“Thirty-five lost in the last week!” Victor snarled, and threw his goblet at the rotten mess of his general. The brass bounced off of the man’s chest, leaving a small crease in the stained coat.
“Well,” the General temporized with a smile, “The winters are terribly hard here. And since you’ve been keeping your best and brightest bivouacked in the fort, it stands to reason you’d lose the dumb ones out there.”
“You’re a bloody General, Montvenue! You expect me to believe that weather alone is the cause of my losses out there?”
Forced to answer the direct question, the General shrugged and smiled a rotten smile. “No. I expect you to continue to lose your temper and make terrible missteps.”
Victor snarled a curse, and gave the knob on the copper automaton by his desk another twist. The automaton’s head popped open, and Victor ducked his head inside to see through the lenses of its eyes. “Missteps? I thought you were a smart man, General. Which part of your strategy accounted for guerilla action?”
“I admit,” allowed the General. “I’m rather pleased with their tenacity. Assuming those knights are still alive, anyway. This could be an entirely separate group. Whatever they’re doing to strike down your hunters, they’re being careful. The smart ones you’ve allowed out there haven’t reported back a thing, have they? Not a flow or lick of magic caught, not so much as a mote seen before they fell along with the rest.”
“No, they haven’t,” admitted Victor. “It could be non-magical weapons. Long-range guns.”
“One of your troops would have heard a shot by now, Victor. Face it, whatever they’re doing, neither of us has the means to stop it out there.”
“So what do you advise, General, in the best intentions for my strategy?”
Montvenue struggled against the geas binding him, and reluctantly, the words emerged from the mush of his rotting mouth. “Pull all of your skeletons in. Launch every bit of artillery you have now, wipe out the town, finish your project, and get the hell out before spring.”
“Spoken like a soldier used to cowering behind fortress walls,” Victor sneered. “I told you, General. They’re my cattle. I don’t cull the entire herd. I harvest what I need. So you’re going to go and impress upon them my needs, and make sure that they understand they are responsible for every loss. And I will visit that account upon their heads.”
“As you will, Victor, so I am bound to obey. But before I go, what’s that you’re watching?”
“The first of my creations. Go on, stick your head out the window and watch yourself. Maybe a sniper will end your bloody misery.”
The general rose to obey, and Victor hastily gestured and grimaced. “Cancel that last order, damn you. Look. But don’t touch my automaton, you’re putrid.”
The general smiled again. “If you haven’t the stomach for your own methods, Victor, you’ll never make a military man of yourself.”
The sight through the automaton’s eyes afforded a birds-eye view of the far south-eastern corner of the fortress, out of sight of the town. A heavily-armored adamant automaton approached the edge of the parapet, and without hesitation, leapt.
Thirty tonnes of adamant punched through the sea ice with an almighty crash. A long flume of seawater sprayed into the air, much of it turning to ice as it fell through the cold air.
“That’s your plan? To scuttle this year’s adamant?” scoffed General Montvenue. “March it off into the ocean to sink?”
“I’ve my own methods you’ll never have the stomach for, General,” Victor retorted. “I told you, we’re taking the adamant. Why should I wait for a boat to ship it, when I can have it ship itself?”
Another automaton, still hot from the caster, leapt from the parapet. Four more waited in line. Victor turned his attention away from the lenses, and looked to the skeletons holding his tools. “Have mine prepared next. I’m tired of this chill.”
“No bones on the ground within kilometers, dearie,” said Helga. “Four today with that avalanche. We’re up two skulls on you, Pramath.”
Ramdas smiled back. “Si, si. Your night to pick the bottles, Stengrav.”
“Stout it is then. In the stew and in my cup.”
Heather favored them all with a stern glance, but she couldn’t muster any genuine irritation. They need the food. Ramdas’ legs are finally coming back to normal. We’re eating better than some in the town, though. Ooluk’s only eating what I make him eat.
Then again, she thought, watching Ooluk smile as he lay at rest on their furs, he’s healing slowly. At least we’re keeping the jaundice down on him. He’d be better off in a proper hospital, if we had any here.
She had just picked up the stout for the stew, when Ooluk’s hand tensed on the stone. “Knight Heather,” he said, his voice drawn with pain and worry, “something is happening in the fortress.”
The spoon clattered against the pot as Heather scrambled for the spyglass. She had summoned the lenses and reflectors even as she put the instrument to her eye. “What kind of something, Ooluk?”
“It is like the sound the cannon made when it hit the stone,” Ooluk said, face turning ashen. “But greater. Heavier.”
Heather swung the array around to point at the fortress, and was still fiddling with the array’s focus when Ooluk gasped. “Another one, Knight Heather!”
Is someone in the town shooting back? Saints alive, I hope not, Heather mused, as the view of the fortress began to clear. What would they even use that would spook the boy like that?
Her eyes swept the fortress walls, and then she shifted the lenses over to the town. No fresh craters or plumes of smoke met her eye, and she frowned. Another tweak of the flows returned her gaze to the fortress walls.
“Ooluk,” she said, as the rest of the Knights crowded at her back, “I don’t see anything. The walls are fine, the cannons aren’t being wheeled back under cover. Looks just as quiet as it did yesterday. If they just shot artillery, it didn’t land in the town. And it hasn’t landed on us.”
“I heard it, Knight Heather,” Ooluk insisted, bitterness creeping into his voice. “Nothing I have heard from the stone before was like it. It–” Ooluk trailed off, struggling to find the words. “If a piece of a mountain fell into the sea, perhaps it would make the same sound.”
“And I believe you,” Heather said, frowning. With small nudges and turns of the spyglass, she swept her view over the fortress. “But I just don’t see anything. You’re sure it’s not part of the mine collapsing?”
“I’m certain,” Ooluk said. “That would be much louder. It did not fall under the earth, but atop it.”
Heather continued to scan over the fortress, and frowned. “Can you tell me where, in relation to the fortress?”
“Towards the sea,” Ooluk said.
Heather cursed. “I don’t have a line of sight around that side of the fortress right now. Hang on, I’ll move the–“
Motion caught her eye, cutting off her words.
“The gates are opening,” she said, pulling her head away from the spyglass to conjure a lens large enough for all to see through. “Look. The bony bastards are bringing out their General again.”
“Ooluk,” Ramdas said, “the speaking stones. Can you allow us to hear what is said, once they reach the town?”
“Yes,” Ooluk replied from his place by the cookpot, and sunk his fingers into the bare stone.
“Wait!” Heather shouted.
All heads turned to her, and Heather snapped her fingers sharply. “You do that right now, you’re lighting a straight line to us, Ooluk.”
“Ah. Yes, that is true,” Ooluk said, shoulders slumping. “I do not want more artillery.”
“No, you don’t, nor do I.” Heather’s fingers tapped the lens of the spyglass thoughtfully. “… but what if we could bounce your magic, like with Pramath’s? Can you do that, Ooluk? Make one rock talk to another rock, and then have that rock talk to us?”
Ooluk put on a puzzled frown. “I think I could, Knight Heather. Like an echo in a cavern?”
“Something like that. Run the connection from the stone of the wall to another stone deep inside the town, and then run that second stone’s connection to us. That way anyone who notices the flows by the wall, will assume you or someone else is listening in from inside the town.”
Ramdas cleared his throat. “They might decide to fire artillery again, Caballero. If Ooluk is seen as such a threat to their means.”
“I don’t believe they would, sir. Not if they think he’s still in town. Town’s either going to get artillery rained on it or it won’t, and that won’t much matter at this point if Ooluk’s inside it or not when they make the call.”
“I don’t like it, Caballero. We could run the lines out of town entirely, at a different direction.”
“Yeah, but then they know it’s us, and not just Ooluk or someone else too curious or scared to-“
The sound of the Consul’s voice through the stone cut off the argument, as Ooluk’s fingers flexed. “- get our runes charged and Ooluk, I see your work there. If you ever put a rune so close at my feet again, Gaiman or not, we will have uncivil words. Tell your friends to pay attention, if you’re in contact with them.”
“Can they not hear us, dearie?” Helga whispered as the palanquin made its way toward the town, and the rapidly crowding walls. Defenders were ranking up quickly on and behind the parapets.
Thank the Saints they’re staying vigilant, Heather thought.
“No, Knight Helga,” Ooluk whispered in return. “Not if I block our words here. Do you want to speak to the Consul?”
“Saints, no!” said Helga.
“I might,” Ramdas said evenly. “But we’ll reserve the option for now, si?”
“So not right now, Ooluk,” Heather said, peering through the lens. They’re moving quicker, she thought, tracking the undead column’s approach. And… oh Saints, the crossbows are loaded. They’re not here to parley. Behind her, Ramdas loosed a whispered stream of Venician, and she didn’t have to know the language to know what he was cursing. She and the other Knights watched intently, as several bony heads turned to fix on the inside of the town, tracking the line of earth magic laid down by Ooluk.
The palanquin came to a halt directly in front of Sienna, and the ruined mass of putrid flesh rose to its feet atop the skeletal backs of its carriers. “General,” Consul Sienna called down from the parapets, “to what do we owe the pleasure of your visit?”
“Conscription, Consul,” the General replied, voice sharp. “No negotiation, no pleasantries. Your Knights have cost my master valuable bones, and so you are responsible for replacing them.”
To either side of the Consul, the guardsmen slid a half-step back, bows beginning to rise. The nearest line of skeletons raised their weapons as one, with a precision no living army could match. The guardsmen froze in place, hushed and fearful whispers skating up and down the line.
Sienna’s cheeks went ashen, but her face remained calm and composed. “General, we banished the Knights just as you asked. We’ve given them nothing since then, how can you hold us responsible?”
“Because sympathizers and collaborators within your walls have kept them supplied,” the General said. “Else they’d have starved to death by now. But still we see their interference, ambushing our number like cowards. And by the flows on your wall I see your native worm is still wriggling about under your town. He’s made quite a nuisance of himself, and I expect he’s been in contact with the exiles.
“Which means, Consul, that those you speak for in the town have been aiding and abetting the banished and forsaken. This, despite your assurances to the contrary. No more deals. You have fifteen minutes to throw five bodies over your wall, or we come in and take all of them.”
“Saints no,” Helga whispered, eyes growing wide. Persephone squeezed Helga’s shoulder, and the dwarf reached up, groping for her lover’s hand without taking her eyes away from the terror unfolding in front of their eyes, kilometers away.
Sienna’s eyes darted left and right. “General, surely you can’t expect–”
“I can and I do, Consul,” the General said, interrupting Sienna with a curt gesture. The motion caused a loose patch of flesh on the back of his hand to slough off and fall to the ground. A guardsman on the walls lost his lunch.
General Montvenue continued. “And should you try again to negotiate, Consul, we will fire one shell on your town for every word that tumbles from your lips. Five bodies. Fifteen minutes.”
Don’t do it, Heather thought fiercely, clenching her hands until her nails bit into her palm. Don’t give in. Please, Jordina. Please don’t let these people sell their souls like this. Help them be strong! Embers flickered out on her breath, driven by the glowing coal of hatred that seethed in her guts.
I don’t care what I have to do. I will not rest until I see every last bone in that fortress burned to ash. And I’m going to use that necromancer filth’s head to mop the mess up.
The murmur from the walls rose in volume, news passing from the parapets to the villagers below. The response was convulsive. With the Consul fiercely clenching her lips together, her voice held hostage by the undead abomination beneath her, the town was out of control.
The rush of rising voices made individual words difficult to pick up from the town, but the lenses in front of the knights showed the villagers milling like ants around a crushed nest. There was a cry from within the town, and a knot of villagers swarmed toward the Church, where the corpses of the murdered awaited spring’s burial. Two murders, Ooluk said. And the murderer responsible will make corpse number three. The rest of the graves would be impossible to dig up quickly.
Atop the parapet, the Consul stood frozen in place, eyes locked on the rotted General in helpless, hateful fury.
A handful of minutes later, and the bodies were hauled from the ground, borne on the backs of men and women scared beyond sense. One of the guardsmen near the stairs seemed sharp enough to push his fellows back. “Make way!” he cried, hauling one of his unlucky fellows back from the parapet before he was pitched over. In short order, the wall was cleared, and three wrapped bundles thudded to earth in front of the column.
“I count three, Consul,” the General said mildly, his putrid eye sockets fixed on the woman. “We’re still owed two.”
“We don’t have more dead, General,” the Consul said.
“Then you’ll have to make some.”
“We’re not murderers, General!”
“Then I suppose someone will have to learn how. You have seven minutes remaining. Tick-tock, Consul.”
The buzz of noise from the stones in front of Heather rose to a fever pitch. Nervous, frightened voices rose, words indistinct in the milling crowd, and too many eyes up on the wall began questing backwards. Some lingered on the shattered wreckage of the house that had absorbed the first cannonball from the fortress.
And still others lingered on a knot of four rough-looking dock-working men, pulling a man in chains from somewhere in town, towards the wall. Father Keza followed in their wake, red-faced, shouting protests that couldn’t yet be heard from the stones of the wall.
Heather’s gut clenched as the scattered cheer of relief rose from the defenders on the wall: “Bring out the murderer! Throw them the criminal!”
Ramdas’ hand squeezed down on Heather’s shoulder, hard. “I could take the shot,” he murmured.
“That would just make things worse, sir,” Heather said. But we both already knew that, she thought. You just needed to hear someone else say it.
Father Keza’s voice reached their ears at the same time the knot of docksmen made it to the wall. “You animals! Animals! The Saints will turn their backs on your soul for this. That man is innocent until proven guilty. How dare you!” He lunged forward, trying to insert himself into the knot of men and their prisoner.
One of the docksman backhanded Keza, sending him reeling. “The Saints have already turned their backs on us!” snarled the docksman.
The prisoner’s confusion grew to panic as they hauled him up the stone stairs. As they mounted the parapets, his ignorance became shrieking hysteria. As soon as the man saw the horde of bone and rot laid out beneath him, he began to struggle, kicking and lunging away from the wall. Wild magic flew from him in every direction, but the four around him overpowered him and his spells.
Keza’s voice carried over the prisoner’s shrieks. “He’s an innocent man! Use your souls for once in your lives, damn you!”
Heather’s eye glanced back to the Consul, not ten feet away from the scrum. Her hands were clenched, her body stiff with fury. She’s not going to stop this, Heather realized. Then, a more charitable whisper wormed it’s way up her heart around the knot of her anger. She doesn’t have the power to stop this. This is the mob, now. And the General knew it, too.
Keza tackled the knot of men, and wrapped himself around the prisoner. His own magic sent deafening claps of air out in a last, desperate attempt to drive the docksman back. They staggered and reeled, but then House guardsmen from around the wall converged around them. With runed shields and stern words, the guards cut the rest of the priest’s magic down.
Detente was achieved, for a few precious seconds, magic on all sides shattered into a thick cloud of angry motes all around them. The prisoner’s eyes were wild, darting between the undead horde over the wall, and the ring of thugs and guardsman penning him in.
“You beasts!” Keza roared.
“He’s a murderer,” a guardsman replied. “He was set to hang anyway.”
“You don’t know that!” Keza snarled, levelling a finger. “You don’t know that. This man’s to have his trial, a jury of his peers in the honest light of the Saints. To throw this man down to desecration like that-” he gestured with a sweeping hand over the undead forced below. “- is a beastly sin, a stain on all of you!”
General Montvenue called out in a sing-song voice. “Three minutes.”
“You shut up!” snapped Keza, whirling to point a finger at the rotting general. “This is between me and the living. You’ve already lost your soul!”
At the sharp gesture, five skeletons adjusted their aim, crossbolts levelling at Keza’s back. The General made a gentling motion with his hand, restraining their fire.
Keza pulled the prisoner close. “This man is walking down from these walls, at my side.”
The Consul’s voice was straining steel. “Father Keza, get the hell away from that man. We don’t have time for this.”
Another knot of men was bringing a small native up from the town. A glint of gold dust glittered in the furs around his right arm, and every one of the knights straightened.
“That’s the man I duelled for!” Ramdas bellowed, and his anger sent sparks and uncomfortably hot air leaping from his mouth.
“Uuzook?!” exclaimed Ooluk. “What are they doing to Uuzook?”
As the second knot of men pulled the weeping native up the stairs of the wall, Keza’s voice rose an octave. “You will not. You will not! The Saints and Pope and Alektos command you, you will not! That man is an innocent!”
“Five bodies!” retorted one of the thugs.
“One minute!” called the General. A rattle of a hundred crossbow strings rose, and then a chorus of low, echoing ping as seeker bolts primed and picked their targets.
It was a sound that made Heather’s bowels clench, even kilometers away. Every one of those arrowheads is death. Too many exposed people, out of cover. Saints, no, let this not have been their plan all along!
Keza glanced backwards at that terrible chorus, and one of the thugs on the wall lunged forward at the opportunity, his boot catching the chained man’s midriff. Heather heard the sound of air forced out of lungs by the impact, and so the man fell silently, unable to even scream.
The chained man hit the stones with a muffled thump, four feet from the first rank of skeletal legs.
Keza whirled, and blacksmith’s arms struck the thug, sending him reeling back into the arms of his compatriots. “You murderer! May the Saints damn your soul through every life!” he bellowed. He tried to rush towards the next knot of men, but was pushed back by the guardsman forming up rank around him.
The native prisoner wasn’t screaming any more. He was weeping, chin tucked into his throat, tears running hard down his cheeks. He looked as if he had shrunk into his furs as much as he dared. A wipe of his nose on his sleeve left snot and gold dust smeared across his cheek.
“They said one more, Father,” said one guardsman, his voice pleading. “We haven’t any choice.”
“We’ve always a choice! We’ve nothing but choice!” screamed Keza. His wild eyes darted between the the weeping man, and the body below. “You won’t condemn these innocent souls!”
Skeletons were already descending on the fresh corpse, bony hands turning red as they ripped flesh from sinew and bone, entrails pulled free methodically as they butchered the dead.
Keza’s manic shouting and gesturing came to a sudden stop, and he pulled himself straight, dignified, his eyes gone terribly sad.
“No, no, Keza…” Persephone whispered. A terrible silence fell over the cave, spines straightening, eyes widening from every knight.
Heather forced herself not to look away, as her gut sank.
Father Keza lifted his chin, and stared hard at the thugs and guardsman before him. “We all have a choice. And Saints willing, I’ve made the right one,” he said.
And then he leapt backwards, and plummeted with a scream.
General Montvenue eased himself back down atop the writhing palanquin of bone, and nodded his satisfaction. “Five more, in a week’s time. And one more for every one of ours your filthy collaborators strike down. Good day, Consul.”
Skeletons swarmed around the bodies, and slung them up on bony shoulders and arms. Crossbows lowered with a chorus of clacks. Sienna stood rooted to the stone, her entire body taut as a crossbow’s string. Slowly, her eyes drifted down to the stones at her feet listening in on Ooluk’s behalf.
“This can’t go on,” the Consul said.
They armored up without a word. Heather stood with Helga, checking straps and runes, while Persephone helped Ramdas with his barding. There’d been no order, just silent, shared agreement with the Consul’s assessment.
We’re going to war, Heather thought, as she chained Jordina Aysha’s prayer book to her belt, and tucked it into her coat. Her hand wrapped around her mace, and she stared at it. This is it, Dad. Either we win, or I see you soon.
Ooluk lay at the back of the cave, sulking. Heather slung her mace on her belt, and then dropped a hand to the elf’s shoulder.
“Ooluk,” Heather said. “I’m sorry you can’t come with us. I would have you at my side if I could, but you’re still too badly hurt. But you can still help us, tonight. Can you reach out, and let me speak to Lord Goldbrace?”
The elf turned his head, and pressed his cheek to Heather’s arm. “Okay,” he whispered.
His hand dropped to the rock of the cave, and Heather felt the itch running from her ear to her heels, and then stretching out far, far down into the stone.
“You can speak now, Heather,” Ooluk said.
Corbin’s voice was devoid of it’s usual cheer. “Who’s that? Ooluk? Is that your magery I smell?”
“It’s Ooluk working the magic, m’lord, but it’s on my behalf, Lord Goldbrace.” Heather said. “On all our behalfs. This situation is untenable. They’re going to extort the town for more and more bodies, no matter what we do.”
“That they are,” Corbin agreed sourly. “What are we going to do about it?”
“We’re moving on the fortress tonight. When we give the signal, go. All or nothing, every guard and soldier the town has, every fighting man and woman.”
“What’s the signal?”
Heather closed her eyes, picturing the smelter. “You’ll know it when you see it. Don’t wait for the gates to open to charge. We’ll make sure you can get in. Or we’ll all be dead trying.”
Corbin didn’t hesitate. “You’ll have our full support. Good luck, and Saints watch over you.”
“And you,” said Ramdas. Ooluk pulled his hand free of the stone.
The knights stepped out of the cave as one. Persephone mounted up on Ramdas’ back, her ward extending comfortably around them. Under the moonlight, the glittering snow spread out before them, with only one destination. The Imperial fortress.
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