Age of War (Part XLIV)

Aethlan sat alone, in a small, anonymous courtyard. There was a stone bench beneath a tall, silver-barked tree whose branches were weighed down with snow. The ground had only a light covering, because the walls of the palace rose up high on each of the eight sides and much of the space was sheltered. It was cold, but not as cold as her chambers with its vast open balcony. It was quiet too. It always was here – not just the courtyard, the palace in general – but today it seemed especially so. The few Atlasian nobles who lived here had had their ranks considerably thinned by the desperate exodus from the city once it had become clear an attack was unavoidable. She’d assumed some would have volunteered to help with the defence; certainly in Talos, there was an expectation of military service attached to most positions of political authority, but that didn’t seem to be the case here, not to judge from the way she’d some of them hurrying towards the gates of the Enclave, trailed by servants laden down with boxes and trunks. This city was not all she had been led to believe it was. She’d been told of its beauty, its nobility, its strength and glory. All she’d seen, at least from within the Imperial Enclave, was vanity and grotesque indulgence. She’d soured quite considerably on Atlasians as a breed, and she found herself longing for the familiar, for lost Talos, and its relative simplicity. Thick stone walls, floors carpeted with rushes, smoky wall sconces with mouldering tapestries recalling long-forgotten battles hanging between them. She pined, most of all, for the rough-and-ready lords of her native land, perversely. Though many of them had opposed her at every turn, resented her authority and talked to her like she was a child, their repellent nature was at least straightforward and uncompromising. A Talosi noble lived and died on the strength of his word and his sword. If a man insulted him, he’d draw his weapon and cut him down. It was brutal, and here they’d call it barbaric, but it was at least honest.

“Aethlan…”

She turned, surprised by someone speaking directly to her after so many days wandering the airy halls of the palace alone. She stared at the shape standing in the covered portico at the top of a short flight of steps. It was shadowy beyond the doorway and, for just a moment, she thought that her wistful dreams of Talos had summoned forth a phantom from her youth. It looked like her father was there, dressed in his full panoply of war, as he had been when she was just a girl. She stood instinctively, heart in her mouth, but then the broad-shouldered man stepped into the light and she was filled with even more joy. “Huldane!” she cried.

He looked different. Even when she could see his face, he still reminded her of the late Lord Dorfin, her father. There was something about the set of his jaw, the look in his pale blue eyes. He carried a shield, though it didn’t look like the battered one he’d left Atlas with. In fact, all his gear looked new. His mail gleamed and the helmet hanging from his belt was undented. He walked down the steps towards her. “I am back,” he said simply.

She wrung her hands, unsure of what to say to him. He looked so handsome. He was a Talosi warrior, and truly looked it for the first time since they’d fled their home. He could have stepped right from one of those old tapestries. He could have come from an ancient saga. “What…what did you find?”

“All that we hoped, and more. It is hard to explain everything, and I do not have much time.”

She frowned. “Why not?”

“Enemies gather outside the walls, my lady. I am called to war by Lord Albrihn.”

Her gut twisted as it did every time she thought of Albrihn. The secret she’d kept just a few days too long, that would ruin everything, even if he did manage to defeat Saffrey. “You must do as you are commanded,” she said meekly. Albrihn, the man who had first come to her as a scarred captain on a desperate quest, now firmly outranked her. She had no right to counterman his orders.

Huldane stood close to her now. He towered over her, as he always had, but now he seemed to have somehow grown into his height. She felt, somehow, that their relative positions had changed. “I will return,” he said, and it sounded like a vow.

“Of course.”

“My first duty is to you. To Talos.”

“We cannot both come first…”

He took his shield from his forearm and rested it on the floor against the stone seat, then placed his broad hands on her shoulders. “My lady, you are Talos. You are the home I have lost and the one I hope to regain. You are the hope of our people. You are the queen of our destiny.”

She didn’t know how to respond to that. “Huldane…I…”

He kissed her.

Time stood still as she felt his lips on hers. His beard was rough against her skin, but not unpleasantly so. He smelled like he’d very recently scrubbed himself with soap. Again, moving on instinct, she sank into his embrace, pushing against his broad, hard chest. Her hands pressed against the metal rings of his mail. She ignored that too. Everything was lost in this eternal moment as years of longing were finally fulfilled. She cared about nothing. Not Atlas, not Talos, not the war, not the mystery of Atlantis’s past. It was just her and Huldane, two exiles, two people who could never before have acted on their feelings for one another, finally letting their hearts rule the day. It was the most natural thing in the world. Why shouldn’t things be this way? Why shouldn’t they, two of the last remaining members of Talos’s ruling class, find solace in each other’s arms? Who was there to stop them? Only themselves. Only their own sense of impropriety. And that didn’t matter now. It had never mattered. Nothing mattered except this moment: this kiss.

He parted from her, slowly, reluctantly, but kept his grip on her shoulders. She was breathing hard and her heart was pounding. She didn’t have the strength to speak.

“I should have done that a long time ago,” Huldane said. She was relieved to hear that his voice was hoarse.

“Yes,” she agreed breathlessly, “but you could not.” She looked up. His eyes were like a stormy sky, changing from calm blue to thunderous grey in an instant, then back again. His hair was longer, his beard thicker, but he was the same beautiful man she’d loved since the moment she saw him. “What changed?” she asked.

“I did. The world did. I realised…” his gaze was far away for a moment, “…I realised that my life is a tiny sliver of light between gulfs of darkness, and that the history of humankind stretches beyond our imaginations, both in time and strangeness.”

“Huldane…I…I have never heard you speak like this before.”

He gave her an enigmatic smile. He’d always smiled so rarely; it was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. “Life is there to be lived, Aethlan. To be seized. All of the things we believe, they can be changed, if we will it. The past is different from the present, and both have little in common with all the possible futures that lie ahead. I want to save Talos, but first I must help save Atlas. I want to return, after this.”

“So do I,” she said, and realised for the first time how fiercely that desire burned in her.

“And I want to marry you, Aethlan. I want us to rebuild our land together.”

Her head swam. First the kiss, and now this. She could feel her knees going weak, and she sank down onto the seat. Huldane knelt before her. “My lady…I do not mean to overreach myself…”

She laughed and placed a hand against his cheek. He turned his head and kissed her palm. “I love you, Jarl Huldane. I always have, I think. You knew that.”

“I did. And I have felt the same since I first knew you, hardly a woman, standing meekly by your father’s side. Even then, I could see the strength in you. I knew you would be a queen.”

“There are no queens in Atlantis.”

“But there were once.” He took her hand. “Everything will change, I promise you. What we discovered in Omega…Aethlan, I saw the mansion of the gods! I saw the bones of the Greatfather himself!”

She didn’t know what to make of that. “The bones of the Greatfather? How is…?”

“I will explain it all to you when I come back. This is an age of wonder. I saw Jonis raise lightning from the earth itself and smite our enemies. I saw wonders that I thought belonged to the time of legends only. But now…now…” his face was excited, and his eyes almost glazed over, “…this is the time of legends. Dark days will come, but there will also be great glory and heroism undreamed of by our ancestors. And we will win Talos back. This, I swear to you, as your protector.”

“You are my protector.” She bent down and kissed his forehead. She didn’t dare give him another real kiss. She felt like this moment in time was as fragile as glass, and she could shatter it if she handled it with too much enthusiasm. “I will marry you, Huldane. Of course I will.”

If his usual smile was the sun breaking through an overcast sky, the one that passed across his face now was like a blazing red sunrise sweeping the world free of ice and frost. “When I return,” he said again, “we will see it done.”

“In Atlas,” she said, “it is enough to say it, to make private vows to one another. Nothing more is needed.”

“Perhaps, but that is not our way. You are my queen, and you will have a ceremony that fits your station. The people will call out your name as your ride past and the streets before you will be carpeted in white flowers. We will pledge ourselves to one another as our parents did, and theirs before them, back to the dawn of Talos, in the sight of that which is sacred to us.”

“I do not know if I believe in the mercy of the One-eyed God, Huldane…”

“Then what do you believe in?”

“You.” She took both his hands in hers now and drew them to her chest. “Us. Those we call friends. Your love is enough for me to believe in my heart that you are my husband, but we will do things the old way because these things are important. In Atlas, they may think such formality foolish, but it is our way.”

“It is.” He rose. “But I am called now.”

“Yes. You are Jarl Huldane, commander of my Housecarls.”

“I am Captain Huldane of the Atlantian Militia,” he corrected her gently, “or so Lord Albrihn says. I serve in his honour guard now.”

“He is fortunate to have such a warrior by his side.” She stood too and looked up to him. “We are between worlds, us two, so for now, I release you to his service. Protect him well, and win honour and glory for Atlas.”

He picked up his shield. “The glory may be in Atlas’s name, but I bear the sigil of Talos and your house, and none will mistake me for one of their soldiers. By battle’s end, all will know the strength of our people.”

“You are the strength of our people,” she said, placing a hand on his heart.

“And you, our hope.” He bowed his head.

“I love you,” she said again.

He took her hand and kissed it. “And I love you, Lady Aethlan.”

She watched him go, his broad back disappearing into the shadows of the doorway again. He didn’t look back: he was determined, wilful, filled with the fire of conviction. There was no room for second guessing himself. He was, first and foremost, a warrior. The horns of battle sounded, and she felt pity for the men and women Saffrey sent against Huldane, the Warlord of Talos. And yet, as she sat, she knew he was something else too. In her heart, she knew he was her husband. Perhaps something of Atlas had seeped into her after all. If it had, she was grateful for it. The world no longer seemed so cold, and she smiled at the patch of sky above the courtyard, clear and blue for the first time in many days.

*

Hadrin sat astride her horse, watching the advance of the army uneasily. The great shuffling mass of the levies led the way, a rabble in lose formation, carrying spears at a variety of awkward angles, no uniform of any description between them, only the most basic banners carried at the head of each slovenly block of troops, just geometric patterns so that they could be coordinated. She swallowed. They were coming to the ragged edge of the slums already, and that was where they would meet their doom. It would be horrific. “Lord Saffrey…” she began.

He held up a hand. The army’s entire high command had assembled on a rise that gave them a view over most of the battlefield. Given that the attackers encircled the entire landward edge of Atlas, it was impossible to see the whole sweep of the conflict – except from a very great distance away – but this was the area nearest the approach to the East Gate, and where they expected the fighting to be fiercest. From that gate, it was one long, straight road up to the Enclave, and Hadrin had concentrated their strength there. She held her tongue as Lord Saffrey kept his gaze on his advancing troops. Finally, he spoke. “We have discussed this, have we not?”

She fidgeted, working her hands on the reins. Her stomach was turning somersaults. Since Ixion, she’d been pondering whether she’d made the right decision. Yes, she believed in the cause. She, like Saffrey, was a Recidivist, a member of the secretive organisation that held to the notion that Atlantis was best served by preserving, as far as possible, the status quo. Once, their name had been an insult, but they’d taken it as a perverse badge of honour and, of course, eliminated all historical records of the schism that had made their cause briefly common knowledge. That was what they did. They preserved the future by altering the past, for the good of Atlantis, and all humankind. It was vital, now more than ever, that the throne be in trustworthy hands. She’d thought that meant Saffrey, but how could she be sure of his motives now? Thousands of ordinary Chronusi citizens were being sent to certain death. How could that benefit Atlantis?

“Please, lord,” she said, “would you not reconsider my suggestion of an artillery barrage?”

He turned his cold stare on her. “You want me to unleash our engines on the Cyclopes?”

“You need not risk any troops…I know they’re just levies, but they’re still soldiers we can ill afford to lose.”

“Yes, there are thousands of them. Now, do you know how many Cyclopes there are?”

She shifted in her saddle a little uncomfortably. “I’m afraid I don’t, no.”

“Neither do I. But there are very few, and they are hard to breed. They’re immortal, did you know that?”

She wished they weren’t having this conversation in earshot of Telmes and the other commanders of the army. She thought she was a little older than Saffrey, but he had a way of talking to her that made her feel like a corporal with her shirt untucked on parade. “I’d heard they were, yes,” she replied.

“It’s true. Immortal creatures, few in number, with the power to destroy armies. They are the foundation of Atlantis’s power, in more ways than you can imagine. Without them, we are merely mainlanders with a little education, and that is a very fragile thing. So you see, commander, even one Cyclops is worth more to me than a thousand conscripts. A million, even. It’s worth more to me than this entire army. I plan to rule this city by the end of the day, and that includes the Cyclops Keepers. How well disposed to me do you think they would be if I’d indiscriminately slaughtered their beasts? And how would I defend myself in future? No. The Cyclopes are not to be harmed.”

Hadrin couldn’t argue with his logic, as hideous as it was. The equation was simple and brutal. Men and women could be replaced easily enough; Cyclopes were a precious resource. And so innocent people would die, without even understanding the monstrous deaths they were being led to. But in the end, it would be worth it. Atlas would be safe, and the rest of Atlantis with it. Life would go on. They would survive. There was just a price to be paid, as always.

And if a price must be paid, she owed it to those whose lives were their stake in this horrific bargain to at least see the deed done. She lifted her spyglass to her eye and watched with mounting trepidation the unruly line of badly-armed peasants march towards the slums. She couldn’t see their faces. Were they proud? Scared? Slack-jawed and ignorant of the consequences, even reasons, for this conflict in which they were now embroiled? It was useless thinking about it. The front rank had just reached the line of wooden hovels. They were moving down the east road, the one that led all the way up into the Gap of Hephaestus and hence onto Chronus, but in their direction only deeper into Atlas, to the East Gate and then the Enclave. There was no strict border of the city, just a place where sheds and sprawling freeholds turned into actual houses, such as they were. They would find themselves surrounded by the shanty town, and their only protection against the wrath of the Cyclopes would be the jumbled lines of sight. Not good odds, even in such a densely-packed slum. She scanned the twisting streets – really just muddy gaps between ramshackle buildings – for a sign of any of the monsters. When it happened, she would refuse to look away.

“What’s going to happen?” Telmes asked.

“They’re going to die,” she told her.

“I know that.” She didn’t sound upset, just mildly annoyed. “I just want to know how.”

“Badly.”

“What does that mean?”

Hadrin lowered the spyglass and stared at the other woman. “Put it this way: you wouldn’t choose it.”

“Who would choose to die in any way?” She smirked, as if it were some sort of joke.

“Everyone dies. In the end, that’s all that’s going to matter. You die well, or you don’t. Those people down there? They won’t.” She looked down the glass again, renewing her surveillance of the shanty town. Where had the Cyclopes gone? Probably they were just getting into position to inflict the maximum damage. The levies would almost certainly break as soon as they saw what happened to their comrades. She didn’t know what the range of a Cyclops’s blast was – would it just hit the front ranks, or would the whole formation be sucked into its grotesque maw? What if Saffrey was wrong about them needing to rest for days afterwards? No one could stand against the Cyclopes, or so it had always been said.

“Well,” Telmes went on, “better them than us I suppose.”

In a moment of irritation, she actually had suggested to Saffrey that Telmes lead the levies. He’d smiled, doubtless understanding her motivation for asking, and told her Telmes wasn’t someone he was willing to sacrifice. Hanging in the air, unsaid, was the word ‘yet’.

“Where are they?” Hadrin asked herself.

“Who?”

She tuned out Telmes’s irritating voice and continued to scan the cityscape. She’d seen them moving amongst the buildings just a few hours ago, and they weren’t exactly subtle creatures. What if Albrihn was using another of his unconventional strategies? The thought seized her suddenly that perhaps the Cyclopes were a bluff – he could have redeployed them while their army was forming up at dawn, maybe sending them to attack their vulnerable flanks. At any moment, a hundred nightmare beasts could crash into their camp, laying about them with vortices of black fury. Was it possible? Yes, but not very probable. They still had scouts. You couldn’t move that many behemoths without attracting notice. Nonetheless, her search became increasingly desperate as she tried to predict her adversary’s plans. She started to look deeper into the city, towards the fragmented walls a mile or more from where the levies advanced. Then she saw them. She couldn’t make sense of it at first. The East Gate was open, and lumbering towards it was a Cyclops, its back to them, apparently in retreat. “What the fuck is he doing?”

“What’s going on?” Telmes demanded.

“He’s pulling them back.” It was Saffrey who answered, and he didn’t sound the least bit surprised. He didn’t have a spyglass of his own. He just seemed to know what she’d seen.

Hadrin looked north and south, and she saw more of the beasts, all heading back to the city proper. “I don’t understand…” She dropped the glass and looked at Saffrey. He was smirking in his usual arrogant manner.

“It’s very simple, commander,” he said without turning to her, “Albrihn was bluffing.”

“Bluffing?!”

“I thought he probably was, but of course I couldn’t take the chance. If he’d used the Cyclopes against the levies, we would still have prevailed, but this is a rather better outcome, as I’m sure you’ll agree.” He finally gave her a look. Smug condescension.

“So…he never planned to unleash them?”

“Albrihn is soft. I always knew that. Putting him in command of the entire defence will be Vion’s greatest mistake. Apart from marrying him, anyway. Crale wouldn’t have hesitated. Rykall…well, Rykall would have just charged us the moment we set up camp. The point is, this is as good as over. Albrihn won’t use his only effective weapon, and so it becomes a simple matter of men…and machines.”

“All right then.” Hadrin nudged her horse forward and raised her arm. She felt on firmer ground now. Still shaken by their sudden reversal of fortunes, but her instincts were kicking in. “Company!” she bellowed, “sound the advance!” Horns blew close by, and were taken up by the other units strung out across the line. The sound of drumbeats began to echo across the snowy plain. Infantry, cavalry, Atlasians, Chronusi, Hadeans, Prometheans, even a few units of Hyperionites, professional soldiers, conscripts, volunteers, officers, nobles, commoners; all in all an army more than a hundred-thousand strong, backed up by engines numbering in the hundreds, began to move towards Atlas. All that stood between them and victory was a thin line of defenders on a crumbling wall. They should have surrendered when they had the chance. They should never even have resisted. It would be bloody, but it would also be quick, and that, Hadrin reflected, was a mercy.

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