Age of Winter (Part XV)

The snow grew heavier and heavier, and soon the air was filled with tumbling flakes, mingling with the smoke rising from the fires within and without the city walls. Albrihn blinked through the haze, trying to see what was happening around him. Occasionally a strong blast of wind would clear the air, and the battle would change from dim, indistinct shapes to the stomach-churning sight of men fighting and dying. The ram still beat at the gates below, hammering out a steady, low staccato. From the battlements atop the gatehouse, the Atlastian and Talosi soldiers rained arrows, stones and boiling oil on the attackers. They still sheltered beneath shields, but the resolute defence was beginning to take its toll, and the dead and dying piled up on either side or were casually tossed into the chasm as more warriors made their way across the causeway to take the places of the fallen.

“They’re endless,” a pale-faced Talosi soldier said as he took aim with his bow. At this range it was almost impossible for him to miss, and the arrow found a chink in the roof of shields, eliciting a scream from its unfortunate target.

“You’d better hope they’re not,” Morrow said grimly. Her quiver was almost empty. Just in time, a grubby Talosi boy poked his head out through the trapdoor that led down into the gatehouse. He had a basket loaded with quivers on his back and Albrihn helped him up and through. Throughout the previous week, the fletchers of Talos had been hard at work, and now their toil was paying off as these urchins ran back and forth across the walls, braving the danger to deliver their much-needed supplies. These were adolescents – although to Albrihn’s eyes they looked younger, so scrawny were they – too old to be given priority with those sheltering in the castle but too young to fight. He ruffled the youngster’s hair as he went on his way and the fresh arrows were distributed.

Wodan’s force had few archers, and now the soldiers had begun to launch their attack on the walls, the engines were also silent. The odd arrow clattered into the stonework around them, but so far none of the group above the gates had fallen. Elsewhere on the walls, the defenders had not been so fortunate. Fires still raged here and there, and in places the ramparts were almost completely undefended, the Talosi troops and the hastily-trained commoners having fallen victim to the volleys from the catapults earlier. The only saving grace was that those places were invariably where the ground beneath the walls was most dangerous to the attackers, soaked in burning pitch. He looked up and down, peering through the rippling air above the flames to see where the first successful assault might come from. The Svartburgers, with ladders and ropes, were dashing around at the blackened base of the walls to both the east and west, shields raised over their heads. Arrows followed them, and many were falling. He noted with satisfaction how his own soldiers, firing from the towers, were taking a heavy toll. But now, as one of the fires began to cool to embers, smothered by the damp snow collecting on the rocks, one enemy contingent dared to cross and began to raise their ladders in a spot where the wall was only lightly held. The defenders rushed to the battlements and began to push the ladders away, but they were heavy and braced firmly against the wall. Some fell, but others stayed put and were soon filled with dozens of Svartburgers scrambling up. On either side, the archers on the towers tried to pick them off, and when one fell he invariably took others with them, but now as it became clear they had a foothold, more attackers rushed to join their fellows.

Albrihn ran to the back of the gatehouse and called over the edge. “Hulldane! To the east!”

“I see them,” he shouted back. The jarl drew his sword and spurred his horse onwards. His force fell in behind them, and the thunder of hooves momentarily drowned out the incessant beating of the ram against the gates. This would be the first test of Albrihn’s desperate plan.

Huldane trusted all the men who rode with him. They had served together as Aethlan’s housecarls for many years and all were veterans of the great battles of Talos’s recent history. None of them had ever fought in a battle like this though – even a few weeks ago, the idea of the city being attacked would have been unthinkable. All his life, he had never known true fear in combat, only the lust for glory and fame and – latterly – the overwhelming desire to protect his lady and what was hers. This was different. The buildings behind him were still burning and the smoke from outside the walls turned the sky black. Everywhere there were screams and the clash of steel. There was no glory to be won here.

The Atlasian sergeant, a tall, dark-skinned man named Trelik who even now seemed to have a ready smile, halted his huge charger at the braced door at the base of the tower. He inclined his head towards Huldane, implicitly handing over command to the Talosi. The Atlasians had been drilling them hard over the past few days and, in matters of horsemanship, he was happy to defer to them. But this was his command now. He dismounted and one of the few dozen stable-hands who rode with them took the reins of his horse. He unslung his shield from the saddle. High above them, he could make out the dark shapes of the attackers reaching the tops of their ladders and engaging in brutal mêlée with the overmatched defenders. Even with the crenellations and their spears, the sheer ferocity of the Svartburgers was proving overwhelming. He also saw a few grapnels hooked over the battlements, and there weren’t enough Talosi to repel every assault. That’s where they came in. “Gunnar,” he shouted to his most senior thegn, “take half the throng to the next tower. We will come at them from both sides.”

“Aye, jarl,” the wiry man nodded. He quickly picked off his chosen troops and half the response force sprinted across the slushy ground to the next tower to the east.

Trelik had opened the door to the near tower and he held a hand for Huldane to lead the charge. He took a breath and dived into the dim interior of the squat building, hooking his shield over his arm as he pounded up the stone steps. The door that led out onto the walls was locked from the inside, and an older man stood guard, one of the peasants shoved into an ill-fitting ring mail tunic and carrying an old spear in a shaking hand. He started when the narrow landing was suddenly filled with soldiers and Huldane pointed with his sword. “Open this, man. We have a city to defend!”

“Y…yes, lord…”

Hopefully he’d seen the device on the shield – Lady Aethlan’s crossed serpents – and wasn’t simply intimidated by the armed men, or the Svartburgers would pass these doors just as easily. The warden unbarred the door with aching slowness and, as it was flung open, the sound of fighting, muted by the thick stone walls, suddenly filled Huldane’s ears. They had arrived not a moment too soon as he saw one of the defenders fall to a brutal axe blow as the Svartburg warriors boiled over the ramparts. The rear of the walkway that ran across the top of the wall was open to the air and the unfortunate Talosi fell backwards and tumbled to the ground far below. Only a score or so of troops held the wall now. At the far end of the walkway, the door to the opposite tower also opened and he could make out Gunnar standing ready. The Svartburgers were clambering over the walls en masse now and Huldane raised his sword and yelled a wordless battlecry as he charged.

They closed on them from either side, hundreds of troops appearing seemingly from nowhere. The Svartburgers were caught in the middle, already disorientated from their tough climb through smoke, ash and driving snow, and could only try to mount a desperate defence. Huldane, leading the counter-attack, bowled into a towering warrior with a mace and a battered round shield. He ducked the first swing of the unwieldy weapon and stabbed out with his short sword, finding the gap in his opponent’s mail at his armpit. He twisted and pulled away, knocking him aside with his shield and sending him flying from the walkway to fall screaming to earth. More enemies rose in his wake though, all hard-bitten warriors with bloodlust in their eyes. Each had endured a long march south through ice and snow, quite apart from this deadly siege, where Huldane and his men were fresh and had the advantage of positioning. He cut a swathe through them, suddenly filled with the battlejoy as he sent more of them flying off the walls. He came to a ladder and he and one of his soldiers set to it. It was filled with attackers, but they were flushed with what the Talosi called the swordfury and managed to push it away from the battlements. It fell backwards in a wide arc, flinging the unfortunate climbers down into the chasm that surrounded the city. They disappeared into the blackness with cries of terror and pain.

“The wall is ours!” a voice bellowed, and Huldane found Gunnar by his side. Other ladders were falling, and ropes were cut. They had swiftly overwhelmed the assault force here, and even below only a few stragglers raced back and forth, shields over their heads. Those of his men with bows shot at them and sent them scurrying away. Huldane let his bloody sword drop as he looked around. The smoke cleared momentarily, showing a horrifying vision of the whole stretch of city walls. Further east, the Svartburgers had raised more ladders, and the same desperate battle was being repeated all over again. He breathed hard, already starting to feel exhaustion take over. The afternoon was young, and there was much more to do. If he failed, the whole city would fall. And that was not an option. Instinctively he looked across the burning roofs at the rising bulk of the castle. Lady Aethlan was sheltered there even now, protected from this horror, but should he fall and Wodan’s army cross the walls, even its stones wouldn’t keep her safe.

“Jarl?” Trelik was by his side, his long, narrow Atlasian blade as slicked with blood as his own.

“That way,” Huldane said with a nod to the east. “Leave a dozen men here to hold the wall,” he told Gunnar, “everyone else, back to the horses. This has only just begun.”

*

No sound of battle penetrated the stout walls of the castle as Jonis passed through the dimly-lit corridors. That made her uncomfortable. She didn’t like the idea of the nobility being cut off from the struggles of the soldiers who died for them. She had no expectation they’d be any use in the battle, but they should at least see the blood and the smoke and the fire. Hear the ringing steel and the screams of the dying. Or maybe that was expecting too much. Maybe it was she who regretted leaving the front. She wondered how Rayke fared. Had he already crossed swords with one of these barbarians? Did he even now lie dead, doomed to rest in an unmarked grave in this cold, forsaken land? She shook her head, clearing those thoughts. He was a superlative swordsman, and she was certain none of the attackers could match him. It would all be fine. She walked behind a stooped servant in tatty robes who showed her to the Hall of the Fathers where, in defiance of the dire situation, Aethlan still held court. Jonis couldn’t navigate her way through the warren of narrow passages that honeycombed this ugly citadel on her own, so she was forced to shuffle along behind this old man, all the while growing more impatient.

The carved double doors were unguarded. Every man was needed on the walls. The servant pushed at them feebly and she lent past him with a tight smile to lend her own strength. They opened easily enough and, thanking him, she stepped past into the long, vaulted room. Unlike the last time she was here, when it was almost empty save for a few lords and soldiers, it was now crowded with people. Ragged children and their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, all turned to look as she strode into the hall. Most were clustered around the hearth, and the castle’s servants – including Aethlan’s maids in their embroidered robes – moved through the crowds, distributing bowls of some broth or other. As insulated from the effects of the battle as they were here, the look in their eyes told her it wasn’t far from their minds. Their husbands, sons, fathers, brothers, were all out there, fighting to protect them.

“Keeper Jonis?”

She turned and was surprised to see Aethlan, now in a rich purple gown with a square-cut neckline, helping pass the food to the commoners. “Lady?”

“Why are you here?” Aethlan asked as she straightened. “Has something happened? Captain Albrihn…”

“Was fine when I left him. Come,” she said, beckoning, “I have news from the walls.”

They picked through the crowds and made their way to a darkened alcove between two of the wide wooden columns that supported the roof.

“What is it? Does the battle go ill?”

“I don’t know, to tell you the truth – it was only just starting when I set out. But, listen, we suspect treachery.”

Aethlan’s lips twisted. “That…is unsurprising…”

“The outer gates fell without a fight – the men stationed there just opened them to Wodan.”

Her nostrils flared. “If we are victorious, and they are found alive, they will pay dearly for this betrayal.”

“I’m sure they will. But they had information too, about our defences. They used fire to burn off the pitch we laid, and ballistae that sent flaming bolts deep into the city. Even now, Talos  burns.”

Aethlan looked conflicted. It was almost as if she wanted to rush out of the door to help herself. “Fire…” she whispered.

“It’s all right. The snow is falling hard now and it’s putting out the worst of it. Ray…Captain Albrihn is in control. They have a ram, but they won’t break the gates. Not for a while anyway.”

“You seem so confident, Keeper Jonis.”

She wished she felt it. “I have faith in the Captain.”

“Faith.” She smiled slightly. “Strange to hear you speak of that, when since you arrived you Atlasians have dismissed our belief in our gods.”

“This is different…”

“If you say so.” Aethlan waved a hand as she turned back to look at the people filling the hall. “I will share your optimism that the walls will hold, but all that will be for naught if we are betrayed from within. It may be just that those who fled gave information to the enemy, perhaps under torture.”

“Maybe…”

“But, more likely, one of my rivals works against me. I have no shortage of enemies, even in my own home.”

“Do you suspect anyone in particular?”

She laughed. “I suspect a dozen men, Keeper Jonis.”

“Well then, that’s why I’m here. To protect you. Captain Albrihn wanted to come himself, but his duty is at the gates.”

“Yes indeed.” Aethlan absently placed a hand on Jonis’s bare arm. “He is a brave man.”

“Brave and worthy, my lady.”

“I can see why you love him.”

“I don’t…that is, it isn’t proper for me to love him. I’m promised to another. We have an…arrangement…that’s all.”

“I am certain such things are common in Atlas. But not here. More’s the pity.” She laughed again, but didn’t look at Jonis. “Well, I thank you for your diligence in coming here, but I am quite safe.”

Jonis looked around the Hall of the Fathers. “There are no soldiers here, lady.”

“No, but I assure you, I am safe.” She gave Jonis a mysterious look as she turned away and headed back into the crowds.

“Well, one more sword can’t hurt…” Jonis fondled the hilt of her weapon and followed the lady.

*

Wodan’s army kept coming, more and more piling through the outer gates, never slowing. The noise of them was deafening. Their dead were heaped up around the walls, bodies and shields like pincushions as they lay on the rocks. Evening was drawing in, the sky darkening, and snow still fell, covering the hundreds of corpses. Some of Albrihn’s companions had fallen too as the Svartburg archers began to reach the walls and take up firing positions. A Talosi lay with an arrow through his chest, and two of the Seventh were slumped against the battlements in pools of blood. Morrow’s bowstring twanged constantly as she unleashed shot after shot into the hordes of enemies, and each one found its mark without fail, felling another warrior. Albrihn’s sword had yet to taste blood, and his own bow leant unused by his side. He was concentrating on trying to coordinate the vast, unwieldy battle that raged for a mile on either side of him. The attackers were scaling the walls in at least three places now, and Huldane couldn’t be everywhere at once. The remains of his force galloped past just then, heading west to relieve more defenders. He waved as he passed by and Albrihn saluted quickly. His men looked bloody and battered, sagging in their saddles as they rode. Only his sergeants who rode with them, used to this kind of mobile warfare, seemed alert.

On the towers, the archers from the Seventh were untouched, raised high above the deadly mêlées on the walls. The doors to each tower were locked and barred, and if a stretch of wall looked set to fall, the Atlasians would set alight any ladders that led up from the ground so the Svartburgers would find themselves trapped between two towers. He could see one group of them trying to batter their way through a door, but that was where Huldane was headed. They’d be getting a nasty surprise soon.

“Captain!” Hasprit shouted.

He spun around to see a knot of enemy soldiers gathering below the nearest stretch of wall, immediately to their right. This was a dangerous spot in the defensive line, as access to the ground was granted by steps built into the stonework. He could see ladders being lifted into position. “Push them back!” he roared over the thudding of the ram and the din of battle. The soldiers there – a mix of Talosi housecarls and the most promising of the peasants, those who had served in levies in the past, rushed to obey, heaving at the tops of the ladders. One man fell back straight away as an attacker climbed up. Blood spilled across the stones, and then Albrihn stared as a huge figure clambered over the battlements, wielding a massive two-handed axe. A housecarl charged in, swinging his sword, but the giant simply battered past him, sending him flying through the air and down to the ground. The next was hacked apart with one mighty swing, dying in a spray of blood and gore. A third went down to a vicious head butt that, even through a steel helmet, cracked his skull and left him lying limp at his killer’s feet.

Albrihn lifted his sword. “Orkan,” he breathed.

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