Age of War (Part XLII)

Jonis’s memories were fragmented and confusing. She felt as if she’d lived a dozen different lives and there were snippets of ancient events in her head that were more vivid than any dream. Standing in the ruins of Omega, she’d barely known who she was, and when she finally escaped the lure of those long-dead visions, she was convinced that months had passed. But it was another trick that strange place was playing on her, and she’d caught up with Tayne, Huldane and the others just two days later. She’d gabbled at them incoherently attempting to explain what she’d discovered, just trying to impart some of the sense of wonder she’d experienced as the history of her people was laid out before her. She’d expected suspicion, scepticism, even condescension – what else could someone who claimed to have spoken to the disembodied spirit of a man many leagues distant be but dangerously insane? – but after the things they’d all shared in Omega, her companions were ready to believe almost anything. And they understood well enough when she emphasised how vital it was they get back to Atlas and stop Saffrey. An Atlantis under his rule, she’d explained breathlessly, would slide back into the darkness of ignorance. He was part of a vast conspiracy, perhaps more than a thousand years old, that had robbed them of their history. If he sat the throne as Emperor, the truth of Omega, that the coming catastrophe was of their own making and that the Cyclopes were the cause of it, would be buried forever in the name of stability. And Atlantis too would be buried, under a grinding ocean of deadly ice, all the wonder Saffrey and his kind wanted to preserve irretrievably lost.

She didn’t think any of them except Huldane had really believed her. It had all sounded so ridiculous when she said it out loud, but they needed little encouragement to press on back to their home city. Whatever the reasons, a war was coming, and these were soldiers. If they returned and found Atlas already reduced to ashes, their comrades lying dead, their homes destroyed, they’d never forgive themselves. Or her. Surprisingly, it had been Huldane, the foreigner, who’d spurred them on though. He was tireless, striding ahead of the group, always with a smile and a jest, but with a fierce light in his eyes all the same. Jonis had watched him carefully. After the battle against the hyen-a-khan and his strange tales around their meagre fire he seemed a changed man. She knew how Omega and the dark magic soaked into its stones could confuse the mind. Huldane, it seemed, was more susceptible than the Atlasians, but it seemed no bad thing as his strength encouraged the others and they looked to him as if he really were a hero from some legend, Ragnar Wolfsbane reborn.

Just over a day’s ride from Atlas – happily they’d been able to recover their horses from the village where they’d left them, despite Jonis’s private fear that they might find they’d been sold on or even eaten – she had spoken to Tayne as she’d relieved her watch in the dead of night. “I’m worried about Huldane. He’s changed.”

“We all have,” Tayne had told her, “it was that place. Omega.”

Jonis had had to admit she was right. She didn’t know what she’d been expecting to find, but she could hardly say she was disappointed with the revelation. Concerned, shocked, terrified maybe, but certainly the quest had proved worth the cost, heavy though it was. Her mind returned to those solemn cairns of rubble in The Circle, and the men and women who’d never see Atlas again. “I’m sorry for everything that happened,” she’d felt obliged to say.

“It wasn’t your doing.”

“But still…if not for me…your soldiers…”

“They gave their lives to Atlantis a long time ago, Jonis. They knew the risks. And, from what you’ve told us, their deaths won’t be in vain. They might even save us all in the long run.”

It had been a comforting thought, but the closer they came to Atlas, the more the wonder and strangeness of the last few weeks seemed to evaporate. As they came across towns huddling in the foothills of the Titans, they saw the same deprivation as before, but now the settlements were swollen with newcomers. Families carrying all their worldly goods on rickety carts, crowded into rude hovels. They were refugees, and they all knew where they were fleeing from. The snow they’d encountered on the mountains didn’t abate either. Jonis had never seen the ground blanketed like this so far south. It was disconcerting. Had it gotten so bad already? Perhaps, in Atlas, things had already escalated and the Cyclopes had been unleashed. Was she too late? Was this the beginning of the end? She couldn’t know, and all the folk running from the siege they quizzed couldn’t give them any information. All they said was that, when they left, the enemy was bearing down on them. Most had only the vaguest idea what the war was about and who led the attackers. To them it was just a war that threatened their homes and the lives of their families. Without any discussion, the party increased their pace after that.

It had been late afternoon when they’d climbed the same rise Jonis and Huldane had weeks earlier on their long flight from Talos. This time, the view was different. They’d all halted their horses, staring at Atlas as it sprawled by the sea in total darkness. Jonis’s first instinct had been to assume that they were too late: the city had fallen and the inhabitants slaughtered. But she realised her error when she saw the black stain that lay across the unnaturally white landscape – an army, vaster than any she’d seen before, tens of thousands strong, was moving into position. Smoke rose from hundreds of campfires, and even from this distance of several miles, they could hear the clamour of so many people readying themselves for a siege.

“By the gods,” Calas had breathed, staring at the horde. It was hard to disagree with her sentiment.

“There’s no way in,” Tayne said, “they have the city encircled…”

She was right, but it had only taken a few seconds for Jonis to think of a plan. And that’s how they found themselves here, now, with dawn glimmering on the horizon and a freezing wind battering them from the direction of the sea. Jonis leant closer to the edge of the cliff, daring to put her foot out into thin air. She swallowed hard. “Well…everyone ready?”

Tayne stared at her. Her face was a pale circle in the dim light. “We can’t get in via the docks, Jonis. Have you seen the engines there?”

She had. The seaward side of Atlas was the most heavily defended, with ballistae and trebuchets looking outward, ready to smash any attacking fleet. That network of defences was also in evidence to their left. They stood upon the north side of the wide bay that encircled the city. The open sea was a league or more from Atlas, and up to that point both coastlines were protected by towering grey cliffs on which were constructed walls, bastions, more engines, lookout points, lighthouses and many more defences that made the Great City by the Sea into an impregnable fortress. Of course, it was all wasted now, and the walls here were almost deserted with only token garrisons. That’s how they’d been able to sneak past. They could have just marched up to a gate and presented themselves, but Jonis had no idea who was in control of these fortifications now – it was very possible that Saffrey had stationed soldiers loyal to him there – and besides they’d still be outside the walls. That’s why this was their only choice.

“We’re not going through the docks. There’s another way in.” She began to strip off her boots.

Huldane was already shouldering out of his cloak and starting to tug off his mail. Tayne looked at him. “You can’t be serious? Can’t we steal a boat?”

Jonis gestured across the empty bay. “Do you see any boats?”

Some of the soldiers looked a little ill as they stared over the edge of the cliffs. She’d chosen this spot because it was high, paradoxically. A long way down, but at the bottom was deep blue water. “You can all swim, right?” It wasn’t a joke – a lot of lowborn folk never learned, despite living so close to the sea. “Well?”

Everyone nodded a little weakly and, with a sigh, Tayne began to remove her armour. “What are we going to do with this?”

“You can’t take it with you,” Jonis shrugged.

“I don’t like just leaving it here.” She held out her breastplate, looking at it forlornly.

“There are plenty of spares in the armouries, I’m sure.”

The soldiers looked a little funny with just their uniforms on. Their high-collared jerkins were marked where their armour was usually strapped in place, and there was something about their bearing that made them seem thin and gangly, as if they were used to having more bulk. They certainly all looked smaller. Huldane had no uniform of course; he just wore his Talosi woollens. She gave him an appraising glance.

“Keeper?” he asked at her unspoken question.

“Can you swim in those?”

He tugged at his wool jerkin and frowned. “You may have a point…” He pulled it off, revealing his bare torso beneath. It was corded with muscle and his stomach and chest were covered with thick, dark hair. He was quite different from Rayke, whose body was lean and smooth. Still, he had a certain barbarian appeal. Aethlan didn’t know what she was missing, clearly.

“If you’re done ogling,” Tayne said, a little tartly, “we might want to get this over with.”

“Right.” Jonis was glad the captain hadn’t pressed her on how she intended to get into the city. Let her think this little jaunt was the worst part. She pointed. “It’s going to be pretty cold, folks, and it’s a long swim. Now would be the time to speak up if you’ve any doubts.”

“We’ve followed you this far,” Calas said.

“Whatever it takes, we must reach Atlas. The attack will come today.” Huldane had that odd look in his eyes again.

“Well precisely.” She stepped back up to the edge. Fates, but it was a long way down. Since this was her idea though, she could hardly expect anyone else to jump first. So, before she started to think better of it, she leapt. Her stomach lurched as she found herself floating in thin air. It was as if time stood still and she was suspended above the dark water. The sun was rising, turning the peaks of the far mountains gold. She could see it all then, just like at Omega, past and future spreading out like strands of a spider’s web, the memories of thousands of generations of her ancestors pouring into her, all leading up to this moment, when the future of the whole world hung in the balance. Then she hit the water, and the cold drove all other thoughts out of her mind in one startling instant.

*

The sky was red as blood as the soldier dozed against a column outside what was, in better times, a raucous tavern. The sign creaked in the freezing sea breeze and she pulled her cloak closer.

“Hey, Hov!”

She opened her eyes with a start and saw one of her comrades leaning on her spear and grinning at her. “Damn it, Dorrel…”

“Now’s no time to sleep, you know. Have you seen that army out there?”

“I have, and that’s why I’m sleeping.” She stepped out into the street. It was strange, everything being so quiet like this. It was almost worse than thinking about the coming battle. At least they should be away from the worst of it back here near the docks. “Red sky,” she observed.

“So?” Dorrel, like her, was a career soldier who worked very hard on not getting into situations where she might get sharp bits of metal put in her. It’s not that they were scared to fight; they just appreciated the regular meals and the stout roof more than the blood and the shit and the screams.

“You know what they say…”

“Nope.”

“Red sky at night, herdsman’s delight, red sky in the morning, herdsman’s warning.”

Dorrel gave her a flat look. “What the fuck does that mean?”

“Well…I don’t know. I think it’s something to do with the weather.”

“I know what the weather’s going to be without having to stare at the fucking sky.” She gestured around them. Snow was piled up against every wall, and the roads were covered in black slush. “Cold.”

“Just making conversation,” Hov grumbled. “Better than standing around waiting to die.”

“Hey now, we’re not going to die today.”

She wished she shared her friend’s optimism. She looked up at the sky again. There was another rhyme she knew about red skies, but she didn’t like to think about that one. ‘Blood red dawn, sound the horn; red sun falls, heed war’s calls; red sun high, death is nigh.’ A cheery ditty that one. She couldn’t remember where she’d heard it. “If we get captured,” she said, “do you think they’ll kill us?”

“Depends.”

“On what?”

“On who captures us I guess. But look, if things go bad, what difference does it make which lord or lady sits on that throne up there?” She jerked her head towards the Imperial Enclave, its walls stained crimson by the sunrise.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” Dorrel said, leaning in conspiratorially, “who’s going to notice if we keep an eye on which way the wind’s blowing, if you follow.”

“Ah,” Hov nodded, “so if it starts to look like our lads are in trouble…”

“We find a quiet spot, wait for it to blow over, and make sure we’re saluting the right nob when all’s said and done.”

“Sounds like a plan to me.”

“Aye.” Dorrel leant on her spear. “All this is just games to them, see. We’re just pawns.”

“Pawns? Like fish?”

She rolled her eyes. “That’s prawns. Pawns in Queens, you know?”

“What?”

“Queens. You know, the game? With the black and white squares?”

“Oh right. Yeah.” She’d seen some merchants playing it once. It was a nobs’ game though, all knights and ministers running around. She liked games where the worse you did, the more beer they made you drink. That way, if you lost, it seemed like you’d won. She’d never seen anyone drunk playing Queens before. It didn’t seem that sort of game.

“They don’t care about us. Why should we care about them?”

“‘Cause they pay our wages?”

“Well, yeah…but that don’t make them better than us.”

“Seems like it might, Dorrel.”

“Whatever,” she snapped, “me and you, we’ll just keep our heads down, all right? Stay out of trouble.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice!” They shared a grin.

Dorrel looked around. The docks were so empty. It was eerie. “This is the safest place in the whole city, I reckon.”

“What about Nob Hill?”

“I’ve seen the engines those bastards out there’ve got. Where do you think they’ll be throwing all them rocks? That new Empress’ll have her pretty face smashed in soon enough, you mark my words.”

Hov laughed. “That’ll be a shock for Lord Albrihn, won’t it?”

“You think he’s going to make it? I heard there’s a barbarian warlord in this army who drinks from the skulls of his dead enemies and wears their skins as a cloak. They say he’s as white as snow with glowing yellow eyes and he’s the size of a horse.”

“When you say ‘size of horse’, do you mean, like, all over…?”

Dorrel gave her that look she always gave her again. “I’m only repeating what I heard. Anyway, they say this fellow wants Albrihn. Apparently he slept with his brother or something.”

“But Albrihn’s married to the Empress…”

“Oh you know these cavalry boys. Plus he’s been in the mainlands recently. They got strange ways. Over there, the men can have as many wives as they like, but all the women hate to be touched by their husbands. Something to do with their heathen gods.”

“Bloody hell.”

“Point is, Albrihn’ll be dead by sunset. You mark my words.” She nodded firmly, as if the discussion was at an end.

Hov shook her head. Times were strange. Snow on the streets of Atlas, an army at the gates, new commanders and lords and even an Empress. She barely recognised her city now. As she looked around again, she felt a sudden sense of loss. Dorrel could talk all she wanted about switching sides, but whatever happened Atlas was going to be changed forever. There’d be fires, and flying rocks, and blood running across the cobbles. Fighting in the confines of a city was always a nasty business, or so she’d heard. Even if this was just an argument between some lords and ladies about which of their pampered arses should sit on the throne, people were going to die. Not everyone could be back here at the docks, where it was relatively safe.

And just as that thought came into her head, her eyes alighted on a grate near the edge of the wharf. It was a rusted iron thing covering a shaft leading down into the sewers. She must have looked at it a dozen times this morning and never even noticed it. But now it was moving. A pale pair of hands gripped two of the central bars and pushed it right up out of the street. She almost dropped her spear.

“What is it?” Dorrel asked, spinning around, looking in every direction except at the grate.

Hov gathered her wits and pointed. “There! Look! They’re coming through the bloody sewers, the bastards!”

“Oh shit!” Dorrel was fumbling with her spear too; it had got caught in her cloak somehow.

“Should we get someone? Sound an alarm or something?”

“We’re the only ones patrolling this part of the docks. The lieutenant’s up near Fishers’ Row.”

“So…it’s up to us?”

Her friend’s eyes were very wide, but then she set her jaw and an unfamiliar look of steely determination appeared on her face. It was very disconcerting. “Yes. Come on. Let’s show these bastards they can’t sneak into our city.”

“Yeah!” Hov thrust her spear at the air. Neither of them took a step forward though.

“Go on then,” Dorrel told her.

“What? It was your idea.”

“Yeah, but I’m in charge.”

“No you aren’t.”

“Of course I am. I outrank you.”

“We’re both corporals.”

“Well I’ve been corporal longer.”

“So?”

“So…all right, we’ll go together. One…two…three…”

The grate dropped onto the wharf and the hands took a grip on either side of the opening. Someone was climbing out. They started to walk towards them very slowly, spears still levelled. A head popped out; very damp, quite pale, with black hair plastered to its scalp. It belonged to a woman, who now heaved herself out and held out a hand.

“Hey there,” Dorrel said in a voice that was probably supposed to be commanding, but just came out as a sort of wavering cry, “get back down there, you scum!”

As challenges went it wasn’t the greatest, and the woman didn’t even look at them. She was helping another woman out. This one was just as wet and filthy, but her hair was bright red, and Hov couldn’t see her face. “Remind me never to take one of your suggestions again, Jonis,” she said through her tangle of hair.

“Sorry. If I’d told you what I had in mind, you’d never have agreed.”

“Exactly.” She too climbed out of the shaft and staggered onto the wharf. She bent double, hands resting on her knees and threw up noisily. More of them were coming up now, men and women, most of them dark like all Atlasians.

“Oi!” Hov said. “She told you to bugger off back where you came from.”

“This is where I came from,” a man said as he was helped out by the first woman. She now turned to them and wiped her hair from her eyes, revealing a tattoo that marked her out as one of the Cyclops Keepers. Hov started to feel even more uneasy.

Dorrel wasn’t about to be deterred though. She thrust her spear towards the strange people who were coming out of the sewers. They had no weapons, but there were quite a lot of them. “Here, if you don’t give yourselves up, we’ll poke you so full of holes they’ll be able to use you to strain vegetables.”

The Keeper looked at them in bewilderment. “Sorry, who are you?”

“Never mind who we are, lady!” She brandished her spear again.

“Yeah, lady!” Hov added, feeling it was important to give her friend a little moral support in this situation.

“I know that voice.” It was the redhead who had spoken, and they both turned to see her slicking her hair back from her freckled face. Her eyes blazed with fury, and Hov felt her knees go weak.

“Oh…bollocks…”

It was Captain bloody Tayne! What was she doing here? She was supposedly away from the city, no one knew where she’d gone or for how long. Dorrel threw down her spear. “Shit! I mean…sir…” She tried her best to do a halfway decent salute.

“Do you know these two?” Jonis asked.

Even wiping the puke from her mouth, Tayne still managed to look down her nose at them. “Yes I do. And I’m not at all surprised to find them as far away from the fighting as it’s possible to get without being in the sea.”

“We’re on patrol!” Hov squeaked.

“Patrol for what? The enemy are on the other side of the city. Unless you think the fish are going to choose this moment to rise up against us?”

That made the Keeper woman laugh. “Oh leave them be, Tayne. You’re terrifying them.”

“I’m their captain,” she replied sternly, “it’s my job to terrify them.”

“And as amusing as it is, we need to find whoever’s in charge before things get out of hand.”

“Agreed.”

The last person began to emerge from the hole, and he was like no one Hov had ever seen. He was a huge, broad-shouldered fellow, with skin as pale as Tayne’s. Stripped to the waist with a body like one of the statues in the Golden Plaza, she could only stare at him as he hauled himself up and then straightened. He grinned through a thick beard and she could feel her heart quicken. “Fucking hell…” she whispered.

“Eyes back in your head, corporal.”

“Sorry, sir.” Hov could feel her face starting to heat up.

“Listen,” the Keeper said, walking towards them, “we don’t have a lot of time here. We need to speak to whoever’s coordinating the defence of the city. This is extremely important.”

The two soldiers exchanged a look. Dorrel was the first to speak. “Um…” she said, pointing, “I think Lord Albrihn is up by the East Gate.”

The Keeper blinked at them. “What did you say?”

“East Gate. Um…sir…?”

“Definitely East Gate,” Hov agreed, nodding vigorously. “He’s there with all the other nob…uh…highborn. Ma’am.” What were you supposed to call a Keeper anyway?

Lord Albrihn?” It was Tayne who spoke now. “How long have we been away?”

“He only got made a lord a few days ago,” Dorrel said, “or that’s what I heard anyhow. After he married whatsherface. Um, I mean the Empress.”

The Keeper’s face had gone completely still. “I see,” she said. Her voice was very even, almost as if she was controlling her tone for some reason. “Well, I’m sure he’s the man for the job.”

“Begging your pardon,” Dorrel asked, “but do you mean the job of marrying the Empress or defending the city?”

“Oh, no doubt he’s quite capable of doing both. After all he has two hands, doesn’t he? One to point his soldiers in the right direction, and one to shove up Vion’s…” She stopped herself and then gave a slight cough. “Forget I said that.”

Hov was lost. “He’s by the East Gate,” she repeated, “that’s all we know.”

“It’s going to take us hours to get across the city,” a woman growled. Hov thought she was called Calas. She was in their regiment, but she only knew her by reputation.

“Actually,” Dorrel said, “if you’ve got a horse, you can be there pretty sharpish. Streets are empty, see.”

Tayne frowned at that. “Empty? How?”

“Well, see…”

“Oh there’s no time,” she interrupted, “horses! Now!”

“Uh…Lieutenant Polik is stationed up on Fishers’ Street. She’s got horses I think.”

“Good. Let’s go.”

They strode off, just like that, ignoring them now they’d gotten what they wanted. The last to go by was the huge pale man. He gleamed in the dawn light and Hov found she couldn’t look away from him. Half-naked though he was, she could tell he was one of the most dangerous men she’d ever seen just from the way he moved.

“Well that was bloody strange,” Dorrel said as they all disappeared around a corner. “Should we have asked more questions? We don’t even know if they were on our side…”

“I fucking hope so,” Hov said, “because it smells like they crawled through the sewers to get here, so whatever they want to talk to Lord Albrihn about must be pretty important.”

“It doesn’t concern the likes of us, whatever it is.”

“Aye.” Hov was still looking down the road after the bizarre party. She had a sinking feeling that the day was only going to get weirder.

 

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