By the afternoon of the following day, Albrihn began to notice a change in the surrounding terrain. The gnarls, for all their strangeness, proved true to their word. The leader whom they’d already dealt with was assigned to guide them, along with a number of his fellow warriors. He would scamper along beside Albrihn and the Seventh, occasionally disappearing off into the mists just like he had on the way to his settlement, but would always reappear a short time later. He never offered his name, and Albrihn assumed it would be unpronounceable to him anyway. Hasprit, with his usual lack of propriety, had started calling him Slimy, and it had caught on. If Slimy minded this less-than-flattering sobriquet, he didn’t let them know. The other gnarls were equally elusive, which was probably for the best. Some of the sentries they’d held captive were not too well-disposed to the idea of following them now, and there had been a small number of casualties from the probing attacks on their camp. Grudges were bound to flare up, but he’d sent orders to every captain in the army to impress upon the troops that, no matter what had happened the day before, their lives were now in the hands of their odd guides.
It was impossible to tell how the gnarls navigated. Attempts to interrogate Slimy on how they could find the trails through the swamps were met with only blank incomprehension. Evidently they knew the safest and quickest routes, and that was enough. The fog seemed to lift as they went on, and then the ground felt firmer. The gnarls started to become more skittish, disappearing for longer periods of time and, at last, as the muddy, unstable ground gave way to a wide green meadow, Slimy finally stopped in his tracks. The column filed past and Albrihn turned. “That way,” Slimy said, pointing with one webbed finger up the slight rise. “Keep on. Leave greenlands.” He stuck his tongue out, evidently revolted by the idea of doing something so foolish. Albrihn was revolted too – not by that, but by the black wriggling tongue that extruded from between Slimy’s rubbery lips. Was that one of the black eels from the strange lake of the Speaker and her cohort too? From what she’d said, her ability to speak Atlantian was connected with them somehow, but in what way he couldn’t begin to imagine.
“Thank you,” Albrihn told him, careful not to betray his unease. “We are in your debt.”
“Debt? Maybe, maybe.” He scratched at the warty growth above his ear again, considering.
“The brownfolk do not forget their debts. We will treat the greenfolk with honour from now on. You have my assurance.”
“Brownfolk words,” Slimy said dismissively, “dry. Crack easy. But greenfolk remember. We not forget debts either.” He did an odd sort of salute and then turned without a further word, slinking back into the fog.
“Nice fellow,” Hasprit remarked. He was pulling out his pipe. There was a general feeling of relief now that the mist that had been their constant companion for days seemed to be lifting.
“You should have seen his version of an empress…”
“Not a patch on ours, I’m sure.”
“Let’s just say she wasn’t my type.”
Hasprit chuckled with his pipe clenched between his teeth. He was pulling out his pouch and looking around. “Ground seems firm, sir.”
“I was thinking the same thing.” Albrihn tested the earth with his boot. It was still spongy, but no water seeped out through the turf. “Let’s get up this hill,” he said, “then we’ll think about mounting up again. We got through these fens faster than we had any right to thanks to Slimy and his friends, but we still need to make up time if we have any hope of catching Saffrey.”
“Right you are, commander.”
Albrihn nodded and strode ahead, overtaking the column which was now starting to spread out a little since they were no longer hemmed in by deadly bogs on each side. The land hereabouts was still flat, and he suspected this rise wasn’t natural. Indeed, as he attained the summit, he saw that it was so. There was the faint shape of a dyke, much like those on the Atlas side of the fens, stretching away on either side of him, but it was much eroded and centuries of wind had shored it up with more soil so, aside from the unusual regularity of its orientation, it looked like any other low hill. Before them was a gently rolling country, still mostly green. The sky was clear, but patches of low fog remained, nestling in hollows all across the landscape. There was little to see. The heartlands of Chronus were still some way away, and while this country had no doubt been cultivated once, it had been abandoned for a long time. Just visible to the north were the slopes of the Titans, marching off towards the horizon. Chronus was a much more convivial Province than Atlas with only a short coastline to the south that, historically at least, was given over to vineyards and orchards. The lack of decent anchorage meant there was no fishing industry here like there was in Atlas. The Chronusi had instead turned their attentions to the land, which they had transformed through generation after generation of labour into a veritable paradise. He remembered well the patchwork of tilled fields that covered the countryside, demarcated by low dark hedgerows that in summer would trill with birdsong and let forth clouds of butterflies. It was a land of settled, peaceful people. Farmers, not soldiers. But war would come to them soon, if it hadn’t already. He had no idea how Chronus had fared since he’d been in the mainlands. Banditry was rife across Atlantis, and this garden realm would be easy pickings for such cutthroats. But from here, with the golden sun low in the sky, it looked a pleasant place to be, especially after the grim darkness of the fens.
He found Rykall and Hadrin near the head of the column. Rykall’s horse had been brought to him and it was clear he was preparing to mount up with the help of a small number of retainers. When he caught sight of Albrihn he turned, pausing as he strapped on his vambrace. “Commander,” he said with a thin smile. He held out an open hand to his horse, a great white charger that was obviously eager to be let loose on the pastureland ahead. The trip through the marshes had been no easier on the horses. “With your permission?”
Albrihn raised an eyebrow. As if he’d have asked if he wasn’t standing right there. But still, he’d already told Hasprit they’d start riding again soon. “Fine. Stretch his legs.”
Rykall finished donning his armour and, with a page’s aid, mounted the stirrups and hoisted himself into the saddle. He moved back and forth a little until he found his groove and then accepted his gauntlets from another page. He grinned fiercely as a sudden breeze caught in his hair and sat straight on his great horse, every inch the knight. Albrihn had to admit he cut an impressive figure.
“It’s a fine animal,” Hadrin said. She retained her usual weary scepticism, but there was a note of amusement in her voice.
“My favourite.” He patted the beast’s neck affectionately and it whinnied in response. “North Wind.”
“Aptly named,” Albrihn told him. The horse was as white as snow, and looked fast.
“I saw your horse back there,” Rykall said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder, “black brute with a temper.”
Albrihn smiled. “That’s him.”
“What do you call him?”
“He doesn’t have a name?”
“Not that he’s ever told me.”
Rykall laughed shortly at that. “I know horseflesh. Atlas bred?”
“He has the look. Fast?”
Rykall peered at the horizon. It was lost in grey haze, but there was something visible on another low rise that was perhaps the remains of another dyke; an irregular pile of jagged shapes, most likely the ruins of some ancient fortification. “No horse can outrun North Wind.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“Your black though,” he said with a sideling glance, “I think could give him a good race.”
Albrihn turned and narrowed his eyes at the ruin. “That’s a fair distance.”
“I won’t make you race back then.”
“You’re wearing a full suit of plate. It wouldn’t be a fair contest.”
“On the contrary – this handicap gives you a sporting chance. Come, commander, we’ve had a difficult few days. Don’t you long to move at speed again? You’re a horseman…of a kind.”
“At least this is better than swords,” Hadrin said. “Just try not to fall off and break your necks.”
Albrihn’s horse was saddled swiftly – his tack was rather less elaborate than Rykall’s – and soon he was wheeling him around, letting him have his head now and then to feel out the terrain. He held the reins only loosely, doing most of the work with his legs. Rykall watched him from his own saddle. A few soldiers had formed an audience. It was moving towards evening anyway, and they had no chance of reaching Ixion by nightfall, so this would be a good place to make camp. But he’d feel better if he got to those ruins and could get the lay of the land from the other side of the dyke. That’s what he told himself anyway.
“I can see you know what you’re doing,” Rykall said.
“I’m a cavalryman.”
“Right – which means we sometimes have to change direction instead of just galloping straight for the enemy.”
“Well, we’re going straight now.” He mimed a line towards the ruins with the edge of his hand.
“First man there wins, yes?”
“And what are the stakes?”
Rykall puffed up his cheeks and then let out a long breath. “Command of the army?”
“That’s not mine to give.”
“You’re in command now, aren’t you?”
“Yes, but Hadrin comes after me.”
“On what basis?”
“On the basis,” Albrihn smiled, “that I’m in command, and I say it’s so. Do you really want to make an enemy of someone so formidable? I’ve served under her: she’s not the forgiving type.”
Rykall stared at him, then after a moment let out a booming laugh. “Remember,” he said, “I saved your life yesterday.”
“And I saved yours.”
“How do you reckon that, Albrihn?”
“It was my decision to lay down arms in the first place. If you’d had your way, you’d be lying in a bog somewhere.”
“Maybe so.” Rykall’s good humour seemed to vanish suddenly. Albrihn realised he must be thinking of his lost soldier, who’d foolishly drowned. The big man turned his horse, which was now pawing at the ground in its eagerness to be off. Albrihn’s mount was more disciplined. It didn’t do for someone who fought the way he preferred to to have a horse that would charge off without provocation. But Rykall was right that he had a temper. “I don’t want this army,” he said.
“Then what do you want, commander?”
Rykall gave him a sharp look. “Why does it matter?”
“It doesn’t. Most soldiers want peace.”
“And put themselves out of a job?” He snorted, and North Wind did the same, almost in unison. “You’re like me, Albrihn. You only feel alive when you’re holding a sword.”
“I usually use a bow, actually.”
“Not judging by what happened in the practice yard back in Atlas.”
“Do you want to race or not?” Albrihn snapped, suddenly feeling annoyed at this stubborn ox of a man.
“I challenged you didn’t I?”
“Well then.” He wheeled his horse again, so they both faced towards the ruins. “Shall we begin?”
“Indeed.” Without warning he snapped at his reins and North Wind immediately surged into a gallop, powerful muscles rippling as he thundered across the springy ground. The soldiers watching let out a cheer. Albrihn moved on instinct, squeezing his horse’s flanks with his thighs and charging straight after Rykall and North Wind. For a while he trailed a good twenty strides behind thanks to Rykall’s head start, but soon he started to gain on him. He wasn’t wearing his armour, and although the two horses were of a size, his was leaner and more agile. It lacked the heavy build that made Rykall’s such a lethal charger and so fast over short bursts, but it had more stamina, and would outrun him in the end. He let the horse have his head again, barely gripping the reins. Little by little, he began to draw up beside Rykall. The other commander sat low in his saddle, but his armour limited his movement. Albrihn was near horizontal, and his smaller profile gave him even more of an edge. Within minutes, the dyke was rearing up before them, and Albrihn could see the tumbledown remnants of the building straight ahead. It was a tower, or had once been, long ago. He pressed his horse’s flanks with his knees and felt an answering burst of speed. Now he was pulling ahead slightly. Rykall, upon realising this, began to lash at North Wind with his reins, pushing him to go faster, but the animal had no strength left in him and both knew the race was over. Albrihn galloped ahead, up the slight incline and then eased off, allowing the horse to take its time cantering to the top. He pulled on the reins as they reached what remained of an archway and waited for his opponent. Rykall rode up a moment later, North Wind visibly flagging.
“Normally,” Albrihn said conversationally, “I imagine you like to start a little closer to the enemy?”
“Something like that.” Rykall too was out of breath. He patted his horse’s neck and then, creaking a little in his armour, clambered down to the ground. “Once again, Albrihn, you prove yourself the better man.”
“That wasn’t my intention.”
“No. I’m sure it wasn’t.” He tied the horse’s reins to a ring of iron that protruded from the crumbling masonry of the archway. Albrihn dismounted too, but left his horse to roam free. He had no fear he’d wander off.
“You ride well,” he said.
“And North Wind is as fast as you claimed.”
“But not so fast as your black.”
“Not in these circumstances, no.”
Rykall chuckled softly to himself and gave the ruins an appraising glance before walking across the top of the eroded dyke and looking out at the lands beyond. Albrihn joined him. The landscape was not much changed from this new vantage, but now night was drawing in, the sky turning a deep purple as the sun sank into the must behind them. Long shadows stretched across the grass. Faintly, in the distance, a cluster of lights glimmered. “Chronus,” Rykall said, “no more than a day’s ride. Do you know this country?”
“Not as well as I should.”
He pointed. “Chronus, the capital. Not a defensible city. Saffrey never would have tried to hold it if we attacked.”
“So it’s no prize.”
Rykall’s finger moved across the horizon, to a dark smear to the north. “Ixion.”
“With luck, Saffrey’s army will be on their way there now.”
“Have you considered what will happen if they’re already beyond it? We’ve been five days already by my count.”
“We’ll fall on them from behind.”
“But Ixion would be more favourable. A forest favours this army you’ve cobbled together.” He looked back, into the sun, where the forces were beginning to sprawl out and make camp.
“It’s hard for you to admit that, isn’t it?” Albrihn observed.
“That you’re the better man?”
“That’s not what I mean…”
“No? You’ve proven it often enough. With sword, with horse, with judgment. Tomorrow…or the next day perhaps…in battle.” He crossed to a lump of stone half-embedded in the earth and perched himself atop it, his armour creaking again.
“You believe we’ll defeat Saffrey then?” Albrihn asked him.
He spread his hands. “All things are possible. The plan is sound, our will strong, our cause just. We fight for the Empress.”
“Indeed.” Albrihn thought he was missing something. “You don’t like me, do you?”
“I respect you, commander.”
“That isn’t what I asked.”
“No, I don’t like you.”
“Why is that?”
Rykall shrugged. “Why should I? A week ago you were just a common soldier.”
“A captain. But do you treat all common soldiers with such contempt?”
“No. But I’m a commander in the Atlantian militia. Common soldiers are the men and women I have to have the fortitude to send to die in my name. I don’t have the luxury of liking them.”
“So you’re chafing because, a week ago, you would have sent me to die without a second thought, and now our positions are reversed?”
Rykall smiled slightly. “You’d send me to die?”
“If I could win this war by doing so, yes. That’s my duty to the Empress.”
“Yes. The Empress. Lady Vion.” He looked over Albrihn’s shoulder at the sunset which had now begun to stain everything red as its light was smeared by the fog that hung over the fens.
“You object to my position.”
“I’ve no right to tell the Empress who she can and can’t love. She chose you. Fates know why.”
“I’m even better with my cock than I am with a sword.”
Another rueful smile from Rykall at that. “And now, consort?”
“She wants that though.”
“She’s no right to tell me who I can and can’t love either.”
“You won’t marry her then?” He looked a little surprised.
“I can’t. Like you said, I’m a common soldier.”
Rykall cocked his head. “All this time, I thought this was about love, not duty.”
“Saffrey wants to marry her. You want to stop him. I thought it was about the Empress.”
“It is. Just…not in that way.”
“So, this is all about Atlantis after all?”
Rykall began to laugh. “You really do want peace, don’t you?”
“Yes. Doesn’t everyone?”
“Not me. I only know how to butcher other soldiers. That’s what I am. A killer.” He didn’t have Reaper with him, but his hand moved reflexively to his shoulder, where its hilt would normally be.
“Atlantis needs killers, for better or worse,” Albrihn said.
“But you’d prefer a world without them, right? You want a world where you, a warrior, never have to make war again.”
“I suppose so…” The truth was, he’d never thought about it before. He rarely considered the future – there was never any guarantee it would stretch beyond the next battle.
“Who are you, Rayke Albrihn?”
“Where did you come from? Where did you learn to be this man?”
Albrihn frowned. “I don’t understand what you’re asking me. I’m lowborn. That’s well known. My mother was a hand on a fishing ship, my father a tanner. I joined the militia when I came of age. There’s nothing else to me.”
“And yet,” Rykall said, standing up, “you share the bed of the most powerful woman in the world, and lead an army of two-thousand to fight against the First Minister of Atlantis. That’s power, Albrihn.” He leaned close and clenched his fist between them. “Power you claim you never asked for.”
“I didn’t ask for it.”
He opened his palm. “And yet, our fate is in your hands. A worrying thought, don’t you agree?”
“Then you should. You’ve never commanded this many troops before. You should be nervous.”
“More evidence,” Rykall said cryptically. “You’re hiding something, Albrihn.”
“I assure you I’m not.”
“Then,” he said softly, “someone else is. Maybe even from you.”
Alrbihn didn’t know how to respond to that, but he held Rykall’s gaze for a long moment. Eventually the larger man turned away and began to walk back to his horse. It was almost dark now, and the stars had come out above their heads. Campfires were being lit on the wide pasture between the two dykes. Tomorrow, they’d go to Ixion, and to war. He’d be leading them. Rykall was right: he should be nervous. But he wasn’t. He’d never felt a moment’s doubt before a battle. He’d never considered that might be strange.
Confused by his own thoughts, he turned to look back towards Chronus. It was visible now as twinkling lights on the horizon. The darkness had stolen the Forest of Ixion away. He stepped up to the lump of masonry Rykall had been sitting on and rested his hand atop it. Underneath his fingers he felt faint grooves and he looked down. It was hard to make out in the darkness, but there seemed to be symbols carved there, much eroded by long exposure to the elements. Idly, he traced their shape. They were unfamiliar, angular, in a language he didn’t know. But this was Atlantis. He looked up at the remains of the tower, now just a dark skeletal shape against the night sky. Who had built this, he wondered, and how long had it stood here, unregarded on the edge of these bleak fens? A strange thing, but the world was full of mysteries. He could see Rykall leading North Wind down the hillside, and he set about looking for his own horse so he could follow. Tonight, he would need to rest. The hardest part of all this was yet to come.