Age of Winter (Part VII)

The blizzard stopped almost as quickly as it had begun, with the wind falling and the clouds clearing as if by magic, leaving a high, blue sky and air so crisp Jonis thought that if she could flick her finger against it, it would ring like a crystal goblet. The snow was thick underfoot, and any roads or tracks through the rocky country were hidden beneath a blanket of virginal white. But the band of Talosi led them straight and true, and forged a path through the snow with their thick limbs. Jonis watched them as she rode, noting that they seemed a rougher sort than the soldiers who’d served Aethlan – wilder and more dangerous, more like the bandits they’d fought in the pass. They certainly seemed better fed than any of the other inhabitants of this bleak Province though, and there was something different in their bearing too: they lacked the defeated slump of other Talosi, and carried themselves with a near-Atlantian dignity. More than anything, they seemed at home in this freezing wilderness. She felt no more comfortable with their presence though, for she sensed the same thing Albrihn had, that these were dangerous men. Like the city guard in Talos, they were indeed all men too, and they would occasionally glance at the female soldiers in the Seventh. She didn’t like the look in their eyes when they did that.

The going was slow, and though they no longer fought their way through a snowstorm, it was still bitterly cold. The horses were suffering, and she wondered what would happen if Orkan’s men were leading them into a trap of some kind. They were at the mercy of these burly barbarians now, who not only led them forward but, she noted, shadowed their flanks as well. Most still carried their weapons, ready to fight at a moment’s notice. She remembered the fear in the blizzard, her certainty that it was Hyen-a-khan attacking them, and understood why these warriors might be wary. But still, she had little confidence they’d be able to fight their way out if it came to it, even if they were mounted and outnumbered the Talosi two-to-one.

The towering Jarl led from the front and had exchanged no more words with any of them since introducing himself, but now as he crested a rise he turned and pointed with his axe. “Down there,” he called out.

Albrihn cantered forward, for the ground here was stony and the snow hadn’t settled so thick. Jonis and Morrow both joined him and they all drew to a halt on a lip of rock overlooking a wide valley. The land around was still mountainous, but almost everything was covered in snow, so the scene looked oddly monochrome beneath the blue sky. There were spindly pine forests clinging to the hillsides and a frozen river winding its way east to west, but what occupied their attention was the settlement in a cleft between two slopes, set on a low hill. Unlike Talos, this place owed noting to Atlantian architecture. In Atlas, it would barely have justified the name town, let alone city, but it was the largest concentration of humanity they’d seen in five days. Everything was centred around a long, low building, not unlike the temples they’d seen throughout the Province. That was built of rough-worked stone and timber with a thatched roof. Around it, covering the top of the hill, was a dense cluster of other buildings, mostly timber again, all surrounded by a high wooden palisade. Atop the crude battlements, Jonis could make out the tiny dark shapes of more soldiers. But beyond the wall there was more. Sprawling outwards for perhaps a mile or more, covering much of the valley floor, was a vast encampment of some kind, a disorganised mass of tents and huts, swarming with people.
“Svartburg,” Orkan announced.

“There must be thousands of people down there,” Jonis said.

Albrihn pointed at a ring of earthworks being erected around the edge of the camp. There were great piles of timber stacked close by, obviously felled from the forest across the river. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“Lord Wodan defends his people from danger. No matter what you might have heard in the south, Atlantian, he is a good and just master. You will see that.” But the Jarl had an evil gleam in his single eye, and Jonis felt herself shiver again, and not from the cold.

They descended into the valley along a track that climbed down the hillside. On this side, in the lee of the mountains, the snow was not so heavy, and they made better time. On the valley floor though, the walls seemed to enclose them on all sides, and Jonis felt oddly claustrophobic despite the miles of flat land around. Morrow seemed uneasy too. “I don’t like it,” she said in a low voice to her.

“I know. Do you know anything about Svartburg or this Lord Wodan?”

“Only what Aethlan told us. But judging by these fellows, I’d say it’s probably a pretty rough town.”

It was hard to disagree with that assessment. A short while later, they came to the line of earthworks. No one challenged them, but Jonis watched from beneath her hood as men in peasant’s smocks hacking at logs with large axes eyed them suspiciously. They were all large and muscular like Orkan’s warriors, and most who were old enough wore thick beards. Unlike the southern Talosi, their hair tended to be darker, but they still had the same blotchy pink-white skin. Once within the nascent outer defences, they were thrust into a world of chaos as crude dwellings laid out higgledy-piggledy in the snow stretched as far as the eye could see. The whole place was filled with the clamour of life, and huge, brutish men went back and forth on unknowable business. There was almost a sense of jubilation, quite unlike the atmosphere in the city of Talos, with some groups of men sitting around campfires, drinking ale or mead. There was a reek of fish from everywhere, and she saw that this must be the principal food source in Svartburg, at least to judge by all the herring she saw hanging from racks, smoking above fires. That at least explained why there was no hunger here – she was no fisherwoman, but she didn’t think it depended so much on the seasons and the weather as farming livestock on the land did. She saw no other animals, and very few women or children, but there were many men in armour, and several times they passed more substantial huts set out as smithies or workshops, where great piles of mail and weapons were being crafted by burly men wearing soot-blackened aprons. “This isn’t a city…” she murmured.

They eventually reached the gates of Svartburg proper, set into the wooden palisade. The heavy wooden doors were propped open, since thousands of men stood between the walls and the outside world, but above them, impaled on stakes, she could make out misshapen heads. They were covered in tar to preserve them, but she recognised the distorted muzzles and matted fur. “Hyen-a-khan,” she said, and Morrow nodded grimly by her side.

Again, Jarl Orkan seemed to have no need to identify himself or his guests and simply marched through. The guards on the walls looked much like the Housecarls, all muscular, scarred men with watchful eyes. Jonis felt out of place here, and looking around at the Atlasian soldiers, she saw she wasn’t the only one. In their well-crafted armour and fitted helms, with smart uniforms and sleek, thoroughbred mounts, the Seventh seemed to come from another world entirely to these savages. She wondered what it must have been like for them in the mainlands, where that was almost literally true. A grand adventure to judge from the tales they told around the fires at night, but this was different somehow. Now the threat was on their doorstep, and they were not cocksure heroes from across the sea. They were unwelcome interlopers, on a mission they had only just begun to understand.

Within the walls, Svartburg was little different from Talos. Here, at last, they saw more women and children, and some goats and sheep too, though all were as scrawny as they had been elsewhere. Here there was little celebration; just the same gloom that seemed endemic to the Talosi. The soldiers here were more like guards, and she saw no traffic leaving by the gates. She wanted to ride up to Albrihn and tell him she suspected something was seriously amiss, but he was surrounded by the Housecarls now, and besides, she thought he’d probably picked up on it too. At the top of the hill they came to the hall they’d seen from above, and it looked like nothing so much as a barn. The walls were unadorned, and only the guards standing outside with shields and spears indicated it was anything more important than that. They dismounted, and Morrow looked around. “Where are your stables?”

“Tie your horses up there,” Orkan said, waving towards a fence on one side of a pen in which a handful of sheep shivered in the slush.

“Don’t you have any stable boys? We can’t just leave them out in the cold – these are Atlasian chargers and…”

Albrihn held up a hand. “Lieutenant, do as the Jarl says. We’ll see to the horses ourselves afterwards, just as we have all along the ride here.”

“What’s the point of even coming to a bloody city?” But she did as he ordered.

Albrihn approached the door and Jonis followed, but Orkan barred their way. “No stranger may bear weapons in the hall of Lord Wodan.”

“You’ve enough warriors here to thwart any attempt on your lord’s life, I’m sure. But since we come here in friendship, we will obey your customs.” He began to remove his baldric and scabbard. Jonis followed his lead, opened her cloak to unstrap her blade from her waist. She could feel the eyes of the Talosi soldiers as they got a look at her body – she dressed in Atlasian fashion, with tight breeches and high boots and a leather jerkin cinched slightly at the waist, cut low at the front. It would have barely gotten her a passing glance in her home city, but here it drew stares of undisguised lust. She handed her weapon to Orkan and he looked at it curiously.

“A Keeper’s sword,” she explained.

He turned it over in his hands. It looked like a child’s toy in his immense grip, but he was evidently impressed by the workmanship of the sinuous blade. “Keeper?” he asked.

“My companion is a person of some importance in Atlas,” Albrihn said, “a representative of an ancient order. And I come on behalf of the Emperor himself.”

“Indeed.” Orkan showed his brown teeth in what might have been intended as a smile. He fixed his good eye on her. “Strangers must show their faces in the hall of Lord Wodan, Keeper. Remove your hood.”

“That might not be…”

“What do you hide?” he snapped. “An ancient order? Is she a witch?” He reached for her hood and before she could stop him had yanked it back, revealing her face for all to see. There was a moment’s stunned silence as they all took in the tattoo surrounding her left eye.

“A Keeper,” she said, “I am a Cyclops Keeper. This is the mark we all bear, given to us in childhood. It’s nothing to be frightened of.”

“Jarl Orkan fears nothing,” the big man rumbled, “but this mark is known to us.”

“That it resembles your legends is nothing more than a coincidence,” Albrihn told him, “we come as friends.”

He seemed to hesitate, and she wondered if it was the first time in his life he’d had cause to do so – Orkan looked a man of firm conviction – but then jerked his head towards the door. They followed him into the cavernous interior of the hall. Within, it was set out much like the Hall of Fathers in Talos, but it was far less ornate, and the rushes covered a floor of packed earth, not stone. The pillars that held up the raftered ceiling were unadorned wood, and the walls were bare. Tables were set out in the same way though, and warriors sat and ate, served by pale women. Hairy hounds, better fed than the serving girls, fought for scraps on the floor. At the end, on a raised wooden dais, a man in furs sat eating alone, save for a wizened figure who stood by his side. Orkan marched to the dais and dropped to one knee. “My lord,” he said, “we found them two leagues from here.”

All eyes were on her and Albrihn as he stepped forward. He saluted in the Atlantian fashion. “Lord Wodan. I am Captain Albrihn of the Seventh…”

“I know who you are,” the man said. He was middle-aged, with his beard and hair beginning to turn grey. He had broad shoulders and might once have been a great warrior, but now muscle had turned to fat, and he was succumbing to the ravages of time. His gaze was clear and steely though and around his shoulders he wore a heavy silver torc. His thick fingers, greasy from the half-eaten fish on his plate, bore ornate several rings. He looked impatient and belligerent. “I know you were at Talos, and that you had an audience with the wench-queen. I know all about you, Captain Albrihn.”

“Then you have the advantage of me, lord, for I’d never heard your name until five days ago. I am an envoy sent from the Emperor to…”

“Yes, yes,” he waved hand irritably, “it means nothing here, Atlantian. What is the Emperor to us?”

“Your liege lord,” Albrihn said flatly. “I come here with an open hand of friendship, Lord Wodan. You are a loyal citizen of Atlantis, but I see that you and your people suffer. We know what hunts across the tundra. We have fought them ourselves. We seek information on this threat, and will offer what aid we can, though we are but forty or so soldiers besides the great host you have here.”

“I protect my people, captain,” Wodan said. “That is what I have gathered within my walls. The peasants from my lands, who run from the wargs. Atlantian aid is late to arrive, if aid it truly is: villages and farms along the northern coast are long burned, and we dare not walk abroad at night for fear of being hunted down like beasts. Where was your Emperor’s open hand of friendship when it was most needed?”

“Word has been late to reach Atlas,” Albrihn said, “the mountains to the south are filled with bandits. I have fought the wargs as you call them, both in the mainlands and within Atlas itself. I can help you.”

“Why would we need your help? You think we have no experience defending our own homes?”

“This threat may affect all of Atlantis too. If your lands are indeed besieged by these monsters, I must know where they come from, and why.”

Wodan stared hard at Albrihn, then his gaze shifted to Jonis. If the sight of her tattoo frightened him as it had the other Talosi, he gave no sign of it. The old man beside him also stared at her. He was tiny and shrunken with age, completely bald and toothless, dressed in the thick black robes of a monk. His eyes shone in his sunken skull as he leered. “You do not come alone, Albrihn,” he rasped.

“My apologies, this is Keeper Jonis, she is…”

“A witch,” the ancient pronounced, “an Atlantian sorceress. She carries the markings that were foretold in prophecy. She is the harbinger of the One-Eyed God’s wrath.”

She shook her head. “No. I’m not even here in an official capacity. I’m a companion to the captain, nothing more.”

“His whore then,” Wodan shrugged, “It is no matter. Our god has already deserted us. Valgia is a priest, and his faith in the Greatfather is strong, but even he sees that doom lies heavy upon us, witch or no. These are forsaken lands, Captain Albrihn, and you come upon us in our last moment of retreat behind our walls. The wolves call in the night for our blood.”

“But where do they come from, lord?”

He smiled and, alone of all the Talosi Jonis had met, his teeth were straight and white. “I will show you,” he said.

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