Age of War (Part XXIV)

A league or so north of Ixion, the land began to climb. It wasn’t quite as rugged as the hill country on the Atlas side of the Titans, but it still rose inexorably towards the mountains and so offered a view across much of the Chronusi heartland. This morning it was shrouded in low mist, and the dark forest was mostly hidden. There was no smoke rising from the south, indeed no sign at all from this distance that any kind of battle had taken place beneath the skeletal eaves. Albrihn’s jaw worked as he looked down. He was watching for pursuit, although he didn’t expect it. Around him were the ragged remains of his army – no more than two-hundred or so soldiers, many of whom were injured, that had found their way here following a stream northwards. They were now resting in a sinuous curve of that stream, watering their exhausted horses and washing the blood and filth from their faces. No one spoke. Morrow sat apart from the rest on a rock, staring into space. She hadn’t said anything to him after he’d let her down from his horse. It would take time for her to process a defeat of this scale. It would take him time too.

On the shore of the stream sat Jerl with a few of her irregulars and one or two stragglers from other units. The army had been scattered in their flight from the forest and loose bands of men and women roamed the countryside, but all of them headed north on some instinct, making for the Gap of Haephestus. Albrihn had sent survivors from the Seventh out to round up anyone they could find. Jerl’s unit had been the only ones they’d found heading south-west, back towards the fenland. They couldn’t imagine they’d find a way through, or that the gnarls would be as accommodating as last time, but perhaps they reasoned it was the quickest route to safety. They were born survivors, of that he had no doubt. However, they respected the chain of command, and had followed Windhael back to the where the rest of the Atlasian remnants were gathering. Now, the broad woman squatted by the stream and filled her helmet with cold, clear water which she drank deeply before pouring the rest over her face. She did all this awkwardly, with one hand, for her left harm was tied up in a rudimentary sling. She thought it was broken.

“Where now, commander?” she asked him.

“I don’t know.” He walked over and crouched down beside her. He still had his waterskin with him and filled it up, more out of habit than because he was thirsty. He was a soldier, and he resupplied whenever he had the chance. “I want to find out what happened.”

“No offence, commander, but it ain’t gonna be long until about fifteen-thousand Chronusi bastards come riding up that road and they’re sure as piss not going to let us escape again.”

“I know that.”

“Still, your plan was sound.” She straightened with a wince and hooked her helmet back onto her belt. Her mattock, that had been so deadly in the battle, had a chipped blade.

“That’s good to know,” he said with a small smile. He stood up too.

“But you know what they say about plans and contact with the enemy, right?”

“Right. But it should’ve worked. Two experienced commanders helped me come up with it.” He looked down at the distant forest again. “Where was the other contingent? Why didn’t they attack?”

“I saw fighting towards the south,” Jerl offered.

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Couldn’t make out much, but there was definitely something happening at the rear there.”

“I don’t see how they could have caught them out in the south; they didn’t see us coming from the north.”

“Betrayal,” a voice said, and they both turned to look at Morrow. She was still staring into space, but then her gaze shifted and her eyes met Albrihn’s. She’d fought in hundreds of battles, but he’d never seen a stare like that from her before.

“I was thinking the same,” Jerl said.

Albrihn had been shying away from that thought, but of course it had occurred to him too. He narrowed his eyes at the horizon. “Betrayal,” he repeated softly. “Rykall.”

Morrow nodded. “He hated you.”

“He did. He resented everything I was. He didn’t trust me. He thought I was unfit to command.”

“He fought you back in Atlas,” she added.

Albrihn shook his head. “But would he do this? Could he turn on loyal soldiers and slaughter them?”

“This is civil war,” Jerl grunted, “it’s not so hard to change your allegiance. Not if you have reason to question the fitness to lead of the one you follow.”

“What are you saying?” he asked her with an arched eyebrow.

She shrugged. “He didn’t like you. He didn’t like the Empress either, I guess. Maybe he thinks Lord Saffron or whatever his name is would be better on the throne.”

“Saffrey,” he corrected absently. He sometimes forgot that others moved in different circles to him. He thought of himself as a common soldier, but now he was a commander, and even before that he was on speaking terms with some of the most powerful nobles and politicians in Atlantis. He knew Saffrey. But to Jerl he was just another lord, as valid a choice for ruler as Vion. All that kept most of the soldiers here on his side was loyalty to their leaders. To sergeants, lieutenants, captains. The chain of command; that’s what made an army what it was. Rykall had already made it clear he didn’t respect it. Was it so hard to imagine he’d throw in his lot with Saffrey entirely?

“So what do we do?” Jerl asked.

“We have to leave. Get back to Atlas and raise the alarm.”

“We can’t leave,” Morrow said.

Albrihn looked down at her. “We have to, captain,” he said gently, “Jerl’s right: it won’t be long until Saffrey’s army comes this way, maybe with Rykall leading from the front. We don’t want to be here in this state when that happens. We need to cross the mountains as fast as we can, regroup back in the city.”

“Hasprit’s still down there,” she said.

Albrihn looked back towards the forest. He’d seen Hasprit smashed from his saddle by that Ankhari barbarian. He’d hit the tree hard and hadn’t moved after he’d landed, but it was possible he’d survived. Just not likely. “Let’s take a walk,” he said to her.

“I’m fine.”

“It’s an order, captain. With me.”

They left Jerl by the stream and picked their way through a tangle of heather and gorse so they were out of earshot of the shattered survivors. There were birds whistling in the nearby trees, but not so many as there should have been. Everything was diminished: dying. It reminded him what was at stake, how this was just one battle in an unfolding cataclysm that he might be powerless to control.

“I know it hurts,” he began.

“You don’t have to say anything. This is my problem.”

“That’s exactly why I have to say something.”

She rubbed a palm against her eyes. “No. I have to be stronger than this.”

“In front of your soldiers, yes. Not in front of me.”

“You’re my commanding officer.”

He stopped and turned to face her. “I’m also your friend, Morrow. Aren’t I?”

“Of course…but…” She shook her head and then her face began to crumple. He put his hands on her shoulders and pulled her into a rough embrace. They were both filthy and reeked of sweat and blood and their breastplates clanged together almost comically but, for a moment, they were just people trying to survive in the world. “Hasprit…I can’t…we’ve lost comrades before…”

“I know.”

“I just promoted him to lieutenant. He was going to be…going to be my right-hand. How can I do this without him? How can I be captain without…without a lieutenant?”

“You’ll promote someone else.”

“I need Hasprit. He was the right man for the job.” She pulled herself away and dried her eyes on her sleeve. “This is ridiculous,” she said.

“Why?”

“Because I’ve lost battles before! I’ve lost friends before!” She kicked at a clod of dirt on the floor, spraying soil across the hillside. She was so short and slightly built she looked like a child throwing a tantrum. She was anything but that though. “Why am I so shaken by this?”

“Because you were the captain. It was on your shoulders.”

“Maybe.”

“Did I ever tell you about my first command?”

“I dunno. Probably.”

He walked over to a log lying partially-buried in the ground and sat down. He gestured for her to join him. “I was stationed up in Hades, just promoted to captain. I was in the twelfth company then. Mixed formation, a reserve unit. Green boys and girls and injured veterans. Ordinary garrison duty. I’d only been with them for a year or two, came in as a lieutenant. They hardly knew me.”

“Must’ve been fun…”

“It was a nightmare. We hadn’t fought more than a handful of engagements; skirmishes against bandits and so forth. They didn’t know me, and I didn’t know them. But I became the captain after old Mernal retired. You know her?”

“Only be reputation,” Morrow said with a small smile.

“Yeah. She had one of those all right. Well, there was some disturbance up in Persephone. Some rabble-rouser angry at a local lord. The usual sort of business. We rode out and found him and his mob burning a village. We cut down all the ones who resisted and hung the rest from a gallows we built there and then. I’ll never forget,” he said, looking out into the distance, “the way the leader’s feet thrashed as he hung there.”

Morrow swallowed. “Sounds an unpleasant business.”

“I lost two men,” he said, holding up fingers, “both not much more than boys. Smooth-cheeked, shy, from the same town. They might have been brothers for all I know. I don’t remember their names, but I remember their faces as we wrapped them in their cloaks. That was tough.”

“I guess so…”

“But,” he went on, “it got tougher. Later, we found out that the lord they were rebelling against had been abducting girls from the villages, using them in his chambers and then hunting them for sport in the forests afterwards. He was a monster. When the truth came out he was hauled before a magistrate and sentenced to be hung. He thrashed just the same way.” He sighed. “Those boys died for nothing, and so did all the rebels.”

“You were only following orders.”

“That’s what I told myself. And that’s easy when you’re a private, a corporal, a sergeant, even a lieutenant. But it’s different for a captain. When you get those stripes on your sleeve, suddenly your decisions mean a lot more. Suddenly, lives depend on every throw of the dice. That takes some getting used to.”

Morrow nodded. “I can’t believe he’s dead. I thought he’d go on forever.”

“So did I. He survived that wyrm back in the mainlands. But this is war, Morrow.”

“I know that. But it’s as pointless as what happened to you in Hades, isn’t it? Who cares who’s Empress or Emperor?”

“I care.”

“Right, because you love Vion. You know what I mean though.”

He said nothing, just took his waterskin from his belt and uncorked it, just to give himself something to do. “I can’t marry her,” he whispered.

“You already told me that.”

“I just led two-thousand soldiers to defeat. I’ve no business being a commander, let alone an Imperial Consort.”

“This wasn’t your fault.”

“I should have seen that Rykall would betray me. I should never have let him out of my sight. Hadrin warned me about him.”

“You couldn’t have known he’d do this, Rayke…”

“It was my job to know he’d do it. I have to see all ends. To predict what my enemies will do.”

“No one can guess everything. You got us out of there. It could have been worse.”

“Maybe.” They worked well together, he and Morrow. He tried to imagine how he’d feel if she’d been the one cut down by the Ankhari – or anyone else for that matter. If he was talking to Hasprit now instead, and they were trying to reassure one another that everything would be fine after losing her. He knew it would be a much harder conversation. Perversely, he was grateful it had turned out this way, if it must be one or the other. “When we get back to Atlas, I want to turn the Seventh into an honour guard.”

“You don’t think we can fight any more?”

“You’ll fight,” he told her, “but I want you close by. All of you. All of you that are left, I mean… We’ll need reinforcements. I have a few in mind. But I can’t see myself going into battle without the Seventh behind me, commander or not.”

“Well, we’ll have a fight on our hands right away, won’t we? There’s still fifteen-thousand enemies heading our way.”

“Hopefully a few less now. We cost them dearly, even if things did go wrong.”

“I hope you’re right.”

He stood up and held out his hand. She took it and he pulled her to her feet. They both smiled slightly. Things were no better than they had been, not really, but somehow he knew they were both stronger now. They made their way back to the rest of the ragtag army, but were met by Jerl on the way. She looked out of breath.

“What is it, sergeant?” he asked.

“Riders! Coming right for us.”

“Who?”

“Not sure, but there are a lot of them and they don’t look like they’re in as bad shape as us.”

“Get everyone up,” he said, “and on horses if they have them. I’ll see who it is.”

“That wise, commander?”

“I’ll stay out of sight.”

“As you say.” She pointed in the direction from which the mysterious riders approached and then ran off to carry out her orders.

Together, Albrihn and Morrow crept through the brush, now heading south. They came to a low ridgeline and crept up slowly, flattening themselves against the ground. Below the rocky overhang was a rough path running parallel to the stream ahead of a series of burbling waterfalls. Albrihn had ridden up the same way. Now they peered over and saw, exactly as Jerl had reported, a column of maybe fifty cavalry. Most were armoured in steel plate, much muddied, and some carried shields. There were broken lances, dented helmets and a few soldiers riding two to a horse. In other words, walking wounded. Albrihn frowned. At their head rode a tall helmeted figure, with a two-handed sword strapped to his back. It was Rykall.

“What do we do?” Morrow whispered.

Albrihn knew they should run. They should get back to the rest of the army and tell everyone to ride hard for the mountains. They outnumbered Rykall’s troop, but they were mounted and looked in better shape. They’d run them down easily. But why had be brought wounded men with him? Why had he ridden up at all? “We’re going down to talk to him.”

“Talk?” Morrow still had her bow. “I can shoot him from here, commander. End this now.”

It was tempting, but he shook his head. “No. I want to speak with him. If he was coming here to kill us, he wouldn’t be trotting up like this. He may not even know we’re here.”

“You’re going to let him live, after what he did?”

“That depends on what he has to say for himself.”

They ghosted back down the ridge and then circled to the north, scrambling through a clump of bushes and coming out further up the path, near the waterfalls. Morrow already had an arrow nocked. Albrihn was tempted to draw his sword, but he decided not to. They stood blocking the way. After a few moments, the first horses rode around the corner, and he saw it was indeed Rykall in the lead. His broad shoulders were unmistakable, even without Reaper’s hilt sticking up over one of them. When he saw them in the path he reined in his horse and held up a fist. The order rippled down the column and they drew to a halt. Albrihn waited and watched as he slid from the saddle and then flipped up his visor. “Albrihn! Thank the fates!”

Rykall’s face was bruised and when he pulled off his helmet he revealed his dark, thinning hair was matted with blood. Behind him, his soldiers began to dismount too. Albrihn remained wary, and his hand stayed on the pommel of his sword. “Commander…”

Rykall approached, and then noticed Morrow aiming an arrow straight at him, and the way Albrihn stood. He faltered. “What is this?”

“You tell me, Rykall.”

“How many survived?”

“Enough.”

“Enough for what?” The other commander looked confused.

“Why are you here?” Albrihn asked him flatly.

“We came north…we thought we’d find survivors here…” He looked helplessly from him to Morrow.

Albrihn glanced at her and saw her eyes were narrowed. Her bow was still drawn. “Why did you betray us?” she said.

Betray you?” Rykall’s mouth was agape. “I betrayed no one!” he growled.

“Maybe you see it that way…”

I was betrayed!” he roared now. “Hadrin told me to lead the Third against their engines. We charged unopposed, but before we reached them there were arrows falling all around.”

Albrihn cocked his head. “Hadrin turned on you?”

“We were caught in the open. We tried to turn around, but by that time you’d already hit the front and they knew they were under attack. We were caught between Saffrey’s troops and Hadrin. She must have planned it from the start.”

Albrihn tried to process what he was being told. Hadrin had been his commander for years. She’d been a source of support and advice throughout this journey. The idea that she’d switch sides was utterly bizarre. “I…what happened then?” he asked, his voice weak.

“I don’t know. We were cut to pieces. I tried to fight our way out, circle around to the north and join up with you, but we couldn’t go through the forest, not heavy horse. Most of my soldiers were killed.” He spat on the ground. “What about you?”

“When the attack never came to the south,” Albrihn said, “we were outnumbered. They routed us.”

“No surprises. With Hadrin’s forces, they outnumbered us eight-to-one. We had no chance.”

“How could she do this?” He was still stunned.

“At least I understand why she wanted me to come,” Rykall said. He walked towards Albrihn and rested his hands on his hips as he looked at the waterfall. Morrow had finally let her bow drop.

“She told me you insisted on coming,” Albrihn told him.

Rykall barked a bitter laugh. “Why would I have wanted to do that? No, she said this mission needed me.”

“She wanted to ensure we were both out of the picture. How long has she been Saffrey’s?”

“We’ll probably never know.” He clapped Albrihn on the shoulder. “Either way, she failed, eh? We’re both alive.”

“Others weren’t so lucky,” Morrow said.

“So now, tell me how many we have?”

Albrihn was still wary. “Not many.”

“You led them out?”

“I fled. By the time the battle had turned, there was no hope of retreating in good order. We tried to find as many as we could in the countryside afterwards.”

“Let’s hope there’s some more out there then. Where do we go now, commander?”

Albrihn stared at him. “You still intend to follow me?”

“You have the command.”

“But…after everything that’s happened…and all you said before…”

“Commander, if you’d taken my advice, things would have gone a lot worse. If we’d stood at Atlas, Hadrin would have caused the city to fall. You’d be hanging from a gibbet beside the Empress, most likely. I see the truth of it now.” He clenched his fist. “Besides, I’m saving my hatred for her. You’re not my enemy.”

“No. I’m not.”

“Where you go,” Rykall said, “I will follow.” He drew Reaper and held it to Albrihn. He could see the blade was badly notched from the fighting.

“What’s this?”

“My sword. It’s an old tradition. We keep to it in the Third. I give you my sword and my oath.”

“Your oath is to the Empress and Atlantis, and that’s enough for me.”

Rykall nodded. “So where do we go? Do you mean to try and stand at Hephaestus?”

“We’d never hold it. The only option is to ride for Atlas. We’ll be defending the city after all.”

“But now we know the shape of our enemy.”

“Shapes,” Morrow said bitterly. “Saffrey, now Hadrin and that…creature…the pale warrior…”

Albrihn had hardly given the Ankhari another thought, but he wondered what part he had to play in this, and how such a beast had come to serve Saffrey. He didn’t think for a moment that he’d been killed later in the battle. He was back there still, and he knew they’d meet again.

“Let’s ride,” he said.

*

Hadrin trotted her horse through the carnage. Hundreds lay dead across the forest road, with broken wagons and discarded weapons scattered all around the bodies. Crows were picking at the dead. There was no hope of giving any of them a proper burial. She cringed to think that she was partly responsible for this horror, but what choice had she had? Albrihn and Rykall were as stubborn as each other, and it had been hard enough to even get them in the same place, let alone try to sabotage the battle plan effectively. She hadn’t even been able to get a message to Saffrey. All she could do was carry out her plan and hope things fell into place. They had, more or less, but there was still no sign of the bodies of either of her fellow commanders. They were both survivors. She’d meet them again.

Lord Saffrey rode beside her with his entourage. Tall, lean and handsome, he’d seen nothing of the battle, safe in his wagon in the middle of the column, protected by guards who hadn’t budged an inch from their posts, even as their comrades died to the north and south. Now his eyes roved across the awful scene, but he seemed unaffected by it, and a small smile hovered on his lips. “What will they do now, commander?” he asked her. His voice was like silk.

She thought about it. “They’ll gather as many survivors as they can and cross the mountains back into Atlas.”

“I hope it won’t come to a siege. It would be very unfortunate if I have to fight my way into my own capital.”

“Even Albrihn isn’t insane enough to try to defend Atlas itself. It’s too large, and he’ll have few enough troops fighting for him, at least when word of this spreads.”

“I hope you’re right. In my experience though, he’s not one to give up when he believes he’s in the right. However mistakenly.”

“He’s stubborn.”

“He’s a fool.”

They’d reached the northern end of the battlefield. A few of the more unscrupulous camp followers were picking through the corpses, and no one had the will to stop them. What use was gold to the dead? The wounded were being tended to further back. Here it was the realm of the scavengers, human and crow alike. One in particular stood out. Just in the treeline, a towering shape, ghostly white, was looking through the bodies strewn around. Now and then he chose one, seemingly at random, and began to methodically dismember it, hacking off the head, the hands, the feet, even the genitals. Hadrin curled her lip as they came to a halt. “What’s he doing?”

Saffrey gestured to the short mainlander woman who rode beside him. “It is the Ankhari way,” she said in a quiet voice. She was a pale woman, though not so light-skinned as the barbarian. She was obviously some sort of liaison between Saffrey and his hulking champion.

“Jatharik is quite the traditionalist,” the lord said with an indulgent smile. “We have to accept his…ways…as the price of his battle prowess.”

“But why does he do that to some of the bodies?”

“It is those he killed,” the small woman explained, “the Ankhri believe that warriors who die in battle go to the afterlife to fight in the wars of the gods. He is ensuring that the souls of those he has slain do not come to take vengeance on him when he joins the Battle That Never Ends.”

“Very wise,” Saffrey laughed.

Hadrin watched him continue his butchery. He worked wordlessly, putting out eyes first and then continuing the bloody desecration. Some were still alive, and cried out weakly for mercy. These were maimed first, and only beheaded at the end of the process. It was hideous to watch. “He’s not doing it to the women,” she said after a moment. “Why is that?”

The mainlander gave a grimace of her own. “Ankhari do not believe their women have souls. They are considered…animals…for breeding only. They have no status except as property. He does not fear them.”

“Maybe he should,” Hadrin snorted.

“He may not be enlightened,” Saffrey admitted, “but he’s useful.”

“Useful…” Hadrin murmured. She watched as he knelt over another body. She recognised it: it was Albrihn’s one-eyed sergeant. She felt a pang of sympathy, just for a moment. The Ankhari didn’t pause, but continued to hack away. Last of all he severed the head and this time he lifted it and looked at it curiously, examining the scar tissue. He traced thick white fingers across the ruined flesh. She seemed to remember hearing it was from a wyrm’s acid. Maybe he recognised it. He stood up and held the head aloft before barking a string of syllables in his native language and laughing harshly. Saffrey turned to the mainlander. “What did he say?”

“He said this is a good trophy. He will keep it to honour this one, and return it to him in the Battle That Never Ends so they might cross swords again.”

Hadrin watched sickly as Jatharik, the Ankhari, levered out the dead soldier’s one good eye with his knife, cut off his eyepatch and then pulled out a length of rope and began to string the severed head to it by the empty eye sockets. There were other heads on the rope, many decayed almost to bare skulls, and he wore it like a belt around his waist.

“What is such a man ‘useful’ for?” she asked Saffrey.

“For killing Rayke Albrihn, of course. At Atlas, once he does what he came here to do, we will learn to overlook these…distasteful habits.”

“Why does Albrihn have to do with this?”

He turned his horse away from the grisly spectacle. “Rayke Albrihn is the most important man in Atlantis. He just doesn’t know it yet.”

 

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