THE DEAD KING
Copyright 1986, Sarah Hartwell
This was basically a strange dream I had one night.
Part I - The Awakening
Ours was a kingless country, quite content with its ministries governing farming, fishing, medicine and whatever other activities could be assigned a minister to oversee it. The last king, the unlamented thrice-cursed King Crispin, had died some sixty years ago; cursed to die young, cursed to die childless and, for some obscure reason, cursed never to rest in peace. He had, however, left a stable, united country in the good hands of wise ministers who were specialists in their subjects so that the populace was not unduly concerned at the lack of a hereditary monarch.
Ours was an enlightened country with civilized laws; all but the most heinous criminals were rehabilitated; herbalism and the healing arts were highly developed; the various religions practised peacefully and rarely fought one another - at least not in public - and the black arts and necromancy, long under the patronage of royalty, were at last banned so that everyone could be assured eternal rest upon the occasion of their demise. Despite internal peace we still maintained a fighting force to deal with our less peaceable neighbours who attempted to wrest parcels of land from us at every possible opportunity in order to accommodate their overflowing populations of barbarians to whom family planning was an anathema. Our army was highly trained and dealt effectively with those who sought to invade or conquer us in our kingless state but it was our banning of the dark sorceries which so nearly proved our downfall at the hands of less enlightened enemies.
In King Crispin's day, or so I had been told, necromancy had thrived and dark sorcerers had roamed the land with their unnatural consorts. In the sixty years since his passing, such practises dwindled, much to the relief of the small mammal population which had provided regular sacrifices to various bloodthirsty gods in return for dark favours. Our neighbours, it seemed, were less progressive which was why a small army of the dead had begun to mass on our borders and engage our patrols in skirmishes.
It had once been quite common to fight battles with re-animated corpses which were easy to come by and inexpensive - needing no food, shelter or medical care and could fight until they were literally hacked to pieces. An averagely good necromancer could raise an army of the dead and bind them to his will; an averagely good living army would be completely overwhelmed by them. We were that averagely good living army; well trained and well disciplined fighting men and women and we were being cut to pieces by a horde of weapon wielding corpses in varying stages of decay. Whatever we had said about the unlamented Crispin, he would not have found himself out-fought by such an unnatural fighting force, but then he had had a great deal of practice in such matters and was probably not scared rigid by the mere sight of a bloated, gangrenous once-human wielding a mace.
I led my regiment away from the border weary and beaten. Barely thirty seasoned warriors were fit to return to the fray at dawn and they would have to face a further nightmare - our own dead, risen and fighting against us. Any corpse not completely dismembered had the disconcerting habit of returning to battle against his living comrades and swelling the numbers of the enemy rabble. In the hushed darkness of the night only the maggots moved, feasting on rotting flesh, as both sides withdrew to relative safety until the sickly grey dawn provided light enough for the battle to recommence. Several days ago, a hand of soldiers had attempted to raid the corpse-camp under cover of darkness; in the morning all five had returned to us as enemy agents.
Barnard, my second-in-command and the oldest of my warriors, was alternately calling curses upon the rotting heads of our enemies and wishing fervently for a return to the old ways when we would have sent our own force of corpses to battle it out while the living observed the battle from a safe distance. At forty, nearly fifteen years my senior, he had heard tales of Crispin the Corpse-Slayer at his parents' hearth and right now anything would be an improvement on our present predicament.
Crispin the Cursed, Crispin the Corpse-Slayer, Crispin who would have driven back this horde of the dead with practised ease and fabled weapons - I had heard it all in the past few days. Our unlamented monarch raised from cursed to cherished in the rose-tinted mists of the past, his darkness forgotten, his bright moments revered as if they were not merely isolated incidents in his reign. Men and women muttered his name like an oath of binding as they sharpened sword and spear in the flickering orange torchlight; murmuring that war-training was not enough and in our darkest hours wishing wholeheartedly for a return to days they were to young to remember.
Three days more and we would fall back to allow the Fifth to take our place in the Vale of Lost Souls to face the blotched and leprous face of the enemy while we licked our wounds and returned to report our losses to the Minister of Organised Warfare. Three days and only thirty of us fit for war, twice that number fit for nothing but hacking the fallen undead to ribbons as we tried to drive the enemy back into their own lands. Most of the corpse-hackers would be barely sane after three days of dismembering the corpses of those who once had been friends and comrades.
By three days, only twelve of us remained standing and less than twelve among the wounded would fight again. Barnard would, with luck and skilled doctoring, not lose his arm to infection - I had swabbed and stitched the wound but he was no longer a young, quick-to-heal youth - and I would never have a pretty face for men to look upon. The march back to base was a weary one. The wounded rode in goat-carts which jolted them uncomfortably across the uneven ground and rough dirt tracks; the rest of us marched alongside our groaning comrades trying to cheer them with our banter and crude jokes. Some of us bore the dented, salvaged weapons of fallen friends - something material to take back to their families; a way of saying "He died valiantly with a sword in his hand" and not saying "and it fell to me to hack his body to shreds with this, his sword.". All of us were disheartened and dispirited when we reached the dusty field with its endless dormitory buildings that we called home. I was greeted by my commanders and hustled at once into a council of war in the Long Building; Barnard followed despite attempts to bar his way. Our weapons belts were left with junior soldiers in the hallway merely as a precaution, lest in the heat of debate, someone reached instinctively for a blade.
Several battle hardened men and women were already seated at the long council table, but more spaces were empty than occupied; the places of seasoned warriors who were either engaging the enemy or who had already fought their last skirmish. I took my accustomed seat and Barnard chose an empty seat facing me so that I could easily ready his expression; his presence caused some concern to those already present - murmurs of discord and barely breathed comments were passed among those who had awaited my arrival. I smiled inwardly - Barnard's opinions were valuable; he might be unpopular among those who disliked his forthright manner but none there could say he had not earned a place at the council. It was, as always, a matter of politics that tried to bar him from the long table.
"You did a good job Katharine, you kept a good many from the hands of our enemies", one grizzled general said with an approving nod, "the strategy of a front line to cut down and a rear guard to cut to pieces has been sent to other war-captains."
A second man coughed for attention. He was a blond giant of a man whose fighting days had ended prematurely by a crippling fever which left a brilliant warrior's mind trapped inside the weakened husk of his once bear-strong body. Barnard looked at me meaningfully, his "There's a trick up his sleeve" expression plain to those who knew it. The blond giant's voice was thin and reedy; the fever had emasculated him, crippling him in more ways than was readily apparent.
"Times call for dramatic action ..." he piped, pausing for me to agree.
Trusting Barnard's unspoken warning, I waited for him to continue and, piqued that I had not agreed with his opening statement he did so.
"Soldiers have been talking of battles fought in the last days of the monarchy, the rumours of King Crispin and his weapons of lost design. We propose to recall the dead king, at least for the duration of this war with Ruthillion."
I leaned back into the rough hewn wood of the chair, my fingers steepled under my chin in what I called my "I'm thinking" look. Barnard adopted his personal variant of that pose, his greying brows knitted together in a scowl of deep mistrust.
The grizzled commander, Hugo, spoke again, "It will be a good way of debunking stories of Crispin and laying his ghost - he's become some thing of a folk hero among those who never had to endure his reign - and, of course, there is the possibility that we will learn something from the thrice-cursed fool."
"An outside possibility, if you don't mind me saying so," I replied steadily, "have you thought how to control a mindless, mobile stiff when, if, you conjure it up?"
"The knowledge exists, codified along with the white arts. The Ministry of Sorcery is not so rash as to destroy potentially useful information when merely barring use of that information is sufficient." Hugo explained as though to a school-age brat, "For cases such as these..." he left the rest unspoken.
"Ah ..." I leaned forward, sketching invisible symbols on the table with an index finger, "... and do we have a necromancer stashed away with these grimoires?" I knew, of course, that Barnard and I were the only ones present who had not already heard the explanations and justifications; explaining the matter to us was merely a formality and no doubt they had already decided upon a course of action well before we had arrived.
The blond eunuch grinned, "We have a score of sorcerers willing to help, a veritable committee of mages to advise them and an army of herbalists to pick up the pieces. Not to mention the droves of minor magicians and petty warlocks who volunteered their services in the hope of learning some thing of the forbidden arts. In fact the rite has been under way for some time." he piped.
Barnard nodded, he knew as well as I the devious ways of command. "And the embalmed body of the late lamented King?" he rumbled.
Hugo spread his scarred hands, palm downwards, "All taken care of. Merrick! More wine!"
As the red-haired lad filled our leather cups, Barnard and I exchanged glances. We were adept at reading each other's expressions and exchanged glances that spoke of danger and treading carefully. As well as Hugo and the eunuch, whose name I could not recall, there was a dark-haired man with an aquiline nose and raptor's eyes and a woman of identical features. The pair were an enigma to most, twins who fought and acted as one, a single mind controlling two bodies. They kept their own counsel and rarely spoke without good cause, but were skilled and greatly respected war-captains and well loved by those under their command. Even now they merely nodded and thought their identical thought in dark-eyed silence.
"Where is this rite being held, commander?" I addressed Hugo, the most senior of our number, knowing that he would give a straight answer, even if that answer were to be that it was none of my business.
He smiled warmly, his grim expression somehow mellowed by tawny wine, "The Sorcerers' Lodge in the old palace. They should be drawing to a close soon. They'll send word ..."
I did not give him time to finish; glistening golden drops of wine spilled from my overturned beaker as I stood. Barnard swiftly drained his own wine beaker and followed me to the hallway.
"Where do you think you're going, Katharine?" demanded Hugo, his skin mottling red beneath his grizzled thinning beard.
"Madness intrigues me; I'm going to watch the Rite of Necromancy," I retorted sharply, giving him no chance to reply as I turned on my heel and paced impatiently from the council table with Barnard following like a shadow.
The two junior soldiers or apprentices who had taken our arms earlier at once offered to strap our weapons belts for us. We declined their courteous offer and took the proffered bluesteel swords with curt thanks, strapping the belts in place as we jogged uphill to the old imperial palace. Despite being barely rested from our march from the border with Ruthillion we made good time; weaving between ox-carts and scurrying farmers as we crossed the valley road then jog-trotting across rough pastureland to the palace gate.
Two lilac-robed acolytes of the Guild of Aromatherapists, pungent with soothing scents which did nothing to soothe our agitation, took our cloaks but allowed us to keep our weapons as a precautionary measure - or because of our curses when they requested we surrender them into their safekeeping. They led us through torchlit, gleaming corridors of polished wood-panelling and highly shone stone and down a wide stone staircase, polished by the passage of generations of shod feet, opened into the vaulted chamber where dark-robed necromancers chanted arcane syllables heavy with age and chained evil.
Ghost-pale streamers of incense smoke hung in the still air, filling the chamber with the cloying scents of attar of roses, sandalwood and bittersweet scents of embalming oils. Torches flickered dully in their sockets and scented candles in elaborate candelabra with three, five or the sacred seven branches cast their small light through the chamber so that everything seemed to be happening in slow, jerky motions beneath a sea of yellow light and shifting dark shadows. I almost choked on the mixed fragrances and Barnard held his linen kerchief to his mouth and nose until he could breathe without coughing. At one end of the vaulted room, raised on a low table of aged black oak, was the open casket wherein resided the mortal remains of the unlamented King Crispin whose curse of not resting in peace was about to be fulfilled. Either end of the casket, candles flickered fitfully, as though ashamed to be asked to shed light upon this foolishness.
From where I stood I could see that the embalmers had preserved his body well; death had not discoloured the still face with any yellow-green patches of decay, nor had the body swollen with the gases of putrefaction. No doubt the sorcerers had aided the embalmers art with enchantments to prevent decay or corruption from spoiling the body. Ghoulishly intrigued I moved forward to stand level with the front row of necromancers and a little to their left. Barnard stood at my left shoulder, scarcely breathing in the scent laden smoky air; the chanting necromancers and other assembled enchanters seemed not to notice our intrusion.
I could see the features of our last monarch's face, illuminated by the golden wash of torch and candle light. Shadows played upon his eyes and lips so that he seemed to move; first to be smiling then to be grimacing. Dark ringletted hair framed a wax-hued face and the rich brocades of his ceremonial gown still shone whenever the candle light caught the gold and silver thread. Dark lashes rested upon the pallid cheeks as he lay in death's peaceful slumber in a casket lined with green and russet satins.
The would-be necromancers at last began the binding spells; an acolyte in ashen robes whispered to us that these were necessary to bind the dead king to our service, unswerving, unremitting, till that purpose be done. Unlike the Ruthillion corpse army, the spells to dis-mind the corpse and leave a mindless fighting machine which could only be controlled by the dire spells of a master necromancer were to be omitted. Our dead king would be able to make decisions, use judgement and function independently of continued sorceries until he was again bound to death's dark mysteries. Besides, the acolyte murmured a little wistfully, there were no master necromancers, hence the importance of these bindings.
The chants interwove into a tapestry of sounds; arcane verses rose and subsided and robes rustled in a constant counterpoint to the ebb and flow of voices. The acolyte fell silent so that his words did not intrude into the flow of bindings; the massed sorcerers were so engrossed in their task that they were not likely to be disturbed should the entire forces of Ruthillion suddenly appear in the chamber. Sing-song voices penetrated the darkest vaultings of the chamber and lodged there as echoes; the room itself was a tuned instrument which resonated with the hushed choir and augmented the whispered chants into a susurrus of murmurs like wavelets breaking on a stony beach.
Dark lashes fluttered against the pallor of that waxy face and muscles twitched beneath the parchment pale skin; no longer just a trick of the light. As the last words dissipated in the vaulted silence of the room, borne aloft on breath disturbed coils of candle-smoke, the dead king's eyes flickered open to reveal startlingly blue pupils which flashed from side to side as though a sleeper had awakened in an unfamiliar room. The brocaded chest did not rise and fall as in any normal sleeper, nor did any breath disturb the nearest candles. A pale hand rose from his side to touch the stiff embroidered collar and the waxen face. The necromancers threw back their hoods to reveal red, sweating faces as they waited for the king to awaken to some semblance of life. Spiderlike, the pale hands traced the sides of the casket and the eyes and lips moved in confusion. Fear flashed briefly across the pale countenance, chased away by disorientation and finally one hand reached out from the casket as though for aid.
No-one moved. The sorcerers stood frozen in amazement, their florid faces slack-jawed. Grimacing at Barnard, who shot me another of his warning glances, I strode quickly to the low table and grasped the searching hand. The tension in the room broke, robes rustled in agitated confusion, messengers scuttled out and an undertone of muttering rose quickly to a crescendo. The hand I held was colder than living flesh, and no pulses ticked beneath the pale skin. Many times I have arranged the corpses of the deceased for field burial; this hand felt exactly like the cool hand of a corpse once it has relaxed from the stiffening-after-death. This hand, however, was mobile of its own accord and not merely responding to the manipulations of an undertaker trying to arrange it for disposal.
Glancing about him - it - the body of the dead king sat up and released its grip on my own living hand. Lifting its legs, clad in tight black hose with peacocks stitched in thread of gold along the side seams, over the side of the casket it found the floor and levered itself unsteadily upright. Swaying slightly like a sailor who comes ashore after many years at sea and is unaccustomed to standing on still earth, the pale effigy of a man came to terms with his existence. Like one who has endured a long illness abed it swung each arm in turn and shook each leg as though to aid circulation that had ceased some sixty years previously. Finally a smile creased the pale face when muscles so long unused responded as they had in life. Blue eyes raked the room, no doubt much changed since his reign, then settled on my bluesteel sword.
"So good to have the chance to wield a sword again. I wonder, are the muscles as willing, the wits as sharp?" his voice was calm and steady; I had imagined he would speak with an old man's quavering tones, the death-rattle close at hand.
I glanced at Barnard who understood and tossed me his own slightly radiant blade which I offered to the dead king, Crispin. He weighed it in first one hand then the other, smiling at its fine balance and the elegant proportions of blade, hilt and crosspiece, before settling it into his right hand. He tested the edge of the blue blade against his thumb pad and nodded approval at its keenness. Under the disapproving eyes of the sorcerers he saluted me with the borrowed blade and stood poised to test his newly awakened body.
I grinned and Barnard grinned, here was a man we could understand. Drawing my own sword I lunged, was easily parried and feinted. Again his blade turned mine aside as we measured each other's style and abilities. How long we fenced I do not know, time passed amid sparks and the bell-like clang of well tempered metal. The dead king grinned, eyes flashing like blue sparks as our swords blurred and met in a welter of true sparks then blurred again as we disengaged and sought each other's weaknesses. Sweat beaded my brow in that airless chamber as we made fire and music with our swords; no sweat sprung from the pale cold brow of the undead creature I fought.
Aching, I was relieved when he stepped back and touched the flat of the sword to his waxen forehead in salute. It was only then that I notice Barnard keeping back the robed figures who believed that either their sorceries had backfired and they had raised a mindless killing machine or that I had spent so long fighting the undead that I could not differentiate between the gangrenous zombies our enemies sent against me and the uncorrupted form they had raised from death's sleep.
"I trust I have given good account of my skills," the dead king stated, "Sir, your sword. It is a fine weapon and I am afraid I have nicked the edge in several places."
Barnard silently accepted the fine blue weapon back, ruefully examining the nicks in the fine edge. Automatically he reached to his belt for oil-pouch and whetstone. The scritch of the blade as he sharpened it seemed to set the necromancer's teeth on edge.
The dead king smiled as though he already knew why he had been called back from the realms of the dead; mayhap she who had cursed him had foreseen the circumstances of his awakening.
"Cursed childless and cursed restless after death, what may I do for the children of my empire?" asked the regal figure with a quizzical tilt of his head. "Already I know that I am to fight else a warrior-woman would not have met me at my awakening, but what are the circumstances which drive you to such desperate measures as calling an unpopular and unloved king from death's dark embrace?"
None of the necromancers spoke; they had not been prepared for such a pretty speech from this mobile corpse. None of the tales had ever spoken of Crispin as a courtly and well-mannered man; none of the official tales spoke of him as anything but a fool who deserved to get himself killed by the heinous magicks in which he dabbled.
Hugo and the blond eunuch had arrived and their presence kept the sorcerers silent. No-one moved, it seemed that no-one dared move for fear of breaking the spell or fracturing the brittle silence. The incense odours had dissipated and I noticed the faint odours which emanated from my opponent; attar of roses - over-sweet and sickly, camphor, sweet clean sandalwood, cedar - redolent of the forest of the north, and spices - reminiscent of the sweat of male arousal. The spice odours were faint and unique to an individual; the others spoke more of death - disguising the stench of illness and decay or preserving flesh from which the spark of life has fled.
Hugo broke the hush, speaking bluntly of Ruthillion and of the armies of the dead which came against us. He spoke of our own mounting losses and of men who spoke in hushed tomes that King Crispin would have driven back such unnatural hordes without such massive loss of life.
The once king tossed back his black hair and laughed; a clear, clean sound in that vaulted chamber. I had expected a dried cackle to issue from that unbreathing throat instead of sweet human laughter.
"So now an unnatural king must lead living armies against unnatural foes. Where is your own King? Which scion of my house now rules ... " he glanced at the barely furnished chamber and completed "... in such austerity?"
There was a muttering among the mages, but Hugo cut across it with a booming voice which effortlessly filled the room and silenced the murmurings, "We have no King, we have had no King since your accursed reign and your demise through your own folly as you meddled in forbidden arts."
Crispin quirked one black eyebrow but did not speak. Hugo choked on his words when he next spoke.
"But we believe you to be our last hope."
The once king nodded gravely as though weighing Hugo's words, sifting through them as though to distil even clearer meaning from their bluntness.
"She," he nodded towards me, "Is she representative of your warriors?"
"Katherine is one of our best leaders," Barnard replied before Hugo could open his mouth to tell the room that I was some mediocre fighter, the best that could be summoned at short notice when all the best warriors were currently in the Vale of Lost Souls hacking away at the undead army.
"And you must also be one of the best to be her aide," Crispin stated. "I want her to head the army with me and you as our second. You may choose three hundred of your best men ..." he paused smiling, "... and women."
Realising that the situation was out of their control, the eunuch produced a notepad from somewhere on his person and began to scribble down what was said.
Crispin continued, "Each warrior is to be equipped with a redsteel blade."
"Sire," Barnard venture, unsure of the mode of address to a deceased monarch, "We use no redsteel now, bluesteel was found to be more resilient. No redsteel has been produced for at least forty years. I am not even sure the knowledge is preserved anywhere after so long."
"But there is no copper in bluesteel; the hordes raised by Ruthillion's court necromancers have always been peculiarly sensitive to copper. Copper is used extensively in their magicks, especially in the raising of the dead -that which binds to life," he snorted at the irony of the word, "can also be used to bind to death."
"No copper was used in your awakening," one of the necromancers protested.
"Spells of my own refinement," Crispin smiled, "One of my rare successes and ultimately my downfall, such experimentation with new ways to awaken." Then he added in a low voice that only Barnard and I could hear, "Unfortunately I failed to bind the creature and that was my downfall."
The eunuch beckoned to an acolyte and sent him scurrying away to the Guild of Smiths and Metallurgists for copper-steel. The furnaces would be stoked and smelting would continue through the night.
"Are my fields as green?" Crispin asked, his voice a mere sigh, "The skies as blue? I would see them before joining battle."
Hugo, now at my shoulder, heard the wistful request, although the once king's voice had dropped to a bare whisper. He turned to the necromancers and gestured for attention.
"Let us convene in the old fair-field for a council of war. There the king, er, the once king can advise our metal-workers on the correct proportions. Acolyte! One moment please! Benches - tables - refreshments! To be brought out to the fair-field! We plan a campaign!"
Part II - The Binding
Three hundred warriors proved to be an impossibility so the first red-steel swords were sent by pack-goat to the beleaguered regiments at the front. Deliberate rumours of King Crispin's rediscovered weapon were spread among the men to boost their waning confidence and raise morale and to ensure that the unfamiliar weapons would be used, not stowed in some cart as a nice idea which never saw active service. The last hundred weapons were tempered two days later by the overworked Guild of Smiths and Metallurgists aided by anyone who had a knowledge of metalcraft or good strong arms to work bellows and stoke furnaces.
Barnard and I and Hugo, Crispin, Gavain (the eunuch) and a good few mages of other disciplines hauled coal, logs and charcoal, pumped the heavy leather bellows and heaved anvils and tools for the sweating Metalworkers at their forges in what passed for our country's capital city, Ebarir. The fires glowed beyond red hot, their flames invisible because of the intense heat; the air rippled above incandescent coals and the vast heat in the forges made us strip down to underclothing or to bare skin.
Hugo's face, florid most of the time anyway, glowed nearly as red as the furnace as he brought his weight to bear on the bellows; coaxing yet greater heat from the great oven. Sweat trickled down his face and neck, gatheringing salty rivulets on his chest and occasionally hissing from the coals as he absently mopped at his brow with one hand and flung the gathered droplets carelessly aside. The eunuch retained a sweat-soaked shirt which hid the pockmarks of fever on his body; it was loose enough to hide the slight swelling of breasts on his emasculated frame. I was stripped to the waist, unselfconscious among the male warriors - we bathed together, fought together, died together and slept together on campaigns and I was no stranger to nudity, either my own or that of others - and my skin was scorched red by the heat and glistening like oiled leather.
Only Crispin did not seem unduly affected by the heat; his face and the exposed skin of his arms were white despite the heat which had scorched his hair and eyebrows. He wore a loose shirt, begrimed with soot and ash and periodically moistened by the steam given off as he plunged heated metal into pails of water so that the linen was more grey than white. The Smiths were huge men and women with ropes of muscle in the arms and chest, their faces stained by years of soot, their complexions toasted red-brown from years of working at the furnace. The Metallurgists were paler, more ascetic looking, as they measured proportions of copper shavings, oxide powders and other substances for mixing with the bluesteel ore. Together we worked to produce one hundred blood hued weapons for one hundred warriors led by the dead King himself - to march at sunset.
The sun dipped over the rolling heathland, staining the long grasses flame and amber, as we set off. Nightbirds trilled from shadowed copses and the occasionally sheep bleated stupidly between mouthfuls of tough grass. A ram bellowed challenge at some predator, a Wolf or Greatcat perhaps, and a boar grunted its reply from a nearby copse. The tiny cattle, no taller than goats, lowed in agitation in their pens, sensing something was about to happen. From Ebarir's drowsy streets came the sounds of cats scrapping in alleyways and scavenging dogs growling and barking. People argued, or sang, or lamented, and their voices drifted out on the slight breeze which rustled the grasses. Babies cried; some would never see fathers, or brothers, or sisters again. Behind us loomed the black bulk of the castle, its walls edged in sun-hues, and the sprawl of Ebarir with smoke still rising from the furnaces as they burned themselves out after days of non-stop work.
There were one hundred of us waiting at the gates of the castle, one hundred warrior men and women led by a dead man; some of whom would be dead before many more sunsets, some of whom would never see their families or homes again. The sun's rays turned to deep red as it slipped below the horizon, retracting its bloody fingers from the land. A curled-horned goat stood silhouetted against the crimson glow before the eerie light fled and the velvet mantle of night was spread over the sleeping world. As the world slept we marched by flickering torchlight along the rutted trade roads towards the Vale of Lost Souls. We would reach our goal in two days' time and be ready to stand against the army of Ruthillion.
Our red weapons glinted in the dawn sun as we readied ourselves for an army of the dead. Our hundred had been augmented by the able bodied of other regiments; we had made slight detours to meet with the warriors stationed at the village garrisons of Ramahr and Little-Bridges. Some had redsteel blades which local forges had produced or which had been stored away in sleeping lofts or cellars by fathers and grandfathers, against the day when they might again be needed. Where there had not been enough of the alloy to make swords, some carried lances tipped with redsteel. They were fuelled by tales of the risen King and awed by his presence among them as he found time to speak with each man or group of men as they sat at night around their campfires cooking mutton and rabbit. Two days later our regiment of one hundred and an auxiliary unit of nearly sixty five warriors arrived at the Vale of Lost Souls where at last it seemed the tide was turning.
Barnard and I fought side by side, cutting swathes through the gangrenous flesh of the opposing warriors; shuddering when we found ourselves face to face with the rictus grin of one of our own fallen comrades. Rotted faces were sliced from bodies which trailed tattered flesh like bridal trains. Limbs were cleaved from grey and suppurating forms who shambled amidst loops of their own intestines. The dead stayed dead when they felt to kiss of our redsteel blades; their corrupting flesh lay still where it fell when at last the mindless wreck was beheaded or cleft in twain.
Some of us fell; it was inevitable that we would lose men to the living dead which so greatly outnumbered us. Those who fell, we swiftly decapitated and said a brief prayer for their spirit as it rose to it seat among the nightstars. When Barnard fell I fought alongside Crispin, his black hair flying like an ebon pennant where he scorned a helmet. The many cuts he sustained did not bleed, his pale face did not perspire and the copper steel did not affect him as it did our foes.
By night we took flaming torches onto the battlefield and retrieve as many of our redsteel weapons as we could. We no longer feared the dead warriors for those that still remained battleworthy had withdrawn to their strangely silent camp while the controlling necromancers took their rest. We carried our dead from the field of battle as we had not previously been able to do and laid them out in long silent rows upon the grassy slope behind the camp. Each of the lancers became swordsmen again by the following dawn.
For three long days we fought, treading already mouldering flesh underfoot; three nights the once king lay unsleeping with his troops, listening to the restless night-blind army of the dead as relaxing limbs caused armour to creak or half-awake necromancers moved them. On the fourth day Ruthillion's necromancers recalled what remained of their dead army and held a parley in a pavilion hastily erected away from the crow-torn flesh of their dead. Arrangements were made to pay tribute to Ebarir in gold and grain.
There was little to be done about the corpses that littered the Vale; there were too many of them and in too many fragments for them all to be buried. Survivors of the final battle buried friends that could be identified and left other bodies to be picked over by scavengers and looters. The Vale of Lost Souls had claimed many victims during our country's long history and, as always, the earth would claim those who fell in her own time.
Crispin stood in forlorn silence on the rise overlooking the vale. His blue eyes were clouded with emotion as he watched the wild dogs slink sullenly around the edge of the battle field, pulling at a dismembered limb and loping away with it. Crows and ravens, rooks and even hawks settled on the open grave, filling the air with raucous cawing. Later the smoke pale forms of wolves would glide softly into the vale on padded feet, attracted to the carrion smell. These creatures were the agents of the earth and her aides in disposing of the unburied dead. Soon clouds of flies would be born of the writhing maggots which feasted inside the corrupting tissues and those flies would lay more eggs which in turn would become more maggots. Though the flies and maggots might be a nuisance in our kitchens, here there work was sorely needed. A sweet flute lamented in the still air, counter point to the cawing of ravens and clink of weaponry as we made ready to leave that place. Crispin turned away from the sight and joined others as they packed the precious blades onto goat-carts for the journey home.
The supply wains had brought skins of ale and Soldier's Ruin to the camp the previous night; now we marched along the wains, pulled by teams of eight sturdy longhaired goat-geldings, passing the skins between us. Some of the warriors sang ribald songs; tales of the whores (both male and female) who waited for them at home and gave discounts to heroes, ballads of heroism and marching songs. The flute-player pipped the melody and the drummers beat a marching beat. The full-bodies dark ale and the burning colourless liquor anaesthetised the pain of loss that we felt over comrades such as Barnard who had fallen to keep our land free.
Runners had preceded us to the castle and the black walls were bedecked with scalloped-edged pennants and multicoloured bunting. Guild colours deco rated the streets and buskers and tumblers entertained the crowds which thronged expectantly in Ebarir's flagstoned streets. The Fair field had sprouted stalls and pavilions and mutton was roasting on several spits, filling the air with a delicious aroma.
The celebrations went on for five days, feasting and dancing, drinking and fencing. One of the merchants showed off the new beasts he had acquired from across the sea, tall long-necked beasts with gentle brown eyes and long manes and tails, which could not only pull carts like our goats but could be ridden by a full grown man. A troupe of trained dogs danced to a seven-stringed cythriole played by their trainer. Young boys raced about carrying wooden swords and knives, tripping up adults and being scolded by their parents. Taverns in Ebarir opened all day and the brothels did a brisk trade as visitors from other areas sampled the delights of an hour with one of Ebarir's whores.
Crispin hovered at my side as I drank to forget the horrors of the recent past and mourned the loss of a trusted comrade. Undrinking and uneating he watched me drink myself into temporary oblivion each day. On the dancing lawns of the Fair field he taught people the fair dances of his court; he fenced with aspiring young fencers and gave them instruction and he conversed politely with the Ministers who ruled the land he once had known. More often, though, he stood at the edge of the celebrations and stared out across the verdant land as if to drink in the scenery and hold within himself. Often I lounged nearby, an earthenware flask of liquor in my hand as I sought to erase the horror of that unnatural battle from my mind.
On the sixth day the Guild of Sorcerers announced their gratitude for Crispin's aid and stated that now his aid was no longer needed he was to be dismissed and that furthermore he would again be bound to the netherworld - using a rite known as the Bride of The Dead King. Crispin shuddered and I imagined that he was not looking forward to a second death after the few days he had spent under the vaulted blue heavens, treading the green carpet of grass. Crispin had been leaning on a wooden gate observing the horses that the merchant was exhibiting when the announcement was made. My throat was raw with applewine and my thoughts were fogged by the potent liquor but even I could see his clouded expression.
"I will be sad to leave again, to return to nothingness of death's sleep after having revisited the land of the living," he mused. He gestured at the huge quadrupeds which stood as high at the ears as a tall man, "Especially when such wonders are occurring. I'm thirty-one, hardly old, and I threw life away in a foolhardy escapade gambling with magic I knew too little about."
I commiserated with him in my drinksodden way, sorely missing the support of Barnard and the bombastic boom of Hugo's voice. All gone. All dead. And here I am with a corpse who does not want to return to the dark arms of gentle death. The merchant tried to shoo us away, complaining that the stench of drink made his beasts nervous. We turned away from the marvellous animals, leaning our backs against the fence and staring across the Fair field, now somewhat depleted but still rowdy.
"Wh 'appened?" I belched.
"Experiments in the dark arts, the impetuosity of untrained youth. I was working on better ways of raising the dead without using certain metals - I think I told you?"
"Yes, yes. You forgot to bind one or something."
"And I was no adolescent, no mere apprentice dabbling with fortune crystals while his master was asleep. I was a king playing with necromancy, the darkest of all magics."
In companionable silence we stared out over the celebration field with its tents, fewer than the first few days, and food vendors, its bleating trains of packgoats and milksheep, the performing dogs and performing men and the other attractions which remained. The smell of pies and smoked meats tickled my blurred senses and reawakened my hunger. Crispin was immune to such things, his body held in unaging, unbreathing stasis like carven wax.
"I will miss all this gaiety," he said at last, "the activity, the smells and sights and sounds. It is hard enough to die once - but twice? Twice is torture and so sweet a way to die as well." His voice held a wistful note and his clear eyes stared into the middle distance, unfocussed.
"Wha's 'at?" I asked, my senses sharpening again. I tipped the remains of my golden applewine onto the grass and let the aromas of cooking wake my fully. I was less drunk than I had hoped, deceiving myself with an illusion of uncaring drunkenness.
"The Bride of the Dead King," he whispered reverently, "to bind me."
My mind began to function again, whipped into activity by his words. The rite sounded peculiarly ominous. Who was the Bride of the Dead King and how did that held him bound? I threw up at the thought and my head cleared as though someone had whisked away a veil which had covered my vision.
"When is this?" I hissed.
"Tonight. Tonight I return whence I came."
"What for? Why must you go? Can't they keep you on as adviser or some thing?"
"And be lumbered with an unaging King whose heroic deed will be forgotten by next harvest - or the one after? Katharine, surely you realise they can't have me hanging around forever, reminding them ... Besides, I'm dead and not all are as liberal minded as you about being seen with a corpse, albeit one which can hold a fairly intelligent conversation. We're feared, Kath, the walking dead are despised as we are not easily killed. Copper was not used in MY awakening - it cannot harm me; you saw that. A woman helped wake me, a woman will bind me - willing or not." His eyes darkened at that last observation, "The spells of my waking bind me to the ritual of my dispatching - I've been bound to this, Kath."
"Will she be a sacrifice?" I breathed, horrified at the thought. Only proven murderers and those guilty of heinous crimes were ever executed and only then if they refuse to repent and amend their ways.
"Not quite so barbaric, she will live - if she still wants to. She must lie with me tonight so that my spirit will be chained in the ecstasy of the 'little death' of lovemaking. Necrophilia, Kath, no more and no less."
My mind rebelled at the revolting idea. I had heard tales of course, what warrior had not listened in revolted fascination to tales of the obscene acts perpetrated with a dead body: of men rutting with a slain woman or a woman who died as they raped her, of the vile women who availed themselves of the erection of a recently dead man? The thought of being violated by the undead was more revolting yet.
"At dusk, as the sun dies."
"Can't you refuse to do it?"
"I must do what I'm commanded to do. It was part of the bindings at my awakening. I can't refuse."
"It's barely past noon. I could do with waking up, I've been drunk too long. Barnard wouldn't approve. Where's my sword?"
We fenced as fiercely as we had when he had first been awakened; sparks flew again from my bluesteel sword and from the redsteel Crispin had carried into battle and still carried as a symbol of our victory. We cut and riposted until sweat fell into my eyes and my ears throbbed with rushing blood, but I refused to stop until I fell to my knees and the once king himself had to aid me to my feet. Untiring, he pushed back his tousled black hair, ran a finger nail along the edge his swordblade to check for nicks and then sheathed it in the decorated leather sheath at his side.
The celebration was drawing to a close; the stallholders were clearing away their few remaining wares and the townsfolk were reclaiming benches and tables. Guild apprentice unstrung the colourful bunting which stretched from house to house along the streets. The merchant with the horses paraded the huge prancing beasts for the last time so that we could admire their rich brown coats and strongly built forms. Once these new beasts would have been presented as a gift to the king - in the days when we had a monarch.
The night of the rite of the dead king's bride approached and I wondered what poor wretch had been selected for ritual necrophilia. Had they found someone who liked that sort of thing or had they chosen a wench at random from the brothels? Perhaps a female criminal, one who stifled her girl-children at birth, was to be used. In duelling with the once king I had become part of the binding and doomed some other wretch to the unbinding. Had the necromancers taken a calculated risk, knowing that I would arrive at such an opportune moment or had I merely been an accident, the wild card in their deck? Barnard could have helped me talk it through, Barnard with his deep voice and knowledge of the world, Barnard who always seemed to be able to see clearly to the root of a problem when I could not.
It was obvious really; Clementine, the daughter of a local prostitute and already a wench of loose morals and even looser undergarments, was tied by both wrists to a headboard. Her bulging purse containing the day's takings, as well as some baubles removed from a customers pockets no doubt, was on the windowsill when I climbed in through an open leaded light and nearly brought down the heavy green velvet drape. I had taken it upon myself to break into the Royal Bedroom in the hope that I could somehow stop the Rite. The royal four poster was draped in green and russet-gold and Clementine, stripped to her grimy petticoats, was as white as the bedlinen. Her pale breasts were disfigured by half-healed bites from customers and deep purple and yellow bruises, some many days old, patterned her ribs.
"Looking forward to a night with the King?" I asked. I did not despise her because of her profession, but this was possibly the nearest I would ever see to the swaggering Clementine getting her comeuppance.
Not such a sweet second death for the risen Crispin, not with a half-terrified wretch like Clementine. What happened to her money and her mother's earning no-one knew, but their home remained as shabby as it had been since anyone could remember and their clothes were still as patched. It was rumoured that her father beat them both and possibly even abused his own daughter. It was also rumoured that he was not her father anyway; it was unlikely anyone would ever know who had sired the wench, though it was quite possibly her mother's own brother.
"What do you think?" she asked petulantly, "Do you think I want to bed with a corpse. Not as if they even offered me money for it."
The lack of a fee for her services appeared to gall her most and the thought came to me that perhaps she was not expected to live to collect a fee. She was a pathetic sight, her frightened defiant face with its paints worn off by a succession of customers or washed away by tears of fear and humiliation.
"One of the guards even had his hand up me skirt to see I was serviceable; never even paid for the privilege," she sniffed, "said it would never do for the thing to have a Bride while she was unclean."
"I don't think even a mindless corpse would want to lie with you, Clementine, never mind a discerning one." I retorted.
"And what's wrong with me? Some of those who've bedded me might as well have been corpses. Some even tied me up - rougher than this." She glanced towards her wrists; whoever had tied her had been considerate enough to bind her wrists with ribbon so that the rough ropes did not burn her skin - or so that she could not open her veins by sawing at them with the coarse fibres. "I know things would please a real king ..."
I was tired of her prattle, of the mock arrogance with which she concealed her fear and I was aware that the time of the Rite was near; the sun was glowing orange near the horizon and the distant chant of the sorcerers drifted through the hallways and corridors below. I unsheathed the sword which I had carried across my back, its pale violet gem winking above my left shoulder where the sun's orange fingers touched its facets. Clementine had not seen it and began to wail in dread and panic. I clasped a hand over her mouth and hoped that the little whore did not bite.
"Hush girl, I'm not going to slit your throat. Can you climb out of the window?"
She nodded and I removed my hand. "I've climbed out of many a window when a man's wife comes home suddenlike." The girl brightened visibly. "But what when they don't find me here?"
"They'll find me instead."
"You? You like corpses or something?" she asked. I fingered my ready blade, thinking, and she misread my intentions. "You'll give them a taste off your steel then!"
The sorcerers' chanting was nearer; they were binding Crispin to the Rite and to eternal rest. I judged that they had reached the head of the wide staircase which led to this level in a curving sweep of oak and worn red carpet. I had no more time for Clementine's chatter and severed the ribbons at her wrists; with the trailing ends of ribbon bracelets dangling from bruised thin wrists she still had enough presence of mind to snatch up her purse before she darted out through the window. I kicked her cheap and soiled dress out of sight underneath the bed, sheathed my blade and unstrapped the scabbard belt, pushing that under the bed as well. I tucked the neatly cut ribbons behind the headboard and fluffed up the swansdown pillows to wait in comfort for the arrival of the Groom in this dread Rite. Dressed in a dove grey vest and charcoal breeches I hardly looked the part of bride.
The chant ceased, with hardly and echo, outside the elaborately carved door and I pondered Clementine's last words - why not hack the dead King to bits indeed? There was no monarchy left to protest at such treatment of a hero. Maybe, I thought, they left him whole just in case they needed the poor cursed creature again. Heroes, even undead heroes, were to be treated with respect, their bodies not further defiled by the undertakers as they were laid to rest, their souls bound to the netherworld by obscure and heinous Rites.
There was a brief pause before the door swung open just far enough to admit a man and the wax-faced dead King entered the room. He was dressed in a brocade shirt and a pair of green breeches patterned with turquoise and ultramarine embroidery; fit garments in which to bury royalty. His pale face seemed ashen when he saw me leaning against the beech headboard.
"You" he said softly, standing stock sill as the door swung shut behind him with a solid thump, "Why?"
I shrugged, "I woke you. I was the first person you saw. I will be the last."
He came to sit on the end of the bed a respectful distance away from me. "Katharine, Kath, I can't. Not you. The army needs you. They said some slut to hold me to the netherworld like a ball and chain - not you." He turned his face away from me, staring towards the window where the sun had dyed the clouds bruise-purple and crimson.
"So the Bride of the Dead King goes with him? To chain him with her vengeance and loathing." I sneered, "Why didn't you have the, the decency, to admit that before." He looked guiltily at me, like a man about to confess all in court. "I worked it out for myself, Crispin."
He stood up, "Look, I'll call the sorcerers - they'll find some miserable creature who won't be missed." He would not look at me, but the words sounded distasteful to him.
"Barnard is dead," I whispered, "Hugo is dead. Too many others I have know are gone. I can't keep watching them die and stay unscathed. I am tired of this life - I have seen too many good men and women die. I choose freely."
He looked at me at last; his eyes gentle with understanding. I had made my choice and he would only dishonour me by refusing me. Beneath his richly decorated clothing his body was lily-pale, marred by the stretchmarks of scars obtained in life and by the dead, unhealed wounds where a blade had snicked or shallowly sliced into his cool flesh. His body hair, dark as that on his head, contrasted strongly with the pallor of his skin; his manhood was as pale - and as hard - as cold marble as he removed my vest and breeches as was the right of the Groom.
His body was like cold, soft, malleable wax and I thought I would melt it with my heated flesh as we embraced as lovers. There was no breath upon my skin, no beating heart against my breast, but the smell of attar of roses and sandalwood clouded about us like embalming vapours. His lips were chill, chill as those of the laid-out bodies of brethren when it is time to kiss their bodies farewell; his mouth was moistened with spiced wine. He shuddered as he climaxed and then sighed, his muscles relaxing as he rolled to one side. I looked at his unbreathing form then I too lay waiting for the touch of death on my limbs as I was gathered in by the mistress of the dead.
Dawn kissed my face with golden pools of radiance and breath redolent of spice stirred my cropped hair; breath not my own. Warmer tones suffused the waxiness of his limbs and the breath of life rose and fell in his chest. A pulse ticked steadily in the veins of his neck which showed blue beneath the warm hues of living flesh. Death had not bound me, somehow life had bound him to me. Unthinking he pushed a curl of ebony hair from his face and awoke: awoke breathing; a waxen effigy sprung to pulsating life. His eyes were clear blue and startled as he regarded me.
" A willing bride," he breathed, "and death wants none of it."
We stayed right there in bed and there was no longer any fear of my warm body melting his for a passion as strong as my own met me and like fencers we thrust and riposted until the sorcerers beyond the door were alerted by the sheer indecency of the racket we made. We laughed like children at their faces as they peered round the door, then they withdrew, shocked and startled, and left us alone again while they tried to work out what had gone wrong.
Ours is still a kingless country, content to remain so. King Crispin, the former cursed King is cursed no longer - unless it is by three robust children -and King only of his own farmyard where the strange horse-creatures clatter about on uncloven hooves. He too is content to remain that way.
Our enlightened government reinstated the dire art of necromancy, but all necromancers are licensed, seasoned sorcerers and its study is restricted. Ruthillion sent an ambassador to Ebarir in an attempt to emulate our civilised way of life. We are content in our enlightened way.