King Garith the Good watched his crisp white cloak billow out in the breeze, its tasseled hem snapping like a row of pennants. This was very much to his liking; it matched the square-cut blond beard on his chin, the great gold crown riveted to his battle-helm, and the silver armour which encased his middle-aged spread in carefully sculpted muscle.

More than this, though, it was a symbol. King Garith was all about symbols. In a country which mainly exported mud (or so it seemed) and in which the pinnacle of laundry technology was a stretch of river without many turds floating in it, having a crisp white cloak made a statement. For a second he turned the thought over like a gem in the fingers of his mind, then he allowed his eyes to focus, looking out across a sea of upturned faces.

“People of Darusia!” he shouted, as he leaned up against his great eagle-winged podium. “My people! My loyal subjects! Great and terrible is the darkness which casts its shadow over the land. But hard as steel, and twice as sharp is the… umm… was it valour? The honour, I’m pretty sure it was the honour, in your hearts.”

He paused, fiddling with one gauntlet.

“Haha. Not that, of course, getting steel in your hearts is likely to happen, what with us having a pretty good army and all, but then again, I don’t need to tell you that, do I, you are that pretty good army and…” here, the king seemed to sag a little, realising that his speech had definitely gotten away from him. “We, errr, salute you for it.”

A majordomo with a face like vinegar-flavoured jerky nudged the king with his elbow. Garith, belatedly, sketched an actual salute. Given similar nudges by well-placed sergeants, the Grand Army of Darusia cheered, waving a selection of patriotic flags, each one bearing the arms of one of Garith’s many, many barons.

The King smiled, and hazarded a little wave. That wave had served him well for many years of peace; he only hoped it would serve as readily with the Lich King and his graveyard horde advancing through the Thornwood, conquest sizzling in what served them for their brains.

“The rest of the speech, your grace,” hissed the majordomo, with nigh-on reptilian subtlety. “Come on! Like we practiced!”

Garith felt a bead of sweat trickle down past the gorget of his armour. He tried very, very hard to appear radiant.

“My loyal subjects! The Lich King, Aghuron the Cruel, is on our very doorstep. It falls to us, the living, the last, holy defenders of Darusia and the Church, to shed our blood, and yea, even lay down our lives to stop him! For should the gleaming towers of noble Trathis fall, the light of civilization in the West will be snuffed out, and a terrible age of darkness will swallow up the land!”

Garith looked heavenward, making the sign of Zaos, though the alleged light-giver had proven notably absent, even when his priesthood had personally informed him about the living skeleton-wizard who was keen to repurpose his temples as outhouses. Still, a bit of piety never hurt. Helped sell the message, and all that. Too bad, thought the king, that this gave him a proper view of the gleaming towers of Trathis, which were actually in bloody good need of a scrubbing.

Another cheer swept over the dais, and Garith nodded. Yes, this was how it was meant to go. A nice big crusade would thin out the numbers of troublesome second and third sons of the nobility, keep the peasants in line, and really stoke up some holy fervour. Say one thing about an army of the undead at the gates; say that it packed them into the pews.

Only… there was a bent little nail in the perfectly hammered-down world of King Garith the Good. Something was not quite right. He squinted in a most unkingly fashion as he scanned the crowd, looking for – there! Did that bloody peasant have his hand up?

Kings are very good at not seeing things which would knock their little self-centric worlds off-axis. This is one of the defense mechanisms which helps their courtiers stay capitated, as the trajectory of power, especially in a climate of good-natured multigenerational inbreeding, bends toward idiocy. However, Garith couldn’t miss the sound of someone going ‘Errrrrrrrrm?’ with malice aforethought.

It was the same berk who had his hand up. Garith recognised his colours – Duke Smathwillomy-Boghampton’s Third Exploding Grenadiers. The man was bobbing up and down as though he badly needed the privy, making little ‘ooh, ooh’ sounds. There was no help coming from his majordomo, who simply shrugged. So…

“Yes?” asked the king. “What exactly is it, chum?”

And here was the point where the little wheels came right off, and the bit with a spring in it disappeared behind the metaphorical couch of no return.

“Ummm, your majestry, I just had… I mean, me and the lads had a few questions,” said the soldier, in a broad, back-country accent. “I mean, beggin your pardon and all, but the Lich King, he had him one of these things yesterday, and we’re… ummm… we’re kind of wanting to compare notes.”

Some of the lads nodded, in a way which suggested that if, say, nodding might be an invitation to lose the real estate above one’s neck, then they were actually doing something else. Garith pinched the bridge of his royal nose and made ‘go on’ gestures with his waving hand.

“Welllll… Like I say, the old Lich King, he had one of these get-togethers yesterday, before the muster and all, so me and the boys, as it were, we went and had a listen. There was said to be cider, and all, you understand.”

A lot of other soldiers shuffled and nodded. If cider had been involved, then it was quite understandable.

“Wait a minute,” said Garith. “You mean that our sworn enemy, scourge of Zaos, the horrible undead monster they call Aghuron the Cruel, invited you over for a chat and a couple of drinks?” The sarcasm in his tone could have peeled granite.

However, the soldier just nodded. He appeared to have an adam’s apple like a knee, and knees like adam’s apples.

“Right so, m’leige. Though, he, umm, said that you made the name bit up. He was a tad upset about that.”

“What? We never called him Aghuron! It’s written on his bloody tomb, in letters ten feet high, in the Dreadfortress of Zar-Graguk!”

The soldier shuffled his feet.

“He says you… begging your presence, m’lord… You put ‘the Cruel’ on the end. Says it’s dirty politics.”

Another soldier, this one so short that his helmet covered his eyes, was emboldened by this.

“There was some suggestion that you picked ‘the Good’ for yourself too, your grace. Not that… umm. Not that we mind, much.”

Garith decided to let that go. But only because his knuckles were now gripped white around the lectern, and yes… yes, by Zaos’ beard, another one of them was putting up his hand!

“Right then! Come on! What did your close personal friend, the unholy lord of the undead, share with you over a nice cup of cider then? Any tactical details, which might help us do our righteous duty, perhaps, and crush his dark horde into oblivion?”

“‘E said ‘e didn’t wanna fight,” put in this third peasant, insouciantly picking his nose. It was big enough that this could take some time and, presumably, mining expertise. “Apparently, right, it’s all a big misunderstanding.”

“Misunderstanding?” bellowed the king, quite losing his composure. “Mis-bloody- understanding? He’s conquered Varmosa, Relvasse, Borithia and the grand Duchy of Grotz-Pruneberg already! Whole lands, lost!”

The first soldier coughed nervously. Garith couldn’t help but notice that quite a lot of the other men were listening to him, rather intently.

“See, that’s what he said you’d say. It’s just that old Aghuron don’t want land. What’s he gonna do with land? Naw, he says it’s all about redistributing the means of production to the… ummm. What’d he call it, Draveth?”

“The prole-toilet,” said the short soldier, with supreme confidence. “That’s us. On account of the fact that we’re usually all covered in sh…”

“I think the word was proletariat,” said the nose picker, philosophically inspecting the end of one callused finger. “Sons of the soil, and all that. He doesn’t want to keep the land. Wants us to keep it, which is pretty much the status quo.”

“Except for the taxes,” added another soldier, whose eyes were as big and runny as poached eggs under a tin-skillet helm.

“Aha!” said Garith, pointing. “I bet there’s some horrible new levy, isn’t there? An unhallowed pact, writ in blood and sealed with blasphemy! I mean, me and your lovely barons, we only take a few crops, a couple of hams, the odd chicken, some coins… I bet he’s after virgins, or somesuch! The skeletal bastard!”

The short soldier scuffed his boots in the dirt, then whispered something to the first one, who nodded.

“Not… well, not exactly. The Lich king, and of course, his boys, they, well… they don’t really eat anything. It just kind of drops out through their rib cages, really. So they said we could keep all our crops and tithes. As for the virgins, well… there was a point about that. The old tradition of the first night, you understand…”

The king looked puzzled for a second, before his majordomo leaned in and whispered something in a voice like quill pens on dry stone. Garith’s eyebrows raised – one, then the other.

“Oh! That! Well, I could see why you’d not be keen for young brides to be taken away by a bloody skeleton, of course I can! Even if it is just for…”

As noted before, kings are very good at not noticing things which should not happen. That’s why Garith utterly failed to realise that he was being interrupted.

“Begging you pardon once again, m’lord, but no, we meant when the barons do it. It’s a bit… umm… what did he call it, Fredwald? Yeah. A bit rapey. The ladies aren’t keen, and well, seeing as Anghuron hasn’t got the ‘particulars’, as it were, he said we could scrap that old law too.

“But it’s a fine old tradition!” blustered Garith. A good bluster usually did the trick, but not this time.

“Be that as it may,” said the nose picker, going in for round two. “You try telling me wife and grandma, and me mother and nine daughters that it’s all in good fun. Someone’s going to get hisself stabbed, and while our baron’s a good sort, I don’t think the menfolk would be turning in any woman who did it, you understand.”

“Bloody newfangled ideas,” muttered the king under his breath. “Everyone’ll be wanting the vote next, and see where that gets the kingdom!”

He took off his crowned helmet and wiped his brow with a monogrammed handkerchief, trying to get his thoughts in order. Of course, he could just call for all of these upstarts to be killed, but who’d do it? They were the army. They were the ones who did the wholesale killing. It would be like asking your butler to buttle himself, or some such.

“Subjects. Lads. Mates.” he began, with a wide and wobbly smile. “I think we’re forgetting something pretty sodding important. Aghuron’s the evil Lich King. He’s bound to be lying about the taxes, and the old first-night business. After all, he’s undead. All of his army are undead. Do you think you’ll get to live, with all your skin and organs and bits, if he’s in charge? Bit of a hefty trade-off, isn’t it?”

This time, there was a lot of nodding, and a murmur of approval. Excellent, thought Garith the Good. Perhaps this crusade against darkness could get back on the rails before morning teatime.

But oh no. Here came that big stupid hand gain, wobbling up at the end of a tremulous, mail-clad arm.

“Well, he did cover that part too. See, you don’t have to join the undead army while you’re alive. Alive’s like the opposite of the opposite of undead, but not the same thing, or so he said. Did you get that bit, Draveth?”

Tin-skillet scratched his helm, with the sound of fingernails on rust.

“Oh aye. The old compulsory military service would only happen after you died, right? Of natural causes, he said. No soldiering when you’re all soft and squishy, and prone to leak when arrows go through you, kind of thing. In fact, he said that if you had a good life, got lots of calcium and plenty of exercise, a few decades in the Dark Legion would be like a bit of a bonus.”

“You know… like a retirement holiday. Get buried, get dug up, get some spiky armour, go to foreign lands, meet interesting people, and you’ve got no expression left but a cheerful smile.”

This was the one called Fredwald, and he recited that last piece as if he was reading from an invisible brochure.

King Garith was about to well and truly lose his temper, and possibly his claim to the second part of his name (which had, indeed, been come up with by a focus group of bards and town criers, as something that looked extremely nice on a statue or in a history book). But it was the pontifex of Zaos, old Wheppister, who got there first.

Despite looking more or less the same as the Lich King Aghuron himself (albeit with a surfeit of wrinkly, greyish skin), the Pontifex of the Faith was filled with equal parts of vinegar and hellfire, and had been known to swing a mean golden hammer back in the day. He’d woken up just in time to hear what he accounted to be heresy most vile, though not quickly enough to arrest a great trickle of drool which spilled out from the side of his mouth as he pushed Garith from the podium.

“Sinners!” he bellowed, cracking the stage with the end of his crozier. “Think ye that a bargain with this devil in bony form will gain ye aught? It is a fool indeed who wagers his soul for a few petty baubles on earth!”

The assembled soldiery leaned back as if in an invisible wind, and never mind the fact that very few of them had ever so much as seen a petty bauble. Wheppister pressed his argument, his eyes bulging like pickled eggs.

“Assuredly, the very existence of these animated ghouls proves the existence of the soul. For what else drives them to ghastly revivification? Therefore, why would any man, blessed by the light of Zaos, forfeit their soul to a darker power?”

Garith, despite the shoving, was quite impressed. The Pontifex made a good point, he thought, even if he did smell permanently and faintly of damp mushrooms. Impressed or not, though, the king felt more than a little smugness when he saw not one but several peasantly hands go up in the crowd. Now the old god-botherer would know how it felt…

“Ummm… we, errr, we covered this bit too, you see. Sorry, your eminence. Sorry, your majesty. It’s just that, well, you know. Have either of you ever been dead?”

The king and the holy man shared a look of puzzled incomprehension, then turned back to the crowd.

“Of course not, you clot!” said the King, though he risked another narrow-eyed look at his Pontifex. ‘Him, I can’t vouch for. He is very old.”

“Oh, of course I haven’t been dead, you jumped up golden hat-rack,” snarled the priest. “That was just a very, very long snooze, and the royal physician will back me up on it. Not my fault you put me in a coffin prematurely. And it was a cheap one, mind you!”

Once again, the pair of powerful men were unprepared for being interrupted. Nevertheless, it happened. Four very powerful eyes swivelled back to focus on the tin-hatted soldier, who was scratching a boil on his neck.

“Well, Aghuron has been, you see? Him, and most of the boys who can still talk, or can write in Darusian. They told us it’s reincarnation. Simple as that. All of ‘em had seen the same thing, and it were a big black door, they said, and a voice askin’ ‘em to choose, and then… well, the lich-King brought ‘em back, and that’s that.”

“Lies! Blasphemy! Heresy!” ranted Wheppister, now foaming in earnest. He jumped up and down, pointing with his crozier as if he expected it to belch lightning.

“No, I reckon they might be tellin’ the truth,” said the nose-picker, wiping his hands on his doublet. “I mean, they’re walking ‘round as skeletons. Experience with death is a bit of a prerequisite. Have you ever seen Zaos?”

The Pontifex was gagged for a moment with sheer apoplexy. Veins stood out on his forehead like worms on a melon.

“Ever seen..? But the scriptures! The statues! The holy temple! Three bloody testaments! Hundreds of saints! Have I..? And you..? BURN HIM! BUUURRRRN HIIIIMMM!”

By this point, the poor old cleric was actually chewing on his mitre, utterly consumed with righteous rage. Garith nodded to a pair of burly knights, who gently led him away. Things could get messy, when people started yelling out things like ‘burn him!’ it usually ended in tears, which usually evaporated.

“Allright, allright. Come on, lads,” he said, in his most avuncular tone. “We’ve had some fun, but fair’s fair. We’re the good guys. Darusia. The White Kingdom. Let’s not get bogged down in who’s going to set fire to who… and all agree that this Aghuron’s a dirty liar. After all, if he doesn’t want land, or taxes, or food, or virgins, or souls, then what does he want, eh?”

Aha! Now I’ve got ‘em. They’ll realise that the bloody, twisting, politicking bag of bones was up to something! Sure, he might promise all kinds of newfangled rights and glories, but people, when it came down to where the meat met the battleaxe, always chose the devil they knew…

“Treasure,” said Fredwald. “Lots of treasure. Gold, diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, those kind of things. He reckons the future’s all about machines and such, and it’ll cost to build ‘em. So he wants three things. Stability, peace, and treasure.”

“Right!” blustered Garith, plopping his helm back down over his head. “So that’s his game, is it! Well, we won’t be letting a nasty old skeletal wizard get his claws on our treasure, will we? To arms, good Darusians, for the defense of the realm, and all of our nice… shiny… ummm… I can’t help but notice that you’re not cheering, loyal subjects of mine?”

Indeed, the whole army was looking a bit cross. A bit… and here was a word which came swaggering in from the darker parts of his brain, whistling and flipping a coin… mutinous. On closer inspection, it seemed that the bodyguards of the various barons were standing a little too close to their masters, with their swords a little too close to their baronly persons. A kind of hush descended, of the kind that precedes the sound of sharp steel across skin.

“See, that’s the thing, y’grace. We don’t really have an ‘our’ treasure, do we? We sort of have a ‘your’ treasure, and an ‘our’ poverty. Over the years, it’s been sort of hard to swap, even a little bit.”

King Garith the Good looked into Fredwald’s eyes, and he saw two very important things. He saw the bare, scarred-up soul of a man who’d clawed a living from the earth for forty years, only to watch his children die of plagues and famine, his parents work themselves into early graves. He saw, too, a veteran who’d been pressganged into the Bright Army at sixteen, and who’d seen things on the battlefield, reflected in the chipped and workaday blade of his sword, that would curdle the average mind to a screaming tangle.

In that moment, the king was aware that his own career with a sword had largely involved waving a big golden one around while giving speeches from the back. His shoulders sagged, under his crisp white cloak. He fumbled for a few choice words, to put it all back together again, but all he saw in his mind was an eyeless skull, grinning. Always grinning.

“Do I get to run away?” he asked, finally, in a small voice.

“Just so long as you leave the crown,” said Fredwald, not unkindly, as he stepped up onto the dais. Nobody tried to stop him.

In the distance, the sound of bone war-horns carried on the morning breeze.

About the Author

Drew Bryenton is a science-fiction/fantasy writer based in New Zealand. His writing style is equal parts enthralling and hilarious. As well as this story, Drew has written novels that include ‘Gad’s Army’ (Finalist for Best Novel in the 2021 Sir Julius Vogel Awards). Drew has recently released his latest entertaining read ‘Rotten Company‘ – which is available on Amazon!

By Drew Bryenton