TW: Swearing, sex and fighting.
“The skeletons you fought in Gennadius were infernoste. The more powerful one was-” Lupita pulled her robe tighter, covering her cleavage. “Danielle Longbow, are you listening to me?”
First and last name? She was in trouble. “Um. Both?” She knew it was the wrong answer from the frown on Lupita Smith’s brown face. “Sorry. It’s just been a while since I’ve seen you.”
“Horny?” Lupita asked, her anger melting away into a smile. The dimple in her lover’s cheek made Danielle want to pull her into the nearest room, close the door and not come out until their screams of passion had been heard across the kingdom.
“Doesn’t even cover it. I’ve been thinking about you every moment I had spare.” Pulling the pine-needle-green of her lover’s robe, Danielle kissed Lupita. She didn’t care that the other witches and warlocks of the coven could see. The musty books and chemicals meant nothing to her.
“Not here,” said the witch to the knight. Her cheeks reddened. “Let’s go. I’ve memorised the information you need.” She leaned closer so that only Danielle could hear. “I’ll tell you again when your lust has been sated.”
The hulking knight swelled with anticipation, leading the way down the granite steps of the tower, through Leonor Castle. Lupita’s sandals clapped behind her. With the lust in her building to a crescendo the pair raced through the granite city to their home.
“Slow down,” said Lupita, her tight curls bouncing on her shoulders. The witch laughed at the hungry look in her lover’s eyes. Their feet clapped over cobbles as the streets narrowed.
“Not a chance,” Danielle said, taking the witch’s hand. “Faster my dear. I can’t wait any longer.”
There were too many steps to their home. The knight had never noticed before but each step to climb was another moment that she didn’t have Miss Smith in her arms. The eager key headbutted the lock and slid away across the metal door. Swearing, the knight deliberately took a deep breath and slowly slid the key into the lock.
The door to their floor of the tower house swung open with the screech of hinges in need of oil.
“Nettle, find somewhere else to be for a few hours.” Not looking at her daughter, Danielle threw off her tabard and began undoing the straps of her armour.
“Urgh. No need to tell me twice,” said the other knight of the house. “Have fun, but by the gods, please don’t be too loud.” The teen’s imploring brown eyes peeked from between wild strands of straw-coloured hair.
“If you don’t want to hear us, best to leave the city on a fast horse,” Danielle gave up halfway through fiddling with the straps of her greaves and lifted Lupita up in her arms. To the knight’s muscles the witch was a feather.
The door slammed and locked as plate metal dropped to the floor of the master bedroom. Lupita’s robe and underclothes were on the floor in a fraction of the time. Jumping, Miss Smith locked her legs around the scarred torso of the soldier. They fell onto the bed, laughing as Sir Longbow’s breath was knocked from her lungs.
“You missed me?” Danielle asked, her devilish smile glinted in her light brown eyes.
Smothering the knight with her lips, the witch grabbed at the short hair on her lover’s head. Her free hand slid down the tree trunk of an arm that lay across the bed. Their fingers intertwined.
“I love you,” Sir Longbow told Miss Smith.
“Prove it then,” said the witch with a flash of brilliant white teeth. Lupita’s thighs pressed against Danielle’s cheeks as the knight’s tongue went to work.
She screamed until her vocal cords waved a white flag, then returned the favour. It had been too long since they’d had time for each other.
Falling from the bed in the morning, Danielle threw on a shift and staggered through to the living area, hoping to parch her thirst.
“Want some apple juice?” Asked Nettle Longbow. Splayed across the bench at the dining table, the girl gave her mother daggers of disapproval.
“Yes please,” Danielle held out her hand.
“Then squeeze some apples. You were loud.”
“You’re welcome.” The unrepentant lover ruffled her daughter’s hair.
“People heard you,” said the young knight.
“Lucky them.” The older knight kicked Nettle’s boots from the bench and sat, pouring boiled water into a tankard. The hot liquid seemed to sink into the parched walls of her throat before making it any further. Danielle poured more.
“That’s my one,” said the girl, pointing to the cup with a dirty fingernail.
The older knight looked her daughter in the eye and winked as she drank again from the wooden cup. “Tough.”
“I spat in it.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“I spat in all of them.”
“Then I’m just as well drinking from this one.” She gulped down the water that tasted of the iron pot over the fireplace. “We leave at nightfall. Make sure you’re ready. If you have to see anyone, do it now.”
“Just you and Lupita.”
“Then sit up and give me a hug. That’s an order.” Danielle took nettle’s hand and hauled her up to a sitting position. “Once we’re out on the road, I can’t treat you any differently from the other knights. That’s part of the reason I didn’t want you to join.”
Nettle wrapped ropey arms around her adoptive mother and pressed her sandy hair to Danielle’s chest. “I’d rather be fighting by your side than wondering if you’re going to come home.”
“Don’t I get a hug?” Lupita asked, emerging from the bedroom in a shift that hung off her hips as much as her shoulders. She crushed Nettle into the middle of the bench so that the three of them could embrace in silence.
“You both need a bath,” said the girl when the tender expression of platonic love between the couple and their daughter was too much.
Sunset came too soon for all the Nameless Knights. Sixty horses waited for them in the stables. Four more whinnied and stomped before a cart. Stacked in the cart were gifts for the undead. Gunpowder and silver filings packed into quarter casks sat alongside silver tipped spears.
Lupita stood silently as Danielle and Nettle rode away through the city gates. Leading the procession, the older Longbow held a flaming torch in one hand and the reigns in the other. She didn’t race. She was in no hurry to see the infernoste again. The witch had explained why one had been a beacon of light in darkness where the rest were only burning bones. The infernoste righ had been a magic user in life. In death, that magic gave it control over the skeletons that roamed the ashes of an empire.
Night became day. The Kingdom of Crann became the Province of Eira Mynydd. The Crann banner, a gold oak on a green field, flapped in the summer’s wind.
Citizens of the Empire of the Holy Proclamation bowed their heads as Danielle and her knights rode past. They’d heard the stories from the north. Some had seen the dragons in the sky as the empire’s capital was laid to waste.
Every day’s ride got colder. Rolling hills of Eira Mynydd became the windswept moors and bogs of Goton Province. Twisting paths through mountains signalled the border into Schneeland before the world opened again at Gennadius Province.
After two weeks of riding, the knights were anything but happy to see the scorched line that marked the border of Gennadius. Having left their horses and the cart to head back to safety, they walked on through the desolated land. Wind had remembered the fallen capital province. Danielle wished it hadn’t.
Improved masks beneath their helmets kept ash and sooth from their lungs. Nothing kept it from their eyes. Blinking constantly through dust clouds was a painful risk to their security. They were halfway to the ruins of Godswell when they set camp on the second night. Lining the perimeter with the silver tipped spears pointing out, they stacked the gunpowder kegs carefully in the heart of their circle and slept with their backs to the bombs.
In the morning, a knight was missing.
“What do you mean he left the camp?” Danielle raged at Sir Calum Sorley’s watch partner, Sir Kerr Alistair.
“For a piss, sir. He didn’t want anyone to see him piss.”
“Well, nobody saw him piss, that’s for sure. None of us saw him die either. FUCK. No one else leave the sight of your watch partner for any fucking reason! Am I understood?”
“We can’t leave without finding his body. We need to know for sure. Sir Sorley, which direction did he go?” Sir Alistair pointed feebly out through the circle of spears. Danielle had all her soldiers at the ready, pistols in hand. Taking half with her, she left the other half with Sir Anne Hyland, who’s wits she trusted more than the rest.
Half lost footprints on the wind-swept ground led to a ditch. From there the track lead half a mile to Sorley’s body and a pile of blackened bones.
“At least he killed one,” said Sir Lachlan Donaldson.
“One?” Danielle turned on the outspoken knight. “Is that all your lives are worth? One skeleton each? Sixty and we’re all done for? We came here to put an end to an army of hundreds of these things and now I’M ONE KNIGHT DOWN!” Realising she’d shouted, Sir Longbow took a deep breath. “I put you all through hell in training to avoid this kind of shit. Sir Lachlan, you’re Sir Sorley’s biggest fan. You can carry his body back to camp.”
Danielle’s brown eyes narrowed.
Sir Lachlan bowed his head. “Yes, Sir Longbow.” He gathered up the barbecued body of his fellow knight and cradled the man in his arms. Without another word he carried his comrade back to “This is why we stay together,” Danielle said in a low voice. She put a hand on Sir Lachlan’s shoulder to keep him by her side. “When we get back to Crann I need to tell Sir Sorley’s wife he died. I need to lie to her about how it happened because I can’t tell her that he died wandering off to have a piss. I’m going to tell his wife that Calum died protecting the camp from an attack of dozens of infernoste and all of you will tell that story as well. You’ll call him a hero.
I want you all to remember that he didn’t have to die. We are not here as the Nameless Knights to fight alone. Tell me you understand me.” Her voice was the low growl of a guard dog warning off an intruder.
“I understand,” said some.
“We understand,” said others.
“Good. Now start digging a hole. We can’t take him with us. We’ll mark the grave with stones and a spear. We’ll take him home on the way back.”
Danielle watched her knights dig a hole in the ground. Down beneath the scorched earth was brown soil. That earthy colour was a novelty in the endless monochrome of Gennadius after the dragons had scorched it all.
Fifty-nine Nameless Knights marched away from a cairn of rocks around a steel spear tipped with silver.
Godswell City’s population of infernoste had swollen to thousands. Their adulation flowed from a beacon of orange light.
The knights watched the endless lights from a hilltop a mile away.
“The one in the middle is an infernose righ. She had magic, that means she can control all of them. To fight them effectively we need a choke point to concentrate them towards the spears. I want to use the gunpowder to kill as many as possible. The kegs must be in the middle of their forces when they go off.”
“The catacombs? Where we slept before?” Nettle raised her voice above the murmur of the other knights. “There’s some food, space for all of us and only one could come down at a time. If we set up the kegs in the graveyard behind tombstones, we can ignite them with fire arrows.”
Heads nodded. Danielle liked the plan. “You’re not worried we’ll be trapped?” The mother reminded Nettle of her concern the first time they had stayed in the catacombs.
“They can outrun us and circle us anywhere. Better to know where they’re coming from.” Her daughter used Danielle’s own argument as a response.
Sneaking fifty-nine nights in armour, spears, and barrels of gunpowder past an army in a city that was little more than rubble was a farce of heroic proportions.
Crawling on their bellies for hours they found their way down into the dark embrace of Godswell’s catacombs.
“If Lupita was right, and she usually is, the infernoste righ can’t sense me because I have no magic. The rest of you blessed pricks might tip it off if you get too close. I’m going to roll the barrels into position one by one. If I run back screaming bloody murder then you let me past, raise the spears and your guns.” Danielle’s words echoed off the stone of the tomb. Gripping a quarter cask in her hands she crept up the stairs into the graveyard.
Kneeling behind every grave big enough to hide her, Sir Longbow placed the first barrel behind what was left of the graveyard wall. Each one was hidden in the shadow of a tombstone, spread out as much as was possible.
Skeletons alight with orange fire knelt before the creature Danielle had dubbed the Messiah of Fire and Bone. Some were close enough for her to spit on them from the wall of the graveyard.
After giving her knights rest, it was time.
Danielle gripped a crossbow with gloves that forgave her sweating palms. A flaming bolt sat notched, ready to fly. “HEY, WANKERS.” Flaming skeletons with blackened bones stood from their worship. “NEVER HEARD OF DUSTING? THIS PLACE IS A FUCKING MESS.” Not knowing why she’d said it, the knight held her ground. Hundreds of skeletons turned towards her. “Just a bit closer,” she said beneath her breath.
Danielle aimed for the trail of powder around the keg behind the wall. Skeletons were walking, then running in a wave. She had to move to keep the keg in sight.
The bolt whistled from the crossbow. The stink of the oil filled Sir Longbow’s nostrils for a split-second.
Danielle was knocked from her feet by the blast from the barrel. Skeletons were blown to pieces by the force but more importantly, the silver dust sent flying by the explosion penetrated the skulls of enough to snuff out two dozen infernoste.
Ears ringing, she crawled to the steps. She screamed words she couldn’t hear. She was pulled into the darkness by the other knights. A wall of spears rose to keep the flaming dead out of the catacombs where the rich of their city had been buried for centuries.
With her head spinning, Danielle watched skeletons blindly impale themselves on the spears. They fell, one after the other. Every time a silver spear tip pierced the skull of an infernoste, the flame inside died. Bones rattled down the steps. The stench of sulphur was choking.
Waiting for the ringing sound to stop, Sir Longbow watched her knights repel endless enemies. The world shook again. Dust cascaded from the ceiling. For a moment there were no skeletons on the stairs. Another keg had gone off, ignited by the sheer heat of the army of the dead Danielle guessed.
She had knights swap with the spear carriers. Those who had been in the doorway were told to rest at the far end of a tunnel. People of the city had stashed supplies to last through the cataclysm back there. Then the locals had died anyway.
The defence was a stable exercise until the infernoste righ came. Her fire seemed brighter than the sun. Wincing away from her light, the spears of the knights parted. The lady of fiery death swept down into the catacomb.
Telling her knights to retreat, Danielle drew her sword and faced the Messiah of Fire and Bone.