“There’s a lot of people in the Fifteenth who remember Marchford as the day we proved we could spit in the eye of Hell and get away with it. For me, though? It was the first time I ever put on legionary armour with pride. In the end, I think that might have meant more.”
-Extract from the “Forlorn Memoirs”, author unknown
The deserters, as I still thought of them, had painted over their shields. Even in the torchlight that illuminated the avenue where we stood, that much was easy to see. The red steel scutum were decorated with what looked like a golden noose. I’d already glanced several times at the one closest to me, and finally the light-skinned lieutenant by my side cleared his throat.
“Our company sign, Lady Squire,” he said.
I frowned. “Name?”
“Lieutenant Farrier,” he replied.
“And what does it mean, lieutenant?” I asked.
I wasn’t smiling, and that was enough to make the dark-haired man wary. Blue-eyed and not much taller than me, he looked like the very picture of what I’d always been told the average Callowan was. I wondered what he’d done, to end up in the Fifteenth. Nothing nice, I imagined. Lesser criminals don’t get to avoid death row by enrolling.
“Twice now, we avoided the hangman’s drop,” Lieutenant Farrier told me soberly. “The men decided we could use a reminder there won’t be a third.”
Laudably clear-thinking of them. As far as I was concerned, the formation of this company was the last chance they would get. Anything more would be detrimental to discipline and to be frank I’d run out of both excuses and willingness to keep them alive. I wasn’t as patient or forgiving as I’d used to be. Whether that was a good thing or bad one remained to be seen.
“Not a bad sign, for a Forlorn Hope,” I conceded.
He smiled, obviously relived.
“Gallowborne, we call ourselves,” the dark-haired man admitted drily. “Born of the gallows and headed for them again, should we falter.”
A sardonic smile tugged at my lips. Callowan humour at its finest. In the distance the bark of sharpers and the rumble of collapsing houses could be heard. There were fires too, lighting up the darkness like this was a summer festival outside the walls of Laure. The silence felt heavy and my leg was acting up again. The herbal brew I’d gotten from Masego had to be diluted, he’d told me, or it would dull my reflexes as well as the pain. I was learning how to stand so less weight rested on my bad leg, but I’d never done this with armour before. I’d forgotten how heavy plate armour actually was, having become accustomed to wearing it.
“They’re getting closer,” I said, more to keep my mind on something else than from any real interest in a conversation.
Lieutenant Farrier spat to the side.
“I’ll give this to the gobbos,” he said. “They’re nasty little pests, but they die hard and loud.”
“Those goblins are giving their lives to save thousands of innocent civilians,” I replied sharply.
The blue-eyed officer chewed on that for a while.
“They are, aren’t they?” he finally said. “They might do it ‘cause orders came from above, but that doesn’t change what they’re doing.”
“Things change, Farrier,” I spoke quietly. “Greenskins aren’t the enemy anymore. The Empire isn’t the enemy anymore, at least not the way it used to be.”
The officer grimaced.
“Permission to speak frankly, ma’am?”
I didn’t have to think much on that. Denying permission wouldn’t end whatever opinion Farrier held, and I’d rather have it out in the open even if I didn’t like it. Dissent forced underground could only fester.
“Fuck the Empire,” he said, spitting to the side again. “Fuck the Tower, and fuck the fucking Empress too.”
My brows rose. Certainly he wasn’t the only Callowan out there thinking that, but I had to give him a measure of respect for having the guts to actually vocalize it that bluntly.
“I won’t pretend I’m a good man, m’lady,” he continued. “Done some things the Heavens frown upon, that’s the truth of it. So did most the people here. But that don’t mean the Praesi get to hand us a sword, order us to kill their foe and then pretend they did us a favour.”
“You picked enrolment over hanging,” I pointed out.
“If I were that principled a man,” he grinned mirthlessly, “I wouldn’t have had the choice in the first place. Or tried to run afterwards. But there’s something wrong with punishing a man for having done bad by sentencing him to commit more bad in the judge’s name, you get me? Means the judge is crooked, and if they are why do they get to punish me in the first place?”
Because Praes is the law, I replied silently. Because Black and Malicia’s rule might not be just, but it is orderly and in a lot of ways better than what came before it. Because even when our rulers were heroes with the Mandate of Heaven behind them, there were still taxes and corruption and meaningless wars. And if I have to choose between a ruler that is virtuous and one who can balance the national finances, I already know who I’ll choose.
“This isn’t a bad fight, though,” he continued, shaking me out of my thoughts.
“And I don’t know about tomorrow, but tonight? I like what this stands for,” he admitted, lightly tapping the fifteen in Miezan numerals on his shoulder.
A thunderous detonation was heard in the distance and a cloud of smoke and fire went up in the sky. Robber’s last hurrah before he went into full retreat. Slowly, I unsheathed my sword.
“Here they come,” I said.
There was a bark of laughter from someone in the ranks.
Grim laughter spread through the deserters.
“The knights will get the glory,” someone sang.
“The king will keep his throne,” more replied.
I knew the song. Every Callowan did, though the days where it was sung in the open were long gone. If the Kingdom had ever had an anthem, this was it.
“We won’t be in the story
Our names will not be known,” I joined in.
A hundred voices chorused, deep and thin and with accents from all over the land.
“So pick up your sword, boy
Here they come again
And down here in the mud,
It’s us who holds the line.”
Dark silhouettes appeared at the edge of the torchlight, studying us in silence. I felt it the moment Masego finished the last part of his ritual, the one that trapped the devils in here with us. A hard smile stretched my lips.
“The Princes take the Vales
The Tyrant is at the Gate
Our crops whither and fail,
The enemy’s host is great.”
Oh, this wasn’t the first time devils tread Callowan soil. Our hatred for their kind was an old one, lovingly tended to over centuries of eastern armies bringing fire and brimstone to bear on our walls.
“So pick up your sword, boy
Here they come again
And down here in the mud,
It’s us who holds the line.”
The voices rang out defiantly into the night and I felt something well up in my breast, an old sentimentality I’d thought I’d left behind me. Pride in where I was from. Pride in what it meant to be Callowan, when all the surface trappings were stripped away.
“Man the walls, bare the steel,” we sang.
“Hoist the banner, raise the shield
A free man’s death they cannot steal
When we meet them on the field.”
The devils came, crawling through fire and smoke. Wails and howls rose, coming from just out of our sight as they massed for their assault. The monsters had finally assembled all their strength, and with screams of twisted glee they charged.
“So pick up your sword, boy,
Here they come again
And down here in the mud,
IT’S US WHO HOLDS THE LINE!”
Like a wave of flesh and claws, the devils fell upon us as the last word of the old anthem were screamed at their ranks. Because that was the heart of Callow, wasn’t it? Hard-eyed defiance even when the night was at its darkest. The shield wall behind me was forced back by the sheer brute force of the assault, but the deserters held. Jackal monsters, iron-clawed apes and a handful of horse-sized centipedes made up the first wave. The larger ones were lurking at the back, clever enough even in their frenzy to wait for an opening. The first devil to close on me was one of the ironhooks, as my legionaries had taken to calling them. It leapt over me, trying to make it behind the shields, but my hand struck out like a viper. I snatched it by the neck and let my Name flood my veins, squeezing as hard as I could. Its neck snapped like a twig and I casually tossed its corpse in the face of a jackal-headed monster to my left, the distraction allowing a legionary to thrust her sword in the devil’s belly.
That was enough to earn me some attention, and one of the big ones came for me. It looked like a hyena, or perhaps the nightmarish take of a child on what a hyena would be. It ran on four feet, its whole veined muscular body covered with spotted closely cropped fur. Its front limbs were longer than the back, and turned into hardened horn that split into long claws that almost resembled fingers – but that was not the part that stilled me. Its maw made up most of the face, full of snarling caressed by a snake’s tongue. Its eyes were pure white and filled with nothing but a frenzied desire for blood. The hide around its neck was massive, wrinkled and thick. Hacking through it would be difficult, I decided as I lowered my stance and brought up my sword. I’d have to go through the eyes or the belly.
Behind me the struggle of the devils against the shield wall was a deafening clang of metal and screams, but my men were holding. There was a cold anger in the Gallowborne, the weight an old hatred taught from the cradle and finally granted an outlet. My deserters greeted the host of Hell with steel and discipline, Callowan enmity forged into a sharp blade by Imperial drills. That brief thought was all the attention I could give them, for the devil was on me a heartbeat later. I took the impact but the monster was heavier than I’d thought: its mass was enough to blow me off my feet as it cackled madly. I bounced off the shield of the legionary behind me and landed in a crouch, my bad leg flaring up in vicious pain. The devil closed its maw around my sword arm, fangs grinding and sliding against the steel plate as it tried to rip it off. I cursed and took out my dagger, ramming it in the thing’s eye.
That got it to back off and howl loudly in my face, knife still stuck in. I limped forward, because if the devil got momentum again this was going to get ugly. It reared back and struck with the horn-like claws: I hobbled nimbly to the side and hacked my sword into its ear, scoring a wound that let out smoke instead of blood. It body-slammed me in the flank for my trouble but I was ready for it this time: my Name flared and I weathered the hit without flinching, my footing unimpeded. It made a noise of surprise and turned to bite again but I wasn’t done: gathering the threads of power still wreathing me, I forced them around my fist and sucker punched the devil in the stomach with a snarl. It let out a wheezing gasp, the force of the strike tearing flesh and making it ripple.
“Welcome to Marchford,” I rasped, ramming my sword into its other eye and placing a second hand on the hilt to heave and rip through until my blade tore through the mouth and came out smoking.
Its head almost entirely split in two, it fell to the ground twitching and lifeless.
“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” I finished as I slid my knife out of the corpse and back into its sheath.
While I’d been busy putting the devil down the deserters had been weathering the assault of the other monsters with admirable tenacity. I saw corpses on the ground and while the back of the company was a mess where the ironhooks had leapt over the shield wall and started tearing into soldiers, there was a pair of dead centipede abominations on the ground and more than a few jackal-headed monsters had been hacked to pieces by legionary blades. The shield wall was proving more than a match for the enemy’s bestial fury, which meant it was only a matter of time until the large devils intervened.
As if summoned by my thoughts, the second wave moved. That there were so few of them left was a testament to both Pickler’s talent for traps and Robber’s fearless triggering of them: aside from the hyena beast I’d put down, only four of the massive devils remained. Two of them were made of the same mould as the skinless ape I’d once put down with Kamilah’s line during my failed attempt to rescue the Fifteenth’s wounded, and I knew full well how dangerous those could be. The other two I eyed disdainfully: some bull’s ugly cousin and a lizard trying really hard to be a tiger. Those I’d leave to the Gallowborne, but the apes had a real chance of making the shield wall collapse if they managed to reach it. But that was why I was here, wasn’t it? I limped ahead of the line of battle, ducking under a jackal’ swing and rising to eviscerate it in the same smooth movement. It screamed from both mouths and I left it to cradle its guts, confident it would not trouble my soldiers. The skinless ape closest to me screamed his hatred in my general direction, but the other one was content to pass me by. That just wouldn’t do. Shadows formed into a ball in front of my free hand and the projectile shot like a bolt, hitting it in the stomach. The muscles and bones shattered, maggots flying everywhere.
“It’s bad form to ignore a lady when she asks for a dance,” I called out.
If the screaming was any indication, I had its attention now. Lovely. They closed on me as a pair, yet another indication that these bastards had gotten old enough to actually think ahead – would it have been too much to ask to get purely animalistic devils? I’d have to send Heiress a strongly worded letter on the subject. My repertoire of insults in both Mtethwa and Taghrebi was an ever-expanding thing. The devils barrelled towards me like a pair of runaway carts and I could already hear the child voices they mimicked – Gods, hopefully mimicked – calling out their pleas. I stood my ground until the last moment slowing my breathing. I could no longer slide and run around my battlefields, I knew this. I was too slow, now. Mobility was no longer my game, and in brute force I could not match either of the monsters without drawing deep into my Name: something I was warier of than ever before. The well of power felt shallower now. Like it might run dry, were I careless enough.
I would cope. I still remembered the first time I’d ever seen Black and Captain fight, when I’d still been fresh out Laure and wet behind the ears. Captain had moved like lightning and hit like an avalanche, but my teacher had still won the spar. And he’d won never moving quicker than at a walking pace, letting his positioning and footwork carry the battle for him. I wasn’t quite there yet, but that kind of fighting was not beyond me either. Especially against opponents still more mindless than mindful. There was a slight gap between the two devils, for they’d come at different angles. At the last moment I lowered my body and took a single step forward, letting the monsters pass me by and run into each other.
I smiled darkly as they spun into a tangle of limbs and shrill screams, pivoting to face them again. I let them rise without contest, knowing every moment I bought was allowing the Gallowborne to clear out more of the others.
“Lesson the first,” I informed them. “The most important parts of fighting are distance and footwork. Let’s try that again.”
When they came for me the second time, after extricating themselves, they were warier. They did not charge – one tried to catch my sword while the other tried to slip behind my back. I sidestepped the grasping limb and claimed a trickle of my Name, just enough power to cover the edge of my sword and allow it to cut clean through the devil’s flesh and wrist bone when I brought it down. Without missing a beat, I caught the maggot-spilling appendage and threw it in the stride of the devil charging at my back, taking another measured step right out of its way as it tripped and collided with its brethren. Down again they went, in a tangle of limbs.
“Lesson the second,” I said. “I am not a swordswoman. Swordsmanship is the ‘tame sport they teach noble children’, or so I’ve been told. What I learned was to kill well and quickly, while giving as few openings as possible.”
My lecturing did not seem very popular with my audience. Lots of screaming all around. It troubled me how easy I was finding it to ignore weeping pleas made in a child’s voice.
“I’m hearing a lot of whinging, boys,” I said. “Get your shit together, would you?”
Well, I thought as they charged like angry bulls the moment they got to their feet, taunting works on devils. That’s good to know. I did not move, because moving out of fear was wasteful. I did not strike, for striking without purpose was meaningless. I breathed out calmly and watched them come closer with every moment, gauging the distances. The first one’s fist grazed my shoulder as my sword curved, cleanly lopping off the devil’s head. I spun to let the other one pass me by, reaching for my Name one last time. The shadow spear burst out and tore through its head before it took a fourth stride past me. A heartbeat passed, then the two corpses fell. I brushed a few maggots off my shoulder.
“Lesson the third,” I spoke to the dead. “Callow is under my protection. Tread its ground at your own peril.”
Behind me, the deserters let out a yell and advanced, encircling the last few remaining devils in circles of steel shields. They pressed forward close so that the monsters didn’t even have room to move, swords thrusting into soft spots with vicious enthusiasm. I limped back to them slowly, sheathing my blade, and by the time I got there we were the only living creatures left standing.
“Wounded to the designated spot,” I called out. “The rest of you, with me. We’ve still got one last mess to clean up.”
For once, the cheers felt like they had been earned.