Age of Winter (Part X)

Morrow strained her eyes to see what was going on in Svartburg, but from this distance it was impossible to make out anything at all, besides the fact that a lot of people seemed to be crowded in front of Wodan’s hall. She imagined that, if she slowed her breathing, really concentrated, blocked out everything else, she’d be able to just make out the cries of dismay from the Talosi as the captain finished off their ugly brute of a jarl and fed him his own testicles. But she knew she wouldn’t. It was just the wind. They were halfway up a mountain overlooking the valley, and the sprawling camp with the grubby little city in the middle looked like an ants’ nest she could just step on if she wanted to.

“Are you all right, lieutenant?” Gena asked her as she rode up.

“I’m fine.” She turned in the saddle and looked further up the slope. One of the bleak fir forests that seemed to be all that grew in this part of Talos covered much of the hillside above them. But a good portion of it had been felled and now they looked across a field of frozen black stumps between them and the treeline. Morrow’s breath frosted as she sighed. “Look at this place…”

“Grim,” Gena agreed.

They were just a single squadron, five of the finest the Seventh had, tough veterans with a lot of battlefield experience, but this felt like a punishment. The rest of the company were down there watching the captain fight, cheering him on while he fought for justice, allegedly watched by the Talosi’s bloody stupid god. And it was her he was fighting for. It was ridiculous to send her away, of all people. This wasn’t a real mission: it was an excuse to get her out of the way.

“What do they need all this timber for anyway?”

“Hm?” Morrow looked around and realised Gena was still talking about the forest. “Their palisade, I guess. What does it matter?”

“That thing?” Gena nodded down towards the valley, where the half-built wall of logs was shored up by a greyish mix of mud and snow.

“What about it?” But now Morrow looked more closely. They’d been here three days now, and she’d barely seen any progress on it. With all the thousands of strong men in that camp and the amount of wood they seemed to have to hand, it was a little odd that it was still only half finished. Almost as if they didn’t really care. “We can’t stay here all day,” Morrow said, shaking her head, “we have to find some evidence of dogmen. That’s what the captain sent us here to do, right?”

“As you say, sir.”

“Don’t fucking ‘sir’, me, Gena.” She flicked the reins of her horse and trotted up the path. It wasn’t fair to take out her frustrations on the soldiers; they were being punished just as much as she was. But still. She wanted to see that bastard Orkan gutted like a pig. The events of the previous night were still rattling around her mind. It hadn’t even occurred to her that he’d try anything like that. It had been suspicious, him coming into their barracks like that, but he’d been pleasant enough company and more to the point had brought beer. He was outnumbered, and they were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Then he’d begun to talk to her about Wodan, and the priest, Valgia, hinting that there was something she ought to know about them. He suggested they talked privately.

She shuddered as she relived the moment when the expression in his single beady eye changed from the glassy stare of someone well into his cups to the determined glare of a predator. Her first reaction had been confusion, more than fear. Disbelief at his clear intentions as he grabbed her wrist. Even in the mainlands, where some people they’d encountered were just as savage as these Talosi, the reputation of Atlantians made them untouchable. The barbarians had seen them as cruel gods from across the sea, deserving of awe and reverence, or fear and loathing. But never lust, except in private.

Morrow was no Talosi serving girl. She was a warrior of Atlantis, fierce and fearless. Without thinking, she’d pulled her dagger from her belt. Orkan was almost three times her size, bearing down on her, wicked grin on his hideous face, but she was quick. He didn’t even know what had happened at first. Then he’d felt the blood flowing and his face had curdled. A warrior like that, blanching at the sight of his own blood. She’d burst out laughing, despite everything. That, perhaps more than the wound, was what sent him running away.

And yet, it was still with her, that look of his. The idea of it gave her chills. She hated this land, and the ugly, stunted people in it. No brothels, not even a girl looking in her direction. That Aethlan had been all right, and some of the other blondes and redheads had caught her eye, but most of the Talosi were dirty and half-starved to boot. It was a miserable, dead place. Cold, grey, uninspiring. But that all paled beside the icy resolve she’d seen in Orkan. She’d spent her life facing down people trying to kill her – wild berserkers from strange lands, painted jungle dwellers screaming savage war cries as they swung from the canopies, tough professional soldiers long shorn of all human empathy, hearts turned to shards of flint by a lifetime of bloodshed – but never before had she encountered anyone with such conviction to do her harm, in such a dreadful way. It was the look of a man intending to hurt her without even understanding why what he was doing was so utterly hateful. As if one of the many enemy soldiers she’d killed in her career had thought they’d be doing her a favour by sticking a sword in her belly.

She looked back over her shoulder again. Svartburg was out of sight and all she could see was the smear of smoke from the hundreds of campfires against the dark clouds. Yes, she resented the captain for sending her away, but she couldn’t deny his logic. She had no wish to see Orkan again, to see that look in his eye a second time, she just wanted to kill him. It was that simple. She’d have to settle for him doing it instead. If she was there, it would be dangerous for everyone. It made sense, frustratingly. He was a bastard that Rayke Albrihn – the finest commander she’d ever served under, but a stubborn, arrogant prick all the same. When she’d first met him, she’d dismissed him as typical Upper Atlas officer class, all bowing and scraping to the lords, ready to order his troops into danger while he sat in his tent sipping wine from a goblet. He wasn’t like that, it turned out, but he was just as annoying in his way. Annoying and right.

“Lieutenant!”

She looked up to see Corporal Thalk waving from the top of a wooded ridge ahead of them. The snow was quite thick on the ground here, and it would soon be thicker if the darkness of those clouds meant anything. “What?”

“Come and see this!”

She kicked her horse’s flanks and rode up the ridge, joining the corporal on the edge of a deep gorge. She looked down. “What is it?”

“Look.” Thalk pointed at the river at the bottom, where a waterfall tumbled over sharp black rocks and Morrow stared for an embarrassingly long time before it occurred to her what was wrong.

“Oh! It’s frozen!” The whole river, waterfall and all, was solid ice. The scene was ominously silent and there was something disturbing about that. Her brain was expecting the sound of running water, a pleasant, cheery babbling, but instead there were just the distant howls of wolves. Her head shot up. Wolves? “Did you hear that?”

Thalk was already wheeling around and Gena and the others galloped down the track towards them. “Lieutenant! Dogmen!”

“Where?”

“We heard them further up the mountain, and Aldris saw their tracks.”

“With me!” She called out. It was useless to try to sneak up the Hyen-a-khan – on this cold, dead mountain, they could scent them a league away. She had no intention of running though. As they charged up the path, she took out her curved bow and nocked an arrow, skilfully controlling her mount with a roll of her hips as they dashed through another dense patch of forest. Ahead was a clearing, and she could already see loping shapes in the shadows, and something else too, on the ground. She could smell blood.

The first arrow took one of the dogmen in the throat and it fell back with an inhuman screech. There were a dozen of them slinking around whatever was in the clearing, and three more went down with feathered shafts sprouting from their chests. As Morrow’s headlong rush brought her into the clearing, she saw what was going on and recoiled in horror. The wide space was marked out around its edges with tall black stones; some ancient, primitive monument, all daubed with blood. On the ground were stakes driven into the hard earth, and the remains of human bodies were tied to them by the arms and legs, stretched out. In the centre, one of the dogmen was on all fours, gorging itself on the innards of a what had once been a young Talosi woman. It was so intent on its meal, it didn’t notice its fellows dying and running away. Morrow drew back her bow and, as the thing noticed her for the first time, looking up with its misshapen muzzle covered in blood, she loosed, taking it right between the eyes. The rest of the monsters fled into the forest, leaving their dead behind.

Morrow slid off her horse and the other soldiers joined her, approaching the human bodies slowly. “What is this?” Gena asked.

“I have no idea.” Morrow walked up to the woman in the middle, with the Hyen-a-khan carcass lying next to her. She kicked it aside and knelt down. Being a soldier had hardened Morrow against many things, and she normally took a pretty casual attitude to death, but this was a new horror. The woman was naked, spread-eagled, and bound by wrists and ankles to the stakes. The ropes that held her had left burns on her skin where she’d obviously tried to struggle free. When she’d been staked here, she was alive. Morrow swallowed and looked at the dead woman’s face. It was contorted in agony, but there was something else – a symbol, drawn in blood on her forehead: the circle of the One-eyed God.

“They got to this one already, sir,” Thalk called. She stood over the body of a young man, though there was very little left of him now.

“And this one.”

Morrow stared around the clearing. There were perhaps half a dozen bodies, but more stakes and ropes where others might have been tied. The ground was soaked with blood and there was hardly any snow, as if even the sky itself rejected this place of torment. She stood up, breathing hard. “Aethlan…she said the people of Svartburg practiced blood sacrifice.”

“What does this have to do with any god?” Gena asked. She looked disgusted, and angry.

“They put the symbol on them,” Morrow said, pointing.

“The dogmen? I don’t understand…”

“The Talosi put them here,” Morrow said, stalking around the mutilated bodies, “they look like peasants. Their own people, most likely.”

“Why?”

“As an offering…and maybe the dogmen just found them…” But that wasn’t right, was it? The whole clearing reeked of blood. It was probably mostly goat, but it might not be, she reflected grimly. Either way, it would be like a beacon for the Hyen-a-khan. No, they were put here for a more sinister purpose. “Jonis told me these cunts think their One-eyed God is the lord of winter…and wolves. And that this age of ice that’s supposed to be coming is his judgment. Maybe they think the dogmen are part of that?”

“So they staked out their own people to be…eaten?” Aldris looked horrified.

“Yes. To keep them at bay. The Hyen-a-khan are clever, after a fashion. If they have a ready source of meat, they won’t waste their energy hunting. The Talosi are feeding them their peasants.”

Gena shook her head. “That’s madness. Why would their people submit to it?”

“With eight-thousand warriors surrounding them, what else could they do?” Morrow stood over a body savaged so thoroughly it was impossible to tell if it had been a man or a woman. A woman, probably, from the size, or a young boy. A child, really. She felt sick. “Think about it – how many peasants did we see in the city? A handful? They must be all that’s left.”

“That’s even crazier then,” Gena said, “what happens when they’re all dead? They started tying soldiers down here?” She swallowed. “Or…us?”

“Maybe…or maybe they knew this couldn’t go on.”

“I don’t understand…”

Morrow wasn’t sure she did either. She was a soldier, made an officer because of her skill and bravery, not because of any talent for strategy or leadership particularly, although the captain claimed she had the makings of a great commander in her. But she wasn’t used to doing the thinking. She just liked things she could put an arrow through. Now though, it was all slotting into place in her head and she began to count off on her fingers. “The captain said he thought Wodan was preparing to attack Talos. He said Windhael saw siege equipment. They claim they’re making a last stand, that this is a defensive position, but their palisade is sloppy and unfinished. They have plenty of wood though. So that’s how they’re building the ladders and rams and engines for their assault. The river is frozen, but the warriors gorge themselves on fish while the common folk starve.” She was pacing around the clearing, trying to keep her eyes off the grisly spectacle all around her. “They smoke the fish to preserve it. They aren’t fresh. The river’s solid – they’re just using up their supplies, but not wisely. And then they feed their peasants to the Hyen-a-khan to stop them attacking.”

“Sounds like they’re deliberately destroying themselves,” Aldris said.

Morrow snapped her fingers. “That’s exactly what they’re doing! Do you remember when we fought with the Katrans against the Gullani Empire in the mainlands? And they retreated into the wilderness?”

Gena nodded grimly. “They burned everything behind them. Their villages, their fields, every forest, every tree.”

“Scorched earth,” Morrow said, “we had no forage. The Gullani lost everything, but the Katrans couldn’t pursue them without anything to feed their troops with. When we left their employ, they were dying in droves from disease and hunger.”

“I remember,” Gena said and the others all looked uneasy. It hadn’t been a good season.

“That’s what the Talosi are doing. They’re stripping their lands bare, leaving the Hyen-a-khan with nothing. Except they aren’t retreating – they’re advancing. We arrived on the eve of them marching south, in the middle of their final celebration, using the last food supplies. No wonder their soldiers looked so well-fed and cheerful. They’ve gathered their army, now they dispose of the commoners they no longer have a use for and keep the dogmen off their backs into the bargain. When they’re gone, they’ll sweep down from the mountains and find nothing but frost and stone in Svartburg. Meanwhile, Talos is under siege by Wodan and his thugs.”

“They can’t run forever though,” Thalk said, “the dogmen will come after them.”

“Of course they will.” Morrow was seized by a ghastly foreboding. “This is how it’s going to happen. The ice comes down from the north, driving the Hyen-a-khan south. They chase the humans away, and then they attack their countrymen who are next in line. An endless wave of violent migrations, all driven by the age of winter. And it’ll be the same everywhere. After Talos, it’ll be Atlas.”

“If they’re planning this attack,” Gena said, “why didn’t they kill us when they found us in the snow?”

“I don’t know,” Morrow admitted, “but I do know this – we have to get back to Svartburg right now.”

“Why?”

“Because,” she said, vaulting up onto her horse, “I’m absolutely certain that whatever the outcome of this trial by combat is, Wodan will be leaving Svartburg with his armies in a matter of days. And someone has to warn Aethlan that he’s coming.” She kicked her horse’s flanks and turned around as the rest of the squadron mounted up. To the horrors in the clearing she gave no more thought – what was done was done, and her first duty was to Atlantis. Stopping this kind of madness from spreading across her entire homeland might now be entirely down to her.

 

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