Age of War (Part XXXVIII)

It didn’t take long for Albrihn’s nightmares to find him again. This time, at least, it was something new. He stood in a place he’d never knowingly been before: a snowy mountainside. The sky was dark and black clouds swirled as if driven by a hurricane, but he felt no wind stirring his cloak. The air smelt of fire and death. He looked around and saw the ruins of a great city emerging from the snow, just towers rising up to the tormented sky like twisted black fingers. He could hear a faint voice in the distance and he walked towards it. It was just a whisper in the foetid air but the closer he came, walking uphill, the more familiar it was. Finally, it was loud enough for him to make out the words. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Rayke. I never meant for it to happen like this.” The same phrase over and over. It was Jonis speaking. He frowned. Was she in danger? Why was she apologising? Suddenly gripped with terror, he broke into a sprint, but as is often the way in dreams his legs felt like they were mired in thick mud, and he could only manage an awkward trudge across the white landscape. He didn’t find Jonis, but he did find blood. It was soaked into the snow, staining everything pink. He wrinkled his nose at the stench. Slowly, he approached the epicentre of the carnage that had been wreaked here and found body parts – human remains. None of them were familiar, but then he saw a round, shattered shield. It tugged at his memory. He went on, until he found what he somehow knew he’d come here to find. A pale hand, lying alone on the ground. He stared at it. The stump was bloody and ragged, as if shorn through by a woodsaw. Or teeth.

He turned at the growl that came from behind him. Nothing was there. It came again and he tried to follow the sound and find the predator that still lay in wait, somewhere in these ghastly ruins. His heart was pounding in his chest and he felt a raw, primal fear inside him. Something shifted in his peripheral vision. He spun, reaching for a sword that wasn’t there. Still he saw nothing though. He squinted. Something moved again and he jumped back, terrified. He saw it well enough now: a hulking wolf, its pelt criss-crossed with thick scars. He hadn’t seen it because its fur was as white as the snow, but it had been there all along, stalking him. The smell emanated from the huge creature. As it walked closer, huge muscles rippling in its powerful limbs, it was hard to imagine how he’d missed it: it wasn’t entirely white for its pelt was shot through with a little red, or perhaps that was just blood. Its slavering jaw was filled with long, yellow fangs, and its eyes shone green in the fell light.

Albrihn raised his hands, hoping to placate the creature, but of course it would do no good. It was intent on him, this monstrous white wolf. He could feel its hunger too, somehow. An insatiable need to consume not just him, but the whole world. As it opened its dripping maw wider, he could see it was capable of it too. Those jaws could enclose all creation, snuffing out the sun and the moon and plunging everything into a cold darkness from which it would never emerge again.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Rayke,” whispered Jonis again.

“Who are you?” he asked the wolf stupidly.

He sensed it understood him. That it mocked him. Its pink tongue lolled from its mouth and it padded towards him. It was enormous: larger than him. He’d never seen a wolf so huge. Were there places in the world where they could grow to this size? Not that he’d ever visited, for certain.

“Who are you?” he said, now in a roar of defiance.

The wolf lifted its muzzle and let out a howl. It reverberated across the mountains and was answered by dozens more calls. No, hundreds. Thousands. Millions. The sound was deafening and beneath it all was the rush of wind, the crack of thunder, the coming of a terrible storm. He dropped to his knees, holding his hands to his ears.

“Please…” he whispered.

The wolf fixed him in its gaze and there was a second’s hesitation. That was his chance to run, and he knew he’d missed it. The wolf leapt for him. It was impossible to imagine such a heavy beast could be so agile, but it pounced as well as any of its kind. It hit him with all the force of an avalanche, driving him helplessly into the snow. He stared into that hideous mouth and saw row upon row of teeth, smelt the cold reek of the grave and heard, from somewhere deep inside, a single word, faint as a whisper. Everything went black.

He woke. The word was still in his mind and he sounded it aloud, through gummy lips. “Manborn.” It meant nothing to him. He blinked. He was lying in a dark room, sprawled on a couch. It took him a long moment to recall where he was. Then he remembered, and slowly sat up. He had a crick in his neck from where he’d lain awkwardly against the couch’s arm, but other than that he felt remarkably refreshed. The dream lingered and he shuddered. Atlantians placed little stock in dreams – it was known that it was just the mind ordering itself after each day, sorting events out into their proper place. A man who saw a stranger in a red cloak on the road, barely noticing it at the time, might find himself dreaming of a figure in red that night, and so remember that small event from his day. Such was the way of dreams. But Albrihn had seen no wolves, no ruined cities, no black storms. It was a strange vision, and very vivid. For all that though, it was just a dream. He shook his head as if clearing away cobwebs. He was in the smaller chamber that led from Aethlan’s rooms. He had slept in his soiled clothes, but someone had unbuckled and removed his breastplate, as well as pulled off his boots. He felt a spike of embarrassment, realising Aethlan herself must have done it. And ceded this room to him too. Her, a lady, and him a common soldier. No, not anymore. Maybe he had been once. Now he was something else.

He freed himself from the blankets and furs, feeling stifled all of a sudden. Another need made itself known with a rumble in his stomach too. When had he last eaten? He rose, a little unsteadily, and padded out into the main chamber. He found it empty. The day was brighter and clearer, but snow still clung to the gardens visible beyond the balcony. He felt cool, but not uncomfortably so. Where was Aethlan? He looked to the table and saw something that made his mouth water before he’d even consciously discerned what it was. It was a covered tray and even from here he could smell the food. He walked to the table and seated himself before removing the linen cloth. Beneath was a breakfast to satiate any man’s hunger: a cold hunk of honey-glazed ham was the centrepiece, and beside it a wedge of soft, blue-veined cheese. Half a crusty brown loaf was set out and next to it several small pots. He investigated each in turn. One held pale, creamy butter, and beside that was hot mustard from Tethys, and then a small amount of some chutney that smelled of summer fruit. There was a link of hard, spicy sausages and even a small dish of olives. To drink there was a pitcher of pale pink cordial, most likely shadeberry, one of his favourites. Had this been left out for him, or was he about to steal Aethlan’s morning repast? It seemed a lot for such a small woman… He glanced out of the balcony, more to check for her again than anything else, but he also instinctively gauged the time of day. Closer to noon than dawn, by quite some way. How long had he slept in? True, he’d been exhausted, but he was a soldier and he had a great deal of work to do. Still, the late hour told him that this meal must be intended for him since it was too late for breakfast and too early for lunch. It was all the encouragement he needed.

He set to ravenously, carving a slice of ham and quickly plating up a selection of delicacies. Two things suddenly gave him pause though. First he recalled again the dream of the wolf and its undying hunger. He’d been about to fall on this meal like that beast and that idea was disturbing. “Just a dream,” he said aloud. The second thing was something more worldly. As he beheld the sumptuous feast, the everyday fare of those who dwelt in the Imperial Enclave, he remembered the starving commoners outside the gates. He felt guilty eating so well, so casually, when others in the city suffered so profoundly. He was certain that, even as the harvests had failed, no one had considered taking less than the usual allotment for the palace so that the nobility had barely noticed the problems happening all around them. Well, that would have to change once all this was done. Vion and the ministers and all the rest of these simpering fools would have to share in the privations of their people, or they’d have another civil war on his hands. He didn’t look forward to having that conversation, and hoped she’d have the good sense to reach the same conclusion he did before it became necessary. Still, here and now there was no help for any of it. The world was an unfair place, and a hungry man cannot be faulted for devouring a good meal laid out before him. That’s what he told himself anyway as he began to eat, supressing all thoughts save those that concerned the meal.

He’d soon consumed every morsel, and would happily do so again if he were given the chance. He leant back in the chair and breathed out heavily. He was rested, fed, and finally felt human again. He sat a moment, then stood up and walked towards the full-length mirror in one corner of the room. Upon catching sight of himself, he cringed. His clothes were filthy, and not just with dust and dirt – blood was soaked through in places too. His own? Someone else’s? Perhaps Hasprit’s? The thought chilled him and he felt a fresh pang of grief for all his fallen comrades, but especially the scarred sergeant. He’d known Hasprit since he’d joined the militia, and they’d been comrades in arms for many years. He’d asked for him specially for his unit, thinking to promote him to lieutenant in time, but a promising young archer had stolen that glory from him. Not that Hasprit had ever seemed to resent Morrow or her rank, indeed he’d taken her under his wing like a little sister, being a friend and mentor to her as Loban had been to him so long ago. Now he was dead, along with many others, and all while under his command.

Albrihn met his reflection’s gaze. Had his eyes always looked that sad and weary? Slowly he peeled off his jerkin and tossed the smelly garment to one side. He examined himself. Old scars were in evidence all over his torso and arms. When he was younger, he could remember whence each of them had come. He knew the battles, remembered the pain, even the man or woman who had inflicted them. It was like a tally of vengeance, some of which he’d been able to cross off there and then, others of which still stung. But those were young men’s thoughts. He’d stopped caring about avenging his scars at around the same time he’d stopped counting the enemies he’d killed. Such things weren’t important, not really. He looked at his body. He was blessed with a lean frame and had never struggled to stay trim as some men did. Nonetheless, as he prodded his stomach he noticed it felt a little flabbier than he remembered. He was getting older. Even Loban had been slim once. Well, certainly less fat. But then, he’d spent his whole life soldiering. Other soldiers complained of being stationed in places that bored them: guard duty in villages where no one had so much as stolen a loaf of bread for a generation, or lonely outposts on windswept shores. Not so him. He’d always seemed to be in the maelstrom somewhere; the Emperor had even sent him over the sea to find war in the mainlands. He’d never thought that strange before. Often he pondered that Atlantis seemed to have more army than it knew what to do with, and yet battle had always found him.

He leant forward and now his gaze roved across his face. He had been fortunate in his scarring there, as these thing went. Most soldiers he knew had at least a broken nose, but then that was more often from a tavern brawl with comrades, and he’d never felt the need to prove himself with his fists. One of his newest scars was a pale line that ran from his jaw to his hairline, slightly pulling the skin of his face. He ran his finger along it. It hadn’t been much: a glancing blow from an axe, but had it been but a finger or so to the right, he might have lost an eye like Hasprit. A lot of soldiers he knew wore patches too. Even Morrow, who was usually smart enough to stay well clear of any mêlée had a few scars on her cheeks and a patch on her scalp where hair didn’t grow. War uses a person up. It was a sad truth, and not one he’d ever shied away from. Now, for perhaps the first time in his life, he wondered what his future held. And he wondered what right he had to step into this position fate had handed him. He had been given command of this city’s defences in one of its darkest hours. He was just a cavalry captain, adept enough at coordinating the duties expected of an outrider company, but little else. He was an excellent swordsman, a fine shot and a skilled rider, but a leader? They said he led at Talos, but all he’d led them to was death and exile.

He straightened. He needed to talk to Vion. But he couldn’t go in his dirty clothes. And he needed to clean himself and shave – his beard was coming in, thick and black – and he looked like nothing so much as a ruffian wandered in off the street to make trouble in a disreputable tavern. He returned to the small room in which he’d slept and found an ewer filled with cold water and a bowl. There was also a bar of scented soap by the side of it. It smelled fragrant: a woman’s soap, but he hardly cared. He scrubbed himself as thoroughly as he could and dug out his razor from his belt pouch. Years of practice meant he had no need of a mirror, but he went back out into the main room anyway to make sure he shaved well enough to appear presentable. Vion, whatever else she was, was the Empress of Atlantis. Satisfied, he returned to the other chamber and ran wet hands through his hair, slicking it back into a tail. He’d seen more grey that he’d have liked in his reflection but wasn’t the kind of man to be vain about such things. Grey was only appropriate on someone of his rank, now. Commander Albrihn. Had he ever sought that honour? No. He’d just done his duty. But here he was.

He peeled off his breeches and went searching for fresh clothes. Huldane had shared these rooms, he believed, and he was rewarded with a pile of neatly folded men’s clothes in a heavy trunk by one wall. They were unlikely to be tailored for the Talosi, and they were more or less of a size. He dug out a suitable outfit – a simple white shirt that was mercifully free of any lace or silk, and a pair of breeches that fit a little too snugly for his liking. He looked at his muddy boots with their cracked leather. There was no help for that, and he tried to wipe the worst of it off, succeeding only in making a mess. He tugged them on anyway and sighed to himself. Why did he worry about any of this, now of all times? Because it was Vion. His feelings for her hadn’t changed. Indeed, now that she’d given him such authority he felt he had an even greater obligation to present himself as more than a rough cavalryman. As a commander, certain things would be expected of him.

He left Aethlan’s chambers, doing his best to leave all as he’d found it. His armour he had to leave behind since it would have looked absurd over his borrowed shirt, and his dirty clothes were probably only fit to burn. He’d left them in as unobtrusive a pile as possible. Hopefully a maid would take them for the rubbish they were and dispose of them. By day the palace was as deserted as it had been on his way there the previous evening, and that filled him with trepidation. How many had deserted Atlas in its hour of need? That turned his thoughts to Jonis. He was angry with her, in truth, though he hadn’t had chance to focus on that last night. Maybe that was the meaning of his dream? He dreamt of her apology to him for leaving at a time like this, when he needed every ally beside him. Or was it something more than that? Did he resent her following her own path? She wasn’t his to order around though. She owed him nothing. It came to him that the reason her disappearance stung him was precisely because she felt free to do so without informing him. But then, he’d done the same, hadn’t he? He shook his head angrily. He could demand nothing of her, and likewise she of him. What did it matter? They’d shared some time together, enjoyed each other’s company and bodies, fought side by side and built up a bond that he treasured, but that was all. They could never devote themselves to one another. Her heritage made that an impossibility.

Such dark thoughts crowded Albrihn’s mind as he reached Vion’s chambers. Guards stood at the door but they admitted him without question. They all knew him well enough, both as a soldier and as a companion to the Empress. Their presence also meant she was inside, which was good. He was in no mood to face her across a table of war again. He felt strange addressing her as a general of her armies rather than her lover. She’d even asked him not to call her ‘Empress’, but he couldn’t very well say her name in the presence of others now, could he? No, he wanted to be alone with her, to talk all this through. To tell her she’d made a mistake. To beg she appoint Crale to the command. It wasn’t proper. They were involved. If the soldiers under his command looked upon his last promotion as a sign of unearned favour, how would they see this one? The fate of Atlas was at stake, and it would look as though the Empress was playing favourites. She would seem callous and foolish; an untried girl ruled by her heart. Or worse, her loins. She was no girl of course – they were of an age, the two of them, but that wouldn’t stop the gossip.

He entered her chamber and found her sitting at a table. She wore a simple gown, now no longer the black of mourning, but a pale peach. It looked too light for such a cold day, but she seemed untroubled by the breeze that stirred the drapes hanging across the balcony. She was looking out to sea, but then turned to him and smiled. She was as beautiful as ever, and he remembered why it was always so hard to refuse one of her requests. “Rayke,” she purred.

“Vion.” He almost saluted, but instead came and sat opposite her, feigning an ease he didn’t feel.

“You slept late.”

“I was very tired.”

Her expression was concerned. She had a pot of tea on the table and offered him a cup. He waved it away. “I’m sorry about Hasprit,” she said.

How had she known about that? “A lot of men and women died, not just him.”

“I know.” She poured herself more tea. Steam curled into the air between them. “You two were close though.”

“Yes.”

“I never met him. I’ve never met any of your soldiers. You speak about them so often though, I feel like they’re my friends too.”

That gave him pause. He’d always kept these parts of his life separate. He couldn’t even imagine Morrow and Vion in the same room. “I was thinking…perhaps, of an honour guard. In the future. When all this is done, I mean. The Seventh are the finest in all Atlantis. If a little…uh…rough around the edges.”

She smiled at him again as she raised the cup to her lips. “All soldiers are, I find. The good ones anyway.”

He felt more comfortable. He’d forgotten their easy way with one another. It was so long since they’d spent any length of time together. He missed her then, fiercely, although she was sitting right by him. He missed when things had been simple, when they’d found pleasure in one another’s arms without ever thinking about what any of it meant. She’d always been a princess, but when her father lived, that had just been a title. Now she was the Empress. How could he be the lover of someone so powerful?

“Rayke?”

“Hm?” He realised he’d been staring at her. “Sorry,” he said, composing himself, “I was thinking.”

“About what?”

“Atlas. The battle. You know.”

She placed her cup down. “I do know. There is much to do.”

“And I’ve wasted enough of today. Saffrey’s army may arrive at any moment.”

“Our scouts report he is some days away.”

“Even so,” he said, “with a forced march, they may surprise us. Saffrey will not hesitate to use his soldiers hard if it gets him what he wants.”

“Agreed. You have no time to lose, commander.” Her sudden formality was in jest, but it still wounded him slightly.

“Vion, I have to talk with you.”

“You are talking with me.”

“No, I mean…about…about this.”

“About what?”

“Us, and my rank and…everything…”

Her brow creased. Strange how time had touched him but not her. She was his age, and yet her skin was as smooth as a girl of sixteen’s and her hair thick, black and glossy. Some people were blessed, and it seemed almost unfair that Vion should be both Empress and such a goddess to look upon. He felt the too-tight breeches strain as he thought of her in that way, despite himself. “What about it?” she asked, bringing him out of his momentary lapse in attention.

“I just…well…here it is.” He braced himself. “I feel, Vion, that it isn’t appropriate for me to be both the commander of this defence and also your lover. There was gossip on the way to Ixion. I don’t care, truly – soldiers will talk – but pushing things any further will erode my authority. They will think me some court favourite given a special honour for political reasons, and my subordinates will feel justified in ignoring or countermanding my orders. They’ll think me undeserving of the position.”

Her face was still. “So what are you saying? We can no longer be lovers?”

“No. Not that.” He was shocked that that was what she’d assume.

“I know you’ve been with other women.”

Albrihn was unsure what to say to that. “I…I thought we had talked of that…”

“Do you still want me?” she asked flatly.

“Yes. Yes, Vion. I still want you. But things are different now.”

“So you said before. I’m trying to make it simple though.”

“How does elevating me even further make it simpler?” he asked,

“A man should have a rank that fits his position in life.”

He frowned, confused about the distinction. “I don’t…”

She placed something on the table between them. He stared down at it, shocked into silence. It was a simple thing: an unadorned ring of smooth, silvery-black metal. Bloodstone, they called it, and he’d never known why until a sage learned in the rhythms of the earth had explained it was a form of iron ore, and often deep red in colour. Iron was in blood, he knew. So it made a kind of sense. But it was something far more important than that: it was a maiden’s ring. He swallowed. He had no doubt it was Vion’s, and her intention was clear. In the mainlands, he’d seen wedding ceremonies. They were odd affairs, and tainted by barbaric customs. First, the bride was marched to the heathen altar by her father or another male relative and handed over like a prize to her husband. They spoke solemn vows to one another before a priest, binding themselves together for life. Morrow had had to stifle her laughter at some of the things they’d heard spoken in one such display. Strangest of all was the custom of preserving the bride’s virginity. That had been perplexing, until a causal mention of a maiden’s ring had made it clear they were unknown in the mainlands. That one detail explained a lot about the ways of the folk across the sea, Albrihn realised now.

In Atlantis, marriage was merely a formal acknowledgment of a thing that already existed between two people. The idea of leaving a potential spouse untouched in the bedroom was as absurd to Atlantian sensibilities as never conversing with them or not laying eyes upon them prior to marriage. How would they each know they were compatible with one another? What if one’s needs outstripped the other’s? What if one wished to take lovers and the other preferred them to only share their intimacy with one another? These were questions as important as any other in a marriage, at least in Atlantis.

But more than that, this wasn’t a thing of ceremony, not to them. The maiden’s ring was important, more for what it symbolised than anything else. It had properties that prevented conception, and controlled a woman’s flow to make her life easier. They were bequeathed by mothers to their daughters when their first blood came, and their working was a secret not shared with men. It was something for women alone, and all Atlantians understood that to question it was to violate an ancient taboo. One thing he did know though: a woman intending to take a husband or wife removed her maiden’s ring and presented it to them. By taking it, he or she accepted her offer, and they became joined. And that was all that was required.

“Vion,” he said softly.

“I don’t do this lightly, Rayke.”

“But…politics…” he said weakly.

She laughed. “You think I just follow my heart?”

“Well, last time we talked about this…”

“You just said yourself you couldn’t be my lover and my general. Look how I provide a solution you hadn’t even considered. What wife would do less for her husband?”

“But…” He thought about it. “I suppose…if I were consort…”

“Then it would be politically acceptable for you to be Marshall of Atlas.”

“Marshall of Atlas?”

Another mysterious smile. “Long ago, during the time of the Bloody Dynasties, such a title existed. The supreme commander of Atlantis’s armies.”

“I don’t think I would be suited to…”

“It needn’t mean that,” she said dismissively, “but it would be appropriate for you, as my consort. You can’t very well defer to another officer while you hold that rank, can you?”

He’d been told as much by Hasprit. And it made sense. But still he regarded the ring with trepidation. He clutched for anything that would delay this decision. “Do you…I mean, you want children? Now?”

She cocked her head at him. “Is that what you think?”

“Well, the ring…”

“Oh, Rayke.” Another tinkling laugh. “You’re so naïve. I forget that. The ring is not the be all and end all of such things. There are herbs I can take. Some can be drunk in tea.” She tapped the pot and raised her eyebrows suggestively.

Albrihn’s gaze shifted to it. “If I’d drunk it…”

“Don’t worry,” she chided, “it wouldn’t have done you any harm. Your little soldier would have stood to attention just the same as ever. What I mean to say is, you needn’t fear I’ll get with child.” Her face betrayed her distaste for the idea, just for a moment. “I can make arrangements. And there are things you can do as well. Different ways we might do things, if you take my meaning.”

“I take your meaning,” he said, a little stiffly. His finger hovered over the ring. He wanted this, and yet he didn’t. It would solve a lot of problems. It would allow things to carry on as they were. It made sense. Sudden dread rose in him though, as if the world held its breath. He felt like he dangled on a precipice, and if he took a step, he would plummet to his doom, taking all of Atlantis with him. Vion watched him. Her dark eyes shone. She was so beautiful. And he loved her. He did love her. He’d loved her for years. He picked up the ring and, just like that, slid it onto his finger. “There.”

“There,” she said. She took his hand. “Husband.”

“Wife,” he nodded.

Outside, it began to snow again.

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