Age of War (Part XXXIX)

Albrihn held Vion in his arms for a long time as they both lay on the bed breathing hard. He ran his hands over her body, now glistening with sweat like his own and met her eyes. She smiled at him. His wife. The idea was dizzying. Despite everything happening outside this room, he had to laugh. She gave him a flat look. “Something funny, Lord Albrihn?”

“No, that wasn’t what I meant I…did you say lord?”

“Of course.” She lifted herself off him and collapsed down onto the mattress. Rolling onto her side, she began to twine her fingers through the dark hair on his chest. “You’re the Imperial consort. You’re nobility now.”

“I suppose I am.”

“No suppose about it, Rayke. Simply by marrying me, you’ve accepted the title.”

“What a strange day.” He lifted his hand and looked at the ring on his finger. Its weight was oddly unfamiliar, but he found he liked the feel of it. He clenched and unclenched his fist experimentally.

“Like it?”

“I do.” That made him chuckle. “You know, that’s what they say in the mainlands when they marry.”

“What?”

It would take a while to explain. He tried to summarise. “They have a ceremony and make vows. They’re asked if they intend to love and honour their spouse for the rest of their lives and they each answer ‘I do’. In some places anyway.”

She looked baffled. “Why would they be getting married if they didn’t plan to do that?”

“Don’t ask me. They seem to place a lot of stock in the words.”

“Strange people.”

“Well, as I say, that was only in some places. They might be more rational elsewhere. The mainlands is a big place.”

“I’ve never been.”

“Not many Atlantians have.” Vion was lying on her front now, and she’d lifted her feet and waved them back and forth. The curve of her buttocks caught the light just so and he found himself hardening again. He wanted to pull her into another embrace, but he was aware that the afternoon was wearing away, and he had no time to idle in bed with his wife. His wife! Each time he thought those words, he got an odd lurch in his stomach. It didn’t feel real yet.

Vion finally clambered up and sat on the edge of the bed. She peeked over her shoulder, watching him as he examined the ring again. “My mother gave me that.”

It was his turn to demonstrate his ignorance. “I never knew her.”

“You’d have liked her. She was a remarkable woman.”

“I’m sure she was, to marry an Emperor. We consorts are rare creatures, you know.”

That made her laugh. “She was a great source of strength for him,” she said, sounding a little wistful, “after she died, he changed. He was never quite the man he’d been.”

“He was still a great man…”

“Of course,” she said, almost automatically. She looked around the room. “Are you hungry?”

“No. I ate not long ago.”

“Sex always makes me hungry.”

Albrihn considered. “Actually, I suppose I could eat something…”

Vion walked over to a table set with various dishes and plates. “What would you like?”

“What is there?”

“Olives, curried goat, terrine, apple tarts, some Hadean cheese, sweetnuts, honeyed locusts…”

He cringed, recalling his earlier thought about the abundance of food within the Enclave compared to the rest of the city. Yes, there would need to be a conversation, but now probably wasn’t the time.

“Well?” She turned and raised her eyebrows.

“Actually, I think I’m all right.” He swung himself around and stood up, stretching his arms and cracking his back. “I’ve already tarried too long today. There’s a lot to do.”

“I told you, Saffrey’s days away yet.”

“There’s hardly any time to lose, Vion.”

“I agree. But we made a lot of decisions yesterday, and you don’t have to oversee their implementation personally. You’re overall commander, and you have able lieutenants.”

“Even so…”

“Which reminds me,” she said, speaking over him. She had a plate in one hand and in the other she carried an envelope with the seal already broken. She sat back down on the bed and handed the letter to him. “The Matriarch has already sent a reply.”

He lifted his eyebrows in surprise. “That was quick.”

“She’s a very efficient woman.”

“So I hear.” He took the missive out and quickly scanned the terse sentences. “Hm.”

“My thoughts exactly.” She’d propped her pillows up and now reclined easily on the bed, picking at her food.

“She seems to be amenable to the idea though.”

“I believe she can be persuaded.”

Without thinking he said, “This would be a lot easier if…” At the look she shot him, he remembered himself and held his tongue. There were few worse times to bring up the name of a former lover than while lounging in the marital bed: that was his first lesson as a husband. “Is it me, or does she come across as…I don’t know…insulted? This last line: ‘Naturally, I will make the usual preparations expected of me in such a situation as this’. Sounds a little…I don’t know…sarcastic? ”

“I thought the same,” Vion said. “But I can’t stop her.” She popped an olive into her mouth and chewed it while looking at him thoughtfully.

“No. She can prepare all she wants, but I won’t do what I’m certain she wants until I absolutely have to.”

“She has a point though, Rayke, though she makes it obliquely. She’s the Matriarch of the Keepers. It’s her job to have the Cyclopes ready for war. This is what they were meant for.”

“Have you seen what a Cyclops can do, Vion?”

“No.” She swallowed the olive. “But I’ve heard. War is never pleasant though, is it?”

“True, but this isn’t like running a soldier through with a sword. I don’t even know if it’s even a true death.”

“You think anyone could survive that?” She looked sceptical.

“It’s not that.” He recalled the battle with the hyen-a-khan after they’d found the ruins of the village of Priam. That was the first time he’d met Jonis. He pushed that away. No, what was seared into his memory was the Cyclops and the dark, terrible vortex it had unleashed when its helmet was removed. That writhing maw of tentacles, dripping with ichor, hungering for something more succulent than any meat. He could see the dogmen twisting, their bones snapping as the black tendrils ensnared them, being sucked towards that hideous abyss. And, worst of all, the disturbing movement beneath the beast’s flesh when its ‘meal’ was done. As if they were trapped within its stomach – or whatever Cyclopes had – and were striving to escape. It was bad enough to visit that fate upon dogmen: the idea of doing it to fellow humans, who’d done nothing more than follow the orders of their rebellious superiors, instinctively repelled him. He couldn’t mark his elevation to the ruling class of Atlantis with such a deed.

Vion was still looking at him, waiting for him to expand on his cryptic remark. “It must be a last resort,” he said, “please don’t push me on this. You wanted me to be your Marshall.”

She waved a hand, as if it were nothing. “Whatever you think is best.”

“Thank you.”

She put a piece of cheese in her mouth and watched him again. “I’m on your side, Rayke,” she said after she’d swallowed.

“What?”

“I’m your wife now. We’re a team.”

He sat down beside her on the bed, placing a hand on her shoulder. “I know that.” He pressed his forehead against hers. “This is just a strange time to be starting a marriage.”

“When better? Now, more than ever, we need unity.”

“Hm. I agree. But more pressing right now is the need for soldiers. I’m going to the barracks to see how things are going. With luck, a few of the units Saffrey sent on patrol will have returned by now. If they haven’t defected that is…”

“All will be well,” she told him, rubbing his arm reassuringly and putting her plate on the bed stand.

“We don’t know that. We can’t know that. If we did, we wouldn’t have to defend Atlas.”

“You know what I mean. A good commander has to have confidence.”

“I have the utmost confidence in my troops, in the people of this city, in our weapons and our resources.”

“So why are you worried?”

“I don’t have faith in the man who commands.”

She kissed him suddenly, forcefully, passionately. He felt himself press against her body instinctively. She pulled away and took his face between both hands, looking him straight in the eyes. “I have faith in him. He’s my husband, the Imperial consort, Marshall of Atlas. I don’t give such titles idly, Rayke Albrihn.”

“I know.” He drew strength from her assurance, and felt that jump in his belly again as he thought of what they now were to one another. The fates had dealt him a strange hand in life. How had he found his way to this place? What force had drawn them together so completely? He didn’t believe in destiny, or the will of the gods, but he felt sure, sitting there with her then, that they’d been somehow connected since birth, and that their coming together was completely inevitable. A strange idea, but he found it reassuring too, and so held onto it. A darkness was coming, and how many more glimmers of light would there be in the days ahead? Suddenly, he didn’t want to leave this bed, no matter how pressing his duties elsewhere. He wanted to stay here, with his new wife, and hold onto every single moment they had together. In a short time, everything they’d fought for might be ash and ruins. One or both of them could be dead. Just as he’d devoured the meal in Aethlan’s chambers, justifying it by telling himself a starving man should answer only to his stomach, so too did he use the same logic here. A dying man must hold onto life. He must take every pleasure left to him, because the chance may never come again.

He kissed Vion, and pushed against her. She responded and they sank back down onto the tangled sheets. He held her close and, at the unspoken urging of her body, he lifted himself and entered her. She responded with a breathy gasp and then a low moan of pleasure. By the time they were done, it was getting dark outside, and a thick layer of snow covered everything.

When Albrihn reached the barracks, it was fully night, but it seemed to make no difference to the ongoing activity. In contrast to when he’d arrived the previous day, the courtyard was now filled with people, and lit by dozens of blazing torches. Grooms were running everywhere, tending to milling horses, and the voices of sergeants carried through the air, ordering clusters of soldiers back and forth. Everyone looked muddy and bedraggled, but there was a determination in their faces, a resolve that heartened him. He went straight up into the meeting room that overlooked the yard, and there found Rykall and a number of other officers of various ranks, few of which he knew. The commander nodded as he entered. “Albrihn. About time. Didn’t you get my message?”

He hadn’t. “Sorry, no. I have a lot on my mind…”

“Of course. But this one was important. Here.” He proffered a folded piece of paper.

Albrihn took it and looked over the long table scattered with maps and reports. Messengers and servants were constantly rushing in and out of the room and there were half a dozen conversations going on at once. No one besides Rykall even seemed to realise who he was. He stepped up to the largest map, in the centre, and looked it over. It was Atlas and the surrounding countryside. The scale was large enough to show the city’s major streets, and the disposition of the defences had been hastily scribbled in. Barricades were being erected in the shanty town as the people were moved back into Atlas proper, some more grudgingly than others, and the walls themselves were being bolstered by hastily erected earthworks. Stone, rubble, soil and wood, whatever was to hand, was being packed in, just to prevent an outright rampage into the streets. More coloured discs were in evidence, but now the detail was proportionally greater, and individual units were picked out. Regiments, companies, artillery batteries and so forth. He could see that in just a day, the number of troops they had available had almost trebled.

“Fifteen-thousand swords,” Rykall said from across the table.

“Against how many?”

“Scouts say at least four times that, with more on the way. Saffrey has more support than we thought from other Provinces.”

“It doesn’t look good.”

“Read the letter,” he said.

Albrihn looked at the broken seal before unfolding it. Dark green wax, with a mark showing three stars and a crescent moon. Saffrey’s sigil. He read it. “A parley?”

“Aye.”

Saffrey wanted to meet to discuss terms in two days. Outside the city, on neutral ground. That meant, at the very least, they knew how much time they had until the attack came. “If we can trust this…” he said, answering his own unvoiced question.

“He wants this battle almost as little as we do, Albrihn.”

“You think so?”

“Why would he want to start his reign by destroying his capital?”

“Fair point.” He put the letter down and looked over the map again. So few to defend a city this vast. A million people were hiding in the warren of streets and alleys. Maybe quite a few less now, since so many had fled, but still it was an immense responsibility. His earlier doubts returned. He had a plan to make sure all those people would be safe when the fighting started, but if their homes and businesses were burned, it would be a hollow victory indeed. He felt weary again.

“It can be done, Rayke,” Rykall said softly.

“I know. But will it?”

“If we die, it’ll be with our swords in our hands.”

“I want to die in my bed, peacefully.”

Rykall snorted. “You’re a soldier.”

“No. I’m a fucking noble now.”

“What?”

He waved a hand. “Never mind. Do you know where Morrow is?”

“Your lieutenant?”

“Captain,” he corrected, “but yes.”

“I think I saw her in the dining hall a while ago.”

“Right. Do you need me for anything else right now?”

“It’s all in hand, sir,” Rykall grinned, “more troops pouring through the gates every hour. Most of them are Atlas born, and don’t want to see any enemy army come knocking on their city’s gates.”

A thought occurred. Albrihn leaned close and lowered his voice. “Are we certain of their loyalties? What’s to stop Saffrey sending his own soldiers in disguised as local units?”

“I thought of that. I’m mixing deployments where I can, not grouping whole regiments together in barracks or on the walls. I’m putting men and women I trust in key positions to anchor the line with forces whose loyalty I can vouch for personally. If a company decides to break its oaths, they’ll find themselves surrounded by enemies.”

“Good.”

“It’s all in hand,” he said again, “and if your plan works, it may not even matter.”

He gave a crooked grin. “Or if we agree terms with Saffrey…”

Rykall’s laugh was booming and everyone glanced up momentarily. “What are the chances of that do you think?”

“We’ll know in two days, I suppose.”

It came around quickly, so filled with activity were those days. Walls went up, people were evacuated from their homes, sometimes forcefully, and everything was set in place. And, less than a mile beyond the city, the horizon began to darken as Saffrey’s army spread out across the countryside. The ground was still white with snow, and Albrihn could take stock of their situation easily. The lumbering shapes of siege engines were visible through his spyglass, rolling into place. He stood at Atlas’s northern gate, on the sandstone battlements above the gatehouse. It was not a formidable defence, despite their hasty attempts to reinforce it. Even Talos had been a more secure prospect. But it gave him the height he needed. The shanty town sprawling around them was eerily silent now, and the maze of paths through it blocked by many improvised barricades. Morrow tugged at her cloak. “Fuck this,” she said.

Albrihn glanced at her. “You’d rather be somewhere else, captain?”

“Wouldn’t you?”

He lifted the spyglass again. “My city’s in danger. Where else would I be?”

“Sycophant.”

“I’m a married man now.”

“Same difference.” She’d recovered some of her sense of humour, but there was still something dark in her gaze, as if she’d realised for the first time this wasn’t a great adventure. She’d seen plenty of death, and had lost friends in battle before, but somehow this was different.

“As long as you’re by my side,” he said, “I don’t see how anything could go wrong.”

“Then you’re stupider than I am.”

“That’s no way to speak to the Marshall of Atlas.”

“Feel free to give me a dishonourable discharge. I’ll be on the first ship out of here.”

“No ships are leaving any time soon.”

“I’ll swim then.”

“Is this cold? You’d be dead in minutes.”

“Bloody hell. Aren’t you supposed to be encouraging us or something?”

“Probably. Come on, anyway, we’re going to be late.” He turned to the trapdoor that led down into the gatehouse and began to climb down the ladder.

“I don’t mind keeping the fucker waiting…”

On the ground, by the gates, a small mounted party awaited them. Rykall was there, and two of his soldiers, one carrying the banner of the Third Regiment. Morrow was being given the honour of carrying the banner of Atlantis itself, the Empress’s own standard. A minister Albrihn didn’t know, a young fellow called Valcon, was with them. Apparently he was now leading the Chamber of Ministers in the absence of most of the government. Aethlan was there too, which surprised him. He hadn’t seen her since the night he’d arrived. As he mounted up he nodded to her. “Lady Aethlan. I never thanked you for your hospitality. The food especially was very welcome.”

She smiled. “I thought that it might be, Commander Albrihn.”

“Actually it’s…” he waved one of his gloved hands. “Never mind. Now, why are you here, if you don’t mind my asking?”

She sat a little straighter on her horse, a lean Atlasian filly rather than the rangy Talosi mount she’d rode in on. “I am here to represent the interests of my people. All that remains of the legitimate government of Talos is here in Atlas. If we fall, so does my Province.”

“Very well.”

Everyone was ready to depart and so he waved them forward and they proceeded out through the mile or so of slum that completely surrounded the city. Down in the streets it was even stranger to see so little sign of life. The whole area had been cleared out by the militia, and now the hovels stood empty, their doors tightly fastened, their windows blocked up. Riding through it gave Albrihn a strange tingle in his spine, as if he were being watched. There could still be a few stalwarts who’d snuck back in during the night, hoping to weather this storm in their homes after all. Well, they’d find a problem with that. In a short time they’d cleared the city entirely and were on the open road. Snow clung more sparsely up close, churned into dark muck in places. Twisted grey trees marked the edges of the road. All was still. There was a strange, austere beauty to the scene, marred only by the smoke rising ahead of them, the evidence of the hundreds of campfires lit by the attacking horde.

They left the road and trotted cross-country. Up ahead was an old farmhouse, just four crumbling walls. It had been there for as long as Albrihn could recollect. Once it had most likely been a good distance from Atlas, and all this had been farmland, but as the city had begun to sprawl outwards, the fields had been eaten up and the house abandoned. No one had ever bothered to demolish it and it had survived the elements for years, a tribute to whatever mason had laid its stones so long ago. Another cluster of horses was visible by its side, stark against the snow. As they approached, they broke away from the tumbledown walls and cantered towards them. The two parties drew up opposite one another, five strides of bare earth all that stood between them.

In the centre, opposite Albrihn, was Saffrey himself. He was wrapped heavily in a fur-lined cloak, cinched up around his throat. He wore matching gloves with gold embroidery and held the reins lightly. He had the same smirk as always plastered across his face. Beside him sat Hadrin. Her face was completely unreadable, but she wore her armour, freshly polished, and now her uniform was in the dark green of Chronus, Saffrey’s colours. Some of the others he didn’t know – officers in the enemy army, no doubt, and he could tell by the armour they wore which unit they belonged to. The thickset woman in scale mail must be the commander of his honour guard, those heavy infantry they’d seen. She looked a little awkward in the saddle. The next rider he knew all too well. It was the Ankhari, the huge pale mainlander on his great white horse. He regarded Albrihn with a level stare, but like Hadrin, gave nothing else away. Curiously, beside him rode a slight mainlander, wrapped up tight against the cold. She only looked frightened. Who was she then?

“Well met, commander,” Saffrey said.

“It’s Lord Marshall now,” he replied.

Saffrey tilted his head. “Well now. Isn’t that interesting? Some might call it a bad omen to use a title from such dark days, don’t you agree, Commander Hadrin?”

She shrugged noncommittally. “I was gratified to learn you’d survived Ixion, Rayke.”

Rykall growled low like a wolf, and Albrihn lifted a hand to silence him. “No thanks to you,” he said mildly.

“It wasn’t ever my intent to shed blood.”

“What did you think would happen?” he demanded incredulously.

“I thought you might see sense.” She held up a hand towards the city behind them. “You can’t hope to win here.”

“Evidently we do.”

“You don’t want this battle,” Saffrey said, “no more than we do.”

“When I don’t want a battle, I rarely bring an army to a city. In my experience, it’s all they’re good for.”

He smiled thinly. “Very droll, Lord Marshall.” The way he said the title made his contempt clear. “No one has to die here though. You know that as well as I.”

“I do. So tell them to leave. Surrender yourself and face justice for your treason.”

That made Saffrey laugh loudly, and the sound echoed hollowly across the snowbound countryside. No one else so much as cracked a smile. “Is it treason to save your country?”

“It’s treason to kill a thousand loyal soldiers of the Empress and threaten to lay siege to her capital.”

Hadrin had flinched at his words, but now she drew herself up. “You must see the wisdom in this, Albrihn. Vion is weak.”

“She is your Empress,” he snapped, “you will not address her as anything else.”

“I don’t acknowledge her rule,” Saffrey said.

“Her rule does not require your acknowledgment.”

He walked his horse forward a few steps. “I have nothing against Vion. Sorry…the Empress…” he rolled his eyes at that. “I challenge her rule because she rebuffed my proposal.”

“She has the right to marry whomever she wishes,” Albrihn said carefully.

“Of course. But as Empress, she has a duty to Atlantis. A dark age is coming, and we cannot afford instability of this nature.”

“Instability you bring…”

“What does it tell you that so many have gathered to oppose her?” Hadrin said. “What does it tell you about the confidence her people have in her, Albrihn?”

“She’s been Empress for less than a month! She’s untried!”

“Precisely,” Saffrey said smoothly, “and we don’t need untried girls ruling Atlantis. We need a steady hand in these times. My offer is still open. If she but consents to marry me and makes me her consort, all of this can go away.”

Albrihn felt his jaw tighten. “That won’t be possible.”

“She still refuses?” Saffrey’s eyes twinkled as he watched him. How much did he know? What spies did he have in the palace?

“The Empress is no longer free to take a consort.”

That seemed to be news to everyone except Saffrey himself. He just kept smiling in that insipid way he had. “Oh?”

Angry now, Albrihn tugged off his glove and lifted his hand so the ring he wore was visible. “I am her consort. We married two days ago.”

“Well now, isn’t that interesting?” Saffrey’s gaze roved across their party and, for some reason, settled on Aethlan. “My lady,” he said, “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

“Lady Aethlan,” she said, and her voice sounded strangled. Albrihn glanced at her. Her face had gone even more pale than usual, and she wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“Congratulations are in order,” Hadrin said stiffly, “but you must be aware that by doing this you’ve signed this city’s death warrant.”

“Speak to your betters with more respect, Hadrin,” Rykall said, “he’s Lord Albrihn now. A member of the Imperial family. He even outranks Saffrey.”

“If this marriage is legitimate,” Saffrey said.

Albrihn frowned at him. “What does that mean?”

“Nothing at all. I’m sure no laws contravene it. Not any I know, anyway.”

He wasn’t following, and shook his head. “Enough of this. You have our terms. Disband your army, surrender yourself, avert this madness.”

“And our terms…well…now I suppose they’re impossible to meet, aren’t they? So we’re at an impasse.”

“We have the Cyclopes. Don’t forget that.” It was his only trump card, and he hadn’t wanted to play it. But here they were.

“And will you deploy them, Lord Albrihn? Will you inflict them on the innocent soldiers of my army? Men and women who were just doing as they were commanded by their officers? Truly, you and the Empress will rule more harshly than I imagined.”

He’d called his bluff, but he wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of confirming it for him. “It’s up to you, Lord Saffrey. No one forces you to fight today.”

“Yes they do. This is on your head, Lord Marshall.” He started to turn his horse away, but a guttural shout interrupted him. It was the Ankhari, who’d barked something in his native language. He was holding up a massive fist and looking at Albrihn. Saffrey turned his horse. “I believe Jatharik wishes to speak to you…”

The Ankhari – Jatharik? – rode out into the space between the two groups. The small woman followed behind meekly. She rode a mare that looked as timid as her. As the pale barbarian came closer, Albrihn caught sight of what he wore around his belt – a length of cord, on which were strung human heads. Grisly trophies, typical of mainlanders and their savage customs. But one of those heads was familiar. His one good eye had been cruelly stabbed out and there was a crust of dark blood covering half the face, but it was clearly Hasprit. He could see Morrow starting forward out of the corner of his eye and he grabbed her reins without even looking at her. He was talking, and his language was harsh and clanging. How would he speak with them if they couldn’t understand a word he said?

The role of the small woman suddenly became clear, as she started to translate his words into clear, precise Atlantian. “Let the Atlantian warlord Rayke son of Albrihn know that I am Jatharik, son of Dhenarik of the Fired Bones Clan. My sword is feared across the lands of men, and the gods themselves fear the sound of my name.”

“You killed my friend,” Albrihn said calmly. She translated his words back into Ankhari.

Jatharik grinned. “I will kill you too,” he said through his translator.

“Why? What have I done to offend you, Jatharik son of Dhenarik?”

He smiled again. His face was made of hard planes, and every expression he made was cruel. His eyes were very green, and Albrihn felt a jolt of recognition when he met his gaze, but he wasn’t sure why. He spoke again, and the woman’s high voice followed a moment later. “Two years ago, my brother Hetharik, chieftain of the Fired Bones, left our lands to raid a Telgasian trading post in the disputed territory to the east of our borders. He took with him a hundred warriors and anticipated no trouble. We had raided the Telgasians many times. They are weak: merchants. They yield rather than fight, but it does not save them.”

Albrihn frowned. There was something familiar about this story. “What was the trading post called…” he started to ask, but Jatharik was still talking.

“My brother died that day. The men who returned to us, before we punished them for their cowardice, told us the tale of what had happened. A mercenary army was passing through the trading post and, instead of fleeing, they stood their ground. Men of many nations drew blades against the Fired Bones Ankhari that day, but those who fought most courageously were a warband of Atlantians.”

“Rayke…” Morrow murmured.

He nosed his horse forward, looking up to meet Jatharik’s eyes. “We were that warband,” he said, “we were part of a small army escorting a trading caravan across the wilderness. We stopped overnight at a Telgasian outpost.”

Jatharik nodded as Albrihn’s words were repeated back to him in his own tongue. “This, I know. My brother was the greatest warrior who ever rode, a chieftain amongst chieftains. He was killed by Atlantians.”

He remembered the battle, such as it was. It had hardly seemed significant at the time. The Seventh had sent out scouts, as always, and it was Morrow herself who brought word back of a band of raiders, pale-skinned, all mounted. They’d taken charge of the defence. The outpost had no walls to speak of – it wasn’t a siege, just a raid, for plunder or slaves. The barbarians were a disorganised mob, not expecting any kind of resistance. They fought with their curved swords and had no bows. They were outmatched. He didn’t recall the chieftan – Jatharik’s brother, apparently – falling. It hadn’t even occurred to him they were anything but a savage rabble. He hadn’t given it a second thought in the two years since. He shook his head. “So…this is revenge? You think I killed your brother?”

His words were relayed, and Jatharik tilted his head curiously. Then he laughed, the sound as harsh as his language. “Revenge? Ankhari do not care for revenge,” the small woman translated for him, “my brother now rides with the gods in the Battle That Never Ends. He died in battle, with honour. I will see him again, when I am killed in my turn.”

“So what do you want me for? Why are you here, Jatharik?” he was getting annoyed now. This was a distraction – why did they have to pander to this barbarian?

The Ankhari’s voice was low and his tone even darker as he spoke, fixing Albrihn in his gaze again. “Across the world, tales are told of the men of Atlantis, the fell brown-skinned warriors from across the sea. All know they are the mightiest warriors in all the lands of men. I am the greatest amongst the Ankhari: none in my lands can match my blade. So I come here, to the land of those who had the strength to kill my brother, who was greater even than I, to test my mettle. I am here to please the gods. I am here for glory. I am here for your head, Rayke son of Albrihn.”

He stared at the huge, pale man. What was this madness? “This is who you bring to assert your right to rule Atlantis, Saffrey?” he demanded.

“He’s a crude fellow,” Saffrey said with a shrug, “but very effective. How could I refuse him?”

“And how could I refuse to fight you now, when you visit such horror on our shores?”

“I’m not the one threatening to unleash the Cyclopes.” He turned his horse again. “We attack tomorrow, Albrihn. I suggest you ready your defences, if you have any to speak of.”

They rode away. Jatharik remained where he was a moment longer, eyes still locked on Albrihn, then he turned and galloped off after his allies, the little woman still meekly in tow. He hadn’t even acknowledged her, though he’d been completely reliant on her skills.

“What a pleasant people,” the minister, Valcon, remarked drily.

“You heard them,” Albrihn said, watching their horses dwindle, dark shapes against the snow. The only exception was Jatharik, whose white horse and skin blended into the backdrop, so he was only visible as a blur of movement.

“Rayke,” Aethlan said, sidling up to him, “I have to speak with you…”

“When we return to the city.”

“It is important.”

“So is everything else at the moment.” He kicked his horse in the ribs and broke immediately into a gallop. He spared a glance for Morrow only, whose expression had turned desolate. For better or worse, Jatharik would have to die for what he’d done. They both knew that. He was certain it was just playing into Saffrey’s hands, but what choice did any of them have? Things had been set in motion. The war was coming.

 

 

 

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