Age of Winter (Part XIV)

A little over a week later, Albrihn was walking the walls again with Hasprit by his side. He watched the progress of the work below, where labourers from the town were spreading pitch across the rocks and, on the other side, a swathe of clear ground was being made. It hadn’t been easy to clear the people from their homes and a number had put up a fight. Others had packed up their belongings and left the city altogether. All in all though, what needed to be done had been done. Hasprit was reeling off a list of troop dispositions as they walked. “Lady Aethlan sent word out to some of the other lords not in Talos, but she says she hasn’t heard anything back from any of them yet.”

“She didn’t expect to,” Albrihn said.

“No, but more soldiers are always appreciated.”

“Of course. How are the peasants doing?”

Hasprit itched a spot underneath the cord of his eye patch where it crossed over a knobbly lump of scar tissue near his temple. “Well, they know which end of the spear to stick in. The rest of it’s a little harder. They’re not much for formations. A determined assault’ll break ‘em, even if they have the advantage in numbers and strength.”

“They don’t need to withstand a charge – just poke those spears downwards from behind the parapet.” He patted the crenellation beside him as he walked, but then stopped and squinted out across the chasm that divided Talos from the road. It was a windy day with a hint of snow in the air, but otherwise clear, and he could make out a commotion at the gate on the far side of the causeway. After a few seconds, five riders passed through and then galloped along the narrow bridge towards the city. He recognised them, and jogged back towards the gatehouse and the stairs that led down to ground level. He jumped down just as the squadron passed through the gates – currently being rebuilt and reinforced by half a dozen carpenters and ironworkers – and the leader wheeled around as she caught sight of him.

“Gena?” he asked.

She tipped her helmet to him. “Captain.” She was out of breath. The rest of the squadron formed up around her. They all looked similarly red-faced.

“What’s wrong? Did you find them?” He’d sent them out this morning. Scouting parties of the Seventh were being dispatched daily, trying to find evidence of Wodan’s army drawing close.

“Yes, sir. Only a few leagues away.”

Hasprit, now standing behind Albrihn let out a snort. “We left them less than a fortnight ago. How could they be so close so soon?”

“I didn’t stop to ask, sergeant,” Gena said, “but we met a few of their own scouts, captain. On foot, down in the hills. We killed them, naturally, but when we followed the track down we saw the army on the plains. They’ve got more troops too. I reckon at least ten-thousand now. Looks to me like they’ve got some of the local lords on their side.”

“Fucking traitors,” Hasprit spat.

“Aethlan said that the Talosi generally raise troops from their peasants. Let’s hope these new recruits are just levies.”

“Some of ‘em’ll be the kind of bandits we met on the way in, captain,” Hasprit said.

“Most likely. But even then, they’re less formidable than the Svartburgers.” He stepped towards Gena and patted her horse’s neck comfortingly. The animal’s flesh was warm and he could see how their pell-mell ride back to the city had taxed their mounts. “You did well,” he told her, “we’re not nearly ready for this attack, but we were never likely to be to tell the truth. I’ll inform the lady and we’ll have to make the city secure by nightfall.”

The announcement went out half an hour later. The gates would be locked shut at dusk. Anyone who wished to leave should do so before then. As he walked through the city again, checking on the defences they’d prepared – the buckets of water being used to soak the thatched roofs to repel fire, the barricades of trash, broken furniture, bundled sticks placed along the wider roads to entangle an assaulting force – he was surprised how many had chosen to stay. The Atlantian banners – a little faded and threadbare – snapped from high poles above the castle and the towers on the walls, and there was a sense that they might survive this. He wished he shared their optimism. Jonis, walking with him, took his hand. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s the night before a battle. It’s always a strange feeling.”

“You think they’ll be here that soon?”

“They’ve proven their ability to move fast. They must be truly desperate to drive themselves so hard.”

“I spoke to Gena. She said they had hardly any baggage. They’re surviving on forage alone. Just like at Svartburg, they’re stripping the land clean, putting everything on taking this city.”

“Fools.”

She looked at him. “Is it any more foolish than us staying here to fight?”

“It was your idea!”

“Not exactly. And I never said it wasn’t foolish.”

“You had your chance to leave, Jonis.”

She punched him in the ribs playfully. “You know I won’t leave. But, like you say, the night before a battle is always strange. I’m nervous.”

“So am I,” he admitted.

“Do you think we’ll win?”

“No one ever wins in these situations. At best, we’ll drive them off before they entrench themselves. If this turns into a protracted siege, it’s going to get unpleasant fast.”

“And if we do drive them off, what then? Back to Atlas?”

They’d stopped before the gates. The sun was low in the sky and, once again, there were people leaving, their meagre possessions piled into rickety carts. They thought to take their chances with Wodan, but Albrihn had no illusions they’d find anything but death if they ran into the enemy. They’d tried to get word out about what had happened in Svartburg, but mostly the commoners seemed to think it was just a wild rumour. For each of them inspired by the presence of the Atlasians, there was another who distrusted the outlanders and thought Jonis was a sorceress. “I don’t like the idea of staying here,” he said eventually, “but I was sent here to investigate the rebellion.”

“If you break Wodan’s army here, the rebellion will be over.”

“For now. But how long until the Hyen-a-khan swarm down the peninsula? Without Wodan’s offerings to keep them satiated, they’ll go on the hunt again. And more will cross that ice bridge from the mainlands. The whole of Atlantis is vulnerable.”

“So what? Reinforce this city? Have the entire militia deployed along the border?”

“I don’t know,” he said with a shrug, “I have a duty to defend this land.”

“Talos?”

“Atlantis. Of which Talos is a part, yes. But…what can I do? What can any of us do? The fate of Svartburg awaits all of us, as far as I can see. All of this,” he held out a hand to the gate, to the too few Talosi troops who now patrolled the walls, “it’s just delaying the inevitable. An age of war is coming.”

“Not yet, Rayke,” Jonis said, putting her arms around his waist, “fight for today, not tomorrow.”

“I know.” He ran his hands down her shoulders. He wanted to be back with her in their chambers, but he had so much left to do before nightfall.

“Besides,” she went on, “if you stay, you can marry Aethlan.”

He pushed her away slightly. “Excuse me?”

“Come on, it’s obvious she wants to.”

“She…” he looked around and then leant in, “she’s in love with Huldane.”

“I know that. But she’s obviously setting you up as a consort. She’s deferred to you throughout all this.”

“Well I’m the most experienced soldier here…”

“Yes, I’m sure that’s all it is. She’s a fine looking woman, Rayke.”

“She’s…well, yes, she is. But…” he shook his head. “This is ridiculous. I can’t marry a lady. I’m just a soldier.”

“Can’t marry a lady, but fucking a princess is okay.” She smiled and ran a finger across his jaw. “And a sorceress, for that matter.”

“I don’t like you talking this way.”

“Why not?” She looked confused.

“Because…you share my bed now. You’re all I want.”

“But you can’t marry me, Rayke,” she said. Did he hear a note of regret in her voice?

“I know.”

“So do what’s best for yourself. And Talos. And Atlantis, I suppose. What better way to secure a strong military presence here?”

“I…can we talk about something else? I have a lot on my mind at the moment. What was it you said about fighting for today and not worrying about tomorrow?”

“Right.” She moved apart from him and put her hands on her hips as she surveyed the defences, looking through the now-reinforced gates. “I wouldn’t want to be fighting along that causeway, even with a ten-to-one advantage in numbers.”

“It’s a killing field – or it would be if we had the means to kill the enemy. I need a few companies of Atlasian archers, maybe a trebuchet or two.”

“Or a Cyclops.”

“Yes, that would certainly be welcome.” He sighed. “We have what we have. This is war. If we had the luxury of always choosing our ideal dispositions, no one would ever fight a battle.”

“I suppose not.”

“Where are you planning to be tomorrow?” he asked her. He realised he hadn’t thought about it yet.

“Wherever you are, Rayke,” she said simply.

“Good.”

They came the next morning. The gate was barred and piled with rubble on the inside and everything they’d planned was ready. Albrihn stood atop the gatehouse in his full panoply with a squadron of the Seventh including Morrow. Jonis, as promised, was there too. A few Talosi were with them, nervously handling their weapons. There’d been a few desertions in the night as rumours spread about the enemy’s numbers, but on the whole the men here was as ready as they could be. All along the walls, the thin line of warriors waited for the attack. Their weapons and livery were a motley, mismatched collection, but he was confident they’d fight well enough. The women and children were sheltered in the castle with Aethlan and, below them, milling around on horseback, was Huldane’s response force. The Talosi were not natural riders, but they only had to get from one place to another. They were a few hundred in number, and spread out across a great muddy space between the walls and the city. It would be hard for them to manoeuvre, but he’d lent them two sergeants from his company to help coordinate. Ironically, Albrihn himself would have been much more comfortable on his horse down there with them, but he needed to be here, front and centre, leading this defence. To the east and west, on each of the towers along the battlements, beneath an Atlantian flag, were archers of the Seventh with a good supply of arrows and a well-stoked brazier. Fire would be their most powerful weapon here.

The first indication of Wodan’s approach was a distant clamour. Horns, drums, the sound of many men moving. The road up to the city was narrow and dangerous, overlooked by high crags, but it was impossible for him to send any scouts up there to try and inflict damage on them as they approached – there was no way for them to get back to the city, and he needed every soldier on the walls. The only forces outside Talos were a detachment of Talosi at the outer gate. That too was reinforced and barred, and the men there were supposed to delay the enemy as much as possible with arrows, burning pitch and oil, then retreat back to the city where they’d be hauled up with ropes. It was a dangerous job, but it could make all the difference.

Snow had begun to fall again as, just before noon, the first ranks of Wodan’s army came into view around the bend in the road. The path was darkened by the great mass of men, and the noise of so many soldiers was disconcerting. Albrihn’s sword was already drawn, for what little good it would do right then. He licked his lips. The outer gate was at the entrance to the causeway and couldn’t be bypassed. The attackers drew up on the far side, quickly filling the wider space on the opposite ledge. He watched for the soldiers on the opposite gatehouse, waiting for them to attack, but nothing happened. He could hear shouts between the two forces and then, to his dismay, the gates began to open.

“Those bastards!” Morrow said behind him.

“Betrayal,” he said. “What was that thegn called again?”

“Ulfan,” Jonis answered.

“I should have put someone else in charge of the outer defences…”

As the iron portcullis rose, Wodan’s men began to swarm through the gates, shouting out loud war cries. The first of them looked a ragged bunch, carrying battered swords and axes. They were as hairy as all Talosi, but to Albrihn’s eyes they seemed wilder, more savage. He realised they were bandits from the mountain passes, the kind they’d fought on their way to Talos – those days seemed like a long time ago now.

“Archers!” he bellowed.

The Atlasian soldiers and the relatively few Talosi armed with bows who were in range drew back and loosed a volley. Many arrows fell short and others dropped harmlessly into the black chasm on either side of the causeway, but a few found their mark, and the bandits went down, some tumbling over the sides in their death throes. Still the mob came on and he ordered another volley. The shooting was more effective as their targets came closer, and now the dead began to pile up. They came on, but none reached the gates, and bodies peppered with arrows lined the path. After only a few minutes, the few still standing fell back under the onslaught, fleeing towards the gates and the rest of their army.

“That was easy enough,” a Talosi by Albrihn’s side laughed.

“They were testing our defences,” he told him grimly, “they sent the bandits in to soak up the arrows. They know our ammunition is limited. The real attack is yet to come.”

There was a lull, but after a few minutes, the squat shapes of siege engines began to appear, pushed through the great crowd of soldiers who still shouted their defiance from the other side of the gap. There were catapults and ballistae loaded with great iron bolts the size of spears, all fairly crude in design, but Albrihn could see they’d be effective enough. Each of them was pushed up to the edge of the chasm, glowering menacingly across at them. The defenders waited, unable to return fire at such a distance. “They know we have no engines of our own now,” Albrihn said.

“They cannot breach the walls, can they?” a Talosi asked.

“No. This is Atlantian masonry. It would take larger weapons than that to bring them down. But they can do other things…”

As if on cue, he saw men struggling with ammunition for the catapults. Not stones, but bundles of sticks soaked in tar. The points of the bolts for the ballistae too were being painted in oil. Torches were visible through the falling snow and they were set to the kindling so great fireballs smouldered in the engines. Before they could set light to the wooden frameworks, they were launched into the air. The defenders on the walls of Talos let our cries of dismay as the flaming projectiles sailed towards them. Some crashed into the walls harmlessly, others skimmed the battlements, smashing into the soldiers. Their screams as they fell or were burned were chilling, but Albrihn kept his face stoic. There was nothing they could do but weather this attack. The bolts of the ballistae were aimed high and they flew in great burning arcs over their heads, falling down into the city. They drove themselves deep into roofs and walls, where the flames caught. Soon, fires were raging in several streets.

Huldane shouted up to Albrihn. “Fire!” he called.

“I can see that! Send the teams out!”

Some of the townsfolk had been pressed into service for just this eventuality. With more buckets of water, they tried to douse the flames, and thankfully as the snow piled up it too began to do some good. More shots sailed in though, and it gradually became a losing battle. Albrihn’s mouth twisted as he saw the fires begin to spread.

“Rayke, look!” Jonis pointed as he turned and he frowned as some of the catapults fired their ammunition in low trajectories, just a little way above the chasm. He couldn’t see the purpose of it until the flaming bales rolled to a stop beneath the walls and ignited the pitch they’d spread so laboriously. Great raging fires sprung up around them.

“They’ll burn it all off!” Morrow yelled.

“They will,” Albrihn agreed, “they know exactly what we’ve done here to protect ourselves.”

“If the troops at the outer gate betrayed us…” Jonis began.

“No. They knew before. They know about the pitch, about our archers, about the soaked roofs. They’ve had time to prepare.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying there’s someone in this city who’s been feeding them information.”

Jonis swallowed. “What do we do?”

He gripped his sword until his knuckles turned white, trying to think straight over the smoke that stung his eyes and filled his nostrils. “Aethlan is in danger. Who’s protecting her?”

“She just has her maids.”

“I need to…”

He turned, but Jonis laid a hand on his breastplate. “No, you’re needed here. I’ll go.”

He hesitated, but then nodded reluctantly. “All right.”

“This isn’t done yet. You know that.”

“Yes.”

“I’ll see you when this is over.” She kissed him on the cheek and then headed for the trapdoor that led down into the gatehouse.

Albrihn looked across the causeway. The bombardment seemed to be over for now and there were more warriors coming through the gates. Unlike the bandits that had been in the vanguard, these looked like the soldiers from Svartburg – tough, well-armoured and carrying broad wooden shields. They advanced slowly, shields locked in front of them. The men at the sides held their shields so they covered the edge of the formation and those in the middle raised them over their heads. Arrows would never penetrate that armoured shell. Albrihn raised his sword and brought it down. His archers knew the signal. On each of the towers, he saw his soldiers light arrows and take aim. More fire streaked through the air as the burning arrows hit the wooden shields with dull thuds. Even from the far towers, the aim was true, and soon flames licked around the oncoming shieldwall. A few arrows found flesh too, and screaming men dropped over the side into the chasm, joining the corpses of the bandits that the Svartburgers kicked nonchalantly out of their path. Another volley hit, but the foe kept coming even as they lost men. An endless stream of them was flowing along the causeway, a snake with round wooden shields instead of scales and now, he saw, an iron-headed ram in place of a tongue. The front ranks parted to push it through.

“Arrows!” he roared.

Flaming death penetrated the shieldwall and the first rank of warriors faltered. The ram dipped its head, but more hands were there to take the weight and they marched on, now just fifty strides or so from the gate. The pitch beneath the walls was still burning, filling the sky with black smoke, but the snow was falling hard and it had begun to smoulder. Wodan’s forces reached the opposite side of the causeway and, as the ram was manoeuvred into position, they spread out, carrying ladders and grapnels, looking for the places where the fire burned lowest. Arrows felled more of them, and burning oil and rocks were thrown through murder holes to send them flying into the abyss, but there were always more to replace them. The whole causeway was filled with soldiers now, all advancing in good order, and they couldn’t afford to fire any more arrows at them, not with the enemy at the base of the walls. The ram thudded into the gates for the first time.

“It begins,” Albrihn said softly, touching his sword to his forehead and closing his eyes.

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