Coda to an Age of Heroes

Back in 2000, I decided to put my fingers where my disdain had been and write a pulpy fantasy novel without forethought or revision. (This was before NaNoWriMo got big, it was a less obvious thing to do at the time.) So I wrote and published about a thousand words each week, without knowing where I was going. Until, having sat with the material for a few months, I started to know where I was going, and then I slowed waaaaay down. Thus I learned the failed novelist’s truth: writing fifty thousand words of story is much harder than writing a thousand words of story fifty times.

I got through 29 episodes over five years, and then I went to law school. And the end of that story has been squatting in the back of my brain for fifteen years, new worldbuilding details and spinoff narratives accumulating on it like barnacles.

So I’m going to take another run at it, having learned a thing or two about finishing things. For one thing, it has a title now.

Episode 1: In which we meet our hero, and he dies.

Erik and the Goblins
(June 11, 2015)

Once, there was a young man whose name was Erik, and who was deeply, profoundly annoying.

When he had a fruit that went bad, he would throw it at someone else’s house, or their goat, just to watch the splat.

He would find other people who were in the middle of something and say “Hey.  Hey.  Hey.” until they put it down and said “What?”, and then he would say “Nothing.”

He liked to point out to other people when their clothes were unflattering, or the humidity unfortunate for their hair.

He was roundly disliked in the neighborhood.

One morning, he awoke to an unpleasant sensation in the big toe of his left foot.  He tried to scratch it on the sheets, to no avail.  He flexed his foot, but the unpleasant feeling persisted.  Finally, he pulled off his blanket, and was shocked to see, clinging to his toe by its mandibles, a goblin.

“What are you doing?” cried Erik.

“Mmm chmmmm mm mmm.  Mmmm.”

“What?”

“She said she’s chewing your toe.  Duuuuhh,” said a shrill yet scratchy voice in his right ear.  Erik whipped his head to the right, to find another goblin squatting on his pillow.  It proceeded to poke him, painfully, in the earhole.

There was a crash from the kitchen.  Erik leapt out of bed and hobbled to the kitchen, where he found a third goblin carefully selecting each piece of Erik’s crockery and then hurling it to the ground.

“What are you doing?”  Erik shrieked.

“Cleaning.  Go away,” the goblin retorted.

Erik ran out of his house and banged on his neighbor’s door.  His neighbor was underwhelmed to see him.

“You have to help me!  I’ve got goblins!”

“Figures,” replied the neighbor, and closed the door.

Erik ran to see the mayor of the town where he lived.  The mayor was equally unenthused about Erik’s goblin problem, but it was an election year, and maybe this year Erik could be persuaded not to vote for Butts.  “We’ll go to see the wise woman,” said the mayor.

The wise woman looked at the afghan being knitted out of Erik’s hair and said, “Ah, you’ve got goblins.  Irritating little critters.”

“How can I get rid of them?” cried Erik.

“Only one way to get rid of goblins,” mused the wise woman.  “First you have to take the East Road through the deep forest, through the badlands, up through the Skyscratchers, until you reach the mysterious lands on the other side.  There, you must seek out the most secret Fountain of Oobalatah, and bathe in its waters.  When you do, the goblins will disappear.”

Erik hesitated, but when the goblins began a farting contest inside his shirt he returned to his home, gathered a few belongings, and promptly set off down the East Road.

The mayor and the wise woman watched him go.  As he faded from sight, the mayor asked, “How did you learn about all those mysteries of the distant East, anyway?”

“Oh, I didn’t,” said the wise woman.  “But it seemed like a good opportunity to get rid of Erik.”

THE END

Jack and the Mountain and the Stinky Cheese

One of my angsts over the last year or so is that my son demands a story before bed every night, and I dread it, and this is deeply at odds with my sense of myself.

I discovered today, however, that this is because he demands stories “of when you were a little boy”, and I went through all my good stories long, long ago.  Also, life stories from memory are not that fun for me; I have an unreasonably good memory, but the indexing is crap, and trying to call stuff up from thirty years ago is difficult at the end of a long day.

Tonight, however, he wanted a story about “monsters”, and so I got to improv a story on the fly for the first time in many, many moons, and that was a lot of fun.  And so I record it here, because why not.

–Once upon a time there lived a young boy, and let’s say his name was Jack, because boys in fairy tales generally are called Jack, it’s a thing.  He lived in a village, and it was extremely boring, because the thing about living in a village is that like twenty people live there, and you’re related to half of them, and nothing ever happens.  So Jack said to himself, “I will See The World!”

–Jack looked out from his village and he saw a far-off mountain at the edge of the world, and he decided that he would climb that mountain.  So he walked and he walked and walked through the woods, and he crossed a river, and more woods, and he came to a town, and it was HUGE, there must have been like a hundred people living there.  And they had an inn, and Jack had lunch there.

–Do you know what his lunch was?  It was a bowl of soup, and the soup was made out of goat, and he had a big chunk of brown bread, and a lump of cheese, which was very good but also very stinky, and finally an onion.  And he ate his lunch, and then he kept on walking.  And he crossed more forest, and then a big wide grassy place, and then into the hills, and then the grass stopped and he was just climbing rocks and then he FELL
.
..

but he landed in a pile of straw, so that was all right.  He thought to himself, “What’s a pile of straw doing here in the mountains, that’s odd.”  And then he thought to himself that he felt like someone was watching him, so he decided to start climbing again.

–Jack kept climbing up the side of the mountain, and he thought again that he felt someone watching him, and so he turned to his right, and several yards away he saw
a Big Pair of Eyes
and a Long, Long Nose with Greasy Nostrils
and Whiskers
and a Big Mouth with Sharp Teeth
and a Big Long Tongue going Aaarhhlllaaughhlllh!

–And Jack thought to himself, “OK, that’s a monster, I think maybe I’ll go over here,” and he turned to his right, but right there in front of him was
another Big Pair of Eyes
and a Long, Long Nose with Greasy Nostrils
and Whiskers
and a Big Mouth with Sharp Teeth
and a Big Long Tongue going Aaarhhlllaaughhlllh!
and the Monster said RRRAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!

–Jack did not know what to do.  He did not have a sword or a shield or a bow or a suit of armor or an airplane or a giant fighting robot that he could use to defend himself from the terrible Monster, so he did the only thing he could think of.  He roared right back RRRAAAARRRRGGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!

–And do you know what happened next?

–Do you remember how back in the town Jack ate the onion and the goat stew and the stinky stinky cheese?  Well, all of that gave him stinky, stinky breath, and so when he roared RRRAAAARRRRGGGGGHHHHHHH!!!! the Monster said ACK-KOFF-KKKKKK-thppth-thppth-wubba-wubba-wubba-koff-koff-koff-WHEEZE – <<two thumbs up>>

–Jack’s breath was so stinky that all the Monsters of the mountain had to pay him respect as a stinker after their own hearts, and they left him alone while he climbed the rest of the mountain.  So Jack climbed to the top of the mountain, and he Saw The World, and then he went home.

–And no one believed him.

–Well, because they didn’t have Monsters in his village.

–And also his breath wasn’t so stinky any more, because it had been a while.

–Now go to sleep.

Originally published on Google Plus

Coda to an Age of Heroes
Episode 9
(July 19, 2000)

The sun had tinted the tents orange by the time Tellias and Tanuke finished their haggling. Tanuke grudgingly counted coins out of a pouch, Tellias corrected his inadvertent counting errors, and the money changed hands. Tanuke whistled loudly, and seemingly from nowhere a flock of Quintanelle children appeared and began gathering up Tellias’ goods.

“Our transaction, a transcending pleasure. Now I depart,” Tanuke said with a deep bow.

“One moment!” Kamendian interjected. “A man named Ruval said you could show us where his encampment was.”

“Ah!” exclaimed the Quintanelle. “The eminent Ruval, your acquaintance! His encampment, not far to go. Guidance, I can provide.”

After a few moments of expectant silence, Kamendian sighed. “How much?”

“The cost, for such wealthy men, a pittance. One tally, the cost.”

Kamendian snorted. “Try a token.”

“A token, your offer? An insult, from any other! Time, the most precious, when opportunity surrounds a man. Marks and tallies, the sky is scratched! Three marks, my offer.”

Kamendian was too busy puzzling out “marks and tallies, the sky is scratched” to reply. Tellias jumped in, saying, “One mark. Final offer,” and proffering a coin.

Tanuke sighed and took the mark. “Your tongue, your sword, equally sharp. One mark, the price. Malka!”

A Quintanelle child, probably about ten, leapt up from wrapping Tellias’ goods into cloth and ran to Tanuke. Malka had the typical pale yellow Quintanelle hair, though it wasn’t braided like Tanuke’s, instead hanging loose in long strands; anything else was difficult to distinguish under the layers of cloth enfolding the child.

Tanuke spoke to Malka briefly in the Quintanelle tongue, then turned back to Kamendian and Tellias. “To Ruval, Malka will conduct you.”

Malka piped up, “This direction to go, legionnaire sirs.” So saying, they started to move off toward the east.

“Our transaction, a transcending pleasure,” said Tanuke with a bow. “To you, good fortune.”

As they followed Malka, Kamendian muttered, “I thought Tanuke was going to take us there.”

“So did I,” replied Tellias, “but there’s no use in arguing now. He’s already got the money. Now, what is this all about?”

As they walked, Kamendian explained his conversation with Ruval and the job he had offered them. Tellias agreed it was about as good a job as they could hope for, assuming the Shammarians assembled a halfway decent force.

Malka led them through the remnants of the Grand Alliance encampment. The palisades were all down, and most of the camps struck. Most of the Imperial flags were gone, and the Vannetasians were gone completely. There were a few Casthanean and Borogodani camps left. Civilians had moved in where legions had struck camp; it was like a small impromptu city. The legions had always been followed by a shadow legion of merchants and other camp followers hoping to make a few tokens off the soldiers; now they’d caught up and no one wanted to make it their business to shoo them off. A few hopefuls tried to approach Kamendian and Tellias with some trinket or another, but Malka chased them off with some choice curses.

Finally, as the day slipped into twilight, they came to a cluster of tents on the edge of the city of encampments. Malka seized Kamendian’s hand.

“Ruval and the Shammarians, here they camp. Your destination, arrived we are!” said Malka, looking up at him with an ear-to-ear grin.

“This is less than overwhelming, Kamendian,” Tellias said.

“Well, let’s see how it goes,” replied Kamendian. He started forward, only to be brought up short. Malka still had a lock on his hand, and wasn’t moving. The grin hadn’t moved either. Kamendian sighed. He pulled out a token and tossed it to Malka. Malka let go of his hand to catch it and instantly secreted it somewhere in their clothing.

“To you, good fortune!” Malka cried, and then turned and ran off the way they had come.

Kamendian and Tellias walked over to the Shammarian tents. As they drew near, a tall man in archaic-looking armor blocked their way.

“What is your business?”

“We’re looking for Ruval. He said this afternoon he had a job for us.”

“You are mercenaries, then?”

Kamendian and Tellias looked at each other. “Until yesterday,” Tellias said, “we were Imperial legionnaires. Today we need to eat. Call it what you will.”

The man peered at them. “Ruval has not returned. I am Nemun. Your skill must be tested if you are to serve Their Majesties.”

“Tested?”

“We will fight. I will determine if you are worthy.”

“We’re legionnaires.”

“I have no confirmation of that.”

Tellias sighed. “This is ridiculous, but if that’s what you want to do, fine.” He shrugged off his pack. “What weapons are you using?”

“We will use sword and shield. I assume that it is the combination with which you are familiar.”

“Sword and shield, sword alone, two swords, whatever. Sword and shield is fine.” Tellias unbuckled his shield from his pack, strapped it to his arm, and drew his sword. Nemun did the same.

“Are you prepared to fight?” Nemun intoned.

“Ready when you are,” replied Tellias.

The two men looked at each other across the tips of their swords. Watching them, Kamendian wondered where Nemun had learned to fight. His stance was similar to the style taught in the legions, but not identical. His sword was held higher than a legionnaire did. It was a different sword, too–curved like a saber. Not unlike the sword he’d pulled off the Storm Guard, actually.

Tellias made the first move, an exploratory thrust. Nemun knocked it away forcefully with his shield and responded with a savage downward slash. Tellias managed to deflect the blow, but it clearly took him by surprise. He leapt back a few paces. Nemun smiled. Tellias returned the smile, but Kamendian could tell he was shaken.

Now Nemun took the initiative, slashing in at Tellias’ left shoulder. The blow was blocked and returned in kind. The two soldiers traded blows for a while. Nemun was apparently stronger than Tellias; Tellias seemed to be getting tired under the repeated blows. On the other hand, Kamendian knew Tellias had a habit of feigning weakness in order to lure sparring partners into overextending themselves. He’d been taken in himself.

Suddenly, Tellias threw himself forward and down to his knees, covering his head with his shield and slashing at Nemun’s knees. Kamendian smiled to himself; that was Tellias’ favorite move, a good way to take advantage of his long reach. It had taken many a man down, both on the practice field and in battle.

His sword, however, slashed only air. Incredibly, armored as he was, Nemun had leapt into the air. Tellias flung himself to the side to avoid the warrior’s blade, coming down as he landed. Nemun gave him no time to think, pursuing and slashing at him. Tellias caught the blows on his shield, but their force kept him on the ground.

Suddenly, Nemun stopped. He stepped back.

“You will do.”

Tellias sat up with an effort. He seemed to be searching for something to say. Nemun pointed to Kamendian with his sword.

“Now you.”

As Kamendian moved up to face the man, he was thinking. Nemun was obviously extremely fast; he’d have to take that into account. Tricks and feints might not work. He knew himself to be overall a better swordsman than Tellias, but not by that much.

It occurred to him that he’d never fought with this sword before. That could be a problem; he was used to a straight sword.

“Are you prepared to fight?”

Kamendian nodded.

Nemun stood across from him, looking at him. Kamendian, however, suspected that Nemun’s style followed the Vannetasians in stressing the importance of letting your opponent attack first, and was intent on waiting him out. Finally, Nemun grew impatient, and struck at Kamendian’s shield.

Kamendian had planned on an initial exchange of blows to explore his opponent’s capabilities. As Nemun’s sword lashed out, however, he saw an opportunity. The tip of his sword flashed between them, thrusting between Nemun’s thumb and the hilt of his sword. As Kamendian flicked his sword upwards, he barreled forward into Nemun’s shield with his shoulder. Nemun let out a grunt and crashed backwards. Kamendian slashed across them again, this time catching the edge of Nemun’s shield and knocking it aside. As Nemun hit the ground with a thud, the point of Kamendian’s blade was at his throat.

There was a quiet thup as Nemun’s sword stuck in the soil.

“Damn,” said Tellias. Kamendian felt a bead of sweat run down his forehead.

“I yield,” Nemun said quietly.

Coda to an Age of Heroes
Episode 8
(July 11, 2000)

As he watched Tellias and Tanuke argue out the proper selling price of twelve spearheads without shafts, Kamendian felt something block the sunlight on his back. He twisted to look. A man had come up behind him. His features were hard to make out with the sun behind him.

“Are you one of the ex-legionnaires Tanuke mentioned?” the man asked.

“I might be,” Kamendian replied. “What did he say?”

“That he was dealing with several former legionnaires who might be in need of employment. He didn’t sell you to me, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Kamendian chuckled. “The thought had crossed my mind.”

“Mind you, he offered to, but I’ve dealt with too many Quintanelles to buy merchandise that’s not immediately on hand. I am looking for men skilled with a sword, though. Interested?”

“Possibly. I’d need to hear more about the job.”

The man paused. “It’s a siege.”

“Not enough,” Kamendian said. “I understand that you don’t want to spread around the details of your plan, but I don’t know who you are or what you’re trying to do. I can’t commit to fighting for you without a better idea of what you’re up to.”

The man looked at Kamendian for a while. “All right. If that’s what it takes.

“I represent the royal family of Shammari. We’re trying to restore the rightful heir to the throne.”

“What?” said Kamendian. “The royal family of where?”

“Shammari. We’re in it right now.”

“That’s what I thought you said. You have some nerve recruiting for one of the Storm King’s client kingdoms in the middle of the Imperial encampments.”

The man stiffened. “I will forget you said that. I represent the rightful royal family of Shammari. They have been in exile at the Imperial court since the Storm King invaded Shammari fifty-seven years ago, and now they wish to reclaim their birthright.”

“I was under the impression the Empire claimed all the northern territories as part of the Grand Compact.”

“Your information is incomplete. The terms of the Grand Compact call for the bulk of the territories taken from the Storm King to be incorporated into the Empire, yes. However, the surviving royalty of the kingdoms which once ruled those territories were to be granted satrap status immediately. The Compact is also not completely relevant. The primary signatories’ commitments to the Shammarian throne have not been fulfilled, and it seems clear they will not be. Shammari therefore feels itself no longer bound by the Compact.”

“So you’re hiring mercenaries to take on the Empire? That seems stupid.”

“Yes, it would be. Which is why we’re not doing it. We’ve made an arrangement with one of the Ministers of the North. The Empire is unable to take the city of Shammari, but if we can take it ourselves, they will recognize the kingdom and provide military support against any future attacks by the remnants of the Storm Kingdom.”

“Hmm. That sounds more reasonable. So we’d be besieging the city of Shammari and then defending it against later attacks, yes?”

“Precisely. Will you accept the job?”

“Two more questions. What sort of opposition is there, and how much are you paying?”

“We’re paying our soldiers a tally each week. If you wanted to accept a position as a captain, we might have a place for you, given your experience; captains are paid a buckler a month.”

“Hm. Not too bad. The opposition?”

The man grumbled. “We aren’t positive yet. A small detachment of Storm Guards is apparently holed up there, and they have what’s left of one of the slave legions with them. There may be a few other allied units there, but they should be heading home, if all the signs are correct.

“We’re concerned that if we don’t act soon, the Storm Guards will get entrenched there, and that’s no good for anyone. The Storm King’s lieutenants will regroup eventually, and when they do, if Shammari is still in their hands, we’ll never get it back.

“From a more general point of view, if we take back Shammari, the Storm Kingdom won’t have a useful outpost this side of the mountains. That makes a major strategic difference in the long term.”

“How many men do you have?”

“I can’t tell you that. Besides, we’re still recruiting.”

“Hm.”

“Are you in, or have I been wasting my time?”

“No, no, I think I’m in. Contingent upon speaking with my friend over there and upon you assembling a force large enough to make this attack survivable.”

“Fair enough. Your friend’s also a former legionnaire?”

“Yes. I assumed you’d be interested in the both of us.”

“You were correct. I should go now. When your friend and Tanuke finish arguing, ask Tanuke to show you where my party is encamped.”

“It would be good if I knew your name.”

“I am Ruval. And you?”

“Kamendian. That’s Tellias over there. Formerly of the Ebony Cormorant.”

“Ah! I knew Legate Orontes back in Sarangia. A good man. We all mourned his passing. Until later, then, Kamendian.” With those words, Ruval turned and left. Kamendian watched him go. Ruval had dark hair, close-cropped, he could now see. He’d never seen his face, though.

Turning back, he saw that Tanuke and Tellias were still haggling. The pile was significantly smaller, though. That was a good sign, at least.

Coda to an Age of Heroes
Episode 7
(July 6, 2000)

The encampments were placed behind a natural rise at one end of the battlefield. The commanders had placed them there so that the forces of the Empire and its allies could array themselves on high ground at the beginning of the battle. As a result, the battlefield took Kamendian and Tellias completely by surprise. Tellias had retired from the field before the battle was over, and Kamendian had only seen the aftermath briefly, and in the dark.

It was horrific.

Corpses lay strewn across the span of the vast Shammarian plain. Here and there the earth was scarred by a blackened crater twenty paces across — the mark of a magefire strike or some other lethal incantation. Smoldering mounds rose up every few hundred paces, where the auxiliaries had tried to make a pyre for the dead.

The wind was blowing away from them — probably the handiwork of an Imperial weatherworker — but the stench of death and decay still roiled up at them.

They had fought several major battles before Shammari. They had thought themselves hardened to death and its attendants. This was something wholly new.

“And they’re concerned about peasants sneaking in here to loot bodies?” Tellias muttered nauseously. “I don’t think I can go in there.”

“You’re going to have to,” Kamendian replied. “Unless you want to pay for a new cuisse somewhere. And pass up the chance to get some money out of your friend Tanuke.”

“I know that. You…” Tellias let out a grunt of exasperation. “Never mind. Let’s go see what we can find.”

There wasn’t anything useful toward the edge of the field. Crushed helmets, single boots, swordhilts with no blade — it was all trash. As they moved toward the areas where fighting had been fiercest, though, the pickings improved. Kamendian found an Anacharsian helmet that fit. Wearing a non-standard helmet would mark him as an ex-legionnaire, but that was probably just as well. Besides, he’d always found the legion helmets excessively heavy. The Anacharsian helmet was much more comfortable, if less effective. He found a breastplate that looked the right size on the corpse of a Vannetasian who’d been speared from behind; there were a few dents on the inside, but they were probably fixable. There were a surprising number of swords left lying around. Kamendian gathered up several for Tanuke, picking out the best one for himself and tying it to his belt. No shields, though, nor an intact back-piece on a man of the right size.

“Tellias!” he called. “Have you seen any back-pieces?”

Tellias was sitting on the ground about a hundred paces away, trying on a new cuisse. “No, I haven’t! I was thinking of heading for the ground around where the big fighting happened, though! There might be some high-quality pieces over there; care to join me?”

The two men picked their way through the blasted earth to where the Storm Guard elite and the Diamond Serpent legion had clashed. The ground still smoked in places, and the dead lay thickest here. Presumably the auxiliaries hadn’t dared to approach yet. This was where the bodies of the Silver Conclave must be. This was where whatever might be left of the Storm King would be. Kamendian shuddered at the thought.

“Are you sure this is wise, Tellias? There might be serious residual magic left around here.”

“I realize that. This is where the finest equipment is going to be, though. No risks, no rewards. Hey, that battle-axe looks intact. Give me a hand moving him, would you?”

They spent a half-hour or so rummaging through the dead, pulling out unbroken weapons, chunks of ornamentation made from precious metals, undamaged armor, and some miscellaneous garbage that Tellias suspected might be magic. Items for sale aside, though, nothing looked terribly useful to Kamendian.

“Hey, Kamendian. That Borogodani over there in the pit looks about your size. Go see if his back-piece will fit you.”

Kamendian climbed over a few bodies to the pit Tellias had mentioned. Some mage had thrown a powerful battle-magic in here; the telltale prickle of powerful magery could still be felt at its edge. Even so, the fighting had flowed back into the resulting crater. Near the edge was the body of a Borogodani mage-knight, seemingly almost standing. It was a little eerie. Kamendian wasn’t fond of the orange color of Borogodani armor, but he could repaint it, and the man did seem about his size.

When he reached the Borogodani’s side, he discovered why the man was standing. At the moment of his death, he had been locked in a clinch with a Storm Guard. There wasn’t much left of the Storm Guard; he’d died by magefire. Probably the Borogodani’s work; the mage-knight himself seemed mostly untouched.

Kamendian tried to pry loose the charred shell of the Storm Guard so that he could extract the mage-knight and undo his cuirass. The two men were locked together quite firmly. With some effort, however, he succeeded in breaking them apart.

The Borogodani collapsed backwards; the Storm Guard mostly collapsed in a heap. One arm, however, was pulled along with the Borogodani. As Kamendian looked closer, he realized that the Storm Guard was holding a sword which vanished under the edge of the mage-knight’s breastplate. At that angle, the Borogodani must have been impaled through most of his torso. And yet he had the strength of will to unleash one last blast of magefire.

Kamendian found himself rubbing his belly, and shuddered. He bent down and tried to pull loose the sword. It was lodged deeply, but yielded to a good tug.

Much as he hated to admit it, it was a nice sword. No ornamentation to speak of, but its simple blade, slate-grey under the blood, was attractive enough to a professional. It was light and well-balanced, with a slight sabre-like curve to it. It probably wasn’t magical as such, but it might have a charm or two on it. It felt good in the hand.

Kamendian looked at the sword he’d put on his belt earlier. This one was far superior. Still, the notion of fighting with a Storm Guard blade made him slightly uneasy.

“Tellias!” he called. “Is there supposed to be anything unusual about Storm Guard swords?”

“No,” Tellias called back. “Not the rank and file, anyway. They get good equipment, but no soul-stealers or bound demons or anything like that. Why?”

“I found one. It looks nice, but I’m not sure I want it.”

“Stop being so squeamish! It’s just a sword. If it’s a good one, use it.”

Kamendian looked at the sword. Then he wiped it off and put it aside as he started unbuckling the Borogodani’s cuirass.

A couple of hours later, they started heading back toward the camps. Kamendian was wearing his new armor, horribly mismatched though the Vannetasian blue and Borogodani orange were, and carrying a bundle of swords, spears, and various pieces of armor. Tellias was weighed down with several massive bundles of armament in various stages of intactness. By the time they found Tanuke, he was about to collapse.

“Ah! Legionnaire sirs! My offer, you have reconsidered?”

Tellias seemed to want to say something, but he didn’t have the breath. Kamendian stepped in. “Yes, we have. We have various pieces of salvage we’d like to sell.”

Tanuke seemed to take a moment to puzzle out Kamendian’s sentence. “Your armaments, my joy, to examine them?”

Kamendian laid out his bundle. Tanuke gleefully squatted down and started to pick through the weapons, counting to himself in the Quintanelle tongue and flicking his fingers.

“Swords in eight, spears in five, cuisses in three, gauntlets in five. Fifteen tallies, my offer.”

“Fifteen?!” Kamendian cried. “A single sword costs five tallies! There’s eight there!”

Tanuke scuttled back. “Offense to cause, never my intention. Alas! These swords, hard-used. My soup, between purchase and sale, I must make. Ah! Your sacrifice, to fight the Storm King, I must consider. Eighteen tallies, my offer.”

At this point, Tellias had regained his breath and launched into the negotiation. After several minutes of impassioned and garbled debate about the dangers of the battlefield and the dearth of meat in Tanuke’s soup, both men were reassured that they were respectively brave and cunning, and twenty tallies were duly handed over for Kamendian’s bundle. Then they began haggling over Tellias’ bundle.

After watching the two men argue over the potential value of a small strip of leather with some symbols carved into it and a bone bead threaded on the end for ten minutes, Kamendian backed away and found a place to sit. He suspected this might take a while.

Coda to an Age of Heroes
Episode 6
(June 20, 2000)

The dim light of dawn filtered through the canvas of the tent. Kamendian looked down at the sleeping Tellias.

“Sorry, friend,” he whispered. “There’s nothing left to try.” Then he turned, lifted the tent flap, and walked out of the encampment, never looking back.

He walked down the road away from Shammari all the way home. His parents were pleased to see him. They had all but given up on ever seeing him again, but now Kamendian was back, and just in time for the harvest.

Kamendian went out back to harness the ox to the plow. The two of them, beast and man, moved out across the field. Kamendian inhaled the air of the country as they plowed among the rows of wheat. No blood, no steel; just earth and fresh breezes. He enjoyed the feel of the light homespun on his back. An improvement over his heavy cuirass and arming shirt. He felt light all over — free. No more war.

He was jolted out of his reverie by the plow jumping under him. He stopped the ox and went to go find what was blocking the plow.

There was a chunk of steel poking about an inch out of the ground. Kamendian tried to pull it out, but it stuck. He tried to wiggle it free, to no avail. Finally, he started to dig around the root of the sliver to loosen it.

Without warning, the steel thrust out of the ground and caught Kamendian right above his brow. He felt his skull crack from the force of the blow, felt the blade slide in through his brainpan. He saw the mailed fist protruding from the ground, gripping the hilt of the sword lodged in his skull. It looked familiar. But now the blood was in his eyes, and the smell of blood and death washed over him again.

Kamendian lunged forward out from his bedroll, heart racing. He clapped a hand to his forehead — nothing. He looked around. Tellias, a few wounded legionnaires, canvas walls. He exhaled.

He lay back. Sleep wasn’t likely to come back at this point. But perhaps he’d spend some time thinking things through.

A few hours later, the sun rose, and Tellias grudgingly rejoined the waking world.

“Tellias, I have a plan,” Kamendian said.

Tellias suggested some creative options for where Kamendian could stick his plan.

“Come on, up. Let’s go stick some food in you and I’ll explain.”

Tellias was never at his best first thing in the morning unless imminent danger was involved. It was thus necessary to conjure up the wraith of the kitchen running out of food to get him moving. As the two men walked from their tent toward the kitchens, Kamendian began.

“Here’s what I think. For the moment, it looks like the legions are closed to us, except as auxiliaries, which doesn’t appeal to me or to you. However, the reason our legion was disbanded in the first place is because the Chancellors and other court nobles are worried that a succession war may break out, and they’re trying to reduce the number of factors at work. Now here’s the crux of the matter. If that succession war does break out, and it seems likely, whoever controls the throne will want to commission new legions in order to strengthen their own hand. Which means that all we have to do is be near Sarangia when the call goes out. With our service records, we’d be sure to get a place. Maybe even as captains. How does that sound?”

“Food first. Talk later,” replied Tellias. Later, with a cold chicken leg and a toasted biscuit in his hand and mouth, he had more to say.

“That sounds fine, Kamendian, but until then, we need to eat. And I doubt the cooks here are going to want us around longer than a few more days. They may not even be here more than a couple of weeks. Look around you,” Tellias said with a gesture at the other legionnaires wandering around looking for a quiet nook to eat breakfast in. “Barring a few retirees like us, all these fellows were too badly wounded to travel yesterday morning. Today they’re walking. Tomorrow they may be gone. The healers here know their stuff. My leg’s closed up. I wouldn’t want to run quite yet, but it’s only been two days. So what do we do until the succession war starts? Or if it doesn’t?”

Tellias waited a few moments while Kamendian tried to string some words together, then said, “I thought so. I’ll tell you,” and took another bite.

“First, we get new equipment. You’ll need a new arming shirt and leggings; your old one’s going to start rotting soon. We both need bedrolls of our own rather than just hoping for an unused one every night. We can probably get all that from the quartermaster. Then we go scavenging on the field. I need a new right cuisse; you’re going to need a new cuirass, helmet, sword, and shield. Plus we should keep an eye out for anything interesting or better than standard-issue. Chances are the prime stuff’s been cleaned up by legionnaires faster than us, but there’s sure to be good stuff left. Then we collect as much extra gear as we can for Tanuke.”

“Who?”

“That Quintanelle.”

“No.”

“Kamendian, would you wake up? We need money; he wants to give it to us. Where’s the problem?”

“I don’t want to be a scavenger.”

“Well, you’re going to be, or else you’re going to be a mercenary with no weapons. Now drop the squeamishness. We sell what we can to Tanuke, we keep our ears open, and we go wherever people are hiring swords. Oh yes, and first we visit the paymaster. I’m sure we’re due at least one month’s pay. We’re going to have to start saving our money now, my friend. Sarangia’s not going to be taking care of us anymore.”

“You seem to be enjoying your biscuit.”

“A farewell meal. Besides, no doubt if the Chancellor knew we were eating legion food he’d have us whipped. Enough talk; I’m done with my biscuit. Let’s go see the quartermaster.”

Sure enough, Tellias was able to wheedle a new arming shirt and leggings for Kamendian, as well as some other equipment — bedrolls, a tent, packs, two watch-cloaks, a sharpening stone, and some flints. He even persuaded the quartermaster to dole out an extra pair of leggings for himself. They quickly packed up their few possessions and moved on to the paymaster.

The paymaster had a pleasant surprise for them. The prefect had ordered each mustered-out legionnaire receive two months’ pay, so the paymaster pushed four heavy silver bucklers at them. Kamendian reached for his, but Tellias stopped him.

“Could we perhaps get some of this in smaller coins? It might be a little hard to get change for a buckler on the road.”

After a brief exchange, the paymaster laid out two bucklers, ten smallish silver tallies, and a hundred copper marks. Tellias and Kamendian thanked him, wrapped up their money, and headed out to the battlefield, with full purses, full packs, and full bellies.

Coda to an Age of Heroes
Episode 5
(June 6, 2000)

Kamendian insisted on waiting until the entire legion had paid their respects and destroyed their insignia before leaving to look for a spot in another legion. Many of the other legionnaires had no such compunctions, scurrying off as soon as they passed the pyre.

“Every minute we stand here makes it harder to find a space with one of the other legions, Kamendian. We’re not legionnaires any more, so let’s go,” Tellias hissed, looking uncomfortably after the departing legionnaires. Half of their own cohort had already wandered off.

Kamendian chose not to pay attention, instead turning to Captain Idrian. “What are you going to do now, Captain?”

The captain smiled sadly at him. “You don’t need to call me captain anymore, son. I’m going to be joining the Amber Peregrine. The Legate sent a messenger after the dissolutions were announced, and it seemed like the best choice that was going to present itself.”

Tellias leaned over. “I don’t mean to presume, sir, but do you think you could maybe take us along? We don’t have any prospects lined up just at present, and…”

“I’d like to, lads,” interrupted the captain, “you’ve both been good soldiers. But I don’t have the authority. I’m just going to be a simple legionnaire with the Amber Peregrine. The Legate’s taking men with command experience only. Likely he’s going to fill the ranks from the auxiliaries when we get to our new posting. Sorry.”

Tellias’ face fell. “Do you think any of the other Legates will be taking legionnaires?”

“Hard to say, lad. With the legions moving around to new postings, most commanders would prefer to avoid the trouble of mixing new soldiers into the ranks. Easier to wait until you’re safely camped and then draw from the auxiliaries. On the other hand, it’s none too prudent to leave a few thousand ex-soldiers roaming the north with nothing to do, but with things the way they are, I doubt the Chancellor wants to make any of the Legates angry by forcing them to take men.

“If you’re set on sticking with the legions, your best bet is probably to follow a legion to their new post and try to get noticed there. You might not make it into the legion proper — you’d be competing with auxiliaries they know well — but with your service records, you’d certainly be able to get a place in the auxiliaries.”

It was clear that a place in the auxiliaries did little to excite Tellias. He’d dished out more than his fair share of derision to the young men and boys who did camp labor and filled out guard shifts in times of battle, and the horror of being on the other end of the transaction was plain to see on his face. Kamendian suspected he looked no more thrilled himself.

The captain chuckled. “Well, if the auxiliaries don’t appeal, you could try following the Amber Peregrine and I’ll put in a good word for you when we reach camp. Nothing’s guaranteed, but your chances would be better.”

“Thanks, sir, but…I think I’ll try the other legions first.”

“Fair enough. I warn you, though, like as not you’ll end up selling your sword to one of these border lords. And if I hear any of my men have turned bandit, I’ll come take your head myself!”

“Yes, sir!” both men replied.

Idrian smiled. “Well, good luck to the both of you. If you find yourself wanting to take up the Imperial armor again, come find me and I’ll do what I can. The Amber Peregrine’s being posted at the Vannetasian border for the time being; you’ll find me there. Now you’d better be off looking for a new legion. I think a few have already broken camp.”

The captain was right. When they left the Ebony Cormorant compound, the Ivory Wolf was mostly gone, leaving only a handful of tents for soldiers too badly wounded to move.

“We’d better move,” Tellias said.

The Chrysolite Owl had taken on all the legionnaires it needed. The Malachite Dragon was planning to replace its losses from its auxiliaries. The Lapis Cormorant was only taking discharged legionnaires with command experience. And on it went, through every legion Tellias and Kamendian found still encamped. A number of the men they talked to cast scornful looks at Kamendian’s unmarked body.

“You’re a positive hindrance, Kamendian,” Tellias groaned. “Why’d you have to go and get miraculously healed?”

“Shut up.”

After a long afternoon of fruitless inquiries, they worked their way back toward the Ebony Cormorant encampment. “If we’re lucky, maybe we can persuade the cooks to cut loose some food for old times’ sake,” Tellias said hopefully.

“Legionnaire sirs!” came a hoarse voice from behind them. As they turned, they saw a small pale fellow rushing up to them.

“All offense, legionnaire sirs, please excuse. Your legion dissolved, I think?” the man said. He wore an ornate Vannetasian general’s coat made for a man a full head taller than him, and his pale yellow hair was woven into a mass of small braided strands. Probably a Quintanelle, from his odd phrasing. Everywhere Kamendian had traveled, he’d found Quintanelles trading with anyone and everyone who’d do business with them, and not a one of them spoke the common tongue like a normal person.

“What do you want?” said Tellias flatly. He was the acknowledged master of getting rid of beggars, madmen, and merchants.

“My desire, to make you wealthy. At the door, fortune knocks. Again, your legion dissolved, I think?”

“Our legion dissolved. In our pockets, no money. Go away.”

“Legionnaire sirs, wait! My desire, not to sell! To buy! In my pockets, good silver!”

Kamendian studiously continued not to look at the Quintanelle, but Tellias’ greed got the better of him. “I listen.”

“My name, Tanuke. In weapons and armaments, my soup I make. On the field of battle, unused many weapons lie. The legionnaire only to collect them goes. All others, punishment and death follows. For usable armaments, I will pay.”

Kamendian grunted in distaste. “We’re not going to loot the bodies of our friends to line your pockets.” He started moving again, puling Tellias with him.

“But your pockets, also lined! Storm Guards, your friends never! Your bellies, empty when upon honor and brotherhood they feed!” Kamendian didn’t stop.

“Your minds, if they change! Here I remain!” Tanuke called after them.

“Jackal,” Kamendian muttered.

“We have to make a living somehow. Like he says, it’s no dishonor to strip a Storm Guard. It wouldn’t hurt to make a few extra coins to keep us alive while we find something to do.”

“We already know what we’re going to do. We’re going to become legionnaires again.”

Tellias stopped. Kamendian turned and looked at him. “What?”

“Kamendian, I’d like to rejoin the legions as much as you would. But we’ve gone to every legion here, and none of them wanted us. We’re not going to be legionnaires.”

“There are other legions.”

“The ones that weren’t here? Why would they have any more room for new men than legions which lost hundreds on the field here? Or would you rather become an auxiliary, and carry water and peel roots for the next several years? Oh, I’m getting ahead of myself. Would you rather become a camp follower, in hopes of becoming an auxiliary? Because I wouldn’t. I’d rather be a mercenary. Hells, I’d rather go home and hunt swamp lizards! Maybe someday there’ll be a place for us again in the Imperial legions, but not today. Today, we have to figure how we’re going to survive. Tomorrow, we have to go find some decent equipment and find a job. And right now, we have to find some dinner.”

Kamendian tried to summon up a good counter-argument, but the words died in his throat. Tellias pushed him toward the camp, and Kamendian didn’t protest.

At the camp kitchens, Tellias sidled up to his favorite cook.

“How about a meal for a poor retired soldier down on his luck, cookie?”

“Eh? Oh, you again. No worries, Tellias. The Chancellor’s chartered the camp prefects from the disbanded legions to maintain camps for the wounded, so the legions can depart for their posts without leaving their healers behind. We’ll be here a while yet. No reason we can’t feed an extra mouth or two for a few days.” The cook produced a couple hunks of brown bread and ladled some chunks of stewed goat out for each man.

“Much obliged, cookie,” Tellias mumbled around a mouthful of bread. “Come on, Kamendian. Let’s go find a tent to bed down in for the night. Tomorrow, we start anew.”

Coda to an Age of Heroes
Episode 4
(May 31, 2000)

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.

Coda to an Age of Heroes
Episode 3
(May 22, 2000)

Judging from the state of the camp, the Ebony Cormorant Legion had been hard-hit by the battle. Usually there were dozens of men moving about the central grounds of the camp on some errand or another; now there were only a handful, and most of them had at least one bandaged wound. Kamendian noticed one man aiming a bitter glare at him. Probably he assumed Kamendian had kept to the rear and avoided injury through cowardice. Not an unreasonable assumption; under ordinary circumstances, no common legionnaire would be completely healed the day after a battle. Powerful healing was reserved for officers and nobility.

“I’d like to stop by the healers’ tent, if you don’t mind,” Tellias said. “Last night they preferred to keep their resources for worse wounds than mine, but if they’ll close this up now, it would be much easier to get around. Particularly if we need to impress other legions’ recruiters.”

The two men made their way to the ground in front of the healers’ tent. The tent was surrounded by wounded men lying on the ground, several ranks deep. Among them the healers moved, giving water to one, changing a bandage for another. Tellias caught the attention of one nearest the edge. He was an older man, and he wore the characteristic torc of the Hospitallers.

“Excuse me. I suffered a wound from a javelin in the battle. Last night, the healer who tended me didn’t have time to do more than clean and bandage the wound. I was hoping that now that the camp is calmer someone might be able to help me further.”

“Of course. Eh…let me find something for you to sit on.” The Hospitaller bustled off to another tent. He returned shortly with a stool, and rapidly seated Tellias and began unravelling the bandage on his thigh.

“Hmm. Well, you’re fortunate to have gotten such a clean wound. And whoever cleaned it did an adequate job. I think I’ll forego disturbing the wound again.” He reached up and placed two fingers on Tellias’ neck, muttered to himself, and placed the same two fingers in the crook of Tellias’ elbow. Then he placed both hands on Tellias’ leg — one above the wound, one below. A moment passed.

“Aaagh!” Tellias bellowed. “What are you doing?!”

“Helping your body heal itself. The pain will pass,” replied the healer. “Please stop squirming.”

A few minutes passed, with Tellias gritting his teeth and pounding his free foot on the ground the whole time. Finally, the healer released his grip. He rose and moved behind Tellias.

“What are you doing? Oh, no! Not there!” Tellias cried as the healer placed a hand on the back of his neck.

“What kind of soldier are you? This shouldn’t hurt as much, and if I don’t…well, I suppose at least your leg would be fine.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, if I don’t finish the process, the healing would drain all of your…manly energy, let’s say. But it is your body. If you want me to stop, I will.”

Tellias fumed. “Go ahead and finish, you torturer.”

After a few more minutes, which were at least less painful-looking, the healer removed his hands from Tellias and called for a salve. One of the assistants brought over an earthen jar, and the healer began to smear a yellowish paste onto the wound.

“This should help. The wound will probably seal up in an hour or so. I would avoid running for a few days, but you should be able to walk around with no trouble.”

The healer quickly wrapped a clean bandage around Tellias’ thigh and tied it off. Then he looked over at Kamendian. “Do you need any healing?”

“No,” Kamendian replied. “I’m fine, thank you. I–” He was about to explain that he’d been wounded but had been healed the night before, but the Hospitaller had a strange expression on his face. “Is something wrong?”

“No, no, not at all. I just thought I’d met all the war chaplains in this legion. Were you transferred recently? Or are you not of the Ebony Cormorant?” inquired the healer.

“I think there’s been some mistake. I’m just a legionnaire; I’ve been here for four years. I’ve never been a chaplain.” Kamendian replied in confusion.

“Really? You are a priest, though, yes?”

“No. Why do you ask?”

“Strange,” said the Hospitaller. “You have the mark of divine favor right there on your forehead. It’s an unusual place for the mark of War, but it’s quite clear.”

Kamendian paled and clapped a hand to his forehead.

“What does that mean?”

“It’s self-explanatory, really. For those who have the eyes to see it, it says that you are favored by the Lord of Battles. Sometimes the mark also carries with it special gifts, but that would depend on how you got it. And, of course, after death you will be admitted into the Lord of Battles’ cohort. Weren’t you told all this when you were marked?”

“No. I didn’t know I had been.”

“That’s unusual. Most of the gods are very strict with their followers about handing out marks indiscriminately, and War more so than most.”

“I…think the person who marked me probably isn’t subject to the normal rules.”

“Not subject to the normal protocols? That seems unlikely…oh.”

The healer looked taken aback. He scrambled to his feet.

“A man or a woman?”

“A woman. It was after the battle, I think. I’d been wounded. I woke up on the field, and I’d been healed.”

“The Marquise of Nemi. This is interesting.”

Kamendian nodded. There didn’t seem to be much else to say.

“You should know that, to the best of my knowledge, Lady Morgami has never conferred the mark of divine favor on anyone else. Why she chose you I couldn’t say, but that does make you rather special.”

Tellias laughed. “Kamendian, how do you get yourself into these things?”

“I didn’t ask for this!” Kamendian snapped back.

“No one does,” said the Hospitaller quietly. “It may not be important; the Marquise is young, and she may have had a momentary whim. In either case, now you know. I should return to tending the other injured men. It has been a pleasure to meet you, Kamendian. May your path be a fortunate one.” So saying, the Hospitaller withdrew. Before Kamendian could struggle through bewilderment to say anything, a herald’s trumpet sounded at the other side of the compound.

“Men of the Ebony Cormorant, assemble!” the herald bellowed. His voice rang out across the camp. Men came struggling out of tents on every side, until perhaps two hundred men stood in the compound. The legion had numbered a thousand the morning before.

“This is it,” murmured Tellias. “They’re going to disband us.”

“His Excellency the Chancellor of the North, on behalf of His Majesty Anarias, Emperor of Sarangia and Defender of the Light, has decided, the threat of the Storm King and his allies being quelled, to retire the Ebony Cormorant, held until lately by the honorable Legate Orontes, may the gods take him under their protection.”

As the legionnaires made their way through the thick ritual language, murmuring began to rise up among the men. The herald plowed on, his voice booming out over the muttering.

“The retirement of the Ebony Cormorant leaves you legionnaires free of further obligations to the Chancery and Ministry. You may go wherever you choose. If you wish, you may seek a place at one of the other legions here encamped. Be aware that the Amber Lynx, the Tourmaline Wolf, the Carnelian Dragon, the Jade Bear, and the Jade Dragonfly have also been retired.

“You are entitled to whatever salvaged equipment from the battlefield you can carry, as your final bounty. In an hour’s time, at high noon, you will assemble in battle dress for the Legate’s passing ceremony. At that time, you will surrender your legion insignia. The Chancellor and the Emperor offer you their thanks. That is all.”