They came even sooner than he’d expected. Anticipating the attack, he set a strong watch over their camp that evening. Safe places were hard to come by on the road, and had been all the way up into the mountains, but they found a spot up the slope between two black crags that offered shelter and as good a field of vision as he could hope for. The mist had finally melted away as the sleet returned, and then turned to snow that didn’t stick to the wet ground. Instead the rocks were slippery and treacherous, polished to slick obsidian. The clouds were heavy as they tied up their horses and made the best of it they could. No fires, and just salted meat and hardtack to ease empty stomachs. Albrihn was wary, and it was infectious. The whole company seemed jumpy, watching every shifting shadow as twilight descended without preamble. The wind was bitterly cold and, as he stalked around the camp, he saw cloaks whipping back and forth and helmets pulled low. He hadn’t seen his soldiers like this since their first year in the mainlands, when the bravado had been beaten out of them a time or two and they found themselves in enemy territory, far from home. They weren’t in enemy territory now, at least not in theory. This was Atlantis. This was home.
Jonis caught his eye as he passed and he walked over to her. “I can see you’re tense,” she told him.
He smiled. He could only just make her out in the gloom, a tall, lean shape, sitting cross-legged against a rock. She was an attractive woman, and her needs were simple. Her destiny was to marry her own brother, to preserve the strange ability that allowed her people to control the monstrous Cyclopes, but he was inclined towards men, and so until the day they were supposed to wed – and while her Cyclops digested its last grotesque meal – she was free to do as she pleased, and find comfort accordingly. He too was unattached, and their mutual attraction had quickly turned physical. Now he sat in front of her at her urging and she wrapped her arms around his chest from behind. He felt her warm breath on his ear and eased into her touch as she moved her hand to his shoulder and rubbed at the knots there. He’d taken off his armour. “Talos is a shithole,” she murmured.
“Does it get any better than this miserable pass?”
“Why do they put up with it?”
“They seem to like it here. Who knows?”
“I’m cold,” she whispered.
He shifted closer to her. “It’ll get no warmer further north, I’m afraid.”
“Then we’ll need to find some way to…”
The call sounded across the camp, the same as before, Morrow’s distinctive whistle, but much louder this time. A call to arms. Albrihn jumped to his feet and cast around for his equipment.
“Here,” Jonis said, tossing him his baldric and scabbard. He yanked his mail from his pack, but already the sound of fighting reached his ears, steel clashing, shouts of fury and pain. The sentries were under attack. Jonis was on her feet, pulling out her own sword; an oddly curved blade with barbs on one side, a ritualistic weapon of her trade. He had no doubt she knew how to use it.
Quickly he took stock, looking around as the camp roused to life. Soldiers moved with practiced grace, stowing food quickly and taking up arms. Some were strapping on their armour, while others trusted that the need for haste was more vital and headed straight for the fighting. Formulating a strategy was useless in these confines and in this light. He’d ordered the camp set out to repel an attack, and now he just had to trust his men and women to live up to their reputations. From the sound of things, the attackers were coming from two directions, west and north. No doubt they’d have tried to encircle them, but the terrain didn’t favour it. North led further up the pass, and a few leagues hence it would dip back down to foothills and into the heartland of Talos, such as it was. West were more crags, valleys, caves and good hiding places – bandit country. He therefore judged the main thrust of the assault would come from there.
He and Jonis sprinted across the stony ground and found the fighting soon enough. His company were cavalry, but they were being forced to fight on foot, and were giving a good account of themselves nonetheless. A knot of his soldiers were blocking the gap between the two crags, holding back the foe with swords and axes, while another squadron led by Morrow were taking up positions with bows behind them, firing over their heads at the bandits that swarmed down the mountainside. It was hard to make out much in the darkness, but he could see the shadows leaping and bounding over rocks, and a gleam of iron and steel here and there as weapons were brandished.
Morrow ordered her squadron to loose their arrows and the shafts arced into the black sky. He didn’t see where they fell, but there were guttural cries of dismay from the attackers and the line of Atlasian soldiers pressed forward.
“Rabble,” Morrow said dismissively as she nocked another arrow.
“But a numerous rabble,” Jonis pointed out.
“And another group of them to the north.” Now he’d confirmed the fighting here, he could pick out the sounds of the other assault, to his right on the other side of the camp.
“They might go for the horses, captain,” Morrow said. She lifted her bow and her troops fired another coordinated volley skyward. Their bows were curved and short, not designed for this kind of work, but they’d suffice at such close range.
“Good point,” Albrihn said, “can you hold these here?”
“If we can’t, you’ll soon know about it.”
Grinning at her usual cavalier attitude to danger, he and Jonis headed off to the other skirmish. Here things were less orderly, as the land was more open. A smaller, but equally determined group of bandits were rushing the Atlasian lines. Most were cut down by close-range bowfire, but a handful smashed into the soldiers, hacking at them with axes and clubs. He saw at least three of his men go down screaming. The horses were tied up less than a dozen strides behind the battle lines, and if the bandits reached them they’d be crippled. The largest of them, with the look of a chieftain of some kind, sent one of his soldiers to the ground with a spurt of blood as he swung two axes in a wide, deadly arc. He let out an ululating war cry and charged forward, and Albrihn could see he was armoured with leather and mail beneath the furs he wore.
They rushed into the fray, Albrihn with his longsword drawn. He was the equal of almost any fighter he knew, and to him the movements of the bandits seemed sluggish and clumsy. He ducked and weaved around their crude weapons, taking them out of the fight with deft slices across hamstrings and wrists, rather than seek a killing blow every time. He left screaming men in his wake, and Jonis too wrought a path of ruin, her strange sword proving deadly as she whipped it back and forth, letting the curved blade and the cruel hooks do most of the work. Finally, Albrihn found himself face to face with the chieftain. He’d fought against men like this in the mainlands, and he knew all too well that this was one foe he’d have to kill if he wanted to stop him.
The tall warrior swung his axes at Albrihn, aiming to decapitate him with a single blow, but he sidestepped and parried. The larger man’s arm was strong and the impact reverberated up Albrihn’s narrow blade. He moved quickly, taking advantage of his speed, glad to have left his armour behind after all. Jonis was fighting two of the bandits now, but most of this skirmish was done, with many of their attackers lying dead or dying on the rocks. The sound of the clash to the west also seemed to have abated.
The chieftain was moving warily, seemingly unperturbed by the deaths of his comrades around him. His face was blunt and scarred, and his blonde hair hung in thick, dirty braids to his waist. Albrihn got a better look at his axes up close, and he recognised them. That confirmed his suspicions anyway. Wasting no more time he roared and charged. His enemy swung his axes laterally, intending to hack into him as he ran, but Albrihn ducked and went into a roll that carried him beneath the wild slash. He jumped up to his feet and the chieftain was taken by surprise. Unbalanced by his heavy weapons he pirouetted crazily on one leg and spun right around. Albrihn sliced him across his torso, his blade cutting deep into his mail shirt. Blood poured from the wound and the bandit bellowed in anger and pain. He swung again, redoubling his efforts, and Albrihn had to parry desperately, dancing back. A patch of scree beneath one of his boots gave way and almost sent him flying but he recovered himself before he fell and managed to deflect a glancing blow from the larger axe. Up on his feet again he fought back, using his sword in a two-handed grip, putting all his strength into every strike, intending to simply batter through the barbarian’s defences as the strength leaked out of him. It worked and he could see doubt entering the brute’s eyes. Now he was on the defence, trying to beat back a darting blade with heavy axes he was losing the strength to wield. The same scree that had almost betrayed Albrihn now served him well as the chieftain lost his footing and went down to one knee. He raised his axes, but Albrihn cut his forearms to ribbons and, as he dropped his weapons with a cry, rammed the sword into his throat.
The campsite fell silent as the last of the bandits took flight from the carnage. Albrihn got his breath back and then pulled his sword free, letting the chieftain’s corpse fall to the ground. Morrow and the other soldiers were heading over to them now, a little battered and bloody, but flushed from victory. Hasprit had been in the mêlée in the gap and looked a little the worse for wear, but brightened when he saw his axes near the captain’s feet.
“Little bastard!” Morrow said.
“I know.” Albrihn knelt down and wiped off his sword on the chieftain’s short plaid robes he wore beneath his furs. Jonis touched his shoulder gently and he looked up. She pointed with her bloody sword across the slope, where he could just make out a shadow slinking in the darkness. “Morrow?” he said.
“I see him, captain.” She set an arrow and pulled back her bow, squinting into the shadows.
“Just try to bring him down; I want to talk to him first.”
“Fine.” She lifted the bow slightly and then let fly. A scream greeted them and then the sound of a small body hitting the rocks and rolling to a halt.
When they found Gurum Herdsman, he was sitting up against a rock with half an arrow still in his shoulder. He cringed away from Albrihn as the point of his sword pressed against his throat. “Speak,” he said.
“Weren’t me, sir, I was just doing as I was told. ‘Twas the bandits, see. They tricked me an’…”
“I knew you were a spy for them,” Albrihn interrupted, “do you think we’re fools?”
“No, sir. Not fools, sir.”
“You must have been truly desperate to attack soldiers,” Jonis said, “what were you hoping to get from us? Gold?”
“I told you I’m no lord,” Albrihn said, “we carry nothing but the supplies we need and our weapons. Or was it horseflesh you sought? Answer me!”
“Yes, sir, yes that was it. Horse, sir. Good eating on a horse…”
Albrihn frowned. “Not on a warhorse. All muscle and sinew. But if you’re as hungry as you look, that might make sense.” He took his sword from the old man’s throat and crouched down in front of him. “But that isn’t it, is it?” He searched Gurum’s grizzled face. “No, because there was no shortage of good steel in your little band, and mail besides, and not all were as starved as you. That big one certainly wasn’t anyway – he almost gave me a good fight. No, you’d nothing so fine as our weapons, but someone armed you, or am I wrong?”
“Weren’t no one armed us, sir, just what we found ourselves.”
“Found or stole?” Jonis snorted.
Albrihn grabbed the man around the neck and lifted his sword again. “You’re not bandits. Bandits, even in desperation, would never try an attack like that. Who ordered you to watch this pass, Gurum? Who gave your friends weapons and armour and the sense to go for our horses? Hm?”
Gurum’s eyes were wide as he croaked his innocence. His feeble hands clutched at Albrihn’s sleeve in a vain attempt to free himself, until the captain finally released him and he slumped down, massaging his throat with a miserable expression on his face. “Weren’t no one,” he rasped, “just some hard-up fellows trying to survive is all.”
“Indeed.” He straightened and sheathed his sword. “And today you will survive, Gurum, and plenty of your friends who I saw run will be just as lucky too. But if you dare to attack us again, I hope you understand that I won’t be so inclined towards mercy. Is that clear?”
“Very clear, sir, very clear.” Gurum was nodding desperately, cringing away from Albrihn again. They left him there again, walking slowly back to the camp, where some of the soldiers were covering their comrades who had died with their cloaks. The bandits they heaped in a pile off to one side for the crows.
“You should’ve killed the little shit, captain,” Morrow said.
“Why didn’t you?” Jonis asked.
“Pity, for one. But also I believe him, at least in part.”
Morrow looked at the corpses that littered the rocky ground. “You were really think these were just bandits?”
“I think they used to be, but someone saw the need to keep travellers out of Talos. No wonder only rumours of what’s happening have reached Atlas – I doubt many messengers have managed to cross these mountains in the last few seasons. So Gurum was telling the truth when he said they were just desperate men.”
Morrow sneered. “I’ll shed no tears for those who cut down my brothers and sisters.”
“Neither will I,” Albrihn said, “but there’s some canker at the heart of this province, and I believe it’s what we were sent to find.” He pointed. “Keep to the same watch as before. I don’t think they’ll return tonight, but stranger things have happened.” He looked down at the dead soldiers sadly. “We’ll bury them in the morning.”
“Captain,” Morrow said with a salute.
He headed back to his pallet with Jonis at his side. She took his hand as they walked and he accepted her comforting touch. He needed that and more tonight, for a feeling of dread had settled over him. His troops were dying, and they hadn’t even reached the city of Talos yet.