“Seventy-four: if your lover does not have martial training have a rescue plan ready and waiting, as the eventual abduction by your nemesis is essentially inevitable.”– ‘Two Hundred Heroic Axioms’, author unknown
Klaus breathed out, quashing all hesitation, and struck.
The axe-blade bit deep into the skull, killing Ratbiter before the horse realized what was happening. The Bremen stampfen dropped, mercifully, but the spray of blood still went high and hot. Messy thing killing a horse, even when done right. Some would have said that the Prince of Hannoven should have ceded the duty to another, that the arm he’d lost in the fall of Hainaut would make a clean kill harder, but he’d refused. Klaus Papenheim had ridden that horse through death and doom too long to let someone else swing the axe. Wiping the bloodspray off his cheek, the prince knelt by his old friend’s corpse and laid a hand on the unmoving flank.
“Rest, old friend,” the Prince of Hannoven murmured in Reitz. “And if there is a place for you on the other side, I will find you there.”
Klaus Papenheim was, in the end, Lycaonese. He’d miss Ratbiter, but he would not burden the army with a lame horse. His people knew well that hesitation in the face of the dead only deepened the losses, and the virtues of pragmatism had been ground deep into their common soul. Sentiment was of no use from the grave, or from the uglier end of walking death. The old general forced himself up, feeling his knees groan under the weight. Behind him, two bodyguards and a pack of army cooks were waiting.
“Butcher and skin him,” the Prince of Hannoven ordered. “Throw the bones and offal in the disposal pit.”
Pitch and magefire would make sure the Dead King found nothing there to use. Klaus passed the axe’s handle to one of his bodyguard – Dieter, whose scarred scalp had turned white as he became just another boy aged too soon by this infernal war – and strode away. His steps took him down the slope, towards the heart of the beleaguered army’s camp as his bodyguards followed in his wake. His parents would have disapproved of it, his leaving. If they’d thought they glimpsed squeamishness they would have made him watch, if not take up a skinning knife himself. A Papenheim cannot hesitate, Father had always said. A crown is a cage of hard choices, Mother had whispered, tucking him in a child.
Both had set out to burn weakness out of him so that Hannoven would not perish under his watch.
The white-haired prince almost smiled. It’d been many years since he had last thought of Ludwig and Sieglinde Papenheim, neither of which were remembered fondly by many of their kin. Klaus had come to understand, as a ruler in his own right, that much of what had seemed cruelty as a child had in truth been cold pragmatism of the breed necessary to survive at Keter’s gate. He’d even come to be grateful for the hard lessons, in time. Yet the passing of the years had not made him love the imperious and high-handed pair any more than he had whilst they still lived. Ironically enough, he figured neither would have minded: what did his aversion matter to them, when their ways had become his just as they had wished? Some legacies were insidious, he’d learned, and all the harder to shake for their quiet creep.
There were songs, among Klaus’ people, about the love he’d borne for his late wife. How even as a man in his prime he’d never considered remarrying. The truth was not as clean as that. Part of why Klaus had never remarried after Suse’s death had been his many failings as a father. He had, without even noticing, become his parents come again. No wonder Wilfried had pressed that charge too far against the ratlings: when had he ever smiled at his eldest save when the boy came back bloodied and victorious? And Gregor, his sweet secondborn he’d tried to harden for the days ahead, had hidden the sickness until it’d been much too late for even the priests.
Would he have, if he’d not been convinced his own father saw him as a weakling?
And so Klaus had decided he would not fail any more children, that legacy would die with him. Margaret had been the one to draw him out of the darkness of those days, after she gave birth to her own little daughter. His sister had been a hesitant mother, and sometimes distant, but rarely unkind: in this she had fared the best of the House of Hasenbach. All it’d taken was for Klaus to hold that bundle named Cordelia in his arms once and he’d been lost, besotted with the little blonde curls and at the laughing eyes. She’d been a merry child, his niece. Prone to gurgling at strangers and trying to eat her uncle’s beard.
More than once Klaus had found his hand reaching for ink and quill, after the talk that had buried their closeness. Where the First Prince of Procer had sent him to fight and die and Hainaut, ordered him to abandon the principality – the people! – he’d sworn to defend. Always he’d drawn back at the last moment, and only official reports had left for Salia. Yet he often found himself writing that letter in his mind, when he had a spare moment. Bits and pieces of it. Sometimes, niece, you remind me of your grandfather, Klaus would write if he took the quill today. When I was a boy of nine, Prince Ludwig Papenheim ordered the town of Ebelburg burned when he heard ratling warbands were two hours away.
If he hadn’t, the townsfolk would have insisted on fighting and standing their ground, the white-haired prince wrote in his mind. They would have said the children could not run quick enough, that the elderly would not survive the trip. Instead he had torches thrown, and four hundred people were saved. They did not thank him for it, Cordelia.
Klaus still remembered the soldiers talking when they returned to Hannoven, the way they’d described his father. Carved in iron, they’d said, and it had been as much invective as praise. Yet they had respected him for it, he remembered. Even the townsfolk he’d burned out of their own homes and brought back to his capital even as a larger force assembled to drive back the ratlings. So I understand it, the decision, Klaus Papenheim silently penned. It’s in our blood. But I am the townsfolk of my childhood, niece. I cannot thank you for having ordered the torches thrown at Hannoven. The old prince knew his home would have fallen even if he’d ridden out to defend it. He’d read the maps, counted the days. Hannoven had been doomed the moment this war began.
And yet Klaus Papenheim had not been there to fight for it, and this he could not forgive himself – or anybody else.
The old general found his tent nestled near the bottom of the hill, surrounded by sworn swords from Hannoven. There the rest of their makeshift war council still held session, sifting through heap of troubles that the last bloody push to take the town of Juvelun from the dead had brought down on them. His second, Princess Mathilda Greensteel of Neustria, was sharing the table with Captain Nabila of Alava – a short, stout woman with a heavily painted face – as the Dominion’s man and Prince Arsene of Bayeux held down his own corner as the voice for the Alamans and the fantassins.
The last two men stood for smaller forces, but in their own way crucial ones: freshly back from healing the White Knight sat with a pleasant smile as he methodically ate his way through an apple, commander of all Named with the army. For the Damned it was the Barrow Sword that had been elected to stand. Klaus counted the man a rogue and a vicious specimen of the breed, but he was also solid in a fight and a devil against Revenants – the Prince of Hannoven was willing to forgive much in favour of that. The Dominion villain often clashed with Captain Nabila, but it seemed more like sparring than the venom Catherine Foundling had warned him might ensue.
The Gods only knew where General Rumena had gotten to, for it came and went as it pleased, but in its absence it had left behind a dark-skinned drow that spoke perfect Chantant and called itself Mighty Sagasbord. It was both habitually sardonic and eerily knowing, which usually made for good advice unpleasant to hear.
“- then we should split our forces and strike now, else the enemy will delay us further,” Captain Nabila insisted.
“We’re still uncertain how many escaped into the valley,” Prince Arsene skeptically replied. “We could be headed into-“
“She’s right,” Klaus cut in, striding into the tent.
The splatter of blood on him got a few surprised looks as he lowered himself into a seat at the table, but nothing more. Everyone here had gotten their hands bloody taking Juvelun, and if they were to survive this trap it wouldn’t be the last time.
“Dare we hope for an elaboration, Prince Klaus?” the Prince of Bayeux testily asked.
“We took the town but the dead retreated in good order,” the Prince of Hannoven replied. “It could be ten thousand made it out, it could be thirty thousand. Either way, every drifting warband in the central valley of Hainaut will be headed that way now. If we don’t strike before the enemy musters up properly, we’ll lose the battle ahead of us.”
It’d taken three days and night of brutal fighting before Juvelun fell, the ditches and walls dug by the dead stormed at all too high a cost. Yet there’d been no final keep to assail, no last redoubt: instead the undead had retreated under cover of night, leaving behind a token force for the drow under General Rumena to annihilate. Though their scouts had insisted that a hundred thousand undead had been holed up in Juvelun, in practice the Prince of Hannoven suspected they’d fought around seventy thousand at most. The rest had been kept back, and most likely were down in the valley preparing to prevent Klaus’ army from linking up with the Black Queen’s. Should the enemy succeed in that design, no one in this tent would still be drawing breath by the moon’s turn. They’d make a fight of it, the Prince of Hannoven knew, but it’d be a defeat engraved in stone.
“Strike hard, then keep moving,” the Barrow Sword approvingly said. “A sound notion.”
Dominion officers always thought like raiders, the old general deplored. It wasn’t always a weakness, as there were similarities between the glorified raids that the Levantines called ‘honour wars’ and an offensive into enemy territory. But the distances and numbers involved meant a lot of their instincts pulled them the wrong way. It’d been too long since the Dominion of Levant had been in a real war, one that didn’t end with a summer’s fighting and a few promises traded between Blood.
They lost the learning, Klaus thought. The Army of Callow had gone through a bevy of rough campaigns and sharpened the skills with war schools while Procer had been given a refresher in the art by the Great War and the latest round of the Uncivil Wars, but the Dominion had nothing of the sort. All their learning was done on the field, with bloody costs for every mistake.
“We’re not in fighting fit for a pitched battle,” Princess Mathilda of Neustria bluntly said. “It’s been a day since we took the town and the priests are still overwhelmed with wounded. We lost a dozen soldiers to infections this morning because the healers would have died if they kept drawing on Light.”
“I forced the Stalwart Apostle to drink a concoction that’d make her sleep,” the White Knight admitted. “She’d still be in the tents otherwise, and burned out permanently.”
She was a good kid that one, Klaus thought. A little soft and with too much faith the Heavens would swoop down and fix everything, but prayer had never gone amiss when things got dark.
“Exactly,” Prince Arsene said. “Are we to send forces into a battle without priests and mages, Your Grace, or consign wounded to death so that our hasty vanguard is not bare of protection?”
This is why your people lost the Great War, Prince Klaus Papenheim thought. Why none of you were able to win it, beyond the Tower’s manipulations. None of you were willing to pay what it would have cost you.
“We will consign wounded to die,” the Iron Prince flatly said. “If the Enemy still has swarms to spare, we would be facing a potential wipe without priests and mages to compensate.”
“The Witch of the Woods-“
“- will do what she can, but cannot be relied on,” Mathilda Greensteel interrupted the White Knight, nodding at Klaus. “If Revenants come after her, the protections she has to offer will not be enough.”
“This is madness,” Prince Arsene insisted. “We are to leave our own to die and risk it all on battle with a force we know little about?”
“Would you prefer to be besieged in this lovely ruin of a town?” the Barrow Sword drily asked.
“Yes,” Prince Arsene emphatically replied. “We still have supplies for a few days – more, perhaps, considering our losses – and if we dig in the Black Queen can come relieve us as soon as she has secured the Cigelin Sisters.”
“What impressive eagerness to die,” Mighty Sagasbord noted, laying its chin on its palm. “Your confidence surprises, Prince of Man. We took this Juvelun from a numerically superior force, yet you now believe that should we be besieged by an enemy many times our greater we will prevail?”
“Our men are worth easily three of the dead,” Prince Arsene harshly said, pride clearly stung. “Ours anyway, dark elf.”
“No Firstborn will ever take your life, Prince of Man,” Mighty Sagasbord smiled, without a single speck of friendliness to it.
The Alamans prince looked surprised and confused, but those more familiar with the ways of the Firstborn winced at the bald insult. The drow ate the skills and knowledge of those they slew, Klaus knew, so the Mighty had been implying that there was nothing worth taking from Arsene of Bayeux. Best to step in before this went further astray, the Prince of Hannoven thought.
“We might be able to hold the down, if we can put up defences before the dead arrive,” Klaus admitted. “For a few days. But they won’t fight us, Prince Arsene. They will surround us and wait us out instead. The Hidden Horror is patient, he will starve us into the grave.”
The army that’d come out of Malmedit like devils pouring out of a Hellgate was not far behind them. Three, four days at most. If Klaus’ army stayed in Juvelun, it risked annihilation: the enemy in the valley would pen it in from the west, the great host of Malmedit from the east. If that happened, even using a pharos device to escape wouldn’t be enough. The dead would strike in force the moment the gates opened, on both flanks, and the more of Klaus’ soldiers made it into the Twilight Ways the higher the risk of those staying in Creation being overwhelmed by sheer numbers and horrors.
They’d ran the games, him and the Marshal of Callow. Any army trying to evacuate through the Twilight Ways while giving battle was facing at least half its number in losses, and more frequently up to two thirds. There came a tipping point early in the process that made it impossible to maintain cohesion in the ranks, and the moment panic set in a massacre was inevitable. No, Klaus Papenheim would not allow the enemy to slip that noose around his neck. Better the wounded perish today that a hundred times their number tomorrow.
“The Black Queen’s column will relieve us,” Prince Arsene pointed out. “With her numbers-“
“She does not have the supplies to feed us, Your Grace,” the White Knight calmly said. “Her force is even larger than ours, and stretched the Grand Alliance’s capacity to supply. Even if she empties all her stores, all she can accomplish is join us in our starvation after a few more days.”
The Prince of Bayeux’s face soured, but he argued no further. The man was overly cautious, but not a fool. He understood what a combined army of over a hundred thousand, surrounded and far behind enemy lines without any supply lines, meant in practice. The Prince of Hannoven’s insistence to take Juvelun had not been, contrary to what some wagging fantassin tongues insinuated, out of desire for a victory to gild his name. The other choices had all been worse: either turning back to the defensive line, and so tossing the Black Queen’s army to the wolves, or allowing a massive army of two hundred thousand to march down on threadbare defensive lines.
By taking Juvelun and smashing the army holding it, Klaus had forced the Malmedit army to pursue him west into the valley. He’d bled his army achieving this, but it was better than the disaster that would be the destruction of Catherine Foundling’s army or the end of Procer that the defensive lines breaking would represent.
“I have voiced my thoughts on what must be done,” Captain Nabila said. “And I do not take back these words. Yet I add this: if there is no appetite for the fight, we must withdraw. Take to the Twilight Ways and leave. I will not swear the warriors of Alava to a desperate end in Juvelun.”
Prince Klaus kept his face calm. That had been, however delicately put, a threat that if the army stayed in Juvelun the Levantines would take to the Twilight Ways and leave them all behind. His control over the coalition was slipping, the old general realized. Eyes turned to Prince Arsene of Bayeux, whose face had grown conflicted. The man, Klaus knew, did not enjoy being at odds with most of the table when it came to making war plans. But he saw it as his duty to speak not only for the soldiers of Bayeux and Brabant but also for the fantassins companies, which meant espousing their causes even when they were unpopular with other commanders.
“I’m not certain if an order to march towards another battle would be followed,” the fair-haired prince admitted. “My men will follow me, but the Brabant conscripts have been unruly since Prince Etienne died and half the fantassins are mutinous. They were hard used with the breaches on the second day, and have not forgot it.”
“Alava led the charge on the first, and the Lycaonese on the third,” Captain Nabila harshly said. “What sets them apart from us, I wonder?”
The appearance of cowardice was like throwing red meat at a starving dog, for Levantines. They couldn’t resist sinking their teeth in it, and they were especially quick to point those fingers when it came to Alamans.
“The hardest defences to assail were the second day’s,” the Iron Prince acknowledged. “And their losses were significant. I have not forgotten that.”
The other prince looked relieved.
“It is not mutiny, Your Grace,” Prince Arsene said. “Your command is not contested. They have simply reached their limits.”
It was a mutiny, whether the other man wanted to admit it or not. It was simply not yet an open one, not that illusion would survive his giving an order. The rank and file did not understand why they were here fighting and dying, could not grasp the broader theatre of war. That was why trust between soldiers and generals was so important: they had to trust in the person commanding them to steer them right even if they could not understand what was being done and why. It now seemed like trust in Klaus Papenheim was running out. What was it that’d done him in, he wondered – the darkly comical march to and away from Malmedit, or the brutal fighting taking a heavily defended town seemingly in the middle of nowhere? Either way, the horse had grown lame from the hard riding.
“They must be made to understand what is at stake,” the Iron Prince said. “Gather the officers for me, Prince Arsene. I will address them personally.”
The other man looked unconvinced. Klaus did not have a reputation as much of an orator, it was true. The only vote he’d ever personally cast in the Chamber of Assembly instead of letting an assermenté do it for him had been the one that’d put his niece on the high throne. Still, Prince Arsene nodded in assent. Likely he figured that after the old general failed to sway the vacillating captains discussion of a compromise could begin in earnest.
“Let us part ways until then,” Klaus said. “There is no need for further discussion.”
The Prince of Bayeux took his leave, and after a lingering look Captain Nabila did the same. Mathilde slowed as she passed by his seat.
“Veitland?” the Princess of Neustria asked.
“Hauptberg,” the Prince of Hannoven replied.
She nodded, and strode away without another word. Nothing more needed to be said. Klaus found that the Barrow Sword was looking at them, eyes considering.
“Nabila is young to the Lord of Alava’s service, did you know,” the bearded Damned casually said. “Only a decade as one of his captains, most of them spent far from Yannu Marave himself. She rose to her position on merit, not closeness or years.”
“She has proved a fine officer,” Klaus replied, for it was true.
“There’s a reason she held borders, back home, and did not stay at her lord’s side,” the Barrow Sword smiled. “In Levant, authority flows from either Blood or blood.”
The Prince of Hannoven met the other man’s gaze, unblinking. It would take more than cryptic talk from a mouthy grave robber to impress him.
“I do wonder how you’d do there, Iron Prince,” the Damned chuckled.
Someone, Klaus thought, ought to have beaten the smugness out of that mean by now. He gave no reply to the villain, who seemed to take it as a victory and left the tent. Behind stayed only the White Knight, whose look of unruffled patience had not changed a whit.
“You have something to say?” Klaus asked.
“The Enemy breathes down our necks,” the White Knight said. “I do not understand its great designs, for I am no general, but the jaws of the trap are closing on us. That much I can sense.”
“We reach the turning point soon,” Klaus quietly agreed. “One way or another. There is a battle taking shape in Hainaut that will decide the fate of the Principate.”
“Not here in Juvelun,” the White Knight mused. “It has not come together properly. And you might be surprised, Prince Klaus, by the roar of this army should it allow itself to be surrounded here. There is a… power behind such stands. Even more so when there is salvation on the way, awaiting the darkest hour to deliver dawn.”
“There are not many things I would not trust the swords of the Lycaonese to prevail over, White Knight,” the Iron Prince replied, “but steel cannot triumph over hunger. There can be no victory over an empty belly.”
“So I’ve gathered,” the dark-skinned Chosen amiably replied. “And so now we must prepare for the storms on the horizon and pray that the most terrible of our allies will come to our aid.”
The old general stared at the other man, wondering at the tone used when speaking of the hero’s equal and opposite under the Terms. He’d never put any stock in the rumours about the Black Queen and the White Knight, but like many he’d always been unsettled by the cordiality between the two of them. Often the warmth in the voices when they spoke of each other had startled him, but now he heard no hint of it in the White Knight’s words. There had been a distancing there, he thought. Not enmity, but a cooling of relations. Merciful Gods, what was it that’d really happened in the Arsenal?
The rumours spread by the dozen, each wilder and more fanciful than the last, but truth was in short supply.
“We will have order,” Klaus Papenheim simply said. “And we will march west, as we must.”
“I expect we will,” the White Knight tiredly said. “I will ready my Named for the march, Iron Prince.”
The white-haired prince looked askance at the other man, almost surprise.
“That is all?” he said.
“I do not judge,” Hanno of Arwad said, rising to his feet. “This has not changed, and never will.”
The Chosen left the tent after offering a small bow, not speaking another word, and Klaus dragged himself upright once more. His day was far from over. The old prince attended to the army of Hannoven, speaking to his captains and preparing them for what was to come, and awaited the word of the Prince of Bayeux. Yet it was not another Proceran who came for him first but something altogether more eldritch. General Rumena, the only drow in all of the army come south to bear such the title, was stooped and old in a way that Firstborn never were. It was ancient, Klaus knew, in a way that it was hard to truly understand.
The fucker was also a bastard soldier of the old breed, so Klaus Papenheim had never found him difficult to deal with. He’d yet to manage to talk the other general into no longer invading his tent whenever it felt like it, but aside from that their relationship had been rather amiable from the start.
“You have something for me?” the Prince of Hannoven asked.
Complaining about the habitual intrusion would be wasted time in a day that already had too few hours.
“We went down to have a look in the valley,” General Rumena agreed. “The dead gather, Hannoven Prince. The valley had been stripped bare of warbands – Losara Queen’s work, I wager – but the dead salvaged a host from the fall of Juvelun. Perhaps thirty thousand, though they are not yet properly mustered for battle.”
Klaus grimaced at the news. He’d hoped for closer to twenty thousand, fool’s hope as it had been. That much could have been handled without leaning too heavily on the Alamans to supply soldiers for the force that would sally out.
“How long do we have?”
The wrinkled and grey-skinned creature considered that a moment.
“The dusk of tomorrow,” the drow finally said. “They will be ready for war then, and waiting for you. The disarray from the fall of Juvelun will last no longer than that.”
Klaus stiffly nodded.
“My thanks,” he said. “Will your sigils be in fighting fit tonight?”
“We always are,” General Rumena smiled unpleasantly. “Chno Sve Noc.”
“So your lot keep telling me,” the Iron Prince grunted back. “Get ready for a strike after dark. We can’t afford to linger here much longer.”
“Do your people not have a saying about the weakest link?” General Rumena mused.
“A curse,” Klaus corrected. “May you be the weakest link in the Chain of Hunger.”
“Yes,” the old drow nodded. “That is not us, Hannoven Prince. See to your own sigils, before speaking of dragging feet.”
And just as boldly as it’d slipping into his tent, the Firstborn strolled out after seizing the last word. Klaus could have fought it, but what would be the point? Better to let it keep its prize and remain pacified. His pride was not so overgrown as to be unable to tolerate the occasional pointed quip from a peer. It still took half a bell after that for the Prince of Bayeux to send a messenger to him, giving word that the other royal had at last gathered the captains in need of swaying. The reason for the delay became clear when the Prince of Hannoven headed to the pavilion mention by the messenger.
That it was a pavilion and not a simple tent where the talks were to be had said much about the numbers involved.
Twenty handpicked Hannoven armsmen followed him inside, his bodyguard, but there must have been almost a hundred men and women already packed tight within. Fantassins captains, mostly, but many peasant officers from the Brabant conscripts as well. Prince Arsene himself stood to the side with a handful of bodyguards, as if to make it clear he was not one of the wavering souls. From the start Klaus found that the mood within was mutinous. He spoke clearly and concisely, avoiding frills and japes out of respect for the grim deeds he was asking for, but twice he was interrupted by a challenge from a captain and more often than that by jeers.
“To stay in Juvelun is death,” the Prince of Hannoven told them. “We will be surrounded and destroyed.”
“And where would we go instead, bloody Keter?” a woman called out.
“Retreat,” another voice called out. “We must retreat.”
“We must go west,” Klaus roared, his voice rising above the din. “General Rumena has reported to me that the remnants from the defenders of Juvelun are gathering in the valley, and we must strike west to disperse them before they can mount a true threat.”
The shouts of dismay were deafening, interwoven with jeers and calls for retreat or holing up in the town. There would be no convincing them, the Prince of Hannoven thought. It was Prince Arsene who called the crowd to order, in the end.
“Hauptberg,” the Iron Prince spoke into the silence, “is the name of a town two days away from the Morgentor by horse.”
His bodyguards had closed ranks around him when the crowd had grown wild and stayed in formation since.
“My people,” Klaus Papenheim said, “know it as where the first of the Iron Kings, Alrich Fenne, was crowned ruler of all Lycaonese before smashing the ratling hordes in Twilight’s Pass.”
There had been seven kingdoms back then, though in time they became the four modern principalities of the north. But the first of the Iron Kings had not used to sweet words to convince the other royals to kneel to him, on that day. The truth was altogether bloodier. On the last day of the talks held at Hauptberg, none of the kings had been willing to swear to another and stand as a single force against the implacable foe coming their way.
And so Alrich Fenne had, in the dark of night, killed them all.
“Sometimes,” the old general said, “someone has to order the torches thrown.”
He curtly brought his hand down and the head of his bodyguards screamed out the order. Like a tide of steel, soldiers of Hannoven and Neustria began pouring into the pavilion.
“Arrest those who kneel,” the Iron Prince ordered. “Kill the rest.”