Age of Winter (Part VIII)

The mountainous terrain around Svartburg was deceptive. Jonis hadn’t realised that the coast was less than a half a day’s ride away, but once they crested the hills on the north side of the valley she could she right to the northern tip of the Talos peninsula. The weather was grey and foreboding, and though she was no expert on the moods of this region, she thought it seemed as if snow was on the way, at least to judge by the heavy dark clouds that heaped up on the horizon. As they rode – two squadrons of the Seventh led by Albrihn, a few Housecarls and Jarl Orkan, Valgia the old priest and Lord Wodan, the Talosi mounted on their short, stocky horses – Jonis peered at the narrow strip of sea beyond the snowy crags, and thought it looked odd. She almost found it hard to see where the land ended and the ocean began. A few hours later, after they scrambled up another rise, she understood the reason for her confusion.

Before them lay a bay enclosed by black, curving cliffs. On the shore were what appeared to be the remains of a small fishing village, now nothing more than a few blackened ruins, mostly covered with snow. Above the destroyed village, just to the west, was a squat stone watchtower, likewise abandoned and half-collapsed. Dark scorch marks covered the lower levels. Beyond the shoreline, instead of water lapping against the stones, the bay was completely frozen over, and where the snow had fallen it was a perfect white plain. The gap between the cliffs revealed a vista that was much the same: a field of ice and snow, fractured only towards the horizon, where great bergs floated in what was visible of the dark sea. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said in wonder.

“I have,” Albrihn said, “in the mainlands. Go far enough north and everything is covered in a shelf of ice, miles thick. Land and sea mean nothing.”

“It is not yet so bad here,” Wodan said. He was wrapped heavily in furs, but Jarl Orkan by his side, looking comically huge on his scraggy horse, seemed unperturbed by the cold. His muscular arms were still bare. “When I was a boy,” the lord continued, “my father told me of winters so cold that the ocean froze solid. He said it happened perhaps once in a hundred years, and was a time of great suffering. Crops failed, animals died, the people starved and the wolves came. Ten years ago, I lived to see it happen myself, and I cursed the gods that I should be forced to live through such a winter. Then the land thawed, spring came, and the ice receded. But not entirely. The coastlands remained frozen. The next year was just as bad, and the ice remained even longer afterwards. Year after year, a sheet of ice stretching from here to the far north of the world, but only in the deepest darkness, when the sun does not rise for days at a time.”

“It’s almost spring now,” Jonis said.

Wodan nodded grimly. “For the last five years, the ice has remained. It never now grows warm enough to melt. And each winter, it grows thicker and thicker. In high summer, the sea is visible a few miles out, but otherwise it remains like this.” He eyed Albrihn. “Your precious island of Atlantis is not so alone as you think, captain.”

Albrihn squinted at the ice, turning this way and that, seemingly trying to compose his thoughts. “If this is connected to the mainlands…”

“The Hyen-a-khan can cross it,” Jonis finished.

“It is a treacherous route,” Orkan said, “I have led warriors out there. In places, the ice is thin and will not support the weight of a man.” There was something odd in his voice as he said that. Jonis wondered for what purpose he had taken soldiers into such a dangerous environment, and how he’d discovered that useful fact.

“Wargs are sure-footed creatures though,” Wodan continued, “they move deftly, in the night, and this is where they enter our lands. You see the damage they have done already – this village was destroyed more than five years ago.” He gestured towards the ruins. They did indeed resemble the handiwork of the Hyen-a-khan.

“Why did you not send for aid?” Albrihn demanded, tugging angrily at the reins of his horse. The animal cantered around uncertainly, picking up on his master’s irritation. “As soon as interlopers from the mainlands set foot on Atlantis, you should have…”

“Spare me this talk of unity, Albrihn,” Wodan growled, “do not pretend Atlantians have any love of the Talosi. You suffer our presence, nothing more. Even if we did send word, you would have done nothing more than set a guard on the mountain passes and ensured the wargs did not ravage your own lands.”

“You are part of Atlantis. By ancient charter…”

Wodan’s voice rose to a roar, and Jonis saw something of the warrior he must once have been. “Your ancient charters mean nothing! Atlantis is just a word to us! This is the uttermost north, a place of frost and hunger – we do not recline in baths of scented water while handmaidens feed us succulent fruits; we do not lie heedlessly with boys and girls alike; we do not spurn the will of the gods!” He beat his fist against his chest. “We are the Talosi. We are the sons of the north, the followers of the One-eyed God. We are warriors, born of ice and blood. What help do we need from the simpering politicians of Atlas? None! A Talosi takes what he needs; he does wait for aid!” He held out his ringed fingers and clenched them before him. His eyes were wild and furious.

If Albrihn was shaken, he showed no sign of it. “Nonetheless, we are here now, and for the sake of your realm and mine, we must protect your lands against the Hyen-a-khan.”

“Look to your own borders, captain. I show you this only so that you understand how heavily doom hangs over us. How can we protect against a winter that never ends? How can we suffer the ice and snow that blows down from the world’s peak?”

“It is the wrath of the Greatfather,” Valgia said. Like his lord he wore thick furs, and his head was a shrivelled skull peering out. He held a twisted staff of black wood, topped with a carved circle, like the symbols on the temples.

“What’s your god punishing you for?” Jonis asked.

He showed her a mouthful of gums. “The Greatfather is an angry god, witch. He needs no reason to visit his fury upon us. It is enough that we are in his way.”

“So you think he brings this age of winter? Is that it?”

“He is the lord of wolves and winter. But you should know this – are you not his emissary?”

“I told you, I’m just a Cyclops Keeper. I don’t know anything about any gods.”

“This is hardly the time for a theological debate,” Albrihn interrupted. “Wodan, you have several thousand warriors at your command. I believe it may be possible for us to flush out and destroy the Hyen-a-khan if we coordinate our attacks.”

“You will lead my warriors?” Orkan’s one eye was fixed on Albrihn.

“I have experience fighting this enemy.”

“As do I, Atlantian.”

“I mean no disrespect, only that…”

“There will be no war against the north,” Wodan said shortly, talking right over the two soldiers. He was used to command this one: it was clear from his bearing. Jonis had no knowledge of how lordship was determined in this land, whether Wodan had been born to his position or had won it through feats of arms, but he was used to being obeyed. “The wargs are more at home in the snow and mountains than we are. We cannot defeat them.”

“So what will you do?”

Wodan turned his horse away from the frozen bay. “We will defend ourselves until darkness falls at last. Until the One-eyed God’s game is done.” He gave Jonis a significant look.

“Retreat. Is that the Talosi way?”

“A glorious last stand, captain.” He began to trot back down the hill.

“What about you, Orkan?” Albrihn demanded. He looked up at the massive jarl. “Would you fall back behind your walls and wait to be slaughtered? Don’t you believe you have the strength to destroy this foe?”

It was a good try at rousing the man’s spirit, but Orkan just laughed. “Go home, Atlantian. You know nothing of our ways.” He followed his lord.

As they returned to Svartburg, Jonis found herself riding beside Valgia. The priest glanced at her with his beady eyes now and then, and eventually she got tired of it and sidled closer. “What is it you think I am, Valgia? What’s your story about the one who bears the mark of your god?”

He smiled his gummy smile again. “Our legends say that when our people came to this land, we had to wrest it from the Greatfather’s servants.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes. That is why he is angry now, do you see? This was always his land. Now he scours us from it with the ice. He wants back what once was his.”

“You didn’t take this land from any gods. You were given it by Atlantis.”

“You have your legends, we have ours.”

“It’s not legends,” she said irritably, “it’s history. Atlantis has stood for ten-thousand years. There are written records of your ancestors’ settlement on this peninsula.”

“Do any who wrote those ‘records’ now live?”

“Of course not – they’re a thousand years old!”

“So how can you be sure they are true?”

She made an exasperated noise. “You’re being ridiculous. There’s an unbroken chain of sources dating back for millennia in Atlas. We keep meticulous records. And anyway, what does any of this have to do with me?”

“The One-eyed God sent a witch to treat with us, in the beginning. That village you saw was once known as Landung, and it was where the first of our ships laid anchor. Svartburg was the first city of the Talosi. It was there, long ago, where we hosted the witch who bore your mark. She offered us gifts – trinkets – and we refused her. When we sent her away, she returned with a host of abominations. They nearly drove us back into the ocean, but the courage of our forefathers impressed even the gods, and in the end the witch relented.” He watched her carefully, as if his bizarre story might stir up some recognition in her. “But we never killed her.”

Jonis smirked. “Well, it was a thousand years ago. She’s bound to be dead by now.”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps she lives on.”

“I’m twenty-eight, Valgia, not a thousand. I’m no creature from your fireside tales.”

“So you say. And yet you are here now, at this time of great portent. A second witch.”

“I told you, I’m not a witch: I’m a Cyclops Keeper. Nothing remotely strange about it.”

“Maybe not in Atlas…”

“I’m tired of this,” she said, “all we want to do is help you. Do you treat all guests like this?”

“Few come to our lands,” Valgia smiled, “and these are no days for hospitality. The world ends. Can you not feel it, Jonis the Keeper?”

“All I feel is cold, priest.”

“Exactly,” he whispered.

She held his gaze for a moment, then shook her head in disgust and rode back to the front of the group where Albrihn was.

*

Though it was only later afternoon, it was already dark when they arrived back in Svartburg. Albrihn had said almost nothing to Jonis during the ride back, and she too seemed annoyed about something. For his part, he was frustrated by the Talosi here. He’d gathered from what he’d seen so far that they were a proud and warlike people, and obviously they’d won some victories against the Hyen-a-khan to display their heads above their gates, but why did they rest on their laurels now? Shouldn’t they want to seize the opportunity a company of experienced Atlantian cavalry offered them to wreak their revenge? It made no sense, especially with all these warriors they’d brought together. He couldn’t believe the story that this simply represented all of Wodan’s people, brought in as refugees.

They passed through the gates of the city and Jonis turned her horse to go back to the barracks. They shared a chamber intended for a jarl or thegn, though it was little more than a crude partition. He halted and she frowned at him questioningly.

“Go on ahead,” he said, “I have something to attend to.”

She looked at him for a second and then nodded. “Don’t be long. I don’t trust these people.”

“Neither do I.” He dismounted and let one of the other soldiers lead his horse away after Jonis and the others. Then he headed back out into the encampment surrounding the city.

After only a few minutes of him loitering around the agreed place, Sergeant Hasprit found him and they stepped aside into the shadow of a tent, away from prying eyes. “Thought you’d never get back sir,” the scarred veteran said, “we were getting worried.”

“If they wanted to kill me, they’d have surely done it by now.”

“Well, even so. What did you find?”

“A bridge of ice across the ocean. That explains where the dogmen come from anyway.”

“Yeah, that’d do it, sir.” Hasprit rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. “Nasty business. Hard to see what we can do.”

“There’s nothing we can do. Not alone.” He looked around. It was quiet here, but out in the camp fires were burning and there was the sound of many thousands of warriors, drinking and whoring, a sound that was as familiar and comforting as a lullaby to him. And yet now it was different. “What do you have to report?”

Hasprit sighed. “Not much. Me and Jakka went out, tried to get to know some of these thugs, but we didn’t get very far.”

“Damn.”

“But I sent Windhael to scout around, get the lie of the land. He rode all around the camp. He thinks there’s got to be eight-thousand men here at least.”

“Interesting.”

“But, here’s the thing, sir – Jakka’s old man was a smith, see, and he’s got a good eye. When Windhael told us that, he got to thinking. All these smithies, sir, they’re turning out hundreds of weapons and coats of mail every day. Far more than eight-thousand soldiers need, that’s for certain.”

“Any idea what for?”

“Like I said, sir, no one spoke to us.” He leant in and lowered his voice. “There was something else Windhael saw.”

“Go on…”

“They’re keeping it well hidden, buried in snow drifts, behind tents, whatever, but there’s siege equipment here, sir. Ladders, rams, maybe an engine or two even, or at least the parts for them.”

“But they’re here to defend against the Hyen-a-khan…”

He shrugged. “I only know what the corporal saw, sir.”

“None of this makes any sense.”

“I know. But if you ask me, this isn’t a refugee camp; it’s a mustering ground.”

“I’m inclined to agree.”

He left Hasprit in the shadows to avoid suspicion, and headed back to the barracks. It was a cluster of low wooden buildings, like all the others in Svartburg, and the largest was separated into a few bunkrooms. He stomped through the first where most of his soldiers were resting, drinking a little wine, playing dice, having sex, but always keeping one eye on the door, alert. No one was comfortable in this grim town. He kicked open the door to the cramped chamber he shared with Jonis and found her sitting on the bed cross-legged, studying one of the handful of books she’d brought with her. “What are you reading?” he asked her as he unbuckled his breast plate.

“History.” She held up the volume. “The Cthonian Wars.”

“Interesting. It’ll certainly help your sleep.”

She smiled. “You’re not much of a student of history, are you, Rayke?”

“I’m not much of a student of anything. Except war.”

“Don’t be so cynical. You’re no barbarian. Not like these Talosi.”

He removed the rest of his armour and sat down on the bed beside her. It wasn’t much more than a straw-stuffed mattress covered with sheets even coarser and dirtier than the ones in their chambers in Aethlan’s castle. “Why the Cthonian Wars?”

“Don’t you remember? It’s when you told me the Talosi first migrated here.”

“Of course. But what of it? They’re nothing more than a footnote…”

“The priest, Valgia, told me a story about their origins on the way back from the coast. He said the ancestors of the Talosi took the peninsula from the One-eyed God.”

“Well they didn’t. They were given it.”

“That’s what I told him, and he asked how I knew that for certain.”

Albrihn smiled and tapped the book with a finger. “Show him this.”

“He probably can’t read anyway. And he’d just say it was lies. But he made an interesting point – how do we know what really happened a thousand years ago? This book is only a few decades old, a copy of a copy of a copy, and who’s to say what was changed in the process?”

Albrihn raised an eyebrow. “Are you saying you believe their legends? You think their god is getting revenge for them stealing Talos from him?”

She batted him away playfully. “Don’t be stupid. But records from that era are fragmented. The imperial dynasty changed, and that’s always a time of unrest. Libraries burn in wars,

history is rewritten to legitimise the new regime, those who lived through the conflict swear to never speak of the horrors they witnessed. No one knows exactly what happened in Talos a millennium ago. Not really.”

“I don’t care what happened then. I care about what’s happening now.”

She laid the book down on the bed. “What is going on, Rayke?”

“I wish I knew. I sent Hasprit and two others out to explore the camp, try to engage with the soldiers, but they got nothing. Everyone’s keeping things close to their chests. But they say there’s more armour and weapons than this number of warriors need, and Windhael even thinks they’re hiding siege equipment.”

“This isn’t a last stand,” she said.

“No. But they have no interest in taking the fight to the Hyen-a-khan, so why assemble an army like this?”

“Rayke, this whole damned Province stinks of civil war. There’s only one place they could be planning to lay siege to.”

“Exactly. Aethlan told us Wodan was ambitious. She said he was stirring up rebellion. But if that’s true, why aren’t we dead already? Why let us see all this? Why take us to the coast to see that ice?”

“I don’t know. But Valgia told me my arrival here was…I don’t know…appropriate, somehow. He said I’d come at a time of great portent.” She moved closer. “Rayke, this place is a tinderbox. One spark will set the whole of Talos alight. We have to get out of here.”

“You’re right,” he said, “if nothing else, we have to warn Athelan and…”

A shout pierced the night, a bellow of animalistic rage. They both turned to the door, and Albrihn was up on his feet in an instant, reaching for his sword. Jonis too grabbed her weapon and they ran out of the room. The other soldiers in the barracks were up too in various states of undress, looking around. “It came from the other building,” Carlo said. He was bare-chested, but already strapping his sword belt on.

Albrihn rushed out, Jonis and some of his soldiers following behind. The door to the other barracks slammed open and an enormous figure stumbled out. It was Orkan, and his face was contorted in fury. He roared again, and Albrihn looked down at his arm which he was cradling. Dark blood seeped from a wound across his biceps. “Bitch,” Orkan snarled, “control your soldiers, Albrihn. Fucking Atlantians.” He pushed through the crowd and fled into the night.

“What’s going on?” Jonis asked.

“I don’t know.” Albrihn, sword still drawn, entered the other barracks. There were a few soldiers in there too, looking as confused as them. “What happened?” he demanded.

Gena pointed to a separate room, twin to the one he and Jonis shared in the other building. “He was in there. With Morrow.”

“What?” He went to the door and opened it.

Morrow stood inside by the bed, breathing hard. She had a bloody dagger in her hand. She turned sharply as he entered. “Captain…”

“Lieutenant? What is this?”

“I…I don’t know, sir…”

Jonis was by his side. “Morrow? Why did you stab Orkan?”

“I…we were talking. He came and found us. We were drinking wine. He was friendly enough. He said he wanted to talk privately…”

Albrihn frowned. “Why?”

“I don’t know. I thought he might want to give us some information. I thought nothing of it. So we came in here and then…then…”

“What?” Jonis said.

“He…he tried to…” She seemed more bewildered than anything else. “He grabbed me. I think he wanted to…he tried to force himself on me…he…”

“What?!” Albrihn’s nostrils flared as white hot rage coursed through him.

“Morrow!” Jonis rushed into the room and took the lieutenant around the shoulders, pulling her down onto the bed. She was shaking. He was too.

“This is…”

“I’m okay,” Morrow insisted, “really.” She held up the dagger. “I should have cut his balls right off. Saved us some time.”

“Why would anyone do this?” Jonis asked Albrihn.

“I have no idea.” It was the most unthinkable of crimes, almost unknown in Atlantis. “We need to bring him back here to face justice.”

“He’ll be gone by now, Rayke,” Jonis said, “see how fast he ran? He probably got a horse and rode away as quickly as he could.”

“Then I’ll tell Wodan. He’ll declare him an outlaw. With eight-thousand men, it should be no trouble hunting him down.”

Morrow was still breathing hard. She put her hand on her stomach, trying to calm herself. “I’ll carry out the punishment myself,” she said, “but do you really think his own men will help capture him?”

Albrihn stared at her. “He tried to…to force you to…” he could barely make himself say the words. “No one with any decency would refuse to bring him in and answer for that.”

Other soldiers were crowding into the doorway now, and Jonis stood up, letting Gena take over comforting the shaken Morrow. She led Albrihn out of the door and took him to one side. “Remember that spark I told you about?”

“Jonis, this is about more than…than politics. This is…this is…”

“I know. Unthinkable. Abhorrent. I mean, I knew these Talosi were savages but…but anyway, put aside your anger for a minute.”

“How can I?”

“We have to tread carefully. Remember how you were in Aethlan’s court? How you danced such a fine line between her and her lords?”

“I did?”

“You know you did. You’re no statesman, but you can play the game, Rayke. The point is, it’s no use charging in now, demanding justice. Wodan will be horrified to know what one of his men did, I’m certain, but will he help us organise a manhunt when he’s preparing for war? What might that do to this situation?”

“So what am I supposed to do?” he demanded.

“Wait.”

Wait?!”

“Just until morning. Maybe Orkan’s conscience will lead him to turn himself in. He’s a brute, but he’s not a beast. We might not need to do anything. We’ll go to Wodan and demand justice be done. And how far can Orkan get in a night anyway? We can’t go chasing after him in the dark…”

“You sound like you’re trying to convince yourself.”

“I am. I’m as angry as you, but I know a thing or two about not giving in to feelings. I know a thing or two about controlling your instincts.”

He looked into her eyes, at her earnest expression, and then nodded slowly. “Tomorrow then. But we post a guard and I’ll stay up with Morrow.”

“We all will. Tomorrow we get justice, then we can get to the bottom of all this.”

“Right.” His sword was still sword. He hadn’t noticed. His knuckles were white around the hilt and slowly he relaxed his grip. “Tomorrow,” he said.

 

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