The knights were met at the church by two tense knots of nobility.

Groups of noble house soldiers milled at opposite sides of the road, each group flocking with their own house colors. Some soldiers stood smoking, others talking, a tension running through the rough jokes the armed men and women told each other. Frequently, they glanced towards the center of the town and the ruined Gate.

They’re as cut off as the rest of us, she thought. Doing their best not to look at the other House. If either side made a move on the other, there’d be no reinforcements for them, either. Have to wonder if they’ll capitalize on that, or more likely, worry themselves into paranoia wondering if the other side will do them in first. Some days you can’t tell the difference between a noble house and a dockside street gang.

Heather took in the tableau, her ankles and shins screaming protest at the long downhill march. She hadn’t had cause to meet much of the nobility of the town yet, but she’d made sure to acquaint herself in her briefing notes on the long ship-ride north.

On the left, blue and purple livery. That’s House Oiselle. And there’s the Lady Laurette. Doesn’t look a day over nineteen. Pretty smile, frosty eyes. Brr. That makes the red-and-golds over there House Goldbrace, and so the man they’re all deferring to would be Lord Corbin.

The lady Laurette Oiselle separated from her knot of household retainers, and curtseyed at Ramdas’ approach. Somehow she’d managed to keep the ice-blue dress she was wearing free of the mud and dirt of the road, despite an absence of carriage or palanquin.

“Lieutenant Ramdas Pramath? I simply must speak with you.”

We must,” said the Lord Corbin of Goldbrace, stepping forward from his retainers. He gave Ramdas a perfunctory bow, which the Lieutenant returned in kind.

“My lord and lady, I have a wounded comrade upon my back. Pardon, I must first see to her, and then I will give you my undivided attention,” said Ramdas tightly.

Laurette stood tall, and her face gave a gentlewomanly paling. “Injured? How dreadful! I’ll have our house doctor sent immediately.”

“That won’t be necessary, thank you,” said Ramdas. “Please, join me inside the church once I’ve had time to make myself presentable, m’lord, m’lady.”

“Of course,” said the Lord Corbin Goldbrace.

Corbin left his hand resting on the pommel of his sword at his hip. The leather around the handle of his sword is well-worn, Heather noted, and the pommel has all kinds of dings and marks on it. He’s no casual swordsman. I wonder what fencing school he earned that from? One of Laurette’s men has one too, on his sword. Saints, half of them carry themselves like killers.

The Lord and Lady split to let them pass, and Ramdas’ tight jaw implied his patience was being strained by the pleasantries already. We’re going to need their support, Lieutenant, thought Heather. We’re going to need all the help we can get.

Heather stepped through the gap in the fence where the broken gate had been. Ramdas frowned at the damage, but followed on Heather’s heels out of the drizzle, and into the dry warmth of the church chapel. They marched through the chapel, the eyes of novitates and clergy alike widening in alarm at their silent procession.

Time to let them see what we’re here for, thought Heather. Punishment post or not, this is our wake-up call. We’re in a war now.

Heather shot a glare at the silent penitent, and was gratified to see him scurry towards the kitchen, waving others in his wake to follow. Good boy. Go boil water, get us bandages, tea, soup for the injured, thought Heather.

When they reached the barracks and Persephone’s room, Ramdas carefully kneeled to allow Helga and Heather to move Persephone onto her cot. Even as gentle as they were, Persephone cried out, insensate, and Heather counted three new bleeding points where newly joined skin had split once more.

“Sorry, sorry! Dearie, sorry!” said Helga, distraught. Her hands kept touching over the wounds, pinching closed split skin, tears running down her cheeks. Heather reached for the bandage kit, but Ramdas’ hand stopped her, and he gave a shake of his head.

“Not right now, Blackthorne. Leave that to Stengrav. Come.” He rose back up to his hoofs, and touched his hand to Helga’s shoulder. A momentary flash of compassion lit his temper-strained features, and he left without a word. Heather followed, with a worried glance back over her shoulder to the dwarf.

Helga began weeping as she bandaged her lover’s fresh wounds, misery and grief and worry all cast in her posture.

Her weeping haunted Heather as she fell in step. First the Captain. Now the Lieutenant. All those families at Cielle, all those fathers and mothers in the cave. Dead if they’re lucky. She looked down, saw her hands were clenched, white knuckled and shaking, sparks spilling from between her fingers. She forced her hands open, and pressed them to her sides. All of them had families, left behind.

Ramdas and Heather made the short walk from barracks to church. Inside, a handful of pews had been turned to face each other in a horseshoe. House Oiselle sat on the left, and House Goldbrace on the right. The center pews were empty, awaiting the arrival of Consul Sienna and what retinue she chose to accompany her.  The bodyguards on each side were eyeballing their counterparts.

Every place is a battle line between these two houses, Heather thought. No love lost no matter how much they cooperate. Two noble houses to one small town? That’s like putting two large cats in one small pen.

Father Keza nervously greeted the nobility of both houses. He stammered over himself as he invited them to sit, to be easy in the house of the Saints, and exclaimed at how marvelous it was to see them all outside of holy day services.

Ramdas stood at the front of the group. At his gesture, Heather walked up to join him and Father Keza, her eyes sweeping over the audience who’d gathered.

Going to guess the man beside Lord Goldbrace is his majordomo Ambrose LeClaire, judging by the ledger and abacus he’s clutching, Heather thought. The pretty redhead with the shield on her back and swords underneath, that’ll be his enforcer.

Ambrose had black hair kept in short ringlets, appropriate for a soldier who’d granted his hair some allowance to grow out after his time of service. He wore a starched white shirt with a dark green coat, and every time his fingers brushed the beads of his abacus, tiny runes on the beads glimmered to life.

Heather’s briefing files hadn’t seen fit to mention the redhead. She’s got twin, thin swords scabbarded under her shield, that probably means she prefers the shield to stay there and protect her back. She looks like she’s wound a little tight. Keeps checking the corners and shadows, keeps radiating hostility. Lord Goldbrace looks like he finds that funny.

Corbin Goldbrace was, in fact, seated in a pew with as much comfortable lack of decorum as he could muster and still call himself a Lord. One arm rested an elbow back on the top of the pew, his back against the chair, knees sprawled apart. None of it looked sloppy to Heather. He looks like an off-duty soldier. House Goldbrace probably put him through officer’s school.

Heather’s eyes drifted back to Ambrose, and his abacus. So, his majordomo has an abacus, obviously runed. Almost certainly a Logician, then. Nothing to read on the redhead, she’s not giving anything away.

She swept her gaze across the room. House Oiselle is playing nice, with the same martial symmetry, she observed. Majordomo, one bodyguard, and the noble head. The Lady Laurette Oiselle sat neatly in the pews, her hands folded in quiet prayers to the Saints. One very nervous looking page-boy who couldn’t be a day over eleven sat nearby.

Suppose the page-boy’s too young to count, in a fight. That poor lamb’s surrounded by wolves. Maybe literally. Her gaze shifted to the lean, gaunt man at the Lady Oiselle’s left, their house majordomo.

That one’s a werewolf if I ever saw one, Heather thought.

He was the skinniest native man Heather had yet seen in the town. Tall and lean, built with long limbs that seemed built for snatching, his wavy black hair was bound back and tumbled to his mid-back. His jaw shape was subtly wrong, making room for larger teeth than his skull had been meant for. Despite being indoors, he wore slitted leather snow-goggles. The instant he noticed Heather’s eyes had shifted towards the house Oiselle retinue, he returned her stare. He permitted her a glimpse of inhuman yellow eyes from underneath his eyewear.  

He wears those goggles like a dagger wears a sheath, Heather thought, suppressing a shudder.

She counted five knives worn openly on him. All the knives he visibly carried were wicked, thin things, little more than stilettos.

Judging by the crease-lines of his suit, he has at least four more tucked into sleeves and pants, she thought.

To the Lady Laurette’s right sat a man no older than twenty-five. He too carried a well-worn sword, its scabbard the the same rust-brown colour as his hair. The blade handle had a sigil of a fencing school on it. A master-class bladesman, too. Looks like a private fencing academy for him. I wonder if that makes him better or worse with the blade than the Lord Goldbrace?

While Heather mused on that, the main door swung open, and Consul Sienna stepped into the church. She took the pew in the center aisle, up front. Her face was hard, and her gaze intense as it swept over Heather and landed on Ramdas.

“Welcome, Consul,” said Father Keza, with a nervous smile. “Everyone’s here, Lieutenant Pramath, we can all begin.”

“Not everyone,” said the one Heather was sure was a werewolf. He had a whispery, raspy voice, like steel drawn across leather.

Like a man who’s torn his vocal chords howling at the moon, Heather thought.

“Forgive my servant Faruza, he speaks out of turn,” the Lady Oiselle said. Her sweet voice carried an edge that suggested if anyone else in her retinue had done so, she’d have skinned them. “But he is correct. That dear boy Ooluk, the native wretches look to him for guidance. Where is he?”

“He comes,” rasped Faruza. The man cocked his ear, and then put his nose up. Heather counted two flares of his nostrils. “Eight seconds.”

He said it with a certainty that caught Heather’s attention: A Chronitor, here? Or a Prophet? Someone with a magical grasp of time.

Eight seconds later, the door opened to admit Ooluk. The little grubby elf walked up the aisle, and sat himself three pews back from the center. He didn’t say a word. The Lord Goldbrace cocked an eyebrow at Ramdas. “Can we begin, then?”

Ramdas opened his mouth to agree, but it was Ooluk who spoke first: “We may.”

Ramdas endured the presumption, and stepped forward to bow. “My Lord Goldbrace, My Lady Oiselle, Consul Sienna, Gaiman Ooluk. Thank you for coming. I ask that you keep what you learn here today to yourselves, for the time being, and hold your questions to the end. In brief: The undead have risen in the northlands.”

The Lady Laurette Oiselle brought her handkerchief to her lips in a gasp that was equal measures genuine and theatric. Heather tried not to stare. A genuine surprise to her, but it’s hard to tell how far she’ll take her affectations.

The Lord Corbin Goldbrace sat up straight on the pew, and frowned deeply, his eyes locking onto Ramdas. And that got the Lord’s complete attention too, Heather thought. He was expecting something to do with the Sending gate accident.

Consul Sienna had no emotional reaction, of course. She merely gave a terse nod and a flicker of a glance Heather’s way.  Heather returned the small nod. Thank the Saints she’s a sharp woman, thought Heather.

Ramdas took a few seconds to let the words sink in, and then continued. “Major Weathers is dead, fallen fighting the undead host. The town of Saint-Cielle is gone, with twenty-seven dead. The rest unaccounted for. We believe they are all dead, too, and risen in the service of a necromancer.”

Everyone was paying attention to Ramdas now. Even the bodyguards had forgotten their hard stares across the chapel, and were listening intently.

“It is worse than we initially feared. The dead are being raised, by agents yet unknown, and we suspect they may have taken the imperial fortress and mines. Calls to the sentries go unanswered, knocks at the gate unheeded or harshly refused. On my last approach, the sentries shot arrows to the earth around me. The sentries refuse to reveal themselves to our eyes.

“Additionally, on our return from Saint-Cielle, we have tracked a host of undead back towards Frostmoor. We believe they are hiding in the rocks and hills. One of our number was injured today clearing out a cave the undead forces had occupied.”

The centaur cleared his throat, and continued. “With the devastation at the Sending Gate, and the closing of the fortress, we cannot afford to ignore the possibility that this may be the start of a larger effort. Possibly organized by a hostile nation.”

The Lord Goldbrace was squinting shrewdly. Don’t need to tell an old soldier that once is bad luck, twice is coincidence, and three times is enemy action, thought Heather.

Ramdas gestured to Heather. “This is Detective Heather Blackthorne, our resident expert in hunting necromancy and combating the undead. She is leading our investigation into the Sending gate event. Blackthorne?” he cued her.

Heather stepped up beside Ramdas’ and cleared her throat, looking between the Lord and Lady. They will want to know the military side of things. Might as well start there.

“My best estimate of the number of undead hiding within a two kilometer radius of Frostmoor is between ten and thirty. The worst case scenario would be one hundred and twenty undead,” Heather said.

There was uncomfortable silence in the room, as all eyes turned upon her.

“These are estimates. It’s possible more will be joining them. Out in the tundra, people are being run down by skeletons. Their corpses are being harvested, processed, and their bones animated. They are converging here. At this time, their numbers aren’t enough to pose a serious threat to the town. But nobody is guarding the trade routes, or the traders. Every person that dies out there adds to their numbers.

“Tying this into what Lieutenant Pramath’s already told you? I stand by the analysis of the necromancy being linked to the destruction of the gate. The destruction of the gate was the result of an attack. Every surface of the gate structure took damage, both on the sides facing into the gate and facing outwards. It’s not impossible that the damage was due to magical malfunction, but it is very unlikely. I believe that multiple bomblets were detonated simultaneously, based on the pattern of damage and the sound of the explosion.”

Laurette touched her hand to her cheek. “There were so many people around the gate building at the time of the explosion. Nobody’s come forward yet to say they saw anything.”

“They didn’t,” Heather said. “But that doesn’t mean the bomblets weren’t there. There’s plenty of ways to obscure and obfuscate an attack. When I have facts, I’ll include them in my briefings.”

Corbin cleared his throat. “How many undead would you say are needed to overwhelm Frostmoor, assuming no help is forthcoming from the fortress?”

Heather blew out a breath. “In a straight-on assault, as a wave? If we had a good wall, and all the fighting men and women of the town standing ready, directed by trained church officers? Between four and six hundred,” she said. “But men and women get sick, they get cold, they get tired. They get demoralized. They starve. They feel fear. Undead don’t. Realistically, one hundred and fifty could probably do it, just barely. Three hundred if we had a wall.

“The real problem is that at their present numbers, they can keep us besieged if they choose to. At twice their numbers, I’d say if they’re being commanded competently, they’ll start raiding us.”

“And what if they have taken the Fortress, Lieutenant Pramath?” Corbin asked.

“By best count, the fortress holds six hundred fighting men. That’s alone is almost four hundred more than the population of this entire town. And the fortress held another four hundred support personnel, miners, cooks, servants, and so forth. Detective Blackthorne is our expert. Caballero Blackthorne, how quickly could the enemy convert the imperial barracks to their purposes?”

Heather swallowed. All eyes in the gallery fell upon her, and she found herself reminded of the broken pottery incident, back in Bastia. One noble house looking on was bad, but two? She took a shaky breath, and did the math.

“The cave we cleaned out today held eight active skeletons, with at least two more that we know of moving around the area,” Heather began. “They had thirty-three dead bodies in the cave, twenty-two of them fresh. At best we can determine they were there no longer than thirty-six hours, sir. That’s almost a kill an hour, with an undead thing made every three to four hours. If we’re looking for a worst-case scenario, multiply that by however many automatons they have in the mines.”

“About forty-four,” said Lord Goldbrace. “But what do mining golems have to do with anything?”

Heather steeled herself. “We’ve seen proof that a mining automaton was Turned, and repurposed to raise the dead, on a necromancer’s behalf. What can be done to one, can be done to all of them.”  

The Lord and Lady and Consul all began to speak up, voicing incredulity, but Heather raised a silencing hand, and continued:  “That’s forty-four automatons converting six dead men, each, a day. Never stopping, never resting. Two hundred and sixty four soldiers a day, assuming they could kill them all in one fell swoop. Which, based on what we’ve witnessed at Saint-Cielle, we believe they can. So it could be a little less than four days to convert every corpse in that fortress into a soldier. And the fortress was locked down eleven days ago,” she finished grimly.

Stunned silence surrounded her, wide-eyed page boys and church staff, pinch-faced nobles and their retinue. Grim-set eyes looked around in trepidation, and she counted every swordsman’s hand reaching unconsciously for their weapon.

“By what means could they possibly kill six hundred trained, professional soldiers?” asked Lord Goldbrace.

“Compulsion magic, thorough and terrible,” said Ramdas, anger hot in his voice. “Every man, woman, and child in Saint-Cielle died without a struggle. I expect the soldiers of the fortress have met the same fate.”

Silence reigned once more as the nobles and retinue digested the thought. An entire outpost lost, without resistance.

“What stops such enchantment here, then?” asked the Lady Laurette.

Heather’s mouth twisted. “This town isn’t a place they can easily gather everyone together all at once, or grab everyone in a spell en masse. Nor is it a military force, which is used to following orders to assemble. So we’re not easy targets for ensnaring in large numbers, and with the town forewarned, it would be impossible to pull off. So between the church and the guilds, it would be countered too swiftly to be effective. They’ll use force of arms here, undead swarms.”

“What are they waiting for?” inquired Laurette.

Ramdas shook his head. “We don’t yet know, m’Lady. But we must presume they won’t wait long, and that they will assault the town, kill us, and convert our corpses to their ends. But I have fought their kind. They are fierce and fast, but they are not smart. Clever fighting men can best them, if prepared.”

If prepared,” stressed Corbin. “What good’s a sword or spear, against something that doesn’t bleed, that doesn’t tire, and feels no fear or pain? My soldiers are trained to fight soldiers, not monstrosity.”

“Then pick up mace or axe,” said Heather.  “In a pinch, spearmen can hold them off.  Like boar-hunting, my lord. Just really determined boars.”

“A sword can hack a limb, a spear can foul ribs to the earth,” agreed Ramdas. “Fear is the greater hazard than the host, though that may change if their numbers swell.”

“We have perhaps two hundred fighting men and women in all of Frostmoor, and that is if we recall all guards from outpost and trade,” pointed out Lady Laurette. “Five undead horrors for each guard. This town has no meaningful walls. What hope can we ask without fortification?”

“What’s fortification?” asked Ooluk.

“Walls, around the city, to protect us from the undead. High enough they cannot easily climb over, with space for soldiers to stand to defend the top of the walls,” Ramdas explained.

“Thick enough to stop cannon,” added Heather.

Ooluk tilted his head thoughtfully, and nodded. “I can make thick walls. How will the hunters get in and out?”

“Worry about that after the wall’s up,” Heather replied.  “We don’t know how much time we have.  Best assume we don’t have any at all.”

Ooluk frowned, and made as if to argue, but the Lady Oiselle cut in, stepping forward decisively and curtseying before Ooluk. The blind elf couldn’t see her approach, but he could hear her heels upon the wood of the church floor.

“Gaiman,” began the Lady Oiselle. “I beseech you. I will personally see that any hunters trapped in the town will be recompensed for their troubles, and protected as best we’re able. Please. For the sake of this town and those within, for the sake of your clans and tribes and ours alike. Please help us protect this town.”

She reached out to touch a white velvet glove upon his dirt-caked shoulder, ignoring the smudges it left.

Any more honey, and I could bake a cake from her lips, thought Heather.

Ooluk’s face pinched, but he nodded. “I will raise a wall, then.”

Ramdas gestured to Heather. “Caballero, would you be so kind as to escort him out to the yard, so he can begin?”

Heather could sense a dismissal, and so could Ooluk. He scowled down at the floor and began to shuffle towards the main doors of the church. The young elf woman on House Oiselle’s side flashed Ramdas a sharp look that he didn’t catch. Careful, Lieutenant, thought Heather. We need these people too.

She followed the shuffling elf out the front door. He stepped away from the door only precisely as far as it took to touch earth, and sat. The blind elf’s fingers sunk into the thin sod, with a low muttering in the back of his throat.

There’s a sulk if I ever saw one, thought Heather. She sat down beside Ooluk wordlessly, one ear cocked back at the door. Raised voices filtered through the door, as nobles and Consul and Ramdas all conversed, and occasionally shouted:

“… all two hundred?!”

“… simply impossible …”

“… we’ll all be slaughtered…”

“… there’ll be panic when word spreads…”

“… every man and woman who can bear arms…”

Ooluk’s flows unwound from his fingertips, and it threw Heather off-balance from the vertigo of being so close to that tectonic magic. She drew a long breath, grateful for the distraction from the tension inside the Church.

“Saints, Ooluk,” Heather murmured. “Where do you find the heart to cast magic so strong?”

The elf shrugged his shoulders, as if the matter was inconsequential. “A great eagle took my eyes, in my second summer. Before my mother could drive it away,” he murmured. “And I did not have the good grace to die. I grew up destined only to walk the snows, Knight Heather. Moving the earth gives me some small reason to stay. I’ve lived every moment of my life expected to die. I take the anger out upon the earth. I throttle it with every petty frustration. Every pitying word.”

Heather sucked in a breath, and felt it catch between her teeth. “Will shapes our magic, guides it. But emotion fuels it. That’s what they taught me, growing up,” Heather said.

“Well, I have plenty of fuel then,” said the blind elf softly. “And fewer distractions.” Then he gave a self-effacing, embarrassed smile.

They sat in silence a time as his magic quested and throbbed underfoot. The arguments in the church died down gradually to muffled discussion, serious and purposeful. Sounds like they’re hashing things well enough now, thought Heather.

She murmured to Ooluk: “You don’t like the Lady Oiselle, do you?”

Ooluk’s hands convulsed in the dirt momentarily, and he grimaced. “She’s very nice,” said Ooluk, his mouth twisting the last word. “She would never tell me to my face how much she pities me.”

It was Heather’s turn for her fingers to clench. Flashes of memory returned to her, of the pitying eyes of colleagues, acquaintances, who’d heard a little, never knowing. How awful, how dreadful, I can’t imagine your pain. Blah blah blah. Or worse yet, the optimists. It’ll get better, will it? Just like a cut or a busted lip?  

Her hand began to ache again, and it took a moment to realize she was once again squeezing the haft of her father’s mace, its silvered spikes limned in dull, flickering white fire.

Ooluk turned his head towards her hands. He couldn’t see, of course. But he could sense her flows of magic, and her silent, furious tension.

“Why do they pity you?” he asked, innocently.

The question hit like a fist to her gut, and stole her breath from her for a long moment.  

“Something worse than an eagle took my baby away,” she said, once she could trust herself to speak.  “Husband, too.  Something like what’s coming for the town. Took their bones, and left everything else for me to see.”

It was Ooluk’s turn to suck in a breath. “They will do that here, won’t they?”

“If we can’t stop it, yes,” Heather said, forcing the words past clenched teeth.  “Men, women, children, old, sick… It doesn’t matter, if the bones are strong enough.”

The world felt like it dropped out from under Heather’s guts, as Ooluk drove his fingers into the earth and stone beneath him.

Something went THOOM, out to the north of the town. Dust and birds rose into the air on the horizon, and startled heads in the village turned in fright. Then, another low, echoing THOOM. THOOM. It sounded like the blows of an impossible giant, shuddering through the earth. Heather heard the windows of the church rattle in their sills.

“Tell me that’s you, Ooluk,” whispered Heather.

“That is me,” said Ooluk, his tone grim. “I won’t let that happen to a child. Not one child. Never a child.”

Magic surged through him, and deep into the ground, and Heather had to put both hands down on the ground and lock her elbows just to fight the vertigo his flows sent through her.

The door to the church shot open. Heather raised her voice, not turning around to see who had spilled out: “Ooluk’s raising the wall. Might want to send those pages and novices around town to go settle the folks. Everyone’s a little edgy about loud sounds right now, I reckon.”

Ramdas nodded to Heather, flanked by a noble to either side of him, tense eyes cast north. “Caballero, thank you. Gaiman Ooluk, thank you for your diligence.”

Ooluk ducked his head in acknowledgement. In the distance, seen between two houses, a great slab of stone shot out of the earth, scattering dust and a little dirt. It was easily ten metres high and seventy metres long. People in the town were running into their homes, or peering out of windows.

Lady Laurette sighed. “The poor things. They’re frightened out of their wits.”

She turned to her swordsman with the rust-brown hair. “Pierre, dear, would you go to the house and muster some men to send around the town, and reassure the good folk?”

She talks about them like they’re penned rabbits, thought Heather.

Pierre bowed. “Yes, m’lady.”

THOOM! went another section of wall.

Heather grit her teeth. Maybe we are penned, now.

***

Click here to read Chapter 5.1 — Cross-Examination