Age of War (Part XLIII)

The East Gate was as heavily garrisoned as it had been in living memory. The timbers were reinforced and the walls shored up with rubble and reclaimed masonry from elsewhere in the city. The walls bristled with defenders armed with spears and bows, and siege equipment was being ferried to the front lines. This, judging by the disposition of Saffrey’s forces, was where the fighting would be thickest. Gates were easier to break through than walls, even walls in such severe disrepair as those that encircled Atlas. The fight would come to them here, and Albrihn believed they were as prepared for it as they could be. Soldiers were present in their hundreds, ranks of archers lining up behind the walls, and all the ephemera required to sustain an army was in evidence. As he walked by the gates, inspecting the battle line, his eyes alighted on a long white pavilion erected in the open plaza. He felt a surge of relief at that and headed straight for the entrance. He was met there by Lady Chanes, the Head Chirurgeon herself with her distinctive red robes and shaved head. She bowed very slightly as he approached and he returned the gesture. “Lady Chanes. Your presence here is most welcome.”

“We have our duty to attend to, as do you, Lord Albrihn.”

The Order of Chirurgeons did a lot to improve the morale of any soldiers close by, but he felt the slight recrimination in the voice of the old woman. Her duty, after all, would be much simpler without his. He would be making a lot of work for her people today. Chanes led him inside the tent, which was filled with Chirurgeons running around, their robes flapping around their legs, while orderlies in brown tunics responded to their curt commands as best they could, dumping supplies of linen bandages, clear alcohol, wooden splints and many more things the use of which Albrihn could only guess at. They walked past a makeshift bed, beside which was a low table – ornately carved, obviously donated by some long-forgotten noble from their own household – set out with saws, blades and other gleaming implements. He cringed at the sight of them. Yes, the Chirurgeons were welcome, but like most soldiers he preferred to have his fate settled by his own sword. He would sooner die cleanly, gutted on the battlefield, than bleed out in a bed like this one.

Chanes followed his gaze. “I was told you knew no fear, Lord Albrihn. It pleases me to know it was an exaggeration.”

“Pleases you? Why?”

“I have no desire to put the life of Atlas’s people in the hands of a man who isn’t aware of his own mortality.”

“That makes sense.” He looked around the tent. “Why offer treatment here though?”

“My lord?”

“The hospital is only a few miles away. I’ve no shortage of volunteers to carry stretchers…”

“And what of the enemy? Will they carry them too?”

“The enemy…” He trailed off. Yes, the oath taken by every Chirurgeon would mean they were honour-bound to give aid to anyone in need, be they friend or foe. And it was precisely that which kept them safe wherever they did their good work – no soldier would dare raise her hand to one of their Order, lest she one day find herself on their table, her life in the hands of the very people she’d once harmed. “You must know,” he said, a little abashed, “I exhausted every other option and…”

Chanes spread her hands. “It’s not my place to judge the decisions a soldier must make, Lord Albrihn, just as it’s not yours to judge the decisions we would make in the confines of this hospital. In our own way, those decisions are just as difficult.”

“Aye. To take a man’s arm, or let him die from poisoned blood. To give mercy to a woman who may never recover from her wounds. To save the life of a mother or a child…”

“Indeed.” She looked hard at him. She was the Head Chirurgeon, the most renowned healer in Atlantis. She had tended to thousands of sick and injured folk, he was certain, and birthed how many? And surely, if an Emperor’s Consort quickened with her child – children – this is the one whose services she would call upon. Did Chanes share Loban’s secret about his heritage?

“Saffrey is not to be trusted,” he added hurriedly, pulling himself back to the present, “I’ll do what I can to protect you, if it comes to it.”

Her hand strayed across the surgical implements and a small smile played across her weathered face. “You’d be surprised what skills our Order teaches, Lord Albrihn. If it, as you put it, comes to it.”

“I hope you won’t have to use those skills, my lady.”

“There’s no shortage of hope between these walls, Lord Albrihn, and relying on it is rarely enough in my experience.”

“Nonetheless.”

“Nonetheless,” she agreed, seeming to understand, “I appreciate your sentiment. But there is a lot of work to do here now, and much more later today. I’m sure you have your own duties to attend to.”

“I do. I just wanted to make sure you have everything you need.”

“We do, Lord Albrihn. The orderlies are melting snow for clean water, and if we run short of anything else then the hospital is, as you say, a short distance from here.”

“Very well.” He turned back towards the entrance.

“Good luck, Lord Albrihn.”

He stopped and looked at her. “I thought you weren’t supposed to take sides?”

“I’m not. But I have known the Empress since she was…well…since she was. Her father was a good man and, though she has much to learn, I believe she will be as just a ruler as he was. There is greatness in her. And in you, Rayke.”

“I know.” His voice was hoarse.

“So. Let her be great.”

“I never…I never intended to stop her…”

“I know. Go, Lord Marshall. Protect your city and your bride. Protect your people.”

He couldn’t make any words come out, so he just bowed again and left. He was dazed as he stepped out into the street, and not just because of the golden dawn staining the sky. He had too much on his mind to organise a battle this ambitious. No one had tried to defend Atlas from a siege in centuries. It just wasn’t possible. Their only hope was the Cyclopes, as much as it galled him to admit that. He rubbed his head, trying to think straight, but he was disturbed by a polite cough to his right. He spun around, coming face to face with a short, silver-haired man in the grey robes of a scribe. He had an open book in his hand and, beside him, a youngster in the same robes, albeit with somewhat less decoration, struggled with a teetering pile of further leather-bound volumes. The elder scribe had a quill in his hand and an ink pot sat atop the tower of books held by his companion. He was looking up at Albrihn hopefully.

“Um…can I help you?”

The little man cleared his throat. “I…ah…yes…I am Chamberlain Falom.” His expression was expectant.

“Um…”

“Ah…the…ah…the Chief Quartermaster, lord? Of the…ah…of the militia I mean.”

“Right. Right, yes.” Albrihn massaged his temple. The headache was getting worse. He felt like a storm was approaching, the pressure increasing with every stride it advanced. “I’m rather busy at the moment, Chamberlain…uh…what did you say your name was?”

“Falom, your lordship. And…ah…yes, we’re all busy. Busy indeed. I just…ah…I wondered if I might…ah…clarify a few things, if you have the time.”

“It should be readily apparent that I don’t, Chamberlain Falom, but go on.”

“There is a…ah…that is to say, it is required of you, as…ah…as the commander in the field to draw up an order of battle.”

“I don’t even know how many soldiers I have here, chamberlain. There’s no order of battle. It isn’t important.”

“Ah…ah…yes, well, with all due respect, your lordship…ah…the militia is funded from the Imperial treasury…”

“So?”

“So…ah…it is rather important that information regarding the…ah…dispositions of troops and their…ah…their officers…” he moved the hand holding his quill in a circle, “and so forth so that…ah…it might be determined who bears responsibility for…well…ah…breakages…loss of equipment…ah…uniforms and such like.”

“Breakages? Loss of uniforms?” He couldn’t believe he was being troubled with things like this, now of all times.

“Ah…yes…and equipment.”

“Chamberlain, there isn’t going to be a treasury if things go ill here today.”

The man seemed completely unperturbed by his threatening tone, he just glanced down at the open page before him. “As I say, your lordship, I just…ah…require some clarification on a few matters.”

“What matters?”

“I understand that…ah…the Twelfth Regiment’s commander is now…ah…that is to say…”

“She’s fighting for the other side.”

“Yes. So…ah…who has the command of this unit in her…ah….in her absence, your lordship?”

“No one, I suppose. Why does it matter? Do you need to take it out of their pay if one of their soldiers snaps their pike on the skull of someone climbing over a wall to kill them?”

“Ah…no…no, not exactly, your lordship. It is rather…ah…a matter of the chain of command. Requisitioning and so forth. Quite…ah…quite boring.”

“Chain of command?”

“Yes…ah…should the Twelfth be unable to communicate with yourself. In the event that you were to…ah…you were to be…unreachable.”

“If I’m dead you mean?”

“Precisely, your lordship.” Perversely, he seemed to brighten as he said that, as if they’d made some sort of breakthrough. Albrihn sensed they were, in their own way, speaking very different languages.

“I’m in command of the Twelfth now.”

“Ah…ah…yes, and there is also the matter of the Seventh Company? Your own?”

“Yes, my own. They’re still my own.”

“With respect, your lordship…ah…that violates the…”

“Captain Morrow,” he interrupted, “she commands the Seventh.” He hadn’t made anything official, had he? He began to see why these things might matter. After all, Morrow might need to start giving orders if he set her some task today, and she needed to know she’d be obeyed.

“And…ah…her lieutenant?” He was scribbling furiously in his book.

“Haspr…” He stopped. “No lieutenant. Not as far as I know. You’ll need to check with her though. The Seventh is…depleted.”

“How…ah…how depleted, your lordship?”

He realised he didn’t know. Had no idea. He hadn’t been able to take a count on the journey back from Ixion. The survivors had just been racing home as fast as they could – it was hardly a retreat in good order. He’d seen Gena, Windhael, Crov, Dannar…he couldn’t remember seeing Barden. No, Barden had died in Talos, hadn’t she? “Very depleted,” he said numbly, “the Seventh is being seconded as my honour guard. Their order of battle isn’t your concern.”

“As you say, your lordship.” More scribbling.

“Shastir is in command of his regiment. The Twenty-First. He has elements of the garrison from Hephaestus. I think they’re the Fifth, aren’t they?”

“Yes, your lordship,” the chamberlain answered automatically, without any apparent need to consult one of his books. “Elements of the…ah…Second and Ninth companies I believe. Infantry.”

“Right…so Shastir has the walls to the north of here, by that gap where the Apothecaries’ Quarter turns into Emerald Row.”

“Ah…no, your lordship…” He flicked back a few pages, “I just consulted with the commander. He…ah…he has posted most of his troops throughout the city.”

“He what?”

“Captains Alcrid and Polik have command posts near the…ah…the docks.”

“The docks?”

“Not my place to question my…ah…my superiors.”

Albrihn turned away, looking for a runner he could send along the walls to find out what Shastir was playing at. He’d asked him to put the bulk of his forces at the gap to hold it against the inevitable assault. Why was he splitting them up and putting them in places where there was never likely to be any fighting? “At least tell me Rykall’s where he should be…” he rounded on the chamberlain again, and was almost happy to see it made the officious fellow jump and nearly drop his book.

“I believe…ah…Commander Rykall is actually…”

“Is this little librarian annoying you, Albrihn?” came Rykall’s booming voice as he swaggered across the plaza.

“I’m a quartermaster…ah…commander,” Falom said, drawing himself up slightly.

“Right, right.”

“Tell me your regiment is where they should be, Rykall.”

“Of course. The Empress’s Own will hold the line, single-handedly if needs be.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

“So what’s this about Shastir?”

“His soldiers are out of position, spread all over the city.”

“Why, by the gods?” He addressed the chamberlain now.

“Ah…he didn’t see fit to…ah…to furnish me with…”

“Thinks he knows better, probably,” Rykall growled. “You there!” he roared at a passing soldier who almost dropped his spear, “go and find Shastir!”

“Um…who, sir?”

“Commander Shastir! He’s a little twat with light hair and a fancy uniform. You can’t miss him.” He pointed north. “That way. Apothecaries’ Quarter. Go! Now!” The unfortunate soldier saluted and then scampered off to do as he was told. “We’ll see what he has to say for himself, won’t we?”

“I suppose so. I shouldn’t have trusted him to command so much of our force. He doesn’t like me.” Albrihn rubbed the bridge of his nose. His headache was ferocious now.

“I didn’t like you either, Albrihn.”

“Maybe if I lead him into a massacre too he’ll come around to your way of thinking.”

Falom suddenly shut his book smartly and favoured them both with a faint smile. “I believe I have…ah…everything I need…”

“Right. Good.”

“Lord Albrihn! Lord Albrihn!”

He turned around. “What now?”

A soldier he didn’t know ran up and then stood before them, breathing hard. He started to salute, but Albrihn waved him off. “Sir…someone…she says she knows you…a Keeper, sir. And a big…a big man…um…”

“A Keeper? A big man?”

“I wasn’t sure who they were. But they were very insistent, sir.”

“Right…”

“If…ah…you’ll excuse me, your lordship, there is a lot to…ah…a lot to do today.”

“Wait a moment,” Albrihn said absently, “bring them here,” he told the soldier.

“Sir.” A quick salute and he hared off again, but his charges were already approaching, pushing their way through the scrum of soldiers. He gestured weakly towards Albrihn and Rykall, but they ignored him. Time stopped. His headache reached a stunning crescendo. He locked eyes with her.

“Jonis,” he whispered.

She walked towards him across the plaza. She was covered in water and filth, but it didn’t matter. A ragged train of soldiers followed her, and with them the towering shape of Huldane, who had a cloak thrown across his bare shoulders. It seemed an age since he’d seen her. He hadn’t realised how fiercely he’d missed her company until that moment. He’d felt lost without her by his side.

“Lord Albrihn,” she said formally.

“Jonis…I…” He looked into her eyes, and he realised there was something different about her. The warmth was gone; the playful smile. It was replaced by cold stoicism. Formality. “Keeper Jonis,” he said. Yes, he was Lord Marshall of Atlas now, and the Empress’s consort. Things could never go back to how they were.

“I’m sorry we’re late, but the information we bring is vital.”

“Information?” He didn’t know what she was talking about. Aethlan had told him she’d gone off on some fool quest. He’d been angry at her for leaving at a time like this, but resigned himself to the understanding that she was better out of danger.

“Can I assume you’ve deployed the Cyclopes?”

“Yes. Of course I have.”

“You need to bring them back.” She sounded absolutely serious.

“Bring them back? Why?”

For a moment, the old Jonis appeared through her stony façade. “Please, Rayke, you have to trust me. I can’t explain everything…”

He shook his head. “I can’t withdraw them, Jonis. They’re the only hope we have to…”

“What’s being withdrawn? What is this?” Shastir rode into the plaza, his horse’s hooves striking the cobbles noisily. He slid out of the saddle, tossing his reins to a soldier who stood idle to one side. He strode across to them. His armour was more ostentatious than ever, and he wore a helmet with bright feathers on it, which he removed and tucked under his arm. The sleeves of his uniform were pristine. “I need to know about any changes in our plans, Albrihn.”

He bristled. “Don’t talk to me about changing plans, Shastir. Why are your troops out of position? I told you to keep that gap in the walls protected.”

“There are plenty of volunteers to hold the line.”

“Volunteers?” Rykall asked. “Untried civilians?”

“Better they take the brunt than the trained soldiers, don’t you think?”

“I want the wall held. Your orders were clear.” Albrihn could have strangled him, but he clenched his fists, restraining his fury. He couldn’t deal with all these things happening at once.

“Albrihn, we all respect your authority here, but I have more experience of commanding at this level than you do. Concentrating all our forces in one place is madness. You know as well as I do that we can’t keep the enemy out, so why waste decent troops on a hopeless mission?”

“You had your orders.”

“And I used my prerogative as a commander of the militia to decide on a course of action that…”

“Rayke!” Jonis snapped suddenly, “we don’t have time! Pull the Cyclopes back! If you don’t, Atlas is doomed!”

Shastir seemed to notice her for the first time. He stared at her, then at the woman standing behind her, who Albrihn now realised was Captain Tayne. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.

Jonis regarded him impassively. “Saving all of your lives.”

“But…you were searching for…for…”

“Omega. Yes. And we found it.”

Shastir laughed. “Found Omega? It’s a legend, nothing more. And no one has ever come back from…I mean…”

Jonis’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, we were lucky.”

“Lord Albrihn,” Tayne said, and he could hear how it pained her to say those words, “you have to believe her. What we saw there…I don’t even know if I believe it myself.”

“What she says is true,” Huldane added, “we found the mansion of the gods. I can explain it no other way.”

Albrihn was bewildered. “This is…a lot to take in…”

“The Cyclopes, Rayke,” Jonis said, “they can’t be used. Not now. If they unleash their power, you’ll destroy everything.”

“How? Why?”

“There’s…it really is hard to explain it all. But what’s happening, with the winter and the ice, you know what we saw in Talos? It’s all about the Cyclopes. All of it.” Her eyes were pleading, and he sensed she’d been through something he could never completely understand. Omega? The mansion of the gods? None of it made sense to him, but he trusted her. He loved her. She wouldn’t come to him with this – here, now – unless the fate of Atlantis itself hung in the balance.

“All right,” he said.

“This is insane!” Shastir shouted. “The Cyclopes are our only chance! Our greatest weapon!”

“I know, but…”

“You’re going to listen to this woman?” He held out a hand to Jonis. “Some Keeper slut? Who is she? Why are you listening to her?”

“Shastir…”

His face was contorted in rage. He looked at Jonis and bared his teeth. “You should know your place, girl. There’s a battle to be fought here.”

“Sir,” Tayne said, “you should listen to her. I know it sounds crazy, but…”

“If I want your opinion, captain, I’ll ask for it.” He turned back to Albrihn. “I knew you were a fool. You married Vion, you’ve led this rebellion from the beginning, and now you’re listening to your whore over the advice of your own generals?”

“Rebellion?” Rykall said quietly. “They’re the rebels, Shastir, not us.”

He let out a roar of anger and, before any of them could react, he’d drawn a dagger from his belt and was lunging past Albrihn towards Jonis. “You’re going to ruin everything, you bitch!” he shouted at her, flailing with his weapon. For all his experience in command though, she was the better warrior, and she sidestepped him so he stumbled and stabbed empty air. He recovered and whirled. “Don’t you know how long we’ve worked on this? What we’ve had to do to keep these secrets?”

“You’re a Recidivist,” she said.

Aethlan had used that word too, in reference to his own dark secret and those who were trying to exploit it. Albrihn was reaching for his sword. “Commander Shastir,” he said sternly, “you condemn yourself by your actions and your words. Drop the…”

A gleaming arc descended from above: the silver edge of Reaper, the great two-handed sword wielded by Rykall. It bit into Shastir’s shoulder, shattering his armour and cutting deep into his flesh. Blood spurted from a ragged wound and the commander screamed. His lips were bright crimson. With a grunt, Rykall tugged his mighty weapon free, and Shastir dropped to the ground, now awash with his blood. He lay on the cobbles, still twitching with half of his torso, breastplate and all, rent in two. Rykall raised Reaper and brought it down again, this time striking Shastir’s head cleanly from his shoulders.

Silence descended across the plaza. Soldiers, orderlies, messengers, grooms, the chamberlain and his lad, all stared down at the corpse. Rykall stooped down and lifted up Rykall’s head by his pale hair. “This,” he bellowed, “is the reward for treason! He served our enemy, and betrayed us all! Anyone who shares his sympathies had best leave now, or Reaper will taste your blood too!” He tossed the severed head to the ground dismissively and curled his lip.

The Emperor’s Headsman, they’d called Rykall. Now Albrihn understood why. “It appears,” he said, turning to Chamberlain Falom, whose face was transfixed in an expression of blank terror, “that the Twenty-First Regiment is without a commander.”

The quartermaster blinked a few times, then looked at Albrihn in astonishment. “I…ah…yes…yes…it…ah…it appears so….”

“Tayne!”

“Y…yes…uh…your lordship?”

“Congratulations, you’re now a commander. You seem to have lost your weapons and armour, so get to the nearest armoury and find a uniform appropriate to your new rank. Falom, write it down in your little book and go with her to smooth over any…administrative issues.”

“Ah…ah yes.”

“Huldane?”

“Lord Albrihn?” The Talosi was by his side.

“I don’t know why you don’t have a shirt on, but can you get hold of some gear that’s to your liking?”

“In the palace, lord…”

“Go. And then get back here as soon as you can. You’re a captain in the militia now. Write that down too,” he told Falom, “he’s part of my honour guard.”

“We will draw swords together, Lord Albrihn,” Huldane said with a fierce grin.

“That we will, brother. That we will. Jonis…”

“You can’t promote me, Albrihn.” She’d regained her cool detachment. The blood of the man who’d just tried to kill her pooling around her bare feet didn’t seem to bother her in the slightest.

“No, but I can trust you. Messenger!” It took a moment – everyone was still staring at the scene of butchery, stunned – but a young girl soon dashed up to him and saluted. Her eyes wandered to Rykall, widened in fear and then snapped back to him. “Find the Matriarch out there. Tell her she won’t be using her Cyclopes today. Tell her to bring them back. Understand?”

“Y…yes, sir…” She scampered off towards one of the horses set aside for the messengers.

“Thank you,” Jonis said softly.

“So what do we do now?” Rykall asked. He was nonchalantly wiping Reaper’s blade.

“We defend Atlas.” He looked around. “You all have your orders, don’t you? Well get to them!”

It was like a storm breaking. Everyone looked startled and then started moving again, rushing around like they had to make up for the time spent staring at the bizarre events unfolding amongst the high command of this alleged army. Albrihn watched as Rykall barked orders to anyone nearby, and saw Tayne and her soldiers go with Falom and the boy with all the books. Huldane had already requisitioned a horse and was galloping off towards the Enclave. Shastir’s body was discreetly removed by the Chirurgeons’ orderlies. Only he and Jonis remained.

“We have to talk,” he said to her.

“Yes,” she agreed, “but not now. There are more important things.”

He nodded. She went straight towards the steps that led up to the walls. Morrow was watching from above the gate, and when Jonis reached her, they greeted one another like sisters. So. Everyone was here. For some reason he felt a strange sense of completion, as if he’d been unconsciously holding his breath, waiting for this moment. He raised his chin and looked at the clear blue sky. His headache had disappeared. The battle for Atlas was about to begin.

 

 

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