Age of War (Part XLV)

The clear morning had begun to turn grey, but that wasn’t the reason for Jonis’s melancholy mood. She had no fear of battle. As she stood on the parapet above the gate, both like and unlike the one in Talos months ago, and watched Saffrey’s vast army approaching, she felt only impatience. Cyclops Keepers were warriors and, like all warriors, Jonis preferred it when she was in control of her own destiny. No, what troubled her was the sight of the Cyclopes moving through the twisting streets of the slum beyond the walls, returning to the gates. Part of her exulted to see them in the field – all her life, this was what she and all her people dreamed of being part of – and yet now she knew what they were, and the threat they represented. And besides, it was her that had told Rayke to bring them back. She would have to explain. That would not be pleasant. Of course, with tens of thousands of enemy soldiers bearing down on them, it might be a moot point…

She looked around. There were a few of the Seventh standing nearby, on either side of Rayke and Morrow. Some she knew better than others, but they were all familiar, old friends now in a way. She liked this rough-and-tumble band of cavalry troopers, with their easy camaraderie and their casual attitude to warfare. They were more like some company of heroes than a disciplined unit of militia. Now though, there was something different about them that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. She hadn’t asked Rayke what had happened while she’d been in Omega, but she recalled now that she’d heard he’d led a force to Chronus to stop Saffrey. With a jolt, she realised they must have failed, or this wouldn’t be happening now. She’d been wrapped up in her own concerns; hadn’t stopped to think about the battles her friends had fought in her absence.

“Morrow,” she said slowly, “where’s Hasprit?”

Morrow didn’t look at her, but her small fingers gripped the stonework. “He’s not here.” Her voice was hoarse. Jonis didn’t press for any more details.

How many had been in the Seventh when she’d first marched to Priam with them to hunt those hyen-a-khan? Fifty or so? They’d lost some in the mainlands, of course, so were somewhat understrength for a light cavalry company. Then, in Talos, more had died. She recalled the chill she’d felt when Rayke had explained, down in the stables below Aethlan’s castle with the smell of smoke and death wafting through the wide doors, how any injured members of their company had had their throats cut by their own comrades lest they fall into the hands of the attacking force from Svartburg. They’d found out just what the moral standards of those people were, after all. That left…how many? Twenty? Thirty? Now she could only see a dozen or so. No wonder their faces were grim. The confidence she’d felt about the battle started to evaporate. She rubbed her shoulders.

Albrihn turned to her. She felt uneasy around him, knowing that he’d finally chosen Vion. Not that he could ever have picked her, of course – as far as he knew, she was still destined to marry her brother. Now, after what she’d found out in Omega, she wasn’t sure what her future held, but she couldn’t have expected him to hold off just in case. She was the Empress! He’d have been insane not to accept her offer.

“Jonis?”

“Hm?” She’d been staring at him, and suddenly realised that he’d said something and she’d been too lost in her thoughts to hear. “What sorry?”

“I asked you if you were cold.” His smile was as easy as ever but, like his soldiers’, his eyes told a different story.

“Oh…yeah…I didn’t expect it to be like this in Atlas. And we left all our warm clothes back…” She gestured with her thumb, towards the sea and, as he frowned in confusion, she shrugged. “It’s a long story. Just…don’t stand downwind of me.”

“Right…”

She looked down at the square and the street on the other side of the walls. There were ranks of archers, all readying their bows. There were braziers set out at regular intervals, even though most wore cloaks or padded jerkins for the cold. “Can we move a couple of those up here?” she asked.

“That wouldn’t be wise.” She couldn’t read his face. What was he planning?

“Fine then.”

“Here.” He took off his cloak and made to drape it over her shoulders.

“No…no, it’s okay…” Before she could stop him, he’d placed it on her. She gripped the collar unthinkingly. It smelled like him. Not good exactly – he was a soldier, and he more often than not reeked of sweat, mud and oil – but familiar. And it was warm. “Listen, Rayke, I just want you to…”

“Lord Albrihn!”

Jonis froze at the sound of the voice she knew all too well. Outside the gates, which now stood open, was the squat form of the Matriarch herself, sitting astride a lean palfrey. Beside her was the towering shape of a Cyclops – the one that belonged to Calam and Calad – and sure enough, the two blonde Keepers were close behind, each holding one of the chains that led to the creature’s huge baroque helmet, heads down like naughty children. That Cyclops was the one with the omega mark on its thigh, she remembered. What did that mean? She looked at the giant; knuckles resting on the ground, head bowed even lower than its Keepers’, and for the first time she realised how forlorn it appeared. Was this Cyclops the same one she’d seen in her vision of Omega’s past? Had it once been a king instead of a slave? It was a discomfiting thought.

Albrihn was leaning over the parapet, addressing the Matriarch. Jonis had shrunk back instinctively, pulling her cloak closer. So far, she didn’t seem to have been noticed.

“What’s the meaning of this?” the Matriarch demanded, her fury plain to see on her broad, tattooed face. “You request I deploy the entire stable and then recall us just as battle is joined? What game is this?”

“No game, Matriarch,” Albrihn called down, “new information has come to light.”

“What new information? I hope I don’t need to remind you that we are not at the beck and call of the militia. If I see fit to send my Cyclopes into battle, only the Empress can countermand that order.”

Albrihn grimaced but then held up his hand. Jonis saw the bloodstone ring he wore on one finger. “The Empress isn’t here, but I’m her husband, and the Lord Marshall of Atlas. I can’t order you to return to your complex, but I…”

“All right, you’ve made your point,” the Matriarch growled, “not that I understand it. You can end this war in moments, but if you’d rather die then far be it from me to deter you.”

“If the Cyclopes are unleashed, we’ll all die.” Jonis didn’t even realise she’d spoken until the Matriarch fixed her with a stare. Her horse danced skittishly in response to its rider’s change in mood. If she’d looked angry before, it was nothing compared to this.

“Keeper Jonis,” she said icily, “how strange to see you here in Atlas again.”

Jonis swallowed. “I’ll explain everything to you as soon as I can, Matriarch.”

“You’ll explain it to me now. Follow me back to the stables. You’re penance is not yet over, but before that, you will give a full and frank…”

“Jonis stays here,” Albrihn said. “And if you have more Keepers with the means and the will to fight, we’d welcome their presence here on the walls, Matriarch.”

The burly woman spluttered. “You want to use us as…as…common soldiers?!”

“I need every sword.”

“But not our actual weapons? Not our Cyclopes?”

“Please, Matriarch,” Jonis pleaded, “just do as he asks.”

It was clear she didn’t know where to direct her ire. She suspected something was going on, but as far as she was concerned, Jonis was just a trouble-maker who’d been snatched from her rightful punishment by a bizarre personal order from the Empress. She had no understanding of where she’d been, or of what she’d discovered. Even if Jonis told her, she might not believe it.

“Hmph.” The Matriarch rode through the open gates, followed by the Cyclops and the two twins. Calam glanced up at Jonis and gave her a small smile.

Back inside now, the Matriarch wheeled her horse around. Jonis turned to look at her. “I know this is confusing…”

“Who are you to speak to me so, Keeper Jonis? Haven’t you learnt your lesson? Was taking your Cyclops from you not enough?”

“Matriarch…I’ve been to Omega and…”

“More nonsense.” She shook her head almost sadly. “I don’t know what happened to you in Talos, girl, but ever since you’ve returned…”

“Don’t you understand that this isn’t about your stupid rules!” Jonis shouted. “This is bigger than the Keepers, bigger than this war! Everything we think we know about ourselves is wrong, everything we believe about the history of this land is a lie! I don’t have time to explain it all now, but please do as Lord Albrihn asks.”

The Matriarch’s gaze was steely. More Cyclopes were coming in through the gate now, and Jonis could see others moving out of the corner of her eye. “As Lord Albrihn asks,” she echoed, “and tell me, Jonis, why does Lord Albrihn ask such things? A few hours ago, he sent us out to fight. Now you return from the gods know where, and suddenly he changes his mind. Is he asking this, or are you?”

“I’m asking it,” Albrihn told her firmly.

“I was suspicious of your motives when you asked for leave to go with this man to Talos,” the Matriarch continued, apparently ignoring him, “it seemed you’d developed an…affection…for him. Now I begin to see how things truly are. Of course you may take whomever you wish as a lover, but I wonder what the Empress would think if she knew her new consort was so easily swayed by your suggestions? It does not bode well if this so-called Lord Marshall receives counsel only from the women who share his bed. I wonder, perhaps, whether there is a traitor in our midst…”

A hush settled across the square, as all those in earshot turned to see this argument unfold. Jonis squirmed under the scrutiny, but her anger was starting to build now. She’d spent her whole life terrified of this woman, and her natural inclination was to cower before her wrath, but she’d been through too much now. She’d watched good people die and seen through the eyes of her ancestors. This was not a time for compromise. “I’m no traitor,” she said softly, “and if you knew half of what I’d been through, you’d think twice before accusing me of something like that.”

“How dare you talk to me like that? Who do you think you are to…”

Hooves rang on the cobbles as a horse cantered into the square, pushing through the ranks of archers. A tall, armoured man rode upon it, and it took a moment for Jonis to realise who the gleaming figure was. “She is Jonis the Sorceress,” Huldane said, removing his helmet and shaking out his hair, “the Daughter of Omega. None may claim greater power or honour than she.” All attention was on him now. He looked like nothing less than a figure from legend, come out of some dim age of heroes. Perhaps, in a way, he was. “I walked with her to the lost city, to the very citadel of the gods. I saw her stare down a storm and dismiss it with a glance. I saw her pass impenetrable barriers with the merest touch of her hand. I heard her commune with the spirits of the slain and see through ancient eyes. And I saw her summon forth the black lightning from the earth and rend apart the twisted bodies of the monsters who assailed her. I do not pretend to understand all that I witnessed in Omega, but I do know this: Jonis has the knowledge that will save all of us. She must be heeded. To do otherwise is to court total annihilation. To ignore her is to usher in our doom.”

Everyone turned to Jonis. The Matriarch was sitting open-mouthed, while Calam and Calad looked at her wonderingly. She cleared her throat self-consciously. “Well…he puts it a bit more eloquently than I might but…yeah, I suppose that covers it.”

Huldane laughed, and the Matriarch shut her mouth abruptly. She spun her horse again and narrowed her eyes at Jonis. “If any of us survive this…we will have words.”

“We will,” she nodded.

She rode off, followed by the three Cyclopes who now crowded through the gates. The archers gave them a wide berth, but most of them were still staring at her. She tugged at her borrowed cloak again and looked at Albrihn. His head was cocked. “It’s a long story,” she said again with a shrug.

“I look forward to hearing it.”

“If you use the Cyclopes, it’ll just make things worse. That’s all.”

“I believe you.” He smiled. “I didn’t want to deploy them anyway.”

“So why did you?”

His face clouded over. “That’s a long story too.”

She didn’t press him on that. Two more Cyclopes were approaching, and after they passed through the gates, they were shut behind them and barred again. Now the great slum was silent, save for the distant sound of an approaching army. Jonis wondered what they’d do now. She could just about make out the columns of troops on the edge of the sprawl, and saw them manoeuvring sluggishly. The soldiers in the front – squinting, she could only make out their banners, and didn’t see any sigils she recognised, just plain fields and patterns – were being moved out of the way, and coming through, marching in a much more orderly fashion, were tight formations of armoured warriors. She could see both infantry and cavalry.

“Saffrey sent in his levies when he thought he’d be facing Cyclopes.” Albrihn’s voice dripped with disdain.

“Levies? You mean conscripts?”

“Exactly. Chronusi peasants raised from the land, spears shoved into their hands, marched off to a place they’d only heard of to die horribly.”

“I really hope we win this,” Jonis said.

“So do I.” He pointed. “But now he sends in his best units, his original plan for the vanguard. Evidently he was prepared for this.”

“For what?”

“For what he believes was my bluff.” He glanced at Morrow. “You did say this wouldn’t work unless they were overconfident.”

Morrow just shrugged.

“So what now?”

“Now, we wait…”

“For what?”

“For him to commit his forces.”

Jonis glanced over her shoulder. Behind her, she saw the archers readying their arrows. For the first time, she noticed that the tips were wrapped in rags. One by one, they dipped them in the braziers, where the glowing coals ignited the oil those rags were soaked in. In less than a minute, the street was lit by a thousand flickering flames.

“On my mark,” Morrow bellowed, lifting her hand.

Jonis turned back to the shanty town, watching all those soldiers begin to pick their way through the labyrinth of narrow streets. “Oh…”

*

Hadrin rode with a heavy cavalry troop – her own, not the Chronusi cataphracts which, formidable though they were, were a little slow and unwieldy for her taste, particularly in this kind of environment. Telmes also rode close by, and her heavy infantry were marching in lockstep up the wide road that led to the East Gate ahead of them. The Cyclopes were gone, and the gates now firmly shut. But even through her spyglass she could make out only a single line of defenders atop the walls. What was the point in even trying to hold these meagre defences against such an assault? Something was wrong though. She could just feel it. She kept looking around, trying to dispel this nagging doubt, this old warrior’s instinct that when things were going too well, it usually meant they actually weren’t going well at all.

“Quiet place,” Captain Falla, one of her cavalrymen, remarked.

“It isn’t normally.” Had Albrihn really managed to evacuate the entire population and shelter them behind the walls of the Enclave? It defied belief, and yet the whole of this tumbledown city-beyond-the-city was apparently deserted. Even the doors and windows were boarded up. It was very strange.

“The path’s blocked!” someone shouted.

Hadrin urged her horse forward, ahead of the troop, and peered down the road. Telmes rode up beside her. There was indeed some sort of barricade in the way, a hastily-erected wall of trash and debris that spanned the width of the thoroughfare. The vanguard were floundering before it, their horses milling around. “Break it down!” she called out. But as she drew closer, she saw that would be futile – mortar had been poured over it, as well as water which had now hardened into ice in the cold weather. It would take them hours to batter it down. She cursed under her breath and looked around. “All right, we’ll need to find another way to the walls.” Quickly, she split up the vanguard, placing various sections under captains or lieutenants she trusted, sending them off into the winding streets between the closely-packed wooden buildings. Telmes, she kept with her. They turned south and carried on their way with fifty or so mounted soldiers. They found more barriers and, periodically, runners met them from the other detachments to report the same. It was a maze. Classic delaying tactic, but how much more preparation could they do in the hours it would take for them to find their way through? What was the point? Hadrin sighed. The vanguard was now strung out across the slum, and more of the army would be piling in, finding the same problem as they had and getting more and more dispersed. It was like trying to assault through a forest or marshland. She was reminded of the fens where they’d met the curious greenfolk, the gnarls, and how they’d taken advantage of the terrain as they’d blundered around. Her uneasiness only grew.

“Damn this place,” Telmes snarled. She looked up at the precariously leaning buildings; the closest one built three stories high, but made of little more than wood hammered haphazardly together over heaped clay bricks. The roof was almost collapsing under the weight of snow. The streets were a mire of mud, slush and filth.

“This would be a good opportunity for an ambush,” Hadrin said. “We need to send someone into these houses, make sure they’re not full of enemy soldiers.”

“Surely we’d have seen them,” Telmes protested, “moving into position or…”

“Just get a fucking door open!” she yelled, and several soldiers moved to obey instantly, reacting instinctively to her tone. She sent messengers to the other detachment commanders, telling them to do the same. “If nothing else,” she added, “we can chop our way through the buildings – they’re mostly just wood.”

The sound of axes chopping filled the air as the soldiers took mattocks to the clapboard doors, suspiciously barred with more planks of wood. If it was an ambush, what was the purpose of doing that? Her horse seemed to sense her mood, and danced a little in the slush. She soothed her with a pat on her flank. The door on the building Telmes had been eyeing finally gave way under the onslaught of the burly cavalryman’s axe. He hacked at what remained of it and, together with one of his comrades, peered into the gloom within. There was obviously no one in there. Hadrin felt herself relax.

“All right, let’s try to make a path through and…”

One of the soldiers came out, wrinkling his nose. “Full of fucking straw,” he said.

The other man walked out behind him, waving a hand in front of his face. “Bloody stinks!”

Hadrin frowned and trotted closer. “There’s dirty straw inside?” she asked them.

“It is a peasants’ house,” Telmes pointed out, “they live in their own filth.”

“It’s all piled up,” the first cavalryman told them. He was still holding his axe. “Big heaps of it.”

“Same in this one,” another soldier called from the opposite side of the narrow street. “Just straw.” She could see it through the shattered doorframe too – this house was really just a hovel, and it seemed to be completely packed with filthy straw. She could see the muck on it too: black, sticky, foul. What was going on?

“What is this shit?” the soldier by the hovel asked no one in particular. He’d put his hand on the straw, trying to tug some free perhaps, and his hand had come away coated black.

“It is shit,” one of his comrades laughed. “What did you expect, Culler?”

“It doesn’t smell like shit…”

“No,” the cavalryman at the door in front of Hadrin agreed, “smells more like…um…”

“Pitch,” his friend suggested. “You know, like oil?”

“Yeah, it’s soaked in it. Why would they have hay soaked in pitch in their houses, commander?”

Hadrin stared. Up and down the street, soldiers were finding the same thing. Straw, piles and piles of it, dry despite the bad weather because the houses were boarded up, and all coated in black pitch.

“What do Atlasian peasants do with this?” Telmes asked her. “What’s the point of…”

She was already spurring her horse, galloping back to the main road. Startled soldiers jumped out of her way. “Everybody get out!” she shouted, “get out of the city!”

She burst into the open, where more of the army were crowding into the slum. In every direction she looked, every street was filled with troops, and where doors were being smashed open, straw stained black was spilling onto the ground. Armoured men and women were scratching their heads in consternation. “It’s a trap,” she whispered, “it’s one, huge trap…” She turned in her saddle, staring back towards the gate. In the grey morning light, she saw a thousand orange stars rise up over the walls, high into the sky, and then begin to plummet towards this vast, wooden warren, every part of which was stuffed with kindling.

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