Read 03 - Sword of Vengeance Online

Authors: Chris Wraight - (ebook by Undead)

Tags: #Warhammer

03 - Sword of Vengeance (34 page)

BOOK: 03 - Sword of Vengeance
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He flipped the collar of his Kartor-Bruessol coat up around
his neck and stuffed his hands in his pockets. The attire he was so proud of was
suffering badly out in the wilds. He knew that he was worse than useless in such
an environment. The skills he prided himself on were suited to cities and
stately houses, places where information was more deadly than swords. Since
decoding Lassus’ missives, he’d not been able to contribute much more to
Schwarzhelm’s quest than the occasional grumble. He was tired, dog-tired, and
the pain of his wounds still throbbed in his back.

Schwarzhelm himself strode on as powerfully as ever,
thrusting aside bushes and clumps of overgrown gorse with unconscious ease. The
trials of the past month had done little to dent his sheer physical presence.
Even out of his customary plate armour he still exuded a raw, almost bestial
menace. He’d been described as a force of nature, and such a description served
him well. Verstohlen had known him for years, but only on this journey had he
displayed more than the most fleeting of weaknesses. This journey had been
remarkable in many ways, though, none of which Verstohlen wanted to see
repeated.

“Keep up, man,” Schwarzhelm growled irritably, pushing
through a briar patch and hauling himself on to a shallow ridge of crumbling
clay soil.

Verstohlen sighed, hoisted his bag over his shoulder once
more and followed wearily. They’d been on the highlands for two days now and
there was little enough sign of any habitation at all, let alone the hiding
place of Kurt Helborg. The country had gone from open moor to a twisting
landscape of defiles and narrow coombs, all thickly forested or choked with
undergrowth. The going had got harder, and tempers had frayed.

“I’m coming, damn you,” muttered Verstohlen, crawling up the
ridge with difficulty. When he crested it, Schwarzhelm was waiting for him with
a face like thunder. Behind him, a wall of low, wind-blasted trees clustered
darkly, cutting off the grey light of the sun.

“Can you go no faster?” he snapped, eyes glittering with
impatience.

“Faster?”
gasped Verstohlen, breathing heavily. His
head felt light from the exertions he’d already made. “Verena’s scales, we’d
need wings to get across here in less than a week. This is a fool’s errand, my
lord. We should turn back.”

Schwarzhelm glowered at him. Though the man would never admit
it, the fatigue was playing on him too.

“Remember who you’re talking to,” he rasped, moving a hand
instinctively to the hilt of the Rechtstahl. “You have your orders.”

Verstohlen’s eyes widened. “What’re you going to do?
Draw
that on me?”

Schwarzhelm took a step towards him, his expression one of
gathering fury.

“Don’t tempt me. I’ve marched with Tileans with stronger
stomachs than—”

He broke off, suddenly tensing. From the tree line, a twig
snapped.

Schwarzhelm whirled around, both swords drawn. Verstohlen was
at his shoulder in an instant, dagger in hand. They were being watched.

Men broke from the cover of the branches, clad in leather
jerkins and open-faced helmets. Their swords were naked and they were ready for
a fight. There were six of them, all with the grizzled faces of professional
soldiers. With a sudden lurch of remembrance, Verstohlen realised what they
were.

Reiksguard.

“Lower your blades!” cried their captain, pointing his
sword-tip at Schwarzhelm and advancing menacingly.

Schwarzhelm stood still, slowly letting the Swords of
Vengeance and Justice down until the points grazed the ground. He knew what they
were as well as Verstohlen did, but for the moment at least the knights didn’t
recognise him. They’d probably never seen him out of armour before.

“Perhaps you don’t remember me,” he said.

As soon as he spoke, a ripple of amazement passed across the
faces of the knights.

“Schwarzhelm!” one of them gasped aloud. Another advanced
with purpose, looking like he wanted to run his blade through the big man’s
chest. Schwarzhelm remained motionless, keeping both his swords out of position.
Verstohlen clutched his dagger tight, ready to act. This was dangerous.

“Wait!” snapped the leader, holding his fist up. His
stubble-lined face was grimy and studded with scabs. He’d been in the wilderness
for a long time. He kept his blade raised, watching both of them intently.
Schwarzhelm’s reputation preceded him, and the knight seemed lost in a mix of
awe and hatred.

“Are you alone?” he asked.

Schwarzhelm nodded.

“Why are you here?”

“I seek the Lord Helborg, if he still lives.”

One of the Reiksguard snorted with derision. “If he lives!”

“Silence!” ordered the captain. “He’s alive, though no thanks
to you. Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you now myself, traitor?”

Schwarzhelm looked directly at the knight. His gaze was
blunt, hard to read. There was defiance there, belligerence too, but also shame.

“Do you really think you could harm me, Reiksguard, if I
chose to prevent you?” His voice came in a deep growl. “I have two swords in my
hands, both as ancient as the bones of the earth. You’re walking a dangerous
path.”

Verstohlen thought he was going to strike then, and sweat
broke out across his forehead. He clutched his dagger more tightly. The
Reiksguard held their ground. The merest spark would light this fire.

Then Schwarzhelm’s massive shoulders slumped.

“I did not come here to spill fresh blood,” he muttered.
Sorrow weighed heavily on each word, and the threat drained from his speech.
“Take me to the Lord Helborg, and he shall be the judge of things. There are
tidings he must hear.”

The Reiksguard captain made no move.

“Surrender your swords, then,” he said.

“Not to you.”

“How can I take you to him when you will not disarm?”

Schwarzhelm grunted with disdain.

“You forget yourself, Reiksguard. I am the Emperor’s
Champion. I will come as I am.”

Still the tension remained. The knights looked to their
captain. If he ordered it, they would charge. The man frowned, wrestling with
the decision. Verstohlen could see the frustration in his eyes, but the
Reiksguard’s respect for the sanctity of rank was near-absolute.

“I will take you to him,” he said at last, nearly spitting
the words out. “There is an army on these moors, Schwarzhelm, an army raised to
right the wrongs you have caused. Think on that, should you choose to wield your
swords in anger. Your reputation goes before you, but if you raise them again,
you will die before the blade leaves the scabbard. This I swear, as do all the
Reiksguard that remain in Averland.”

Schwarzhelm said nothing, but nodded wearily. He sheathed the
Rechtstahl and the Klingerach in a single movement. The captain gave a signal to
his men and they fanned around the two of them, blades in hand.

Then they started walking. There was no conversation, and the
atmosphere was frigid. As they went, the wind howled across the gorse like
mocking laughter.

“Merciful Verena,” muttered Verstohlen to himself as he
stumbled along behind the implacable form of his master. “This just gets
better.”

 

Bloch strode casually at the head of his column, Kraus by his
side. Behind him, his men marched in formation, six abreast, a compact column of
fighting men. After so long on campaign they looked more than a little shabby,
but their manner of quiet, efficient confidence was unfeigned. They were the
remnants of an army that had driven the greenskins over the mountains, and they
had every reason to walk tall.

As they drew closer to the camp, shouts went up from the
sentries and the guards took up their places. By the time Bloch approached the
perimeter the detachment commander was waiting at the camp entrance. He was
flanked by several dozen men, all heavily armed. More clustered within,
protected by the spiked embankment. They were wearing crimson tunics over plate
breastplates. Their swords were strangely curved, and some had barbs forged into
them. Not very Imperial. Half the troops looked like Averlanders, but the rest
had the darker colouring of Tileans, Estalians or even soldiers of Araby.
Grosslich must have paid out handsomely to get mercenaries from so far.

Behind the camp commander the earthworks rose up several
feet, surmounted by a row of stakes. The deployment looked well organised. Kraus
was right; this was a part of an army at war.

“Halt,” ordered the camp commander. “State your name and
business.”

Bloch took a good look at his opposite number. The man had
the air of a seasoned warrior. His armour was more elaborate than that of his
men, and a golden boar’s head had been sewn into the breast of his tunic. He
wore a crimson cloak that fell to the ground behind him. Like the rest of his
men he wore a close-fitting, open-faced helm. As with all else, it didn’t look
Imperial. Everything was too bright, too clean. Too beautiful.

“I answer to the Lord Schwarzhelm,” Bloch responded, keeping
his voice carefully neutral. “Who are you?”

“Captain Erasmus Euler of the First Averheim Reavers, and
Schwarzhelm has no authority here. You’ve overstayed your welcome in Averland,
Commander Bloch.”

Bloch was instantly irritated by the man’s manner. If he’d
known who he was, why ask for a name?

“I was warned there was a shortage of gratitude in Averheim,”
he replied coolly. “I can live with that. Let us pass, and we’ll be on our way.”

“Your men may pass. You’re wanted by the elector.”

“Is that right?” Bloch let his free hand creep an inch closer
towards his halberd stave. “Sadly, that won’t be possible. Your elector has no
jurisdiction over me. Like I said, I answer to Schwarzhelm.”

Euler withdrew a step and grasped his sword-hilt. His men did
likewise.

“Don’t push your luck, commander. You’re outnumbered two to
one.”

Kraus let slip a low, growling laugh. “I knew it,” he
muttered. “We’ll tear ’em apart.”

That settled it.

“As far as I’m concerned, you can bring it on, captain,” said
Bloch, sweeping up his halberd in both hands and swinging the blade into
position. “We’ve been fighting greenskins for weeks. If you reckon you’re a
match for them, be my guest to prove it.”

Behind him, Bloch’s men instantly snapped into position,
halberds gripped for the charge, faces set like flint.

For a moment, a ghost of doubt crossed Euler’s face. The two
forces stood facing one another, both bristling for combat.

Then, from behind the camp, there came sudden cries of alarm.
There were horses galloping and metal clashing against metal. A trumpet blared
out in warning. A long, strangled scream was followed by a massed roar of
aggression. Something was attacking the camp’s defences from the far side, and
whatever it was had hit it hard.

Euler stared round in confusion, backing away from Bloch’s
column, clearly unsure how to react.

“Reiksguard!” came a cry from within the encampment. At that,
some of Euler’s guards started to am back through the entrance, swords drawn.
Others stayed with their captain, confusion and apprehension marked on their
faces.

“Reiksguard?”
asked Kraus, incredulous. “What in the
nine hells are they doing here?”

“Morr knows,” said Bloch, picking out Euler with his blade
and preparing to charge. “And I don’t care. We’ve had the luck of Ranald here,
so let’s use it.”

At that, with the tight-knit, lung-bursting roar they’d
perfected out on the grasslands, Bloch’s halberdiers surged forwards, blades
lowered and murder in their eyes.

 

Grosslich sat on his throne of obsidian in the pinnacle,
watching the clouds churn above him. Lightning streaked down, licking against
the Iron Tower and screaming down to the courtyard far below. The aethyric fire
still coursed through the air, staining everything a deep, throbbing red. Even
the daylight failed to penetrate it. The maelstrom gathering above the Tower
made the waking hours almost as dark as night.

The daemons still swam in the shifting winds, endlessly
circling the Tower, forever screeching their delight at being embodied in the
world of mortals. Every so often they would swoop down to ground level and bring
up some unfortunate to be torn to pieces for their pleasure. Not that the
denizens of Averheim seemed capable of horror any longer. They’d been
transformed into shambling automata, driven by the will of the Stone and blind
to all else.

The Stone controlled the slaves, and Natassja controlled the
Stone. Now that there was no longer any attempt to hide what they were doing
from the Empire, Grosslich’s position had become more perilous than ever. He was
no fool. He’d known it when Alptraum had tried to manipulate him, and he
recognised the signs again. He’d never be as powerful as Natassja in terms of
sorcery, and there were few other cards left to play.

As Grosslich brooded on the throne, chin resting on his fist,
a daemon slipped through the iron walls of the pinnacle chamber and pirouetted
in front of him. He’d tried to place wards to prevent them from doing that, but
the whole city was so drenched in Dark magic that it had proved impossible. They
were deeply irritating, these capricious horrors, and they enjoyed provoking
him.

The daemon stopped spinning and blew a kiss towards him. She
was impossibly lithe, as they all were, shimmering like a mirage, her flesh taut
and rich and tantalisingly exposed. For some reason the fact that her hands were
crab-like claws and her feet ended in talons failed to detract from the powerful
allure. Even as steeped as he’d become in the arts of magic, it was hard not to
rush towards her, arms extended, ready to be lost in the delicious pain of
oblivion.

“What d’you want?” Grosslich drawled, at once aroused and put
out by her presence.

“To watch you, mortal,” she replied. The voice was like a
choir of children, all slightly out of sync with one another. “It amuses me.
Your desire is palpable. Why not give in to me? I might not even kill you
afterwards.”

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