Shan lived with her father on the mountainside, and on those days when the air was clear and the sun rose clean over the hills, she could look down into the valley below and see the city of Haitu. It was one of the greatest cities in the world, set here in the forested mountains, high above the old road that led north and into the old lands of the empire.
Every morning she went into the woods and gathered wood for the forges. She did not take new-fallen branches, but old ones, watching them season by season as the wood aged and dried, and when it was ready she gathered it up and bound it together with long cords and dragged the heavy bales back with her, up the narrow trails through the wooded mountainside. She was a strong girl, though only sixteen. Her father had a great deal of work for her, as he was growing old, and his sight was failing year by year.
Beside their forge a small stream cascaded down the hillside, and there her father had made a wheel to fire his forge instead of a bellows driven by hand. Shan took the wood and chopped it into even lengths, and then she put it into the coal furnace and lit it carefully. By the time the sun came up above the mountain’s edge, the fire was going, and she packed it closed with mud from the stream and left it to cook.
Her father’s forge was bigger than their small house, but they spent more time in the forge, so it seemed fitting. She looked down the mountainside, seeing the narrow path snaking up from below, and she wondered if anyone would make the journey from the city today. Her father was famous for his swords, and now and again some wealthy man would send servants with silver to buy one from him. Her father sold them fine-looking blades, but not his best. He saved the best for the hard-bitten warriors and soldiers who came of their own. Some men saved their money for years to be able to afford what he crafted, and to them he sold his finest steel.
The city spread out beside the river below, the water bright with the dawn reflection, and the haze of night smoke still drifted over the rooftops. She looked north, to where the hills rolled green and unending. There, at the limit of her vision, she saw a shadow on the earth, and something like a dark cloud. She watched it, thinking perhaps it was a storm, but it hung too low to be a storm. It gave her a misgiving, in the hollow of her stomach, and then she turned away and went to the forge.
Her father was awake before her, always, and already busy at his anvil. He could not see well enough for the fine work any longer, but he could measure the heat of steel by the color of it, and his hands were as sure with a hammer as they had ever been.
“Winter is early,” he said. “Or perhaps I feel the chill more, now I am old.” He took a billet from the fire and hammered it, drawing it out. When it was long, he folded it against the edge of the anvil, sprinkled on the flux, and then hammered it over on itself.
Shan checked the fire and shoveled in fresh charcoal, gathering it to one side so it would have time to burn down into coals. She did not say anything at once, for she was not much given to speaking. Then she went to the bench and began to lay out the tools she would use for polishing and finishing. “I saw a shadow to the north,” she said. “Like a cloud, but low. A storm, perhaps.”
Her father was still for a moment, and did not turn to face her. “And there is a chill on the air,” he said, as if to himself. He put the folded billet back in the fire and turned to look at her, though she knew his failing eyes could not see her in the gloom. He came closer, and put out his hand, and she held up her arm so he could take it. “Show me.”
She led him outside, under the sun and out to the ridge where the view was best. The sky was growing overcast and gray, and there was a small bit of cold in the air. She knew he could not see so far, and wondered what he meant her to show him. When she stopped, he nodded. “What do you see now?”
Shan squinted, looked northward into the hills, and she saw the shadow clearer now, as though it were closer, though it looked less like a storm. “I see a darkness upon the earth, like a mist, or a cloud of smoke. It is larger than I thought.”
“Is it nearer than it was?” he said.
“I think so,” she said. Indeed, she saw it was moving, and as she looked close, she saw tiny sparks inside the dark, like embers cooling on the forge floor. “I see light in it. Like. . . fire?” She looked down, and she saw the road that led to the city from the north was thick with people, all of them rushing inside the walls. “There are people on the road,” she said. “Many people.”
“Are they fleeing?” her father said.
“Yes,” she said.
“I have seen a shadow like that,” he said. “I have seen a shadow that moves and carried motes of fire inside. It is an army.”
“An army?” Shan looked again, and shook her head. “But there is still a cloud above it, like smoke, or mist.”
“It is an army,” he said. “And there is no nation, no tribe that lies that way. No place for an army to come from, save one. The city of the dead.”
“The city. . .” Shan looked north, beyond the hills, to the place where the far mountains loomed in darkness, covered in snow even in the summers. There was said to be a city empty of all life, where a dead race lay sleeping in ice until the end of the world. “It’s a legend.”
“No,” her father said. “It is not. Once, when I was young and foolish, I crossed the desolate hills, and climbed the mountains. I saw the city buried in snow, and the rank upon rank of unliving guardians in a great ring about the center.”
She looked at him, and saw his hazy eyes looking far away, seeing through time. “At the center there was a sarcophagus sheathed in ice, and what was buried within, no man can name.” Crystals of snow formed in the air, and began to drift down around them. “It has awakened.”
They returned to the forge as snow began to fall, and her father went to his furnace and banked the flames. It was something he did not often do, and never so early in the day when the fires were already bright. He left the billets where they were and spent some time putting his tools away, lining them up carefully on the wall and on the work table. When that was done he reached up into the beams overhead and took down a wrapped bundle, and from that he took an old sword, plain to the eye, yet she could see the deadly sharpness and balance of it.
“If there is an army, then there will be a battle, and if the city cannot hold, then the invaders will sweep over these hills.” He held the old sword in his hands.
“We should hide,” she said. “Go up the mountainside and stay in the caves. No one would find us there.”
“Perhaps not,” he said. “I will ask you to go and remain there, but I cannot. I will go down into the city and help to defend it.” He smiled, put a hand on her shoulder. “I defended this city from an enemy once, long before you were born. I may be an old man now, but I am still strong, and I can see well enough any man in reach of my steel.”
“We could escape,” she said. “Leave here and go somewhere else.”
“The enemy is too close,” he said. “It is already too late to flee.”
“I won’t let you go alone,” she said.
He sighed. “If you ever had respect for me, if you ever heeded me, then you will go and hide. It will be the last thing I ask of you, whether I live or die. You are strong, and I would not doubt your courage, but war is no place for you. If I know you are safe, I will fight all the harder. If you are with me, I will keep one eye and one hand always turned to protect you, and I will fail.” He looked hard at her, and she could not bear up under his will, and bowed her head.
“Now go,” he said. “Go in the house and gather food for five days. You will need it. Promise me you will go.”
Shan drew a long, shivering breath, and then she turned her face away and wiped tears from her face with one callused hand. She nodded because she did not trust herself to speak. She saw the sky turn dark, and snow came down more heavily. On the earth far below, the dark army drew closer, and she heard the blast of horns, and the thunder of drums.
Shan went into the house, her guts twisted inside her, and she quickly gathered some bread and a cheese, put some dried fruit into her pockets. She had to stop and catch her breath, feeling fear crawl inside her as though she were hollow. She pictured her father dead on the field of battle and was almost sick. It was hard to even think of food.
It was madness, and she could not let him go. She remembered his heavy stare and fought with herself. Perhaps she could follow him at a distance, so he would not know. It would make her a liar, and disobedient, but this was more than she could endure. She went to the door and looked, and saw he was already gone. A cry choked in her chest and she ran to the edge of the hillside, looked down and saw him making his way down the winding path. He would hear, if she cried out, so she covered her mouth, and held her silence.
She would follow him. There was no other choice she would be able to live with. She ran back into the forge and threw down her bags, caught up a sword lying where it was almost finished, wanting only a last polish to make the steel shine. It would cut well enough. It was a long blade, but Shan was a tall girl with long, strong arms. She gripped the corded hilt in both hands and ran for the head of the trail.
The slope was steep, and she could not run all the way; she had to slow her pace so she would not wear out before she reached the valley floor. The trees closed in overhead, and she could see little but the snow drifting down from above, already beginning to gather on the boughs. Her breath steamed in the air, and she felt cold down in her chest, like a wound.
The sky drew down darker, and the wind began to moan through the trees. Shan heard drums pounding in the half-light, and the bellow of war horns. When the trail turned again, she pushed through the trees until she could look down the hillside and into the valley below. She was so close the towers of the city’s great wall seemed already to loom over her, and she saw the army there spread out in the oncoming storm.
Rank upon rank of dark warriors marched through the howling snow, their spears uplifted into a hedge of deadly points. The oncoming wave of wind rushed over them and smote against the city walls like the blow of a hammer, and she saw men blown off the battlements and hurled screaming to their deaths. Sparks kindled in the dark as the defenders launched a scything wave of burning arrows, and then brighter fires as catapults hurled their flaming missiles into the wind. The dark army marched onward toward the gate, and Shan saw something huge move in the darkness behind them.
It came on like a striding mountain, a pillar of smoke and fire towering over the army, and within it, she thought she saw a shadow, like the form of a man at the heart of it. Thunder roiled in the air, and she saw lightning crack the sky above her. The wind crashed against the mountainside and she was hurled off her feet, tumbled and fell down the long slope. She lost her sword, lost sight of everything. The rocks of the mountain battered against her, and she closed her arms over her head to shield it, and then it was dark, and she knew nothing more.
When she woke, it was dark, and she moved and found she was half-buried. Snow and soil sloughed off her, and she stood, feeling a hundred small pains, but not enough to stop her. The wind was feral, screaming through the trees, and she still heard the drums pounding for war. Cold and stiff, she staggered up and hurried through the blinding snow, seeking the path, not knowing where she was, or what was happening.
She stumbled upon a dead man, frost already covering his open eyes, his armor rent by a terrible wound, and his sword clutched in his frozen hand. Shan tried to pry the blade from his grip, but he would not relinquish it, and she had to stomp on his hand to break it and pry the blade free. It was not as good as her father’s, but it would do better than nothing.
Shivering, she pushed through the storm and found more dead men, and more, and then the wall of the city itself loomed out of the semidark, and she saw the stone was cracked and frozen, a great hole torn in it as though by a terrible siege weapon, the ground around it littered with the slain. She smelled blood and shit, and ahead of her she heard the din of slaughter, and she knew the enemy was within the city, already hard at their butchery.
Balls of fire and burning arrows arced through the sky above her, and so she knew the battle still raged somewhere. She looked in the face of each dead man she passed, seeking her father, but he was not among them. These were the tower guard, sworn to die to defend the city walls, and die they had.
Shapes moved in the dimness, and she saw the enemy close at last as they came toward her. Three men who were not men. They had white skin and the sunken flesh of the frozen dead. They had black eyes and black mouths, and they wore ancient armor and swords dark with time, and they came toward her with a fevered quickness, a hunger to kill and shed blood.
Furious in her terror, Shan held up her scavenged sword and screamed the best war-cry she could summon, and they rushed at her together, quick as spiders. She was taller than they, and her arms were longer, and when she struck it was with a strength of iron muscles forged by a lifetime before the anvil. Her stroke split ancient mail and clove through the pallid flesh and spilled the black blood upon the snow. The thing did not scream as it died; it just went down, flailing like the halves of a snake.
She fell back as the other two attacked her, and she dashed their blades aside as best she could. Shan had never truly anyone, never tested at blades with a foe who sought her blood, but in this hour she would not flinch. She hewed at them with all her power, battered one down to the earth and crushed his skull under her boot as he clawed to rise. Her blade was bent from her force, and as she parried another blow it snapped in two.
Desperate, she seized the loathsome thing and lifted it up, hurled it hard against a stone wall and then fell on it, pinning it down. She grasped the cold sword arm and set her feet on the body and wrenched until the limb ripped free, and she took the sword from the dead fingers and hacked at the one-armed thing until it lay in pieces.
She stood there, gasping, her breath making clouds of smoke, and she looked at the ancient blade in her hand and nodded. They might be unliving abominations from the city of the dead itself, but they bled and died on the edge of steel. They could be killed, and so she would kill them. She took her stolen sword and picked up a fallen axe from the ground, and she pressed deeper into the city, following the sound of war, the scent of smoke and blood.
Shan did not know the streets of the city, and in the storm no one would have been sure of the way. She pressed on, winding through alleys and side-paths, seeing corpses on all sides and the snow dyed with blood. Smoke hung in the air, vying with the snow that still swirled all around. She found her path blocked by fallen stones and wood, and she forced her way through, staggered, and stared.
A path had been blasted through the city itself, and everything in that path was coated in ice and crushed under, as though by some great weight or bulk, some power that smashed stone and splintered wood. She went out into it, and stood in the path of destruction, and there she saw footprints burned into the stone itself, the prints of a human foot, black and seared as though by radiant steel.
Her hands shook as she hurried in the wake of death, following the tread of the unseen thing that had wrought such doom, and she found the corpses of the dead scattered along the way, men frozen and broken and cut apart, more and more of them, until she came to the wall that divided the center of the city from the outer reaches, and there she saw the battle almost at an end.
A pillar of smoke and frost, swirling up into the sky, stood in place upon the stones of the wide plaza, and before it the enemy forces crushed toward the last redoubt. The defenders had closed themselves within the center of the city, shut the gates, and now stood upon the walls, hurling arrow and spear and stone down upon the enemies who crawled and clawed to get inside.
Shan wondered what had become of the power that had broken through the walls and the streets, and then she saw the blackened footprints led into the whirling column of smoke and snow, and there they stopped. Within, like a hidden ember, she saw a form bowed on one knee, still and waiting. She could not know what it was waiting for.
Perhaps steel could not harm this apparition, but she would find the truth with her own blade. Shan firmed her grip on sword and axe and crept upon the unmoving shape, and then her way was barred by another.
It was a woman, her face smooth and beautiful and emotionless, her eyes pale as frost, her hair white, and her armor scales of blue steel. She held a black sword in her hand, and Shan saw that it was of fine workmanship, unearthly in its keen lines and graceful balance. Ice gilded the deathly edge.
“No further,” the woman said. Her words were deeply accented, relic of an ancient tongue. “You have courage. You shall not touch the Emperor.”
“There’s no emperor,” Shan said. “That’s a monster.”
“The emperor has slept long, regaining his strength,” the woman said. “He has arisen, a master of fire and of ice. And he will retake his place in the world. The army of the dead is his to command, as am I.” The woman wore another sword, and Shan saw her touch the black hilt. Her hand was black and glassine, like the hand of a statue.
Dead warriors were gathering, beginning to ring her in, and Shan knew she was lost now, and could not possibly escape. She bit the inside of her lip until it bled, and she spat red on the snow. There had been no emperor of these lands for a thousand years, not since the Emperor Druanu came from the north and conquered the world from one sea to another. She looked at the shadow within the smoke and storm and felt a cold fear down inside her. She did not want to believe it.
“If you bar my path,” Shan said, shaping her words with care, “I will cut you down.”
The pale woman smiled very slightly, and held up her sword. “I guard the emperor,” she said. “I am Chona, of the line of Asherah, of the Karkahd. I am sworn by ancient blood, and ancient oath. You will not pass me.”
Shan felt a kind of gladness in her heart as she cast away all hope. “Well,” she said. “We shall have a fight about it.”
She rushed at Chona, and struck at her with all her power. Axe and sword flashed and rang as they were parried and beaten back. The keen edge of the black sword sheared through the axe haft and left Shan with only her sword, and she fought her pale enemy with desperate ferocity. The dead ringed them in as their swords rang together again and again, and she knew she was overmatched.
Shan was strong, and tall, but she could not match Chona’s deadly speed or fluid grace. She was parried, driven back, hemmed in, and then she realized she was being played with. The pale woman could have slain her at any time, but again and again she spared her. Tirelessly, she let Shan exhaust herself, until she was weaving on her feet, gasping for breath.
“You fight bravely,” Chona said. “I have given you honor. Now it is time to bow before the emperor, or be destroyed.” She pointed her deadly cold blade at Shan’s eyes. “Choose.”
In answer Shan hurled her notched sword into her enemy’s face and lunged for her, seizing her in her strong hands. She clawed at her, finding the slender woman possessed a terrible strength of her own. The blade of the black sword slid along her side and cut into her, and she cried out as she felt cold bite into her flesh like teeth.
Her groping hands closed on the hilt of a dagger, and she felt it sear her hand as she ripped it forth. The blade glowed before her eyes like a piece of hot iron, but Shan was long accustomed to handling hot metal, and it did not stay her hand. She stabbed, and Chona cried out as the hot blade pierced her mail and her flesh. She flung Shan away, her blood hissing like boiling water, and the dead soldiers howled as one.
Shan writhed on the ground, clutching the hot knife in her fist, cold devouring her from the inside out. She saw the shadow of the stilled emperor move, and rise, and then the whirling storm flared out and expanded, engulfed everything, and she felt herself lifted up, spun through the air, and then she struck hard and the world went black again.
She woke to the sound of voices, felt movement, and then she opened her eyes and saw men bent over her, lifting away debris and broken wood to free her. She rolled over and coughed, gripped her side and winced. The pain was less, but she feared she had been wounded badly. She sat up, parted her shirt and looked, and saw the wound was shallow; it had been the cold that made it hurt so terribly.
She let them help her to her feet, and all around she saw men working to help the wounded, clear the rubble. The sky was overcast, and the air was cool, but there was no storm. She took the tail of her shirt and wiped dirt from her face, and then she turned and saw her father. He was leaning on a stick, and there was blood on his leg, but he was alive.
“I told you to stay hidden,” he said. “I cannot decide if I am proud that you disobeyed me.”
“Where have they gone?” she said, looking around.
“Who can say?” he said, shrugging. “They marched away to destroy some other city.” He gestured. “The citadel is desolated, and so many are dead.” There was a helpless look on his face. “The dread emperor has arisen, and all the world will fall before him.”
“Druanu,” she said softly. “Can it be him?”
“It can be no other. Legend says they dragged his tomb from one side of the world to another, seeking his final rest. Some say that place was in the mountains there, among the dead.” Her father looked very old then.
“Chona was her name,” Shan said. “Chona.”
“The princess from the far east,” he said. “The one who died seeking him.”
“She seemed alive enough,” Shan said. Something caught her eye, and she turned and looked, saw the red blade lying there in the dirt. Slowly, she bent and picked it up. It was not a proper knife, she saw now. It was like a shard of red crystal broken into the form of a blade, sharp and jagged. It was hot in her hand, but not too hot to hold, not to her.
She looked up to the mountain, where their home waited, and she looked at the ruin around her. Already the vultures and ravens were gathering, and soon, when night came, it would be wolves. “Let’s go home,” she said. “I will help you on the path.” She held up the glowing dagger of fire. “I wish to make a sword.”
By night they stoked the fires. Her father did not ask her any questions. He was wounded in the leg, and so he let her take up the hammer and took her place as her assistant. She wrapped the crystal blade in a cloth, laid it on the anvil, and then she beat it with the hammer. It was tough, harder than steel, but she was patient, and she hammered the red knife until it was a powder that glowed like hot iron.
They drew a billet of fine steel, and beat it out upon the anvil, heated it and hammered it, drew it out and folded it, and when they forged the layers together, instead of the flux, they used the glowing dust of the ember blade.
Together they worked, and even though they both had pain, and were weary to the bone, they did not stop. Hammer and fold, heat and draw, hammer and fold. Nine times they folded it, until there were a thousand layers in the hot steel, and then they began to shape. Her father held the tongs and turned and guided the steel while Shan swung the hammer. They did not speak; they did not need to. They forged and heated and hammered and shaped until a blade took form, glowing in the darkness of the forge.
Her father painted clay down the fuller, and then they heated it to a terrible, fierce heat – greater than they would ever use for mortal steel. When they quenched it the hissing was dreadful, the edge tempering to a blued hardness.
Through the next day her father worked on the fittings while Shan filed and ground and shaped. They worked without stopping until her father fitted the pommel and Shan hammered down the tang until it was flat and the sword was fitted tightly. They wrapped the hilt in leather cord, and then polished and sharpened the edge until it glittered. The coiled, braided designs in the steel glowed from within, and red traceries like veins stood out in the dark metal. The edge was so sharp it seemed like it would cut the eye that beheld it. It was a dreadful thing to see, a deadly shape, an engine of destruction wrought by two lifetimes of craft.
She held it up, the balance making it feel alive in her hands, and perhaps it was. It was forged with some magic from old ages, and she felt the heat that came from it. Her father sat down heavily beside the anvil, exhausted as she was, but he was pleased. “Neither of us will ever make a finer blade than that.”
“No,” she said.
He sighed. “You are going.”
“Yes,” she said. “I will sleep, and eat, and rest a little, but I am going.”
“I will not stop you,” he said. “Even if I could, though I wish to.” He nodded. “It will need a name.”
“Kingbreaker I will call it,” she said. “I will see that it lives the name.” She went to the doorway of the forge, the sword in her hands already dreaming of war, and she looked out over the devastated city below. She wondered how many more she would see, before she was done.