Jake looked down at the neat plot of grass in front of him. The rain on his head could have been absent for all the notice he paid it. Beside him, Venus and a few of her cousins had gathered, all of them dressed for a funeral. Then, that’s exactly what it was. Just one without a body.
Julius’ old priest had braved the journey to say a few words of farewell, and though Jake couldn’t see the appeal in them, he respected Julius’ father’s wishes and kept silent as they were read.
Farah, on his other side, sighed heavily as the priest finished. “What a waste,” she muttered.
“Yeah.” Jake squeezed her shoulder as the priest finished his words and stepped away. Jake took his place, looking down at the acid-proofed metal headstone. The rain today was from the polar weather machines, not condensate mist off of the hive walls, so instead of being acidic enough to scour bad paint, it was just cold enough to draw shivers from the mortals in the crowd.
“I don’t know myself for being eloquent, so I’ll just say this one thing before we commend Julius to rest,” Jake said. “Julius was a man who believed deeply in the concept of merit over all. Whether that was his comrades in the Army, his classmates at school, or his friends, he was always fair, respectful, and polite. I know I’m not the only one who will miss him, for that, and for his unflinching courage.”
Isis screwed her eyes shut, feeling every word like a punch in the stomach. Four months before they were due to be married, and Julius had stepped under a missile barrage. A random firing from the abhuman artillery force that had already lost had killed the only man she had ever felt attraction towards beyond the base and physical…the only man she had ever loved. Taken away from her by hate. He had comforted her after Morticia’s near-death experience, he had promised her a future…and now he was dead, too savaged by thousands of kilograms of bombs to even be brought to home. He was fertilizing the grass on some meaningless mutant world while she would live on forever, like a goddess from some ancient story, alone and pining for-
Angela’s fingers laced with Isis’. Her cousin looked sadly into Isis’ inhuman orange eyes, trying to impart some small reassurance. Isis looked over at her bleakly, before managing a ruined smile. Angela didn’t need her psychic power to see how much pain she was in, it seemed. Venus had her eyes closed behind her opaque lenses, too.
Jake finished his words and bowed his head before Ollanius Pius, Julius’ father, stepped forth. Ollanius looked as old as the moon at that moment; he was so tired and lined that Isis would have guessed him a thousand years old.
When he spoke, his voice was hollow, but steady. “I can’t bury my son,” he said softly. “He deserves it, but I can’t. Like the thousands of thousands of thousands of humans who have died in the Imperium’s wars before him, he made a sacrifice…one that I respect more than anything else I’ve ever seen in my life.” His gloved hands gripped at his back until the leather creaked. “My son…wasn’t a media icon, and that made him all the more remarkable. Not once in the years that he spent crawling in the muck of the trenches did he ever, even once, use his name or mine to buy favor. Every single time he came home, we would spend...spend hours…” his voice finally failed as the memories returned. “Damn it…” He clenched his jaw and forced the words out. “…Talking about what we had done since last I had seen him. His stories of old friends of his who enlisted, their careers. How I used to keep a list of the people who had referenced me on the holos to advance some meaningless goal I had never heard of. It seems shameful now…because he was doing so much more himself.”
He turned tortured eyes to Isis, who met his gaze, her regret welling up like water in a well. “Isis…my dear girl, trust me when I say that you were, beyond question, the best thing that ever happened to my son. If he had time for last thoughts…they were of you. I have absolutely no doubt of it.”
Isis nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She mouthed ‘thank you’ and covered her lips with her hand to hide the shaking. Ollanius looked down at the metal cairn at his feet. “Julius…you were the beacon of my life, the greatest achievement I’ve ever made, and I loved you more than life itself,” he whispered. “Sleep well in God’s aegis, my son.”
Isis sobbed silently as Angela’s fingers tightened around her own. She felt compelled to walk to the cairn and speak…but she couldn’t. Her legs wouldn’t obey her. Ollanius looked at her for a moment before a fresh grimace appeared on his face. How could he expect her to talk?
He crouched, pushing a bit of artificially-manicured moss aside to press two little silver baubles into the soil. One was a necklace with the Catheric icon on it, which his mother had left him. The other was a scrap of adamantium from the hilt of his Power Sword, the largest piece they had been able to spare from the re-forging. Farah and Venus had been working with Hana to re-forge it for Andrew Hanover, their only friend from high school in the military who was still alive.
Ollanius straightened up, walking straight away from the grave towards his waiting vehicle. He heard Farah start to speak as he left, and he could feel the priest’s surprised glare at his disrespect, but he couldn’t stay. He had to go, he had to move on now, while the wound was still fresh, before he did something stupid.
A cough from behind him caught his ear as he fumbled for his keys in the parking lot. He spun around, suddenly enraged to the point of violence. Who the hell was intruding on his grief?
Isis was standing there, her face drenched as much as his. Ollanius felt his rancor fade instantly. “Isis.”
She bit her lip, stumbling over her words. “I…I’m sorry, Ollanius,” she said feebly. “I should have said something.”
Ollanius felt his gut twist in sympathy. “Don’t be silly, Lady Isis,” he said, vainly trying to deflect her statement. “I…I would never have…”
Isis stepped closer, hugging him with limp arms, burying her face on his shoulder. “I miss him, Oll,” she managed, her back heaving. “I want him back…”
“Of course,” Oll said brokenly. “Of course.”
She finally stepped back, wiping tears away with a wet hand. “Can…can I do anything for you? Have you decided where you’re going?”
His heart ached. “You’re a kind soul, Isis,” Ollanius said. “I think…I need to just leave. I’ve already sold everything I have…save a few mementos and the car.”
Isis’ eyes clouded. “But…why? Why are you leaving?”
“My son was the only thing keeping me anchored to Terra,” Ollanius said, digging his keys out. “I’m done.”
“Ollanius…” Isis trailed off. She had nothing to say. “Thanks.”
“Julius was…” Again, words failed her. “Thanks.”
Ollanius sank into the driver’s seat of his car as the rain slowed. “Isis, my son thought the world of you, even when his world was ending all around him, not once, but twice,” he said with a trace of old bitterness. “I should be thanking you. So…thank you, for making my son so happy.” He looked up at her, her head silhouetted against the gray clouds like a profile painting. “Goodbye, Isis.”
He shut the door and pulled out into the streets, driving off into the distance.
Back From The Grave
A man with the tattered coat of a Geno regiment disembarked from the transport. Breathing in the recycled air of the terminal, he watched the white spires of Terra stretch for miles. From the starport he could see the the wall of the Palace, residence of the Emperor of Mankind, and probably one of the most guarded places in the whole universe. Walking down the ramp, the officer adjusted his duffle bag on his shoulder, smelling the hair of his wife. Moving along with the queue, he watched down where the line spit in smaller streams, a stream per every Arbites check point. Waiting with growing impatience as the Arbites controlled the other travelers' documents, he toyed with the laces on his bag. He had been away for years, fighting for a handful of dirt on a god-forsaken Abhuman world somewhere in the galactic anus. "No more," he said, to nobody in particular.
"What?" said a woman on his left said to him. The man turned to observe her, a woman in a long white tunic with red trims and a blue turban.
"Nothing." No more he would leave his house; no more he would leave his loved one. For he had done both of them already too many times.
After another hour, he finally found himself in front of the checkpoint. Extracting the documents from the pocket in his coat, he handed them over with his scarred hand. The Arbiter examined the documents with a blank expression when suddenly his jaw dropped. "Citizen, are these your documents?"
"Yes, they are," responded the man. The lawman moved a hand under the table. "Any problem, officer?"
"Ah... yes, for you." The sound of boots on the stone floor alerted the man. Turning around, he saw a squad of Arbites and enforcers moving towards him. "Impersonating a dead man, or simply using a false identity during an interrogation is a crime," informed the Arbiter, raising himself up on his feet and placing a hand on his holster.
"What? I'm not impersonating..."
"Silence, you've violated the law!" commanded the Arbiter. "Follow us quietly, or do it a body bag."
"Is this the way to treat a veteran?" asked the ex-soldier, eyes wide in confusion.
"Make your choice, creep."
"I'll follow you."
"Good, then," complimented the Arbiter like he had a choice. "You're smart," he added, voice oozing sarcasm.
The ex-soldier stared at the interrogation block he was in. The walls were made of ferrocrete, with micro recorders on the walls. The local was simply decorated: a wooden table, and two wooden chairs. What worried the man were the blood spots on both of them. Not the return he had hoped for.
The hours passed. Eventually, after a long time the door opened and the same Arbiter that had arrested him entered the room. Taking one of the chairs -the other was already occupied- he sat and stared at the man. He was hoping for a confession, the veteran knew that. "So... if you think this will unnerve me, you're wrong."
The Arbiter opened a little paper folder he was holding in his hand. "I'm not trying to unnerve you, I'm just waiting for some information."
The soldier seemed confused. Then he understood; yes, the gene verification. "Look, friend, this is a piece of advice you'd better take: let me go now, and nothing will happen to you."
The Arbiter simply laughed in his face. "And this is a piece of advice for you: you might become a comedian, after your time in jail."
The door pommel moved. An Enforcer stepped inside the room. The blood had left his face. The Arbiter, not worried one bit by his colleague's appearance, took the documents from his hands and waved it under the nose of the ex-soldier. "See you, little punk, this is the proof you've lied to me." He took a seat, staring at him and at the photo in the documents. "So let's see..." the lawman started, while the other one left the room.
"The man you've been impersonating had short, cropped, black hair," he said, comparing the man to the picture. "Check. Brown eyes...check. 5 feet 9...more or less check." Satisfied with his inspection, the man took the other paper, the one his associate had brought in. "But, even with the physical resemblance, there's no way to cheat this test..." he stated, examining the paper. "And here it says you're... Julius Pius."
The Arbiter's jaw dropped, color running from his face. "Sir, I'm sorry but..."
Julius sprang on his feet, throwing the chair away. "Yes, you fool, I'm Julius Pius, son of Ollanius, and future husband of his majesty, Lady Isis!" he yelled, fuming. "And now tell me: do I look dead to you?"
If a person could disappear, in that moment the Arbiter would have. Looking at the face of the young Pius, he said, "Well...s-sir, The news of your death by e-e-enemy f-fire..."
"I can't understand when you stutter!"
"... by enemy fire reached Terra some weeks ago." He looked at the built-in crono in his gauntlet. "You are being buried at this very moment." The lawman was considering shooting himself.
"Now, officer... Oh good god, Isis," he said suddenly, staring at the door. He looked at the Arbiter. "Arbiter, I will forget to punish you, if you give me a car and let me go free," he proposed.
The Arbiter stood up. "Yes, sir, yes as you wish," he said, opening and keeping the door open for Julius.
Five minutes later, Julius was already travelling towards the city of Starselite where his loved one lived. He had to reach her as fast as possible; he couldn't imagine what his future wife was going through. Using the code the Arbites had provided him, he accelerated on the airway, heading towards the surface.
Dead, how weird, he thought in his mind. Starselite was a four hour drive from the spaceport, so he had quite a long time to think. "Autopilot engage." The car machine-spirit took control of the vehicle, leaving Pius free to relax and process what happened. He had always considered himself a man-at-arms, a warrior; how else could it have been? His father was Ollanius Pius, hero of the Imperium, and one of the few non-enhanced human to obtain the glory usually reserved for a Primarch.
And now what? This was his last tour with the genos, he was a simple citizen now. He could re-enlist again, sure. But did he really want to? He had seen enough for not only one life, but for ten. He had fought in the mud of the trenches, in the narrow corridors of the hives, in the boiling hot of the jungles. He had fought terrible enemies, and he remembered them, all of them: from the man-eating giants of Coria, to the sea beast of Scilla, to the ab-human warrior-women on Lesbonius. Did he really want to do this again? Maybe. But killing was all he knew. What else could he do? He enlisted when he was barely out of school. What else could he do, he repeated in his mind. And what would his Isis say?
He buried his face in his hands. Damn it. It was far easier in the army, for sure. Kill that, destroy this... not all this life-changing bullshit.
A beeping noise awoke him from his thoughts. He was reaching Isis house. He sorted his tattered uniform and smartened his hair. Not a lot better.
Arriving at the road in front of the manor, he saw many car, some with the Imperial Aquila. His friends were probably having an after-funeral celebration. Oh Lord, this is going to be awkward, Pius thought. The insignia with Luna Wolves were crossed with strips of black cloth to mourn his death. The front garden was empty. He looked at the majestic house. The windows were closed, and he couldn't see a thing of what was happening inside. "Oh, this is not good" said Julius, walking down the paved path in the grass. When he was near the steps, he started hearing voices from inside.
"He was a good man," someone - maybe Jake but Pius couldn't tell with certainty- "...we will all miss him." He rang the bell on the door. As voices picked up, the scarred soldier could hear somebody walking to the door. A girl with metal hands opened the door.
"Hello Farah," saluted Julius. The daughter of Ferrus Manus stared at him, silenced by what she was seeing.
"Is this for me?" he said pointing at the glass of wine she was holding in one hand. "Very nice of you." She didn't move a muscle. He grabbed the glass of wine from her hand and emptied it in one go. "Thank you, I'll need it."
He moved past her and turned left, walking down the corridor to the living room. He looked at the people in the room: Freya and Thangir where sitting in a corner of the room, speaking quietly with Remilia, Miranda and Nate. Venus and Jake were comforting Isis, sitting in the couch, her face buried in his hands. Remilia was with them, standing behind the daughter of Horus. Angela and Micheal had been chatting with Farah, before she left to open the door.
"Well, I'm glad you missed me so much," Julius started.
The room became silent. The eyes of every person turned to him. Isis became white as a bed sheet, eyes wide open. She stared at him with those orange eyes. Jake's jaw dropped, Venus simply stared at him, eyes wide, hands over her mouth. The other had similar reactions.
"Guys... come on guys, you are scaring me! Say something," Julius said. Nobody spoke. "It's like you have seen a ghost" he joked. Nobody moved. Leaving the glass on a small table, he walked over to Isis, squeezing her hand. "Hon, come on," he tried. He dragged her on her feet, hugging her in the process. "Isis, come on, say something."
The Firstborn touched his cheek with one hand, as to control he wasn't a ghost. "You...you're alive," she whispered, so low that even Freya had trouble hearing her.
"Yes I know," he admitted. "Amazing, isn't it." The others were starting to recover.
"You're alive," she repeated.
"Yes," and he kissed her. Her eyes closed, overwhelmed.
Jake was the first to recover. "So... why are you alive?"
Julius separated himself from his soon-to-be wife. "I honestly don't know." This was too much for Isis; she fainted, falling in his arms.
The daughter of Horus woke up half an hour later. All the occupants in the room where staring at her, a worried look on their faces. She groaned, raising herself to sit. A hand was touching hers. A man she thought dead was crouched at her side, alive if a bit worn out.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"Yes, I think so." She was starting to recover herself. She was shaken, but happy at the same time. The only man she loved was alive. They could live together again. She snapped hugging him, hard enough to hurt. Tears washed her eyes. They kissed again. The other who were present let out a sigh.
After a while they were sitting the dining room, still a bit speechless. Isis was radiant with joy. She and Julius were still hugging each other, sitting in the same chair, the one Horus usually occupied when he wasn't conquering the galaxy. They were trying to put the pieces back together, to understand why Julius was listed as K.I.A. while he clearly was not.
"We were told that you were fighting on some ab-human world, Majugla, if remember correctly, when you were hit by an artillery barrage," Venus explained.
"And they were able to identify me? After a barrage?" asked Julius.
"Well...not exactly, they found only your sword, we didn’t have a body to identify," Jake said.
"That I lost shortly after my departure," he informed them. "Sorry, Venus" he added, turning his head to her red eyes.
"I forgive you," she said jokingly.
"Now that I think about it... I've never even set foot on Majugla," he recalled.
"Wait, wasn't your regiment assigned to that campaign?" Isis asked.
"Yes, it was, but we were attacked by Ork pirates as soon as we entered the system," he said. "We defeated the green bastards, but we lost more than eight thousand men when some of the troop transports were shot down".
Remillia looked at him in disbelief. "In a single battle!"
He shook his head. "This is the Imperial Army Remilia, not the your Astartes. Losing eight thousand men in a battle is deemed acceptable," he pointed out. "Although not from a single regiment." He closed his eyes, thinking at just how many of his friends had died.
"So in the end we were too few to fight as a Regiment, but too many to be sent home. So the Administratum decided to break up the survivors and use us to reinforce other regiments," he explained. "A part of our forces, included my old company, but not me, was sent to our original destination. I was sent to Tulasan V with companies from all over the empire to quell a rebellion and recruit new troops." He smiled at Isis as she snuggled closer. "Those pen-pushers must have forgotten to register the dismemberment of the regiment," he speculated, displaying the usual disdain of the soldier for the bureaucrat. He caressed his wife's arm. "So when they recovered the sword they must have thought I was in command of the company, while instead I was far away."
Freya leaned back in the chair. "Okay, that explains why you are here," she said. "But what about the sword?"
Julius straightened a bit, starting to unbutton his shirt. "Well, during the battle with the Greenskins I had a bad encountered with a smaller Ork Warboss," he said. "When I tried to cut his arm off, he grabbed my sword with his Power Klaw, snapping it in half, and punched me in the stomach." He revealed his chest, covered in one big bruise.
Thangir observed the wound. "That looks bad."
"Yeah, that hurt like a bitch," Julius confirmed, making the others laugh. He buttoned up the shirt. "Anyway, after the blade was broken, so I sent to the smith to be repaired. He probably sent it to the one commanding my company," he explained.
"Hey," he said. "What happened to my sword anyway?"
Venus looked down, while Farah twisted her hand nervously. "Venus and I melted it and reforged it for Andrew." Julius stared at her.
"Okay," he said after a while. The two girls looked at him, unsure of having heard correctly.
"Are you sure? You always loved that sword more than the arm you use to swing it. We can forge another one if you want," offered Venus.
Julius moved his stare to her. "Sure, sure... I won't be needing it, or a different one, though."
"What?" Miranda asked.
"You heard me, Miranda: this was supposed to be my last tour with the genos," he stated. "Even without my funeral". Isis stared at him. "And this whole thing made me even more willing to retire." She was speechless.
"Isis, my love, I've seen you before, there, sitting on the couch, when you were mourning me," he explained, looking at her, straight in the eyes. "This time was a mistake due to bureaucratic incompetence but next time might notbe. I won't make you suffer like that again." She was about to say something, touched, but the food servitor came into the room, carrying a platter full of delicious-looking food.
They started eating with gusto, enjoying the flavors of the dishes, especially Julius, who hadn't eaten something that had a taste in the last couple of years. They started to chat about the changes that happened in their lives when Julius was fighting the Emperor's wars. In the end they rested quietly, reveling the the company of friends and lovers, while Julius narrated his story. After a toast to the warrior, they moved back to the living room, waiting for the weariness brought by the food to fade. Without anyone noticing, a poker set appeared. While preparing the game, Jake felt Venus' stare burn the hair on his neck.
"What's wrong with you?!" she exclaimed. "Bringing poker cards to a funeral..."
"They're not mine!" Jake defended himself. "And when your soul hurts, you need to distract it in some ways." Nate laughed at the statement.
"Your words bear wisdom, my friend," said Thangir, raising his cup of wine.
The game went on for a few hours, until only Jake and Julius remained. Micheal set his hands on the table, Thangir leaning against his chair. Nate remained silent; being a mind reader, he had decide to not participate at the game. The two remaining players remained silent, scanning each other over the cards.
Julius, looked his cards: three aces. "All in" he said, challenging the other to match him.
"All in" said Jake, moving all his chips.The veteran tapped the table with his fingers; maybe the hiver had a poker, maybe he had made a mistake to go 'All In'.
"Gentlemen, lower your cards," Nate said, observing the two titans fight. Julius showed his hand; Three aces and two figures.
Jake smiled. Ohoh, thought Pius. Jake threw his cards on the table: A king, a queen, a jack, a ten, a nine, all of the same color.
"God damn it," cursed Julius. The other laughed. "I've come back from the dead, and I can't still beat you."
Angela looked at the ornate watch in a corner "It's time to go," she said, squeezing Micheal's shoulder.
He stirred. "Alright, time to turn in."
"We have to go too, sweetheart."
"Oh come on Venus I enjoying myself" joked Jake.
"Well Farah, do you want to go too?" Asked Remilia.
The iron-handed girl yawned. "Yes, it's sleepy-time."
"Freya, time to go back to the wolf den," said Thangir.
Nate and Miranda understood each other without speaking. Time to leave Julius and Isis alone.
When the room was empty, Julius and Isis started cleaning up the mess. She cleaned and took away the wine glasses, whilst he packed the poker set.
"I'll send it to Jake tomorrow," he said.
"But, if it was his, why would he have left it here?"
"To uphold the lie," he smiled.
She put the wine glasses on a small table. "Julius," she said extending her arms, inviting him. "Come here."
He came to her, hugging her. She rested her head on his shoulder. "Are you sure with your decision?" she asked him.
She was referring to his retirement. He caressed her blond hair. "No more."
"No more; It's what I said when I stepped down the transport that took me Terra."
"But what are you going to do?"
"Isis, love of my life, I have enlisted in the army as soon as I came out of Imperator. It was almost twenty years ago. Since then all I've done was kill people and watch people be killed. No more. I'm tired," he explained. He stared at her, brown eyes versus orange eyes. "All I want to do now, is to marry you, and spend the rest of my life with you," he told her. "As I had promised you." They stayed like that for a while, comforting each other, enjoying the vicinity of the other after such a long time.
"Actually I'm more worried by the paperwork."
"I'll help you don't worry," she promised, knowing how much her future husband hated paperwork.
"Yes, but I'm legally dead now. So the question is... how do I legally resurrect? And most of all how long will it take?"
"I don't know, but we'll discover it soon enough."
As they detached, Julius gave her a concerned look. "Are you okay now? You scared me before."
She took his hand, squeezing it.
"I am now."
Good God-Emperor that was way too much proof-reading. I don't even know if I got all the mistakes. Anon 2: I think I fixed most of the remaining mistakes but this was a real slog...
Riders of the Storm
From the personal remembrances of Tevguul, Boyan of the Kheshig, Bloodsworn guard of the Khan.
An ancient scholar of Terra once wrote ‘war never changes’, a saying which has remained true in the millennia after he penned those words and likely will remain true as long as man lives. I have always been a bit of a scholar; I like to know things, about the enemy we fight against, the allies we fight with, the worlds we fight on. I was once told that only poets could be true warriors, for only they could appreciate what we do on the field of battle. I do admit I have a poetic bend, and the Khan appreciates that, asking me to compose poems to commemorate particular battles or events, or simply to cheer the Khan up after a particularly harrowing day. The Khan is the one who asked me to compile this record of my experiences so that they will not be lost.
“You must do this for me.” The Khan told me. “You have served me since I was born, but your service won’t last forever. Your story needs to be told, so those that come after you can learn.”
The Khan is right of course. Though I have been blessed with a longer life than most, it will not last forever. But my story, my poems will long outlast me, and like the old saying of Terra, remain for future generations to learn from. I find that reassuring.
What they have now started calling ‘The Segmentum Conquests’, but which had no name back then save the ‘Solar Expansion’ - a name which I find has no poetic bend to it - began out of the massed pirate assaults which began around the year 347 and continued on and off for the next ten years. Hain, Human and Corsair Eldar Pirates hammered the warp routes the Imperium needed to survive, sometimes invading entire worlds. Eventually after years of this torment the Emperor decided to send his iron fist, his Legions outwards from Terra to explore the gulfs of space the Crusade missed, places that could potentially have habitable worlds in them, to expand the domain of man, rediscover lost human civilisations the Crusade may have missed and purge the pirates so they could never again threaten the Imperium’s lanes of trade. The Warmaster chose several of his brothers to lead the Legions and the rest of the Imperial military outwards from selected strongpoints across the Imperium to fulfil this new objective.
In the end, ten of the Legions joined in this purge of the lost ways and the ordu of Chogoris, the Brotherhoods of the Khagan became part of it.
We didn’t know any of this at the time, of course. All we knew was that the Khagan had called for his warriors both mortal and not to ride with him for this new wave of conquest and we answered the call. So we of the Auxilia rode for him far from home, far across the stars from Chogoris. We were only flesh and blood, not the storm tempered iron of our Scar brothers, but the Khagan needed all his warriors. He still does.
We fought many battles during the conquests, alongside many of the Legions. The harrowing of Quartye, where the Black Knight of the Fists Sigismund led us to victory, and the ride against the automatons on Bulvyie both spring to mind, but the one which most lingers with me happened four years into the expansion, after we had destroyed the empire of Mordag and were hounding the last gritty remnants of that empire to extinction.
What I remember most about that particular war was the wind. The wind whipping across the open plains, its hollow whistle ever mournful - like it was lamenting the invaders who were despoiling that world or the bloodshed which was happening between those invaders and us. As I felt it stinging my face I was reminded of home, Chogoris. It had been a long time since I rode under its open skies, and I feared I would never again ride under its twin moons. But I was bloodsworn, and my fate was and still is tied to that of someone else by chains which will never be broken. I rose from failure, the greatest failure a man can face, to continue to serve the Khagan despite my weaknesses which denied me the chance to serve him as one of his Gene Sons.
“You know that by accepting this, your life no longer becomes your own. It will belong to the Khan, from birth to death, every hour awake and asleep the Khan’s life will be your life, the Khan’s pain and blood your pain and blood.”
I knew what was asked of me then, and I still know now. I accepted, and stood impassively as the khan’s name was carved into my forehead, so that all would know who I was Bloodsworn to, who my life belonged to. I have never and will never regret that day. In fact, that day is one of the proudest of my entire life.
The planet we fought over had no name before we arrived upon it. It had big, high pink skies dusted with cloud and dark green grass which seemed to swallow up the blood shed upon it. It had escaped the notice of the Great Crusade, but the second wave of expansion had brought us to it, hounding the survivors of yet another war on yet another planet. There is always one more planet, one more war. We rode across this nameless world in waves, up from the southern landing sites where our scar brothers had landed before us and out into the equatorial zone and beyond into the northern mountains where the foe was falling back to regroup from the ferocious assaults of the Khagan.
A full Tumen of the Vth Legion Auxilia was landed on that world to ride for the Khagan, to support his warriors and the Imperial Army in their prosecution of the war. The lively horses and shining bright steel of the Chogoran Rough Riders lifted down from orbit in bulk landers. Seeing the row upon row of horses and men, The colours of the V Legion, the livery of white, gold and red proudly born on our uniforms and on our horses for the enemy to see was a stirring sight for all who witnessed it, and I wish the Khan had been there for that.
Many have said horses are obsolete in war, and have been for millennia. But we can roam far on them, for they do not need fuel to run them, only grass and fodder. We have proven that the horse still has a part to play in the Emperor’s wars. I am of the Kheshig, which in Chogoran means favoured or blessed. They are the guards of the Khans, his faithful retainers unto death. The Scars have their own Kheshig, a mighty phalanx of giants in bone-white Terminator plate who guard the Khagan. They are not my Kheshig. Mine are the Human Kheshig, the riders of the dead, our lamellar armour lacquered dark grey and black, the only colour the flash of the V Legion on our arms. The dour killers.
We fought the eternal foe of man on that world, what we of Chogoris call the hain, others the ork or the kine or the krork or a hundred other names. The name matters not. They are everywhere, a foe which we have fought and will forever fight. The hain can never be eradicated, they appear from nowhere to ravage our worlds and though we purge them time and again, they always return.
The Ork Empire of Warlord Mudd Mordag had raided our frontier worlds bordering the warp storm we named Inferno Reach. That storm had prevented the Imperium from properly responding during the crusade and immediately afterwards, but it had calmed and shrunk as the Segmentum Conquests began and an opportunity was seen to destroy this threat for good. Three Legions drove into Mordrag’s realm and burned it to the ground, purging his worlds and freeing his human slaves. Now we came to this world to polish off what was left.
We had destroyed the last of their crude space-vessels months earlier, stranding them on the surface and then the Khagan had lead a great charge which split the horde apart and now hundreds of fragments of that horde were tearing north, trying to reunite and respond to our sudden arrival. It was the job of the Chogoran Rough Riders to seek and destroy these fragments before they could unite and pose a threat to the Khagan. We had been on that world for nearly two months, and had destroyed eight enemy fragments and were hunting a ninth.
It was the seventh day of the chase when we decided to deliver the killing blow to that ninth fragment. We had been following the column, harassing and harrying it for day after day, weakening it, wearing it down. We had driven it to a place of our choosing where we would finish it off in one great charge as our fathers had once done on Chogoris.
I stood on the low ridge behind which the bulk of the Tumen were concealed, watching the hain column grinding past parallel to the ridge. They were heading north like all the many pockets split off by the Khan, driving in long columns of battered, clumsy armoured vehicles that sent black gouts of soot into the air and gave away their position. This column had very few vehicles left – we had picked most of them off in the days previously - but thousands upon thousands of the hain were there, marching to rejoin the fight against the Khagan. Dust clouds on the fringes of the horde showed where my Rifle Cavalry brothers were stinging them, riding in, shooting at the hain and riding off before the greenskins could retaliate. They had thinned the ranks of the enemy nicely over the last few days, though many had been shot out of their saddles by the enemy. Their deaths would not be in vain.
On the ridge further down from where I observed the horde, the Horse Artillery barked, throwing shells into the horde. Flashes of fire amidst the sea of green showed where their shells landed. Whenever the hain threatened them, they limbered up and rode off to a new position and continued to send fire and death to the greenskins. I resolved that once the battle was done, I would have the Horse Artillery commended for their conduct in this chase.
In the early days of the war just after we had landed the hain would have fought us. They would have surged at us in vast mobs, bellowing and roaring with gobs of spittle flying from their tusked mouths as they tried to drag us from our saddles. But no longer. The Scar Brothers had broken their spirit. We had chased them across the face of the world, rooting them out, beating them back, cutting them down. We knew from the Orbital augers that they were mustering somewhere, trying to summon up some kind of defence in numbers, but even they must have sensed that the end was coming. After two months, the war was fast approaching its climax.
From the ridge, I could see the ripples running through the green horde. They were close to breaking. I felt my fingers itch for the feel of my guan dao glaive, my chosen weapon made for me by the Khan. The blessed weapon – a two-metre metal shaft with a single curved blade, a work of close combat genius - had not drunk the blood of the foe in many days; its spirit longed for the taste again, and I would not disappoint it.
I turn back and rode down the ridge to face my brothers. Before me, hidden from the sight of the hain was rank after rank of neatly ordered riders, already in diamond formation ready for the charge.
The Chogoran Rough Riders are organised along the lines of the old decimal system of Chogoris. Ten men make an Arav, Ten Aravs makes a Zuut, ten Zuuts makes a Minghan and ten Minghans makes a Tumen, the largest formation we have. The Tumen of the Auxilia which fought on that world comprised five Minghans of Rough Riders, four of Rifle Cavalry and one of the Kheshig with the Tachanka and Horse Artillery attached. All that might was under my command that day.
Several Zuuts of the Kheshig were facing me, each formed up into a separate diamond. Cavalry formed into diamond formations react slightly faster to orders and changes direction much quicker, which for us is essential. The lead diamond had a space at the front, a space for me to occupy, to lead them from. Like the Scars we lead by example. Behind their full faced helmets, the Kheshig smiled at me hungrily. We all knew the time is almost upon us, the time to hunt and to charge. We were all the blood of Chogoris, brown skin, oil-black hair worn long, wiry frames bunched with muscle.
Between the two main diamond formations was an arav of the Fire Riders, those who have foregone flesh and blood steeds in order to drive the flame belching Hellhounds. The Hellhounds and their sister tanks the Banewolves and Devil Dogs were the only tanks in the Chogoran rough riders, the others being too slow for our fast-paced style of warfare. The three strong Hellhound aravs had proven themselves time and time again, and I was glad they would ride with us that day.
“My Boyan, the Tumen is ready for your orders. The men are all formed up and we await your command to charge.” One of my noyans nodded to me. Everything was in place, weeks of hunting and riding had lead to this.
Suddenly there was silence in the ranks, and as I turned my horse about I could see why. A new figure had joined us. Unlike my brothers the newcomer was clad in a bright red coat with gold trim which caught the light, not the grey lamellar of my Kheshig brothers. The Newcomer’s horse was a cyber-steed, a fusion of flesh and metal which could ride harder and endure more than our steeds of flesh and blood. The figure wore no helmet, revealing a high tail of hair.
We all knew who it was. We all bowed low in our saddles.
“Stand easy.” The Khan commanded. The Khan, the leader of all the Auxilia, my commander, my bloodsworn ward. The Khan rode up to me, and once again I bowed.
“The men are in place, my Cherbi. We await your command.”
Cherbi, the honourific given to the commander of the Kheshig, the most important person in all the Auxilia, the representative of the Khagan Himself. But our Khan was far more than that, far more.
The Khan glanced over at the neat diamonds of the Kheshig and the Rough Riders all poised ready to charge, and looked back to me. “You make it seem so easy Tevguul. You remind me that I still have much to learn.” “My Khan, I only do what you command. This was all your plan, your idea; all I did was execute it. Will you lead us in the hunt my Khan, my Cherbi?”
Hana Khan, daughter of the Khagan and Lady of the Auxilia smiled that smile it seemed she saved only for me.
“Tevguul, my warrior poet, I would be honoured.”
I always felt the honour was all mine. It was an honour beyond honours to be lead by the lady Khan, daughter of the Khagan. Unlike her ilk, the other Primarch-Children, she had joined her native sons in the tempering crucible of war, and we all adore her for it. She has been commanding the Auxilia for five years by that point, and we had grown with her in the wars, growing used to her style of command, moulding ourselves to her ways of war.
With a ripple the Kheshig Diamond reformed, and I flowed into it, leaving the tip of the diamond open for her. She turned her steed and trotted over; taking her rightful place at the point of the spear, a blood red tip to the point that will destroy the hain horde. “Tevguul, the hain are fracturing. Some are chasing after the rifle cavalry, and the horde has lost cohesion. Now?”
I only nodded. She does not need to ask me, but she still does. While she was growing up on the throneworld I fought with the Auxilia on numerous backwater worlds, and when she joined the Auxilia, naturally it was to me that she turned to advice. I taught her all I knew, and she still sees me as her principle advisor, though her skills have long since outstripped my own.
She raised her voice and spoke into the Comm Link for all the brothers to hear.
“Riders of Chogoris, today we destroy another of the hain blights. Ride hard and cut them down, be the storm that sweeps away the enemy.” Her Khorchin was almost perfect, but there was still a tiny hint in her voice which betrayed that she had not grown up on the steppes of the Altak like I had.
The drums began to beat and the signal flags were raised and waved in the breeze, telling the riders to begin their charge. Slowly we trotted forwards, still in perfect formation. Onto the ridge we went, and there I could see the hain horde. Like the khan had said it was falling apart at the seams, some individual bands trying to chase after their rifle cavalry tormentors, others still powering forward, trekking to whatever destination they were aiming for. One they would never reach.
“We ride for the Khagan!”
“For the Khagan!” came the thunderous, rapturous response as we began the charge, horns blaring.
The Orks could now see the hitherto concealed riders of the Auxilia powering towards them, a wave of horses and steel. And at our head, riding harder than any of us, her Tulwar out and slicing into the winds, was the Khan. We call her the Wind Rider, for when her blood is up she rides like the western winds, full of sound and fury.
The hain tried to rally at our now thunderous charge, but they were scattered and vulnerable to the killing blow we were about to deal. The Horse artillery continued to fire, the shells adding to the confusion in the enemies ranks.
We drove for the weak links, the places in their fracturing horde we would smash into.
I saw their tusked mouths open - they were shouting something at us. Anger or defiance? I did not know or care. Behind the Khan I closed on the hain, standing in the saddle, guiding my galloping mount with my knees and pulling my glaive from its back strapping, aiming it like a lance.
The hain were not stupid, nor were they slow. A storm of bullets streaked out at us, burning past our ears and ploughing up the earth beneath. Behind me a rider was downed in a careening, plummeting orgy of butchered horseflesh and shattered bone.
The moment of impact was marked by a careening crash as flesh met steel. My guan dao sliced a hain in two and bringing it back up and around in a bloody arc I took another hain apart. The disruptor blazed, leaving streaks of shimmering silver in the air as the blade whipped across.
I gloried in the use of my glaive. It danced in my fists, spinning and punching, slicing ork bodies apart. I ploughed through them, breaking bone and shattering armour, my horse drawing ever onwards through the horde. Orks reeled away from me, staggering and howling at the fury of my assault.
The Hellhounds drove forward, belching fire like the dragons of Terran myth. What wasn’t burned was crushed under their treads as they powered forwards. The Rough Riders slew with sabre and pistol, the Rifle Cavalry with short ranged volleys of Lasgun fire and the Kheshig with their power lances and the crak of bolt pistols.
And at the head of us all was the Khan. I kept close to her, as was my eternal duty, but truth be told she did not need me, not then at least. She has such balance, such contained savagery, such unrelenting, remorseless artistry. As she whirled her blade around, sunlight caught on the blood slicked blade. She handled her blade as though it were a living thing, a spirit she had tamed and now forced to dance. She was so like her father in the heat of battle.
I kept up with her, sought to equal her body count. The greenskins died under the savagery of our charge, they tried to flee but were run down and slaughtered.
“For the Khan and the Great Khan!” I thundered, breaking back into movement, shaking the blood from my weapon and searching for more hain to kill. “For the Khagan!”
And all around me, my brothers, my beloved brothers of the kheshig, of the Auxilia, echoed the call, lost in the pristinely savage world of rage and joy and speed we shared with our Scar brothers.
We did not move on until all of them were dead. When the last of the fighting was over, we stalked through the wreckage with short blades and pistols in our hands, finishing off any hain who still breathed. When that was done, we doused the vehicles in their own fuel and set them alight. I estimated it at twelve thousand plus of the hain we had slain, for merely a handful of our own.
We laid our dead out, their bare skin open to the suns and the wind, and we took their horses and equipment with us. On Chogoris we observed such customs so that the beasts of the Altak, the great grass sea would have something to feed on when the moons were up. We have never been a wasteful people.
The Khan rode up to me, her sword out and drenched with blood. Her cheeks were flushed; her hair mussed but there was a raging inferno in her eyes. She is never more beautiful then after she has killed. Lines of a poem rose unbidden in my mind.
“Boyan Tevguul, our casualties?”
“Minimal my Cherbi. About two hundred or so, but I will not know until the corpse takers have finished tallying the dead.” I noticed that she was favouring her sword arm, her pistol arm she was holding limp.
“Are you injured, my Cherbi?”
“Only a scratch, none of your concern.” She knows what I am about to do. I trotted over and gently moved her arm, seeing the deep cut on it. Immediately I pulled a field dressing from my saddle bag and after spraying some counterseptic on the wound, began to bandage it up. Once that was done, I reached for my belt knife. I knew that look of distaste.
“Why do you do this?” She asked, again.
“I am bloodsworn. Your blood is my blood. Your wounds are my wounds.” And with that, I slashed the blade across my arm, mirroring the wound on her own body. I let the blood flow, gritting my teeth in pain before I bandaged my arm to match hers. I know she detests my practice, that her wounds and her blood is mine as well as hers. I remember that one of her blood-cousins was shot once, and how she knew that if she had been shot, I would have shot myself in the same place to share in her pain. She thinks it a barbarous practise, but it is of Chogoris, and I will not be denied.
That is what it means to be bloodsworn. I was sworn to the Khan even before she was born. From the moment of her first breath to the moment of my last, I will serve her mind, body and soul. I will fight for her, bleed for her and if needs be die for her. It is at times like these that I am reminded that she was not brought up on the plains, riding and fighting. That is her strength, and also her weakness.
It was two days later when we reached our resupply coordinates, a place to rest after weeks on the hunt. Even though we don’t need fuel to continue the hunt, the men do need rest at times.
The first thing we saw as we rode up were the army bulk lifters, descending and ascending in ragged columns. Each one was a huge, blocky box of wings and engines: each one carried hundreds of tonnes of rations, ammunition, machine parts, medicae supplies; everything needed to sustain an army in the hunt. In the years that the campaign against Mordrag’s empire had been prosecuted the transporters had been in ceaseless demand, plying their routes between the carriers and troopships hanging in orbit and the forward stations on the ground.
We trotted past the landing sites and passed columns of Trojans towing the supplies from the transporters to the base. The main body of our troops fragmented and set off for individual resting places dotted amidst the landing zones, leaving only the Kheshig, Horse Artillery and the Hellhound Aravs. By the time we all reached the main garrison complex the sun was descending beneath the sky, staining the sky with crimson eerily reminiscent of the blood shed on this world. Shadows barred our path, warm against the pale earth.
The supply station, like all the others dotting the planet were temporary, built from prefabricated components that would be lifted back up to the fleet when the fighting was done. Only its defence towers, looming up from the outer walls and bristling with weaponry, looked like they would take any time at all to dismantle when the time came to move on.
Once the Horses were in their stables and the Hellhounds and Artillery in the hangers, the Khan gave the order for my brothers to go to the garrison's hab units and make the most of their short rest period. They looked happy enough to do so; we had been on the hunt for a long time and human endurance can only go so far. Even the Scar Brothers needed to rest at times.
Together the Khan and I headed off to find the garrison commander and learn of our new orders. Even as the shroud of night fell the roads of the temporary settlement were thronged with activity - loaders moving between warehouses stacked with munitions and supply crates, servitors scuttling from workshops over to armoury bays.
Together we found the commander in a rockcrete command bunker at the heart of the garrison complex. He was not of the Auxilia; he was Imperial Army, Necromunda Spiders by the cut of his uniform and the insignia on his shoulders, not to mention the spider tattoo on his face.
“Commander,” the Khan said as we entered the room.
“My Lady Khan,” he replied. “It is a pleasure to see you again.”
“Again?” she asked. I found I couldn’t recognise him either.
The commander nodded. “I was there when you addressed the regimental commanders at the beginning of the campaign. I must confess I didn’t expect to meet you up close.”
“Well now you have. Are there new orders for the Auxilia?” she truly was the blood of Chogoris; she cut straight to the point. “Yes my lady,” he said, reaching for a data-slate and handing it to me. “Assault plans have been accelerated. The final drive to exterminate the Ork has begun.”
She scanned the orders and then handed the plans over to me. I glanced at the data-slate she gave me. Text glowed on the screen, laid over a map of the warzone. The symbols indicating enemy formations had shrunk together, falling back toward a single point in the north-eastern mountains. Locator symbols of V Legion brotherhoods and Army formations followed them, coming from all directions. I was pleased to see that the Rough Riders was at the forefront of the encirclement, nearly equal with the brotherhoods of the White Scars and ahead of much of the Imperial Army.
“Will he participate?” she abruptly asked.
I gave the commander a hard look. Sometimes I must do these things for her.
“Ah,” he said, realising to whom she was referring. “I don't know. I have no data on his whereabouts. The Kheshig of the Legion keep it to themselves.”
“They won’t keep it from me.” She said defiantly. “I will find out where the Khagan is, so that I may join him for the final effort. I will fight by his side at the end, when the ork...hain threat is finally ended and the world is freed for the Imperium.” Some things she still trips over, and our name for the ork, the hain is still something that slips from her mind from time to time. She tries so hard to be one of us, another reason why we all love her.
“You have full orders waiting for you, security-sealed,” said the commander. “Many Imperial Army formations are being combined for the final attack runs.”
“So will we be combined with the Imperial Army?” I asked.
“I do not have that information. All I have are location coordinates for your next rendezvous position. Forgive me my Lady; we have much to process, and some data from fleet command has been... lacking in detail.”
I could well believe that, the Scars have a habit of doing that. We were not a careful people. We were always bad with the details.
As she left for the communications bunker to speak with the Legion, I took a good, hard look at her. I knew what she was thinking, what she wanted. She desired to prove herself before her father, to fight by his side at the end of it all. This was the first time they were fighting together on the same planet and the chance to stand by her father’s side, blade drawn and enemies before her was as intoxicating as any drug.
I do not know if my caution is a relic of my failure, or a legacy of the wars I have fought, but I had grave doubts about her wish. She was not a white scar, was not as enduring and unyielding as the brotherhoods of storm and iron. Her wish would only get her killed, and I would never let that happen. I resolved to speak with her on the matter as soon as I had an opening.
Two days later we set off again. The break was good, a chance to ready ourselves for the next stage of the attack. We were rested, hungry for the hunt again. As the long kilometres passed in a glare of grass and pale sky they became ever more impatient, ever more anxious to see signs of prey on the empty horizon.
There is, to my eyes, no more stirring sight then the Tumen on the march, ten thousand horses trampling the plains, vast clouds of dust kicked up by our horse’s hooves, the ground shaking with our passing, the sounding of drums and horns to keep us in our loose formations ready to form up and fight at any moment.
We spoke to one another as we rode, shouting over the thudding of our horses hooves, leaving the voxes off and enjoying the power of our natural voices. It is the way we have always done things on Chogoris. Conversations drifted across the Tumen, from one warrior to another, from one Arav to another, from Zuut to Minghan and so across the Tumen.
My Lady Khan was silent, focused on the march. I knew she had many things burning in her brain, and I knew she wanted to talk about them, so I determined to coax them out of her.
As the plains tumbled away beneath us, our conversation opened up a little.
“My Lady?” I asked. “What’s on your mind?”
She gave a dry smile, and shook her head. “Nothing to concern you Tevguul. We have two weeks travel before we reach our designated co-ordinates, and that’s a long time out of action.”
“My Lady, Are we to rendezvous with any of the brotherhoods?”
Her face darkened. “No Tevguul, it appears we will be paired with the Imperial Army for a time. The Scars will fight without us.”
I now knew her dark mood. She would not be able to fight in sight of her father if the Auxilia was sent elsewhere. She wanted to be at the forefront of the action. If she was to gain the honour of fighting alongside the Khagan - who would surely be at the heart of the action - then we in the Auxilia would have to remain at the forefront of the closing circle.
“I want to be there with him. At the end.”
“I hope so,” I told her “I hope he is there, to see your courage. But you can never tell,” I added, as lightly as I could. “He is elusive. They all say that about him.”
I smiled again, to myself that time, remembering a day over forty years ago, when a giant in white heard my oath and marked me as bloodsworn.
“Elusive. Like a berkut. That is what they all say.” She nodded, and said no more.
We all hate being penned up. Like our scar brothers, we have no centre. I could feel the mood amongst my brothers. They want to be riding, hunting, fighting. But now we found ourselves pinned down.
It was two weeks after we had resupplied, and as per our orders the Tumen of the Auxilia found itself paired with the Imperial army for a joint mission. One of the great hain columns had reached the northern mountains and there they had returned to one of their foul dens to rest and resupply.
They had chosen a good place to make their stand. High in the northern hemisphere of the planet, the endless grassy plains eventually crumpled into a series of chains of ravines and jagged peaks, between the icecap and the plains. We had never penetrated far into that region, opting to clear the hain from the vast plains first. It was natural defensive terrain - hard to enter, easy to hide in. We had to destroy them before they could dig in, but there was expected to be at least thirty-thousand greenskins dug in up our particular sector. The Army was supposed to drive them out and into the arms of the Legion, but that was slow going, and so we were sent in to aid them.
In the case of this particular joint mission, the Army would shell this particular enemy hold to ruins, drive them out into the open and engage them, and then we would charge, smash them and ride them down. That was the plan at least.
Our two companion regiments were both Terran Regiments from the Throneworld, but could not be less alike. One was a relic of the old night before the rise of the Emperor, while the other was the face of the new Terra that had arisen after the Unification and Crusade. None of my brothers have bothered to read up on our army support, something I find strange. I like to know who we are serving with, so that I can liaise with our allies easer. It’s a practice I picked up while I lead the Auxila, before the Khan came of age, and now I use it in her name to help her lead.
The first regiment assigned to aid us was the Geno Five-Two Chiliad. An elite force of one thousand companies, it had a martial tradition that stretched back through the time of the Great Crusade and deep into the era of the Unification Wars before it. The Geno was a proud member of the Old Hundred, highly destructured, adaptable and flexible. The Geno had only recently returned to frontline combat after suffering serious losses in the field in a far-off war five years ago which saw the destruction of a large number of their companies.
We had all been forewarned about the Uxors. They were the top of the Chiliad’s command tree, and their technical inability to conceive due to the conditions of their training made them gruesomely promiscuous. All had to be on guard around them, for they would lie with anyone if they could. I knew my men would not succumb to the temptation, but I did not think the other regiment serving with us would be so fortunate, as they did not have the iron discipline of Chogoris.
The other regiment serving with us was a detachment of the Terran Praetors, an infantry battalion and a full artillery regiment. If the Geno are the face of strife-age Terra, then the Praetors are the face of the new Terra which came out after Unification. They do not have the legacy of the Old Hundred, they are a new thing willing to try new tactics and test new weapons. Everything about them is ‘new’.
The Praetor Artillery pounded the hain night and day, the Geno held the line and we would deliver the killing blow. At least, that is what was supposed to happen. But it didn’t. The hain held fast, the Praetors threw shells downrange and we sat around and stewed.
I sat with my brothers in the Khevtuul, the night guard of the Kheshig, warming our hands indulgently by firelight like our fathers had done on Chogoris.
“Why are we still here? We should be hunting, running down enemy convoys, not playing nursemaid to the Army.” That was Tugh, an Arav-Sergeant in the Kheshig. His mood mirrored the mood of the whole Tumen.
“The orders come from the Khagan. He sent us to aid the Army. Would you disobey His orders?”
Tugh shook his head slowly. I knew how he felt. I did not like being caged there any more than he did. We were unsuited to this kind of warfare. Our horse artillery could not play its part in the bombardment, so none of us could help in any way. We knew our talents were being squandered. But the Khagan ordered the Khan, and the Khan’s will be done, regardless of how we feel about it.
Another member of the Khevtuul came and crouched down beside me. “Tevguul, someone approaches the Khan’s tent.” He whispered.
I nodded, reached down, picked up my guan dao and set off into the night. The Khevtuul were the ones to guard the Khan while she slept, but I guarded her at all hours. No-one approached the Khan without getting through me first.
I reached the Khan’s yurt, and saw there was no light within. She was sleeping then. The yurts that we traditionally sleep in lack a solid wall, and so a weapon can easily penetrate the walls and kill the subject inside. That is why the Kheshig are there, that is why I am there.
I saw the figure creeping through the night, trying to remain stealthy. A Praetor, given his uniform. What he wanted with the Khan was none of my concern, he would never get there.
I took three steps forward, swung my guan dao in an arc and in a single move grabbed the unknown Praetor, the haft of my guan dao at his throat. One move and I could crush it, end him there and then.
“Who are you? What do you want with the Khan?” I spoke in Khorchin, the language of Chogoris. It is far removed from Gothic, and the stranger has no idea what I had said, but he got the message.
“I…I wish to see Hana.” He forced past my guan dao. The fact he referred to the Khan by her first name filled me with suspicion, and I let go and got a good look at the man, my guan dao still aimed at him.
The ranks on his sleeve indicated he was a Sergeant First class, with the insignia of the Artillery on his breast. An ornate sabre hung from his hip, and there was something about that blade which caught my eye.
“Name?” I demanded, in heavily accented Gothic this time.
“Hannover. Sergeant First class Andrew Hannover, Praetor Field Artillery.”
I digested that information, thinking back if the Khan had ever mentioned someone by that name. That sword nagged me again. “Your blade, let me see.”
He looked at me and hesitated a moment, before drawing his sword and presenting it to me, and I was taken aback for a moment. It was almost the twin of the Khan’s Tulwar for craftsmanship, and I could see her handiwork in its forging as clearly as a thumbprint on the blade.
“She and two of her cousins made it for my best friend. He served in the Geno on 63-30.” He said before I could open my mouth.
“And if may ask, what happened to him?”
“He died.” There was sorrow in his words, and I knew he was no assassin. If his sword was made by the Khan, then there had to be a connection, and she would want to know.
“I speak with Khan.” I answered, heading for her tent.
Gently I tapped on the tent pole, and after a few seconds the light came on within.
“My Khan, there is a Sergeant of the Terran Praetors who wishes to see you. His name is Andrew Hannover.”
There was a flurry of activity within, and then she stuck her head out. “Bring him here,” She commanded in Khorchin. I nodded and walked back to Hannover, guan dao in hand.
“Khan, she will see you.” I barked, gesturing towards her tent.
By the time we got back, she was dressed and outside, clad in a deel, a traditional Chogoran gown, long, loose and resembling a big overcoat.
“Andrew.” She said warmly, her smile matching his own as they embraced.
At that moment I realised there was past history between them, and I wracked my mind trying to work out if I had heard his name before. I had only met one of her many boyfriends, the hiver named Seager, a poor lovestruck boy being led about by the ear by the Khan. That was when she was different person, more selfish and domineering. That was one of the few times I let the Khan have a piece of my mind, and I’d like to think that my advice was what finally made her see the folly of her ways.
After greetings, the Khan invited Hannover into her tent. I took a step forward. “He’s an old friend.” She told me in Khorchin. “I wish to speak with him alone.”
“As you command, my Khan.” I replied.
Standing outside, I could not help but overhear their conversation.
“I never expected to see you here.” There was surprise in her voice.
“I never expected to be here. We’d been on Badab for over five years guarding the Maelstrom, and suddenly we’re packed up and sent here.” A short pause. “To be honest, I never expected to see you here either, but when the liaison officer said that there was a mad woman leading the Legion Auxilia, I immediately thought of you.”
There was a soft thump; I could well imagine the Khan giving the Praetor a good clout for his words. But them a soft laugh came through as well.
“Well, the Army needs mad people to lead them; why else would they risk their lives on foolish errands?” another pause. I could see their shadows on the yurt wall, they were both seated on her camp bed.
“We’ve only just joined the campaign, what fights have you had? What new things have you learned to kill since last we met?” For a while the Khan recounted the last three wars we had fought, one against a human enclave which had refused to join the Imperium, and the other two against the Empire of Mudd Mordag. The war against the humans was particularly harsh; as the Khan had told me, “this is the true misery of this war, that they do not recognise us as kin.”
The humans of that world were of a tech level several points down the scale from the Imperium. They had possessed guns and tanks, but still favoured blades. They refused to give up their freedom and their gods, and it had taken several months of bitter fighting, but their cities had burned, their temples pulled down and their people exterminated before they finally surrendered. I did not like fighting fellow Humans, and the Khan was the same. I still remember her face after her first kill of that war, the shock that she had just taken a human life. Though she was not human and would never be, to take the life of something like the ones she had known and grown up with was a shock that killing a hain or Exodite never gave.
They moved on to talking about Terra, which did not interest me. I had visited Terra only twice, once when the Khan was born, and once during her early years at Imperator, when I had expressed such distaste at her treatment of the hiver. Terra was a dead world, with poisoned skies and dead rock. The trees and oceans were long gone, and I could not stand such a lifeless hulk. Chogoris was alive, with the whisper of the wind across the Altak and the clouds whipping across the high skies. The same could not be said for Terra. I was glad to leave that world.
“Do you hear from your cousins much?” Hannover asked.
“Some of them. I had a message from Farah last week; she was touring the Cadian Gate with Lyra.”
“Lyra? There’s rumour going around about her. They say she…”
“Yes. It’s brave of her to admit her true feelings and come out of the closet. But I imagine a lot of people will be disappointed now.” “Well, I hope her girlfriend will be thankful for that.” A pause, and then Hannover changed the topic.
“You make a good commander Hana, everyone says that about you. You drive your men hard, but you share every danger and discomfort with them, and they all adore you, regardless of who your father is.”
His words rang true. We were proud of the Khan, we adored the daughter of the Great Khagan who we all owed our lives to, and we never wanted to let her down.
There was no reply from her, but I anticipated she would ask me about his words in the near future. Several hours passed while they talked about many topics. My attention was on the outside, I was bloodsworn, and would be ever alert in case someone less friendly tried to come calling. The hain they called ‘kommandos’ in their foul tongue often tried to infiltrate and assassinate our leaders, I don’t know how they could do so, hain had notoriously bad intelligence, but some low cunning motivated those particular ones. We had seen them very infrequently in this campaign, but that could change.
“I see you’re wearing the blade.” The Khan remarked.
“You think I wouldn’t? You and your cousins remade it for me. The broken blade, reforged.” Suddenly his tone changed. “I was supervising the deployment of the Basilisks this morning when one of the Geno Uxors came up to me. Said she’d always wanted to meet the famous Andrew Hannover, the only decent Praetor in the entire Imperium. She wasn’t the only one. All day Hetmen and Uxors came up to me, shaking my hand and saying how much they’d heard about me. All his doing.”
Another pause. There were only pauses here; I wondered what it looked like within the yurt, what his face was saying.
“This blade is not mine Hana. It never was. I am not a front line warrior; I supervise artillery and bring death from a distance, not clash hand to hand and blade to blade with the foe. He was the one who braved the storm, and he died from it.”
“If he were still alive, he would be here as well. All three of us, the Imperator warriors, fighting on one world.” When he spoke again, his voice was cracking from emotion.
“I miss him Hana. I miss those letters he sent me, the way I would tease him about the Uxors and how he would scowl whenever he mentioned them. I never got to say goodbye to him, I couldn’t get leave to return to Terra for the funeral, not that there was much point, they weren’t burying anything, there was nothing left to bury.”
I suddenly felt like I was intruding upon a private moment, but I couldn’t move. It was like my feet were rooted to the ground.
“I told myself the moment I got some leave I would head to Calth, see Oll and pay my respects to him, but I can’t do that either now. Why did he do it? Why did he destroy himself?”
The shadows on the yurt wall showed that the Khan was embracing him, holding him.
“Coming here, seeing you, having all the Geno people who knew of me, it just all burst.”
“I understand Andrew. I’m glad you came to see me, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a familiar face.”
“Thank you Hana. I’ll leave you be, I’ve got the next day's shelling to attend to, I need to get some rack time.” The yurt flap opened and Hannover emerged. As he headed towards me, I decided to say something.
“I am sorry about your friend, the one you were talking to the Khan about.” He shook his head. “He died for the Imperium, as we all die for the Imperium. Will there be an end to this?”
“The future will be otherwise,” I said. “But for now, though, for us, there is only war. We must live it and hope to survive it.” Hannover shook his head in disbelief. “I see they breed poets on Chogoris as well as warriors.” he said.
“We do not distinguish between them,” I said. “The best warriors have a poet’s soul within them.”
He did not reply, but a smile twitched on the edge of his lips.
It was the morning after next that the hain came down from the mountains, and as per the plan they smashed into the wall of Geno and Praetors, and then with a thunder of hooves we swept into them and rode them down. that pocket was wiped out, and we separated and moved on. It was only later that I learned that Hannover was the Khan’s last boyfriend, and her closest one. She had learned from me, and he was nothing like the poor soul that was Seager the Hiver. I was full of pride that moment, pride in the Khan. She learned from her mistakes.
The end came like a bolt from the blue on that world. Suddenly the last bolt-hole of the hain was uncovered, and hastily we rode to join the final push. My Khan would not have it any other way; we had to be in at the death.
By the time we reached the core we were weary, driven into fatigue by the unflagging resistance of the orks. My lamellar armour was black-brown from bloodstains, my helm scored by blade marks. Over a fifth of the Auxilia, two thousand plus warriors had died facing the hain, we had taken more casualties than we had during years of prior campaigning on other worlds. I did not regret the losses. None of us did. We always knew that the greenskins would fight hard for their final foothold, and those who had died had died like warriors, like scars, like sons of Chogoris.
The last stronghold of the hain was located between two parallel mountain ranges close to the North Pole. Almost dead centre between them was a cluster of five snow-capped volcanoes arranged in a rough circle, the legacy of a dormant hotspot in the planet’s crust. In the space between them, the hain had made their lair.
The hain had had a long time to work on their last fortress. They had looped walls between the mountains, mounted towers upon them, and twisting stairways slung between the slender turrets. These walls bristled with guns, and columns of soot-black smoke belched from behind them. Enormous machines growled away within - engines, generators, forges and more. I guessed that those things had been taken from one of their cavernous space-going hulks or one of their ships before we destroyed them in orbit.
Thousands of greenskins milled about on the wall ramparts, bellowing their challenges into the clear air. Thousands, maybe millions more sheltered further within, waiting for the attack they knew was coming.
Twenty-six brotherhoods of the White Scars Legion stood poised to deliver the death blow, along with four regiments of the Imperial Army and ourselves. We were rested and eager to deliver a final charge, to shake the earth with the thunder of our hooves. Behind us the Praetor Artillery and Hannover were preparing to blast a hole in the curtain wall to allow us to charge through the gap and into the heart of the foe. Hannover and the Khan had met again just before we had formed up, though I did not accompany her for that meeting. What passed between them is for them alone to know, though she had a rare smile on her face when I saw her ride up to join us.
“This is it.” She told me. “The final battle, the final charge.”
“Then let us make sure this is one to be remembered.” I replied.
Like the warriors of the Altak, I slashed the knife across my palm and held my hand up, open-handed, in the Chogorian way. She mirrored my action, and clasped it, allowing the blood to mingle. My hand was scarred from the many times I had done that action, while hers was as smooth as always; not even a mark to show where she had cut it so many times. A legacy of her enhanced body, a reminder that she was not human like I was.
“The Emperor be with you, Hana Khan,” I said.
“And with you, Tevguul,” she replied.
By then I could hear distance-echoed reports of gunfire from the other side of the ring. The Brotherhoods were making their assault. I knew she wanted to move, she had to be there, she had to see Him.
We unclasped our hands, and moved into position, at the head of the Kheshig Diamond.
Once again the drums began to beat and the signal flags lifted into the air. As we began to move the air was split by the shriek of artillery as the Praetors opened up, sending a torrent of shells towards the enemy bastion.
The curtain wall was rocked with explosions, wall guns blasted apart and hain flung from the battlements. We would not break into a full gallop until a hole was made big enough for us to charge through.
Rough Rider Diamonds trotted forward, interspaced with Hellhound Aravs and Tachankas between. The Rifle Cavalry held the flanks, while the Horse Artillery dashed forward, ready to add close in fire support to our charge.
The space around the enemy ring filled with the bang and crack of fire. Primitive flak-bursts studded the air, black clouds downing numbers of our supporting aircraft. Artillery was flung out at us, lobbing shells into our path and ripping up the terrain about us. The Diamonds instinctively loosened into smaller ones, the Minghans splitting into their Zuuts to avoid a single shell wiping out too many of us.
It was then that Hannover’s artillery did its job. The curtain wall shuddered and fell in a scream of tortured metal as Basilisks, Bombards and Manticores unleashed their fury upon it. Hundreds or the hain died with their wall, and as the smoke started to clear, several pathways in to the inner sanctum of the hain hold were revealed.
“For the Khagan and the Khan!”
“For the Khagan and the Khan!” We roared to the high heavens as we broke into a full charge, horns blaring once again. I felt the adrenaline fill my veins, my guan dao clutched tightly in my hands. Ten thousand hooves struck the hard earth, throwing up great clouds of dust as our ancestors did on Chogoris.
The Khan’s cheeks were flushed, her eyes roaring with fire. Her Tulwar sang in the morning air. This was it, she would fight beside the scars, and she would show what she could do, she would make her father proud.
“Onward!” she roared. “Onward!”
We passed through the broken walls in a blur, and were into the hold. It was full of machinery, the workshops where the hain made their weapons, where they were preparing for the storm now breaking upon them.
There they were, the hain horde now rushing out to meet us. A green tide lumbered right at us, stumbling over their own clawed feet just to get into blade-range. They were disorganised, ripe targets for our blades and horses hooves.
We impacted into them with force of a runaway train. Hunting Lances spit them, pistols blew them apart, horses trampled them into the rock. We drove onwards, cutting them down as more and more of us poured through. The Rife Cavalry rode rings around them, picking them off with their lasguns. The Hellhounds, Devil Dogs and Banewolves drove into the toughest pockets of resistance, and none could stand before them.
In those short moments, tearing into battle under the incandescent light of the sun, we had become the storm, like our Scar brothers were the storm. We were irresistible: too savage, too skilled, too swift.
I rarely gave my brothers orders once an engagement started: I trusted them to look after themselves, and they repaid that trust with victory. I soon lost sight of them, there was only the Khan, and she was a whirlwind of death. Her Tulwar reaped the hain; her archaeotech pistol blew them apart. She rode ever onwards, ever deeper into the horde, ever closer to the centre.
My armour clanged from repeated impacts and near misses, but I never slowed down. The blades of the enemy came at me in clumsy swipes, but I thrust them aside and slew their owners.
I heard the screams and bellows of greenskins ringing in my ears, and it only fuelled my drive to fight with the Khan and kill the foe. The stench of hain bodies and hain filth and hain blood was like a thick fog, it was all there was on the now still air. Everywhere, every stinking corner of that shoddy place rang with the clash of weaponry; every rusty facet of the hain workshops and factories was lit up with the reflected glare of gunfire.
We were not alone, I could see jetbikes spin and roar above, and hear the crash of bolters. The Scars were with us, our lords and masters, the brotherhoods of the Khagan were with us on this day of slaughter.
It was then that I noticed we were all alone, just the two of us, isolated in the midst of the horde. We had driven so far and so fast we had left the Kheshig and the Auxilia behind us.
“My Khan! We are too far from the Auxilia! We must fall back!” I yelled at her.
“No Tevguul, we must push onwards. We must reach the centre.”
“We are alone and surrounded by the hain. I will not let you kill yourself just to prove to your father that you are a mighty warrior! You have proven that time and time again, why do so now?”
Suddenly there was doubt in her eyes. She cut another of the hain in half with a sweep of her Tulwar, and then turned back to me.
“Tevguul, when has my father ever come down here to see us fight? When has he told me what a good job I’ve done? I fight hard, but he had never come down to see me, he had never told me that he’s proud of my efforts. He will see me now, he will see me fight and kill and he will be proud.
“He has a Legion to lead my Khan. He cannot be everywhere at once. I have no doubt that he has read your reports, and that he knows your courage. You have nothing to prove, my Khan. You are the Wind Rider, the Cherbi of the Kheshig, beloved by Legion and Auxilia. Cease this folly, and let us return to the Auxilia. You are not here to do a Pius; you know what happened to him.”
Before she could reply to my words, there was a crashing roar which came from the nearest workshop. We spurred our horses and moved towards it, the space suddenly bereft of the hain.
It was then that the monster emerged.
It burst out of the workshop, crashing through the flimsy wall with a simian, lurching gait and threw the remnants aside in a shower of twisted metal. A scarred head, a metal plate in the skull, massive tusks as big as my head, two yellow, watery eyes sunk deep below a low, knobbly brow glaring at us.
I had never seen one so big, never imagined that the hain could grow to such monstrous size. This had to be their leader; this had to be the warlord of the hain upon this world.
I had seen chieftains of their kind before during my many wars with the Auxilia, giant bulls that had roared their defiance to the heavens and charged into battle with reckless abandon leading their charges by example. But this one was different. It was fused with clanking technology, bolted into its armour, aping the Scars with its powered exoskeleton.
It moved faster than I could have ever imagined. The Khan’s cyber steed, which had been a gift from her father, was dead within seconds, nearly torn in two by the monster hain’s claws, each claw as long as my guan dao. She was flung from the saddle, flung into the dust.
Roaring, I leapt off my horse, swinging my guan dao, blade already crackling with energy.
The biting edge of my guan dao stabbed into the monster’s armour, but could not penetrate.
The beast swung back at me, and its gauntlet slammed heavily into my side, flinging me away like a rag doll. I landed hard, my blade still clutched in my hands. The world spun around me, and I had a brief glimpse of jetbikes roaring overhead. Had they seen us, could they see the monster trying to kill us?
I struggled to my feet and raised my guan dao again, but the monster charged me, its claws snapping. Once again I was flung aside, and I felt it was toying with us, using us as sport. By now the Khan was on her feet, and seeing me smashed aside with not a though, she gave a wordless cry and charged the great beast.
She was a peerless fighter, but even she could not hope to stand against such a monster. She hacked and slashed, dodging its massive claws, but once a hit finally connected she was flung aside, and this time I heard the snap of breaking bones. Now it was my turn to give a wordless cry and run towards her. She was alive, but I could see a number of her ribs were broken, and one of her lungs popped. She could not fight anymore. I stood over her, guan dao in hand, ready to face my end. I swore to die for the Khan, and I was ready to do so. The Hain monster glared at me, gave a thunderous bellow and charged. I stood ready to die.
Suddenly between us the air shrieked. A knot of coruscating blue-white energy emerged and grew in an instant to a glowing sphere of lightning. Tortured air molecules screamed as the laws of physics were twisted to breaking point; in the next second, the blaze of light and noise evaporated and in its place someone stood.
The Khagan, the Great Khan, the perfect warrior, the primarch of the V Legion, had unveiled himself at last. Here was the centre, and here he would fight.
He had come with the Kheshig of the scars, a phalanx of giants in bone-white Terminator plate, and even they did not come between the Khan and his foe. They hung back around the fight silent and massive; ensuring that nothing - greenskin or White Scar – intervened, gunning down any of the hain that dared to break through.
The Khagan was tall, lean even in his ivory coloured armour. A heavy crimson cloak hung from his shoulders, lined with mottled irmyet fur and covering the curves of the armoured plates beneath. His dao sabre with its glass-polished blade flashed in the sun as he drew it. His shoulder guards were gold, engraved with flowing Khorchin characters and the lightning-strike sigil we all bore, the sigil of our Legion. A pair of Chogorian flintlocks, archaic weapons of the old times were thrust into his belt.
I do not remember much of that fight, I myself was injured and focused only on guarding the Khan, but his fighting filled me with awe. Like his Daughter He handled his blade as though it were a living thing, a spirit he had tamed and now forced to dance for him, and piece by piece he took apart the hain monster, killing it with a thousand cuts.
When the end came, it was quick. The beast was bleeding all over, it’s hide no longer green, but red from its own blood.
The Khan raised the dao high, holding it in both hands, his feet planted firmly. The sword whistled down, trailing lines of gore as it plunged. The beast's head fell to the platform with a dull, booming thud.
The Khan withdrew his blade with a cold flourish. He stooped to retrieve the beast's head. He swivelled smoothly, holding the agonised skull high above him in one hand.
“For the Emperor!” roared the Khan, and his voice rang out across the five mountains and high into the sky.
Across the space between the mountains, a massed shout of acclimation rose up from the Scars and the Auxilia, who all had heard the words and knew what had just happened.
I heard them answer him, hurling the same word up into the air, over and over.
Khagan! Khagan! Khagan!
That was the moment when I knew we had won. Months of ceaseless campaigning had finally come to an end. The war had ended in the only way it could have ended: with our primarch holding the head of the defeated enemy in his fist, and with the voices of his Legion and their auxiliaries, the combined ordu of Chogoris, rising in savage joy toward the vaults of heaven. I could not join them, and suddenly the Khan turned and looked at me, at us, and his savage features softened.
I did not say a word, I could not. I just stood aside as the Khagan approached the Khan. She was awake now, but in deep pain. Though her physiology was better than a normal human, it was not at Astartes levels, and she was pulsing with agony with blood trickling from her lips from her burst lung. She would not die from those wounds; there were plenty of emchis or Apothecaries in the Gothic tongue around who could help her. I wanted to help her right then, a shot of Morphine to hold the pain away, but I would not get between the Khagan and his Daughter.
The Khan looked up into the face of her father, and her eyes widened.
“Father.” She coughed, her words sticky with blood. “The steed you gave me. It’s…” He held up his hand, still red from hain blood.
“It doesn’t matter. What matters is getting you fixed up. Emchi!” He bellowed.
One of the emchis of the Legion raced up to him, the caduceus prominently emblazoned on his pauldron.
“The Khan needs medical aide. Have her shipped to a forward hospital immediately.”
It was only a minute or two later when a white Storm Eagle screamed from the heavens and landed beside us. The emchi helped me carry the Khan back into the transport, and with a roar of engines it flew away. The last thing I saw before the front ramp closed was the Khagan. He was looking at me, and there was sorrow in his eyes. He knew my oath, I was bloodsworn, and her pain now would be my pain tomorrow, however long away tomorrow was.
With the war over, the Armies of the Imperium began to pack up, ready to move on to the next fight, the next war. We would leave this planet behind, maybe it would be colonised by the Imperium, or maybe not, but either way it was no longer any concern of ours. With the Khan still recovering from her wounds, I oversaw the Auxilia’s withdrawal; the horses, troops, guns and tanks packed up and sent skywards to our troopship, the Karakorum waiting in orbit. I could not share in her pain, not while the Auxilia needed me. I stayed with the Khan as often as I could, and I wasn’t alone. Hannover was at her bedside as often as he could, in between supervising the pack-up of his own Praetor Artillery. I got to know him over those long days, and I found much I liked about that young soldier, and I still do. There are very few I could ever see with the Khan, and he is one of them.
We were both there that day, the last day on that world. Hannover sat at her bedside, while I stood vigil, guan dao at my side. She had the ward entirely to herself; all the others had been lifted up to the medical frigate in orbit. She would be taken up to the ward on board the Karakorum for the last days of recuperation, though her injuries were extensive, the apothecaries had patched her lung and restored her broken ribs. She would not be down for very long. That comforted me in more ways than one; when my turn came I hoped they would be as effective on me. I knew my time to share her pain would come soon, my turn to cough blood and be wracked with agony. I was Bloodsworn, and that was my eternal destiny, to share her pain as punishment for failing to protect her.
A great shadow appeared at the door, and I took a step forwards, guan dao in hand. But when the door slid open and a flash of light flooded the room, the feel of enormous energy, enormous power burning away, thundering within its bonds like the caged heart of a reactor, I knew who it was and I sank into a bow.
The Khagan, Jaghatai Khan strode into the room like an apex-feline predator. His face was the same leather-brown as the Khans, a lean face, noble, proud and fiercely intelligent. His scalp was bald save for a long top-knot of ink-black hair bound with rings of gold. An aquiline nose ran down a wind-toughened, moustached face. His eyes were sunk deep under bony brows, and they glittered like pearls set in bronze.
“Leave us Andrew.” The Khagan commanded in his cultured, patrician drawl. Hannover bade the Khan farewell, and as he left the Khagan whispered something to him, though I did not catch it. The three of us were alone in that empty ward, the Khagan standing before his daughter, and I still bowing before him.
“Rise, Tevguul the ever-faithful. You have no need to bow before me.” He said in Khorchin, and I rose to my feet.
“Father.” The Khan said, sitting up in her bed. Upon looking at both of them, you could not deny her parentage; she had her father’s dark hair and leather-brown skin. She gazed up apprehensively at her liege lord, for the Khan of the Auxilia still answers to the Khagan, lord of all the Legion.
“My Daughter, it grieves me to see you so, worse that you did this to yourself.”
“You left your troops, you left the Auxilia behind and drove alone into the middle of the hain seeking glory you did not need, and by your actions you were nearly killed by the Warlord of the hain, someone none save I could ever have hoped to take on.” I knew what he was here for; he was here to kick some sense into her, to show her the error of her ways. She had done what she did to win her father’s favour, and here he was dressing her down.
“You could have died, and how would I have been then? I thought you were better than this Hana, you know better than to do a Pius. Hell, even Pius himself told you that when you joined up. I thought that after all this time you would have learned more.” His deep-set eyes held her as he spoke. His voice was never raised. Though he was angry with his daughter; he spoke calmly, like an austere parent patiently explaining a simple matter to a child, which in effect was what he was doing, explaining to his child why he was disappointed in her.
“You are not the only one to suffer for your actions, Tevguul here is bloodsworn to you, and you know what that means.” He did not have to speak further; she knew that sooner or later I would inflict upon myself what had happened to her, willingly sharing in her pain. The Khan hates that, dislikes that I do this, but I am sworn with bonds thicker than any iron, and I would die a million deaths rather than go back on my oath.
Her eyes betrayed the great hurt coursing through her, one more deep and damaging then the physical wounds she had suffered, that I would suffer in turn.
“My daughter, I was never more proud of you then when I heard that you alone amongst your cousins wished to join the fight, to serve the Imperium, and what’s more you wished to lead the Ordu of the Auxilia, the human sons of Chogoris. You rose to the challenge, you learned, and became a commander respected, loved and obeyed by your men. Tevguul has always kept me informed, and he paints a glowing picture of your command.”
The Khan’s voice was broken as she whispered to her father. “Have I failed you then Father? Have I failed the Legion?”
He shook his head. “No, you have never failed me, and you never will. What you have done is fail yourself. But you will overcome it, as you always do. That is another thing I am proud of; you learn and grow from your mistakes. I will not punish you, for you punish yourself enough, and you will regret this more than anything I can do soon enough.” He was talking of me when he said that, and she knew it. I wondered if that was part of the reason I was Bloodsworn to her, to act as a reminder of the price of failure. I did not know the Khagan’s motives, but if I was the agent of the Khan’s improvement, then I was proud to do so.
“No father could be more proud of their daughter than I have been for you. You do not need to prove yourself to me; you did that a long time ago.” He stopped, turning his head to face the sky. I imagined he was receiving a transmission from orbit. “Now, I must return to the Swordstorm. The Legion is nearly embarked, and they are finishing of dismantling the temporary structures on this world. Once you are gone, this one will be taken up too. We will move to the next war, and we shall ride again. I shall see you in orbit, my daughter.”
He turned and left, and once he was gone the Khan let out a tortured breath. The Khan’s anger, while not a volcanic as that of Russ or Angron, is nevertheless just as potent. There was silence for a long time, until the Khan spoke up. “Have I failed you, Tevguul?”
I had never seen her this vulnerable in a long time, and my heart ached. I searched for the right words, the words that would show her how I felt. “You could never fail me my Khan. I remember when you first came to us, a young woman bold as brass. So much about us was strange and alien to you, for you did not know the ways of Chogoris. But I remember your words. 'You are right that I do not understand you,' you said to me. 'I barely know anything about you. But I can learn.' And you did learn, and you have learned, and you will learn. A day will come when I can teach you no more; you will have no further need of me.”
“I will always have need of you Tevguul, my warrior poet. You are my conscience, my strong right arm. I could not imagine leading the auxilia without you.”
“I am not a Scar Brother, my Khan. I am flesh and blood, and all flesh and blood fails in the end. I will not be here forever, but I hope that when I am gone you will hold my example in your heart. But I also hope that you will remain as you are, brave, sometimes reckless and disorganised.” I smiled at her. “And I think that you should laugh when you are killing.”
That war was done, and like the berkut, the hunting eagle, we moved on to the next hunt. I never saw Hannover again, and I hope he’s doing well out there in the darkness, his artillery winning the Emperor’s Wars. There were other fights, of course, but that is another story, not this one. I am proud of the Khan, proud that she chose to stand with us, proud that I am Bloodsworn to her.
Child of Fang
Freija Ogunsdottar grumbled as she was shaken awake. She had gone to sleep late after a few extra hours reading several tattered old manuals on flight training. If she was going to join the Sky Riders, she had to ace the test. If she would ever get that far.
She opened her eyes to see the silhouette of her father leaning over her, lit by a lone white beeswax candle set high into the rock walls of her bedchamber.
“What is it?” she mumbled, shrugging off his rough hands.
“Get up.” he said, turning from her and looking for more light.
Freija pushed herself up from the tangled furs of her bunk. Her sand-blonde hair fell in unruly clumps around her face. The tiny chamber was ice cold, but she was used to that. Everything on Fenris was ice cold.
“What’s going on?”
Ogun managed to find the light switch and turn it on. The light revealed his blunt, honest face, and the worry lines etched around his eyes looked deeper than ever.
“There’s been a change of plan,” the old warrior said, running a tired hand over his short beard. “Tra, Fyf and For-twa have been called off-world. We’re back on duty.”
“Skítja,” Freija swore, rubbing her eyes and trying to banish the heavy weight of sleep. “Again? We only just got off duty last week.”
“It is not our place to question it. Just get into uniform.”
Freija looked at her father with concern. Ogun was a rivenmaster, the equivalent of a Colonel in the Imperial Army. He commanded a full Riven or battalion of the Aettguard, the human defenders of the Aett and warriors of the Rout. He took his duties seriously, and wore himself down to the bone every day for the Rout. Even though none of the Rout ever seemed to care about the sacrifices he made, that they all made for their Transhuman masters. As if they ever did.
Freija shook her head to dispel the sleep which still had its claws within her as she pulled her tunic over her head and tried to pull the worst of the tangles from her hair. She had been glad to get off rotation. Weeks of being driven into punishing defensive exercises by the Sky Warriors, of being ordered around by whooping Blood Claws who’d forgotten what it was like to have a mortal body and mortal weaknesses, and who did not care about what they put their mortal charges through. They seemed to despise the weakness they saw in the Aettguard, and punished it wherever they could.
“Great,” she said coldly. “Bloody great.”
“Freija, my daughter,” said Morek. He came up to her and put his hands firmly on her shoulders. “You do not know what an honour it is to serve the Sky Warriors, the Rout. We do a service none of them could do. Even if they do not acknowledge it, be proud of your place, be proud that you are able to serve and see something beyond the mountains and seas of Fenrys.”
She shook her head as she began to strap on her body armour. His words were honest, but disguised the truth. The Sky Warriors barely knew mortals such as he and she existed, even though without the loyal service of the Aettguard they’d be unable to keep even half of the Fang’s huge maze of chambers in operation. They did not care that their entire existence in the Aett depended on the mortals they overlooked, and no-one would care if she died in their service.
“All they care about is that I can fight, with axe and skjoldtar. And that I can do.” She said as she slotted her axe into a loop on her belt.
“You show your feelings too much,” he complained.
“If they wanted meek, shrinking servants, they’ve got the wrong bloody planet. Fekke, I’m a daughter of Fenrys and my blood runs hot. Even if it is only mortal blood.”
Her father shook his head, but couldn’t hide a small smile. “Aye, you’re a daughter of Fenrys all right,” he said, and his brown eyes shone. “You make me proud, Freija. And sick with fear, fear that you will go too far.” He turned to go. “You’ve been assigned to the Valgard. They need people to help assist the armoury staff in preparing the remaining Thunderhawks and Stormbirds for deployment. I imagine you’ll be keeping an eye open, I know you have desires in that direction.” He gestured at the discarded manuals, before leaving. Ever since she was young she had wanted to fly, though that dream was still just that, a dream. Maybe someday, she would be selected to join the Sky Riders and fly for the Legion. But that day was not today. Today she had a job to do.
Freija silently fumed as she tramped down the many hundreds of levels from the Valgard at the summit of the Fang to the lower reaches of the Hould, where she was to recruit another squad of Kaerls to help them with the preparations. She had ridden on more than a dozen clattering turbo-elevators, tramped down several long spiral staircases hewn from the stone and marched across countless rough-cut chambers glowing with the embers of old fires and glowglobes. The strap of her skjoldtar cut into her shoulder, and despite her years of exercise and training she was panting, her uniform soaked with sweat.
As she strode down yet another corridor, she saw a figure ahead heading in the opposite direction, as the figure got closer, Freija saw who, or rather what it was. A Blood Claw, loping down the corridor in the manner of the Sky Warriors. Trouble.
She quickly stood aside, trying to put as much space between her and the Sky Warrior as possible. But the Claw seemed to deliberately make it so she was always in the way.
The Claw bulled past her, knocking her out of the way. She fell to the ground hard, and grunted as she felt the pain. There would be plenty of bruises from that.
She scrambled to her feet to see the Claw continue down the corridor as before, as if he hadn’t knocked her flat.
Her temper grabbed hold of her and the flare of rebellion burned in her breast.
“Damn you!” she yelled after the Blood Claw. “Show. Some. Bloody. Respect!” The Rout never respected their human servants. They only knew no fear because it had been bred out of them, yet they quickly seemed to learn to despise mortal emotion, the very core of the humanity they were charged with protecting even if they weren’t human any more.
If the Claw heard her, he gave no sign as he disappeared from view. Silently she stood there fuming, wondering if a skjoldtar bullet would knock some sense into his thick head. At the same time she knew she had crossed the line. If the Claw mentioned her words to one of his superiors, she would be dragged forth for discipline, or worse.
“Is everything alright?” A voice came up from behind her. Female, another Kaerl or maybe a Legion Serf. It was the wrong time to talk with Freija Ogunsdottar. She would give this bloody serf a piece of her mind.
“What the bloody hel do you…” her angry words failed as she saw who was standing behind her.
She was right; the figure was female, but no Kaerl or Serf. She was taller than the stocky Freija, with a thick mane of red hair. And her eyes were not the circles of amber pinned with black that most sons and daughters of Fenris had, but rather an exotic shade of green. Freija knew those eyes, just as she knew who was standing before her.
“My Lady,” she whispered, sinking to her knees. If she could have, she would have wanted the earth to open up and swallow her at that moment.
“Rise, huskaerl.” Said the Russdottar, child of the Vlka. Shakily, Freija rose to her feet. Her bad mood was gone in an instant, replaced by embarrassment that she had spoken in such a tone to the second most important person in the Aett. Whatever the Blood Claw might have said was nothing now next to this.
“What is your name Huskaerl?”
“Freija, my Lady. Freija Ogunsdottar, huskaerl of onn Riven.”
Russdottar smiled at Freija. “We share the same name, you and I, though you pronounce it in the fashion of the Ice people.”
“I believe I was named after you, My Lady. My Mother came from the ice, and passed on its crude ways to me.”
As she spoke, Freija recalled her mother’s face. Heavy-set like hers, blonde hair in messy curls like her own, a tight mouth that rarely smiled, features made harsh by unremitting labour and hardship. But the eyes, the dark, sparkling eyes – they had exposed the bright intellect within, the questioning, rebellious soul that had never quite been ground down. Even at the end, when the punishing demands of the Sky Warriors had exacerbated the illness that would kill her; those eyes had remained alive and inquiring. All those things she had inherited from her mother.
The memory of her mother, and how the Sky Warriors had all but worked her to death sent another scowl over Freija’s face. Something Russdottar noticed.
“I heard what you yelled after that Claw. Is there a problem?”
Freija knew what her father would say, and for his sake she would hold her tongue. “No my Lady. It is nothing. I obey the Wyrd, as we all do.”
“The Wyrd.” Russdottar mused. “It often seems the Wyrd is used as an excuse when one does not want to have to face the truth.” Freija felt pinned by those green eyes, locked in their gaze the same way an Elk was frozen by the gaze of a Thunderwolf. “Huskaerl Freya, forget the Wyrd. Tell me why you feel so strongly about the Sky Warriors. I won’t let you go until you do so.”
Caught in her gaze, Freija did not know what to say. She could get into far worse trouble if she told her the truth, even if she was the Child of the Aett. But something stirred within her, and she began strongly. “My Lady, the Sky Warriors have never been good to us, the mortals of the Aett. We are the ones who maintain this mighty fortress, who fight alongside the Rout where the army fears to tread. And yet the Sky Warriors treat us with contempt, they look down on us and our human weaknesses…”
For several minutes and despite the strangeness of the circumstances, Freija spilled her guts to Russdottar about the way the Sky Warriors treated them. The many instances of accidental injury, the harsh way they were pushed when training alongside the Claws, the contempt they were held in by their masters and overlords. She even showed Russdottar the scar on her side from where an over-exuberant Blood Claw had knocked her into a wall during a training session.
When she was done, Russdottar could not entirely disguise the shock in her face at what she had heard.
“They are my Pack. I never knew...”
“You may be pack to them, but to them we are nothing. To them, we are human and stink of weakness. They are arrogant, My Lady, arrogance bred of forgetting what it means to be human.”
She checked her chronometer and was shocked that nearly half an hour had passed. “Skítja,” Freija swore. “My Lady, I must be off. I have been delayed, and my Kaerls will be wondering where I am and where the help is.”
“Of course. But please, don’t call me my lady. We share a name, let us use it. Thank you Freija Ogunsdottar, for being honest with me. You have given me a lot to think about.”
“My pleasure La…Freija.” It felt strange, calling Russdottar by her true name, the name they shared. That feeling persisted long after she had reached the Hould, recruited the back-up Kaerls and led them up to the Valgard. Her room felt if anything colder than usual that night.
As the days passed, Freija had begun to hope that her encounter with Russdottar had gone unnoticed, and had concentrated on her huskaerl duties single-mindedly. There had been plenty enough of those, including rigorous weapons drills with her squad, many of whom weren’t nearly at the standard she wanted them to be. By night she continued to study her manuals, hoping that one day she would get the chance to join the ranks of the Sky Riders.
But one morning as she was struggling into her uniform for another day’s duty, a knock came at the door.
“Fekke, I’m coming dammit! Give me a moment!” It was probably her father, come to share some wisdom with her again. Or maybe, she thought as a chill ran down her neck, this would be about that day, when she had lost her temper and then confided in the most unlikely person.
She opened the door to find herself staring at a young man, maybe a year or two younger then herself waiting outside. His hair was sandy blonde similar to her own, but his eyes were a clear blue, like a cold morning’s sky.
“Freya Ogunsdottar?” He asked. His voice had a hint of Gothic to it, though his accent was that of the Tribes of the Great Sea.
“Aye. What do you want?”
“I have been sent to fetch you. You have been summoned.”
“Summoned by whom?” She demanded.
“The Sky Warriors. You are to come with me to the Jarlheim.” With that, he turned and began to walk away, Freija pulling on her boots as she tried to catch up to him. Her heart pounded at his words. She had been summoned to the Jarlheim? Was this what her father had feared? Were they going to carve the Blood Eagle into her chest for daring to speak up?
Much of the walk was taken in silence, but as they rode up a cargo elevator, the stranger suddenly spoke up.
“Forgive me, but I have not been down here very often. Are there many women in the Aett?”
She blinked with surprise. “Whole generations have born and died within the Aett. Surely as one of us, you should know that?”
“I don’t usually come down here. I live further up, in the Valgard.”
Freija peered at him quizzically. “So you’re from the fleet, is that right?”
“Something like that.” He muttered.
That broke the dam, and soon the two were conversing freely. He asked her a multitude of questions about her life in the Hould and her service in the Aettguard. He seemed genuinely fascinated by the lives of those in the Hould, and a few times Freija caught him gazing at her.
He evaded most of her questions in return, though he had flown in a Starship before, which excited her. Unlike her father, who had often made war alongside the Sky Warriors far from Fenris, she had never left the Aett. She threw a barrage of questions at him, about what it was like to sail between the stars, and travel through the warp.
Before she knew it, they were in the Jarlheim and standing before a great wooden door marked with leaping wolves.
“Follow me.” He said as he opened the door and strode within as if he owned the place.
Heart pounding, she followed him. The hall was small but high vaulted, the walls carved with great stone columns. At the end was a fireplace, a fire burning within. On either side of the fire was a pair of heavy chairs.
“Take a seat. You will be attended to shortly.” The young man said as he turned to go. His abrupt departure left her suspicious.
“What the hel is going on?” Freija demanded. “Why am I being left here?”
“You will find out in time. For now, I must leave you. I will return shortly.” Before she could say another word, the young man turned and left.
Freija felt her dark mood returning. She had a strong suspicion she was to be disciplined and censured for her earlier words. Maybe even have the blood eagle carved into her chest. If that was to be her fate, she would meet it like a true daughter of Fenris, with fire in her blood.
The massive stone chair dwarfed her; she suspected it had been made for the imposing bulk of the Sky Warriors. She poked the fire with a heavy poker lying on the hearth and warmed her hands in its soft glow, waiting for whatever end would come to her. For several minutes the soft crack and pop of the fire set her mind at ease. It reminded her of her days as a young girl, sitting in her father’s lap listening to his stories by the light of a hearthfire.
The first she knew was when the fire flickered as if a cold wind had entered the chamber. She turned, but the door was still closed. But now the skin on the back of her neck prickled, and she had the instinctual feeling she was no longer alone in here.
She reached for her skjoldtar, and flicked the safety off. If she was damned already, this would make no difference and she would not go down without a fight. No wolf would.
She then heard something. A deep rumbling sound, like the seismic rumble of an erupting volcano or approaching earthquake. Whatever it was, she did not like it.
“Show yourself!” she yelled, skjoldtar held at the ready.
A dark shadow fell across her, one far too big to be a normal person, or even a Sky Warrior. She turned, weapon raised to see what was casting it.
“Put down your skjoldtar,” the shadow figure said. “You have no need for it here.”
The distinctive wet leopard-growl of the Sky Warriors haunted every syllable of his words. But he was no Sky Warrior. No. Every physical dimension exceeded that of a Sky Warrior.
There was only one being on Fenris like this, only one it could be. Freija threw herself flat, stunned almost senseless by the shock.
“Wolf King.” She barely forced out.
“Yes. Get up off your knees, foolish girl. Let me see your face.” He answered, gently taking her by the shoulder and lifting her to her feet, letting her see him close up.
His face was shaved clean, and his skin was white like marble, though there were light freckles on it. The Wolf King’s hair was long. Thick plaits of it hung down across his chest plate, weighted at the tips by polished stones. The rest of it was lacquered into a spiked mane. To her, his hair looked like bright blond hair stained in blood.
“W…w…what do you want of me, Wolf King?” she stuttered, wishing her voice didn’t sound so pathetic and paper-thin as she tried to find the right words to say to him.
“What do I want?” he rumbled. “Well, for a start I want you to take a seat. You’ll fall over if you don’t. Meeting us, the children of the Allfather is always a shock to mere mortals. I remember when Hawser first met me; poor bastard nearly had a heart attack.”
Gratefully she took a seat, no longer trusting her legs to keep her upright.
“Now, Freya Ogunsdottar, Huskaerl of Onn Riven and daughter of the Aett, tell me what you told my daughter, about how the Sky Warriors treat you mortals.”
Freija did not want to get into any more trouble. She was in enough as it was. “Wolf King, it is not my place to upset the Wyrd. What is, is. Some of us may feel angry at our treatment, but we are of the Wyrd and the Wyrd determines our place.”
“The Wyrd.” The Wolf King growled. “Stop using the Wyrd as an excuse. We all abide by it, but we also change and alter it by our actions. The Wyrd shifts like a river, its flow altered by a single stone. You are that stone, Freya Ogunsdottar. Now tell me what I want to know.”
And so, for the second time Freija told someone about her private grievances against the uncaring masters of the Aett. But this time she was telling it to the king of all Fenris, the master of the Aett, her overlord. She barely knew how she was able to continue, with his overpowering presence nearly crushing her, turning her words into feeble squeaks.
Finally she finished and bowed her head. If he judged her insolent, then her punishment would be absolute. She had thought herself brave, but in the presence of the Wolf King, that courage was for naught.
“I see now that I have been remiss in my dealings with the mortals of the Aett. I have let their contribution be forgotten and my warriors walk over them, forgetting that they were once the same. I recognise my failing and will be sure to correct it.”
Of all the reactions she had been expecting, this was the most unlikely one. “But you’re the Wolf King! You never fail!” Freija blurted out.
“Dear child, none are immune to failure. Not me, nor my brothers, nor even my father. It’s how we deal with failure that is the mark of a true man. Or woman.” The Wolf King smiled as the door opened behind them. “And speaking of women, Daughter, have you brought the refreshments?”
“I have never been a maid father, in either sense of the term.” The voice was instantly familiar, and Freija turned to see Russdottar, the other Freija walking down the hall towards them.
“Two Freyas, both children of Fenris, both so similar and yet utterly different.” The Wolf King remarked as she joined them. “Huskaerl Freya has told me many things, things which I was ignorant about before. And though I cannot change the attitudes of my warriors, I can remind them of the debt we owe to the Aettguard for keeping our home active, and standing beside us in battle.”
“Make sure you do father,” Russdottar replied.
A thought entered Freija’s head, and before she could contain it the words slipped out. “Why do you care?”
Both the Wolf King and Russdottar turned to her. Inwardly she quailed, but she had said the words, and she finished them.
“Why do you care what happens to us? We are the least of your servants. We are replaceable unlike the Sky Warriors, and you have always treated us as such.” Every word she said gave her courage, and the hurt she had long nursed, that she had never spoken of finally came out.
“My mother died in your service, in the service of the Sky Warriors. She was sick, but she continued to serve until her body failed her. You worked her to death. My father works himself to the bone, and then beyond that to the marrow every day because he feels honoured to serve you. You’ll kill him as well, the same way you killed her. And I’m not the only one. Why should you start caring now, when you haven’t before?”
The Wolf King and Russdottar looked at each other, and the Wolf King said in a low rumble, “Because we should have been caring from the very start. Because we forgot that in the Imperium of a million worlds, there is one world whose children we should care about above all. Our own. I made a mistake, but I recognize my failing and will be sure to correct it.
Freija recognised the old saying of the VI Legion. “There’s a first time for everything, Wolf King.” She said. “And there only needs to be a first time before we correct our failings.”
“Exactly,” he grunted. He rose to his feet. “I must go. Amlodhi Skarssen Skarssensson, Jarl of Fyf wants to see me before he leaves. Huskaerl, Daughter.” With that he rose to his feet and stalked off, moving almost impossibly silently for his massive bulk.
“He truly is a force of nature.” Russdottar remarked once he had left. Freija slowly nodded.
“So what becomes of me now? Freija asked.
“You return to the Hould and your duties. Though you won’t be staying there for long.”
“What? Why?” Freija demanded.
Russdottar smiled. “I heard that you have aspirations to become a Sky Rider, one of our pilots.”
Freija slowly nodded. It was a private aspiration and she felt uncomfortable having Russdottar speak of it so openly.
“Well I’ve pulled a few strings, and you’ll be getting your summons to join the trainees for the Sky Riders. You’ll have to leave the Hould and move to the Valgard though.”
It took a few seconds for her words, or rather their meaning to sink in. Her long held desire to become a Sky Rider was being offered up to her in front of her eyes.
Freija’s brow furrowed as she mused over this. On the one hand she had the chance now to become a Sky Rider, a pilot, to fly the Thunderbolts and Lightnings in support of the Legion. But on the other she would be leaving her father and all she knew behind. Could she do that?
Russdottar seemed to read her thoughts. “I’ve spoken with your father, and he understands your desire. I’m sure he’ll speak with you on it himself, but he will survive without you, and Father plans to have him reassigned to a less strenuous posting as chief of Logistics for the Aettguard. As the XIII has taught us though Martial Valour wins battles, Logistics wins wars.”
Freija did not know what to say, so she silently stared into the fire. She should be thankful that her father would no longer be killing himself for the Legion, but it felt more like a hollow apology for what had gone before.
“We can’t change the past.” Russdottar suddenly added. “And I can well imagine what you must be feeling, that this is poor compensation for what you have lost. This is not compensation, for nothing can compensate you for what you have lost.” There was sadness in her forest-shaded eyes. “I understand what it’s like to lose those you love. I lost my great mother many years ago, to sickness. I’ll outlive my mother, all my mortal friends, and Fekke knows how many more in the years to come.”
Freija didn’t know what to say. It felt like she was hearing something she shouldn’t, intruding on Russdottar’s private thoughts. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, but Russdottar did not seem to notice.
“I’ve been living here for many years now. I have very few mortal friends anymore, there’s no-one here who doesn’t see me as their liege lady, no-one who will speak to me as an equal, not a servant. No-one that is, until I bumped into you.” She cocked her head slightly. “You have fire in your blood, just as I do. When you move up into the Valgard, I hope I’ll see more of you. I have plenty of family here in the Aett, but few friends. I hope I can count you as one of them.”
This time, Freija had words, even if they felt clunky. “Of course M’lady.”
“Please, my name is Freya. That’s your name and mine, and I’d rather we used it.”
“Forgive me…Freija,” the name was almost alien on her tongue, “but it will take some time to get used to it. One name, two very different people.”
“Aye, but we are both daughters of Fenris and children of the Aett. Our blood runs hot.”
At that moment the doors opened again, and the youth with the blonde hair was standing in the doorway. Russdottar said something to the boy in High Gothic, which Freija couldn’t understand. They went back and forth for a few minutes, before He returned to Juvjuk.
“Freya Ogunsdottar, I’m to return you to the Hould.”
Freija nodded, rose from the chair and turned to go, but a hand stopped her. She turned to see Russdottar standing beside her.
“You were brave, telling the Wolf King all that goes on below. You reminded us that if we can’t defend our own people, how can we ever defend the Imperium?”
“I did not set out to do this Freija.” There was more confidence in her words now. “I only did this because you made me, because you forced me to tell you.”
“I could sense that you were troubled, and I needed to find out why. I’m glad I did. I’m glad you spoke up.” Suddenly Russdottar grabbed Freija in a bear-hug. Freija squirmed in surprise, but took it as it was meant, and a warm feeling filled her.
“Thank you Freya, daughter of Ogun.” She said as they parted company.
“Thank you Freija, daughter of Russ.” Freija replied as the doors closed behind her.
The journey back was as silent as the journey there, but the warm feeling lingered within Freija. Russdottar was not some icy queen from beyond the stars, but someone who despite her heritage seemed more human than anyone could have guessed. Her companion had a small smile at seeing Freija that way.
“I’ll take it Russdottar left a good impression upon you?” he said near the end of their journey. She nodded.
“She can do that.” His eyes flickered to the floor level, before he said, “She has been rather lonely of late. There are very few humans she interacts with outside her family, and none are true friends.”
“How do you know that?” Freija asked. “Are you one of her personal servants or something?”
“Or something.” He repeated, before changing the subject.
“You know, I myself am a fully qualified flight instructor. When you come up for flight training, I’ll be the one to teach you.”
“Really?” She said. “You look awfully young to be a flight instructor.”
“Don’t judge a book by its cover Freya. I’m one of the best.”
“Well, I’ll be the judge of that.” She remarked, bringing him to smile once again.
Finally the elevator ground to a halt, and Freija knew this was her level, this was where they would part company.
“I hope I’ll see more of you, Freija.” There was something almost shy in his words.
“I hope I’ll see more of you…” her words faltered. “You never did tell me your name. What is it?”
“Well then, I hope I’ll see more of you too, Olev.” She smiled at him, and a faint flush of red crept into his cheeks as the elevator doors closed. Freija shifted her skjoldtar to her other shoulder and set off for home. She could almost feel her Wyrd changing around her, her fate setting off for paths and futures unknown, and for once she welcomed the change, the choices opening up and the chances she would take. She was a Child of the Aett, and she would meet her fate as a true daughter of Russ, like her namesake would.