Age of War (Part XVI)

This was a bleak corner of the country, even in better times. Albrihn cast his eyes across the low horizon, trying to get a fix on anything worth looking at. All around the terrain was flat and mostly grey. On the horizon, low hills rose from the plain, but the higher peaks of the Titans weren’t visible through the glowering clouds. This was farmland, of a kind, first drained thousands of years ago. Over the millennia populations had come and go – ravaged by war, disease or famine – and the land had reverted to its natural, boggy state periodically before being reclaimed again generations later. This whole region was almost at sea level, and was perpetually flooded. Only an extensive network of dykes and ditches dug across the flats kept it dry enough to plant useful crops. Not that there was much sign of that now. Every farmstead they’d passed had been abandoned and some were nothing more than blackened skeletons. Bandits – or worse – had taken their toll, and no one was left to maintain the fields. It only added to the blank monotony of the scene. But even monotony was better than what lay immediately to the east of their camp: mist rolled in from the ocean to the south and, as dusk fell, shrouded the vast fens of the Horn of Perseus. There was no border where Atlas ended and unclaimed swamp began, rather the fields gradually grew muddier and less defined, and then clumps of straggly gorse overwhelmed decrepit fences until, without warning, you were knee deep in stagnant water. He’d sent scouts in already, and they’d reported that the years of high rainfall had made the terrain even more impassable than usual. It was a tangled, stinking wilderness. Albrihn rubbed his jaw thoughtfully.

By his side, Commander Rykall spat on the floor. They stood atop a dyke, the highest promontory in this empty land, even though it barely rose ten feet into the air. “This is madness,” the big man growled.

“It’s the only chance we have,” Albrihn replied calmly. They hadn’t made as good time as he’d have liked – moving two-thousand soldiers, even if they travelled as light as physically possible, was always going to be a complicated undertaking. It was the evening of the second day since they’d ridden out from Atlas. If Saffrey’s army was already on the march from Chronus, they could be within a day of the Gap of Hephaestus by now. They’d have to make good time through the fens to catch them, and that wasn’t something he was at all confident about doing.

“We’ll move at first light,” Commander Hadrin said, “for all the difference it’ll make it there.” She nodded grimly towards the bank of mist that was rolling across the countryside.

“Bogs and swamps,” Rykall went on, “it makes no sense to drag an army through that.”

Albrihn looked at him over his shoulder. All around them, their army made camp, lighting small campfires, laying out pallets on the damp ground, tying up horses and doing what soldiers did best – grumble, drink and fuck. He turned back. “If we keep our wits about us, there’ll be no trouble.”

“One wrong step is all it takes in there, Albrihn. Put a boot off the trail and you’ll sink past your neck in a second. That’s if we can even find a trail…”

“You’ll have to make sure your troops don’t make a wrong step then, won’t you, Rykall?” Hadrin said.

“I can’t watch two-thousand men and women…”

“You don’t have two-thousand men and women,” Albrihn reminded him. “It’s dangerous,” he admitted, “but it can be done. Forces have passed this way before.”

“Small forces. Scouts.”

“The same principle applies.”

Rykall gave Hadrin a look. “He was your captain,” he told her in a low voice, “you talk sense to him.”

“Rayke,” Hadrin said, “the logistics of an army are…”

“You think I don’t know that?” he snapped. He sighed and ran a hand across his head, trying to slick his hair down to his scalp. The mist was settling everywhere, making the air moist and clammy. “What choice is there?”

Rykall snorted a laugh. “Now? None. We’re a week from Hephaestus. If we try to meet them there, they’ll march right past us and burn Atlas to the ground before we’re within a dozen leagues.”

“And if we’d tried that right away, they’d have beaten us in the field. Either way, Atlas burns.”

“He’s right, Rykall,” Hadrin said. “We knew this was risky. But it might work.”

“If we keep to this course, Saffrey’s cunts won’t even need to beat us – the fens will do their work for them. We’ll lose half our forces in there. We should turn back; make a stand at the city.”

Albrihn spun around to face him. “You want to defend a city whose crumbling walls are a mile behind its own sprawl? A city with a million people with nowhere left to run?”

“Fall back behind the walls of the Enclave,” he shrugged. “That’s defensible.”

“And what about the citizens?” Hadrin asked him.

“Arm them.”

“And you accuse me of taking unacceptable risks,” Albrihn said with a shake of his head. “What do you fear in these fens, Rykall?”

“I fear nothing, but I grew up less than fifteen leagues from here. I know what lies in wait.”

“What?”

Rykall narrowed his eyes at him. “You know the stories as well as I. There are people living in there.”

“Fisher-folk.”

“Some call them that,” Rykall said, smiling grimly, “others fen-walkers, bogmen, crannog haunts, eel-fuckers…gnarls…”

“Ghost stories.”

“Told from one end of the Horn to the other, Albrihn. The gnarls aren’t like us. They’re not really human.” He lowered his voice. “Cannibals.”

“If they’re not human, it’s not cannibalism,” Hadrin pointed out.

“You’re going to argue terminology with them when you’re turning on a spit over one of their ghostlights?” He looked at Albrihn. “You watch tonight, commander. When the fog rolls in properly and everything’s dark, you’ll see their lights flickering across the fens. They’ll be watching us, sure as water’s clear and piss is yellow. Watching, and waiting.”

Albrihn looked back at the swamps. Dusk was drawing in now, and the shadows were deep on the marshland ahead of them. “People have passed through before.”

“One or two, maybe. The gnarls don’t mind a couple. If they get too close to their villages they might lead them astray, or even lure them in if the eel harvest is poor, but otherwise they stay out of sight. March in there with two-thousand and they’ll know you’re coming. And they’ll take us for invaders. Others have tried that, long ago. None came back. They’re wily creatures, the gnarls.”

Hadrin gave him a sceptical look. “Fisher-folk against an army, Rykall?”

“That’s their land,” he said with another nod towards the glowering fens, “they know the trails and they use the mists like a weapon. They’ll pepper us with their javelins and darts. They use poisons that’ll bloat you to three times your size and turn your face black as a brambleberry.”

“You know a lot about these people,” Albrihn said.

“I told you – I’m from Ajax. It’s not so far. We know the stories.”

“There’s no choice,” he repeated. “We go through there tomorrow morning. End of discussion.”

Rykall gave him a long look. “You’re in command. But it’s madness.” He turned and walked away from them, eventually scrambling down the sloped sides of the dyke to join his own soldiers in their camp, set slightly apart from the others.

“Don’t let him get to you.”

Albrihn looked at Hadrin. “I never asked for this.”

“I know. You’ve told me.” She smiled. “I’ve been your commanding officer for how long?”

“I don’t know. A decade?”

“Right. If I didn’t think you could do this job, I would have argued the point with the Empress.”

“Crale argued.”

“I have a lot more influence than her. And anyway, Crale only sees the big picture – she doesn’t know her soldiers like I do. You can do this.”

“Rykall won’t accept my authority.”

“He’ll follow his orders.”

“For how long?”

Hadrin put a hand on his shoulder. They’d never been close in any sense. He’d been one of more than a dozen captains serving in her regiment – perhaps one of the better known ones, but they’d never fought side by side, they had no bond save the military hierarchy that Vion had managed to mix up with this unprecedented promotion she’d handed out almost arbitrarily. But she’d always supported him, as much as she could. “Just watch him.”

“I can’t keep my eye on him all the time, especially in those fens.”

“Then find people you trust. This is a civil war, Rayke. That means dissent, infighting, betrayal. There will be men and women in this camp tonight who are thinking Saffrey makes a better Emperor than Vion an Empress. You can’t trust all two-thousand of them with your life.”

“Then how can I lead them?”

“You trust your officers. And they trust their officers, and so on all the way down to the greenest private. That’s how it works.”

“I know that…but I’m used to being surrounded by people I can rely on.”

“Your Seventh are a good unit. Maybe the finest in all the militia. A little rough around the edges perhaps, but what soldiers aren’t? Command is about learning to let go. Being aloof.”

Albrihn squinted across the horizon. It was almost true night now. The sky was so overcast there’d been no sunset, just a gradual darkening. The campfires lit the plain. They’d be easy to find, but Saffrey couldn’t imagine they’d be attacking from this direction – he’d have no spies in the surrounding country, he was certain of that. But within the camp? How many of these might slip away in the night, heading north to pledge themselves to their enemies and reveal their location at the same time? There was something to be said for camaraderie and self-preservation, of course. In an army, a soldier who betrayed her comrades was asking for trouble. You kept an eye on those around you, got to know them, made it unthinkable for them to stab you in the back. It was the basis of all military culture: no matter what you might personally believe, you didn’t turn on those who drew swords beside you. It reminded him of Huldane’s words about the traditions Talosi warriors had. Albrihn had never been aloof. He was a fighter. He was used to sharing his soldier’s hardships. Now, it would all be different.

“Get some sleep,” Hadrin told him.

“Good idea. First light.”

“That’s when it begins.”

He looked back over the fens. “No. It only begins when we’re through that. Rykall’s gnarls are nothing compared to what Saffrey will throw against us. He’s ruthless.”

“That’s why we fight him.”

He began to clamber down the side of the dyke. “No, we fight him because those are our orders.”

*

Morrow pulled her cloak around her shoulders as the small fire crackled before her. She picked listlessly at the thick, tasteless stew in her tin bowl. “Fuck this rain,” she said.

“It’s not rain,” Hasprit said from the other side, “it’s mist.”

“I’m the fucking captain. I say it’s rain.”

“Right you are, sir,” Hasprit grinned, throwing a mock salute.

Gena laughed and pulled apart some hardtack. “I’m never going to get used to this.”

You’re not going to get used to it?” Morrow shook her head. “How do I fill the cap…I mean the commander’s boots?”

“You don’t have to fill anything,” Hasprit told her, “you just have to not get us killed.”

“Fucking hell. That’s even worse.”

“You also need to pick a lieutenant,” he said. “Any ideas?” He waggled his eyebrows at her, which didn’t make his scarred face look any more handsome.

“I don’t need to pick anything. How many of us are even left now? Twenty?”

Gena nodded sadly. “Twenty-one.”

“And that includes me. Two squadrons. Why do I need a lieutenant to help me co-ordinate that?” She spooned some stew into her mouth, grimaced and then put the bowl down.

“We’ll recruit when this is done,” said Hasprit, “the Seventh will be great again.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“Of cheer up, for fuck’s sake,” Gena said, throwing a lump of biscuit at her, “you just got promoted!”

“I didn’t ask to be promoted! Do I look like a bloody captain to you?”

Hasprit frowned. “What does a captain look like?”

“Like that.” She pointed over towards the low rise of the dyke on the horizon, just a dark shape against the cloudy night sky. Two figures were dimly visible in silhouette on the top, just making their way back down. “Hobnobbing with his fellow commanders. That’s a leader.”

“So a captain looks like a commander? That makes no sense, Morrow.”

“You know what I mean,” she said. “Rayke was always different from the rest of us. Would he have sat around the fire with us like this?”

“He sat around the fire plenty of times,” Gena said.

“Right, but not like this. He wasn’t one of us. I mean he was. Of course he was. He still is. But…you know what I mean…” she trailed off.

Hasprit was just filling his pipe, but he met her eyes across the fire. “I know what you mean. He was born to it. Some are just that way, and some of us have to learn it. No shame in not being ready for command. Some of the best commanders I ever served under reacted just the same as you when they got their captain’s stripes.”

“Maybe so.” She huddled under her cloak again and stared into the dancing flames. When was the last time she was warm? This fucking winter. Even if she hadn’t seen all that ice up in Svartburg, she’d have known things were going wrong with the world. And now they were off to fight some bloody lord and they’d all probably end up dead in a ditch somewhere, or maybe inside some stinking dungeon in Chronus. But fighting was all she’d ever been good at, and she was a militiawoman. She’d fight, and she’d fight who she was told to. She wasn’t good at making the important decisions, asking the right questions, taking all the factors into account. Just point at an enemy and tell her to shoot: that was how she’d always done it. She didn’t want to be the one deciding who to point at.

“What was he like when he got promoted?” Gena asked.

“Hm?” Hasprit looked up from his pipe.

“The captain. Commander. Fuck, you know what I mean.”

“Rayke?” Hasprit seemed to give the question some thought. He pursed his lips. He used to be handsome, Morrow remembered, until he got half his face melted off by a wyrm in the mainlands. Now he wore a patch over one eye and shaved his head bald so the scarred parts didn’t look so strange. They all had their share of scar tissue, but none quite as gruesome as that. He’d never seemed to mind though. “Well, like I said, he was born to it I reckon.”

“You knew him at the Academy, right?”

“Yeah, I knew him. Fine strapping young lad he was. Good with a sword even then. Made his instructor look a fool in the practice yard his first week. They beat that insolence out of him though.” He chuckled softly.

“I can’t imagine Rayke insolent,” Morrow said with a small smile of her own.

“He was never a troublemaker. He just knew his own mind. He never hesitated once he’d made a decision. You need that in a leader, sometimes. Sure of himself, you know?”

“Not like me,” Morrow sighed, “I’m not sure of anything anymore.”

“You’ll get there.”

“How’d he get like that, I wonder.” Gena was chewing thoughtfully on her hardtack again.

“Like what?” Morrow asked.

“You know – all…leaderish…”

“Just lucky I guess,” Hasprit said with a shrug. He’d finally gotten his pipe lit and now he puffed on it contentedly, filling the close air with sweet-smelling smoke.

“You know his folks?”

He took the pipe out of his mouth and blew out another cloud of smoke. “Not personally. But he talked about them often enough. Nice family by all accounts.”

“He has sisters right?”

“Three.” He held up fingers. “All older. All settled down with families and such, I think. He’s a bit of a black sheep.”

“Not military?” Morrow was surprised. She’d known Albrihn for years, and she considered him closer than a brother, but she realised she knew hardly anything about his past. It wasn’t something he talked about, at least not with her. He didn’t share old stories around the campfires like this, even in the mainlands. He was different. Aloof. That was the word.

“Nope. Father was a tanner. Mother was a hand on a trawler I think. He said he joined the militia to get away from the smell of shit and fish.” He laughed again, but it turned into a cough as the smoke caught in his throat and he beat his chest to clear it.

“I always thought he was a noble,” Gena said, “I mean, at first.”

“Aye, he has the look all right,” Hasprit agreed, “there’s some high blood in him, I’ve no doubt. Not sure how far back it is, but for whatever reason he got a good dose of it. You don’t fuck a princess and get promoted to commander like it was nothing without good reason.” He looked across at the dyke. The shapes of Albrihn and whoever he’d been talking to were gone now, but there was still something symbolic in the way he gazed in that direction. “He’s different all right. Don’t ask me how or why, but he is.”

“Yeah.” Morrow picked up her wineskin and took a swallow. It felt warm on the way down, and that was what she needed. “Well, I’m not so fucking lucky. I’m just like you cunts, and the bad news is you’ve got to follow me to certain death.”

“Are you all right, Morrow?” Gena asked her.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re miserable, captain,” Hasprit said. He was gripping the stem of his pipe in his teeth as he uncorked his own wine.

“I’m allowed to be fucking miserable.”

Gena frowned. “Not when we’re going into battle. You’re normally excited.”

“Well now I have you lot to worry about, don’t I? You get killed, it’s all my bloody fault now.”

“But if we win, you get all the glory,” she pointed out.

“Fat lot of good that’ll do me.” She took another draught of wine. It wasn’t bad. Better than the mainlands shit she’d become used to anyway.

“There’s always the money,” Hasprit said, “that’s got to be worth something to you.”

“I’ll just piss it away on whores and wine. You know me.”

“Captain’s salary you could buy your own place, move out of the barracks. Settle down.”

“Who the fuck wants to settle down?” She shook her head. “Bollocks to that. You’ll bury me with a bow in my hand and my legs wrapped around a saddle. Or maybe a girl. Whichever, really.”

Gena laughed. “There’s more to life than whores, Morrow.”

“Not in my experience.” More wine. It was heady stuff, but she didn’t care. Getting insensible the day before a long march was just the thing for her current mood.

Hasprit sipped from his skin and looked at her with his one good eye. “What about that city guard of yours?”

“What city guard?” Morrow didn’t meet his eye, just affected nonchalance.

“You know. The captain. What was her name?”

“Tayne,” Gena said.

Hasprit snapped his fingers. “That’s it. She seemed pretty taken with you if I remember. And now you’re both captains. She was a fine-looking girl, that one.”

“Yeah. She’s pretty.” Morrow shifted on her bedroll, still not looking at either of her companions. “But there’s lots of pretty girls out there. And you know me.”

“Aye, we know you,” Hasprit said quietly, “and you don’t have to prove yourself now. You’re the captain. We’ll follow you to the end, just like we did Albrihn.”

“There isn’t going to be an end. Not for the Lucky Seventh.” She tipped up her winskin and swallowed the last of its contents, then tossed it aside. “Right, I’m going to sleep. That cunt of a former-captain of ours is going to make us march through a bloody bog at first light I’ll bet, so everyone leave me alone. That’s an order.” She stood up a little unsteadily and grabbed her bedroll before tottering off into the darkness to find somewhere where she could stop thinking about a future she wasn’t even sure she wanted.

 

 

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