“Good for a day, a man. For a year, a priest. For a decade, a Chosen. For a lifetime, a fable.”
– Alamans saying
“The western shore has held,” Princess Rozala Malanza announced.
There was a round of cheers, and even some of the royals among the crowd bent their pride enough to participate. Hanno found the customs of the Principate interesting, for much of the rules that bound their behaviour to each other were unwritten. This very assembly, for example. Though the city of Cleves was ruled by Prince Gaspard, who had commanded the defence of the principality for three months before the relieving armies arrived, when assembly was had in the prince’s hall the man always deferred to Rozala Malanza. The Princess of Aequitan, while leading such assemblies, in turn always offered Prince Gaspard the courtesies due to a close friend even though as far as Hanno could tell they could hardly stand each other. The grey-haired man that ruled Cleves was said to stand opposed to much the younger princess’ politics, for though he was only a lukewarm supporter of the First Prince he’d been hostile to the alliance led by Prince Amadis of Iserre – of which, Hanno had been informed, Rozala Malanza was part.
The almost bewildering amount of subtleties to every interaction between the princes and princesses in Cleves was difficult to understand, though often Hanno grasped the shape of what was taking place. Though what some had called his father’s unfortunate marriage meant that even within his citizenship tier he’d never been seriously considered for any of the committees, the dark-haired man himself had once been scribe to the Outer Tribunal. He’d seen the ways the higher tiers heeded conventions of their own that no mere scribe could understand, and the unseen pull those could have on the exercise of all things. Still, some aspects of this remained clear to his eye. In matters of war, Princess Rozala Malanza stood first among equals in Cleves. Even orders from the Iron Prince, fighting fiercely to reclaim Hainaut from the dead, would only ever be taken as suggestions – though suggestions well-heeded, for no man was half so practiced at the war against the Dead King as Prince Klaus Papenheim.
The First Prince of Procer was the highest authority of all, in principle, but she had so far refrained from handing out orders through her Order of the Red Lion. She was said, though, to be moving stone and sea to ensure supplies arrived on time and aplenty on all three northern fronts while pursuing a campaign of her own against the Carrion Lord’s army in the heartlands. Cordelia Hasenbach’s readiness to support a political enemy – Rozala Malanza’s hatred of the First Prince and her allies was an open secret – as well she could and without then meddling at every turn for the sake of the defence of Cleves had impressed the White Knight. Restraint and farsightedness were laudable traits, but especially encouraging when displayed by the ruler who was to be the backbone of the war against Keter.
“Princess Adeline’s army held the beaches until the enemy retreated, and Cantal horse intercepted a flanking force that’d made shore unseen,” Princess Rozala said. “Yet we would all have been days too late, if not for the intervention of the Chosen: we thank the Witch of the Woods and the Valiant Champion, who held the main force at Sengrin for three days and three nights.”
Another cheer followed, even more enthusiastic than the first. The royalty and their attendants turned their gaze to the heroines of the day, which Princess Rozala had requested attend – Raphaella usually did not, and Antigone had confessed finding the proceedings enormously tedious. The Champion was grinning as she preened under their praise, though, and the Witch seeming rather taken aback. Antigone detested cities save for the towering and airy labyrinths of the Gigantes, and as a rule was less than fond of crowds. She’d been forced to suffer both for some time during the defence of Cleves, which was why she was always so eager to take the field against the dead far from the capital whenever opportunity arose. Which was why she’d no notion of how high in the esteem of the Procerans she had risen, the mystery of her mask and aversion to speaking with them only adding to her allure. Already three poems describing the heartbreaking beauty she was hiding under the clay were floating around the city, one even rumoured to have been written by the eldest son and heir of Prince Gaspard.
“It was a victory, and one worth celebrating, yet we must not lower our guard,” Princess Rozala said. “The Dead still have a beachhead at Trifelin, and we’ve reason to believe the attacks on the western shore were meant to draw away some of our forces before an assault from the east.”
The mere mention of the name of Trifelin cast a shroud over what had been a rambunctious assembly. After the siege of Cleves was first broken and the armies under Princess Rozala bolstered the defences, a general offensive had been undertaken to reclaim the shores that’d fallen to the Dead King’s first wave of corpses. Along the shores of Lake Pavin, to the west, the campaign had largely been a success: Prince Alejandro of Segovia had ridden out with much of the Proceran horse and shattered the warbands that’d been ravaging the countryside. Even as a second wave of foot under the Princess of Orne had begun to march there to thoroughly sweep and then garrison the coast, near two thirds of the living armies in the principality had marched in pursuit of the retreating undead army that’d besieged Cleves. The pursuit had led to a mining village by the name of Trifelin, perhaps a day’s march from the northern coast and less than a week’s march from the border with Hainaut. The White Knight still remembered the battle that’d raged there, the utter brutality of it. It’d been the harshest defeat the defenders had been inflicted so far.
The Dead, they later learned, had found a shepherd’s trail leading to the shore of the Tomb that’d allowed them to quietly mass numbers. It’d been an ambush, the purported retreat of the undead a trap to bait the Proceran armies away from walls and defensible grounds. The undead had poured in from the sides when the army was still stretched out in a marching column, archers firing volleys one after another and undead leaping off slopes heedlessly. Often they were simply aiming to kill a soldier with their fall so that the dead man could be raised and turned against his comrades in the heartbeat that followed. It’d been bloody fighting, and Hanno’s order to send the Fortunate Fool ahead of the column had seemingly not paid the dividends he’d expected. Yet the tide had begun to turn when the Mirror Knight struck at a cliff until it collapsed atop him, allowing for a countercharge by Rozala Malanza’s cavalry that swept through the undead archers on one side. It was only moment later that the White Knight was found by the Fortunate Fool, who as it turned out had fallen down a crumbling mine shaft, and only then was the full horror of the trap revealed.
Trifelin was a mining village, and even as Cleves was besieged the dead had been expanding on the tunnels. The Hidden Horror had been laying this trap for months. The Fool’s warning made the difference: Hanno found Antigone and told her of what was coming. When the Dead collapse the tunnels under the outstretched army, the Witch still held the grounds aloft for half an hour through sorcery before collapsing unconscious. And so only six thousand died, at the edges of where the Witch had stood and worked her magic, instead of what could easily have been twice that – if not thrice. All those that died in the collapse rose before the dust had even settled, and though the Vagrant Spear and the Valiant Champion led a furious counter-attack against the undead that was the moment where Keter first revealed its Revenants: a dozen dead heroes and villains had hit the lines and broken the last of the Proceran army’s cohesion, routing it within moments. Hanno and Christophe found Arnaud Brogloise’s still mostly untouched infantry and led it in a rearguard action until night fell, which allowed most the army to retreat, but in the dark thousands more were hunted and slain by prowling ghouls.
Casualties at Trifelin numbered over twelve thousand, at the last count, and given that those losses instantly bolstered the Keteran forces by that much there had not been a major offensive in the northeast of Cleves since. The Dead King’s beachhead was being contained by a ring of fortresses, and Hanno had sent two of his own in the region to stiffen resistance, but those measures would not suffice. It was only a matter of time until the Dead resumed a general offensive, and Trifelin was likely to be where the hammer came down from.
“Prince Gaspard,” Princess Rozala said, “I would now invite you to share the latest news from Hainaut.”
Raphaella, disappointed to no longer be the subject of cheering, cast a curious look at him and Hanno shook his head. She was free to leave if she so wished. The Champion wasted no time disappearing into the crowd of officers, many of them clapping her back and speaking to her on her way out. The Witch followed closely behind after watching Hanno for a moment. Back leaning forward, head moving to the right. Apology for abandoning him to such an assembly, even if she felt in her right to do so. He replied straight-backed, rolling his eyes with chin raised and slightly moving to the left. Haughty amusement, without sting. She was chuckling under her mask as she left, curtly refusing to speak with the officers brave enough to address her.
“Prince Klaus caught the dead flatfooted at the Prisoner’s Mercy with his heavy horse and his spears, breaking ten thousand and the latest offensive against the capital,” Prince Gaspard said. “Keter has not fielded a great army since, for fear of losing it as well!”
The cheers that followed were hardy and desperate, for all knew the defence of Hainaut had been a losing battle and should Cleves’ eastern neighbour fall the principality would not be far behind.
“A great victory,” Prince Gaspard said when the cheering died. “Yet to achieve it much of the garrisons in the northern crags had to be stripped empty, and once ceded that ground will not easily be regained. The Iron Prince cautions us that the Dead now hold the shores of Hainaut without contest, and that they may begin marching reinforcements towards our northeast along the shoreline.”
It was an unsettling thought, and one that dimmed the enthusiasm that’d begun to bloom anew.
“An attempt was also made on the life of the Iron Prince and Princess Mathilda of Neustria, by some fresh manner of ghoul,” the Prince of Cleves continued, tone grim. “They speak to the monsters being more cunning than the usual breed, and possessed of the ability to squeeze through very small spaces. Princess Mathilda was attacked in a holdfast as she slept and took a wound.”
Uneasy murmurs passed.
“Mathilda Greensteel informs us that they die just as easily to steel as the rest, and shriek most satisfyingly when struck with fire,” Prince Gaspard drily added.
Laughter and some surprisingly fond words about Lycaonese valour chased away the uneasiness, likely as the Prince of Cleves had meant to achieve.
“I will be sending the Painted Knife to Hainaut to guard against further attempts,” the White Knight spoke into the silence. “The Repentant Magister will accompany her in scholarly capacity. It has been thrice now that undead still unknown to Cleves have been revealed in Hainaut, and I want them studied for weaknesses before they are faced on our walls.”
It would also prevent Christophe and Kallia from coming to blows again. The fury of their last argument had yet to leave them, and it was only a matter of time until it erupted once more. As for Nephele, a month or two proving the knowledge she had learned at the feet of the Magisterium could be used to fight the Enemy would do her a great good, and Hanno’s understanding was that the situation at the capital of Hainaut was a great deal less perilous than at Cleves. At least for the moment. A rest away from the frontlines would help her find her strength again.
“Would the Forsworn Healer not suffice in such capacity?” Prince Arnaud of Cantal called out. “How many Chosen must we lend to the Iron Prince before he grows satisfied?
Several faces darkened in irritation, others betrayed faint embarrassment: the demarcation between those who were not allies of Arnaud Brogloise and those who were. Hanno watched the man mildly. The prince was prone to bluster, and hardly a popular man even with his allies, but he tended to keep his calm when doom came to call. It was the reason he remained tolerated to such extent. That and Rozala Malanza’s deft handling of him, which was why so many eyes turned to the Princess of Aequitan in the wake of her ally’s comment. Still, there was something about Arnaud Brogloise that had him itching for the coin. A sense of wrongness that only the judgement of the Tribunal would truly be able to settle in his mind. Yet that would have been… unwise. If given reason he would without hesitation, but he had not yet been given reason. In some ways it was a shame that Kallia would soon leave, for among the heroes in Cleves her skills at moving unseen were second to none.
“Surely you did not mean to imply that the Chosen are ours to command, Arnaud,” Princess Rozala smilingly said.
The prince’s already blotchy face reddened.
“Of course not,” he said. “Only, perhaps, that in times of war royal wisdom is best heeded and-”
“Royal wisdom was heeded,” Hanno evenly interrupted. “That of the First Prince of Procer, when she granted the heroes of the Tenth Crusade leave to deploy as they would in accompaniment of her armies.”
“And surely one must not court even the shadow of Her Most Serene Highness’ displeasure,” Prince Alejandro of Segovia said, tone masterfully straddling the line between earnest and sardonic.
Prince Gaspard sneered at the handsome younger man in distaste, but all held their tongue. As Hanno understood it, hard words were still occasionally exchanged over the fact that all the reinforcing royals had voted and even agitated against the measures in the Highest Assembly that’d provided gold for the refurbishing of many of the fortress walls they now fought behind. Prince Alejandro was still on occasion heard to bitterly say that Cordelia Hasenbach’s scheme to spruce up Lycaonese lands with Arlesite gold had paid rather unexpected dividends at this late hour, though only in his cups and in carefully chosen company. When the reinforcing princes had first come, for all their help they’d still been remembered by the people of Cleves as the royalty that’d nearly tossed Cleves and Hainault to the dogs so that Iserre would not suffer Praesi raids. Their reputation had starkly improved since, but their offences were not yet forgot.
“As you say,” Hanno agreed. “That aside, the Silent Guardian and the Silver Huntress have now been at the fortress ring for three months. I will be recalling them for rest and recuperation. As this will coincide with rotation of troops among you as well, I would hear of the designated commanders’ preferences.”
He made no promise to heed them, but he would at least listen. The amused look Princess Rozala cast him made it plain she’d noticed as much though the man meant to accompany her own forces, Prince Arnaud Brogloise, seemed blind to the subtlety.
“I’ll want the Witch of the Woods,” the Prince of Cantal said. “And call the fool anyone who‘d choose otherwise.”
“As was explained at previous councils, Antigone’s ability to work great magics means she is best kept in reserve so she can blunt the Enemy’s offensives,” the White Knight patiently replied. “As she did so recently at Sengrin.”
“Offence is the very essence of war, young man,” Prince Arnaud asserted. “Why, if you were under my command we’d already-”
“I thank you for your contribution,” Hanno serenely replied,
His gaze moved to Princess Rozala, ignoring Prince Arnaud’s spluttering.
“I don’t suppose I could talk you into shaking loose the Valiant Champion?” the Princess of Aequitan smiled.
“I had meant to send the Vagrant Spear to relieve the Silver Huntress,” Hanno admitted. “And the two of them…”
The dark-haired princess sharply nodded, too polite to outright grimace. It was not that Raphaella and Sidonia were at odds, much to the contrary. After some stilted awkwardness due to the significance of Raphaella’s Name to Levantines, they’d become fast friends. Which, for women who were bound to the Champion’s line and the Slayer’s line, meant hunting very dangerous monsters together, drinking every bottle of hard liquor at hand and finding people to either brawl or sleep with. Inherently there was nothing terrible about this, but it did tend to cause some degree of damage to their surroundings. Less than ideal, on the frontlines. It also tended to cause betting pools to form, which Hanno had been told Alamans disapproved of on grounds of impiety.
“Lady Spear has a talent for striding the wilds, I’m told,” Rozala said. “A good fit to relieve the Lady Huntress at Hochelin fortress, given the heights. It is Sautefort I am wary of, for they’ve been seeing larger numbers try their walls lately. A steady sort will be needed.”
“I had been considering the Myrmidon,” the White Knight said. “Yet I can see your concern. She is not the most talkative among us.”
She spoke none of the Proceran tongues, but if she stayed with heroes who could understand her native Aenian she’d likely never bother to learn any of them beyond a handful of words. It would have been good for her, the steady fighting and camaraderie slowly easing her into the learning. Hanno was not, however, beyond acceding to larger concerns.
“The Mirror Knight will ride to replace the Silent Guardian, then,” he said.
There was a thrum of satisfaction in the room, as there always was whenever Christophe was mentioned. Though the Procerans had been duly thankful that heroes had come to help their support against the Dead King, it’d rankled some that so many of the Named they must rely on and occasionally obey were nearly all foreigners. The Mirror Knight, very clearly Alamans and of respectable birth, had been the darling of those since they first heard of him. He remained highly popular with Procerans as a whole, helped in that by the unusual strength of his Name. His growth had not been in wild spurts, as it was for some Named, but the steady regularity of it remained troubling to Hanno. What manner of Evil was Christophe meant to fight, that he would need such strength? Something to see to after the war. There were more pressing matters. It might be needed to send someone with the Mirror Knight, Hanno decided. When exposed to long to the admiration of his people without counterpoint, Christophe tended to lapse into regrettable arrogance. A steady presence at his side reminding him that his power was meant to serve and not be gloried in could only do him some good.
“Three cheers for the Mirror Knight, then,” Prince Arnaud of Cantal loudly said.
“And all our other trusted comrades among the Chosen,” Princess Rozala added, a tad more diplomatically.
Wine was promptly sent for. Hanno was not all that fond of the drink, truth be told, or even drinking spirits as a whole. Yet Procerans drank wine by the barrel whenever they had an excuse, toasting even their worst enemies without batting an eye for the right vintage. Attendants returned with glasses already filled – it would be different bottles for the royals and the officers, Hanno suspected – and a shyly smiling young woman in Cleves livery offered him his glass.
“Thank you,” he replied, then paused.
Like an itch on the back of his neck, a hum in his bones. The attendant paled, thinking she’d given offence. Hanno calmly set down his glass on the table to his side.
“I’d suggest taking cover,” he kindly said,
In the same moment he unsheathed his sword, feeling his Name roar in his veins.
“The Enemy comes,” the White Knight roared along with it.
Bells began to ring outside, and a moment later claws the size of a horse tore the ceiling open. A sky-shaking scream erupted from the fanged mouth of the gargantuan winged beast half-revealed through the tears, and even as he felt the Light well up in him the White Knight could not resist but to feel the slightest bit thankful.
The attack, after all, had come before he was forced to drink the wine out of politeness.