Shan went into the forest with only her sword and a path to follow. The armies of the tyrant marched across the hills and grasslands and left a path of destruction in their wake. She followed columns of smoke and found only fire-blackened villages and scorched farms, the fire-scarred bones of those who could not escape hung from spearpoints. Always to the north she saw a pillar of smoke and ice in the sky, a marching storm that marked where her quarry stalked. She wondered what she would do when she caught him.
In the nights, when she huddled beside her fire against the unseasonal cold of spring, she wondered at herself. That she would set herself against the march of a dread conqueror from beyond death was foolishness, the dream of a child offended by death and injustice, yet the sword that dreamed beside her in the night gave the lie to that. She had forged a weapon from a shard of fire and blue-black steel. She had seen the enemies of flesh wrought by the arisen emperor. She would see what that keen edge would wreak upon them.
In old times, this land had been a desert, the hills growing more and more barren until they were naked and dry, buried in dust and bitter weeds. But the weather had changed, grown colder, and more rain fell, and the once-desolate lands that had been the center of the old empire were now forestland. The dunes became earth again, and the valleys once fit only for caravan roads were thick with trees and ran with narrow streams. She had heard stories that once the forests had dwelled only in the far northern lands, a place of colossal trees and deep vales hidden by mist. Like a waiting army, the trees had lingered until the time was right for them to return.
Shan had no horse, and only an old mail shirt for armor. She walked the forest paths with her sword slung over her shoulder, following in the wake of her enemy. Once deep in the hollow woodlands she saw fewer signs of their passage. Yet here and there she found the remains of their bonfires, and the bones of the slain they hung from the trees.
It was morning when she heard the sound of horns, blowing hard and clear in the air as the mist hung overhead like a lesser sky. She climbed a long slope, her feet sinking into the soft loam of the soil. She smelled smoke and iron and blood, and she wondered if she were close. As she drew near the crest of the ridge she took her sword down from across her shoulders and drew the long, dark blade, the veins of fire glimmering in the gray light. As yet she had shed no blood with the sword, and she felt that it hungered to drink.
She looked down through the layers of fog and there, on the far side of a stream, she beheld an ancient and decayed keep, the dark stones laid on a small hill in among the trees. Smoke rose from the central redoubt, and on the lands around it was encamped a dark army. Her heart sped at the sight of them, but then she realized it was too small a force to be the whole of her adversary. This was only a detachment, left behind the lay siege to some smaller resistance.
A quick count told her the fort was surrounded by perhaps five hundred of the enemy. They stood in their ranks, spears ready, unmoving and waiting. They were not men, but the same black-mouthed wights she had faced before. They lit no fires, and they pitched no tents. They had no horses and no wagons; they did not work war engines nor bus themselves with mines. They only stood with weapons and shields and blank eyes and waited.
The banner that hung from the keep’s walls was a tattered one of dark green, stained with blood and soot. On it was a black design of a pair of horns surmounting a jagged crown. Shan knew these wild lands were haunted by war-bands who wandered and pillaged and raided, sometimes fought for pay, sometimes for glory. They were a nuisance, if sometimes a useful one. Some company of them must have crossed the path of the Tyrant, and now they were bottled up, ready to be starved out by a foe who needed neither sleep nor food.
Shan looked down on the whole tableaux and hefted the sword in her hand. There was nothing for her to accomplish here. She was no great battle-chieftain to break a siege alone, no matter what kind of blade she wielded. The sight of the enemy in their motionless array was bitter to her, and she turned away and spat, almost sheathed her blade, but stopped.
She had walked for weeks now, seeking an army, and now at last a vestige of it was left in her path. There were too many for her to kill, but within those walls were fighting men of some kind. Men like other men, as human as she. She drew in a long breath and let it out. Already she knew that she could not go and leave them here. A piece of her enemy had come within reach, and she would strike it with all the strength she possessed.
The shadows were deepening as she went down the long slope. She crept soft on the thick carpet of needles and dead leaves, keeping behind the tree trunks and rocks, getting as close to the keep as she could without being seen. She gripped Kingbreaker in her hands and felt its weight lively and eager in her grip. Her flesh might fail her, but the sword would not.
Then war horns blasted the silence again, and she peered around the tree that hid her to see arrows shower down from the keep and fall upon the wights who awaited below. The horns blew again, and then the ancient door of the fort opened, and a shield-guarded force of men emerged, bristling with spears and heralded by battle-cries. The men trapped within came forth to try and force a way through their besiegers.
The wights howled as one and closed from all sides, suddenly goaded to life by the attack, and they rushed upon the shield-wall. The men met the unliving with savage spear-thrusts and the strokes of axes and swords. There was the terrible, hammering sound of battle she had heard only once before. Steel met steel, and bone and wood splintered alike as the formations crashed together.
Shan watched as the enemy closed in. The warriors from the keep were much fewer than their foes – only perhaps a hundred men, but they fought furiously from their tight formation. They chanted as they pushed, driving against the weight of the enemy, but the wights pressed in on them with terrible, inexorable strength. The things of darkness had no fear, had no weariness or pain, and they crushed against the men and held the line.
She saw the sortie falter, and then the hard shield line began to waver and break apart as more of the unliving pressed in upon the flanks, trying to cut them off from retreat. If they were trapped outside the walls by five times their number, they would all be slain.
Shan swore softly under her breath. She looked up at the tall tree she crouched behind. Shaded by the greater trees around it, it was nearly dead, the branches bare and splintered, and she knew what she could do. It was tall enough, if she could cause it to fall the right way.
Quick, before she could think better of it, she slipped around the trunk and drew back her ember blade. She had not yet cut anything with the steel, but one swing with all her strength bit deep into the trunk. She ripped it free in a spray of rotted bark, the smell of burning wood curling up. Wights at the rear of the battle heard her, and turned on her with black eyes and black mouths yawning in hunger.
She ignored them, drew her sword back and struck again, cutting up from beneath. Her stroke chopped out a great wedge from the side of the tree, and the weakened wood disintegrated, and great whipcrack sounds emanated from the tree as it began to topple. Shan hurled herself out of the way as the tree leaned, wood shattering from the trunk as it fell faster and faster.
The wights coming for her were smashed to the earth as the tree plunged into the heart of the battle, shattering wights and scattering wood shards that fell like rain. The formation of the unliving was broken, and Shan got to her feet, her sword in her hands, and she plunged into the center of them.
Kingbreaker was like a living weight in her hands, and the very first stroke was a joy to feel. The balance of the sword pulled her arms through a great arc, split a shield and cut deep into the shoulder of the wight. The thing screamed, fell back with the wound smoldering as she turned to face the others. She rushed in among the broken wood, striking left and right with her burning sword, and the deadly edge cut deeply into steel and flesh alike, leaving rents in armor and shield, splintering spear-hafts and notching sword-blades.
Furious and hissing, the enemy pressed in on her, and Shan was forced in among the warriors. One great bearded man lay at her feet, stunned, and she dragged him up as she hammered blows upon the wights. They shied back from the heat of her sword, and with her as rear guard, the men began to back into the keep. The blank-eyed dead were forced upon her by the weight of their fellows behind them, and she cut them down, Kingbreaker severing arms and heads, leaving them smoking and screaming on the carpet of leaves.
They forced their way back into the gate of the keep, hacking and struggling for every step, and then they pulled the gates closed, Shan almost caught between them before the bearded warrior pulled her inside with one brawny arm, and then the gate was slammed shut and barred.
Men ran up the moss-covered steps to the top of the wall, hurled down stones and arrows until they drove the wights back, and then all lay or leaned where they stood, gasping for breath or moaning with pain from wounds. Shan sat down on a stone and leaned against the wall, panting. Outside, the screams of the wights faded into silence, and it was as though they were alone in the forest.
The bearded man helped her up. His helm was askew and there was blood on his face. “Your help is welcome,” he said in the broad accents of the wild lands. “Who are you?”
“I am Shan, the Sword-Maker,” she said. She brushed burning dirt and blackened blood from her sword and then sheathed it. “Who are you?”
“I am called Bror,” he said. “These are what remains of the Horned Brotherhood.”
Shan looked around at the men, seeing battle-hardened and battered men. Most of them were young, though their eyes were old. Their armor and arms were rough but had the keen look of things used for their function, not their beauty. She liked their swords, as they were plain weapons with good steel and edges worn down from much sharpening. She nodded. By a rough count, she saw perhaps seventy men here, many of them wounded.
“I will tell you how you came here,” she said, looking around at them. “A storm passed through the forest, and ice hung on the trees. You saw an army come marching, greater than you could oppose, so you took refuge in this place, and found yourselves trapped.” She looked at Bror. “Is that the tale?”
He looked at her with cold, pale eyes. “It is. At first we thought it was a smaller force we might ambush, but there were too many of them, and then we saw they were not men.” He looked up, beyond the walls. “They are things of the night, and in that storm they followed something fell walked like a giant.”
“I have seen it,” she said. “I was at Haitu, and now the city lies in ruins. The army came down from the mountains in the west, from the city of the dead.” She touched her sword hilt. “The thing that leads them is Druanu, the Sleeping Tyrant, the emperor of old risen again.”
A silence passed through them at the name, like the settling of snow in the night, and she saw them glance at one another, doubting yet afraid. She looked over the fortification, saw it was ancient yet stout, with solid walls and a gate of iron-bound oak seasoned to almost the strength of stone. “This is a good place – you could hold them, yet you tried to break free.”
Bror nodded. “We thought to wait until they left us behind, but they did not. They left that force to keep us hemmed inside. They never attacked us, never tried to force the gate, they just waited.”
“They are unliving,” Shan said. “They need neither rest nor food.”
“And we are almost out of our supplies,” Bror said. “We will begin to starve in a few more days. We chose to try and force an escape rather than wait until our strength was sapped by hunger.”
“Wise,” she said. “But now you have failed to force your way out, and lost perhaps twenty men doing it.” She sighed and leaned on the moss-grown wall. “We need to find a way to break loose.”
He laughed. “You are with us now, true enough.” He gestured to her side. “A fine sword you have.”
“They fear it, as they fear fire. They are creatures of the dark and the cold. They will fall before my sword, but one sword cannot win a battle.” Shan looked up at the sky, saw the sun was westering, gleaming on the upper boughs of the trees. “It will be night soon, their time of strength. I hope we are not too late.”
“It is already late,” Bror said.
“They trapped you here for a reason,” Shan said. “If they do not attack you, it means they are waiting for something. Not for you to starve, but for something else, something to break the gates and destroy this fort.” The men did not seem to like that thought at all, and there was a great deal of muttering. She straightened and flexed her fingers. “Does this keep have a forge?”
Bror shrugged. “If it does, it has long since fallen to ruin.”
“That doesn’t matter,” she said. “Help me look.”
Shan went to the corners of the ancient keep and dug through the heavy layer of leaves, searching for the signs of a forge. The wooden structures that once leaned against the inner wall had long ago fallen into ruin, but she kicked at the earth until she found the post-holes and began to get a sense of the shape of things that once were. The other men watched her, weary and blooded, and they did not help. She found a pile of earth that looked like a tree stump, but when she pushed the soil away she found a core of rusted iron and she smiled. “This was an anvil,” she said. She looked around, squinting, trying to picture it in another time.
She walked to one corner and dug, found pieces of broken clay and nodded. “Here, help me.”
This time, Bror came and helped her, and together they cleared away a heavy layer of earth, and under it she found a capstone set in the hidden stone floor of the old courtyard, and she smiled. Bror dug his fingers in beside hers, and together they levered up the heavy stone and slid it aside. Shan sniffed at the bitter smell, and Bror coughed.
“There was a charcoal furnace here, and under it was a cistern for catching the tar that dripped off the wood.” She looked in and smiled at the dark gleams on the all but invisible surface. “Tar keeps forever. Doesn’t rot, doesn’t go bad, and it burns.” She smiled up at Bror. “It sticks to things, and burns.” She stood up. “We’ll need buckets, and wood to make torches, and rags for fire arrows.” The sky was dark now, and the sounds of the forest came distant, the silence from just beyond the walls yawned like hunger, and she felt a chill on the air, a first few flakes of snow drifting down. “I think we had better hurry.”
They worked hard as the night came down and the air bit harder with cold. Snow was falling by the time they got a fire lit, and they set out torches so they could see to work. They found leaky buckets and brought up the heavy, thick tar. In the cold it was like clay, and they had to heat it over the coals before they could pour it. The hard tar they worked in their hands, molding it around knots of rags on arrowheads. There were not enough arrows, and they would need a better way to get the stuff onto their enemies.
Shan found a half-rotten log and they used axes to hollow it out, make a kind of chute they could use to pour tar over the walls. The wind was beginning to moan through the trees, and then she heard something far off that was not wind.
A howl lifted up to the hidden stars, and the wights gathered outside the keep began to hiss and gibber at the sound of it. The men stopped their work, listening, fear carved on every face. Another howl came down from the north, and Shan heard the sounds of deer stampeding in the brush, scattering to escape the owner of that dreadful voice.
“To the walls,” she said, and they went without question. The breath of mortal men was smoke in the cold dark, and fires kindled along the wall, seeming poor solace against the night. Shan climbed the crumbling, moss-grown steps to the top of the wall and looked out into the dark.
The moon was up, but was only a silver glow beyond the trees, the stars glimpsed overhead like a scattering of sparks across the dark of the sky. She went to the edge, so the firelight was behind her, and strained to see. The wights waited, just beyond arrow-reach, and she saw them swaying in place, whispering like leaves. She heard another cry from out of the dark, and she gripped the stone parapet.
Something was coming, footfalls thundering in the darkness under the boughs of the great trees. She heard branches snap, heard hard breathing like a vast forge bellows, and then she saw something black against the darkness, something in the shadows of the forest, but not of them. Two lights glowed a cold blue, high above the forest floor, and then the thing came striding from the night.
It was neither bear, nor wolf, nor man. It was huge and heavy, with eyes like cold fire and a great head split by a jaw that gleamed with dark teeth. It came forward on all fours, but then the wights drew aside, and it came closer, the rotten wood of the fallen tree splintering beneath its tread. It was so black it seemed to swallow the light, and as it drew near it rose up on two legs like a bear, and it seemed as tall as the walls themselves.
It bellowed, and men screamed and cursed in terror. Some of them leaped down from the walls, ran to seek in vain a place to hide. Shan knew there was no escaping, and if the beast broke the walls, they would all be hunted down and butchered. Grim-faced, she drew her sword, and in the dark the glow of red veins in the steel was like a fire.
“Hold!” Bror bellowed, beating his axe-haft on the parapet. “Hold, curse you all!”
Shan did not give cry, she only watched as the thing came closer with a slow, shambling gait, the claws on its forelegs reaching out for the wall. For a moment she was looking down into a lightless visage with gleaming cold eyes and a yawning black mouth, and then one great hand swung out and struck the wall, ripping stone from the ancient masonry, leaving a gouge in the barrier the size of a wagon. Three men were torn away with it and hurled screaming into the dark, and blood splashed the stones like hot water and steamed.
The men howled, and Shan knew their courage hung by a skein. She stood high and lifted her dark sword, hammered it against the stone so it rang like a bell. “Here!” she called out. “Here! Strike here!” The thing turned to her, eyes like pale winter, and she braced herself, both hands on her sword hilt.
It swung again, claws as long as her arm sinking into the stone, and she defied every nerve that screamed at her to run and instead she struck down at the massive paw and saw her blade cleave through the dark flesh. Steaming black ichor gushed out and hissed on her sword, and the beast ripped its arm back, leaving black talons embedded in the very rock.
“Shoot!” Bror roared at his men. “Shoot now!”
Those brave enough to remain lit their arrows and loosed them at the darksome thing. It screamed and flailed at the air as a dozen burning arrows struck it and blazed there, sending acrid smoke up into the sky. The night beast hurled itself bodily against the wall and the stone cracked and shuddered. Shan caught herself before she could fall and flourished her blade. “Pour! Let it loose!”
Four men raced up the steps and thrust the hollowed log out over the wall, and then three more poured hot tar down the channel from their makeshift buckets and skins. It flowed slowly in the cold night, but it splashed the beast and caught fire as it touched the burning arrows. Fire ran down the wall and gathered below in a pool of flame. The smoke made men gag, but they ran for more tar, leaping down from the wall.
The beast smashed the top of the wall again, shattering the log, and burning tar splashed across the stones even as the masonry began to buckle. Shan leaped back from the fire, and then the wall slumped and she fell to the courtyard below, landing hard in the thick floor of leaves. She grunted, the breath gone from her, and then she rolled over and saw the gate splinter and break.
The darkness was gone as the burning monster forced its way through, sending broken wood and stone cascading down. Warriors screamed as they were crushed, and then the beast was there, ablaze like a bonfire, screaming in wrath and agony.
Bror rushed at it and cut ferociously with his axe, only to see the keen steel bounce off as though he hewed at iron. Shan clawed to her feet and rushed forward, her burning sword in her hands, and she dodged the scything claws and hacked at the stout back leg as it came in reach. Her fire-forged steel bit deep, and the leg crumpled.
The thing collapsed like a burning siege tower, smashing into the side of the courtyard, talons gouging the stone, and Shan knew it could slay them all in its throes. Without thinking, she ran for the massive head, and as it came low enough to reach she cut at it, a singing arc of steel that lashed through the blackened, burning neck and spilled scorching ichor in a torrent.
She reeled back as it fell, twitching and shuddering, and then it slumped and lay still, still afire and seething with cold blood. Shan fetched against a stone and roused herself. The wights would be coming, pouring through the broken wall. She turned to the breach.
Bror was there, axe in hand, looking out into the night over the sea of flames. The tar still burned, and it had poured down the slope, setting the night ablaze. There was no sign of the enemy, and as they all gathered with weapons ready to fight, no enemy came. The smoke grew thick and choked them, and they withdrew into the hollows of the old keep and huddled there, gasping and spitting, awaiting the onrush of death.
Morning came gray and pale, and they emerged from the crumbling keep into silence. The courtyard was blackened by smoke, the snow itself stained with it, and the corpse of the night beast lay there, burned away to black bones. Snow drifted down like ash, and the air tasted bitter. Shan walked alone to the fallen gate and stood there, looking outward. The trees stood sentinel, and the earth was burned and scarred, but there was nothing left of the enemy save a few scattered bodies.
Bror came beside her and grunted. “They fled. Though from us or the fire I could not say.”
“Fire,” she said. “Fire they fear. Their master is made of fire and ice, but they are not the same.”
He looked at her a long moment. “You are pursuing him.”
“I am,” she said. “His path leads north, as does mine.”
“Indeed,” he said. “And I would walk in shame if I do not walk with you.”
“Only you?” she said.
“And as many of the others as will follow,” he said. He turned as some of the men brought forth a leather bag, and he bent and opened it, drew out a dark helm bound with brass and surmounted by horns. There was a crack across the crest, and it was battered and old. “This was the helm of our war-leader. He gathered us together, and made us a warrior band, but he died when his helm failed him. The helm is still borne by the one who leads us, broken even as it is.” He held it out to her. “I give it to you.”
Shan took it. It was an old helm, but had once been well made, she looked at the damage and grunted. “Well,” she said. “I can fix that.” She looked at Bror. “Will you follow me into war against the risen emperor?”
“I will,” he said.
“Then gather what you can,” she said, “and let us set our feet upon the path.”