Leaving Morrow behind in the yard, Albrihn stepped into the dining hall. There was a smaller officers’ room off to one side, and he was just in time to see the door bang closed. There were already raised voices on the other side. Rykall’s men stood a little awkwardly outside, still wearing the same stony expressions. He was in two minds about whether to walk in himself – as a commander, he had as much right to involve himself in Rykall and Hadrin’s discussion as anyone, but the shouting was only getting louder, and it sounded like Rykall was doing most of it. He decided not to approach the door just yet and instead looked around the dining hall. The large, low room was filled with long wooden tables with benches on either side. The air was smoky from the hearth at one end that was always lit. Even in more clement weather, this room was draughty and there was always call for something hot to drink so the fire had been burning away merrily for as long as Albrihn could remember. There were only a few soldiers present, sitting alone or in small groups, picking at pewter plates filled with black bread and hard white cheese. He walked to the table by the hearth where the food was set out and saw the pot was already empty. He took a bowl anyway and used the ladle to scrape around the bottom for any remaining morsels – he hadn’t realised how hungry he was until he walked in here.
As he listlessly spooned a few scraps of meat into his bowl, the door to the kitchen flew open and a rotund figure walked out, carrying a black pot cradled in thick towels. As he walked he beat out a distinctive staccato on the flagstones and he was grumbling under his breath. “Here it is, you bloody locusts…” He heaved the pot onto the table beside the empty one and Albrihn could see the thick brown stew sloshing around inside. The aroma of the spices was powerful. The cook straightened and mopped his brow with one of the towels. He had a thick, jowly face with ugly scars criss-crossing his cheeks and forehead and his right leg stopped at the knee. Below it was a wooden peg lovingly carved with intricate designs. He didn’t notice Albrihn at first, but then he glanced across and gave a start. “Rayke?”
“Loban,” Albrihn said with a grin, “what’s for dinner?”
“Fuck me,” Loban said, his wide mouth flapping like a frog’s. “Captain Albrihn himself, back from who knows where!” He took him in a rough embrace and then gave him a good look up and down. “Where’s that skinny corporal I taught how to hold a spear the right way around, eh?”
“He found someone who knew a bit more than that to train him properly.”
Loban’s laugh was huge and rolling, and he held his belly as it rumbled out of him. If anyone ever made fun of him for being fat, he told them that no one trusts a thin cook, and before long he had them on his side. Loban had been a sergeant a long time ago, and he’d had a knack for moulding raw recruits into fighters, but little talent for war himself. He’d always been more interested in the cook-pot, and when an infected arrow wound took his leg, he slotted in naturally at the barracks. He liked to tell stories of his time on campaign, but unless you listened closely, you’d never know he spent most of his battles keeping as far out of harm’s way as possible.
Albrihn abandoned the leavings of the last pot and ladled the fresh stew into his bowl. “Smells spicy,” he said.
“It has to be,” Loban sighed, “you don’t want to know where the meat came from.”
“I suppose I don’t at that.” He moved to a bench and Loban slung his towel over his shoulder as he squeezed his bulk in opposite. Albrihn spooned some of the stew into his mouth. The seasoning was as ferocious as his nose had told him it would be, and the meat was all gristle and fat, but it still tasted good. Loban could work miracles in his own small way.
“I never saw you when you came back from the mainlands,” he said.
“Sorry. We were only here for a day or two.”
“And then off to Talos, I hear. Was it bad up there?”
Albrihn nodded as he stirred the stew in his bowl. “Yes. Cold and cruel and full of people trying to kill me.”
“A bit like here then, I suppose?”
“These days? Seems that way.” He smiled ruefully. The other soldiers were at the pot, filling more bowls, so Albrihn fell silent for a moment until they walked back to their seats. It was always mealtime in the dining hall – with so many intersecting watches, different companies out on different patrols and all the rest of it, there was never an hour when someone wasn’t looking for something to fill an empty belly. “They promoted me,” he said when it was quiet around them again.
Loban frowned. “What to?”
“Hadrin’s commander, Rayke.”
“Tell that to the Empress.”
Loban laughed again. “Bloody hell. I told you not to get involved in politics, didn’t I?”
“You told me to stay away from the front lines too.”
“So I did. Become a cook, I said. Or quartermaster. That’s always a lark. Count arrows for your coin. No one ever got killed counting arrows.”
“We all have our callings.”
“Doesn’t mean we have to follow them.” He grinned broadly and patted Albrihn on the arm. “Ah, I knew you’d be an officer someday. You just had that way about you, even out there in the yard when you walked in off the street, skinny wretch with no trade to call his own. Why you never followed your father into tanning, I’ll never know.”
“Couldn’t abide the smell of shit.”
“So you become a cavalryman? Yeah, I never took you for the brightest star in the sky, lad.”
Albrihn chuckled and took another mouthful of stew. Eating Loban’s cooking was the closest he’d come to feeling like he was home since returning from the mainlands. “War’s coming,” he said in a low voice.
“War’s always coming.”
“This time it’s different. We’re not talking about bandits down from the hills. It’s a full-scale rebellion.”
“Against your Empress?” Loban scratched his nose. There was a thoughtful expression on his fleshy face.
“Against our Empress, yes.”
“Hm. Seen her a time or two. Fine looking woman, and fierce as you like. But her father was popular. She’s untested.”
“So was every Emperor or Empress who took the throne. It’s not like there’s a training academy for the job.”
“No,” Loban acknowledged, “but, see, there’s plenty of heirs did a bit of ruling before they actually sat on that ugly black chair. Sometimes they had to. In times of war, the Emperor can’t march out with his troops himself, can he? So he sends a prince or princess to represent him. That way they get a taste of command. Or they make the pup a minister if they’re not so handy with a sword, throw them to the wolves in the Chamber. That’ll make a ruler out of anyone. But this one was born in peacetime, and now you say there’s a civil war brewing?” He sucked at his teeth.
“She’s the rightful ruler of Atlantis. I’m sworn to serve her.”
“So are the lads and lasses who’ll take up arms against you. Oaths don’t mean a thing when it comes down to it, Rayke. You know that.”
“I have a duty.”
“And you love her.”
“I…” He paused. There were a few mouthfuls of stew left, but he pushed the bowl away. He lowered his voice again. “She asked me to be her consort.”
Loban’s eyebrows shot up his scarred forehead. “My my…” he said. “My my…”
Albrihn rubbed his palms against his eyes. “Yesterday, I was a captain returning in disgrace from a shattered Province. Now, I’m in the middle of a maelstrom of politics and civil war.”
“Seems to me,” Loban said as he pulled Albrihn’s bowl across the table and began to scoop up what remained in the bottom, “this is more of that on-the-job training.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well,” he replied as he popped the spoon into his mouth. He chewed for a moment then swallowed. “A consort has to learn how to lead.”
“Because you can’t very well have the Empress’s husband taking orders from some lowborn commander or what have you. Suppose you were just a captain and Hadrin ordered you into battle when you were supposed to be doing something political with the Empress?”
“I swore an oath to follow the orders of my commanding officer.”
“But you’ll also have sworn an oath to your wife.”
“The Empress is in ultimate command of the militia. Her orders would countermand Hadrin’s.”
“Oh right.” Loban gestured with the spoon. “And if Hadrin takes that badly? She’s a powerful woman. Commander of an entire regiment. Every time there’s a conflict of interest, the Empress makes a new enemy. Does that seem politically prudent to you?”
“Are you saying she promoted me because she wants to marry me?”
“Pretty much.” Loban dropped the spoon into the bowl and sat back, folding his massive arms over his gut. He grinned again. “Is that so bad?”
“I don’t want to be promoted because I share a bed with someone.”
“You’d rather be promoted because you shoved a sword in someone, is that it? I’d rather see the man with the foresight to fuck a princess rewarded than some thug who knows which bits of the body bleed the best. There’s no shame in taking your due, Rayke. Who gives a shit what anyone thinks about you? You never cared before.”
“I suppose not,” he admitted.
“Unless of course,” Loban said as he began to heave himself off the bench, “there’s some other reason you don’t want to marry her. Then, things get more complicated.”
“They’re already…” He stopped and turned as the door to the officers’ dining room flew open and Rykall stalked out. He locked eyes with Albrihn as he gestured for his men to follow him, and didn’t break the stare until he left the hall. The door was still open.
“I’ll leave you to it, commander,” Loban said.
He stood and crossed the hall. Hadrin was at the table in the side room, fists resting on the surface, face a picture of controlled anger. He knocked politely on the door and she glanced up sharply. “Albrihn. I hear you put on quite a show.”
“He seemed angry about something.”
“You didn’t do a lot to help. Shut the door.” He did as she asked and walked around to the opposite side of the table.
“I’m sorry. It was…unprofessional.”
“Yes it was, but I can’t tell you what to do any more, can I?” She rubbed the bridge of her nose. “I don’t have the first idea how you fit into this regiment’s hierarchy now. If the Empress wanted me to step down, she didn’t say so. So here we are then. Two commanders with a mission to plan.”
She looked at him. “This is where you start shouting about how you were given command and I shouldn’t be trying to take control.”
“The way I see it, I need all the help I can get, commander.”
She gave him a crooked half-smile. “Indeed.” She stepped away from the table and began to circle the small room. There was a narrow window on one side, heavily recessed into the thick stonework, and the sound of soldiers training drifted through. “You’ve never planned anything on this scale, is that right?”
“More or less.”
“What does that mean?”
“I was given command of a few hundred troops a time or two in the mainlands, when there was no more experienced officer to coordinate things. And then, in Talos…” he trailed off.
“I’ve been hearing stories about Talos. Your company has only been in the city a day, but they’re already paying for drinks in taverns with their yarns.”
Albrihn suppressed a smile. “I was going to make a formal report about what happened.”
“Well, that might not be appropriate now, given our respective stations. Besides, we don’t have time for paperwork. Tell me what happened.”
“A rebel faction attacked the capital while we were inside. No one there had any knowledge of siegecraft, so they asked me to take command.”
“How many soldiers?”
“A thousand or so regulars. Perhaps three or four times that many civilian auxilia.”
“Boys with spears?”
“And how did you fare?”
“The city fell. We escaped.”
“How many on the other side?”
“What was your position like?”
“Walls in good repair, a strong gate accessible by a single narrow causeway.”
“They had people inside. One of the nobles betrayed Lady Aethlan. And besides, we didn’t have enough troops to hold the length of the walls.” He shook his head. “I failed.”
“You did,” Hadrin said, “but it sounds like it was inevitable. I’m sure you made them pay for every stride of that wall they took.”
“Good.” She sighed and walked to a rack of scrolls on one side of the room. She selected one and pulled it out. “You’ve got more experience than some. You’re a veteran and a good fighter. A very good fighter. Sometimes that’s enough, sometimes it’s not. Sadly, I think it might be the latter on this occasion. You’re fighting militia, not barbarians.” She laid the scroll on the table and spread it out, using cutlery and a small jug of mustard to hold the corners down. It was a map of Atlas and the surrounding Provinces and she leant over it. “Intelligence is sketchy, as you know. Saffrey is in Chronus, we know that much.” She planted her finger down on the dot that represented the capital city of Atlas’s neighbour.
“He could have left already, if he’s been planning this for a while.”
“Exactly. It’s two day’s ride though. He would have had to marshal his forces very quickly.”
“Unless they met him coming the other way…”
“True. I hadn’t thought of that. What we do know is that he’s still not on this side of the Titans.” Her finger moved across the map to the mountain range that separated Atlas from Chronus, a heap of forbidding peaks that covered most of central Atlantis. “The only way through is on the High Road, through the Gap of Hephaestus.”
“We have a garrison there, don’t we?”
“Yes, but who knows where their loyalties will turn when they see an army bearing down on them? I don’t expect an outpost of three-hundred soldiers to hold in the face of that. The fortress isn’t defensible anyway – there hasn’t been war in that part of Atlantis in five centuries.”
“Right.” Albrihn bent down and looked across the map. He knew the lay of the land as well as anyone else, but he seemed to see it with different eyes now. By a quirk of history, Atlas, the grand capital of the nation, was isolated from the other Provinces by mountainous country on all sides. The soil was poor too, so it was the fertile lands in the great river basins in the heart of Atlantis that really generated all its wealth. No one knew why the founders of the ancient kingdom had put their city in such a comparatively inhospitable region. But if nothing else, it made the Province easy to defend. Roads through mountain passes brought the traffic in from outside, and any invading army had to brave those first. Historically, Atlasian troops would simply take up station somewhere in the mountains and wait until the enemy were in a place they could be bottled in by a fraction of their strength. But the Gap of Hephaestus was different – it was a place where the shoulder of the Titans ran down into rugged hill country, but left a broad valley several leagues across between. There were a few frontier towns close by, but it was a high, chilly expanse of heather and gorse, and the site of hundreds of battles in ages past.
“We can take them at Hephaestus,” Hadrin said.
“If we’re certain we have the advantage in numbers. Which we aren’t.”
“The alternative is to press as hard as we can and cross the mountains before they do. Meet them in the field in Chronus.”
“But then we run the risk of stumbling into them, exhausted. We’ll be easy prey.”
“So fall back?”
Albrihn shook his head. There was no defensible position between the mountains and Atlas itself. The High Road led right to the city’s South Gate. The only place they could mount a defence was here, and that wasn’t a possibility he was willing to entertain. Atlas’s walls were crumbling, and there were as many buildings outside them as inside now. An attack on the city would be a disaster. “Hephaestus seems like the only option. Unless you have something else in mind?” He looked up at Hadrin hopefully.
“The Gap is indeed our only opportunity. We just have to guarantee we can win the fight. We can have five-thousand troops ready to depart tomorrow. Not all are seasoned, but we do have the advantage of Cyclopes.”
“Cyclopes?” He met her eyes again.
“Is that a problem?”
He rubbed his jaw. He’d seen what a Cyclops could do – twice now, which was twice more than he wanted – and the thought of unleashing them against militia made his skin crawl. “Too slow,” he heard himself say.
“They can keep pace with horses.”
“Over short distances, maybe.”
“You’re in command,” Hadrin shrugged, “we don’t know what we’re facing. How do you propose we hold the Gap?”
He couldn’t see a way even five-thousand soldiers could do it against a potentially superior force. Their line would have to be thin to span the whole valley and all Saffrey would need to do was concentrate his forces to smash through. The alternative was to use a refused flank and try to concentrate what they had, but there was no guarantee Saffrey would let them do that: he could just as easily march around them. Nothing compelled him to be brought to battle. If he reached Atlas, he’d have won already, even with a hostile army on his heels. Albrihn’s eyes roved across the map, searching for a solution, for a fourth option that could give them a victory that depended on more than sheer luck. He looked south from the Gap of Hephaestus, to the hills. They were still part of the Titans, although they never approached the lofty heights of their sisters further north, and a formidable barrier. They couldn’t bring an army over them, not in the time they had. Beyond that, the only thing besides mountains on Atlas’s borders: the Horn of Perseus, a rump of land sticking out into the ocean, most of which was below sea level. The terrain was marshy and inhospitable, a great waterlogged expanse of reeds, mud and waterways unnavigable for anyone except the strange folk that lived there.
“What about the Horn?” he asked.
“What about it?”
He ran his finger across the map from Atlas. “It’s a day’s ride on a fast horse, and we could be on the High Road outside Chronus the following morning.”
“Yes, if we pass through the fenland…”
“We could fall on Saffrey’s army from behind. Here, look.” He tapped his finger on the map. “Ixion Forest. The High Road runs right through it. We could trap them in there.”
“A man on a horse could, Albrihn,” she said slowly, “but five-thousand soldiers?”
“We don’t need five-thousand to win a battle like that. A force of no more than two-thousand, all horse and light troops, could do it. Chronusi field heavy regiments, don’t they?”
“They’re known for their pike blocks and heavy horse, yes. What are you getting at?”
“They’ll be slow, we’ll be fast. We put together an army of fast troops and head for the Horn. We pass through the fens – not easy, but it can be done – and come out behind Saffrey at Ixion. If we take them by surprise, we can run circles around them in the dense terrain and the numbers won’t matter.”
Hadrin looked from one part of the map to the other, saying nothing. She seemed to be calculating something in her head. “That…could work,” she finally allowed.
“It’s the only chance we have, commander. There’s no other battlefield between Atlas and Chronus that we can win on. It has to be Ixion.”
“And Ixion means the Horn. This is a big risk,” she said, looking hard at him.
“The stakes are high. What choice do we have?”
“None, I suppose. But there is one problem.”
Albrihn frowned. “What about him?”
“In here, before, he made some…demands.”
“What kinds of demands?”
“He wants to be part of this mission.”
Albrihn was surprised. “Why? He won’t want to serve under me.”
“I think he feels he has something to prove.”
“Well he can do it when there’s less riding on the outcome. We have a war to end.”
“He won’t be refused. If you do, there’s no telling what could happen. He could take the Third to Saffrey.”
“True…except my plan depends on us riding fast and light. There’s no room for heavy cavalry. Anything heavier than chainmail is going to drag soldiers to their deaths in those swamps. I can’t have squadrons of knights in plate armour galloping around.”
“Even so. He’s coming with us.”
“Then tell him he’ll be following my orders, and that means no cavalry charges, no plate armour, no banners. We’re fighting dirty.”
“He won’t like that.”
“Then he can stay home.”
Hadrin laughed. “I like the way you negotiate, Albrihn.”
“I don’t negotiate.”
“Precisely.” She went to leave, but then stopped and turned back to him. “Your company…”
“What about them?”
“You’re bringing them I take it?”
“They’re the best light cavalry in the militia.”
“Indeed they are. Who will command them?”
“Commanders stay out of the fighting – unless they’re idiots like Rykall – they need an officer. Is your lieutenant ready to be captain?”
“No more ready than I am to be commander.”
She smiled. “I’ll give her the good news.”
Albrihn gave a nod. He hadn’t even considered the possibility that he wouldn’t ride with the Lucky Seventh, but of course things were different now. Hadrin closed the door behind her, leaving him alone, looking over the map of his homeland and wondering how things had become so twisted around.