Age of War (Part LI)

The Atlantians began to rally. Though they weren’t particularly formidable individually, it was in their discipline and training that they shone. Jatharik had never seen enemies recover so quickly from one of his attacks before – normally they started running and didn’t come back. He laughed. He wasn’t mocking them; quite the opposite. He admired their tenacity, their courage, and he honoured it as he slaughtered his way through them. They’d formed a tight block of spears, but he was able to dodge past the gleaming spikes, carving left and right with his sword. He hacked spear shafts, mail and flesh alike, and slowly the formation collapsed around him. Arrows were falling from the sky, but the volleys were undisciplined and he paid them no heed. The forces he had led were running rampant, and more were joining them all the time, fighting their way through the now lightly-held gap in the walls. Saffrey’s engines continued to pound the city too. He knew victory would be theirs and exulted in it. Blood flew in all directions. He was faster than any of these armoured soldiers, and turned aside their weapons with his curved blade, then shouldered through the crush, using his brute strength against them. He bore tall, dark-skinned warriors to the ground and dispatched them with swift slashes that he followed through into his next stance so that he seemed to move in one continuous motion, a twisting bolt of lightning, cutting through the ranks of men. And women too. It was so strange to see their faces peering out from beneath their helms. Even the men looked effete to his eyes, but at least they belonged here. The women ‘soldiers’ were an insult to the gods, and it soured his otherwise joyous mood when he was forced to hack them down. He wasted no time finishing them off: just moved on to the next real warrior.

Soon, they were running again. He hadn’t done it alone – some of his allies had been by his side – but he had led the charge, and been in the heart of the maelstrom of combat. He stood over the bodies of the slain, holding his arms out again, bellowing for them to send out Albrihn; to send out their champion. There were few enemies left now. Some fought desperately at the walls, and others were streaming in one direction or another, trying to contain the invaders. Their efforts were futile. One of his Atlantian allies garbled some nonsense at him and pointed. New troops were entering the fray, another group of infantry, marching smartly with their spears levelled. Jatharik charged them without hesitation, bounding over the bodies that were scattered across the street. They seemed shocked by his sudden advance and scrambled to defend themselves. Too slow. He crashed into them and hacked one soldier’s head right off with one swing. Blood spurted. A spear was thrust towards him. He grabbed the shaft and tore it from the wielder’s hand with a roar. As she lurched forward, he drove a fist into her face and knocked her to the ground. He trampled over her and continued on to the next fool who stood against him, even as his men joined the fray.

He was dimly aware, as he hurled a short man into the side of a building, hearing the satisfying crunch of bone, that something was happening behind him. He turned, instinctively ducking a sword thrust that would have taken him through the throat and backhanded the assailant casually. He batted aside attacks as he returned to the street. There he saw Saffrey’s armies had begun to mount the walls, finally entering the city in numbers, and many were coming through the gap. Soldiers ran everywhere, forming into units, waving banners, blowing horns. But there were horses too, charging from the south. Not so many – perhaps a dozen? – but as they hit they seemed to swing the fight in the Atlasians’ favour. The defenders of the gap rallied again, and the whole street was rapidly consumed in a swirling battle. By the gods, he’d found the challenge he sought. Even on the brink of defeat, these warriors were determined. Saffrey would have to kill every single one of them if he wanted to take this city. So be it. Jatharik son of Dhenarik of the Fired Bones Clan would play his part. He saw the new arrivals firing arrows, manoeuvring on their nimble steeds, flowing around the fighters. Their grace stirred something in him; an appreciation for the art of warfare that he had never known before. They were as fine in the saddle as Ankhari. That’s when he knew who they were. The only unit that could have killed his brother. This was Albrihn’s warband. Now, at last, he would get what he came here for.

“ALBRIHN!” he roared over the tumult. All heard him, but none came forward. Was he a coward? He was their chieftain. He should be leading them. Perhaps he feared him. Perhaps…

Hooves thundered to his right. He turned. Through the smoke and dust that hung across the street, he saw a rider gallop towards him. He grinned gruesomely and hefted his sword. At last! But it was not Albrihn: this warrior was dressed differently, in a style he found more familiar. He carried a round shield and didn’t ride as well as his fellows. His skin was pale too. Strange, though he had seen men of many kinds in his time on this island. The newcomer shouted something to him, but his tongue was as alien to Jatharik as the Atlantians’. He leapt from the saddle of his horse and the beast reared and bolted. He drew a sword, a short, stabbing blade. He’d seen weapons like it in the Northlands, and this warrior reminded him of those barbarians. And yet he moved with more subtlety than they were wont to use; with measured, guarded steps. Jatharik studied him, and knew he was being studied in turn. A lot could be discerned from how the enemy held himself, how comfortable he was with his weapons. He knew instantly, just from circling this foe, that this was a formidable adversary. Perhaps the most formidable he’d met in this war.

“You are not Albrihn,” he said. They were maybe ten strides apart, the cacophony of battle was all around them and the man did not speak his language, but he seemed to understand. He said something back. It may have been his name. “Your head will hang from my belt before this day is done,” he vowed.

Huldane watched the enormous mainlander. He moved like a cat. He’d seen a mountain lion once, in the north of Talos. Every muscle in the creature’s body had been attuned to one purpose – it was the perfect hunter, a mere vessel for an atavistic instinct to kill. This barbarian was the same. He knew this was the one who had killed Hasprit too. He smiled. To avenge a fallen brother…there was no better way to win the favour of the One-eyed God. “I will send you screaming to Hel,” he told the Ankhari, “and you will never forget the man who killed you.” He charged.

Sword met sword. No one interfered as the battle raged around them. The initial clash was indecisive. Jatharik was the stronger, but Huldane was only feeling him out. He danced backwards, sword held low, shield raised. Jatharik struck, his blade coming down in a wide arc. Huldane deflected it with his shield, absorbing the blow and stepping aside again. They resumed circling. Huldane attacked now, chancing a flurry of slashes that his foe was hard-pressed to parry. He was gratified to see the giant’s face contort with effort as he met each swing, but he wasn’t prepared for the counterattack, which seemingly came from nowhere. The curved sword struck him on the side of the helmet, sending him staggering to one side with a ringing in his ears and then, lighting quick, the blade darted inside his guard and he only just managed to jump backwards. Had it struck, it would have pierced his abdomen, and been the end of this duel. Huldane breathed hard. He wore full mail, where the Ankhari was stripped to the waist. The armour gave him an advantage in terms of protection, but it weighed him down. Speed, as Albrihn would have told him, was the most important thing. He moved his feet quickly in the mud, easily ducking another swing aimed at his head, then surged forward, attempting to batter his way past Jatharik’s guard with his shield. He smashed aside his sword and then the pale warrior was vulnerable for just a moment, one wide swathe of his white skin exposed. He stabbed with his sword, but his enemy moved too quickly. Nonetheless, he left a bloody gash across his back, and the mainlander stumbled away with a roar.

Jatharik backed away. He’d taken a few wounds already, but nothing that had yet slowed him down. This one stung though, and it had scored a muscle in such a way that when he rolled his shoulder it tugged uncomfortably. It would impair him. He needed to finish this quickly. He unleashed the feared warcry of the Fired Bones and brought his sword down in a mighty two-handed blow. It hit the Atlantian’s shield, denting the metal rim and jarring him with the impact. He threw his elbow into his face, catching him across the cheek. The man staggered, and he could see his gaze become momentarily unfocused. Now was his opportunity. Even before he had formulated the idea, his weapon was moving, snaking in between shield and shoulder, finding a gap in the warrior’s mail. His strike was true, and blood flowed from the wound instantly. The man cried out, moved backwards, shield raised protectively. This was when he was most vulnerable: perhaps this wouldn’t be such a difficult fight after all. Jatharik rushed him, moving with all the force an avalanche, intending to use his superior strength to shoulder him to the ground so he could finish him off. His sword was levelled, aimed at head height. If his opponent didn’t go down, he’d have three feet of steel shoved through his skull. He did go down, but it wasn’t Jatharik’s doing. He dropped low, and his shield came up before the Ankhari knew what was happening. The metal rim slammed into his jaw; he bit his tongue and his mouth filled with blood. He was stunned and tried to turn around.

Huldane spun around and leapt into the air. The barbarian’s back was exposed. Blood already wept from the gash he’d made before, but he could also feel the wetness in his armpit where his own lifeblood was leaking out. His shield arm was slower and weaker, even after just a few moments. He didn’t plan to need his shield again though: his sword point was aimed directly at his enemy’s spine, and he intended to drive it into him right to the hilt. He fell like a bolt of lightning and let forth the traditional warcry of Talos, a bellowing appeal for the Greatfather’s blessing, but whether it warned his foe or he moved on some instinct, his blow landed wide, leaving an ugly gash in the giant’s arm as he threw himself to one side. Huldane sprawled in the mud and scrabbled desperately to his feet, to see his opponent doing likewise. The pale man stood up shakily. Blood coursed down his arm. He swayed slightly. “Run,” Huldane told him, “flee, you coward!”

The mainlands were not as separate from Atlantis as some – on both sides of the dividing sea – would have liked to believe. Once, long ago, the people of this island had lived in the wider continent, and they still shared some linguistic quirks. With the Talosi, the common origin was even more recent and though Ankhar was far, far away from any coast that would have been familiar to Huldane, by chance their tongues still shared a few similar words. ‘Coward’, it happened, was one such. Jatharik’s blazing green eyes went wide. His face hardened and then twisted in rage. He looked more animal than man, and his roar of fury matched. He barrelled towards Huldane, curved sword moving like quicksilver. Huldane could only raise his shield, trusting in wood and iron to protect him from furious steel. He felt the juddering impact of each blow, and the pain coursed through him as his bleeding wound throbbed in sympathy. Chunks of wood were flying in all directions. Huldane tried to push back, tried to lift his sword, but his feet gave way and he slipped in the mud, falling backwards. He landed hard. His eyes were unfocused. For a moment he saw two Ankhari coming for him and, without thinking, jerked his head to one side. Luck was with him: the sword buried itself three inches into the dirt, a hair’s breadth from his temple. Had he opted to dodge the other, he’d be dead now. No time to dwell on it. He rolled up to his feet and tugged off his helmet, hurling it to one side and shaking out his hair.

Jatharik yanked his sword free and rose slowly. He levelled his weapon at this warrior. “You will die,” he said, “for calling me a coward. I planned to spare your eyes and hands so that we might spar again in the Battle That Never Ends, but that will not be the way this ends. I will mutilate you before I gut you like an animal, and send your cursed soul into the Abyss, where the Banished Ones will feast upon it for eternity. This I promise, in the sight of your foreign gods.”

Huldane spat out a tooth that had been jarred free sometime during the fight. “Die already, you big bastard,” he slurred.

They met again, both breathing hard now, both bleeding. Jatharik raked his blade across Huldane’s cheek; the Talosi responded with a slash to the thigh that sent the larger man staggering away with a wince. He came back with a series of desperate chops, more like a woodsman felling trees than a warrior in battle, and his ferocity was such that he beat Jatharik’s guard. He spun and left a ribbon of crimson across the great white chest of the monster. Jatharik howled in pain. His arm was soaked with blood, and now it was running down his chest too. His movements were slow. This would end soon. Huldane stalked him; a hunter. He thought back to that mountain lion, up in Talos, so long ago. He was a fresh-faced recruit then, still shaking out the last vestiges of the boy he’d been, but still with a hunter’s instincts. Not as finely honed as the great cat’s, but formidable in a different way. That lion could pounce, rip the throat from a man in an instant. But a man…a man could track and hunt. A man could outlast a predator. A man could use his stamina. The Ankhari, he judged, was used to finishing his fights long before this. So it had been with the mountain lion. He’d taken him with an arrow in the end, and hung his pelt upon his unit’s banner. He just had to stay on his feet longest.

Jatharik could feel his strength ebbing from him. He hurt, worse than he had since he was inducted into the clan’s warrior cult as a boy and received his first scars. He was angry. Furious. He wanted to humiliate this insolent soldier. He was here to fight Albrihn, not some upstart. This was no chieftain. He was just a man with a sword and a shield. And he would not die fighting this one. That was not a suitable end for Jatharik son of Dhenarik. The gods bellowed their anger, or perhaps it was just thunder. With the last of his strength he leapt into the air.

Huldane watched in awe as his opponent flew towards him. He raised his shield with what strength he could, braced himself for the impact that he knew would have all of this giant’s weight behind it. It landed, and there was a crack like the earth breaking in two. He felt his arm shudder, and it reverberated through his whole body. His shield was split in twain, reduced in an instant to kindling. As he fell backwards, he shook the wreckage free and held his arm close against his body. It might be broken, judging by the sudden lance of pain he felt. Jatharik was on his feet too, obviously pushing himself to his limit, throwing all his effort into one last desperate push for victory. Huldane struck with his sword, carving another ragged wound across his abdomen. He turned, prepared for a counterattack, and to attack again in turn. He was the stronger now; he knew that. He would win. It was just a matter of time. Jatharik’s lunge was desperate, overhand, sloppy. Huldane easily dodged it. He spun around, raising his sword. One decisive blow would end this. He had to trust to his warrior’s instincts. Jatharik was turning again, moving with what seemed like glacial slowness. Huldane lunged forward, adopting a fighting stance before he even realised what he was doing. He couldn’t think about this: he was going to take him between the neck and shoulder, slicing right through muscle, down into his chest. That wound would be mortal, but then he’d strike his head off too and avenge Hasprit. It would be a moment of glory. Destiny hung on a knife-edge. In amongst the great churning battle for the walls, the two men seemed to stand alone, the area surrounding them swept clear by their brutal combat. Huldane breathed raggedly, eased his weight towards his foe, kept his eye on his blade, letting it carry itself forward as if by its own will. He was screaming, though his ears were deafened to all sound now. There was only this moment.

He realised his mistake too late, when he was already committed to the strike. He always fought with a shield, and with his arm shattered and the wound taking its toll, the numbness had deceived him. His arm was raised as if he still held it, but it was exposed. Jatharik whirled and brought his sword down. It carved through his wrist, slicing through flesh and bone, ripping his hand free. Huldane stared after it, open-mouthed. Blood began to pulse from the ragged stump and his eyes started to glaze over. The pain had overwhelmed his body. He stumbled helplessly forward. Jatharik grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. He drove his sword straight into his gut, tearing through mail and cloth and lifting the Talosi off his feet. He held him there for a moment and stared into his eyes. “I will not see you again,” Jatharik spat.

“Aethlan,” Huldane whispered, and then he slid off the blade and fell into the mud, staring up sightlessly at the grey sky.

Jatharik howled, lifting the bloody sword over his head. “ALBRIHN!” he called out, but he knew that if he faced the Atlantian leader now, he would be easily bested. Even without that, he suspected his wounds would kill him. Slowly, he dropped down to one knee and bowed his head.

Tayne’s eyes flickered open. She’d been thrown clear by that big white brute, and had lain unnoticed against a wall. Doubtless they’d mistaken her for a corpse. The battle raged all around her. Groggily, she tried to get to her feet. No enemies were close by, thankfully. She was shaky, but she could see her soldiers dying in the street. They needed her leadership. She was the commander now! Then she turned around, and stared in horror at the scene before her. Just a few strides away, that barbarian was kneeling in the mud, bleeding from half a dozen wounds. By his side lay a body, and she gaped as she saw who it was. Huldane. The Talosi. The one she’d followed in Omega. If he’d been overcome…

Without knowing what she was doing, she let out a shout and ran towards the savage, sword raised. Her grip was limp and her gait unsteady, but he lifted his head only just in time, eyes widening as she charged. He stood, as shakily as she had, and batted her away like he was swatting a fly. She fell into the mud, and found herself lying beside Huldane. He had a huge wound in his stomach, and was bleeding from elsewhere too. She saw too that he had lost a hand in the fight. She felt sick. Was this Atlas’s destiny? To die in the mud? What was the purpose of all this? What had they done to earn this grim fate?

A harsh grip on her hair jerked her upwards. Thick fingers dug into her scalp and she cried out. It was him, this pale monster. He brought up his bloody sword, set it against her throat. Even wounded as he was, she was powerless against his strength. She closed her eyes, preparing to make her peace with the world.

Morrow wheeled her horse around. She’d so many fall already, and there was no end to the tide of enemies. They could not hold this gap. All they could do was sell their lives for Atlas. Where was Rayke? He wouldn’t have abandoned them; not now. Fear gripped her. Had he fallen? Buildings had been collapsing everywhere on their way, and some had been crushed beneath the rubble. Was that the end of Rayke Albrihn’s story? Buried ignominiously by falling masonry? She scanned the narrow confines of this battlefield, trying to get some feel for the sweep of it, trying to think of some way she might be able to turn this around. She set an arrow to her bow, seeking a target – an officer, a champion, perhaps even Saffrey himself, the cunt. Then her gaze alighted on two figures near the edge of the fight, unnoticed by everyone else. It was him. The Ankhari. Jatharik, or whatever he called himself. He was covered in blood, which pleased her, but then she saw who it was he held. Tayne. Her blood seemed to freeze in her veins. The cruel sword was at her throat, and he was about to draw it back. She let fly. The arrow slammed into his shoulder and he staggered backwards. She urged her horse forward, mowing down the soldiers who stood in her path, already reaching for another arrow. It flew from her bow in the same heartbeat she set it, and its path was as true as ever. This one took the Ankhari in the chest. Tayne had crawled to safety, curled up beside another body on the ground. When she realised who that was, she fired again. And again. A flurry of arrows, until her quiver was empty. She crashed into the Ankhari, horse and all. Even with half a dozen shafts sticking out of him, he lifted his arms, taking a grip on the beast’s neck. He wrested it to the ground and gave a twist of his mighty shoulders: she heard the sound of breaking bone. She was pitched from the saddle as the horse died with a scream and tried to scramble up to her feet. She drew her sword. The Ankhari was half dead, soaked in blood, but he would still best her in hand-to-hand combat she was certain. “Run!” she screamed hoarsely at Tayne. Her lover stared up at her with wide, terrified eyes. Jatharik lifted his sword.

Albrihn galloped down the street, straight into the anarchy of battle. He couldn’t tell which side was which. All battle lines had collapsed, and now this was just a desperate fight for survival. He wheeled around, looking for any of the Seventh who still stood. He saw horses here and there, but they were Chronusi cataphracts. Then he saw Gena fighting in the middle of a knot of enemies, and get dragged down from her horse. His sword was already out, and he was ready to wade in and avenge what he might.

“Rayke!” Jonis rode up beside him. She shook her head. “This is hopeless. We have to pull back with the rest of the army.”

She was right. But the Ankhari… He turned again, and saw him. He was looming over Morrow, of all people, and beside him… “Huldane,” he said, breath catching.

Jonis followed his gaze. Saw the body of the Talosi, saw Tayne kneeling beside it, saw Morrow, about to meet her end. Rayke was already riding, but he’d never get there before the sword fell. They were powerless to stop this tragedy unfolding. Her friends were dying. This was real now. As real as it had been for Albrihn and the Seventh. They’d lost so many. She hadn’t understood that before now; hadn’t grasped how the loss of a brother- or sister-in-arms could change the whole world. She lived somewhere new now, somewhere that was that much emptier.

She lifted her hand. She felt cold. So, so cold. But she knew there was warmth all around her. Warmth in all the bodies, still cooling on the ground, in the living, beating hearts of those that still fought, even in the stones and the earth, locked deep inside their very fabric. Suddenly, it seemed such a simple thing. She only had to twist her perception just a little bit, and reach inside just so

Thunder rolled in the sky. Jonis clenched her fist. Her eyes flashed black. It snaked out from her, a spark of lightning that absorbed light instead of cast it. In its wake, frost encrusted the ground, and the pattering rain froze in mid-air, turning instantly to twirling snowflakes. The dark lightning leapt from the earth, seeking its target. Jatharik seemed to sense it somehow. He turned from Morrow, eyes wide in horror and leapt to one side, trying to avoid the fell power that sought him out. It was useless. The black lightning caught him on one side, lifted him high into the air even as it began to twist and warp his body, then sent him screaming over the walls of the city and out of sight. There was a crash from somewhere in the distance.

She held out both hands, trying to earth the power now the deed was done, but it was no longer under her control. The lightning danced, jumping from soldier to soldier, turning them inside out, wrapping them into grotesque spirals, corkscrewing the very air around them, crushing and mutilating them. Screams assailed her ears. The storm she had conjured lashed and spat and, all at once, the enemy were running, leaving the ragged remnants of their comrades behind them. The lightning dashed at the walls, chasing them off, then fizzled out abruptly, leaving a metallic taste in the air and a rime of frost on every surface. Jonis shivered.

Tayne was in Morrow’s arms, weeping. Albrihn had fallen from his horse, but the animal seemed unharmed, just skittish from the strange events it had witnessed. Rayke looked at her in wonder. She had no explanation for him. He walked slowly over to Huldane’s body and knelt down beside him. He saw the bloody stump. His gaze roved across the ground instinctively. Then he saw it, resting in the snow and blood; a pale hand. He remembered a dream, from what seemed a long time ago now. He’d seen that hand before. “Rayke…” He looked up, into Jonis’s eyes. She dropped down and put her arms around his shoulders. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Rayke. I never meant it to happen like this.”

He’d seen this, yes. All of this. The survivors were picking themselves up from the wreckage. The lightning had only found the attackers. Whatever Jonis had intended, it had been effective. “We have to go,” he said thickly, “they’ll be back.”

“Rayke…”

He bowed his head over Huldane. “You will be remembered, brother.” The second friend he’d made that promise to today. He was tired of death. Tired of war. He just wanted all of this to end now. But most of all, he wanted to kill Saffrey. If he achieved nothing else in this senseless conflict, he would achieve that.

 

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