The funeral began when the diviners said it was noon, but the sky was a uniform grey and the sun was nowhere to be seen as the legionnaires of the Ebony Cormorant fell into ranks to pay their last respects to their commander. The legion was a pale shadow of the glorious band of warriors that had marched down Sarangia’s Triumphal Way on the way to the front. Not a man among them was outfitted completely, and many were leaning on their neighbors, barely strong enough to stand.
Kamendian felt uncomfortable. The padding under his cuirass was stiff with blood; he hadn’t been able to find a replacement in time for the ceremony. He was carrying two legionnaire insignias in addition to his own, the insignias of two of his comrades in the Sixth Cohort who hadn’t survived the battle. His cohort had numbered fifty the morning before; now they were twenty-two, and only twelve were fit to muster. The Sixth had suffered heavier losses than some, but all the cohorts were seriously depleted.
Legate Orontes lay on the pyre, arrayed in full ceremonial armor. He had been wearing that armor the first time Kamendian saw him, when he was touring the northern provinces in search of recruits. Kamendian had been sixteen. Everyone in his village had lined the road to watch the Legate pass by; only a handful of old men could boast having laid eyes on such a lofty personage. Kamendian had been sure to be at the front of the crowds.
He had not known what to expect, but the Legate was more splendid than he could possibly have imagined. His enamelled armor was red like blood, accented with stripes of Imperial purple. At his side hung a traditional saber in an ornate scabbard. His mount was a powerful charger, fully two hands taller than any horse Kamendian had seen. And in his hands he carried the baton of the Ebony Cormorant, one of the four hundred Weapons of the Imperium — a tangible embodiment of the Empire’s will to fight. But it was his eyes that held Kamendian’s attention. He had expected the Legate to be a warrior out of a fireside tale, with hard eyes and a grim countenance. But Orontes smiled at the villagers as he passed along. His eyes were green, not steely grey; their expression was not forbidding, but almost paternal. His eyes bespoke a boundless confidence in his own strength and in the strength of the Empire — a promise of safety to the Empire’s subjects and danger to her enemies.
Kamendian had watched after the Legate until the procession had long since passed out of sight. The next day, he had rolled his meager possessions into his spare shirt and run after the procession, knowing only that he wanted to serve Legate Orontes, to help him, and perhaps one day to be like him.
And now he was dead. According to Tellias, he had been killed late in the battle, when the Anacharsian mages had laid down a barrage of magefire in an attempt to stop the Imperial assault long enough to allow them to regroup. It hadn’t worked — the Chrysolite Owl Legion had kept up the assault — but the Ebony Cormorant had suffered horrible losses, including the Legate and seven cohort captains.
Now the remnants of the legion stood at attention in a semicircle before the pyre. The auxiliaries and camp personnel were arrayed behind them. Three men stood immediately in front of the pyre — the camp prefect, the legion’s head chaplain, and a short man Kamendian didn’t recognize. Probably one of the Ministers of the North. The prefect was outfitted in his ceremonial armor, and carried the legion baton.
The chaplain began speaking. “We assemble to retire the baton of the Ebony Cormorant until the Empire again needs it, and to honor our Legate, who gave his life to the greater glory of the Empire.
The short man stepped forward, and said, a little too loudly, “On behalf of His Majesty Anarias, Emperor of Sarangia and Defender of the Light, I come to return the Ebony Cormorant to its sheath.” He brought forth a dark case and opened it.
The camp prefect moved up to the Minister, and reverently placed the ebony baton into the case. “On behalf of Legate Orontes, I return the baton of the Ebony Cormorant to its sheath. I pray that it has served the Empire well.”
“The weapon is sheathed!” shouted the Minister.
“The weapon is sheathed,” replied the legion.
Now the chaplain began to speak again. “Orontes, prince of the Third Rank, your work is done. Be now released from this flesh. May you enjoy a favored place in the retinue of the Lord of Battles.” So saying, he motioned two auxiliaries with torches forward. They set the pyre alight.
Soon, the fire was burning well. The First Cohort’s captain walked to the pyre and laid the cohort standard onto the flames. Then he reached around his neck, removed his legion insignia, and placed it atop the standard. One by one, his men followed him, placing their insignia and those of their fallen comrades on the standard.
Watching the standard burn, Kamendian found himself thinking about the fate of Legate Orontes’ soul. All people hoped to find sufficient favor in the eyes of one of the gods to be taken into their entourage after death, but it was always possible to be found wanting and left to wander the mortal world. A masterless ghost would usually be enslaved by some necromancer, given time. A lucky few found opportunities to be reborn, but for most, servitude was their fate.
Excepting, of course, those marked as mortals for an assured place in a divine entourage. Kamendian thought about the mark the Hospitaller had seen on his forehead, and wondered if Orontes had been marked with divine favor. It seemed wrong that the Legate should be less assured of a place with the Lord of Battles than he was.
It was the Sixth Cohort’s turn. Captain Idrian gently laid the cohort standard atop the remains of the other cohorts’ insignia, then dropped his personal insignia into the flames. Then Genander, Yavun, Perestes, and Tellias. Then it was Kamendian’s turn.
The first insignia he was holding had been Devrin’s. Shammari had been his first battle as a legionnaire; he’d been promoted from the auxiliaries two weeks before. An excited kid. A Lemnarian javelin like the one that had sidelined Tellias had hit Devrin in the eye. He’d never even struck a blow.
The second insignia had been Anruun’s. There wasn’t much of it left. Anruun had been killed by the magefire, and his insignia was charred.
Kamendian dropped them both into the flames, then reached around his neck for his own insignia. He weighed the small hardwood token in his hand. The cormorant carved into its face was nearly worn down. He’d worn it every day for four years. He’d left behind everything he knew to win it. He looked up at the Legate’s body. The enamel on his armor, once glossy blood-red, was cracked and darkening with smoke. It was starting to melt. Kamendian had given up one life for the Legate, and had followed him every day of the second. He looked back at the small disc that marked him an Ebony Cormorant.
He reached out over the flames, and he let it go.