The boy Lady Morgami had called for him didn’t want to go all the way back to camp. Kamendian could appreciate that; the boy’s job was to find those among the fallen who were still alive and get them healing if possible. Once night fell, it would be impossible to see, dooming any unfound wounded. All the same, he wished there were some other way for him to get back to the main camp other than riding on the dead wagon.
Kamendian clambered up onto the wagon, next to the body of a Khirbitei Elkshirt. He watched the healers and the baggage-boys moving around the field, searching for wounded among the corpses strewn about. Here and there, men dragged the bodies of the dead to wagons, to be brought back to camp for blessings and a pyre. He’d had collection duty himself in the past. It was hard work, but it was preferable to the plague of hauntings which followed a battle where the fallen were left to rot.
In the west, the sun was about to sink below the horizon. It would be dark soon. Kamendian was very tired. He probed the hole in his armor; the flesh underneath was unbroken. He didn’t seem to be wounded anywhere–just a bit sore and disoriented. He should be dead.
A short, solidly-built man came up to the wagon, carrying a dead soldier over each shoulder. He looked Sarangian, probably from one of the eastern satrapies. He slung his load onto the cart, then caught sight of Kamendian.
“Still alive, then?” the short man inquired.
On another day, Kamendian might have been able to be snide. But not today. “Yes. I was hoping for a ride back to camp.”
“Mm. Bout full here. What legion you from?”
“The Ebony Cormorant.”
“Can do.” Without further elaboration, the easterner went around to the front and started the mules across the field.
The sun set while the cart moved slowly toward the main encampment. They stopped briefly at the Khirbitei camp for the mountain warriors to unload their dead, then moved on through the Imperial lines. Despite his surroundings, Kamendian was finding it increasingly hard to stay awake. He almost missed his legion’s encampment; the easterner wagon-driver had either forgotten or chosen to ignore his passenger, so Kamendian had to jump off the moving wagon. Exhausted, he stumbled into the camp. The only people moving around seemed to be from the baggage train, and he recognized none of them. He needed to sleep. In the morning, perhaps the world would make more sense. He found a tent with space on the floor, and curled up to sleep. Within moments, the world went away.
When he woke up, Kamendian wished he’d had the presence of mind to remove his armor before sleeping. Every part of him was stiff, and the padding chafed. Looking around, he saw that most of the legionnaires he’d seen the night before had gone. There were only two men left, and both were obviously badly wounded. He wondered where Tellias was. The lanky southerner had taken a Lemnarian javelin through the leg early in the day and been forced to retreat, so he probably had survived the battle. Tellias was a good man to know; he always seemed to know what was happening.
Kamendian took off his gauntlets and flexed his hands. As he unbuckled his vambraces, it occurred to him that he had no idea what had happened to his sword. He vaguely remembered dropping his shield during the battle, but he must have lost his sword while unconscious. Or dead, he thought to himself. Had Lady Morgami actually restored him to life, or just healed him? Well, he thought, the end result is the same.
He shimmied out of his cuirass–his helmet seemed to have gone missing too–and peeled off the padded shirt underneath. His belly wasn’t even marked where the spear had gone through. It was vaguely unsettling. Kamendian finished unbuckling his greaves, stacked his armor properly, and left the tent to go find Tellias, or at least breakfast.
As it happened, he found both in the same place. Tellias was busying himself wheedling an extra bowl of gruel from the cooks. He was so pleased to see Kamendian alive that he paused in his pleadings long enough to clasp hands and say a few words. Later, with three bowls of gruel and a pickled clubroot between them, they talked at greater length.
“Only after a battle,” Tellias proclaimed, “is there ever enough food to go around.” Tellias’ appetite was legendary within the legion; a single legionnaire’s rations could not satisfy him. It gave him the slightly morbid habit of hanging around the kitchen after battles in hopes of drawing the rations of the dead. Some of the other men had rebuked him about it, but he always replied that as a dead man’s rations can do him no good, he, Tellias, might as well make some use of them. “Now tell me: where have you been? I didn’t see you come back with the main body of the legion, and you don’t look wounded. Did you get separated?”
After a brief hesitation, Kamendian told the story of his wound and his encounter with the demigoddess as best he could. Tellias looked him up and down when he was through.
“If you were any other man, I’d call you a liar. But I can’t see you making up something that complicated.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence. What I want to know, though, is what happened. Did we break the Storm King’s armies? The last thing I remember is we seemed to have broken the Anacharsian lines, but I haven’t a clue what happened after that.”
Tellias was quiet for a moment. He took a bite of clubroot and chewed pensively. “That’s a complicated question.”
“The simple answer, I suppose, is that we won. The Storm King was killed–at least bodily. The Storm Guards were smashed, and the slave armies scattered. We routed the Anacharsians, and the Storm King’s other allies retreated. So the day was ours, definitely.
“Whether we won…that’s less certain. Most of the Storm King’s major lieutenants escaped, it seems. All but two of the Silver Conclave died fighting the Storm King. Worst of all, though…the Princes are dead.”
“All four of them. Prince Alaces died with the other Conclave members. Stryses and Gorobin died with their legions. And an Anacharsian mage recognized young Rukunar when they pressed us nearly back to the baggage. They’re all dead.”
“But that means…”
“That means that the only legitimate heir is Princess Navaska. And rumor has it that the Emperor is ill–that he collapsed when he learned Rukunar was dead. I know for a fact that the Imperial carriages left for the Palace shortly after the battle ended. Navaska may be Empress soon, and she’s a thirteen-year-old girl who never expected to rule anything. The worst possible age for an heir, too! Too young to rule well, too old for a real regency.
“It also looks like the Grand Alliance is falling apart. Prince Gorobin was supposed to become the viceroy of the lands we’ve taken from the Storm King. Well, now he’s dead, and there isn’t anyone with the rank and the talent to do the job who’s available. Word around camp is that the Vanatasians claim that if the Empire can’t provide a proper viceroy, they should let the Vanatasians or the Casthaneans take charge of those lands. There’s no knowing if the Emperor would be willing to accept such terms, but the Chancellor of the North certainly isn’t. And this morning the Vanatasians broke camp. My bet would be that the Empire’s friendly days with Vanatas may be over.”
“Do you think we’ll have to fight the Vanatasians?” Kamendian asked. To be an Imperial legionnaire fighting against the armies of darkness was one thing, but fighting an ally was another. To say nothing of the life-debt he owed one particular Vanatasian.
Tellias looked down at his second bowl of gruel.
“I doubt that we will be fighting anyone anymore.”
“What does that mean?”
“Legate Orontes died in the Anacharsian attack. With the emperor ill, it’s highly unlikely that any new legates will be appointed any time soon. Which means they will almost certainly dissolve the Ebony Cormorant.”
Both men were quiet for a while. Tellias moved his gruel around with his spoon. He seemed to have lost his appetite.
“Well”, Kamendian essayed, “we could enlist with one of the other legions. There are sure to be vacancies after a battle like this one, and they take veterans over fresh recruits.”
“If we were the only legion being dissolved, that would work. But several legates died in the battle. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see several more forced into retirement.”
Kamendian looked at Tellias sharply. “What makes you say that?”
Tellias chuckled. “Kamendian, you have the political awareness of this pickle. If the emperor recovers, or if Navaska takes the throne with no difficulties, there’s no problem. But it’s more likely that one of the Imperial Chancellors will take the throne as Regent, or that Navaska will be murdered and someone from a cadet branch of the Imperial family put on the throne. And I have no doubt that the big players at court will take no chances. Which means that they will be trying to drive out any legates that they think would oppose them if it came to a succession war. Which means dissolved legions, which means more former legionnaires roaming around than I care to think about, which means slim chances of finding a new legion.”
Kamendian took a bite of the pickle and thought.
“How can you be so cheerful about a succession war?”
“I’m not cheerful. I’m realistic. If I thought I could affect the succession, I would worry about it. Given that I can’t, I worry about how the succession can affect me. In the long run, it won’t matter to anyone outside the court, anyway.
“We can try to look for a new legion, if you want. But my suspicion is we’ll have to be hired swords for a while at least. Unless you want to turn bandit. Or go back to the farm.”
“They haven’t dissolved the legion yet. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
Kamendian finished his bowl of gruel; Tellias had already downed both of his. They broke the remainder of the clubroot in half, and went to walk around the encampment for a while.