Age of Winter (Part I)

Rayke Albrihn, captain in the Atlantian militia, travels to the inhospitable northern province of Talos, following rumours of instability and rebellion. He is no stranger to savage lands, but what he finds in this gloomy country may be something far more dangerous than simple barbarism. Already the great island nation of Atlantis is suffering beneath a winter that may never end, and now the dangerous inhabitants of the far north emerge from the frost, wrath and ruin in their hearts.

The Age of Man is falling into darkness: the Age of Winter is set to begin.

Age of Winter continues the story begun in Age of Wolves.

The province of Talos was two week’s hard riding from Atlas, over rough country. The road led west from the city and then followed the foothills of the Titan Mountains north. From there it climbed towards the peaks themselves, and wound its way through narrow mountain passes, bound on either side by towering walls of black rock. It was a route Rayke Albrihn, captain of an elite outrider company in the Atlantian militia, had taken before and never found particularly taxing, but that was in ordinary circumstances. Since his return to Atlantis, things had been anything but ordinary. He’d expected a relaxed homecoming after years campaigning overseas, but instead had found himself involved in a situation he barely understood, fighting against a foe that might be beyond the power of any human being to defeat: the world itself. The trek north was a miserable one: the rain and sleet that had followed them from Atlas rarely abated, and when it did it only turned into freezing fog that clung to the mountains and left slippery frost in its wake. He had never been so cold and damp.

It was such a time now as his column of soldiers rode through a narrow gorge. Visibility was less than a few strides in any direction, and only the dim shape of craggy walls loomed out from the mist, enveloping them in an ominous gloom. Albrihn’s horse, a normally fearless black stallion, whinnied softly as it picked its way carefully along a road little better than a rough track. In theory this was the main route into Talos from the rest of Atlantis, and he remembered a time when it was better maintained, but evidently things had changed for the worse since those days. His warrior’s instincts also told him that there was more danger in the pass than just the terrain and the weather. He tugged at the reins as he looked around, seeking the source of his unease.

Either he was distracted or the fog simply deadened sound, but he didn’t hear another horse ride up beside him until they were within feet of him and he turned in the saddle, alarmed, drawing his sword partway from the scabbard. Jonis, the other rider, let out a cry and shied back, causing her horse to scream too and there was soon a hubbub all down the column as soldiers instinctively drew weapons and shouted warnings to one another through the mists.

“Sorry,” Albrihn said, putting his sword back and relaxing. “I didn’t hear you.”

Jonis smiled. “You’re jumpy,” she said, riding up beside him. She was less-assured than him in the saddle, and he slowed down to match her pace.

“I can hardly see in front of me, and this isn’t a good place to meet enemies.” The gorge’s walls were high and steep, but he knew beyond that they rose to high, snow-capped peaks with an endless warren of crags and valleys in between. Even without the fog, there were a thousand places for attackers to lurk, and his troops had no manoeuvrability in the confines of the pass.

“Are you expecting to run into more dogmen?”

Albrihn grimaced as he peered vainly into the shifting white haze all around. This would indeed by a bad place to be attacked by Hyen-a-khan, the misshapen creatures that they had encountered in the Atlasian hill country just weeks ago. Then, Jonis’s Cyclops, the deadly monster she and her brother had goaded into battle, had been all that had saved them from a deadly ambush. They had no such weapon on this journey, but it wasn’t the dogmen he feared today. “Do you know anything about Talos?”

She shrugged. “Just a name on a map.”

“Most people in Atlantis would say the same. Few travel so far north.”

“I’ve heard it’s a grim, rugged country.”

“It is. A narrow peninsula of rock sticking out into the Northern Ocean with almost nothing to recommend it.”

“So why do people live there?”

“You don’t know the history?”

She rolled her eyes. “I was born and raised a Cyclops Keeper. Political history wasn’t a priority. I know the Talosi keep to themselves though.”

“That’s true enough. They were originally mainlanders who migrated across the sea around a thousand years ago. They landed in Talos in a ramshackle fleet, supposedly fleeing from wars in their homelands. At the time the peninsula was almost uninhabited and they began to make homes along the coast. When word reached Atlas, the Emperor at the time sent an army to drive them back into the ocean, thinking it was a prelude to invasion.”

“A thousand years ago?” Jonis frowned. “During the Cthonian Wars?”

Albrihn nodded. “The treasury was empty, the militia spent, the throne weak. The forces that reached Talos were easily defeated by the settlers. They were a hardy people, at home in the highlands. The defeat weakened the Emperor even further, and he was deposed just a few years later. The Empress who succeeded him chose a different strategy: she recognised them as refugees and granted them asylum, as long as they stayed north of the passes. Over the centuries that ban was relaxed and Talos became another province of Atlantis.”

“And yet…” Jonis said.

“And yet, the Talosi remain a race apart. They stay in their own lands and rarely even send a representative to the Council of Atlantis. They’re almost unknown elsewhere and few outsiders have any reason to go to Talos.”

“Well then, I don’t feel so ashamed for being sheltered.”

“No one cares about the Talosi. They’ve changed little since they arrived. Even in the cities, of which there are few, the people are little better than mainland barbarians. They’ve adopted only a few of our ways, and even speak their own language for preference.”

“Do they look like us?”

He glanced at her. “They tend to be pale,” he said, “with yellow or red hair.”

“Ah.” Jonis herself had the colouring of a commoner, but in her case the usual rules didn’t apply because of her status as a Keeper. Like the Talosi, she was a race apart. “That’s not so strange,” she said, “Captain Tayne…”

“Has a little mainlander blood in her, that’s all. She’s no Talosi.”

“You said they’re barbarians?”

“Yes. For the most part. And this,” he gestured out into the mist, “is a lawless country. These hills are full of brigands.”

“Would they dare to attack a company of militia?”

“I don’t know. When I was here last, a decade ago, no. But these are hard times.”

There was a thin call somewhere in the distance, slightly uphill, and Albrihn halted his horse. He raised his hand, for all the good it would do in the shifting vapour that cloaked everything in half-shadows, and the column of horse slowly came to a stop. He could hear his soldiers moving restlessly, easing swords in scabbards. Their bows, the preferred weapon of his light cavalry, would be useless in these conditions. Albirhn squinted through the swirling shapes again. He could just make out the dark bulk of a column of stone ahead and, somewhere high above, there was the impression of a great mass of mountain, blocking out the lighter grey of the sky behind it. He waited for a second call, and eventually it came. This time he was able to divine its direction, and he gestured for the nearest squadron to follow him as he rode ahead and up a scree slope. The footing was unsteady, but his horse was well-trained. Jonis rode with them, unasked. A third cry sounded and he changed direction again, the soldiers and Jonis just behind him. Dark shapes moved in the fog, coming straight towards them. There was a moment of uncertainty, and those same old instincts from before caused him to unwittingly place his hand on the pommel of his sword, ready to draw it in an instant if he was mistaken. The lead shape suddenly resolved itself, emerging from the mist and revealing the grinning face of Lieutenant Morrow, bow resting across the pommel of her saddle. Her squadron of scouts were with her, and they chivvied a miserable-looking old man along on foot between them.

“Captain,” Marrow said with a lazy salute across her breastplate. She tugged off her helmet and hooked it onto her belt. Her short hair was plastered to her scalp, but from the fog not sweat – chasing down this fellow was unlikely to have been much of a challenge.

Albrihn regarded the prisoner impassively from his saddle, and the old man uncertainly got down to one knee and bowed his head. His hair was thin and lank, and what little of it there was was the colour of straw. His skin was pale and blotchy, and he was a squat, portly figure in peasant garb.  “M’lord,” the man mumbled in a heavy accent that Albrihn could barely penetrate.

“Stand up,” he said shortly, “I’m no one’s lord.” But he wondered how he must look to this fellow, with his black hair and brown skin, wearing the armour of a militiaman and riding high on a fine horse.

“We found him sneaking about up there, Captain,” Morrow said, pointing up the slope, “says he’s a herdsman.”

“‘Tis so, lo…sir,” the man said, still keeping his eyes to the ground, “I was only watching my flock. Didn’t mean no harm.”

Albrihn watched him carefully. He didn’t look like much of a threat at all. “What was he doing?” he asked Morrow.

“Shadowing us, sir. We followed him for almost a mile, and he never left the ridge above the pass. No flock to be seen.”

“I thought you was bandits, sir. Them’s the only folks as ride in these parts.”

“Bandits taking the road? Does that make sense to you, herdsman?”

He shuffled his feet. “Didn’t know rightly who you were, sir. Don’t get many travellers in these parts, not armoured on horseback, sir, if you’ll forgive me. I was just watching out for me and my mine. Never meant no harm, sir.”

“Untie his hands, Morrow,” Albrihn said with a sigh.

“Right you are, Captain.” She slid out of her saddle and grabbed him roughly. He shied away as she pulled out her dagger and cut the ropes. Even untied, he still kept his hands where they were, standing awkwardly surrounded by the soldiers.

“We’re not here to terrorise the population,” Albrihn chided his lieutenant. “What’s your name, herdsman?”

“Gurum, sir.”

“Gurum what?”

He looked lost. “Just Gurum.”

“You’ve no family name?”

“No, sir.”

“All right, Gurum.” He trotted the horse closer and the herdsman glanced up at him fearfully. His eyes were pale and clouded, and up close he looked in even worse health, with sores around his mouth and a patch of raw, itchy skin on his scalp. He also looked extremely thin. “Where do you live?”

“In the hills, sir, not a league hence.” He didn’t give the direction, and Albrihn didn’t blame him.

“In a village?”

“Not to speak of, sir. Just a few homes. A few families.”

“You spoke of bandits. Are the common these days?”

He nodded. “Common enough, sir. They raid flocks, and sometimes farms and villages.”

“It’s a bold bandit that would attack a settlement,” Jonis said, “could they be…”

Albrihn raised a hand slightly to silence her. No need to scare this man any more with tales of creatures he’d likely never encounter. “When I was last in Talos,” he said to Gurum, “there were bandits in these mountains, but they only chanced their hands against travellers. They left their own people alone.”

“Once that was true, sir,” Gurum said, “but times has changed, as they say.”

“Poor harvests? Bad winters?”

“Aye, sir. For years now.”

Albrihn rubbed his jaw. He wasn’t surprised to hear that. It was the same across Atlantis, and the Emperor himself had told him that something strange was happening to the world – it was growing colder for some reason, and a time of great suffering was coming. It was the reason he’d been sent here, bearing the Imperial Seal indicating he came on matters of state. There were rumours of instability in Talos, all symptoms of the danger that was coming to mankind, just like the Hyen-a-khan, the savage dogmen, who seemed to be some herald of woe. “I command a company of soldiers on horseback,” Albirhn said, gesturing around at the two squadrons that accompanied him, “around a hundred warriors armed like this. Would bandits attack us?”

Gurum seemed overawed by the concept of so many armed troops in his neighbourhood. “Can’t say for certain, sir,” he said when he’d recovered himself, “they’s bold these days, yes indeed.”

“So many men and horses move slowly through these mountains,” Albrihn mused, “we’ll be some days in this region I think. Your warning has been very useful.”

Gurum seemed to brighten up and began to nod eagerly. “Always happy to help, sir. I only want what’s best for me and mine, sir.”

“Indeed.” He watched the man carefully. “Have you any use for coin in these parts? Silver?”

“Well…no, not much call for it here, no sir. We mostly trade for what we needs.” He eyed their weapons and there was a glint of hunger in his cloudy eyes that Albrihn recognised. “There’s always call for good steel in the mountains though, sir, if you take my meaning.”

“I think that I do.” He gestured to Hasprit, the sergeant by his side. “I doubt you’ve been trained with a sword, but perhaps we have an axe or two we can spare.”

Gurum grinned, revealing a mouth blessed with only a few yellowed stumps of teeth. Hasprit, grumbling under his breath, searched through his packs and pulled out a mattock and a longer woodsman’s axe. He passed them to Albrihn who in turn handed them down to Gurum. The old man took them gratefully, making a great show of thanking him profusely for his generosity. “These will come in handy indeed, sir. Very handy.”

“You’ve earned my gratitude today, Gurum the Herdsman,” Albrihn said, “we’re new to these lands, and keen to make friends. Atlas has left the good folk of Talos to their own business for too long. Now, in these dark days, we must renew old ties.”

“Yes indeed, sir, yes indeed,” Gurum said, happily examining his two new axes, “the great men of Konigburg…uh…that is to say Atlas, are always in the hearts of the folks hereabouts. The Generous Lords, we say, yes we do.”

“Glad to hear it. Now, we must be on our way, but remember us, Gurum Herdsman.”

“I shall indeed, sir. I shall indeed.”

Albrihn wheeled his horse and ordered his soldiers to fall in. Morrow mounted up and the rest of the soldiers trotted past Gurum, leaving him still bowing obsequiously in their direction. Soon they left him behind, disappearing into the murk, bobbing away. Jonis sidled closer as they made their way back down to the road. “Why did you tell him we had a hundred soldiers? We barely have forty…”

“Because he’s no herdsman. I want to see how desperate these bandits really are, and how clever. If they’ve any sense, they’ll steer clear and leave us be. Or perhaps they’ve been following us for days and know exactly how many of us there are.”

“It’d be a brave group of brigands that’d attack a company of militia,” Hasprit said, “whatever our numbers, and however lean a year.”

“Perhaps. But in either case, I’ve a hunch we’ll meet Gurum Herdsman again before we reach Talos. And then you can get your axes back.”

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2 Responses to Age of Winter (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Age of War (Part I) | serialwritist

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