“Peace is a fine thing, but war is the crucible of crowns.”
– Queen Elizabeth Alban of Callow
There was something oddly intimate about being dressed, even if it was with steel instead of skirts. It began with the grieves, Hakram kneeling at my feet to tighten the straps. He was tall enough there was need of stool to put my foot on, since even kneeling he still reached near my chin. He had clever fingers, belying their size, and though he was not gentle he was quite meticulous. Then the pua, the long thigh and lower leg piece with an articulation at the knee. Over my aketon I put on a shirt of mail in the legion style, six interlocked rings spreading into a thick cover, and as he reached out for the vambraces I set the breastplate over the mail myself. The straps were hardened leather, reinforced with iron, and they creaked as I tightened them. I held out my arms for him to fit with the vambraces, watching his face crease with concentration. Pauldrons followed, marked only with the Miezan numerals of the Fifteenth instead of the heraldry and titles that were gathering to me like flies to honey. Armguards were adjusted to my comfort and articulated gauntlets finished the portrait. The fingerbends looked like fins, I’d always thought. There were usually stained red by the end of a fight, with either my blood or my opponent’s. The gorget clasped tight around my throat, and though uncomfortable I knew better than to whine. I’d killed enough people through the throat to know leaving it open was sheer stupidity.
I’d expected to be presented with my old open-faced helmet as the last of steel to bear, but what I was offered was different. This one was not of Legion make, with hinged cheeks and a flat noseguard in front. It had a long tail to cover the back of my neck, true, but there was a flap in the back through which my ponytail was meant to go. The cheeks were fully covered, going into a long angled mouthguard crafted so it would rest against my gorget. The strip of steel that served as noseguard was shorter than I was used to, and above it was a ridge of steel meant to prevent blades sliding down into my exposed face. What had been forged above the ridge was what had me frowning: it was crown. Black iron set into the helmet, not jutting, but a crown nonetheless. My eyes flicked to Adjutant.
“You know I do not wear ornate armour,” I said.
“I know your teacher does not,” the orc said, and pressed my palm against the steel. “It is not him we follow.”
This isn’t a squire’s armour, I thought. It is a queen’s, and her crown is black. For all that I had avoided the regalia of my rising rank, it seemed it had finally caught up to me.
“Vicequeen,” I reminded the orc.
“For how long?” he asked quietly.
I winced. Months, perhaps a year. But Black was not one to go back on his word, and he’d given it. A crown for me, so long as I readied Callow for war. Maybe he was right. Maybe it was time to get rid of the fig leaf. Past a certain point reticence was more arrogance than humility. Or, even more to my distaste, a form of fear. I lowered my head and let Hakram set it down on my brow. The cold touch of steel was no burden, but the promise it bore was different story.
“It is fitting, I think,” I murmured, and Hakram’s eyes met mine. “That you would be the one to crown me.”
His face twitched at that, a flinch only half-swallowed. My gauntleted hand reach for his arm and squeeze him comfortingly.
“I have relied on you for so many things, since you were my sergeant,” I said.
“I did what I could,” Adjutant replied gruffly.
He looked away, and were he anyone else I would have thought him abashed.
“We made a deal once, under moonlight,” I said.
“That was no deal, Catherine,” the orc said. “That was an oath and I stand by it. I called you Warlord then, and I don’t regret it. I don’t keep to the old ways, not like Nauk, but it is no empty word. I haven’t used it since because it-“
He scowled, unsure of himself for once.
“It’s not the right title, not for the two of us,” he finally said. “Too shallow in the wrong places. We are more than war.”
It was times like these I understood how peculiar Hakram truly was, compared to others of his kind. It wasn’t his temperament, or his way with people. There was an underlying threat to the way orcs like Nauk and Juniper and every other orc I’d met saw the world, and in Adjutant it was absent. I thought much of the Hellhound, but never would I imagine her saying we are more than war. It would go against her nature. To my general peace was the wait between campaigns, rule a necessary evil best left to the hands of others. Since he’d come in my service, Hakram had acted in myriad ways: diplomat, steward, tactician and warrior. A confidant, too, and how many times would my temper have led my astray if not for his calming influence? It’d been my Name that gathered the Woe, but it was Adjutant who was keeping them together. That much was becoming undeniable as the weeks passed. It would have been easy to dismiss this as part of his Name, becoming whatever I needed him to be, but Names did not come from nothing. There had to be will behind them, an intent to fill the gaps I left without ever realizing it. There were a great many victories to my name, nowadays, but few of them would have been possible without the tall orc quietly going behind me and doing the labour I never even considered needed to be done.
I wondered if this was what Scribe felt like to Black: a limb whose absence left you a cripple in all the worst of ways. I’d made much of my feelings for Kilian, lately, and the ever-complicated knot that was my relationship with my teacher, but if I had to name the person I loved most in the world it was the orc standing in front of me. Because he’d chosen to trust me when he had nothing to gain, long before a Name came into it. Because he was a decent man and he still believed in what we did – and as long as I had that, that shining truth tucked away in the back of my mind, it did not matter what horrors I hitched my course to. Hakram was perhaps my closest friend in the world, but more than that he was compass. Without him I would be lost in more ways than one.
“Oaths bind both ways,” I said. “The part that is mine to uphold, do you judge it upheld?”
He laughed quietly.
“You’ve always kept your eyes on the horizon,” he said. “On the next task, the next enemy, the next war. Look down, Catherine Foundling. See where you are.”
In his deep-set eyes there was something feverish, the fire he always kept under lock and key let loose for my sake.
“We’re winning,” he said. “Just by standing here, we’re winning. Because they only rule us only as long as we let them, and the moment that truth bleeds it dies. They can kill every last one of us and it won’t matter, because as long as the banner’s been raised once someone will rise to carry it again.”
Baring fangs, he met my eyes.
“They wouldn’t let us have a seat at the table, so we broke it,” Hakram said, and there was a savage satisfaction to him. “That will not go quietly into the night, no matter what happens today.”
“It’s going to get worse,” I said quietly. “After Diabolist. We know her kind, what it can do: rise tall and fall just as hard. It’s the people behind her we need to end, and they’ve owned the Wasteland since before it had that name.”
“How tall the spears, and great the host,” he spoke in Kharsum, cadenced and low,” This empire’s bier, of graven ghosts.”
His smile grew sharp, and there was not a thimble of mercy to be found in it.
“They say the last of the Warlords spoke that verse, after the Miezans destroyed the holy grounds of the Broken Antlers,” Hakram said. “We were great, in those days, great as any power birthed since.”
The Beast stirred under my skin, coiling lazily as it tasted the stench of death in the air – death past, and death yet to come.
“That’s the thing with eras, Catherine,” Adjutant said, hard-eyed and proud. “They come to an end. So let’s bury it together, the two of us – this fucking Age of Wonders they built on our backs.”
I clasped the arm he offered, and it felt like an oath.
Liesse looked like the gates of some godforsaken hell. The walls of sun-kissed stone had covered in great runes and the pale blocks had withered like fruit on the vine. Atop them stood unmoving thousands facing us, and though this was a fortified city and not a fortress they were tall ramparts and well-built. Behind them the labyrinth of alleys and shops would be crawling with wards and undead: we’d bleed for every street. I’d taken this city once before, fought my way through the Lone Swordsman and his army, but this was a different kind of threat. This was Akua Sahelian, and though I bore her no small hatred I would not deny she was cunning, ruthless and powerful. The Diabolist had called the last of the Truebloods to her side, gathered sorcerers and warlocks and every breed of practitioner the Wasteland could boast. The elements unleashed was the least of what I could expect. There would be devils, and perhaps even demons. She’d gone too far to flinch at the notions of what might come if she failed. What made Akua dangerous beyond all that, though, was displayed before the city.
Thirty thousand undead stood, but not in simple ranks. As I marshalled armies from every corner of Callow, Diabolist had prepared her grounds to receive me. A ditch had been dug and palisade raised behind it, wights with spears massed behind. Three bastions of rough stone had been raised behind, filled with mages and what few siege engines she had. No great fortifications, these, but our own trebuchets and scorpions would be lower on the ground and would have to be brought into range as hers awaited. To the sides of the ditch stakes had been hammered into the ground with broad depths, a clear deterrent for my knights. The nature of my forces was not unknown to her, and she knew that between the two of us it was me who was pressed for time. There’d been talk of assaulting the other walls, since this front was so deeply fortified, but though there would be such an attempt the main thrust would have to be through this direction. It was where the gates were, the weak point in the defensive wards. The fortifications facing Procer were the newest, since that side had once been facing Lake Hengest and had lacked any fortifications, but since then she’d raised walls atop a sharp slope of beaten earth and anchored wards in them. The stretch between those walls and the Ducal Palace had been made into a killing field worthy of Summerholm.
It was the most direct way to the heart of her ritual, but the casualties we’d taken forcing our way through there would be… staggering. That knowledge, about the anchor of her ritual, had come without any need for spying. Above Liesse, Akua Sahelian’s madness was laid bare for all of Creation to witness. Pillars of darkness rose from the roof of the palace half a dozen leagues into the sky, where their true nature was revealed: a cage. Like claws the darkness clasped a gargantuan orb of roiling smoke, ever-moving and testing the confine. Only a handful of people on the field knew the true nature of it for sure, though I suspected the Warlock would divine it after a closer look. He’d helped design the containment wards about to be activated around the city, after all. The souls of the Deoraithe cast a heavy shadow on the morning sky, becoming more a stormy dusk the closer one came to the city. Millions upon millions, accumulated since before Praes stood a single nation or the Miezan so much as caught sight of Calernia’s shores. It was, I thought, almost as deep a desecration as Akua’s casual slaughter of a hundred thousand innocents. Almost.
“Not impressed,” Archer volunteered. “Now if she’d set the sky on fire that would be something, but this is just decorative.”
“Shut your fucking mouth,” Juniper spat. “Lord Black is about to speak, and if I miss a single word because you’re whining you’ll regret it.”
The Fifteenth, for once, would not take the vanguard of the fight. That would be the duty of the veteran legions, with my men serving as a mobile reserve to be deployed when the city was breached. The field outside was not ours to take. I’d gathered most my people regardless, since the Woe would have duties before it came to the fighting in the streets. Thief was the most glaring absence, come to camp only for a few hours when we’d first arrived and then disappearing into Liesse again. She’d given me priceless information, though, and though she would not be fighting there was one last task ahead of her. Hierophant was clearly bored out of his skull, impatient with anything that did not involve toying with the wards he’d spent several weeks designing, and Archer was even worse. She’d gotten restless the moment she saw the armies arranged, spoiling for a fight. Juniper’s general staff stood with her and as usual Hakram was the lone isle of serenity to be had. As for Robber and his cohort, they were my knife in the night. What I had in mind for them did not involve being out in the open.
“Archer, don’t assault my general,” I said absent-mindedly. “I don’t have a spare.”
Juniper sneered in my direction, but did not comment. She’d been telling everyone to be silent for a half hour now, long before Black was even close to making an appearance. He was out now, though. Atop his dead horse barded in steel, in bare plate from head to toe and black cloak streaming behind him. He’d offered me the right to make the address, but I’d declined. Speeches had never been my strength – I worked best with small numbers. I would have to learn the skill, eventually, but this was too important a battle for fumbling. Horse passing before the armoured ranks of the Legions, my teacher slowed his mount and came to rest. When he spoke, it was with sorcery behind his voice: there was not a soul in our host that would not hear him.
“We have fought this war before,” he said, and his words washed over us like a wave.
There was pause, but not long enough for stillness to set in. I could admire the skill of it – his fame as an orator was not unearned.
“Forty years ago, we fought it from the Steppes to the Hungering Sands,” he said. “Twenty years before that it was fought as well, and again and again all the way back to the days of the Declaration. A thousand battles spanning a thousand years.”
The Black Knight’s power filled the air like a haze, and even where I stood I could feel it whispering to me.
“Legionaries,” he called, a bone-deep shiver giving answer. “Look atop those walls and know you face a millennium of blood and arrogance staring down at you. You know that banner. Your fathers and mothers fought under it, against it. Under that standard Callow was bled a hundred times. Under that standard, Praes tore itself apart at the whims of the mad and the vicious. Are you not tired? I am.”
He laughed, a thing of dark and bitter anger.
“I have fought this war since I was a boy,” he said. “And so have you, in every shop and field and pit there is to be found in this empire. There is no peace with this foe, only struggle from dawn to dusk.”
His voice rose.
“Legionaries,” he called. “You of Praes and Callow, of Steppes and Eyries, you have fought this war before and won it. Forty years ago, we broke the spine of the High Lords. Yet here they stand before us, fangs bared. Will you let this challenge go unanswered?”
It was the orcs that begun. Feet stamped the ground, swords were hammered against shields. It came and went like a summer storm, deafening in sudden fury and sudden absence.
“I will not tell you our cause is just, for justice does not win wars,” he said. “I will not tell you victory is deserved or assured, for Creation owes nothing. If the world refuses you your due, then declare war upon all the world.”
His sword cleared the scabbard, the sound of sharpness and steel a call to war.
“On this field, on this day, two truths rule,” he said. “There is only one sin.”
“DEFEAT,” sixty thousand voices screamed back.
“There is only one grace.”
Shields rose, swords unsheathed, horns sounded and with that last word filling the air the Second Battle of Liesse began.