Age of War (Part VIII)

Jonis rested on the handle of the shovel as she got her breath back and wiped the sweat from her brow. This must be the only place in Atlas that was still warm, here in one of the deepest chambers of the Cyclops stables. Maybe it was all the torches that flickered in the wall sconces required to light the vast vaulted dome, or perhaps something darker and more dangerous. Even for a Keeper, there was always something faintly unnerving about Cyclopes, and a strange, unnatural aura often seemed to surround them, as if they were not truly of the mortal world. Which of course they weren’t, in a literal sense. Across from her was a yawning opening barred with a thick iron portcullis. Beyond it, a dim shape shifted in the gloom. Normally the creature had the run of the pit, but for now it was confined by bars and chains while Jonis cleaned it out. She hadn’t had to do this task since she was an apprentice, and she knew exactly why she was here. Oh, no one said it was a punishment, but making a Keeper as skilled as her do this was a waste of resources and everyone knew it. But it kept her out of sight. It kept her busy, and quiet. No more crazy theories from Jonis. No more unsettling ideas being voiced around The Circle. No more rumours and whispers. Sighing, she set to again, levering up a chunk of crumbling dung from the black flagstones and dumping it into the barrow. She was completely inured to the smell by now, but whenever she went back to her chambers she knew her skin and clothes continued to reek of it. Jonin didn’t spend a lot of time around her, that was for sure, but there could be other reasons for that…

“Hey!”

Jonis turned with a start to see someone hovering on the stairs by the entrance to the pit. She cocked her head. “Calam?”

The figure stepped into the light. She was a tall, slender woman like Jonis, but her hair was white-blonde, quite unusual in Atlas, and her flesh was marked with tattoos in the same jagged design as the one Jonis had around her eye. Calam was amongst the most revered Keepers in the city. She was also an old friend. She grinned as she looked around the pit. “Should you be doing this?”

“Ask the Matriarch. She’s the one who sent me down here. I didn’t know you were back in Atlas.”

“Likewise.” Calam was dressed much like Jonis, in a dark leather tunic and tight breeches with high black boots. She wore the same kind of curved sword on her hip. Her walk was all swagger. She was something of a legend in her own lifetime, tipped to become Matriarch herself someday, and Jonis would have found her insufferable if they hadn’t known each other since they were children. When she looked at her, she didn’t see the boisterous, arrogant Keeper who was known as much for sleeping with every man or woman who took her fancy as her battle prowess, but instead the vulnerable, gawky girl she’d once been. Now she squatted by a pile of dung and took a handful of the dry fibrous mass and crumbled it between her fingers.

“You know that stuff is toxic, don’t you?”

Calam smiled. “Even to us?”

“How should I know? I’d rather not find out.”

The other woman dusted off her hands and stood up. “Why are you down here?”

“I told you: Matriarch’s orders.”

“What did you do?”

“Does it matter? How was Helios?”

“Fine,” Calam shrugged, “about the same as here. People starving, too fucking cold, full of arseholes.”

“The good kind or the bad kind?”

“A bit of both,” Calam said, waggling her hand back and forth. “What about Talos?”

“A lot of people tried to kill me.”

“Oh. That sounds dull.”

“It had its moments.” Jonis stooped again and shovelled more of the stinking faeces. She was happy to see Calam, but she wasn’t in a very good mood. This wasn’t how she wanted to be reunited with her wildly successful friend.

“Are you busy?” Calam asked her.

“Is that a joke?”

“You know what I mean.” She waved a hand. “This pit hasn’t been properly cleaned for decades. What does it matter?”

“It doesn’t. Everyone knows that. It’s a punishment.”

“Ah. Yeah, I heard that.”

Jonis gave her a sharp look. “Did you now?”

Calam folded her arms. Her grin was lopsided and her eyes twinkled. “They say you’ve been asking difficult questions.”

“Yes, well, I suppose they do.” She dumped more dung into the barrow. It was almost full now. Calam wasn’t wrong about this place not having been mucked out for a long time. There weren’t enough Keepers to keep every pit maintained as well as they should be. The Cyclops housed here was one of the smallest of its kind, a listless gelding with an evil temper. It didn’t get too much attention, unlike Calam’s big bull, the pride of the stables.

“The rumour is that you found something strange in Talos…”

“Found a lot of strange things in Talos. It’s a strange place.”

I heard you asked for access to the Archive.”

Jonis paused. “Now why would I do that?” she asked carefully.

“I don’t know. I never took you for a history student. What were you hoping to find?”

“It’s not important.”

“Come on, Jonis – it’s important enough to put you on mucking out duty for a month. What’s the Matriarch scared of?”

Calam wasn’t here out of friendship then. Well, it might be a bit of that, but most of all she smelled something besides all this dung – something juicy and interesting. Jonis’s adventure in Talos was exactly the sort of caper Calam would have loved, and she’d be lying if she said she hadn’t felt a thrill about the idea of going somewhere her friend had never been, perhaps even making her jealous. Or maybe, just maybe, there was another possibility. Ambition wasn’t a trait that was encouraged in Keepers, but if anyone amongst them had their fair share of it, it was Calam. “It’s a long story,” Jonis said.

“There’s a lot of shit here. You have time.”

Jonis shook her head. “I wouldn’t know where to begin. It all sounds so…backward.”

“Backward?” Calam was frowning.

“Gods and magic and…ugh…” she waved a hand. “I just wanted to check something.”

Calam laughed. “I knew the Talosi were superstitious, but I didn’t think it’d rub off on you.”

“They thought I was a witch.”

“Are you sure you didn’t just mishear?”

Jonis flicked her shovel up, sending a lump of dung towards her friend. She dodged it and laughed again. “It sounds like they’re all crazy up there to me.”

“They were.”

“Were?”

“There isn’t a lot left of the place now. When we got out of the city, it was being burnt to the ground.”

Calam looked stunned, something Jonis found momentarily unnerving. “You were in a battle?”

“A siege, yes. I told you people tried to kill me…”

“I thought you were joking. You didn’t have your Cyclops with you though.”

“No. It was…extracurricular…”

“So what did you do?”

“I had to stab people instead.”

“Wow. Sounds like fun.”

Jonis thought about it. The most vivid memory she had was escaping with Aethlan through the corridors of her castle, her surprisingly martial maids and a gaggle of women and children in tow, and finding enemies at every intersection. The Talosi men were like animals when the bloodlust was on them. Such horror was unimaginable in the rest of Atlantis, but no one seemed shocked by it there. She remembered the sight of a hulking, bearded warrior, breeches around his ankles, a screaming scullion with her dress hiked up over her waist, trying to claw her way free of his cruel embrace. Her face contorted in agony, his in ecstasy. Her blood had run cold. She’d torn them apart and kicked the man against the wall. The woman had fallen to her knees, weeping. He’d scrabbled for a sword that wasn’t there while his pale, ugly cock still stuck out underneath his mail shirt. She’d hacked his head from his shoulders with one sweep. No mercy, not for men like that.

“It wasn’t fun,” she said.

Calam looked at her for a long moment. “It’s over now, Jonis.”

“I wish that were true. I’m worried it’s just beginning. Even down here, I’m hearing rumours about a civil war.”

“An army left the city yesterday.”

Jonis nodded. “When we rode in and saw those black flags, I knew something like this was coming. It’s the same story that played out in Talos. There’s a winter that’s never going to end coming, but before we freeze to death, we’re going to fight over the scraps.”

“Fucking hell, Jonis. What’s gotten into you?”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry. Look, I’ll find you later. We’ll have dinner.”

“It’s dinner time now.”

Jonis looked up. The chamber was as dark as ever and she had no feel for how much time had passed. “I didn’t notice,” she admitted.

“Time you took a break then. Come and see my Cyclops.”

Jonis was surprised at the offer. Keepers with responsibility for valuable Cyclopes tended to be quite possessive, and none more so than Calam and her handsome brother Calad. “Are you sure?”

“Of course. The Matriarch thinks he’s in musth. The first time this century. It’s worth seeing.”

“Well, all right then.” She set her shovel against the barrow and straightened up. Her back hurt. “Will they breed him?”

“I hope so. How many Keepers get the opportunity to raise a newborn?”

“None for two-hundred years, Calam. You know the chances of that happening are tiny, right?”

“I know, but I could get lucky.” She took Jonis’s arm and the two old friends left the gloomy pit, heading back through the low arch and off to the pits further up in the complex, where the more prestigious beasts were stabled.

“So tell me about this army,” Jonis said, more to make conversation than anything else. “Did they take any Cyclopes?”

“No. Don’t ask me why. This war would be over in days if they did. No, something about needing to move fast..”

“Why fast?”

They rounded a corner and ducked underneath another arch. “I have no idea. There’s lots of stories floating around. I heard the whole army was on horseback.”

“All mounted? That’s…unusual…”

“The whole business is unusual. They say the man leading them is some upstart commander. No one seems to know who he is or where he came from.”

“Oh?”

“A cavalry captain or something, promoted by the Empress. Or so they say. Who understands politics?”

Jonis was frowning. “Promoted by the Empress? Do you know his name?”

“Um…Alward? Almond? Al-something…”

“Albrihn,” Jonis said as she felt herself go cold again. “Rayke Albrihn.”

“That’s him!” Calam looked at her. “Do you know him?”

“I do. I went to Talos with him.”

“So you’re comrades?”

“More than that…”

“Friends?”

Jonis unhooked her arm from Calam’s. She moved her shoulders in an awkward shrug. “More than that even.”

Calam’s eyes went wide. “Are you serious? We really do have a lot to catch up on…”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Why not?”

“Because…because I just don’t…” Calam knew enough to drop the subject, but she looked at Jonis oddly. They walked on a little further and then another doorway led through to a chamber even wider than the one in which Calam had found her. It was brightly lit by comparison, and there were other Keepers standing around, one of which was Calad, Calam’s twin brother. He was as tall and attractive as her, with a chiselled physique and matching tattoos. He grinned broadly at her. “Joni,” he greeted her.

“Don’t call me that. No one’s called me that since I was a teenager.”

“That’s still how I think of you.” He reached for her as she passed, but she batted him away.

“Fuck off, will you?”

“Always the charmer.” Calad’s ego was impossible to deflate, and there were very few women who could resist his advances for long. He was as promiscuous as his sister, quite often with the same partners at the same time, which was mind-boggling even for a Keeper. She had been determined her whole life never to become another of his conquests. Unlike Calam, where her charm and good humour managed to counteract her more obnoxious traits, Calad had no such saving grace. All he had were his looks. She stepped up the bars of the portcullis that mirrored the one in the other pit.

Calam leant beside her. “You see him?”

Jonis squinted through the darkness. It was hard to make out anything, but as her eyes adjusted she could discern a huge shape moving in the shadows. This Cyclops, the oldest of the bulls and one of the very few breeding animals left in the stables, was one she knew largely by reputation alone. She’d seen it only from a distance, training in The Circle, and she knew of its size and strength. Even so, as the great shadow shifted, she stepped back instinctively. It seemed much more massive up close. She could see the sweep of its sloping shoulders now and the glowering shape of its great baroque helm. Undeterred – it was her Cyclops after all – Calam put her hand through the bars and pursed her lips, making an encouraging sound. There was a creak of hard scales and then it shuffled into the orange torchlight, an immense creature that almost filled up its small cell. It was at least twice the size of her own Cyclops and the skin on its shoulders and back looked like shattered stone. Its heavy fists rested on the flagstones as it leant forward and its legs were squat and bowed. Unlike her gelding, with its sagging belly, this one had almost human musculature and, most noticeably, a swollen penis that twitched almost comically. Its testicles were huge and pendulous. Jonis covered her mouth. “Definitely in musth,” she laughed.

“He gets like this quite often actually, but normally it passes. Not this time though. He was almost uncontrollable on parade. I was so embarrassed. Everyone was pointing and laughing at him, poor thing.”

“Well, he’s got nothing to be ashamed of, has he?”

Calam laughed too. “I don’t know – what’s average for a Cyclops anyway?”

Jonis felt a little calmer now. Seeing the obvious distress the creature was in robbed it of much of the menace its sheer size had engendered. It pawed at the ground, clearly agitated and its penis swung to and fro. It moved its head around too, as if trying to scent a female. Even immune to its devastating ability as they were, the Keepers wouldn’t dare remove the helm. If they wanted it to mate with a female though, they’d need to, Jonis realised. There had never been a successful Cyclops coupling in living memory, but the texts said it was extremely dangerous for all involved. She wanted to see it for herself, but part of her had a very real fear of what sort of power might be unleashed. The hideous eye-cum-maw of a single Cyclops was horrifying enough – two radiating their abyssal fury at once was a risk they wouldn’t normally take. But if they could breed a viable calf…

“I’m worried about him,” Calam said in a low voice.

“What? Why?”

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m quite attached to him, in a strange way. What if it kills him?”

“There are other Cyclopes.”

“What, like that gelding whose shit you were picking up?” Her lip curled in distaste.

“Mine’s a gelding.”

“It’s not that. It’s just that the younger ones are so much smaller and weaker. How did their race ever prosper?”

“Maybe it’s because they’re in captivity,” Jonis suggested, “that happens with some other animals, I believe. They have a kind of black and white bear in Hades that I read about that never mates if it’s caged. No one knows why.”

“This one is the oldest alive,” Calam went on, “no one knows how old exactly. Maybe thousands of years.”

Jonis nodded. Cyclopes were immortal, or so it was supposed. This bull had been caged here for untold centuries. They never grew weaker. They were as eternal as mountains. Strange that such mighty monsters should have been subdued by humans. The stories of how it came to be this way were just faded legends now, passed down in the oldest stories of Atlantis, written down in the texts only after being told and retold orally, changing and taking new shapes for new eras. No one knew the truth, not really. “There’ll never be another like it,” Jonis mused, “even if it sires a calf.”

“Exactly. And I earned it – we earned it, that is, me and Calad – so if something goes wrong, where does that leave me?”

“The Matriarch lost her Cyclops, and her brother. It didn’t hold her back.”

“No, but it didn’t make things any easier. I just want it to work out, you know?” Calam leant her chin on the bars, and there was that fragile little girl that Jonis remembered again, hiding beneath all her bravado.

“It will,” Jonis said, rubbing her shoulder, “of course it will. There’s going to be a whole new generation of Cyclopes, as big and powerful as this one, and you’ll become the Matriarch and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity.”

“Do you believe that?”

Jonis thought about what had happened in Talos, about the ice that was creeping further south every winter, about the death and destruction she’d seen. That was what the future held. Not peace, but war. Rayke had ridden off at the head of an army, inexplicably, and she sensed this was just the beginning of something that would shake Atlantis to its foundations. “Just…have faith,” she said weakly, taking her hand from her friend’s shoulder.

“Faith! You sound like a fucking mainlander. Or a Talosi. What was all that about gods and magic again?”

“Forget it. I don’t want to think about that weird stuff. I just want life to be normal again. And I want to stop shovelling shit.” They both watched the great Cyclops shuffle around mournfully in its cell. It shifted its bulk and turned around to face towards the far wall, pawing out with its huge claws. The stones were already scored with deep grooves, no doubt etched there over long aeons by this very beast. As it shifted again so its back was to them, Jonis saw something unusual. “What’s that?” she asked.

“What’s what?”

Jonis pointed. “There, on its back. A kind of mark.”

“You mean its brand? All the oldest Cyclopes have them…”

“I know that,” she said. The most ancient specimens of their race were marked by the Keepers’ ancestors for reasons unknown. Each one had a symbol scored into its flesh, a leathery scar surrounded by its knobbly skin. No one paid them much heed; they were just part of them. “I mean what’s the symbol?”

“I don’t know – just a symbol. What are you getting at?”

“I’ve seen it before.” It was a sort of circle, not quite joined at the bottom with two flared serifs jutting outwards.

“Well it’s in some of the texts and carved on walls in a few places in The Circle…” Calam looked a little perturbed. “Where did you see it?”

“In Talos. That’s a Talosi rune. I’m sure of it. It’s the symbol they used for their god.” She looked at Calam’s arm, resting beside hers. The Keepers’ tattoos followed an ancient pattern laid out in the texts. They had no meaning, they were just symbols that connoted rank and experience. But now she saw them with fresh eyes. They were letters; angular glyphs, the same language as the brands on the old Cyclopes, and the same language she’d seen here and there in Talos. That was no great surprise, since she’d begun to suspect that the mythology of the Talosi was based on a forgotten war involving Cyclopes a thousand years ago – the precise reason she’d wanted access to the Archives and been sent down to shovel dung instead – but why had they preserved this writing and her own people hadn’t? Why would the Talosi adopt the Cyclops Keepers’ language?

“Are you all right?” Calam asked her.

“I don’t know. But I know I need to get into the Archives. Can you help me?”

Calam stared at her for a moment and then finally gave her an almost imperceptible nod. “I think so.”

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