It was the second night of the siege. That first battle, the desperate race through the fire to take the outer walls, was no siege at all – a better word would be catastrophe. Hadrin couldn’t shake her headache. She had too much weighing on her mind. Too many worries, and too many bodies. Thousands of men and women were still lying there for the crows. When would they bury the dead? Or would it just be a single great funeral pyre? She had a vision of that colossal bonfire then, burning for days on the plain outside the city, its smoke billowing into the sky, its reek suffusing everything for miles around. She grimaced. It wasn’t just that though. Her ankle was in agony. She should have been resting, but of course Albrihn wouldn’t grant her that luxury. The fighting – such as it was – had started that day. Arrow after arrow raining down from the top of the walls, driving their army into cover; hot oil poured out from such a height that it fell as scalding drizzle on an area strides across and left dark stains on the plain white stonework. Even simple rocks, hurled from up there, became deadly. Any attempt to return fire was utterly futile. It was impossible to draw a clear line of sight to the defenders sheltering behind the battlements, and her archers had to be deployed in the open on the streets, which of course made them prime targets. The only strategy she’d hit on was positioning her bows atop the towers in the city which reduced the besieged army’s height advantage. But there were only so many soldiers you could put in a turret or in the window of a minaret, and their return fire had minimal effect. More successful were the engines that were hauled up through the narrow streets with great difficulty. The largest trebuchets, towering wooden machines that required an entire company to load and fire, had to be disassembled into huge beams, ropes and cogs, brought up the hill by carts drawn by teams of draught horses. They were each rebuilt in one of the city’s squares, well out of range of the Atlasian bowshot, and had soon begun their bombardment. Saffrey’s orders were clear: they were not to target the interior of the Enclave, where Atlas’s population was sheltering. Instead, the great boulders and chunks of masonry were aimed at the battlements and the walls themselves. Each shot left an ugly scar in its wake, but the damage seemed purely cosmetic. The Enclave’s walls were too thick for any artillery in the known world to breach, as Hadrin well knew.
More had died, from arrows, oil, rocks, even their own bombardment as ammunition had bounced back into their own lines. One trebuchet had misfired badly too, probably as a result of too-hasty reconstruction. A snapped rope had sent the arm wheeling around madly, scattering stones all over the square, killing dozens of its own crew and demolishing entire buildings. The machine had torn itself to pieces in moments, leaving bloody ruin in its wake. Such was war. There were plans to reclaim the artillery on the docks too, and turn them against their owners. Hadrin was hoping it wouldn’t be necessary. She was hoping those within the Enclave were suffering worse than they were. If they were, there was no sign of it.
She lowered herself down onto a folding chair as her servant, a wispy-haired man named Colip, knelt to ease off her boot. There was a footrest she’d liberated from a well-appointed townhouse not far away – a small act of looting she didn’t intend to tell Saffrey about – and she put her ankle on it. She winced. Colip put aside her boot and began to roll back her stocking, frowning. “I know you’ll ignore me again,” he said, “but you really should keep off this foot…”
Truthfully, Hadrin was inclined to agree with him. She turned it this way and that, examining the bruised and swollen ankle critically. There was nothing to be done about it. It was just a sprain, and it would heal by itself in time. But she needed to rest it, or she’d do herself more harm. To think, after all the violence and death of the past few days, she would be undone by a bad fall from her horse. Colip stood up and crossed to the door flap of her tent. He returned with a round stone, which had been left outside in the freezing night air. He lifted her foot gently and placed it upon the stone. The cold surface made her breath catch, but it did feel soothing. She leant back and closed her eyes. She was determined to get a decent night’s sleep tonight. Somehow, they were losing this war and she wasn’t accustomed to defeat.
“Commander,” came a voice outside the tent.
She mumbled and waved a hand. Colip went to answer the summons, and she heard low voices beyond the canvas. Eventually, there was a rustle, and she could tell her servant was padding back inside. He lent down next to her. “Sir, you are summoned.”
She put a hand across her eyes. “By whom?”
“Lord Saffrey, who else?”
“I was afraid of that.” Hadrin opened her eyes. Through the open tent flap, she could see the intricate scale armour of one of the Chronusi honour guards. She sighed. “Boot back on, please. I’d do it myself, but I don’t want to scream in agony in earshot of one of Chronus’s finest.”
“Quite so, sir.” Colip had never smiled in his life as far as she knew, but he had a certain dry wit that made him entertaining company. Like many of her regiment and its support staff, he’d followed her unquestioningly after she’d joined Saffrey’s army. She wondered what he thought about it. Was he motivated by ideology or simple loyalty? Did he just trust her to be on the right side of history? It would have been impolite to question him; he’d never feel able to talk freely in front of her, and putting him in that sort of quandary was a breach of military and social etiquette.
Finally dressed properly again, she eased herself up slowly, trying her hardest not to put any weight on her injured foot. It was hopeless of course, but she straightened her back, gritted her teeth, and walked out of the tent without showing any sign of discomfort. The soldier led her to Saffrey’s tent, set on the floor of a cavernous raised market hall, well out of sight of the Enclave’s battlements. The multiple peaks of the pavilion’s roof brushed on the beams that held the upper storeroom aloft and in places were bent down by them comically. There was nothing comical about the guard that surrounded it though – a steel ring of Chronusi guards, just like the one who had summoned her here. They wore peaked round helmets in an archaic style, and their faces were covered with veils in the same interlocking scale as their armour. They had tall shields and spears, all of which were held upright at the same angle. These warriors had barely tasted blood since the beginning of this campaign. Despite their disciplined appearance, she had no doubt they hoped to prove themselves when the Enclave was taken. Vengeance burned in the hearts of the entire army now, after the fire in the slum and the butchery at the walls. Would they show restraint, or would the common people of Atlas bear the brunt of their repressed fury? Time, as always, would tell.
Hadrin entered the tent to find Saffrey once again poring over his game of queens. A bird had come late that afternoon, and with it a message from his mysterious correspondent on the other side of Atlantis, or so she assumed. He looked up and gave her a twinkling smile. “Commander. How’s your foot?”
“Better,” she lied. She sat down in the chair across from his table. “So, to what do I owe this pleasure? I don’t mind telling you I was looking forward to getting some rest. Today has been…taxing.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” He pushed the queens board to one side and flourished a letter with obvious satisfaction. “This came today.”
“Your friend’s next move?”
He laughed. “No, actually. I’m still pondering the last one she sent. This is something much better, for a far more important game.” He proffered the folded sheet of parchment.
She took it and scanned the scrawled message. It was just a few lines, and nothing in them made sense to her. It was nonsense – a string of unrelated words. “Sorry, am I supposed to be able to understand this?”
“It’s coded,” he said with another smile.
She wanted to roll her eyes. Why had he shown her? To demonstrate his superiority, of course. “Can you just tell me what it says?”
“It’s from a friend.”
“Another one? I wasn’t aware you were so popular…”
His look was stony, and she worried for a moment that she’d spoken too candidly, but then his sardonic grin returned. “Perhaps ‘friend’ is the wrong word, at that. An ally. A loyal servant. Whatever. Either way, I’ve been hoping to get word from him for days now. I feared for his safety, after what happened to Shastir.”
Hadrin nodded. They’d got word of the former commander’s fate when they entered the city. One of their soldiers who’d been treated by a Chirurgeon had reported seeing his body – ‘body’ being the operative word. Reaper, it was clear, had taken its toll from the traitor. “So what does this mysterious individual have to say for himself?”
“Precisely what I’d hoped. He got this message out at great personal risk, but it will be worth it. The people of Atlas are suffering. Albrihn fights rebellion at every turn from his own forces, even those closest to him.”
Hadrin raised her eyebrows. “Really?”
“So the message says. And I have no doubt as to its authenticity. The code used is known to only a very few in our organisation.”
“I take it he’s someone sympathetic to our cause who’s now trapped within the Enclave?”
“He is indeed,” Saffrey confirmed.
“Well then. What do we do now?”
“He says he is sending us a gift.”
“If it’s Albrihn’s head, he can keep it. I’m not in this for the blood.”
“I don’t know what it is. His time was obviously short; his hand is normally a lot neater than this. But he said to expect it at midnight tonight.”
Hadrin rubbed the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes again. “You want me to stay up and wait with you, don’t you?”
“You are my supreme commander.”
“At least pour me some of that wine then.” He obliged with a bright laugh, and there was something obscene about his elation, balanced against all this horror.
It was a little before midnight in fact, when one of the Chronusi soldiers – for all she knew the same one that had come to find her – appeared at the doorway. “My lord, commander, there is a visitor…”
Saffrey clapped his hands. “Excellent. Send them in.”
“Is this wise?” Hadrin asked. She was resting her ankle on another footrest, this one more ornate than the one in her tent, and trying to go easy on the wine despite the pleasant warming sensation it granted.
“I have nothing to fear from an assassin.” He didn’t elaborate on that, and she didn’t press him.
A hooded figure was shown into the tent. Their face was shrouded, but their form was tall and spare, and there was something oddly familiar about them. Hadrin frowned.
“Welcome,” Saffrey said, infusing his voice with a silky warmth. He spoke as a leader, as a politician, perhaps even as an Emperor.
“Spare me the hospitality, Saffrey,” replied the figure, and Hadrin started from her seat, jarring her ankle and having to bite down on her tongue to stop from crying out. She could taste the metallic tang of blood. The visitor pulled back their hood, revealing the calm, worn face of Commander Crale.
Saffrey cocked an eyebrow. “This is an unexpected pleasure…”
“For you maybe.” Crale walked forward and pulled a chair around to sit before the table, on the other side from Hadrin. She looked over her fellow commander. “What happened to your foot, Hadrin?”
“I fell off my horse.”
“Someone tried to set fire to me.”
“I’m sure they had their reasons.” Crale was completely unflappable.
“How did you get out without being seen?”
“There are ways,” she said noncommittally, “if you have the influence I do.” She turned her impassive gaze to Saffrey now. “I can’t stay here long.”
“So you’re not here to join us?” he asked.
“No. I’m not interested in doing that.”
“So why are you here?”
Saffrey tilted his head. “Albrihn sent you?”
“I’m here for myself, not him.”
“What is this then? You’re not here with terms from the Empress?”
“If Vion has any terms, she hasn’t seen fit to share them with me. But I have terms of my own.”
Saffrey leant back. “Go on…”
Hadrin watched Crale carefully, trying to read her. She’d always found it impossible to get any fix on what the inscrutable woman was feeling. She’d know her for decades, but never spoken to her with anything but the same cold indifference that seemed to be her only mood. She was intelligent though, and fiercely pragmatic. There was something important going on here.
“I’m done with this stupid war.”
“Shut up, Saffrey. You’re not going to talk your way around me, and I’m not interested in playing these games. People are dying in there.”
“I’m sure they are. A million people is a lot to pack into such a small space.”
“You have no idea,” Crale said and, for just a moment, there was a trace of disgust on her angular features. “This can’t go on.”
“We don’t intend to let it,” Hadrin assured her.
Crale shot her a look. “If you could end this yourselves, you would have already. We all know that, so let’s dispense with the self-congratulation. You’ve been beaten, and if this state of affairs continues, you’ll probably all be dead soon.”
“You’re the ones trapped behind your walls,” Saffrey pointed out.
“I didn’t say we wouldn’t also be dead soon. That’s why I want out.”
“Out? You want to go free?”
Crale nodded. “I’m done with all of this. I’m past retirement age anyway. I stayed out of loyalty to the Emperor. His daughter is nothing to me.”
Saffrey smiled. “So you agree she needs to be removed?”
“If you think I’m doing this to support your claim, you don’t know me well enough. Again, all three of us here know that you’ve no right to contest the succession. All the laws of Atlantis make the throne Vion’s by right. Only right of conquest would make your rule in any way legitimate. What I care about is not being here when the two squalid armies camped in this city tear one another apart. As I see it, the better outcome is a swift resolution. I can’t chase you away, but I can hand the Enclave over to you easily enough.”
“You’d betray them?” Hadrin asked.
Crale’s stare was, if possible, even colder than usual. “What an interesting thing for you to ask, Hadrin, given how this business has turned out.”
“I don’t care,” she said, talking over her. “I hope I’ve made that clear. I have no stake in any of this. All that’s left is getting myself out of here in one piece.”
“And is that all you want?” Saffrey said, “Safe passage?”
“Safe passage, and a safe haven.”
“A minor estate, somewhere in the country. Hyperion or Prometheus would be nice. A title maybe. Something to pass on to my heirs.”
“I wasn’t aware you had any heirs…”
“If I have a title to bestow on them when I die, maybe I’ll adopt a few,” she replied with a shrug.
“So – a country manor, a baronetcy…”
“Countess. At least.”
He laughed. “Fine. Whatever suits you best. My my, I never imagined you possessed such vanity.”
“We all have our vices. You start rebellions, Hadrin reneges on her oaths, I’d like to be ennobled. As sins go, I think it rather a modest, at least in present company.”
“A country manor, a countship, safe passage from the city. And in return?”
“This time tomorrow night, I’ll make sure the gates of the Enclave are open.”
Hadrin stared. “How will you manage that?”
“Most of the soldiers are loyal to me. Albrihn has squandered all his favour, including with his lady wife.”
“He brought that Keeper with him. They’ve been openly displaying their affection. It seems surviving the attentions of your pale friend from the mainlands has gone to his head.”
Saffrey laughed uproariously. “How wonderful! To come so close to victory, and lose it all for animal lust. Poor Albrihn. He could have been a great man.”
“He’s a fool,” Crale said, “too much power much too soon. It’s no good for anyone. He’s never been proven.”
Perversely, Hadrin felt a desire to defend her one-time subordinate. Albrihn, for all the faults Crale had just outlined, was a fine commander. Certainly he’d demonstrated that in his brilliant defence of the city. But she kept her mouth shut. Things were confusing enough as it was.
“Tomorrow night,” Crale repeated as she got back up to her feet, “the gates will be open, but not for long. I’ll be waiting, and I expect you to honour this agreement.”
“If you keep your word,” Saffrey said, “you can have a seat in the Chamber of Ministers.”
Crale curled her lip. “I find politics even more distasteful than this war of yours. People are suffering, Saffrey. Make this right, spill as little blood as you can, and maybe you’ll be a worthwhile Emperor despite how this all came about.”
“Tomorrow night, it ends. That, I promise you.”
Crale held his gaze. “Good.” She pulled her hood back up, then turned and left the tent without a word.
“Such a charming woman, I’ve always thought,” Saffrey said, watching the swinging tent flap.
“It looks like Albrihn is losing allies left and right,” Hadrin said, “I’m surprised Rykall hasn’t killed him already.”
“Who knows what tomorrow might hold?” He moved his queens board back into the centre of the table. “The gambit pays off,” he said, looking down at the wooden pieces. “I wish I could say I was surprised, but the outcome of this was never really in doubt, was it?”
“We thought that outside the walls.”
“I never said there wouldn’t be a price to pay.” He picked up one of the pieces – a knight – and moved it into a new position. He stared at it for a long time, a slender finger poised atop its equine head, then moved it back with a small grunt of dissatisfaction. “If only every victory were so simple,” he sighed.
Aethlan found a strange satisfaction in helping at the hospital. The Chirurgeons, despite their imposing red robes and their almost-mystical knowledge of the human body and its workings, were strict about the lack of any hierarchy within their walls. Here, lowly foot soldiers and unfortunate peasants caught up in the conflict received the same treatment as officers and wealthy nobles. She learned that she’d only been given her own room because of the delicacy of her condition and to preserve her modesty when her injuries were treated. Mostly, the patients were housed in dormitories with many mismatched beds, all donated by patrons long ago. The hospital itself was a great rambling building, full of strange nooks, and all done in the usual Atlasian style – high ceilings, airy verandas, geometric courtyards floored with stone or neatly-trimmed lawns. From the woman who had come to her when she awoke, whose name was Donhae, she learned that it had once been the home of a noble Atlasian dynasty whose line had ended with an aged, childless dowager. She had left the building to the healers of the city, who had thus established themselves as a formal order and made this their base of operations for good works across Atlantis.
It was a calm place. There were high walls all around which blocked any view of the city beyond, except for the tallest towers higher up the hill, and it was the sort of establishment in which one naturally spoke in a hushed whisper. Most of the patients were soldiers, almost all of them bearing some form of horrible mutilation. There were missing limbs, ruined faces, men and women rendered blind by their injuries, and many more besides. Fighters from both armies were side-by-side in the beds too, mixed up with no care for their loyalties. Amazingly, they all seemed to accept the sanctity of the hospital, and she observed no quarrels of any kind. It was as if, in their wounded state, they were united. Here, only their humanity was of consequence. Aethlan found it inspiring.
The only authority that seemed to exist within the walls was solely due to the expertise of the Chirurgeons, and there was a healthy respect shown to peers with certain abilities. Many had their special areas of talent or interest, and the most impressive of all was surely Lady Chanes, who was the head of the order, and whose knowledge of medicine and healing seemed limitless. Aethlan could only stare in wonder while she helped an orderly rewrap a bandage and Chanes oversaw a patient in a bed across the room, confidently diagnosing her injuries, and rattling off a regimen of herbal treatments without the need for any instruction. Aethlan couldn’t imagine possessing such casual wisdom, or bearing it with such modesty.
“Thank you,” the soldier said to her as she finished up dressing his wound. He was mercifully free of any serious dismemberment, but the wound on his arm was very deep and she could tell from the discolouration around his stitches that it could very well have killed him if not for the Chirurgeons’ attentions. He was stripped to the waist and no uniform was in evidence. He had a tattoo with a regimental number though and, beneath it, the word ‘Chronus’ in Atlantian. An enemy. And yet here she was, caring for him as she would anyone else.
“You’ve got a knack for this,” the orderly told her as they both stepped up to a bowl of water treated with caustic lime and rinsed off their hands.
“It is only applying bandages,” she said.
“No, I mean you have what they call a ‘good bedside manner’ here.”
The other woman smiled. She was a pretty young Atlasian with dark skin and very bright eyes and had introduced herself earlier as Herme. “You’re a natural. What do you do?”
“How do you mean?” Aethlan was just towelling off her hands on the cloth that hung by the side of the bowl.
“You know, for a job.”
She was surprised at the question. “Well…I do not have a job, exactly…”
“So what do you do for money?”
“I am…well…I am a noble, actually. A lady. My name is Aethlan.”
“You told me that already. Where are you from?”
“Never been. Is it nice?”
“It was, once.”
They had come to the next bed. In this one, a bloodied woman lay very still. She was missing both arms and her head was wrapped in stained bandages. Her skin looked waxy. Herme frowned and stepped closer, leaning right down. “Oh…”
“What is it?”
“She’s dead,” she said simply.
Aethlan’s hand went to her mouth. There was something so matter of fact about how she’d said those damning words. Dead. The poor woman’s body had just given up the fight. Perhaps it was a mercy. What soldier would wish to wake up knowing they’d never again wield a sword?
Herme looked around. Chanes and the other Chirurgeons had moved on, and there were no other orderlies in the room. “I have to deal with this,” she said.
“Deal with it?”
She nodded. “Make some preparations. It’s not good when someone dies like this.” Her voice was low. There were patients all around, and Aethlan understood how it might affect them. “We have to get her out of here. Do you know where the morgue is?”
“Where they keep the bodies.”
Aethlan blanched. Of course there’d be such a place here. What else would they do with the dead? “No. I have not been there before.”
“It’s easy to find.” She rattled off some directions quickly, and Aethlan felt she got the gist of it.
“What should I do when I get there?”
“Find one of the Chirurgeons there. Tell them to send up a litter. Then we’ll get this one out of here before it causes any upset.”
She was so pragmatic about it that it only deepened the tragedy as far as Aethlan was concerned, but there were doubtless many who had died here over the last few days, and many more who would in the days or weeks to come. This was war after all. Seeing it like this only brought home its senselessness though. After bidding farewell to Herme, she headed off to where she’d been directed. It took her a little while to find her way, but soon enough she stood at the entrance to a great hall that occupied one whole wing of the hospital. There, she stopped and stared at the scene. The entire floor was awash with rank upon rank of covered bodies. Each one was shrouded with a white sheet – how could there be so much spare linen in the world? – and the whole vast chamber was eerily silent. She could see side-rooms off from the main space too, and caught glimpses of more corpses there. Many fragrant herbs burnt in braziers all over the room, but they could only mask the stink of death, not drive it away entirely. There were no Chirurgeons in evidence so, with trepidation, she entered the hall, picking her way through the silent white shapes. Her breath was shallow. It wasn’t fear exactly: she’d seen death before and knew it was just another part of life, but it felt so strange to be surrounded by so much of it. There were hundreds of bodies; thousands. She had no doubt that almost all of them had been brought here, in one way or another, by this terrible war. Some of the dead had objects with them. She thought for a moment they were grave goods, which was at odds with what she understood about the beliefs of most Atlantians, but then she realised they served a much more practical purpose. There were necklaces, broaches, even weapons and shields. Anything that bore some kind of distinctive mark. They were there to help identify them, should their loved ones come looking. Her eyes filled with tears as she beheld all the trinkets and meagre possessions, many of them broken beyond repair, that represented such a small slice of a person’s life, now coming to define them.
She passed by an open doorway, through which she could see a small, darkened room. Two bodies lay there, reposed on twin stone slabs. Strange that they would be set apart like that. Curious, Aethlan crept into the dim chamber and looked down at them. On the left, the large body was indistinct beneath the white cloth. On the slab beside it lay a broken sword and what seemed to be some kind of wooden stick. She frowned at it. On one end was a little metal knob, and the other was splintered, as if it had been crudely hacked in two. There were elaborate carvings over its surface and, without intending to, she reached out and touched them. She’d seen these before somewhere. A horrible feeling came over her and, checking to make sure she wasn’t observed, she gently tugged back the shroud to reveal the peaceful face of Loban, his eyes closed forever. Her hand went to her mouth and she released an involuntary gasp. Loban: the fat old cook at the barracks, who had proved to be more than he let on. He’d once been the Emperor’s Champion. He was the one who’d secretly protected Albrihn for so many years. He’d joined in with the fighting then. She wondered if Albrihn knew. She’d seen Loban use his sword once, briefly, and wondered how mightily he’d fought; how many foes had paid with their lives for underestimating him. She felt an odd swell of pride. He’d died a hero. That was good.
She reverentially covered his face again, and turned to the other body. This one was broad and tall, taking up most of the stone slab. No accoutrements surrounded it, but there was something resting at its feet on the floor, propped up against the end of the slab. She walked around to see what it was, and then stopped, staring at it for a long moment. Her eyes saw, but something stopped them from telling her mind what it was they’d discovered. It was a shield, and one she knew. It had her father’s sigil on it, a variation on the rune of Talos, stark white against a blue background. It was split in two, and had just been placed back together. The iron rim was mangled, and large chunks of wood were missing from it. There was blood too; small flecks of dark red, dried into long translucent drips, running down the boss. Slowly, moving as if in a dream, she moved towards the covered figure. Her fingertips brushed its head, reaching to pull it back and reveal…
She jumped back, terrified, and turned. Lady Chanes stood in the doorway. Aethlan gaped. “I…I…”
“Please,” the Head Chirurgeon said, voice softening, “step away.”
She held up a hand. “My lady, no good can come from looking beneath that shroud.”
Aethlan turned back. Her eyes were filled with tears. She couldn’t see. She tried to speak, but no words would come out.
“What he once was, he is no longer,” Chanes said, coming towards her and placing her hands on her shoulders. “That is just a vessel, and now it is empty.”
She was numb. She felt nothing. It was like being adrift in a freezing ocean. The world seemed to buck and heave around her. She tried to concentrate on Chanes’s voice: a slender pillar of rock in the black, stormy seas.
“I don’t know what you believe in your homeland, but in Atlas we hold that there is a secret strength in all living things that may never die. Where it goes when the physical form fails, no one can ever know, but it surely is not diminished by its transition. He lives on, Aethlan. He waits for you, somewhere beyond mortal sight. Mourn only that he is gone from your side for a time. You will see him again.”
Chanes pulled her into an embrace, just as Aethlan began to feel her legs lose all their strength. The words of the older woman were a comfort, but they couldn’t turn aside the enormous black maw of grief that was now rising up to swallow her. The world had gone dark and cold. All things were ended. She allowed herself to be held as she wept uncontrollable tears and everything turned dim and colourless.