“Thus the Gods granted us the third boon: no longer would scales close our eyes, obscuring knowledge of Good and Evil and preventing us from earning just deserts.”
– The Book of All Things, sixth verse of the second hymn
Juniper had done what she could to keep the army on battle footing, but not even the Hellhound’s sternest warnings could keep an air of festivity from hanging over the camp of the Army of Callow. Hakram noted with some amusement that while the ale rations that Legion tradition dictated should be opened after a great victory remained sealed and put away there seemed to be no lack of drink flowing through the cups of the legionaries – be they exiles or the Black Queen’s own. While the Army of Callow had been under strict instructions to refrain from sacking towns and cities even when its columns were detached and the supply situation became arduous, there’d been no order sent down to avoid trading with Procerans. Callowan soldiers were on campaign pay, which meant only half the coin was handed and the rest set aside for return home, but they were hardly penniless and in a war-torn region like Iserre they were the closest thing to patrons the locals would see for the winter. That’d overridden reluctance to trade with wicked heretics some, though no doubt there’d been price gouging. At the very least, most the bottles and flasks merrily being traded around fires were filled with the rich red wines the Principate’s heartlands were known for. The ambitious had sprung for bottles of pleurs de fée, the heady Alamans herbal liquor whose name could more or less be translated into Lower Miezan of ‘fairy tears’. Hakram had tried it a few months back and found the drink foul, though humans seemed to like the taste well enough.
“You’d think we fought a battle, by the revelry,” Vivienne said, tone dry.
Neither of them were fools, and the former Thief was an old hand at this sort of game, and so instead of wandering around the camp in heavy dark cloaks that hid their faces they’d put on officer’s armour and kept their faces half-hidden by helms. Two well-fitted armoured gauntlets, one empty and the other hiding bone, had seen to it that Hakram’s most easily discernible marks would be kept out of sight. The orc followed the human’s gaze, finding a pair of grizzled or goblins cheerfully bullying some Callowan girl-soldier into drinking enough aragh it was a near-certainty she’d puke. The sappers noticed the attention but were unbothered bit it. Not unreasonably so: Adjutant was passing for a captain of heavies, and Vivienne for a mage lieutenant. Neither of them would be in an easy position to punish the drinking of soldiers so far removed from their own theoretical commands.
“Perhaps we didn’t,” Hakram quietly replied, “but it feels like victory nonetheless, doesn’t it?”
“We threw some spells and shot some engines and General Abigail ordered a single cavalry charge on enemy mages,” the blue-eyed noblewoman said. “The drow fought, admittedly, but us? This entire ‘battle’ had seen fewer than two hundred soldiers die, Hakram.”
“Aye,” Adjutant agreed, once more amused. “Fewer than two hundred of ours dead, and we’ve both forced the Grand Alliance into truce and put the League of Free Cities to retreat. They’d make songs of today, Vivienne, even without Choir dreams gilding the legend.”
“Legionaries would make songs of rivers being wet, after drinking,” the heiress-designate to the throne drily replied. “They’ve taken to the sport of it the way Callowans once loved jousting.”
Hakram had never actually seen one of the famous Callowan tourneys, much less a joust, tough he’d read of them in books. Under the Carrion Lord’s rule knightly orders had been banned, which effectively killed the practice, and though under Catherine the Order of the Broken Bell had risen anew it was also part of the kingdom’s army in a time of war – and so not free to pursue such leisurely pastimes. Under the old kingdom the Fairfaxes had often held tourneys to recruit promising knights into the Royal Guard, which had leant the practice a certain legitimizing weight, but Cat had balked at resurrecting it. When Grandmaster Brandon Talbot had pressed the matter she’d told him she’d rather arm another company of regulars or feed a village through winter than ‘piss away gold celebrating the virtue of knocking down people with sticks’. He’d caught Juniper, whose distaste for the chivalric trappings of Callowan knighthood was deeply ingrained, grinning to herself for a solid month after that session of the Queen’s Council.
“Mock if you will,” Hakram gently said, “but you know I speak the truth. Tonight will be remembered for many years to come. It will have consequences, Vivienne. Ripples.”
They’d resumed walking, and though the gloom of Akua Sahelian’s curtain of night had cast darkness over all it was not enough that Adjutant did not see the unease his words had brought to Vivienne’s face. Like him, she had difficult grasping what might yet come of what had taken place tonight. Unlike him, however, that blindness worried her. Their steps slowed as they left the outskirts of the Second Army’s camp in favour of Fourth’s. He’d have to speak less here, as he’d spent months as an observer with the Fourth Army and he might be recognized by some through his voice even in the dark. Vivienne’s gaze was on a young Soninke legionary, standing on the shoulders of a pair of orcs with a clay pot of black paint in hand as he added to one of the army’s banners.
“Wings,” she softy said. “I will not be surprised if the Third is doing the same. Sve Noc were not meek of hand in Sarcella.”
The legionary had some talent, Hakram, though, for though instead of a brush it was the work of fingers dipped in paint the fresh symbols added to the banner could not be mistaken for anything but what they were: crow’s wings. Two pairs, sharply shaped and feathered, and the Soninke finished the last touches on the last wing only to reveal the Fourth Army’s changed banner: the four in Miezan numerals, gold on Fairfax blue, but now framed with crow wings at the upper corners.
“It’ll spread from there,” Adjutant acknowledged.
The soldier-artist was helped down by the pair of well-built orc women who’d been holding him up – one of them, Hakram could not help but notice, had an enticingly muscled frame and fangs that looked like they’d go right through bone – and the three of them were greeted by cheers from the throng of soldiers that’d been watching.
“I’d say something scathing about soldiers and superstitions,” Vivienne mused, “but for all I know that might be enough to attract the gaze of the Crows.”
“Best to keep on good terms with gods, when death and dying’s your trade,” Hakram said.
“Even those?” the noblewoman said. “I wonder. That Catherine has charmed ancient horrors into some manner of patronage I’ve no trouble believing – Merciful Heavens, it wouldn’t even be the first time – but that does not mean the spread of their influence is a boon. She will not always be there to keep them honest, and when our soldiers return home there might be… complications.”
“The House Insurgent has been rather amiable to the drow,” he pointed out.
There’d been incidents, of course, but the Firstborn were being kept in hand by their chieftains and to be frank the Insurgents were trouble all around. Hakram had been told of quarrelsome priests, before, but it’d been with the understanding that those quarrels were largely theological. The House Insurgent was rather prone to fistfights, for priests, and it likely did not help that most of them were young and fresh to their rebellion.
“The Insurgents are the hotheads and Catherine’s most radical partisans in the House,” Vivienne said. “It’s the priests in Callow that might have words when the banners come back bearing Night’s wings. Heresy, in particular, comes to mind.”
Hakram had followed the debates within the Callowan House of Light with great interest, to the extent that he’d sought a sister for theological lessons. More than once Sister Mariet had hinted that he should consider conversion for the sake of his soul, but given how clear-spoken and learned the old woman had proved to be he’d hardly minded. The conclave in Laure that’d followed the Jacks seeding the rumours he and Vivienne had agreed on of the Woe’s time in Keter had taken them both by surprise, and they’d both found that as they had no real influence within the House they could only be spectators to what then unfolded. Perhaps a third of the priesthood of Callow, numbering high with the young and those hailing from the heartlands of the kingdom – which had always been the region most eager to embrace the Black Queen’s reign – but also a surprising among of oldest priests from the north who’d been infuriated by the Proceran House being involved at the Battle of the Camps had taken a hard line and pressed for the entire Tenth Crusade to be declared graceless. That’d been judged too extreme an approach by many, even though the Grand Alliance had come to be held in great disdain. It would be, in essence, declaring the entire priesthood of the Dominion, Procer and Ashur to be grasping heretics and any soldier participating in the crusade to have forfeited the grace of the Heavens.
Cooler heads, mostly priesthood from the ravaged south and the wary east, had tried to broker a compromise by instead declaring the decrees of the same Salian conclave that’d declared Catherine to be Arch-heretic of the East to be themselves heresy. That vote had passed unanimously, but the radicals had pushed for denunciation of the House of Light in Procer as a whole and found little appetite for the measure among their fellows. The talks turned harsh when the compromise motion of the House providing a tithe from its coffers to the Kingdom of Callow to support the defence of the realm was flatly refused by the southern priesthood, who was already beggaring itself providing charity to the families displaced by the Arcadian War. With that second compromise collapsing, the radicals scorned their fellows and mocked them for children of Dana – which, Hakram learned from the ever-helpful Sister Mariet, was a reference to the infamous Sister Dana of Laure who’d colluded with the Procerans during their occupation Callow – before walking out of the conclave. They’d come to call themselves the House Insurgent, in the months that followed, and many had flocked to the Army of Callow. Yet it could not be denied that most the Callowan priesthood, more than two thirds of it in truth, had preferred a tamer stance.
In the kingdom the priests who’d remained in the fold had come to be called the House Constant, though that was more story than truth: they were united mostly in their eschewal of harder measures, and in other things remained as prone to squabbling among themselves as the Callowan priesthood was reputed for. They could be counted on to back Catherine against all comers, so long as those comers were foreign, but Vivienne was right in worrying of dark wings painted on banners. The settling of a goblin tribe on Callowan soil had been a hard mouthful to swallow for many of them, as was the entrusting of so many high offices to Wastelanders and greenskins, yet those had only been earthly matters. The Crows earning some devotion of their own, however, would be seen as Below sinking its claws in the hearts of the Callowan flock. There would be trouble.
“Most the soldiers we took in from the old legions keep to Below, if they keep to anything at all,” Hakram said. “And many of what used to be the Fifteenth do the same. It may not be too contentious a matter so long as it is kept ceremonial. Soldiers’ superstition, as you said.”
“I hope you’re right,” Vivienne said.
Yet her eyes were on the cheering soldiers, surrounding a crow-marked banner.
“But if you are not,” she said, “then it might be necessary to back our favoured horse within the House of Light.”
Adjutant’s brow rose.
“Insurgent over Constant, you mean,” he said, tone pensive as he measured the rusks. “It might be it can be done. If we return victors one and all, their reputation will have risen. Yet there are risks to meddling there, especially for us.”
House Fairfax had been embroiled in disputed with the House of Light more than once, over the span of its line, most often over the great cathedral of Laure and what was spoken in the sermons given there. Yet the old kings and queens of Callow had been Named as often as not, exalted in Above’s service. It was one thing for one of that ilk to intervene in the House’s affairs but entirely another for the Black Queen to do so. If a villain was seen as trying to subvert the House of Light, rebellion was certain. Even the Carrion Lord had chosen the soft death when dealing with the priests, preferring instead the stratagem of starving them of coin.
“Too early to tell if it’ll come to that,” Vivienne Dartwick finally said, eyes hooded. “We’ll have to keep an eye on things as they unfold.”
Adjutant rumbled in agreement and they resumed their walk. The First Army’s camp, where they’d begun their wandering, had been quiet and orderly compared to the rest – as was only to be expected, as it was Juniper’s own command and closest to her displeasure should festivities become too obvious. The Second’s, under General Hune, had been tense for other reasons entirely. As Hune’s army had seen fighting during the day and the night, it’d been allowed to rotate most their companies to sleep. Which had turned out less than restful, when vivid dreams began waking the legionaries. The First Army’s entire mage contingent had been awoken to put together answers, as well as the Senior Mages from other armies. So far there’d been little more put together than the string of visions depicting parts of the struggle that’d taken place over Liesse, though the shape of the whole adventure had been taking appearance when they’d left the mages to it. Adjutant would have liked to assign Akua Sahelian to the matter, but she’d had more pressing duties: the soul of the Carrion Lord had been stolen back from the heroes, as had been his body weeks ago, and now the shade who’d once been the Diabolist had been tasked to bind soul and flesh anew after their brutal severing. Still, useful as her expertise might have been the army’s mages and scribes were capable of seeing to the matter. It was less than urgent, anyhow, as Catherine would tell the tale herself when she returned. Most important, as far as Hakram was concerned, was that the most recurrent and vivid of the visions showed that Grey Pilgrim and the Saint of Swords were seemingly dead. The latter would do no favours to Catherine’s reputation, but the former was a deeper concern.
The Dominion was prickly, when it came to the Peregrine, and though the visions legionaries had received made it clear Cat had tried to prevent his death that might not mean too much to grief-stricken killer with more pride than sense. Someone would have to be blamed, and even if it did not outright come to war they might try to kill Catherine upon her return to ‘avenge’ the Grey Pilgrim. Which would lead to war regardless, no two ways about it. His warlord was popular even with the Legions-in-Exile, who of the coalition holding this camp were the host with the least fondness for the Black Queen. The Army of Callow and the Firstborn had deeper loyalties, and very few qualms over killing either Procerans or Levantines if provoked. The truce over the field had been achieved by scheme and force of personality more than great desire for peace by the soldiers, Hakram knew, and that made it fragile. Even more so now that the League’s hosts had retreated some and no longer stood as a close and obvious threat to the other two great assembled armies on the field. Juniper was well-aware, which was why there were scouts out there keeping an eye on the Grand Alliance’s positions and the Army of Callow had yet to entirely leave battle footing.
If the betrayal came, they knew, it would come after dawn rose when the drow would be struck by the sun-sickness and forced into slumber after being stripped of their power. Some would remain able to fight, but few and as little more than tribes of warriors.
The orc was forced out of the thought from the first stirrings of a song in the distance, one he did not recognize. The mismatched pair wandered closer to the source by unspoken accord, until they found a broad bonfire and a crowd half-drunk soldiers around it. Orcs and goblins, Taghreb and Soninke and Callowans. They were, to hear of it, crafting a song in the old legion manner – everyone trying a verse, a chorus of loud voices singing the attempts until something passable had come of the crucible. Hakram missed Nauk like a limb, in that moment. The other orc’s rough humour and gift for song and poetry, his strange yet unrepentant sentimentality. It was not enough to distract him from the sight of one of Vivienne’s agents approaching her discretely, whispering news in her ear when she gestured permission. The orc’s attention turned instead to the song, heart clenching at the remembrance of a friend he’d now twice grieved.
“Came they proud princes, one and all
Great lords from olden, golden halls
And as one they fell, under the moon
When the Black Queen sang her tune
For in lovely Iserre did come undone
Dominion of seven crowns and one
‘lo blood of slayer, brigand, binder
And champion too, binding tighter
Yet what star could shine so brightly
It would not fear our queen’s fury?
For in lovely Iserre did come undone,
Dominion of seven crowns and one.”
The song, he thought, was fiercely proud. Raw and half-done, yet already he could see the grimly boastful shape of it ripping free of a hundred voices. The Jack slipped away and without pause Vivienne leaned close, lowering her voice.
“Juniper sends that the Dominion has begun to gather troops,” she whispered. “So has Princess Rozala.”
The one-handed orc looked up the night sky, so very close to fading. He could feel it in his bones, how close to that veil falling they had come, how near to the end of the journey they’d arrived. It would all end soon, one way or another. And beyond that, Hakram felt another pull. An older claim to him, one he’d embraced body and soul.
“We gather our own, then,” he growled. “And quickly.”
The woman who’d once been the Thief glanced at him knowingly.
“You know where Catherine will return,” she said.
“I do,” Hakram Deadhand said. “So let us gather steel, and march towards it.”
Vivienne did not question him, for she knew the truth of it. In end, Hakram of the Howling Wolves Clan was many things. A soldier, a killer, a steward and on occasion a scribe. He’d served as an advisor and a herald, as an ender of loose ends and watchman of missteps. For the hand taken from him by the Penitent’s Blade and returned by the sorceries of the Sovereign of Red Skies, he had earned the sobriquet of Deadhand. To ensure the succession of everything that had been built in the beating heart of Callow he’d carved through the other wrist, and not once regretted it. That lesson, like many others, he had learned from someone he loved the way a knife loved a steady hand or sparrow loved flight. For, most of all, he was a bored sergeant on a warm Wasteland night, catching his first glimpse in the eyes of a stranger of the girl who’d topple empires and feeling his blood burn.
He was the Adjutant, and Catherine Foundling was returning.
If any stood between them they would be broken, sure as dawn and dusk and the death of men.