Age of War (Part LII)

The silent streets of Atlas were unnerving. Hadrin kept looking over her shoulder, expecting another surprise attack of some kind, but none came. The city was simply abandoned. The sun had set somewhere behind the grey wall of clouds, and now it was dark, and not a single light shone in any of the buildings. Atlas was a city that never really slept – there was always someone going about their business, whatever the hour – and to see it like this reminded her of riding through some ancient necropolis. The only sound was the rustle and clank of armoured soldiers all around her; the oppressive darkness smothered the usual chatter and gossip she’d have expected. That wasn’t the only reason of course: taking the walls had been a devastating undertaking for the army, and there were few amongst the host who hadn’t lost at least one friend to fire or arrows. This was not a victorious force riding triumphantly into a conquered city; they were more like huddled refugees, fleeing from a catastrophic defeat. Ahead, the white walls of the Imperial Enclave loomed above all but the very tallest towers. The braced gates were firmly shut, and the only light in the city came from the tops of the battlements, where torches shone weakly, their flames guttering in the wind. There was something deeply ominous about that great alabaster bulwark crowned with its faint orange lights. It seemed to stare her down, challenging her, taunting her, reminding her of those who had fallen on this long journey to this moment. The moment when she, a woman born and bred in this city, would enter it as an invader. “This isn’t right…” she murmured softly.

Falla, riding beside her, nodded, but he’d misunderstood her. “They must be knee-deep in shit in there,” he said, “a million people? Surprised we can’t smell them from here…”

She looked back at the Enclave. Something was amiss. She refused to believe that there wasn’t some other trick waiting for them. She’d underestimated Albrihn. That was usually the last mistake a general ever made – misjudging an enemy, that was. The problem, she could admit to herself, was that even now she couldn’t think of the man as her enemy. She’d first become aware of him as a brash young lieutenant in her regiment; a talented rider and a skilled swordsman. She’d been interested to watch the trajectory of his career, as he’d settled into a command role and continually excelled. She trusted him. She relied on him. He was one of her own. And she’d turned on him, and now she was laying siege to his army. This was the true test of any soldier though. Loyalty was all. Loyalty meant honour, it meant victory. Had she been loyal? To her own cause, yes. To the cause of those who believed that Atlantis and its survival was the most important thing. Hadrin was, above all else, a patriot. Since she’d been exposed to the philosophy of the Recidivists, that secret organisation threaded through every strata of Atlantian society, she’d felt it matched her own private beliefs. It gave words to something she’d only before known as a dim notion in her mind. Atlantis was strong, and strength came through stability. She was reminded of the old proverb of the foolish lord’s house: a lavish and intricate palace, built on the seashore to take advantage of the warm breeze, the view, the bathing or whatever. But no matter how well he built his walls, they always collapsed because they were set on shifting sand. A simple story, one told to children, but with a valuable lesson. Nothing, no matter how wondrous, can survive without solid foundations. That’s what the Recidivists believed: the foundation of Atlantis was strong and had been proven so by virtue of its millennia of endurance. To ensure it survived millennia more, it must be built upon, maintained, shored up against threats. This was, they (and she) firmly believed, the greatest civilisation in the world. To let it die for the sake of petty politics and changing whims would be a crime against all of humankind.

Hadrin was sincere in that conviction, and was prepared to kill and die for it, but even when reflecting on her justifications for leading this campaign, it was impossible to bury the guilt. She’d attacked her own city. She’d killed men and women whose only crime was remaining loyal to their oaths. She’d betrayed comrades she respected. And now…now they’d reached the endgame. Whatever happened, it would be done soon. That, at least, filled her with relief. She was a warrior, and war was her business – she’d never been so desperate to end one before. She finally rode into the wide plaza before the Enclave’s gates. The army was digging in, filling the surrounding streets, heaving war engines into place, settling down for what might be a long siege. The Chronusi, motivated by neighbourly rivalry as well as vengeance for the fallen, had assumed they were free to ransack the abandoned homes and shops. Saffrey had made it clear that wouldn’t be tolerated. He intended to be Emperor, and Atlas would be his capital. They laid siege to a fortress within a sprawling city, and any locked building was considered sacrosanct, so they camped in the streets like vagabonds. It seemed madness, but Saffrey was convinced he could still win over the hearts and minds of the Atlasians. Vion, he insisted, was on the brink of being overthrown. He alluded to his allies within the Enclave, to Recidivists hiding in the ranks of the foe. Hadrin wondered why, if his agents were so numerous, they hadn’t done more to help them already. Since the beginning, Saffrey had been telling her this would be simple, that it was just a formality, that their enemies were a corrupt band of indolent aesthetes. But they had paid for every stride of ground they’d taken so far in blood. Thousands lay unburied outside the walls, and the air was thick with calling crows, sounding eerie in the darkness.

With no small effort, Hadrin dismounted. Her ankle was only sprained, but it hurt, and she limped across the plaza. As yet, no missiles rained down from the high walls before them, but she knew they would come. Rocks and oil and more arrows and probably fire again too. How long could they survive in there? Could they outlast them? There was no forage out in the countryside, and Saffrey would hang any looters without twitching so much as a sardonic eyebrow. She wondered, looking up at the black, gloomy roofs and towers, which army was really under siege here.

*

Since entering the Enclave, Jonis had tried to keep out of the way. She both wanted to be here and to be absolutely anywhere else. This was where the Empress lived, after all. But she couldn’t just go back to the Cyclops stables and hide underground. She had to see this through, for Huldane and Hasprit and all the others who had died. So she helped out where she could, sticking with Morrow and the survivors of the Seventh. Tayne had also begun tagging along with them too, since her regiment had been decimated in the battle for the walls. Morrow probably had something to do with it as well. She didn’t know what had passed between the two women after they’d reunited over Huldane’s corpse, but they seemed inseparable now and shared an easy intimacy. Morrow’s biting wit was noticeably subdued and although that made her less fun to be around, there was a refreshing honesty about her now. They’d all been through grief and pain, and they were all ready to stand together here at the end. On the first morning, she’d climbed up inside the walls, following the long, zig-zagging staircase up to the battlements. At the top, the height was dizzying. She peered over the crenelations, seeing the black mass of Saffrey’s army clogging up the streets all around them for half a mile or more. There were still thousands of them, but even with their siege engines and their superior numbers, she couldn’t see how they might be able to breach these curtain walls. She supposed they didn’t plan to.

“Not much use for a sword up here,” a passing soldier told her. She had an armful of arrows, which she dumped by the parapet. There was room enough for five people to walk abreast along the top of the wall. Whole ranks would deploy here, and there was certainly enough ammunition for them. The trees that grew in the gardens and orchards of the Enclave had been ruthlessly sacrificed to produce the materiel of war.

Jonis glanced down at the sword on her belt, the only weapon she carried. “I’m here for moral support,” she offered.

The soldier laughed. She was a heavy-set woman who wore boiled leather armour and had a huge axe looped through her belt. She joined Jonis at the battlements. “Were you on the walls outside?”

Jonis nodded. “At the East Gate.”

“Ah. Heard it was bad there.”

She shrugged. “It was worse up by the gap. But then, I ended up there too.”

The woman looked thoughtful. “Is it true what they say?”

Jonis shifted her weight, trying not to betray her wariness. She didn’t like some of the rumours she’d heard about what had happened back there. “I don’t know – what is it they say?”

“They say that big Talosi fellow killed the Pale Rider.”

“Oh…well…yes, more or less.”

“More or less?”

“Morrow, Tayne and a few others were involved too. It’s sort of hard to explain it all. I mean, I didn’t even see Huldane fight…” She’d heard about it though, from some of the survivors. It sounded like a battle between the gods. For all she knew, it might have been. After Omega, she was ready to believe almost anything.

“It all happens so fast, doesn’t it?”

Jonis made a non-committal noise. She didn’t want to talk about this, for a variety of reasons.

“I was at Ixion, you know.”

“Oh?”

“I saw that white bastard cut down some of Atlas’s finest, and some of what he did to them afterwards.”

“He’s dead now,” Jonis assured her.

“Good. Now we just have to deal with the rest of these traitors.”

Jonis hadn’t realised until that moment just how deep the enmity ran amongst the troops. She had involved herself in this because of…well, because of Rayke, really. And Morrow and the rest, of course. And because she understood the threat Saffrey represented. He was part of a ten-thousand-year-old conspiracy that kept Atlantis ignorant of its own origins and that was, in a very real sense, leading to their ultimate doom as the ice crept closer, day by day. To her, this war was a philosophical one. But to the Atlasians, this was simply an invasion. These people had come here, to their city, to depose their Empress, and they had no intention of showing them any mercy. Why should they? They weren’t the aggressors. Civil wars were bitter things, she reminded herself. Sibling fought sibling, and mothers wept tears of grief.

The first day wore on. No attack came, and the defenders prepared themselves. Fletchers worked every hour, crafting arrow after arrow. Jonis pitched in where she could, fetching and carrying, feeding horses, even rubbing down armour and sharpening swords. She learned a dozen new skills in a matter of hours, and took unexpected delight in that. Calam looked at her sceptically as she slid a whetstone up and down a blade. “Try it – it’s sort of soothing. Takes your mind off things.”

Calam folded her arms. “This is my first time in the Imperial Enclave, and there are thousands of horny soldiers stuck in here with me. Why would I waste my time doing manual labour?”

Jonis shrugged. She knew, though Calam didn’t (yet), that the way of life that was all they’d ever known must come to an end. What would the Keepers become? Would they learn to harness the so-called ‘Ability’ that the shade of Malick had told her about? Would they just have to become ordinary people, learning trades or professions, but always marked out by their tattoos? Perhaps, she thought ruefully, they’d be hounded out of the city, or hunted down like fugitives. In either case, she could take nothing for granted any more.

One person she saw only occasionally – intentionally so – was Rayke. He was everywhere, it seemed, so it was quite a challenge to avoid him, and even then she still caught his eye from time to time. He was busy, she told herself; that was why she stayed out of his way. Whenever she saw him, he was certainly preoccupied enough, giving orders and discussing strategy with his generals. Rykall was by his side more often than not. She’d assumed they were old friends, but when she’d asked Morrow about it, the woman had laughed. She hadn’t explained what was so funny. Another thing she saw Rayke doing, which she’d never observed before, was writing. He carried a sheaf of papers with him wherever he went, and every now and then he’d scrawl something on them with a stylus, always with a thoughtful expression on his face. She wanted to ask him what he was doing, but she kept to her private vow and didn’t approach him. She couldn’t imagine what would happen if the Empress – his wife, whatever his cryptic words over the body of his friend meant – chanced upon them together, though she’d seen no sign at all of her since arriving in the Enclave.

On the second night, she sat alone on low suspended terrace, one leg dangling over the edge. Torches lit the Enclave’s magnificent buildings, like fairy lights in amongst some intricate and ghostly-pale forest, and it was easy to forget there was an army camped just outside the walls. The wind rippled on the surface of an ornamental pond. She closed her eyes.

“Shouldn’t you be asleep?” a voice asked.

She turned and looked up at Rayke, who was standing over her. It was dark, and she could only make his face out as a series of flat planes reflecting the distant orange flames. He sat down beside her. “Shouldn’t you be with your wife?” she replied automatically, and immediately regretted it.

“I’ve been avoiding her,” he said after a moment.

“Why?”

“You know why.”

“I don’t, really. What you said before…it didn’t make much sense.”

“It’s…” he sighed and trailed off.

“A long story?”

He smiled faintly. “Yes.” He took out his ever-present papers from where they’d been tucked into his belt and flicked through them idly. In the darkness, they were completely illegible, but he seemed to take comfort from rifling through them anyway.

“What have you been writing?”

“Um. Well, I suppose you might call it a…treatise, of sorts.”

She was surprised. “A treatise? On what?”

“War. Military organisation. Things like that.”

“Okay…any particular reason?”

He paused, then looked at her and tapped a finger against his temple. “I have ideas.”

“Do you now?”

“You don’t have to sound so surprised. I’ve been thinking about these things for a long time. How we can make the militia better. How we can prevent conflicts like this arising again. Tactics, organisation, training techniques…I don’t know…all those kinds of things.”

“But why?”

“I…” He proffered the pages almost helplessly. “I need to get it down before…before…”

She took his arm in a fierce grip. “You’re not going to die here, Rayke.”

“No. But…even if I survive. Even if we win…” He shook his head sadly.

“Is this about…about what you said? About Vion being your sister?”

“What else would it be?”

“I don’t know. Listen, Rayke, I don’t want you to think I resent you for…for choosing her. Over me, I mean.”

“Jonis, there was never a choice. You and I always knew…your brother…”

The irony wasn’t lost on her. “Things are different now,” she admitted, “but you couldn’t know that. And even if you did, she’s the Empress. You could hardly refuse. You’re the most powerful man in Atlantis now. I don’t begrudge what you’ve found.”

“Found and lost.” He frowned, and then turned to her again. “Why are things different now?”

“Well, it’s…a long story…”

“You haven’t told me about Omega. About what you found.”

“No. Perhaps we have time now.” So she told him the whole unbelievable tale. About how she’d broken into the Archive and been sent into the very depths of Atlas. About her quest through the mountains, and the discovery of the black ruins of the lost city. She described what they’d found in the freezing halls of the ancients; the remains of the Cyclops Huldane had been convinced was the One-eyed God, and the misshapen skeletons of the hyen-a-khan. Then she tried, as best she could, to explain her strange dreams and visions of a lost society, and then, with more assurance, the desperate battle with the dogmen. She told him everything, things she hadn’t even told Tayne, Huldane and the others, about where they came from, about the history of Atlantis, and the millennia-old transgression against natural law that had led them to their current catastrophe. “So you see,” she finished, “it was all our fault. What we did to the Cyclopes, that’s what’s causing this endless winter. That’s why you had to pull them back, because if they’d unleashed their power together like that, Atlas might have been destroyed. In that cavern below us, there’s a fissure that could open at any time and plunge the whole city into the ocean. It only takes a little more ice, up there in Talos.”

“And that’s why things have to change for the Keepers,” he said slowly, “because you can’t go on using the Cyclopes like that.”

“Even if they weren’t the cause of this…knowing what I know now…”

“I understand. So there’s no longer any need for you to marry your brother. All bets are off.”

“Right.”

He laughed bitterly. “Life never ceases to surprise, does it?”

“Most of mine was pretty routine, until very recently. But listen, I shared my story – what’s happened to you? When I left here, there were rumours of a rebellion in Chronus and you were off on some fool escapade to stop it. I come back and there are a hundred-thousand soldiers besieging Atlas and everyone talks about some massacre in a place called Ixion. How did this happen, Rayke?”

So now it was his turn to tell the story. He explained his army’s mad race to Chronus, the strange crossing of the fens and the gnarls they’d encountered in the mists. Then the ambush at Ixion and Hadrin’s betrayal. Their flight across the mountains and his return to Atlas, where he expected disgrace and was instead raised to glory. His marriage, which he tried to gloss over, but which she pressed him on, until he told her everything. Aethlan’s confession to him. The truth about Loban, and about his own origins. How he was the late Emperor’s son, and Vion his twin sister, so their marriage was an abomination that would destroy both of them should the truth be revealed. “So,” he said, waving the papers again, “you can see why I’m trying to make sure I leave something behind. Whatever happens, Jonis, I can’t continue to be Imperial Consort, or Lord Marshall, or anything else. In the end, Atlas would be best served by my death.”

“That isn’t true. Without you, Saffrey would already be on the throne.”

“Would that be so much worse?”

“You know that it would, Rayke.”

“Maybe.”

There was no consoling him. She longed to reach over, to take him in her arms and give him comfort. She wanted to make love with him, to feel his hard muscularity against her body, to taste the roughness of his lips and run her hands through his dark hair. She loved him, as she’d never loved anyone before, but she couldn’t bear the thought of adding to his disgrace. And there was so much more to do…so many unanswered questions. “What happens now?” she asked him.

“We survive.”

“We win, you mean?”

“I don’t know whether we can.”

“But you have a plan, don’t you?”

“If you listen to Rykall,” he said ruefully, shaking his papers, “I’m the finest military mind of my generation. I’m not sure Crale agrees, but a commander’s opinion must count for something.”

“So you do have a plan?”

“Yes. I always did. I hoped I’d never have to use it though.”

“It’s risky?”

He shook his head. “Not at all.”

“So why don’t you want to use it?”

He looked out at the lights, glimmering in the dark. Burning torches on the walls, illuminating the soldiers, standing ready for tomorrow’s fighting. Thousands of them, well-supplied with arrows, and motivated by the need to defend their home from attack. “Because I’m scared Hadrin will force me to kill her whole army. They should never have come here. They believed Atlas was indefensible.”

“And isn’t it?”

“Oh, it is. Completely indefensible. That’s why you don’t try to defend it.” His face hardened as his gaze roved the battlements. “You turn it into a trap.”

*

Aethlan opened her eyes. She didn’t know where she was. Before her was a blank white surface covered in a network of cracks and it took her a minute or so of staring at it before she realised she was looking at a ceiling coated with peeling plaster. Gradually, other sensations swam into focus. She was lying down in what felt like a comfortable bed. She tried to move, and agony flared up all through her abdomen. She cried out weakly. Her throat was parched. Where was she? What was going on?

She heard a door opening, then light footsteps on a tiled floor. Fear gripped her, and instinctively she made to turn away again, but the pain prevented it. A kindly brown face filled her vision, but she knew better than to trust to appearances. “Who are you?” she croaked.

“Let me get you some water,” the woman said. She was middle-aged, but with smooth skin and her hair was hidden by a strange red headdress.

A small earthenware jug was produced, and the strange woman placed her hand behind Aethlan’s head to lift her to its rim. She sipped at cool, clear water, then began to gulp furiously, suddenly aware of how thirsty she was. “Careful,” the stranger said, but she let her drink her fill and then put the jug back down. Aethlan had a chance to see some of her surroundings now. She was in a small room with a low ceiling. It looked like a fairly poor dwelling, to judge from the crumbling plaster, but the furnishings were oddly opulent, if a little careworn. There was a dresser that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a lord’s villa, and a full-length mirror that, even in Atlas, must have been worth a fortune. Nothing matched though. She put her head back down on the pillows, and tried to imagine where she might be.

Her – what? Host? Captor? Cellmate? – seemed to anticipate her questions. “You’re safe,” she said, and her tone was reassuring and gentle.

“What…what happened?”

“You were gravely injured.”

“Injured…” It all came flooding back. The conversation with Valcon, the knife, the pain…the dreams. She moved her hand to her middle, expecting to feel blood, or at least some horrid, ragged wound. When she touched her skin, she flinched at the tenderness, but her fingers were clean, and her flesh had felt smooth.

“This is a hospital,” the woman explained, “you were brought to us to be healed.”

“You…you healed me? From a wound like that?”

“You were lucky, Lady Aethlan. No vital organs were hit. You’d lost a great deal of blood, but we have certain techniques for restoring vitality. We repaired what we could, but I’m afraid you will always have a scar from this.”

“A scar…” It was a miracle she was even alive, but she was suddenly conscious of what Huldane might think if he saw some kind of disfigurement. And then something else occurred. “You said the knife did not hit any vital organs. But what about…I mean…if I ever want children.”

The woman looked pained. “I can’t answer that, my lady. Nothing was damaged that led to any immediate danger, but there are deep explorations of the body even we dare not attempt for fear of doing more harm. Time will tell.”

“Time will tell,” she repeated. She thought of what Huldane had told her when she’d seen him in the palace, of how she was the hope of Talos. She could hardly fulfil that destiny if she couldn’t bear his children. Not that she intended to be some kind of brood mare but, well, what better embodied hope for the future than heirs? If she couldn’t recapture Talos, she intended that her sons or daughters would. Suddenly, she realised something else. “The palace!” she said. “Valcon! The Empress is in danger!” She tried to get up again, despite the pain, but the healer took her by the shoulders and pushed her down firmly. Either she was unusually strong, or Aethlan was still incredibly weak. Most likely it was the latter.

“The danger has passed,” she reassured her, “the one who attacked you is dead, or so those who brought you here told me.”

“Oh…that is good.” She felt relief wash through her. “I would like to go back as soon as possible though. I might be needed.” The truth was she wanted to see Huldane. She couldn’t bear the thought of him fighting for Atlas while she was bedridden.

“That won’t be possible.”

“Why not?”

“The Imperial Enclave is surrounded by the enemy army. You were brought out at great risk.”

“We are not in the Enclave?”

“No. This hospital is in the Apothecaries’ Quarter.”

“But…if Saffrey’s army is outside the Enclave…they are between us and…and Atlas’s forces.” She was scared, and angry. “We are in danger!”

“The walls of this hospital are sacrosanct. No soldiers will come here, except those requiring our attention.”

“How can you know that? A hospital is the perfect place to attack! They can kill our injured easily, just by collapsing the building!”

“They would kill their own injured too then. We don’t withhold treatment to anyone. That’s what protects us.”

“Oh.” It made a kind of sense. Who would dare raise a sword against the very people you might soon be relying on to save your life? “What happened then? In the battle I mean?”

“Many soldiers died, and many more were injured. To the chirurgeons, that’s all that really matters.”

Aethlan nodded. She understood. This wasn’t a place to talk about the war. This was a place of safety and healing. “What can I do?” she asked.

“My lady?”

“To help.”

The chirurgeon looked taken aback. “You only have to rest, Lady Aethlan. It will take some time for you to recover.”

“Days? Weeks?”

“Tomorrow, you should be able to get up. I was going to take you on a walk through the grounds. Not far, but enough to get some fresh air and get your blood flowing.”

“You said there are wounded soldiers, did you not?”

“Yes…”

“If I am well enough to walk in the garden, I am well enough to help feed the sick, or comfort the dying.”

Her host cocked her head. “Very well, Lady Aethelan. We’ll see how you feel tomorrow. More hands are always welcome here.”

“I share in the suffering of my people.”

“These aren’t your people.”

“In Talos, those who draw swords and bleed together in battle are considered brothers. I have bled for Atlas now, have I not?”

“You have,” she acknowledged.

“Then they are my people.”

 

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