Age of War (Part LV)

The servants had been uneasy when they brought it into Vion’s chambers. He reassured them that he had every right to make use of it. Not only was he the Imperial Consort, but also Lord Marshall of Atlas, supreme commander of the armies of Atlantis. There wasn’t a piece of military equipment in the land he couldn’t requisition if he so desired. Still, he understood their reluctance. This was an antique. When had it last seen war? Had it ever? It had been wrapped in mouldering canvas, and taken two sturdy men to lift. Now it lay on the darkwood table in the centre of the room. Albrihn had dismissed the servants. He would be alone for this. He unwrapped it slowly, revealing metal that still held its lustre. The Emperor’s armour. Its late owner had been no warrior, but he had made war, in his own way, to secure his throne. It was important that a ruler who intended to ask soldiers to die for him at least appear as if he was willing to make the same sacrifice. The Emperor had never so much as swung a blade in anger as far as Albrihn knew. The armour was untouched by nick or dent. It was a fine suit of half-plate, intended to be worn with mail. The breastplate was ornate: an exquisitely crafted masterwork, inlaid with gilt details. In the centre of its curving front was the ancient symbol of House Olympia, the rulers of Atlantis: a serpent coiled into a ring, devouring its own tail. No beginning and no end. Emperors and Empresses, nameless and eternal, enduring until the very twilight of the gods. Or so it had always been said. And yet, knowing what he knew now, could he take any of that seriously? Atlantis in its present form was no more than a millennium old. The weight of aeons no longer rested on the shoulders of the Empress. This armour was meaningless.

Perhaps that was true, he reflected. Perhaps Atlantis and Atlas and the throne itself were all built on a lie and barely worth fighting for. But this was also his father’s armour. He hadn’t known that until less than a week ago, but now it seemed to suffuse him, dominating his every waking thought. He ran his fingers across the breastplate and its device. Rayke Olympia. That should have been his name. And who would he have been? A pampered prince? A popinjay? A schemer like Saffrey? Would it have been him leading this rebellion now in his place? They said twins were bad luck. Some of what Jonis had told him about Omega and its dark past made sense of that superstition. There was a pragmatism to it though. Twins might vie against one another for the throne. Twins might turn Atlantis into a scorched wasteland. Perhaps, in the end, this had been the better way. Or perhaps not. There was no way to know.

Albrihn normally wore only fragments of armour. He was – he’d been, he reminded himself – a light cavalry captain. That meant speed and manoeuvrability were paramount. He didn’t like to be weighed down too much, so normally he rode into battle with a chainmail shirt beneath a battered old breastplate, fastened to a set of layered pauldrons which were more a symbol of rank than anything else. He rarely wore the peaked pot-helm, preferring to leave his senses uncompromised. Better to run from arrows than hope to weather them. He’d have to make some adaptations. As well as the breastplate there were greaves, vambraces, an uncomfortable looking gorget, a back for the breastplate so it formed a complete curiass, gauntlets and all manner of other accoutrements. He’d need a team of servants to dress him in this. He selected just a few pieces, only a little more than he normally wore, and carried them across the room. He set them on a couch near the mirror and began to don the armour. He already wore his chainmail, and his uniform was new, in mourning black. Strictly speaking that was for the Emperor, but he could name a dozen more who had earned his grief these past days. When the armour had been crafted, the Emperor was about his size. Still, he found it uncomfortable to wear and told himself it was just the greater weight. “Dead man’s shoes,” he murmured though as he strapped the greaves over his boots – mended, freshly polished. He straightened. He looked like he should be on parade. He realised what was missing. He crossed the room, a little stiffly, and retrieved his sword belt. It was plain leather. He didn’t even consider discarding it in favour of something that matched the ostentatious armour. He’d worn the belt for years. His father had made it, and so he honoured both men to whom he’d been a son today. He strapped it around his waist, and now that the familiar weight of his sword and dagger hung at his hips, he felt a lot better. He returned to the mirror.

Before him stood a man whom he would have instinctively saluted. A battle-leader. He examined his face. When had he begun to look so old and careworn? His dark skin was weathered and creased around his mouth, his eyes, his forehead. Was that grey hair too? He was…mature. That was the word. A seasoned veteran; a natural commander. Looking at himself attired like this, he no longer felt a fraud for occupying his elevated position. If all went well, he’d be what they said he was. A hero. A true Son of Atlas. He picked up the helmet. It was open-faced, in an archaic style. Lesser monarchs might have added a gilt crown around the top, but Atlantis had no crown. He turned it around and was about to place it on his head when there was a tentative knock at the door. “Enter,” he barked, without thinking.

The door was pushed open and Morrow stuck her head around the side. When she saw him, her eyes widened. “Fucking hell, sir…”

He looked down at himself. “Well…it seemed appropriate…”

She bobbed her head in agreement as she stepped inside. She too was attired as befit her proper rank now. She wore captain’s stripes, and her armour was polished bright. She had a glow to her cheeks too. Despite everything, she was upbeat. Perhaps Tayne had something to do with that. “You look like…like you.”

“Like me? How’s that?”

She faltered slightly. “I don’t know. It’s just…” She cocked her head. “You don’t look like you, exactly, but you look like you should do. Does that make sense?”

“You’d be surprised how much.” He looked back at his reflection. He looked like what he was, which scared him. He’d never asked to become this man. He’d never sought glory. But glory had found him: it was, it seemed, his birth right.

“Anyway, you wanted to see me?” Morrow asked.

Albrihn nodded and walked across the room. Outside, the sun was setting. The sky had been fairly clear today, and clouds scudded towards the glowing horizon. The vista offered by the great open balcony was spectacular. He looked at it for a moment, wondering if he’d see another sunset like this. “You know the plan,” he said presently.

“I have a pretty good grasp of it I reckon, yes.”

“I’ll be relying on you a lot, Morrow.”

“No change there then.” She cracked a small smile, just like the old days.

He returned it as he rotated to face her so the sun was at his back. She remained in the shade near the wall to avoid being blinded by the low sun. Still, she had to squint at him, and he stepped away from the balcony in deference to that. “I mean, you’ll be in command of a large chunk of our forces.”

“How large a chunk?” she asked, sounding wary.

“The archers.”

“But I thought the whole force would…”

“Exactly. You’re the best shot in the militia.”

“Well,” she affected modesty for a moment, then gave up with a shrug. “Yeah, probably,” she conceded.

“You see targets instinctively. I need that instinct. Every shot has to count.”

“You know how to shoot, Rayke.”

“But I can’t be where you’ll need to be.”

“I can’t direct every arrow…”

“No, but you can make sure those beneath you are directing them where you’d want.”

“Beneath me?” she sounded uneasy. “I don’t have a lot of company left, Rayke. You know that.”

“I said you’ll be in command. I mean it. I want you to coordinate everything not on ground level.”

She held up her hands. “Whoa whoa whoa…”

“How would you like to be a commander?”

Morrow goggled. “Commander?!” She shook her head back and forth rapidly. “No no no no no….”

“Tayne’s a commander.”

“Well…yeah…but so what?”

“You ought to have the same rank. Things might get awkward.”

Her face had turned bright red. That wasn’t like Morrow at all, and he had to suppress a laugh at the sight. He’d always thought she was impossible to embarrass. “I’m only just getting used to being a captain,” she told him in a small voice.

“You’ll need to give orders to commanders. A captain can’t do that.”

“I know. But…it’s too much, Rayke. Too much, too soon. You know what that feels like.”

“I do,” he acknowledged. “All right then.” He tapped his chin, considering. “I wonder what I have the power to grant…”

“You’re Imperial Consort. Probably anything you like.”

He walked up to her. “Do you like the countryside, Morrow?”

“Huh?”

“You know – big house, grounds, maybe a few farms, a nice village where everyone tips their hats to you.”

She narrowed her eyes. “What are you suggesting?”

“I don’t really know how this works, but I suppose…I don’t know…I dub you Countess Nera Morrow. How’s that?”

Countess?”

“Everyone does what nobles tell them to do. Should solve any problems. I’m sure Vion can find you a castle or something.”

“Fucking hell! You can’t just make someone a bloody noble, Rayke!”

“Of course I can. You just said I can grant whatever I like.”

“But…but…I grew up in one room! I spent most of my childhood stealing anything I could get my hands on! I’m a…a…fucking soldier, Rayke! A drinking, swearing, whoring hired thug!”

He smiled. “I know.”

“But…but…what will they make of me?”

“Who?”

She waved her hands. “The other bloody nobles!”

“I think they’ll find you…refreshing.”

“You bastard,” she said, with genuine anger in her voice, “you can’t just turn people’s lives upside down like this!”

“Morrow,” he said, softening his tone, “after all this is done, none of our lives will ever be the same again. Take it on the chin, soldier. Sorry, countess.”

“I’ll never forgive you for this.”

“I think Tayne’ll be pleased.” He was heading for the door. He had places he needed to be.

“You should probably check you’re allowed to do this with your wife you know!” she called after him.

*

It hadn’t been a good day. After three days camping in the cramped confines of the city, disease was rampant in the attacking army. Injuries had festered, and the Chirurgeons were overwhelmed. Starvation was a problem too, perversely. There was no fodder on the frozen plains, and their supplies, meagre enough to begin with, were running low. And yet there was a bounty just lying untouched in the shops and stores of the city. One unit finally snapped. They broke down the door of a butchers’ and helped themselves to strips of cured bacon and goat, and great fat links of sausages. Then they traded what they couldn’t eat to their comrades. That started a brief mania for looting. Desperate men and women will always make bad decisions, even if Hadrin could hardly fault them. She’d petitioned Saffrey to show leniency. “These soldiers have demonstrated their loyalty to you. They’ve marched across two Provinces to make war on their own countrymen. Mercy is an important trait in an Emperor too.”

He was unmoved. “Strength is more important. Now more than ever.” In the end, a whole company was found to be complicit in the business – a hundred-and-forty-three soldiers, all told, including their officers. He had them hung in the same square the trebuchet had exploded in two days ago. The gallows was built from the same wood.

After that, the desertions started. They slipped away squad by squad, and then slowly a trickle became a river, and entire companies were streaming through the gates, returning to Chronus. They lost perhaps a thousand men and women, with many more laid low by hunger, injury or disease. Hadrin looked across the camp from the balcony of a high building and couldn’t shake the feeling she was standing sentinel over a military disaster of unprecedented scale. She turned to the gates. Only a few missiles had been sent towards them that day, and they’d kept up their bombardment as best they could. She remembered Crale’s words in Saffrey’s tent. ‘Two squalid armies’ she’d called them. It was hard to disagree, at least as regarded her own forces. They’d always been a loose conglomeration of rebels and traitors, and that was no recipe for discipline. But, if the gates really did open at midnight, none of that would matter. They’d sweep in and take the Enclave by surprise. There might not even be a fight. By dawn, this could all be over. She dearly hoped it would be.

Falla was by her side. “Where’s this going, sir?” he asked her.

“Where’s what going?”

“This war.”

“It’s not going anywhere; not now. This is it.” She pressed her finger against the stone balustrade. “Here. Now. Whatever happens, it ends.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“I know I am.” Like Crale, all she wanted now was peace, and to get out of this with most of her skin intact. She wasn’t sure whether the cause even mattered to her any more.

After the sun went down, the hours dragged. The night was moonless and freezing cold. Her breath misted. They lit the campfires, as they had every night since entering the city, but no soldiers sat warming their hands around them. Instead, they were girded for war, forming up with blades and armour blackened with pitch. Hadrin herself rode heavily hooded and cloaked. She led the vanguard: a task she’d insisted be hers. She had to be here, at the end. It was important to her. The wide plaza that spread before the Enclave’s gates was dark and empty as they rode up. Hooves struck the cobbles and to her they sounded like peals of thunder. There were hundreds of them in this first wave, all mounted. Speed would be of the essence. Their task was to charge in, establish a beachhead if required and then the bulk of the army would follow on foot. Saffrey would ride in with his Chronusi infantry, where most of her force was made up of the remnants of her own regiment and the cataphracts. Her ankle throbbed, but she was glad to be off her feet at least. If she was unhorsed, she’d be less than useless. She was aware of all the dangers, all the risks, but she was driven by the need to see this through to the bitter end. Falla was beside her again. He grinned fiercely, showing bright white teeth beneath the darkness of his hood. “Ready to ride, sir?”

“If I’m not, it’s too late now.” She nodded ahead. “Watch the gates. They’re supposed to open any moment.” Part of her didn’t believe it would actually happen. It was unimaginable that Crale would be a turncoat, and yet she hadn’t doubted the woman’s conviction last night. The whole world was turned on its head now it seemed.

They waited in the plaza, hidden by the night, as the seconds slid by with agonising slowness. She played with the reins idly. The horse was skittish. She missed her old one badly then. That animal knew her moods instinctively, and was never nervous like this. There were so many things wrong. Warriors’ intuition was a powerful force, and she was working hard to ignore it now.

“Sir!” Falla said under his breath.

She looked up and saw a dim slash of light as the huge gates began to open, and gaped at the sight. So. Crale was as good as her word: something was going right at last. There was no signal to advance; she just kicked the horse’s flanks and galloped forth. Falla kept pace with her, and the other riders surged forward too. Now the sound of hooves really was thunderous. Would they still retain the element of surprise? Surely there was no defence they could prepare now. They passed through the gates and continued down the long, dark tunnel that ploughed through the thick walls. The clatter of their charge echoed loudly in the narrow space. Ahead, she could see an arch of orange light: camp fires. Not only was the Atlasian army occupying the Enclave, but also a million citizens. The conditions must be horrific. This was a dirty little war, she reflected, and Saffrey was a fool to worry about a little looting. Anyone stuck in that Enclave would consider a ransacked shop the least of their recent problems. The archway loomed up ahead, rapidly growing in size as they approached, and then they burst out, into the freezing air again. Hadrin urged her horse on, drawing her sword and lifting it high into the air. These people had done nothing, but she needed to inspire terror, to be a symbol of vengeful wrath. It took her a second to realise something was wrong.

Her horse slowed, even as the rest of the soldiers surged around her. They spread out. The plaza beyond the gates was an almost exact match in shape and size to the one they’d started from. It was the largest open space in the Enclave, and it was supposed to be the site of a new shanty town for Atlas’s people, a miserable mass of starving refugees. Instead, it was empty. The orange glow came not from campfires, but from hundreds of braziers set in a circle all around them. The plaza was overlooked by many buildings, fronted by balconies, verandas and porticos, airy columned structures serving various administrative purposes. Now, by the glow of the flickering flames, she instead saw row after row of archers. She looked around, and saw behind her, high atop the walls, more of them. They were surrounded, sitting ducks in an enormous open space. It was the perfect killing field.

“It’s a trap!” she roared. The sound of galloping horses drowned out her voice. They were still coming through the tunnel, all making the same discovery she had. Some drew weapons and spurred their horses, some tried to wheel around and flee, others just milled around in confusion, unsure of what to do. They couldn’t charge the archers – they were all deployed above ground level – and more soldiers were coming through the gates behind them, limiting their manoeuvrability. Almost the entire army would be on the move now. She tried to turn, tried to get back there and tell them to go back, that they’d been tricked. But it was too late, and she knew it. The plaza was filling with her troops, and all mistook the confused tumult ahead for violence. She saw infantry entering now too. “It’s a trap!” she shouted again, and the cry was carried onward. Her vanguard were all heading back towards the gate, but their way was barred by their allies. It was anarchy. There was no thought of forming up, no way to try to fight their way out.

She heard an ominous noise. A bowstring pulled back makes but a whisper as it bends the yew to is will, but when thousands are drawn at once, the creak is as chilling as the sound of a crypt being shut. Hadrin stared, open-mouthed, at the ranks of archers. Everything stopped. It was only then that she truly understood the depth of her folly. The arrows were released in unison as the plaza was filled and she had to admire the precision of the timing. She couldn’t see the deadly missiles against the black sky, but she knew as surely as she’d ever known anything that this was the end of Saffrey’s war. Falla fell from his horse as a bodkin pierced his helmet and drove straight through his eye. Others went down beside him. There was no way they could fail to find their marks in this confused scrum.

Where were they? Where had Albrihn sent his people? How had they been deceived like this? She had no time to ponder these questions. An arrow punched through her shoulder and sent her flying from her saddle. She was unconscious before she even hit the ground.

*

“Mam! Mam!” Rall Albrihn ran with the madcap speed and energy that only a child could possess, her ungainly limbs flying in all directions. She’d be tall eventually, like her father.

Dannar watched her wearily. “What?”

Her daughter tugged at her hand. “Come and see!”

“See what?”

“We found a room, and there’s a cage at one end and a monster and…”

“Hush, girl.” Dannar made her sit down. “Don’t you know how late it is? You should be asleep.”

“I’m not tired, mam.”

“Really? You’ve been racing around all day.”

Rall just shrugged. Actually, there was no mystery to it. The girl’s days were usually full, helping on the ship from dawn to dusk. This indolent lifestyle was no good for her. Soon, hopefully, it would be over. “There really was a monster,” she insisted.

“Maybe.”

“There was! I saw it!”

“You know we’re not supposed to go too far from here, Rall. It’s dangerous.”

“There’s a boy lives in the Brewers’ Quarter, an’ he says he’s been all the way down to the bottom and he met a man who said he…”

“Hush,” she said again, this time a little more sternly, and the child obeyed, squirming on her blanket as she sat. There was something to be said for raising a child on a boat. She was a lot more disciplined than many of the other children here, despite her boundless enthusiasm for what was, to her, a fascinating adventure. Dannar wished she could share her daughter’s excitement, but she only found their surroundings oppressive. It was hard to believe any of this existed, and that it’d been here the whole time. When she’d first come here, she’d shuddered at the thought. The city’s entire population was hidden, and it didn’t even feel crowded. When she looked out across the great chamber in which they’d erected their humble makeshift dwelling, there was no sense of claustrophobia despite the hundreds of families that had been living here for days. No, any discomfort was solely down to the stonework that surrounded them on all side,. She was a fisherwoman, a daughter of the sea, and she’d never be comfortable underground. But if she did have to be here, she was at least glad to have seen this place. The Keepers called this vast, domed amphitheatre The Circle. It must sit directly below the Enclave, a great hub for a network of tunnels and passages that stretched for miles and miles. The Cyclops stables were the temporary home of almost a million people. What an age we live in, Dannar thought to herself, and then wondered what they’d find when they left this gloomy realm at long last.

“You’d better win this, Rayke,” she whispered to herself, as Rall finally put her head down and started to snore peacefully after just a few moments.

 

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