Age of Winter (Part XVI)

Albrihn had been able to ignore the throbbing ache in his shoulder. It had healed well over the past week, but now as the snow fell harder, buffeted by the fierce wind from the mountains, threatening at any moment to turn into a blizzard, he felt the cold more deeply than ever, and the pain returned. He held out his sword at the giant who still battled his way across the top of the wall. A luckless Talosi lifted his shield, and Orkan swung his axe with an almost nonchalant swipe that shattered it in two and bit deep into the soldier’s arm at the same time. Dark blood spurted, stark against the gathering snowfall and another scream joined the thousands coming from all around. The man was thrown aside like a ragdoll, sent tumbling into the darkness below. Albrihn walked slowly to the edge of the battlements. They had rope, in case the gatehouse below was overrun and they needed to escape. Working automatically, not taking his eyes off his enemy, he secured it to the nearest crenellation and then began to mount the stonework.

Morrow called from her position above the gates. “Captain?”

“Stay where you are.” His voice wasn’t loud, and he had no idea if she heard him. Making sure he had a firm grip on his sword, he climbed down over the battlements and swung down onto the wall. The snow was thick underfoot now, and it had mixed with the mud, slush and blood that soaked the stones. He almost slipped, but he steadied himself on the embrasure. Orkan was hewing another screaming Talosi as he lay on the floor, but something made him look up. He saw Albrihn and very slowly, he straightened. He hefted his bloody axe. It was hard to see anything but the great bulk of him through the driving snow, his bald head, his fur-clad shoulders, his massive arms and, gleaming in the darkness, reflecting the orange flames all around, his white, blinded eye.

“Albrihn!” Orkan roared, with a sound like the mountains breaking. Perhaps it was his imagination, but it seemed to silence the entire battle. The jarl held out his huge, thick arms and took a step forward. His thigh, where Albrihn had almost crippled him in Svartburg, was heavily bandaged, and he moved a little stiffly.

“We have unfinished business,” Albrihn said, levelling his sword.

“My only unfinished business is killing you!” Orkan launched himself towards him, axe raised high. He brought it down hard, but Albrihn dodged out of the way and it hit the battlements instead. Stone shattered under the impact, and shards of ancient masonry were sent flying in all directions. Albrihn spun, ducking inside his foe’s reach and raked his sword across his ribs. The blade must have found flesh because it elicited a bellow. Albrihn edged away, now on the other side of Orkan, sword held defensively.

“Stand still,” Orkan growled. He turned and swung his axe again, moving it with astonishing speed in a series of quick downward cuts. The edge gleamed red and orange – blood and fire – and all Albrihn could do was back away, parrying desperately. Orkan’s advance was inexorable, and he was fuelled by pure rage. He struck a jarring blow to Albrihn’s sword that sent a jolt of agony through his injured shoulder. It threw off his rhythm and Orkan, a born warrior, saw the hesitation. His axe came across, smashing into Albrihn’s breastplate. The armour held, but the impact winded the Atlasian, sending him staggering to one side, now teetering on the edge of the walkway. There was a pool of blood at his feet, and a dead housecarl stared sightlessly up at him. Snow gathered in the folds of his face, the hollows of his eyes, clung to his beard. A thick-fingered hand grabbed the top of Albrihn’s dented breastplate and dragged him back onto firmer footing. “I will kill you with my own hands,” Orkan said, inches from his face, brown teeth bared in a feral snarl.

“No you won’t.” Albirhn brought his sword up, biting deep into the underside of Orkan’s forearm. The giant dragged himself free, but blood now coursed down his wrist. He charged again, shoulder lowered, and had all the speed and strength of an avalanche. He caught Albrihn in the chest and lifted him off his feet, slamming him into the door of the tower opposite the gatehouse. Their fight had taken them along this entire section of wall. The wood shuddered from the impact, and Albrihn could hear the scream of tortured metal – the bracing or the hinges maybe – as his body was ground into the door by the raw physical power of this beast of a man. Orkan’s huge, muscular arms were wrapped around him, squeezing the life from him, pushing his armour into his flesh. He felt wetness on his shoulder. The wound had been opened. In desperation, unable to free his arms to swing his sword, Albrihn bent his head and bit down onto Orkan’s ear. He tore it free with a grunt of exertion.

Orkan cried out and fell backwards, hand clutched to the side of his head. Blood poured between his fingers. Albrihn sank down to one knee, resting the point of his sword on the slick flagstones beneath him.

There was a hesitation, a momentary truce, as both men stared at one another, then Orkan roared again. He came at Albrihn, axe flying, but he was off-balance, and Albrihn threw himself to one side, crashing into the battlements. The axe hit the door and buried itself into the hardened wood. Orkan gripped the haft and tried to pull it free, but it wouldn’t budge.

“Your weapon’s too heavy,” Albrihn said as he stood, “you keep getting it stuck in things.” He brought his sword up.

*

Jonis sat with Aethlan at one of the long tables set at the side of the Hall of Fathers. They both picked at plates that held dark bread and white Talosi cheese. Neither had much appetite. Jonis found her mind constantly wandering to the battle outside. No messengers came from the walls to tell them what was happening. The city could already have fallen for all they knew.

“You are worried,” Aethlan said.

“Not worried. Not exactly. Rayke can look after himself.”

“Battles are dangerous for even the mightiest warrior. One arrow…”

Jonis looked at her. “Are you trying to make me feel better?”

“Sorry.” Aethlan shook her head. “In Talos, it is considered proper for a woman to worry for her husband’s life.”

“He’s not my…”

“I know. But glory can only be won in battle if there is danger. To deny that Captain Albrihn risks his life is to suggest his deeds are not brave.”

“It doesn’t matter if they’re brave or not. He does his duty. He’s a militiaman of Atlantis.” She bit off a hunk of the hard bread and chewed thoughtfully. “He fights to save your city, not for glory,” she added as she swallowed.

“I worry for Jarl Huldane.”

“He looks like he can handle himself in a fight.”

Aethlan smiled almost shyly. “He is a fine warrior.”

“And a handsome man…”

“Perhaps,” Aethlan said evasively.

“You should marry him. When this is over. If we get out of this alive, I mean. Life’s too short to waste it on ideas of what’s proper.”

“I am a lady of Talos. I do not marry for love.” There was a note of fierce pride in her voice as she spoke.

“He’d make a good husband though. He’d protect you with his life.”

“Just like your Captain Albrihn, he does his duty,” Aethlan said softly, “nothing more. He is sworn to me, as a housecarl.”

“Have it your way,” Jonis shrugged.

Aethlan broke off a piece of cheese, but didn’t eat it. She looked around the hall, at her people, women and children, sitting on the rushes, all frightened and lost, not knowing whether their menfolk lived or died. Whether lady or Cyclops Keeper or ordinary commoner, they all shared the same fears today. “You are hardly one to speak of marriage for love,” Aethlan said.

“Excuse me?”

“You are sworn to another, yes?”

“Yes.” Jonis didn’t like where this was going. “But that’s different.”

“How so?”

“I have a gift…one that’s shared by others of my kind. If it’s not preserved…”

“You have a duty too,” Aethlan said simply.

“Yes. I suppose so. I guess none of us are as free as we pretend we are.”

“Talosi do not believe they are free. We live in fear of the gods.”

“I was wondering about that,” Jonis said, pulling the tough crust from her bread, “about your One-eyed God and your prophecy and so forth.”

“I thought Atlasians did not believe in gods?”

“We don’t. But I think the stories I’ve heard about him and how you think you wrested this land from his servants have some core of truth to them.”

“Oh?” Aethlan seemed interested.

“I think Atlantis used Cyclopes against you. I think a Keeper, like me, one of my ancestors, was in Svartburg a thousand years ago.”

“The witch?”

“The powers of the Cyclopes would have seemed like magic to the early Talosi.” She bit of some of the crust. “It’s just a theory.”

“It explains the myths, perhaps,” Aethlan said, “but not the prophecy.”

“Well, I’m not saying I think there’s any truth to that…”

“And yet…you have come…and Svartburg has fallen to desolation…”

Jonis thought about it. “That’s true,” she admitted.

“Captain Albrihn fought for justice in the sight of the Greatfather, but it was denied.”

“He never should have taken part in a trial by combat. It’s barbaric.”

“Nevertheless…”

“Look, Aethlan…Lady Aethlan, sorry…” She sighed. “I hope you don’t think I’m the cause of any of this, truly. We came here to help you. To save Talos, and the rest of Atlantis. If we hadn’t, Wodan still would have attacked, but you’d have had no warning. The city would already have fallen.”

“True.”

“Prophecies…you know, we don’t believe in gods in Atlas, but that wasn’t always true, and we have our share of old legends and holy texts. In my experience, these things only ever make sense after the fact, when people reshape the words to fit whatever really happened. So…another Cyclops Keeper went to Svartburg and maybe the One-eyed God was blinded by justice or whatever, but that’s only one interpretation. It could mean anything. It could be about something else entirely.”

“I hope you are right,” Aethlan said.

*

Orkan turned, but his movements were slow now thanks to his wounds. He reached for another axe at his belt, but Albrihn struck out, slashing at his arm. Orkan reached out, but this time the sword came in low, across his bandaged thigh, tearing open the dressing. Blood flowed as Orkan dropped to his knees with a groan. He was fumbling for his weapon, but his hand was slicked with blood and his face was contorted in pain. Albrihn stepped back and levelled his sword, point towards the throat of his enemy. It was over, and they both knew it. He shifted his feet, preparing to deliver the killing blow and end this once and for all, when Orkan let out a cry and shuddered. Albrihn looked down and saw a feathered shaft sticking from his stomach. He frowned and felt something whip past his arm, beneath his sword. Now an arrow protruded from Orkan’s chest too. Albrihn turned, and a third shot flew past his check, flicking a strand of hair on its way. He blinked and looked back at Orkan, whose good eye had now been pierced by the shaft that was stuck right through his head. Blood dribbled down his face and into his beard. His mouth was open in astonishment and, like a tree being felled, he toppled sideways and tumbled from the walls, disappearing into the smoke and ruin below.

Albrihn staggered backwards, suddenly exhausted, and looked around to see who had killed the jarl. A slight figure walked towards him along the walls through the snow, and eventually resolved itself into Morrow, carrying her bow, her face grim. “That was my kill,” he said incredulously.

“No, captain, it really wasn’t.”

He stared down where Orkan had fallen and then let out a bitter laugh. The lieutenant helped him to his feet and he pulled her into a rough embrace. “It’s done,” he said.

“Not yet, captain.” She pulled away and they both looked out over the carnage around them. Talos was smouldering beneath the snowstorm, but the sound of battle was still all around them and smoke filled the air, making it look like night though it was still hours from dusk. This part of the wall at least was safe for now. The other attackers had been repelled, or had fled when they saw their leader fall. But elsewhere, the siege raged on.

“We have to get back to the gates,” Albrihn said, and they headed in that direction. Halfway there though, a shout stopped them, and they both looked down to see Huldane at the base of the wall. He was without his horse and was wide-eyed and bloody.

“Albrihn! Thank the Greatfather – I thought you were dead!”

“Not quite,” Albrihn called down, “what’s happening?”

“They have taken one of the towers to the east, and broken through in four or five other places. We tried to hold them back, but they smashed down the doors…”

“Wait there!” He ran towards the stone steps that led down to ground level, almost slipping again, and quickly rushed down to Huldane. Morrow was just behind him. Up close, the jarl was even more of a mess. His left arm hung limply by his side, and his mail was battered and rent.

“Your archers tried to keep them at bay, but there were too many of them,” he explained.

“How many of your force are left?”

“I do not know. We were scattered. They have crossed the walls, Albrihn. They are in the city.”

He could hear them now and, as he looked past Huldane’s slumped shoulders, he could see fighting in the area they’d cleared inside the walls. Through the smoke, the shapes of Svartburgers were visible, swinging axes and cutting defenders down where they stood. Albrihn swallowed. “The walls are lost,” he said, “there’s nothing we can do.”

“But…the city…Aethlan…”

“It’s not over yet,” he said, placing a hand on the man’s shoulder, “we have the streets. The castle. But we need to pull back or they’ll just surround us.”

Huldane looked conflicted, but then he nodded. “Yes. Yes we must give the order to retreat into the city.”

Albrihn turned to Morrow. “Lieutenant?”

She nodded and took an arrow from her quiver and her trusty knife from its sheath at her belt. She cut deftly at the fletching and along the shaft before putting the knife back and taking up her bow again. She nocked the arrow and aimed straight upwards. As she loosed, the shot went high into the air and a loud, high-pitched keening followed it. The higher the arrow climbed, the louder the sound became, until it could be heard all across the city, like the call of some wild beast. The arrow reached its maximum height and began to fall, and as it did the noise ceased immediately.

Huldane stared at Morrow in wonder. “I thought your friend was the sorceress,” he said.

“Just a trick, Huldane,” she told him with a modest shrug.

The sound was a signal the Seventh knew well. On each of the towers, ropes would be swung over the battlements and the daring archers would clamber down the sides to safety, avoiding the dangerous walls where the enemy now ran rampant. They would head for the castle, and there they would regroup and make their stand. Albrihn stood for a moment, trying to plan for all eventualities, but it was no use. Enemy soldiers were moving towards the gates now, and he could hear the great wooden doors begin to splinter and buckle. With troops on both sides, they would soon be breached. Hasprit slid down a rope from the top of the gatehouse and jogged towards them. “You bastards bloody left me on my own up there!”

“Sorry, old friend,” Albrihn said, “but it’s time we were going.”

“It was time for that a week ago.” He laughed and together they all headed off into the narrow, winding streets of Talos.

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