Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Where We're At...

Hello! It feels like forever since I posted anything here; it's been well over a month since Where the Moonlight Dances was shared here, and I've been somewhat radio-silent ever since.

Well, I think you deserve an update. I've now finished my course, and am no-longer a student. as I've eluded to in a few other posts, this last year has been extremely tough on me: I've had various health problems that have sometimes made the going extremely tough. There have been points where I've wanted nothing more than to simply throw in the towel and give up, when finishing seemed impossible and utterly pointless. But I've been blessed with the most incredible and wonderful group of friends over the last year, and I owe more than I could possibly ever give to these wonderful people who've stood around me through everything. I've truly never had such a wonderful group of friends in my life, and I love each and every one of you.

I'd also like to thank you, the reader, for sticking with my work over the last twelve months. It'd been disjointed, varied, and inconsistent, but knowing people wait for my posts on Sundays has genuinely made the world a bit of a brighter place for me. When I started this blog last year, I had no idea so many people from all over the world would be interested in my work.

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been asked by several people when the next TFE installment will be. I'm sorry to say that, once again, I don't know. I'm in the middle of searching for jobs and trying to readjust to life away from university, so the amount of time I can dedicate to writing is, much to my dismay, quite small. There are cogs turning, though: I'm currently working on part three of the long stories set in Esdaria, and suspect this is where my focus shall be for the next few months. I have a few shorter stories currently in the works which I no-doubt shall return to should the creative pot begin to run dry - so I hope to do at least one more short(ish) story before this year is out.

I've also had a few questions about the promised Jaedor and Derryk follow-up. For those of you who have not read it, Of Fire and Shadow remains my most popular short(ish) story to date, and I'd thoroughly recommend it to anyone. I completed a follow-up to it several months ago now - another story which I think does terrific justice to everything that took place in the original. Unfortunately, however, I'm still searching for an appropriate platform to share the finished follow-up on as it is far too large to be put on this blog in its current state. I've had self-publication suggested to me, but I'm trying to steer away from this option. I'm loathe to self-publish, as I feel it discredits me as a writer and gives people no real reason to read my work. Essentially, I believe that self-publication lacks the legitimacy bestowed upon a writer and their work by traditional publication. As a result, the search for a platform for Jaedor and Derryk pt. II continues...

So that's how things currently are. Again, I thank you all for you for your patience and for sticking with Esdaria through everything. You're fantastic, and I'm so grateful to be sharing this journey through this fantasy world with you. And, for those of you who are interested, here's a photo of my thesis in its finished state.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Where the Moonlight Dances, an Original Story by Rob Hebblethwaite

‘There will be a time for grieving, but it isn’t now.’
            ‘Lucien, please…’
            The dark-haired, swarthy-faced man shook his head and put a hand on the fiery-haired woman’s shoulder. ‘Not now. We need you level-headed.’
            Katrina closed her dark-green eyes, took a deep breath and stood up. Aldem’s body was still warm – whether it was the residual life left inside him or the heat from the torches in the cellar, she could not tell. His face was eerie still; somewhere between asleep and thoughtful - clean, too. Henry did a wonderful job. It’s a shame about the rest.
            ‘We shall bury him as soon as we can,’ Henry said from behind Katrina. He had sunk into the shadows the moment Katrina had arrived, the old medic knew well not to interfere. ‘It’s not safe at the moment, though.’ He stepped forwards and pulled the shroud down over Aldem’s face.
As Katrina watched the silver-haired priest of the Old Gods whisper a silent prayer for her brother’s soul, she remembered the wounds done to the rest of him, hidden beneath the burial shroud. Those imperial bastards, she thought. They will pay.
They were coming to reclaim Westmoor. For two years, Emperor Lyshir III had sat on his haunches. He had watched as King Aelfurd’s rebellion had stalled at the border to the Imperial Heartlands, the momentum from the unprecedented victories won in the first year and a half of the rebellion spent. The emperor had recalled his soldiers from other fronts, bolstered by Altmerian veterans, and sent them to guard the Imperial Heartland’s western border. And he had watched. And he had waited.
Now, for reasons unknown to Katrina, Emperor Lyshir III was sending his troops to reclaim Westmoor – and, no doubt, Maedar and the rest of the Free Kingdoms beyond. She and her brother – the warmth slowly going from his flesh, at her feet in the dingy cellar – had been scouts sent by King Aelfurd’s armies to watch the border with the Heartlands. For weeks they had gazed towards the legendary Westwarden Castle and wondered if the emperor could even be bothered with the Free Kingdoms anymore.
Then, two days ago, they had been awoken from where they slept beneath an enormous pine tree by a rumble like thunder. Katrina and her brother had watched with horror as a great mass of soldiers – tens of thousands in number, beetle-like in their black, carapace-like armour – swarmed across the River Sayn like a thick black fog.
She and Aldhem had mounted their horses and sped back to the village of Witherwood – so called because it was surrounded by an unruly mass of centuries-dead trees that the locals believed to be haunted by the spirit of an old witch – slightly to the north-west of the River Sayn. However, during their flight, they had been set upon by a small group of Vidorian advance scouts. Aldhem had been struck by four arrows before he had fallen from his horse and broken his arm. Despite that, he had still drawn his sword and fought off two of the attackers.
Katrina had killed two of the soliders and run the others off before dragging her brother onto her horse and riding as hard as she could. There was nothing that could be done though – Aldhem had been dead long before she had made it was to Witherwood.
She turned away from his body, wiping the tears from her eyes, and looked through the darkness of the cellar in the eyes of the stony-faced at Captain Lucien. ‘Alright,’ she said with a deep intake of breath. ‘What do we do about the Empire?’
Lucien was young for a veteran soldier. The youngest son of a minor noble, he had risen quickly in the ranks during the rebellion. His stubble-brushed cheeks and dark eyes were shadowy in the gloom of the cellar, but the shining steel armour he wore glinted. ‘With some luck, the bulk of the imperial invasion force will bypass us here. I have only one-hundred men in my command as it is.’ He turned and walked towards the stone steps leading out of the cellar, Katrina rushing to follow him.
‘And if they do?’ she asked as they made their way into the low tavern which was packed full of Maedarian soldiers and farmers alike.
Lucien shook his head. ‘They may send a small force,’ he said as he skirted around one of the benches, ‘but I doubt whoever commands them will redirect their entire army to kill us. If they know we are here, they will no-doubt know how many of us there are – the emperor would not have launched this attack unless he was certain. We should expect to be outnumbered, so we must use the village to our advantage.’
Katrina frowned, her hand brushing the sword she kept at her hip as they left the tavern through its door and stepped out into the dreary grey day outside. ‘Surely, then, it’s best to just leave?’ she asked.
Captain Lucien turned and caught Katrina’s eye, his glare cold. ‘And go back to a life under the Empire’s fist? No.’
‘But the villagers-…’
‘Katrina,’ Lucien said coldly, ‘we may be friends, but I am your captain. Do not forget that.’
She fell silent, staring hard into Lucien’s young face. ‘Aye, Sir,’ she said through her teeth. I hate it when he does this.
Katrina had known Lucien for years. She was the daughter of the head housekeeper at Lucien’s small family estate, and was a similar age to the dark-haired, swarthy young captain. Though Aldhem was a few years older than Katrina, and had been eyed up for a position in Lucien’s father’s guard from a young age, Katrina got on better with Lucien than her brother did. Ever since he could speak, though, Lucien had always been quick to remind Katrina of his position over her. Whenever she had called him out on it in the past, he had laughed it off. “Someone needs to keep your rebellious streak in-check!” he would say. “Your brother can’t have both his eyes on you all the time!”
Now Aldhem had neither of his eyes on Katrina. He was dead, and it was just Lucien and her. Katrina glared at the back of Lucien’s steel breastplate as he marched down the grotty, night-rain dampened road that ran through Witherwood’s small village centre. The pathway was worsened by the dozens of feet that walked up and down the road, as soldiers and peasants both went about their business, preparing for a potential attack by the Empire.
Katrina saw fear in the faces of the peasants, but not in the eyes of the Maedarians. They were assured of their victory. Songs about the success of the rebellion in Palvia were still sung around the campfires that sprung up between the many tents that ringed the village every night – songs that echoed in the eerie woods around the village.
Katrina shivered.
Reaching high above the few meagre, thatched buildings of the shabby little settlement were the trees for which the village was named: pale-white, bereft of leaves, even untouched by moss and ivy. Around their twisted roots, even the heather and bracken that covered swathes of Westmoor seemed reluctant to grow. Katrina hated the way the Maedarian’s victory songs and warming torchlight died in the shadows of the twisted boughs.
‘Alright,’ Katrina said, swallowing her pride and hurrying down the road to catch Lucien, ‘what do you propose we do?’
‘Easy,’ Lucien said, a small smile on his lips, ‘we fight them in the woods.’
Katrina frowned. ‘How will that help?’ she said.
Lucien’s smile widened to a cruel grin. ‘The Empire will no-doubt surround the village, as if to besiege it. Then, they will advance, but they will have to move through the woods. When they do so, their formations will beak, their soldier will be disorganised, and we can strike.’
Katrina was unsure. She paused in the middle of the rain-dampened road and folded her arms across the chainmail shirt she wore. ‘I don’t know,’ she said slowly. ‘It seems a bit-…’
‘It will be an honourable victory,’ Lucien said, walking away. ‘And remember, I am your captain.’
Katrina ground her teeth but said nothing. She had things to do. Important things to do.


For all its flaws – its rancid air, its eerie surrounding trees, the constant chill that hung over it –the village of Witherwood had a great many places to hide. Each of the small, thatched houses and every alleyway that ran between them had places one could lurk or hide small caches of contraband – even the well had a small nook just inside the rim large enough to stash small items.
            Katrina waited in one such nook as the afternoon drew near, her fiery hair hidden by the hood of her cloak. Nestled between two low houses and obscured from the view of the main road by a pile of old rubbish, she sat, covered by her ragged, dark old cloak, and waited. Now is a good time, she thought. With all the chaos thrown up in preparation for a possible attack from the Empire, no-one will notice if I slip away for a few moments.
            Beyond the alley in which she squatted, Katrina could hear the rumble of activity: men and women were coming and going, desperately doing what they could to ready themselves for the possible assault from the Empire. We should be leaving, Katrina thought. We’re doing nothing holding this village. This is all about honour – Lucien thinks this is his big moment.
            As she waited, quietly brooding to herself, a whistling wind broke through the phalanx of shadowy, dead trees that ringed the village and kissed her cheeks with its icy lips. Katrina found her eyes drawn to the pale, twisted trees. She shivered – not because of the cold.
            A few moments later, the sound of shuffling feet came from the far end of the alley. ‘Hello?’ a voice said.
            ‘Oh, not again!’ Katrina leapt to her feet and hurried towards the voice. ‘May, I told you to send Borret!’
            The woman at the end of the alley seemed as ancient as the twisted old trees that ringed the village. Her form was hunched and frail, draped in filthy rags, and long, grey-white hair fell around her face – out of which two blind eyes stared sightlessly.
            ‘He’s grabbing what he can from the fields, dear Kat,’ the ancient, blind woman said, leaning heavily on the long, worn stick she held. ‘Dockie’s worried that the Empire will burn what’s left of his barley should they come through.’
            Katrina sighed but made no further objection. ‘Here,’ Katrina said quietly, reaching under her cloak. ‘I couldn’t get as much as last time, but I hope it helps.’
            Katrina took a hard, crusty loaf of staling bread out from under her cloak and placed it in the old blind woman’s hands. The bread was taken from the Maedarian foodstores, kept in the basement of one of the larger houses in the village. Katrina had stolen it.
            ‘You mustn’t keep doing this,’ the thin old woman said, fixing her grey, blind eyes on Katrina. ‘If they catch you-…’
            ‘They won’t. Take it to your grandchildren.’
            ‘Dear Kat…’
            The old woman’s wrinkled lips drew across her face. ‘Thank-you,’ she said. ‘I hope I didn’t keep you long.’
            Katrina shook her head. ‘The others already came by. You were the last. Everything I had is gone now. You should bar your door tonight, May: the Empire might attack.’
            The old lady tucked the bread into her ragged clothes. ‘Empire don’t scare me none,’ she said with a wheezy chuckle. ‘Only the Lady o’ the Woods puts the chill o’ death into my bones.’
            ‘Really?’ Katrina even managed to laugh. ‘That old folk-tale?’
            ‘It’s no tale, Dear Kat,’ Old May said, her grey, sightless eyes turning towards the twisted tips of the branches that ringed the village, as if drawn that way. ‘I’ve heard her cries; seen her shadowy face in my dreams.’
            Katrina rolled her eyes and gently put a hand on the old woman’s shoulder. ‘Maybe so,’ she said, ‘but if the Empire are to attack today or sometime tonight, I would fear their steel more than the Lady of the Woods appearing in your dreams.’
            Old May made a noise that existed somewhere between a gasp and a snigger which Katrina could not distinguish. ‘Westmoor is old, Dear Kat,’ she said slowly. ‘There are many things here that go unexplained. The fires o’ the Empire drove the Old Gods out of the Heartlands, but they’ve always lingered in Westmoor and beyond.’
Katrina watched as the old woman shuffled away. Again, she found her eyes drawn to the tall, twisted trees that ringed Witherwood. She had known of the Lady of the Woods since they first arrived: she had been about to step under the trees for a rest when a local farmhand had stopped her, wide-eyed and pale faced, as if he himself had just seen the supposed spirit that haunted the place. “You mustn’t,” he had said. “You’ll anger the Lady. You don’t want to anger the Lady.”
Katrina had never once seen the so-called Lady, but her name was uttered in whispers in the local area. It was said that she was a witch who lived hundreds of years ago, sworn to the Old Gods. When the Empire had swept across Westmoor in the first years of the Second Age, she had been brutally executed and her body had been tossed into the woods. Ever since, her spirit had wandered, taking vengeance on anyone who entered the ring-like scattering of trees that circled the settlement.
Not for a moment did Katrina believe a word of the folklore, but she had quickly realised that the spirit of the Lady was important to the villagers, and that there was no point in upsetting them – especially since she had known they would be in Witherwood for a while. Still, as she thought about the Lady of the Woods, she felt a cold finger of fear trace her spine and she shivered again.
She pushed all thoughts of the supernatural from her mind and quickly brushed the hard, residual crumbs from inside her cloak. She had no doubts about the fury which Lucien would direct at her should it be discovered that she had been stealing from the soldiers’ stores to feed the poor of Witherwood, but Katrina had felt as if she had to do something. We’re putting such a strain on their way of life, she told herself as she quickly walked from the alley and re-joined the hubbub of the main road into the village. She stepped around Maedarian soldiers in mail tunics carrying swords and spears, making her way towards the village centre. The poorest can’t cope; there aren’t enough resources to go around. Let us not become like the Empire. We need to take care of these people-…
Katrina froze, gripped suddenly by fear.
‘Kat!’ Lucien’s voice came again, followed by footsteps and a hand on her shoulder and spun her around. Katrina looked into the eyes of her old friend; she could not tell if they were concerned or angry. ‘Where have you been?’
Lucien waved a hand. ‘It doesn’t matter, we need to prepare.’ He beckoned for her to follow him through the crowd of Maedarian soldiers and Westmoorian peasants towards the tiny village forge. ‘I sent out scouts at dawn,’ he said as he pushed his way through a crowd of soldiers sharpening their blades, ‘and the news is…’ he trailed off, pausing for thought. ‘The news is good, I think.’
‘Oh?’ Katrina said, following in Lucien’s steps. ‘How so?’
They arrived at the tiny village forge, which was manned by an old, one-handed smith, brawny as a bull and bald as an egg, and his bleary-eyed, greasy-haired son. The two men were working hard over their low-burning forge and worn anvil, doing everything they could to assist the Medarian rebels in preparing. Torrin Twist-Hand did little more than grunt at Katrina when she and Lucien entered the low, stiflingly hot forge, but his son, Welf, stared at Katrina as he always did – his lips parted and his eyes wide. You’d think he’d never seen a woman before, she thought, ignoring his stare.
‘Torrin,’ Lucien said, ‘my sword?’
‘In the pile,’ the enormous blacksmith said, not looking up from the enormous iron chain he was working on and pointing to a collection of old weapon racks lined up by the wall. ‘Good blade. Keep us safe with it.’
‘Lucien,’ Katrina said, interrupting. ‘What’s this good news?’
Lucien crossed to the weapon racks and picked out a shining longsword. He tested the edge with his fingers then nodded appreciatively. ‘The Empire is coming,’ he said without looking up. ‘I sent out Leofwin and Harrit at dawn. They say a detachment has been sent towards Witherwood. They counted some three-hundred being led by a lord, no-less.’
Katrina’s eyes widened. ‘That’s good news?’ she hissed. ‘Three-hundred, Lucien, we’re outnumbered three-to-one, and we have innocent folk here!’
Lucien shrugged. ‘We know their tactics. We can prepare. This will be a glorious hour for us.’
‘What?’ she breathed in shock. ‘Lucien, we should be leaving! Not preparing for a fight! Witherwood holds no tactical advantage for the rebellion; it’s an outpost, and one the Empire can snatch away at a moment’s notice!’
‘Leave?’ Lucien said, still eyeing his sword. ‘Why would we do that? This is our moment of triumph! We can cut a lump out of the Empire’s reclamation force before it’s reclaimed anything! Think of the damage it’ll do to the Empire’s morale, when they learn how their superior force was slaughtered by a handful of devout Maedarians!’
Katrina shook her head in disbelief. ‘You can’t be serious,’ she said. ‘You’d jeopardise all our lives – even those of the innocent folk here – just in the name of swiping some easy honour?’
Lucien glanced up from his sword for a moment, his brow creased. ‘Torrin,’ he said, ‘do you want the Empire to come back?’
The smith snorted. ‘No,’ he said before dousing a blade he had been hammering at in a vat of water. ‘Useless folk; did nothin’ for us, paid no heed to our way of life. All about conquest and that gods-be-damned so-called Divine Empress of theirs.’ He spat. ‘Pittance to tha’, I say.’
‘See, Kat?’ Lucien twirled the sword in his hand. ‘We are wanted here; the folk want us to fight for their freedom-…’
‘No,’ Katrina snarled, ‘Torrin wants us to stay and fight because the Empire cut his hand off!’
‘She ain’t wrong,’ the big smith said with a half-laugh.
Katrina barred her teeth and stepped forwards whilst Torrin Twist-Hand’s hammer rang out on his anvil, and beside him, Welf muttered away to himself. ‘What are you playing at, Lucien? She demanded. ‘The Empire will just burn the village down and-…’
Lucien rammed his sword into its sheath and rounded on Katrina. ‘Kat, I know what I’m doing,’ he hissed. ‘I know how the Empire fight, and I will remind you that I-…’
‘Yes, yes;’ Katrina snarled, spinning on her heel and turning to leave, ‘you’re my bloody captain – and I’m supposed to take you seriously, even though I can remember when you used to eat the snot out of your nose.’
Katrina!’ Lucien yelled. ‘Don’t you walk away from me, I am your captain and I order you to-…’
But she was already gone. Katrina marched out into the road beyond the forge, seething with anger. Your honour, she thought, that’s all this is about. You think this is your moment; that songs will be sung about you and your heroism against the Empire: of how the brave captain, outnumbered three-to-one, held out against an imperial onslaught.
She walked down the main road, her face twisted with fury, towards the entrance to the village. The muddy road had been churned up even more in the last few hours by the coming-and-going of hundreds of feet, and Katrina soon found her heavy boots filthy. She walked to the edge of the village, where the white fingers of the dead trees’ boughs intertwined over the road like a skeletal arch, and stopped, glaring at the south-eastern horizon.
How dare he risk us all over honour? she thought as she watched the dull, grey rainclouds slowly drift southwards, carried on a bitter wind. How dare he? Before her, Westmoor was dark and foreboding: dry brackens and heathers covered the hardy moorland, between which small fields peppered with peasants hastily gathering what remained of the year’s harvest for fear of it being destroyed by the Empire.
It was then Katrina realised that, for the first time since her brother had died, she was alone. Suddenly, drowned within the sounds of activity – the bell-like toll of Twist-Hand’s anvil, the yelling of voices preparing for the worst, and the rumble of feet – Katrina was overcome. She staggered as tears began to pour from her eyes, a phantom hand at her throat, choking her on her grief.
He was really gone. Aldem was really dead. She had refused to believe it, even when she had seen the gravity of his terrible wounds – the arrow that had gone all the way through his chest, the other that had severed an artery in his side – and even when Henry had told her he was dead. Even when she saw him lying in the cellar, so peaceful, so calm, all life gone from him, she had convinced herself he was somehow sleeping.
But now she had a moment, grief took her. She wept like she had never wept before, grabbing onto the closest thing to steady herself as the cold wind stung her flesh, piercing her cloak and chainmail just as her sorrow pierced her heart. She would have blamed herself, but she was suddenly distracted. What is this? she thought, turning her tear-blurred gaze to the thing upon which she was leaning. Katrina blinked, rubbed her eyes, and gasped in horror.
The bone-white trunk of the long-dead, twisted, warped tree was cold beneath her fingers, with a cry, Katrina withdrew and backed away. No-one saw, she thought, looking this way and that. Everyone’s too busy in the village to notice me, everyone’s-…
Something moved in the trees. A crow? The wind?
A figure.
Katrina let out another gasp and leapt backwards. ‘No,’ she whispered, ‘surely…no.’
As she stared into the mangle of twisted bone-white tree-limbs, she saw it again – a flutter, a dark shadow. Heart in her mouth, frozen in fear, Katrina stared wide-eyed into darkness that seemed to twist and grow between the trees. The Lady of the Woods, she thought, wiping the tears from her wide eyes. It’s her, it’s real, it’s-…
Two crows, squawking in anger, burst through the dry canopy, sending finger-bone like twigs exploding into the air. Katrina let out her breath, her heart hammering, and looked away. Don’t be ridiculous, she thought. The Lady of the Woods is a myth.
As she turned her eyes back towards the horizon, taking long, slow breaths, Katrina saw movement. The peasants in the southernmost fields were running, abandoning their harvested produce and retreating back towards the village. She could hear their shouts in the wind: frightened, panicked.
Moments later, like a thick, black fog, an inky-black smear appeared on the horizon, moving quickly across the moor. It came in odd, geometric regiments that stood in stark contrast with the rolling hills of the landscape. A few dark banners emblazoned with the gold of the imperial phoenix blew in the south-bound wind.
‘The Empire!’ Katrina yelled, turning and running back to the village, all thoughts of grief and of the Lady of the Woods gone from her mind. ‘The Empire are here! They’re coming!’ she screamed as she ran back into the village. ‘They’re coming!’


‘Why aren’t they doing anything?’ Lucien hissed to Katrina.
            The two of them stood at the entrance to the village, where they had been for the last three hours. The imperial force had reached the bottom of the low hill upon which Witherwood stood, and had stopped. They stood in their regiments, indomitable black squares upon the hillside, totally silent. The persistent, rising wind blew their black standards and banners into whipping, rippled shapes. But they were all that moved.
            ‘Mind games,’ Katrina said quietly. ‘They want to scare us before they attack.’
            ‘Or they’re waiting,’ Henry said from the other side of Lucien. The old man’s faraway eyes were fixed on the horizon. ‘Perhaps their commander does not favour the advance up the hill in daylight.’
            ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Lucien snapped, ‘surely they’re certain in their victory. The Empire are arrogant, and they outnumber us. Why don’t they just charge up the hill and-…’
            ‘Lucien,’ Katrina said, pointing down the hill, ‘look. Someone’s coming.’
            ‘About time too,’ Lucien snarled. ‘I haven’t got all day.’
            Sure enough, four figures rode out from within the lines: a man in a resplendent blue cape and another in the white robe of the Vidorian Inquisition rode forwards, flanked on either side by two heavily-armoured men on horses, both carrying lances. They rode quickly up the hill towards where Katrina, Lucien and Henry stood, their magnificent horses kicking up the dirt as they went.
            ‘Come to mock us, no-doubt,’ Lucien spat. ‘Come to revel in their assured victory, to play more mind games.’
            Lucien,’ Katrina hissed. ‘Are the men in their positions?’
            ‘Of course they are.’
            She had suspected this could be a trap and had asked Lucien to ready the men just in case. They had been reluctant to enter the woods around Witherwood, and the local peasants had been even more intent on stopping them, but when Lucien had yelled about blood and fire, and the Empire raping wives and daughters, the villagers had backed down and let the Maedarian rebels sneak into the thick, dense line of trees around the village.
            As the four mounted figures arrived before the entrance to Witherwood, they stopped. The man in the blue cape was tall, and wore no helmet on his head, dictating his rank, though he still wore the phoenix-emblazoned black breastplate of the Imperial Legion. His hair was golden but greyed at the temples, and Katrina was surprised by how amicable his face was. The inquisitor was of a similar age to the blue cape-wearing figure, though he had a greying beard around his chin and kept his hood raised. The two men either side of him were young, tough-looking and steely-eyed.
            ‘I am Baron Tyvilius of Altmeria,’ the cape-wearing man said in a voice that was respectful and gentle. ‘This is my companion Inquisitor Greyseer. I have come as a messenger from the Empire-…’
            ‘With three-hundred armed soldiers, no-less,’ Lucien spat.
            Baron Tyvilius allowed the interruption with a small smile. ‘You are the commanding officer here, I take it, lad?’
            Lucien bristled. ‘I am Captain Lucien Andorheart,’ he quipped, ‘and I do not make deals with conquering, oppressive imperial scum.’
‘We have no interest in oppressing you, let alone fighting you,’ Baron Tyvilius said in his gentle voice. ‘I know my men and I outnumber you three-to-one, and I know there are dozens of innocent men, women and children in this village.’
            ‘What do you want, then?’ Lucien demanded, stepping forwards and putting a hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword threateningly.
            ‘All I want is no bloodshed,’ Baron Tyvilius said. ‘I know well that should battle be joined between us there would no-doubt be a slaughter on both sides; I have no doubt that I would be victorious as I have the superior force and the numbers, but I ask you to surrender, I would rather end this peacefully.’
            Lucien opened his mouth to respond but Katrina quickly stepped in. ‘That’s it?’ she said. ‘You just want us to go? And you’ll just let us leave?’
‘Your soldiers will be disarmed and you shall be allowed to return to your families, wherever they are,’ Baron Tyvilius said with a solemn nod. ‘I have no doubt that the re-conquest of Westmoor will be a bloody affair, and I do not want to contribute to the sea of blood that some will be eager to shed.’
‘Lies,’ Lucien spat. ‘I know the Empire; you’ll wait until we’ve set down our arms, then you’ll start slaughtering us.’
Both Baron Tyvilius and Inquisitor Greyseer seemed affronted by the notion. The two older men exchanged a glance before the inquisitor spoke for the first time: ‘On our honour, you shall be allowed to return to your families. I have even been given permission to give writs of passage to those who surrender peacefully, allowing them transit through any imperial checkpoints that stand between them and their homes.’
The old medic Henry was the first to speak after a short silence. ‘Lucien, I think we should-…’
‘Quiet,’ the young captain snapped. ‘This is our moment of triumph. The Empire shall not reclaim Westmoor; it has no right to the lands. We shall fight you all here, and you shall all die here.’
‘What?’ Katrina despaired. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Lucien, you can’t gamble-…’
Lucien turned, his face twisted in rage. ‘You forget, Katrina. I am your captain and what I say goes! I say we stand and fight; we cannot simply roll over because the Empire has arrived on our doorstep. Ours, not theirs! They have no right to these lands, and we will defend that with honour!’
‘Our honour,’ Katrina snapped, ‘or yours?’
Lucien visibly seethed. ‘If you don’t be quiet, I’m going to have you strapped to a cartwheel and flogged,’ he hissed. ‘I am your captain, and I-…’
‘I’m sorry,’ Baron Tyvilius interrupted from atop his horse. His face had grown stern – not angry; he looked more like a displeased parent. ‘I’ve fought many battles,’ he said slowly, ‘and it’s clear that Captain Lucien has no interest in peace.’ The baron sighed and shook his head. ‘I shall give you all fair warning: we shall attack at dusk. If we have not heard from you otherwise before then, any blood shed is on you, Captain Lucien.’
The four imperials turned and began to ride away. ‘No, Baron, it’s on you!’ Lucien yelled after them.
Katrina shook her head in disbelief. ‘What, in the name of every Old God bastard-born, do you think you’re doing?’ she said. ‘You’re playing with lives, Lucien! Lives!’
‘It’s my job,’ he sneered as he marched past her. ‘That’s why I’m the captain and not you. I can make the hard decisions.’
Katrina and Henry stood alone for a few moments, sharing an exasperated, hopeless look. Eventually, Katrina broke the silence. ‘What should we do?’ she asked quietly.
Henry paused a moment. He looked tired, defeated even. He closed his eyes and let out a long, slow breath. ‘Assist me in getting all the villagers into the tavern cellar,’ he said eventually. ‘It’s the hardiest structure in Witherwood. They can help me with any injured that are brought in.’
Katrina nodded. ‘I’ll do what I can,’ she said.
Henry nodded. ‘Damn it, Lucien,’ he hissed, ‘we’re all going to suffer because of your pride.’
Katrina had no response, and instead turned and set off back into the village at a run. Damn you, Lucien, she thought angriyly. You always were arrogant and self-absorbed, but now you’ve taken this to the next level.
For a split second, Katrina considered simply finding her horse and leaving. She could ride down to Inquisitor Greyseer herself and secure one of the writs of passage. No-one would notice her leaving in the confusion. But what about Aldem’s body? she thought. And what about the women and children here? Someone needs to protect them.
Within moments she was lost in chaos as Lucien stood atop the well in the middle of the village, yelling orders to the mail-wearing men in their dented pot-helms below. Most were already in their positions in the woods, whilst the last few went around ordering every single fire within the village to be extinguished – even that of the forge. Katrina busied herself frantically running from one low, thatched house to the next, ordering the petrified village-folk to make their way to the tavern’s large, stone cellar. The only building that won’t catch fire easily, she thought as she stopped two young boys in the road and told them to take their mother to the moderate safety of the cellar. The tavern’s the only building made of stone. It’s unlikely to burn.
Slowly, darkness began to fall and the streets of Witherwood emptied. Soon, the only people left out in the village were Lucien and Katrina, both of whom stood by the well, staring down into its shadowy depths.
‘And if they just march up the road?’ Katrina hissed. ‘What then?’
‘They won’t,’ Lucien said through his teeth. ‘That’s not how the Empire do this.’
‘And if they do?’
‘They won’t, Kat,’ Lucien said with a sigh, rubbing his face. ‘Look, can you get this strap for me?’
Muttering under her breath, Katrina walked to Lucien’s side and seized the leather strap beneath his shoulder-plate. ‘You’re a damn fool,’ she hissed. ‘A real damn fool. I swear by every god, Old and New, Elven and Halfling, that if this bright idea of yours goes wrong-…’
‘It won’t,’ Lucien said forcefully. ‘Please, Kat, I know what I’m doing!’
‘Yes, and you’re doing it for your honour!’ Katrina snarled, yanking the strap tight. ‘You’ve put everyone’s lives on the line in the hope you’ll have songs sung about you!’
Lucien took a long, deep breath. ‘Now isn’t the time,’ he said coldly. ‘We have to make ready. They’ll attack soon.’
They had constructed a huge barricade in the middle of the road, blocking the only easy entrance into Witherwood. Old carts, scrap, any old rubbish, old animal carcasses, anything the Maedarians could get their hands on, had been hurled into a gigantic, stinking wall that blocked the natural arch-like formation made by the intertwining boughs of the dense wall of dead trees that ringed the village. With that, all fires had been extinguished and every non-combatant had been moved into the now-packed tavern cellar. Katrina was thankful that Aldem’s body had been allowed to stay, wrapped in its shroud, tucked to one side so it would not upset any of the children.
As soon as they were done, Katrina quietly followed Lucien from the village centre and into the trees that ringed Witherwood. She felt a chill touch her as she passed under the long-dead branches, though she thought it was just the bitter wind that had been blowing all day. Her mind briefly shot back to the shadowy shape she had seen – No, she thought, the crows. Two crows. Above her, the sky had turned dark, the last of the rain-clouds from the previous night were lit an eerie, fiery glow from the setting sun.
Lucien had ordered every one of the men and women at his command to spread out in the woodland, and not to make a single sound. “Show the Empire who’s the quietest of us!” he had jeered, reminding Katrina of the ghostly, utter silence with which the imperial soldiers had stood for hours just that afternoon.
It was so dark, Katrina almost tripped over a twisted, dark root that stuck from the dusty earth like a bone. She put her hand out to steady herself and touched the centuries-dead bark of one of the ancient trees. Again, she felt a chill shoot through her and took her hand away. ‘We’re defending your home,’ Katrina found herself whispering. ‘Please, don’t hurt us; we’re defending your home.’
Moments later, Lucien suddenly stopped and waved for Katrina to crouch. She did so, tucking herself behind the trunk of a nearby tree, though she was careful not to touch it. She could see shapes through the shadowy trees: a dozen or-so of Lucien’s soldiers were hidden within the dense tree-line, squatting behind withered bushes or amongst roots, still behind trees – a few of the more intrepid had even climbed into the boughs of the trees to hide. They were utterly silent, their weapons loose in their sheathes – kept hidden so they would not flash in torchlight and give the plan away.
Katrina waited, her heart in her mouth. After a few minutes, her thighs and calves started to burn. She fiddled with the pommel of her shortsword and adjusted the straps on her belt and cloak a few times, each time being as silent as she could. Then, just as dusk was wearing on, light appeared.
Torches, intermittent yet regimented, appeared through the trees. Still, no sound accompanied them. Katrina gripped the hilt of her sword and slowly, wraith-like figures dressed in pitch-black armour melded through the treeline in front of them.
‘It’s working,’ she heard Lucien whisper from where he was, less than a pace in front of her. ‘Look.’
Slowly, Katrina turned her head. All through the thick knot of dead trees that ringed Witherwood, light was shining. Ghostly-orange and blurred in a thin mist that had swept into the trees with the dusk, unnoticed to Katrina, it heralded the coming of spectral shapes: the Empire’s soldiers, clutching their swords and shields.
            Suddenly, they were only a few paces away. Katrina could see the beard on the grizzled face of the soldier closest to her, his features illuminated by a torch behind him. Their ranks were disorganised and broken, though the Empire was moving slowly, taking care with every step. Katrina watched as more and more of the armoured men slunk through the trees, barely making a sound despite their heavy armour. Then, a single shout sounded from the other side of the village. Katrina felt her heart skip a beat, and with it chaos broke out like wildfire in a dry barn.
            Maedarian rebels leapt from their hiding places. Katrina saw men and women leaping from within the trees, scattering into the Vidorian line. Shouts, screams, and the screech of metal on metal filled the night air and pierced the torchlight-orange fog that swept between the trees.
            Katrina leapt to her feet and whipped her shortsword from its sheath. There was no time for fear now, the battle was joined. One of these men might’ve been the one who shot the fatal arrow that killed Aldem. With a furious cry, she plunged it into the neck of the imperial soldier before her – a fellow with the beard and grizzled face. He tried to swipe her away as she drove the blade through his throat and spine, but instead slumped as Katrina whipped the blade from the wound and quickly span away.
            She was a part of the chaos in seconds, a whirling, torch lit tempest of blood and steel. To look at, she was a fierce sight: fire-red head gleaming in the torchlight, her taught, muscular form moving with ease and grace through the imperial line. She was average height for a woman, but powerfully built – though her form was hidden beneath the mail and tunic she wore. She kicked with her lithe legs, breaking imperial knees or knocking them to the floor with the force of a blow to the stomach, before setting on them with her hardy shortsword.
Katrina never fought with a shield – she preferred to have her left hand free for grabbing and wrestling with those who fought against her. As an imperial figure – dark and ominous in the half-light thrown up by the torches at his back – advanced towards her, his shield raised, Katrina leapt for him, grabbed his shield with her free hand, and, with a heave, hurled him off-balance. Her blade sang again, and the soldier moved no more.
She was separated from Lucien in seconds – not that she cared. She knew well that he was capable of handling himself, and the anger at the death of her brother made her stronger alone. She, like many of the Maedarian soldiers, had learned to fight alone. She had no formal military training, and had picked up knife-fighting and swordplay in the alleys and markets of Palvia. When you stole food to support your family, you had to be able to run or fight. Katrina had decided she would fight.
The imperial soldiers fell in a swathe before her. All around Witherwood, their already fragmented line, broken apart by advancing through the trees, was breaking further. From what Katrina could see through the thick of battle, many of the Maedarian soldiers had already been either behind or inside the line when the shout to fight had gone up. The imperials, staggered by the sudden ambush and kicked down by the ferocity of the attack, were struggling to regain their footing. Their command structure was shattered, and although they fought well, the Maedarian rebels fought with a fury and ferocity that the Empire could not hope to compete with in the wake of the ambush.
As she carved her bloody wound into the Empire’s lines, Katrina saw her brothers and sister-in-arms falling. One man, who had attempted to jump from a tree, mistimed his attack and was impaled in the air by two imperial swords. Two Maedarian women, fighting side-by-side together, were set upon by four imperial soldiers who cut them to pieces.
Katrina had no time to pause, though – she had to carry on. She thought of Aldem, arrows filling his body, and ran into the next soldier she saw, driving her shoulder into his chest and sword into his stomach. ‘These are for you, brother,’ she said as she turned and drove her fist into the throat of a soldier running to attack her. ‘These are for you!’
Through her fury, Katrina fought the disbelief that Lucien’s ridiculous plan was working. Throughtout the woods, the Empire was being slaughtered. Black-armoured bodies lay draped across blood-reddened roots, or propped up against gore-splattered trees. They looked strange in the half-light of the torches that lay scattered amongst them; both integral to the ghastly scene, yet strangely alien to it.
Katrina set off at a run, noticing a pocket of imperial resistance close by that seemed to be acting as a rally-point: a tall phoenix banner, lit by a torch at its end, jutted high above the trees. Imperial soldiers were gathering around it, forming an outward-facing circular wall of shields, driving back the Maedarians who attacked.
Shortsword in hand, Katrina waited for an opening; then, moments later, she saw a limping imperial soldier staggering towards the line and set off after him. As he neared, leaking blood from a stab-wound to his thigh, the shield wall opened to let him in. With a cry, Katrina erupted from the shadows, barrelled the man aside with her free hand, and charged through the gap in the shield wall intended for the wounded soldier.
The small ring of soldiers – Katrina could count fifteen, maybe twenty – suddenly became a disorganised mass. Katrina hurled herself into the closest soldier – he just-so happened to be holding the imperial standard aloft, standing in the centre of the ring – and drove her shortsword through his back. She whipped it out just in time to parry a blow from her left, but need not have worried, for moments later the soldier who had turned his back on the shield-ring to fight her fell, a lance between his shoulders. As the two soldiers fell, so did their torch-lit standard.
The ring of imperial defiance collapsed. The soldiers did not know where to aim their attacks: for those who turned their backs on the wall to attack Katrina left holes in their defences through which a Maedarian soldier would hurl himself. Those who tried to keep formation found themselves stabbed through the back by Katrina’s sword. The small ring broke, and the imperial soldiers were slaughtered.
As Katrina pulled her sword from the last of the ring-defenders, she looked around. The Empire was routed: she could see them fleeing through the long, eerie shadows thrown up by discarded or dropped torches. Black-armoured men cast aside their swords and shields and fled in the face of Maedarian resistance, running back into the ever-darkening night, disappearing into the night-shrouded landscape.
Katrina could not quite believe it. She stopped, panting, as a huge cheer went up from the Maedarians. ‘I don’t believe it,’ she said, unable to stop herself smiling as she stood ankle-deep in blood and corpses. ‘I don’t believe it.’
‘Should’ve trusted me!’ Lucien’s voice came from behind Katrina.
She turned around and shook her head, fighting the smile on her lips. Lucien had a cut on his brow and his sword was red with blood, but he was triumphant in his expression. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Don’t do this again.’
Lucien held up his hands. ‘I know, I know,’ he said. ‘It was a gamble, but it paid off, no?’
‘Gambling is a fool’s game,’ Katrina said, wiping the blood from her shortsword on the fallen imperial flag, ‘and I’d rather you not do it again.’
‘And I shan’t,’ Lucien said, stepping through the shadows and carnage. ‘This was an ideological battle – and we won it. We’ve shown that Maedar and the Free Kingdoms won’t simply roll over without a fight – the first battle of the so-called re-conquest, and the Empire lost it! Next time they come here, the Empire will outnumber us ten-to-one, and we cannot beat those numbers. So, when they arrive, they shall find us gone,’ he grinned. ‘Imagine the stories: the Maedarian warriors who slaughtered their fighters then disappeared into the night like smoke! We’ll strike fear into the Empire’s heart.’
Katrina was unconvinced, but she allowed Lucien his imaginings. His gamble did pay off, at least, she thought. He deserves a little complacency. ‘So we’re leaving after all?’ she said.
Lucien nodded. ‘I won’t try my luck any further than we already have. We leave at dawn tomorrow and head south, then east. Hopefully, with a little luck, we’ll be able to skirt behind the Vidorian advance and make it to the city of Mitora before the Empire do.’
‘I see,’ Katrina said. ‘It seems a good enough plan, but why didn’t you just do that in the first place?’
‘Because Baron Tyvilius’ men would’ve followed us,’ he said. ‘We’d have to deal with them at some point. Besides-…’
‘Sir!’ a shout interrupted Lucien. ‘Sir, Sir!’
Both Lucien and Katrina turned. A soldier was hurrying towards them, his mail broken and rusted in places, and his helmet discarded. His hands were bloody, but he seemed otherwise unhurt. ‘Speak,’ Lucien ordered.
‘We’ve prisoners,’ the soldier said through heavy breaths. ‘You should come at once, Sir!’
Lucien nodded. ‘Very well. Come, Kat. It seems this day is not over yet.’
Lucien set off at a jog behind the solider, who led them through the trees and back into the village. Katrina willingly followed, glad to finally be away from the place with its haunting, blood-drenched branches and flickering shadows. As she took a step out of the twisting circle of trees that surrounded the village, she felt a chill come over her and she looked back over her shoulder. For a moment, in amongst the shadows, the fire, the blood, and the bodies, Katrina thought she saw a face looking at her. But then she blinked and watched as two crows left one of the gnarled branches and flew into the shadows.


The moon hung full and high over Witherwood. The last of the imperials had fled into the night, scattered and broken, and the sky had even cleared a little; stars shone down upon the bloodied trees and torch-lit pathways that threaded through the small village – paths that were now clogged with surviving Maedarian soldiers who were not patrolling the edge of the woods, laughing and celebrating their victory.
Not many prisoners had been taken by the Maedarians. Those that had been captured were arranged, arms and legs bound, before the well in the middle of the village. As Katrina and Lucien arrived, following the soldier who had fetched them, they saw a number of Maedarian soldiers standing around them, holding weapons and torches.
            ‘Hah!’ Katrina heard Lucien cry. ‘How ironic, here we all are again!’
            Katrina stepped to Lucien’s side and looked at the rag-tag group before her. There were five figures in total: a terribly wounded imperial soldier who was losing a huge amount of blood from a neck-wound with each passing moment; two young, black-armoured soldiers who sat either side of him; and the blue-cape wearing Baron Tyvilius and his inquisitorial aide, Greyseer. Neither looked as prim and clean as they had done earlier; their clothing was battered and stained, and Inquisitor Greyseer’s robe had a tear up the leg.
            ‘Captain Lucien,’ Baron Tyvilius said quietly, his eyes downcast, ‘you have beaten us.’
            ‘I have,’ the young captain said, standing over the older man. ‘You were foolish enough to think you could win simply with your numbers, hm? Now look where you are. Oh – Lieutenant Delera, how many men have we lost so far?’
            ‘Eleven fatalities,’ one of the soldiers standing around the prisoners said, ‘and as many wounded at the current count.’
            ‘And how many men have the Empire lost?’ Lucien asked, a thin smile on his lips.
            The Lieutenant, a tall, thin woman with broad shoulders, wearing a well-oiled shirt of mail, shrugged. ‘At least half their number. They’re also scattered into the night. They’ll have trouble regrouping quickly.’
            Before them, Baron Tyvilius shook his head. ‘Such a failure,’ he said quietly. ‘Such a tragedy…’
            ‘For you, yes,’ Captain Lucien sneered. ‘This is on you, Tyvilius.’
            The baron lifted his eyes and shook his head. ‘Emperor Lyshir will not let this lie, lad,’ he said. ‘He will send a thousand men to wrest this village from you, just to prove a point. Just to show he can, and that the lives of his men mean little to him. More will be slaughtered, and the Empire will win eventually.’
            Lucien shrugged. ‘That’s fine,’ he said. ‘We’re leaving anyway.’
            ‘What?’ Baron Tyvilius’ eyes widened. ‘you’re just going to-… I don’t understand! This slaughter, this death. Meaningless!’
            Lucien stepped forwards and spat into the Baron’s lap. ‘No, Tyvilius,’ he barked, ‘this sends a message. I’m leaving on my own terms, because I want to, not because you forced me to. My men also leave with their weapons, their armour, a great victory under their belts, and their honour intact. And, who knows? Perhaps we’ll ravage the next imperial-controlled settlement we come across.’
            Tyvilius sighed and shook his head. ‘So there will be more blood,’ he said sadly. ‘I just wanted peace, for things to go back to how they were without slaughter-…’
            ‘Slaughter is inevitable,’ Lucien yelled. ‘We fight for our freedom, to not be crushed under the Empire’s yoke paying taxes to an emperor who claims he’s a demi-god and letting our sons, brothers, friends, and fathers be swept up into your armies to be sent to die on some distant border!’ Lucien glared at Baron Tyvilius. ‘And every drop of imperial blood spilled waters the field upon which our future will grow – a future free from the Empire.’
            Katrina chewed her lip as she watched the exchange, unsure about how she felt. The Empire is the enemy, she thought, but Baron Tyvilius is no bad man. He is also not the emperor; he simply follows orders, as we do. But they are orders from the mouth of Emperor Lyshir, who has choked us since he first came to the throne. She sighed and rubbed her eyes with thumb and forefinger. And Lucien has let our blood be spilled fighting over this village – and now he plans to just leave anyway! An ideological victory? Why not a strategic victory instead?
            ‘Empty the cellar under the tavern,’ Lucien said, his voice interrupting Katrina’s thoughts. ‘Tell the peasants they can return to their homes. Throw the prisoners down there with our dead and wounded. We’ll deal with them all at dawn, once I’ve decided what I want to do with them.’
            Katrina remained silent as the five prisoners were dragged away, lost in doubt. She remained silent for a long time, not partaking in the spontaneous revelry that sprung up moments later. She sat quietly by one of the campfires as the Maedarian soldiers sang and drank the peasant’s hard-brewed ale, beer and cider, unsure if she was actually on the right side in the war.
            Who is actually in the right? she asked herself as, beside her, one of the soldiers began to sing a draft of a song he had written about the victory. Lucien risked us all for an ideological victory. It may dent the Empire’s morale, but so many of our men died for it – even though we won the battle. Yet now he wants us to retreat, to just hand the village over without a fight. But what else can he do?
            Katrina had to concede that Lucien was at least right about destroying Baron Tyvilius’ force now. They would have chased us if we had left without first surrendering, she thought. And there’s no way I’m surrendering to the Empire – not yet, at least.
            With a sigh, Katrina raised her eyes to the skies above. Sparks flickered from the campfire before her and danced in the cold night air before fading to nothing, paled before the bright firmament above her. Perhaps it will deal the Empire a blow, she thought. Maybe it will make them think twice about trying to reconquer the west.
            Katrina found herself immune to the revelry around her. She refused to drink anything that she had not herself paid for, and she recognised well the kegs that were being drunk from: they were the taverns, and they had most certainly not been paid for. Does this make us as bad as the Empire? she asked herself as she watched two Maedarian soldiers refill their battered wooden mugs. We’re taking that which we have no right to.
            ‘You look miserable.’
            Katrina said nothing as Lucien sat down beside her.
            ‘Come on, Kat, what eats you?’ Lucien said. His breath was heavy with the smell of ale. Katrina found herself repulsed.
            ‘Did you have to take their booze?’ she asked, glaring at him. ‘They have little enough as it is, you’ve already eaten most of their produce for winter.’
            Lucien shrugged. ‘We just saved their hides. I think they owe us-…’
            ‘But we didn’t!’ Katrina protested. ‘The Empire are going to come back here, and this time no-one will be here!’
            Lucien shook his head. ‘That’s where you’re wrong. I’m going to leave these bodies,’ he said, gesturing widely to the trees. ‘And I might leave them the hanged corpses of their baron and inquisitor hanging over the road as a message. Maedar and the Free Kingdoms will not die – least of all not without a fight. We’ll appear and disappear, slaughtering them when we do. We’ll be unpredictable, dangerous, terrifying.’
            Katrina shook her head. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘This is supposed to be about freedom, and yet…’ she trailed off, looking at the soldiers swigging stolen ale. ‘We’ve taken far too much from them and-…’
            Lucien’s face suddenly grew dark. ‘Do you think I don’t know you’ve been stealing from the stores?’ he said in a low, threatening voice.
            The colour drained from Katrina’s face. ‘What?’ she said. ‘Don’t be ridiculous-…’
            ‘Because the locals are brave enough to, hm? No. Because the locals are stupid enough to walk around with our rations between their teeth in broad daylight, because they don’t realise how different Maedarian breads looks from the pugnacious, tumorous, bulbous and soggy abominations they drag out of their sorry ovens.’
            Katrina swallowed. ‘Lucien I-…’
            ‘No,’ he said, standing. ‘You know what? I’ve had enough of your attitude. I don’t care if we’ve known one-another years, we’re in the army now, and you need to show me some respect. If I ever catch you disobeying me or stealing again – and I don’t care who for – I’ll see you flogged. Do you understand?’
            Katrina clenched her teeth together. ‘Lucien, we can’t-…’
            Do you understand?’
            Katrina gulped. ‘Yes, Sir,’ she said quietly.
            She dropped her gaze but could feel Lucien staring down at the top of her head. ‘Perhaps I should punish you anyway,’ he snarled. ‘I’m going to make water on some of those imperial corpses. Maybe I’ll have a clearer head once I come back and I’ll know what to do with you.’
            Katrina watched in silence as Lucien walked away through the celebrating Maedarian soldiers towards the woods at the edge of the village. Her heart was hammering in her chest – not with fear, but with anger. She thought of Baron Tyvilius and Inquisitor Greyseer in the tavern cellar – good, honest, kind men with level-heads. She thought of how they had offered them their freedom in exchange for a surrender. She thought of how cruel Lucien could be. Who is really the evil one here? she asked herself.
            With a sigh, Katrina got to her feet and walked away from the campfire and towards the tavern. I need some peace, she thought. I should see Henry. The old man had a way of cheering her; he was subtle, down-to-earth, and wise. There was also a goodness in him that reassured her – not the cruelty and selfishness that often escaped Lucien.
As she went, Katrina passed a cart full of Maedarian dead as she went, carefully covered and laid out next to one-another on the road when room had run out in the wooden vehicle. Their shapes, hidden under cloths, looked strange in the moonlight. If it were not for the bloodstains, they could have just been sleeping figures. Katrina shook her head and kept walking. Whilst Lucien is pissing on their dead, Katrina thought and shook her head. She kept walking.
Under the moon and firelight, Katrina could see that there were a few peasants joining in the revelry, including Torrin Twist-Hand and his skinny son, Welf. Both of them laughed and danced with the celebrating Maedarians, and left Katrina wondering just what was right. She had fought before, plenty of times, against thieves, robbers, thugs, soldiers, and guards; she had been in battles both won and lost; but she had never celebrated. For her, victory would be the day the emperor renounced all claims to the west – not when the blood of men and women sent by rulers to die was spilled.
Katrina ducked into the tavern to find the common room deserted; there was the foul smell of blood, vomit, and old flesh in the air, and the faint, harrowing moans and groans of the wounded and dying came through the stones, no-doubt from the makeshift infirmary set up below. She passed through the low stone room and ducked behind the counter, avoiding the ancient, worn and stained tapestry of a half-naked Elven woman hanging there, and went down the narrow steps to the cellar.
The dark stone room was lit by a few torches and lanterns. The floor was covered in perhaps ten makeshift beds comprised of whatever cloth coverings the Maedarians could get their hands on – Katrina did not pay that much heed. Every bed was filled with a figure, either living or dead. In the corner of her eye, Katrina saw the shrouded figure of her brother, tucked carefully to one side and hidden from view by a stack of empty barrels. She felt her heart flutter but quickly looked away.
‘How is it all?’ she asked, approaching where the old man was hunched over a dead Maedarian soldier.
Henry finished muttering the correct rites before closing the corpse’s eyes and looking over his shoulder. ‘Those who can be saved have been saved,’ he said, getting to his feet. ‘Those others will slip away in the peace and quiet brought by a bottle of mead.’
‘And the prisoners?’ Katrina asked.
Henry gestured towards the end of the room with a hand. ‘See for yourself.’
In the shadows at the unlit end of the long, cold cellar, Katrina could see five figures. Each one had his wrists shackled by chains that were fastened to the wall. Each was silent. Katrina noticed that the wounded soldier was dead, slumped uselessly against the wall, his face pale and his body slathered in blood.
‘I did what I could,’ Henry said quietly, noticing Katrina’s gaze. ‘Lucien forbade me to treat him. I tried to ease his passing.’
‘Could you have saved him?’ she asked in a whisper.
Henry shrugged. ‘Perhaps. I’ll never know now.’
Katrina turned her green-eyed gaze to Baron Tyvilius and Inquisitor Greyseer and walked towards them. ‘Henry, have these men been fed? And where did you find these shackles?’ Katrina gestured to the chains affixing the men to the walls. Baron Tyvilius looked up as Katrina spoke. Beside him, Inquisitor Greyseer merely sighed, his eyes closed.
‘No,’ Henry said. ‘Again, Lucien would not let me feed them. As for the chains, the local smith – what’s his name? Torrin? – had them. He came down and hammered them into the wall as soon as the all-clear was given and word spread there were prisoners.’
‘Of course he did,’ Katrina sighed and shook her head again. Twist-Hand is just as bad as Lucien, if not worse.
She took another step forwards and crouched down before Baron Tyvilius. ‘I would bring you food if I could,’ she said quietly. ‘You did us a kindness, even if Captain Lucien did throw it in your face.’
Baron Tyvilius let out a choked laugh. ‘I thought it might be honourable to try and bargain with him,’ he said through cracked and broken lips. ‘I looked at him, that captain of yours; he’s my son’s age, give or take a year. I could not condemn him to death there-and-then. I had to-…’ he sighed.
‘I understand,’ Katrina said quietly. ‘You did no wrong.’
‘Folk are dead because of my weak will,’ Tyvilius said with a sigh. ‘I just-…’
‘There’s no point moaning now,’ Inquisitor Greyseer said without opening his eyes. ‘What’s done is done.’
Baron Tyvilius shook his head slowly. ‘He even looks a little like my Olden,’ the baron shook his head. ‘Now I suppose I won’t ever see him again. Do you know what your captain plans to do with us?’
It was Katrina’s turn to sigh. ‘He plans to have the two of you hanged and left above the road into the village; a warning to any imperials who come this way I imagine the same fate awaits the others,’ she said, glancing at the two imperial soldiers who were still alive.
‘Well, at least Karsen avoided that humiliation,’ one of the soldiers muttered, nodding his head at their dead comrade who was still chained to the wall.
‘Why are you not celebrating with your kin-in-arms?’ Inquisitor Greyseer’s voice suddenly cut through the gloom.
Katrina looked to where the inquisitor was chained. His steely eyes were opened and fixed on her, and his hood had been pulled from his head, revealing iron-grey, close-cut hair atop his scalp. His gaze was intense, scrutinising her. Katrina almost expected a trick. ‘Although I slew many in the battle, I do not consider that a thing to celebrate,’ she said slowly. ‘We fought because we had to, not all of us fought because we wanted to.’
‘Then why not desert?’ Greyseer asked, his eyes intense.
Katrina held his gaze. ‘Because I believe in fighting for freedom, and I would not have another die in my place.’
Greyseer nodded his battered head slowly, apparently satisfied with Katrina’s answer.
‘Besides,’ Katrina said and shook her head, ‘this is wrong. I’ll go and find Lucien, see if I can’t get him to at least send you some water.’
‘You have a kind heart, child,’ Baron Tyvilius said with a weak, sad smile. ‘I thank you for trying, at the very least.’
Katrina said nothing as she rose to her feet and walked away. She was too busy trying to avoid looking at the tell-tale cloth-covered thing tucked behind the old barrels.


Katrina paused in the cold night’s air once she was out of the tavern. She stood in the middle of the road, looking up at the moon and starry firmament above. Lucien, damn it, she thought as she began to walk back towards the middle of the village, why do you have to make this about something other than freedom? I don’t want to fight for your ego, I want to fight for my own future. She clenched her teeth and shook her head, her fiery hair billowing behind her in the cold night wind as she did.
            The victory celebrations were still well underway. It seemed as if the fellow who had composed a victory ballad about the battle had re-drafted his work and found a lute, for a song was being struck up around the central campfire. Katrina barged her way through the thronging rebels and the few civilians who joined them until she was at the fireside. Once there, she was surprised to see Lucien absent. They’re singing songs about his victory – isn’t this what he wanted?
            She turned to the closest soldier. ‘Seen Captain Lucien?’ she asked.
            The fellow shook his head. ‘Not for a time. He in the tavern?’
            Katrina shook her head and looked around. Between the crackling campfire, the drunken soldiers, the dancing and the singing, Lucien was nowhere to be seen.
            A thought suddenly struck her. He’d gone to piss on the imperial dead, she thought. What if he’s trophy-hunting? What if he’s cutting off the heads of the dead soldiers to, I don’t know, leave around the-… No, surely not. Disturbed by the thought, she quickly turned and walked away from the fire in the middle of the village, made her way out through the soldiers, and towards the high, wall-like knot of long-dead trees that ringed Witherwood.
            She walked the same path she assumed Lucien would have. She even thought she could vaguely make out some fresh prints in the churned-up grassy mud beneath her feet. They’re roughly Lucien’s size, no? And walking quickly –long strides, with purpose.
            Speeding to a jog, Katrina made it to the edge of the trees and stopped. At her feet lay a dead imperial soldier, his eyes wide and staring, blood dried around his nose and mouth, a huge wound struck across his stomach. Katrina wrinkled her nose at the filthy smell and guts pouring from the bloody orifice and looked around.
            The white moonlight caught the bone-like mass of twisting trees, making haunting shadows of the branches and the mangled dead twisted at their roots. The bright-white of the moon light glittered on dropped steel and fresh blood, and made dark pools in fleshy fissures or bloodless faces even paler.
            ‘Lucien?’ Katrina called out, stepping over the body and into the trees. ‘Lucien, where are you? Are you here?’
            As she put her foot down, a glint of light caught Katrina’s eye. Something was shining up at her amidst the detritus and death at her feet, far too clean and gleaming to be contemporary with the slaughter of hours earlier. She took a step forwards and bent down; A sword.
            There was no blood on the fine blade, and the leather around the hilt looked as if it had been recently re-wound. Frowning, Katrina looked around. How did this get here? she asked herself, inspecting the fine blade and hilt.
            As the wind blew through the ancient branches above her head and the moonlight glittered down on the sword in her hands, Katrina realised she recognised the weapon. It was the same sword she had seen twirled and glittering in the forge-light earlier that day, being gracefully swung and tested by a hand she knew. It was Lucien’s sword.
            Her heart froze. Gods, no.
            ‘Lucien!’ she shrieked, clutching the sword in her fist. She set off at a blind run through the bloody woods with no clue whether or not she was going the right way. Her mind raced as her legs pounded, skipping over roots, weapons, shields, and ruined flesh. What if there was one alive? What if they’ve come back and ambushed us? By the Old Gods, what has happened to him? He’d never abandon his sword!
            Katrina kept on at a run, getting deeper into the knotted mass of twisted trees that ringed the village. With every step, the sounds of revelry from beyond the village grew fainter, and the moonlight seemed to become more blinding, casting its uncanny white glow on everything it could not force into shadow.
            A sound; harsh, vocal, piercing. Katrina could have screamed; she gripped Lucien’s sword and froze, eyes spinning about her. She was completely lost in the dense line of trees, unable to make out where she was in relation to anything else. She could not even see the light from the village.
            The sound came again; coarse, guttural. Katrina let out a cry and looked to where the noise had come from. Wide-eyed, she stared into the moonlit trees. Between the corpses, the knotted, mangled roots, the blood, the weapons, the banners and standards, standing atop the hilt of a sword stuck point-first into the soil were two crows. Their beady-black eyes were fixed on her.
            ‘Birds,’ Katrina hissed, lowering the sword and breathing deeply. ‘Bloody birds.’
            She shook her head and watched as the two crows alighted and flew off into the darkness and shadows behind them. For a few moments, Katrina was alone in the moonlight, the spindly, femur-like branches of the blood-splattered and corpse-decorated trees seemed to be pointing at her, she noticed; it were as if the trees were watching her, glaring at her.
            A shadow moved.
            Katrina spun back towards where the two crows had been resting on the hilt of the sword. Beyond them, back amidst the trees into which they had flown, the darkness was swirling. Don’t be ridiculous, Katrina thought as she felt a cold sweat break out on her brow and neck, shadows can’t swirl; darkness can’t move.
            Yet they did. Right before her. Unable to blink and move for the terrible fear that wracked her, Katrina continued to stare into the darkness before her. And it was moving. The longer she stared, the more convinced she was. The shadows were shifting, but not as if a stray candle were being moved to and fro. They were spiralling together, as if becoming one. They became a darkness which the moonlight could not touch, and then it advanced.
It moved like a whisper, coming from the shadows as if it were part of them. From within that blackness came a figure which even the moonlight feared to touch. It was taller than a man, even though it was hunched and twisted beyond imagining. It drifted slowly across the carnage beneath it on a shadowy fog, which slowly meshed together and became a dark, ragged, hooded robe that hung loosely around a wizened form. Two rotten-looking arms reached from the ragged robe, at the end of each were hands. In one skeletal, decomposing fist was a lance tipped with what looked to Katrina like a faintly glowing flint head as long as her forearm. In the other hand was a head.
But Katrina could not take her eyes of the things face – or the space where its face should be. The ragged hood that covered the creature’s head and hung low over its bent and crooked neck, revealing only an impossibly dark shadow where the thing’s face should be.
‘No,’ Katrina whispered, ‘no, it can’t be. Surely not…’
The thing glided towards her on its legs and lower-body made of fog and shadow, making not a single sound as it passed over the bodies of the fallen. Rooted with sheer terror and disbelief, all Katrina could do was hold up Lucien’s sword.
The thing stopped ten paces away from her, thin and tall enough to touch the very boughs, its long arms and fingers stretched before it, as if it were frail and relied on the spear it held for support, though Katrina could see blood on the tip of the weapon. Slowly, it raised the head which it held in its bony, half-rotten fist and held it out to Katrina.
‘No,’ she said in a whisper, ‘I’m going insane; this isn’t real, this…this…’
Lucien stared back at her. His face was pale, his hair matted where the creature gripped it with its terrible hooked fingers. His eyes were rolled back into his head and his mouth closed, his face splattered with blood. As Katrina watched, unsure if she was losing her mind or if the thing before her was real, a faint, terrible green glow came from within Lucien’s severed head, emanating from his mouth, behind his eyes, from the terrible wound to his neck.
‘Katrina…’ the head said in Lucien’s voice, his bloody lips and heavy tongue slipping around her name.
She broke. Screaming in terror, she dropped Lucien’s sword and started off at a blind run through the trees. All around her, the woods were moving. Tears left her eyes as she ran and things started to grab at her. She watched as the corpses around her began to move, picking up their old weapons or holding in their spilled guts where they could. They shambled after her and she screamed and ran, utterly consumed with horror.
Before she knew it, she was out of the trees and running wildly back towards the village. She had no idea how she made her way out of the woods, for she could barely see through her tears of terror and so many hands had been grabbing at her, so many mouths had been gnashing for her, drooling bile and blood.
‘The dead walk!’ she screamed as she ran into the middle of the village and collapsed by the fire, the breath ripping from her lungs. ‘There’s a thing! A thing in the woods and it’s making the dead walk! They’re alive, they’re coming for us!’
The revelry stopped. Eyes fell upon her, the fire cracked. Then laughter.
Katrina watched helplessly as the dozens and dozens of soldiers and peasants around the fires began to drink and sing anew.
‘See, this is why women shouldn’t fight,’ a deep, male voice said from somewhere on the other side of the fire. ‘Can’t keep it together like the men.’
‘Shut up, Horik, I killed more than you earlier!’
Trembling with terror, lost for words, Katrina’s head span. She looked left, right, behind her, everywhere she could, trying to find someone – anyone – who would listen to her. All she saw, though, were men and women drinking and laughing – laughing at her.
Henry, she thought.
Scrambling to her feet, Katrina set off at a run towards the tavern. She hurled aside anyone who got in her way as she made a frantic run towards the stone-built building, but before she got far, terrible screams went up from ahead of her.
Hurling aside a young peasant man and his mug of ale, Katrina found herself facing the cart she had spotted earlier when she had visited the tavern and the prisoners. Some of the dead she recognised – a man who had asked her if she had a spare copper a few nights ago was on his feet, bare aside from the shroud wrapped around him; another was a woman, Gysela, whom she had drunk with before. They shambled from the cart, their eyes lit by the same terrible green light that Lucien’s severed head had given off as it spoke. Two of them had already fallen upon one of the peasants and were clawing at him with their teeth and nails.
‘The dead walk!’ someone screamed. ‘The dead walk! To arms! To arms!’
Katrina herself was hurled aside by someone fleeing as the whole of Whitherwood exploded into utter pandemonium. She slipped and staggered to the floor, cracking her head against the wall of the low home behind her. For a few moments, her entire world span and the screams of fright that had taken over the world beyond her dazed head faded.
I must be dreaming, Katrina told herself as she slumped into her daze and watched as the braver soldiers ran at the bodies now dragging themselves from the carts. Some of the walking dead’s wounds still oozed blood and organs, whilst others shambled forwards, ignoring now-absent limbs. They fell upon the swords of the living with horrible, dry, guttural cries.
Regaining her senses and scrambling to her feet, Katrina watched on in horror as the blades that pierced the flesh of the dead did little to harm them. They continued to claw and bite, chewing bloody holes in the throats of their victims – men and women who had previously been their friends. Katrina looked down the road towards the barricade that Lucien had set up that day to slow the imperials down to see a number of peasants and soldiers alike clawing at it, trying to open the way out of the village. As they did so, a host of dead in imperial armour, their eyes and mouths, even some of their wounds, giving off the terrible green light. They clumsily fell upon the unsuspecting victims below the barricade with the weapons clutched in their swinging arms and their gnashing teeth.
Katrina turned and ran towards the tavern. She passed two soldiers wrestling with the corpse of a particularly large soldier, and watched in horror as the walking corpse snapped the neck of one of the Maedarians with one hand, as if his neck were little more than a dry twig.
As fast as she could, Katrina ran into the tavern. She spun and bolted the door behind her and fled across the empty and near pitch-black common room, dodged around the counter, and threw herself down the steps into the cellar. ‘Henry!’ she screamed as she went, almost drowned out by the chorus of chaos erupting from outside. ‘Henry, we have to flee, we have to-…’
She arrived at the bottom of the cellar to find the room a battlefield. She looked on, open-mouthed and wide-eyed at the blood and guts that slicked the floor. All of those who had been sick or dying now lay dead in their makeshift beds, their throats torn out and their features mutilated. Their covers had been torn and their entrails had been spread across the stone floor like bloody rushes. Empty faces stared up, frozen in terror in their final moments.
At the far end of the room, several figures were screaming. ‘Kat!’ Henry’s voice came, ‘by the Old Gods, Kat, help me, help me!’
‘No! No!’ someone else was screaming. ‘No, please no! Help!’
The five imperial prisoners were still chained to the wall at the end of the cellar. Two of the soldiers lay dead, their throats torn out, whilst the other, identified earlier as Karsen, was straining against the chains that kept him clasped to the wall as he reached forwards with his blood-spewing mouth, desperately trying to sink his teeth into Baron Tyvilius’ jugular. Beside the baron, Inquisitor Greyseer fought desperately with his chain, cursing and swearing as he heaved on the bolt that kept him fastened to the wall. A pile of the imperial prisoners’ weapons and armour, as well as that of the now dead men Henry had been treating, lay tauntingly out-of-reach from the inquisitor. Before them, though, Henry lay in the blood drenching the floor at the end of the room, a huge, contorted, naked figure covered in holes and torn flesh wrestling with him.
‘Kat, please! Please!’ the old man shrieked as Katrina ran towards him.
Katrina whipped her sword from its sheath and leapt onto the gigantic, twisted, naked figure atop the old medic whilst behind him, Baron Tyvilius let out a terrible scream. Katrina plunged her sword through the neck of the creature, as she had done with the imperial soldiers that day. As she went to draw it out though, its long arms shot out and struck her legs out from under her. Katrina found herself spinning across the room, landing heavily on the gore-drenched floor. She leapt up as quickly as she could, jumping backwards as the creature lunged for her, swiping with its terrible claws.
Then, Katrina saw the monstrous being’s face. ‘No,’ she breathed, new tears in her eyes. ‘No…’
Once upon a time, it had been lovey and friendly, and had held so much warmth and love. Now, it was a twisted mass of cracked and bloody flesh, torn and ravaged. The eyes were still the same, though they glowed a terrible green, and Katrina could just about make out the various features she recognised, for the monster had grown, swollen and expanded, but its skin had split and fissured all across its body.
‘Aldem,’ she said gently as the enormous monster than had once been her brother rounded to face her. ‘Aldem, it’s me. It’s Kat. It’s your sister.’
Aldem snarled, hunched on all fours, for he was now far too tall to fit into the room. His venom-green eyes were fixed on her, and his whole body tensed as if it were about to spring.
‘Aldem, no,’ Katrina pleaded as the being readied itself to pounce, gnashing huge, ugly, sharp teeth between its broken and torn lips. ‘I beg you, I beg you sweet brother, please don’t-…’
The abomination that had once been Aldem’s body charged forwards, Katrina’s sword still sticking out of its neck. She let out a cry – some cracked mixture of terror and heartbreak – as she threw herself aside. She felt huge, clawed hands rend the air above her as she dodged, and quickly spun to face the monstrous creature. Aldem came at her again, teeth gnashing, blood and bile drooling from between his split and rotten lips.
Katrina charged forwards and dived between the hulking, monstrous being’s legs. The abomination stumbled forwards, tripping, and crashed head-first into the tavern cellar’s wall. It let out a roar that made Katrina’s ears ring, before rounding to face her again.
It was Henry. As Katrina turned, she saw he old man grab something from the pile of equipment belonging to the prisoners and the dead and throw it to her. She quickly caught it, plucking it from the air – a lance; blunt but sturdily-made.
Katrina levelled it at the thing that was once her brother just as it charged again. She felt her arms and legs buckle as the split and twisted, naked chest of her brother collided with the lance. The monster let out a howl as Katrina pushed with the lance, doing everything she could to stop it from moving. The creature was impossibly strong though, and incredibly heavy. With a roar of effort, she slowly lifted the lance, the muscles in her arms burning as she lifted her impaled brother off his feet and held him aloft, glaring into his face.
He raved and snarled, clawing at Katrina with the claws that had grown on the end of his fingers. There was nothing but mindless hatred in his eyes, an unthinking desire to kill and consume. Katrina felt tears leave her eyes and she continued to heave on the lance. I’m sorry, Aldem.
An unfamiliar roar brought Katrina back to the real world. Inquisitor Greyseer, clad in his battered and bloody robe, came flying through the air, a longsword clutched in both his hands. With an oath to the Divine Empress on his lips, he brought the blade down on Aldem’s neck, cleaving through the swollen flesh and twisted bone there. ‘Light burn you, abomination!’ he cried as Aldem’s grossly swollen head fell from his shoulders and landed on the floor with a wet smack.
The strength went out of Katrina and she fell, gasping and weeping. She let go of the lance upon which her brother’s headless, and now thankfully still, corpse was still stuck, and let it crash to the floor.
Hands were on her straight away. ‘Kat, sweet Kat, are you alright?’ Henry’s voice found her, but she could not reply. She felt his fingers checking her for injuries, but all she could do was weep and stare at the severed head of her dead brother. She barely noticed Baron Tyvilius’ bloody corpse slumped against the wall, still stuck in his chains – the headless body of the one called Karsen hanging uselessly from its chains beside him. Blood seeped from a terrible bite-wound in the baron’s neck, and Karsen’s vile head which lay a few paces away, was slathered in blood.
‘That was not your brother,’ a stern voice cut through her terror. ‘That was a wight; a vile creature of death animated from the remains of the innocent. Nothing in that creature was your brother.’
Katrina looked up through her tears into the hardy face of Inquisitor Greyseer. ‘The locals were right,’ she said in a whisper. ‘There’s a thing in the woods, they call it the Lady of the Woods. It’s a horrible thing, of shadow and mist, holding an ancient lance. It brought the dead back, I saw it, and it made them walk!’
Greyseer’s lined face grew grave. ‘What exactly did it look like?’ he asked in his stern, unfaltering voice. ‘Try to think, speak slowly. This is important.’
‘Tall, hunched, withered,’ Katrina said, choking back her tears, trying not to stare at the decapitated head of her brother just behind where Greyseer crouched. ‘It wore a robe made of shadow and fog, and it held a spear and Captain Lucien’s head. It had no face, only shadows and darknes, and it said nothing.’
Inquisitor Greyseer winced. ‘Empress preserve us,’ he said in a whisper.
‘What?’ Henry snapped, standing up and looking at the inquisitor. ‘What is it?’
Inquisitor Greyseer seemed reluctant to think for a moment; his eyes scanned the bloody floor in thought, as if searching for something. ‘A lich,’ he said. ‘The thing you saw was a lich.’
‘A lich?’ Katrina said through her tear-rocked voice. ‘What’s a lich?’
Greyseer cleared his throat. “Liches are unique in the fact they seem to retain some form of rational thought – though it is completely twisted and warped by a hatred for all life. They often appear in the form of a dishevelled, near-skeletal Man, dressed in a ragged robe and holding a staff or stick of some form. They appear weak in body, but have an uncannily apt ability with the Heathen Art, and can conjure terrible tendrils of shadow from their rotting fingertips and whip life away with a wave of a hand.” The inquisitor paused for a moment. “Under no circumstances should one ever look for a fight with a lich, as their ability with the Heathen Art renders them the most terrible and dangerous form of the undead.”
Henry looked from Katrina to Greyseer. ‘What was that?’ he said.
‘The entry concerning the lich from Commander Ludwig Nicstaed’s Bestiary Written in Blood; all inquisitors are required to memorise various passages upon gaining their rank.’
‘And what’s the Heathen Art?’ Katrina asked.
Inquisitor Greyseer’s steely gaze met her eyes. ‘Magic.’
Katrina swallowed. ‘What can we do?’ she said. Above her, a particularly loud scream drifted into the cellar. ‘There has to be something we can do, no?’
Beside her, old Henry looked down at the stern-faced Greyseer. Neither man said anything.
Katrina gestured exasperatedly. ‘So this thing is now loose to do what it pleases? There’s nothing we can do?’
‘We can escape,’ Inquisitor Greyseer muttered. ‘Liches are extremely rare, girl; some say they aren’t even of this world, that no weapon made in the World can harm them. No-one has ever fought one and lived to tell the tale.’
Henry nodded slowly as yet another terrible scream pierced the uncomfortably warm cellar air. ‘I am no inquisitor,’ the older gentleman said slowly, ‘but I have heard such things before. There are terrible tales and-…’
‘Tales don’t matter right now, Henry!’ Katrina yelled. ‘If we can’t do anything, we have to get out of here!’
Katrina had barely finished speaking when a terrible crash shook the inn. Whipping out her shortsword, she spun to face the stairs that led down into the cellar, trembling. Whilst Henry staggered to the back of the room to try and find a weapon to defend himself with, Katrina found Inquisitor Greyseer at her side, clutching his own blade, his steely gaze set upon the stair.
‘Whatever comes down those stairs…’ he began before swallowing, setting his grim gaze, and trailing off. ‘Are you ready, girl?’ he asked.
‘Are you ready, imperial?’ Katrina spat back.
There was another crash followed by more screaming. The volume of the chaos erupting outside had risen; They must have broken the door down, Katrina thought, clenching her sword to stop her hands shaking.
‘The heads are the key,’ Greyseer said slowly as the sound of many pairs of footsteps and more screaming made it to the top of the stairs. ‘Do the body as much damage as you can and the essence that binds the creature will escape its form-…’
There was another scream that cut Greyseer off. A myriad of figures tumbled down the stone stairs into the cellar. Katrina saw the flash of green, the smear of half-dried blood, and the desperate flailing of living arms from within a mass of undead flesh. Someone’s in there! She had barely thought for her own safety before she charged at the twisting mass of limbs.
She grabbed, hacked, chopped and cut. She tore at putrefied flesh with her spare hand as she grabbed and wrestled with the glowing green-eyed undead monsters in imperial armour: one was missing a jaw, the other still had a lance embedded in its side. The third and final could have been unhurt if not for the tell-tale blood seeping out from beneath his breastplate. And the eyes. The terrible eyes.
Katrina aimed her first blow for the creature missing its jaw but missed, her blade ringing out as it jarred off the stone stairs. Beneath her, underneath the death-rattle moans and groans of the undead, a voice was shrieking, desperately calling for help. She aimed a slash and, through sheer luck more than skill, cleft the creature’s head off its shoulders. She watched as its headless body went limp and the green glow that had emanated from its eyes and terrible wounded mouth dissipated, like a candle snuffed out in the wind.
Before she could stop, though, hands were on her. She looked down to see the next creature – the one with the bloodied breastplate – grasping her ankle with its long, grey fingers. Katrina yelped and kicked out, but the dead monster’s grip was too strong and she slipped, landing painfully on the floor. Suddenly, it was on top of her, gnashing its yellowed teeth and dripping blood and bile onto her face, clawing at her throat with its cracked, filthy nails. The thing was unimaginably heavy – the magic that bound it and the armour it wore contributing to the crushing weight that pressed down on her.
Katrina could neither move nor breathe. Desperately, she scrabbled for her sword. With a scream caught somewhere between blind terror and impossible effort, Katrina plunged her shortsword into the creature’s chest and pushed with all her might. Slowly, gradually, it lifted off her, though its hands still continued to claw at her face and its terrible glowing green eyes kept staring.
There was a sudden blur of grey and white, and suddenly Inquisitor Greyseer was standing over her, his longsword between his fingers. ‘Burn in Her light!’ he cried, his voice booming and rolling like a war horn as he smote down with his sword, cleaving through the neck of the creature impaled and flailing on the end of Katrina’s sword.
Katrina closed her eyes and mouth as a splatter of brownish-red gore slathered down from the undead creature’s severed head and onto her face. The smell made her gag, but there was no time to wipe herself down – Greyseer was pulling her to her feet.
Bloodied, dazed, and sticky with terrible undead ichor, there was only one of the horrid creatures left: the one with the spear in its side. Inquisitor Greyseer rushed forwards, cleaving his sword in an arc, but the blade reverberated off the thick imperial plate armour the corpse still had strapped around its unliving body.
Slowly, the realisation seemed to dawn on the lumbering undead creature that the real threat was not posed by the squirming figure beneath it, but rather by the three figures at its back. Slowly, it got to its feet and turned to face Katrina, Inquisitor Greyseer, and the old medic Henry. There was a moment of stillness as the thing, spear lodged in its abdomen, looked from one to the next. Then, it placed its still-gauntleted fist on the spear lodged in its flesh and pulled.
A foul human slurry slipped from the wound, but the creature did not fall. Instead, an ethereal green light shone from the hole left in its side. Katrina thought she might be sick, but instead clutched her sword all the harder.
She rushed forwards. For a moment, the monster looked off-balance. She leapt into the air, hoping to throw all her weight and force into the stab she aimed at the middle of the creature’s blood-splattered face, but the reeking monster span with a speed she did not imagine the shambling horror could possess.
Yelping in pain, Katrina landed on the stone floor. Quickly, ignoring the pain shooting through her ankle, she span, raising her blade to block and incoming swipe or lunge. As she had expected, a bloody spear came swinging towards her head, wielded with such force it sent a bone-jarring vibration shivering up her arm and send her shortsword spinning from her hand. Katrina let out another cry as she was sent spinning away, staggered by the inhuman force of the blow.
The creature advanced towards her on its shambling feet, its lance raised in a single hand, its glowing eyes wide and unblinking. It gnashed its teeth and drooled pus as it came. The bloody spear loomed over Katrina’s head. She was sure this would be how she died. To this rotting thing, she thought. Old Gods, save us.
There was a cry and Katrina looked round to see both Henry and Inquisitor Greyseer charge at the monster. The three figures collapsed into a sudden, brief, desperate melee with the impossibly strong monster. Katrina scrambled to her feet, grabbed her sword, and turned to see it was all over.
Inquisitor Greyseer’s sword still lay in the space between the monster’s upper-head and lower jaw. His hands were elsewhere, his form kneeling over that of Henry. ‘Girl, quickly,’ he said through his teeth. ‘Quickly, hold this. Hold this!’
Katrina rushed to Greyseer’s side to find his hands clamped over Henry’s throat. Blood was bubbling out from between his fingers, and the old man’s eyes were wide with shock and fright, though he could not speak nor cry out for the wretched, ragged hole in his oesophagus.
‘Henry, no!’ Katrina cried, falling to her knees and clamping her hand over the wound. ‘Inquisitor, do something!’
The old man’s hand weakly gripped Katrina’s wrist. His eyes met her gaze – pleading, fading.
‘Inquisitor!’ Katrina shrieked.
‘One bloody moment!’ Greyseer snapped.
Katrina turned to see Inquisitor Greyseer tearing the sleeve of his bloodied white robe of the inquisition into a long, strip-like bandage. A long length of the fabric came away with a loud rip.
‘Hold him! Keep holding him!’
‘I am! Hurry!’
Greyseer sprang to Katrina’s side, makeshift bandage in hand. ‘Hands! Quickly!’
Katrina looked down at Henry, who was still gripping her wrist. He had stopped moving. His eyes stared blankly up at the cellar’s roof. Blood still ran over his lips and gushed from the terrible wound in his neck, but he moved no more.
Katrina fell backwards onto her haunches, her hands sticky with the old man’s blood. She looked at Henry’s face; deathly pale, flecked with blood, unmoving. He seemed more surprised than anything, his eyes were wide, his brow quirked, and his lips slightly parted.
Beside her, Inquisitor Greyseer sighed and shook his head. ‘We need to get out of here.’
‘You can’t,’ a weak voice said from the stairway.
Instinctively, Katrina grabbed her sword and span. She had almost forgotten about the person who had been attacked by the undead and dragged into the cellar. She certainly did not expect to find herself eye-to-eye with the skinny blacksmith’s son, Welf.
His clothes were bloodied and torn, like much of the exposed skin on his face and arms. The filth on his face was tear-streaked, and his filthy hair, usually dusty with soot, was clumped and matted with yet more blood and had been torn out in places. ‘They’re in the woods. Hundreds of them,’ he said, his voice shaking.
‘Surely we have to try,’ Inquisitor Greyseer said stiffly, getting to his feet and curling his lip.
Welf shook his head and let out a choking cough. ‘We did,’ he said quietly. ‘Da and I both made a run for the woods. We got past that…’ he shuddered, ‘that thing, it was too busy sucking the life out of a group of soldiers. But the woods are crawling with the dead. Da tried to smash his way out but there were too many and…’
Katrina winced. She had never liked Torrin Twist-Hand, but he had been Welf’s father. ‘What can we do, then?’ she asked hopelessly. ‘Wait?’
Inquisitor Greyseer chewed his lip for a moment, his frown deepening. In the silence between the three people in the cellar, surrounded by blood and bodies, the screams and yells of those outside continued to echo. ‘I don’t know,’ he said eventually. ‘I don’t know what we can do.’
‘We need to hide,’ Welf said, his voice cracking and breaking, his eyes darting and desperate. ‘We can’t stop them, there are too many, and that thing in the hood with the spear…’ he shuddered again, choking down a sob. ‘We can’t. We have to hide. We must.’
Katrina glared at the smith’s son as more screams echoed through the cellar. ‘You hear that?’ she snapped as a particularly terrible scream came from outside. ‘Can you live with yourself having done nothing to stop that?’
Welf made no reply. His lips wobbled and he looked at the floor. ‘Please,’ he whispered. ‘Please don’t make me go back out there…’
Katrina looked down her nose at the snivelling young man and clenched her teeth. ‘We can’t do nothing!’ she said despairingly. ‘These things killed Henry! They’re slaughtering everyone else!’
‘And they’ll kill you if you go rushing out there!’ Inquisitor Greyseer snarled, grabbing Katrina by the wrist. ‘Don’t be such a fool, girl.’
Katrina rounded on the inquisitor. ‘I risked everything fighting for what those people up there believe in; I even risked my own neck for the villagers here, and now they’re being wiped out by some monster!’
Inquisitor Greyseer glared at Katrina. ‘Do what you will,’ he snapped, before folding his arms and glaring at her.
Katrina held his glare for a few moments before placing her hand on the pommel of her sword, turning around, and marching up the stairs out of the cellar. She pushed past Welf as she went; the young man was still snivelling.
She found the common room of the tavern in chaos. The few greasy benches and stools on the bloody rush-covered floor had been overturned, and a number of bodies were strewn amongst them. Katrina did not stop to see if they were friend or foe, and hurried towards the shattered wooden door that led out on to the road. She hesitated as a chorus of screaming erupted from outside, but clutched her sword and stepped out into the street.
The half-light of the moon fell like a translucent snow upon the devastation that had been wrought upon Witherwood. Two thatched houses were alight, great fingers of flame scrabbling desperately towards the pitch-black sky above. The muddy road that ran through the village was littered with corpses – both of the living and the undead. Over them stepped dozens upon dozens of the dead, their eyes and wounds glowing with the eerie, phantom green.
But over them all, manifesting between the flames of the burning houses, rose the lich. It seemed both taller and broader than it had done earlier, and the fire and flames that licked around it did not so much as mark the bare, putrefied flesh of its arms. Its spear, with its green, flint-like head, was drenched in blood. The light and shadow cast of the fire made terrible shadows of the fresh corpse in the lich’s free fist.
As Katrina stood, her eyes fixed on the horrid, hooded creature that seemed to be hovering amongst the flames of the village, she felt its gaze turn towards her. Its featureless face, hidden entirely by the shadow of its ragged hood, stared through the darkness and carnage that swept the village. Katrina felt a terrible chill come over her, but did not drop her gaze.
Suddenly, she heard a roar followed by the clash of steel on steel. Katrina looked down the road, past the shambling corpses, and towards the village centre where the large bonfire was still burning. She could see frantic shadows moving, the gleam of weapons in firelight, and the yelling of frantic voices. People, she thought. They need help.
Gritting her teeth, Katrina looked at the wall of shambling undead monsters before her, blocking her passage to the centre of Witherwood. Through their silhouettes lay her goal: the middle of the village. Katrina took a breath to calm her nerves. She had seen how fast the undead were capable of moving when the spear-wielding corpse had attacked her. She had been slow. Underestimating; arrogant. This time she would not be.
 She drew her shortsword, flexed her fingers, and charged.
Her goal was not slaughter; Katrina knew if she got distracted by dismembering the dead that she would be overrun and torn to pieces. There were far more of them than there were of her, and they could be quick. I have to be quicker.
Her first blow was driven through the spine of a fallen Maedarian soldier. She did not stop, battering the undead creature to the floor and continuing her run. Her second strike ripped the jaw from a semi-naked imperial carcass riddled with arrows. The thing swung at her, but its grey fists arced wide. She sprang away and kept running.
She swept about her with her sword as she ran through the pressing throng of corpses. Terrible green eyes and leering mouths swirled before her as she ran and slashed at the pressing wall of unliving flesh before her. The terrible creatures grabbed for her free arm as she attacked, but time and again wrenched it away until the muscles in her shoulder and elbow screamed. When they clutched at her long, fire-red hair, she slashed at their hands, her hair falling away in gory clumps. Katrina kept running, kept swinging, and kept fighting.
Suddenly, flesh was replaced by firelight, and Katrina fell face-first through the last line of corpses and into the glowing firelight of the square. Hands were upon her before she could look up, and she screamed, slashing wildly with her sword. A vice-like hand grabbed her wrist, though, and her slashing was stilled.
‘Damnit, girl, stop!’ a deep voice snarled as Katrina felt herself being dragged towards the fire, bumping and bouncing over detritus and debris as she went. ‘Stop before you give ‘em something else to bring back!’
Eyes wide, Katrina looked up into the weathered, mean face of Torrin Twist-Hand. The big smith was surrounded by exhausted, harrowed faces: Maedarian rebels clutching swords and a few peasants with pitchforks in their fists. The smith had a huge, bloody mallet in his belt and his only hand clamped around Katrina’s sword-arm. His ear had been torn off and his face was slathered in blood, and his balding scalp sported a bloody wound made by a sword. His lips were split, his eyes blackened, and his clothes slathered in blood. She would have thought him one of the undead given the state of him, if it were not for his normal, non-glowing eyes.
‘Torrin?’ Katrina gasped, yanking at her arm. ‘Welf said you were dead!’
The big smith heaved Katrina to her feet and let go of her arm. ‘He would’ve,’ he grunted and spat out a glob of blood. ‘Bastard things almost got me.’
Katrina looked around. There were perhaps fifty people in the village centre, clustered around the huge bonfire. Some brandished swords and axes, whilst others wielded tools and whatever else they had been able to get their hands on. They had fortified their position with everything from overturned wagons, broken barrels, and dead cattle, amongst which the defenders lurked, pouncing on the dead that advanced, smashing them to pieces with any item they could: sticks, stones, hammers, and axes.
The undead seemed reluctant to advance, even though they drastically outnumbered the living in the centre of the village. The ramshackle obstacle-course of junk that ringed the fire was keeping them occupied and disorganised long enough for the last survivors to rally.
‘I don’t actually believe the soddin’ tales were true!’ the smith snarled, checking Katrina over for injuries once they were well behind the defensive barricades. ‘Lady o’ the Woods my arse – yet here she is, in all ‘er rotten glory!’
‘It’s not the Lady,’ Katrina said, slapping the smith’s hands away and glancing around herself to make sure no corpses had managed to slip through the meagre spread of defences around the uncomfortably hot bonfire. There were women and children clustered around her too, along with a few wounded men and women to whom the villagers desperately attended, applying makeshift tourniquets and bandages to bloody wounds. ‘It’s a lich, Inquisitor Greyseer said so.’
The smith spat. ‘An’ you believe this bloody imperial?’ he sneered. ‘They never understood our ways or our beliefs. If he ain’t out ‘ere tryin’ to kill it with us, then I ‘ope he dies.’
Katrina glared at the smith. ‘That’s not helpful,’ she snapped.
Silence fell between the two figures for a moment whilst the handful of living defenders around them took swift jabs at the ever-thickening wall of undead ringing the bonfire. It was only then Katrina realised there were women and children clustered with their faces towards the flames, weeping and pleading with one-another and the gods to preserve them. A few of them were treating a small group of wounded young men, doing everything they could to stop their terrible wounds from bleeding, though even as Katrina watched on helplessly, two of them slipped away.
‘It’s playin’ with us,’ Torrin snarled, appearing suddenly beside Katrina, his battered face turned towards the Lich that lurked towards the edge of the village. ‘It’s not interested in killin’ us all yet. It wants to break us first – to make us think there’s hope, then snatch it away.’
Katrina looked at the ring of walking corpses clustered around the bonfire, surrounding the last few living in Witherwood. One or two advanced, swiping at the living, who always quickly leapt forwards to drive them back. A few even fell – Katrina watched as a farmer armed with a hoe struck a bloody imperial monster clean in the throat and took its head off. He and two other men with him cheered as he did, daring the corpses to advance and try again.
‘Then what do we do?’ Katrina said, turning to the big smith. ‘We can try and cut our way out or-…’
The smith shook his head and took the bloody hammer from his belt. ‘Won’t work. Not everyone ‘ere fights like you,’ he said. ‘More of us’ll be slaughtered tyrin’ to force our way out. If only there were a way to kill that thing,’ the smith snarled, gesturing at the monster looming through the flames that were spreading through the village.
Torrin had barely finished speaking when the undead took up a terrible, dry-mouthed chant. They began to howl and leer through their cold, pale lips, spitting blood and gnashing on their tongues. Their green eyes seemed to flash and glow brighter, and another terrible wind blew over the village.
Katrina found her eyes drawn past the gnashing dead towards the lich still lurked on the edge of the village. It seemed to have risen up into the air, and was holding its spear high into the air. The green, flint-like blade at the end of the crude, stick-like shaft flashed in the moonlight.
‘What’s it doing?’ Katrina said, turning towards Torrin Twist-Hand.
The smith’s mouth hung open, his eyes wide. ‘I dunno,’ he said. ‘It’s not done this before.’
There was a blinding flash. Katrina could not tell if it came from the flames around the lich, the moon above it, or the spear in its hand, for she spun and covered her eyes to stop herself being dazzled. She was the first to recover, and spun about, clutching her sword, expecting the dead to charge at any moment.
Instead, a chilling scream came from behind her. She span to see the two dead men by the fire clawing at one of the women who had been treating the wounded. Some of the others were desperately trying to pull the undead off her, but to no avail. Behind them, a small group of children had begun screaming.
With a defiant cry, Katrina charged, her sword sang. One head fell and her second strike drove the blade of the sword into the eye-socket of the second creature. It thrashed around, letting go of the woman it held to try and grab Katrina. She twisted her blade, whipped it out, and struck the creature in the neck once, twice, three times before the head fell away. The green glow dissipated from the corpse’s eyes, and it was still once more.
Katrina turned, looking towards the young woman she had saved, but her eyes never found her and no words left her lips. Wide-eyed and staring with horror, she gawked back into the village, bathed orange-white in fire and moonlight. The lich held its weapon high, the moon gleaming through the forearm-length, shimmering green stone-like blade. Below it, the corpses of the living slain by the dead began to spasm and stir. Slowly, their eyes began to glow, their wounds shone, and they rose to their feet.
‘No!’ Katrina heard Torrin cry. ‘No! Not more!’
Katrina took a long, slow breath and clutched her sword, looking from the once again advancing press of undead flesh to the lich which stood, towering over them all. It was drifting forwards, slowly moving through its horde of mindless soldiers. There has to be something we can do, she thought. The Old Gods surely wouldn’t allow something not of this world to exist without a way of it being bested…surely…
The slaughter began.
The undead moved with a single mind, directed by the lich’s staff. They surged forwards, overwhelming the last of the living in a single wave of greyish, rancid flesh. Katrina found herself standing over the screaming women and children around the fire trying desperately to think of something. Anything.
Her eyes widened. ‘Not of this world,’ she whispered, staring through the flames. ‘The spear it carries. Not of this world.’
Clasping her sword and clenching her teeth, Katrina ran into the thick wall of green-eyed death.


‘Torrin!’ Katrina yelled as she ran, darting around the living and the dead, scrambling over barrels and boxes and other makeshift defences. She had an idea. It was a long shot, but it was better than nothing. ‘Torrin!’
            It was more by chance that she found the big smith than by any skill. As she ran through the last of the defenders, stabbing and slashing wildly as she went, she chanced upon the huge man who was himself surrounded by a small contingent of the last of the living capable of fighting. ‘Torrin! I need a chain!’
            The big smith’s only hand was drenched in blood and he had sustained a nasty cut to his cheek. ‘What?’ he snarled. ‘Does this look like the time to-…?’
            ‘If we can restrain the lich, we can kill it!’
            The smith laughed, swinging his smithing hammer at one of the walking corpses that was too close for his liking. ‘An’ just ‘ow are we gonna do that, even with a chain? The thing’s monstrously strong an’ there are several ‘undred corpses between us and it!’
            Katrina ignored his complaints. ‘Just tell me where the chain you were making earlier is!’ she yelled over the din of battle, spinning around quickly to drive off one of the undead creatures that was getting too close.
            Torrin pointed towards his forge which was located on the far side of the village centre, back the way she had come and through a line of pressing undead. Katrina’s heart fell as she saw it engulfed in flames that reached high into the midnight sky.
            ‘You’d be a fool to try!’ the smith said, his voice cracking with a half-laugh.
            Katrina glared at him, then set off at a run back the way she had come. The dead lurched for her as she went, stumbling and falling about her. Twice she tripped as lunging hands caught her ankles, but both times she was up and away before the dead could overrun her.
            The few defenders that remained were doing all they could to hold back the tide of undead. Grouped in units of four or five, they blocked the passageways between the crude defences they had made, hiding behind shields and bottlenecking the press of undead. Their efforts were valiant, but Katrina knew if something was not done about the Lich, it would all be for nothing.
            Soon, Katrina stood before the burning smithy, her red hair fire-gold in the light of the blaze. There were a few undead horrors in front of it, unperturbed by the incredible heat belching out from within the building. Driven by determination and desperation, Katrina threw herself at the dead. Her sword sang and the creatures fell one by one, their heads severed, their spines crushed, or their skulls caved in. Phantom green essence left the shattered bodies as their wounds made the enchanted spectral mist that drove them break free.
            Without pausing for a thought – without allowing herself time to doubt – she charged through the collapsed door into the walls of the formerly thatched building. The heat that rose up around her blistered her flesh and made her pause. As she did, she felt fire on her legs and leapt forwards with a cry. She found herself in the middle of the workshop, the forge’s fire burning out of control. The weapons, tools, armour, and appliances lined up in the workshop were warped by the incredible heat, and the stone floor beneath Katrina was hot enough to burn the soles of her feet through her heavy boots.
            Katrina had seen Torrin Twist-Hand working on a large iron chain earlier that day, slaving away over his anvil, whilst Lucien had lectured her on the virtues of his plan to deal with the advancing imperial army. It felt so long ago. He had been right, she thought as she advanced through the flames, and he had almost won us the day. But now this. Is he to blame? If the battle hadn’t taken place in the woods, would the Lich have left us alone?
            There was no time to worry. As the fire licked around her, Katrina resigned herself to the fact she would probably never know, and was even less likely to see the next sunrise. Gods damn you Lucien, she thought as she dodged a burning beam that tumbled from the roof, bringing with it a huge wave of flame-engulfed thatch. You didn’t even have the courtesy to stick around and help us deal with this mess.
            Frantically, Katrina looked around the forge. Between the warped surfaces, fire-wreathed timbers, and forge-inferno, she could not make out the chain. Then, in the far corner of the room, next to a pile of warping blades, she saw it: mercifully untouched the fire, and intact. She leapt towards it, dodging gusts of flame that boiled the skin on her legs and the back of her hands. She was sure that at some point her hair caught light, but she batted it so hard she made her head hurt and the heat went away.
            She grabbed hold of the chain and pulled, dodging another wave of falling, conflagrated thatch as she did so. It was sturdy, as thick as her arm and well-made. It was long, too; I hope it’s long enough, she thought as she heaved, sweating and panting. As she heaved and tugged on the chain, dragging the long coiled rope of metal links with her, she felt it snag. Cursing and screaming with anger and fear, Katrina pulled and wrenched on the stuck chain. She could not see what held it, for all around her was fire. With every breath she inhaled smoke, and with each desperate gasp her throat burned and stung. It felt as if the claws of the undead were at her throat, scratching away at her gullet, grasping, ripping.
            ‘Come on!’ she screamed hoarsely, a bloody taste filling her mouth. ‘Come on, you bastard! Come on!’ She heaved again, and found herself tumbling backwards as the chain came free from whatever it was caught upon. She landed hard on the red-hot cobbles and knocked what little smoky breath she had left in her from her lungs.
            With horror, Katrina looked back the length of the chain. Looming out of the flames before her came a huge, rotted figure. Its clothes burned away, she saw its naked, split, and charred flesh was the host to tendrils of golden flame. Katrina immediately recognised it as another wight, only this one was forged from the remains of a woman – and was on fire.
            With a shriek, Katrina yanked on the chain. She saw the wight lurch out of the fire, then stumble as one of its legs was pulled out from underneath it. Katrina’s heart leapt as she saw the chain coiled around one of the wight’s legs, and scrambled to her feet. With a roar of effort, she heaved the chain and began to drag the wight with her, keeping the huge creature off-balance and unable to act.
            Grim happiness on her sweat-streaked and flame-burned face, Katrina let out a laugh as she hauled on the wight. ‘Bastard!’ she screeched, euphoric over her sudden turn of fortune. ‘Burn you rotten bastard!’
            She gave another yank on the chain and watched with sadistic joy and the wight struggled and yelped. She was close to the door, almost out of the forge. Once she was outside, Katrina knew that she would stand a chance against the creature with the help of the defenders. This’ll show Torrin, she thought, letting out another hoarse laugh. He doubted me. He’ll eat his words-…
            Katrina had barely finished thinking when the last remaining remnants of the forge’s roof collapsed. Still clinging onto the chain, she let out a cry of effort as she hurled herself through the doorway of the forge, narrowly avoiding the sheet of flaming thatch that crashed around her. With it came the beams that held up the roof, and then the walls. Before Katrina had even recovered from her leap, the forge was a pile of burning rubble.
            Quickly taking stock of the chaos wrought across the village centre, Katrina regained her composure. The defenders were managing, though people were falling with each passing moment. The lich needed to be killed – or stopped, or something – before they were completely overrun. She could still see the horrific, hooded creature drifting around the periphery of the village. I can do this, she thought, we can do this.
Scrambling to her blistered feet, Katrina began to heave on the chain. It came easily through the burning rubble as he yanked and pulled. Then, with a crack the last of the chain came free – wrapped around the severed leg of the wight.
Katrina paused, frowning at the limb as it bounced and rolled from the burning ruins to land at her feet. The fire-scarred flesh and broken, marrow-leaking bone within stank, but did not move. It looked like an odd ornament at the end of the dozens-of-paces-long chain: huge, clawed toenails jutted out from half-burned bone around which lumps of blackened flesh were still wrapped. It looked like some surreal weapon.
Something burst from within the rubble before Katrina. She barely had time to lift her gaze from the severed leg before something barrelled into her and sent her flying across the middle of the village. She felt her ribs snap and crack as she was struck, and the air was crushed from her lungs as she landed hard, the chain still wrapped around her feet. She would have screamed had she the breath, but instead lay dazed and near-senseless as the world swam about her.
The wight was on top of her before she could even raise her arms in defence. Huge, jagged teeth bore down upon her throat and face. With what little energy and effort she had left, she aimed a wild punch at the middle of the wight’s face. The residual hair that hung from its head still burned, as did much of the flesh left on its body. It was a hideous thing – green fog glowing in its eyeless sockets and from within the hole where its nose should have been, with its lips and cheeks burned away and the warped and mutated bone within its spine exposed through a gaping hole in its throat.
It’s spine.
Katrina felt herself suddenly sober as a mouthful of teeth descended on her again. Broken, cracked and jagged fangs tore at her face and she screamed as she felt blood pour from her face and her world throb with sudden agony. Her left eye filled with blood, and suddenly she found herself half-blinded, only able to see through her right eye.
With a scream of effort and pain, Katrina forced the chain she held between the teeth of the wight. It bit down on her fist, one of its charred teeth taking a chunk out of the back of her hand. She wrapped looped the chain around the monstrous thing’s head once, twice, three times whilst it fought to free itself from the chain in its mouth.
Half-crushed under the weight of the monster, Katrina somehow managed to wriggle free whilst the wight was otherwise occupied trying to pull the chain from its mouth with its burned fingers. Staggering, disoriented, but still with the chain in her fist and her sword in her belt, she leapt to her feet and onto the prone-lying monster’s back. Screaming with hatred, anger, and fear as blood poured from her facial wound, Katrina placed her boot at the bottom of the wight’s neck, just above its twisted shoulders, and pulled with all the strength she had.
Katrina did not know if the wight was capable of thinking for itself, or if realisation was something that occurred to the dead – she hoped dearly as she pulled on the chains with all her remaining might she would never have to find out – but the rotting, burned, and still smouldering foe beneath her suddenly began to scramble desperately. Its fingers caught in the chain at its mouth as the lengths tightened, it let out something that could have been a howl as it began to thrash around with its single remaining leg.
With a final scream of ‘Bastard! Old God-forsaken bastard!’ Katrina pulled on the chain with all her strength. Her cracked ribs screamed with pain as the force on her chest and stomach pulled them tight, and she felt her senses fading as she slipped towards unconsciousness. But then it came. First, there was the crunch of the wight’s trapped fingers breaking and snapping, then a crack as its jaw broke. Finally, with a sound that was more of a rip that anything else, the creature’s head came away from its shoulders. The phantom-green glow in its eyes died, and Katrina watched as a fading, green-tinged fog left its body.
            Katrina fell backwards, exhausted and wrecked. Her whole body was burned, bloodied, or broken. The sight was forever gone from her left eye, she could tell. She also feared the wound would prove fatal, for she could feel the skin and flesh on her face was torn deep. If I’m to die, I’m not coming back as one of these things, she thought as she gazed up into the sky, where moonlight was mixing with smoke and screams of pain and terror echoed.
            She had never known pain like it. That of her which had not been exposed to fire had been broken by the wight, and that which had not been broken by the undead monster had been bitten, gnawed, and torn by something else. As she lay beside the hulking corpse of the wight, she let out a long, exhausted sigh. The world around her seemed to dim a little as her senses waned.
She pulled her sword from her belt and held the tip of it at her throat in her wobbling hands. Will I even manage to take my own head off? She thought as she pressed the tip into the nape of her neck.
A boot kicked the sword from her hand, and suddenly she was being dragged.
‘Get the chain, damn ya! She almost died for tha’!’
‘Don’t you forget her sword then!’
‘I’ve only got one bloody hand, imperial pig, an’ I’m currently draggin’ ‘er with it!’
Katrina’s vision faded as she saw two weathered and battered faces looking down at her, half-illuminated by fire and moonlight. One was rotund and bitter, the other grey and stern. ‘Please,’ she whispered. ‘Please, don’t let me turn into one of them.’
‘Don’t you worry,’ a deep, hard voice said. ‘You’ll be alrigh’.’
Darkness fell.


When Katrina finally opened her eyes again, she found her world still ached with pain. Like the dregs of a nightmare, it clung to her form. She felt her heart suddenly race with panic as she realised she had no idea where she was and sat bolt upright, blinking hard.
            There was dull light, figures, shapes. It felt familiar, but before Katrina could make sense of what she was seeing, the pain that held her body flared and she let out a cry. One of the shadowy figures she had seen was over her, gently pushing her down. ‘Not yet,’ said a deep, stern voice. ‘Slowly.’
            ‘Where am I?’
            ‘The basement of the tavern. Again.’
            Katrina blinked. Something was wrapped around her face. She lifted her hands to touch it and felt a sticky dressing over her left eye and much of her cheek. ‘What’s this?’ she said.
            The figure above her straightened his back. ‘I fear you have lost the sight of your left eye,’ he said quietly. ‘Though your fight with the wight was allegedly something else.’
            Katrina had feared as much. With a sigh, she blinked her one good eye until she could see again. Sure enough, she was once more lying in the basement of the tavern. The corpses of the dead had been removed, and the shackles had been taken from the walls, though there were still great brownish-red smears of dried blood across the floor and up the walls. There were a dozen or so people in the cellar, mainly women, children, and wounded. They sat quietly, no-one saying much. Their faces were drawn and filthy, their cheeks streaked with tears.
            ‘It’s very quiet,’ Katrina said, looking up at the figure over her.
            Inquisitor Greyseer, who stood over her, his eyes thoughtful and steely, nodded his head slowly. ‘That it is,’ he said. His white robe was filthy with blood and dirt and not a single patch of it remained white.
No wonder I didn’t recognise him, Katrina thought. ‘What’s happened?’
Greyseer looked down at Katrina, his expression grave. ‘We are all that’s left,’ he said.
Katrina felt her face pale. ‘But the chain, I-…’
            ‘No-one knew what you planned to do with it,’ Greyseer said. ‘During your fight with the second wight, the lich seemed to lose its patience – if such a creature is capable of such feeling.’ He sighed and chewed his lip for a moment, his gaze wandering as if pained. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ he said eventually. ‘It appeared through the dead and began to slaughter everyone. It crushed the barricades we had and then scythed through those that were unprepared with its spear. We lost half our number – if not more – before we were able to make a run back here. Now, we’re trapped; the lich cannot get in, it appears, and we cannot get out. Every window and entrance to the tavern has been fortified as best as it can be.’
            Katrina felt her heart sink hopelessly. ‘So everyone else is…?’
            ‘Dead. Yes’
            She swallowed. ‘And we just have to wait here? Die here eventually?’
            Inquisitor Greyseer shrugged his shoulders. ‘We have enough sustenance here to keep everyone alive for a week or so, and some people seem to think that the lich may eventually tire and go away-…’
            ‘You’re an inquisitor!’ Katrina snarled. ‘You’re trained to deal with monsters, both living and dead, and here you are advocating we sit here and wait either for the lich to move on, or to die ourselves!’
            Greyseer was visibly cowed for a moment, but his gaze hardened and he set his jaw. ‘My duty is to the Empire,’ he said, ‘and the denizens within this cellar are not of the Empire-…’
            ‘And they never will be if you let them all die!’ Katrina flared, scrambling to her feet despite the pain in her chest. ‘These people here hate you and the Empire! If you truly care about the Empire, then help me save them!’
            ‘Help you?’ the inquisitor growled. ‘You’re one of the worst injured her: you can barely see, your ribs are like woodchips, and almost your entire body is burnt!
            ‘And I want to help these people!’ Katrina shouted, gesturing widely to the battered and beaten folk around them. Most were peasant men and women, though a handful of Maedarian rebels remained – including the fellow who had earlier been writing a ballad praising Lucien’s victory. ‘I can barely walk, and I’m willing to try! What’s your excuse?’
            Greyseer scowled through the half-light of the cellar. ‘I would rather take my chances down here than die on some fool’s errand trying to slay a lich!’
            ‘Don’t you see?’ Katrina snapped, ‘The spear it wields is the key! It acts like a focus for its magic-…’
            ‘And it can cut through six men in a single swipe!’ Greyseer snapped. ‘What do you suppose you can do? You’ve no formal military training, you know as little as anyone else her about the undead, and you’re a woman. There is no hope for us fighting.’
            Katrina glared at Inquisitor Greyseer, her temper boiling. ‘Your so-called Divine Empress was a woman,’ she snarled, ‘and look at what she accomplished. Meanwhile, look at just how much your emperor has lost. And you’re right,’ she said through her teeth, ‘there is no hope. That’s because we make our own hope.’
            Katrina barged past the inquisitor, grabbing her sword from where it had been left beside her and marched up the stone steps into the wrecked tavern’s common room. All the benches and other pieces of furniture that had not been strapped down had been piled against either the windows or the in the broken doorway. Katrina could see shafts of grey light breaking through the slight gaps in the piles stacked up against each opening. Night had passed with her unconscious.
            ‘Torrin,’ Katrina declared as she made her way into the wrecked and ruined room. ‘I need your help.’
            The big smith was still alive, just as Katrina knew he would be, leaning heavily against the tavern’s stone wall. He looked battered, bloodied, bruised, yet unbowed and was surrounded by another dozen or so fighters along with the wide-eyed and teary-looking Welf, all of whom were filthy and looked exhausted. As he heard his name, the big smith looked up. ‘Wha’?’
            ‘Where did you put that chain?’ she asked.
            ‘Boys wanted to put it in the barricades,’ the one-handed smith said, ‘but I wouldn’t let ‘em. If you battered that burnin’ wight, it would’ve been for a good reason, an’ I wanted to know wha’ it was.’
            Katrina’s lips curved into a smile. ‘We tangle the lich up in a chain, take its weapon, and run it through.’
            There was silence in the room for a few moment. The big smith and the remaining Maedarian rebels looked at her as if she was mad, their eyes wide and expressions twisted in horror. Then, to Katrina’s surprise, Torrin spoke: ‘Ah, ‘eck with it. Let’s go.’
            ‘What?’ the big smith’s son said from beside him. ‘You can’t go back out there! You’ll die!’
            ‘Son,’ Torrin Twist-Hand said, looking down at the lad, ‘a time comes in every man’s life where he ‘as to stand up and be a man. I ‘ope that, by my standin’ up today, you might live to one day have the opportunity to prove to the world just what sorta man you are.’ The smith turned and pulled the long, heavy chain out from behind one of the piles of debris blocking the windows. ‘And I’d rather die on the end o’ that thing’s spear than waste away ‘ere.’
            ‘Well,’ Welf said, drawing his face into a pout, ‘I’m coming with you.’
            The big smith looked down at his scrawny son and smiled. ‘I’ll not make you,’ he said.
            ‘No,’ the boy said, ‘I’ll not sit here whilst you risk your life for me. Not this time. I ran earlier and it was the biggest mistake I ever made.’
            Torrin clapped his son on the shoulder, then turned to the surviving defenders. ‘Are you all gonna be shown up by me boy?’
            There was a low rumble of grunting and sighing, coupled with the sound of weapons being drawn and armour being adjusted. Within a few moments, Katrina found herself facing fifteen armed men in mismatched plate, mail, and leather, carrying everything from swords and shields to axes and hammers, along with Torrin Twist-Hand and his son, Welf.
            ‘We bust out quickly,’ Katrina said. ‘Charge into them and keep moving; don’t stop, even when the lich appears. Torrin, throw the chaina round the lich; I’ll catch it and try and loop it up, just like I did with the wight. Everyone else, watch our backs, and if the chain comes to you, give it a twist and a pull.’
            The ashen-faced Maedarian defenders mumbled and nodded. There was fear in their eyes, but they seemed resigned to dying with a fighting chance than wasting away in the cellar.
            ‘Alright, then let’s move.’
            Katrina turned and began to pull at the barricade blocking the doorway. From beyond it she heard the groaning of undead limbs and the scratching of their hands. She took a deep breath, drew her sword, and readied herself.
            The first arm that punched through the weakening barricade was hacked off by one of the Maedarian defenders behind the fire-haired Katrina. Then, when it was weakened enough, the barrier collapsed, and in fell two of the undead creatures.
            Torrin crushed the head of one beneath his boot, kicking and stamping until the monster moved no-more. The second fell beneath a hail of blows from Katrina and the other defenders, its body hacked up in seconds.
            With a roar and her blade held high, Katrina charged out into the street, the last of the living behind her. The day was cold, and the sun had only risen an hour or two ago. The sky hung white and a thick fog had drifted in over the village, obscuring the twisted white trees that surrounded it as well as the tops and timbers of the shattered and burned-out houses that had been destroyed in the night’s violence.
Straightaway Katrina could see that the dead were scattered across the village, no-longer an organised force as they had been when bent to the lich’s will during the battle. A meagre handful were clawing at the blocked windows to the tavern, and Katrina and her survivors quickly dispatched them, driving their weapons through their heads, necks and spines. The essence seems to be concentrated there, she thought. The head, the neck, the spine.
            She was surprised it took her as long as it did to spot the lich. The thing looked uncanny in the eerie fog of the dawn, its own being seeming to twist and spiral with the cloudy haze that blanketed the village. The lich, still clutching its large spear and hidden under its ragged hood, seemed to be floating over the burned-out bonfire that had stood in the centre of the village, its phantom eyes upon them.
            Katrina could feel the lich focusing its will upon them. She knew they had only a matter of minutes before it had drawn in all its forces from across Witherwood and the woods around it, and they would be overrun and slaughtered. As she ran, Katrina could feel her cracked ribs grating and crunching as she moved. Pain wracked her battered body, but determination burned in her heart, scalding her fear away. She clenched her teeth as she ran, slashing with her sword at anything that got too close to her.
            ‘Keep moving!’ she cried. ‘Don’t let them separate us! Don’t waste time on the corpses!’
            The road to the middle of the village where the lich was teeming with undead, though not so many as to prevent their charge. Battering and beating through the shambling horde of dead soldiers and peasants, Katrina and her small group of warriors charged upon the lich, which seemed taken aback by the sudden show of ferocity from the hopelessly outnumbered living.
            As they exploded into the village centre, the lich turned its hooded head to look straight at Katrina. A terrible fear washed over her, but she swallowed and kept running, battering aside the corpses that blocked her way, knocking them down and continuing on her path around the lich.
            ‘Torrin!’ she cried. ‘Torrin, now!’
            She saw the huge, one-handed smith, his face drawn with anger, spin a length of the heavy chain around his head as if it were little more than a rope. When he let go of it, the length looped across the village centre, across the lich’s shoulder, and landed at Katrina’s feet. She scrambled, picking it up, and set off at a run towards the lich.
            As she went, she could sense the monstrosity before her hesitate. As it did so, she noticed the advancing undead corpses pause with it, hesitating in their advance and their attacks upon the few remaining living. Katrina seized her chance, dashed around the lich and looped the chain around its chest.
            ‘Katrina!’ she heard a cracked voice yelling. ‘Katrina, throw it here, throw it!’
            She looked up. Across the centre of the village stood Welf, a kitchen-knife tucked in his belt and his hands in the air. His face was ashen-white and his voice and form shook with terror, but he was resolute. He can do this, Katrina thought as she spun the chain. He can.
            The length of metal arced again, whizzing through the air and looping back around the lich. Katrina watched on as Welf missed the chain but seized it from the ground. He hesitated for a moment, suddenly aware of the dead pressing around him and that the lich was now glaring at him, its spear raised to strike. Katrina saw his eyes widen and his lips part. He can’t, she thought. He can’t do it.
            The spear shot out with lightning speed. The greenish, flint-like, leaf-shaped tip of the weapon scythed through the air towards Welf’s chest. The boy opened his mouth to scream but had no time, for he was sent spinning by a figure that dashed across the middle of the village and shoved him aside. The lich’s spear sank deep into the mud, lodging itself there for a moment.
            ‘Go!’ Inquisitor Greyseer yelled, dragging Welf to his feet and shoving him into a run. The young man set off at a terrified sprint towards where his father and a cluster of the Maedarian soldiers were driving back a number of the walking dead. As the chain looped around the lich again, Katrina saw the creature begin to strain.
‘I blocked the stairs before I left,’ Greyseer cried as he ran towards Katrina. ‘The undead will have a hard time getting down to the basement should we fail here.’
Katrina nodded. ‘A good thought,’ she said, watching as Welf handed the chain to his father. Torrin spun the metal length about his head again and hurled it back across the square to where a Maedarian soldier armed with an axe stood. The man grabbed the length and ran back and forth, catching one of the lich’s arms in the ever-tightening chain, whilst slowly but surely, more and more undead arrived to press the Maedarian defenders. Katrina watched as one fell to the teeth of an undead imperial soldier.
But there was no time to stop. Soon, the chain was back in her hands and she was running. The lich, eerily silent and still as it was wrapped in the chain, did very little to fight the survivors off. As Katrina ran, looping the chain around the now thoroughly entangled monster, she found herself falter. Something’s wrong, she thought. Somethings very wrong.
Suddenly, Torrin’s voice rang in her mind as she tossed the chain to one of the defenders and drew her sword to drive off an advancing corpse. “It’s playin’ with us,” she thought, Torrin’s firelit face swimming before her in her mind’s eye. “It’s not interested in killin’ us all yet. It wants to break us first – to make us think there’s hope, then snatch it away. 
She looked around desperately at the growing mass of undead in the middle of the village. They were holding back, just as they had before the surge the previous night. Katrina could see their eerie green glowing through the thick fog. They weren’t advancing. They had stopped. It’s going to attack us, she thought, I have to tell someone!
‘Inquisitor!’ Katrina shrieked. ‘Inquisitor, its tricking-…’
She looked across the centre of Witherwood to where Inquisitor Greyseer was staring at her just as a terrible, groaning creaking snap exploded from the lich. Katrina looked on in horror and hopelessness as the lich flexed its long, thin, rotten arms and the chain that bound its body snapped as if it were little more than dry twigs before a gale. The lich span, its spear glittering and gleaming as it did so, the terrible green light of hundreds of undead eyes shining in the strange spear-tip.
The first sweep of the lance cut two defenders in half. The second skewered a third to a wall. Desperately, Katrina raised her sword. There must be something, she thought. There has to be something we can do!
Katrina watched as the third defender writhed on the end of the lich’s spear for a few moments, pinned to the wall, before falling still. The lich was strong, but even it had difficulty removing the lance from the wall. As it attacked, so did the pressing hordes of undead. With a single movement, they surged forwards, overwhelming the defenders in a single move. Katrina saw Torrin and Welf both swept under the tide of decomposing flesh and glowing green aura.
‘Girl!’ she heard Inquisitor Greyseer cry. ‘Get the spear! Get it!’
Katrina spun just in time to see the lich looming over her. It was floating, as if the lower part of its robe and body were made from the very black fog that coiled around it. It was several feet taller than her, and impossibly thin and gangly, though faster and more deadly than anything she had ever seen before.
The first blow missed; Katrina hurled herself forwards as the lance crashed into the spot she had been standing in moments before. She found herself under the creature and, without thinking, lashed out with her sword. She felt the blade scrape across flesh and bone, and the lich let out a horrible, unearthly howl that made Katrina’s ears throb as if they were about to burst.
She dodged another blow; her blade had hurt the lich, but the force which she had put into it had not been enough to significantly wound it. Greyseer was right, just as she had been: We need the lance. We must try and kill it with its own weapon.
Suddenly, she did not know how, but she was at Greyseer’s side. The dead were closing in on the two of them; they were surrounded by a sea of rotting flesh and bloody armour, over the top of which loomed the lich, which advanced through the fog like the wind – but utterly, deathly silent.
‘Girl, we run!’ Greyseer cried. ‘We must-…’
Katrina was about to respond when the lich surged forwards. Suddenly, Inquisitor Greyseer was no-longer standing beside her, and the lich had swept past her. His sword clattered across the ground and Katrina span.
The lich had the inquisitor impaled against a section of collapsed stone wall that had once been part of Torrin’s smithy. The lance was driven deep through his stomach and into the rubble, and the inquisitor was doing everything he could to hold the spear in place.
‘Katrina!’ he cried.
She knew what he meant. Time seemed to slow as Katrina charged across the distance that separated her from the lich. Undead hands reached for her as the pressing horde of walking corpses advanced upon her, but she was faster. Even with her wrecked and agony-wracked body, she did not allow herself to stop.
You do this, or you die, she told herself as she flew through the air.
Bodily, she threw all her weight at one of the lich’s elbows. She smashed through the limb like a fiery-red haired quarrel fired from a crossbow. She had no idea if she had broken the lich’s arm, or if she had even hurt it, but the moment she landed she was back on her feet again. She wrapped her hands around the shaft of the spear and pulled with all the might she had left. Every fibre and every single particle of her will and being was channelled into the strength with which she pulled the stave forwards, out of Inquisitor Greyseer, out of the ruined wall, and towards the lich.
Clearly caught off-guard by the sudden show of aggression, the lich fumbled to maintain its grip on its weapon. As it reached around to grab the shaft with its hand that had been knocked loose by Katrina’s first attack, Katrina wrenched the spear in an arc, twisting the monster’s wrist and causing it to miss the grab for its own weapon.
Suddenly, Katrina found herself free, the long, strangely-bladed weapon in her hands. Her arms burned from the force of wresting the weapon from the lich’s grasp, but she could see her work was not done, for the lich was advancing upon her with its hands outstretched, as were its hordes of undead minions.
It was surprisingly light, Katrina thought as she brought the weapon around behind her. Let’s see if it really can cut through six men at once as Greyseer said it could. With a scream of fury and defiance, she span the weapon in the widest arc she could.
The crude, faintly glowing, flint-like spear-tip sliced through the pressing dead like a scythe through  corn. Katrina watched in horror and awe as a dozen of the dead were dismembered by her single blow. Hope burning inside her, she brought the weapon around again and again, ripping through the dead as if they were nothing more than dry leaves.
Then the lich was upon her, hands outstretched and emitting a terrible screech. Katrina felt her bones tremble and shudder with the howl, but brought the spear around once more in a wide arc. She felt it cleave through one, two, three, four of the dead fall before the tip of the weapon struck the lich across the chest. The lich let out a howl that could have split the sky. It writhed, clutching at the long, bare hole that had appeared in its torso. Thick, oily, black blood poured from the wound as the lich continued to howl.
            With a scream of her own, Katrina charged. She drove the weapon into the lich’s stomach with such force that she felt the weapon emerge from the other side of the monster’s body. With the lich skewered on the end of the weapon, writhing and howling as a tide of thick, black ichor poured from its wound, she began to raise the writhing monster up on its own weapon as if it were a flag.
            She screamed with effort and bit her tongue. Blood flowed over her own lips, but soon she had the thing held high in the air, screaming and writhing. Around her, she could see the horde of undead beginning to falter and fall to the floor. One by one, the green mist that bound their bodies left them, and once more they became as the dead should be: still, silent, and peaceful.
            The lich continued to scream and howl, impaled on the end of its own weapon. As Katrina looked up at it, the black mist that swirled around it began to fade and dissipate, and with it so did the lich, Slowly, its rotten flesh turned to ash and its bones fell to dust, carried away on the cold wind that blew over Witherwood.
            And then she was standing in silence. All around her, a great sea of corpses rose and fell: loose scraps of clothing or blood-soaked hair blew in the wind that slowly cleared the fog that lay across Witherwood. With it came the stench: rotten flesh, blood, vomit, hopelessness, death. The lich was slain, but, as far as Katrina could see, no-one outside of those cowering in the tavern cellar had survived.
            Katrina turned. Behind her, slumped against the ruins of the smithy, was Inquisitor Greyseer. Blood was gushing from a huge wound in his stomach and he was paling fast.
            Katrina rushed towards him. ‘I’ll get help,’ she said, though she did not know what good it would be. The man’s wound was certainly mortal.
            ‘Don’t be stupid,’ he groaned. There was a moment of calm, but pain wracked the man’s face. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
            Katrina clenched her jaw and took hold of one of Greyseer’s bloody hands. ‘Why?’ she asked.
            ‘I was wrong about you,’ Greyseer said with a choked cough. ‘I have done the Empire a great disservice. You were right,’ he said, his face paling, ‘one should always try. We make our own hope. You did that today.’
            Katrina tried to hold her anger at the dying inquisitor, but her face cracked and a single tear left her eye. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said through her teeth.
            ‘No,’ he said. ‘I am. I was a coward.’ Inquisitor Greyseer spluttered blood and gripped Katrina’s hand. ‘You have a courage and an inner-light even the Divine Empress would envy. It has been an honour to be proven wrong by you.’
            ‘Don’t be foolish,’ Katrina said. ‘You’ll pull through.’
            But even before the words had left her lips, the inquisitor had died. His hand slipped from his wound and his grip on Katrina’s fist went limp.
            And Katrina was alone. A cold wind slowly blew the morning fog that had settled on the village away, but it revealed only the remnants of the chaos that had been wrought over the night. As Katrina stood, she saw both Welf and Torrin’s bodies lying close together, the only hand of the father placed protectively over his son. Scattered around were the rest of the Maedarian defenders, all of them dead. With a heavy sigh, Katrina walked across the carnage. The smell of rot and death no-longer bothered her, neither did the sight of the terrible wounds that were struck upon the corpses.
            No-one had won. The Empire had lost, the Maedarians had lost, the villagers had lost, and the lich had lost. There was barely anyone left alive in Witherwood, and although the Maedarians had stopped the Empire, the Maedarians had all wound up dead anyway. Katrina let out another sigh. Was that really how this began? she asked herself. Did this really start with that battle?
            It felt so long ago. Lucien, her friend-but-not-friend had been her biggest concern. Then there had been her brother, his death, the mourning she had never had a chance to properly do before she watched his twisted and mutated head hacked from his shoulders by an inquisitor. Katrina realised that the old her had died along with everyone else in Witherwood. Only now in the surreal tranquillity of the massacre did she feel it: nothing.
            When Katrina arrived at wrecked and ruined tavern, she merely put her head inside the ruined doorway and shouted, ‘Lich is dead,’ before turning and walking away, hoisting the lich’s spear over her shoulder as she went. She had only two desires in her heart: to put as many miles as she could between herself and Witherwood, and to ensure nothing like this ever happened again.