claimed a smaller one near the windows overlooking the hills to the south.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if I could have your attention,” he exclaimed, peering into a scrying bowl. “First, I can confirm that it was the priest our own Deadhand killed that was blocking my scrying. Second, I appear to have found what remains of the Silver Spears’ leadership.”
He rose to his feet, carefully bringing over the bowl to us without troubling the surface. I leaned over the table and saw three men, two of them in horseman’s plate, arguing near what seemed to be the bottom of a hill.
“We need to go deeper, to-“ one of them started but the sound went silent.
“Apprentice?” I prompted.
He blinked. “That shouldn’t be happening.”
A heartbeat later the silhouette of the Silver Spears disappeared, the water rippling without cause.
“That definitely shouldn’t be happening,” Masego said, confusion and irritation warring for dominion over his tone.
The water stilled momentarily and sight returned to us, but it was no longer the Silver Spears we saw: a pair of pale green eyes were staring back, skimming over my officers and stopping on me.
“Catherine,” my teacher said.
The sound was muted, like he was speaking through a door.
“Black,” I replied. “We’re not due to scry until Evening Bell.”
“Listen,” he began, then the sound cut out again.
“I can’t hear you,” I told him.
“Danger,” he managed. “Egg. The hills.”
The water went still again and my blood ran cold.
“Masego,” I spoke urgently, “can you-“
“Oh Merciless Gods,” Ratface whispered.
I followed his gaze out the window, and my stomach dropped. Night had just fallen, but there was no trace of the stars out there. The sky was red as fresh blood, and tendrils of scarlet were spreading through the moon. A faint scream was heard in the distance. It rose higher, and higher, and higher until all of us were clutching our ears in pain. The pressure winked out as suddenly as it had appeared, but something had changed. I looked at Masego.
“You can feel it?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he whispered, fingers clutched so tight the phalanges paled. “Shit. There’s a demon on the loose.”