Age of War (Part XLI)

The barracks that Albrihn still thought of as home were close by the gates and so made a natural headquarters. The sky was gradually paling as dawn arrived, and though his eyes were grainy, he refused to stop studying the map spread out on the table in the meeting room. He hadn’t been to bed. His original plan had been to spend the night with Vion – like many soldiers, he generally used his time wisely when battle loomed – but he hadn’t been able to face her, not with what Aethlan had told him. He’d spent the last hours oscillating between disbelief and despair, at first trying to reason his way out of the situation: Aethlan had been tricked, or was mistaken, or was in league with Saffrey. But the more he turned it over in his head, the more the idea took root, and gradually he began to assimilate the knowledge as fact. Somehow, he just knew it was true. Vion was his sister. The Emperor had been his father. A lot of things made more sense this way. Except for one thing. He looked down at his hand reflexively. Less than three days to enjoy his marriage. Not that it would be a marriage if anyone else discovered the truth. It was unlawful, and condemned by all right-thinking folk. Vion would likely be deposed by the Chamber of Ministers for demonstrating such obvious depravity and as for him…well, a dishonourable discharge was the best he could hope for. More likely would be exile, if not mandated by law, then at least he would be strongly encouraged to leave Atlantis to avoid further scandal. Whatever happened here today, he’d be tainted in the eyes of his own people forever.

The door opened, and he looked up to see Morrow standing there. He straightened and nodded. “Captain.”

“Couldn’t sleep either?”

“I thought you’d be in a brothel somewhere.”

“Not exactly in the mood.” She walked into the room and took up station on the opposite side of the table.

He wanted to make a joke, to say he thought she was always in the mood, but he couldn’t, not then. It was the sort of thing Hasprit would have interjected with, and some part of him still expected him to be there at their elbow, puffing on his pipe, puncturing the tension with a sardonic comment. Instead, he turned his attention back to the map. “What do you think?”

“I think we’re fucked.”

“Any particular reason?”

“You’re the one in charge, sir.”

“Humour me.” He spread his hands across the map. “Tell me what you think.”

Morrow considered the deployments he’d laid out. “Saffrey won’t fall for it.”

“Hadrin’s in command.”

She snorted. “She certainly won’t fall for it.”

“That’s what the Cyclopes are for.” He pointed at the black discs that now surrounded the city. “They can’t kill them all, but it’s certainly a start…” He trailed off, knowing what she’d say to that.

“You know Saffrey will just send his most expendable troops in, don’t you? Levies from the towns and villages. Ordinary men and women.”

“Yes. But Saffrey’s the one driving them forward. He’s the one responsible for this.” Even he didn’t believe that.

“This plan won’t succeed unless they’re overconfident, sir.”

“Saffrey has no shortage of confidence, Morrow. The Cyclopes will be enough to break them in any case. When they see their comrades shrivel like leaves in a flame…they’ll run.”

“Then I guess everything will be fine.”

Albrihn grimaced. He’d been backed into a corner and made a foolish decision. He had no wish to deploy the Cyclopes, knowing what they could do. But he’d already asked the Matriarch for one favour and of course she’d want to deploy her creatures given the opportunity. This was exactly what they were for. And yet they hadn’t been used in such numbers in centuries. They were a last resort, the foundation of Atlantis’s military might, but like most soldiers he preferred to put his faith in swords and arrows. The weird magic of the Cyclopes made him uncomfortable. But there was no help for it now. The deed was as good as done.

As if summoned by his thought, the Matriarch appeared at the door, frowning at the almost empty meeting room. He knew her only by reputation. He’d been expecting someone tall and lean like Jonis and her brother, but the Matriarch was a short, compact woman with a neck almost a thick as Rykall’s. Her hair was short and steel-grey, and both eyes were surrounded by intricate runic tattoos. Her gaze was dark and piercing, and her manner seemed dour. She walked in, instantly dominating the space, sizing him up. “Lord Marshall Albrihn?”

He inclined his head slightly. “Matriarch.”

She took Morrow’s place, not even giving her a glance as she stepped to one side, giving her room. Following the Matriarch were two Keepers, a man and a woman, obviously twins, both very tall and very beautiful, with silver-blonde hair. Instead of the arrogant swagger he’d have expected from two such individuals, they instead kept their eyes on the ground and stood either side of the door, saying nothing. The Matriarch didn’t look at them either; instead all of her attention was focused on him. She had a way of staring and saying nothing that made him feel like a naughty child. He cleared his throat and started to speak.

“It’s nice to finally make your acquaintance,” she said before he could get a word out, “your reputation precedes you.”

That caught him off-guard, but he composed himself quickly. “I wasn’t aware I had a reputation in the Cyclops stables, Matriarch.”

“You didn’t until very recently. But since I first heard your name, you seemed to have turned all of our lives upside down.” Now she finally did look at her two companions, and they seemed to wilt under her scrutiny. Slowly she turned back to him. “My Cyclopes are just moving into position.”

He sketched an awkward bow. The hierarchy between the militia and the Keepers had never been particularly clear. They each kept to their own business for the most part, with the latter lending assistance when ordered to do so, but taking ultimate responsibility for the use of their unique living weapons. No one else was foolish enough to get too close to them. “Atlantis appreciates your service.”

She cocked her head. “Was my loyalty in doubt, Lord Albrihn?”

“No, I just meant…”

“The Cyclops Keepers are of Atlas. This is our home too.”

“I know. But nonetheless…”

“But we serve the legitimate government of Atlantis. Whatever that means.” She rolled her eyes.

“It means the Empress,” he said shortly.

“Yes. Empress, Emperor, for us it makes little difference, I hope you appreciate that.”

“The Empress is…”

She raised a hand to silence him. “She is the legitimate ruler, by right of succession. Yes, yes. But her father took the throne by force.”

“Well…” Not just her father. His father. The Emperor. That thought gave him pause.

“If Saffrey sits the throne at the end of this…we won’t fight him.”

He’d already assumed at much. “For now,” he reminded her, “the throne belongs to the Empress.”

“Indeed. And we have done as you asked.” She looked down at the map, studying it intently for a few moments. “This won’t work,” she told him.

He shot Morrow a glance. “That seems to be a popular opinion this morning.”

She seemed to notice the captain for the first time, and gave her an appraising look. “And who are you, girl?”

“Captain Morrow, Matriarch. Seventh light cavalry, twelfth regiment.”

“Indeed.” She pointed at Albrihn. “You’re one of his?”

“In what sense, ma’am?”

“In any sense, girl.”

“I’ve served with him for years. I was his lieutenant.”

“Then I’ll assume you’re equally formidable.”

Albrihn raised his eyebrows at that. Obviously the Matriarch wasn’t one to give a compliment directly. “You were saying, Matriarch…”

“The Cyclopes can’t destroy the whole of the attacking force.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“You want to break them?”

“That’s the plan…”

“They may run. An assault by massed Cyclopes can be extremely demoralising.”

“I can imagine.”

“But there is no guarantee.” She gave him a pointed look.

“There never is in war.”

“I know that. You seem very young for a commander, Albrihn.”

“My recent ascent has been somewhat…rapid.”

“Some might call you untried.”

“I may surprise you.”

“I dislike surprises, Lord Albrihn.” She glanced down at his hand, which he instinctively curled into a fist to disguise the ring he wore. “I hope we’re fighting on the right side,” she said in a low voice. “I wouldn’t want to be responsible for the deaths of thousands of soldiers to keep a slattern on the throne.”

“You’re talking about my wife.” He hadn’t intended to sound threatening, and the fates knew he had no desire to lay claim to his marriage at the moment, but the words came out automatically. He had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“Good.” She seemed satisfied for some reason. She turned to the two Keepers at the door. “Time to earn your way back into my good graces,” she barked. They both jumped as she spoke. It was almost comical to see the two beauties so clearly intimidated by this small, stocky woman. Her attention returned to Albrihn. “I assume you won’t interfere.” It wasn’t a question.

“I defer to your experience with your beasts, ma’am.”

She nodded. “Just so. We will meet again, when this is done.” Before he could formulate a reply to that she was striding off towards the door. She collected the two contrite Keepers on the way and they followed like loyal hounds, still keeping their heads down.

“What do you think they did?” he asked Morrow.

“Whatever it was, I wouldn’t have done it. Not with her running things.”

He smiled slightly, and she returned it with one of her own. For a moment, it was almost like old times. He sighed. “Ready?”

“To die?”

That shook him. Morrow was never so morbid. He’d never known a soldier with a more casual attitude to the business of war. He wasn’t sure how to reply to her.

“Never, sir,” she added, before he could get anything out. And then she grinned just the way she used to, and he couldn’t help but laugh.

“That’s the spirit, captain.”

“Where do you want me anyway?” she asked, looking at the map.

“By my side. Where else?”

They headed out. The sky was almost light now, though the sun hadn’t yet crested the horizon. In the courtyard, soldiers were beginning to rouse themselves, and grooms were walking horses back and forth. Everything should have been ready for the coming attack, all that was left to do was getting everyone where they needed to be, and then the dice would be rolled and only the gods knew how they’d land. At the bottom of the stairs, Albrihn was surprised to be met by a familiar face. He drew up as he reached the floor.

“Sergeant Loban reporting for duty, sir,” his one-time mentor said, giving him a salute. They locked eyes, and something passed between them. They each knew the secret that tormented him, but neither would speak openly about it. The idea that Loban had known about this for so long still stunned him. How could he have just let everything that had happened carry on? Why didn’t he say anything?

“Sergeant…”

“Might be some use somewhere, sir.”

Morrow laughed from behind him. “Not like you to volunteer for anything, Loban…”

He gave her a sly grin. “There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Nera.”

Albrihn gave him a long look. “Indeed,” he said softly. “You know, I heard a rumour about you, Loban.”

The cook stiffened. Yes, they both had secrets to hide. But did he really think the man he’d trained when he was little more than a boy would play a game like this? “And what would that be?” he asked carefully.

Albrihn stepped closer. “I heard you were better with a sword than you’ve let on,” he said, leaning in conspiratorially.

Loban relaxed and grinned again. “Well, you know, I have a few tricks I’ve picked up…”

“I’m sure you do.” There was an open door on his left, and outside a yard rapidly filling with soldiers, as well as some others who were not quite so prepared for what was coming. “Not everyone in the city was so willing to keep their heads down, Loban.”

“Aye.” He looked out at the slovenly line of men and women who were all handling their weapons uncertainly. They were better than they had been, but that was about all that could be said of these untested volunteers. “Reminds me of a certain lad I saw walk in here…oooh…twenty-five years ago?”

“And look how he turned out. You don’t have as long to work with this lot, but I’m sure you can do some good before the arrows start flying. They’ve had some basic training, but they need a sergeant to help them hold their nerve on the walls.”

“I’m not much of a commander, Rayke.”

“Well they aren’t much of an army. All they need is a good hand on the tiller.”

“Like your old mother’s?” It was a challenge, of sorts. He could read it in his eyes. Who was Rayke Albrihn now? it asked.

“Like my mother’s,” he agreed, holding Loban’s steady gaze. His mother. She’d raised him, along with his father and his sisters. A good family. Honest, kind, loving. Loban had chosen well. He should thank him for that. Another time.

“I think I can do my duty, sir.”

“I’m certain of it, sergeant.” He saluted, and Loban returned it. They stood like that for a moment longer, and then the old cook stumped out into the yard. Albrihn could already hear him filling his lungs ahead of a bellow that would have the sloppy line of volunteers straightened out in no time at all.

“I feel like I’m missing something,” Morrow said.

“How’s that, captain?”

“Loban is…Loban…”

“That’s not entirely true, captain.”

“Eh?”

“Never mind. Come on, we have a city to defend.”

*

There was just enough light to see by. Hadrin looked through the spyglass, surveying the edges of the city. She was lying on the snowy ground, only a little way from the sprawl of the shanty town outside the tumble-down walls. With her was a single squad of guards and Captain Telmes, who was in charge of Saffrey’s honour guard. She was a rather stiff woman who didn’t have much about her as far as Hadrin could tell. She’d certainly never heard of her before, but perhaps she was a better fighter than she looked. Currently she was sprawled beside her a little awkwardly. Her scale mail made it hard for her to do much besides march or stand in a phalanx, but she’d insisted on coming. She seemed to resent Hadrin’s command, but she’d learned to ignore things like that. Soldiers either did as they were told or they died. If she insisted on chafing at her orders, likely it wouldn’t be a problem for long. Such was the brutal equation of war, and that equation, she reflected as she scanned the dark buildings heaped on the hill that dominated Atlas, would be very important today.

“What can you see?” Telmes hissed. It was absurd to whisper. The defenders hadn’t sent out scouts, and there wasn’t so much as a mangy cur from the city sniffing around nearby.

“I can’t see anything, captain.” She put the spyglass down and sighed.

“Nothing?”

“Nothing different from what we’ve seen during the last two days.” The city was dark. Unnaturally dark. Even as a siege loomed, there should have been lights in windows, smoke rising from hearths, the clamour of living going on. People had to eat.

“Still no sign of anyone?”

“No sign of anyone or anything. The whole city seems to be deserted.” It was inexplicable. She chewed on her lower lip, thinking it over.

“His lordship said they might try to shelter the peasants in the Enclave, sir.”

“Yes, he did.” She lifted the spyglass again, peering up at the white walls at the top of the hill, with its cluster of towers and minarets rising into the rapidly lightening sky. It was too far to see anything significant, even with the glass. “But the Enclave isn’t large enough to house a million people.”

“His lordship said a lot of the peasants had fled the city.”

“Even so.” She couldn’t puzzle it out. How could Albrihn have evacuated Atlas so quickly? The Enclave was almost empty at the best of times, but she couldn’t imagine so many citizens packed in there. She spared a brief thought for Gorvund and little Shaya. She’d left them a letter before she left for Ixion. Not telling them what she’d planned to do, of course, but warning them they should leave Atlas for a little while, perhaps take a well-earned holiday somewhere further up the coast. She wasn’t looking forward to explaining to her lover how this had all happened. Until the moment she’d seen Albrihn had gone and married Vion, she’d been hoping there was some way this could all be resolved peacefully.

“Can you see their soldiers?” Telmes pressed.

Hadrin gave her a flat look. “No. But there isn’t exactly much they could be doing, is there? It’s a siege. You sit on the walls, you throw rocks and hot oil, you try not to get killed.”

“So why are we here?”

“Because…well…I suppose it doesn’t matter now.” She began to get up, but then some movement in the slums caught her eye. She froze and, slowly, raised the spyglass. There, in the shadows, she could see a massive shape, lumbering down a muddy street. There was no context to reveal its size, but the way it moved, the heaviness of its limbs, told her all she needed to know. She flicked her view across the city, looking for more of them. Yes, there was one. And another. Now she’d spotted them, and as the sun began to rise, she saw them gathering. There were dozens. Maybe more than that. How many were there anyway?

“Commander? What is it?”

Hadrin chewed her lip again. Saffrey had said this wouldn’t happen. He’d said Albrihn would never be so foolish. He was wrong. Badly wrong. “We need to get back to the camp.”

“What’s going on?” Telmes’s voice was testy. She was an insolent cow, and Hadrin hoped she’d be stupid enough to defy her sooner rather than later. Maybe she could lead the vanguard…no, she wouldn’t wish that on her worst enemy, not now.

“We have a problem,” Hadrin said, lowering the spyglass.

“What problem?” She started as Hadrin stood up. “Get down, you idiot! They’ll see you!”

Hadrin gave her a withering look. “It doesn’t matter now.”

“What?” Telmes looked like a child about to throw a tantrum.

“They’ve sent out the Cyclopes.”

Her face turned grey. “But…his lordship said…”

“I know what he said.” She was already heading for her horse, tied up well behind the edge of the ridge they’d been using for cover.

Telmes struggled to her feet and followed as fast as her ridiculous armour would allow. “There’s nothing to worry about though, commander.”

“Spoken like someone with no grasp of the situation’s implications, captain.” She swung herself up into her saddle.

Telmes laughed as if it were some joke. As if any of this was a joke. “His lordship will just send the peasants in first, commander.”

“I don’t doubt that he will.”

“So it’ll be fine, because they’ll be the ones who…”

Hadrin silenced her with another look. She was seriously reconsidering her idea about letting her lead the charge. Most likely she was someone influential’s daughter though. If Saffrey liked women, she’d have assumed her position was down to her performance in bed rather than on the battlefield. In either case, the levies would bear the brunt of this. Was she on the right side in this war? She looked towards the city, and imagined being on the inside rather than here on the outside. Sieges were never a pleasant business. This one had the potential to be the worst of them all. “We need to report back,” she said. “See what…his lordship…wants to do.” She knew exactly what he’d want to do. She just had to look him in the eye as he gave the order. Without sparing a glance for Telmes as she tried to mount her horse while retaining her dignity, she urged her horse into a gallop and headed straight back to the camp.

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