“As the long summer dies the wolves will dance with the sons of the king, and though cities will fall in the end the only victor will be death.”
– Extract from the prophetic ‘Book of Manifold Dooms’, by the Augur Kaspar Reitzenberg (widely considered useless, as it foretells events both past and future without drawing distinction)
The city of Hainaut was a beautiful sight.
When I’d first laid eyes on it, last summer, the majesty of it had startled me. The capital had been built atop a tall and precipitously steep plateau – at its highest point it must have been at least three hundred feet going down in a straight line – that jutted out of the valley in more or less the shape of a hand laid flat, with the fingers in that description representing a gradually declining slope headed down towards the valley floor. A butte, which was the Proceran name for a hill so tall and narrow it was almost as a pillar of rock, jutted out slightly to the left of where the ‘fingers’ began, almost like the point of thumb. The most eye-catching part aside from the height, though, was the pale white wall circling around the city occupying the plateau heights. From closer up the ramparts of pale granite were revealed to be more of a pale grey with impurities, but at a distance and in the morning light it looked like the capital was crowned by walls of white stone.
“It is grand city, this Hainaut,” the Apprentice said in a hushed tone. “I studied among the schools in the high hills of Ashur, yet even their splendour pales in comparison.”
“It’s pretty enough,” the Squire conceded. “Seems like a lot of trouble, though. I hope they have good wells, or it’s going to be a bloody walk down and back up that slope every morning with full buckets.”
I swallowed a grin and Hakram gave me a rather droll look. I’d made a comment not too dissimilar after having my first look at it. I suspected the shared of experience of having had the water chore – fetching buckets for baths or cleaning – had led to a shared skepticism of living anywhere water would need to be brought uphill.
“There is not a speck of romance in you,” the Ashuran mage reproached him.
“Romance I want out of a lover,” Arthur Foundling snorted, “but out of a city, I much prefer functioning sewers. Gods, just imagine if it doesn’t rain up there for a month and the drains go dry. The stink.”
I cocked an eyebrow at Hakram. Boy had a point. Mind you, the Vaudrii – the Alamans tribe that’d first settled here – had not been idiots. They’d not just picked the place because it’d look nice from a distance.
“Almost a fourth of the plateau, like a teardrop at the centre, is taken up by a great pool that the locals call le Bassin Gris,” Adjutant informed both the young heroes. “It is fed by rain, which is frequent in these parts, but also by several great underground aquifers. Though you cannot see it from where we stand, near the back of the city there is a waterfall going over the edge of the cliff.”
“See?” the Apprentice triumphantly said. “It was a sound notion, and soundly executed. You simply cannot stand to seen anyone spending coin anything but a good horse or sordidly unseasoned meat stew.”
“If I seasoned it the way you do, Sapan, my skin might just turn permanently red,” the Squire drily replied. “And a good horse is a sounder investment than white walls by any reasonable measure. The wall’s stuck in the same place, and you can’t ride it.”
Hakram cleared his throat and both youngbloods immediately went silent, looking somewhat guilty at having bickered into front of us even if it’d been amicably. The orc was only amused, though. He’d been in a good mood all morning. Some of that no doubt had to do with the way that he wasn’t sitting in a chair and instead standing on his own, though he was leaning heavily against iron-bound crutches. Even the leg he’d not lost had become weak in the time he’d spent without using it, so standing for more than a few moments at a time was both tiring and painful to him. Leaning on the crutches took the edge off that, though Masego had ordered me not to let him do it for too long. Orc musculature was different from that of humans, so doing this would actually begin pinching a muscle in his armpit that humans didn’t have.
“Princess Beatrice told me that about a century back they had to make laws about not throwing filth and detritus into the Bassin Gris,” I idly added. “It’d gotten so tainted the locals were calling it the Brown Basin instead, so now there’s a designated point for that near the waterfall. All the sewer drains lead there as well.”
“See,” Arthur Foundling smugly grinned at the other Named. “I told you-”
Adjutant cleared his throat again, which killed that in the crib, and glanced at me reproachfully. I shrugged, unrepentant. Laure rats stuck together, at least to the extent that wasn’t going to get me killed. The White Knight had rather frankly told me that there simply was no one in a position to take the Squire as even an informal apprentice, at the moment, so he saw no need to move the boy form his current placement. For the moment at least. That’d been with the understanding that I wasn’t just going to put Arthur in a padded box somewhere into total isolation from other Named, though, so I’d arranged to have him introduced to a few people. Apprentice, whose given name I had recently learned was Sapan, was one of them. On the heroic side, I’d also presented him to both Roland and the Silver Huntress.
I wasn’t going to pretend I’d not chosen those names and Names carefully – Apprentice both young and based far away, the Silver Huntress raised by Ranger and uninterested in power games, the Rogue Sorcerer both charismatic and opposed to certain aspects of traditional heroics – but I’d been careful never to actually hinder him in any way. I was well aware of how badly that story could turn on me if I dipped my toe in it. Apprentice was a peer in age and power, Roland was highly distinguished as both a researcher and a combat mage as well as one of the most broadly travelled of the heroes, the Silver Huntress was a frequent leader of bands of five. All of these connections might one day be of use, to a young man with ambitions to make a name for himself.
That they were also unlikely to be connections that came around to bite either myself or my legacy in the ass was, of course, a mere fortunate coincidence.
In the distance there were sudden flashes of light that caught everyone’s attention. They were coming from atop the butte on the side of the plateau, a thick pillar of stone topped by a tall watchtower that was best known by Hainaut folk as la Veilleuse. The prelude to our retaking of the capital had begun. A small mixed force led by Named – the White Knight, the Silent Guardian and the Vagrant Spear – would come out of the Twilight Ways, a frontline of Osena slayers brutally scything through whatever dead held the place. In small, tight places like the halls and stairs of a watchtower I’d seen few warriors more deadly than Lady Aquiline’s nimble pack of killers. Robber, who’d skirmished at their side more than once, had admitted to me that even goblins were wary of getting in close with that lot. The slayers were unusually quick, for humans, and years of monster-hunting meant that those with bad habits had already been thinned from the herd.
“Can I ask,” the Squire hesitantly began, “why we are bothering to take the watchtower?”
I hesitated. Teaching that one anything would always carry risks, and as long as he didn’t have a formal mentor the risks were even sharper.
“I am curious as well,” the Apprentice admitted. “There are barely any dead in there, I was made to understand. Should our efforts not be concentrated on the gates?”
I decided, after a heartbeat, that shared curiosity diluted this to an acceptable level.
“The gates are what we’re aiming at by taking the Veilleuse,” I said. “It’s because of the way Hainaut was built.”
“There is only one way in and out of the city,” Adjutant told them. “The Ivory Gates, a set of seven great gates. When the city was still inhabited they were each dedicated to allowing certain people in our out – one of the gates, the one in the middle, was even dedicated to solely the Volignacs and those they favoured.”
“Very orderly,” the Apprentice said, sounding pleasantly surprised. “I’d heard of the Ivory Gates in my lessons, but the Rogue Sorcerer never mentioned this.”
Ashurans, I thought with distaste. I expected they wouldn’t even mind the Hells too much, if they were set up with proper citizenship tiers and open for trade.
“The city was built with the expectation it would have to be held against raids and armies,” I said. “So beyond the natural defences the ancient Volignacs laboured on the land some. It used to be that the slope going up to the walls and the gates was relatively even all around, but over the years they dug a much steeper slope and left just a broad ramp going up to the gates. Actually taking this city, when it’s being defended, is bloody work. I’m told the last time the Princes of Arans tried to storm this place, the Volignacs just pushed great round boulders over the walls and let Creation do the rest.”
Both young heroes winced at the thought. Yeah, even I had been impressed by that particular historical anecdote. It was typical of the line, apparently. House Volignac was noticeably poorer in coin and manpower than all three of its neighbouring royal rivals, but it’d not lost a significant amount of land to any of them in about a century. As far as I could tell, they’d remained in power largely by being utterly savage at anyone who crossed their borders while simultaneously marrying into the royal houses that were enemies to their enemies.
“That’s almost in the same league as Summerholm,” the Squire said, visibly impressed.
“No,” I replied, shaking my head. “It’s significantly inferior, and that’s actually what got Princess Julienne Volignac – Princess Beatrice’s sister and predecessor – killed. Those gates and that path are the only way in and out of the city. So when the dead broke the Iron Prince’s defensive line up north and poured into the central valley, the city was a nightmare to evacuate.”
Hainaut city wasn’t that large by Proceran standards, maybe sixty to seventy thousand people, but that was a lot of scared civilians wanting to keep their earthly possessions going through the same cramped streets to reach the same seven measly gates. The way Klaus Papenheim told it, at the height of the panic it had taken literal days to get a cart from the centre of the city to the Ivory Gates. People had slept in the streets instead of their homes so no one would take their place while they were gone.
“Julienne Volignac rode out with most of her mounted retinue to buy enough time for her people to flee,” Adjutant soberly said. “Not a single horseman from that charge returned.”
That put a bit of pall on the mood, so I moved on quickly.
“Essentially, going up that ramp and taking the gates from Keter would be a messy business,” I said. “The moment our presence was revealed, the dead moved most of their garrison to defend those gates and the plaza behind them. While we could use the Ways to enter the city directly, the Dead King has proved in the past that he’s capable of putting a temporary lock on gating in the region so it’d be a risk – it could close after our vanguard got through and then the troops would be stuck in the middle of an enemy-held city.”
“I still do not see the use of taking the watchtower,” the Apprentice admitted.
“The upper half of the tower,” I told her, “is significantly higher than the rest of the capital.”
Arthur Foundling started.
“Engines,” he said. “You had siege engines moved in through the Ways as well as the soldiers.”
I smiled. Clever boy.
“Before long our sappers will have them in place and we will be able to begin firing,” I confirmed. “Straight into the undead so very tightly packed into the plaza right behind the gates.”
The enemy had meant to make that place into a meat grinder that it would cost us dearly to clear, focusing on causing damage to our army rather than defending the city properly since the garrison the Dead King had left in here was simply too small to hold it against us. We’d been disinclined to allow that, though the watchtower tactic had actually been suggested by Lady Aquiline. Girl had a knack for sliding the knife in where it hurt, couldn’t deny that. Dominion leadership was coming along nicely in some ways, and I suspected that after all this should some Arlesite princes try their hand at a border war with Levant they would be in for a rude awakening. The Blood hadn’t stayed in charge of Levant as long as it had by being slow to learn lessons.
“What happens if they then retreat into the city itself?” the Apprentice asked. “Would it not be hard fighting to clear the capital street by street?”
“To some extent, but less than you believe,” Hakram told her. “If they abandon the Ivory Gates then we will take them, and the moment we do sending soldiers into the city through gates is no longer as risky.”
“Ah,” the Apprentice murmured. “Because even if the ritual lock is deployed, the forces in the city will be able to reinforce the vanguard by foot.”
I nodded in approval. That was pretty much it. If the enemy dug in further into the city, using street barricades and ambushes, we could essentially overturn that entire set of tactic by gating in soldier behind the chokepoints they were trying to hold against us and striking at them from the back.
“It seems like a flawless strategy,” the Squire admitted.
“Don’t say that,” I said, and he jumped in surprise. “Never say that.”
“I… apologize, Your Majesty?” he tried.
“There’s no surer way to get Fate to piss on your plans than calling them infallible,” I sharply said. “I once saw the Tyrant of Helike tip a winning fight the other way just by boasting about how godsdamned invincible he was.”
The little bastard had done it on purpose, but the point stood.
“Same goes for you,” I told the Apprentice, tone softening. “You lot won’t get your knuckles rapped as immediately as a villain making the same boast would, but there’s a reason that most heroes are intimately familiar with the concept of tragic irony.”
They both mumbled chastened agreements, and for a moment the entire situation felt like some sort of fever dream I’d stumbled into. Hakram, ever a prince among men, delivered me from that unsettling sensation.
“We’re due for a show soon, so I’d keep your eyes on the sky,” Adjutant gravelled. “Our ram is about to strike.”
I cocked my head to the side, taking a sniff from the air, and nodded in agreement. Yeah, I could feel it too. Like a storm in the making.
“I’d not heard about the Volignac men taking siege weapons with them,” Arthur said, sounding surprised. “The opposite, in fact. The sappers were vocally disapproving.”
Which usually meant insulting deeply limericks, if they were feeling nice.
“While I mean no insult to the siegecraft of the Army of Callow, rams and trebuchets won’t dent a structure enchanted the way the Ivory Gates were,” the Apprentice said. “I am told the foundational enchantments were laid by the famous wizard Yvon de Grandpré himself. The gates were made beyond decay and strength of arms, Your Majesty, so mere engines could do nothing.”
“Unless the Rogue Sorcerer is sent out,” Sapan added. “He is a noted spellbreaker.”
“The enchantments don’t actually make the gate unbreakable, Apprentice,” I noted.
In the abstract, according to Trismegistan principles it was possible to achieve but the degree of power and precision required would be impossible. Akua had noted that ‘physical invincibility’, as she had termed it, would require an empire’s worth of sorcery simply to empower a handkerchief. And that was just the formula itself, never touching the trickier issue of materials: almost every substance known to us would shatter under that kind of strain, or some cases be outright disintegrated. And while Jaquinite magic did work in some wonky and counter-intuitive ways – it was godsdamned ridiculous that imitating the cadence and syllables of certain passages of the Book of All Things should empower and stabilize a spell – its fundamental limits weren’t actually too different from those of Trismegistan sorcery.
“There’s protections against entropies – rust, erosion, rot – and the centrepiece is the famous ‘dual enchantment’ that made Yvon famous,” I said.
Famous mostly to avid scholars of magic, but I did have a distressing amount of those in my circle of closest friends.
“The strengthening of material and the reflection of force,” Apprentice admiringly said.
Basically what good ol’ Yvon whatshisname had done was he’d made the gates and surrounding stonework denser than those materials actually were, which in practice made them much tougher. But that wouldn’t be enough to actually stop something like, say, a wyrm if the construct decided it really wanted to go through those gates. So another enchantment, bound to the other one – that was the impressive part, supposedly, since it ensured that since the magics were linked they’d never clash and erode at each other – had been laid that reflected physical impacts when they struck at the Ivory Gates. There was a hard limit to how much power could be reflected, but it’s still been very clever: a trebuchet stone tossed at the Ivory Gates would actually lose a lot of its momentum from the reflection, so it wouldn’t be powerful enough to dense the denser materials.
It also gave a pale sheen to the materials when they were touched by light at certain angles, which had earned them the eventual name of ‘Ivory Gates’.
Masego had noted the pairing to be quite clever, allowing the enchantments to effectively replicate the effects of much stronger spells for significantly less power expended – meaning there’d be a lot less decay in the magic over the years. The enchantments would have faded some over the years, of course, that was their nature. It was why both Praesi and my people usually preferred wards when it came to permanent defences. Wards were a set boundary forcing certain properties onto Creation and requiring a physical anchor, but they were also static. So long as the anchor was undamaged, any idiot with magic could add magic into the wards to keep them going. Enchantments, on the other hand, were an investment of sorcery into matter to achieve specific properties. Eventually that initial investment of sorcery would fade, and while the enchantment could be restored by another mage it was kind of like repainting a faded painting.
Unless you had a mage of similar or superior talent who understood exactly how that initial enchantment worked and what it meant to do, then there were going to be imprecisions and those were going to keep accumulating and diluting the original effect.
“Yup,” I said. “We figure that since it’s been about two hundred years since those enchantments were laid there’s got to be at least six to ten major imprecisions from patch-up jobs by other wizards. Most of those are bound to be centred about the ‘reflection’ enchantment, since it’s the most abstract and difficult of the two.”
“You lost me some time back, Your Majesty,” the Squire admitted.
Fair enough. At his age I’d not more or less fuck all about magic too. The wind began to pick up around us, as far away in the distant sky red eddies of power rippled. Among them I could seen a faint dot around which the eddies were concentrated.
“There we go,” I said, pointing at the dot. “Here’s our ram.”
“Nothing that small could break the gates,” the Apprentice skeptically said.
The Squire laughed.
“I’d heard about this,” Arthur Foundling said. “But I didn’t actually think it was true.”
The heroine shot him an irritated look and I took pity on her.
“It’s not a thing,” I said. “It’s a person.
She started in surprise.
“That’s insane, who could actually-”
The eddied of pulsing red contracted, spinning on themselves, and with a deafening detonation the Mirror Knight was shot down at the Ivory Gates at a speed that would have been enough to shred most Named to pieces. Unfortunately we didn’t have a great angle from where we stood, so we didn’t get to see him hit the gates, but there was a heartbeat of silence and then a detonation even louder than the last as all seven of the Ivory Gates went up in a cloud of stone and smoke and power.
“What?” Sapan croaked out. “What?”
“The Mirror Knight has an aspect related to reflection,” I mildly said. “So when that nifty little enchantment reflects force outwards, it just goes right back.”
“That was enough for an explosion?” the Squire asked, impressed.
“Aspects are finicky creatures, as you will learn,” Adjutant gravelled. “In this case, after study the Grey Pilgrim determined that not only does the aspect slightly raises force before reflecting it but, by one of those caprices of Names, it counts every ‘threat’ individually.”
We’d lost Arthur again, but the young girl gasped.
“Yeah,” I coldly smiled. “So each of those patch-up jobs tacked onto that original reflection enchantment counted like a different ‘threat’ to reflect, and since they all drew on the same investment of power the Mirror Knight ended up hitting maybe six seven times harder than he should have because of that heartbeat of reflection games. Comparable to being hit by a mountain in the shape of a man, I’m told.”
So Christophe de Pavanie had shredded the enchantment trying to contain him with that excess of force, which in turn had unwoven the enchantment that was bound to that reflection enchantment – the density one. With that suddenly coming loose, massive force and a bunch of sorcery bursting out the results were the plume of smoke and gravel going the better part of a mile upwards.
“That’s really neat,” the Squire said.
“And completely insane,” the Apprentice heatedly added.
“Look, over the years a lot of people are going to tell you that something always wins,” I said. “Power, cleverness, brute strength, preparations. And it’s all bullshit.”
I jutted a thumb at the desolation we’d dealt in about the time it took to boil a kettle of water.
“That looks like the work of two Named,” I said, “but that’s all it is, a look. It took half a dozen people to achieve that. The Mirror Knight and the Witch of the Woods went through the fact, but behind that? It was the Pilgrim that figured out the peculiarities of the aspect. It was the Rogue Sorcerer that was familiar with the enchantments, and the Hierophant that ran the numbers so we were sure that the gates would be smashed without it killing the Mirror Knight. And it’s not just Named, either.”
I leaned forward.
“Princess Beatrice was the one who was able to tell us how many times the enchantments would have gotten worked on, and how good the wizards paid for would have been,” I said. “Without that, the rest was just air.”
“So what does win?” Arthur Foundling quietly asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “There is no single thing that gets you there, Squire. No one has the skills to do it all on their own – even my teacher, a man who spent his entire life learning how to twist and turn stories, got his heart ripped out in the Free Cities because he was facing someone who just… knew more. You want to know what the trick is?”
“Don’t do it alone.”
I gestured at the smoke again.
“See, maybe I could have battered down those gates using Night,” I said, “and maybe the Witch of the Woods could have ripped them off the ground, tossed them up in the sky. Maybe the White Knight could have carved his way through with Light, or the Rogue Sorcerer broken the enchantments and so an assault could follow. All of those answers, though, would have cost us in some way.”
I forced myself to refocus on the pair instead of simply the orphan watching me as if spellbound, the Ashuran mage studying me closely as well.
“So instead half a dozen people sat down, kids,” I told them, “and talked. Shared skills, shared powers, shared knowledge. And then we smashed those fucking gates without losing a single soldier.”
I let that sink in for a moment.
“It’s a big world,” I said. “There’s more than one pair of shoulders keeping it from falling. You don’t have to do it all alone.”
In the distance, a banner rose. A golden griffin rampant on blue, crowned by three golden daffodils. And under the ancient banner of House Volignac boots hit the ground at the bottom of the ramp leading up to the smoking gates, the men and women who’d fled this place with bitter tears three years ago returning to the city they had lost.
Swords cleared scabbards, glimmering under the sun, and with a roar the last soldiers of Hainaut came home.
We held the city by midafternoon.
There were still undead in hiding, waiting to serve as spies and inside forces when the Dead King came to besiege us, but the streets were ours and we were combing the capital for the infiltrators house by house. When it’d became clear the fight was over the dead had turned to sabotage, lighting fires and fouling the Bassin Gris, but it’d been nothing unexpected. There’d been fires when the capital was first taken, so the most flammable of the neighbourhoods had already gone up in flames and the humid summer air meant it was not easy for the arson to spread. As for the great pool of water, we’d put our mages to purifying it under Hierophant and already there’d been measurable success. With constant rotations of mages for the ritual, Zeze was confident that by dawn the pool would be fully restored.
Princess Beatrice gallantly offered to cede me the right to live in the ancient palace of her house, as I was the highest ranking noble and officer in the city, but I declined. I’d rather let her savour the comeback, and besides the place was too large for my comfort. I’d rather a smaller, more easily defensible place I could cover in layers of wards. I put Robber on the task, shaking him loose from Pickler – who was designing a replacement for the Ivory Gates with Akua and Roland as designated magical specialists – and was rather pleased with what he found me. It was a large guildhouse for what had been a guild of cheesemongers, with a small adjoining estate and two side wings. Well-located, in the southeast of the city but not too close or too far from the water.
Adjutant had begun rustling up mages to install wards and organizing guard watches before Robber even told me of the place, so I left it in his hands and instead headed to the open plaza that Princess Beatrice had suggested as the most fitting location for a Twilight Gate being raised. It’d been a good pick, exactly as the princess had described: Althazac Square was large and about as square-like as the name claimed. More importantly, it was located at the confluence of four major avenues, including the great street that circled through most of the capital like an unfinished ring. Supply wagons would be able to flow in without getting stuck in sidestreets. I sent a runner to give me agreement to the location, hoping the Blessed Artificer would be as up to it as she believed she would be.
I’d wanted Roland to be the one opening a gate, but he’d been quite firm in declining. Something about his talents being poorly suited to it. He’d seemed genuinely worried about the outcome, so I’d let it go. Masego and I had already forged a gate together and the Ways got… snippy when you tried to do it more than once, so like it or not Adanna of Smyrna was our best bet. I sent for her and we were discussing how long it would take her to begin the attempt – apparently a lot less than anticipated if healing priests and the Pilgrim leant a hand – when warning horns were sounded from the very same watchtower we’d taken that morning. An army approaching, it meant. I left the Artificer to it and saddled my horse, riding for the closest rampart and intercepting a report on my way. It was not an enemy army, I learned, but a surprise nonetheless. The Fourth Army, which should be at the Cigelin Sisters right now, had emerged from the Twilight Ways and was now approaching at a brisk pace.
That much was already unexpected, but even more so a particular detail I picked out after limping my way to the edge of the rampart. There was a banner flying above the advancing vanguard of the Fourth that I knew well, for it was my own – the Sword and Crown. That was not unusual, as every host within the Army of Callow had received one such standard when first founded. This wasn’t a standard, though, but a formal banner.
Aside from me there was exactly one person alive that had the right to fly it, and her name was Vivienne Dartwick.