Heartless, Chapter 6

Chapter 6:

How dare you cry. How dare you grieve. You have watched but a handful of mortal lives end this day. I have walked the centuries and seen thousands fall. How dare you compare your transitory, fleeting life to mine and all the horrors that I have seen.”

– Coldblood general Songbird to her captives after the siege of Temple Thresh

~

“Are you feeling better?” Aisha Taellin asked from the doorway. The young woman was eyeing Tobias carefully, rubbing the bruises on her neck.

His cheeks burning with shame, Tobias nodded. He couldn’t fault her caution. It was she who he had nearly strangled in his delirium. He had apologized profusely, but the farmgirl was still wary around him. One more way in which he’d failed.

“Yes, thank you.” He had been in and out of consciousness for Ambre knew how long; days, certainly. He’d been burning with fever and more dead than alive when he’d rode into this village. Goddess knew how he’d managed to find it. He remembered nothing beyond falling off his horse, unconscious before he’d hit the ground.

The young woman hesitated. She had a southerner’s dark skin and hair, but her facial structure and off-green eyes suggested that part of her ancestry was native Alvenian. He wondered what had brought her family up from the Abidan peninsula. The heathen nations there adamantly refused the embrace of Ambre. They’d repelled several holy crusades in previous centuries and looked on their continental cousins with wariness and contempt. The peoples of the Dynasty returned that with mistrust of their own.

“You muttered things in your sleep…” she said at last. “You spoke of the Lifeless Ones. You said you were betrayed.”

The Inquisitor-Captain’s head snapped up, the fall of Temple Consect coming back to him in a rush. Not ‘betrayed’, he knew. Betrayer.

“They’re coming,” he whispered. “They’re coming,” he repeated louder. He had no idea if any of the other messengers had made it to the other Temples, but his own duty was clear. In the state he’d been in, couldn’t have made it far on his horse. This village must lie in the undead’s path – and that meant every man, woman and child was at risk. The undead were coming.

“I must speak with your headman at once,” he said urgently.

~

Keldare had been growling non-stop for the past hour. The Seventh Host had begun their advance once more, and Betrayer had given in and let Anyka ride with him for this leg of their journey. The drake didn’t like the living, not unless his snout was buried in their quivering entrails. Not in the mood to suffer the beast’s ill temper, Marcus had whacked him across the top of the head. The drake’s scaled hide was thick, and the blow merely let him know his rider was displeased. After that, if the drake was still unhappy about the presence of the warmskin girl on his back, he was much less vocal about it.

“Isn’t that cute,” Ursid laughed as he rode up beside Betrayer. “Master and pet. Do you ride them both?”

Marcus opened his mouth to offer invective, but Anyka though she wasn’t quite sure what the bearded undead was implying except that it was some kind of insult, responded first and stuck her tongue out at Ursid. The big warrior only laughed all the more. “How terrifying. Like being threatened by a mouse.”

“Be silent, Ursid,” Betrayer replied, tempering his initial reaction. “You forget that I know your one weakness. Soap.”

To the Coldblood’s right, the female generals laughed. They had served under Ursid longer than Betrayer, but their loyalty to and fondness for the Northman was tenuous at the best of times.

The barbarian snorted. “Keep your eyes open, Little Mouse. Your soul is as good a meal as any other, your flesh as warm as the rest. Things go bump in the night.”

He spurred his own mount and galloped ahead. Betrayer stared at the larger general’s back. Northmen. The word was a curse in his own mind. They were raiders, pillagers and barbarian scum. He’d hated them as an officer in the Sardillan army and neither his Rebirth nor his association with Ursid had changed his opinion.

Distracting him from his morose thoughts, Canticle brought her own mount alongside. Vanhar was a bright blueish drake from the north-eastern reaches of Naharnas, sleeker than Keldare, a heavy-bodied Midland drake. The two animals got on well and Vanhar nipped at Keldare’s thick neck in greeting, the latter grunting in response.

The sorceress leaned close to Marcus and Anyka, holding one palm out, gleaming butterflies sparkling into existence and fluttering above her gauntlet as if caught in an invisible jar. The girl gasped and watched their dance.

“Don’t let him get to you,” she advised Betrayer. “He’s still nursing a grudge over you displacing him as the Seventh’s lead officer.” She was wearing her hair loose, blood-red locks spilling out of her helmet and down her back.

“I was aware, thank you,” he replied, though he knew that was more for Anyka’s benefit than his own. Ursid had once been the Harvestman’s favorite and had led his Host to victory time and again for centuries against his rivals and the smaller nation-states surrounding Naharnas. But as the Harvestman’s army had grown, so too did his need for more and better leaders. Ursid was a blunt instrument – a very finely-wrought one, but a blunt instrument all the same. He had no mind for tactics, no aptitude for magic, no stealth or guile. The Harvestman had needed others for that. He had needed mages to bolster his army, assassins to slide blades where siege engines couldn’t go, tacticians to orchestrate battles and strategists to win wars.

Hearing what Betrayer had wreaked in Sardilla, the necromancer had journeyed there in the hopes of claiming a new general. He had searched out and found Marcus Levinus’s unmarked grave and there, brought a new general to unlife just as he had collected Canticle’s charred form from her pyre and Coryphée from the burning Abidan sands.

Canticle raised her head. Her fellow general was watching her speak with Betrayer and the girl. That one hated the Harvestman most bitterly of them all. Once Kareen Lucinda, the finest concubine in the Sultan-King’s harem, it had been said that she could enchant men with insatiable lust with but a glance. Her dancing had been the finest in all of Abida and the Sultan-King had doted upon his consort and showered her with adulation and gifts.

Until the day that he had driven her out into the desert to die. Not out of jealously of finding her with another man. Not because she had betrayed him, stolen from him. Because he hated to lose more than he had loved her. Drunk beyond reason, he had gambled with one of the lords from a neighbouring princedom. So sure of his hand, so eager to win, he had bet Kareen as his final wager, but the other noble had seen the state the Sultan-King was in and played him accordingly, winning the game – and Kareen – for himself.

Loathe to surrender his most prized possession to a rival, the Sultan-King had had the girl exiled beyond the city’s walls into the merciless sands, telling his opponent that she had run away. She had died there, her parched body found by Canticle and the Harvestman. Reborn as Coryphée, she now dedicated all her grace to the art of death. The first application of her skill had led her to the Sultan-King’s bedroom, slitting his throat with a cut just shallow enough to guarantee a slow death and leaving him to die, unable to cry for help. Now, she was one the Harvestman’s finest killers.

She scoffed at Canticle’s deference to the young girl; she had no use for the living save to sustain her existence; none of them had ever cared for anything but her body and even those that had pretended otherwise had left her die alone and in agony rather than risk their master’s wrath to help her.

Coryphée watched as Canticle turned her drake and sauntered back to her position in the command train, but her gaze remained on the army’s commander and his pet. She had no idea why Betrayer had rescued the warmskin and knew that he didn’t, either. A lifetime in the Sultan-King’s court had told her how to read a man and see his mind before he knew it himself, but Betrayer…

Despite Ursid’s comments, the girl wasn’t that kind of prize. She could see uncertainty in her commander, feel it shimmer ever so slightly in her wraith’s sight. The whim that had saved the child’s life was something even he didn’t understand, and that was dangerous. The living could never be trusted. Sooner or later, that girl would turn on him.

The woman huffed an annoyed breath through her lips. She’d seen it before. Coldbloods and pyres – and even, pathetically, ghouls and Ensnared – trying to hold on to their ‘humanity’. It never ended well, but if Betrayer wanted to pretend otherwise, she would let him. And when it came time to end this charade…

Well. That would be interesting, wouldn’t it?

~

The scent of decomposition was strong, but it wasn’t as bad here at the army’s rear where the pyres and the Coldbloods marched. Amongst the shambling hordes of zombies, the stench was overpowering. Just being close to the things made Anyka gag. She’d watched thousands of them – more dead people than she had ever seen alive – marching in almost perfect unison, driven by the will of the undead lords riding amongst them. She didn’t understand how they were able to control so many monsters. She’d been told that it was the will of the greater Lifeless that dominated the mindless hordes, but that didn’t help. Maybe she’d understand when she was older.

She looked around at the serried ranks of Lifeless soldiers, vampires and Coldbloods alike. Many rode drakes like Marcus did. A few had undead horses, but most were footmen, marching at the same steady, relentless pace.

Anyka was both frightened and fascinated by them; the ghost stories she’d heard had made them out to be soulless, ruthless killers and they were; they all marched in lockstep, some with dead eyes staring directly ahead, as if nothing mattered until they could be unleashed on the living once again. Others were different. Some did march in silence, but they were just lost in their own thoughts. Others talked to each other, looking about the landscape and at each other. She saw some laughing with each other, hands gesticulating to describe some aspect of their tales. Canticle had shown her butterflies.

They acted like people, people she had known from her village.

And realizing that was terrifying.

~

“I’m telling you,” Tobias rasped. “You need to evacuate. Now. The undead are on the march.”

“So you say,” the village headman rumbled as he stroked his long, full beard. He was a heavy man, with parched, tanned skin. Not a fat banker or wealthy merchant, he had worked long and hard before coming to his current position. “So you say. You must realize, Inquisitor-Captain, that your story is… fantastic. The undead have lain silent for over five hundred years and now we have only your word that an army of Lifeless Ones is on its way here.”

“With respect sir, but you have more than my word,” Hel said as he pointed to the bandages that covered the half of his face. Betrayer’s claws had cut deep and the wounds had become badly infected. But for the efforts of the townsfolk, he would have died. More than his duty, he owed these people a debt, but he couldn’t seem to convince them how serious the threat truly was.

“That is true, but you could have been wounded through some other means. Instead, we have only your claims that you are who say you are and of what you saw. A man comes to us, wounded and soaked in blood. He attacks one of the people trying to heal him and then expects us to believe his tales about necromancers and the dead walking.” The headman leaned forward with a suspicious eye. “Bandits have been very active in this region. Perhaps you are one of them, waylaying an officer of the Dynasty, wounded in the struggle and finding your way here. Now you spin a tale of the dead coming for us, urging us to flee while the rest of your band swoops down upon us at caravan, or sacks the empty village.”

Hel was stupefied. He had fought the undead himself, watched his men be slaughtered all around him and faced down the greatest traitor in the Dynasty and this farm-bound fool didn’t believe him! He tried again. “Temple Consect is only a day’s hard ride from here – five days for an army on the march and perhaps ten for the undead. They will be here shortly. You cannot remain here.”

“Yes, but you have lain in your sick bed for eleven days,” the old man replied. “And we see no black banners on the horizon descending upon us. No flocks of carrion birds filling the skies. Nothing to substantiate your claims. We will not run from our homes merely because a man who is, at best, a deserter and abuser of women and at worst, a murderer and coward, claims that Vasel himself is on his heels.”

There were murmurs of agreement from other village leaders, as they scowled at Hel. They already regretted saving him.

One day. One day was what this fool was basing his decision on? “Not Vasel. Nekerya and Her children,” Tobias said. His scarred face felt like it was on fire. He clenched his jaw tightly, his muscles so taut that he felt part of his wounds reopen and blood began to stain his bandages. He forced the pain back down and stood.

The soldier towered over the headman and his fellow village elders, glaring at them through his good eye. They didn’t want to believe. In truth, he couldn’t blame them. It had been centuries since the undead had had marched in force upon the Dynasty. Their best healer had exhausted herself to save his life, he had nearly killed one of their number and now he came before them spinning wild tales. He might not have believed him either.

He had to try, though. He owed them that much. More than that, but they weren’t listening. “Make no mistake, sir. They are coming and they will descend on your homes and families. None of you will be spared. If you value the lives of yourselves and your people, you will flee and flee now.” Every word was agony as he forced each syllable through torn lips and shredded skin.

The headman and his fellow conferred briefly. When they looked to Hel again, their faces were set. “A pack of provisions will be given to you,” the headman informed the soldier. “You will leave this village today and I expect that we shall never see you again.”

Hel shook his head sadly. “I pray to Ambre that that is the case,” he said as he took his leave. “But I think we will meet at least once more.”

~

Hel’s warhorse Regal was a Sardillan courser, one of the few good things that Tobias had gotten out of that campaign. Bred for speed and strength, coursers were less specialized than destriers, but were well suited for hard battle. Tobias had practically raised the horse from a foal and they were as attuned as rider and mount could be.

Regal whinnied with happiness as Hel clapped him on the flank, tightening the saddle’s straps. “At least you made out better than I did here, boy,” he said. His face still throbbed, but the pain was merely severe, bordering on agonizing and not incapacitating. “Farm-folk have never seen a Dynasty warhorse before, eh? Stuffed you full of carrots, I bet.”

The horse snorted as if he understood; perhaps he did, at least after a fashion. Purebred Dynasty warhorses were bred for many traits – intelligence, size and a controlled aggression were but a few – but it was their loyalty that made them such fine mounts, that made Dynasty cavalry so superior to normal horsemen. Regal was of the finest stock and, whether on the field of battle or off it, he had never failed his rider. After Hel had passed out upon his back, the horse had pushed himself so hard that once he’d reached this village, he had almost collapsed from exhaustion. Just as Tobias had lain in bed, so had Regal had spent these last few days recuperating, though the latter was much more fawned over by the locals. A rider’s greatest friend was his horse and if not for Regal’s loyalty, Hel knew he would have died from his wounds.

Hel patted the animal’s spotted neck gently, wondering again what became of the other messengers he’d sent out; they’d had a head start on the Seventh Host but if the undead suspected that the alert had been raised – and with Betrayer commanding that force, that was a certainty – they would try to hunt down the couriers. Lifeless mounts and Naharnian drakes might not be as fast as horses, but the undead animals never tired and those foul lizards were closer to undead than not. Both could keep their pace up much longer than a living creature and its rider could.

He had to assume he was the only survivor of the Temple’s fall. He had to ride west to Temple Rapi and sound the alarm. These idiots might not listen, but the Dynasty would. They had to.

Soft, approaching footsteps caught his attention and the Inquisitor-Captain turned. A figure came into the stables. It was the Taellin girl, carrying a pack. She caught sight of Tobias and hesitated. She was silent a moment, her eyes cast down at the earth before she made some internal decision and raised her head. “Sir… may I ride with you? I never learned how.”

The officer blinked in astonishment. “Of course, my lady, but-”

“I heard what you said as you slept,” she replied. “My father believes the headman was right, that you are a brigand. He thought letting you go was even too merciful, especially after…” It had been her father that had pried Hel’s fingers from Aisha’s throat. Tobias had never spoken to the man, but he had been a presence in the house, always glowering, always watching. The one time he had tried, the Taellin patriarch and turned and walked away. Tobias couldn’t blame the man.

Aisha was silent for a moment. “I heard the things you said. You shouted them. Screamed. I never… I never heard…” she faltered for words. “You were so close to death. It couldn’t be a lie. I told him to trust you. He says we’re well rid of you.”

The soldier studied the young woman for a long moment. “You don’t believe that.”

She looked down at the ground. “No,” the young woman admitted. “The dead are coming. No one believes. No one wants to believe. I… I love my father. I do, but… he’s wrong. I can’t…” she paused, unable to finish.

Hel understood; she was abandoning her family and the only world she’d ever known on the delusional ravings of a lunatic who’d tried to kill her. For whatever reason, she believed him and was willing to accept the consequences if she was wrong. That was bravery. “We should hurry,” he said. He finished securing his gear and supplies to Regal’s saddle, then he turned to the Taellin girl. “Let me help you up, my lady,” he offered, hoisting her up onto Regal’s. The horse’s ears flattened and he made a chuff at the unexpected presence on his back. Tobias patted his courser’s neck again. “Don’t worry about Regal,” he told the young woman. “He’s just stubborn. He doesn’t really mind you.”

He pulled himself up into the saddle, took the reins and urged Regal out of the stable at a quick trot. There were only a handful of the villagers here. They glared and demanded answers as they saw that Aisha was with him. He urged them to flee. None paid any attention. The girl held tightly to Hel as they rode out of the village and left its people to the fate they’d chosen.

Even if he only saved this one life, it would be worth it.

~

From his position in a small hillock, the scout hissed in thought as he ran his tongue over his pointed canines, watching the barded horse head out of the nearby town, moving west. Its rider was a military man and with him was one of the local girls.

Beside the pyre, his drake shifted position, large nostrils flaring as it took in the scent of prey, both man and beast. The scout patted the beast on the neck, whispering soothingly to it and the drake stilled. They were not after a single horse. They were here to watch the town for signs of flight or battle readiness and chasing after one rider would only tip their hand.

The scout whispered soothing assurances to his mount as he climbed onto its back, taking the beast through the forest as they drew closer to the small town to confirm that it was as helpless and ripe for the taking as it seemed.

~

“We can be there by first light if we stop to bivouac, or attack as the night sets in if we force-march through, but it will cost us the support train.” Coryphée noted.

“I think we can do without the cannon,” Betrayer pointed out wryly. “They and the feeding wagons can catch up to us once we’ve finished with the village. We shouldn’t need more than a single Legion for this, if that.” In truth, one platoon would probably be overkill, but there was always the chance that the villagers would scatter at the first side of the undead. “We’ll encircle the village and make sure no one escapes. Harvest everyone. Spear-carriers or fodder.”

“Unless you want another new pet, eh?” Ursid chuckled.

Betrayer ignored him. “We’ll leave the rest of the army behind to march with the support train. Siren reported that two thousand dragoons escaped before she leveled Temple Edif. They probably ran for Temple Rapi, but if they rally and someone takes the initiative they may decide to start raiding our supply trains and I don’t fancy the thought of them attacking our unprotected rear.” He looked directly at Canticle. “Can your lieutenants manage your forces?” Their ‘liege’ had taken several of her most promising officers with him. It could be a mark of honour, a show of his trust in and respect for her training… or it could be him wanting to make sure the sorceress didn’t get too many mages under her command. A strong enough Coldblood could defy a necromancer’s will. Enough magic-using Lifeless could wrest control of an army from such a man.

Canticle nodded. “Well enough.” Controlling a host of undead was a matter of focus, natural aptitude and training. Some Coldbloods cold only exert their will over a handful at any time. Others could direct hundreds. Magical potential correlated strongly with this skill, but it was not a certain predictor. Betrayer had no more affinity for magecraft than any other Coldblood, but his ability to control lesser undead was unmatched among the Seventh Host, possibly all of the Harvestman’s forces. Canticle was a close second, followed more distantly by Ursid, though the Northman’s bloodlust and savagery often overwhelmed his control. After the first battle where he’d witnessed Ursid’s ranks losing cohesion as their general went into a berserker rage and the resultant casualties as their enemy exploited that, Betrayer had replaced several of Ursid’s lieutenants with officers that could retain control of the other general’s horde when the Northman couldn’t.

Coryphée had the weakest dominion over the other Lifeless present. Her portion of the army were largely other Coldblood and vampires who needed no commander to keep them from descending into a mindless, uncoordinated mob.

In Canticle’s absence, her remaining acolytes would have to maintain control over her fleshwalkers and skeleton soldiery. The mage ran her fingers through her red hair. “They won’t have any problems until they can catch up to us.”

“Good. We may need you.” In this part of the continent, there were always mages, Hunters – or those that claimed to be – wandering about and offering protection from undead raiders. Some were charlatans, bilking naïve villagers and farmfolk out of food and gold for protections that the basest hedge-mage could conjure, if they weren’t completely worthless. Others offered genuine wares, but charged exorbitantly for them. A very few were genuine do-gooders. Regardless, it wasn’t uncommon for the latter two classes of such annoyances to leave behind little ‘gifts’ for the undead. Most common were Wards, magic spells held within runes or artifacts; there were as many different types as there were stars in the sky, but this close to the province’s border and with all the banditry in the region, there was every chance that any Wards here were for protection or concealment, but that wasn’t always the case. Some could be exceptionally deadly, even – or especially – to Nekerya’s children. Betrayer wanted his finest mage here to break any enchantments that the village might have.

Canticle bowed. “It will be my honour to serve.”

Betrayer nodded. He would have liked to leave a general with the rearguard, but trying to keep Ursid from battle – even a slaughter of a few hundred peasants – was like trying to force the tide to stop. Coryphée was their negotiator and he would not turn away from what was about to come. He never had before.

~

Bekah was combing Anyka’s hair as they watched a portion of the army detach and head off at speed towards the distant pillars of smoke of a small hamlet’s chimneys. The young girl’s knuckles were white as she clutched the wagon’s edge.

She closed her eyes and tried not to think about what this meant, or how her own village had died just as savagely. She tried to reconcile what she’d seen of the Lifeless on the march with what she knew was happening now, and no matter how she tried, she kept hearing the words that Marcus had said to her before.

I am very much the monster that Bekah says I am.

~

“Peace, my friends – peace. There is nothing to be worried about,” the headman said, gesturing for the anxious crowd around him to calm down. “This is autumn and we have seen such large flocks of birds before. This is nothing, I assure you.” The mob had gathered a few minutes ago, stirred up into a frenzy by the sight of crows filling the sky. Granted, it was a large number of crows.

“What if it is the Lifeless Ones?” someone from the mob cried. “We should have fled when we had the chance!”

“It is not,” the older man replied soothingly but forcefully. “But if it will set your minds at ease, I myself will ride out to investigate. That is how sure I am. Will that ease your fears? Pack and prepare if you wish, but I will return, having sighted nothing but a flock of crows searching for their nightly roosts or wallowbirds migrating.”

There were murmurs of assent from the villagers and the headman smiled benignly. “Then I shall leave at once, to return and set these foolish tales to rest. Take what measures you feel you must in the meantime. Set yourselves at ease. This will pass, I promise you.”

~

“My lord, a rider approaches.”

Betrayer nodded. “I see him.” He reached out, feeling Coryphée’s presence ahead; she was already aware and her amusement trickled back to him as she rode to meet the newcomer.

~

“Hail, noble lords! I come to speak with your master,” the headman called as he traveled deeper into the forest, climbing off his horse. The sun was setting, casting uncertain and ever-shifting shadows throughout the forest. He knew he’d been followed, and he saw the shapes in the trees, the glint of many eyes watching him approach.

“Our master is elsewhere,” a feminine voice purred as a Coldblood strode into the small clearing. She was lightly armoured, her plate intended to protect her while still allowing as much freedom of movement as possible. “You will speak with me.”

The headman swallowed. “Hail to you, noble lady. It is as I have agreed with your master, the Harvestman – this village lies ready for you. Unaware and ripe – nearly a thousand souls ready for the culling.”

The undead canted her head at him. “Is it, now?”

“Yes, as we agreed.” He hesitated. “And for this, the Harvestman said that I was to receive… special considerations.” He had visions of gold, the ancient wealth of Naharnas at his feet, a castle to call his own – or even life everlasting. Even with his old eyes in the dim light, he could recognize the beauty that the dread knight before him possessed now and would always have. There was more for him than to die in the same bed he had been born in, in a worthless little village, nearly forgotten by prince, country and Caliph.

“Of course,” soothed the woman, stepping closer to the old man. “We thank you for the gift you have given us. My master’s word is my bond and you will indeed receive a gift commensurate with your loyalty.” A blur of movement and the headman spasmed, looking up at the undead woman with shock and dimming pain. He coughed blood as Coryphée twisted the knife in his belly, leaning in to whisper in his ear. “You are allowed to die.”

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