“Only one kind of war is ever just, that which is waged on the Enemy.”
– Extract from ‘ The Faith of Crowns’, by Sister Salienta
Harbour duty was the worst, always had been.
Ines had blown three months’ pay on the warmest cloak that could be found at market and still she was shivering like a dying calf. The prince had spread talk through the city that with the Kingdom of the Dead stirring awake those soldiers who guarded the harbour would see better pay, but like most princely promises it had come to nothing. Rumour had it the coin had gone into buying the service of every fantassin company left in the north instead, and much as she hated freezing by the docks Ines had to admit it might have been better investment. The Princess of Hainaut was doing the same, it was said, and the mercenary leanings of the fantassins had turned the whole affair into some sordid bidding war. Still, better to be here at home than to have gone south as some of the prince’s soldiers had. What word had come back from the crusade’s foray into the Kingdom of Callow was the stuff of nightmares. Strange devils riding to slaughter in the night, an endless horde of orcs and heretics that at the corpses of the fallen. Some more fanciful tales as well, of the Black Queen bringing down the sky on the head of the crusaders and making a lake of their blood. Whatever the truth of it, none of those who’d gone south had returned.
For once, she thought, being fresh to the prince’s service had been of some use. It also meant Ines was inevitably handed down the shit duties by her careerist noble officers, but cold fingers were better than the grave. She put a spring to her step after clearing Gertrude’s Tongue, hurrying towards the bonfire that awaited near the customs house. There she took off her leather gloves and pressed her palms close to the bronze bowl holding the flames, sighing at the warmth seeping into her bones. The pike she’d left to lean against her should had never seen use out of the training yard, and if the Heavens smiled on her it never would. Still, the silence of the night unsettled her. The winds that’d turned her earlier round into a ghastly affair had since died, leaving behind only eerie stillness. Cleves Harbour was lethargic on the best of days, the sporadic ship trade with Bremen and Lyonis the affair only of the prince and the very rich, but now even the fishermen had left. That lot had better read on what took place beneath the waters of the Tomb than anyone else, it was said. Those among them that did not learn to listen to the sound of danger were dragged into the depths by the foul creatures that were the only true rulers of the lake.
Some nights, Ines wondered why the prince even bothered to assign guards to the harbour. Empty as it was, even if some dead mean took it that would be no great loss. The royals who’d founded Cleves had been a farsighted lot: the harbour was not connected to the capital proper. The thin stripe of docks and shore was walled with an eye at keeping the enemy inside, not out, an unspoken admission that if the Dead King raided past the lake there would be no holding it against the Hidden Horror’s armies. The slope descending to the shore meant Ines could not even catch a glimpse of Cleves itself from where she now stood, not behind those tall walls, but that part she hardly minded. It would be the hour-long walk back to the barrack of the capital she was not looking forward to, especially since some enterprising noble lad had decided that the length of that trip should no longer be counted as part of guard duty’s duration. Ines’ only comfort was that if the fucking dead actually showed up, that prick was bound to end up on the bad side of an unfortunate crossbow accident. The lad should have worried less about getting commendations from up high and more about the many people in charge of sharp objects he’d made enemies of.
With an aggrieved sigh Ines put her gloves back on. She’d lingered around the fire as much as she could justify, if the next guard came up while she was still here she’d end up with another black mark on her record. Merciful Gods, though, it was a cold night. And not even winter solstice yet, it’d only get worse. She glanced to the side and upwards, at the slender tower overlooking the waters. She didn’t know who Mikhail had paid off to get that particular cushy duty – the guard tower had a bonfire up top, and a seat – but the man could certainly afford it. The Lycaonese immigrant ran a little business on the side, providing hard drink warming the bones to the guards that could afford it. Ines had always disdained the practice, but the thought of the long walk back to the city after her duty had her reconsidering for tonight. Once wasn’t going to hurt anyone, was it?
“You still up here, you filthy Bremen throwback?” she called out.
No answer. He must have been indulging in his own wares, which was bold of him. There were only so many times he could bribe his way out of the trouble that’d come down on his head if he was caught. Taking her pike in hand, Ines decided against taking the lack of answer as a sign from Above. The thought of a warm belly had grown on her with the consideration. She strode to the bottom of the tower, finding the door ajar. Sloppy of him, she frowned, even if he was drunk. The twisting stairs leading up to the top were just a brisk walk, but when she came there a cold seized her that the fire could do nothing about. Sergeant Mikhail was there: throat opened, blood all over his mail. Oh Gods, she thought. We’re under attack. She would have rung the bell the tower had been equipped with for this very reason, but the bloody thing was gone. Ripped off the metal hinges that had held it up. She leaned over the edge, casting her voice.
“Attack,” she screamed. “We’re under attack!”
There was no answer. She wasn’t loud enough, that was why they had the damned bells in the first place. For all she knew, she was the only soldier in the harbour left alive. That would make it her duty to run back to the city, wouldn’t it? So that they were warned. It wasn’t abandoning her fellows, it was doing her duty. Her hands trembled around the shaft of the pike.
“Damn it,” she whispered. “Damn it.”
She ran back down the stairs, heading for the nearest tower. There were ten in the harbour, they couldn’t have castrated all of them unseen. Her old boots slipped against the frost and she fell, but she grit her teeth and picked up her pike before picking herself up with it. Dodderer’s Height wasn’t far, and as the largest of the towers it’d have fielded more than a single sentinel. Old, fat ones one the edge of retiring from service but there was strength in numbers. She made it past the jutting empty warehouse that was the Prince of Cleves’ personal property and cleared the corner before she saw it. Five corpses, tossed down from the tower onto the pavement below. She glanced up, eyes squinting in the dark, but thank the Gods the bell was still there. Whoever’d done this had not yet ripped it out. Whoever had done this was likely still here, she then thought. Gloved fingers tightened around her pike, she grit her teeth and ran once more. Her attention had been on the tower, though. That was why she missed it.
The undead climbed out of the lakewater, glistening wet under starlight. Rivulets dripped down the bare skull under the ancient helm and it advanced without a word. Ines yelled out in fear, but she’d trained. Feet wide but steady, she struck out with her pike. It pierced through the rusty mail, going straight into the body, and for a moment she tasted triumph. Then the dead thing began pushing towards her through, embracing the impalement. She dropped the pike in ear, immediately cursing herself for it. But it was slower than her, she realized, so she ran for the tower instead of fighting. All she needed was to ring the bell. The door was ajar, she saw, and she slowed to avoid slipping on a patch of ice. Just in time to watch a pair of armoured skeletons walk out of the tower, swords in hand. Blocking the entrance.
“No,” she hissed.
What could she do? She didn’t even have a – the two undead were smashed to pieces by the same swing of a silvery sword. There was a man, tanned and wearing plate, who casually brought down a steel-clad boot to smash one of the skulls. The undead she’d fled from was tossed back into the lake by some giant shadow moving quick as lightning. For a moment Ines thought she glimpsed fur and fangs, but what wolf could possibly be so large?
“Ring the bell, soldier,” the man in plate said.
His eyes were wreathed with light, she saw as she faced him. No, with Light.
“Chosen,” she croaked out.
“Go,” he said. “Your courage tonight did not go unnoticed.”
“They’re all over the place,” Ines said. “If they’re here-”
“Cleves,” a woman’s voice said, “does not stand alone.”
A face of painted stone over a cloak, long tresses swinging behind. Another favoured child of the Heavens, she would put her hand to fire over it.
“It will be a long night,” the first Chosen said. “A long month after it, until Malanza arrives. But we will hold.”
“Ring the bell, soldier,” the masked Chosen said. “We will guard you. Tonight, the Dead King learns that dawn is not so easily snuffed out.”
Ines straightened her back. She was no proud Lycaonese, to find glory in dying spitting in the Enemy’s eye. Just some fool girl someone had shoved a pike in the hands of. But she’d been born in Cleves. The principality of her birth was a bloody mess, and she thought little of the man who ruled it, but that wasn’t the point. It was her home. This was Procer. They could lose to princes and princesses, they could lose to Arlesites and Lycaonese, but she’d be damned before a fucking undead abomination flew its banner over the city.
She took up a sword from a corpse and climbed to ring the bell.
Balasi was allowed into the tent by the sentinels without so much as a second glance.
It still surprised him, this. Had he tried the same with his lover’s rooms in Nenli he would have been met at sword point and taken to the city square for a public flogging. Here, though, the campaign had made the king’s laws grow lax. He might not be consort in name, but he was in deed and the soldiers acted accordingly. The seeker of deeds had since grown to suspect that this was one of the reason why Sargon had come forward to claim command over the Fourteenth Expansion. Back home their love would always be an illegal mismatch, but so far away from the Kingdom Under the rules had thinned. Sargon was not sleeping, as it happened. The Herald of the Deeps sat still as stone with his eyes closed as he sought council with the spirits bound to his staff. The Souls of Fire were known to hold wisdom, though a kind narrow in scope. Were they too clever the Kings Under the Mountains would have slaughtered them all, not bound them to the great forges. There would be need to dig deep again, after this land was claimed, to feed the fresh forges being raised. Many spirits would still lie asleep in their beds of molten rock, unknown to the kraksun.
“Delein,” Balasi quietly said. “There is need of you.”
Sargon’s eyes fluttered open.
“Balasi,” he murmured. “I was far gone, this time. What ails you?”
“Not me,” he replied. “All of us. And if that vein is true or hollow has yet to be known.”
“Speak,” the Herald of the Deeps frowned.
“Our borrowed knife has returned,” the dwarf said. “And would now speak with you.”
Sargon’s beard twitched in surprise.
“The Gloom still stands,” he said. “She cannot have been victorious. Are we certain it is the human, and not simply a Night-thing wearing her?”
“I laid eyes on her myself,” Balasi said. “She was stripped of power, but it is her. Unmistakeably.”
“And the cold spirit?” Sargon asked, leaning forward.
The seeker of deeds resisted the urge to roll his eyes. His lover had fancied the thing since their first meeting, considering adding it to his staff should the human queen be broken. Sargon had mastered the Greed in most aspects of his life, but not this: any interesting creature he encountered he desired for his staff of office.
“Changed, yet still existing,” he replied. “You can look upon it yourself when speaking with the human.”
“She is not that,” the Herald of the Deeps said. “You know this.”
“Was not, perhaps,” Balasi conceded. “I am no longer certain of that old truth.”
That piqued his lover’s interest, as he’d intended, and Sargon merely put on a coat before they made their way out. Officer had been ordered to settle the human and her spirit until they were ready to be met, and the two dwarves found them awaiting patiently by a low table. Black kasi had been served, and the Queen of Callow was drinking from her cup with a broad grin. Hairless of the face like so many of her kind, some feeble thing grown even feebler since their last meeting. It had not escaped his notice that she sat in a way that took the weight off one of her legs, as if it were wounded. Or that she’d limped visibly when coming to the camp. The spirit stood behind her, dark and silent. Its face had changed, grown more human. Scarlet eyes had become golden, though no less watchful for it. Sargon’s eyes lingered on it with interest, ever eager to get his hands on fresh curiosities.
“Herald,” the human said, inclining her head in shallow respect. “Seeker. Good to see you again.”
Balasi stood as Sargon sat across the table, only then doing the same. A mere seeker of deeds could not be seated at the same time as the Herald of the Deeps, he thought, bitterness so old and worn it was hardly even that anymore.
“You surprise me, Queen Catherine,” Sargon said. “I had not thought we would meet again until our bargain was fulfilled.”
And such an advantageous one it had been, Balasi thought. A paltry quantity of gold and a temporary cessation of arms sales to a few human nations, in exchange for a sword pointed at the heart of the Night. Sargon had struck it most willingly, knowing that even if defeated the human would drag many kraksun down with her.
“That still holds,” the human idly replied. “I’m here to settle some details, as it happens. The Gloom could be gone by the end of this conversation, if it is fruitful.”
The dwarf’s brow twitched. A bold claim, this. Sve Noc still lived, this was known. Was the human claiming she had bound the old monster to her will?
“Details,” Sargon repeated. “Such as?”
“An offer might be more accurate,” the human mused. “Sve Noc is willing to cede her current territory to the Kingdom Under, but concessions will have to be made.”
Balasi smoothly reached for the blade at his side. He’d let down his guard, when sensing the queen had been stripped of her power. Where before she had been an oppressive presence without even moving a finger, she now felt light as a feather. Nothing more than a mortal, he’d thought. So why do you feel more dangerous now than you did before, human?
“You were turned,” he said. “Made into their creature.”
The queen made that strange human sound of derision, all nose and doubt.
“I’m really more of an advisor,” she said. “We came to an arrangement, that’s all. Trust was extended, and part of that is letting me speak for them when it comes to you fine folk.”
“You no longer hold power,” the Herald of the Deeps said.
“I wield it instead,” the human said. “That’s quite enough, as far as I’m concerned.”
“You fed your purpose to them,” Sargon said, openly appalled.
“Purpose was shared,” Queen Catherine corrected. “As I would now share a proposition with you.”
“There can be no truce with the Night,” Balasi said.
“The Night is dead,” the human said. “At least the way you knew it. And I am here to speak diplomacy, not theology.”
“And what terms,” Sargon scoffed, “would Sve Noc speak?”
She took out her pipe, taking her time to fill it with herbs. Snapping her wrist, she produced dark flames from the tip of her fingers to light it. It did not feel like sorcery to Balasi’s senses, and this was worrying. She puffed at the dragonbone – what a waste, he still thought, to make a pipe of that – and blew out a stream of smoke.
“Would you like,” Catherine Foundling cheerfully asked, “to make your two biggest problems go at war with each other?”
There was a moment of silence.
“I am listening,” the Herald of the Deeps said.
Friedrich Papenheim might have been a prince, in another life.
Of those who had both the name and the blood, he was the closest relation to the Iron Prince. He’d served as a trusted lieutenant to Klaus Papenheim for decades as a steward and commander, and few others were as high in the man’s council as he. But Old Klaus had made it known he intended to pass on Hannoven to his niece when he died, to make the principality as one with her own. Friedrich had resented this, on occasion, though always half-heartedly. It was hard to be truly bitter when one lost one’s inheritance to the likes of Cordelia Hasenbach. The first Lycaonese to ever rise as First Prince of Procer, the iron-willed daughter of the ancient lines of Papenheim and Hasenbach who’d made the entire south submit to her rule. No, if he was to be royalty but not prince there was none other he’d rather lose the throne to. It would be in good hands, when the time came. Tonight, though? Tonight Hannoven was in his own hands, and it was burning.
He’d kept to the old ways. As soon as it was known that the Dead King was stirring he’d expelled every southerner from the city and hung those that refused the order. Every village and town in sight of the waters had been emptied, the spring armories had been opened and the war horns sounded. Every man and woman of fighting age in the principality had been called to serve, to uphold the old oaths. The whispers had passed from mouth to ear, spreading across all of Hannoven. The dead are coming. Belt your swords, put on your armour, send your children south. The dead are coming. He’d never been half as proud to be Lycaonese as when he’d watched the full muster of his people spread out like a sea of steel beneath the walls of the city. The watchtowers by the Grave had found the Dead King’s host as it crossed, marching under the dark waters with the inevitability of an arrow in flight, but he was no fool to give the horde battle on open field. There could be no victory when every one of your dead turned to the service of the Enemy.
He’d sent riders to the other principalities, Rhenia and Bremen and Neustria. He trusted no sorcery to carry the word when the Hidden Horror itself strode the field. The allies of Hannoven were of the old blood too, and they’d smelled the death on the wind: they would not be caught with their trousers around their ankles like some goat-fucking Alamans. Their armies would already be assembled, and the moment the message arrived they’d sound their war horns to send for full service. But it would be weeks, months before the first reinforcements arrived. The city of his birth was a fortress like few others, but it would not hold forever. And so he’d made the cold choice, as he had been taught from the cradle. Those unfit to fight had begun the march for Bremen with everything they could carry. With them had gone half the muster of Hannoven. He’d sent the young, the skilled, the promising. The future of his principality. With him Friedrich had kept old soldiers past their prime, the greybeards and whitehairs who did not know whether it was winter cold or ratling fang that would slay them. And with those he had fought for Hannoven.
Fifteen thousand against the legions dark and darkly led. They taught the Dead King what kind of people got to grow old in these lands. The first wall they lost on the first day, and retreated after setting the houses aflame. They held the second wall for a week, until the dead sent a flock of winged drakes aflight. Wall by wall they have ground, but never without making the Enemy pay for it. The longer they held the longer the rest of the Lycaonese had to gather their armies, the longer the people of Hannoven could flee without pursuit. They fought for a month and seven nights, dying in the snow as a sea of dead lapped at the walls. Hundreds of thousands, centuries of corpses marching to bring death to all the world. In the end it came down to the Old Fortress, the solitary mountain that had been turned into a castle jutting out from the plains. The dead never paused in the assault, never tired: day and night they came in silent assault, the banner of the Dead King flying tall behind them. It mattered not, for behind Friedrich the banner of Hannoven flew. A single soldier on the wall, grey on blue. Beneath was writ the words thrown in the Enemy’s teeth since time immemorial: And Yet We Stand.
So they stood, and so they died.
Ground away into nothing by numbers and sorcery their few mages could not match. Dead things that had once been Chosen climbed the walls, the sky grew dark with falling of arrows and behind them drakes stolen from the grave spewed out clouds of poison that burned lungs and skin. Less than a thousand of them left now, and most of them wounded. They’d retreated to the Crown, the very highest point of the fortress that could only be accessed by a few narrow paths filled with murderholes. The dead had been met with streams of burning coals and thrown oil, dwarven engines roaring destruction down passages where there could be had no cover. The Chosen dead pushed through, after the horde withdrew, but they found the passages collapsing beneath them and spiked grids of steel awaiting them when they leapt. Now sorcerers that were little more than grinning skulls pounded away at the defences with foul magics, forcing the defenders to stay behind cover until the next wave of dead was ready for assault. Friedrich passed through the throng of wounded, clasping shoulders and trading grim boasts with what soldiers her had left.
Old men, old women. The last gasps of their generation, dying sword in hand. His eyes grew cloudy with pride. Death came to all, but tonight they would meet it as Lycaonese should. Holding the wall in the face of the Enemy, for the sake of all the world. Friedrich beard was already flecked with blood, and he dipped out of sight when he felt the cough came. It would not do for his soldiers to know he was dying. The wound he’d taken hammering a spike through the head of that last drake had only gotten worse. Poison, he suspected, though it made no difference. None of them would live to see dawn, poisoned or not. He wiped his lips clean of blood and returned to the battlements after the cough had passed. The pounding had stopped, he immediately noticed. The assault was coming. Captain Heiserech sought him out, her worn face seemingly amused.
“Commander,” she saluted. “The skulls want to talk. They sent some kind of giant dead. Think it might be ‘Ol Bones himself come to pay us a visit.”
“Has he now?” Friedrich grinned. “Well, let us see what the Dead King has to say.”
Maybe he’d ask for surrender. His people could certainly use the laugh. He wasn’t sure who started. It could have been anyone, or half a dozen at the same time. Only a few voices, at first, but more joined until the stone shook with sound.
“The moon rose, midnight eye
Serenaded by the owl’s cry
In Hannoven the arrows fly.”
The refrain came as a roar of defiance.
“Hold the wall, lest dawn fail.”
Friedrich Papenheim strode to the very edge of the battlements, where the passages had been broken, and found a horror awaiting on the other side of the drop. It was large as three men, wearing plate of bronze and steel that had been nailed to its frame. Its face could not be glimpsed behind the great helm, but the eyes could. Sunken yellow things, glinting with power. That might be the old bastard himself in the flesh, Friedrich thought. The song echoes from behind him, slipping into the wind.
“No southern song for your ear
No pretty lass or merry cheer
For you only night and spear.”
“A Papenheim,” the Dead King mildly said. “I should have known. Your entire line is like a nail that refuses to be hammered.”
Friedrich could not deny the sliver of pride he felt at that. He was dying, but he would stand straight in the face of the Enemy. Even if his lungs throbbed with pain.
“In the name of Her Most Serene Highness Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer and Warden of the West, I bid you to crawl back into the hole that spawned you,” Friedrich said. “And to take your horde of damned with you, old thing.”
“I rather missed this city,” the Dead King said. “You make it harder to take every time, it keeps things interesting.”
“And when we chase you back into the dark, claiming it back, we’ll raise an eight wall,” the Lycaonese replied with bared teeth. “On it will be written: here lie those who broke the back of the Enemy and stand those who will again.”
“Come rats and king of dead
Legions dark, and darkly led
What is a grave if not a bed?”
“You fought well,” the Hidden Horror said. “And so were owed the courtesy of this conversation. Should your soldiers wish to take their own lives instead of having them taken, I will allow them the right.”
“So that we may rise whole in your service?” he laughed. “I think not. We’ll burn, and you with us.”
“Once wolves,” the Dead King said, almost fondly, “always wolves. What soldiers you would have made, under my banner. Die proud, then, Papenheim. You were an irritation.”
“Quell the tremor in your hand
Keep to no fear of the damned
They came ere, and yet we stand.”
The aging soldier smiled.
“We’ll be waiting for you at the passes, Dead King,” he promised. “With a proper Lycaonese welcome.”
“I would expect no less,” the Hidden Horror said.
He turned his back on the Enemy and returned to stand with the last of his soldiers, the words in the wind guiding him home.
“So we’ll hold the wall,
Lest dawn fail.”
When the light of day found Hannoven, not a single living soul remained.