Authors: Vox Day
No. There was always time for that later if more subtle means of inquiry failed.
He looked at the painting one last time. It occurred to him that if Valens could learn who the six were, or who or what they were supposed to represent, that might eventually lead him to their victim, be he dead or alive these five centuries past. He reminded himself to tell Valens that on the morrow.
“Who are you?” he asked the man in the painting again. “And if indeed they killed you, did you remain in the grave?”
Priests, bishops, and even princes of the Church hastened to get out of Valens’s way as he followed the cerulengus hurrying through the palace in his full episcopal vestments. Valens himself was followed by no fewer than twenty-one Sanctal guards, each ceremonially clad in gleaming white-lacquered armor and red cloaks. Cries of astonishment and alarm trailed in their wake, but the elderly cerulengus did not so much as slow his stride for any man, regardless of his rank.
Valens heard the whispers as they passed.
“What is happening?” he heard a grey-haired archbishop whisper to a Jamite priest as he walked past them. “Has someone been arrested?”
The little priest was shaking his head, his eyes wide with astonishment. But Valens couldn’t tell if the priest’s look was from ignorance, from the sight of armed men marching through it with grim purpose, or simply from the fact that the Archbishop of Lanobus had deigned to speak to him.
They approached the bedchamber suite that belonged to His Holiness. Both sets of doors were open, so the cerulengus entered the bedchamber without knocking, as did Valens. The remainder of his entourage took up positions outside the doors, in case anyone thought to disturb this most holy of tasks.
The Sanctified Father was lying on his bed, still wearing his nightrobe, with the rich velvet covers of his bedding drawn up to his chest. He was being attended by two Ospedalers. The older monk was the first to notice their entry and quickly dropped to one knee. His companion quickly followed suit. Four princes of the Church watched over the Ospedalers, one positioned at each of the bed’s four corners. Valens took note of them—Baccius Antonius, Paulus Masella, Ildebrando Ortognan, and Mamercus Severus Furius—as the cerulengus turned his attention to the Ospedaler who was the senior medicus.
“You have listened?”
“Yes, Eminence. His heart is still.”
“You have attempted the mirror?”
“Yes, Eminence. His breath is still.”
“You have seen no sign of anything untoward?”
“No, Eminence. His flesh is unmarred. His scent is clean.” The cerulengus nodded, and when he did not ask another question, the two Ospedalers filed solemnly from the bedchamber to join the soldiers and the growing body of ecclesiasticals standing just outside the second set of doors.
Valens watched, bearing witness on behalf of the Sacred College, as the cerulengus approached the motionless figure of His Holiness, leaned over him, and withdrew a small iron hammer from the dark blue leather bag tied to the sash around his waist. It was engraved with the insignia of House Flavius, a bear and a wolf rampant. The cerulengus reached out, placed it over the Sanctiff’s forehead, and gently tapped the hammer against the white skin stretched out like a papyrus over the elderly man’s skull.
“Quintus Flavius Ahenobarbus,” he whispered softly. There was a hush in the room. No one moved. No one breathed, least of all His Sanctified Holiness Charity IV. The cerulengus tapped again with the hammer. “Quintus Flavius Ahenobarbus,” the cerulengus repeated, a little more loudly this time. Again, there was silence in the room. Again, the Sanctiff failed to respond.
The third time, the cerulengus barely touched the iron to the Sanctiff’s forehead. “Quintus Flavius Ahenobarbus,” he called in a commanding voice. Even so, no answer was forthcoming. The elderly celestine slipped the hammer back into its bag, placed his right hand upon the Sanctiff’s chest, and took the man’s right hand in his left.
“In paradisum deducant te Angeli. In tuo adventu suscipiant te Martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam. Chorus Angelorum te suscipiat, et aeternam habeas requiem.”
Valens gritted his teeth as the cerulengus removed the sanctal ring from the lifeless hand and turned toward him and Masella. He could feel a burning pressure behind his eyes, but he was determined not to weep for the Sanctified Father, not yet.
He looked away and saw that, outside the suite, several of the soldiers were weeping in silence, tears streaking down their faces and spilling onto their white breastplates. Others wore faces of stone, clenching their jaws and looking off into distant horizons as the cerulengus cleared his throat and pronounced the ritual words that forty-three of his predecessors had spoken before him.
“The Sanctiff is dead! Let the penitentiaries be summoned. Let the Sacred College be convened. Let the world be told. The Most Holy and Sanctified Father has gone to the glory that is his certain and well-merited reward.”
Sextus Valerius Corvus stood on the crest of a small hill that commanded the surrounding terrain. He watched thousands of men under his command rapidly building the wooden equivalent of a small city on top of a slightly higher hill to the south. Four riders stood beside him, both as his messengers and his guards. He intended to keep the army here for at least three days, which should give his outriders enough time to determine whether or not the Chalonu and Insobru tribes were coming to the aid of the goblin tribes with whom they’d already been skirmishing for weeks.
The men were getting the castra assembled quickly, he noticed with approval. The square shape of the defensive ditch was already discernible, and the first trees were being dragged from the nearby woods as the sound of axes beat a familiar rhythm. Then again, there were few things more motivating than the realization that twenty thousand shrieking goblins could fall upon your arse at any moment, without warning. Everyone slept better with the knowledge that there was a deep ditch and a tall wooden palisade standing between his tent and an enemy that would as soon rape you and eat you as kill you.
Corvus frowned as he saw a pair of riders exit the woods, galloping hard. They were scouts from the Second Knights, if he recalled the patrol schedule correctly. The two men were briefly stopped by the guards already stationed at what would soon be the Porta Principalis, then rode toward the command tent that had already been set up near the middle of the camp.
Corvus smiled grimly as they dismounted and began gesticulating at the guards standing outside it. Unless he missed his guess, the two scouts had finally located the army of the allied tribes he was seeking. With any luck, he would be able to bring them to battle soon, preferably on the morrow. If the goblin army had been found, the only real questions that remained were how many tribes comprised it and where he would meet them.
“Go to the camp and tell the legate and Tribune Valerius to come here at once,” he ordered one of his guards. “Armed and armored.”
“At once, General.” The knight saluted and started to mount his horse, then hesitated and turned back. “Ah, which Tribune Valerius do you want, General? Fortex or Clericus?”
“Marcus,” Corvus answered with a smile. “Son, not nephew.” He wasn’t keen on the name the men had given his son. But it was much better that Marcus was nicknamed Clericus—priest—than actually sworn to holy vows.
“At once, General!” The man rode off down the hill at such speed that for a moment, Corvus feared his horse would stumble and its rider break his neck.
They were so young, these knights, and so desperate to impress everyone around them, especially the command staff. They would be difficult to keep in check when they met the enemy, which, if he read the two scouts’ actions correctly, would be sooner rather than later.
It would be a relief to finally bring the wretched goblin tribes to battle after one long autumn march after another. The sun was growing shorter each day, and lately the morning dew was frost as often as not. He glanced at the rapidly lengthening shadows on the slope below him. If he couldn’t bring the goblins to grips soon, he would have to march his legions back to imperial lands and decide where he was going to winter them.
Sudden motion from outside the camp disturbed his internal debate over where he might station the three legions under his command at the end of the campaign. Four horses were riding toward him. He could not help smiling at the sight of the crested tribune’s helm among them. Marcus. How easily the helmet could have been a bishop’s mitre!
Beside his son rode the commander of the legion, Marcus Saturnius. Saturnius was a short man, given to softness rather than actual plumpness, and beneath the round, pleasant face of a well-fed butcher lay concealed a keenly tactical mind. The legate fought his battles like a butcher too, moving his cohorts in decisive slashes through the enemy formations, consistently carving a bloody and devastating path through their midst. This goblin campaign was their eighth together, and just as Corvus had learned to place implicit trust in his legate’s tactical instincts, so Saturnius was content to follow Corvus’s strategic lead.
Though they shared a name, his son had little in common with his subordinate. Marcus Valerius was a true Valerian—he was more than a head taller than the legate. And where Saturnius was round-faced and cheerful, Marcus appeared reserved, even haughty. The men might call him Clericus, but Corvus was certain that one day his son would merit a more warlike cognomen.
“How many are they?” Corvus called as the four riders approached the summit and reined in their horses. He could see from their slightly disheveled armor that Saturnius had wisely brought both newly returned scouts with him, although the two men were both mounted now on fresh horses.
“Eighteen thousand foot and two thousand wolves,” Saturnius answered, confirming his assumption. “Only two tribes. And, judging by the state of the two encampments, the Vakhuyu have been there for several days, perhaps even a week. The Chalonu look to have arrived last night. They’re both about five leagues due west.”
“No sign of the Insobru?”
“None at all. Looks like Proculus will win his bet.”
Corvus wasn’t terribly surprised. He had fought the Insobru twice before, and both times the goblins had panicked and routed at the first legionary charge. They were a cowardly tribe, even by goblin standards, and they took their cue from their yellow-livered chieftain. He wasn’t the only one who had fought them before. Proculus, Legio XVII’s senior centurion of the second cohort, had done so as well.
“He usually does,” Corvus nodded. He turned to the two scouts. “Were you seen?”
Both men shook their heads.
One of the two, a stout man with a long—and recent—red scratch across his left cheek, sat up in his saddle. “Not as such, General. After we caught scent o’ their fires, we dismounted. We couldn’t get too close even on foot, but we found a hill in the woods nearby so we could see almost everything. The two tribes was camped separate, and you could see the Vakhyi’d been there for a while, because it stunk something fierce.”
“So, did you cut yourself shaving, then?” Corvus asked pointedly.
“Well, I was just going to say that when we was riding back about a league, we run into a foot patrol. We killed all three o’ them, but one nearly got my eye with his pigsticker. They didn’t scream or nothing, and we drug the bodies back into the woods afore we came back, so I doubt they has any idea the legion is about.”
“I think they was Chaloni,” the other scout added. He looked alarmingly young to Corvus, even younger than his son. Corvus couldn’t recall the boy’s name precisely, but he thought it might be Faberus. “The patrol we killed, I mean. The others, the Vakhii, has always been out in fours, not threes. And there was something different about the way their hair was tied—it was kind o’ twisted.”
Corvus nodded approvingly at the detail in the younger scout’s observations. He suspected Faberus, if that was indeed the lad’s name, would have been the one to smell the campfires first. He cast about for the older scout’s name. Was it Lacunus? No, that wasn’t it. Labeculus.