Age of Winter (Part V)

The chambers Albrihn was given, and which he’d indicated to the servant he intended to share with Jonis, were high in one of the castle’s squat stone towers, and the exterior wall was therefore gently curved. There was a tall, narrow window protected by wooden shutters that he had thrown back to let some air in right away and which he now stood at, looking out over the city of Talos. The air was cold, but it felt refreshing after the smoky atmosphere of the Hall of Fathers and he was high above the stink of the filthy streets here. It was almost picturesque, with the black crags marching their way down towards the flatter land to the west, like huge rocky fingers reaching for the sea. The sky was dark and overcast and it was hard to estimate the hour, but he judged it wasn’t yet time for them to pay their visit to Lady Aethlan. The wind smelt of snow, and as he looked northward, he saw a faint glimmer of white on the horizon. He’d never travelled further than this in Atlantis, but in the mainlands he had journeyed to lands that permanently shivered under a thick layer of ice. He did not relish returning to such climes, but if that was where he must go to fulfil his duty then so be it.

“Have you seen what’s in there?” Jonis asked as she walked into the chamber from the small adjoining room.

“I can guess.” As he turned from the window he saw the stricken look she wore and couldn’t help laughing.

“This isn’t funny. They’re like animals. It’s just a wooden shelf with a hole in it, Rayke, and I don’t know where the drop underneath leads to.”

“It probably just empties down the side of the castle, into the chasm.”

“That’s disgusting…”

“Talosi seem to think there’s something unhygienic about plumbing.”

Jonis shuddered and sat down on the bed. The room wasn’t large, and the furniture was utilitarian. The mattress was stuffed with straw and the woollen bedclothes didn’t appear too clean. Jonis ran a hand across the rough surface. “You know when I said this would be better than sleeping on rocks?”

“I never realised Keepers were so pampered,” he said, crossing the room and sitting down beside her. She moved closer, leaning into him.

“I don’t understand how they can call themselves Atlantians and still live like this.”

“It’s an improvement over a lot of the places I stayed in the mainlands.”

“But it reminds you of it, doesn’t it?”

He nodded. “Yes. After three years away, I hoped to have time to actually enjoy my home city. Now I find the ruin I thought I left on the other side of the ocean seems to have spread.” He looked out of the window. The clouds were moving quickly in the wind, and for just a moment he caught sight of a patch of clear sky, studded with bright stars.

“What do you think about what Athelan said about the prophecy?”

“Hm? What prophecy?”

“You’re so self-involved,” she chided gently. “About me, and how scared all these savages are when they see me. The thing about their One-Eyed God or whoever he is.”

“Oh that.” He shrugged. “Talosi are superstitious. You saw their monks.”

“Their what?”

“The fellows in the robes with the shaved heads. That’s what they’re called.”

“Ah. What are they? Some sort of priest?”

“Kind of. It’s a little complicated. They’re a sort of brotherhood of men who live apart from everyone else.”

“For sex?”

He laughed. “No, not like that. They dedicate themselves to their faith. They swear strict vows of celibacy.”

Jonis started to smile as if he were making a joke, then realised he was deadly serious. “Why?” she asked.

“Like I said, they’re superstitious. Who knows why they do the things they do?”

“Bizarre.” She ran a hand across her tattoo. The design was a complex web of interlocking shapes, the meaning of which he’d made no attempt to divine. He didn’t tell her so, but the Keepers were an order apart just like the Talosi monks, with their own strange ways, like her betrothal to her own brother. Was that any more sinister than celibacy? “I don’t like them thinking I have anything to do with their gods.”

“In my experience, people with gods tend to think everything has something to do with them.”

“Even so.” She looked out of the window now and he followed her gaze. In the last few minutes it had grown distinctly darker. “We should go. Have dinner.”

“Yes. It won’t do to keep a lady waiting.” He stood up and reached for his clothes; they were in a crumpled heap on the floor where he’d left them.

“What do they eat here?”

“You saw the sheep on the hills.”

“Maybe they’re better chefs than they are architects.” She sorted her own clothes from the pile and started to tug on her trousers.

“I wouldn’t set your expectations too high.”

“I haven’t. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the Talosi so far, it’s never to overestimate them.”

Morrow looked almost presentable as they met her in the corridor, stuffed into a clean uniform, very creased from where it had resided in her pack for probably months. She looked annoyed though. “I asked the servant where the bathhouse was and he looked at me like I was crazy,” she explained.

“The Talosi don’t put much stock in baths,” Albrihn said, leading the way towards the stairs that wound around the exterior of the tower that held their chambers.

“So how do they keep clean?”

“Wake up and smell your hosts, Morrow,” Jonis said.

“The Talosi have a saying,” Albrihn said as they began their descent, “uncleanliness is next to godliness.”

“You’re joking, right?”

“I never joke, lieutenant. You should know that by now.”

Morrow continued to grumble as they walked down another gloomy corridor. The whole castle seemed ominously quiet and their boots echoed on the flagstones. “I thought for sure the boy would know where the nearest brothel was, but that confused him even more.”

“Brothels are frowned upon in Talos.”

“Why?”

“Apparently they have some strange ideas about sex here,” Jonis told Morrow.

“So what do their soldiers do all day? Not train, that’s for sure. The way they were holding their spears at the gate, you’d think they’d never been drilled in their lives.”

“They’re formidable enough when they need to be,” Albrihn said, “what they lack in skill they more than make up for in strength and ferocity.”

“All the more reason to build a few nice brothels.  You know the saying: ‘a soldier without a whore to take his coin only makes trouble for everyone else’.” She recited it in a funny sing-song voice.

They reached the door to Aethlan’s chambers and it was opened before Albrihn even knocked. The servant was a young woman in an embroidered gown and she gave them a slight curtsey. Albrihn, Morrow and Jonis filed in. The chambers were much larger than the ones he’d been given, lit by a circular candelabra hanging from the ceiling and the furniture was far grander. There was more carving and gilt details, and the walls were hung with rich tapestries. They all seemed to depict scenes of battle, with warrior lords riding on horseback and carrying swords and axes as their enemies lay rent and bloody on the floor. There was a square wooden table set out in the centre of the room and more servants were setting out bowls and plates. As the three visitors stood around awkwardly, Aethlan swept from an adjoining room wearing a green gown with a flattering fit around her hips and bosom. She was a comely woman, but fairly typical of the stocky Talosi. “Thank you for coming,” she said, “please sit.”

They took chairs around the table, and the servants began to serve food. It was a thin broth of some kind, filled with root vegetables and stringy meat. There was crusty black bread too that looked none too fresh, but things improved as a servant produced a bottle of wine marked with Atlasian script. Albrihh recognised the name of the vineyard, and the vintage looked good. “Our cellar is not well stocked,” Aethlan said apologetically, “but this bottle was laid down by my father in his youth. He was said to have an unusually fine palette for a Talosi man.”

“You shouldn’t waste such a valuable heirloom on us, my lady,” Albrihn said.

“Nonsense.” She gestured for the servant to pour. The goblets were pewter, and a little tarnished.

After the food and drink was served, the servants melted into the shadows and it was as if they were alone, but Jonis noted their presence. “Lady Athelan,” she said as she swirled the wine around her cup, “you said you feared spies earlier.”

“I do, Keeper Jonis.”

“Do you trust your servants then?”

Aethlan smiled. “Look closer, Keeper. All my servants are women.”

Jonis tilted her head. “So you’re certain of their loyalty? I don’t understand…”

“I’m certain of nothing, except the minds of my enemies, who would never consider it worth asking a woman what she’d seen. We are as safe as we can be.”

Jonis looked more confused than ever, but she let the matter drop and began to eat. The food was tasteless and greasy, but it was hard to tell if it was a result of the starvation that seemed to pervade the land or simply another example of Talosi cultural poverty. Albrihn didn’t mind – he was used to surviving on hardtack and worse, and like all soldiers knew how to appreciate a hot meal when he got one. “Thank you for your hospitality, Lady Aethlan,” he said, lifting his goblet before taking a sip. The wine was indifferent, but it still reminded him of home. He hadn’t had a glass of Atlasian wine since his return, he realised, and that had been one of the things he’d been looking forward to most of all.

“Not at all. We get so few visitors. It is an honour to host guests from the Great City by the Sea.”

“Not surprising they don’t come,” Morrow said through a mouthful of stew, “when it’s impossible to get across the mountains without being attacked.”

Aethlan grimaced. “As I said to you in the Hall, it is regrettable that…”

“My lieutenant means no disrespect,” Albrihn cut in, “she is a soldier, not a diplomat. The situation on your borders is precisely why we are here.”

“Of course,” Morrow mumbled, “I didn’t mean anything by it…”

“Not at all, lieutenant.” She took a sip of her wine and watched Morrow closely. They sat opposite one another, and Albrihn could see it was taking all of the lieutenant’s self-control not to start giving her the eye across the table. “You must forgive me, but I find the ways of Atlas so strange. Is it common for women to be soldiers in your city?”

“It’s common all over Atlantis,” Morrow said.

Albrihn broke off a piece of bread and dipped it into the stew in his bowl. “A little over half my company are women,” he explained, “But we’re cavalry, and a lighter soldier makes a better rider, so perhaps we’re a little unusual in that respect. But on the whole…yes, it’s common enough. As common as it is in any other trade.” He popped the bread into his mouth and chewed on the tough crust, watching Aethlan.

“It is not so in Talos,” she said.

Jonis gestured around the room with her spoon. The servants may have really left them alone, so deep were the shadows, but her meaning was clear. “Like your ladies in waiting. What’s wrong with the men in this land? What do they fear?”

There was a spark of indignation in Aethlan’s eyes. “The men of Talos fear nothing,” she said, “but…yes, our ways must seem odd to you. Backward even. I know our homes must seem rude and rustic, our people uncouth, our food bland and tasteless. I have read about Atlas and the other great cities of Atlantis all my life. My father was one of the few Lords of Talos to cultivate a love of reading in his house.”

“Lord Dorfin was a learned man,” Albrihn acknowledged.

“He was.” She sounded sad. “But he could be cruel as well. I spoke of enemies and you three are shrewd enough to have perceived the situation with the lords who attended me, I’m sure. They are the moot, the council of Talos, who make the laws and appoint the ruler of the realm.”

“You’re the last lord’s daughter though,” Morrow said with a frown. She’d already drained her goblet and was reaching for the bottle for more, but Albrihn restrained her almost absently with a hand on her wrist and she sat back sullenly.

“If I was born a man, my position would be much more secure, yes.” She shook her head. “Do you know, you two here – Lieutenant Morrow, Keeper Jonis – are the only unmarried women of around my own age that I’ve ever met? I am considered most unusual.”

“But you’re barely thirty,” Jonis protested.

“I am twenty-five. Highborn Talosi girls are generally married as soon as they are old enough to bear children.”

Jonis’s disgust was obvious again – her face looked the same as when she’d discovered the latrine in their chambers. “That’s grotesque,” she said.

“In our language, the word for wife is the same as the word for peacemaker. Marriages are used to bind rival houses together, to foster alliances, to prevent the realm from falling into anarchy. I was fortunate, in my way, to be born in an age of instability. My father used me as a tool to play his rivals against one another, promising me to each of the lords in turn, holding them at bay. What my eventual fate would have been, I shall never know. He died, and I was left alone against those wolves. But, once again, I was saved by their petty squabbles. My hand is the most prized in Talos, but none are powerful enough to demand it. They continue their bickering, and I remain free, until the day one seizes enough power to turn the moot against me. Then, in order to maintain continuity and ensure the stability of the country, I will no doubt be forced to marry whichever of them it is.”

Morrow and Jonis both looked appalled. “In Atlas, and the other Provinces too,” Albrihn said softly, “a woman is free to marry whomever she chooses.”

“Yes,” Aethlan sighed, “I have heard that.” Most of her meal was untouched but she seemed to have eaten her fill and now she sat back and sipped her wine with a thoughtful look on her face. “I have also heard that there are women who lie with women, and men who lie with men, and more besides.”

“That is so,” Albrihn said.

“And even women who choose to live as men and vice versa? And no one thinks that strange?”

“It’s not so common,” Morrow said, “but it’s not strange.”

“It would be here. A man who dressed as a woman would be killed in the street. I’m quite certain of it.”

“In Atlas,” Albrihn said, “people care little for whether someone is a man or a woman, any more than they care about the colour of a person’s eyes or hair.”

“But,” she said, “I have heard that they place great store in the colour of their skin. I would be a commoner in Atlas, would I not, with my fair complexion?”

“It’s not as simple as that…”

“No indeed.” And here she glanced at Jonis. “But I did not bring you here so we could swap stories about our respective lands. You are here on behalf of the Emperor?”

“I bear his Seal, my lady, if you doubt it.”

She waved her hand. “Not at all, captain. I trust you. My own spies – my maids – have confirmed that you lost the soldiers you claimed, at least to judge by your spare horses. If you were ruthless enough to slaughter your own to deceive me, I suspect I would already be dead. So, I believe you are here to help, but I do not believe you know why you were sent here, not really.”

Albrihn shifted uneasily. He too had had his fill of the poor fare that now congealed unpleasantly in the bowl before him. “The Emperor heard of rebellion and unrest and…there is something else…”

“The wargs?” Her face was impassive as she said it and her fingers toyed with the stem of her goblet.

“Dogmen,” Jonis said with a nod, “the Hyen-a-khan.”

“That is the name they have for themselves,” Albrihn told Aethlan.

“They are in Atlas too then?”

“I encountered them in the mainlands, but yes, they have reached Atlas. Just two weeks ago we slew a band of them not a day’s ride from the city.”

“They are rife in the northern peninsula,” Aethlan said, “and we do not know where they come from. They burn villages and take the inhabitants away to be tortured and eaten. They are savage beasts.”

“Why not fight back against them?” Morrow asked.

Aethlan laughed hollowly. “Did you not hear the story of my sad girlhood, lieutenant? My realm is divided between feuding lords. The domains most heavily assailed by these…what was it?”

“Hyen-a-khan,” Jonis said.

“Yes, Hyen-a-khan, as you call them, are ruled by Lord Wodan, who despised my father most of all. He comes to Talos only rarely, preferring to stay in his halls in Svartburg, the northernmost Talosi city. The few spies I have in his court report he is gathering an army.”

“To drive back the dogmen?” Morrow asked.

“Perhaps. Or perhaps not.”

Albrihn considered her words. “This Wodan sounds dangerous.”

“His people are savage barbarians. The faith is strong in his lands, where winter never truly loses its grip on the earth, and it is said they make blood sacrifice to the One-Eyed God.”

“Perhaps that’s what’s needed against the dogmen,” Jonis mused.

“Or perhaps he uses them as an excuse to ferment rebellion against me.” Again there was a flash of fire in Aethlan’s eyes. “When I spoke of a lord who would finally emerge victorious over his rivals and take me as a bride by force, know it is Wodan of whom I spoke. He alone has the strength to make his dreams of Talosi rule a reality.”

“His lands are to the north you say?” Albrihn asked.

“Perhaps five days on horseback. And the road is hard.”

“I’m tired of being cold,” Morrow said glumly.

“We all are,” Albrihn smiled, “but it is the way of the world. The Emperor believes a period of great tumult is upon us as an age of ice creeps down from the roof of the world. Crops will fail, rivers will freeze, people will starve.”

“And with starvation comes plague,” Aethlan said, “and war.”

“Indeed. He has charged me with the preservation of Atlantis itself, and the ways of our civilisation.”

Aethlan looked around the table. “Then I am blessed to dine in the company of destiny. First the woman who bears the mark of the One-Eyed God, and now the would-be saviour of the flower of humankind? Will you reveal yourself as the daughter of the faerie king, Lieutenant Morrow?”

“Nah, you’re thinking of Corporal Windhael.” Apparently emboldened by the prospect of having to travel to even colder lands, Morrow finally grabbed the wine and emptied the last of it into her goblet.

“We will travel to Lord Wodan’s lands,” Albrihn said, “and investigate him and the threat presented by the Hyen-a-khan. That is why we were sent here, I have no doubt.”

“The Emperor’s servants must have been quite vague when they gave you your orders.”

“He gave me my orders himself, and he is quite inscrutable enough by himself.” He upended his goblet. “And now I fear we must return to our chambers. A five-day ride through wind and snow is nothing to begin when not well-rested.”

“As you say, captain.” She rose, but looked at him curiously as she did. The servants returned and began to clear the table. Morrow and Jonis stood too and the three of them headed towards the door. “One moment,” Aethlan said, “if you will permit me a short time alone with you, captain…”

Jonis looked at him questioningly at the door but he nodded and she and Morrow left. The servants disappeared again, and Aethlan gestured him over to a couch set in the shadows beneath one particularly grisly tapestry. They sat down together, he a little stiffly.

“We spoke before of marriage in Atlas, Captain Albrihn.”

“We did, my lady.”

“How are things done in your city?”

“Well…a man and a woman choose each other and they are wed. That is all.”

“And are nobles free to marry commoners?”

“I…yes, in theory. In practice…”

“Ah.” She looked towards the door. “My maids tell me Keeper Jonis shares your chambers. You are lovers?”

“Yes.”

“Will you make her your wife?”

“No.”

She tilted her head. “Why not?”

“She is a Cyclops Keeper. She possesses an ability unique to her kind that is passed down through blood. In order to preserve it, she is destined to be wed to another Keeper.” He left out exactly who it was.

“So we are not so different after all.”

“How so?”

“You told me before that, in Atlas, a woman may marry whomever she chooses. And yet nobles keep to their own for the most part and the Keepers obviously do not have the same luxury as others.”

“That’s different…”

“Is it? We both agree that love must sometimes be sacrificed for the good of the state; we are merely haggling over which people must be yoked by that belief.”

“That’s a fair point,” he admitted, “you are a shrewd woman, my lady.”

“Thank you. I wonder, if there is no future for you and the Keeper, whether you would consider another offer…”

He raised a hand. “My lady, I know what you might suggest, but I’m just a common soldier…”

She laughed. “A common soldier? One who has personal audiences with the Emperor of Atlantis and visits far-flung Provinces with complete autonomy to enact the will of his lord? Who cavorts with mysterious sorceresses and speaks as finely as any lord? I see the way you move, Captain Albrihn, and your colouring too. Is there not noble blood in your lineage?”

“Some. But not enough to honour you.”

“You are kind. But please understand, captain, I am my father’s daughter – I think not of love, but of stability. I hope you won’t be offended to learn I have no interest in you for bedding. Despite my girlish fascination, I find Atlasian men rather hard and inscrutable, and besides my heart belongs to another.”

“Jarl Huldane?” he guessed.

“Ah, very clever, captain. I speak of a marriage to bind our two estranged kingdoms, not for love. Though I would give you strong sons, be certain of that.”

“It’s a tempting offer, my lady, but as I say such an alliance would benefit you little – I am just a soldier, truly.”

“Your name is known here, did you realise that?” she said quietly.

“I did not…”

“Rumours reach even Talos of the great warrior who beds a princess.”

“Rumours only,” he told her.

“Oh?”

“Women may share their chambers and their bodies with who they wish in Atlas. That is all.”

“Maybe. But you are no common soldier. Can we both agree on that?”

He gave her a half-smile. “That remains to be seen.”

She stood up, apparently not the least put out by his rejection. He rose beside her. “This has been a most interesting evening, Captain Albrihn. I hope that we can speak more upon your return from Svartburg.”

“As do I.”

“There is danger there, captain,” she warned, “I would not have the great Captain Albrihn die as a guest in my land.”

“I’m a soldier, my lady. It’s my job to seek out danger.” He took her hand and kissed it lightly, before turning smartly on his heel and leaving her chambers.

 

 

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