Age of Winter (Part IV)

The lower levels of the castle of Talos were indeed Atlantian, and the design of the fluted columns and the ornate vaulted ceilings were as familiar as home to Jonis. The architecture probably seemed archaic to the soldiers of the Seventh, thousands of years out of fashion as it was, but to her – raised around the Cyclops pens beneath the city – they were pleasingly familiar and she found it hard not to smile as they led their horses through a wide gate. In fact, the proportions were almost a little too familiar; there was just such a gate leading out of the eastern pens to the Courtyard of Souls in the centre of the complex where the great beasts were kept. Strange. The sense of familiarity ended soon enough, for only the bones of the building reminded her of Atlas, and what was laid over them was pure Talosi as she had come to recognise it. The flagstones, whose exquisite patterning she could only just glimpse, were covered in layers of matted rushes, trodden in with filth and manure. These were the stables, once glorious halls now transformed into a shed to keep animals. Dogs roamed freely, mating and defecating as the whim took them, ignored by the grubby stable hands who tended to the horses. The Talosi beasts looked stunted and squat to her eyes, more like hairy ponies than true horses, but then this was a mountainous country. It was almost obscene to watch Albrihn lead his sleek Atlasian stallion past these deformed dwarfs, but then the same was true of the man himself: he towered over the broad Talosi guardsmen, and where their scars disfigured their ugly, pale faces, his only enhanced the hard lines of his strong jaw and finely hooked classical Atlasian nose. She was growing rather fond of the arrogant captain, for all his obvious flaws.

“See this horse is treated well,” he said as he passed the reins to a gawping, gap-toothed boy with his blonde hair cut into a ragged bowl. When he said something in the harsh Talosi tongue, Albrihn only arched a questioning eyebrow at him.

“Forgive him, captain,” Jarl Huldane said, “the lad is young and hasn’t yet learnt his Atlantian letters.”

“So tell someone here who can speak a real language to explain it to him.” He shoved the reins into the boy’s hands and stalked back towards her.

“This isn’t doing the knots in your shoulders any good,” Jonis told him.

He gave her a rueful smile and put his arm around her waist. She liked the feel of his muscles against her. He was a hard man, as cruel and imperious as the warriors of old Atlas, a true son of the City by the Sea, but he was fiercely loyal to his troops, and as brave a man as she’d met. A suitable husband for any woman in Atlantis, but not for her. Never for her.

Huldane stood a little awkwardly as the Seventh set to unsaddling their horses and generally making themselves at home, dominating the space in that way they always seemed to, boisterous band of cutthroats that they were. She was growing strangely fond of them too. “Captain,” the jarl said at last, “please accompany me to the Hall of the Fathers, where the Lady Aethlan awaits you.”

“All right.” He looked around at his soldiers. “You’ll see to lodging for my company? You have barracks?”

“Yes, captain. And chambers for yourself, your officers and your…your…” He looked helplessly at Jonis.

“I’m not his anything, jarl. I represent the Keepers of Atlas. I am called Jonis.” She forcibly detached herself from Albrihn’s grip.

“Lady Jonis,” he said with an uncertain bow, “you are of course welcome along with the captain and his officers to the audience with Lady Aethlan.”

“Morrow,” Albrihn said with a flick of his wrist, “with us.”

“What?” She was scrambling down from her horse.

“You heard him.”

She walked over to them, grumbling under her breath as she tugged off her armour. “I never signed up for this, you know. What do I care about some bloody haughty lady?”

“We both know the answer to that, Morrow,” Albrihn said.

She brightened.  “Oh, that’s a thought. What does your lady look like, Huldane?”

He stared at her, then turned back to Albrihn. “Your…daughter, captain?” he hazarded.

Jonis burst out laughing. Morrow beamed. Albrihn scowled. “My lieutenant, Jarl Huldane. Second in command of this company.”

“Your forgiveness, lady,” Huldane murmured, bowing again. He looked incredibly uncomfortable with the whole situation. There was clearly something about her and Morrow that confused him.

“Can we get on?” she asked, “I like the sound of these ‘chambers’…”

“Don’t expect much,” Albrihn muttered, quiet enough that Huldane didn’t hear.

“It’s got to be better than sleeping on rocks.” She tossed her hood back and began to remove her cloak. Immediately the atmosphere in the stables changed and the hair on the back of her neck stood on end. She looked around. All of the stable hands and Talosi soldiers were staring at her, with that same expression she’d seen all the way here. She held up her hands. “What? Will someone tell me what’s going on?”

“I’m curious about that myself,” Morrow said, “why does everyone look at her like that?”

“It…it’s nothing,” Huldane said. He dragged his eyes away from Jonis. “Just an old wives’ tale. This way, if you please.” He gestured towards a dark doorway in which a flight of stone steps was visible by flickering torchlight. Frowning, Albrihn followed him, with Morrow next and Jonis, still glancing around at the scared men in the stables, taking up the rear.

They climbed up a winding stairway, going from fine Atlantian stone to the cruder materials used by the Talosi. She found it odd that they were somehow unaware of how obviously inferior their craft was. How could they squat on the ruins of a structure like this and simply heap their haphazard walls atop it? Why not attempt to imitate what was already there? But then, she knew nothing of many trades – she couldn’t tan leather or forge a sword, and what did she know of masonry, really? If the Talosi lacked anyone of the requisite talents, why should they do a better job than anyone else? She supposed she too would build a rude hut on a palace if she had to find shelter. Still, it was profoundly depressing to compare how these people lived to what she knew of Atlas and the other Provinces of Atlantis.

They proceeded down a dim corridor of unworked stone, mortared in unlovely fashion, lit by burning torches set in uneven sconces on either side. Soot blackened the walls above them and the air was thick with smoke. Jonis wanted to cough, but she retained her dignity as they walked. At the end of the hall were two large wooden doors, guarded by more armoured men with spears, garbed in the same fashion as Huldane, obviously Housecarls, whatever that meant. The door was carved with intricate designs, inlaid with gold leaf. It was the first thing she’d seen made by Talosi that wasn’t ugly – the patterns were sinuous and mesmerising, intertwining figures of warriors and beasts, obviously a scene from some legend or perhaps even true history. The imagery was crude compared to the artwork of her home city, lacking correct proportions, perspective or composition of any school of aesthetics she knew, but there was a certain barbaric earthiness to it, a sense that the Talosi might once have been capable of great nobility.

The doors were opened to admit them and Huldane led the way in. Jonis was surprised no one removed their weapons, but when she saw how many guards waited in the shadows of the so-called Hall of the Fathers, she understood. The Talosi, primitive and half-starved though they were, were a warrior people, and they guarded their rulers well. The Hall of the Fathers was a long, high room with a hearth set in the centre. Like the stables, the floor was covered with stinking rushes. Tables were pushed up against the walls, in amongst large carved wooden columns, and it was clear this great room was used for feasting as well as matters of state. There were no windows and, like the corridor outside, the light came from guttering torches and the embers of the hearth. It was a gloomy, smoky space, and Jonis’s eyes stung. A few minutes here and her hair and clothes would start to reek. She didn’t imagine the Talosi made use of bathhouses either. At the far end of the hall was a dais set with another table and a number of large wooden chairs, inlaid with gilt like the doors and columns. A few heavy Talosi men, most with thick grey beards, sat there poring over scrolls and in the centre sat a younger woman wearing a red gown. She was attractive, in a buxom sort of way, with ruddy cheeks and blonde hair tied into thick braids. She looked up as they entered and frowned.

“My Lady Aethlan,” Huldane said, bowing, “may I present Captain Albrihn of Atlas and his companions, Lieutenant Morrow and Lady Jonis the Keeper.”

“My lady,” Albrihn said with a smooth bow. His hand rested lightly on the pommel of his sword, and he made a point of bowing in the Atlantian fashion, with one foot slightly forward and eyes raised, challenging.

“Captain,” Aethlan said, “we had not received word of your coming until half an hour ago.”

“Regrettably, lady, we were not able to send word ahead. The mountain passes, as you may know, are dangerous.”

“You were waylaid?”

“By bandits. Five of my soldiers lost their lives.”

She folded her hands on the table. Her expression was unreadable, and Jonis decided she was a practiced politician. The men sitting with her, by contrast, looked like old soldiers, and it was clear that Talos selected its leaders based on martial prowess rather than statesmanship. “I’m sorry to hear that, captain. Policing the highlands to the south is an almost impossible task for our militia.”

“At least one of their chieftains lies dead now, my lady,” Albrihn smiled, “I laid him to rest myself.”

“Then you have my thanks.”

Jonis watched Albrihn carefully as he dealt with this noblewoman. Both of them were executing an intricate dance for the benefit of those around them, she realised. His company were foreign interlopers here no matter what flags they flew over their gates, and Aethlan had to appear to be in control. He must be both obsequious and demonstrate the strength of Atlantis in his every movement. She understood then why he had been reluctant to use the Imperial Seal; it would have radically altered the balance of power in this meeting, and until he understood the nature of Aethlan’s position in Talos, that was potentially dangerous.

“Why have you come here, Captain Albrihn? We have not received an envoy from Atlas in over a decade.”

“I’m aware of that, my lady. Indeed, I was part of that very envoy. I was a young sergeant then, but I spoke with your father, the late Lord Dorfin, on a number of occasions. I was grieved to learn of his passing.”

“As were we all.” There was tightness in her expression. “But you haven’t answered my question…”

“We are here on matters of state. Word has reached the court of the Emperor that Talos suffers and, though this Province is far-flung, we fear for the safety of your people. Though we are but a small force, our mission is to assist as far as we are able and, if more strength is needed, to send word back to Atlas for reinforcements.”

“A strange time for the Emperor to show his face,” a man to Athelan’s right growled. “What business of it is his what occurs within our borders?”

“You are of Atlantis, are you not?” Jonis asked. She found herself disliking the old men who flanked the lady, and got the impression she felt the same way.

Athelan looked at her and she saw the shrewdness in the woman’s eyes, but there was something else too – a wariness, perhaps. “Lady Jonis? Is that your name?”

“Keeper Jonis, my lady,” she replied with a bow of her own. She glanced at Albrihn and he just shrugged. Apparently he was happy to follow her lead now – it was almost gratifying to see he wasn’t nearly as in control as he seemed.

“Keeper? What does that mean?” another man asked.

“I am Cyclops Keeper, my lord, one of an ancient order.”

“Cyclops?” The word seemed to mean nothing to him.

“I’ve heard stories of Atlasian magic,” Aethlan said, “are you a sorceress, Keeper Jonis?”

She blinked at the bizarre question. “No…not a sorceress. I know nothing of any magic, Atlasian or otherwise. But I have the honour of tending to beasts that some might consider strange.”

“Step into the light,” the first man who had spoken said. He was looking at her strangely.

She did as he asked, walking towards the hearth. It was so gloomy in the hall she had probably been lost in shadows until then. There was a gasp from the dais and some of the men began to make the gesture she’d seen so many times. Athelan sat straighter in her chair. “Fates preserve us,” she said softly.

“That’s the second time we’ve heard that,” Albrihn said, stepping up beside Jonis, “what is it that you fear from my companion?”

“Leave us,” Aethlan snapped suddenly. There was a moment’s hesitation from the men at the table, but then they began to get up and slowly climbed down from the dais and filed past them. “You too, Huldane,” she said, “and your men. I would be alone with my guests.”

“But, my lady…”

“Am I lady of this realm or not?” she demanded with a fierce glint in her eyes. It sounded like it wasn’t the first time she’d asked that question.

“As you command,” he replied shortly. The guards began to march out too with a clink of armour and soon they were alone with the lady in the long, dark hall.

“This is a bit more like it,” Morrow whispered. She’d looked out of place throughout the conversation, but Jonis didn’t think she was Aethlan’s type.

The lady stood up and left the dais, gesturing for them to come around the hearth to join her. She held her hands together as she watched them approach. “I remember you, Captain Albrihn,” she said.

“You honour me, lady.”

“Don’t be foolish,” she snapped, “I was little more than a girl – a troop of Atlasian soldiers coming to visit is hardly something I’m like to forget. Handsome men in fine clothes, riding fine horses. I and my ladies in waiting came to know the names of all the dashing young officers, and we whispered secrets about you in our hiding places.” She smiled fondly at the memory. “It’s a shame Gwenda was lost to the pox three years ago – she’d have been thrilled to see you again, captain.”

“And he her, I’m certain,” Morrow grinned.

“Lady Aethlan,” Albrihn said, “I suspect you know why we’ve come.”

“Indeed.” She turned and watched the low embers in the hearth. “Talos suffers, as you say. Hunger stalks the land. Crops fail, and winter never seems to end.”

“The Emperor believes some change may be overtaking the world. An age of wolves and winter may be coming.”

“We’ve no shortage of wolves,” Aethlan said grimly.

“Wolves? Or creatures like them?” Jonis asked.

“I won’t speak of those things here,” Aethlan said in a low voice, “such talk is dangerous. People are already fearful. And your presence here does not help with that, Keeper Jonis.”

She looked at Albrihn. “What did I do?”

Aethlan laughed, but there was little humour in it. “It’s not what you do – it’s the markings you bear.” She pointed to her tattoo.

“All Keepers bear them…”

“But we have no Keepers here. No, I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, but there is an old story told in the temples, a prophecy. A woman will come, bringing death with her, and she will bear the mark of the One-Eyed God.”

“The One-Eyed God?” Morrow asked, “Who’s that?”

“He is the Greatfather, our chief god.” She smiled. “I understand that, in Atlas, the gods are not held in high esteem?”

“We have enough trouble with humans,” Albrihn told her diplomatically.

“You’re an enlightened people, I’m sure. I should like to visit your city someday.”

“The Emperor would be honoured to host you, lady,” he said.

“I’m sure he would be. But for now I must content myself with my own land, and here the servants of the One-Eyed God wield great power. He is a cruel and vengeful god, the lord of winter, and once he was just one of a pantheon worshipped by the Talosi. But these past years he has worked his way into the hearts of my people. Now, all the temples carry his symbol.”

“We saw it,” Jonis said, finally understanding the rings above the doors.

“I fight their influence, but my position is precarious. My father was well-liked, but disease is rife in Talos now, and he died before his time, leaving no male heirs. Since no other lord had the strength to contest the others, the moot elected me as a compromise. And so I preside over an uneasy stalemate, while the crops fail, the ice climbs down from the north and fell creatures stalk the land.”

“The Emperor will…”

“The Emperor is not here, captain,” she interrupted, her tone sharp, “but you are. You and your companions must dine with me tonight, alone. Here we are watched, but my chambers are secure. If you wish to save Talos, you will not be able to do it here. Your answers lie to the north.”

“The north?” Morrow looked unhappy about the idea of travelling even further into the freezing lands.

“My chambers, tonight, an hour after sundown” she said, “I will tell you what you need to know then. The lords will think I’ve told you everything now and will be too busy plotting against one another to send their spies.”

“Very well,” Albrihn said with another bow. “For now, we will retire to our own quarters, if you will send a servant to show us the way.”

“Certainly. But Captain Albrihn,” and here she placed a hand on his arm, “if you intend to rest, sleep only lightly. Your presence here is not welcomed.”

“You don’t need to tell us that,” Morrow said.

“Until tonight, lady,” Albrihn said, and walked towards the double doors where a servant now hovered uncertainly, called by some unseen gesture from Aethlan. Morrow followed again, but Jonis paused and looked at the Talosi ruler. She held the woman’s gaze for a moment, trying to read her again, then nodded and followed the others, wondering what the strange prophecy of the mark she allegedly bore meant.

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