“There is a natural order to the world and the peoples of the world must reflect it through law. Should all serve as ordained by the Heavens, all of Creation will be as a garden without sin.”– Extract from ‘Ten Scales’, by Madrubal the Wise
They were not alone out here.
Leaning against the tall rock, the White Knight reached for the coin that was never far from his hand and palmed it, deftly sliding it between his thumb and forefinger. With a satisfying twang it went spinning upwards and for a heartbeat his heart soared before he mastered it. His fear was proved true a heartbeat later, as the coin ceased spinning at the apex and simply hung there as if frozen in amber. After a few heartbeats, it simply dropped down and back onto his palm. At no point did either the laurels or the swords take primacy, as the Hierarch of the Free Cities would brook not even the shadow of a verdict to be passed while he watched. Flicking his wrist with a defeated sigh, Hanno of Arwad disappeared the coin once more.
“Stern Singers again silent, huh,” Rafaella said, peering down at him from atop the stone.
“Anaxares the Diplomat is proving to be remarkably obstructive man,” Hanno replied with forced calm.
And on occasion he had proved more than simply that. That over the last three months the coin had begun to occasionally be seized instead of simply inert had been worrying enough, for not even the Grey Pilgrim knew whether it meant that the Hierarch was fading with a last hurrah or gaining ground against the Seraphim. Rather more troubling had been the word that’d come to Hanno that for the first year after the Peace of Salia, the heads of Bellerophans who had broken the city’s laws had taken to spontaneously exploding. Not for every infraction, but frequently enough that rumours had spread out of even the famously closed republic. The madman had succeeded at arrogating the powers of the Choir of Judgement, if only for a brief time.
“Bellerophon like bag of wet cats,” the Valiant Champion sympathetically said. “Never good idea to put hand in.”
“So I’ve been told,” the White Knight mildly said.
Catherine had graciously refrained from reminding him that she’d attempt to warn him off the course of action that had seen the Choir of Judgement sealed whenever they disagreed, but Tariq had not been shy in voicing his own opinions. Evil knows Evil in ways that we cannot, the Grey Pilgrim had chided him. To refuse expertise leant in good faith is not wisdom, it is vanity. Hanno had accepted the reproach for it was: not the lesson of a would-be mentor, which he would have cared little for, but the frank assessment of a peer. Few ever cared to offer those to him, which made such talks all the more precious.
“It seems our friends are not biting today,” Hanno added, changing the subject. “Any sign of the Hawk?”
“Just Wolfhound,” Rafaella sighed. “And he still boring loaf.”
Hanno cocked an eyebrow.
“Loafer?” he suggested. “Or perhaps oaf?”
“This too,” the Valiant Champion agreed.
Rafaella turned to look downslope, among the rocky expanse leading into the valley where central Hainaut awaited, and waved her greataxe eye-catchingly.
“Hear this, Wolfhound?” she yelled. “Fight me!”
The White Knight, though mildly amused, was now forced to admit that their little incursion looked like a wash. He’d thought it possible to bait the trickiest of the Scourges now that the camp was about to look vulnerable, but the Hawk had refused to bite. Even putting out the Young Slayer as well as the Valiant Champion had not moved to Revenant to try an attack. Hanno pressed against the stone to his side with his boot, and with a heave have himself just enough momentum he was able to leap out of the dip where he’d been waiting and join Rafaella atop the stone. Further downslope, the sculpted iron helm of the Wolfhound could be glimpsed among the rocks as the Revenant studied them unmoving.
He seemed unmoved at the notion of being alone around three Named with significant bite to them, not that Hanno was surprised. Of all the Scourges, that one had proved the hardest to put down save perhaps the Prince of Bones. Not that ‘Scourges’ were a formal band of any kind, mind you. They were, in essence, a loose designation for the Revenants that the heroes fighting on the lakeside fronts found to be the greatest threats. Each among the greatest of their kinds, they were considered to require either a full band of five or one of the greatest champions of the Grand Alliance to handle. Who actually counted among their number was the subject of lively campfire debate, though there were at least ten that all agreed on.
Nine now, Hanno mentally corrected, if word about the Stitcher being destroyed by the Firstborn was to be believed.
“Slayer,” the White Knight called out, “return. We’re done here.”
There was no sign of movement until the young hero seemingly popped out between stones, stalking towards the two heroes without a sound to his steps. The Young Slayer was tall for a Levantine and unusually slender as well, but the lithe build leant a grace to his movements that was almost fluid. Armed with a slayer’s arsenal, all hooked swords and darts and ropes, the dark-haired youth was among the more promising of the upcoming heroes. One of his aspects allowed him to most forms of armour as he cut, which had proved deadly against Revenants preferring close range. He was also something of a political headache, as it happened, which was why he’d been assigned to Hanno’s care.
The Young Slayer came from a family rival to the Osena, the descendants in Blood of the Silent Slayer, but had come into a Name that was widely considered to be the transitional one leading into the highly regarded Name of Silent Slayer. For the Osena this was something of an embarrassment, and though Lady Aquiline Osena had not proved outright hostile to the young hero she’d also made it clear there was no place with him in the ranks of the warriors of Tartessos. Hanno had promptly passed him into Rafaella’s care as much for the shared heritage as the fact that the Valiant Champion had managed to remain on good terms with Lord Yannu of the Champion’s Blood without being married into the Marave.
“Our hunt was fruitless, Lord White,” the Young Slayer sighed as he returned to their side. “For all we know, the Hawk is-“
Providence nudged at Hanno’s hand before his senses could, and he followed the current without resistance. His sword left the scabbard in a clean, crisp arc and cut through the arrow a hair’s breadth beyond the arrowhead. The Young Slayer flinched, the harmless steel arrowhead falling against his leathers with a slap instead of piercing through the back of his neck.
“Hawk still there,” Rafaella cheerfully noted.
“As a rule, it is unwise to tempt irony without being prepared to meet the consequences of it,” Hanno calmly told the younger man. “When you have come into the fullness of your might perhaps you will find the opposite tack to your liking, as it can prompt the Enemy to move at the timing of your choice, but until then I would advise a more restrained approach.”
The Young Slayer swallowed loudly.
“I understand, Lord White,” he feebly said, making the Mark of Mercy against his chest.
Promising but still so very young, Hanno thought as he sheathed his sword. There was still no sign of the Hawk out there, and now even the Wolfhound had disappeared into the rocks. Fighting against the Revenant he believed had been an Archer whilst she still drew breath had made the White Knight dimly grateful for having never fought the Woe in earnest. For all that the powers of the Black Queen and the Hierophant drew the eye the most, he suspected that it was Indrani the Archer that would have been the deadliest of the lot. The Hawk – named for the feathers she liked to fletch her arrows with – had certainly proved to be among the most lethal of the Scourges.
Christophe would have died during the taking of Juvelun if the Stalwart Apostle had not been by his side, and Prince Etienne of Brabant had died. The Hawk might not be as visibly destructive as the Archmage or the Unseelie, but she’d done more damage to the army than either so far. While Antigone fought the former and Hanno the latter, the Hawk had set about methodically killing her way through the captains and commanders of the Grand Alliance’s army. It was the Hawk’s head that the White Knight had been hoping to take today, betting on the disorder of the camp being enough to tempt her into an attack. Yet it seemed she was not to be baited into exposing herself.
The deadly arrows would resume when they went on the march, then.
“Back to camp,” the White Knight ordered. “We’ve lingered out here long enough. Best be gone before they bring in other Revenants and the hunt turns around on us.”
It was not a long walk, but it somehow felt like it anyway.
While Hanno had not reddened his blade today, the same could not be said of others. The pavilion had collapsed, its drapes drenched with blood. Half a hundred men and women, several bruised and cut, knelt outside in the mud surrounded by a ring of bared swords. Behind them Lycaonese armsmen, bearing the colours of Neustria and Hannoven, set to the work of dragging away the corpses with brisk efficiency. Few of the northerners had died in the ambush, having gone in fully armed and ready while most of the Alamans captains had kept swords and daggers but few bothered with even chainmail. Not a quarter hour had passed since the last of the steel was sheathed, but already the camp was like a kettle about to boil over.
Rumours had flown with swift wings, for the Iron Prince’s seizure and killing of the mutinous officers had been impossible to hide. Already two fantassin companies had holed themselves up behind their carts and hollered loudly at treachery and breach of contract, but they would not be the last. Lycaonese respected ruthlessness suborned to greater purpose, and in matters of law the Prince of Hannoven had been within his rights, but to southerners this was a grave overreach. Hanno had already sent the Balladeer and the Harrowed Witch, two of the more level-headed among his Named, to prevent that particular situation from spinning out of control.
Respect for the Chosen would stay hand and the Balladeer was highly popular besides, while the Witch had the means to quickly send word to him if need be. In truth, though, the White Knight did not believe that this would escalate much beyond the current trouble. The Prince of Hannoven had been hard-handed but also clear-sighted. There was no real support for the would-be mutineers among the broader army: the Lycaonese remained loyal to their rulers, the Levantines seemed to approve more than not and the Firstborn were either indifferent or amused. Hanno had spoken with their General Rumena on several occasions over the last month, and found the ancient drow to be contemptuously amused with what it deemed to be ‘human foibles’.
Its interest in the politics of its allies began and ended at their intersection with the interests of the Firstborn.
The Barrow Sword’s footsteps were not as quiet as the man believed them to be, but Hanno did not give it away until the bearded villain was almost close enough to be struck. Rafaella had twice warned him of how dangerous this one truly was, and she was not one to hand out such praise easily. She’d also had a few unkind words about the Black Queen’s protection of him, but then Hanno figured that the Barrow Sword would have had a few of the same to Catherine Foundling about his own protection of the Valiant Champion. That tended to be the way, with the Truce and Terms.
“Ishaq,” the White Knight acknowledged without turning. “Come to have a look?”
“Something like that,” the other man drawled. “Wasn’t sure the old man had it in him, truth be told.”
More the fool you, Hanno thought. The Lycaonese were a strange folk at first glance, but not so difficult to understand when studied in depth. In some ways their culture was more permissive than that of the Alamans and the Arlesites, especially when it came to privacy – though with the unspoken understanding that anything done in private could not be a danger to the community – and mores, but their land had made them a hard people. None of the northern soldiery had been affronted by the Iron Prince’s ambush today because, in their eyes, it was his undeniable right to act this way. They had never taken fully to Salienta’s Graces, up north, where instead it was strong rulers and hard choices that were trusted to get them through the dark.
The Iron Prince had never acted the tyrant before because he’d never seen a need to. It was as simple as that. Not all ruthless men needed to trumpet about their ruthlessness.
“It will be settled soon,” Hanno said.
The Barrow Sword let out a noise of disbelief.
“There’s four companies barricaded now,” Ishaq said. “And there’ll be more, mark my words. He only sent a few envoys there to inform them their officers had been arrested for high treason and they must set down their arms before letting them stew. He’s lucky they didn’t lynch any of them. Not the wiliest of schemers, our Prince of Hannoven.”
Hanno glanced at the other man, whose neatly-trimmed beard and elegantly subdued facepaint were both twisted by a jeer as he watched the bodies being stripped naked and dragged to the disposal pits. The Levantine villain did not seem to share the enmity much of his countrymen held for Procerans, but his general callous disregard for life meant there was little difference in practice.
“Not a schemer,” the White Knight agreed. “Yet not a fool. Where are the rest of the Hannoven armsmen, Barrow Sword, if they are neither here nor forcing the fantassins in line?”
Pale brown eyes flicked to him, narrowing in thought.
“Ah,” the Barrow Sword exhaled. “The conscripts. Not a fool indeed, while I have been yapping my jaw like one instead.”
Hanno bent his head in acknowledgement. The Prince of Hannoven had, correctly he believed, decided that the conscripts would be easier to get in line and so focused his efforts there. It went with the way Brabantines – and many Alamans armies – appointed their officers. A prince would usually name most his relatives and closest highborn allies to a command, but when the stock of those and trusted career soldiers were exhausted it was tradition for levies and conscripts to elect their officers from their own ranks. Given the high rates of attrition and the realities of raising an army by conscription, it had in truth been mostly lowborn captains who’d been in the tent.
And so by seizing or killing the Brabantine captains in the tent, Klaus Papenheim had effectively removed all the men and women who would have had the popularity and leadership to rouse the conscripts into organized resistance against him. His actions would still breed deep resentment and involved killing trusted officers shortly before seeking a pitched battle, but for now though the conscripts were mutinous they were a disorganized sort of mutinous. The kind that could be herded into companies and forced to prepare for a march west by Lycaonese soldiers, as was currently taking place while the fantassins failed to realize they were being isolated.
It wasn’t that the Iron Prince was unaware that a third of the camp now despised him, Hanno mused, but that in the old prince’s eyes that mattered little if no one here was alive to hate him in a week. He was not wrong in this.
“I take it we’re not going to intervene either way?” the Barrow Sword asked.
Hanno almost smiled. The man’s reason for seeking him out finally became clear.
“There will not be a need,” the White Knight said. “I have sent Antigone and Christophe to oversee the capitulation of the conscripts, and anything other than our visible presence would be interference beyond our mandate.”
The Barrow Sword turned to study him for a long moment.
“Huh,” Ishaq idly said. “Thought you’d be up in arms about all the killing, White Knight. It seemed like the kind of turn you might flip a coin over. So to speak.”
Hanno turned to level a calm stare on the villain, who met it defiantly. He said nothing, simply waiting in silence until the other man looked away.
“No offence meant,” the Barrow Sword said.
“Of course,” the White Knight mildly replied. “A good evening to you then, Ishaq.”
The bearded man balked at the implied dismissal but did not contest it. It would have been easier, Hanno suspected, if they had fought. It would have allowed the Barrow Sword to place him as the more powerful among them, and so end the incessant challenges that uncertainty in this matter drove him to attempt. Yet Hanno was a high officer of the Grand Alliance, and the Barrow Sword was not one of the Named in his charge. Duelling the villain, even if Catherine would likely end up excusing the matter, would be an act with repercussions. Gods but there were a great many of those, these days. His world had grown increasingly complicated since the inception of the Truce and Terms.
Duties had grown like weeds even as old certainties now passed like sand through his fingers. Hanno reached for the coin that was never far from his palm, though it had never been found by another, and closed his fingers around the silver. Laurels on one side, crossed swords on the other. The only verdict the Seraphim ever cared to give. Watching the corpses be dragged away in silence, the White Knight casually flipped it. It spun, a blink of silver, and landed on his open palm without anything beyond Creation’s laws having moved it. A relief, almost. At least it was not a spurt of the Hierarch’s madness again. It still left him feeling unpleasantly blind.
It was not that the White Knight believed himself to be unschooled in matters of law or in matters of right and wrong. He knew better. His interest in both matters – sometimes aligned, sometimes opposed – had begun early. As a boy, Hanno had once been a court scribe for the Outer Tribunal of Arwad. The courthouse of Halan District had been a minor one even among the lesser of the Thalassocracy’s two tribunals, but it had often deal with foreigners and their laws, as well as possessed a surprisingly large scrollhouse that the senior scribes and archivists had been lenient in allowing a young Hanno to use.
These days, when looking back in search of the first steps taken in becoming the man he was today, the White Knight had often lingered on that alignment of coincidences as a likely source. He had learned of many laws while quite young, not only those of his native Ashur but also those of Free Cities – Nicae and Delos, mostly – as well the southernmost of the Proceran principalities. He had also seen judgement given day after day, the law measured and applied by the tribunes of the courthouse for which he had kept records. It had fostered in him an interest in justice and law long before injustice slew his father and befell his mother in the wake of that death.
He’d read the famous treatise on Ashuran law, the Ten Scales of Madrubal, as much out of curiosity as because he had nursed ambitions to one day become an archivist at the courthouse. That same abundance of knowledge had come close to leading him astray, when he had sought the Riddle of Fault and earned the attention of the Seraphim, so in a sense it was not without peril. It was all too easy to become drunk your own learning and confuse it with wisdom. Yet Hanno had continued to learn, over the years that followed, for though it was not his place to judge there was rarely virtue to be found in willful ignorance. And so he had sought knowledge of the laws of Calernia, sifting through them in search of wisdom.
He had found sense in some places, be they the graces the Principate granted to all from princes to beggars or the shrewdly even-handed way the Tower collected taxes, but always it had been… situational. Impermanent. Nothing at all like the timeless wisdom of the Choir of Judgement. And more often Hanno had found the laws twisted and turned into a tool of oppression by those who made them. The Magisterium of Stygia made property of men while calling it a godgiven right, Callowan nobles inherited the right to pass judgement along with their titles and Ashur in the same breath condemned slavery while buying foreign criminals whose sentences would be spent labouring in the Thalassocracy’s mines.
Watching soldiers in mail drag butchered naked corpses way, Hanno considered justice. Law, it could not be denied, gave the right to Prince Klaus Papenheim. Yet justice was not the same thing, and it rarely nested on the side that dragged corpses into mass graves – for all that the appellation of ‘disposal pits’ tiptoed around that words, that was what they were in truth. No, Hanno would not put blind trust in laws. Men were flawed and that imperfection bled into all that they made it was the simple way of things. Even laws. Especially laws, perhaps. So the White Knight had observed those that he could while pursuing what he knew to be right, and ignored those that he must while doing the same.
It was a straightforward path, in a way. While he was as blind as anyone else on Creation, he’d had the light of the Choir of Judgement to heed and follow instead. That had removed uncertainty. Allowed for purity of purpose, if not always action. Hanno had been blessed enough to benefit from the wisdom of the Seraphim since his first breath as the White Knight, and in a way the coin that represented it had become as much a part of him as his hands or feet. Even when he had not called on the judgement of the Seraphim, not tossed the coin, that he still held it at all had been a reassurance. A sign that he had not lost his way, that as the instrument of Judgement he still brought good into the world.
Now all that was left was a coin more silver than miracle and the growing awareness of his own imperfections.
Hanno’s hand went to trace the stumps of his missing fingers. He had not grown to question the worth of that bargain, but there had been other doubts that crept to his side under cover of night. The end of the troubles at the Arsenal had been no such thing, simply a transmutation of one form of trouble into another. And though the White Knight knew better than to linger on the attribution of fault, he had wondered much over the last months of how the parts of the blame there should be assigned. Some of it was his, but how much? Hanno had refused to bend on the principles at play because those principles simply could not be bent if the Truce and Terms were to remain worth enforcing.
But he’d not conveyed this properly to the First Prince and the Black Queen, and so they had joined hands to work around him.
It had stung. Not that they’d treated him as an obstacle, for he had absolutely been one. But rather that two women he’d held in high regard had so utterly failed to understand that the Truce and Terms were already a compromise on principle and they’d been asking him to compromise those even further. Behind all the talk of necessities and dues, what they’d wanted of him was to go back on the rights and protections promised to someone in his charge, with little more justification for it than ‘the fears of the Highest Assembly require quelling’. Which, while likely true, was not a valid reason to break half the oaths that made up the foundation of the Truce and Terms.
It was as if they’d believed he was being inflexible for the pleasure of it rather than because it was the only morally potable stance to take in that position. Even from a long-term perspective, a willingness to discard any Named that became inconvenient at the first… Hanno breathed out, reached for the calm. He would not fall into the trap of the backbiting, into the inherently losing game of beginning to think of this in terms of victory and loss. Yet he’d allowed the eminent reasonableness of the foremost villain of their age to lull him into a sense of comfort, and that was an illusion that must be discarded. While the trick with the corpse of the Red Axe had been disgraceful, it had mostly served as a reminder of a simpler truth.
Catherine Foundling did not have lines in the sand that she would not cross, if she thought it necessary. It did not erase her virtues, but neither must Hanno ever allow himself to forget that all that stood between the Black Queen and atrocities was the perception of need.
It was Cordelia Hasenbach’s complicity that had most troubled him. The White Knight was not an utter fool, he grasped that regardless of her character her position would make demands of her. Yet Cordelia Hasenbach had, once, been on the verge of being Named. The Heavens themselves had measured her being and not found it wanting. He’d honestly not believed, deep down, that she was someone who would put political needs over doing the right thing. He’d been wrong. The grim theatre of the desecration of young girl’s corpse, a trial that was a farce going back on the Principate’s own word – that Named alone would stand in judgement over Named – had proved otherwise.
Cordelia Hasenbach had and would place the preservation of the Principate of Procer above all other callings, no matter how wicked or virtuous they might be.
It had been a disappointment. One less person he could trust among a number already exceedingly small. And there were even fewer he could both trust and be challenged by. The Grey Pilgrim was one, but Tariq was deathly afraid of stepping back into the role he had as a younger man and that made him… hesitant to speak up, sometimes. And so few of the other heroes ever cared to question Hanno’s actions, his reasons, save for those that questioned them badly. Or worse, for the wrong reasons as Christophe de Pavanie once had. The trust that had grown strong between the keystones of the Grand Alliance at the beginning of the war was fraying, slowly but surely. It was, Hanno had found, an unsettlingly lonely feeling.
And so now it was alone that Hanno of Arwad looked at the last of the corpses being dragged away, knowing he had tactically allowed this to happen. Veitland, Princess Mathilda of Neustria had succinctly asked. A cliffside village halfway through Twilight’s Pass, where Iron King Konrad had once shamed fleeing armies into turning around and facing the enemy. Hauptberg, Klaus Papenheim had just as succinctly replied. A small dip into Recall had been enough to confirm what he’d already suspected, that there the bloody birth of the Iron Crown had begun in murderous treachery. Even the Barrow Sword had sniffed out the nature of what was coming, giving a warning about Captain Nabila being a skilled captain but green to the Dominion’s bloody politics.
“It was lawful,” Hanno murmured, eyes lingering on the streaks of red trailing the ground.
But was it just? His hand itched for the coin, but the coin was just that now. A coin. The White Knight why this had been done, and that some restraint had been shown. He agreed with the Iron Prince that if the army stayed here, it would most likely perish. The Dead King was too canny an opponent to give them the kind of hopeless battle that they would end up winning. Which meant they must win in the mundane, in the dirt, and that meant marching west even when thousands among this army were unwilling. Leaving the mutineers behind would not have been possible, Hanno also knew. They would have been eaten up in a day and risen as soldiers in the service of Keter. These, the dark-skinned man knew, were all good reasons.
That this had been necessary was, in truth, difficult to deny. But had it been just?
No, his heart whispered. It wasn’t.
There had been better ways. If he had stepped in, involved himself regardless of authorities and restraints and how it would be seen as overstepping, there might be fewer corpses in the pit. Or none at all. And the heart was just as blind as the rest of him, but these days what else did Hanno have to follow? It would have been a mistake to step in. It had been a mistake not to step in. If he had acted, lives could have been saved. A simple answer. If he had acted, the potential ramifications might have killed rather more than fifty people. A complicated answer. Hanno knew himself to be in the right place, for he was the White Knight and doom was creeping across the land. Between it and Calernia was where he must stand
Sometimes, though, he wondered if he was there right man to be standing there.
The thought came lightly, and left just as easily, but it was not far. The White Knight eventually forced himself to look away, for soon the fantassins would be called to heel and he intended to be there to keep an eye on matters personally. Likely, he thought, the Prince of Hannoven would try to begin an early march west so that the mutinous soldiers felt like there could be no turning back. The afternoon air was chilly and so Hanno called Light to him, letting it warm his bones as he had learned from the life of a Paladin long dead.
It came slower than it used to.