“It’s hard for people to understand what it means to have been part of the Fifteenth. We were farmboys and thieves, not people that were ever supposed to matter. Fodder for noose and ledger. But then she came along, and told us we were to be the doom of gods. Heavens forgive me, but I believed her then and believe her still.”
– Extract from the ‘Forlorn Memoirs’, author unknown
The banners flew tall in morning wind, carried by the Gallowborne. Two banners now, for I had not forgotten my promise to Talbot. A silver fifteen in Miezan numerals set on black was the herald of my legion, the standard under which it would fight until we were all ground to dust by time or steel. I kept to the colours, but by emblem was different. Silver scales shivered over us, measuring a crown and a sword. The sword weighed heavier, as much on cloth as it did in Creation. House Foundling’s words were sewed under them, the one debt I owed Akua Sahelian I would never be able to repay. Justifications matter only to the just. Grim words, perhaps, but none had rung more true since I’d taken the knife and the offer behind it. Juniper had not commented on them after an initial guarded glance. The two of us marched with the vanguard, though when we came in sight of Dormer she would retreat to her command post to rule over the battlefield. The Hellhound killed with her mind, not her hands. She was more terrible an opponent for it.
Ahead of us lay plains that had once been green, before Summer came to own them. Now half the land was scorched black and the rest lusher than was possible in Creation. Orchards bore fruits regardless of the season, fields already harvested grew again tall and golden wheat. There would be food shortages, in the coming months. My homeland had seen war twice in three years, this one even more devastating than the last. Even if the blackened earth was made cultivable again, how many of those fields would lack men to till them? Summer had killed many, harmed more and I knew Akua would bring deeper wounds still. She was of the old breed, the one whose madness was worthy of some awe if only for the scale of its folly. Walking the aftermath of Three Hills I’d gotten a glimpse of what that felt like. Seen fate written in mud and blood and eerie green flame, and though doom had lurked in that vision when I’d thought of embracing it I had felt so gloriously alive.
I’d fought battles since then. Desperate ones, and the pull of that first moment had long faded. It would have been a lie to say I did not still relish in victory, in breaking whatever lay in path, but I had been tempered by so many dances on the blade’s edge. It was one thing to gamble the lives of strangers for your purposes, to risk it all on a roll of the dice, but I’d come to dread it. I’d won more often than not, so far, but how long could I keep that up? My mistake had been coming to love them. It was also my last saving grace. How easy it would have been to become like Black, utterly divorcing affection and necessity, if I’d not found a family in my companions. My teacher had done great things, by embracing that cold unfeeling clarity. But atrocious ones as well, and I would not follow him down that road. The more my Name and the mantle I had stolen from Winter set me apart from humanity, the more I understood I had to grasp tightly onto it. The thing I’d become otherwise would care nothing for what I wanted to build.
“We’ve come a long way from the College, haven’t we?” I said.
For once, Juniper did not chide me for being foolishly sentimental. The Hellhound had been my opponent once, I thought, if never quite my enemy. It felt like a colourless dream now. I’d grown to rely so much on her that I’d feel lost if she was gone.
“Didn’t think much of you, back then,” she grunted. “Too mouthy. Not as clever as you believed you were.”
“I never did manage to get the drop on you, after the once,” I chuckled.
It was a strange thing, recognizing that someone was cleverer than you. And Juniper was, I would not deny it. It wasn’t so clear-cut a thing as most people pretended when posturing, of course. Cleverness was no perfect shield. The smartest woman in the world could be outmanoeuvred by a fool, under the right circumstances. Or by luck, or by a myriad other factors that no one ever really liked to talk about. But the fact remained that Juniper saw things I didn’t, when it came to strategy. Pondered a few steps deeper, arranged her thoughts more clearly. Diabolist did the same, when it came to plotting, and it had little to do with her Name. There was always someone better. I’d felt slighted by that when I was younger, as if just by being me I had to be the best at everything I undertook. Nowadays I just felt relieved, that I had someone at my side who could steer us away from the mistakes I would have made. Was there anything more worthless than pride, if the cost of it was the death of those precious to you?
“You always get strange before battles,” Juniper sighed. “After too, sometimes. Like you’re far away.”
That was pretty funny, coming from a woman who was in the custom of finding high ground to sleep on whenever a fight was finished. And that was without mentioning how she’d apparently napped through the latter part of the Battle of Marchford.
“You’re odder than me,” I said. “Calm as you are. Nauk can’t stop grinning for half a day before a battle.”
“Hakram doesn’t,” she said.
“Hakram’s different,” I replied.
She grunted, conceding the point.
“Used to think he was a coldblood,” Juniper admitted. “Everything was surface deep with him. Nothing real under.”
Coldblood. A disease of the mind, I’d been taught. People who felt less, didn’t get remorse or really understand consequences. Adjutant had told me some things in the dark that let me see why she’d thought him one. What she’d taken for absence was just apathy.
“I take after my father more,” the orc said.
I looked at her, surprise. She rarely talked about her family, and what little she did was only about her mother.
“He’s the one who raised you, right?” I said.
“Until the College,” she said. “He’s always been… calm.”
“So he lost the rite of raising,” I said.
The orc looked amused.
“Read that in a Soninke book, did you?” she said.
“Taghreb, I think,” I shrugged. “I had a lot of books plopped onto my lap before meeting you, the titles kind of meld together nowadays.”
“The custom exists,” she said. “But only Praesi think it’s common. If a couple needs to fight to choose who’ll raise the child, they shouldn’t be having children. It’s a sign of immaturity.”
“Well, I learned something today,” I mused.
She bared the faintest hint of her fangs in what I knew to mean amusement. Or flirtation. Probably the former, all things considered.
“I have it too,” she said suddenly. “My mother’s blood. The battle-joy.”
I studied her in silence.
“I was born for this,” she said. “Of this. It’s what I am and I can’t remember ever craving anything else.”
It was always hard to tell with orcs, but I thought she looked uncomfortable. Almost ashamed. No fangs visible, hairless brows pressing together.
“We’re supposed to want glory for the clan,” she said. “To make our own grow stronger. But all I saw were fucking huts and cattle and I couldn’t wait to leave. I almost ran away, when I was younger. There’s only so many times you can sketch out formations in the dirt before you feel choked.”
I knew that feeling. I had followed me in Laure, when I was waiting tables and picking up bruises in the Pit when I should have been in the Wasteland, learning at the College. Like I was just wasting away my days. That I should have been out there doing something, anything but just sifting through the muck to earn enough coin to really begin my life.
“I hate the orphanage, at the end,” I quietly said. “It wasn’t that they were out to get me, it was just…”
“In the way,” Juniper finished. “Quicksand you’d get stuck in if you waited too long.”
She laughed hoarsely.
“I used to fight battles in my head when herding aurochs,” the orc said, almost sounding like she was mocking herself. “All the victories of the Conquest, how I could have won them better.”
“I kept a tally of who I’d kill when I had the authority,” I admitted. “Mazus was always top of the list. But then he hanged, and it had little to do with me.”
“What Lord Black was to you,” she said. “You were to me.”
My face flickered in surprise.
“Not a mentor,” she growled, but the irritation petered out. “The offered hand, I mean. If I hadn’t become your legate I’d be a junior officer in someone else’s legion right now. I never thanked you for that.”
“Don’t,” I said. “I wouldn’t have gotten this far without you, Juniper. Stings to admit it, but it’s true.”
“Wouldn’t be the same without you either,” she said. “It’s not about the rank, Catherine. The rank is just what gets me there. I want…”
There was something burning in my general then that I’d never seen in her before. I’d seen her cold and amused and furious and irritated more times than I could count. I’d even seen her tender, though only with Aisha.
“More,” she said, sounding angry at the inadequacy of the word. “Three Hills, Marchford even Arcadia. No one’s fought like that before. We get to make that. They’ll study our battles, centuries from now. Some other girl stuck herding godsdamned aurochs will think about our mistakes, how she could have outsmarted our opponents.”
“Making history,” I mused.
“Fuck history,” she said. “We’re changing the face of war. And it’s just beginning, Catherine. The storm ahead will make this all look like drizzle.”
Ahead was Dormer, the full might of Summer and the Queen that ruled it. But she thought beyond that, and so did I. The Diabolist had carved doom out of stone and sorcery, and she would not quietly into the night. And on the horizon, Procer sharpened its blades. In a year or ten, the Principate would come calling and with the greatest army on the face of Calernia. There would be heroes in that host, and not like the ones I’d killed. The real legends, the heroes weren’t bound to small stories like mine. The Calamities were the greatest monsters of the age, but they’d lived so long because they kept their wars small and their enemies distracted. One day the great Named of the other side would come forward and the old wars would be born again. Those that warped the lands, flattened mountains and burned cities. I’d have to be ready for them, for the people who wanted to make my home the battlefield of the continent again. If I could not have peace in truth, then I would settle for the peace of the grave.
It was the kind of victory I’d been trained for.
“I don’t think,” I said quietly, “that we’ll be remembered fondly. Not you, and certainly not me.”
“Ah,” Juniper of the Red Shields smiled. “But they will remember us.”
Silence reigned for a long moment after that, more comfortable than I would have thought. The Hellhound wasn’t someone who felt the need the fill the air with words when she had nothing to say. Something I’d grown to appreciate, since Archer had joined by band. The quiet was how I came to hear it even though the wind blew the other way and we were ahead of the thick of the host. The Fifteenth and its allies trailed at our back like a great snake of glittering steel, and it was from my legionaries that the song came. Lightly, at first, the words indistinct even to my Name-sharpened ears. But after the first time it was sung, thousands more voices joined in. Even the vanguard around us.
“I was born out in the green where their banners flew high
And the boots of the great lords they did tread over us
Oaths we made and service gave, kneeling to the oldest lie
But now the world’s turned around and we sing this chorus.”
Orcs and goblins. Soninke and Taghreb. But, most of all, Callowans. The muster of my homeland sang, light and bright but there was such anger underneath. It scared me. My veins sang with it, but it scared me.
“Come forth you old devils,
Bring out your lesser evils
Blight the skies and the land
You’ll be met sword in hand
One day your children’ll tell
Of the deep and rebel yell,
That on his field so sombre
Conquered host of horror.”
Juniper looked up at the sun. The red-painted steel had warmed over the march, though like most orcs she did not sweat easily.
“I wondered if they’d sing it,” she said.
“You knew about this?” I said quietly.
“Aye,” she said. “Nauk penned part. Named it too. In Dread Crowned.”
Gods, what had I unleashed? I’d thought I understood. That I had crafted an escapement for what would have made Callow claw at itself, a release that would let it change and escape the curse that defined it. But it wasn’t just Callowans that sang. Greenskins and Praesi joined their voices to the chorus, and though their anger was of a different make it was no less harsh for it. There was a story the House of Light liked to use in sermons. That on the day of the First Dawn, the Gods Below had created all the evil in the world and released it. The Gods Above had caught it all in the box without a lock, and Creation would have been as the Heavens had the first of men not opened it, seduced by the whispers of devils promising godhood lay within. That was why the brothers and sisters taught rules, the priests said. So that on the last of days, when Good triumphed, the evils would be forced into the box again. Again it would be without a lock, but mankind would have learned. They would not open it again.
I’d carved a crack into the box and now the insides were spilling out. It hadn’t been evils, inside. It had been anger. Bitter old anger that had not before been given a banner to rally under. It had one, now. It flew behind me, scales that weighed crown and sword and found the crown wanting. There was a promise there I had not meant, but was written for all to see.
“On the plain where folk were fair we stood and greatly slew,
And by the ford a score devils with a great demon too
Prince and page and swordsman proud to our steel they all fell
The world stolen we take back and damn you all to Hell
The chorus came again. My blood ran cold, and pressed against my ear the Beast laughed. It was awake, alive and savouring every moment of this with malevolent glee. Blood, it whispered. There will be blood over this. The Fifteenth Legion sang, and declared war on the mighty of the world. My general was looking at me.
“You promised a revolution, Warlord,” Juniper said.
She bared her teeth, perfect ivory fangs.
“We will not settle for anything less.”
She laughed, harsh but joyous.
“Did I not tell you?” she said. “They will remember us.”
It spread. To the legionaries of the Twelfth and the Fourth, men and women not bound to me. To the Deoraithe, though not as many. I had gathered forty thousand soldiers to my banner, and they sang of treason to the morning sky. I could hear refrains in it, slivers of people I knew. Robber’s sharp, vicious smile as he whispered they kill us for sport. The fever in Ratface’s eyes as he said they’ll never stop unless we make them. Pickler’s warning, echoed in every chorus. It’ll be to the death, Foundling. Do not begin this lightly. I’d spoken the words. Those had consequences, for Named more than any other. If you employ violence, the Empress had told me, in violence they will follow. I had not made peace. I had traded one war for another, and this one would be a thousand times bloodier than the last. I would be woe unto all I beheld, the Queen of Summer had so sadly told me. There had been a weight to the name when it was granted to me and finally I was feeling it in full. I’d thought I owned this, because I’d been the one to speak the words. That I could control it. Oh but the arrogance of that. You couldn’t break open a dam and order the river.
I had taught them this. And Gods, they had learned. One decision after another, spitting in the eye of gods and compromise both, and I had promised them that if we paid the butcher’s bill we could change the world. I’d told Archer that there was something happening in the Empire beyond any of us. That they were not in control. Neither, I understood then, was I.
“Be they high or resplendent our oaths stand taller still
And in the west do quiet lie graves we have yet to fill
Learn ye mighty that from Tower’s shade to vales of red
The Fifteenth by call of horn stands ever crowned in dread.”
The song carried us all the way to Dormer. Behind broken walls Summer awaited us, a riot of silk and steel not of Creation. We had made good time, as it was not long past Noon Bell. We had until dawn before a god in the flesh came to destroy us.
It was no longer, I thought, the worst of my problems.