Albrihn strode into the Hall of the Fathers where, around one of the nearer tables, Lady Aethlan and some of the other Talosi nobility were consulting a collection of maps on parchment and vellum. He wore his armour and carried his helmet beneath one arm. His sword, as ever, was on his hip. With him were Morrow, Hasprit and two of the Seventh’s other sergeants – Ithan and Trelik – all similarly dressed for combat, and Jonis as well. Aethlan and the lords looked up as they entered, and the lady frowned slightly. It was some hours before noon. “Captain Albrihn…are you leaving already?”
“No, my lady,” he said as he approached the table, “there’s been a change of plans.”
“I have decided the interests of Atlantis and the Emperor would be better served by my company staying and aiding in the defence of Talos.”
Aethlan smiled widely. “I’m very glad to hear that.”
“You’re company is less than forty strong, Captain Albrihn,” a lord at the end of the table said.
“I’m aware of that.” He reached inside his breastplate and took out the Imperial Seal. “I was given this by the Emperor himself. I am empowered to enact his will on this mission.” He tossed it down onto the table, atop the maps. “Less than two score we may be, but we represent the Emperor. Know that Atlantis stands with you.”
“We are grateful, Captain Albrihn,” Aethlan said, bowing her head slightly, “and, although I trust my own warriors implicitly, you have proved your good faith to our people already, and I know of your great experience in battle. I would therefore appreciate your insight into our situation.”
As Albrihn stooped to look over the maps of the city and surrounding area, another lord cleared his throat. “Lady, while I respect the trust you place in this Atlasian soldier, let us not forget we have only his word that this attack is even coming…”
Albrihn glanced up at him. “It is coming. Lord…?”
“Offaen,” he supplied.
“Lord Offaen. The attack is coming. Eight-thousand warriors were gathered in Svartburg alone, and I suspect many more may be lying in wait closer to home to add their strength to that force. Why would we lie?”
“Who can say? But even if Wodan does plan to attack, would we not be better served by suing for peace instead? Surely there is some accommodation we might reach with him?” He turned to Aethlan. “Lady, I have known Wodan for many years. He is a hard man, to be sure, but he is not beyond reason.”
“The only accommodation he will accept is the rule of Talos,” she said tartly
“Well then…” another lord hazarded, “if we cannot defeat him in battle, might it not be more prudent to acquiesce to his wishes? To prevent loss of life, I mean.”
“Are you a lord of the Talosi or a coward, Lord Ethelstan?”
“With respect, lady, it is not you who will be expected to fight. Whatever the outcome of this situation, you will be allowed to live, I am certain.”
“As Wodan’s wife,” Morrow said, “against her will. It isn’t you who’ll be expected to do that, is it?”
Albrihn straightened. “This is ridiculous. Wodan’s warriors are bloodthirsty and desperate. There can be no compromise because, for them, there is no longer any turning back. Their homeland has been picked clean. The rivers are frozen and the commoners are dead – fed to the dogmen to placate them. They have nothing to return to. Those eight-thousand men will only survive by taking Talos by force.”
The lords had paled at his words. “We do not have the provisions for a prolonged siege,” Offaen said.
“Neither do they,” Jonis replied, “and there’s hardly any forage in this country. They’ll need to finish it quickly.”
“And that’s to our advantage,” Albrihn continued, “a hasty attack is a doomed one. Lady, I’d like to take a look at the defences in person and try to formulate a strategy. This city isn’t large, but it’s still too big for the forces we have at our disposal to defend as I’d like. We’ll need to be clever.”
“I have every confidence in you, captain.”
He grinned crookedly at that. “I’m a cavalryman, not a besieger. Everything in my experience tells me to stay away from battles I can’t escape from, but in war some things are unavoidable.”
“Unavoidable,” Ethelstan snorted, “Atlantians are always so stubborn.”
“You’re Atlantians,” Morrow said.
“Indeed,” said Albrihn, “and Atlantis defends its cities and its people.”
“With forty soldiers? Where has your Emperor been through all these years of hardship? He sends a single company to fight a rebellion?”
“Your mountains are infested with bandits – and that’s most likely Wodan’s doing too. Nonetheless, when this is done, I’ll send a messenger to Atlas and request reinforcements. I want a garrison of militia stationed here permanently. Hard years are coming, and Atlantis must defend its borders against the creatures that will come in the wake of the ice.”
“That’s a discussion for another day, Captain Albrihn,” Aethlan said, “Huldane will show you the walls. He commands my Housecarls, so you should coordinate with him. Whatever you require, Talos will provide. Our very survival depends on you.”
“No pressure, captain,” Morrow said, but she didn’t smile.
The snow was thick on the ground outside as Huldane led them through the streets to the walls. The city seemed quiet, and it was clear that word had spread of the approaching enemies. As they neared the main gates, there was a steady stream of people going in both directions. Some of the townsfolk obviously preferred to take their chances outside the walls, reasoning that the hostile army had its sights set on Talos. The farmers who lived in the surrounding countryside, on the other hand, wished for the security of thick ramparts. There was a stone staircase built into the wall beside the gatehouse, and they ascended the icy steps carefully. Atop the walls, a stiff wind blew off the lowlands and Albrihn braced himself against the parapet. The stonework was good Atlantian craftsmanship, and he knew Wodan’s men had nothing that would be able to break it down. He pointed. “The gatehouse is the weak point.”
Huldane nodded. “The gates are rarely closed. The hinges are rusted and worn.”
“The first order of business is to reinforce those doors then. You have craftsmen capable of that?”
“Yes. I will see it is done immediately.”
Albrihn looked along the narrow causeway across the chasm that led to the road through the mountains. “The only way to the city is the causeway. The army will be bottlenecked as they cross it. That’s when we have to inflict damage. We need archers, and engines if you have them.”
“We have men who can fire a bow, but I would not call them archers. Talosi are poor marksmen, I am sorry to say. As for engines…such technology has never been used here.”
Morrow leant against the parapet and folded her arms. “This is going to be great fun.”
“All right,” Albrihn said. He peered over the walls. A rocky ledge – no more than ten strides in width – ran all around the edge of the city, outside the walls. A waist-high barrier separated it from the causeway on either side, but that would be no impediment to the attackers. “When they reach the gates, some will probably use a ram to batter them down. That will be the main assault force. But others will turn west or east and try to scale the walls from below. The entire length of this wall is at risk.”
“We do not have enough soldiers to man the walls,” Huldane said, shaking his head sadly.
“So we’ll have to make it harder for them to gain a foothold along here.”
“Pitch,” Hasprit suggested.
“I was thinking the same,” Albrihn said.
“What do you mean pitch?” Jonis asked. She was frowning down at the ledge. It was covered in patches of snow and didn’t look like an easy place to mount an assault from.
“To burn,” Albrihn explained, “we’ll pile it up at the base of the walls.”
“So they will have to march through fire?” Huldane asked. “That will certainly deter them…”
“I don’t want to deter them,” Albrihn said grimly, “I don’t want it lit until they’re in position. We’ll burn them alive.”
Huldane looked a little shocked, but then nodded slowly. “How will you light it?”
“Archers – from my company.” He gestured along the wall. Every hundred strides or so, a squat tower rose from the rampart. “I’ll put them in twos on each tower, and along the east wall too. They’ll fire flaming arrows as the enemy advance.”
“That will help,” Huldane said, “but some will almost certainly manage to get onto the walls. Even a handful could wreak havoc if they get inside the city. We just do not have the men…”
Albrihn ran a hand across his jaw. “We have to make the most of what we have. Jarl Huldane, I want to put together a mobile unit that can respond to any attackers who make it across the wall, and I’d like you to lead it.”
“Why not yourself, captain?”
“Because it will need to be made up of Talosi for the most part, and you know your own troops.” He turned and looked down at the buildings squashed up against the inside of the walls, and in some cases, using the stonework as part of their structure. “We’ll need to clear some of this.”
“Clear it? What do you mean?”
“Your force won’t be able to respond to an attack if it has to pick its way through winding streets. I need a clear area at least twenty strides within the walls.”
“You want us to pull down people’s homes, shops?”
“Yes. If you don’t, everyone in this city is doomed.”
“We need to think about the people anyway, Rayke,” Jonis said, “those Svartburgers didn’t look the merciful type to me.”
“Agreed. How many can you shelter in the castle?”
Huldane looked dubious. “A few hundred, perhaps?”
“Make room for as many as you can. But I want anyone strong enough to lift a spear or draw a bow on the walls with your soldiers. Their homes and lives are at stake. Every body counts.”
“As you say,” Huldane nodded, “and the women and children in the castle.”
“Women? Why?” Albrihn looked confused.
Jonis took his arm. “Rayke, this isn’t Atlas. Only the men fight here, remember?”
“The women are no less capable…”
“We know that, but imagine what will happen if Wodan’s men are running rampant in the city? These aren’t Atlantian soldiers.”
“You know what happened to Morrow. You know how Wodan and his men reacted. This is another world, Rayke. The women are in danger.”
“Yes. I understand.” He turned to Huldane. “The women and children are the priority. Tell your housecarls to train as many commoners in the basics of using their weapons as they can. I don’t expect them to hold against Wodan’s warriors, but they may make all the difference.” He turned back to the stairs but then stopped. “Huldane – do you have any Atlantian banners?”
“I think we have some in the castle…somewhere…”
“Find them, and fly them from as many poles as you can. I want Wodan to understand what he faces. The will of the Emperor will be set against him.”
“I will see to it. Captain, wait…”
He turned back. “Yes?”
“Where will you be during the siege?”
“At the gates,” he answered with a shrug, as if it were obvious.
“Where the fighting will be thickest?”
“Precisely, Jarl Huldane.”
He walked back down the stairs and headed back to the castle. Jonis quickly caught up with him. “Your plan seems sound.”
“As sound as it can be. There are a thousand things that can go wrong.”
“How confident are you that you can hold this city?”
“Yes,” she smiled, “honestly.”
“Not very. They vastly outnumber us and are better trained and better equipped. We should run.”
“Except if we do that, most of these people will die.” She looked at the commoners, huddling in their crude hovels as they passed. They looked scared and cold.
“Yes. And the Province will be lost.”
“Which the Emperor won’t like…”
“I don’t even know if he’ll care. The Talosi are right that the rest of Atlantis barely gives them a second thought. It’s no wonder they only grudgingly accept our help.”
“But this is where we are. So this is where we stand, right?”
“Right.” He gave her a sidelong glance. “You only came here for the journey, Jonis. And you’re irreplaceable.”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“You’re a Cyclops Keeper. How many of you are there?”
She thought about it. “A few hundred?”
“What are you saying?”
“I could send you back to Atlas, with an escort. Led by Morrow.” He looked over his shoulder at the lieutenant, who laboured through the slush with Huldane and the others a few strides behind them.
“You’d keep her out of this fight too?”
“I’m thinking about Orkan…”
“After the way we left him, I hardly think he’ll make it to the battle. He probably died of his wounds.”
“Don’t underestimate him – that’s the mistake I made.”
“In either case,” Jonis said, “I’m not going.”
“Sieges aren’t pleasant, you know. I hoped to never fight in another.”
“All battles are dangerous. I’m a warrior too. You know that.”
“You’ve no Cyclops with you now.”
She stopped and placed her hands on her hips, cocking her head at Albrihn. He stopped and returned her stare flatly. “I fought by your side in the mountains, against the bandits. Did I embarrass myself then?”
“No, of course not…”
“So what’s the problem? I’ve as little cause to fight here as you. And I’m the one who persuaded you to stay.”
She swaggered towards him and laid a finger against his breastplate. “Admit it, Captain Albrihn,” she said, with her face very close to his and a smile playing across his lips, “you’re fond of me. You don’t want me to get hurt.”
“You know I’m fond of you,” he said, grabbing her hand and smiling back.
“You’ve spent too much time with these Talosi. You think I’m some wife you have to protect, who’ll stay home, cooking your meals and raising your brats. But I’m from Atlas. I’m fierce.” She gnashed her teeth at him to demonstrate. “And anyway,” she added, stepping away, “you don’t command me. I only came with you for an adventure. I can stay as long as I like. I might not even go back to Atlas with you just yet.”
“Some of these Talosi are quite attractive, once you get past the beards. I’ve my eye on one or two.”
She laughed and carried on up the hill towards the castle. Huldane and Morrow caught up with Rayke. “Is everything well, captain?” he asked.
“One day, Jarl Huldane,” he said, “you must tell me how the Talosi managed to tame their women.”
“Where’s the fun in a tame one?” Morrow asked as she walked by. She ran and caught up with Jonis.
Huldane looked lost. “Atlas must be a strange land, captain.”
“You have no idea.”