Age of Wolves (Part III)

Albrihn ducked beneath the archway and walked out into the courtyard of the barracks. It was a grey morning and the air was colder than he’d expected. He pulled his cloak a little closer and took stock of the situation. His troops were in the process of mounting up, exchanging the odd ribald joke. There was a holiday atmosphere in the paved area; they were still abuzz from their return and the previous night’s revelry. There would be plenty of sore heads and no doubt a few sore jaws too, amongst other parts. It was still a game, and he’d seen no need to disabuse them of that notion. The Emperor’s ominous words to him the previous day would remain private, at least for the meantime.

Jingling bags of coins were being tossed between the soldiers as they mounted up – wagers and debts from the previous night being settled. Across the courtyard, a rather more staid group were gearing themselves up. City guard with armour, shields and spears, eyeing the cavalrymen warily. At their head was the familiar figure of Captain Tayne and he exchanged a curt not with her as he called for his own horse. A stable hand led the black stallion over and he mounted up quickly, taking his bow and quiver from the eager lad. He already wore his sword. He turned his horse just as Sergeant Hasprit cantered over. He’d been a young, fresh-faced boy when they’d left Atlas three years ago – not much older than the boys and girls holding stirrups for Tayne’s city guard to mount up. Now he was a grizzled campaigner, with half his face a scarred ruin, a testament to the horrific effects of wyrm venom. He was blind in one eye, and wore a patch that did very little to improve his appearance. “We’re all ready, sir,” he said.

Albrihn looked around. “Where’s Morrow?” His diminutive lieutenant was nowhere to be seen.

“Uh…last time anyone saw her was in Whores Quarter, Captain.”

“When was that?”

“Past midnight?”

He wheeled his horse around again. “She ought to be done by now then. Send a runner and tell him to knock on the door of every…”

The postern door in the gate that led to the street opened suddenly and there was a general hubbub of cheers and shouts from the cavalrymen nearest as a dishevelled figure clambered through. Morrow grinned stupidly and tried to straighten her hair as she swaggered across the courtyard towards Albrihn. Her eyes were red and it was very obvious she hadn’t slept. “Captain,” she said with a rough salute in his direction.

“Lieutenant. Good time last night?”

“You’d have to ask Madame Clarice, sir, I think she remembers a lot more of it than me.” There was more laughter and a few whoops of appreciation from the soldiers and Albrihn couldn’t help but grin at them. Morrow beckoned for her horse, just as the sound of hooves behind him made Albrihn turn again. It was Tayne, mounted up a little awkwardly on a dun mare. She and her city guard weren’t so comfortable on horseback – they were infantry, and would dismount if there was any fighting to be done.

“I believe your Lieutenant is drunk, Albrihn.”

“She’ll ride it off. Don’t you worry.”

“Get your troops under control. My garrison have been getting reports all night of a company of cavalry causing havoc throughout the city. Tavern brawls, carousing in squares in the middle of the night when working folk are trying to sleep, trying to gain admittance to brothels closed for the evening, bringing weapons into reputable establishments…”

“Well…”

“A ‘company of cavalry’?” Morrow asked indignantly. A stable boy was still fitting the bridle to her horse. She clambered a little unsteadily onto an unused mounting block, using the flag pole that stood beside it displaying the banner of the Altantian Militia to support herself as she wobbled slightly. She held her arm out expansively to encompass the courtyard, with its two score grinning cavalrymen and less assured city guard. “We are not some mere ‘company of cavalry’! We are the Lucky Seventh!” A great cheer rose up from his soldiers and Albrihn leant on the pommel of his saddle, content to see where she was going with this. Beside him, Tayne visibly bristled. “We,” Morrow continued, “have spent three long years scourging the mainland, adventuring across mountain and dale, tundra and desert. We have burned cities, slain dragons and rescued fair damsels. We were like heroes from ancient tales, the sons and daughters of Atlantis come again to make war. The barbarian kingdoms of that benighted land had not seen our like in generations!”

“The Lucky Seventh!” someone called from the back and the shout was taken up by a few more.

“Yes! Albrihn’s Lucky Seventh,” Morrow nodded. “When we rode through their squalid villages, the women looked upon our men with dismay, for there went the bravest, most handsomest gang of rakish ne’er do wells t’was ever issued forth from the streets of this fair city. And they cried because they knew that after gazing upon their faces they’d have to return to their ugly, pot-bellied, balding husbands!”

The men in the company let out a great roar of approval at that.

“And then they saw the women amongst us, and they felt true despair! They saw that the daughters of Atlantis were not like them; chattel to be sold off for dowry. We are strong and fierce and fell and beautiful! And the menfolk saw us from afar and wanted us, then ran in fear when we came close and they realised they’d never be able to tame us!”

Now the women whooped and shouted and Tayne sniffed as her horse became skittish at the noise and she had to control her with a light tug on the reins. She was a better rider than her troops at least.

“So, my good Captain,” Morrow said, addressing her directly now, “you’ll forgive us if we come back to Atlas with more than a little spring in our steps. We’ve been carving our legends in the flesh of the savages of the mainland, breaking hearts and plundering treasuries. Not a virgin from the eastern shore to the western mountains hasn’t shared a night with Private Carlo, who is now known far and wide in the mainlands as the Pretty Prince of Atlantis!”

Carlo, a short man with a crooked nose, smiled bashfully as everyone laughed and called out his name. Morrow was mocking him but he had certainly earned something of a reputation during their time away.

“And how many young farmers’ boys, resigned to a life of feigning interest in plump, toothless cousins with rosy cheeks, had their hearts – and loins – set aflame when Corporal Windhael rode into their villages and scandalised entire communities? Why, in one town in the frozen north, they chased him out with torches and pitchforks, him naked as the day he was born, with the seed of five young men still sloshing in his belly!”

“Four,” Windhael said mildly to roars of good-natured laughter, “it was only four.”

“And what about you, Lieutenant?” Tayne asked as she trotted her horse forward and fixed her gaze on the small woman. “What renown did you win over the sea? On what unfortunate women did you visit your unwelcome attentions?”

Morrow eyed her lasciviously. “If you must know, they called me ‘the Ravisher of Redheads’.”

Tayne’s cheeks coloured and she tried to stammer a reply, but Albrihn spoke over her. “I think we’ve spent enough time gearing up. Let’s get a move on, shall we?”

Morrow laughed and, as her horse was finally led to her, she leapt right up into the saddle, landing with a wince. “That was a bad idea after last night,” she murmured, to more general mirth.

The gates were opened and they rode out in an orderly column, followed by the city guard. The barracks were near the edge of Atlas, and there was a straight road down to the eastern gate. On this side of the city, facing landward, the defences were less secure. The great wall was partially ruined, its masonry cannibalised for hovels on both sides. It had been thus for centuries, though Albrihn was again surprised at the squalor he saw around him. The road was kept clear by Imperial decree, but trash and debris was piled up around it. Hollow-eyed children stared out from the rubble at them as they cantered past and beggars called plaintively. A few of his soldiers flicked coins in their direction, generous with their winnings from last night. “What’s happening to this city?” he asked no one in particular.

“I noticed it too, Captain,” Morrow said at his side. She had turned more sombre now, or perhaps it was just the drink and lack of sleep catching up with her. “Even Whores Quarter looked shabby to me.”

“Then it isn’t just me at least.” He was about to tell her what the Emperor had said, when the column drew to a halt before the high gates to the city. This was only nominally the border between Atlas and the outside world, as shanty towns stretched for miles on the other side of the walls, but the wide plaza was where the other part of the expedition had chosen to meet them, to avoid moving openly through the streets. A great wagon, drawn by half a dozen heavy horses overseen by a huddled driver, reinforced with black wrought iron, sat before the gates. Passersby were giving it a wide berth and the soldiers also fell silent as they drew up, forming a rough semi-circle about ten feet from it. Two people, a man and a woman, so alike they could be twins, dressed in ceremonial black uniforms – military, but somehow archaic – and carrying long barbed spears, were unfastening the huge locked doors to the rear of the cart. As they fell open with a creak of ancient hinges, the two darted closer and took hold of heavy chains which they wrapped around their wrists with a practiced motion. Albrihn watched in fascination as, levelling their spears, they tugged at the chains and slowly, from the darkness within the wagon, a great lumbering shape emerged. It was at least three times the height of a man, but much broader in stature, a heavy, lumpen thing, with sagging shoulders and arms that hung low to the ground. It moved slowly in its bonds, pawing at the metal frame of the door with huge, clawed hands. Its feet were wide and splayed and most of its body except for the palms of its hands and the front of its pale torso was covered in hard scales like a lizard’s. It was male, but obviously gelded, judging by the withered, almost comically small genitals that hung beneath its sagging belly. There was nothing at all funny about the helm it wore though. It was a sinister, baroque thing of the same black iron as its wagon-cum-cage, eyeless and so heavy it made the beast’s head hang down to its chest. The handlers goaded it forward with gentle taps of their spear shafts and murmured instructions. It plodded obediently down the ramp that was set out and then slumped into a listless squat on the flagstones.

Morrow shook her head. “We could have used one of those in that battle at Jonsharbour, don’t you think?”

“I wouldn’t be so sure, Lieutenant.” He urged his horse forward.

“You’ve seen one of those things in battle, sir?” she called after him.

“Once,” he said, “and that was enough.”

Tayne joined him on her mare as one of the handlers, the woman, stepped forward. Up close Albrihn could see she was a lean, attractive woman with high cheekbones and dark hair. Her pale skin marked her as lowborn, but for her kind that was hardly relevant. Around her left eye was an intricate tattoo of a strange design. “Captains,” she greeted them with a smart salute, “I am Keeper Jonis. This is my brother Keeper Jonin.”

Jonin, the man, looking almost identical to her except that his tattoo was on his right side, saluted too, but he remained close to their charge, firmly gripping his long spear.

“Honoured,” Albrin said, inclining his head slightly. “I’m Captain Albrihn, this is Captain Tayne.”

“You should have left that thing in the wagon,” Tayne said shortly, “our destination is at least a day’s ride.”

“He can keep up. The wagon is just for protection, you understand.”

“For the Cyclops?”

“No, for the people.”

Albrihn eyed the monster. Its sheer size was threat enough, but there were many stories about what lurked beneath the great helmets of the Cyclopes. He had no need for tales: he’d seen the destruction wrought by one of them and he once again thought back to what the Emperor had told him. No simple group of brigands would be worth the risk of unleashing one of these creatures. “Do you have everything you need?” he asked Jonis.

“We prefer to travel light in case we are required to see to our beast unexpectedly, so a share of your companies’ provisions would be appreciated. And a mount each, if you have them to spare.”

“Of course.” ‘See to our beast unexpectedly’ was not a phrase he felt comfortable with. The chains securing it looked strong indeed, but they were only held by two slender people. Somewhat more reassuring was the intricate locking mechanism just visible on the back of the Cyclops’s helmet. This was connected to a series of chains that ran down its back and were thence connected to odd handles seemingly drilled into its scales near the base of its spine. They could easily be reached, but not accidentally triggered. At worst, the monster would rampage blindly around, clumsily rending with its claws. Not a pretty sight, but certainly not as bad as it might be. It wasn’t hard to imagine a time when these creatures were the masters of Atlantis, knowing what he knew. He was grateful his ancestors had emerged triumphant in the end, and that the troglodytic descendants of those ancient titans now served the Emperor as slaves.

The two Captains rode back to their respective companies as the wagon moved off and the gates of the city began to open. The citizens nearby had been silently watching their mustering with a mixture of interest and fear, and now the relief was palpable as it became clear they were leaving the city. Even Albrihn remembered a time when children would rush up to a group of soldiers gathered at a city gate to ask them where they were going, or just to tell them some war stories. He could recall doing it himself, listening with rapt attention as some hoary veteran recounted an adventure in a far-flung Province. He had grown up on such tales of derring-do and that’s what had led him to becoming a soldier himself. He’d joined as soon as he came of age, and never once regretted it. But now the children only looked frightened, and the adults regarded the soldiers with dull-eyed resignation. He sensed it was nothing to do with the hulking Cyclops.

“When did all this start?” he asked Tayne quietly as the horses began to file past and out of the gates.

“What?”

“You know. Checks on the docks, people hungry and desperate. This isn’t the Atlas I left behind.”

“Lean years,” Tayne shrugged, “it’s hardly the first time.”

“Three lean years in a row? And I see no leaves on the trees, no fruit in the markets. Did summer ever come?”

She grunted. “It didn’t seem like it. I’ve been cold for as long as I can remember, it feels like.”

“Something’s wrong.”

“Well what can we do about it, Albrihn? We’re soldiers, and we have our orders.”

“Yes,” he said thoughtfully as he urged his horse forward. Tayne kept pace with him as they went through the stone archway and out into the slum beyond the walls. The highway was still kept clear ahead of them, and it was paved all the way to Cronus, but on either side the situation appeared even more desperate than within the walls. Away from the crush of stone buildings, the frost was free to build up in shadowy corners, and most people without a wooden hovel for shelter were huddled around open fires. Half-starved pigeons were being roasted on spits, and probably not a few dogs and rats too. “Do you know the place we’re going?” he asked, pulling his gaze away from thin, pale faces.

“No. It’s backwater country. A little scattering of villages in the hinterlands near the border with Ixion. It’s got no name that I know of.”

“And there are bandits?”

“There’s villages burnt to the ground. No one knows who’s doing it.”

He looked up and down the column of soldiers. Over a hundred fighting men and women, many of them bloodied veterans, a mixture of light horse and heavy infantry. And of course the loping Cyclops, which was proving it could indeed keep up with the horses. This was not a force sent to track down outlaws in the countryside. This was a small army. And, as he looked back over his shoulder at the steaming heap of Atlas, not nearly so splendid from the landward side, he began to wonder if all these strange things were somehow connected.

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