Dawn light shied clear of Feathergale’s walls and the towers retained their shadows. Aided and abetted by the clouds that hung over the peaks. The sun was a golden fireball rising over the mountain ridge to the east, on a slow climb to meet the clouds.
Lord Crick vowed to sweep the army of the living from the slopes before the sun’s face was veiled. In its waking glow, divine light from any holy symbols would burn like a candle flame in the middle of a bonfire.
Morning rays fell through the ribs of his soldiers like ghost spears. Crick formed orders in his skull and let the winds take them, relaying them to the troops. His legions arrayed themselves in dense walls. Bone redoubts awaiting the trespassers’ army all along the ridgeline.
Flesh and blood and armour ascended to spread their ranks over the slopes below. Men and women clustered in blocks shoulder to shoulder, hedgehog formation with spears thrust forward; riders on horseback gathered in uniform herds at the flanks and centre. Two perfect rectangular crowds formed to the rear, line upon line of bows aiming at the skies.
Lord Crick would not wait for the arrows to fly. He raised his sword and dropped his jaw. The winds howled from deep within him, from some heart and lungs he no longer possessed, and crash down the mountainside like an avalanche of sound.
The legions of Feathergale charged like a chasing avalanche of bone.
Arrows swarmed up from the enemy ranks. The trespasser army advanced en masse.
Flesh and blood and armour crashed into bone and shields.
Crick charged into the thicket of thrashing limbs and slashing blades. He cut left, he hacked right, he chopped dead centre in front of him. He spun and sliced at a frightened lad who’d snuck behind. The lad fell, the mace dropped from his hands, the fear cast from his young face. Every kill confirmed Crick’s coronation, cementing the crown to his brow. The morning air was heavy with iron. He could almost smell the blood coursing around his veinless frame. It beat in his skull. Like a stampeding pulse.
It drummed on the ground. Like galloping horses.
Through the bashing, clashing melee the Priest rode. Robes flying behind him, his cursed holy symbol sitting high on the tip of a staff in his right hand. Its radiant glare was barely diminished in the daylight. And it cast a cone of warmth before it, sweeping through the ranks of skeletons like the blade of a plough. Soldiers of Feathergale drew back and sought other prey, parting like a sea of bone just as they had done in the banquet hall. The Knight rode in the Priest’s wake, cutting down stragglers – any who were slow to retreat from the dread Light. Priest and Knight cleared a path – straight through to Crick.
Lord Crick felled the last of the human fighters within his blade’s reach, then turned to face the two riders and their precious Light.
Once more, its warmth washed over him. Sweet and smooth and stealthy as a half-remembered dream, it seeped into his bones. Defiantly, he swung his sword, meaning to cut the Priest’s horse down. Strangely, he recalled supping at a hot drink, brought to him at his post by a household maid on a cruel winter’s night. The liquid circulated in the vague memory of veins. And burned inside his bones like acid.
He watched with eyes of nothing but gloom as his sword missed its target. The horse and the Priest were faint outlines, white phantoms in a world of Light.
The Knight and his steed were much the same. A blinding bright blur as they trampled Lord Crick’s bones and raced on past.
Defeat. Thieved from the jaws of victory.
Sir Dumar Pyrewine had no time to question how the battle-tide had turned. He drove his warhorse on in a reckless gallop down the mountain track. The fine stallion maintained its pace and its footing despite the incline and the added burden of a well-fed Archcleric of Melchor slumped like a sack across the front of the saddle.
“I don’t understand!” protested the sack. “It is a core principle of combating the undead! Slay the Skeleton Lord and his army falls. It’s basic. And it always always works. Without fail. Always.”
Sir Dumar subscribed to practical demonstrations more than theory. In practice, as soon as the Skeleton Lord had collapsed another fearsome figure, perhaps some faithful undead lieutenant, had sprung from the melee to strike the Archcleric from his horse. Sir Dumar had just managed to catch the priest and carry him clear. While the staff thudded into the cold dirt and the Light of Melchor had winked out. The massed bone legions had, if anything, surged after that, utterly undeterred by the demise of their leader.
“It seems the armies of Feathergale do not subscribe to your precious core principles, Archcleric Pygram. Perhaps Melchor deserted us this day.”
“No, never that,” argued Pygram, resolute and assertive despite his undignified arrangement on the back of the horse. “Although I fear he – and all the other divinities – have deserted this place.”
“Let us follow their example.”
After this, it would be a long time before they could persuade any other local lord to send a force against Feathergale. It belonged to the dead and would continue thus for years yet.
Sir Dumar spurred his steed on, returning to Lysara and the lowlands beyond the reach of these harsh mountain winds.
Across the field, a few swords stood as crosses over the unburied dead.
Snow Crows landed to feed. A murder of birds feasted on an embarrassment of riches.
Feathergale’s fallen had nothing to offer them and the bones were left to find partners, the partnered bones to find other pairs and so on until they had sketched crude stick-figures between them. Snick-snack! Bones locked onto bones, while the crows snacked. Cleaning the human fallen, ready for their service to House Feathergale.
The Lord of the House stood over the shattered remains of Crick, loyal servant in life and for many an age in death.
And long may his service continue. In some small part at least.
There was no doubting Crick’s sword-arm. He had, as Gallows and Thwart had observed, drawn the most blood on the trespassers’ first foray. He shown boldness, leading the legions out to meet the enemy and playing the role of Lord with conviction. He had worn the crown and chainmail well. Of course, the Lord would be reclaiming those.
First, the Lord signalled Gallows to stoop and retrieve the limb. Thwart dutifully snapped off the Lord’s arm at the shoulder and Gallows moved in to fit the donated replacement.
The Lord flexed his new-old limb, relishing the flexibility, the firmness of grip when he clenched the fleshless fist. No resistance in the joints, just meek, compliant creaks.
That was the secret to leadership in Feathergale.