Age of Wolves (Part VI)

Perhaps, somewhere beneath the thick layer of clouds, the moon shone in the darkness. Albrihn didn’t know. He’d lost track, travelling back and forth across the world these past years. It was the middle of the night. After a lifetime spent as a soldier, he was used to only sleeping a few hours at a time. For that reason, as much as the sense of camaraderie it engendered, he tended to take the middle watches at times like this. Others of the Seventh and Tayne’s city guard were stationed around the dark, huddled camp, but for now he was alone. They were sheltered in a scrub of trees, bare and choked with brambles they’d only managed to clear perfunctorily. It was not a good place to make camp, but they had little choice at this stage. They couldn’t travel much further in darkness, and so they slept fitfully and waited for dawn and what it would bring.

He nibbled a little hardtack from his pouch, just to keep his hands and mind occupied. It was bitterly cold and a harsh wind was blowing off the mountains now. He pulled his cloak closer to him, trying not to shiver. He longed for a warm bed, or even just a flea-bitten cot in the barracks. It was one of a thousand things he’d been dreaming of all the time they were in the mainlands. In some places during their adventures they’d been treated hospitably, given the best lodgings and finest foods available, but none of it had compared to anything in Atlantis. They were like barbarians over the narrow sea. But now here he was again, on the eve of battle with an enemy he thought he’d left behind.

He saw a darker shape against the sky approach from the corner of his eye. He was alert, instinctively, though he had nothing to fear. After a few moments, someone sat down beside him. “Captain Albrihn.”

“Jonis.”

The Cyclops Keeper’s expression was invisible, but he imagined she smiled. She was carrying something. “I brought you a blanket. I thought you might be cold.”

“That’s kind,” he said gently, “but you need it more than me, and I’ll go back to my pallet in a little while. The cold keeps a soldier alert when he’s on watch duty.”

“You said they wouldn’t be back.”

“They won’t be.”

“So why the watch?”

“I’ve been wrong before.” He doodled a design in the dirt with his finger as his eyes scanned the horizon.

“Take the blanket anyway. It’s mine.”

“You should be sleeping in it.”

“I spend my whole life asleep, or that’s what it feels like. There isn’t a lot to do most days in the Cyclops pens. Come on, I can see you shivering, Captain.”

“Call me Rayke.” He took the blanket from her and placed it on his lap. “This is nothing,” he said presently.

“Oh?” He could see her tilt her head, but still couldn’t make out anything of her face.

“In the mainlands,” he told her, “we once travelled to a far northern country, where the sun didn’t set for days at a time. There, we made camp beneath a shelf of ice over a hundred strides thick. It was as blue as the sky, and we could see patterns all the way through it, an endless labyrinth of frozen crystals that the light danced its way through. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”

“It sounds it.”

“But,” he continued with a rueful smile, “it was ice. Corporal Geiges put his hand against it and it took the skin clean off his palm. He couldn’t shoot his bow for weeks. We would have lit a fire, but there was no kindling for a dozen leagues. We shivered underneath that shelf for two nights and two days. I’ve never been so cold.”

“So why did you stay there?”

“Because it was the only shelter we could find. There were blizzards in that land that could strip the flesh from your bones. And beasts that hunted in the storms. Great white bears and other, nameless things.”

Jonis was silent for a moment. “Like the Hyen-a-khan? Was that who you were hunting then too?”

He smiled again and shook his head. “No. Just barbarian raiders. Wild men who wore the skulls of the folk they slaughtered around their necks like trophies. They had huge arms, corded with sinew and muscle, tattooed with symbols of their evil gods.”

“They sound dangerous.”

“Not really,” Albrihn said dismissively, “they were slow and stupid. They came at us with axes. We led them on a dance and shot them with our arrows. We dragged what was left of them back to the villages they’d attacked, and the people there strung them up for the crows. Some of them were still alive, I think.”

He could sense her grimace in the dark. “A horrible place.”

“Yes.”

“And now…these things are here too. Strange, that the only man who knows how to fight them should be the first to encounter them…”

He looked out across the flat country back towards Atlas again. The lights of the city were invisible from this distance, but he imagined them out there, twinkling invitingly, welcoming him home. And yet, home seemed further away than ever. “The same thought occurred to me,” he said.

“Did you know we’d find these monsters here, Rayke?”

“No.”

“Someone did though, didn’t they? Or they wouldn’t have sent a hundred soldiers and a Cyclops. And they wouldn’t have sent you, fresh from three years of tough campaigning. What’s going on here?”

“I wish I knew.”

Jonis moved herself closer to him. He could feel her leg pressed up against his, and then her arm resting gently on the base of his spine beneath his leather jerkin.

“You should be sleeping.” His voice was soft. Not unwelcoming though.

“Your soldiers aren’t.”

“Not everyone acts the same way the night before a battle. Some take the traditional view that it’s best to be well-rested. Others…others know that, when the arrows start flying, it’s as much luck as judgement that saves a warrior’s life and so it doesn’t matter either way whether you’re fresh as springblossom or dog tired. And, if you are going to die tomorrow, you might as well make the best of the life you have left.”

“That makes sense,” she said. Her hand slipped around his waist and she moved her body up against his. Her mouth was close to his ear, and he could feel her breath, warm and soft. “Where do you stand on the issue, Captain Albrihn?”

“I’m flexible.” He took her other hand with his and turned to face her. This close, he could make out her features. The hard angles of her face, the fine curve of her throat. He could feel the muscle in her arms too; the honed body of a soldier, though he didn’t know how much fighting Cyclops Keepers really did. “What about your brother? Won’t he mind?”

“He prefers men anyway.”

“Shame,” he said honestly, “life deals a rough hand sometimes.”

“He takes his pleasure where he wishes, as do I. Neither of us need be devoted to each other for a long while yet.”

“The negotiations must be fascinating.”

“Not really. I much prefer their outcomes.” She kissed him then, full and hard on the lips and he felt himself shift almost involuntarily against her, cradling her lean form with his own, taking her weight as she pushed against him. Heedless of the watch and the cold, they both fell to the ground and let themselves live for the moment.

Dawn came grey and overcast, much as Albrihn had expected. He dressed hurriedly before the rest of the camp had begun to stir, looking down at the slumbering Jonis as he did. She was tangled in the blanket she’d brought for him, looking peaceful, and he decided to let her sleep for a little while longer. As he pulled on his jerkin and walked towards the soldiers stirring in their pallets, Tayne stood up to greet him. “I suppose we shouldn’t waste any time,” she said shortly.

“Agreed.” He frowned at her, noticing the dark rings under her eyes and how, unlike her own troops, she seemed wide awake. “I suppose,” he said carefully, “a city girl might find it hard to sleep out in the open like this.”

“What? Well, yes, I mean…it was very cold too.”

His eyes drifted down to her pallet, where a small bundle a little too large to be her pack was huddled beneath the blankets. “Indeed,” he said. “Let me just get my Company together and we’ll get on the trail of those dogmen.” He turned to survey the soldiers, now dragging themselves to their feet and picking disconsolately through their belongings for clothes, weapons, perhaps a few crumbs of breakfast or even a swallow or two of wine. “Where’s Morrow?”

“I don’t know,” Tayne said automatically.

He turned to her slowly, then said in a loud voice, “Morrow?”

“Sir,” a muffled voice replied from beneath Tayne’s blankets. A pale hand emerged and waved at him.

He stared down and then looked back at Tayne accusingly. “Seriously?”

“I’m hardly the only one who…”

“All right,” he said, holding up his hands, “we don’t have time for this. Morrow, get some clothes on and saddle up. You know how dangerous this is going to be.”

“Right you are, Captain,” Morrow said. Her hand was pawing around on the ground beside the pallet. With a grunt he kicked the pile of discarded clothes towards her and as she grabbed it, she shot him a thumbs-up. Leaving Tayne to her blushes, he stalked off to find his horse.

They broke camp less than half an hour later and rode swiftly west and north, almost the way they’d come. The trail was easy enough to follow, if one knew what to look for, and this was not his first time tracking the Hyen-a-khan. They left droppings and other foulness in their wake, and it was best to keep moving fast so as not to dwell on their gruesome detritus. Still, it was hard to prevent some of the younger city guard from seeing what had become of some of the villagers that had been taken. He hoped it would at least harden their resolve. He would have liked to have ridden beside Jonis, but she was near the back of the column with the loping Cyclops. He didn’t know if the huge creature had slept, or if it even required rest in the same way as a human, but it showed no signs of slowing down as it easily matched the swift canter of the horses. Their route took them uphill, towards the foothills of the great Titan Mountains that sprawled across the border between the Provinces of Atlas, Cronus and Helios. It was not good country for the kind of battle he would wish to fight against their quarry, but at least they weren’t heading towards the city as they’d feared. He saw too that they were gaining on them, for though the dogmen were faster than horses over short distances, they could not sustain the same pace for long.

It was mid-morning, though the sun was still hidden behind the blanket of grey clouds, when they drew to a halt on a ridge above a wide cleft in the hills, steep-sided like a gorge, but with only a thin trickle of a stream running down its southern side. There was still a stiff breeze blowing across the plain behind them, and now cold sleet joined it, beginning fitfully but growing in strength by the minute. Albrihn pointed down into the broad valley where dark shapes could be seen moving around erratically. “We have them,” he announced.

Tayne rode up beside them and squinted down where he pointed. She curled her lip at the sight of the misshapen creatures. “Foul things.”

“They’re even worse up close.” As they pawed around the rocky gorge, he could see some of them worrying at what appeared to be scraps of meat. He was grateful for the distance between them then. He could see no prisoners, which perhaps was a mercy. They had had their fun with the unfortunate villagers and now he would take grim satisfaction in putting them to rest. “Listen,” he said, so his voice carried over the wind, “we have them trapped. They’re quick and nimble, but we can surround them easily if we’re smart. No doubt they already have our scent, but they won’t know where we’re coming from until it’s too late.” He gestured to the south side of the valley. “Morrow, take squads three, five and six and come at them from the side there. I’ll lead the rest of the Seventh to the north and we’ll catch them in a pincer.”

“And what should the rest of us do?” Tayne asked a little sharply.

“No offence, Captain, but your troops are infantry. Hyen-a-khan make short work of even a determined pike block. However, if things go wrong, some stout shields and spears will be handy.” He pointed to the wide entrance to the gorge. “Follow us in on foot and deploy in a phalanx around the Cyclops there. Any stragglers will probably come fleeing in your direction, so pick them off with your bowmen if you can.”

“And if they manage to reach our lines?”

“They’ll be running scared,” Morrow said darkly.

“So easy pickings?”

“These aren’t humans,” Albrihn told her with a half-smile, “Hyen-a-khan are most dangerous when they’re frightened. And they’re strong and wiry. Try to keep them a spears-length away from you if you can. You don’t want to go to sword-to-fang with a dogman.”

“I’ll bear that in mind…”

“What about us?” Jonis asked. She’d ridden up behind them without him noticing. He turned his horse and met her eyes. In daylight, her pale stare was entrancing, but he tried to push the memories of the previous night from his mind just then.

“I told you – surrounded by the city guard.”

“You don’t want to use the Cyclops? We’ve ridden a long way…”

“You and I both know he’s as dangerous to our side as theirs, Jonis,” he said, “we’ll use the Cyclops…but only if we have to.”

“You’re in command, Captain,” she said with a slight bow of her head, but he could feel her prickling at his lack of confidence in her and her brother’s ability to control their charge. Well, this was no time for sentimentality, or for rash tactical experiments. He’d fought and beaten these creatures before and he and the Seventh knew exactly what to do.

“You all have your orders,” he said, “there’s no time to lose – they already know they’ve become the hunted. To battle! For Atlantis and the Emperor!”

The cry was taken up by all present. “For Atlantis and the Emperor!” He wheeled his horse around and his squads fell in around him like flocking birds, flowing around the city guard even as they dismounted. Morrow and her command peeled off seamlessly, cantering down the rocky ridge. The two halves of the Seventh moved in perfect synchronicity, the result of hard years of battle. They were the finest the Atlantian Militia had to offer, and he could taste victory in the wind even as the sleet fell from the leaden sky. He didn’t even glance back to see Tayne’s Company marching into position as they closed on the dogmen, now howling with dismay as they drew their weapons. There was even a smile on his lips as he pulled out his bow and nocked an arrow. He rose slightly in his saddle as he drew back and took aim at one of the beasts, a mangy, stunted thing with brown-fur and beady red eyes that bared pointed black teeth at him and waved a rusted sword ineffectually in his direction. It was almost funny.

Too late he saw more dark shapes – a hundred of them at least – emerge high up in the clefts above the valley and his smile died as a rain of crude, but perfectly effective, arrows began to fall down amongst his cavalrymen. The Hyen-a-khan in the valley suddenly changed from a desperate pack of cornered wolves into the predators they truly were. They charged, just as his Company fell into disarray from the unexpected volley. Albirhn had thought he was springing the perfect surprise attack, but he’d led his soldiers straight into a killing field.  It was a trap.

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