“You cannot flee from fate, it is the road beneath your feet.”– Levantine saying
The grass was coated with dust, blown in from a southern storm. It made for slippery footing and that was Borghold Bluesmile had tried her luck: she’d thought the dust would make it harder on his prosthetic leg. As if Masego would ever make such shoddy work. Hakram slapped away the other orc’s axe with his own, nimbly letting her pass by him, then flipped it in his hand and tapped her shoulder with the butt from behind. There was raucous laughter from the circle of warriors around them, fists thundering against shields. It’d been an insult to hold back the blow, a sign of disdain.
Adjutant had implied he was teaching a child, not duelling an equal.
“You fucking tame dog,” Borghold furiously snarled, turning around. “Servant to wallerspawn, whore for-”
She struck at him when he took a step forward, hard and blind, but he didn’t even bother to avoid it. He adjusted the angle of his steel limb, let the blow bounce off, and his dead hand snatched her throat. He squeezed hard enough the insults replaced by a gurgling choke, raising her high enough her feet left the ground. He met her eyes with his own, patient, and let the fear seep in. Then his bony fingers tightened, a hard warning, and he dropped her. Borghold fell in a sprawl, coughing spittle through her blue-painted teeth.
“Howling at the moon doesn’t turn a hound into a wolf,” Hakram snorted, then spat to the side.
Fists on shields, the sound drowning out even his opponent’s coughing. He did not bother to help her up, as he had some other foes. The Brass Wings Clan was no enemy of his, this was not a test or declaration of enmity. Borghold Bluesmile had just wanted to raise her reputation as a champion by bloodying him in the wake of so many more famous names failing. Hakram left the circle, shields parting for him but even as a few eager young greenhorns sought to offer him celebratory aragh he caught sight of a man waiting for him.
There were few orcs as tall as Hakram and even fewer still that were taller, but Oguz the Lame was one of them. Juniper’s father had been known as Oguz Sharphand once, one of the most famous champions of the Steppes until both his legs were broken in a fall. Even with a shaman’s attention they’d never healed quite right, ending the warrior’s stride just as he hit his pride. Still, he’d kept the edge he’d had when he’d given Grem One-Eye his sobriquet and served as the chief of the Red Shields in all but names for decades while General Istrid served in the Legions.
He’d been proclaimed her successor, after her death, which Hakram counted as a blessing. Oguz the Lame made as useful an ally as dangerous he would have made an enemy. Adjutant drank a mouthful of aragh, slapping the stripling’s shoulder in thanks as he returned the skin and heading straight for the chieftain before warriors could try to rope him into a bout of celebratory drinking. Oguz, leaning on his slender blackwood stick, eyed Borghold with scorn.
“Kids,” Oguz the Lame rumbled, shaking his head. “There are times to make a reputation. A taratoplu is not one of them.”
It was an old term, that one. In translation it would mean truce-gathering but that would be missing a crucial nuance. In Old Kharsum, what the clans of the far north still called the noble tongue, taratoplu was the first of a pair of bond-words. The second was ordutoplu, which meant camp-gathering. The Miezans had only ever bothered to learn the first and in their records they’d matched it to one of their own words after unwarrantedly making it a masculine: turbelus. Horde, in Lower Miezan. Though it had been laziness that’d led the conquerors to make that mistake, they’d stumbled into a partial truth. Taratoplu was as day to the night of ordutoplu, the gathering under truce meant to lead to the making of a great war camp.
Not even when the Steppes had been filled with talk of breaking ties with Ater under Grem One-Eye had a taratoplu been called. If the tales were to be believed, none had been called since the day the Broken Antler Horde was smashed into dust.
“We are what we are,” Hakram grunted back.
The older orc scoffed.
“They put too much in your heads, at the Carrion Lord’s college,” Oguz said. “Too many words meaning too little. The Blackspears aren’t wrong about that, even if they’re the bloody vulture whoresons.”
“The Blackspears would sell a wolf to a goat and boast of it,” Hakram snorted.
A favorite expression of his mother’s, implying terrible bad faith and shamelessness.
“And it’s serving them well,” Oguz the Lame replied, sucking at his fangs in displeasure. “Walk with me, Deadhand.”
Around the tall walls of the fortress of Chagoro, a sea of tents had spread out. Once the great warring clans had called a truce and gathered for talks, the others had flocked from all over the Steppes. Even some of the faraway clans who’d only ever known the Golden Bloom and other orcs had come, drawn by the rumours of a Horde gathering in the south. Never had Hakram ever seen so many of his people in one place: over two hundred banners reached for the sky, more than a hundred thousand orcs swarming under them. Not all warriors, but many. Hard to find out numbers when the camp was violent mayhem, not a semblance of organization to it.
Just finding your way to where you needed to go was a struggle: there was a reason the talks between the clans were held within the fortress, none allowed to set tents within.
“The Winter Hooves changed sides,” Oguz briskly said. “Their champions now drink with Troke’s and swear his fights will be theirs.”
Troke Snaketooth, chieftain of the Blackspear clan, was proving to be a problem. Hakram had not anticipated that the man would be so able at making allies, much less as ambitious as he was proving to be. The man had ridden the story of being the maker of this truce to greater influence, painting his greatest rivals – the Red Shields and the Howling Wolves – as warmongers who would rob all the Clans of the wealth of the south. Worse, his deeper game was only now starting to emerge. There had been no chief that could unite enough of the clans to have a claim at being acclaimed Warlord, not even Troke whose clans still had many enemies, but the Snaketooth had traded axe for arrow. He had put it to the clans that, in the Praesi way, a High Lord of the Steppes should be elected to lead the Clans into war south. Avoiding the title of Warlord, couching it all in terms of Praesi authority, had made the affair more palatable to clans who would have balked at proclaiming a Blackspear their Warlord.
Many had taken up the banner in the weeks since. Too many, and more were rallying by the day.
“The Winter Hooves were friends to the Howling Wolves,” Hakram quietly rumbled. “What changed?”
“They were friends to Grem One-Eye,” Oguz corrected. “They wanted him as Warlord, in the old days. Now there is no getting him back: even if the Tower returns him, how are we to be sure it is not just some creature riding his skin?”
There was an undertone of relish to the other orc’s word at the ruin of his old foe’s reputation, Hakram noted. That enmity had never quite faded, not helped by the old rumours that Grem was Juniper’s true father. Empty words, as far as Adjutant knew, but it was too tasty a slander not to be kept moving from mouth to ear.
“You’re saying they care more about the throne than who sits it,” he slowly said.
“Talk about thrones and you’ll get your throat ripped out,” Oguz warned. “But they’re looking for a stallion to ride, that much is true, and Troke’s the one prancing. They’re not the only ones, Deadhand. Praes is looking ripe but no one wants to try the Tower without a firm axehand to follow.”
On Rule, the fascinating treatise on politics that so many Procerans treated as a second Book of All Things, described this very phenomenon. In times of crisis, it wrote, authority will move from the periphery to the centre. In times of plenty, it will move form the centre to the periphery. Hakram had seen it unfold with his own eyes, the way a parade of enemies had pushed Callow deeper and deeper into Catherine’s embrace. Now, to his displeasure, he was seeing an opponent sail the same current. Clans would back Troke Snaketooth not because they were ardent supporters but because he was looking like the rising candidate.
The deed wasn’t done, though. And Troke had made that old and most unforgiving of Wasteland mistakes: you never wanted to be the one looking closest to claiming the Tower until you were ready to actually take it.
“The Hooves will bring over maybe three clans with them,” Hakram said. “That brings Troke to over sixty backers, by my count.”
“Just about,” Oguz said. “If he gets to eighty the tide will carry him over, mark my words. No one wants to be the last to proclaim a Warlord.”
That Troke would be High Lord of the Steppes instead would matter not a bit in practice, Hakram knew. Once he was in the chair, people would obey. It was what orcs did when someone was raised above. The Blackspear clan would make promises of lesser authority, of limits and restraint, but the moment Troke Snaketooth had a few victories under his belt he’d begin taking it back. And the Clans would let him, so long as he kept their axes red and their bellies full.
“Sixty is enough that the Weeping Arrows will be scared,” Hakram said. “They’re going to start bleeding clans and Inge Farsight knows if she drops under forty she’s done. She’ll negotiate now.”
“You want us to back her?” Oguz said, tone unconvinced. “Dag is still our man.”
“Unless you want your clan to serve as Troke’s footrest for the next twenty years, you don’t really have a choice,” Hakram bluntly replied. “Dag’s a hawk with lead wings, Grem’s cousin or not. He’s a solid champion but he’s not even chief to the Howling Wolves.”
The Howling Wolves clan was still led by Grem One-Eye, who they refused to name dead, though in practice much like the Red Shields had spent the last two decades led by Oguz in his wife’s name Dag Clawtoe had led the Howling Wolves as chief in all but name for his cousin.
“That lot is prickly,” Oguz warned. “They won’t like going from rider to wolf.”
“So we marry Dag to Inge,” Hakram said.
“She killed her last husband,” Oguz the Lame flatly replied.
“I’m sure Dag will enjoy the challenge,” Adjutant lied.
It needed to be done. The alliance between the Howling Wolves and the Red Shields was holding steady at forty clans but it’d not grown in days. Dag was respected but seen more a steward than a lord, to use Callowan parlance, and Oguz couldn’t be put forward because no one would follow a cripple. Their clans were by far the two largest of their alliance, and the warriors would not hear of putting forward the chief of a weaker clan as the figurehead for the alliance. Hakram knew there was no point in forcing the matter. Even if it worked, challenges would see the chief slain by his own allies before the day was out.
The bloody Blackspears were making gains, in large parts due to the skilled diplomacy of their Split Tree Clan allies. Hakram had been somewhat disposed to making peace with their ascension, as his and Catherine’s plans did not necessarily require the Wolves or the Shields to be raised as the highest of the clans, but Troke’s plans were a problem. The Snaketooth did intend to burn a swath through the lands of Okoro, but he’d called it madness to try the walls of a well-armed and forewarned High Seat. He had promised instead to keep raiding southwards, towards Nok.
Whose defences had been weakened by an Ashuran sack and who had sent many troops out west to fight with Sepulchral.
No doubt it was just happenstance that such an attack would cripple a rebellion against the very same woman who’d raised Troke to the rank of Lord of the Steppes and might just make her inclined to confirm him as High Lord of Steppes should the war end in her favour. Most of the Clans didn’t give a shit about that, though. What they saw was that Troke wanted to take them after a softer but still rich target, which was a pleasant song to the ear of many.
“I fucking doubt that, boy,” Oguz snorted. “But let’s ask him.”
Dag did not, in fact, enjoy the notion of that challenge. Hakram sold him on it anyway by pointing out that if he wed Inge Farsight even should his cousin return to become chieftain of the Howling Wolves he’d still have a high position as husband to the High Lady – or Warlord, depending on how things fell out – of the Steppes. Ambitious bastard, Dag, though personal loyalty to his famous cousin had kept that in check. A chance to step out of Grem One-Eye’s shadow, though, was not an opportunity to be lost. All that remained was selling to Inge and the Weeping Arrows.
She’d see reason, Hakram thought. Like most of the prominent chiefs, she had to know that food was beginning to run out. The countryside had already been stripped bare, Okoro no longer sent patrols that could be slain to eat and the clans had brought only so many herd with them to butcher for meat. Much as the chiefs would like to argue forever, someone would need to be acclaimed in Chagoro before the month was out or simple hunger would force the gathering to disperse.
Within moments of getting to the great tent of the Weeping Arrows, Hakram found trouble. Trouble looked back at him with a come-hither glare, going by the name of Sigvin of the Split Tree Clan. One of the twins that’d come as speakers for their clan to Wolof, Hakram had gotten to know her better since. She had these long fangs and wore tunics that prominently displayed ritual scarring on her shoulders, and Hakram had always had a weakness for dangerous women. It’d only made the fucking better to know that they both knew she was trying to turn him to her side, which might have been while they’d kept doing it.
Not that hers was the only bed he’d rolled in. Being the first Named of his kind in centuries and an unbroken streak of duelling victories had made Hakram a desirable orc. He wasn’t one to say no when the question was asked right.
Sigvin was leaning against a marking post outside the tent. Inside was a lot of shouting, not a pot he wanted to dip a toe hastily, so he came to lean on the other side of the post. Silence held between them, Hakram pricking an ear to try to discern what was happening in the Weeping Arrow tent. Names were being shouted, but also oaths and insults.
“If I didn’t know better,” Adjutant said, “I’d say it sounds like the acclamation of a chief, in there.”
The early part of it, at least.
“You haven’t heard?” Sigvin said, flaring her teeth provocatively at him. “Inge Farsight got killed. Some feud with a Black Tongue champion that went hard.”
The Black Tongue weren’t backers to Troke Snaketooth, from what Hakram recalled. At least not officially. How many knifes like that had the Blackspears kept in wait?
“No telling who they’ll raise now,” Hakram said.
Inge had led the clan almost twenty years but had no clear successor. Those kinds of acclamations always got messy and often left clans divided in their wake.
“Except that it won’t be Inge Farsight,” Sigvin laughed.
She met his eyes boldly.
“One step behind, Deadhand,” she said. “Might be time for you and your queen to talk with Snaketooth instead of keeping lead weights on your feet.”
Swift as a doe, she pushed away from her side of the post and swatted at his buttocks.
“Don’t worry,” Sigvin said, “I’ll not kick you out of my bedroll even after you lose. It’d be a waste.”
Hakram took the time to enjoy the sway as she strolled away, for he was only mortal, but as soon as she was gone he turned cold eyes to the tent. That was a setback. The Weeping Arrows were done, their alliance would collapse. The practical thing would be to take the offered branch the Blackspears had sent through Sigvin and have private talks with Troke. He would only pull further ahead in the coming days, and even if he couldn’t be turned against Malicia he still needed to be sounded out over… other matters. As the Adjutant, that was his duty. Much as it irked to have been outplayed, he had been. Now he needed to make sure Catherine’s plans were not too heavily damaged. Yet Hakram found his feet refusing to move. He thought, suddenly, of Scribe. Of the look she’d had on her face, that night he had taken her by the throat with a ghostly hand he could no longer make. How the glint in her eyes had scared him for the way he could so easily understand it. He looked down.
The grass at his feet was coated in dust, blown in from a southern storm. Tricky footing.
Just a few more steps, he decided.
The night sky would have been beautiful, were it not for the plumes of foul smoke clawing across it. The Dead King’s devilish machine, the dragon-furnace that had been meant to incinerate the armies that’d held Hainaut, had not ceased burning after being toppled. Miles of land had turned into a sea of fire as black pitch spread, and though the fuel was running out it was as if a curtain of black and pungent smoke had been drawn across the world. The kind of sight that would make men mutter about the end of the world, had they not already all known it had arrived.
“In Ashur, Speakers do not like to deal in simple truths,” Hanno of Arwad said. “Simplicity is a brittle thing, they claim. What lessons they have to share, they prefer to share through stories. To let us find our own meanings.”
“I hatred riddles,” Rafaella admitted. “And poems. Even Hidden Poets. Words trying to get clever.”
Hanno shifted in his seat, wincing as the bandages pulled tight against his wound. The priests had seen to his impalement as best they could but the enchantment on the Revenant’s spear had fought the Light. It would be days before he was truly fit to fight again.
“Cleverness isn’t the point,” he told his old friend. “It is a mark of respect, I always thought. A recognition that few truths are true for all.”
“Stories not about truth,” the Valiant Champion chided him. “They about glory and sex. And killing. Sometimes Gods, but mostly other three.”
“But you can speaking bad Ashur story,” Rafaella allowed. “I am best of friends, will pretend to listen.”
“Convincingly?” he teased.
“Am not that best a friend,” Rafaella replied without batting an eye.
But he knew her enough to see she was curious, under the ribbing, so Hanno idly thumbed the stumps of his missing fingers and chose his words.
“There is one that I cannot seem to shake, lately,” he admitted. “It is a story about the Patient Man.”
“He villain?” Rafaella asked interestedly.
“I am not sure,” Hanno murmured. “Which I suppose is the point.”
In the distance, red lightning crackled across the sky. The aftermath of Antigone’s duel with the Archmage had left great scars on an already devastated land: power still lashed out wildly where they had clashed.
“In the far land across the sea, in the city of Akra, there was once a Patient Man,” Hanno said. “He was a man of faith and wisdom, who had grown wealthy before retiring and raising his two daughters. In time Akra went to war with the city of Yane, and so his eldest asked his blessing to fight. The Patient Man hesitated, for war is a dangerous trade and he did not want her to perish but neither did he want to shame the courage that made him proud. Knowing not which was the just course, he kept silent.”
The cadence came back to him easily, tradertalk having enough of High Tyrian to it that the tales he had learned a child could be recited to the same beats he had once learned. Hanno had never found the tale put to writ anywhere, and not for lack of looking. Like much of the wisdom of the Speakers, it was estranged from ink. Tales were living things, to the masked priests of Ashur, and the corpse of them on parchment would be almost as sacrilege.
“The eldest went to war without his blessing, captaining her ship, and though the city won the war her ship was lost,” Hanno gravely said. “Dead, they said, but the Patient Man did not yet grieve. His younger daughter grew wroth and cursed his silence as heartless. She blamed many for the death of her beloved elder sister but none more than the rulers of the city whose greedy ways had led to war. So that no sister would be lost again, the younger daughter sought to become a ruler herself.”
Rafaella had never been one to hide her thoughts, for all that she delighted in feigning false ones, so it was easy to see how she approved of the eldest daughter who had gone to war and less so of the youngest who sought to rule. Violence was familiar to the Valiant Champion. She had won her Name triumphing over others in honest battle, but it was no coincidence she had then left the hills of her native Alava. To stay in the lands of the Champion’s Blood would have seen her drawn into the feuds and schemes of the dynasties of the Blood, made precious by her inheritance of Bestowal.
It was a hard irony, that the same character that had made her the Valiant Champion had led her to want little to do with the Valiant Champion’s Blood.
“The younger daughter sought the Patient Man’s blessing and the help of his riches. This would be a long and arduous path, the Patient Man knew, for rulers do not like to share their power,” Hanno of Arwad said, with a wry twist of the lip. “Yet he held in esteem the conviction of his daughter and desired not to stand in the way of it. Knowing not which was the just course, he kept silent. Once more his daughter cursed him and rose to rule without help, but in rising she forgot her conviction and grew wicked.”
“To punish him for his silence she swore never to hear a word from him again, but the Patient Man did not yet grieve.”
“Good,” Rafaella grunted, speaking of the daughter and not the father. “Silence for silence. Honour in balance. Good girl.”
Rafaella had never once, in all the years they’d known each other, spoken of her family. It was not unusual for heroes to be born of tragedy but Hanno had long suspected that was not the truth of this. Sometimes he wondered at the kind of mother and father it would have taken, to raise a woman like Rafaella. Who could claim and hold such a hallowed Name at the age she had: seventeen, barely a woman grown.
“There came a day where a man came from the city of Yane,” he said, ignoring her guffaw and muttering of Yanu, “who was from there a prince, and he sought audience with the Patient Man. The man had been a captain for his kin in the war and found the shipwrecked eldest daughter. Falling in love, he wed her and had spent time gathering great gifts to bring the Patient Man to ask his blessing. A ship was sailing, with the eldest daughter and the gits among it, and the old man sent a messenger to his younger daughter to tell her of this wonder. It was a merry day, but the Patient Man did not yet rejoice.”
Rafaella’s brow tightened. Heroes did not live as long as either of them had without learning to catch the scent of tragedy in the air.
“The following day his younger daughter sailed into the harbour, bringing with her what she claimed a great war prize,” Hanno said. “A ship whose hull had been filled with great gifts and hated enemies from Yane, which she had all slain with her own hand. She had refused to hear the Patient Man’s messenger, keeping to her oath, and so in ignorance slain her own beloved sister. The prince was furious with grief, named her a kinslayer and swore revenge. He asked that the Patient Man condemn her, to show not all Akra was wicked, but the old man kept to his silence and so there was war.”
He’d told Antigone the story once, long ago in an airy city where they had been the only humans to be seen, and this had been where she balked. The Patient Man is made wicked by this, she had insisted. He and his daughter both deserve to be slain as reparations to Yane, for one committed a great crime and the other abides it. Rafaella did not balk, for her world was a vastly different one. The Dominion was bound as much by ties of blood as it was feuds between families: many a time would Blood forgive or ignore their trespasses of their own while the same dealt by the hands of their foes.
The Ashen Gods of Levant were not as the benevolent Hallowed of Procer or Callow’s stern Heavens. In the Dominion, the Gods were partisans. They had favourites, they took sides.
“Yet the younger daughter, broken by her crime, found her old conviction again,” Hanno continued. “She offered herself to the city of Yane as a penitent, and the truth of her earnest grief moved the hearts of the people. In time she was wed to the prince, who forgave her, and the cities of Akra and Yane were bound in peace and friendship. The Patient Man died in his bed, father to a grave and a woman estranged.”
His voice trailed off, leaving thoughtful silence in its wake. Rafaella was frowning, then eventually she sighed.
“Fucking hate riddles,” the Valiant Champion said. “Patient Man fool, good daughter dead bad daughter should have become priest?”
“That is an answer,” Hanno agreeably replied.
She sharply elbowed him.
“Is it right answer, though?” Rafaella asked.
“I was once told there are as many answers to that tale as there are Faces,” Hanno smiled, thinking of the masks hanged in the temples of Ashur and the priests who wore them. “You’re not any more wrong or right than any of us.”
Rafaella looked skeptical.
“So what’s your answer?” she seriously asked.
Hanno breathed out, looking at the marred sky.
“I don’t have an answer,” he quietly admitted. “All the story ever taught me was a question.”
He felt her eyes on him even without turning to look.
“Is it a greater evil to act unjustly,” the White Knight asked, “or not to act at all?”
The Patient Man might have saved his daughters great pain, even death, had he spoken. Had he grieved or rejoiced. Yet in keeping his silence, in trusting the Heavens, he had lived to see the birth of peace and friendship between once-warring cities. Was that great good worth the little evils caused by silence? The Choir of Mercy would say it was, had made a sword and law of that belief. But Hanno of Arwad was not the Sword of Mercy. And there had been a time where he had held an answer to the story, the one shown him in the depths of that unearthly place where he had become the White Knight. Mortals could not be just, he had been shown. Not truly.
They were flawed, blind creatures and even their finest intentions were blades without a handle. He could trust instead in the judgement of the Seraphim, impartial and farseeing. There was justice, beyond the fallibility of men. Hanno of Arwad palmed a small silver coin, one side bearing crossed swords and the other laurels, and deftly flipped it. It went spinning, a glint of silver in the dark, but it held no answers for him.
The Seraphim were yet silent.
“It true the coin woke?” Rafaella quietly asked.
Hanno caught the coin, snatching it out of the air.
“For a moment,” he said. “Would that it had not.”
The hope had burned, after the years left adrift. And burned harsher still when Hanno had understood what had truly happened: somewhere in the south, hidden away, Cordelia Hasenbach had ordered that the corpse of an angel be desecrated. Ealamal, such a corpse was called in the Dominion. Priests and mages in the service of the First Prince had meddled with something beyond mortal understanding, tried to turn the remnants of a Seraphim into a weapon. And the shadow of a shadow had woken for the barest of a moments without calamity ensuing. It had lit up like a beacon in an empty place within Hanno’s soul, blaring to him a warning of how far and fast the First Prince was falling.
Twice over her had been stung, in the Arsenal, and much had he thought of those days. Considered how he might have done things differently, looking into past lives for guidance – for the man he could have been and had failed to be, the one who would have passed that test. He had found no answers, the search only dwindling his power in the Light even as he warred against the dead, left to study only with his own meagre eyes. Catherine Foundling had startled him out of their pleasant détente, that day, but his anger there had waned. What wisdom was there in blaming a scorpion for striking? He would not allow himself to be lulled into complacency again, but neither had he misread the Black Queen as he’d once feared.
He had simply never been at odds with her before. It had been a lesson well worth learning, and cheap at the price.
Yet Cordelia Hasenbach had been looked upon with approval by the Choir of Judgement once. Her convictions been judged worthy, even as she denied the Name was her rightful mantle to bear. A scant year later and the same woman had been reduced to someone feeding people into the grinding gears of the Principate of Procer so that the machine’s wheels would be kept wet. Hasenbach had no ideals, only an ideal Procer. And though that land would be a beautiful thing to behold, Hanno thought, it would be grimly built and as Evil made it slip further and further away the First Prince was dipping her hands deep in the red.
Already she was up to her elbows, how long before she began to swim? Conviction and despair had been mothers to many a horror.
“Truth then,” Rafaella grunted, studying him. “Talk of ealamal.”
“It is,” Hanno simply said.
The Valiant Champion weighed him with her eyes.
“That why you been middling?” she asked.
“Meddling?” he suggested.
“Middle, meddle, muddle,” she growled. “Tradertalk is fool tongue. You understand, Hanno. Now you finger on scales.”
Her face grew serious.
“Time was you did not.”
He did not deny it.
It had begun as a small, simple thing. But then was the same not true of the first pebble before the avalanche? There had been trouble in the army, after the Black Queen left. The Lycaonese had begun to elect their own leaders, after the death of the Iron Prince and Mathilda Greensteel, of marching to fight with their kin in the north. The leading captains all agreed in this. And Hanno could have stood aside and watched, as he had when the Iron Prince had hung mutineers, for it was not his place to meddle in the affairs of Procer.
But he had glimpsed the shape of it, how it would unfold. They would leave and there would be no stopping them without a battle. Hainaut would weaken, then fall. So instead of standing aside, he instead had stood to the side of those captains who shamed the others for speaking of leaving the fight. And though he had said not a word, his presence had spoken volumes. The White Knight agreed. The Sword of Judgement, like the Ashen Gods of the Dominion, had picked a side.
Once he’d dipped a toe, it had seemed pointless to balk when the Alamans princes began to bicker and their hosts to desert. He’d brokered a truce between Beatrice Volignac and Arsene Odon, exhorted the levies of Bayeux whose shame about routing at the Battle of Hainaut had been eating away. It had seemed almost just to him to speak to those levies, balancing the scale of the way he had done nothing as Klaus Papenheim slew and imprisoned their officers. He had not expected for them to look to him for command, after, but he was a high officer of the Grand Alliance – he could serve as a commander if he chose, he simply had not. They had fought like lions since, to regain their pride.
They called him Lord White, and meant it not as a courtesy.
Hanno had remembered the clarity he’d felt, when he had been fighting to the north to destroy the bridge, and then the sickening feeling when he had heard about the bloody battle at Hainaut. And with those memories following him around like loyal hounds, he had found his hand moving again and again. Stiffening General Abigail’s spine when she began to consider retreat further south, killing the dispute through a scrying ritual when the Red Knight and the Myrmidon almost came to blows in Cleves, advising the Kingfisher Prince to retreat long before the Morgentor came at threat of being encircled.
Small things, all. But many of them. And others had noticed. There was a deference to the way the princes now spoke to him that had not been there before, and it was slowly passing to Named. Many now looked to him for advice who had merely taken it when offered before.
None had noticed that his power was waning all the while, save for his closest friends. That troubled Hanno, for it would have been easy to decide from this that the Heavens were frowning on his action, but for all that he was weakening he did not feel… shunned by the Light. But it was his doubts, he suspected, that were behind it all. The end of his certainties. For Hanno of Arwad had once believed himself as a Patient Man vindicated, but as the silence of Judgement lingered his own was beginning to break. These days he often he dreamt of the story he had told Rafaella, the question burning in his mind as he woke.
The Valiant Champion had been watching him through his long silence, the sky above them alive with writhing smoke.
“Is it a greater evil to act unjustly,” Hanno quietly repeated, “or not to act at all?”
And he could not shake the fear that he had not heeded the warning of the story. That he had seeded a doom at the heart of the Grand Alliance by his action. Would Cordelia Hasenbach grown so desperate, if he had not begun to step beyond his old lines in the sand? He had proof, ruinous proof, that his actions and hers were interlinked. Yet some part of him balked at the notion that simply acting, trying to do all the good that he could, would be a seed of doom. What had he done here, save try to keep the dark from blowing out the last trembling lights in the west?
“Not fighting Evil,” the Valiant Champion said. “Rolling over. That is greatest evil. You cannot be others, only you. That is what you owe the Ashen Gods.”
He thought on that, for a moment.
“I could do more,” Hanno of Arwad quietly confessed. “Even now, I stay my hand.”
Rafaella smiled gently, and pressed a kiss against the side of his head. He looked at her in surprise, for love or lust she had never been shy in expressing but affection was rarer.
“It’s end of the world,” his friend said. “When, if not now?”
The words lingered long after she departed, leaving him to silence and the smoky sky. When, if not now? Was she wrong? He felt as if she should be, but he could not say how. And that left only a broad, terrifying expanse ahead of him. One that could be filled with anything.
“I could do more,” Hanno of Arwad said, voice pensive.
Then perhaps he should. He already knew how to begin. Speaking with Antigone, so that she might lead him to the one who had taught her. The sole man who could bring the Titanomachy fully into the war, the last of the ancient Titans. The thought fixed, firmed, became a decision. And in that moment, Hanno felt it fully for the first time. Not in parts, in moments, as he had until now. Like a beacon. The claim that was stirring in him, to a Name he could not yet grasp. He had his suspicions, however. He was feeling another claimant, after all, to the south.
If Hanno had to put a name to where, it would be Salia.