Shan and her ragged army followed the path of destruction north, passing dead villages and splintered trees. They left the country of the deep forest and ascended into high, cold hills jagged with rock and threaded by narrow, twisted trails. She still followed the seared prints of the Emperor, and so she knew she followed the correct path. They were leaving even the edge of the lands of civilized men, and passing into the country of legends. North of this place lay only myths, and the eternal night of the lands of the dead.
The snow grew heavier, and the winds were cold, even though it was summer. The days grew shorter the farther they went, and some of her followers began to desert, to flee back down toward warmer lands, and she could not blame them very much. This was her crusade, and they were not blood-bound to follow it. The nights lengthened, and the snow came down all around them, and then they crested a last hill and saw the city.
It was old, and the walls were cracked and worn down, the gates open as though it were abandoned but lights flickered in the dark hollows, and Shan smelled smoke. The city crouched in the pass that led through the hills and into the far north, and she knew that was the way they must take. She looked back down the hillside as her army snaking through the narrow trails. There were perhaps a thousand men in her wake, half that many women and followers, and she wondered if the people of this cold place would shut the gates against them as against an invader.
Bror came and stood beside her, looked down at the ancient walls and towers. “What place is this? I have never heard of a city here at the edge of nothing.”
“Nor I,” she said. She looked for the marks of the enemy horde across the snows, looked for a sign of destruction in the wake of the Tyrant, and she saw nothing. She wondered if she had lost her way, had missed the passage of her quarry, and then she heard war horns sound and the hair on her neck stood up. Looking back, she saw lights moving in the shadows of the hills behind them, and she heard the smash of battle drums.
She put her hand to her sword and bared her teeth. “They are behind us,” she hissed.
Bror turned, and he saw the motion back in the hills to the south just as she did. A pillar of smoke rose up, and she felt the cold wind intensify, laying its teeth upon her skin. “An ambush,” he said, sliding his axe from the straps of his saddle.
“We cannot fight here,” Shan said. “We are strung out, and the rear is filled with camp followers.” She turned and pointed at the city. “We must get inside the walls, and make a stand there.”
“A thousand against ten times that number?” he said. “Twenty times?”
“Either die there, or stand and die here,” she said. She drew her sword, the ember blade hissing as the snow drove against the dark steel. In the dark the red veins glowed like coals. She lifted her voice to cry above the rising wind. “Forward to the city! Get behind the walls and we may yet live!”
The horsemen spurred ahead, and their beasts leaped across the intervening ground, but the followers and refugees could not keep the pace. Shan drew aside from the rush and watched, shouting to urge them more quickly, seeing them stumble and fall on the stony earth. Bror went on ahead to lead the way, and so she was left alone with her burning sword to try and herd the rearmost onward.
The screaming began sooner than she would have believed, and then the first of the enemy came through the passes and down among the fleeing people. Shan saw white-skinned revenants on skeletal, sunken-fleshed horses. They came ravening with their black mouths yawning wide, their swords and spears black as from a bonfire, and they rushed upon the helpless like a death wind. She saw fleeing women with children in their arms, old men with lame legs, beardless boys and terrified girls. All of them screamed and scattered, but it did not save them.
The enemy painted the snow with blood, rode savagely among them and cut them down. The sound of cloven flesh was hideous to hear, the screams cut short as heads were severed. Shan saw the first crush of the butchery and she screamed her rage and hurled herself forward into the path of the foe, her horse all but roaring beneath her.
Alone she crashed into the vanguard of the enemy, and her dark sword hacked and hewed at them, splintering their dark armor and searing their colorless flesh. She cut down two, then four in a whirling melee, striking with desperate strength, both hands gripping the hilt of her battle-blade. More of them rushed upon her, and she flinched as her armor turned aside the strokes of sword and war axe. She struck back, scything them down with great blows of her powerful arms, but they began to close about her.
The snow beneath her horses’ hooves was red with blood, and then she saw another wave of the foe come sweeping out of the pass and she knew she would be overwhelmed. With a last scream she turned and rode hard for the city gate, passing the last few desperate followers, cursing as she was forced to leave them behind, hearing their shrieks as they were enveloped by the oncoming dark wave of slaughter.
The dark ones were at her heels, and one rode close beside her and she parried the blow of his sword, thrust him back and then hewed the head from his phantom steed, leaving it to crash to the snow behind her as she plunged onward. The gates of the city stood open a fraction, awaiting her, and she dug in her heels and rode as hard as she ever had, clinging to the reins lest she fall from her saddle.
The enemy was on her like a shadow, but a blast of arrows from the city wall cut them down and gave her space, and she hurtled through the opening in the gate a breath before it was slammed shut behind her. Her horse almost crashed into a wall and then she reined it in so hard it almost fell, stumbled sideways, and she leaped down before it could throw her off. She was here within the ancient, dark walls of this crumbling city, and she had no time to wonder at it, for battle was coming.
The enemy wave crashed against the gate, seeking to force it before it could be barred against them, and her warriors rushed to barricade it with whatever came to hand. Others pinned themselves fast against the ancient wood and braced to hold it shut against the hammering of sword and axe. The death horses without reared and screamed and beat their hooves on the gates, even as they riders hammered with their dark steel. They forced a small gap between the doors, and warriors shoved their spears through the opening to keep any form from forcing a path.
Bror howled orders and men rushed forward, dragging wooden debris and broken-down wagons to brace against the inside of the gate. Two wounded horses, unable to rise, were heaped before the gate and their throats cut to add to the weight holding it shut. Men and women came scurrying with beams and braced them against the spars of the gate, then hammered them down into the street, ripping up the loose flagstones to make holes to fix them in.
Shan raced up the steep stone steps to the top of the wall and looked out, saw more and more riders coming to hurl themselves against the gates or seek low points on the aged walls. She pointed and gave order and more men joined her. They gathered up stones from the top of the old wall and threw them down, knocking wights from their saddles and crushing flesh and bone. She brandished her sword and howled for fire. They had to have fire ready when the main force arrived.
Already she saw them, a dark stain upon the earth in the dim light under a dark sky. Lights guttered in the rising wind, and she knew they did not have much time. “To the walls!” she howled. “Light fires or we will all feed the ravens tonight!”
Men rushed into the dark buildings, plundering for anything that would burn. She saw the dark inhabitants of the city peer at them from shrouded windows, or scurry down the dim streets, but she did not have time to bother about them. The enemy was at her throat, and now they had to fight.
They gathered broken wood and scraps of lumber and piled them on the wide, ice-rimed walls. Shan thrust her sword into the heaps and kindled them, and the clawing wind roused the fires quickly to roaring. They found casks of oil and broke them open with axes, and then they hurled the stuff down upon the wights below. Shan ripped a burning brand from the fire and threw it down, and fire burst alight in the darkness.
The wraiths screamed as they scattered from the red flames. Now archers were reaching the walls, and Shan held them in check as the riders withdrew. They were not the concern. She watched the dark shape of the enemy army approach, slow and deliberate, and she saw the pillar of smoke that marked the path of the Emperor. She did not know if he could be stopped. He had shown weakness before, at Haitu. He had destroyed the gates and cut a path through the city, but then he had stopped. He had limits on his power yet, and his strength was not unending.
And yet she saw his army coming for her, and she felt a tremor in the earth, or perhaps it was in her heart. They covered the earth, rank upon rank of pale men, their flesh colorless, their eyes and mouths black as poison, and she saw among them the newly-slain, and realized many taken by this dark power rose again, fed by the cold that enshrouds.
She saw him then, the dark shadow wrapped in mist, seeming to loom over the cold host like a giant, his eyes points of fire in the endless night he bore like a shroud. The army came onward, and she felt the tread of their feet shudder through the stone walls. Archers drew back their bowstrings, and she knew in that one moment that they could not hope to prevail, and she felt despair take root in her like a wound.
She watched the army come on like a cresting wave, and then it crashed against the walls everywhere at once, and she felt the shock through her feet. The pale, squalid wights clawed at the ancient masonry, tried to climb to the top, and in places they nearly succeeded, only to be thrust back with spearpoints. Archers loosed cloud after cloud of arrows until the ground below was piled with the lifeless bodies, and the attackers climbed over their own dead to reach the walls.
They pounded at the gate, and Shan saw the beams that braced it shudder and begin to buckle under the pressure. The ancient walls were low in places where the stone had crumbled, and the wights reached the top and clawed for blood to spill. The men of the Horned Company fell on them and hacked at them with swords and keen-bitted axes and cut them apart, threw the twitching pieces down upon the heads of their fellows.
Shan tasted frost on the night air, and she saw him coming. Like a giant, the Emperor walked through the host, and his creatures parted to let him pass. His footprints melted the snow and left black sear upon the earth, and the column of smoke and frost grew up around him until it towered over the gate. She saw he would not be stopped, and she screamed for the men to fall back even as she turned and ran for the steps. She was only halfway down when he struck.
The impact shattered the gate, and the braces snapped like reeds before the assault. A cloud of smoke billowed outward as the wall cracked and then stones came raining down all around. Shan was thrown from the wall and fell hard to the snow-dusted stones below, losing her breath. Her sword rang on the flags and she groped for it, lifted it up again. She turned and saw the shape of the Emperor stride through the gate, and she saw the shard of fire in his hand that was the sword out of ages.
“Get back!” Shan howled at her warriors. “Fall back into the city!” She placed herself in the path of the enemy, and she waited with her sword raised as the dread Emperor himself stepped forward to meet her. Cold winds tore at her, and she felt ice form on her cheek from her own exhalations as he heaved up the red sword and then brought it down.
Shan sideslipped that sweeping stroke and it shattered the stones where she had been. She rushed in and smote at him, her own blade alive with crawling trails of fire so close to his. She felt the warmth climb her arms like blood and protect her from the deepest bite of the cold. He was swifter than she expected, and he met her stroke with his own shard blade and they screamed and sparked together.
He thrust her back with terrible strength and she fell hard to the cold stones, rolled and came up as he struck at her again. This time there was no time to evade, and she parried, the blow ringing through her hands and arms like a bell note. Sparks rained down and burned her cloak and her skin like fallen embers, and she spat them out and struggled to her feet. She struck back at him with all her strength and their blades sang together again, fire coursing between them like wind.
She fell back before him, parrying furiously, driven to the limits of her skill to keep him at bay. His strength was immense and seemingly tireless. She drew him back down between stone walls as she retreated into the city. He spoke words thick like thunder that she could not understand and shouldered his way through, crushing stone as though it were dry sand. Sparks fell from their blades and kindled the refuse in the streets, and fire walked in the wake of their duel.
They passed beneath an ancient arch, and Shan saw the weakness of it, the slump of stones and the crumbling mortar. Even as he walked beneath it she drove her sword in between the seams and wrenched at it like a lever. Mortar broke apart and then the stone tumbled, and Shan hurled herself backward as the arch came down.
The Emperor stumbled as heavy blocks crashed against him, and then he fell and caught himself against a wall. The smoke and storm weakened, and she saw him in that moment as a man. She saw his face dark and set and yet wondering beneath, like water roiling beneath ice. She leaped in before he could recover, and she cut at him quick, her blade scoring his side and drawing black blood that smoked in the air like molten lead.
He bellowed, and the winds rose and drove her back, and then the pallid hordes of his servants rushed past him, crawling over the broken stone, and she was driven back, hacking and cutting furiously. Blows rang on her armor and she barely kept her feet.
Then she heard shouts, and there were men around her, cutting down the enemy, and a wall of spears forced them back. She had a last sight of Druanu with his head bowed, hand pressed to his wound, and his ember gaze flickered as it met hers, and then she was borne away as battle raged.
Her men had made a barricade in the street before the shadow of a ruined temple, and now they manned it shoulder to shoulder with sword and axe and spear. The darklings came for them in a wave, and their assault shattered against the steel of the horned company. It was not just the warrior brotherhood, and Shan saw bloodied women and desperate children among them, bending bows as best they could. Arrows flew thick as rain, and the wights came howling against the barricade again and again.
Shan gathered herself and climbed to her place beside Bror, and with sword and axe they cut down any of the enemy who came in reach. They flooded the stones underfoot with black blood and heaped pale corpses before the barrier of overturned carts and broken barrels, and the tide of the foe did not slow. The brothers fought with desperate fury, but it did not change the fact that their enemies felt no fear nor weariness. They did not slow with wounds, or as their arms grew heavy from lifting their weapons; they screamed and spewed their black bile, and they killed and died without ceasing.
The barrier buckled, and then more wights came ravening from the side streets, and the barrier was flanked. Shan yelled for the men to fall back, and some of them did, but too many could not. They were caught as they tried to flee, and consumed like leaves in a fire.
Shan and her warriors fell back through the streets, spending blood for every step, fighting bitterly to kill as many as they could. It was plain to them all they could not win, could not win or escape. A mortal foe might lose their will, might break from fear or exhaustion, but not this enemy. They came on like a tide, killing and killing, dragging brave men down into howling death.
They fell back, and back again, no time to find a position to defend, no time to build a barrier, more of them dead every moment. Shan saw them begin to simply flee. Men threw down their weapons and shields and ran, scattering into the dark streets. She had a hundred left on their feet, still fighting, then she had fifty, and they were backed against the wall of the city, dark and solid and unyielding.
“Here!” Bror shouted. She drew back against the ancient stone, and she saw he had found a small drain culvert set in the wall, clogged with leaves and dirt. She stood over him as he ripped the debris from the opening until he found the rusted iron bars that guarded it, and he ripped them out with his bare hands.
They had very little time. Shan looked down and saw the way was clear, but it was far too small for Bror to fit through, or for most of them. He pulled her close and shoved the horned helm into her bloody hands. “Go, go and find a way to finish him!”
Shan looked at him, wanting to say something, but she was not one for words. Then the enemy rushed on them and Bror turned and hewed at them with his axe, and there was no more time. She bent down and pushed into the tight confines of the drain, pushing her sword ahead of her, following the sullen light that glowed through the black, seared blood that stained it.
She crawled through the dirt and the slime, digging through the cold mud and rotting leaves, and for a moment she was sure she would be stuck fast, trapped here until the wights came and dug her out, and that would be the end. But then she forced through a last wall of debris and tumbled out under the dim sky, slid down a rocky slope, and then lay panting outside the city wall, looking up at the firelight that glowed against the low-hanging clouds.
Exhausted, bloodied and sore, she could not stop to rest. Blood began to drip down from the drain, following her. She used her sword as a cane and pushed to her feet, slung the broken helm over her shoulder, and pressed onward into the night. The land before her was thick with trees and the sounds of darkness, and she walked into that wilderness, and was lost.