Age of War (Part XLVII)

The roiling clouds of oily black smoke from the burning pitch and straw made an effective cloak as the artillery fire began to descend on Atlas. Albrihn watched stones fly far over their heads, crashing somewhere deep in the city. The only casualties would be architectural, unless a messenger or patrol happened to be walking in a street directly below whatever building was damaged. But the fickle wind from the wide bay and the cold sleet it carried started to do its work, and gradually the smoke began to dissipate. Saffrey’s engines could be heard even from a mile away: great catapults and trebuchets hurling rocks or specially made iron balls in high parabolas that now gradually began to find their marks. The first impact he was close enough to see hit some two-hundred strides to the south, battering a section of wall to pieces and sending a squad of defenders screaming to the ground as their footing gave way beneath them. Ballistae too were unleashed, whole batteries of the lightweight machines sending spear-sized metal bolts towards them. Fire was of little use against the masonry of Atlas proper, but they were devastating enough when they were on target. He could only watch as a soldier took one straight through his chest, the force of it lifting him from his feet and sending him flying backwards off the wall. There was little they could do to respond without artillery of their own, and so they just waited, occasionally peppering the slum with more volleys of arrow fire.

“They’re reforming,” Morrow said grimly.

Albrihn switched his gaze from the incoming barrage to the ground before them, and saw how the attackers were recovering from the disruption of the unexpected fires. Units were rallying to ragged banners and their officers were re-establishing their formations. Ranks and files began to emerge in amongst the smouldering ruins. Albrihn was dismayed but not surprised. He’d spent the last three years fighting mainlanders; soldiers of all kinds. In some places, their discipline was nearly a match for Atlantian troops, but mostly he and the Seventh had been pit against savages who seemingly belonged to another era of warfare. He’d watched tattooed berserker warriors try to charge the walls of a stockade, as if they could cut down wood and stone with their swords like they would a man. As fearsome as they were in the open, in a siege it was necessary only to wait for them to lose the impetus of their mad assault, and then bring them down with arrows. But even the best the mainlands had to offer would not have recovered so quickly from something like this. No, these were Atlantian militia, and not deserters or renegades turned brigand, but soldiers who believed in their cause through their chain of command, soldiers who he thought of as sisters and brothers, now turning their weapons against him. Civil wars, he realised, were rightly dreaded.

“Let’s give them a volley,” he told Morrow, and she nodded before calling out the order. From the walls and the ranked archers on the streets behind came another dense flight of arrows, this time not weighed down by lit rags. They fell in amongst the advancing troops, but already they had shields raised, marching forward across an area of cleared ground outside the walls in lockstep, and while some were brought down, the unit itself remained inviolable. More came through the smoking hovels with every minute that passed, and Albrihn saw the hand of Commander Hadrin at work. She was perhaps the most respected military leader in Atlantis, and he never imagined he’d be tested against her abilities to organise and inspire the troops under her command.

“They’re not giving up, are they?” Jonis said.

“No,” he agreed, “and they won’t. No matter how many we kill. Until their leaders see the folly of this attack, they’ll fight to the last man or woman.” He could see bodies littering the ground as the smoke cleared, and the stream of wounded retreating down the road. Replacements were coming though, huge battalions of them in gleaming mail, fresh to the fight. Arrows now joined the missiles flung by the towering engines outside the city as the archers on the ground were formed into lines. These were the most lightly-armoured troops and, at this stage, the most dangerous, so he gave Morrow leave to direct the fire of their own archers. Hails of arrows flew in both directions, and both sides began to take a heavy toll. Loyalist soldiers ducked behind the parapet and used the crenelations and arrow slits built into them to their advantage, but the walls weren’t in good enough repair across the length of the defences to guarantee their safety. Atlas, Albrihn reminded himself, could not be defended by conventional means.

The first ranks of Saffrey’s infantry reached the base of the walls. They were a motley lot, obviously hastily formed from a number of shattered units, but they worked together well enough. Their shields were held directly over their heads now, so it looked like a gaudy tortoise done out in a variety of insignia and heraldic devices was shuffling towards them. More like it were approaching up and down the line. The defenders hurled rocks and oil down onto them, and arrows sought the chinks in the roof of steel. It was a spirited counter-attack, but they lacked the means to sustain it. Another stone from a trebuchet or catapult hit the walls, this time taking out a considerable section just to the north. The ancient mortar was no match for such a sustained barrage. “Now it begins,” Huldane said, and he actually sounded enthusiastic. He was right though, and Albrihn drew his sword.

No ladders had been brought out of the inferno; the attackers had only ropes and grapnels and, still under cover of their comrades’ shields, the soldiers in the front rank started to throw them skyward. Many missed, others clanged harmlessly off the parapets, not finding a grip. Those that did take hold were hastily ripped free by Atlasians. All the while the arrows, ballista bolts and stones kept falling, and gradually they were being whittled down. A stretch to the south was now undefended for more than a dozen strides, and enemy troops were starting to clamber upwards. “Stop them,” he told Morrow.

She sighed as if he’d asked her to do something she couldn’t have managed with her eyes closed and pulled out an arrow. He didn’t even see her take aim. The angle was acute, firing along the wall where it curved away from them, but her shot flew true, taking one of the climbers straight through the chest. The next one severed another rope clean through, dropping a handful of soldiers into their own unit. She kept shooting until she was satisfied no one would be climbing that part of the wall again in the immediate future. Already reinforcements from the city were taking the place of the displaced defenders there too.

They wouldn’t be able to hold off this attack for long. The fresh troops had arrived, having been directed through the shanty town by their comrades, and they had with them ladders and rams. Their fire was more disciplined too, and Albrihn knew they’d only be able to hold for a little while longer. A ram carried by a large unit was coming towards the gates below them. The Atlasians responded with arrows and even thrown rocks, but their progress couldn’t be halted, even as some of their number fell. They crashed into the gate with a shudder. Ladders were being raised into position. As with the grapnels, some were repelled, pushed down or even hacked apart with axes. It would only take one group of attackers finding a foothold to turn the whole battle around though. More enemies were swarming their position now: infantry, cavalry, with bows or mêlée weapons. He saw how horrifically outnumbered they were. An arrow bounced off the parapet, inches from where his hand rested. He took a wary step backwards. “Everybody ready?” he murmured.

“Born ready,” Morrow told him, as she always did. The Keepers just nodded grimly. Jonis shot him a concerned look. He wanted to tell her no one would think ill of her if she left the walls and went to find a safe place, but he knew that would insult her and, besides, he really did want her here. She was formidable and courageous. He trusted her implicitly. He loved her. What a mess this was. Jonis and Vion, Atlas under siege, Atlantis itself teetering on the edge of some catastrophe none of them truly understood.

None of it mattered at this moment though. A ladder crashed into place just a little way to his left, and there was no one there to push it back. Morrow ran towards it, still firing arrows with blinding quickness. A second ladder hit, this time on his right, near Huldane. The Talosi was there, trying to heave it away, and Jonis’s two Keeper friends joined him. The enemy were already climbing: they couldn’t shift it. Morrow too was forced to retreat as the first attacker clambered over the ramparts, laying about herself with her sword. Even as her comrades followed, Morrow put an arrow through her eye and danced backwards. Huldane let out a warcry in his native Talosi. He smashed the metal rim of his round wooden shield into a helmeted head and struck out with his sword, eliciting a scream from the unfortunate attacker. Up and down the wall, as far as Albrihn could see, it was the same, and all the while the battering ram continued to thud over and over into the door. He had a sudden flashback to Talos. This time, he reassured himself as he dashed towards Morrow, things would be different.

Albrihn ran past Morrow and met a tall soldier sword-to-sword. The force of his charge was enough to unbalance the man and, as he lost his footing, Albrihn slashed him across the face and sent him flying down to the ground behind the wall. More came for him, half a dozen or so already, with swords, axes and spears. It was only wide enough for two to stand side-by-side atop these walls and they weren’t able to take advantage of their numbers. He cut a swathe through them, spinning and ducking, lashing out with his sword as he let his instincts take over. He shouldered a startled-looking soldier over the parapet and ran through the next in the same movement, his sword gliding through his mail as if it were no thicker than silk. Now he turned and parried a clumsily swung axe wielded by a soldier who looked no more than a boy, with smooth pink cheeks and wide, terrified eyes. Perhaps he was one of the peasant levies who’d found his way to the vanguard in the end after all. It didn’t matter. Albrihn booted him in the sternum and he flew off the wall with a high-pitched scream. His own soldiers joined the fray soon enough, defenders rushing up from the streets, climbing ladders of their own, until the whole section of battlements was a swirling mêlée and the sound of shouts, screams and clashing weapons filled the air.

On the other side of the gates, Huldane and Jonis fought side by side. She watched him whenever she had a moment to breathe. He looked as he had in Omega, using strength more than skill to hack apart his enemies, but with a no-nonsense technique that was, in its way, as graceful and beautiful as the more fluid Atlantian styles. His heavy shield, too, he continued to use as a weapon in itself, battering aside swords and spear tips, then plunging his straight-bladed stabbing sword past the owner’s guard. He continued like that, a farmer cutting wheat, repeating the same rhythmic movements, as he stood atop the parapet, balancing precariously above the ladder, chopping down everyone who tried to climb up. Calam and Calad gave a good account of themselves too. They fought back to back, moving with the same sinuous grace, occasionally swapping positions, one ducking beneath the other’s arm, or even sliding right over their back, to confound the enemy as the other took their place. In the blur of combat, they were almost indistinguishable. One mind; one soul. That was how it was supposed to be. She thought again of Jonin, and felt a pang of guilt and regret.

She heard wood splintering, and could just see the gates beginning to bend inwards under the continued assault of the battering ram. There were no archers to stop them now either: everyone on the walls was fighting for their lives. Thankfully, the artillery bombardment had slackened off now that battle was joined. Jonis danced away from a sword stroke and flicked out her curved blade, aiming for the exposed flesh of her opponent’s hand. She felt flesh slice and saw blood. The sword clattered to the flagstones as they released it with a cry of anguish, then Jonis hacked at their forearm, cutting clean through mail, clothing, muscle and bone. They fell, and she kicked them aside, to tumble off the edge of the walkway. Despite their success, she could see from here that the battle couldn’t go on much longer. She jogged towards Albrihn, who was just scrambling over the gatehouse. He met her eyes and she could see a deep sadness there. Did he know this was a lost cause too?

“How long are you planning to try to hold these walls?” she shouted over the din of battle.

“Not much longer,” he said grimly, “I was hoping…”

“What?”

For now, there were no attackers close by. He surveyed the carnage all around. “They’ve concentrated all their forces here. It was probably easiest for Hadrin to give them a simple objective after we scattered them with the fire.”

“This was always going to be where the fighting was fiercest, Rayke. That’s why you’re here.”

“I know.”

A grapnel landed between them and was dragged by its rope to the battlements. Its hooks dug into the crumbling mortar. Albrihn immediately tried to dislodge it, but was unable to. Jonis tried to help. Enemies were already climbing, causing the hook to dig in even deeper. Albrihn tried cutting the rope with his sword, but it was thick and tough and swinging to and fro with the weight of the soldiers climbing it. He had no choice but to step backwards and raise his guard, his long, gleaming sword held lengthways across his tarnished breastplate. He wore no helmet, but his gear was of higher quality than she’d seen before. He was the Lord Marshall now, the focal point of this whole bloody conflict. And, chances were, he’d die on the walls with his troops. Jonis stepped beside him. “You have a plan, right?” she asked.

“I did.”

“What was it?”

He shook his head. “Too late now. We were supposed to pull back long before this. I wasn’t expecting them to be so…”

Whatever he wasn’t expecting would have to remain a mystery, as the first climber jumped onto the walls, swinging a heavy mace towards them. Albrihn dodged and dropped into a crouch. The soldier went straight for him, turning his back on Jonis. She slammed her sword through the back of his neck without hesitation. She was pulling her weapon free as another took his place, and this time Albrihn was ready, knocking him off the wall with a clean swipe of his blade. And so it continued, even as more grapnels and more ladders appeared, more enemies swarmed onto the walls, and the gate slowly began to crack and splinter.

Huldane had been beaten back by the tide of attackers. He stood on the walls proper now, surrounded by them. His Keeper allies had been separated from him and had their own fights to deal with. The other Atlasian defenders, from the Seventh or other units he didn’t know, were dead or wounded, most cut down and lying in bloody heaps on the stones. The ground was slick beneath his boots. He felt no fatigue as he fought though. His sword was red, his shield dented and nicked in a dozen places. He could feel where his mail rubbed against bruises and cuts and his helmet was long gone. But he laughed. It was the battlejoy; the One-Eyed God’s greatest gift. He felt drunk with it. They came for him, one or two at a time, and each one seemed to move to him as slowly and awkwardly as if they waded through deep water. He’d found it a little disorientating at first to fight as many women as men, but he’d overcome that soon enough – he knew from experience that Atlantian women were as formidable as their men, if not more so, and these ones were just as keen to kill him as their brethren. “Let them come!” he roared in Talosi, even though he knew no one nearby could understand him, “let them all come!” He exulted in death. He ploughed through armour, flesh and bone, until the bodies were heaped around him like red mountains. Then there were none left. He stood alone, surrounded by butchery. No one dared climb up the ladder he guarded, and when he looked down over the battlements, he saw the ground there was deserted, with only a few twisted bodies flung there by himself lying in the snow and mud. He heaved at the ladder and pushed it off, letting its wreckage fall amongst what remained of the unit that had carried it. Then he went looking for more foes.

Albrihn dispatched another attacker and, in a momentary lull, took a second to look around. Running battles were taking place all over the walls as enemies in their hundreds mounted their assault. He saw Huldane, covered in blood – not his own, he reckoned – walking towards the two Keeper twins. Jonis was pulling her sword free from a man’s chest. Morrow had mounted the battlements to keep out of harm’s way and she was firing arrows at short range, a continuous deadly rain of them, but her quiver was running short now. He knew, with a sense of dull resignation, that this was almost over. No enemy had yet reached the other side of the wall, but it was only a matter of time. He’d have to sound the retreat. That’s what he’d always planned, but he’d hoped they wouldn’t be so desperately pushed when he did. They needed to make their escape if this plan was going to work.

A horn sounded in the distance. There had been many already: a constant blare of them as troops manoeuvred into position and signals were passed across the battlefield. This one sounded different. It was a cavalry horn, and it was sounding a charge. He leant over the parapet and tried to see what was going on. Sleet still fell from the sky in big, wet blobs, turning to rain in the residual heat from the burning buildings. The stink of blood, smoke and death filled his nostrils, made his head spin. Now he heard a sound like thunder. A storm out to sea? No, it was something else: the soldiers attacking the walls turned and he saw the way the battle line shifted in reaction to whatever it was that he couldn’t see. The rumble was getting louder and louder now, and there was another blast from a horn. He could hear shouts and cries, and then they came, bursting through the lingering smoke from his right – towards the south. It was a great, glittering column of heavy cavalry, clad in plate and charging with lances couched. They smashed into the flanks of the Chronusi and their allies and scattered them almost instantly.

Jonis stared at the scene. “Who is that?”

Albrihn knew – he could see the man responsible at the head of the enormous wedge of horses, a tall, heavily-built figure swinging a massive two-handed sword back and forth, carving apart his fleeing foes. “Rykall,” he said, “and his regiment.”

“Was this supposed to happen?” she asked.

He shook his head. “No. He was supposed to be holding the walls to the south.” He realised then how Hadrin had miscalculated. By throwing everything she had against the East Gate, she’d left Rykall twiddling his thumbs further down. Probably a few stragglers had found their way to him, but he’d obviously judged that something was amiss and quickly organised a sortie. And now his heavy cavalry were sweeping through the attackers, sending them fleeing. A few units tried to form a pike block to repel the charge, but it was too late. Rykall was routing them, forcing them back into the slums. It was by no means a victory – Saffrey had many more forces left to commit – but it was exactly the opportunity they needed to put the next part of his strategy into action. The ram was left abandoned by the damaged gates. “Let them in!” he yelled hoarsely to one of the soldiers on the ground, “it’s the Third Regiment!”

The man stared up at him in incomprehension.

“They’re on our side!” he shouted by way of clarification.

The soldier gathered his fellows and set to. The attack had stopped. There was still fighting along this section of walls, but now the defenders had the numerical advantage again, and they were slowly beating back the opposition. He looked at Morrow. She was out of arrows and slumped down against the walls. “What now?” she asked him.

“Now…we run…”

*

Jatharik had come to this place to find worthy adversaries, and so far he wasn’t disappointed. He’d been amused at the panic that had reined when the wooden huts had been set alight since he’d been expecting it all along. Why lead an army into terrain like that? Better to surround the enemy and starve them out, slaughtering their animals and burning their fields. But it seemed like things were different in Atlantis. So be it. Saffrey had asked him – the lord never commanded Jatharik – to lead a band of some of his fiercest troops. They were tribesmen from the mountains, not city-dwellers like most of the army. They were no match for Ankhari warriors, but they seemed to understand his people’s kind of warfare and didn’t cover themselves in armour and march in square blocks as if battle were some strange kind of game. Jatharik respected the prowess and discipline of the Atlantians, but he’d never understand them. He and his force of a few hundred men (he’d insisted, through his translator, that no women be sent with him, as all knew they had no place on a real battlefield, despite what the Atlantians claimed) had been making their way through the huts when the fires went up. Some had been killed, others had run. Jatharik spared no thought for them: cowards would get their just reward in the afterlife, being transformed into the carrion birds that feasted on the dead of the Battle That Never Ends, squawking mindless beasts who knew nothing but the taste of rotting meat. Those who remained with him had followed him onwards, heedless of the flames, intent on the city walls ahead. As chance would have it, they had come to a place where the masonry was almost totally collapsed, a ragged hole in the defences. The spot had been hastily shored up with barricades and there were many defenders guarding it, but it was an obvious weakness. He wondered if Saffrey knew about it.

He’d charged across the open ground between the huts and the walls, conscious that the rest of the army was attempting to rally to his left, further south by the large gates. His horse had been shot from under him by the defenders’ arrows. He’d rolled free and carried on regardless. The mount had served him well for many years, but he did not mourn. All Ankhari warriors rode in the Battle That Never Ends, and their steeds would be those beasts who had shown the same bravery and honour as them in life. He had no doubt he would meet his horse again and that the two of them would go to even greater glory. So, on foot, he raced towards the gap. Many of his followers were shot too. He paid them no mind. Others of the army, the ordinary soldiers, saw them attacking and, perhaps assuming an order had been given, joined them. Jatharik was first into the gap, leaping over a wooden barrier and swinging his curved sword in a wide arc. He took the heads from two men before they could even react. A woman screamed noises at him and tried to stab him with her spear. He broke the end off with one hand and shoved her into the wall dismissively. Other warriors piled through the gap, quickly overwhelming the Atlasians with their numbers. Jatharik was uninterested in the outcome of the battle. He had only one purpose here today. A man tried to cut him with his sword. Jatharik parried the blade away, sending him pirouetting around and grabbed the back of his head. He wrenched his neck until it snapped and tossed the body aside. There were plenty more to kill. They came, with swords and spears and other strange, foreign weapons. Some were weaklings, barely-trained boys he slaughtered without mercy. Some were more formidable. By the time he waded into the street behind the broken walls, he had cuts across his shoulders and chest and a bleeding graze above his eye. He hadn’t been slowed down at all though. Now a man came to him wearing a helmet larger and more ornate than most of the others’, obviously a chieftain of some kind. He moved well and was quick with his sword, though Jatharik dwarfed him. They met blade to blade, and the fight was a good one. The man struck several hard blows, even staggering him once with a swipe to his temple that, by chance, only caught him with the flat rather than the edge. The result was never truly in doubt though. The soldier became tired. He slipped on a wet cobble and Jatharik hewed him to the ground, pausing only to say a brief battle-prayer over his corpse.

Most of the defenders were trying desperately to hold the gap against the attacking force and more reinforcements from close by were charging in. Where was Albrihn? Surely he should be here, where the battle was sure to be thickest? He was their warlord; this was where he belonged. He looked around, suddenly frustrated. There was a woman, again dressed ornately, with a sword and shield. She was approaching him warily. Amusingly, she mimicked the stance of a warrior, like a boy following after his father, swinging a stick around in play. He chuckled to himself. She ran at him, screaming a sort of war cry in her womanly voice. He swept his sword out nonchalantly but, to his surprise, she sidestepped and slashed him across his side. It wasn’t a deep cut, but it spilled blood down onto his kilt and he could feel the sting of it. Again, he swung for her, and again she dodged, coming at him again, this time leaving a snaking wound across his forearm. Beginning to grow angry, he barrelled into her and brought his sword down in a rapid series of strokes. She met each with her tall shield, though the impact seemed to at least shake her. She said something to him in her incomprehensible tongue. Now he saw her, he realised she didn’t look like most Atlantians – her skin was almost as pale as his, and her hair likewise red, from what he could see hanging lose from her helmet. Maybe she was a mainlander? She looked like she might even have Ankhari blood. Well, if she did, she should know better than to stand up to a man like this. He lunged for her again, and she fell. He thought he’d knocked her down, but saw she’d rolled right back up to her feet. She jumped, making to stab down with her sword into his back. It would have killed him. He was quicker than his size would suggest. He caught her by the throat in midair, thick fingers wrapping around her neck. She dropped her sword and tried to fight free. He considered snapping her neck for her impudence, but to kill a woman in battle was dishonourable. It would imply she had any right to be here. Later, when the men were dead, he would take his revenge. He threw her to one side, and she rolled to halt on the cobbles.

Jatharik turned. The gap had been overwhelmed. His followers and those others who’d joined them were boiling through into the city. He held out his arms, lifting his bloody sword into the air. “ALBRIHN OF ATLAS!” he bellowed. “FACE ME!”

 

 

 

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