Age of Winter (Part VI)

Jonis could not have imagined terrain more dreary and depressing than that which they’d already travelled through, but the country to the north of the city of Talos proved to be just that. As they trekked down from the mountains, they found themselves in rocky, windswept plains, a grim grey plateau reaching all the way to the distant sea in the west. The land was dotted with farms and villages, but they were no more prosperous than they had been in the highlands to the south and their herds of sheep or goats seemed just as forlorn and underfed. They still saw the temples to this One-Eyed God of the Talosi and, mindful of Aethlan’s dark words, Jonis kept her hood pulled forward. She’d borrowed a cloak from the Seventh, a thick, fur-lined garment that she’d once have dismissed as absurdly cumbersome, but which she was now grateful of as they trotted along the rough tracks that passed for roads in this benighted Province. She watched, always, wary of danger. The further north they travelled, the darker the skies seemed to grow, and the weather soon took a turn for the worse, with freezing rain slowly turning into sleet and then snow. Within a day they had reached a land where the mud was frozen underfoot and the snow had begun to settle. Jonis had never seen so much white blanketing the land, but any sense of wonder she felt was chased away by the biting cold.

“I hate this place,” she told Albrihn as they rode. The sky was almost black, but it was barely past noon. They crested a low hill and below them was a sprawling complex of stone buildings, almost like a low castle, with a courtyard and a small gatehouse. The dark shapes of robed men were toiling through the snow, apparently gathering firewood.

“A monastery,” Albrihn said at her unspoken question.

“Monks,” she guessed. “That’s the finest building I’ve seen in this accursed place, apart from Aethlan’s castle.”

“And they seem well-fed,” Morrow added. She leaned forward in her saddle. “What are the Talosi traditions regarding hospitality? Does their One-Eyed God encourage the feeding of travellers, do you think?”

Albrihn rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. They were well-provisioned from the larders of Talos, although it was all fairly bland stuff. “Perhaps…”

Jonis peered down at the strange men going back and forth. They did indeed look portly enough, but that only increased her distrust. All the faithful amongst the Talosi had stared at her like she was something from a story to scare children, and she had no expectation the monks would be any better – quite the opposite. Only Aethlan, pragmatic and intelligent, had treated her like a normal person. “I’d rather not,” she said.

Albrihn glanced at her, and nodded slowly. “We’ll find no welcome in that place. The monks are crazed zealots who leech off the goodwill of their villagers. I’ll not break bread at their table.”

Morrow grumbled something under her breath, but the decision was made, and Albrihn turned from the monastery with a jerk on his horse’s reins, not even giving it a second glance.

The snow grew heavier and by the next day they were trudging through drifts that came up to the horses’ knees. The going was slow and hard, and Jonis wondered whether Aethlan’s estimate of the distance took into account these kinds of conditions. She blinked away the snow and tugged her cloak closer around her body. It was hard not to shiver even with the protection the fur lining offered. The soldiers didn’t show any sign of discomfort, but she’d heard Albrihn’s stories about the mainlands, and knew they’d been in worse places than this. Each night they camped in what shelter they could find. There were no taverns or even stables. The houses they passed tended to be stone rather than wattle and daub now, perhaps because the ground was frozen solid, but if anything the sense of poverty and deprivation was much worse. There were few people, and those they saw were pale and thin. Who would ever choose to live in such a terrible place?

Sitting in the shelter of a dark pine forest with a fire flickering wanly between them, she shared one of the black Talosi loaves with Morrow. “It’s going to get worse, isn’t it?” she said.

“Yes,” Morrow replied with a grim nod.

“Was it like this in the mainlands?”

“Mainlands is a big place. We saw deserts, jungles, grasslands, everything. But the north was a lot like this, yes.” She sliced off a bit of pale goat’s cheese and passed it to Jonis. She was grateful for anything that improved the taste and texture of the coarse bread. “It’s different though, somehow…”

“In what way?”

Morrow looked out through the trees, narrowing her eyes. There was a strong watch posted, and they could see the reassuring shapes of sentries against the white snow. “You expect it there, and the people who live in it have been there for generations. They know how to prosper, even in these bloody frozen wastes.”

Jonis nodded, understanding. “But here it’s like they’ve been taken by surprise.”

Morrow chewed on her bread and swallowed with no small amount of effort. She beat a fist against her chest, forcing it down. She finally resorted to taking a swig of wine from her skin. “Yeah,” she said, a little hoarsely, “I’m sure it’s no carnival living here any time of year, but this winter is a killer. And it looks like it’s here to stay.”

Jonis took the wineskin as Morrow wordlessly offered it. She did little more than wet her lips before passing it back. “Do you think it’s true?”

“What?”

“What Rayke said. About an age of winter.”

“Dunno.” Morrow took another gulp of wine. It had been brought all the way from Atlas, probably a finer vintage than they’d been served at Aethlan’s table, kept all this time for a victory celebration but now used to ease the bone-deep cold they all felt. “I’m not paid to think about that sort of thing.”

Jonis shivered again. She still had her cloak draped over her shoulders. Here, under the heavy boughs, the ground was clear of snow, but the frost was already starting to form and the earth was as solid as stone. Sleeping here would be like lying on a block of ice. And, unpleasant as it was, she was overcome by a sense of dread that this cold would soon sweep down from Talos and enclose Atlas in its freezing embrace. Would the entire island of Atlantis be like this before too long? Like a nervous habit, she clutched her cloak tighter again.

On the fifth day since leaving Talos, a blizzard descended. They had begun to climb again and the mountains that had loomed to the east for so long now began to cluster ahead of them, dark and foreboding on the horizon, but capped with white. They pushed on through the driving wind and snow, their pace slowing to a crawl. They’d seen no villages or farmsteads for two days now, and the land seemed totally abandoned, swept clean of human habitation by the icy weather. Occasionally they saw glimpses of animals – a herd of woolly elk picking their way through the edges of a forest, calling out low and sonorously across the snow, white-furred foxes and once, in the distance, they heard the howling of wolves. As the blizzard reduced visibility to almost nothing, Jonis could feel the tension in the soldiers around her. Albrihn ordered the company to stay close together lest anyone become separated in the storm. She admired his ability to think about others in these conditions; for her part she could only keep her head down and try to concentrate on keeping her horse going in a straight line. The creature’s warm body was some relief, but she wondered how long it could continue to walk through this, and whether the cold might eventually claim their mounts, leaving them stranded in these wastes.

“There’s something out there,” a voice said to her left, and she turned to see the scarred face of Sergeant Hasprit looking at her with his one good eye. He wore his helmet with his hood pulled up over it. He was a large man, but the cold seemed to have shrunken him somehow as his body unconsciously curled up on itself, hunching his shoulders and drawing his chin into his chest.

“What?” she asked, looking around uselessly. She could barely see the shapes of the other horses in the blizzard, let alone anything else that might be out there.

“I don’t know. But I heard something.”

She’d always thought herself a brave woman. She’d been in battles many times and had never felt fear before, even without the reassuring bulk of a Cyclops by her side, but something about this place and this weather drained her. Like Hasprit, she felt reduced, small, vulnerable. Her only instinct was to protect herself. She peered out, straining to see beyond the driving snow, blinking the flakes away from her eyelashes where they gathered. And then she saw it: just a dim shape. Her heart skipped a beat.

“There,” Hasprit said, pointing.

“I see it,” she whispered. Her voice was lost to a blast of wind, but he seemed to understand.

They continued to move forward, and she looked this way and that, trying to see whatever it was again, but it had disappeared. “Rayke,” she said, urging her horse towards him.

“What?” He was squinting into the snow, riding at the head of the loose formation the company had adopted, gloved hands gripped firmly on his reins, seemingly determined to simply forge on into the storm.

“I just saw something.”

“It’s nothing,” he said through gritted teeth, “your eyes playing tricks on you.”

“No. Hasprit saw it too.”

“We can’t stop. There’s no shelter.” She recalled the story he’d once told her about being caught on the tundra in the mainlands, cowering for days beneath a shelf of ice. She understood his need to lead his soldiers to safety through this.

“We should be ready to defend ourselves. We know what might be out there…”

She didn’t need to say it. Despite Aethlan’s warnings, there’d been no sign of any Hyen-a-khan, but if there was any perfect time for them to strike, it was surely now. She wondered if the dogmen would somehow know that it was this company of cavalry that had hunted down their kin in Atlas, and that she had unleashed a Cyclops against them. If so, did revenge beat in their savage hearts? Or were they simply driven by hunger like mindless beasts?

“I’m always ready to defend myself,” Albrihn said.

“Look!” She saw something again, just a faint movement low to the ground ahead of them.

“I see it,” he said. He pulled out his sword. The blade was bright as he held it before him. Around him, the other cavalrymen drew their own weapons, though they looked unsure.

“We can’t fight in this,” Hasprit said, but his own sword was out too.

“Captain!” Morrow’s voice from near the back of the company made them all turn in their saddles. More shapes were visible in the darkness now as they all slowed to a halt. Albrihn wheeled around, but the snow was too deep and his horse nearly stumbled. He controlled it expertly, but he was unbalanced, and seemed perturbed for the first time she’d ever seen. There was something almost unnatural about this weather, and it was affecting them all, robbing them of their strength. They weren’t made for this. “Show yourselves!” he roared into the blizzard.

“Can we run?” Jonis asked.

“The Lucky Seventh doesn’t run,” he growled, but even his fierce black stallion looked spooked. His hands gripped the reins tightly and she knew his knuckles would be almost white beneath his gloves. His teeth were bared, but whether in defiance or from the cold, she couldn’t tell.

“This is no place to fight a battle, captain,” Hasprit said, “we should make for the hills.”

“Which way do we go?” Jonis asked, looking around again. She couldn’t even see the mountains and she’d suddenly lost all sense of direction. They could run right into a ravine.

“They’re all around us!” It was Corporal Gena who shouted, a golden-skinned Promethic woman who was normally completely inscrutable, but now looked terrified as she struggled to control her horse.

“We have to fight our way out!” Albrihn yelled.

The shapes loomed closer, broad, squat forms, and she could make out bristling fur on their wide shoulders. They did indeed surround them, and there was no way they could cut their way through, not with their horses stumbling in the snow underfoot, and the soldiers half-blinded. Jonis finally drew her own sword. “Dogmen!” she called out, just wanting to warn them.

“No,” a voice said, close to her, and she looked down to see a pale, thick-fingered hand grabbing her horse’s harness. She stared in disbelief as a man emerged from the snow, a stocky Talosi wearing mail and a heavy helmet with cheek guards. A black beard spilled halfway down his chest and in his free hand he held a large battleaxe. More of them now came into view, forming a ring around the mounted soldiers, all garbed much the same way, and she saw they wore thick fur cloaks piled onto their shoulders. They all moved in confidently, untroubled by the snow, seizing reins and stirrups, casually threatening. At their head a towering figure strode. His armour was of finer make, with a coat of scale mail over studded leather, and his hairy arms were bare despite the cold except for rings of gold and silver banding them. He had a thick, braided bearded, but his head was shaved clean. His face was ugly and scarred, with one eye milky white. He carried an enormous two-handed axe that would have been too heavy for her to even lift. She’d had no image in her mind of the One-Eyed God, but as this winter spirit approached Albrihn, she realised that here was the embodiment of an idea that had only dimly existed for her until then.

“What is this?” the huge man asked in a thick Talosi accent, “Atlasians?”

“More bandits?” Hasprit said. He waved his sword around. The snow had begun to slacken off now, revealing a little of the land around them. Mountains rose up through the grey haze.

“No,” Albrihn said.

The giant grabbed the reins of Albrihn’s horse from him and looked up. He stood so tall he could almost look the captain in the eye. “I have often dreamed of crossing blades with a nobleman of Atlantis.”

“Then leave your hand where it is, and you’ll have your wish.”

He held Albrihn’s gaze but then laughed. Like most Talosi she’d seen his teeth were brown and rotten. He let go of the reins and stepped backwards. His men did likewise and seemed to relax. “We got word of a company of southerners lost in the snow hereabouts,” the chieftain said, “but we did not expect to find brown-faced lords.”

“I am no lord. Just a soldier in the Atlantian militia. As are you, is that not so?”

The giant turned and smiled again. He hefted his axe. “I am Jarl Orkan of the Housecarls of Svartburg. I serve only Lord Wodan.”

“Then we are fortunate to have found you,” Albrihn said, “for we seek an audience with your lord.”

“I know,” Orkan said, “and I know who you are, Captain Rayke Albrihn. Svartburg and the hall of my lord is but two leagues from here.” He trudged away and his warriors fell in behind him. Soon they were lost in the murk again, the same dark silhouettes as before. Albrihn seemed conflicted, and his horse remained skittish.

“What choice do we have?” Hasprit asked, spitting on the ground.

“None.”

“I thought you’d never been to Svartburg,” Jonis said, “How did you know he wasn’t just another bandit? Do you know him?”

“I know the look of a killer.” Orkan was still visible now they knew him, a towering presence in amongst the other disappearing shadows.

“If he wanted to kill us, he would have already. It would’ve been easy enough.”

“He did want to kill us. That he didn’t was how I knew he served some lord and not himself.” He flicked his horse’s reins and started off after the Talosi, heading north. They fell in behind him, and Jonis knew that they all felt the same – a mixture of relief and a strange sense of foreboding as they went into the white unknown.

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