The Seventh arrived at the city of Talos, battered and exhausted, late on the third day after fleeing Svartburg. It was a dark, overcast night, and snow fell in fitful bursts. Albrihn rode at the head of the column, but he swayed in his saddle, keeping upright by willpower alone now. His shoulder throbbed persistently. They’d rested for no more than an hour or two at a time and the horses were also flagging. This time no one barred their progress at the gate before the long causeway leading to the city, and as they rode into the castle’s stables, they were met by Jarl Huldane. Albrihn slid off his horse and almost stumbled and fell, but Jonis was by his side, supporting him. He straightened and nodded to the jarl. “We come with bad news from the north.”
Huldane raised his eyebrows. “Svartburg? Wodan?”
“The city stands,” Jonis explained, “but it will be abandoned soon. Wodan marches here with an army.”
His face paled and his eyes went wide. “An army…?”
“They mean to take Talos,” Albrihn said, “it would be best if we spoke with Aethlan as soon as possible.”
“I…my lady has retired to her chambers…”
“Then wake her.”
“And get a physician, if you have one,” Jonis added. She was still holding Albrihn up.
“What happened?” Huldane asked.
“It’s a long story, and I’d rather not have to tell it twice.”
Huldane gave a slight bow. “I will let Lady Aethlan know you are here.” He turned to leave, but then paused and turned back. “It would be best if you came with me. It would not be wise to meet in the Hall of the Fathers at this hour. I will send for a doctor.”
Albrihn gestured for Morrow to come with them and, with Jonis still lending her aid, they climbed up the stone steps from the stables after Huldane.
Half an hour later, they were in Aethlan’s chambers. Albrihn reclined on the couch, his eyelids drooping, while a balding man in a ratty black robe inspected the wound on his shoulder. “Serviceable stitches,” he said doubtfully, “but I would like to leech some of the blood around the wound.”
Albrihn recoiled. “Leech?”
“Yes. To balance your humours. Bad blood is attracted to the injury and it needs to be removed.”
“It’s healing fine.”
“Humours?” Jonis asked.
The doctor eyed her. “Please stay out of this, my dear. Women do not have the constitution for medicine.”
Albrihn waved his hand and winced at the pain flaring up in his shoulder. “Enough of this. I only needed an experienced eye cast over it. The cut wasn’t deep and if it was going to fester it would have already. No leeches, please.”
“As you wish,” the doctor sighed. He gathered up his satchel and bowed to Aethlan before Huldane showed him out.
The lady herself was dressed in a heavy crimson robe over her nightdress and her hair was unbraided, falling in great golden waves down her back. She paced back and forth before the hastily lit fire. “An army, you say?”
“Yes,” Jonis said, taking a seat beside Albrihn on the couch, “at least eight-thousand in Svartburg alone.”
Aethlan blanched. “That is…bad news.”
“There’s more,” Albrihn said. He pushed himself up on the couch. “They had arms and armour for far more men. I believe it may be Wodan who armed the bandits in the pass who attacked us. Which means he has some influence here in the south of Talos.”
“He does,” Huldane confirmed, “there are even lords loyal to him within the moot.”
“How many soldiers do you have here?” Albrihn asked Aethlan.
She lifted her hands helplessly. “My housecarls number only a few hundred. Besides that, the lords loyal to me have retinues of their own…”
“Less than a thousand,” Huldane answered, “but we cannot even guarantee that they will fight against Wodan.”
“That isn’t many troops to defend a city this size,” Morrow said, “what about the militia?” She sat at the table on the other side of the room, idly playing with her dagger as she always did. Some of the warmth and humour had gone out of her recently, and Albrihn could hardly blame her for that after what she’d been through.
“The militia is small,” Aethlan explained, “a few dozen volunteers to guard the gates. When war threatens, the Talosi raise an army from peasants.”
“Levies?” Morrow asked, her tone making her disbelief clear.
“Yes. That is our way.”
Albrihn leant forward. “We can’t rely on that now. Your people are starving, and Wodan’s men are warriors, not farmers handling spears for the first time.”
“The city is defensible,” Huldane said, “the only access is via the causeway.”
“Yes,” Albrihn nodded, “but you can’t defend these walls with less than a thousand soldiers. It’s just not possible. Once across the chasm, they’ll be able to scale the walls wherever they wish. Your forces would be spread too thin to oppose an assault of any size.”
“You have fought in sieges, Captain Albrihn?” Aethlan asked, turning to him.
“Yes, my lady. On both sides, sorry to say. It’s never a pleasant business. The common folk always bear the brunt of it.”
“You successfully defended a city?”
Albrihn wasn’t sure where this was going. “Lady Aethlan, I was once part of the garrison of Helios, in Hyperion. It’s a small city, really, on a river, surrounded by sandstone walls. It hadn’t weathered an attack in centuries. There was an uprising of sorts, led by a local lord, angry about taxation and land rights or some such. He managed to win some of the militia regiments raised from his lands to his cause and marched on Helios. They were a few thousand, we only a few hundred.”
“So you have been victorious against odds like this before?” Huldane asked, eyes alight.
“No. I wouldn’t say we were victorious. The enemy didn’t have the equipment to breach the walls, but they knew our reinforcements were only a few days away. They threw all they had at us. You see, they hadn’t expected resistance of any kind, so when we met steel with steel, they were dismayed. But they kept coming. In the end, they broke through in two places and stormed the city. We fell back to the keep, which was virtually impregnable, with as many of the townsfolk as we could. We had supplies for a week, perhaps, and they hoped to starve us out. In the meantime, they tore Helios apart, drunk on bloodlust. We watched them burn the city from the towers for two days before the relief force arrived. They routed the rebels in hours, and we personally hunted them down across the countryside afterwards. The traitorous lord was hung in what remained of Helios’s marketplace. Not many there mourned him.”
“A grim tale,” Aethlan said after he’d finished, “but different circumstances to ours.”
“We can’t defend this city, captain,” Morrow said shortly.
“No. And from what you tell me, my lady, Wodan already has support here. It’s my observation that the Talosi respect strength above all else. If Wodan takes this city, he will find all the lords of the moot rallying to his banner, yes?”
Aethlan sighed and then nodded sadly. “My position is precarious enough as it is. If Talos falls, I will have nothing.”
“Wodan intends to make you his wife though, doesn’t he?” Jonis said.
“Perhaps.” She exchanged a glance with Huldane, who stood stoically by the door. “But that is not a fate I would choose for myself.”
“Nor would we wish it on you, lady,” Albrihn said, “nonetheless, when they come, I see no hope that his force can be repelled.”
“There is nothing you found out in Svartburg that might help us?” Huldane sounded desperate.
“We only just managed to get out alive to bring this warning,” Morrow said.
“And that in itself was a miracle,” Jonis added, “frankly, I still don’t understand why they didn’t kill us as soon as they found us. They must have known we’d bring word of what they were doing back here.”
“It was you, Keeper Jonis,” Aethlan said, “they believed you were the fulfilment of a prophecy.”
Jonis narrowed her eyes. “You mentioned that before – what is this prophecy anyway? What’s the significance of being marked by the One-eyed God or whatever this business is all about?”
Aethlan finally sat down on a chair next to Morrow and folded her hands in her lap. She looked tired too, and her gaze was distant. “It’s ridiculous of course,” she said by way of excuse for what was to follow, “but the oldest legends talk about a witch from Atlantis, marked as you are, who came to Svartburg.”
“I know that part,” Jonis said, “their priest explained it to me.”
“Yes. Well, that is the story, but the prophecy is a little harder to translate. It says, more or less, than when she who is marked by the Greatfather – the witch – comes again to the north, and the One-eyed God becomes blind in the name of justice…”
“The northern city will be left to desolation,” Huldane finished off. His voice was hollow and, like Aethlan, his eyes rested on nothing in particular.
“I see,” Jonis said after a moment. “Well, that makes sense. If your trial by combat was any indication, Rayke, that was me blinding the One-eyed God to justice.”
“They were just waiting for the right time to leave,” Albrihn surmised, “until all the portents were in place.”
“And Svartburg is the northern city,” Morrow guessed.
“So it seems.” Aethlan looked at Jonis. “You were allowed to live because they feared you, Keeper, and what you represented. They wished to see whether the prophecy would be fulfilled. Once they were satisfied that it had…well…they could begin.”
“I don’t believe in prophecies,” Albrihn said shortly, “but I do believe in the army that we saw. We raced here as fast as we could. Even if they travel that fast, it will take them much longer to reach Talos – they have thousands of troops to move, as well as siege equipment, supplies, baggage, all the rest of it.”
“How long do you estimate we have?” Aethlan asked.
“Two weeks perhaps? Assuming any forces he has closer to hand don’t attack before then.”
“There is no time to lose,” she said, “we have to prepare for their assault.”
Albrihn held up a hand. “Wait. Haven’t you heard a thing I’ve said? You can’t hold this city against Wodan’s army. Even if the people take up arms, it won’t do any good.”
“So what would you have us do then?”
“Retreat?” Huldane looked personally affronted by the suggestion.
“There’s no honour in being on the losing side of a battle like this one,” Albrihn said, “believe me. Wodan’s men are brutal killers. When they get inside – and they will – no one will be safe. Least of all you, my lady.”
“This is my home, Captain Albrihn…”
“Do you want it to be your tomb as well?” Morrow asked.
Aethlan turned in her chair and gave the lieutenant a withering look. “For what it’s worth, yes. My ancestors were buried here. This is the city of my people. I hoped to defend it until the day I died.”
“A noble dream, lady,” Albrihn told her, “but your death at the hands of Wodan’s barbarians – or worse, should he decide to force you to marry him – would serve nothing.”
“So what? We ride away? To where?”
“Cross the mountains into Atlas. The Emperor would shelter you, until such a time as we could reclaim Talos from Wodan.”
“And when would that be, captain? Is Talos a priority for Atlantis? There have been tyrants reigning here before and no help came from beyond the mountains then. In the eyes of the Emperor, I suspect Wodan is no worse a ruler than I. He is content, so long as Talos governs its own affairs.”
“He is wise and shrewd,” Albrihn said, “and he understands the threat. Wodan’s attack is but a symptom of the disease that grips perhaps the whole world. Soon, the ice that threatens Svartburg will engulf these lands too, and he’ll be forced to lead his army south, over the passes and into the rest of Atlantis.”
“And in his wake will come the Hyen-a-khan,” Jonis said darkly.
“All the more reason to make a stand here then!” Huldane protested. “My lady, I can vouch for the loyalty of your housecarls. Let me meet Wodan’s champion at the gates. If I fall, they will hold the walls to the last man.”
“Your courage does your credit, jarl,” Albrihn said, “but you should not throw your life away for Talos.”
“Then what should we throw our lives away for, captain?” Aethlan asked haughtily. She rose from her chair and walked to the centre of the room. “To you, this city is a squalid outpost in the inhospitable north. A pile of hovels on the edge of a land in which no one could possibly want to live. No, do not deny it; I know how we appear to you. But understand this: Talos is my home, and its stewardship my birth right. I am sworn to defend it in the name of your Emperor. It is all I have ever known, and all that I wish to know. If this city dies, I will die with it. But while there is breath in my body, I will stand.”
“As will I, lady,” Huldane said, placing a hand on her arm. It rested there for a second, before he instinctively snatched it away.
Albrihn closed his eyes. He wanted to sleep more than anything. He was on borrowed time and he knew it. But he had to try to reason with her before it was too late. “I admire your courage,” he said honestly, “but this is not a war you can win.”
“Then I will lose it. But you will not persuade me not to fight it, Captain Albrihn. That is not the Talosi way, and it is not the Atlasian way either, I suspect.”
“True.” Slowly, helped by Jonis again, he rose to his feet. “I would request your hospitality for another night, Lady Aethlan.”
“And tomorrow…we will take our leave. If you wish us to escort you to safety, we will of course do that. But my company will depart by noon.”
“As you wish, captain.” Aethlan’s voice was cold.
“Good night, my lady.” Huldane held the door open for them, and they left the chambers in silence.
They barely made it back to their own chambers before Albrihn collapsed. Jonis settled him on the bed and walked to the window. She pulled back the shutters, shivering at the blast of freezing air that was admitted, and looked out across Talos. There were only a few weak lights in the low buildings and beyond the walls just a white expanse of snow. It had fallen in their absence, and even now flakes continued to drift gently from the sky. When would winter leave this land? What if it never did? Even if Aethlan did hold this city against Wodan, it wouldn’t remain habitable for much longer, not with no crops in the fields and no livestock on the hills.
“You don’t think we should leave, do you?”
She turned and looked at Albrihn, now sitting up in bed. His eyes were red with dark bags underneath, but she had the feeling sleep would be elusive for him despite his obvious exhaustion.
“I’ve been thinking about their legends,” she said.
He frowned. “What about them?”
She pointed at her left eye. “This tattoo is unique. There’s no way their witch can have been anything but a Cyclops Keeper.”
“She probably never existed, Jonis.”
“I don’t know. In my experience, these things tend to have a grain of truth.”
“You’ve never even left Atlantis, Jonis. Trust me; superstitious people will invent whatever nonsense serves their ends.”
She pushed down her anger at his dismissive response. “All I’m saying is, I think there may be some historical basis to it. I think, when the Talosi first arrived, Atlantis sent Cyclopes to destroy them.”
“It’s possible, I suppose.”
“I think it’s more than possible.” She came and sat on the end of the bed. “The lower levels of this fortress – the stables especially – remind me of the Cyclops pens back home. I think there was a garrison stationed here. There were a lot more Cyclopes around then, but a lot of records from that era are lost. They may have had dozens here – hundreds. It must have been a thing to see.”
“All right then. So what?”
“So, I think their fragmented history of their wars against Cyclopes somehow got conflated with the myths they brought with them from the mainlands. Their One-eyed God is an Atlantian Cyclops.”
“Interesting theory,” Albrihn admitted, “but I don’t see how it helps us.”
“I’m just thinking about their prophecy…”
“You know there’s no truth in that, Jonis. Prophecies aren’t real.”
“I’m aware of that,” she said flatly, “but the Talosi aren’t. You saw how they feared me.”
“Our presence is important here, Rayke. If not to us, or the future of the world or whatever, then at least to the Talosi. They think their realm is destined to fall. How long do you think they’ll hold out if they think their god is against them?”
“Their god might as well be against them. There’s no way they can stand against Wodan’s army.”
“Are you sure about that?”
He eyed her. “I know war, Jonis.”
“Could you do it though, if you had to? If there was nowhere to run?”
“That’s not the point…”
“Answer the question.”
He sighed. “It’s possible. They have to attack along the causeway. If we were to concentrate our forces at the gates, we could hold them off for a while at least.”
“Because they wouldn’t be able to bring their numbers to bear, right?”
“So why won’t you do that?”
“This city isn’t worth our lives, Jonis.”
“Aethlan thinks it is.”
“It’s her city.”
“It’s also an Atlantian city,” she pointed out, “even if it doesn’t feel like it.”
“This Province is doomed.”
“So everyone seems to think. Maybe if they didn’t, things might be different.”
He laughed. “Are you insane? What difference would a battered company of light cavalry make anyway? This isn’t a fight we want to be part of.”
She placed a hand on his leg. “But we are part of it, Rayke. In a way, we might have caused it. Don’t we owe the Talosi our support? You came here as the representative of the Emperor. Does the Emperor abandon his people? Does he ride away and never look back?”
“I said we’d protect Aethlan…”
“But she won’t leave. So, if you want Atlantis to defend the legitimate government of this Province, we have to make a stand with them. What makes this different from Helios?”
“At Helios I was a sergeant. I obeyed my orders.”
“And now you’re the one giving the orders. So what are they going to be, Captain Rayke Albrihn? Will their prophecy come true, or will the banner of Atlantis fly over this rabble of defenders and give them some hope at last?” She looked into his eyes and, when he said nothing, she rubbed his leg again and smiled. “Just think about it. I’m going for a walk.” She stood up from the bed and left the chamber.