‘First light’ quickly became a misnomer once the army entered the fenland proper. The mist that had settled the previous evening still clung low to the ground and it was worse where the land was already saturated with water. The air surrounding them was greyish-white, with only the thin, twisted shapes of stunted trees to break the monotony. The trail was rough going. In was barely a trail at all in fact, just a winding route of relative safety that the scouts had managed to find. They’d only travelled a mile inside the marshes though, so after that their pace would slow even further as they tried to find a path to the other side, and Chronus. Albrihn had ordered all the troops to dismount, so a great long line of soldiers, no more than five abreast at any point, trudged along morosely in the grey nothingness, leading their horses along. The air was clammy, and droplets of water settled on clothes, skin and hair so that, without even realising, they all gradually became soaked through. The sunlight peeked through the mist wanly, but it was as if they marched through some strange otherworld from which all topography had been stripped. There was nothing to hold the attention, and the unrest along the column soon became palpable.
Albrihn walked near the centre of the army, alongside the Seventh who had nominated themselves unofficial honour guard for the commander, since he now stood outside the normal command structure and lacked his own regimental staff. In many ways it was much like before, except now Albrihn’s eyes roved around constantly, and he was aware that two-thousand lives were in his hands. He felt like he couldn’t drop his guard, even for a moment. Periodically messengers would make their way up or down the line, reporting to him on the findings of the scouts – the only troops still mounted – or the state of the rearguard. He received their missives with politeness, but there was really very little he could say or do to alter their situation. They just had to keep walking. The trail was far from direct, and privately he wondered whether the original estimate of the time it would take to traverse the fens was wildly optimistic.
Morrow’s mood matched his own, and the normal bellicose captain seemed to have settled into a sullen silence. She walked beside him, occasionally peering out into the swirling fog, seemingly looking for something. She had her bow in her hand, though unstrung because of the moisture in the air. “No bloody game,” she said, and her voice actually made him start. They’d been walking in silence for so long – not just he and Morrow, but all the soldiers within earshot – that hearing someone speak was a shock. Sound travelled strangely here too, sounding muffled one moment and then booming across the flat, boggy country the next.
“By my reckoning,” she went on, “it’s lunchtime.”
Albrihn looked up at the sky. He couldn’t even see where the sun was – the light might as well have been coming from all around them. “How can you tell?”
She patted her stomach and gave him a small smile. “I can tell, commander.”
He returned her smile, but shook his head. “I don’t think you’ll catch anything here, Morrow. In fact, I’m not sure there’s anything to catch.”
“There must be. Birds, rabbits…even a fucking newt, you know?”
“You don’t want to eat a newt,” Hasprit said from behind them.
“Why not? I’ve eaten frogs.”
“Not wild frogs. You can’t just go picking things up out of bogs and eating them. I knew a lieutenant, handsome young fella, who ate a newt he found in Hades once. Cooked it up all nice over the fire; looked fine, smelt fine, no problem. But afterwards, he didn’t feel right. Sick for days.”
“That’s not so bad. I’m hungry enough for fresh meat to risk it…”
“Ah, let me finish. Sick for days he was, then he started to feel better, and then when he next took a shit, all his guts fell right out of his arsehole.” He moved his hand downwards, as if they didn’t already have a vivid image of that unfortunate officer in their heads.
“Did he die?” Corporal Windhael asked from further back in the group.
Hasprit turned to him. “Did he die? Of course he fucking died. He damn near got turned inside out. Right fucking state it was. And guess which poor bugger had to clean it up.” He shook his head ruefully.
“Newts don’t get far,” Windhael mused.
Morrow frowned. “So what?”
“Well, they all live in lakes and ponds, right?”
“Sort of isolated. So what are the chances of a newt that makes you shit out your intestines in Hades living all the way down here in Atlas too?”
“Maybe it’s all newts,” Hasprit suggested.
“If it’s all newts,” Morrow said, “we’d have heard before. People would tell their children not to go near newts because they’ll explode your arsehole. We’d dip our arrows in newt slime and have a couple ready to squeeze into someone’s eyes at all times. Despots’d use newts as the most dreaded torture imaginable. Newts, in short, would be fucking famous.”
“S’a fair point,” Hasprit said. “You going to catch one for your lunch then?”
Morrow seemed to think about it. “Nah. I’m not hungry now anyway. Someone told me a horrible story about a lad who crapped his insides everywhere and now I don’t much feel like eating.”
“You’re welcome,” Hasprit beamed.
Albrihn had to smile. He’d campaigned with these men and women for years. In the mainlands, they’d travelled through places much worse than this. Through blizzards and sweltering jungles, across scorching deserts and beneath brooding canopies inhabited by screeching birds with beaks sharp enough to rip through a man’s throat. And all the time, they’d never let the hardships get in the way of the camaraderie they’d brought with them from Atlantis. It was what separated them from the grim folk they’d dealt with. Mainlanders were miserable, as a rule, living in squalor and enjoying none of the comforts Atlantians took for granted. They were backward, superstitious savages and, despite the danger, the whole thing had seemed like a grand adventure. For some reason it was different now they were home though. Perhaps because, for three years, they’d all been dreaming about coming back to a world that made sense – to a place of civilisation and order – and instead all they’d found since returning was chaos and death. It wasn’t an adventure now: it was real. Still, Morrow and Hasprit’s sparring had been part of the background noise of his life for a long time now and it cheered him to hear it again.
His good mood wouldn’t last. As the afternoon wore on and the pale sunlight began to fade, there was a commotion up ahead in the column. Shouts and cries went up and before he knew what was happening he saw someone shouldering through the ranks, carrying something big and heavy. At first he couldn’t tell who it was – they were only visible as a blurred shadow through the mist – but then the broad shoulders and heavy chest resolved themselves and he was looking into the thunderous face of Commander Rykall bearing down on him. He carried a shield, not strapped to his arm, but instead held in both hands, presented like a platter. Albrihn held up a hand to bring the column behind him to a halt, and slowly the order rippled back along the lines. Rykall strode towards him, leaving boot prints in the muddy ground. He looked filthy, but then they probably all did. Wordlessly, he flung the shield to the ground at Albrihn’s feet and then stood there, staring at him furiously.
Albrihn looked down. It was an ordinary enough shield – metal and painted with the colours of the Third Regiment. Like everything else in the swamp it was splashed with mud. “What is this?” he asked calmly.
“It belonged to one of my sergeants. Jerrick.”
“He’s dead,” Rykall spat, “drowned.”
Rykall’s jaw worked back and forth. He looked ready to explode. “He fell of his fucking horse, Albrihn. The damn beast slipped and he pitched right over the saddle. Sank like a stone in one of these bogs.”
Albrihn narrowed his eyes. “What was he doing on his horse?”
“What difference does it make?”
“I gave orders for everyone except the scouts to proceed on foot. This terrain is too treacherous for mounted soldiers.”
“It makes no difference now,” Rykall said, “he’s dead. The first to die in this forsaken place. But he won’t be the last, mark my words.”
They stared at one another for a long moment. “What do you suggest we do?” Albrihn asked in a low voice. “Turn back? Lose another day?”
“I told you from the start it was madness to enter these fens.”
“And you were overruled.” He was very aware of the soldiers standing close by – not just the Seventh, but others as well who’d know him only by reputation. “This is no place or time to be questioning my orders.”
“Your orders,” Rykall snorted, “who are you to command me? I’m the more experienced commander. You’re nothing but a jumped-up cavalry captain who’s riding the Empress’s cunt to power.”
Albrihn’s hand was on his sword and he pulled it an inch or so from its scabbard. He squared up to the larger man. “Do you really want to do this again?”
Rykall reached over his shoulder and fingered the broad hilt of Reaper. His smile was venomous. “You wouldn’t last a minute.”
“You wouldn’t last a second,” Morrow said. Albrihn turned to see that she’d strung her bow and was aiming an arrow directly at Rykall’s heart. At this range it would smash right through his mail.
“Enough!” Commander Hadrin came storming through the mists now. Rykall let go of his sword and took a step backwards. “Who is in command here?” she demanded, stopping so she stood between the two of them.
“I am,” Albrihn said.
He jerked his head towards Albrihn. “Him.”
“And do you threaten your commanding officer? Is this how things are done in the Third Regiment?”
“So you don’t squabble like mainlanders? You don’t advance by killing your superior?”
“Of course not.”
“Then what do you hope to achieve by starting this nonsense again, hm? Will you kill Commander Albrihn and take command? How long do you calculate this army will stay loyal to a man like that?”
“I don’t give a fuck about command,” he roared. “I care about my sergeant! Jerrick is dead!”
“He was a soldier,” Hadrin reminded him, “and like it or not, many more here will die before any of us see home again. That’s the way of it.”
“They die, but not face-down at the bottom of a bog.”
“He knew the risks. Nothing except his loyalty to Atlantis brought him on this march.”
“He’ll kill us all,” Rykall said, pointing at Albrihn. “He’s not fit to lead.”
“If every soldier here was allowed to chose who commands, we’d have two-thousand generals. Respect the chain of command. Obey your orders. And next time you draw your sword on your superior, you’ll have me and mine to contend with too, understand? Now get back in the vanguard where you insisted you be.”
Rykall’s jaw tensed again and he looked about to say something, but instead just turned on his heel and stalked back the way he’d come. Albrihn turned to Hadrin. “Thanks, I think he…”
“With me,” she interrupted, beckoning him off to the side of the trail. “And tell this column to start moving again.”
He nodded and gestured for them to resume, before following after Hadrin, who had taken up position on a grassy hump surrounded by shivering reeds. The ground was moist underfoot, but it seemed stable enough. The soldiers marched by, and the mist mostly hid them from view. “What are you doing, Rayke?”
“What do you mean?”
“This isn’t the mainlands. This isn’t some jaunt up to Talos. You’re not here to be a hero, drawing your sword every time someone insults you.”
“He didn’t insult me…”
“Or Vion. Or your unit. Or whatever. Command doesn’t go to the best fighter; it goes to the warrior with the most level head. It goes to someone who can keep their wits about them when the arrows are flying and all the men and women they’re responsible for are bleeding in the mud.”
“I know that…”
“So put it into practice. Don’t rise to him.”
“He lost one of his men. I’d be angry too.”
“There are two-thousand soldiers in this army, commander. Are you going to start a fight over every single one that dies? Because like I told Rykall, some of them will.”
“I’ve lost people before.”
“And as captain, it’s your job to get angry. To get even. As a commander, you have to be above that.”
“How can I command effectively if I don’t care about my own troops?”
Hadrin ran a hand across her scalp. “I’m not saying don’t care…just…just don’t let Rykall kill you.”
He smiled slightly. “I wasn’t planning to.”
“No one ever does, Rayke. But there’s betrayal in that man’s heart.”
“You think so?”
She nodded grimly. “Watch him.”
“I’ll make sure I do.”
“And don’t kill him either.”
“I’ll try not to…”
She nodded and then headed back to the path. Albrihn stood alone for a moment, wondering how he’d found himself in this situation and then followed her back to the column.
They got to the bottom of what had happened to Rykall’s man later that night when they made a rough camp in the midst of one of the few areas of forest in the fens. Here the ground was firmer where the roots held the soil together and there was even a little dry kindling, though not enough for everyone to sit close to a fire. Over a wineskin, Albrihn spoke with Hasprit about this Sergeant Jerrick. “According to one of the messengers who was up with the vanguard at the time,” he said, “this Jerrick got sight of a rabbit or something off the trail. Seems he had the same thought as Morrow.”
“Did he try to shoot it?”
Hasprit chuckled and took a sip of wine before handing it back to Albrihn. “Nah – he was heavy cavalry. He’d probably end up looking like me if he tried firing a bow.” He tapped a finger against his eye patch. “Stupid bugger went chasing after it, swinging his sword. Anyway, he finds himself waist-deep in water before long, so he scrambles back out onto dry land – if you can call it that – cursing every rabbit in the world. Well, he’s already wet, and his clothes are soaked through. What’s a knight to do? He says he’s tired of tramping around in wet boots and gets on his horse. Plus his mail’s waterlogged too, so he takes out his plate.”
“I told them not to bring any armour that heavy…”
“Yeah, well, maybe Rykall didn’t pass that order on. Damned if he’s going to ride through these swamps without any armour at all he says, so there he is, riding along in full plate atop his horse, like he’s on fucking parade.”
“Interesting that Rykall left that out,” Albrihn said.
“Ain’t it? Anyway, he’s got his helmet on and everything, visor down, so he can’t see where he’s going. He leads his horse a little off the trail, poor animal slips a hoof in the mud, and he goes arse over tit and into the bog. Everyone rushes in to try and drag him out, but the water’s deeper than it looks and no one can reach the bottom.”
“So he sinks and drowns?”
“Maybe,” Hasprit said, “although the messenger told me they tried shoving a flagpole down there for him to grab onto. Felt around the bottom and it was just muck and stones, probably a few eels. I expect the bastard hit his head and got knocked out by the fall. Either way, he’s dead now, at the bottom of a bog, along with a good suit of armour and a fine sword by all accounts. Bloody shame.”
Albrihn swirled the wineskin. It was dark now – an impenetrable blackness, for the fog never seemed to lift – and all he could see were the wavering flames of the handful of campfires dotted through the copse. They’d posted a strong watch, for Albrihn remained wary of what Rykall had told them about these so-called gnarls. Indeed, the only other thing he could see out in the darkness were faint lights somewhere out on the fen. He’d seen their like before, in the mainlands, and a man there had told them it was nothing to be afraid of – just gas from the marshes rising up and igniting with the air. Flickering candles in the night: nothing sinister. And yet they troubled him. They’d lost one soldier so far, seemingly to mere foolishness, but things could get more dangerous soon. He had no clear idea of how much further they had to go before they emerged on the other side and could prepare themselves for the real battle.
“Do you think we can win, sir?” Hasprit asked. Obviously he too had been considering what would happen in Chronus.
“We can always win, sergeant. You know that.”
“We couldn’t win in Talos. We gave it a damn good try, but they still got through in the end.”
“Five-hundred against the better part of ten-thousand is bad odds, even for us. Chronus will be different. We’ll catch Saffrey in Ixion and come at him from both sides. His numbers won’t matter then.”
“Seems sound enough,” Hasprit said. He took the wineskin as Albrihn offered it to him. “But are we not wasting our time with this? We’re fighting each other down here, but you and I have both seen what’s coming.”
“I know,” Albrihn admitted, “but here’s the thing: if we stand back and let Saffrey take the throne, what’s to stop some other lord or lady doing the same to him a year later? A war like this, it could spread across Atlantis if we don’t put down this rebellion now. Saffrey’s just the beginning.”
“You sure it ain’t about your lady?”
“I’m sure.” He took the wineskin back and drank the last swallow in the bottom.
“Word is she wants to marry you, commander.”
Albrihn gave him a flat look. “Word is? You mean Morrow was gossiping again?”
“Didn’t know it was a secret, sir. So when’s the big day?”
“I can’t marry her, Hasprit. You know that.”
“It’s ridiculous. I’m just an ordinary soldier.”
“Now, sir,” Hasprit chided, “you know that ain’t true.”
“They can put whatever title they want in front of my name, but I’m no different from the skinny boy who walked into the barracks off the streets of Atlas all those years ago. You remember, I’m sure.”
“Aye, I do. Very well.”
“There we go then. Nothing’s changed.”
“Course not, commander. Course not.” He winked, which looked rather odd from a man with one eye.
Albrihn straightened slowly. “Get some sleep anyway, sergeant – the youngsters are on guard duty. They know how badly you need to rest your old bones these days.”
“Beauty sleep, sir, beauty sleep,” he ran a finger down the scarred side of his face, “s’why I need so much of it, see?”
Albrihn laughed, but again found it hard to sustain his good mood as he lay on his pallet. The darkness closed in around him and the sounds of the camp settled down, and then he wondered where all this was leading, and how he expected to win Atlantis back for Vion. He’d never asked for any of this. He was just doing his duty. And yet, somehow that had led him here, from a young man with no better idea of what to do in the world than stick swords in things, to the chambers of a princess, to adventure and now this, the end of the world, the death of this land. In another age, his life might have been simple. But this was a new age: an age of wolves, winter and war. He eventually dozed off, and he dreamt of howling beasts and ice that stretched from horizon to horizon. And blood. He had a vision of a man lying at the bottom of a swamp, weighed down by a heavy suit of armour, blind in the murky depths and bleeding from a head wound. He tried to fight his way to the surface, but he couldn’t move. Was it the armour, the thick mud or his shattered skull preventing him from moving? And it was so cold; like being encased in ice. With that dim half-dreaming thought, a new reality asserted itself, and now that man – the faceless Jerrick, or was it himself? – was trapped in transparent ice, powerless to act as he watched the world collapse around him. Atlas was buried in snow that climbed its way up the hill, even over the walls of the Enclave, until only the highest tower peeked up above the alabaster covering. The great bay was frozen solid, so that even the ships that had been put out to sea at the last moment were as trapped as he was, like insects in amber. Those who braved the ice on foot were hunted down by packs of hyen-a-khan and roasted alive in sight of those still huddled on the boats. And above it all, in that lone tower of the palace, stood a forlorn figure, watching her world collapse. It was Vion, but then as his perspective shifted it became Jonis, despite the obvious physical differences between the two women. Finally, the ice crept up the walls, and consumed everything. A thunderous vibration began and cracks spread. All was blue glass and then it shattered into countless shards, the whole world exploding with a sound like the roaring wind and the scrams of lost souls. He knew that sound…where had he heard it before?
He was dragged from his nightmare by an insistent voice and small hands shaking him awake. “Wh…?”
With a shake of his head, he came to his senses. He’d been a soldier for many years, and had mastered the skill of shortcutting from drowsy confusion to battle-ready alertness long ago. He sat up and looked into the wide eyes of Morrow. “Captain? What is it?”
“I…I don’t know…”
It was morning, for all that difference that made in here, and the camp was in uproar. Men and women were reaching for weapons, pulling on armour, trying to calm horses. Albrihn scrambled up and grabbed his own sword. “What’s going on? Are we under attack?”
“I don’t know,” Morrow said again, “but there’s something out there. The soldiers on watch are reporting shadows in the fog.”
“Why haven’t they investigated?”
“The shadows are in the fens, commander. Off the trail.”
“Well, they might not mean any harm…”
“They’ve got us surrounded, and some of the guards are missing.”
“Not at their posts. Nowhere to be found.” Morrow already had an arrow nocked.
Albrihn drew his sword. “What are we fighting here?”
A figure swam through the mist, and it took only seconds for him to identify who it was this time. Now he was wearing his own plate armour and he carried Reaper in his hand – it was a truly monstrous blade. “Gnarls,” Rykall said grimly, “I told you this would happen.”
Albrihn stared around the camp. Through the chaos, he too could make out their attackers now; ghostly shapes moving just beyond the tree line, out in the swamp. Shapes that looked human, but not quite. “Form up!” he roared above the hubbub, “We’re under attack!”