Age of Winter (Part XI)

Orkan’s first swing would have decapitated Albrihn if he hadn’t jumped aside from it, dancing around the huge Talosi. The axe was large and ponderous, but Orkan had the strength to wield it and he was more agile than he looked. He turned on his heel and brought the axe down with the intent to cleave Albrihn in two from head to crotch, but again he dodged clear. His plan, such as it was, was to allow Orkan to tire himself out in the hopes that he’d then make a mistake and leave an opening. He hadn’t anticipated that the jarl would be quite so quick though and now it was Albrihn who was getting short of breath as blow after blow was aimed at him. He’d need to inflict some damage soon to stand any chance of victory.

He’d led Orkan in a circle around the ring of spectators and now he held his sword crosswise, defensively, daring him to strike. Orkan smiled, showing his hideous brown teeth. He was enjoying this, of course, and Albrihn felt renewed loathing for him. He charged, axe raised, and this time when Albrihn darted to one side he raked his sword across his chest, risking the wrath of the great axe-head as it descended. The glancing blow didn’t penetrate Orkan’s heavy mail, but it was enough to stagger him and Albrihn followed through with his weapon’s momentum, spinning around and then angling down to slice at his foe’s less well-protected legs. The sword bit deep across the back of Orkan’s thigh, and he was rewarded with a furious roar from the giant. He danced away, sword bloody and a look of grim satisfaction on his face.

Jonis watched from the sidelines beside Sergeant Hasprit and the other members of the Seventh. As Albrihn had claimed first blood, the dismay from the Talosi watching alongside them was obvious. They were a drunken, belligerent rabble, and they’d come here this afternoon to see Atlantian blood spilled.

“This is a nasty crowd,” Hasprit murmured quietly.

“I know. The way Valgia talked about it, the idea is to see their god’s justice done. But if Rayke wins…”

“We won’t get out of her alive.”

Jonis nodded. She had no desire to die in this cold, savage place, but she liked the idea of Orkan standing over Albrihn’s mangled corpse no better. Why had he agreed to this ludicrous exhibition? She knew the answer to her own question: like the rest of the Seventh, and herself, he felt a need to make Orkan answer for his crime, a need to see civilisation impose order over a barbarian, to demonstrate that even in the land of the savages, justice could prevail. But this didn’t look like justice to her, and she didn’t believe in their One-eyed God. By force of habit she now kept her hood pulled up to hide the tattoo that so unnerved the Talosi, but some of those closest to her would still steal glances in her direction and make that circular gesture across their chests if she caught their eye.

In the makeshift arena, Orkan was staggering around to face Albrihn, trying to shake feeling back into his bleeding leg. He didn’t look happy now, and his massive hands clenched the haft of his axe tighter. Albrihn circled him slowly, sword still raised in a defensive stance. The snow had begun to fall more heavily now, and there was a dusting of white on the ground. Orkan approached him more gingerly, then broke into a run as he closed. Albrihn ducked to one side, trying to avoid the axe again, but Orkan never swung, instead he rammed the end of the axe haft into Albrihn’s head as he dodged past. It was tipped with a heavy metal butt, and it clanged against Albrihn’s helmet. He stumbled to one side, visibly disorientated, and a great cheer rose from the Talosi. Wodan’s chair had been dragged out before the doors of his hall and he nodded with satisfaction at the change of fortune.

Orkan brought his axe down low, hacking at the back of Albrihn’s legs. He jumped clear, but in his befuddled state it was enough to unbalance him and he fell flat on his back on the ground. Jonis cried out as she saw Orkan raise his axe high above his head to bring it down and cleave Albrihn’s head from his shoulders. It fell, but Albrihn rolled clear at the last possible second and the heavy blade buried itself in the earth. Albrihn was up now, and he tugged off his helmet and tossed it to one side. There was an ugly bruise on the side of his temple and his eyes looked a little glassy. His long black hair was unruly where it had been stuffed into the helmet. Orkan was still trying to pull his axe free, so Albirhn came at him with a two-handed swing of his sword. Reluctantly, Orkan released his grip on his weapon and stepped backwards. Albrihn moved between him and the axe.

“He’s got him now,” Hasprit said.

Jonis shook her head. “Not yet.”

Orkan pulled two smaller axes from his belt as Albrihn stepped towards him. The first he hefted in his right hand and then, almost casually, threw it at his opponent. It was as long and heavy as a woodsman’s axe, but in Orkan’s hands it was a simple throwing axe and it spun end over end towards Albrihn. He parried it desperately with his sword and knocked it away but the blow jarred him, and now Orkan was on him again, swinging his smaller axe in a series of quick, downward cuts. Albrihn met each attack with his sword, but even with a lighter weapon the jarl still outmatched him in strength and he drove him back relentlessly. Each strike weakened Albrihn too as the impact reverberated up his sword blade and into his arms. Finally, after being battered at least half a dozen times, Albrihn was a fraction of a second too slow, and Orkan’s axe sailed past his guard, biting into his shoulder in the small gap between his breastplate and shoulder-guard. Albrihn let out a cry of pain as Orkan dragged the axe free, leaving a long splash of blood along the snowy ground. Albrihn staggered backwards, hand pressed to the open wound, teeth gritted.

Orkan laughed, but his own injury was starting to slow him down, and blood stained much of his breeches where Albrihn had cut him. He spun his axe around in his fist and beckoned for the Atlasian to come at him. Despite the damage to his shoulder, Albrihn obliged, racing across the intervening ground. Orkan swung high, another attempted killing blow, but Albrihn leant backwards even as he charged and slid to his knees so the axe passed harmlessly above him. His sword darted out, striking the same spot on Orkan’s thigh as before as he turned, and this time the point drove deep and Jonis winced as she saw the gleam of steel protruding from the other side of his leg. Orkan’s bellow was thunderous this time, and even as Jonis felt her heart leap, she saw how the Talosi mob began to turn, jeering at the Atlasian soldier.

Albrihn pulled his sword free and, as Orkan dropped down to one knee, began to hack wildly at the brute’s broad back. His swings were unfocused, driven by rage and need. The wound in his shoulder was releasing steady pulses of blood that trickled down the front of his breastplate. This had to end soon. Orkan was almost cowering, trying to shelter from the brutal blows that rent apart his mail and sent more blood flying. Albrihn stepped back and levelled his sword, aiming to drive it straight into Orkan’s back.

“Jonis! Jonis!” She turned to see Gena pushing her way through the crowd. She looked out of breath, shaken up.

“Gena? What are you doing here? Rayke sent you out with Morrow and…”

“No time.” She grabbed her and Hasprit by the arm. “Is the captain done yet?”

“Almost,” Hasprit said.

“Morrow’s getting the horses to the gate. We have to make a run for it – now.”

“What? Why?” She glanced back to the fight, where Albrihn was now stalking the downed Orkan like a hunter. She got a glance at the jarl’s back and saw how it had been cut to bloody ribbons by his slashes. She winced again.

“Wodan’s going to attack Talos, and soon.”

“Well we knew that,” Hasprit said.

“No, you don’t understand!” She was tugging at them more insistently now. “They’ve picked the land clean, they’ve got no choice but to move on now. They’re even…” She swallowed, seemingly trying to compose herself. “They’re even feeding their own peasants to the dogmen to keep them busy.”

Jonis felt a cold chill run through her. “How do you know?” she asked, fearing the answer.

“We found them in a clearing up in the mountains. Staked out like…like hides to be cured or something…I don’t know. There were dogmen there…feeding…” She looked like she was about to throw up, and Jonis didn’t blame her.

“We have to get out of here.” She looked around at the crowd. A lot of angry Talosi, about to rip this place to shreds if their man ended up dead. And how many more outside the gates, waiting for them?

Orkan was kneeling in the snow, axe on the ground, his back a ruin of crimson, and Albrihn was swaying from side of side as his own blood pumped out of him. He had to make this last strike count. He crouched, measuring, calculating, ignoring everything else in the world besides his target. He lunged, intending to drive his sword deep into Orkan’s back, but the crunching of the snow betrayed him and Orkan turned at the last moment causing his sword to glance off the remains of his mail. The giant roared and caught Albrihn in the gut with his shoulder, nearly knocking him off his feet. Albrihn felt huge, sinewy arms envelop him and then he was lifted up and thrown bodily across the open space, spinning through the air and landing in a crumpled heap five strides away. His sword was gone.

Orkan moved very slowly, approaching Albrihn with deliberate steps. He was almost teetering and his footsteps were bloody. He reached his first axe, still stuck in the earth by its blade where he’d left it and took the haft in a two-handed grip. With another bestial roar he yanked it free and lifted it over his head. The cheering from the Talosi filled the air as they called out for their leader to finish off the interloper, but Orkan’s single eye was focused on only one thing. He stood over Albrihn, axe high, ready to bring it down in a glittering arc that would slice him in half. He tensed, the muscles in his arms rippling, and then as the axe fell and the shouts of exultation from his men grew deafening, he was sent flying by the combined weight of Jonis and Hasprit crashing into him.

They bore him to the ground as the rest of the Seventh charged in, swords drawn. Wodan was up on his feet. “What is the meaning of this?” he demanded.

“You interfere in the justice of the One-eyed God!” Valgia shrieked from behind his lord’s throne, “the Greatfather will not be denied his blood-price!”

Orkan had rolled away, apparently content to bleed out in the snow and Jonis pulled herself to her feet. Her hood was pushed back, exposing her face. “This is over,” she shouted above the angry noise of the mob, “we won’t participate in this display of barbarism! We are Atlantians!”

Wodan glowered at her. “Your captain seemed happy to go along with this a moment ago. But now he’s losing, his own soldiers betray him?”

“I don’t care,” Jonis said, and she pointed down at Albrihn. “Captain Rayke Albrihn does not die in some shithole like this.”

“Who are you to deny justice to the people of Svartburg?” Valgia said.

“Who am I?” She jabbed a thumb at her chest. “I’m she who is marked by your One-eyed God, that’s who I am! I’m the sorceress or the witch or whatever you like, but either way, this is over.”

“Condemned by her own mouth!” Valgia screeched, jumping up and down and waving his staff in the air. “The witch! The witch! She is come again, heralding the time of judgment! Burn her and all her familiars who travel with her, and then bring the fire to the weak men of the south! The hour is come!”

“Tinderbox,” Jonis said, “meet spark.” She turned to Hasprit, who looked frightened as the crowd began to close in. “Grab the captain and run!”

He didn’t need to be told twice and he hauled the bloody Albrihn up and onto his shoulders. The Seventh were cutting a path through the crowd. The Talosi warriors were big and strong, but they were also wild and not a little drunk and most were unarmed. The trained militiamen carved through them. Jonis took up the rear, laying about her with her own barbed sword. She could hear Wodan shouting above the uproar. “Get them! Do not let them escape! Atlantian cowards!”

But it was too late. They ran to the open gates where Morrow and the rest of her squadron were waiting with all their horses. They mounted up swiftly, Hasprit swinging Albrihn across the front of his saddle and then they were off, racing through the great encampment as the snow fell and the Talosi slowly woke up to the fact that they had fugitives in their midst. The Seventh were too fast though, with better horses and more experience in the saddle. Even if their pursuers could organise themselves, they’d never catch them. Within minutes they crossed the earthworks and the half-constructed palisade, and then they were in the valley, heading for the road leading south, leaving the city of Svartburg far behind them.

They didn’t stop until dusk had fallen and the horses were lathered. Then, as they came to the edge of a dark forest, Morrow called for a halt. They made their camp under the eaves, and Jonis joined Albrihn and Morrow as Thalk tended to the captain’s wounds. “This cut in your shoulder’s going to slow you down for a bit, sir,” she said as she bit off a length of thread and fed it deftly through the eye of a needle. For practicality’s sake, they had a fire this time.

“We can’t stay here long,” Albrihn said. His voice was weak. “They won’t be far behind.”

Jonis crouched on the other side of the fire and warmed her hands. “A couple of hours. We have the jump on them.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t kill him for you,” he told Morrow.

“I have a feeling you’ll get another chance, captain,” she said.

“I’m still trying to get my head around what happened.” He paused as Thalk began to stitch his wound closed. “Did we run because of me?”

“Partly,” Jonis said, “but it was more to do with what Morrow found in the hills.”

“There was no time to lose, captain,” she said in response to his enquiring look, “we found out what they were doing: scorched earth, picking the land clean of everything of value. Even the peasants.”

Albrihn nodded, seeming to understand without having to be told. She wondered whether anything like this had happened in the mainlands. She couldn’t picture a place worse than this, but it existed, if the Seventh were to be believed. “The attack on Talos is imminent then.”

“They were just waiting for a sign,” Jonis said, “and for better or worse, we gave it to them.”

“We have to ride hard. How many are left?”

“We lost two in the escape – Yona and Landy were both pulled down,” Morrow answered.

“Let’s hope they died quickly,” he said grimly. “We’ve less than forty riders,” he went on, looking off into the distance beyond the dancing flames, “and a lot of ground to cover. Right now, our only objective is to reach Talos and warn Aethlan that Wodan is marching on her. It’ll take a long time to move that many men such a distance, but they will come.”

“And what then?” Morrow asked.

“And then…only the gods know.”

“I’ve had enough of gods for one day,” Jonis said sourly.

“Me too.”

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