“Red the flowers, red the crown
Red this day of bleak renown
How soon they forgot Eleanor
Along every oath they swore
Red the flowers, red the wreath
Red the sword that left the sheath
Now a king lies dead on the grass
Taught the vows of princes pass
Red the flowers, red the grave
Red the biers of knights so brave
They who thrice rode and died
Under banners of olden pride
Red the flowers, red the right
Red the fires this day will light
For every slight there is a price
Ours will be long and paid twice.”
-‘Red The Flowers’, a Callowan rebel song written in the wake of the Proceran occupation of Callow
It had been some time since Amadeus had last inhaled the scent of carnage. The dawn of the third day brought with it strong winds and burning sun: the corpses were rotting in the heat, the smell of them carried to the third line of fortifications in the southern valley. The Iron Prince had ordered a halt to the offensive with nightfall, the crusaders setting camp among the ruined walls and bastion they’d spent the day taking at such great cost. Papenheim was not fresh to the art of war: he knew better than to engage a Praesi army under cover of dark. Especially one that’d had most a year to raise siege engines goblins would field and aim perfectly when the crusaders stumbled along blindly with torches and holy flames. Grem stood by his side atop the tower known as the southern half of the Bloody Twins, the unusually slender orc towering two feet above him. Marshal Grem One-Eye spat over the wall, staring at the enemy stirring in the distance.
“They’re not wasting time,” the orc said. “Papenheim wants to bludgeon through as quick as possible, looks like. You were right about that much.”
Amadeus remained silent, for the moment. Grem had been of the opinion that there’d be probing attacks to weather but no serious offensive until the armies of Levant arrived to reinforce the Iron Prince’s sixty thousand Procerans. The initial span of the war had leant credence to the orc’s prediction, but after the crusaders up north passed through the Stairway the old Lycaonese had begun his march in earnest. There were political considerations at work, the Black Knight suspected. Cordelia Hasenbach had called this crusade and assembled the alliance, but mistrust still reigned between Procer and its temporary allies. Even just the impression that she intended to bleed Levant instead of her own armies would raise the spectre of suspicion within the Grand Alliance. The old fear of Proceran expansionism haunted her regime still. Amadeus could sympathize. Past Dread Emperors had burned all the Empire’s diplomatic bridges so thoroughly most ruins were still actively smouldering. It had taken Alaya more than two decades to craft a rapprochement with Ashur, and it’d still all gone up in flames after only a few months of diplomatic correspondence between Hasenbach and Magon Hadast.
“I’m not so certain he’s fully committed,” Amadeus finally replied. “The First Prince needs blood on the floor to show her allies, but Papenheim has not been careless in his advance. He’s willing to trade but not outright sacrifice.”
“Thinning our numbers is the best way for them to win this,” Grem conceded. “They’ve certainly got the levies to throw away.”
The legions garrisoning the Red Flower Vales numbered six. Twenty-four thousand men in full. The First under Grem was holding the southern passage along with Mok’s Third and Sacker’s Ninth. Marshal Ranker and her Fourth were leading the defence of the northern valleys, commanding the freshly-rebuilt Twelfth and Nekheb’s Tenth. That last legion they’d had to employ sparingly. General Catastrophe, as they were fondly called by their living soldiers, fielded a legion of undead captained by necromancers. But even alone the dragon was a force to reckon with. Combined with foot soldiers they could torch along the enemy at no great loss? Nekheb could turn around a battle, if well deployed. They were also, unfortunately, very vulnerable to heroes. Dragonslaying was an old heroic staple, and there was at least one hero on the opposite side with an archery-related Name. Wanton use would only result in the death of one of their primary assets.
“We’ve been light on losses so far,” Amadeus noted. “And we still hold three of the five defensive lines in both passes. It cost them at least seven thousand to get this far in.”
“Less,” Grem replied. “If our effectiveness estimates on their priests is solid, anyway. We’ll need to start deploying our contingencies today to blunt their momentum.”
Amadeus looked at the glittering wall of steel forming in the distance, brow creasing.
“You hold command,” he said. “I am here in an advisory role.”
The orc barked out a laugh.
“Meddling’s in your blood, Amadeus,” he said. “You can’t help it.”
“And yet my role remains advisory,” the Black Knight mildly replied. “I would caution you that sending Warlock onto the field before the enemy revealed their own Named casters will have consequences, but the the choice is ultimately yours.”
Marshal Grem One-Eye half-squinted at the enemy, then cracked his neck. When they’d been young, the orc had done it purely for the satisfaction. Now his bones creaked and bent with age, the one enemy neither of them could defeat on the field.
“We’ve got a few tricks to deploy before ol’ Red Skies gets off his arse,” Grem decided. “Let’s see how they like the taste of those.”
Amadeus inhaled the scent of it again. Blood and rotting flesh, shit and steel and a hundred other small things drowned out by them. It was still thin, for now.
It would grow stronger before the day was done.
Klaus had been raised to the old military dictum of never assaulting a fortress unless you had three times the enemy’s number. Back in the Empire the first Terribilis had noted in his Ars Tactica that twice the number was sufficient if you had spellcaster superiority, but that was a worthless piece of advice for anyone but the Praesi. You couldn’t go up against the Dread Empire and expect your spellslingers to be up to snuff. Much, as he had discovered over the last two days, like you couldn’t expect dwarven siege weapons to be a match for goblin engineering. The first day had been opened by an artillery duel and his host had not come out the better for it. The Empire’s trebuchets and ballistas fired further and swifter than the catapults and trebuchets bought from the Kingdom Under, and the knock-off scorpions brought by the Arlesites had been about useful as tits on a sparrow. Not a single one of the them had survived long enough to come into firing range. If the old general had twice as many men he could have swept through one line of defence after another, taking the losses as he went. But as things stood? If he went it half-cocked, less than a third of his army would emerge from the meat grinder to set foot in Callow.
The outer walls in both valleys were old Proceran fortifications taken by the Kingdom of Callow the last time the border principalities botched an invasion of the Vales, later repurposed to serve as defensive lines facing the other way. They were, essentially, piles of stone twenty feet high with steeply sloped hills behind them the Praesi had set their engines on. No bastions, no towers, nothing more elaborate than stones piled up high with mortar holding them together. One-Eye and the Carrion Lord had defended it with a bare few hundred, regulars and sappers, so he’d launched an escalade under cover of the artillery duel. Within the first half-hour of the offensive he’d lost over two thousand soldiers. Sappers lobbed their munitions onto the ladders, killing as many with the fall as the explosions, while crossbow volleys fired straight into tightly-packed ranks earned swaths of dead. They’d taken the damned walls, of course. Fortifications that bare couldn’t be held against his numbers, and he’d half-expected the enemy would let him have them uncontested. Instead the Praesi had defended for less than an hour, taken maybe three dozen casualties and retreated with all their engines intact. That’d set the tone for the second day.
Another four thousand gone to take the kind of defences you saw in your average Lycaonese border town. Low walls and towers, a single central bastion. He’d sent the heroes in with the first wave, with massed mage support, and run into a godsdamned wall. The fortifications were warded so thoroughly nothing he had could crack them in the slightest, and the grounds fifty feet from the foot of the walls were seeded what Praesi called lily fields. Hidden pits with spikes at the bottom. The assault’s momentum shattered, Legion mages began torching everything in sight and the entire attack would have collapsed if not for a Chosen called the Fortunate Fool. Klaus had considered the man essentially useless, considering he had truck with more herbs than your average alchemist, but the hero had stumbled his way onto a safe path through the lily field by sheer happenstance. The other Chosen rallied the levies and led an assault on the walls in the southern valley. None of the Damned had come out to meet them, at least, something he’d been assured was a consequence of the White Knight and the Witch of the Woods refraining from entering the fray.
It’d taken most of the day to force the Praesi back in both valleys. He’d called a halt after that, well aware his men did not have the stomach to march into whatever nastiness the Carrion Lord had awaiting. Or the ability to match goblin nightsight: all torches and priestly glows would accomplish was mark targets for the enemy siege. Now the third dawn had come, and steel would be bared again. The defensive line ahead would be the beginning of the real fight, he knew. On both sides, though at different lengths from a bird’s eye view, the valleys narrowed into passes flanked by cliffs. Those natural defences had been the seat of Callowan fortresses for centuries, the rock Proceran offensives broke on. The Bloody Twins, Alamans called them. Massive towers forty feet high sitting atop slopes at an angle of almost sixty degrees. There were dirt paths leading up, but they were not wide. Forcing the Twins was going to be ugly business, but it had to be done. They were the high point of both valleys, the terrain going down towards Callow after them. Claiming the high ground would allow Klaus’ fucking engines to finally start being more than expensive targets, and with the fortresses still awaiting ahead he’d need every advantage he could get.
Klaus swatted Ratbiter absent-mindedly to keep him from chewing away at the red marigolds that grew everywhere in the valleys, and were allegedly responsible for their name. They were said to have been gold, once upon a time, but had since grown red from all the blood spilled on these grounds over the centuries.
“De Guison,” he called out, and the mageling snapped to attention. “Contact the northern front. We’re beginning our attacks.”
The man made a three-act play out of obeying a simple order, but the old general’s attention had already left him. He gestured for his personal hornblower to sound the offensive and eyed the grounds he needed to take before getting to the southern Twin. Almost four hundred yards of more or less flat grounds, before getting at the foot of the slope. Then another half hundred, marching up one of the continent’s most viciously designed natural fortresses. He was going to lose thousands just on the approach, and that’d be if the Praesi had no surprised awaiting. He knew better than to expect that. There was a reason he’d ordered for the Fortunate Fool to run ahead of the first ranks, the silly-looking idiot in silks taking point so good soldiers need not die. His instincts had been correct, he discovered shortly.
The Chosen walked over innocuous-looking grounds and was blown high into the sky by an explosion about a hundred yards from the bottom of the slope, landing on his back a dozen feet forward. Where he blew up again. Under Klaus’ sceptical gaze, five explosions were chained in a row until the man arrived halfway through the evidently mined field. He got up, looking a little charred, and patted himself in panic to put out the flames on his chest. The Prince of Hannoven was familiar with the effects of Praesi demolition charges, and he silently reassessed how bloody difficult this Chosen would be to actually put down. A few streaks of lightning shot down from atop the Twin but the Fortunate Fool ducked them by a series of very coincidental trips and falls, before waddling back to the Proceran lines and loudly claiming victory. Klaus now had a basic notion of enemy mage range and the concentration of buried charges. The assault proper could begin.
“Priests forward,” he ordered his standard-bearer. “Sweep for the munitions.”
The robed brothers and sisters of the House of Light strode forward as ordered, and it was but a few moments before streaks of light began hammering at the ground in an advancing wave. The growing narrowness of the valley here ran to their advantage, for once. Less territory to cover. Munitions detonated in plumes of earth and smoke one after another, destroying the traps at the unfortunate cost of breaking up the terrain. Advance would be even more difficult. The enemy waited patiently for them to finish, silhouettes atop the tower unmoving. The murder holes and larger openings for scorpions were bristling with steel, a promise of death yet to come.
“Mages and engines, forward,” Klaus told his standard-bearer. “Our vanguard is to prepare for advance on my signal.”
Never get into a siege with Praesi, he’d once told his niece. He still believed it, though he had no other choice. The Legions of Terror as forged by the Reforms were one of the finest war machines on the continent, and in this series of valleys he couldn’t even use the major advantage his people had over the Empire. Cavalry. Instead he was forced to play to the enemy’s strengths, to his distaste, and because of it this was not so much war as a slugging match of piled corpses. Dragged forward, the catapults were set down and panes of opaque yellow light formed to protect them.
The third battle for the Vales began.
“We are witnessing,” Grem gravely said, “the birth of a Proceran combined arms doctrine.”
Amadeus hummed in agreement.
“It was only a matter of time,” he said. “We showed the effectiveness of it during the Conquest. The Principate was too preoccupied with the civil war to catch up, but they’ve had time to breathe since Hasenbach took power. She gave her uncle free hand to reform the Principate’s war doctrine, and Papenheim is no fool. Catherine faced much the same tactics up north.”
The old orc grunted unhappily.
“If she’d listened to Istrid’s daughter and gone ahead with Bonfire, she wouldn’t have had to,” he said. “It was a solid plan. Would have taken Procer out of the war, and without the Principate the crusade collapses.”
It was a natural consequence of his former apprentice having folded two legions into her Army of Callow that Amadeus had gained plethora eyes and ears among her officer corps. The Duni had mostly used these to keep abreast of her war strategy and arrange his own accordingly. Scribe’s agents in her army, on the other hand, had been waging a war with Alaya’s own spies in the ranks. He’d preferred passing information to her amusingly-named Jacks rather than carrying out the killings through his own proxies, though on occasion more direct intervention had been needed. He was quite pleased, in fact, with how quickly and solidly her network of spies and assassins had grown. The Thief was proving skilled at the art, though it would be years before the Jacks were in the same league as Alaya’s agents or Eudokia’s. Penetration in depth was difficult to achieve with such limited time and coin.
“It would have painted a target on her neck for every single hero on the continent,” Amadeus replied. “The choice was correct.”
“They’re already out for her blood, Amadeus,” Grem grunted. “It’s a crusade, not a petty border dispute.”
“The difference is in being a target or the target,” the green-eyed man said. “No villain can survive the amount of heroic focus Bonfire would have brought. The initial stages would have been a success, but within a few months a band of heroes specifically geared towards killing her would have been grown or assembled.”
“A few months would have been enough to cleave Procer in half,” Grem said.
“Perhaps,” Amadeus shrugged. “But it would have signed her death warrant. She is cleverer than that.”
The hint of pride in his voice at that, he did not suppress. His old friend caught it easily enough.
“She stabbed you, Black,” he growled. “Don’t wave that away as youthful enthusiasm, because we certainly haven’t.”
Eudokia, to his occasional headache, had made that abundantly clear. He’d had to outright order her not to take revenge.
“One who rears a tiger should not complain of stripes,” Amadeus quoted in Mtethwa.
“Your tiger put on a crown and raised an army after stealing three legions,” Grem growled in Kharsum. “We’re past stripes.”
“My tiger beat back an army twice the size of hers strengthened by the two most famous living heroes on Calernia,” the dark-haired man laughed. “Three legions, one of which was always hers, is a paltry price to pay for that.”
“She’s going to turn on the Empire, Black,” the Marshal warned. “We all know it.”
Amadeus leaned against the crenelation as ballistas fired around them, hammering at the shields protecting the Proceran engines. The stones those were lobbing at the tower bounced off harmlessly or shattered. Wekesa had found it an amusing irony that the warding scheme he’d used here was a variation of a Callowan work. The very same that had once protected the walls of Liesse, dispersal of impact across the entire structure. The crusaders could fire at the Twin for months without making a dent, if they did not focus their fire.
“Is the Empire as it currently standsso worthy of survival?” the Black Knight murmured. “I think not. If it cannot adapt, then let it perish. Out of the ashes we will raise something other than a snake devouring its own tail, shattering the world with its throes as it seeks to sate empty hunger.”
“Dangerous words,” Grem said.
“Yet here you stand,” Amadeus said. “Without ever having obeyed your summons back to Ater.”
“It’s illegal to order a Marshal back from an active war front without evidence of treason,” the orc said.
The Duni turned green eyes to his old friend, brow quirking. The orc looked away.
“She won her games,” Grem One-Eye finally said. “But she still played them.”
They left it at that, eyes returning to the unfolding battle. Papenheim had learned over the last two days the price of an infantry advance on Legion-held fortifications, even with dwarven engines providing cover, but he had little other choice than to repeat the previous performance. He could not starve out the defenders, nor did he have another path than the Vales to march through. The old bottleneck that had kept Procer at bay for centuries was bleeding it once more. Grem ordered for mage fire to be held as the crusader vanguard advanced, passing the engines and charging towards the slope. A handful of heroes were at the front, but Amadeus saw no need to intervene. They’d likely be able to shatter the tower gates if they made it there, but there was the rub. If. The orc that was the highest-ranked officer in the Legions of Terror waited until the enemy was fully committed before ordering the mages to send the signal. Up on the mountaintops, faraway, there was an explosion. Months of work by sappers, all for this single moment. Amadeus counted seventy-nine heartbeats before the water began pouring down from the very discreet channel carved into the mountainside.
There was a deep mountain lake, far out of sight. Digging a tunnel through hard rock and corking it with a dike had been a wonder of goblin engineering. He’d been quite amused, hearing that Catherine had dropped a fae lake atop her enemies up north. What the sappers had devised was not so different. The stream of water, quickened by the slopes, hit the outer edge of the Proceran lines. A few were killed by the sheer weight and momentum, but the real damage came from the spread of water sweeping away everything it touched. And continuing, at that same steady pace. Mages moved their shields to contain the situation, struggling to find the the location the water was pouring from – it was hidden by an illusory ward. All they achieved, in the end, was to contain the flood until the pressure grew beyond the ability of their hodgepodge spell formulas to weather. Priests intervened as well, weaving fences of light, but they were not sufficiently organized to form a comprehensive wall. The water went around it. Surprise, Amadeus mused, was the most dangerous weapon in any army’s arsenal. Still, it would not be long before heroes intervened now. There was a flare of Light from Papenheim’s camp moments later, and the illusory ward broke. The fences and shields immediately shifted to block off the opening.
“Send the second signal,” Grem ordered their signal mage.
A streak of red light splashed across the sky, and twenty heartbeats later another explosion sounded. A chunk of the mountainside broke open and water began pouring again. A plan with a single point of failure, after all, was no plan at all.
“The bouquets?” Amadeus asked.
“As soon as they shift,” Grem replied, eyeing the battlefield. “Lukran, tell the sappers I don’t want a single Proceran engine on the field to survive this engagement. They’re naked as babes in the woods.”
Left shieldess, the dwarven machinery was methodically broken down by the goblin-manned ballistas as the Proceran mages and priests refocused their efforts towards the more immediate threat of water. They split, much as Grem had predicted when the general staff had planned this. The mages shielded one entrance, the priests the other. Amadeus personally would have focused on swiftness instead of optimal impact, with heroic intervention being in the cards, but he trusted the orc’s instincts.
“Bouquets,” Grem ordered with a feral smile.
Sorcery flared as the mages lines wove tendrils of air, each hooked to a heavy wooden barrel. Within moments a hundred of them snaked through the sky, coming to rest above the mages and priests. The spells petered out and the barrels fell. Hasty tongues of holy flame and sundry spells shot up to intercept them, but there were too many targets to handle. Many of them were duds filled with rocks, regardless. Others simple munitions. Of the hundred barrels, sixty-three fell with impact by Amadeus’ count. Twenty-one of those were a mixture of smokers and sharpers, and exploded with billowing poisonous smoke. Twelve were filled with goblinfire, and the battlefield turned into a hellish green landscape in the blink of an eye. The mages and the priests broke, no longer able to hold back the waters, and the streams began to pour out again. Prince Klaus Papenheim had sent eight thousand levies and fantassins as his vanguard, with fourteen mixed catapults and trebuchets to cover them. No engine survived. Fewer than two thousand infantry did.
When night fell over the Vales, it was to the flickering of green flames on still water.
“Report,” Klaus ordered, exhaustion bare in his voice as he sat slumped in his seat.
Princess Mathilda of Neustria was pushing forty these days. It never surprised him to see it. He remembered Mati as the rambunctious child that had been close as kin with his sister, a mischievous devil in mail skirts that never laughed as brightly as when she was shattering ratling skulls with that monster of a mace she wielded. Neustrians as a rule kept a closer eye on the happenings down south and had been known to twine their lines with those of Brus and Lyonis on occasion – unlike most Lycaonese royalty, who’d sneer at such thinning of the blood – but Mati had never been one to have an interest in courtly games. It was an old compact of the Four Houses that soldiers from the the southernmost Lycaonese principalities would reinforce the walls and fortresses at the border when the thaw came and warbands went on the march, but Mathilda had never been one for half-measures. Every year since her crowning, she’d taken all soldiers not garrisoning the border with Brus to fight the Plague as soon as spring arrived. Klaus did not consider her an exceptional tactician or strategist, but her the sight of her distinctive green armour on the front had a way of lighting a fire in men’s bellies. Lycaonese had a well-worn love for royalty that led from the front. The princess’ face was streaked with dirt and her short red locks pressed with sweat against her face.
“They dropped the mountain on us, Klaus,” the Princess of Neustria told him in Reitz. “The fucking mountain.”
Klaus leaned forward.
“The Warlock took the field?”
She shook her head.
“We think it was munitions,” Mathilda said. “Wasn’t sorcery, the mages say, and there were explosions. They must have mined the side through tunnels. I sent in my vanguard and the entire cliffside toppled down on it like some titan’s flyswatter.”
“Gods Above,” the Iron Prince croaked out.
“That bloody dragon made a pass right after, blew fire straight through my priests,” she said, passing a tired hand over her face. “The Silver Huntress put a magic arrow in one of its wings, but it’s the only wound it took. It’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Casualties?” Klaus asked.
“Maybe two thousand dead, twice as many wounded,” the princess sighed. “What’s left of my priests is getting the wounded back on their feet.”
“They went straight after our priests and casters,” the Prince of Hannoven said. “They’re trying to cripple those before a decisive engagement.”
“They’re doing well at it, too,” Mathilda said. “And I don’t need to tell you morale went down the drain. There’ll be no volunteers for the vanguard tomorrow, I can tell you that much. Doesn’t help that our two alleged heavyweights have been sitting pretty this whole time.”
“Chosen logic,” Klaus said. “They say the Sovereign of Red Skies and the the Carrion Lord will remain out of the battle so long as they do the same.”
“The other Chosen are bloody useless,” the Princess of Neustria bluntly replied. “Oh, they’re a pretty sight leading the charge. That Levantine girl, the Champion? She’s been at the front of every offensive. But we’re swinging at mist, Klaus. They can be as good at killing Praesi as they want, we’re not fighting Praesi. We’re fighting falling mountains, and the Champion’s no use there. We need the Witch and the Heavens’ hatchet man.”
The Lycaonese balked at the notion of needing Chosen to win his battles for him, but there was also truth in this so he held his tongue. Outside, in the distance, water still burned green. Seven days and seven nights, that was said to be the lifespan of goblinfire. Unless he was willing to send his soldiers wading hip-deep in a lake topped by a hell of alchemy, there would be no more offensives in the southern valley. The Praesi would shift their forces accordingly, reinforcing the northern Twin, and there would be no chance breaking through there against the full muster of the Empire’s finest.
“Then we will have them,” Prince Klaus Papenheim. “Even if I must drag them to the front myself.”
Hanno had died twenty-one times since morning.
He’d used his aspect in a similar manner before, but those had been shallow readings. The seeking of similarity so he could draw on the experience of his predecessors to make up for his own shortcomings. Never before had he sought lives and memories purely to learn how to kill a man. His enemy had made it difficult, nonetheless. Heroes rarely survived their first encounter with the Black Knight, and those that did were usually engaged by other Calamities on the second meeting. He’d found a single instance, the Rebel Knight, who’d bared her sword at the man twice. Three years after the Conquest, a hidden bastard child of a branch line of House Fairfax who’d inherited the same Name as Eleanor Fairfax herself. Flight after the first engagement had bought her an hour before the Black Knight caught up and slew her in her wounded exhaustion. Some other lives had taught him near nothing of use, like the Merry Brawler – the knife through the back of the neck that’d killed him only served as a reminder that the Carrion Lord preferred to kill without any struggle if he could. The Unconquered Champion had yielded the greatest amount of information. The Levantine hero had trapped his foe in his domain and teased out more tricks than any other before or after him, in large part because five mortal wounds had been needed before the man died.
Memory by memory, death by death, Hanno had woven together a whole. Sitting with his eyes closed in a tent muted from all noise by Antigone, his sword in his lap, he had studied the many murders of the Black Knight. The man had limitations. Hanno had almost thought otherwise, after their duel in Nicae, but he now saw his mistake. When recalling the skills of his predecessors his plunge had been too shallow. Mere versatility was not sufficient to kill the Carrion Lord, not when he only brought to the fore part of the skills called on. That was, the White Knight now understood, playing the villain’s own preferred game. The Black Knight was himself a jack-of-all-trades, facing him with a similar approach would only lead to the victory of the older man’s greater experience. The method had been incorrect, and so he had adjusted. Studied the swordsmanship the villain had learned from the Lady of the Lake, the weaknesses of that tutelage. And, upon finding them, Hanno had spent hours seeking the right combination of lives that would allow him to capitalize on those weaknesses. Three would be required: the Flawless Fencer, the Lance of Light and the Barehanded Pugilist.
The sequence was adaptable to the villain’s own approach, but the result would ultimately be the same. He’d sought a handful of other lives to draw on as contingencies, should tactics he’d seen employed through other eyes be employed again, and another pair as escape and disengaging sets. Night had fallen, when he emerged from the trance, and he remained seated. Tired down to his bones and struggling to master the lingering echoes of the lives he’d dug so deep into. He would need rest before he was ready to fight. The tent’s flap parted and a masked of painted stone topped by long dark tresses stared at him. Antigone, still wearing the face the Gigantes had bestowed upon her. Hanno suspected that of all the host around him, only he understood the significance of that. The favour of the Titans was not lightly earned, and no less terrible than their wroth.
“Hanno,” the Witch of the Woods said, her words from no language known to man and yet perfectly understood. “The Champion wishes to speak with you.”
The Gift of Tongues never ceased to invoke wonder in him when so displayed. No man or creature that could understand the spoken word would ever fail to understand his friend.
“I am done,” the White Knight said, voice rough with disuse. “Come in, both of you.”
The inside of his tent was bare save for a bed of straw and his armour, and so he had no earthly comforts to offer either women as they entered. Neither seemed to mind. Antigone disdained any life but that of the wilds, and Rafaella’s cheer had already proved undaunted in the face of greater discomforts. The Witch’s long cloak-tunic pooled around her as she sat gracefully, surrounding herself in coarse green cloth that revealed only sandal-clad feet. Rafaella, on the other hand, slumped down in a cacophony of shuddering armour. The Valiant’s Champion snarling badger helm was dropped into the dirt as she shook free the long braid going halfway down her back, her tanned face split in a grin. She was not wearing, for once, the wolf fur cloak she’d claimed from someone that was no wolf at all.
“Have good day, yes?” the Champion said.
Hanno inclined his head.
“I am ready,” he said.
“Good,” Rafaella hummed. “My day, up and down. Easterners drop mountain on me. Tried to fight it, went not so good.”
Hanno glanced at Antigone, her green eyes finding his own through the mask.
“The Legions detonated a cliffside onto the Proceran advance,” she said.
The White Knight’s fingers clenched. His work had been necessary, but he grieved that it had allowed the Carrion Lord to weave the deaths of so many through his inaction.
“Then dragon came,” the Champion continued, sounding noticeably more pleased. “Went on dwarf machine, told soldier: ‘Bald Procer man, I stand on machine. Throw me at dragon.’”
Hanno’s brow rose.
“I take it he did not,” he half-asked.
“He said ‘no, stupid savage, if I do this it kill you’. I say ‘maybe if I feeble Procer soldier like you, but am glorious champion of Levant’.”
The tanned woman scratched her chin thoughtfully.
“Bald Procer man not happy about that,” she mused. “Left and did not reply. Think he complain to tall red princess about it.”
The Ashuran snorted. Proceran royalty had avoided him like the plague after the first time he’d been called upon to render judgement in a dispute and a cousin of the the Prince of Orense had been judged as unfit for continued existence by the Seraphim. Oddly enough it had warmed some of the Lycaonese to his presence, though the true gain of the affair had been the end of the insistent invitations to share cups of wine by the rest. He doubted any of what Rafaella had mentioned would be brought to him as a dispute to arbitrate.
“The Warlock still waits,” Antigone said. “The Carrion Lord with him. None of our companions ever reached them.”
“They were not all meant for this war,” Hanno quietly replied. “For many it is beyond the scope of their Fate, bound as they are elsewhere to other works. They must be careful, lest sudden death find them. The Grey Pilgrim is not with us to forgive such mistakes.”
Rafaella discreetly traced a sign on her leg at the mention of the Peregrine, expression sobering. To see her act bashful when they’d first met the man had been an almost frightening experience.
“You ready now, yes?” the Champion asked. “Time for fight.”
“At dawn,” Hanno replied calmly. “The fourth day is the beginning.”
“Finally,” the Witch of the Woods murmured.
Hanno of Arwad breathed out slowly. The sentence had already been given.
It must now be carried out, at last.