“Courage is what’s left when the rest is gone.”
– Albrecht Papenheim, the Lone Sentinel
Captain Fredda squared her shoulders as she strode up the stairs leading to the summit of the Westenhaupt, her cloak tightly clasped at the neck over her grandfather’s mail. She was glad for the way the cloth over her lower face hid her mouth, lest the soldiers she had been placed in command of see her biting at her lip. Though the responsibilities of command were fresh to her, and she young for them, they were not the source of her worries. She could handle leading a company, on the wall or off it. No, it was the ringing bells that were summoning her to the top of the ramparts that had her uneasy. Her soldiers should have been given six hours of rest in the depths of the Westenhaupt, where no dead could get to them and not even the constant pounding of the Enemy’s mages could keep them wake, yet they’d only had four before being called back to the rampart. Father, who had been a well-known captain back home for all that he’d insisted he was a terrible innkeeper when she’d been a child, had always told her that you could tell a siege was going bad when they sent tired soldiers back into the fray. Her father who might be dead, for there were rumours going around about Hocheben Heights… No, she could not let fear win. It might be, Fredda told herself, that was seeing ratlings instead of hares. But it also might be that her father had been right, instead, and that the Morgentor was on the eve of falling.
Morgentor – Morning’s Gate, the last fortress barring the way out of Twilight’s Pass. The last fortress the armies of the north still held in the face of the Enemy, for inch by inch they had lost the grounds. We’ll hold, Fredda chided herself. The Morgentor hasn’t fallen since the founding of Procer. Had her mother not been a scribe, the fair-haired captain might not have known that the last time the fortress had fallen was the last time the Hidden Horror had invaded the north. As it was, the fond learning of her childhood was the dread of her later years.
“Blades out,” Fredda howled, glancing back at the soldiers following her. “They don’t ring the bells to make it lively.”
“Where else are we supposed to earn a tune, captain?” one of her soldiers yelled back.
“Certainly not your singing, Hannah, or the Dead King would run back to Keter in fright,” Fredda called out, and the lot of them hit the rampart to the sound of hard laughter.
The dead had forced a foothold, damn them all and Keter twice. A wyrm’s great fangs had sunk into the crenellation and the gargantuan dead serpent’s open maw was now spewing out an endless stream of enemy soldiers. Westenhaupt, the westernmost of the Three Peaks, was held by the soldiers of Neustria with reinforcements from those hard Hannoven bastards when the going got rough. There was no lack of soldiers, but Princess Mathilda Greensteel was fighting the dead in Hainaut so the Neustrians had few of the old blood to rally around. It didn’t help, that the finest soldiers and officers had gone south. But they’d earn the fucking keep, and if the Morgentor was to fall it would not be through their peak.
“Shield wall,” Captain Fredda screamed, raising her own.
Her company fell around her and they advanced briskly into the melee, smashing into the side of the dead. The fair-haired captain hacked down with her axe, tearing through dead flesh and smashing old bones, and as she howled her soldiers howled with her. Inch by inch they forced back the dead, until the melee was so tightly packed there was no room for the enemy trying to climb out.
“Where are the godsdamned burners?” Captain Fredda screamed. “Get that fucking wyrm off my wall.”
Before everyone here dies, she didn’t say. Were they out of pitch, she wondered for a horrible moment? It couldn’t be, how else were they to get ride of abominations like the wyrms? But then screams of Papenheim, Papenheim, and yet we stand sounded and flames spread across the dead serpent’s flesh. If custom hold, it would retreat now – the Enemy only had so many of those undead moving siege towers, and could not afford to lose them.
Instead, the head of the soldier to Fredda’s side disappeared into red mist. Fuck, the flaxen-haired captain thought.
“Chosen,” she yelled. “Torch the stretch.”
It’d kill her and half her company, but if one of the enemy’s undead heroes was allowed to linger up here they were all done for. She’s seen one shred near two hundred Hannoven heavies three nights back before it was thrown down the wall. The Enemy’s champion was a half-naked man, a mass of hard muscle wearing little but trousers and scarring, and even though she raised her shied her smashed through it effortlessly and grabbed her by the throat.
“Audace,” someone screamed in Chantant, and the lance caught the Chosen in the throat.
Falling to the floor, Fredda wondered if she was dreaming. There wasn’t a man or woman in the army who didn’t know who Prince Frederic Goethal was – the sole southerner prince to bring his army to fight for the Pass – but the fluttering hundreds of horsemen in red and blue silk couldn’t possibly be here, could they? They held the Ostenhaupt, the tower on the other side of the Three Peaks. The dead Chosen vaulted up, even with his neck torn through, and after punching right through the head of the horseman who’d ridden him down he was run through by another three lances in quick succession, pushing him further back. Until the last had him dangling over the edge of the ramparts, and a ridiculously ostentatious man with long curls held by ribbons laughed out loud.
“Enjoy the drop, yes?” Prince Frederic Goethal said, and with his sword hacked through the lance holding up the Damned.
Captain Fredda had risen to her feet, by then and gotten her shield wall back in order. The wyrm’s fangs left stone soon enough, and it slithered back down the four hundred feet it had extended to serve as a siege tower. With the Westenhaupt secured and no other captain coming forward to do so in her place, Fredda ambled forward to speak with the Prince of Brus herself. He was still atop his mount, though someone appeared to have handed him a fine glass of brandy since she’d last looked.
“Your Grace,” she greeted him, and the respect was not feigned.
How could it be, when the Kingfisher Prince and his army had bled for every fortress from Volsaga to Morgentor? This would be remembered. There were Alamans, in the end, and there were Alamans. The man might look a fool, in silk and ribbons, but he was a fool who’d ridden down a sheer cliff to slay an undead dragon. Even the bitterest of Hannoven exiles had to approve of that.
“Captain Fredda, yes?” the Prince of Brus smiled.
The fair-haired captain was glad the cloth still hid her face, for if she’d been caught blushing by any of her soldiers she’d have heard about it until Last Dusk.
“Aye,” she gruffly said. “I thank you for your help, it was a close thing.”
“It was you Neustrians who sortied at Graueletter to pull us out of that mess with the beorns,” the Prince of Brus replied. “An even scale requires no thanks, captain. This was due.”
None of this is due, she almost said. You could be safe south, but instead you’re here dying with the rest of us. But she’d been raised better than to insult sacrifice when it was so gallantly given, and so she kept her mouth shut.
“Then I look forward to returning the favour,” she simply said.
The prince smiled ruefully.
“I expect you’ll get the occasion before long,” he said. “The Enemy seems rather impatient of late.”
Fredda almost didn’t ask, for it was overstepping, but when else would she get such an occasion?
“Your Grace,” she hesitantly said. “I have heard that the Hocheben Heights have fallen. Is it true?”
The Alamans gazed at her steadily.
“Why do you ask?” he said.
“My father held command at Emil’s Displeasure,” she admitted. “And I know that letters are no longer carried, but it has been weeks since I’ve heard from him.”
Something like grief passed through the Prince of Brus’ eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he quietly said. “They held until dawn and got word to Tauenberg in time.”
Fredda’s throat choked. Then Father was…
“Thank you,” she croaked out.
Her fists clenched. The Morgentor would hold, damn them all and Keter twice. Her father had died for it, and if that was what it took she fucking would too.
Otto Redcrown, Prince of Bremen by virtue of having been spared by death longer than the rest of his kin, stared down at ink on parchment and saw writ there the death of his people. It might take, he thought, a year. Two, perhaps, if the Enemy spent months thoroughly razing the lowlands of Bremen and Neustria rather than forcing the Rhenian Gates. Yet the moment the fortress around him fell, and Twilight’s Pass with it, the last doom of the Lycaonese had come. They’d lost Hocheben Heights, last month, and the Dead King had since begun to march hordes through the plateau. The fortress at Tauenberg would slow them down a few weeks, he thought, for but after that the dead would have no wall or host hindering their advance into the heartlands of the principality his father and sisters had entrusted to his unworthy hands. Within the month they would be at the gates of the city of Bremen itself, which was in no state to withstand a siege: it was packed with children and the elderly, all those that could or would not fight. Already the roads south had been cleared and all were being sent further south into Neustria, but once the dead had their foothold in Bremen they would begin raiding the refugee caravans and the noose would begin to tighten. The Dead King had moved too swiftly for them, Otto Reitzenberg thought, his armies little quicker on the march than those of the living but ceaseless and tireless in that advance.
Now only a single fortress of Twilight’s Pass remained in the hands of his people: the ancient Morning’s Gate, the last holdfast standing against the march of doom. And if it fell… Oh, Otto understood the stratagem of the Hidden Horror well. It was writ plain in the lay of the map: the last armies of the Lycaonese would be driven from the Morgentor and find in their retreat that the Dead King’s armies were already waiting to the south of them. Supplies would end, the wagon-chains of grain and steel, and even should force of arms fail to end his armies hunger and winter cold would slay his soldiers by the score until none were left. The war was lost, though he could not admit it to the captains looking to him for orders. He must now see to preserving as much of his people as he could, sending them further south into Alamans lands so that a generation from now the war could be taken back to the Dead King and their ancestral holdings reclaimed. Neustria too would fall, of that there could be no question, but further south where the borders of Brus and Lyonis ran close it might be that Lake Pavin and the marshlands of northern Brus could serve as a new line of defence. They were Alamans holdings, as well, and would have many kin to call to their aid when the dead arrived. It might be enough for a time, ff anything could ever be enough when facing the Hidden Horror.
The sharp rap of a knuckle against wood was the sole warning Otto received before his sworn swords let in the man he’d asked for. Prince Frederic Goethal of Brus was still impeccable dressed and groomed even after two weeks of gruelling fighting on the walls and the plains, his ostentatious blond ringlets kept with ribbons made from cloth he’d taken from banners of the Dead King. The Kingfishers, as the prince’s retinue of horsemen had been fondly named by their Lycaonese comrades, had taken to taking the Hidden Horror’s banners at every opportunity so they might have a courtly game of the most insulting use one could make of it.
“Reitzenberg,” the other prince cheerfully greeted him. “Back staring at the maps, I see. Good, I’ve been itching for us to try a sortie.”
“That is what I would ask you to consider, in a manner of speaking,” Otto acknowledged.
The blond man seemed pleased.
“If you’d lend me some of the Hannoven riders, I do believe we could catch their camp near the mountain rivers unaware,” Prince Frederic said. “The waters are already poisoned, I daresay, but we’ll have better luck there than trying the Abomination’s frontlines. Last watch insists they brought in fresh Damned and another pair of wyrms.”
The Chosen dead and raised in the service of the Enemy had been leading the waves trying the walls for days now, though smashing through the ladders before they finished climbing was enough to keep most of them at bay. The wyrms were darker news, for the great serpents the Hidden Horror had crafted from corpses were worse than simple monsters: they were as undead siege towers, their insides made ladders so that the dead could climb up through them after the wyrms sunk their fangs into stone deep enough nothing could move them. Pitch fires were enough to set them to retreat, sometimes, but supplies were running low and more wyrms meant further thinning of them. They might have even less time than he’d hoped before the walls fell.
“I would have you ride in another direction,” the Prince of Bremen said. “Now, before it is too late. Take forty thousand with you, and all our horse. Delay the enemy near Tauenberg, if you can, but you must take everyone you can south.”
“Otto,” the other prince said.
“It is ill-done of me to ask after the sacrifices you have made,” the Prince of Bremen admitted, “but if you could let them into Brus, all who can will fight in its defence. If oaths must be made to you in place of the old crowns, then they will be. I have seen to it.”
“Otto,” Prince Frederic sharply said.
“I’ll hold as long as I can,” he promised. “And send word to the Rhenians to march everything they can through the Gates to slow the Enemy’s march south. A month, at least, I can promise. Beyond that-”
“If you speak another word of this foolishness, Gods forgive me but we may have to duel,” Frederic Goethal flatly said.
“We’re going to die, Frederic,” Otto Redcrown quietly said. “There’s too many of them and even the Morgentor cannot hold forever. Thrice in two days did we come within a hair’s breadth of losing one of the Three Peaks, and the moment we do our annihilation has begin. Go while you still can and take the seed of my people with you, so that one day the Lycaonese may return north.”
“Of course we’re going to die, Otto,” the other man replied, tone gentle. “This is no surprise to me. My cousin Henriette has already been confirmed as my successor and I’ve tasked her with preparing our lands. What remains of the Goethal army will advance north into the marshlands to raise forts and escort your people to safety.”
“It won’t be enough,” the Prince of Bremen said. “You are held in respect, Frederic, in a manner that will not extend to your cousin. A prince needs to lead the last of us.”
“Then go,” Prince Frederic languidly shrugged. “You, too, have been crowned.”
“I am the last of the House of Reitzenberg,” Otto Redcrown said, in a tone that brooked no argument. “So long as one of us breathes, dawn will hold.”
Of that matter there was nothing more to say, for Twilight’s Pass would be his grave as it had been that of greater men.
“I do not begrudge you that pride, my friend,” Frederic Goethal said. “Do not begrudge me the same.”
It was not the same, Otto thought. It was not the same, but he did not know the right words to speak and he would fail in this has he had been failing since the moment Elsa had pressed her bloody crown into his hand and breathed her last. Yet before he could say anything more, the door was roughly banged against.
“Your Graces! The enemy stirs!”
The two princes traded a glance, and wordless agreed to set aside the matter for now. If there was to be another assault on the walls there were more pressing concerns to attend to. Neither of them left their arms or armour save when they slept, these days, though attendants brought helmets to them as well as reports as they both made for the ramparts. The Morgentor had first been raised in the days of the Iron Kings, after the third time Hannoven fell and a ratling warband swelled into horde swarmed down Twilight’s Pass looking for yet more to devour. The Rhenian Gates had held, as they always did, so with the way north into Rhenia barred the ratlings had ended up heading south towards Bremen like a tide of vermin. The battle for the lower mouth of Twilight’s Pass was great victory, but a costly one. When one of the Krauff – who had ruled over Bremen, in those days, predecessors to the Reitzenberg – was elected Iron King in the years that followed, he ordered the raising of the Morgentor to ensure when the Chain of Hunger next broke through there would be walls awaiting them. In the centuries that’d followed, every great against the Dead and the Plague had seen it built into a greater holdfast. There was no greater fortress in the north, it was said, save for the cities of Hannoven and Rhenia themselves. That was no idle boast, Otto know, for otherwise he would not have been able to hold at bay the more five hundred thousand dead the Hidden Horror sent against the walls day and night.
The Three Peaks had begun as the two great towers leaning against the sides of the pass, the third one originally raised as a simple bastion before centuries of additions turned it into a massive mountain of granite masonry. The walls between the three towers rose higher and thicker with the passing years, until it seemed like peaks made by the hands of mortals had filled the mouth of Twilight’s Pass. The great gates that allowed armies and merchants to pass through were layers upon layers of enchanted steel, raised in times of peace but now fully closed since all to the north had been lost. Tunnels dug into the mountainside allowed for sorties from hidden places, though each had been built to it could be collapsed on the enemy if they found it. Otto himself had been commanding from the central peak, which was held mostly by Bremen soldiery. Prince Frederic’s army held the eastern peak, while the Neustrians held the western one and the Hannoven exiles served as reserve and reinforcements for all. It was at the heart of the middle peak that Otto had set his quarters, and it would be swifter for the Prince of Brus to rise to the top of the tower and head east from there than to descend all the way down before doing the same – as such, it was together that they reached the summit of the Herzhaupt and came to gaze down at the Dead King’s sea of dead.
“That is not an assault, unless I am gravely mistaken,” Prince Frederic said, frowning.
Otto did not disagree. The armies of the dead had made their camp further north, among the ruins of Graueletter, where their sorcerers were less vulnerable to sorties. Not without reason. The Lycaonese had proved more than willing to trade dozens of lives, if not entire companies, for the destruction of corpse-mages since the beginning of this war. It was known from ancient lore that the Dead King could not easily replace these, and that many of his foulest rituals required their presence. The Prince of Bremen had been forced to halt the practice of late, as he could no longer afford such losses no matter the prize, but the dead had remained cautious anyway. Close to the Morgentor they had only raised forts and filled them with tireless watchers: the river poured forth only when the ramparts were tried, be that day or night. What had at first been constant bruising assaults – some of them having lasted more than a day and night in length – had since slowed in frequency, though none wise would believe that to be good omen. Yet for all that the armies of the dead had come out of the ruins to the north, none of them had advanced further than the outer forts. Among the seemingly endless ranks of corpses garbed in ancient armour, there lay greater abominations.
The wyrms, foul serpents that were monster and siege tower both. The beorns, bear-like monsters that served as the first wave of assault by climbing the ramparts and spewing out a company’s worth of dead to aid their own rampage while ladders and wyrms advanced. Flocks of long-dead drakes circled above, waiting to spew their clouds of poison and acid. And among the lesser soldiers, ready to lead the dead hordes that would attempt to land their iron ladders on the ramparts, Chosen slain and raised into damnation stood still as statues. More than a dozen times now had Otto driven back that host when it tried to take the Morgentor, yet gazing upon it still sent a shiver up his spine every time. It was an army, he’d thought, raised to be the end of Calernia. And ahead of those dark ranks, a company of riders had approached under ancient banner: a circle of silver stars around a pale crown, the Hidden Horror’s own heraldry. The riders bared their blades and raised them blades in salute, high and shining in the morning sun.
And then they left, and the army went with them. Not a word had been spoken, from beginning to end.
“What is this?” Prince Fredric softly asked.
“A miracle, my friend,” Prince Otto replied in a hushed whisper. “Gods save us all, it is a miracle.”
The dead withdrew all the way back to Graueletter and for three months took not a single step forward.