Age of War (Part XLVI)

“Rayke,” Jonis breathed, “what about the people?” She stared out at the devastation. It wasn’t as complete as it might have been: not every arrow had found its mark, and many of the wooden buildings were still laden with damp snow that either smothered the missiles as they landed or had slowly soaked their timbers. But fire was still sweeping across the wide swathe of slum outside the walls, catching here and there as the wind blew sparks across the narrow lanes, burning away merrily in others and filling the sky with black smoke. And everywhere, the sound of screams and panicked soldiers and horses. The attackers, already out of formation thanks to the twisting streets they’d been forced to negotiate, were now in total disarray.

Albrihn leant on the parapet, his fingers drumming on the stonework. “They’re safe,” he told her.

“But there are thousands of people living out there…”

“They’re safe,” he repeated, calmly. “Safer than we are anyway.”

He was right. They’d struck a terrible blow, but the enemy were tens of thousands strong, and the bulk of the army was still outside the shanty town. This would delay them, nothing more. “They’re going to be pretty angry when they pull themselves together,” Morrow said.

“You’d better make sure there are a few less of them then.”

She looked at Albrihn, and seemed to realise that, as captain, it was her responsibility to give the order now. She raised her hand again to signal to the archers behind the wall. Another flight of arrows arced overhead and plunged down into the burning streets. Jonis watched as more flames burst from the collapsing hovels and more screams echoed through the morning air. The sky was choked with smoke now. Despite Albrihn’s assurance that there were no Atlasian citizens down there, she was still stunned at the audacity of simply setting light to part of the city to defend it. She shook her head. “How did you come up with this, Rayke? I’ve always heard Atlas was too big and too old to be defended from a siege.”

“I’m a light cavalry commander,” he said, as if that explained anything.

“What?”

He smiled, and he looked like the man she’d fallen for back on the way to Priam, the cocksure warrior with only his ragged company to concern him. “Other commanders see terrain as an obstacle to be avoided. I see it as a weapon to be used. Light troops can’t fight pitched battles. We have to pick our moments and use every trick we can. In other words,” he said, his face suddenly turning grim again, “if someone attacks my city, they should expect it to fight back.”

“There is not enough fighting for my liking, brother.” Huldane had finally joined them on the wall, hefting his shield and drawing his sword as he grinned fiercely at the carnage before him.

“Learn to shoot a bow then,” Morrow suggested, “it’s not all about swords.”

“Speaking of which…” Jonis was still barehanded. She was standing here above the gate of a city under siege with nothing more than her fists to defend herself.

“I said it would be this way, Keeper Jonis,” Huldane said.

“What way?”

“All of us, together, here.”

“Yes, I suppose so…”

He winked. “You still do not believe the gods guide our paths? Even after all we have seen?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never met any gods. I doubt they care what we do, to be honest.” She gave him a sideways glance. “Why are you so cheerful anyway?”

“I am where I am meant to be,” he said simply. He looked up and down the wall. “Where is Sergeant Hasprit?”

Jonis cringed. Albrihn turned to Huldane. “Dead. He was killed at Ixion.”

Huldane’s expression darkened. “Do you know the one who did it?”

“I do.”

“Then today we also fight for vengeance, brother. May fate guide our blades.”

“Jonis! Hey!”

She turned at the familiar voice and saw Calam and Calad waving from the ground below. They were with a few other Keepers, most of whom she knew. She squatted down and smiled at them. “Here to join the fun?”

“If you’ll have us,” Calad shouted up.

Albrihn turned to look at them. “Do they fight as well as you, Jonis?” he asked.

“Better.”

“Then they’re most welcome.”

Jonis beckoned them up, and they quickly climbed the stone steps and shouldered past Huldane and the other members of the Seventh to stand beside her. “You stink, Joni,” Calad told her.

“Not everyone was allowed to just come back through the gates.”

“We missed you,” Calam said.

“I wasn’t gone for that long…”

“It felt longer. Things have been…difficult…” She exchanged a glance with her twin brother.

Jonis grimaced slightly. “I can imagine. How’s Jonin?”

“Inconsolable.”

“Though Ronnick’s trying his best.”

She could imagine that too, as much as she didn’t want to. “Did either of you bring a sword for me?”

“Can’t one of these brutes lend you one?” But even as she spoke, Calam was pulling out a sinuous Keeper blade from her cloak.

“I like the feel of something I can trust in my hand.”

She deserved the smirk Calad gave her. His eyes travelled past her and fixed on Albrihn, who was watching them with a bemused expression on his face. “Lord Albrihn,” he said, “I’m pleased to meet you properly at last. I’m Keeper Calad. This is my sister, Calam.”

“Well met,” he nodded.

“You’ve made quite the impression on Joni you know…”

“Now really isn’t the time, Calad,” she whispered under her breath.

“Just because there’s a war on doesn’t mean we can’t…” A blast from a horn cut him off and they all turned back to the burning slums. Sleet had begun to fall from the leaden sky, and all but the most determined fires seemed to have burned themselves out. They could see shadows moving in the thick smoke. The enemy were gathering their wits. Jonis tightened the grip on her sword. Last time, in Talos, Rayke had sent her back to the castle to protect Aethlan. Well, she wasn’t going anywhere this time. Like Huldane said, this was where they belonged. She didn’t know whether it was the will of the gods or not: she just knew this was where she had to be now.

*

Hadrin woke up coughing, her lungs filled with smoke. For one horrible moment she didn’t know where she was, and the chaos and fire all around her filled her with numb terror. Then, she snapped back to reality, soldiers instinct’s kicking in. She tried to get to her feet and felt a jolt of pain in her ankle as she moved it. She settled for getting herself into a sitting position and then tried to take stock of her situation. She was lying to one side of a winding street, overhung with wooden buildings which were now on fire or at least smoking. She remembered riding this way and then…yes…a burning timber had fallen in front of her. Her horse had been spooked, most likely by the fire, and he’d fallen. She must have hit her head and blacked out. She thought only for a few minutes. Very little had changed from her fuzzy memories of the moments before the fall. Her horse was lying on his side next to her, his flanks rising and falling in time with his panicked breaths. She could see from the tangle of legs and the way his neck was arched that he was unable to get up and, indeed, would be dead soon with or without intervention. She sighed to herself. Soldiers were running all around her without any sign of a coherent plan, and she knew her first duty was to them, but she couldn’t just let the beast suffer like this.

She leant forward, wincing at the pain in her ankle again and placed a soothing hand on his neck. He was a thoroughbred Atlasian courser, a truly magnificent animal. She’d bought him when she was promoted to commander – her one extravagance – and he’d been a loyal companion in both peace and war ever since. This was no way for him to die, writhing helplessly in the mud. She calmed him with gentle shushes even as she scrabbled the knife from her belt. She was as filthy as he was. Most likely none of the troops rushing by could even tell who she was. She lifted the knife and brought it down hard straight into his eye, piercing his brain. The horse let out a heartrending whinny as it died, and then it was over, just like that. She sat there for a little while longer, taking comfort in the animal warmth beside her, and then hobbled upright with the help of the tack he still wore.

She moved slowly, leaning on the charred walls of the buildings, making her way back towards the main road. She had to try and salvage this. There were bodies littering her path, but just as many were clearly still alive, rushing around, trying to flee or help wounded or trapped comrades. As she reached the wider street, she saw a body she recognised lying in the mud, just as she had been: it was Telmes. Her eyes were wide, staring up at the grey sky, and her breastplate was pierced by the shaft of an arrow. The ruined steel was charred black. A lucky shot. If she’d been standing just a stride or so away, or it had hit her at a slightly different angle, she’d have walked away with nothing but a bruise. Hadrin looked down at her. She’d disliked her. Telmes was no great loss to the world, socially or militarily, but she’d been a person. She’d had a life, maybe a husband or wife, possibly even children. And now she was dead. Hadrin remembered when she’d first joined the militia, and the first person she’d killed. He was just a bandit, out in the mountains north of this city somewhere. He’d been part of a robber band that had attacked a caravan taking goods to Hades. They’d stolen the merchandise and killed the traders. She’d felt no remorse when her spear had found its way into his guts, more by luck than judgement. And yet, a part of her had still been troubled by it. She’d stopped keeping any kind of tally decades ago, but every now and then she fancied there was a ledger somewhere in which was kept a record of all the blood she’d spilled in her career. Every enemy she’d killed, either personally or by giving orders to someone else. Every comrade who’d died because of following those same orders. Every village burned, every child orphaned, every widow, every empty place by a hearth in some home. Oh yes, it was quite the debt she’d accrued. And it was her private hope, unspoken even to herself, that when she died, some benevolent god would tot it all up and compare it to how many lives she’d saved, how many had survived because she’d led a relief force that arrived in the nick of time, every town that had remained standing because she’d headed off the invaders, every soldier who came back home because of her wise (or lucky) leadership. She hoped, in the end, she’d come out on top. She wanted to go to her grave knowing that she’d done more good than harm. What else mattered, in the end?

Looking down at Telmes, her annoying yapping voice silent for good now, she didn’t feel like she was winning her little imaginary battle for absolution. Looking at this fire, this death, she wondered again why she was fighting this war. How could she claim to be a servant of Atlas, when she’d forced her enemy to burn it to the ground in order to stop her army?

“Commander! Commander!”

She turned wearily to see Falla staggering towards her. His face was made even darker than usual by soot and smoke, but he looked otherwise unharmed. “Captain,” she nodded. Her voice was croaky.

“I feared you were dead, sir.” He was breathing heavily, and she was reminded of her poor horse again.

“So did I,” she replied, pulling herself back together. “But just a sprained ankle I think. Report.”

He looked around. There were shouts and screams coming from every direction, and it was hard to see anything through the black smoke that filled the air. Hadrin thought she started to feel drops of rain though. That was a mercy, at least. “I…I think most of the vanguard survived, commander. It’s hard to tell. Some have fled, others are trapped. We have a lot of wounded.”

“And a lot who aren’t, still waiting to get into this mess.” She cracked her neck and tried to stand as straight as she could. She thought she probably looked ridiculous, covered in mud and doubtless as caked in soot as Falla, but damn it, someone here had to show some discipline. “For better or worse,” she said quietly, “this is the side I’m on, and I’ll be damned if I let these soldiers die after this.”

“Sir?”

She waved a hand. “Nothing, captain. We need to rally as many of our forces as we can. The time for subtlety is over – Albrihn’s showed us he means business, and we won’t be caught out again – we attack the East Gate with overwhelming force.”

He saluted, fist across his chest. “Sir.”

“Find me someone with a horn and get a banner.”

“Which banner, sir?”

“Any banner. As long as people can see it waving through all this bloody smoke.”

“Sir.” He ran off into the choking clouds and drifting ash.

Hadrin stood alone. It was definitely raining now, or maybe it was sleet. The wind cleared the smoke for a moment and she could see the gates up ahead. The walls were low – she could have stood eye-to-eye with the defenders from the third storey of a townhouse – but she knew that they still had a formidable advantage. There were no banners flying that she could see, but she knew that was where Albrihn would be, waiting for them.

“Boy,” she yelled, just as a slight figure staggered past her. It turned out to be a girl, but it hardly mattered. She was a wide-eyed, skinny thing, with the golden-brown skin of a Promethean, and Hadrin grabbed her by her shoulder. She wore the livery and light armour of a messenger. “Run back to the main army. Find Lord Saffrey.”

“L…lord…?”

“Saffrey,” she snapped, “the arrogant prick in charge. He’ll be in his tent, or maybe riding a horse somewhere surrounded by bodyguards. It’ll be the one with the gilded tack. Find him, and tell him Commander Hadrin politely requests he moves up some of the artillery and commences a bombardment or seventeen. Understood?”

The messenger nodded jerkily. “Yes, sir.”

She started running, and Hadrin had to grab her by the shoulder and spin her around. “Other way…” she said with a sigh. She didn’t have much faith that the message would get through, but Saffrey was probably smart enough to see that the engines were their only option now anyway. “First blood to you, Albrihn,” she said, returning her gaze to the gates, now hidden by smoke again, “now let’s see what you’re really made of.”

*

The view from the palace was for the most part obscured by the high walls of the Imperial Enclave, either by chance or design. It was possible to see the high buildings, the great concentric circles of the fine ancient streets of the city, the docks and the wide bay, but of the shanty town surrounding Atlas, there was no evidence. Except, that was, for the smoke now rising high into the sky. Aethlan stood on a balcony near the top of a high tower. Like most of the palace, the ornate balustrade seemed to be of a single piece with the walls and floor around it. Her hands worked nervously on the smooth marble. It was cold this high up, and sleet had begun to fall. She could see the plains stretching mottled white and brown for miles, and the innumerable dark smudges of thousands upon thousands of soldiers, all streaming towards the city. She’d seen nothing of the attack on Talos, secluded safely in the Hall of the Fathers, deep inside the castle. She was probably safer here than she had been there, but she didn’t fell it. She hugged herself closely. Huldane was down there somewhere. She couldn’t have ordered him not to fight, even if she’d wanted to. That was where he belonged.

“You should come out of the cold, Lady Aethlan.”

She turned, surprised to hear another voice here in the near-deserted palace. It was Lord Valcon. He leant easily against a pillar just a short distance away. “I should bear witness to this,” she said.

He smiled. His teeth were very white. “There are plenty of witnesses down there already, lady. Thousands of them.”

“I can see that.” She looked back at the plains. “What do you think it going on?”

“It’s a war.” He shrugged. He joined her at the balcony, standing a little too close for her liking. “I expect that what’s going on is killing, dying, dismemberment, mutilation, bleeding, screaming, running, shitting…” He smiled again, as if it was some joke.

“Something is on fire.”

“It looks that way.” He held out a hand. “Unfortunately, my eyes and ears are silent.”

“My lord?”

“I am a man of resources. Though I might be a lesser member of the Chamber, I have men and women I trust who bring me information. None have come to me since the enemy arrived.”

“Lord Albrihn and the Empress have ordered the Enclave secured, for obvious reasons.”

“Indeed. Still, it would be pleasant to have news of the outside world, no?”

“I am sure, if you drew your sword, Lord, you would be allowed to go and stand upon the walls beside our soldiers.”

That actually made him laugh. “Most amusing, my lady of Talos. Are all your folk so…robust…of humour?”

“I do not know, Lord Valcon. When I last saw them in any number, my city was in flames.”

“As Atlas might be also. I only wish I could…”

Aethlan was getting bored of this politician and his mincing words. “Do you have a point, Lord Valcon? People I love and respect are risking their lives to defend you, so if you come here only with mockery, you may not find me as receptive an audience as you hope. I would thank you to leave me to my vigil here.”

Valcon’s face grew serious. “I apologise, Lady Aethlan. Sincerely. I meant no disrespect.”

“It is fine.” She was still irritated with him and wanted to be left alone. She turned back to the view, hoping he’d take the hint.

“But, I do have a favour to ask…”

“Your opinion of me must be inflated, lord. I doubt there is anything I could grant which you could not more easily obtain yourself.”

“Ah,” he laughed lightly again, but not in the same way as before. He did seem genuinely contrite, and she softened towards him very slightly. “There is one respect in which your influence exceeds mine, lady. You have the ear of the Empress…”

She turned sharply to him. “Do I now?”

“So it’s said.”

“I am afraid you have been misinformed.” She started to walk away, giving up on Valcon’s politeness winning over, but he grabbed her arm. She stared down at his hand.

“Please,” he said, and the expression in his eyes was genuinely desperate. “I have a…a nephew. A soldier. His parents died some years ago. I…I have not acknowledged our relationship for fear that accusations of favouritism might blight his career. He is a dashing young lieutenant, a bright star in the militia. Even now, he fights to defend Atlas. I would like to be able to get word to him.”

“A nephew?” she asked.

“Yes. His mother, my sister, was very dear to me.”

She tugged her arm free. “Why did you not say this before?”

“It’s a personal request. Unbecoming.”

“How so?”

“This is a time when we must think of Atlas and its people.”

“There is nothing wrong with fearing for those we care about, Lord Valcon.”

“I know.”

Aethlan shook her head. “But, I do not think the Empress would be persuaded, even if I asked.”

“You and she are friends though…”

“No. Not friends.”

“No?”

Aethlan thought back to her last conversation with Albrihn, to the truth she’d revealed about his relationship with the Empress. The idea of looking the woman in the eye after that filled her with terror. She hadn’t spoken to her since she’d met Loban down near the docks, heedless of how rude she appeared ignoring her invites to take lunch again. “I am sorry, Lord Valcon…”

He grabbed her arm again. “Do you remember,” he said, his grin returning, “when I taught you about queens?”

She went to pull free, but this time his grip was like a vice. “My lord, what are you…”

He yanked her closer. “Queens, Aethlan. Do you remember?”

“I remember,” she said, looking into his eyes. They sparkled. Another joke. This was all a joke to him, somehow.

“Queens is a game of strategy. You try to outwit your opponent, manoeuvring around his attacks, trying to defend and coordinate your own assault at the same time. It is a deep, fulfilling game.”

“What do you want?” she asked. She was starting to become scared of him now. There was something deeply unnerving about his smile.

“The best games of queens involve gambits. Move and counter-move, war on a dozen fronts, fought by knights, ministers, even pawns. Such games can last for days, even weeks. But in the end, when all else fails, there is only one option…”

She felt pain blossoming in her side. It took her a moment to understand what was going on, but then she staggered back, staring down at her gown as the crimson stain spread across it. Valcon was still grinning. In his hand he held a dagger, coated with blood. Her blood. “Wh…what…” she stammered. She was feeling lightheaded. The pain barely registered.

“You take the queen,” Valcon said.

She fell onto the marble floor, feeling her warm blood pool beneath her. In the distance, she could hear loud crashes, like boulders falling from the sky, smashing Atlas to pieces. The notion made her laugh, as she imagined the skies filled with malevolent pixies, raining terror down on the screaming people below. The noise burbled in her throat. She saw someone step over her, momentarily blocking out the sky. Then all was black.

 

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