“Those who clap others in irons always end up choking on them.”
– Eleanor Fairfax, founder of the Fairfax dynasty
The Baroness Dormer was strikingly beautiful.
Hair like spun silver, men said, and even in her late thirties the sight of her smiling was enough to make his breath catch in his throat. William was evidently not immune to her charms, though he fancied he was less swayed by them than most. Still, of all the nobles involved in the Liesse Rebellion he thought her the best of the bunch. Unlike the Duke of Liesse and his now-betrothed the Countess Marchford, he knew that ambition did not drive the woman sitting across from him. Her fief would not grow from the liberation of Callow, and given her long-running enmity with Countess Elizabeth there would be no position of influence at court for her in the aftermath. She’d joined her force to the Rebellion because she wanted the land of her ancestors to be free, and such a purity of intent was laudable. Not often rewarded, but perhaps all the more laudable for that.
“I can bring five thousand to bear, though I hesitate to commit some of them to a battle,” the baroness said. “They are peasant volunteers, untrained in the arts of war.”
“Your household troops can take the lead,” the Lone Swordsman replied. “I don’t suppose you’ve managed to scrape up some knights?”
Chivalric orders had been disbanded wholesale after the Conquest, but the south of Callow had never truly been invaded – after the fall of Laure and the submission of the Deoraithe, the flight into exile of the Duke of Liesse had been enough to tip the balance towards surrender. The only southern demesne with an Imperial Governor assigned had been Liesse itself, and though William knew better than to think the entire sector had not been crawling with the Black Knight’s spies the scrutiny of the Tower had not been as heavy down there. In northwest and central Callow the capitulation of the Kingdom had been greeted with wholesale butchery of horse herds across the land: the old promise that Praesi would never manage to suborn Callowan cavalry had been faithfully observed. Down south, though, some smaller herds had remained in the hands of nobles. Flat refusal to sell any to the Tower had caused tensions and threatened an uprising the year following the Conquest when a general had tried to force the issue, but in the end orders had come from above to let the matter go.
“I had half a hundred when we started the war,” the aristocrat replied, “but they’re all with Talbot now.”
“We’ll make do,” William sighed. “If she’s to fight the Legions of Terror on the field, she needs all the help she can get.”
“Especially now,” the baroness murmured.
The Lone Swordsman grimaced. Word of Foundling’s unexpected victory against the Silver Spears had already spread even this far. Mages in Marchford, he expected. Now that the Praesi had made popular the use of scrying rumours flew even faster than messenger birds. I warned you, Prince. One misstep is all she needs. With the eastern flank secure, the Ninth and Sixth legions could march towards Vale with their supply train safe. Countess Elizabeth would not be facing tired, half-starved soldiers: she’d be staring down the war machine that had triumphed on the Fields of Streges in the fullness of its might. At least it was only two legions: if it had been three or four the rebellion could be considered as good as over.
“She’ll hold,” William promised. “As soon as we’ve dealt with the Heiress’ host we’ll move to reinforce her.”
“I am glad you heeded my call,” the silver-haired beauty admitted. “Fighting a Stygian phalanx would have been bad enough on its own, but with a Named to lead them? I dared not force a battle with the forces at my disposal.”
“You were right to wait,” the Lone Swordsman said. “I’ve never been to Stygia but the Bard assures me the tales are true – on even ground they are one of the finest in the land.”
The formation the slave-soldiers took in battle was a slow and cumbersome thing, but it had shredded hosts from Procer and the other Free Cities both. The Stygians did not retreat or hesitate, for the leather cord around their neck could choke them in an instant should the person owning them wish it.
“So much for the Praesi being above slavery,” the baroness scoffed. “I used to consider it their one redeeming feature.”
“The Heiress is from the old breed of eastern villainy,” William acknowledged. “They tend to break even their own rules when it gains them advantage. Keep priests close, I would not put it above her to summon devils if things go sour.”
The House of Light did not officially take sides in mortal conflicts, though it occasionally did produce a clerical Named who carried the banner of the Heavens into battle. Mundane priests who felt the calling to combat Evil could join religious martial orders but those were not part of the House proper, merely affiliated with it – hence why the Empire had slaughtered every last paladin from the Order of the White Hand but allowed the many churches and cathedrals in Callow to continue existing after the annexation. Most priests did, however, take a very dim view of bringing devils and demons into Creation. Those they would fight regardless of who did the summoning.
“I’ll make sure to have them on hand,” the aristocrat replied. “Luck in battle, Lord Swordsman.”
William smiled thinly. “That’d be a first.”
The tent they’d prepared for him had a cot and a table, the latter of which he would never use. The dark-haired man was no general and he knew as much – the strategizing was better left to individuals with a talent for it. The one time he’d thought he had a plan he’d gotten almost all of the people he’d brought with him killed, including another hero and the only observer the Duchess of Daoine had bothered to send. Taking off his coat, the Swordsman threw it on the cot. He’d been about to sit down and remove his boots when he paused, smoothly unsheathing his sword and bringing the edge to rest against the throat of the other Named in the tent.
“One of these days,” Thief said, “you’ll tell me how you do that.”
“Unlikely,” William replied.
Forcing the Penitent’s Blade back into its scabbard was an effort. It disliked returning without having drawn blood, even if no one worthy of being bled was around.
“I wasn’t sure you’d come back,” he admitted a moment later.
“I wasn’t sure I would,” the short-haired girl shrugged. “But here I am.”
With a tired sigh, William sat down on his cot as she perched herself on his table.
“I’m sure you’ve noticed the host surrounding us,” he began. “We’ll be marching on the Praesi army camped by Lake Hengest tomorrow.”
“They’re not camped by the lake anymore,” the Thief informed him. “I paid them a little visit while considering my options. They’re half a day’s march away from you now, though they’ve stopped for the night.”
He did not insult her by asking if she was sure of this. It would be the same as if someone asked him if he was certain his guard stance was correct.
“Heiress knows we’re after her, then,” he grunted in dissatisfaction.
It had been too much to hope for that she wouldn’t see them coming. Still, he was confident in his chances against this particular villain – unlike Squire in Summerholm, she wasn’t fate-bound to survive the encounter with him.
“Heiress isn’t with the army anymore,” the pale-skinned heroine corrected him. “She took the commander of her Proceran mercenaries with her and went into the hills. The man in charge is some Wastelander lordling called Ghassan.”
The Swordsman honestly wasn’t sure whether to be pleased by the news or not. Lack of a Named meant their victory was all but certain, but what in the Burning Heavens was the villain doing in the hills? An army couldn’t pass through them. That much was common knowledge in Callow.
“Where’s Bard, anyhow?” Thief asked.
William snorted. “You know Almorava. She comes and goes as she wills. For all I know she’s passed-out drunk in some ditch and she’ll catch up tomorrow.”
Thief – she’d never revealed her true name to them – shook her head.
“William, you should know better by now. She drinks like a fish, but when have you ever seen her drunk?”
The Swordsman raised an eyebrow. “Every day since she first crashed through the window over the room where I’d assembled the rest of you.”
Apparently Almorava had meant to sit on the windowsill to look mysterious and all-knowing but slipped on rain-slick stone and fallen through the glass. The sultry pose she’d tried to affect afterwards had been largely negated by the fact that her face was bleeding heavily.
“The thing about being a thief,” the heroine said, “is that you have to learn to read people. Catch when they’re tired enough to dismiss footsteps on a rooftop, guess when they’re so impatient they’ll send a replacement servant through instead of checking the story.”
She drummed her fingers against the table, crossing one leg over the other.
“She plays it up well, the clumsiness and the slurring, but no matter how much hard liquor she puts away she’s never been more than tipsy.”
“You think she’s deceiving us,” William frowned.
“I think she’s playing it up for her audience,” Thief replied. “Isn’t that what Bards do?”
“She’s a heroine,” the Swordsman eventually said. “That much can’t be faked. Why would she bother to trick us when she’s on our side?”
The other Callowan passed a hand through her short hair, ruffling the tomboy cut as an uncomfortable look settled on her face.
“When we left for Summerholm, there were five heroes in our band,” the heroine said. “And we all knew going in that one of us would die to the Warlock – monsters like that don’t go easy. It couldn’t be you, because you have a mirror on the other side. Hunter was meant to be your right hand, ill-suited as he was to the role. You needed me to get into the city and to get out afterwards. That left…”
“Almorava and Simeon,” William finished. “Your point?”
“Both of them are bumblers,” Thief spoke quietly. “There was a redundancy. But how much of an impression did Conjurer make, compared to the Bard? He barely talked while she was always in the background, larger than life, drinking and badly strumming her lute.”
The Swordsman breathed in sharply. “What you’re suggesting borders on murder.”
“All she did was cover her bases,” she replied. “I can respect that, I really can. But I can’t trust it.”
“Almorava has always given me good counsel,” William said hesitantly.
“She’s given you advice that keeps her story moving along,” Thief retorted. “And I don’t know about you, but I’m not looking for a starring role in a tragedy.”
The dark-haired hero chuckled mirthlessly. “You might have joined the wrong cause, then.”
“Oh fuck this,” she snapped, falling to her feet. “I’ve had enough of the tormented warrior tourine. I don’t care how fucking tragic your backstory is: this isn’t about you. You wanna know why I came back? Because even if you screwed up spectacularly in Summerholm, you’re still the only option we’ve got. I’ve stolen some outrageous stuff in my time, but an entire kingdom? The Empire makes my Name a mockery every day, and it’s not going away on its own. So put on your big boy pants and get your shit together, William. Nobody’s asking you to clean up every mess in Callow, just to kill some villains with your godsdamned horrifying angel sword.”
Fury flashed through the Swordsman’s veins but he kept a lid on it. He’d earned this much and worse, for his failure against Warlock.
“I tried that, if you’ll recall,” he replied sharply. “It got Simeon killed and lost us our best chance at getting Daoine into the war.”
“Because you went about it wrong,” Thief informed him bluntly. “You’re the Lone Swordsman. The whole band of heroes motif runs against your Role. Gods know you couldn’t stand us half the time, anyway, and to be honest spending more than a day at a time with you makes me want to jump off the nearest cliff.”
“The whole point of assembling heroes was to even the odds against the Calamities,” the dark-haired man barked back, patience running thin.
“And that worked out great,” the heroine snorted. “So what if the odds are horrible? That’s what heroes do. Hells, when I first heard about you you were the guy who’d assassinated an Imperial Governess in broad daylight and blown up half of General Sacker’s face. You’re not incompetent, William. What you can’t handle, we will. Stop doing the things you think are clever and start doing what you’re actually good at.”
“And what,” the Swordsman replied coldly, “would that be?”
She tossed a parchment at him.
“Here’s a plan of the Praesi encampments. Kill the people that need killing. And before you slaughter your way through every officer in there, I want you to consider something.”
Thief leaned forward and looked into his eyes.
“Do you know what an antihero is? An idiot who thinks they can use Evil’s own methods to beat it. Here’s the thing about Evil, though – they’ve used those methods for a lot longer than you. They’re better at them. If you want to make a better world, maybe you should act like someone who deserves to live in it.”
She walked out of the tent before he could think of something to reply. It took him a quarter bell to realize that at some point during the conversation she’d stolen his purse.
The moon was almost full.
The white-enamelled armour he’d taken to wearing after the Hanging was back in his tent, traded in for his old chainmail and leather coat. It was… comfortable. Like he’d shed a skin that didn’t quite fit for one that did. The Stygians ran a good camp, with sentinels patrolling regularly, but that was the weakness in their system. Fixed intervals made it easy to infiltrate the place, once he knew the pattern. It wouldn’t do for the slaves to show initiative, would it? he thought with disgust. How many times had the whip been cracked on their back, before the ability to improvise had been beaten out of them for good? For all that Stygia was one the Free Cities, few enough of the men living there knew anything of freedom. Moving from shadow to shadow, William made his way to the large tent in the centre of the camp. Thief had marked it as the officer’s tent, and even from where he stood he could see lamps had been lit inside. Leaning behind a crate full of rations, the Swordsman waited as a single man passed him by on the way to the latrine trench. The wind moved a tent flap and the olive-skinned soldier glanced in his direction, mouth opening in surprise.
William’s fist impacted with his stomach, knocking the breath out of him. An armoured elbow to the back of the head saw the slave fall into unconsciousness, his body unceremoniously dumped into the crate where no one would find it. The hero hastened his steps after that: eventually someone would realize a man was missing, and the alarm would be raised.
There were more guards around the command tend, a tenth on patrol and one sentinel at every corner of the square hide structure. The patrol he outwaited, crouched behind a rack of pikes, but for the others he’d have to take a more proactive approach. Loosening the strap binding his sheathed sword to his belt, William took the makeshift blunt weapon in hand and closed his eyes. Breath in, breath out. His Name lit up inside him, turning his blood to smoke and dust. The cold strength took hold of him and in a single leaping bound he crossed the distance between himself and the closest guard, the pommel of the Penitent’s Blade hitting the back of his head. He could see the other guard in the back of the tent beginning to turn in his direction, but the movement was comically slow. The man might as well have been swimming through mud. Three steps blurred and the flat of the sheathed sword slapped the chin upwards, the strength of the blow enough that just sailing through the air it caused a small gust of wind. He had to catch the man by the back of the neck to prevent his unconscious body flying into the back of the command tent. Setting down the sentinel gently, he stepped away to drag the first one out of sight as well before Creation began to catch up with him. He let out a long breath, letting the power flow out of him.
Quietly, he unsheathed his dagger and cut a flap for him to slip inside. Eight men, he counted when taking a first glimpse. All olive-skinned with their heads shaved closely and wearing nothing but brown cloth pants and a leather cord around their necks. Miezan numerals had been branded between their shoulder blades. A man in his late fifties had a one, he glimpsed a pair of twos and the rest were threes. Officer rankings. He’d heard Stygian slavemasters gave sets of enchanted irons to burn away the numbers and brand new ones when the purchase was made, to accommodate field promotions. The inside of the tent was bare, with eight cots on the ground and a single low table where they were all seated on the ground. A carafe of wine sat in the middle of the table, with eight clay cups around it that were still mostly full. Sheathed short swords were laid on the ground behind each of them, within easy reach. They noticed the moment he entered the tent, and all the threes reached for their weapons – but the highest officer present raised a hand to stop them.
“Hero,” he said, his Lower Miezan lightly accented.
“Lone Swordsman,” William introduced himself.
“First Spear Ophon,” the man replied.
One of the officers spoke in a tongue the hero didn’t recognize, but Ophon smiled sadly.
“I’m afraid we are all already dead, Parthe,” he said. “Finish your cup. Raising an alarm will only cause the death of more brothers before he leaves.”
William stepped closer, then cast a look at the leader.
“May I?” he asked.
The older man looked amused. “By all means.”
He sat himself between the twos, setting the Penitent’s Blade across his lap. Ophon said something in the same tongue as earlier and the younger man picked up a cup and poured him wine, glaring heatedly all the while. William took a small sip, having no idea whatsoever whether this was a good vintage or not. He’d always preferred ale to wine in those rare instances he drank.
“You are here to kill us, yes?” Ophon asked mildly. “To hurt your enemy.”
William set down his cup. “You don’t sound very worried about that,” he observed.
“I have seen heroes fight, unlike these young men,” the leader replied. “I know the strength of a Name. Struggle will just mean a bad death. I would rather leave Creation peacefully, enjoying my last cup of wine.”
“Spears of Stygia do not break,” the man to William’s left broke in.
“Three cities stand between us and the Magisters, Thenian,” Ophon gently chided, “yet I hear their words still.”
The younger man looked down, abashed.
“I’d heard Heiress had freed you,” the Lone Swordsman murmured.
The man from earlier, Parthe, scoffed.
“Free, yes. Slaves do not get pay, she said, and we are to be paid after the war. Yet we bear the Strangler still,” he spat, tapping the leather cord around his neck. “A strange thing, this Praesi freedom.”
“Gifts from the Wasteland are always poisoned,” William said. “My people have learned that the hard way.”
“Yet it is not the Heiress who has come from our lives,” Thenian barked. “No matter the side, it is always the brothers who pay the corpse-price. My people have learned this the hard way.”
The Lone Swordsman brought the cup to his lips again. If he decided so, he could have every man in this tent dead before the cup hit the table. Swing, his third aspect. Not even Squire had been able to match his hits when he tapped into it, whether in swiftness or strength. The hero calmly put down his cup, rose to his feet, and let his Name flood his frame. The power spread through the air, thick and lingering. William put his hand on the hilt of his sword and followed his instincts.
One after the other, the leather cords dropped.
“There are no slaves in the Kingdom of Callow,” he said. “Not as long as I live.”
Most of them groped blindly for the collar they had been branded with since birth, faces alight with wonder at the reality that they could no longer die to whim of anyone owning their command rod. Not Ophon, though. Ophon finished his cup of wine with guarded eyes.
“And what, I wonder, is the price of this freedom?” he asked quietly.
The light winked out of the others’ eyes, and it made William want to flinch. Because he knew, here and now, that he could convince them to fight for him. He could feel the pivot forming, the weighted decision that would set the course of Fate. And the rebellion needed the troops so very badly, didn’t it? They would still be free, and fighting for a just cause. Would I not have been tempted, if I were a better man? Maybe. But he’d just seen the joy, and seen it disappear. Even now the faces shuttered at the prospect of trading one master for yet another. If you want to make a better world, Thief had said, maybe you should act like someone who deserves to live in it.
“Nothing,” he replied, and the words tasted like ashes in his mouth. “Once, years ago, my sister told me that freedom is the Gods-given right of everyone who was ever born. Would that I had listened to her sooner.”
He settled the sword back at his hip.
“I’ll need one of you to escort me as I go around the camp breaking the cords,” he said. “I can draw you a map if you need one, but south of Dormer along the river you should be able to find passage to Mercantis. There will be a battle with the Proceran mercenaries tomorrow, so I’d recommend swinging around north to be careful.”
Ophon poured himself a second cup. A long moment of silence passed, as all the others watched him carefully
“Above the gates of Stygia there is a statue of a magister,” he finally spoke. “He is a tall, proud man this magister. On his shoulders are two cranes, named Redress and Retribution. They are the patron spirits of the city, said to speak in the dreams of those deemed worthy.”
The soldier peered into his cup.
“Never has a slave been graced with such favour, but all men of Stygia live with that hope – even those who are not men at all, by the laws of the city.”
“I am an old man, hero,” he said. “I find I no longer have the patience to wait for the cranes. I would seek redress, of this girl who bought me. I would seek retribution, for the lie of false freedom.”
“First Spear-” one of the threes began.
“You are still young, Mamer,” he interrupted gently. “Do not be so eager to follow. You still have a life ahead of you.”
“Spears of Stygia do not break,” the two who’d remained silent until now rasped out. “Oaths were given. I would seek the cranes with my brother Ophon.”
“Retribution,” Thenian agreed softly, hands closing around his sword.
“Redress,” Parthe growled, and it had the weight of a promise.
William smiled, and for the first time in years it was genuine.