Atlas was built on a gently rising hill, and its oldest streets reflected this – they formed a series of concentric circles, marching down from the Imperial Enclave at the summit, and the outermost was set hard against what had once been the limit of the city; the walls. That great, roughly circular thoroughfare was officially called the Imperial Ring but it was almost universally known, with typical Atlasian humour, as the Emperor or Empress’s Ring, and there were a series of ribald jokes to do with crossing it, going inside it, how busy it was and so forth. “I had to queue just to get to the Empress’s Ring yesterday…” went the best known line. Despite being such a well-known landmark, the great road was in truth divided in many places, with newer streets and neighbourhoods cutting it up, and of course the gradual disintegration of the walls and the steady sprawling of the city making it less important to urban traffic in any case. In some places it was blocked altogether, and so Albrihn’s progress was slow. He wanted to reach the gap in the walls to the north as quickly as possible, but it was a hopeless dream. The deprivation of recent years had brought the squalor in from the slums, and haphazard wooden buildings crowded into the road. There were abandoned carts too, market stalls that had been tipped over to block the way and lumps of masonry where Saffrey’s bombardment had torn the city to pieces. Albrihn could hear the crashing of a second bombardment now too, and as he looked up into the grey sky, he saw missiles flying overhead, soon disappearing from sight as they passed behind the heaped roofs and towers that obstructed his view. The air was filled with dust, smoke and drizzle. Everything looked washed out, the colour of stone and mud, except for the bodies that lay here and there.
The street ahead was blocked with the remains of an old stone market hall that had been completely demolished by a hit from a catapult. Tiles and stone and wooden beams were scattered everywhere. In amongst the wreckage were bodies: bloodied limbs and, once, a staring face, skin coated with dust, peering out from beneath half a carved stone column. They were soldiers. Only soldiers had been left when this began, but it didn’t make it any easier to see them. Others had died fighting on the walls. He could see the liveries of units he knew – units he’d stationed here – and others that were unfamiliar, except as half-remembered snatches from the battle in Ixion. They lay at the base of the walls, or sometimes further into the street, a whole cluster of them, where some desperate conflict had been fought.
He looked up at Jonis. “What?”
“I thought we had somewhere to be…”
He realised he’d come to a halt, looking down at the remains of a young woman in the uniform of his own regiment. Did he know her? It was unlikely. Most of her head was missing, her helmet was lying a few feet away, hopelessly battered and rent. Who had killed her? That soldier over there, an enemy combatant with a broken sword blade buried between his shoulder blades? Had someone avenged her in the end? “I did this,” he said.
“No you didn’t. Saffrey did.”
“I’m in command. I put them here, and now they’re dead.”
“Rayke…” She tugged at his arm.
He blinked and let a shiver run through him. Then he took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. It’s just…”
The rest of the Seventh were waiting, their horses toeing the ground impatiently. He spurred his mount on and they continued, detouring deeper into the city to move around the destroyed hall. A whistling overhead drew his attention, and he craned his neck to see a huge chunk of stone slam into a minaret on an adjoining street. The tower swayed, then started to crumble and finally fell with a spectacular crash. The nearby horses were spooked, and the riders struggled to control them as they galloped past. A cloud of dust erupted from the intersection, momentarily blinding them. Jonis was coughing and she went to tug at a hood that wasn’t there. Albrihn was about to give the order to stop so they could gather themselves when another whistle came from overhead, louder than the first. He couldn’t see through the billowing dust, but a shadow passed right over him and he knew the impact would be closer than before, almost as if Saffrey somehow knew where they were and was homing in on them. “Ride!” he roared over the din of screaming horses and still-settling rubble. The missile hit the building on his immediate left, a venerable tavern with a terraced roof. Through the dust he saw the front of it cave in around a huge dark hole. It remained like that for a heartbeat, and then, as if the bricks suddenly remembered how they were supposed to work, it began to fall to pieces. He flicked the reins and urged the horse into a desperate run. Jonis was just behind him. The tavern crashed into the street, filling the air with more choking dust. He heard a scream. Timbers and flagstones were flying in all directions. Something hit the rider in front of him – he couldn’t see who it was – and sent them flying right out of their saddle. He galloped through a fine spray of blood and shuddered. The horse bolted and careened straight into another rider. Both beasts went down in an awkward tangle of limbs. The rider was thrown clear, but he didn’t see where they landed. All around was the thunder of hooves and falling masonry. It was bloody chaos.
“Ride! Ride!” he shouted. They turned at a crossroads, intended to return to the main road. Most of the company galloped ahead, with Albrihn and Jonis now taking up the rear. Another low whistle in the sky. A bathhouse took up one corner of the junction, an ancient and beautiful edifice, fronted by many slim, elegant columns, and with friezes on the upper floor depicting scenes of life in Atlas in ages past. It was torn to shreds by the impact of the hurled block of stone, exploding outwards as the columns that had held it aloft for so many centuries were shattered. It fell apart with a great creak and a scream of long inviolable stone being broken. Debris was everywhere all at once, flattening another rider just in front of Albrihn and making him yank sharply on his reins. His horse reared, flailing hooves uselessly at the fresh clouds of dust. In the dim light, he saw the shadows of his troops continuing beyond the rubble, turning back onto the Imperial Ring and disappearing from view. He wheeled around. The bathhouse was still collapsing, and he could hear more destruction across the city. “He’ll have nothing left to conquer at this rate,” he growled to himself.
Jonis trotted up beside him. She waved a hand in front of her face. “What…what happened?” she asked, staring at the detritus that choked the narrow street as the dust cleared.
“They got through,” he assured her, “most of them anyway.”
They were the only two on this side of the blockage. Albrihn looked this way and that. He pointed. “We’ll have to meet them at the next intersection.”
“Right. You lead.”
“That’s exactly what got us into this mess.”
They set off again, keeping a weather eye out for more tumbling projectiles. On the back streets, even more chaos was soon in evidence. Bodies lay face-down in the mud and, soon enough, the sound of steel meeting steel was audible in the distance. As they turned a corner to avoid another wall of rubble that turned a wide thoroughfare into a dead end, they saw a few soldiers running by, obviously fleeing for their lives. Albrihn tried to shout them down, but they ignored him and were gone down an alleyway moments later. He headed in the direction they’d fled from, only for another ominous whistle to sound overhead. “Can he see me or something?” he asked the air.
He and Jonis detoured again, heading deeper into the city. Despite living in Atlas all his life, Albrihn was starting to feel lost in the dense maze of streets, especially as the geography was seemingly changing moment by moment. “As long as we head north east, we should find the walls soon enough, right?” Jonis asked him.
“That’s the theory.” Down a side street, and then left as they reached a landmark he knew – a statue on one corner that depicted a hero from some forgotten war, atop a great, rearing horse. Time had erased the inscription: everyone he knew had, for obscure reasons, always called her Martha. Now Martha was missing her head and the tip of her sword. He turned left again, knowing that there was quick route to the Imperial Ring down this way and, mercifully, this street was relatively clear. Clear, that was, aside from the bodies. He had to slow to a trot to pick his way through. The fighting had obviously been thick here. Atlasian troops lay with necks twisted at wince-inducing angles, limbs hacked off and ending in bloody stumps, horrific wounds in chests, backs, throats… Numb. That’s how he’d felt, but seeing them like this brought it all back like a horrible wave clogged with reeking sewage that washed through his mind. Death and pain and horror. And he was supposed to be the one bringing order to this chaos. The gods, if they existed, must be laughing at him. If they survived any of this, the victory would be as bitter as defeat.
He saw enemy corpses too, growing more frequent they further they went down the street. They were covered in bloody slashes, obviously from a sword, but no fallen foes were in evidence. Albrihn frowned down at them. Here was a Chronusi with a wound that went from his shoulder to the middle of his chest, in one almighty cleave. And there, a warrior who looked like a member one of the mountain clans, his torso a ruin of crimson gashes. And so it went, as they approached an epicentre where the dead were heaped high. Atop that hideous mound was a man he recognised. He stared at the carnage, then slowly slid down from his saddle.
“Rayke?” Jonis said. “What it is?”
“Wait here.” He hadn’t taken his eyes off the figure. He assumed he was dead, but as he came closer and knelt down beside him, he saw the blood on his lips bubbling, and his thick chest rising and falling with shallow breaths. Injuries covered his arms, his chest, his face, blood soaking through his ill-fitting uniform. His eyes were closed. “Loban,” he whispered softly.
The old cook’s eyes fluttered open, and it took them a second to focus on Albrihn’s face. He managed a thin smile, causing dried blood to crack on his cheeks and lips. “Rayke,” he said hoarsely.
Albrihn took his hand. His skin felt cold. He looked down and saw how his old friend had been undone in the end – his ornately carved wooden leg had been hacked off, and it now ended in ragged splinters.
“Bastards,” Loban said, his voice only just on the edge of hearing, “I already…already lost my leg once…” He tried to laugh, but it quickly turned into a burbling cough and he closed his eyes again.
“Just…stay still…I’ll get help.”
Loban shook his head weakly. “No. You have…things to do. Unless…unless you came here to…to save me…?”
“No,” Albrihn admitted, “I have somewhere I need to be.”
“So go. Don’t…don’t worry about me, lad…” He pushed at him feebly with his free hand, leaving behind a smear of blood on the younger man’s uniform.
“What happened here?” It was Jonis. She’d come to crouch beside him, and now looked at Loban curiously.
“He fought them,” Albrihn said simply. “All of them.”
“Still…still some life in this…this old dog…yet…”
“How did he…?”
“Loban,” Albrihn said, clutching his hand fiercely, “I’m sorry.”
“For…for this. For everything.”
“Not your doing. Besides it was…was fun…in a way.”
“You won great honour here.”
He waved a hand feebly. “Already had my fill of…of honour, Rayke. Enough to last ten…ten lifetimes…this was just…just…” Words seemed to fail him.
“Rest,” Jonis told him, placing a hand against his chest.
Loban noticed her, apparently for the first time. He looked up. “My…the fates smile on me…here at…at the end.”
She cocked her head. “How so?”
“To die…to die in the arms of a beautiful woman…who could ask for more?”
She smiled. “I’m afraid I only have eyes for one man.”
“Well…probably…probably for the best. I don’t have many prospects just…just now.” He started to cough again, and she squeezed his shoulder as hard as she dared.
“You will be remembered,” Albrihn vowed. “Not as who you became, but as who you were.” He looked around at all the dead. Loban’s sword was still sticking from the chest of one of his foes, bloodied right to the hilt. “Jonis, get that and bring it here. He should have it with him when…”
“No. No.” Loban’s voice was insistent. “Not…not who I am…”
“You are Orasten Galev, the Emperor’s Champion. You have added to your legend today, old friend.”
“No,” he said again, “Loban. Loban the cook.” He shook his head firmly. “I had…I had more fun being him than…than other fellow.”
“You were a hero. You are a hero.”
Loban’s eyes opened wide, and he looked at Albrihn, stared at him. He lifted his hand and jabbed his finger at his chest. “No heroes. Heroes…heroes don’t matter. You don’t…don’t have to be a hero. Heroes are…heroes are lies. Stories. Just do what’s right. Just do what you…what you have to do.”
“What I have to do?”
“Survive. Live.” His finger prodded his breastplate again. “Glory…it’s nothing. Life is everything. Belong to…to yourself. Exist on your own terms.”
Albrihn bowed his head. “I have my duty.”
“Aye. Just make sure it doesn’t cost too much.” His breathing had begun to grow even more shallow and as he turned away, his gaze was unfocused.
“I never thanked you,” Albrihn said, after a moment.
“For watching out for me.”
“I was…was your drill sergeant. My job.” His voice was just a whisper now.
“Not then. Before. You kept an eye on me. You were the Emperor’s man. You chose…you chose my family…”
“They were good people.”
Albrihn nodded. “They were.”
“It’s not your…your blood that makes you, you know…” He turned back, his eyes suddenly intent again. “You do know that, don’t you?”
“I do. But I still owe you a great debt.”
“Well,” Loban said, waving at the scene of ruination he’d left, “consider us even I…I suppose.”
“You will be remembered,” he said again.
“Remember me for the…for the stew…”
“The stew? That’s hardly…”
“Don’t…deny a man his…his dying wish, Rayke.”
“It was good stew,” he admitted.
Loban smiled and closed his eyes. “It was, wasn’t it?”
“Rayke,” Jonis whispered. “We can’t stay here…”
“I know.” He squeezed Loban’s hand tightly. “I just…” The large man’s chest lifted, then a rattle sounded deep within. His lips parted and his eyelids fluttered, and then his grip on Albrihn’s hand slackened.
“I’m sorry, Rayke,” Jonis said softly.
“Goodbye, sergeant.” He gently lowered Loban’s arm across his chest, as if he were saluting. Albrihn returned the salute. “My first commander.”
“I guessed. And more than that? What was he saying about…about your family?” Her expression was earnest, curious.
Albrihn shook his head. He didn’t want to have to explain. There wasn’t time, and he didn’t know how to put it all into words. But it seemed crass to lie, kneeling here beside the cooling body of his mentor. “She’s my sister,” he said simply.
“What? Who?” Jonis frowned at him.
“The Empress. Vion.” He stood up, looking down at Loban one last time – his expression was peaceful, content, a slight smile curving his lips – then turned to walk back to his horse. Jonis didn’t follow. She was staring after him, thunderstruck.
“I don’t…I don’t understand…”
“Neither do I.” He pulled himself up into his saddle. “Come on. We’re done here.”
The Keeper glanced down at the dead man, then up at Albrihn, her brow still furrowed in confusion. “All right.” She ran across the road, leaping over the many corpses Loban had left in his wake, and quickly mounted up. Leaving behind this gruesome memorial to one of Atlas’s greatest heroes, they rode on.
She drifted; a feather in the wind, gently twirling, spinning end over end, before coming to rest on the snow. She could smell the cold in the air, the tinge of winter. Not this winter: not this endless, grinding cold, but another one, long, long ago. She was young. Not much more than a girl, up somewhere in the mountains above her home. The snow covered the ground and hung in the branches of the tall, dark trees that surrounded them. She sat astride a grey mare, a horse she knew had been dead for years. But she was in another time and place now, a day that was etched into her memory. The leather gauntlet felt itchy against her skin, and she found the sharp-eyed falcon perched upon it unnerving. The falconer, an old man with only three teeth poking out of his gums, was instructing her from the ground. Her father was on his great dun stallion a little way away. His great hawk was moving its talons impatiently on his own gauntlet. He smiled at her encouragingly.
“My lady,” the falconer said, “are you ready?”
She nodded. “I think so.” She released the bird. With a powerful beat of its wings that made her jerk back in surprise, it hurled itself skyward. She’d never seen a creature move so fast. The commoners laughed at her reaction and she felt herself blush. Her father was smiling though. His own hawk followed her smaller falcon and the two birds began circling in the air above them. She forgot her momentary fear and stared up at them wonderingly. Such grace and power. Such barely-contained ferocity.
“Beaters,” her father bellowed suddenly, breaking the crystalline silence. She turned to look at the treeline, where the sound of thrashing heralded the arrival of the lads with their cudgels. There was a squawk and a flurry of feathers as wood pigeons fled their roosts and flapped out into the clearing. She didn’t even see her bird drop it moved so fast. There was an explosion of feathers and blood, and the remains of a pigeon thudded into the snow before her, staining it red. She stared.
“First blood to the lady,” the falconer laughed.
Her falcon was calling, a high screech that carried on the wind, and circling again as the pigeons fled desperately. The hawk dived now, but was lost behind the trees. Her horse danced, hooves crunching on the snow. One of the beaters was walking towards the felled bird, stooping to retrieve it. He tied it to his belt and then looked up at her. He was older than the rest – a man grown, really – broad shouldered, handsome, with a scrub of blonde beard clinging to his square jaw. He smiled at her.
“You trained her well, my lady,” he said.
“I can hardly take all the credit. Jothram did most of the real work. I just fed her now and then.”
“Still. A fine bird.”
Jothram, the falconer, had been distracted for a moment talking to someone else, but now he turned and noticed the beater. “Hey, who gave you permission to talk to the lady, boy? Get back to work!”
He tugged his forelock respectfully, then shared a conspiratorial grin with her before he dashed off, back into the forest. She watched him go. “Who was that man?” she asked absently.
“Him? Huldane’s his name. A good lad, but always dreaming. Wants to be a soldier. I told him the only thing belongs in his hand is a pitchfork.”
“I see…” Aethlan nodded slowly. She looked at her father, and saw he was staring at her curiously. She blushed again. “Huldane,” she whispered to herself.
“She is here! I have found her!”
That wasn’t right. That voice didn’t come from anywhere here, now. She turned her horse, trying to see who was shouting. No one else in the clearing seemed to have heard it. “Hello? Who was that?”
“Quick! She is bleeding!”
She knew the voice, but couldn’t place it. It was almost like it belonged to someone she hadn’t met yet…
“Everything all right, my lady?” Jothram asked her with a frown.
“Do you hear that voice?”
“Someone is calling to us…”
He glanced around. “My lady?”
“I was so sure…”
“Careful moving her.”
“Surely she can’t still be alive.”
“Look at her chest, you Atlasian idiot! She is breathing!”
“But there’s no way…”
“Are you going to help me lift her or not?”
Aethlan whirled in her saddle, trying to find the source of the bizarre conversation. “Who are you? What is going on?”
Her father began to ride towards her. “Aethlan? What is wrong?”
“I…I can hear voices…”
“Careful with her! She is very weak; we do not have much time!”
“I can be fast or I can be careful, but I can’t be both.”
“Are all Atlasian servants so insolent?”
“Do all Talosi maids carry swords?”
“Atlasian?” Aethlan murmured to herself. Her eyes were drawn towards the south. Atlas was a city beyond the mountains, part of Atlantis, a place that to her was little more than a legend. Oh, they were in Atlantis too, but when she heard stories of the southern Provinces, it seemed another world.
Her father was by her side, concern etched on his face. He wore the silver circlet that indicated his lordship of Talos, and his hair was ruddy bronze. For some reason, she thought it should have been grey. Why was that? Her father was still relatively young – a man in the prime of his life. And yet, she knew he should be old. No, more than that…dying…dead… Her breath caught in her throat.
“Hold her steady! We must get her into the warm. Summon a healer!”
“How can I? The gates are locked…”
What gates? Who needed a healer? Jothram and her father and the others were crowding around her now. She felt a sudden pain in her side. When she looked down, a crimson blotch was starting to form on her gown. She wore white, and it was staining just like the pigeon’s blood had stained the snow. She opened her mouth in horror, and blood spilled down her chin.
“Aethlan!” her father shouted, reaching for her.
She was drifting away from him. He aged before her eyes, the colour in his hair fading, his eyes turning dull and rheumy, his cheeks sinking and his hearty glow receding. Soon, only a husk remained, and then even that crumbled to dust. Jothram died, her horse too, the snow grew heavier, the trees withered and fell, the sky turned dark. And Huldane stood before her, a towering warrior, splendid in his armour, his face grim and determined. He began to walk away from her.
“I will not be parted from you!” she screamed at his retreating back. “Not like this!”
He turned back. “Not like this,” he agreed.
She opened her eyes. She was being carried by two people. Holding onto her feet was a woman she didn’t recognise – a young, dark-skinned Atlasian in servant’s livery. Clutching her about the arms was one of her maids, Anaflaed. She felt weak and dizzy. Her side hurt. She remembered Valcon stabbing her. She was alive. Somehow, she was alive. She lapsed back into unconsciousness, but to that wintry clearing from years before where she’d first met Huldane, she did not return.