Age of Wolves (Part IV)

As the column of riders left behind the great sprawl of hovels that surrounded Atlas proper, the land opened up into familiar rolling hills. Unlike the green pastures he remembered though, Albrihn beheld only bleak desolation. The country was a mixture of drab brown and grey beneath a heavy sky. Snowflakes gusted through the air and he pulled his cloak closer about his shoulders. Most of the Province of Atlas was given over to farmland, with a few market towns on the rivers and roads. It was the breadbasket of the world’s greatest city, as well as a hub for trade. These were rich, fertile lands. They had to be. At this time of year he would expect to see the last of the harvest being taken in, and woolly sheep huddling near their sheds. Instead, every farmstead they passed seemed to be abandoned. The fields looked more like wasteland with walls and fences collapsed into disrepair. There were great pools of stagnant water in many places, where drainage had not been maintained. He had seen regions like this in the mainlands, particularly in the chill north, but he’d had no conception that the rot could take hold here so quickly. One bad season was enough to make a family destitute, of course – what might three in a row do? Whole communities reduced to shells of what they once were. People starving, dying.

His heart was heavy as they passed by the only livestock he’d seen, a flock of emaciated sheep tugging listlessly at brown shoots in a muddy field. He was no farmer, but he could see the animals were sick from standing in filthy water too long. There was a pile of carcasses heaped by one wall, picked at by a flock of mangy crows that fled as they trotted by. A lone shepherd, hard-eyed with hollow cheeks and scrub of grey beard, watched them as they moved past. Albrihn noted well the heavy axe he carried on his belt, and how his hand never left it. A single peasant would be no match for a hundred armed soldiers, not to mention a Cyclops, but it was surely a sign of his desperation that he would be prepared to defend his pathetic flock from them nonetheless. Apart from that sad sight, they saw no sign of life on the road at all. Albrihn had never known anything like it.

It was hard to tell the hour because the sky was so stubbornly overcast, but he had a good instinct for the time of day and ordered a halt around midday. As he’d intended, they’d arrived at a cluster of ruins on a hill still within sight of the city across the intervening plains, known as Deadman’s Cob. Millennia ago it had stood as a garrison used to warn of attacks against Atlas during the internecine warfare of Atlantis’s early beginnings. Now it was just a loose collection of tumbledown walls and arches, half-buried in the earth. The locals thought it haunted by the restless spirits of the ancient dead and so they had been left sacrosanct over the intervening centuries. He’d made camp here many times.

His company and the city guard spread out amongst the ruins, breaking up into small groups to eat some of their provisions. The air of jubilation from the morning had evaporated somewhat during their dreary march from the city, but there was still a sense that this was just a routine patrol; nothing to be particularly concerned about. By chance Albrihn found himself eating alone on the edge of the ruins, perched on the crumbling remnants of an exterior wall and watching over the road. There was no traffic at all. The snow still swirled but didn’t settle on the damp ground. As he chewed on a little hardtack from his pack he became aware that someone had approached him. He turned and was surprised to see Keeper Jonis standing close by. “Keeper,” he said, nodding slightly.

“May I join you, Captain Albrihn?”

He held out a hand. “Certainly.”

Jonis smiled slightly and crouched down next to him. She had a little cured goat which she nibbled on with rather charming delicacy. They both ate silently for a little while. “We leave the city rarely,” Jonis said suddenly.

“Oh?”

“Cylopes aren’t often deployed. Mostly we spend our time in the pens.”

“Makes sense. What do you think?”

“I think everything’s cold and dead.”

“Funny, the same thought occurred to me. But I’m told it’s been a hard few years while we’ve been away.”

“It has. But no one has any explanation for it.”

Albrihn shrugged as he finished off his meagre repast and dusted his hands on his trousers. “Who knows why such things happen? The will of the Gods, I suppose.”

“Perhaps.” Jonis didn’t sound convinced. “It’s an honour to be on this mission with you, Captain Albrihn. I thought I should tell you that.”

He looked at her askance. “An honour? Why?”

Jonis’s expression was one of mild surprise. “Your reputation precedes you, Captain.”

“It does?”

“Yes. News of your exploits overseas reached even the Cylopes pens.”

“I didn’t know that…”

“And of course there are the rumours.”

Albrihn cleared his throat. “Rumours?”

“It’s said you share the bed of Princess Vion.”

“There’s no secret about that. At least, she’s never seemed to mind anyone knowing. I prefer not to share pillow talk in taverns like some others.” His gaze wandered across the ruins to where Morrow was sitting with some of the Seventh. By the look of things, her hangover had hit now – she was slumped down and pale.

Jonis shook her head. “How did a common soldier find his way into the arms of a Princess?”

Albrihn bristled slightly at the question. “How does anyone find their way into anyone’s arms? She chose me and I her. No one is answerable for such things.”

“Sorry, Captain. I didn’t mean to imply anything. Such things are…strange….to me.”

He looked her over. She was certainly attractive, but muscular and lean, the exact opposite of the dark, curvaceous Vion. He found it hard to believe she didn’t have her share of lovers. He’d seen plenty of men and women amongst his soldiers glancing in her direction anyway.

Seeming to sense his question, she looked over her shoulder at her brother Jonin, who still tended to their monstrous ward, squatting silently near a shattered wall, a good distance from any of the soldiers. “Keepers are born to our lives, Captain. We are not chosen. You probably know that we have a rare ability to withstand the gaze of the Cyclops.”

“I’d heard that yes.” It seemed unbelievable, but he had no cause to doubt her.

“That talent is passed down family lines. It arose in antiquity amongst the first humans to settle Atlantis. It allowed us to defeat and enslave the Cyclopes.”

“Of course…”

“But both parents must have the ability in order to pass it to their children. Many times through history it has almost been extinguished due to…carelessness…”

“Ah, so you can’t choose who you…”

“No. Of course, we may take our pleasure where we wish, but most Keepers only tend to consort with their selected mate. It keeps things simpler. One does not wish to succumb to temptations.”

Albrihn wasn’t sure why she was telling him all this, but he nodded anyway. “So you already have a husband picked out for you? Is that it?”

She smiled again. “Yes. Jonin.”

He nearly choked on a bit of hardtack he’d just worked free from a tooth. “Your brother?”

“It has ever been thus,” she explained, “twins are extremely common amongst the Keeper lines, and most often they are mated to one another to preserve both traits. It is not without dangers, and our numbers dwindle each year, but without it Atlantis would lose the ability to keep its Cyclopes in thrall.”

“Obviously. It’s just…”

“You find it strange?”

He laughed slightly. “No. I’ve spent three years in the mainlands and heard much odder things than that.”

She looked intrigued. “Is it as savage a place as they say?”

“It is. Brutal and primitive. The people there live in squalor and ignorance. They keep their women as slaves and fill the heads of their children with superstitious nonsense.”

“How so?”

“Well, in the mainlands, they believe the Gods speak to them.”

Jonis’s expression was incredulous. “Speak to them? Why?”

“Don’t ask me. I esteem the Gods as much as the next man, but in many places in the mainlands they believe they take an active part in the lives of the people. They think they watch them and they make offerings to appease their wrath.”

“Offerings?”

“Food, treasure, sometimes animal sacrifice. Even, in some places, themselves.” He grinned at her grimace. “Yes. In the southern jungles, we met a folk who murdered the strongest of their menfolk on a slab of stone every midsummer. The stone was stained red with ancient blood.”

“That’s disgusting…”

“I know. But it explains a lot about their ways. They live in perpetual fear. They think the Gods care about how they live their lives. The things they say, the people they fuck. They think if they offend the Gods, they’ll visit plague or famine or whatever on them.”

“Not war?”

“They make enough of that themselves, often in the name of those same Gods.” He held his hands apart helplessly. “As I say; a strange place.”

“And yet you were sent there to fight alongside and against them.”

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Albrihn said. “We were there at first to protect some of the Enclaves that had come under attack from a coalition of warlords. But our remit was broad. It was felt to be beneficial to troop the colours. We ended up travelling across the continent, fighting in more wars than I care to name.”

“You won great renown.”

“And filled up the Emperor’s coffers with foreign gold too. It all serves a purpose.”

“And now you return home…”

He looked around at their drab surroundings. “It’s not what I was expecting.”

“I can tell.”

He met her eyes. She had a pale, clear gaze, not unlike his own. His instinct was to treat her as a peasant, but it was more complicated for the Keepers. They were a breed apart. She watched him quite intently, but eventually she broke the stare and looked away.

“You must forgive me, Captain. As I said, we hardly ever leave the city. Everyone I know I’ve known since I was a child. Most are related to me, often in a dozen different ways. Life can get confining at times. I like to speak to new people and learn new things, particularly about parts of the world I’m unlikely to ever visit.”

“It’s fine.” He saw that people were standing up, getting ready to move on, finely-honed instincts kicking in. They knew it was time to continue their march. Even the Cyclops was lumbering slowly to its feet at the urging of Jonin. They looked so alike, and that more than anything was what made his stomach turn at the thought of he and his sister being compelled to become lovers. “Your brother doesn’t seem so curious,” he remarked.

“Jonin is content with his lot. He is very devoted to his work.”

“That’s good.”

“Yes. But it does make him somewhat lacking in conversation. I doubt he’ll ever bed a Princess and travel to exotic foreign lands carrying the light of civilisation on the blade of his sword.” She eyed the scabbard at his hip as he stood up. “I’ve also heard tell of your prowess, Captain Albrihn.”

“My prowess? Oh, with the sword…”

“Yes.”

“Well…” He moved his hand over the pommel. “I have some talent, perhaps. But I lead a company of light cavalry.”

“So?”

“So, we fight as skirmishers, relying on speed and our bows. If I have to draw my sword, the battle is already lost.”

“Interesting. I’m conflicted then – I would like to see you fight I think, Captain Albrihn, but if I did, perhaps it would mean my doom?”

He couldn’t tell if she was joking or not, but he grinned lopsidedly anyway. “Well, if that happens, we have your Cyclops I suppose.”

“I suppose.” Her expression was enigmatic and she turned and walked back to her brother. Her uniform fit closely around her hips and he watched her go thoughtfully. A strange woman indeed, but what else should he expect from a Cyclops Keeper?

They mounted up and were on their way again within just a few minutes. The road led out through more rugged country and they could see the hills rising up on the horizon as they approached their destination. Tayne was riding beside him as they crested a rise and finally turned off the paved road and continued down a rougher track. Ahead of them was hill country, but the same devastation was apparent all around. An orchard of twisted, dead trees in neat rows came up on the south side of the road and then the shattered remnants of a village, obviously abandoned for some years. “Just a few miles,” Tayne told him, “we’ll stop in the closest village in the region.”

“What’s it called?”

“Priam, I think. It’s an old place.”

“Sounds it.” As the road became worse, their pace slowed, but Albrihn soon became aware of something unusual up ahead – a dark smudge in the sky, in front of the mountains. He pointed it out to Morrow as she cantered up with a squad of outriders. He’d instead they send out scouts to range the surrounding country. “Smoke?”

She nodded. “We saw it too. Want us to ride ahead?”

“No. I think we should stay together. When the other squads return tell them to fall in with the rest of the column.”

“Is that wise?”

He jerked his head towards Tayne and lowered his voice. “Do you want to leave those boys and girls in their pretty armour vulnerable? The more of us we can surround them with the better.”

She laughed and rode off, leaving Tayne to look around in confusion. “What was that?”

“Nothing.” He gestured ahead. “There’s smoke rising up ahead. See it?”

She squinted. “I think so…”

“Reckon that’s about where Priam is?”

“Could be.” She didn’t sound very sure.

“If so, we may find our quarry waiting for us. We should stay together.”

“If you think that’s best…” Tayne was an experienced commander and, despite their differences, he respected her abilities. But she was out of her element now. Pitched battles hadn’t been fought on Atlasian soil in generations. Her fighting had been done in the close confines of city streets and occasionally at sea. Here they were in country better suited to outriders like his Seventh. As much as it might gall her, she would defer to him for her own safety.

As they followed the poor road and came over another rise, a valley spread out below them. A river of muddy water wound its way from the hills to the north past a cluster of houses that were now nothing more than blackened ruins. He could smell the smoke on the wind and still see embers smouldering in the remains of a hay wain. This had happened no more than a day ago. Slowly, with hearts once again full of foreboding, they rode down to investigate. He was wary as they slowly came to the edge of the burnt village. The timbers of the houses were scorched and almost nothing was left of the thatched roofs. He looked around at the muddy streets winding crookedly between the destroyed homes. “This isn’t right,” he murmured.

“I should say not,” Tayne said, and her voice sounded loud in the ominous quiet. Snow had begun to fall again and this time it was beginning to settle in the lee of the collapses hovels. “A village less than a day out from Atlas, put to the torch.” She wheeled her horse angrily. “We have to find out who’s responsible and…”

“It’s not that,” he said, “look – no bodies.”

She turned again and frowned. “Maybe…I mean…they could have buried their dead…”

“No graves. Not enough time. And besides, every house is burnt. Why wouldn’t any survivors try to save their homes? If they had time for funerals, they’d have had time to send messengers to warn their neighbours too. No: no one survived here.”

“Taken prisoner then?”

“Maybe.” He trotted towards the nearest house. The small building had fallen in on itself and was now little more than a pile of smoking timbers. On one beam, he saw something familiar though – a carved symbol. “No,” he whispered, “it can’t be…”

Tayne rode up beside him. “What? What is it?” She peered at the scratched glyph. “What is that? Writing?”

“Not exactly. It’s a sort of…territorial marking. Two stars above a pyramid, see?”

“I’ve never seen it before.”

“No. Because it’s never been seen in Atlantis before.” He grabbed his horse’s reins and tugged sharply so that his stallion let out a high-pitched whinny as he spun him around abruptly. “I know why there aren’t any bodies. We need to…”

“Sir!” It was Sergeant Hasprit, with a cluster of riders a little further up the ridge. He was pointing and Albrihn’s eyes followed his finger. On the other side of the village, moving through the shattered houses, a dark, hunched shape.

“They always leave a scout behind,” he said under his breath.

“Who? What’s going on, Albrihn? Answer me!”

He had no time to deal with Tayne right then. “Morrow! Bring that bastard down!”

It’d heard them and was already making a run for it, but Morrow was determined. As pale and sick as she looked, she urged her horse forward with a yell and unslung her bow. The other cavalrymen were moving too now, while Tayne’s city guard and the Keepers with their massive Cyclops just stood around bewildered. Morrow was on the hunt though, galloping up the ridge after her target. From here he could make out the low shape, zig-zagging quickly across the churned earth of the fallow fields outside the destroyed village. It was quick, able to change direction rapidly, but Morrow was its equal, moving her horse with practiced motions of her hips, demonstrating incredible agility even over the rough ground. She flicked an arrow from her quiver and pulled her bow back, taking aim. Suddenly, her quarry made a desperate lunge to the south, sprinting back to the village. In a straight line it was quicker than a horse. Without dropping her bow, Morrow sent the horse skittering sideways and stood up in her saddle, turning almost entirely around. Both she and her target were moving fast, but the arrow she loosed flew straight and true, taking the dark form between its low shoulder blades and sending it skidding to the ground with a strangled yelp of pain. She nocked another arrow straight afterwards, trained on the spot where it had fallen, willing it to rise again so she could finish it off for certain.

Albrihn didn’t have to wait. He sped his horse right over, followed by Hasprit and Tayne. The others came after them so that the sound of hooves was thunderous in his ears as he drew to a halt, swinging right out of his saddle. He drew his sword and slowly approached the huddled shape on the ground.

“Did I get him?” Morrow called out breathlessly.

“You got him,” he said. The feathered shaft stuck out of the creature’s back and thick dark blood pumped out onto the ground. It didn’t move. Even so, he walked up gingerly and jabbed it with the tip of his sword. Finally he turned it over onto its back with his boot and grimaced at what he saw.

“What in the Gods is that?” Tayne asked. She’d dismounted too and was now at his side, gazing down at the thing Morrow had felled.

“One of the beasts that did this.” And ‘beasts’ was right. Its shape was that of a human, broadly speaking, but its legs were crooked and ended in clawed paws. Its whole bent body was covered in dark matted fur and a bent spear with a rusted blade was still gripped in its misshapen hands. But most disturbing of all was its face, like a man’s, but drawn into a pointed muzzle at the front, set with fanged jaws. Mercifully, its eyes were closed. They were most unpleasant of all, he knew too well. It had ears that, in its terror, were still flattened to its skull.

“Albrihn…?”

“We encountered them in the mainlands. I never imagined I’d see them here.”

“They never cross open water,” Hasprit growled. “How did they get to Atlantis?”

“I don’t know.”

“Albrihn,” Tayne said irritably, “what is it?”

“They have many names,” he said, still looking down at the carcass. “Gnolls, dogmen, wolfkin, wargs. But the name they have for themselves is the Hyen-a-khan. They burnt this village, and the others I expect.”

Tayne swallowed. “And the inhabitants?”

He turned from the body and walked back to his horse through the gathering snow. “You don’t want to know.”

 

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