Age of Winter (Part XVII)

The Hall of Fathers was buried deep inside the castle. There wasn’t so much as a light well that offered any clues about what was happening outside. The hearth and torches were lit at all hours, contributing to the soot stains on the wall and the thick, smoky air. Jonis found it an oppressive place, and it wasn’t enhanced by the mass of peasants taking up most of the floor. For all that she sympathised with their plight living in this grim land, quite apart from their meagre homesteads now being under threat from an invading army, there was no denying that they were on the whole unwashed and uncouth. She mostly kept to the edges of the hall, at once apart and sharing their fears. She was an outsider, and they still distrusted her. She saw people make the sign of the One-eyed God when they thought she wasn’t watching.

“We should have heard something by now,” she said to Aethlan in a low voice as she walked past. She’d been stalking around the dark hall like a caged lion, growing more agitated by the moment. She should never have left the walls.

“If they gates were breached, we would already be dead.” Aethlan was overseeing one of her maids stirring the pot of stew suspended over the hearth. It would be the third meal she’d seen served here, but she’d lost track of time. What kind of provisions did they even have access to here? The stew was already more root vegetable than meat, and it was clear they were making the supplies last as long as they could. Well, stew was good for that. If it came to it, they’d boil bones for the marrow and flavour. It wouldn’t go that far though, she knew. She’d seen the castle’s gates, and they wouldn’t withstand an assault. The main gates of the city were the only real barrier between them and Wodan’s horde.

“They could be fighting in the streets right now,” Jonis said, crouching down beside the maid and picking up a bowl from the stack on the rushes. It was quickly filled with the watery broth. “I should be out there.”

“If the battle has spread into the city, one more soldier makes no difference.”

“But I do no good here! I’m just another woman hiding from the monsters!”

Aethlan took her arm and pulled her to her feet. She led her away from the hearth back to the shadows between the columns. From the strength of her grip and the way she walked, Jonis could tell she was angry.

“You think we are hiding?” Aethlan asked her.

“Well…what else would you call it?”

“This is the innermost stronghold of Talos; the final bastion. We are surrounded by a network of rooms and corridors, all walled in solid stone. This hall can withstand any bombardment. There are defences in this castle that can fox even a determined foe. This is not hiding: this is the last stand of our people. When all else fails, when the city is burnt to ashes, we – the womenfolk, the children, the hope of all my kin – will be here. If the enemy pass those doors, do you think we will sit here and wait to be killed?”

“No…I didn’t mean…”

Aethlan sighed. She rubbed Jonis’s arm. “I know. You did not mean to insult us. Since you have come here you have been told that…”

A sound made her turn, and everyone in the room looked to the doors as they were slowly forced open. Jonis stepped out of the shadows and Aethlan was right beside her. The maids rose to their feet, calming the peasants with raised hands and reassuring words. The double doors swung open, and six men strolled in. Jonis recognised their leader: he was one of the lords that made up the moot of Talos. He’d been there when they were deciding how best to defend the city.

“Lord Ethelstan,” Aethlan said, “to what do we owe this pleasure?”

Ethelstan snorted and gave a half smile at that. Like all Talosi men he was squat and broad, with a red beard streaked with silvery grey. His face was worn and, in common with the other lords, he had the look and stance of a man who had once been a good warrior. “We are here to deliver news of the battle.” He looked around the room and smirked at the peasants who now huddled close to one another, their scared children in their arms. Jonis noted that his mail was whole and his cloak clean. His men, likewise, showed no sign of having been involved in the fighting.

“You should be on the walls,” she said.

Ethelstan eyed her across the room. He looked like he didn’t know what to make of her. “The walls have fallen,” he said shortly, “and the gates are breached.”

The peasants began to wail and cry, and the maids moved to calm them. Jonis felt her blood run cold. “Then you should be in the city,” she heard herself say, “fighting to the last to defend your people.”

My people are not in danger,” Ethelstan said, “Lady Aethlan, you have ruled competently, but this is not a city of Atlantis, where nobles vie for influence in silk-draped courts. This is not a place that can be ruled by the soft hand of a woman.” He clenched his fist before him. “The Talosi respect strength, and strength alone.”

“You think I lack strength, Lord Ethelstan?” Aethlan asked him. Her chin was raised and her expression placid. Jonis couldn’t imagine what was going through her head. Her strength should have been obvious, even to a lout like this.

“You have strength,” he admitted, swaggering through the crowd towards her, followed by his men, “but Wodan’s strength is greater. He has proved that. The city will fall to him in hours. Your soldiers lie dead in the streets. It is over.”

“But not for you?”

“Not for me.” He stood on the opposite side of the hearth from them, and the flames illuminated his craggy features. “I too follow strength. It was obvious from the beginning that we would never defeat Wodan.”

“So you betrayed us?” Jonis asked.

“I saved Talos.”

“Talos burns,” she spat back, “and its people are dying!”

“Talos will survive, under its rightful lord. Under its rightful king.”

“There are no kings in Atlantis.”

“We are not in Atlantis. You know that really.” He drew his sword, one of the short, stabbing blades the Talosi used. His men too pulled out their own weapons.

Aethlan raised her eyebrows. She still appeared completely calm. “You mean to kill me?”

“No. Wodan wishes you to be his bride, just to clear up any lingering questions of succession. However,” he smiled, “there is no law in Talos that says a bride must be a maiden.”

Jonis reached for her sword, but before she could draw it Aethlan’s maids who, without being noticed, had picked their way through the crowds and surrounded the five soldiers, stepped up behind them. From within their decorated robes, they each pulled out short swords of their own and put them to the throats of Ethelstan’s men. They looked at Aethlan questioningly. She gave a quick nod.

Ethelstan turned and gaped as, without hesitation, each of the maids drew their swords across his warriors’ throats, spraying their blood across the rushes as they fell. The peasants screamed and fled, rushing away from the corpses. Ethelstan turned back to Aethlan and moved towards her, his own sword raised, but the maids advanced and, a moment later, he was surrounded by five bloody sword points. Jonis could see the indecision playing across his face as he calculated whether he could fight his way free. He made up his mind and, with a growl, threw his weapon to the floor with a clatter.

“Bind his hands,” Aethlan said shortly. The maids moved to obey.

Jonis stared at the scene as the lord was wrestled to his knees and his hands tied behind him. She looked at Aethlan and was astonished to see that she had a sword in her hand too. She had no idea where it had come from. “I thought…I thought Talosi women didn’t fight…”

“Keeper Jonis,” Aethlan said with a small smile, “even in your enlightened city, women must surely have some secrets from men?”

Ethelstan looked up at them. “You think this will prevent anything? My soldiers are already loose in this castle, and the battle outside goes ill for you and your Atlasian friends. You would do best to prepare yourself to welcome your new master.”

“I think not,” Aethlan told him.

“My lady,” Jonis said, taking her to one side, “if there are enemies inside the castle, we can’t stay here. Even with your maids, we can’t defend these people. We have to get out.”

“Into the city? Into fire and death?”

“Our only chance is to join up with the forces fighting to defend Talos. We have to find Rayke.”

She glanced towards the doors, clearly trying to make her mind up about what to do. She looked at the peasants, huddling near the walls, terrified. “You are right,” she said slowly, “we must flee.”

“Right. But that might mean a fight. I hope your maids know what they’re doing.”

“They do,” she nodded, “but another sword…would be welcome.”

Jonis pulled out her curved blade. “Only too happy to help.”

Aethlan raised her voice, addressing the room, “Everyone – this place is no longer safe. We must leave and make for the stables. Everything will be fine. I will protect you.”

At first her words caused distress, but as she reassured them, the mood changed. Hope was kindled in their eyes. Again, Jonis was astonished that all the Talosi men seemed to miss the obvious – their lady was a natural leader, and her people trusted her. Wodan may have strength of arms on his side, but he would be a cruel lord of whatever was left of Talos, and if Svartburg was anything to go by all he would reign over was ruin and desolation.

The maids began to shepherd the people out of the doors, and Aethlan and Jonis walked past Ethelstan, who still knelt helplessly on the floor, now bound both hand and foot. The nearest maid stopped and looked questioningly at her mistress. “Should we take him with us, my lady?”

Aethlan considered, cocking her head at the lord. “No. He would only slow us down. And besides,” she added with a cold smile, “I am quite certain that Lord Wodan is far more…inventive…than I when it comes to dreaming up fitting punishments for traitors.”

Ethelstan paled. “Wait…you cannot…please…”

They swept from the room, leaving him alone by the dying hearth, surrounded by the corpses of his men as their blood soaked into the rushes. He continued to shout after them, but as the maids closed the doors the noise was cut off by the thick timbers. Aethlan didn’t even give a backward glance.

They encountered other soldiers on their way through the maze of the castle’s corridors. Jonis assumed they were Ethelstan’s men, but the sigils they bore meant nothing to her, and they looked much like any other Talosi to her. The maids proved themselves adept with their blades, but their greatest weapon was surprise – all of the soldiers ransacking the halls saw them as easy prey, and without fail advanced on them with sadistic smiles on their faces. All ended their lives with mouths open in astonishment, eyes wide and two feet of steel through their bellies. Jonis saw many servants dead or dying on their journey. She was not nearly as subtle as the maids, and simply charged in whenever she saw a man committing yet another atrocity. At one intersection, they found a fat man stripped to the waist thrusting noisily into a screaming girl, a scullion to judge by her clothing. Jonis’s reaction was swift and brutal. She kicked him in the chest, sending him reeling backwards and, with one sweep of her blade, hacked his head from his neck. His victim continued to scream and cry, but she left it to the others to comfort her. She was too angry. She would not mourn the violent death of this barbaric land, where men did such things, even as she admired the women who found themselves living under this cruel order.

Finally, after more bloodshed, they descended the winding staircase to the stables. They’d made it through the castle with no loss of life and had in fact strengthened their numbers with servants and others they’d found alive along the way. The weeping girl was still with them, held closely by one of the older peasant women. Jonis was first into the stables and she looked around for any more enemies. Her fury still burned hot. The large doors to the outside opened with a creek and she turned to face whoever might come through, face grim, but it was not enemies. Stumbling, bloody, supporting one another, Albrihn and what was left of the Seventh entered. Huldane was with them and a few more Talosi soldiers.

“Rayke!”

“Jonis,” he said, pulling himself free from Morrow and Hasprit, “what are you doing down here?”

She rushed into his arms and held him close for a second. His warmth, his hard torso, his strong arms, were more comforting than she’d ever known them. She realised with a jolt how happy she was to see him alive. “Betrayal,” she said finally, “one of the lords.”

“Ethelstan,” Aethlan clarified as she walked up, “the castle is no longer safe.”

There was a noise from behind Albrihn and Jonis extricated herself from his embrace to see Huldane on one knee, his head bowed to Aethlan. “My lady,” he said hoarsely, “I have failed you. The city burns. The gates are breached and the defences overrun. The men left under my command lie dead.”

“Huldane,” she said, taking his head in her hands and turning his face up to hers, “you have not failed. You have won glory and renown this day. You have fought bravely and I have no doubt you avenged the deaths of those who fell.”

“He killed dozens,” Hasprit said, and the admiration in his voice was clear. “I’ve never seen a man fight so fiercely.”

“I fought for you, my lady,” Huldane whispered.

“I know.”

Albrihn leant against the wall. The horses in the stalls were skittish, and Jonis knew it must be from the smell of smoke that drifted through the open doors. “He’s right that the city’s lost though,” he said. He held his side, where his breastplate was badly dented. His shoulder wound had opened to judge from the crimson stain on his arm and his hair was in disarray.

“What do we do?” Jonis asked him.

“We run.”

She looked around at the soldiers in the stables. There were only twenty or so of the Seventh there. “Where’s the rest?”

“Dead,” Morrow said.

“If Wodan captures any of your soldiers…” Aethlan began.

“After what happened to Morrow,” Albrihn said, “I ordered them to cut the throats of any of their comrades who were unable to fight or be carried.”

Aethlan grimaced. “Captain Albrihn,” she said, almost formally, “I feel the need to apologise for what has happened here. You were my guests, and all you have found in my home is suffering and death.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“No, but the Talosi have important traditions regarding hospitality.”

“It’s the same elsewhere in Atlantis. But this is not your doing.” He pointed to the stalls. “We should have enough horses for everyone. Our only hope is to try to ride out of here and head south.”

“It appears that you were right all along, captain,” Aethlan said sadly.

“No. If we’d left a week ago, Wodan would have taken this city without losing a single warrior. And you’d be in his hands even now. As it is, we’ve killed thousands of his men, and you may yet get out of here safely. I call that a fair bargain, in the circumstances.”

“Even so,” Jonis pointed out, “how are we supposed to get out of this city? There’s still most of an army pouring through the gates…”

“You’re forgetting one thing,” Morrow said as she headed for the stall that held her horse.

“What’s that?”

She turned, with the same gleam in her eye that Jonis knew from before they’d gone to Svartburg. “We’re the Lucky Seventh.”

*

Talos was in flames. As they rode out, the fires raged freely all around and the sky was filled with thick smoke. The shapes of rampaging warriors ghosted through the wavering air, tearing apart homes, looting businesses, killing and raping indiscriminately. There was nothing they could do. They fired as they galloped down the main road, felling as many of the attackers as they could, but it wasn’t going to be enough. When Wodan took the city, he would be ruling over a charred ruin, and a population that had been decimated and badly traumatised. It would be a hollow victory indeed, but that wasn’t much comfort. As they neared the gates, the mobs of enemy troops turned into throngs: the army still pouring into the city with shields raised. These were the tail end of Wodan’s forces, those who had seen no bloodshed, and they were thirsty for it. But they were also the weakest and least-experienced fighters, not the hard core of Svartburgers that had crossed the walls and sown so much death and destruction. As the Atlasians and their train of mounted refugees rode towards them, they shouted out warnings and began to form into ranks. Within moments, they faced a barrier of wooden shields, bristling with spears and sword points.

Aethlan drew up by Albrihn’s side. “A Talosi shieldwall,” she said grimly, “no horse can be made to charge that.”

“Maybe not a Talosi horse,” Morrow laughed, “but these are Atlasian chargers.” She patted her horse’s neck.

“You can’t be serious…”

“We are,” Albrihn said. He drew his sword, wincing at the pain from every muscle, every old scar, every new, weeping wound, protesting. The rest of the Seventh did likewise. “Hasprit!” he bellowed, “Banner!”

Hasprit grumbled as he called for a spear from the baggage and then rummaged through his pack. In moments, he had strung up a much-crumpled standard and he held it aloft. The hot wind from the fire caught it and it snapped out behind him. On a field of Atlasian red was a simple device – two dice, one showing three pips and the other four, and beneath it the regiment and company markings of the Seventh Light Cavalry. The Lucky Seventh. A legend across the mainlands and Atlantis both.

“Listen, you band of cutthroats and ne’er do wells,” Morrow called out suddenly, “you children of whores and parents of bastards! We’ve fought across the world together, and no army from this bloody cold, arse-end of nowhere is going to be the one that ends our legend!” She rose up in her saddle and cast her eyes across the ranks of Atlasians. “No company of militia was ever so brave, so reckless, so fucking lucky! We’ve cheated death a thousand times! Listen to me, you chancers, you gamblers, you fools; it’s time to roll the dice one more time! It’s time to stack the odds another day! It’s time to do what we do best and risk it all on one last throw! Double or nothing! Win or die! Those stupid bastards over there,” she pointed with her sword to the shieldwall that faced them, “they worship a god with one eye! You know what I say to that? I say, a man with one eye is easier to cheat! I say a man with one eye is half-blind and worthless in a fight! Look at Sergeant Hasprit here – this wrinkled, scarred prick is about as much use in battle as my dear old mother, and she’s been in the ground for ten years! Are you scared of some arsehole god who freezes his people’s balls and tits off? Who lets his folk be fed to the dogmen? No? Well neither am I! And if I’m not scared of him, why would I be scared of the cunts that worship him?! We’re Albrihn’s Lucky Seventh and no gang of bloody savages can stop us!”

The Seventh let out a great cheer. Albrihn had a smile on his face and he began to trot forward. Slowly, as they followed him, he picked up speed, now cantering, and then urging his black stallion into a headlong gallop. They charged in behind him, towards the shieldwall, which began to waver at the sight of the horses bearing down on them. They were running full-pelt now, and the cries from the Seventh and the beating off the hooves were thunderous. Albrihn jerked on his reins as he reached the enemy’s lines and his horse leapt, smashing into the top of the shieldwall and breaking the ranks. The rest of the company followed in and the formation buckled and broke. They laid about them with swords, cutting down the enemy who stood their ground and scattering the rest. They rode through, followed by the Talosi and the refugees, straight through the gates. The causeway was packed with more soldiers, but the narrow path could not be held against a cavalry charge and they crashed through, sending men flying off into the chasm. Night had fallen, and the sky was clear and lit with twinkling stars. They galloped for their lives, leaving the smoke and horror behind them. At the outer gates, only a few men still held the defences. At the gate, a bent, robed figure stood on a box, exhorting the last of the Svartburgers to pillage the city. He turned in amazement as they approached. It was Valgia, the priest of the One-eyed God. Gena grabbed her bow as she rode past and shot an arrow straight through his throat. He fell into a gurgling heap. Of Lord Wodan, there was no sign.

They rode hard, through the night. They met stragglers from the army along the road south through the mountains. These, they cut down or shot. If they fled, they were content to let them be. They were all heading for Talos and, as far as Albrihn was concerned, they were welcome to it. As dawn broke, they found themselves high up on the mountain path, on a ledge overlooking the lowlands. The battlements of Talos were just visible through the morning mist, and a great column of smoke rose high into the sapphire blue sky. Aethlan drew up and gazed out towards her burning home. Albrihn stopped beside her with Jonis.

“I will be forever remembered as the lady who allowed Talos to fall,” she said bitterly.

“It wasn’t your doing,” Jonis said, “it was Wodan. And the winter.” Snow still covered the land.

“I hope history will be as understanding as you, Keeper. And now, I abandon my country and my people to an unjust lord. Except these few.” She looked back along the road, where the train of dirty, miserable peasants and the few soldiers who had made it out with them struggled along. Their heads were bowed and their faces pale and forlorn.

“You had no choice,” Jonis said, sidling her horse closer and putting her hand on Aethlan’s.

“This way,” Albrihn said, “the rightful ruler of Talos still lives. You can set up a court in exile. Wodan’s rule will not sit well with the Emperor.”

“This Province is lost, Captain Albrihn, we both know that. You said it yourself. An age of winter has come, and the ice will engulf all of Talos eventually, just as it has the lands around Svartburg. The wargs will come with the frost, and the same story will be repeated in what remains of my home. And then, Wodan – or whoever might lead by then – will come south again, to attack Atlas.” She looked at him, sadness in her eyes. “Is it not so?”

“Perhaps,” he said. “But it served no purpose to die there. You are still the rightful ruler of this Province.”

“Yes,” she agreed with a bitter laugh, “I am a great lady. A noble. But in Atlas, who will I be? A pale-skinned foreigner, a savage from a land of barbarians. I have no wealth, no influence. Outside of Talos I am nobody. A beggar queen, nothing more.”

“That won’t be your fate,” Jonis said. She squeezed Aethlan’s hand.

“What life will there be for me, Keeper Jonis? Where will I go?”

“The Emperor protects those loyal to him,” Albrihn assured her, “and I swear I will vouch for you. You aren’t alone.”

“No, Captain Albrihn, I know I am not alone.” She looked over her shoulder. Huldane, his arm in a sling, most of his face still encrusted with blood, met her eyes. She smiled at him, and he returned it weakly. “I wonder,” she said, without looking at Albrihn, “how you will feel when you are in my position.”

“My lady?”

“One day, perhaps soon, this winter will come to Atlas, and with it fire and death, whether by the hand of Wodan or another. Then, you may face the same choice. To stay and die with your city, or to leave and find a new life in a far off land where all that you were, all that you meant to those around you, is so much smoke on the wind. Atlantis will bleed before the end, and we shall bleed with it.” She turned back to Talos one last time. Her gaze lingered, and then she fixed her eyes on the road ahead. She urged her horse onwards, and didn’t look back again.

Albrihn watched her go. Jonis trotted towards him and reached for his hand. He let her take it and looked into her eyes. “Time to go home,” he said softly.

“Back to reality.”

“Your brother will be waiting for you.”

“So will your princess.”

“Yes. She will.”

They stayed like that for a long moment, and then parted. The sun rose, staining the mountains red. Ahead was Atlas, the Great City by the Sea, shining and pure. Behind, the fields of ice crept further south every season, every day. Wolves prowled that desolation, and even now picked over the bones of Svartburg. An age of war was coming. Rayke Albrihn and the Lucky Seventh would be waiting.

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