“I am Cold Wind,” he announced. “Unhand me.” With a tiny surge of magic he made both of the guards who had grabbed him let go with surprised cries of pain as his armour shocked them from head to toe.
“You think we would not recognise our own commander?” demanded one of the captains contemptuously.
“That’s exactly what I think, Daham,” Vayu replied. “I was forced to take a new body after combat with Cadavok.” He noted the recognition of the name on a few faces. “Happily I have one of my most trusted and able servants dealing with him.” I hope. Varin has proven unreliable before. “If you require further proof, perhaps this will suffice.” He snapped his fingers, the sound echoing loudly around the suddenly silent chamber and the captain Daham fell to his knees, hands to his temples as he writhed in pain. Vayu concentrated on pouring the memories into Daham’s head, showing him the path by which he had come to claim this new body. Forcing memories into a new head was always painful, and Vayu made no effort to lessen the agony. It would serve as a lesson to the others never to question him. After perhaps ten seconds Vayu snapped his fingers again and the flood of recollection ceased. Daham rose unsteadily to his knees, then fell before Vayu, prostrating himself in obeisance and obedience as he recognised his lord. After a moment the other captains too dropped to one knee, acknowledging him as commander, if not begging his forgiveness as Daham did.
“My lord,” began one, rising to his feet. Tobruk was his name, Vayu dimly recalled. He inclined his head, indicating that the man should continue. “The melds have abandoned the fight in order to feed. Our mercenaries are depleted and unable to breach the third wall. We have lost hundreds of our own men within the city as well, and Captain-General Evard’s regiment never even made it to the gates. We’re not sure what happened there.”
“Thank you, Tobruk,” replied Vayu, thinking deeply. After a few moments he came to a conclusion. “Sound the retreat. We’ll fall back from the third wall for the moment, and let the melds feed. Once they’ve dealt with all the fresh meat lying around they’ll be all the more ready to fight again. This battle will not be done in one day.” Tobruk nodded, thumping a gauntleted hand to his breastplate in salute before turning and leaving the room. “Jacsin, Serilce, orchestrate a head count once we have everyone back. I want to know how many we lost and I want estimates of the enemy as well.” They followed Tobruk’s example and went about their task. Vayu looked down at Daham, still prostrate on the ground. “Get up, man,” he ordered, an impatient edge to his voice. “Liaise with the intelligence-gatherers, and find out what in the seven hells happened to my Trivante horsemen.” Gabbling a profuse apology mixed in with assurances of competence, Daham stumbled from the room, almost forgetting to salute on his way out. Vayu turned to the last of the captains, the oldest man there, a grizzled white-haired soldier called Busquez.
“What would you have me do, my lord?” enquired the aged Paladin.
“Find every mage of any note in our ranks and bring them to me,” he ordered. “Combat may be over, but magic never sleeps.” Busquez nodded at the wisdom his commander imparted.
“May I say, sir, for such a young man you have an excellent understanding of warfare, and of magic.”
“I am not so young as I seem, Captain-General,” replied Vayu, running a hand through his hair. Wiry and shorter than I’m used to. Bad teeth, too. Still, it beats lying splattered on the cobbles or ripped apart by that undead bastard. Busquez nodded again, ice-blue eyes glinting sharply as he regarded his superior.
“You know, my lord, I have travelled widely in service of the Palatinate.”
“Is that so?” Vayu answered, wondering what point the man might be making.
“I learned something of the languages spoken around Arsencia when I was younger. Fenrine, for one, one of the Nyasi trading languages for another, and several tongues spoken in the eastern world. In one of these the word for ‘wind’ is ‘vayu’.” Vayu paused, regarding the man carefully. “Now, I was certain Winter Vayu had died some time ago, but it would seem I, like so many others, was incorrect in that certainty.” For a moment there was silence, then Vayu chuckled.
“You have a keen mind, Busquez,” he said. “Out of any of the Paladins here, I feared it would be you to come to this conclusion.”
“Then I am right?” asked the white-haired man.
“You are, in most respects. However, I was indeed killed just more than a year since. But I found a way to return.”
“And in a new, younger body, no less,” Busquez mused. “Might I ask how, my lord Vayu?”
“I doubt you would understand,” Vayu countered, really seeking to evade the question. Though the Paladins were in thrall to his will, such a revelation as that he was returned to life to slaughter the world might well shake them free of such restraints. “That kind of magic is complicated and extremely technical process. And even at the end, I was not sure it would work until I awoke once more.” He paid more attention to Busquez now, looking carefully at his stance and posture. One leg was somewhat cocked, suggesting an old break that had not been set correctly. “Though I would be happy to see to that leg of yours,” he added. If he knows who I am, best to keep him very firmly on my side.
“You can do that?” wondered the older man, bemused. Vayu smiled, and emerald green light twisted forth from his fingers, ensnaring Busquez’s leg and coiling tight around it. Vayu saw Busquez freeze as the breath leapt from his body at the pain of the necessary breaking of the bone, but he quashed the sensation for the old man. The process took perhaps a minute, but when Vayu’s magic withdrew, he was pleased to see the leg standing straighter. Busquez took a couple of tentative steps on it. “Now that is quite something,” he muttered, more to himself than to Vayu.
“You’re very welcome. And now in return, I ask that you carry out the order I gave you.” Busquez saluted firmly. “Oh, and one more thing,” Vayu added. “Please don’t use my real name, or tell anyone. There are enough who doubted me before, and the last thing we need during a siege is dissent in the ranks.”
“Sir.” Busquez saluted again in acquiescence, almost skipping from the room on his freshly repaired leg.
It feels nice to do some good with my magic for once, Vayu thought.
“I’d stifle that urge,” said a voice from behind him. He turned around to face the man in black, unsurprised. He had long since given up any hint of that feeling with regards to the strange man. “You’re still here only at my master’s sufferance.”
“I am aware of that,” he replied icily.
“Your job does not involve taking a night off, Winter,” the man in black carried on, unabashed.
“I was not intending to take the night off,” he retorted waspishly. “This would go a great deal smoother if you were to lend your power to our cause.” The man in black laughed.
“If you cannot achieve this simple end without recourse to my assistance, I see no reason to keep you alive.”
“Then stay out of my way and stop wasting my time.” Vayu stared right into the man’s eyes, the windows to his soul being equally as black as the clothes he wore, perhaps even more so. What are you? he wondered, careful to keep the thought constrained so as not to elicit a response from the strange man. The man in black shrugged.
“By all means. Just get it done, Winter.” He blinked lazily and then vanished.
* * * * * * * * *Having seen Byron safely to the inn that was serving as a relief hospital, Tom and Illyriel headed back to the wall; Rindar had opted to stay by his friend’s side until such time as Byron was healed. Illyriel had left him singing softly at the young human’s bedside as the apothecary tended to him.
They were both surprised to be met with a steady flow of soldiers down from the walls, some guarding prisoners, mercenary and Paladin alike.
“What’s going on here?” Illyriel demanded, pulling aside one of the Sons of Man, now in dented, scratched armour and lacking his cloak.
“The enemy have fallen back for the night, sir,” he explained, recognising Illyriel. “These prisoners are those who were already on the wall when the signal came. Most of them just surrendered straight away.”
“I take it you’ve mounted a watch with sufficient relief to last the night?” asked Tom.
“Captain Tuoman and Harald the Varyag are commanding the watch for tonight, sir. They volunteered,” he added. Illyriel thanked the man and let him go. He and Tom carried on up the wall, where they were pleased to find the Captain and the mercenary in full swing. Looking down the wall as far as was unobstructed by the curve of the city and the high buildings, Illyriel saw braziers lit and men standing at ease or sat cleaning their weapons and armour, but vigilant nonetheless.
“Joad!” shouted the Varyag, catching sight of them. The giant man sauntered over to them, his massive legs carrying him at a pace roughly equivalent to a rapid stride for normal folks. “We could do with a few of your keen-sighted archers up here to join the watch,” he said without preamble. Tom nodded.
“I’ll speak to the priestess,” he said.
“See if you can get them here by the time the moon reaches its peak. That’s when we’re changing the guard. Maximilian said he’d relieve us, and if your deathknelve can take over for the Sons, they’ll all be much obliged, I’m sure.”
“How many men did you lose today, Harald?” asked Illyriel softly. The giant northman sighed heavily, and suddenly looked a great deal more weary than he had mere moments ago.
“Nearly half my complement,” he said. “Including my brother. He took down one of those devilish beasts but it got him too.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Tom, carefully but brusquely. He knew it had been the right tone to take when Harald looked up again, all hint of sadness gone from his face.
“The heavens will still turn long after we’re all dead and gone, my lord King,” he replied. “We will give my brother and all who fell today the full rites of passage when this battle is done. Now I suggest you see to your own before the sun sets.”
“I’ll stay here,” Illyriel declared. “An extra pair of eyes can’t hurt.” Harald inclined his head in acquiescence. “We’ll no doubt see you bright and early tomorrow morning, Tom.”
“Try not to wear yourself out.” Tom turned away and descended the stairs back to the city. He wove through the crowd of soldiers all seeking somewhere to rest and made his way to where the deathknelve had claimed as their barracks. Nearly a thousand of his kin had come today, including those who had ambushed the Paladins outside the north gate with such ruthless efficiency. As he entered the building the four guardsmen at the door all sprang to attention, swords held vertical before their faces, before dropping to one knee and bowing their heads in respect to their king, uncrowned though he may be. Tom strode past them with regal ignorance, heading for the sound of the largest chamber, where he knew food would be doled out to keep the soldiers fit and able. He flung the doors wide open before him, and they swung around the crash against the stone walls. Every face in the room lifted to see what was afoot. Tom hesitated at the threshold, almost taken aback by the sight of a thousand silent faces watching him. Fortunately, the priestess of Feruilen saved the day.
“Rise for your king!” she ordered, her voice strident and clear across the hall. As one the deathknelven army got to their feet, standing tall and proud as they accepted their monarch. Sensing what was required of him, Tom let the soulfyre flow through him, channelling it into the shape of his crown. A cheer went up, slowly gaining in volume as others took up the cry, until a deafening roar filled the hall. Tom smiled widely and strode up the centre, acknowledging some glances and claps on the back. He made his way to the priestess’s table, and leapt atop it, kicking aside a wooden plate to amused cheers from the soldiers.
“My people!” he began, doing his best to silence the cheers so that he could make himself heard. “My people, my family, my friends. The kingdom of Envael is in your debt. In our debt!” More cheering. “But the battle is far from over just yet. The Paladins have fallen back, but they will come again. And when they do, they will face a solid and implacable wall of deathknelven warriors!” He paused, allowing the raucous shouts to subside again. “Many of you will know that Carai Deathbringer is among the enemy, with many of those loyal to him.” Mutters and hisses passed around the tables at that name, and Tom noticed a few spit at the mention. “I will not ask you to bring me the usurper alive. All I ask is that you show mercy to any of our kind who fall in battle, regardless of allegiance. If we are to rebuild our nation, we cannot afford to slaughter our own kind.”
“The Usurper would show you no mercy,” called a faceless voice from along one of the tables.
“Then we shall prove that we are better than him,” Tom replied. “If he survives he will be brought to Shadowfang Keep and will receive justice for his crimes, as do all deathknelve.” Tom saw that many were not keen on the idea, but that equally many were nodding in agreement. A king’s duty is to deliver justice, no matter the recipient, Tom thought. Let’s hope they can accept that. “We will be born again, my people!” he shouted, returning to the happier subject. “Shadowfang Keep will be rebuilt with the debt that Envael owes us, and the deathknelve will rise again!” As he raised his voice, so the blue flames flickering around his head rose, crackling up to cast the whole chamber in a moment of bluish light. “Now eat, drink, rest, and make yourselves the best soldiers in the Maughold!” he ordered, to the heartiest cheer yet. Tom hopped down from the table, sitting beside the high priestess.
“That was quite a speech, my king,” she said, smiling slyly.
“I’m glad you liked it,” said Tom. “Although later I’ll have to drag some of them out to keep watch on the walls. We’re to relieve the Sons of Man when the moon reaches its peak,” he informed her.
“I shall command the watch myself,” she replied, bowing her head. “But for now, see to yourself, Rethalar. Get a good night’s sleep and take the field again in daylight. Make sure you are well rested.” She paused, and looked him straight in the eye. “It would not do for our king to be cut down in battle, especially not at a time of such hope as this.”