Prologue

That evening, Maximo of House de’Lorenzo was told of the great sacrilege. He had come to the Empire at the head of a mercenary force, to replace the family fortune squandered by his foolish brother Ranaldo. But the mercenaries he commanded had broken ranks, pouring south at the news and taking the gold he had paid with them. The Church of Myrmidia had been sacked by heathens from the desert south. He feared to think on the fate of his family and servants, caught in the tide of the enemy’s advance. His beloved Estalia cried out for aid, but he no longer commanded an army. He fell to a brooding mood as the camp dissolved around him. Mere minutes had passed when his loyal captain Albrecht burst into his tent. The insult to Myrmidia would not be allowed to stand, he swore. The infidels would be burned from the face of the continent and driven screaming back to their desert hovels. Maximo was stirred by the old knight’s conviction. His venture in the Empire might have ended in failure, but gold and glory might still be found in his homeland. They shook hands; this insult would not go unanswered.

Despite the sudden disintegration of the camp, the two men found their horses right where they left them. Their steeds were the last beasts remaining in the stables, watched over by a solitary figure. Vlademar, was a Kislevite scout, the forester who had led Maximo’s army south from Marienburg. At their approach, he slung his crossbow and grinned.

Maximo laughed. “This is a bit of good fortune! I half expected to find Zorro on a spit somewhere, but at the very least he should be stolen. Do we have you to thank for the safety of our horses?” The young man bowed slightly.

“Why have you lingered boy?” demanded Albrecht. “The men have broken. Can you not see your comrades abandoning their posts? It could have cost you dearly to defend this prize.” The frontiersman shook his head, gesturing to the backs of a few passing soldiers. “These are not men of their word. They are no comrades of mine. My services were purchased for 6 months. By my count I owe a handful of days yet.”

Maximo muttered in mock-seriousness. “A rare head for numbers it seems. Well. You should know that I have a great campaign planned. There will be danger, but gold and glory is also to be had. My enterprise is somewhat diminished of late and I would welcome such worthy company.” He nodded at the boy’s shoulder-slung crossbow. “And such a worthy weapon.”

Albrecht clapped a hand to Vlademar’s back. “Indeed. There will always be those who stand in the way of a righteous purpose. Come, we should commemorate this undertaking with an ale.”

The departing mercenaries had long since broken open the army’s supply of drink, some carrying away stock, others staying to drink their fill. Around a stack of barrels at the centre of camp, a group of dishevelled warriors slouched about a camp-fire, shouting challenges at passers-by and singing loudly. As the trio approached, a broad-shouldered hedge knight threw up his gauntleted hand. “Hold there friends, in the name of the Lady!”

Albrecht bristled. “And what lady would that be? The Duchess whose wine you now drink? Who paid you all in good coin and whose service you now abandon?” He jutted his chin at the open casks. “What right have you to this bounty of hers?”

One of the drunker men, a bearded Middenlander in spat a reply. “Fuck the Duchess! Months slogging around through the mud and filth of this godless province in her name, starving out here in the cold while Frederick feasts behind his walls. And for nothing! The old bitch failed. We’ll drink her wine if we bloody well choose, and let her come here and stop us if she objects.”

Maximo quickly intervened, making a pacifying gesture. “The Duchess is doubtless halfway to Talabheim by now, and surely spares no thought for this wine. By all means, drink my friend! And to your good health! It has indeed been a long campaign and tempers are frayed. My comrades and I merely wish to slake our thirst. Come, may we not join you?”

The drunk’s glassy eyes narrowed, and he staggered to his feet. The others had begun to take in details, like Maximo’s polished armour and fine-cut duelling cloak. Several shuffled uncomfortably, or set down their cups. The bearded man was oblivious, encompassed in drunkenness. “Piss off rich-boy,” he growled. “These lads have earned a drink after a long campaign. Doubtless you’ve been sitting safely in a tent somewhere, issuing orders, sipping on wine. You’ve had your share.”

Albrecht snarled. “Watch your tongue, dog! You speak to Maximo de’Lorenzo, commander of the Sergovian Quickswords!”

Several of the mercenaries erupted with laughter. The Middenlander howled. “Indeed! And where are these mighty Sergovians? I heard they ran south at the first hint of a better deal. You must be a worthy commander to inspire such loyalty.”

A voice was raised from among the revellers, as a youngster with flowing, ash-blonde hair swaggered forward. An embossed fleur de lys glinted on his breastplate as he set aside his cup. "’Ave a care when you speak of loyalty, Imperial. You abandoned your master just as lightly.”

The mercenaries rumbled. Dark looks were exchanged and several took to their feet. “Pipe down, boy! I’ll not be lectured in matters of honour by an outlander pup!”

“Honour is it?” quipped Vlademar. “I’ve seen what passes for honour among the men of this land. I think they teach it better elsewhere.”

Maximo threw up his hands again. “Peace friends! We three are pledged to return to Estalia on the morrow, to cast back the invaders who threaten the holy land. ‘Till then shall we not have peace? There will be fighting aplenty in the days to come.”

The knight, who had been lounging by the fire, shouldered forward from the crowd. “Enough Barathis! Let the poor fools share our wine. They are on a worthy quest, and we have an abundance.” He put his arm around the drunkard and chuckled. “Or we did – you’ve drunk enough to account for all three of them my friend!”

The bearded man ripped free of the offered arm and struggled to pull loose his sword. “Get your dirty hands off me, bastard! You and your fucking pup brother are no friends of mine. The Empire has been enemies to your kind long enough, though others may forget it!” Another of the mercenaries, a red-haired Wissenlander, banged his mug down on a barrel and gestured with his hammer. “Aye,” he shouted. “Remember Axe Bite Pass! Marienburg! Guisereux! These men may have had the grace of the Duchess, but they are ever the foe of our ancestors!”

The youngster shook his head, stepping up beside the knight. “You see brother? These men were happy to take our aid when it suits them, but they were never true friends to us. Father warned me of the treachery of Imperials.” Reiner grunted his agreement. Together, the Bretonnians began to back away from their former comrades. Maximo and Albrecht put their hands to hilts as more mercenaries stood up and assumed menacing stances. The barrel-bellied man was in full swing, ranting and whooping in an open, xenophobic rage. He had climbed atop a bench now, the better to project his vitriol to the crowd. The two groups were now arrayed against each other across a muddy expanse and a dimly glowing fire-pit. The mercenaries had a significant numerical advantage. As the two knights came alongside him, Maximo whispered urgently. “Hold there sirs! I prefer diplomacy but I daresay words have failed in this instance -”

“Worry not my friend,” replied the younger man. “One hears that you are bound for the battlefront of Estalia; a noble and holy cause! Let it never be said that Arthus of Parravon allowed such a quest to be ended in infamy.” Reiner growled his agreement. “My brother and I are with you, Estalian. This brute needs a lesson in manners.”

“The lady Myrmidia is surely jesting with me! In this den of thieves I have stumbled on the last men of good character in the Empire!”

Arthus tutted. “Mais oui, a lesson only though I think. Please see to your friend before he does something we all regret.” Maximo looked quizzically over his shoulder; Vlademar was already several steps back, aiming his crossbow at the raving drunkard. Catching the nobleman’s expression, he raised his eyebrows. “What?” he asked mildly. Maximo shook his head.

A sudden blur of motion exploded across the clearing. The burly knight took three clattering steps across the square and smashed his armoured fist into Barathis’ groin. The drunk doubled over, bellowing as he toppled off of the bench and landed face-down in the muck. For two heart-beats the camp was perfectly still. Then, with a wordless roar, both sides hurled aside their weapons and stampeded into a frezied, joyous melee.

***

Several hours later, the five comrades were stacked against each other in an undignified heap. Each wore a black eye, bloody nose or split lip, but in the blissful oblivion of drunkenness, none yet suffered for it. Around them lay the remnants of their prize; the scattered, empty casks of Otilla the 2nd’s fine stocks of wine. As the sun rose, the shadows receded, revealing the muddy form of Barathis still unconscious in a foetal curl. The mercenaries had either broken and run, succumbed to the fists of the outlanders or joined their side. The forms of the defectors and defeated alike were also sprawled around the well-trodden pit. The victors had toasted their triumph long into the night, boasting and telling tales, engaging in the time-honoured tradition of dramatic escalation. So it was that Sir Walther of Nuln, Grand Master of the order of Knights Vigilant, found the comrades unconscious, indisposed and non-responsive to his orders. Behind him trailed a long line of servants, squires, and hooded men bearing braziers of hot coal and iron.

“Quartermaster,” he commented wryly, pointing at Maximo’s mud-speckled form, “I recognize this man. He is one of the mercenary captains from the south. Sergovian I think.”

“Indeed my lord,” replied his attendant.” Shall I have them taken to the city dungeon?”

Walther looked down at the pile of revellers from atop his warhorse. The destrier huffed and stamped with impatience, clouds of mist billowing from its nostrils. He stroked his well-oiled beard. “No. Doubtless his family will be preoccupied by the invasion of their lands. I doubt we’d get a decent ransom for him. Brand him, and the rest. The Emperor might not want to get involved, but I mean to see every able-bodied Old-Worlder to that battlefront by spring.”

“Shall I leave a conscription notice my lord?”

“Ha! I think not. Let them scurry about and wonder. It will become quickly apparent what is occurring. I doubt any of them can read anyway. Come! There is more recruiting to be done. I will not waste all morning fussing over these foreign dandies.”

The party awoke to searing pain and the acrid stink of their own sizzling flesh. Burned into their forearms were the sigil of the hammer, and the letters “MCDXLVIII.”

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