The progress lost Gaunt eighteen more men, one scout Salamander and a Chimera. But now, at dawn on the sixth day out from the Doctrinopolis, the honour guard began the laborious climb out of the rainwoods humid mist and into the feet of the Sacred Hills. Above and around them, the mountain range rose up like silent monsters.
They were already passing three thousand metres above sea-level. Some of the surrounding mountains topped out at over ten thousand meues. The air was cool and dry, and the highland path ran through flat raised valleys where the soil was desiccated and golden. Few plants grew, except a wind-twitching gorse, rock-crusting lichens and a ribbony kelp-like weed. It was temperate, cool and clear. Visibility was up to fifty kilometres. The sky was blue, and the ridges of mountains stood clear of the lower rainwood fogs like jagged white teeth.
Six thousand years before, a child called Sabbat, daughter of a high pasture herdsman, had lived up in these inhospitable and awesomely beautiful highlands. The spirit of the Emperor had filled her, and caused her to abandon her herds and track her way down through the filthy swamps of the rainwoods on the start of a course that would lead her, in fire and steel and ceramite, to distant stars and fabulous victories. One hundred and five years later, she had made the return journey, borne on a palanquin by eight Space Marines of the Adeptus Astartes White Scars chapter. A saint, even from the moment of her martyrdom. An Imperial saint carried in full honour to her birthplace by the Emperors finest warriors. The local star group that now twinkled above her mountains in early evening was named after her. The planet was made sacred in her memory.
The shepherd girl who came down from the mountains of Hagia to shepherd the Imperium into one of its most punishing and fast-moving crusades. One hundred inhabited systems along the edge of the Segmentum Pacificus. Gaunt stood up in the crewbay of his lurching Salamander, gazing at the wide, high, dear scenery, the refreshing wind in his face. The sweat of two days in the rainwoods needed blowing away. Gaunt remembered Slaydo reciting her history to him, back in the early days, as their crusade was being formed. It was shortly after Khulen. Everyone was talking exdtedly about the new crusade.
The High Lords of Terra were going to select Slaydo as Warmaster because of Khulen. The great honour would fall to him. Gaunt remembered being called to the study office of the great lord militant commander. He had been just a commissar back then. The study office, aboard the Citadel ship Borealis, was a dr-cular wooden library of nine levels, lined with fifty-two million catalogued works.
Gaunt was one of two thousand and forty officers attending the initial meeting. Slaydo, a hunched but powerful man in his late one-forties, limped up to the lectern at the heart of the study office in his flame yellow plate armour. Slaydo waited for it to die down. No sound hed ever experienced since, not the massed forces of Chaos, not the thunder of titans, matched the power of that cheer, My sons, my sons. And first, let me tell you about the saint herself…