“And so Dread Emperor Heinous thus addressed his court: ‘Are we not rulers of devils and dead, princes among usurpers? Why then should we suffer another to call himself king of our demesne?’ All agreed in this, and so war was declared upon Keter.”
– Extract from the Scroll of Vainglory, thirty-ninth of the Secret Histories of Praes (destroyed by order of Dread Empress Maleficent II, only partial texts remain)
They’d had three months of reprieve, to the day.
Prince Otto Reitzenberg, who his people yet called Redcrown, had prepared for the hour the truce would end without pause or rest. He’d slept as little as he could, and when he did he’d found himself plagued by nightmares. Unable to meet the solemn and silent faces of his sisters, of his father, of the all the Reitzenbergs that’d died keeping dawn from failing for one more night as they stared at him unblinking. All the shades he had come so close to failing. The Morgentor, the last fortress still in the hands of the living in Twilight’s Pass, had been mere weeks away from falling when the Black Queen had tricked a truce out of the Enemy. Otto Redcrown, last of his line, had done all he could to keep the Dead penned up in the pass but the doom of his people had been writ in the stars. Yet for this inadequacy he had somehow been rewarded with three more months to prepare, and knowing the end was coming the Prince of Bremen had worked himself raw.
Frederic at his side, they’d squeezed the full worth out of every heartbeat. Soldiers allowed to rest, yes, but some put to work other than war. Supply lines were opened anew and refurbished, wagons filled with the necessities of war. First Prince Cordelia herself secured gold and foodstuffs and steel, striking deals with half the continent to secure supplies and reinforcements. She had not forgot, Otto had been moved to see. Rhenia’s favourite daughter had not come home when Keter marched, but never once had she forgot her kin. She’d stayed south to make sure the south would come to their aid, that famously unbending Hasenbach backbone lent to all Procer. Just as importantly, the young and the old of Lycaonese lands had been sent south to safety under the protection of Frederic’s cousin and heiress in Lyonis when the dead ceased their raiding into the lowlands. The future of his people was now safeguarded under the kin of his friend. Then a hard choice had been posed to Otto, as was so often the way in these times.
Should he send all soldiers save those holding the Morgentor into northern Lyonis, to ready the fight there for when Twilight’s Pass fell and the Lycaonese lowlands followed, or should every sword in the land be brought to Morning’s Gate to spit one last defiance in the Enemy’s eye? It had burned him to even consider it, but he must see to the future of his people beyond the cast of pride. Yet he’d been a fool, Otto realized the first time a warband of haggard souls bearing ill-fitting mail and hard eyes marched into the sprawling camp at the bottom of the Morgentor. They had come. Alone and in pairs, in bands of twenty or a hundred. Through wind and snow and treacherous mountain paths. Farmers and miners and shepherds, innkeepers and drapers, scribes and carpenters and a hundred other things. Yet Lycaonese all, so they came wearing the steel handed down families since the days of the Iron Kings and there would be no talk of retreat.
Twilight’s Pass was the last lock on the door that might keep the Dead King from devouring the world, and so it would hold until there were none left to hold it. Their numbers had swelled with every band of volunteers, to almost one hundred thousand, and though the Enemy’s might was without question, the Morgentor was no less mighty a fortress. It would hold, Otto Redcrown had sworn. It would hold whatever might come. They had prepared, sharpened their steel, and they stood atop perhaps the second finest fortifications in all Calernia – only the cliff-city of Rhenia or Keter itself might claim to surpass Morning’s Gate, now that Hannoven had fallen. Odds were never good, against the Dead King, but this was perhaps the finest they’d been in Otto’s lifetime.
Then of the three tower-fortresses of the Morgentor, the Three Peaks, they lost two on the first day.
If Frederic had not come into his Choosing they might have lost the third tower as well, the central one, and that would have been a disaster there’d be no recovering from. The Kingfisher Prince had held a buckling line by sheer dint of refusing to die and reclaimed the top of the walls from the Enemy long enough to set everything aflame with pitch. It’d cut off the dead within the fallen towers from steady reinforcements long enough to take them back as well, though it’d meant twelve hours of bloody uphill fighting. Otto Redcrown had scraped together an army of one hundred thousand, his people assembled from every corner of Lycaonese lands, and on the first day of the Dead’s resumed offensive he had lost near twenty thousand of them. The Reitzenberg would have wept at that, if there were any tears in him left to shed, but there were none. All there was left was duty, and so he let duty devour him whole.
The Dead came and Otto Redcrown met them with steel and fire unrelenting. When half an army of ghouls crawled up icy walls like they were treading open road, massive iron scythes were freed to swing through the lot of them. When flocks of winged abominations dropped down like a flood of locusts, they were dragged down with nets and kept there for the mages to scour in flame. Plague-seeding rats, clouds of poison, even a rain of fire: every night the Enemy tried a fresh devilry and the last of the Reitzenberg grit his teeth before standing his ground. The days belonged to Frederic but the nights were his, though as the siege continued time became meaningless. There was only the sea of death lapping at the walls, the relentless assaults through every hour of every day. And though the cracks were spreading through the army, the fault lines of terror and sleeplessness and a fight that could not truly be won, still every dusk and dawn soldiers climbed up the stairs to fight for the ramparts of the Morgentor.
It was an honourable way to die, the Prince of Bremen had decided. If the days of the Lycaonese were fated to end, Otto thought, let them end with the last of them standing straight-backed in the Enemy’s way. He’d been sleeping for barely three hours when he was brought out of a forming nightmare, shaken awake in his cot at the bottom of the Herzhaupt, and though bone-tired and bleary-eyed the Prince of Bremen rose without protest. The captain that had come for him, one of Frederic’s men, awaited outside and bowed low when Otto emerged with his armour already being strapped tight.
“Which peak is falling?” Otto Redcrown bluntly asked.
There were not many reasons why he’d be woken now, and so soon after going to rest besides.
“Begging your pardon, Your Grace, but it is quite the opposite,” the captain replied, bowing again. “We have reinforcements.”
The dark-haired prince blinked in surprise. It could not have been another warband of his people drifting in: it still happened every few days, though the gap was spreading as time passed, and was not so unusual as to require him being awoken.
“Who?” he asked, then added, “and where’s Prince Frederic?”
“Awaiting you at the Prinztopf so that you might greet them together, Your Grace,” the captain replied. “And the simple answer would be that they are… from the Grand Alliance.”
Clapping the man on the back, Otto wasted no more time on quibbling. He trusted Frederic Goethal not to have ordered him roused without good reason, though it had taken some convincing before the Alamans prince was sold on ‘obtaining a rare bottle of wine and wanting to share it’ not being one of these. An escort of sworn swords followed him without a word as he headed towards the massive camp raised in the shadow of the Three Peaks, as they did everywhere since a Revenant had been sent to claim his head as he slept. Frederic was not difficult to find, as the man surrounded by the usual swarm of courtiers. Otto could not muster even a speck of contempt for these, however, for though their silks and bon mots were trying they belonged to men and women he’d once seen savagely fight their way through two beorns and a crippled Revenant merely to snatch the banner carried by the latter. It’d emerged three days later as a dishwashing rag in the Ostenhaupt kitchens, for the Alamans were making a game of finding the most insulting use possible for the Dead King’s banners.
They were mad one and all, which was undoubtedly why the rest of the host had grown so fond of them.
“Otto, my friend!” Prince Frederic Goethal of Brus greeted them. “It has been too long since we shared daylight.”
The clasped arms, though Frederic’s insistence on cheek-kissing as they did remained just as unsettling as it’d been the first time the Prince of Bremen was subjected to it.
“Your man was vague when I asked who’s come,” Otto said.
“I can understand why,” the Prince of Brus replied, sounding amused. “None of the etiquette we’ve been taught applies here.”
They left the large iron-reinforced tent soldiers called the Prinztopf – the prince pot, it meant, for it was where they held councils in camp and the odd shape of the tent was evocative – behind them and Otto allowed himself to be led, enjoying the warmth of the spring sun on his skin. When they found their guests, the reason why the Alamans were at such loss was made evident. Of the five people in the tent they’d entered, only three where human and only one was Proceran. The gold and white robes of the Holies were not unknown ever this far north.
“His Grace, Prince Otto Reitzenberg of Bremen, styled the Redcrown,” Frederic introduced him in Chantant.
“Prince Frederic of Brus,” Otto said, returning the favour in the same. “Chosen. The Kingfisher Prince. We share command here.”
“I am-” the priest began, but was immediately interrupted.
“One of the idiots who figured overthrowing Hasenbach was a good idea,” the old woman with painted face said. “You’ve been sent here to die by Keter instead of noose, Proceran, no one cares about your name. I am Lady Itima Ifriqui of Vaccei. My Blood is that of the Vengeful Brigand and I bring ten thousand warriors. I am told your people have been struggling with raids on your supply lines, coming down from Hocheben Heights.”
She grinned, and it was not a pleasant sight.
“I have come to lend my expertise in such matters, Procerans,” Lady Itima said.
The stunning redhead in good armour that was standing by the pair of goblins looked faintly amused but passed no comment before introducing herself.
“Special Tribune Kilian of the Green Stretch, Army of Callow,” she said, her Chantant strangely accented. “By the order of my queen I bring twenty mage lines, including some of our foremost warding and scrying specialists. I’ve been tasked with ensuring the Morgentor is both warded up to Callowan standard and brought into the Grand Alliance scrying relay system.”
She was in the Black Queen’s service? He would not have guessed at a look.
“We are most thankful for your assistance,” Prince Frederic said. “Though it appears introductions are not yet complete?”
One of the goblins, Otto saw, was scribbling with a charcoal pen on parchment. The other one spoke for it, voice narrowly revealing it was male even though it was the smaller of the two.
“Special Tribune Robber,” the goblin introduced himself, malevolently grinning. “I’m told you folk could benefit from a little sabotage of the opposition. As it happens, I’m not unfamiliar with-”
“Sapper-General Pickler,” the other goblin interrupted, revealing herself female. “I’m told some cretin talked you lot in using dwarven engines for the defence of your fortresses.”
“We make some defences of our own,” Prince Otto replied, unmoved by the rudeness. “Though few proper engines.”
“Good, that’ll make useful hands to borrow,” Sapper-General Pickler said, sounding approving. “I’ve been tasked with raising your siege capacity to something that wouldn’t make a goblin simpleton weep as well as crafting apparatuses specifically to deal with the creatures you’ve named ‘wyrms’ and ‘beorns’.”
Frederic looked uncomfortable, though he was too polite to grimace. His people, especially the highborn, were taught that even subtly referring to coin in conversation was quite crude.
“Even with our current loans, we don’t have the coin to afford this,” Otto frankly told the goblin general.
“Congratulations,” the goblin replied, “as per arrangements struck with the First Prince of Procer, you’ve been granted conditional loans by the crown of Callow over this matter.”
The Prince of Bremen blinked.
“And what conditions would these be?” he asked.
“Is this going to be useful?” Sapper-General Pickler grinned, revealing rows and rows of needle-like teeth.
Otto Redcrown, last of the House of Reitzenberg, grinned back. Oh, this would do. This would do nicely indeed.
Rozala would never grow to like Gaspard Langevin, she mused as she watched the growing shape of the man’s capital in the distance.
The Prince of Cleves was prickly, of resentful temper yet swift to offer insult himself, and seemingly convinced that the ancient beginnings of his line meant that he belonged to a sort of nobility within nobility. The Princess of Aequitan knew well her histories and had even, as a youth, snuck in a reading of Princess Eliza Alaguer’s ever contentious The Labyrinth Empire so she’d been darkly amused to learn of this. After all, most of the ancient Alamans tribes would have been appalled at the very notion of nobility: tribes elected their chieftains, whose authority was even then shared with the tribe’s high priest or priestess of the Hallowed. It was her own Arlesite forbears who’d brought princely rule to the Principate, as before the founding of Procer the greatest of the fortress-holding reales had already come to exact oaths of fealty from their lesser kindred – and so arguably become the first princes and princesses as the word was understood in modern parlance.
Yet these days it was the Alamans that orated of ancient blood, while Arlesites had been taught the virtues of bringing in the fresh sort onto thrones by the constant warfare on the southern and eastern borders. Rozala’s own line, the Malanzas, had not always been royalty. It’d been great victories in Levant and a ruthless streak at home that saw them rise to bear a crown when the previous ruling line of Aequitan grew weak. That ‘lowly’ origin was no secret, and so part of the reason that as far as the Prince of Cleves was concerned Rozala Malanza was still more a general than princess. It was no surprise that during the Great War his principality had supported the bid of Princess Constance of Aisne instead of Rozala’s own mother. Still, for all the disdain they shared for each other – only sharpened by Prince Gaspard’s personal and political antipathy to the faction Prince Amadis had formed in the Highest Assembly, of which Rozala had openly been part before rising to command it – they were well-bred enough to remain cordial.
To his honour, Prince Gaspard had never once been sparing nor stingy in supporting the armies that had come to fight in the defence of Cleves. Though the man rarely took the field himself, he’d charged his eldest son and heir with command of his army as well as bought the service of every fantassin company north of Cantal not already under contract. Between this and the supplies being brought into Cleves the prince had gone deeply into debt, though he was keeping up appearances with admirable Alamans aplomb. He should be able to dig himself out of the pit, after the war. Cordelia Hasenbach had wrought some sort of financial wizardry that’d greatly lessen the debt burdens incurred defending Procer. Something about bundling together the debts of many principalities and slicing that mixed greater debt apart before selling the slices to the Merchant Lords and banks of Mercantis, and promised yet more aid to come. Her mind was drifting once again, the Princess of Aequitan realized.
Perhaps it was only to be expected. The Twilight Ways invited deep reflections, she felt, the eternal starry night sky somehow giving an impression of solitude even when one was surrounded by thousands. Even two days out of those eldritch paths Rozala’s mood and that of the forces under her command remained rather restrained. For some, like the princess herself, the disposition had lingered at the thought that after witnessing fresh horrors south they were now returning to the familiar ones of Cleves. The dark-haired princess had not been able to sleep on a cot since leaving the Ways, unwilling to let herself be unconscious without being certain that digging beneath would wake her. For others, though, it would be the first fresh taste of what war against the Dead King looked like. Rozala was pleased to have gotten Lord Yannu Marave when the Levantines armies were split between fronts, and not only for the heavy infantry the Lord of Alava brought with him: his cool, calculating manner would serve him well when the terror began. The other allies she was bringing to Cleves were harder to read, not that the Princess of Aequitan was all that inclined to try: sometimes she was almost as wary of them as the Dead.
Forcing herself to attend to the present instead of sinking into her thoughts again – anything to avoid remembering the sound of digging, digging beneath her feet, which she sometimes still heard even though she was hearing nothing of the sort – the Princess of Aequitan spurred on her horse forward and her mounted escorts followed. Clevans called the sparsely paved road beneath the hooves of her horse la route aux chandelles, the candle road, because of the stone markers on the side of it: each had been set down at the length it would take for a candle to melt from the last marker, allowing travellers and merchants to gauge how long they had left before reaching the capital. It linked the city to the southern walled town of Jurivan, itself a destination for roads coming out of Brabant and Lyonis, and so was rightfully seen as the trade artery of the principality. It was also the largest road in Cleves, made so that three wagons at once could use it, one of the reasons Rozala had chosen it for the path of her armies.
The last stretch of the candle road was nearly flat ground until the foot of the capital itself was reached, if flanked by a low plateau to the east, and so the Princess of Aequitan was not surprised when ahead she saw tall banners and a company of riders heading towards her. Prince Gaspard had been warned of her coming by scrying ritual, and by the looks of the tallest banner had come out to greet her himself. The pale unicorn on azure, crowned by a six-petalled flower – one petal for every crusade in which a ruling Langevin had personally fought – was the Prince of Cleves’ personal banner, which meant he was of the approaching company. Reining in her horse, the dark-haired Arlesite slowed until she could easily turn back. It would be impolitic of her to meet with the Prince of Cleves without bringing along the other two generals of this grand coalition of theirs. Lord Yannu was not difficult to find, for the Levantine lord was himself riding out to meet her, and so was the natural beginning.
“Princess Rozala,” the Lord of Alava greeted her, reining in his horse.
“Lord Yannu,” the Princess of Aequitan replied with a nod. “Our host rides out to meet us.”
“Armies have a way of commanding courtesy,” the large man bluntly said.
It was true enough, though rather uncouth to voice it.
“My outriders on the left flank have lost sight of our friends,” Rozala admitted. “I don’t suppose yours had sharper eyes?”
“Somewhere in the hills to the west is the most I can give you,” Yannu Marave said. “They’ve proved arduous to follow.”
Then the two of them would proceed without their third peer, the dark-haired woman decided. Lapses in etiquette were unlikely to matter much to that lot regardless. The two aristocrats waited for their honour guards to gather before riding out together, going down the road at a brisk trot. They were met by the sound of drums and flutes playing the stirring tune of the Roving Minstrel’s famous Marching on Keter, the banner of the Langevins of Cleves flying high with those of the lesser highborn beneath. Prince Gaspard himself brought his horse out ahead and took the initiative to greet them.
“Your Grace,” Gaspard Langevin said, meeting Rozala’s eyes and bowing. “It is a pleasure to see you returned to Cleves.”
“Our work here is not yet finished,” Rozala Malanza said. “I look forward to keeping your council once more, Your Grace.”
And even though she held no love for the man that courtesy had not been entirely untrue. For all his pettier traits, Gaspard Langevin was an able man. Rozala would rather take council from a man she disliked but respected than the opposite.
“It has been one hundred and twelve years since one of the Champion’s Blood has last honoured Cleves by being a guest, Lord Marave,” Prince Gaspard continued. “I am pleased to end this unfortunate course today.”
“The Dominion honours its oaths,” Lord Yannu replied in his very good Chantant. “War on Keter, war to the knife.”
The Prince of Cleves inclined his head in further thanks, not having been given much to work with. Rozala was dimly amused, for once she had also found it necessary to adapt to the bluntness of the Levantines in such matters.
“I was given to understand,” the Prince of Cleves delicately continued, “that there would be a third.”
“It is so,” Princess Rozala agreed. “Though General Rumena-”
“Can speak for itself.”
Rumena the Tomb-Maker – and oh, that even the Black Queen named it this has been enough to make Rozala very wary – was the sole visibly old drow the dark-eyed princess had ever seen. Though tall it had grown stooped and its skin deeply creased, disdaining weapons and attired in a long belted tunic of obsidian rings not unlike chain mail. Its long hair was pure white and its eyes a shade of silver that seemed almost blue in some lights. At the Graveyard, that drow had scored a draw against the Regicide without even using a blade. Now none of the startled riders, many of which now reached for their blades, had even noticed it approaching. It was as if it had been spat out by the rocks, without warning.
“You have corpses wandering your lands, Unicorn Prince,” General Rumena continued, its Chantant eerily good.
Given how the drow were rumoured to learn such things, the fact that the old monster had a distinct Bayeux accent was distressing.
“Well met, General Rumena of the Empire Ever Dark,” Prince Gaspard said with what she deemed to be remarkable poise. “You speak truly. Keter has found unseen paths from the coast and warbands now wander the land.”
“Rest easy, Unicorn Prince,” General Rumena grinned. “Now so do we.”
Lord Yannu let out a bark of appreciative laughter. Princess Rozala Malanza met the eyes of the ruler of Cleves when he hesitantly turned to her and inclined her head. Monsters, Gaspard, make no mistake, she tried to silently convey. They are monsters. And Gods forgive us all, but Keter will rue the day they lent their fangs to the cause of our survival.
Prince Klaus Papenheim spat into the melting snow, abandoning the reins of his mount to wipe the wetness from his lips after. Ratbiter was placid horse for a Bremen stampfen, to his old rider at least, and so he’d not taken to misbehaving even after the arm Klaus lost in the fall of Hainaut had made him a clumsier horseman. Leaning against his stirrups to remain straight-backed, the Prince of Hannoven – prince of ruins, ghosts and exiles these days – unclasped his helmet and ripped it off before wedging it into the crook of his arm. Sweats-soaked hair slipped down onto his brow and the old man let out an exhausted breath before mastering himself.
The day was coming to an end, but that would bring no relief: in the darkness his soldiers would slow and stumble, exhausted and blind. The dead would not share those weaknesses, and relentlessly pursue so that dawn would find half his host had been slaughtered whimpering in the dark. It was a favoured tactic of the Enemy, the reason his ancestors had taken to raising walls and fortresses instead of meeting the Dead on the field. Unlike the ratlings, who were best met and broken on prepared killing grounds before the could cross the rivers and slip into the Hannoven lowlands, the Dead King’s legions were always risky to confront in open battle.
All it took was for the living to lose once and the Enemy would turn setback into disaster before hounding even that all the way to annihilation. One of his own guard rode to his side, as exhausted as he but hiding it better for her lesser burden of years.
“My prince,” Captain Karolina Leisberg said, “I would ask for your permission to reinforce the rearguard.”
Dirty blonde hair peeked under the rim of her helm as the other soldier forced her words to come out steady though she’d just volunteered for a duty that was likely to see her and everyone she brought with her dead before night fell. Klaus spat again into the snow, though the taste of blood and grime could not seem to leave the roof of his mouth.
“No,” the Iron Prince replied. “I’m not throwing horse into that hungry maw, captain. It’d be raised and sent back to hound us after dark: I’ll not hand Old Bones riders to bleed us.”
One of the few saving graces of fighting the Dead was the thrift of horsemen, not that Keter had not tried to make up that lack by killing and raising any cavalry it could get its hands on. Klaus Papenheim had no intention of tossing a good company of four hundred Lycaonese horse into the embrace of the Enemy, even to save twice that in foot. Not when the cost in foot ridden down afterwards might easily dwarf what had been saved, for none had known true pursuit until they’d been chased by riders whose horses did not tire. Not that the retreat from the Hainaut lowlands hadn’t been bound to be a messy affair regardless, as abandoning the defences of the southern castles of the principality for the sloping plains leading into Brabant had been as good as a written invitation for Keter to strike at them.
There’d been no choice, though, Klaus and Princess Beatrice had agreed. They were losing too many soldiers trying to keep the lines of defence standing, it was only a matter of time until Keter ground them to dust by attrition. They’d been in talks with Prince Étienne of Brabant for near three months now, arranging the line of hastily-raised defences where they would retreat to, but it looked like the losses in getting there might be more dire than even the Iron Prince’s bleakest predictions. Their plan had been sound, Klaus still believed, and nearly worked: a sudden offensive on the Dead King’s western flank, as if they were trying to break away and join the armies in Cleves, had drawn the Enemy’s strength away from the fortresses for a time.
The wounded had been evacuated from the southern fortresses first, and then the garrisons under the command of Princess Mathilda, and so the better part of the military strength in Hainaut would be preserved and able to stiffen the defence of northern Brabant. But the distraction force that Klaus and Princess Beatrice had led west to sell the lie by their very presence had found stiffer resistance than expected: they’d retaken the fortress at Luciennerie easily enough, for the Enemy had torn down the walls taking it, but heading into the hilly highlands afterwards they’d found a force Klaus had once believed to be an old legend: the Grey Legion, led by the silent and implacable Prince of Bones.
No petty skeletons, these, but undead whose ancient bones had been surrounded by a body of wrought iron and steel. Though slow and lumbering, the seven thousand abominations were near unbreakable by force of arms, a crushing steel fist before which all men crumbled. Their long axes entirely made of steel had reaped near two thousand lives before the Prince of Hannoven understood who it was they were facing, and by then the Prince of Bones had entered the fray. It was said in Lycaonese legends that the Revenant who held sway over the Grey Legion was an ancient Iron King, slain by the Dead King’s own hand and raised anew, but in Hannoven the tale was slightly different – it was, Klaus’s own father had told him as a child, their ancient ancestor Albrecht Papenheim. The Lord of Last Stands, the Lone Sentinel.
The same man who’d stubbornly held Twilight’s Pass with only a bare bones garrison for a year even as an Alamans foray into Bremen was driven out. He’d died, the stories said, standing alone as the last of his army on the same dawn the armies that’d beaten back the southerners began marching north for the Pass. True to his charge ‘til the last breath. Whatever the truth of who the Prince of Bones had once been, he’d since been made into an implacable servant of Keter: the Silent Guardian and the Blade of Mercy had both sallied out to meet him in battle and been swept aside almost contemptuously. The Painted Knife had struck it from the back trying to cut through the neck – a practical girl, that one, Klaus rather liked her – and found that below the armour was only a sea of furious sorcery that’d violently lashed out and blown her away. If the Repentant Magister had not been able to trap him within a circle of flames for an hour, the defeat they were inflicted that day might have been an outright rout. Not that their retreat south towards Brabant had been anything but a succession of losses since that first defeat.
Three days, that was the worst of it. Another three days and their host would have made it to the freshly raised fort at Engrenon and been able to dig in to await reinforcements. The way the day was going, though, it was not to be. Not unless hard decisions were made. A short trumpet call told the Iron Prince that the woman he’d been waiting for had arrived, and Princess Beatrice Volignac rode in with her personal guard at a brisk trot. The latest Princess of Hainaut looked rather ludicrous, at first glance: her considerable girth was coated in mail and heavy furs, and from a distance she looked like a bloated waterskin forcefully strapped atop a horse. Younger sister to Princess Julienne, she had the same green eyes and coal-black hair but unlike her late sister’s they were set on a narrow, pinched face with too-large lips. Klaus had thought little of her at first, he’d admit as much. For anyone to grow fat as Princess Beatrice was would have been considered a shameful thing back home, thoughtless indulgence and selfishness. To eat so much meant that either another went hungry or granaries were taken from.
He’d been wrong though, even in his lazy assumption that her weight meant she’d be a poor rider. She was a better horsewoman than even her sister had been, and a finer lance as well. More importantly, Beatrice Volignac had a searing fire inside her that made her one of the most driven people the Prince of Hannoven had ever met. She hardly slept, and Klaus had found her so proficient a captain of men he’d effectively ceded command of all Alamans forces to her. She had a defter touch with them, and under her command they’d risen to become almost as fierce fighters as his own soldiers.
“Her Grace Beatrice Volignac, Princess of Hainaut,” the herald announced.
The woman in question reined in her horse by his side, gesturing for her escort to withdraw. Klaus glanced at his own riders and nodded. Without a word they did the same.
“Prince Klaus,” the dark-haired woman said.
“Princess Beatrice,” he replied. “I’ll be blunt: the rearguard is failing and if we reinforce it we’ll lose our entire host.”
The Alamans princess grimaced.
“I’d begun to suspect as much,” she admitted. “The lesser dead are slowing them down too much, it’s only a matter of time until the Grey Legion catches up.”
And a pitched battle against that, neither needed to say, was a fool’s errand. They’d tried to send for the Witch of the Woods, whose sorceries might be a match for those relentless steel killers, but there was no telling if the riders had made it to a scrying station – or whether she’d arrive in time, even should she be reached.
“We’ve twenty thousand men to care for,” the Prince of Hannoven said, knowing it was likely closer to seventeen now. “Those soldiers who hold our back have proved brave and true, and this is poor repayment, but we cannot throw away the other sixteen thousand trying to save that four.”
The Princess of Hainaut looked disgusted with herself, but she did not disagree.
“Weeping Heavens,” she murmured, “what ugly creatures this war makes of us all.”
Klaus’s gaze turned to behind them, where the sprawl of their column could be made from atop the hill where they both sat. His own horse had scythed through the packs of ghouls that’d sprung from the snow and earth to ambush the flanks of the column’s centre stretch, freeing it to resume its advance, but Keter had still gotten its due: the temporary slowing had been enough to force the rearguard to fully engage the undead skirmishers that’d been pursuing them all day. Though these were little more than skeletons with javelins and swords, wearing not a single piece of armour, the ‘naked’ skirmishers were damned fast and tireless, and one of the Dead King’s favourite manners of tying down foot so that his heavier forces could catch up to them. It would be so here, the first battalions of sword and board corpses bearing old ringmail already beginning to emerge above nearby hilltops. The rearguard’s shield wall was spreading out, preparing for the brutal melee heading towards it.
“Someone will have to take command there,” Klaus said. “Else they’ll break too soon.”
There was no contempt in his tone as he spoke, for though the soldiers in the rear were mostly Arlesites his own brethren would behave little differently. Men often found great courage when they knew there was no avoiding death, but when there was still hope for life – as there would be, should those in the back of the shield wall break and run before too many of the dead arrived – it was only natural to find one’s feet itching to flee. It was the duty of a good captain to make their soldiers understand why there was a need to stand and fight even when there would be no leaving the field alive.
“Agreed,” Princess Beatrice said.
A heartbeat later they both began to speak-
A twin look of surprise was shared, and Klaus Papenheim let out a rueful chuckle.
“I’m at the end of my rope, Volignac,” he bluntly said. “I’m an old cripple a long way from home, fading out no matter how much the priests fight it. You’ve still decades in you, and your sister’s sons to raise.”
“You’re the Iron Prince,” she flatly replied. “Your reputation is the reason this is a retreat and not a rout. So long as you still breathe our host believes it might survive this march. I’ll entrust the safety of my nephews to you and beg you might request of the First Prince that she’ll allow them to attend her in Salia.”
Before he could dismiss that for the foolishness it was – how trite a trade, to keep alive an old sack of bones like him for a few more years when she might serve the cause for decades yet – when they were interrupted by the sound of swords unsheathing as one. Princes Beatrice’s guards and his were all looking at a strange gash in the air. Through the opening Klaus glimpsed a night sky and eerily enough felt warm breeze drift out. What came out with it, though was more familiar a sight.
“Sheathe your swords,” the Iron Prince ordered, then inclined his head in greeting. “White Knight. It’s been some time.”
“Prince Klaus,” the Sword of Judgement replied, inclining his head in return.
“Come to join our little stand, have you?” Princess Beatrice said. “You’re welcome to a few battalions. Plenty to spare.”
“Indeed,” the dark-skinned hero agreed. “Though I come bearing request on behalf of another, in truth.”
“Indeed?” Klaus drily repeated.
“It is requested that your rearguard pull back by a hundred feet and any spears and pikes you have might be brought to its fore,” the White Knight said, impervious to sarcasm.
“And who requests this, pray tell?” Princess Beatrice demanded.
It was a sound like cloth ripping, if it were a cloth so large as to cover half the world. Klaus Papenheim caught sight of the rippling gates and the soldiers that strode out of them. On the left side of the shield wall, painted soldiers bearing hooked swords and shields rushed out. On the other, rows and rows of shining steel marched out in cadence, shields raised and tightly packed. Legionaries. Army of Callow, by the banner: stark cloth, bearing the Miezan numerals for three.
“The Black Queen,” Klaus Papenheim said, and it was not a question.
Gates kept opening, some as small as a single man while others were making room for engines of war being dragged out by wagon, and soldiers kept pouring out.
“Today it is our turn, Iron Prince, to go on the offensive,” the Sword of Judgement smiled.
The Prince of Hannoven’s remaining hand reached for the pommel of the sword at his hip, clutching it tight. Another gate opened atop a hill to the west and, banners streaming behind them, a company of knights rode out to form a wedge aimed at the Enemy’s flank. At their head was a single silhouette in a colourful patchwork cloak, twin great crows perched on her shoulders. A horn sounded: one, twice, thrice. Lances went down and the last knights of Callow began their charge, their warlord queen at the tip of the spear. Klaus Papenheim smiled a wolf’s smile, fierce and toothy and so very eager to finally sink his fangs in the Enemy’s throat.
“Then let’s turn this army around, Princess Beatrice,” the Iron Prince said, meeting his comrade’s eye. “And remind Ol’ Bones this war has yet to find a victor.”