“To be good?
An empty boast.
To be good at!
There is the glory,
even in devilry.”
– Extract from the play “I, Triumphant”, author unknown, banned by decree of the Tower under Terribilis II
Rosalind hadn’t been a Fairfax until there were no Fairfaxes left. She still remembered the knight that’d taken her away and brought her to the monastery, grim and silent and hidden by the visor. She’d grown to love it there, growing up in the gardens with the Brothers and Sisters, but she would not forget that she had been an embarrassment. That it would have been scandalous if Good King’s Robert own cousin was known to have fathered a bastard, so Rosalind must be spirited away in a small monastery in the southern reaches of Callow where she wouldn’t get in anyone’s way.
Much as she still resented that, it had likely saved her life.
Lord William, his wife and their two children were all dead. The Calamities had butchered even the four-year old boy, when they took Laure. But no one had known that Rosalind existed, so no black-clad killers had ever come knocking at the gates of the monastery in the middle of the night. Not, Brother Harlan had told her, that she would have been given up if they had. Lord William had chosen for her upbringing a monastery where more than a few knights had retired, perhaps intending to throw a knighthood her way when she reached the right age.
They would have fought for her, Brother Harlan said, not only because she was now the rightful Queen of Callow but because she was as much their daughter as anyone of their blood. And their conviction had sunk in her, Rosalind thought, for someone needed to save kingdom. The Praesi were still taking tallies and establishing taxes, for now, but it was only a matter of time until their ‘imperial governors’ revealed themselves as cruel tyrants. Rosalind must stop them before it was too late, and that meant rising in rebellion.
And for that, when Harlan – once Ser Harlan, Grandmaster of the Sleeping Lions – had laid the blade on her shoulders she had not risen to her feet a simple knight but instead the Rebel Knight. Eleanor Fairfax’s own Name, she had been told. Her fate was to be one of resurrection, bringing back Callow into a golden age as her ancestor had long ago. Resurrection apparently began with a lot of riding around, though, because that was what she’d been doing since leaving the monastery.
“You’re sure that Countess Elizabeth will help us?” Rosalind asked.
Brother Harlan stroked his beard, which though white had lost none of its luster – much like the man himself had lost little vigor or muscles even though he was in his sixties.
“The Countess Marchford is ambitious but she loves this country,” Harlan told her. “She might insist that you be betrothed to one of her family – I believe her nephew is her heir and the ages are close enough – but she will rise for a Fairfax. Of that I have no doubt.”
And the Countess was wealthy, Rosalind had been told, because of the silver mines in the hills she ruled. Coin would be needed, if the Rebel Knight was to begin raising an army. That was what had the five of them riding north at night, Rosalind and her mentor and the companions she’d found since leaving the monastery. Jack and Jane, the ever-smiling twins from Liesse that always seemed to know more than they should and showed wicked skill with knives, and Lucian. A stuck-up ass of a squire, who though unseasonably handsome kept picking at every decision Rosalind made.
She was pretty sure he was some noble’s son, even if he insisted otherwise, because he kept being surprised at all sorts of common things.
And, surprise of surprises, he rode up to her side the moment Harlan stopped talking. It’d been pretty obvious he was eavesdropping the whole time, as he often did. The pretty boy offered her a smirk.
“Do not worry, Rosalind,” Lucian said. “I have been to Marchford before. When your etiquette fails, you can rely on me to avoid disaster.”
“That’ll be the day,” Rosalind replied, rolling her eyes.
Gods Above, if the squire would just shut up and be pretty this journey would be so much more enjoyable. Harlan looked disapprovingly at the two of them, at him for his presumption and at her for the rudeness, but then he froze and pulled hard at his reins. His mount stopped, and so did the rest of the company’s.
“Harlan?” the Rebel Knight asked.
“We’ve just entered a ward,” Harlan grimly said. “Everyone, scatter.”
Rosalind had been obeying him in the training yard for years, she moved without hesitation. Lucian did not, and a heartbeat later there was a plume of ash where he’d been standing. Rosalind’s heart caught in her throat as she galloped away. Gods, was he dead? Just like that, dead? Light bloomed in the night, and a streak of red flame died against a shining shield. Harlan grunted with effort.
“To me,” he bellowed. “We have to pull back to-”
Rosalind deftly obeyed, as did the wide-eyed twins a moment later, but there was a blur of motion as one of them and their horse were bowledover. A massive wolf ripped out the twin’s hair, the horse screaming as it convulsed with broken legs.
“Jane,” the survivor screamed, anguished.
The Rebel Knight could see, now what the purpose of the ward had been. It had broken, perhaps because of the Light, and now a large mounted company of armoured riders could be seen spreading out around them. The Blackguards. And at their head, riding by the side of a tall Soninke in red robes that must be the Sovereign of Red Skies himself, was a man in plain plate. The Carrion Lord himself, Rosalind realized with a shiver. Harlan moved between the two of them, Light burning in his gaze.
“Ser Harlan,” the Black Knight calmly greeted him. “It appears your retirement has come to an end.”
“Had me watched, did you?” her mentor growled.
“We have people in Marchford,” the Carrion Lord replied. “Making contact revealed you.”
To their side the Blackguards were still fanning out and Rosalind felt fear creeping up her spine. If they got surrounded…
“Run, child,” Harlan quietly said.
Rosalind rocked back as if he’d slapped her.
“Harlan, no,” she insisted. “I can’t leave you-”
“I can hold them back long enough,” Harlan said, back straightening. “It will be my last gift to you, Rosalind.”
She choked up. He’d taught her since she could wall, taken care of her through every tantrum and skinned knee, every… He was more her father than some dead Fairfax could ever claim to be. Jack put his hand on her shoulder, pulling her back.
“We need to go,” he said, voice raw with grief.
Around them the riders were still spreading out, moving methodically. Harlan turned to her, smiling through his white beard.
“Farewell, Rosalind,” the old knight said. “Rule well.”
And she ran, Gods damn her. Followed his last order even as Light bloomed like a midnight sun.
“Come on, Carrion Lord,” Grandmaster Harlan of the Sleeping Lions laughed, “let’s have the fight that should have ended you on the Fields.”
“All crossbows fire at will,” the Black Knight mildly said. “Delay pursuit, it’s pointless now – Wekesa, track her.”
Whatever happened after that, Rosalind was too far to hear it. She rode her horse hard, Jack sticking close to her. But these were flatlands, and when enough time had passed that she could look behind without tears in her eyes she saw the Blackguards had resumed pursuit.
“There’s a village to the east,” Jack shouted at her. “Off the road. We need to hide there.”
She nodded, not trusting her voice. Something was burning her belly, a rage she’d not known before. It had been a duty, driving out the Praesi, but now it was something more. It was personal. They took Jack’s advice, the Blackguards pursuing in the distance, and before long found the village he’d mentioned. A nowhere place, wide asleep. There was nowhere in sight.
“I’ll find us fresh horses to steal,” Jack told her, pulling ahead. “Keep an eye on-”
The crossbow bolt took him the throat. The Rebel Knight threw herself to the ground before another could take her in the chest, but her horse was not so lucky.
“No,” she wept, but Jack was already dead.
What could she do but run? The village was swarming with goblins in Legion armour, suddenly, and if she stopped moving she was dead.
She was exhausted when the enemy caught up to her. Rosalind was fast, but not so fast she could outrun horses. She turned around, sword in hand, to meet her enemy.
“Come fight me, coward,” the Rebel Knight shouted.
The Carrion Lord studied her through his visor in silence, then simply raised his hand and lowered it. Rosalind was already running, but there was no avoiding that many crossbows. One bolt after another punched through her chain mail, every step becoming harder until she collapsed. She had not, she realized, gotten even half of the way there. The monster dismounted, a dozen soldiers following him as he approached her with his sword bare.
Rosalind tried to raise her arm, strike at him, but she was too weak.
“Three years,” the Black Knight said, shaking his head in disgust. “Even Scribe thought we’d get six before the first of you popped out.”
“I won’t be the last,” Rosalind gurgled out. “Damn you, I won’t be the last.”
Eerily pale green eyes met hers.
“No,” the Carrion Lord softly agreed. “In every sense, child, you will not be the last.”
It was mercifully quick.
The Scholar had heard what the monsters did to heroes in these parts, and he wasn’t going to meet that fate. That was why he was drinking in a dingy tavern, sipping at stale beer, instead of trying to hook up with one of the dozen would-be rebel groups that dwelled in Vale. Julian was Callowan too, just as much as any of them, but he’d been abroad. He’d been studying in Atalante when the Conquest happened, so he had… perspective that the people who’d never left lacked. These villains weren’t like the ones from the old stories, they’d take longer to drive out. Coming at them plain wouldn’t work. So instead of adding his corpse to the growing pile, Julian Evers was going to do the smart thing.
He’d learn everything he could about them, all their tricks, and give that information to every hero on Calernia. Time would do the rest for him.
Still, he had to wonder if it was the occupation that’d made the beer so watery. Surely an honest Callowan tavern-keeper wouldn’t cut their drinks if they had any other choice, right? The brown-haired man shot a suspicious look at the man behind the counter. He’d already used Examineon the tavern-keeper to make sure he did not have the tattoo that marked Eyes of the Empire, so he knew the fair-haired man was at least marginally trustworthy. He leaned around one of the candles on the counter, avoiding the uncomfortable wafting heat.
“I’ve a question,” Julian said, “if you have a moment.”
“Maybe if you order another beer,” the tavern-keeper mildly replied. “You’ve been nursing that tankard all evening.”
Fair enough, the Scholar thought with a sigh. He ordered again, setting aside his old tankard and sipping at the new one in a gesture of goodwill. It was significantly better, he noticed, and took a deeper swallow.
“Do you cut your beer, by any chance?” Julian asked, stroking a finger against Examine.
The blond man puffed up, looking offended.
“Of course not,” he replied.
A lie, Julian saw. His aspect wasn’t entirely foolproof, it tended to get caught up in details, but it saw clearly through most situations. Besides, particular attention to detail was only natural for someone who’d studied in Atalante: the philosopher-priests had quite literally invented the discipline of semantics.
“So yes,” Julian drily said, “but not this one.”
The tavern-keeper glared.
“Fine, there might have been water in the first,” he admitted. “But not your second.”
Truth, Examine told him. Julian took another swallow.
“What do you want, stranger?” the tavern-keeper asked.
“Your advice,” the Scholar said, smiling at the knowledge he now held the advantage. “I have been thinking of heading to Summerholm, but I hear the place is swarming with Praesi.”
“Largest garrison in Callow,” the other man agreed. “What about it?”
“I can deal with soldiers,” Julian shrugged, “but is it true that the Calamities often go there?”
He hoped so. Finding employment, laying low for a year or two and then begin quietly gathering information was his plan but it would only work if he could find a place where at least some of the villains regularly spent time. The Black Knight had not taken up a city as the capital of the occupation, unfortunately, which made the business tricky.
“Way I hear it, the Black Knight blows through every few months,” the tavern-keeper said. “And the Captains’ supposed to stick to him like glue, yeah? Don’t know about the others.”
The Scholar hummed. One tavern-keeper was not a certainty, but it was a start. He’d moved around, ask in other places after having changed his appearance like he’d done in Dormer. He offered the blond man his smile and thanks, then set about finishing the rest of the tankard out of politeness. Best not to be rude, it risked making him into a story to be peddled. Only when he was halfway through, he felt a sudden and vicious cramp. Julian looked down. His limbs were trembling, he saw, and he dropped to the floor.
He had, he realized with horror, been poisoned.
Distantly, he heard a few screams and people running out of the hall. Footsteps too, large, but his eyes were on the candle on the counter. Burning, he thought. Destroying impurity. And what poison, if not that? He focused, feeling the life leak out of him, and thought of a flame. Of it scouring his veins, destroying all evil. A hulking shape leaned over him. Not a woman, he dimly thought, for what woman could possibly be so large?
“Did you just learn to burn out poison on the fly?” the Captain said, sounding impressed. “It’s not even that common a trick.”
“I,” the Scholar gurgled out, “you won’t get away with-”
“You certainly didn’t,” the Captain said, raising a great hammer. “We lost you after Dormer, Scholar, but if you keep using dives for information then it’s just a waiting game.”
The hammer came down.
It’d all begun when a wolf king had come out of the Waning Woods and begun to raid farms. It’d not exactly caused a panic, since it or something like it happened every few decades. The tale was well-worn: some fae lord came into Creation, played court with some animals enchanted to talk and then when they got bored and abandoned the whole affair. Leaving the territory closest to the woods, the Barony of Dormer, to deal with the aftermath. The wolf kings were the worst of the lot, what with the way they gathered large packs and went after cattle single-mindedly, but it was nothing that Baroness Anne’s knights wouldn’t be able to ride down.
Only this time the fae had decided to go for broke, and horse-sized fox that spoke in rhyme had attacked the knights’ camp as they slept, tearing through them while they were unarmoured. The fox – a vixen, to be precise – had all the while been telling them that she was truly a princess and that the only way to be free of her curse was to slay as many men as there were days the enchantment was meant to last, but the good people of Dormer took that one with a grain of salt. Everyone’s grandmother had a story about some frog-prince who’d ended up being a badger with delusions of grandeur or a cousin who’d freed a buck only to find the promised treasure was a pile of acorns painted gold.
The survivors from the attack had sent for reinforcements and gathered the dispossessed farmers in a small town called Strawthorn, walling up there until the baroness’ troops could arrive. Blake had gone out to help, of course he had. He might have left behind his life as a Brother to marry Sawyer, but he was still a healer at heart. So long as he could wield Light, he’d pitch in when Evil came calling in one form or another. Sawyer hadn’t argued, one of a hundred daily reminders of how he’d made the right decision upending his life to be with her, and instead hung her apron to belt on her sword.
That nasty business with her father had ensured that Sawyer Halcroft would never be a knight, but her years abroad as a mercenary had taught her entirely more practical skills.
They were a month in Strawhtorn, Blake to heal the sick as he ignored the sideye from the priests and Sawyer spending her days training the town’s fledgling militia under the disapproving gaze of the Dormer knights. His wife was teaching them Free Cities spear tactics, not a proper Callowan shield wall, which while more likely to save their lives was apparently lacking in patriotism on her part.
“Never mind that a shield wall that green will melt away like summer snow the moment wolves run at it,” Sawyer groused at him in private.
Just as they began to get restless, however, word came from Dormer: another force had been assembled and was on its way. Darker news came too, to everyone’s dismay: rumour had it the Carrion Lord had taken an interest and might be headed this way. Hopefully it was really just be a rumour.
“It probably is,” Sawyer reassured him. “If you listen to gossip, the man’s bloody everywhere.”
“I won’t mind that,” Blake said, “so long as it’s everywhere but here.”
The Calamities might not have been the kind of tyrants he’d expected them to be, but they were harsher in doling out punishment than the Fairfaxes had ever been. Best not to draw their attention at all if you could, that was just plain sense. The two of them made plans to leave Strawthorn when the reinforcements arrived, deciding it was best to get gone before they could get caught up in the inevitable pissing match between the Dormer soldiers and the Praesi.
Only they didn’t get to, because the wolf king came straight at the town. No one had expected it, because the creatures never did that. It might have a crown seared onto its head, but it was still a wolf: those didn’t attack towns, or even most villages, unless hunger made them desperate. The knights were caught with their pants down again, although even half-dressed their core of veterans made a bloody fight of it, but things were looking bad.
“I need to form up the militia,” Sawyer hissed at him. “Can you-”
Blake kissed her.
“Go,” he said, and she did.
He should have gone with the priests, readied himself to heal the wounded, but a doubt was niggling away at him. Why would the wolf king act this way? Following a faint instinct, he headed for the House of Light and there found his answer: the great fox, trying to force open the gates. Around her neck hung the limp and bleeding body of a she-wolf.
“You took the wolf king’s consort to draw him here,” Blake said, fingers clenching around his staff. “Why?”
The fox turned to look at him, smirking as much as an animal could.
“Poor priest, blinded and crossed
Knowing not what was buried and lost
I came here cunning, and will have my bite
Of that old treasure made of Light.”
Blake stared her down.
“Your metre’s terrible and your rhymes second rate,” he told the monster.
It did not take kindly to that. But even though he was no longer a Brother, he was still a wielder of Light and standing near the threshold of a House. When he called it to him it came strong and easy, burning at the great fox’s fur until it yelped and ran away. The vixen was a coward at heart, it was why she’d gotten the wolf king to do her dirty work, and in the haste of her flight she abandoned her unconscious prisoner. In the distance Blake still heard the screams and howls of battle, the wolf king still attacking desperately to claim back his consort, and the healer hesitated.
The fox had revealed that some manner of artefact lay underneath the floor of the House, something powerful enough the creature had desired to devour it for power. If he claimed it, he could drive away the wolf king. But though Blake was no longer a priest, he had not forgotten the lessons of the Book. If the choice is between lighting a candle and a pyre, ever choose the candle: to save is a greater act than to destroy. So instead Blake knelt by the she-wolf and laid a gentle hand on her side, Light blooming around her pelt. Her breath steadied, and she woke. Too-clever eyes met his and he smiled.
“Let us end this,” the healer said.
And they did. The fight went out of the wolves the moment the two of them arrived, and Sawyer ordered the wall of spears to part so they could pass. The two wolves reunited, lovingly rubbing their cheeks together, and Blake’s heart clenched. He glanced at his wife, who was looking back with a small, secret smiled. The wolf king took a few steps towards him, nervous townsfolk raising their spears, but the crowned wolf did not attack: it bowed its head down in thanks before rising again, eyes expectant. Blake knew his stories, like all good Dormer boys. He was being offered a boon.
“I ask,” he said, “that you no longer attack humans and their cattle, Your Majesty.”
The wolf king stared him down with amber eyes, then curtly nodded and trotted away. The large pack, nearly sixty wolves even after all the deaths, followed in his wake. Blake slumped, the wind gone out of him now the danger was passing, and might have collapsed if Sawyer had not come to help him up. It was over, finally. The townsfolk cheered themselves hoarse, and that night a feast was thrown. The couple stayed two more days, long enough that Blake could be satisfied there would be no one who died from their wounds, and as they did they felt a… change.
The townsfolk and even the knights had begun calling Blake a wise healer, and the words were beginning to have weight. Almost like a title. And Sawyer, who’d been offered by the town elders to stay on as captain of their militia, had begged off by telling them that though a mercenary she was now retired. The words stuck to her too, the way she got called the retired mercenary. The both of them feared the change, and decided it was time to get gone. They could ride this out at the bakery, piece together what was happening.
Just to be safe they did not wait until morning to leave, riding out in the night and finding a roadside inn to stay at. The rooms were full so they had to sleep in the stables, but neither of them minded. It wasn’t their first night roughing it, and they settled together in the hay.
The woke up to a bright light being shined into their faces.
Sawyer was on her feet in a heartbeat, sword clearing the scabbard, but it was caught by another blade. As Blake struggled to get up, reaching for his staff, he saw his wife getting headbutted by a man in plain plate, the crunch of the steel helmet on her forehead a wound to his heart. She reared back in pain as Blake called on the Light, letting loose a bolt, but the man moved out of the way with a dancer’s grace. Sawyer struck again, but the stranger was so fast – he slapped aside the thrust and his gauntleted fist struck her in the mouth, smashing her back down into the hay and breaking teeth.
“Robbers,” Blake shouted, drawing on Light. “You fools, even if the baroness doesn’t get you the Legions w-”
And then froze, because the man had not come alone. The stables were full of soldiers in plate but no heraldic markings, and there was only one company in all of Callow that wore such armour: the Blackguards. The Carrion Lord’s personal retinue.
“No,” Blake got out. “Why? We haven’t done anything.”
Under the visor he saw pale green eyes studying him, the violence pausing. Gods, let them be able to talk their way out of this.
“We don’t want to fight you,” Blake desperately said. “I swear. We want only to leave, to return to our bakery. We’re not rebels.”
“I know,” the Black Knight said, and he sounded sounding genuinely sorry. “But that is only in the immediate. Should I leave you alone now, fate’s wheels begin spinning.”
“We have no quarrel with the Empire,” Sawyer croaked, down in the hay.
“Not today,” the monster said. “But eventually an imperial governor will wrong you, or a legionary’s carelessness, and when that anger reaches a boil another hero will show up.”
The man sounded vaguely irritated.
“Someone young and strong, with potential but little experience, who would need companions like a wise healer and a retired mercenary to reach the fullness of their power,” the Carrion Lord said. “By then, it will be too late. This is best nipped in the bud before the band of five begins gathering.”
“You’re mad,” Sawyer hissed through her broken teeth. “This is all nonsense, you’ve just gone rabid and-”
A sense of immediate danger blared across Blake’s mind, but the Carrion Lord was not moving so what could possible be the cause of it. Oh, Merciful Gods, the Wise Healer realized. He wasn’t really talking to us, it was just a distraction so the Warlock could-
The last thing Blake ever felt was the scent of burning brimstone.