Age of Winter (Part III)

The pass opened out as they travelled north, eventually leading out into the foothills of the mountains and down to an inhospitable country. As they halted on the edge of a high cliff overlooking the road ahead, Jonis regarded the view impassively. “A bleak place,” she pronounced with a certain finality.

“No one’s ever argued otherwise to my knowledge,” Albrih said. He pointed across the rocky landscape. The cloud cover was parting at last, letting through wan sunlight that dappled the hills and valleys. In the distance, to the west, there was a silvery glimmer of sea. “Talos encompasses the whole of the northern peninsula. The east side of the Province is entirely mountainous, but it slopes down to the coast.”

“Is there farming?”

“Some hardy crops near the ocean, but mostly they keep sheep and goats. The Talosi diet is a little…limited.”

Morrow rode up beside them and made much the same face Jonis had as she looked out. Like her, she was a stranger to this part of Atlantis. “No cities,” she noted.

“Most of them are further north, but Talos itself is less than ten leagues from here.” He pointed again, towards a shoulder of jagged mountains projecting north-west from the main range. “You see that smear of smoke against the snow there? That’s it. It’s high up on the mountainside, protected from attack by sheer drops on three sides. The only way to reach it is over a narrow causeway.”

“What are they defending against?” Jonis asked.

“It was built by Atlantians, long before the Talosi arrived. Although all that’s left of the original city is the foundations and a few shattered walls and towers thereabouts. Mostly the Talosi built as they had for generations before they crossed the sea.”

Morrow scowled. “If it’s anything like the mainlands, that means shit spread over wattle walls.”

“They’re a little more sophisticated than that,” Albrihn smiled.

“How so?” Jonis asked.

He tugged his horse’s reins and began to trot down the road. “They use their animals’ shit instead of their own.”

The road got no better as they dropped down into the hill country, but they at last began to see evidence of habitation. On this side of the mountains there was snow on the ground, but it was frozen hard and mostly confined to places the sun never reached. There were herds of sheep speckling the hills, tugging morosely at patches of sickly grass. The few buildings they saw near the road were, as predicted, wattle-and-daub affairs, with thatched roofs. Of the people, there was no sign. Occasionally they saw larger buildings set alone in amongst the rough fields, built with stone and sometimes even with slate tiles instead of the ubiquitous straw thatch. They were built long and low, but with bell towers at one end, and a symbol above the doors like a wooden or even metal ring. “Temples,” Albrihn shrugged when Jonis asked about them. “Talosi are superstitious.”

The first people they saw were emerging from one such temple that was set a little closer to the road. They walked out in single file, heads down against the bitter cold. They looked a ragged, underfed bunch; men, women and children of all ages, from babes in swaddling strapped to their mothers’ backs to crippled oldsters doddering along with the help of canes. As the soldiers trotted past they all stopped and watched them warily. All were pale skinned, with yellow, red or light brown hair. None of them offered any kind of greeting, they just stared at the company as it went by. “A handsome race,” Hasprit said in a low voice, drawing a few chuckles from the men closest.

“They’re just hungry,” Jonis said, “and no wonder – the flocks we saw looked in bad shape.” She rode a little closer to the edge of the road where a mother and child were standing just a few strides away and took out a hunk of bred from her pack. At first the woman didn’t move, but as Jonis waved the crust insistently she took a step closer. Then something changed in her expression as she looked up at the Atlasian woman – her face seemed to curdle and she pulled back, clutching her child closer to her defensively. She made a strange gesture across her chest, a circular movement and then began jabbering in her native language to the other villagers. They too began to make the same gesture, all looking at Jonis with a mixture of dread and hatred. Jonis, stunned, rode back to Albrihn. “What did I do?”

He shook his head. “Nothing. Just leave them alone. One bit of bread wouldn’t help them anyway.”

“If we’re not here to help the people, why are we here?”

“That remains to be seen. Forget it.”

But Jonis continued to watch the strange people over her shoulder as they left them behind. They stayed where they were, standing in their muddy field in their rags, all staring at her as if she’d done something to personally offend them. She shivered and looked away, leaving them to their oddness.

The light was waning by the time they began to approach the city of Talos. The main road had widened, but it was still little more than a muddy track by the standards of Atlas, and it had begun to take them back up into the mountains that now loomed up on their right again. The snow still clung to the ground in places but now there were a few more trees, invariably tall, dark firs that only made the land seem even more foreboding. There were also travellers on the road, mostly on foot, but a few in carts pulled by scraggy ponies. They came both ways, and they all looked much like the peasants they’d seen earlier, thin and wearing colourless, threadbare clothes that were probably little protection against the cold. Their carts were rickety and rotten and the overall impression Jonis got was that the general standard of craft in this place was poor. Most people seemed to be farmers and the only tradesman she saw was a smith driving a wain laden with an anvil and tools away from the city, dragged by a team of larger horses than they’d seen so far. Only the scrawny children looked at them; everyone else kept their eyes straight ahead. Jonis had her hood pulled up against the cold, but anyone who chanced to come close enough to see her face got the same look in their eyes she’d seen from the woman outside the temple.

“Should we not fly the banner, captain?” Hasprit asked, “let them know we’re friends, not invaders?”

“That would not be wise,” Albrihn said, and no one pressed him on it.

The walls of Talos came into view as they rounded a bend in the road. Just as Albrihn had described, it was set on a pinnacle of rock that jutted from the mountainside, with long drops on all three sides. Only a causeway of stone, obviously built by Atlantian hands, connected it to the road. Assault from the direction of the mountains would be quite impossible as the black cliffs were almost sheer and looked icy. The city itself was ringed by walls of the same dark grey rock as the mountains, but they were stained with smoke and filth and in places had fallen into disrepair. Within, the buildings were heaped like a ant’s nest, leading up to a citadel of sorts, obviously built on Atlantian foundations but since expanded by local workmanship with a mixture of primitive stonework and wood. It was a crude, unlovely structure, but it fit with the rest of the settlement, which reeked even from this distance and was crowned with a pall of smoke from thousands of hearths. “Talos,” Albrihn announced. His voice sounded grim, and Jonis could hardly blame him.

As they approached the causeway, their way was barred by a secondary line of defences, centred around an Atlantian-built gatehouse. Two tall towers, stained with soot like everything else, frowned down at them. Their tops, perhaps once capped with delicate minarets, were now built up with wooden palisades studded with murder holes from which crude missiles could be rained down. Jonis spied a few pale, helmeted faces peering down at them. The gate itself was barred with an iron portcullis, but it was currently raised to admit traffic. There were two banners hanging above it – one Jonis recognised as the arms of the Province of Talos in the same style as the other symbols of Atlantis, with a bronze, winged figure holding a sheaf of lightning bolts in his outstretched hand. The other she didn’t know, but it showed a round black circle on a red field, bisected by a line. It was of less sophisticated make that the stained Atlantian standard that was obviously a relic of a time when this Province had better relations with its neighbours. As she looked at it flapping in the wind it occurred to her that it resembled a staring eye, and she felt a shudder down her spine for some reason.

“Halt,” a thin voice said from within the gate, and a handful of soldiers stepped out to greet them. They were a motley lot, larger and better fed than the other Talosi they’d seen, but with the same colouring and thick accents. Their arms and armour were a mixture both in terms of style and quality – but it was mostly ring mail with battered pot helms and they carried spears and wooden shields, with short stabbing swords of a kind she hadn’t seen before at their hips. They were all men, strangely. Their leader had a thick tangled red beard and what looked to be a permanent scowl. “In the name of the Atlantian militia, you’ll go no further.”

This poorly-equipped oaf identifying himself as a militiaman almost made Jonis burst out laughing but Albrihn’s face was stern and he stopped the column with a raised fist. He nodded to the guard. “Well met, comrade. I am Captain Albrihn of the Seventh Atlantian Light Horse, Ninth Regiment. We are here as envoys from Atlas on business of the state. Captain…” he raised his eyebrows.

“Thegn Ulfan,” the bearded man said. He seemed a little taken aback to find himself faced with fellow militiamen.

“I don’t know that rank,” Morrow said.

“Leave it,” Albrihn said shortly. “Send word to the castle if you would, Thegn Ulfan. We wish to speak to the Lord of Talos.”

Ulfan eyed them all and ran thick fingers through his beard. “Not supposed to let armed men into the city.”

Albrihn’s eyes narrowed. “As I said, thegn, we come on matters of state. My visit concerns the fate of Atlantis. According to the arms you fly above this gatehouse; that includes this garrison.”

“But you could be anyone, Captain…what was it?”

“Albrihn. Rayke Albrihn.”

“You could be anyone, couldn’t you?” He gave them an evil smile, revealing a mouth full of yellowed teeth.

Jonis trotted her horse closer. “Show them the seal, Rayke,” she suggested.

“I’d rather not let this thug know who sent us here. He’ll be telling every sot in the nearest tavern about it before sundown.” He spoke low and fast, and Ulfan couldn’t follow his words, frowning in consternation at them.

“So what? Cut them down?”

Albrihn glanced at the surly guardsmen. “It’s starting to appeal…”

“Let me try. Even here the markings of a Keeper should be known.” She rode forward and tossed her hood back nonchalantly, revealing the intricate tattoo that ringed her left eye, the mark she’d borne since childhood that indicated her profession, indeed, her entire identity as a human being. The effect was even more profound than she’d expected, with Ulfan and his soldiers immediately scrambling back towards the gate, weapons raised. The thegn’s face contorted into an expression of strangled terror, with eyes wide and mouth agape. The grip on his spear looked unsteady. She turned askance to Albrihn. “What’s wrong with them?”

“They’re scared of beautiful women,” Morrow answered for him. She winked at Jonis.

“No wonder they didn’t do this when they saw you then,” Hasprit laughed.

Albrihn’s hand was on his sword. “Put down your weapons. She rides with my company. If you mean her harm, we’ll see bloodshed here today. Is that what you want?”

Ulfan tried to keep an eye on both Jonis and the captain as he backed away. “No, Captain Albrihn…it’s just…”

“Just what?”

“N…nothing, sir. You can go through. And the fates spare us all.” He made that gesture again, tracing a circle in the air in front of his chest.

“Strange folk,” Morrow said.

“Make sure you send that messenger,” Albrihn told Ulfan as he rode past, “I don’t wish to have this conversation again with a man at the castle.”

Jonis was disturbed by the reaction her presence had caused, but kept her thoughts to herself. They continued along the causeway that led to the city, travelling two abreast to keep the path clear for traffic coming in the other direction. It was busier now, and they saw a few more guardsmen lining the way, looking just as slovenly as the ones at the gate – bullies given swords and armour, clearly. After a few minutes, a boy on a fast horse galloped past them, sending farmers scattering as he passed. He glanced over his shoulder at them and his eyes went wide. He kicked his horse’s flanks and was rewarded with another burst of speed. “At least they know we’re coming now,” Jonis murmured.

No guard barred their way at the gates to Talos and they entered the city without incident. Within the walls, Jonis was immediately assailed by a rank odour of manure and wood smoke. As Morrow had guessed, most of the buildings were walled with mud or dung and apart from the crooked main road that led up to the castle at the top of the city they were laid out in a haphazard warren. There were plenty of people now and the going was slow. There were tradesmen at least, and even perhaps a few merchants. Certainly some of the buildings were shops, but with the meagre wares laid out on rough tables before the doors – more like homes where the inhabitants knew some trade or craft and so sold what they’d made in the street instead of dedicated businesses. Outside one such dwelling cuts of meat were strung up in the open air, with skinny sheep splayed open, skinned but otherwise completely intact. Innards and genitals hung from the carcasses and their sightless eyes seemed to follow her as she passed. There was a pool of blood on the muddy ground beneath each of them. The butcher wore no apron, but his jerkin and hose were stained with offal. None of his customers seemed the least bit perturbed by the grisly spectacle.

“This reminds me of the mainlands,” a soldier, Carlo, said to her. He was a short man, now with a fresh scar across one cheek from the skirmish with the bandits in the mountains, “live like animals, they do.”

Jonis found it hard to disagree. Just like Atlas, there was a palpable sense of misery and deprivation from the commoners, but here it seemed less due to the unbroken years of hard winters and wet summers of late, than something native to the population. Albrihn had been correct when he said the Talosi had adopted few Atlantian customs even after a millennium on the island. She’d never seen such a squalid place. The one exception to the general degradation she saw and the uniformly small, slapdash hovels were the temples. Here they were grander than the ones out in the farmlands, sometimes even with two storeys. Their bell towers were built of stone and were even taller, with pointed roofs. The ring symbols over the doors were always made of iron at least, and occasionally – especially higher up the hill towards the castle – in more precious metals. Sometimes men filed past in black robes marked with the same design they’d seen on the flag over the gate, and the other inhabitants of Talos gave them a wide berth. Their hair was cut strangely, shaved at the front and, again, they were all male. In fact, almost all of the soldiers and tradesmen Jonis saw seemed to be men. Women were either bent crones or younger women carrying babies or walking with children. It was a strange city, quite apart from the dung that seemed to be everywhere and the smell of which almost made her gag. They used it not only to insulate their homes, but as a source of fuel as well. Animals – sheep and goats – were penned into foetid enclosures between homes or sometimes just wandered freely. None of the Talosi seemed to notice, or if they did didn’t appear to mind it.

What they did notice was her and, now the streets were so crowded she was obliged to ride closer to them, she saw that same terrified look on almost every pale, emaciated face. And that hand gesture over and over. She started to feel quite self-conscious and pulled her hood back up, which seemed to help. Whatever was scaring them seemed to be something to do with her face.

At last they reached the castle. It was surrounded by an inner wall, just a wooden palisade, and there was another garrison at the gate. Whether they were there to greet them or stop them entering was unclear. Albrihn slowed as they approached and Jonis rode up beside him. Morrow, as the company’s lieutenant, took up position on the other side. The leader of the guards was another large man, but he looked younger than Ulfan and his gear was of better quality. He stepped forward and saluted in the Atlantian manner, fist across chest, but the gesture seemed unfamiliar to him and he made it a little awkwardly. “Captain Albrihn,” he said, “I am Jarl Huldane of the Housecarls of Grafburg…uh…Talos.” Again, the term sounded odd, as if he was unused to saying it. A people apart indeed.

Albrihn inclined his head. “Jarl Huldane. Thank you for your welcome. We desire an audience with Lord Dorfin as soon as it can be arranged.”

Huldane looked uncomfortable. “That will not be possible, captain.”

Albrihn raised an eyebrow. “You mean to stop us? For what reason?” He was reaching inside his cloak, presumably for the Imperial Seal, at last satisfied he’d reached someone of sufficient authority to deploy it.

“No, captain. Lord Dorfin has been dead this past year. His daughter, Lady Aethlan, now rules here.”

“Well take me to her then,” Albrihn said, sounding suddenly frustrated. Jonis placed a hand on his arm.

“As you wish, captain.” The Jarl bowed and led them through the gates.

Morrow frowned at Jonis as Albrihn rode on, growling under his breath. “What was that about?” she asked her.

“Don’t ask me. This whole place is giving me a headache.”

“Aye. I need to find a whore before I go crazy from this stink.”

Jonis looked back at the filthy city. “Good luck – didn’t you notice? Not a single brothel, at least not that I saw.”

Morrow visibly paled. “What?”

“Told you,” Carlo said as he went past, “animals.”

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