Albrihn could hear shouts from all around. Two-thousand soldiers, panicked and trying to organise themselves for battle made a considerable noise, though the fog again seemed to alternately deaden and amplify the sound so that he caught snatches of conversation – invariably furious swearing. Peppered in amongst those ghostly voices were the sounds of weapons being drawn and bows strung. Twangs, scrapes and clangs; the symphony of a camp in tumult before the madness of battle descended. It was impossible to mount a defence of this place and he knew it. He had his own sword in his hand and Morrow was scanning the shifting mist, trying to find a target for her arrow. The shadows that advanced on them failed to present one though, and he could see the frustration on her face. Rykall too was itching to fight. His grotesquely huge sword was held before him and he was turning on the balls of his feet as if a strike would come from within reach of Reaper’s blade. It was futile. Even if they could see the foe coming, they’d be annihilated. The forest was composed of bare, twisted trees, providing only the barest cover. The soldiers were tired and disoriented, most half-dressed, some still scrabbling for weapons. Unconsciously Albrihn began to imagine how he’d repel an assault in ideal circumstances. He could picture where he’d position pike blocks, how he’d set up lines of archers behind them, where he might launch a counter-attack with heavy cavalry. But there was no way to coordinate that, even if he could lay his hands on some of the messengers. All they’d be able to do was fight. He had no fear his troops would disappoint him on that score, but the chances of victory, or even just escape, in this situation were slim.
“You,” he called out, gesturing to the nearest knot of soldiers, a random assortment of archers, pikemen and cavalry who didn’t dare make a run for their horses, tied up in the middle of the camp. Not much to work with, but they looked like veterans of a good few battles. “Form up in loose order – pikes at the front, hold them low. Archers to the rear. Volley on my captain’s command.” He exchanged a nod with Morrow, who rushed over to them and began barking orders. “You lot with the bow legs, you hold the centre. Any of you carrying bows? Get with the archers.” A youngish girl with only a knife in one trembling hand met his gaze with eyes like saucers. He cocked his head at her. “You’re no solider…”
“Messenger, sir,” she squeaked.
“What are you doing here with these cutthroats?”
Her eyes wandered to one of the soldiers, a broad-shouldered lad with a handsome face and a roughish glint in his eye. He shrugged apologetically and hoisted his pike. “Sorry, sir,” she said.
“Don’t apologise – though you might wish you’d gotten more rest before this day’s through.” He gestured along the edge of the forest with his sword. “I want you to find the next group like this one and talk to the most senior man or woman you can find. Tell them to organise everyone around them. You find anyone on their own, you tell them their commander said to go with you and have them reinforce the next unit you come across. Any other messengers, you tell them to do just the same and send them in another direction.”
Her eyes were still wide, but she nodded. “What if…what if there’s some…you know…” She glanced out at the gathering shapes in the fog.
“If you’re attacked, you run. Head towards the centre of the forest where the horses are tethered. Anyone else running, you lead them in that direction too.”
“But I can’t see more than a few strides in front of me, sir,” she protested, “how will I know which way the middle is?”
“Listen for the sound of fighting,” Rykall said, “and head in the opposite direction.”
Albrihn placed a hand on her shoulder. He could feel her shaking. “Do what I told you, and we’ll all have the best chance of getting out of here in one piece. Understand?”
She gave another nod. “Yes, sir.” She turned on her heel and dashed off towards the trees. It wasn’t much of a plan, but without being able to even see the rest of the army, all they could do was look after those around them, and hope enough of them survived.
“She’s going to die, Albrihn,” Rykall said to him as he turned back.
“We’re all going to die eventually, commander.”
“Do you know what the gnarls do to those they capture?”
He leaned close. “It isn’t a good death.”
“There are no good deaths.” Albrihn walked back to his loose group of soldiers. There were a couple of dozen at most, but a few more stragglers from nearby were joining them, naturally gravitating to any sign of order in all this chaos. Morrow was doing a fine job organising them, following the vague strategy he’d devised by putting anyone with a pike or spear at the front to present a defensive line of sharp steel and making sure everyone with a bow knew how to fire a coordinated volley. The various misfits with their swords, axes and other weapons of choice designed for fighting one-on-one rather than in a unit, she had cannily sent to the flanks of the formation to protect the archers and mount a counter-assault if the opportunity arose. She’d make a fine captain, if anyone saw out the day.
“Where do we go?” Rykall asked.
“You’ve been a commander longer than I have…”
“A cavalry commander.”
“You’re with me then.” He eyed Reaper. “I’d say you can do some damage with that.”
“More than that fucking knitting needle of yours.”
“We’ll see.” Albrihn took up position on the flank, near a small group of scarred soldiers who looked like they were from the same company. They were irregulars, with no uniforms and an air of grizzled self-sufficiency. Their leader seemed to be a broad woman with a shaved head. She had sergeants’ pips tattooed under one ear in lieu of any marking on her boiled leather jerkin. She threw a rough salute in his direction. “Jerl,” she said, “Fifth Light Infantry, Fourth Regiment.”
“You know how to use that axe in your belt?” Rykall asked.
She glanced down at the mattock thrust through a loop of corded leather and favoured him with a near-toothless grin. “I can split a man’s skull from twenty strides.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You throw that thing?”
“Something like that,” she smirked.
“Anything the pikes or the archers don’t take down, you take them to pieces, Jerl,” Albrihn told her. “No foolish risks though. You stay with the unit, understand?”
“As you say, sir,” she replied with another sloppy salute.
“Commander,” Morrow called over, “we’re as ready as we’re like to get.”
“Hold your fire, militia,” Albrihn said, his voice carrying across the group, “no one breaks formation, no one looses an arrow until they come at us. We’re in no position to waste ammunition or let ourselves be rolled up by these…whatever they are.”
The shadows showed no sign of getting any closer, they just shifted back and forth. Undoubtedly they were out there, but there was no advance, no war cry, no arrows flying at them. For a moment everything was eerily quiet.
“What’s happening?” Morrow asked. She’d come to the end of line nearest Albrihn, Rykall and Jerl’s light infantry.
“They’ll come,” Rykall said. “You can bet your undisciplined arses on that.”
Morrow laughed. “No one ever called my arse undisciplined. It does exactly what I want.” That brought some rueful laughter from the nearby soldiers. In fact, they looked much more at ease now they’d been hammered into something like fighting shape. Even Rykall, invariably sour and insubordinate since they’d left Atlas, seemed to be more inclined to camaraderie. Such was the nature of near-certain death, he supposed.
“They say the waiting’s the worst part,” Morrow said, shifting a little as she let her bow relax, “but it’s the bit where they try and punch holes in your organs that I hate.”
Albrihn smiled. “You always say that.”
“Because it’s always true.”
And still they waited. The air was close and sticky, the first time he’d felt warm out of doors since he’d come back to Atlantis. He could feel the sweat trickling down his back and eased his palms on the hilt of his sword. Then, from somewhere to their right, further along the shore of the swamp, came an unearthly whooping noise, an animal cry, but with an undertone that was unmistakably human. There were shouts in reply and then the sound of furious splashing. Arrows being fired. Curses. The clash of steel, and then screams.
“They’re under attack!” Rykall shouted.
“Hold position,” Albrihn said, “we have our own foes to deal with.”
“We can’t just leave them to be slaughtered!”
“If we turn our backs on the ones out there, we’re the ones who’ll be slaughtered.”
From the opposite direction came more sounds of violence and then a gurgling scream from a throat at once human and at once horribly not. They could hear arrows hitting home, splashing, bellows and shouts. A desperate fight in the mist that ended abruptly. It was impossible to know which side was the victor. Would some of these gnarls come padding towards them, now with a taste for human blood?
“They’re testing us,” Rykall said.
“Is that their way?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted, “no one does really. It’s all stories.”
“Stories that are coming to life before our eyes.”
“I just want to see what we’re fighting,” Morrow said, “what are these bastards?”
“Nothing I can’t put my axe in,” Jerl told her with a shrug.
“Ah, a woman after my own heart.”
There was some commotion from behind them, and Albrihn turned, fearing the worst, but out of the fog came not their enemy but the upright form of Commander Hadrin, the messenger girl trailing behind her. She’d managed to strap on most of her armour, and her sword was sheathed in its scabbard, but her hand rested on her pommel. “Albrihn – thank the fates.”
“Commander,” he said, letting his sword drop, “what’s happening?”
“This messenger found me on the other side of this foul little island, doing much the same as you are.” Her gaze roamed across the mixed formation of soldiers and she gave an almost imperceptible nod of approval at what she saw. “From what she tells me, most of the army seem to have formed up in more or less good order. That sergeant of yours with the one eye is bellowing orders at everyone within earshot, from corporals to captains.”
“Yeah, sounds about right,” Morrow said.
“Have you seen any fighting yet?”
“Only heard. Haven’t seen anyone fleeing though. My guess is they’re just feeling us out, trying to get an idea of our numbers.”
“I could use you elsewhere in the line,” Albrihn said. “If I fall, command will fall to you.” Rykall didn’t say anything to that, but Albrihn could feel him bristling beside him.
“Let’s no start planning funerals just yet.” She looked out at the shifting fog banks at the edge of the bog, considering. The mysterious stooped shadows still flitted here and there, but no more sounds of battle rose from around them. “Do you want my honest opinion?”
“Lay down arms.”
Rykall barked a laugh. “Surrender?”
“Parley,” she corrected. “Even with good soldiers – and you’ve two-thousand of the best – this miserable chunk of dirt can’t be held against a surrounding force.”
“If we stick together…”
“You can hold these men and women in place, I’ve no doubt,” she said, gesturing around her, “but somewhere there’s a group without two commanders to anchor them, without veterans amongst them, who’ll break when they first see blood, through no fault of their own. That’s war. You know that. And when they break, the enemy will see where we’re weak and concentrate their attacks there. They’ll break through the lines, kill the horses, fire our supplies and come at us from all directions. They have the terrain, commander, they have the position, they may well have numbers and ferocity for all we know. This is not a battle that can be won.”
“They’ve already shed Atlantian blood,” Rykall growled. He had a firm grip on Reaper’s hilt. “They killed our soldiers on watch, they’ve attacked us twice that we’ve heard. No one slaughters militia on our own soil without repercussions.”
“Is this our soil or theirs?” she asked him mildly.
Albrihn was conflicted. He looked out into the mist, trying to discern some definite sign that an attack was coming. Like Morrow, he disliked this limbo, this sense of pregnant peril that he couldn’t control. An enemy charging at him was straightforward: you killed him or he killed you, and every decision was subsumed into a simple question of survival. But he was a commander now, by his Empress’s order, which he had sworn an oath to obey. He had to think further than his own hide, or even the hides of those who he counted friends and comrades. “She’s right, Rykall,” he said.
“You’re not serious? You’ve been too long abroad, Albrihn. This is Atlantis. We don’t stand for this. I don’t stand for this.”
“We’re the trespassers here,” he said. “Parley is our only hope.”
“Parley with who? Shadows in the fog?”
“I don’t know.” He began to walk forward. The soldiers hesitated, unsure of what to do. “Stay where you are,” he ordered them. There were only twenty strides or so from their position to the edge of the marshes, and the ground in between was a mixture of mud, moss and twisted tree roots. Grey stumps poked from the earth here and there. He got halfway across it before he realised Rykall, Hadrin and Morrow were at his side. He didn’t object, just carried on his way until the reassuring cluster of soldiers behind him began to fade from view, and then they were in a blank grey sea of nothingness. When they were still some way short of the swamp proper, there was a splashing noise ahead and they all drew up, waiting for whatever would greet them. A shape loomed, more tall and slender than Albrihn had been expecting and, a moment later, a man stumbled towards them. He was soaked through, shivering in his waterlogged clothes and caked in mud. He looked ashen and frightened. He dropped to his knees before them and grovelled on the floor.
“Get up, soldier,” Rykall said.
To his credit, he tried to do as he was told, but Albrihn dropped into a crouch beside him and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Peace, friend,” he said quietly. “What happened?”
The man was young, with a little scrub of beard and shaggy hair that almost fell over his eyes. He was lighter-skinned than most Atlasians, a common soldier, and the uniform just visible beneath the muck was the coarse cloth of a private. He was most likely an ordinary infantryman, probably one of the men who’d been on watch in the night. “They…they want to…to talk to you…”
“They asked us…they asked us who spoke for us…”
“That would be you I suppose, Albrihn,” Hadrin said.
“Did they hurt you?” Rykall asked him.
“Only…only with the cold…the cold and the wet.” He wrapped his arms around himself and bowed his head.
“What are they?” Morrow wondered aloud.
The soldier looked up at her. His eyes were wide and the whites visible all around the irises, stark against his filthy skin. “Not like us,” he whispered.
Albrihn squeezed his shoulder, trying to be as reassuring as he could. “But they want to negotiate?”
“They want to…to talk. That’s all they…that’s all they said.”
Rykall snorted. “Did they say we could bring weapons?”
“They just said…they wanted to talk to our speaker. That’s all. For hours. That’s all they said.”
Albrihn helped the freezing man to his feet. He pointed back the way they’d come. “There are friends just a little further back towards the woods. Tell them we’re going to talk with these gnarls, then find a fire and some food.”
The man nodded gratefully, and then staggered off into the mist, still clutching himself tightly with both arms. Albrihn turned back, looking out into the void ahead. “You sure you all want to come?”
“I don’t want to at all,” Morrow said, “but if I don’t come with you, you’ll get your head cut off or something daft like that.”
He smiled slightly and they continued on their way. A short way further out was a little knob of solid earth, surrounded on three sides by watery bog. Reeds and pondweed clustered around the shore, and the surface of the water was scummed with green algae. They could see the shadows more clearly now, bent things paddling through the marshland, hissing and growling faintly. Snatches of sound still floated through the air, but this time Albrihn could make no sense of them – the language was an unfamiliar babble of snarls and breathy sibilants, interspersed with bubbling noises and occasionally even a low, rumbling croak. He walked to the very edge of the water and held out his sword. “I speak for these people,” he said loudly.
“Speaker,” came a barely intelligible voice from nowhere. It stretched the word out and seemed to salivate over every extended syllable.
“Yes. I’m their speaker.”
“Good.” There was a shift in the grey miasma before him, and something came through the water, moving soundlessly. He stepped backwards. The four Atlantians watched the thing approach. It left a wake of disturbed algae behind it, then clambered awkwardly onto the shore. Albrihn recoiled instinctively from the repulsive creature. It was roughly human in form, except that its back was curved over to such an extent that its knuckles nearly brushed the ground. It had short, bowed legs and its fingers and toes were both webbed. It wore only a loincloth of woven reeds, but that was evidently all it needed for its skin was warty and pebbled so it seemed to be covered in a greyish-green hide which was slick with bog water. Just visible beneath this gnarled covering was pallid, unhealthy-looking flesh. It was its head that was most disturbing though. It was round and hairless, with bulging eyes and a nose sunken into a kind of broad snout. When it opened its wide mouth it revealed two rows of needle-like teeth and a long, black tongue. But in its gaze was an unmistakable human intellect, and it looked at them with curiosity as it tilted its great ugly head. It was not even as tall as Morrow, but its limbs had a wiry strength and its loincloth held a collection of tools or weapons, made of chipped flint and obsidian that looked sharp and well-used. Albrihn thought this creature would make a formidable adversary in the right circumstances.
“My name is Commander Albrihn,” he said slowly, “I’m a member of the Atlantian militia. We did not come here to harm your people.”
The thing looked around. It scratched almost compulsively at a cluster of warts above one of its ears and blinked slowly. “Brownfolk here,” it said. Its lips didn’t seem to fit the words it was saying, and they came out slurred.
“Brownfolk?” Rykall asked.
“Brownfolk,” it said, pointing at them with one webbed digit. It then placed its hand against its own sunken chest. “Greenfolk.”
“Greenfolk,” Albrihn nodded. “We don’t mean any harm to the greenfolk.”
“No harm.” The creature seemed to give that some thought. “Many warriors with swords for no harm.”
“We’re passing through, to fight enemies beyond your lands. We don’t intend to stay here for longer than we have to. We violated your borders, but it wasn’t our intent to alarm you.”
The gnarl frowned and scratched at its head again. “Many words. Speaker indeed.” It looked over its shoulder. “Come. Speaker.”
It waved one of its hands. “No. Greenfolk Speaker.” Something about the way it said that, even through its mangled diction, imbued the latter word with the authority of a title.
“Your leader?” Hadrin guessed.
“Speaker talk brownfolk. Speaker hear your words and decide.”
“Then send him to meet us and stop wasting our time,” Rykall said. “This grows tiresome. How can we negotiate with something that looks like it was spawned by a toad?”
“Not toad,” the gnarl said, its lumpen face clouding over, “greenfolk.”
“We’ll talk with your Speaker,” Albrihn said.
“Then come.” It beckoned them towards the water.
“You can’t go with them,” Morrow said, “did you see what they did to that poor lad?”
“I won’t go alone,” Albrihn told the gnarl.
The creature paused. It held up two fingers, and Albrihn noted the pale skin splayed between its knuckles. For all its grotesque appearance, that skin was as human as his. This was no amphibian that had learned to talk like a human – once, he suspected, the greenfolk had been just like them. “You and one other. No weapons. Choose.”
Morrow took a step forward, but Albrihn held up a hand to stop her. He turned to the other commanders. “Rykall.”
“You’re coming with me.”
He started. “Me? Why?”
“Because you’re least likely to agree with whatever I say to this Speaker of theirs. Why bring along someone who won’t offer a dissenting opinion?”
Rykall grunted. “That makes sense I suppose…”
He met Hadrin’s eyes over his shoulder and she gave him a small nod of approval. They both knew the real reason he’d chosen to take Rykall over her or Morrow. The reason he wanted him close by his side, not in the camp in his own, spreading discontent amongst already frightened and demoralised troops.
The gnarl had slunk off back to the water’s edge and beckoned for them to follow again. Albrihn stopped. “We can’t cross the fens,” he explained.
Their host sighed almost theatrically. Strange as it was, the more he observed it, the more human it seemed. “Get boat,” it said as it entered the water, “wait here.”