“I seem to remember the last man who disobeyed my orders ended up shorter by a head…”
Rykall grinned as he flicked up his visor and began to dismount from his horse. His contingent from the Third Regiment were gathering in the plaza by the East Gate. Many were wounded – the rout, as with all things, was messier close up than it had appeared from their vantage. “That’s no way to talk to someone who just saved your life,” the commander said.
Albrihn returned his smile. “You have my thanks.”
Rykall waved a gauntleted hand. “I did my duty.”
“And it’s a good job you did.” Morrow was stooping down, refilling her quiver from a supply cart and also checking arrows that had landed on the cobbles and even those protruding from corpses. She was having an informal competition of sorts with the Chirurgeons’ orderlies as they gathered the injured and the slain, trying to get to them before they did. It was ghoulish, but Albrihn was desensitised to the whole business now. There was a time when the idea of blood being shed on this scale within the walls of Atlas would have horrified him.
“It bought us the time we need,” she continued, straightening and swinging her quiver back over her shoulder, “so unless there’s anything else…?” She looked around meaningfully.
“Right,” Rykall agreed, “they won’t be long getting their act together out there.”
The gates were shut again now, but the damage was obvious even from this side. It wouldn’t take much more punishment from the ram. Thankfully, Albrihn was counting on that. All across the walls, the defenders were retreating, some bringing the dead and wounded with them, others taking a more pragmatic approach. The sleet had turned to a steady, insistent rain. Already, soldiers were streaming away from the gate, into the streets, towards the Enclave. It was time they joined them. Albrihn turned to where Jonis and the Keepers were waiting. She looked at him as he approached. “We run?”
“I believe that’s what I said.”
“I would say that’s not like you but…actually, it kind of is…”
He cocked his head. “What does that mean?”
She shrugged. “You’re not like other soldiers. That Rykall over there, with the moustache, he’d have fought to the death here.”
“Probably. But he hauled our arses out of the fire this time.”
“Put it down to me being a light cavalry captain again, I suppose. I’m a big fan of feigned flight.”
The male Keeper – Calad? – looked at everyone running from the walls. “Are you so sure it’s feigned?”
“A lot of people died here,” his sister said, “to abandon the walls seems somehow…disrespectful. Why make a stand here at all?”
“Atlas is indefensible.”
Jonis frowned. “Is that really true?”
“It is.” He nodded towards the walls. “The walls are too low and in too bad a state of repair. The gates are old. Half the city is outside them anyway. The buildings,” he said, turning back to the city now, “are too densely packed. A battle fought in the streets would turn into a thousand tiny skirmishes, impossible to coordinate. It’s a recipe for a quagmire.”
“What about the Enclave though? That has walls.”
He shook his head. “That seems the obvious solution, but the Enclave’s walls are built for show. There’s no murder holes, no sally points, no towers. It can withstand a barrage, but that’s all. You can’t fight your way out of it.”
Jonis threw up her hands. “So what’s the point of any of this?”
“The point is that I know all that, but I’m betting Saffrey doesn’t.”
“Why wouldn’t he?”
“Have you ever played queens?”
Jonis blinked a few times and exchanged a glance with her friends. “The game?”
“I…well…no, I don’t think I have, actually. Why?”
“Saffrey has. Vion told me.” He grimaced at the look that passed over Jonis’s eyes at the mention of that name. He forged on. “He’s supposed to be one of the best players in Atlantis.”
“So?” Jonis looked exasperated.
“So, he thinks conventionally.” He mimed. “Rows and columns. Squares. Units positioned like playing pieces. That’s how he’s planning this. He sees his objective and now he’s going for it. He thinks he has us on the run.”
“Again,” Calad said, “are you absolutely sure he doesn’t?”
“Shut up,” Jonis snapped at him, “his objective?”
“But you said before…”
“Anything you can’t defend,” he told her with a small smile, “you should use as a weapon. Just like the slum out there.”
Jonis turned to Calam. “Is he making any sense to you?”
“No. I thought you could understand him.”
“Well, he is a man…”
“Hey,” Calad said, sounding hurt.
Albrihn shook his head and left them to it. He crossed the plaza where Rykall was organising his men. Lady Chanes was there too, wiping bloody hands clean with a damp cloth. She looked tired. “An interesting day so far, Lord Albrihn,” she told him without expression.
“I’m sorry, but I did all I could to…”
She stopped him with a raised hand. “Enough. A joke. Gallows humour.”
Rykall laughed. “So we’re on the gallows are we?”
“You are,” she said. “Lord Albrihn: we’re going to return to the main hospital. I’ve sent messengers to the other tents. Unless you plan on doing some more fighting here.”
“Not at all.”
“Good. I hope you’ll continue to try to keep casualties to a minimum.”
“I don’t want your people overworked, Lady Chanes.”
“That’s hardly what matters here.”
“I know, I…”
As he stumbled to apologise again, he heard the sound of hooves clattering on the cobbles. There were horses everywhere of course, but his keen ears picked out the sound of someone galloping as hard as they could. He had a hand on the pommel of his sword as he spun around, and saw a messenger with a bloodied face and helmet askew, charging up. Her horse reared up before them and almost fell, but Rykall had jumped in fearlessly and grabbed its reins, calming it quickly with a practiced touch. As the horse steadied, the messenger slumped in her saddle and Chanes helped her down. She started to escort her to the tent, but she waved the older woman away. “Sir…” she said, “enemies…enemies inside…”
Albrihn took her by the shoulders. It was obvious from how she stood that her arm was broken, and he could see blood seeping through her livery on her right side. “Enemies? Inside the walls?”
She waved a hand vaguely towards the north. “The gap…”
Rykall’s face was alarmed. “The gap? Where Shashtir was supposed to be?”
“There are five companies of troops there,” Albrihn said, “what happened?”
“Don’t know,” the messenger said weakly, “small force…irregulars…”
“Opportunists,” Rykall growled. “Saw a weak spot, decided not to wait for the rest of their army.”
“Few hundred…at most…came in a…a rabble. Tried to shoot them.” She gestured again, miming a falling volley of arrows, “Smoke everywhere. Too many. They didn’t…didn’t stop.”
“A mob of irregulars should have broken,” Rykall said.
“Their…leader…” The messenger was slumping in Albrihn’s arms now and her face had gone very pale. Chanes was starting to tug at his shoulder insistently. “They…followed…him…pale rider…”
Albrihn’s eyes opened wide. He pulled her close. “Pale rider?”
“A mainlander? Pale skin? Red hair?”
She closed her eyes and her head started to droop.
He shook her. “Was it a mainlander? An Ankhari? Did he have a curved sword and a braid?”
Her eyes opened just a crack. “Yes…yes…got inside…killed the captain…maybe the new…new commander…don’t…don’t know…”
“Lord Albrihn, please.” Chanes’s voice was strained. He released the messenger and she slumped into the Chirurgeon’s arms.
“A few hundred in the city is no problem,” Rykall told him, but something in his eyes said he knew it was futile. “What does it matter, Rayke?”
“It matters.” He turned on his heel. Morrow was already there. She had the reins of two horses.
“Did I just hear that right?” she asked.
“The Ankhari. He’s inside the walls.”
“Not for long.” Her voice was grim.
“Albrihn, you don’t have to do this…”
“Rykall: coordinate the retreat. Get everyone inside the Enclave.” He wasn’t even looking at the commander.
“Crale’s up there. If I don’t come back, you two have command. Work it out amongst yourselves.”
“You really think we’re going to finish all this without you?”
“No.” He met the larger man’s eyes. “I expect to be there. I’m just making sure. I’m in command, right?”
“Take his head, Albrihn. Make him pay.”
“He’ll have to get in fucking line.” It was Gena. She looked battered and bloody, but her eyes had the same calm fury as Morrow’s. Behind her, the remaining members of the Seventh crowded in. Horses were already being gathered.
“All right. With me.” Windhael had his horse and passed the reins to him. He swung himself right up into the saddle, and his troops all did the same, moving with an instinctive grace. Their mounts shifted and danced, sensing the tension.
“One more time,” Morrow said with a nod.
Huldane was there too suddenly. He had managed to wipe clean most of the blood that had covered him. Rykall looked him up and down. They’d met briefly earlier, but hadn’t been formally introduced. “Well met,” he murmured.
“Well met, commander.” Huldane turned his attention back to Albrihn. “Lord Albrihn, I believe I am part of your unit?”
“You are, Huldane. Mount up.”
“And what about me?” Jonis was striding over towards them.
“Wouldn’t be right if you weren’t tagging along,” Morrow said with a half-smile.
“Good luck,” Rykall told them. The walls were deserted now, and they could hear shouts outside, along with horns and drums. Rallying forces. They had to be out of here soon.
“And to you.” He wheeled his horse around and looked at Morrow. “So?”
Morrow seemed taken aback. “Really?”
“I wouldn’t want to ride into battle without it.”
She looked embarrassed suddenly. There were a dozen expectant gazes on her, including Rykall’s more curious one. She cleared her throat. “Okay,” she began.
“Louder!” came a voice from the back. It sounded like Thalk. There was a ripple of rueful laughter.
“Of fuck off!” Morrow shouted back, “I’m tired!” She wheeled her horse in a circle, giving them all a hard stare. “All right, you bastards. You rag-tag band of brigands and pirates. I see you. I know who you are.” She did see them too, taking the time to meet each of their eyes in turn. “Not so many of you left now.” Her voice cracked for a moment, but she carried on. “Not so many. And aren’t our enemies glad of that, eh? Oh yes, I’m sure they’re counting their fucking blessings. No more Orlo. No more Aldris. No more Yona. No more…no more Hasprit.” She took a deep breath, continued. “The world breathes a sigh of relief. Because those cunts are gone now, gone from the world. We hated and loved them all; they were our sisters and our brothers. Some of them we were sick of the sight of, some of them we’d have gutted ourselves in some Talosi prick or a Chronusi sheep-fucker hadn’t done it first, some of them probably got exactly what they deserved. Oh yes. We’re an ornery band of pillaging marauders, all right. The toughest, dirtiest gang of cutthroats this city ever spat out. Anyone else would look at our casualty list and they’d say, ‘about fucking time’. And maybe they’re right. Maybe this is where the story of Albrihn’s Lucky Seventh comes to an end. I mean…hey, look at our captain here. A captain no more. Not even a commander, thank you very much. A Lord now, Imperial Consort. A fucking noble. Makes you sick, doesn’t it? But here we are. No use dwelling on the past. Not even much point thinking about the future, because what’s the future, eh? Blood and fire and shit and more pissing snow, I expect. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of being cold. Remember that place in the mainlands where they believed sinners went to a place of fire and torment when they died? Well, I could use some fire and I sure as shit deserve torment, no doubt about that. And we are sinners. So, let’s ride. One last time. This is all that matters. Here and now. The Seventh. Sinners all, riding from this cold, miserable world, straight through the gates of Hell. Out there,” she shouted, pointing north, “is a big, white cunt who cut off Hasprit’s head. I hated that one-eyed prick, personally. Well, no, I suppose we’re being honest today. I loved him. Just like I love all of you. You’re the worst scum in the militia, but this is where I belong. Here. Now.” She stabbed her finger fiercely towards the ground. Everyone was transfixed as she spoke. “We’re the Seventh. We’re the worst and the best. And no mainlander fucker cuts off the head of one of our sergeants and wears it on his belt like a fucking coin purse and gets away with it. I’m going to fill him so full of arrows we’ll be able to use him as a signpost. I’ll fuck his corpse with my sword, and then I’ll give him to our Lord Marshall here to really have some fun with. He knew Hasprit longer than I did, and he’s ten times as pissed off as I am, if you can believe it. So, here we are: enemies inside Atlas. Enemies we have even better reasons to kill than them being in our city without an invite. What do we do to people like that?”
“We kill them!” Gena roared.
“And how do we kill them?” Morrow shouted back.
“In a way that makes them wish their grandparents had never been born!” Windhael replied.
“And who do we follow?”
“Rayke Albrihn!” they bellowed as one.
“To the bitter fucking end! Which is here, right now! Let’s go kill some shitheads!”
“Not much I can add to that,” Albrihn whispered to Jonis as they charged forward.
“I wouldn’t want to follow that anyway.”
“You already volunteered I’m afraid.” He drew his sword. “You heard the woman – let’s go!”
Jonis laughed a little crazily and together they spurred their horses. Huldane was grinning from ear to ear. Rykall watched them ride off, a bemused look on his face.