848th cycle of God, 26th day of Solasrise
Haroq City, Atreska
Ten Tsardon. Marshal Defender Yuran. Six of his council. Every head turned to him. The Tsardon didn’t recognise him of course. But that was as far as his fortune went. Yuran swore and stood, his chair squealing backwards and rocking, almost falling. It was enough to have the nervous Tsardon do the same. Hands went to sword hilts. One of them said something, a question.
‘I am very disappointed,’ said Jhered. ‘I didn’t ever dream you’d turn traitor.’
Yuran stared at him, the ghost of regret passing across his face. ‘Guards. Take him.’
‘I don’t think so.’ Jhered turned his back on the dining hall and the concerted move in his direction . The guards blocked his passage out. ‘Time to choose.’
A fragment’s hesitation. Jhered smashed his forearm into the head of one. The guard’s skull thudded into the doorframe and he crumpled. The other gasped and fell forwards. Stalos dragged his dagger clear. It was always a mistake to ignore a Gatherer.
‘Run,’ said Jhered.
The two men raced around the curve, steps echoing from the walls. Behind them the shouts were growing. They clattered down the stairs, through the hall and past the stunned gate guards. Jhered came left around the fountain.
‘Levium!’ he roared. ‘We are betrayed. Let’s go.’
One of his people was at the door to the Gatherer station. He turned and bellowed something through the opening. Jhered came to a halt, recognising him.
‘You’re the fastest man we’ve got. Straight to the docks. Don’t look back. I want the flags down, oars ready and the sails up. We’re leaving. Go.’
A bell sounded. It was the rapid ring of an alarm call. From the Marshal’s quarters, soldiers ran into the circular courtyard. There were footsteps behind him too. Levium. Four carrying chests between them.
‘We’re out of time,’ said Jhered. ‘Go. Drop the chests. The treasury will have to do without them. Free your hands to fight.’
He ducked as an arrow glanced off the wall to his right. Levium returned fire. Two men were downed.
‘Good to see you Menas,’ said Jhered.
‘And you, my Lord Exchequer,’ she said, reloading her bow and firing again.
‘And now all I want to see is your back ahead of me,’ he said. ‘To the basilica. We need to get the others.’
About twenty Atreskans were in the courtyard now. Shouts were ringing out from other directions too. The bell was taken up by others out in the main courtyard. The Gatherers ran headlong under the gatehouse. Jhered came last, urging more speed.
The confusion of movement in the main courtyard gave them brief advantage. The alarms were going but no one knew who they were looking for. And the Gatherers were an unlikely target. People stood and watched them go by and they were most of the way across the cluttered space before the order to close the gates was understood.
There was too much unwanted attention now. Jhered glanced behind and saw the pursuit building, people swinging up on to horseback. He lengthened his stride and ran around to the front of the levium. Menas came to his right hand side. In the castle gatehouse, men put their shoulders to wheels and the gates began to swing shut. Counterweights rattled on chains, wood creaked and groaned.
‘Buy me some time,’ said Jhered.
Menas and another of her team stepped aside from the run to shoot. Jhered didn’t pause. Drawing his sword he went hard at the handful of guards at the bottom of the gate.
‘Levium! For Estorea!’
The rest took up his shout. Arrows flicked by his head. One sank deep into the throat of an archer at the gate. Another took a gateman in the back of the neck, sending him tumbling across the wheel. Jhered held his sword in front of his body, only moving it in the last pace before contact. He took it round in an arc down and right, using the pace he generated to continue the swing up and left. The powerful move struck the spear from his target’s grasp. The man had the speed to reach for his sword but not to draw it. Jhered chopped back across his body, his blade biting hard into the guard’s side and sweeping him from his feet.
Levium were left and right of him now, facing four remaining guards. Jhered could hear running footsteps and horses on the gallop. Shouts and screams had filled the air, almost drowning out the alarm bells which tolled as if at great distance. He sensed a shadow above him and stepped back sharply. A body struck the ground before him, an arrow protruding from his eye.
The fall had surprised the Atreskans more and the levium drove forward into the space. Jhered cracked a left hand punch into the side of a guard’s head. He knocked the man down with a sword pommel into his nose. Blood sprayed across his vision. Another body fell across his path, the man gasping his last breath.
‘Clear!’ he shouted and they ran through the gates and out into the city.
On the wide stone parade ground outside the castle, people were standing and staring. Alarm bells were sounding across the city and the unmistakable sounds of a building panic echoed across the clear sky. Twenty or more soldiers were running towards them.
‘Keep it tight,’ shouted Jhered. ‘Attack on my word only.’
He identified the leader of the section.
‘Centurion, trouble in the castle,’ he said as they approached. ‘Tsardon infiltrators.’
‘What?’ The man clearly recognised Jhered but didn’t believe what he’d heard.
‘We’re going to get help from our ship. Yuran is safe for now. Go.’
Jhered glanced back over his shoulder to see him go. The gates had closed behind them and he heard men yelling for them to be reopened. Yelling for people to stop the Gatherers. The centurion came up short and turned. He was thirty yards distant. It would have to be enough.
‘The basilica,’ he said.
He took the levium away at a sprint down the wide empty main street leading back towards the dockside. Menas ran alongside him.
‘They’re through the gates, sir. Riding hard. They’ll catch us easily.’
Jhered nodded. They’d passed two side streets already, both packed with confused, frightened citizens. At the third, he took his levium right. Keeping his sword high above his head he shouted and pushed his way through the crowd which ebbed and flowed in front of him. In the mass of citizens around them, he lost the sounds of pursuit. Horsemen would be seriously hampered through here but would have guessed where they were headed. Foot soldiers would still be after them.
He took the next left turn which sloped down to the back of the oratory. It was lined with businesses, mostly closed and boarded. People were sitting beneath awnings where they could find space. Some had obviously chosen it as their place to exist during the expected siege. Jhered couldn’t spare the time to wonder how most of these people would react when they found out their Marshal Defender had betrayed the Conquord. He felt like giving them the rope to string him up.
A celebratory arch put in place when the Conquord accepted Atreska made the north entrance to the forum. People Jhered knew were depicted on its sculpted faces. People who had given their lives to bring Atreska to the glory of Estorean rule. Beyond it, two flights of stone stairs. He took them three at a time, barging people aside, the last of his patience in tatters.
The basilica ran almost half the length of the eastern side of the forum. Jhered could see it was heaving with refugees seeking respite from the sun which shone down with unremitting goodwill. It was open-sided like its sister structure in Estorr. The levium flew up its steps in a line.
‘Levium!’ roared Jhered. ‘To the Exchequer.’
He saw his people detach themselves from knots of refugees, officials and battle-weary legionaries. The place seemed more hospital than camp at second glance. It would have been a mine of useful information if they’d had time to glean it. He was happy to see Appros Harin among those coming to him. The pursuit was closing in. Soldiers were coming down the stairs and riders were entering the south of the forum.
‘No time to explain. We have to get out now. Get runners to anyone elsewhere in the city. They are not to identify themselves as Gatherers to anyone, it’ll get them killed. If the ships are gone, they all know the pick-up point on the lake. We’ll wait as long as we can.’ His shoulders sagged. ‘Harin, we are in a city of traitors.’
Harin was desperate to ask questions but held himself in check. He turned to the growing number of Gatherers in the basilica and called a few names.
‘The rest of you, here,’ said Jhered. The noise outside the building was growing. People were hurrying from the centre of the forum. He could hear screams and angry shouts. The bells still rang out. Fear mingled with the smell of sweat and disease inside.
‘Assume every Atreskan soldier to be an enemy. There are Tsardon in the city. Stalos, take twenty down to the ships. Set up a perimeter. The rest, let’s give them the way out then defend their backs. Any of you who had the sense to bring your bows, use them on horsemen. We’re attacked north and south.’
He estimated seventy of the Gatherers were with him. He watched pairs of runners heading off in three different directions, all of them diverting enemy attention. Harin took ten out to cover the soldiers approaching through the celebration arch. Jhered took the rest and moved to the edge of the basilica, forming up just inside the first line of columns.
The atmosphere was changing quickly. Citizens were scattering from in front of the riders. There were twelve horsemen at a quick count, leading about twice that number of soldiers towards the basilica.
‘Keep an eye out behind,’ said Jhered not turning from the enemy. ‘How many bows?’
‘Six, my lord,’ said Menas.
‘Excellent. Stay in cover. You’ll have clear sight any time. On my mark. Riders first. At first volley, we will rush. They won’t be expecting this many of us. The twenty, don’t engage, keep running. Any questions? Good. God keep us safe for greater deeds.’
The Atreskans were over-confident, cantering towards them with shields on their backs. Jhered kept a hand raised, waiting. Behind the riders, some of the soldiers carried bows but most had spears in hand. They were castle guard, little more than ceremonial with their brightly polished armour and deep red and green cloaks. He let them get within twenty yards before he dropped his hand.
Arrows whipped away. Jhered ran down the steps, leading thirty levium. Moments later, the arrows hit home taking man and horse alike. One reared, throwing its rider. Others began to pull up, a couple tried to wheel away. Order was lost. When Jhered was five yards from them, more shafts struck. Two further riders were taken from their saddles. Another animal felt the barb deep in a shoulder. The levium engulfed them.
Jhered hacked up two handed, striking the sword arm of his target. The man pitched off the other side of his horse. Jhered didn’t stop. He shouldered his way through panicked horse flesh. A blade swept at him. He blocked it easily, turning it aside and thumping a riposte into plate chest armour. The Atreskan grunted and gasped as the metal compressed into his ribs. The flat of Jhered’s blade slapped the rump of his horse and it sprang away.
Two paces later and he was through the flimsy cavalry line. He glanced left and right. The levium were with him.
‘For the Conquord!’
His cry was taken up in all their throats. He ran at the foot soldiers. He saw spears levelled, bows turn and swords drawn. Arrows showered down on the enemy. Two of the bowmen died. The spearmen tried to bunch close. It was a woeful effort at a phalanx style defence. He ducked under the single rank of spears, his blade sweeping above his head. He rose, chopped down on a wooden shaft, spun on his heel and carved his blade into the neck of a terrified guard. The man screamed and fell sideways, tripping up the guard next to him. Jhered vaulted them both.
The next man to face him had gladius and oval shield. Jhered opened his stance and beckoned the man on.
‘Teach you how to fight levium, did they boy?’
The legionary was well trained but unused to fighting outside of a solid line. He kept his body tucked behind his shield and his gladius tight to his right. He half-crouched and moved in. Jhered was waiting. The soldier punched out with his shield but Jhered wasn’t there. He’d stepped left already, bringing his blade across his body and chopping back out and up to the right. The blow was blocked but the legionary was off-balance.
‘Not good enough,’ said Jhered, stabbing him under his arm and into his lung.
The levium were rampant. They tore through the Atreskans. The last of them turned and ran back towards the castle. Jhered ignored them. Looking back he saw Harin engaged with the soldiers he’d duped outside the castle gates. Menas had turned her bows on them now and they were being worn down. The forum itself was clear of citizens. They stood in a packed ring at its borders, staring mute at what they witnessed. The why would be known to them soon enough; and the Conquord would show them no mercy.
Jhered led his levium out of the forum and back towards the docks at a run. He could see the twenty ahead of them, forcing a path through streets onto which the forum population had been forced. There were bodies lying in the street too. Soldiers and citizens who had made the mistake of getting in their way. Jhered had no sympathy. Atreska had turned.
In the wake of the twenty, Jhered’s passage was easier. He crested a rise in the road and saw the docks laid out before him. The panic hadn’t reached there yet but it was just a matter of time. At their berths, the ships sat calm, flags still fluttering serenely from masts.
‘Eyes left and right,’ said Jhered. ‘Tell me what you see.’
‘West along the docks,’ said one of the levium immediately.
Jhered looked and cursed. Riders and plenty of them. Worse, they were unquestionably Tsardon steppe cavalry. The twenty were going to be caught by them before they reached the ships. A quick glance over his shoulder told him that Menas and Harin were still engaged in the forum. He ran harder, taking his thirty with him.
The bells had stilled and the city was alive with a frightened confusion. No one was getting in their way but the eye of every citizen was on them. They’d seen Gatherers cutting down Atreskans and they had no idea why. The hatred and aggression directed at them was growing. Jhered would have shaken each one by the shoulders and told them what their Marshal had done but he had more pressing matters. His sense of injustice burned in him. The City was against them because most of them didn’t know the enemy was being given free rein to ride their streets. By the time they knew the truth it would be too late. He feared for this beautiful country and its peaceful majority.
At the entrance to the deep water berths, the twenty had seen their pursuers and had stopped to form a defensive line. Simultaneously, the flags began to move down the masts. And just before he lost sight of them behind the buildings ahead, Jhered saw his crews running down the gang planks.
Curiosity overcame fear and people were crowding down to the docks ahead of them, drawn by the atmosphere of imminent conflict and violence. Jhered found himself jostled as he tried to force his way through the deepening crowd. He was only forty yards from Stalos and the twenty but the steppe were going to reach them first. He could hear the rattle of hooves on the stone of the dockside but he couldn’t see them clearly.
‘Out of the way,’ he shouted, keeping his sword high above his head.
The levium shouldered through the crowd which had turned like the tide and was beginning to bunch back towards them, thickening like a city fog at dawn. Jhered felt his frustration growing. He rattled his sword pommel against the head of a man ahead of him who had turned to shout for help.
‘I’m right behind you,’ said Jhered. ‘You want help, get out of my way.’
‘The Tsardon,’ he shouted into Jhered’s face. ‘The Tsardon.’
‘I know,’ grated Jhered and shoved him roughly aside.
The fact of the levium behind them and the Tsardon in front of them flickered through the press of people in the street. Unbelievably, more were running in behind them and the confusion of movement caused falls and panic. The levium tried to keep their blades away from the people but it was becoming increasingly difficult to move with any concerted direction when they did so.
And then, above the shouts and the clamour, Jhered heard the unmistakable sound of swords clashing. All he could do was turn his left shoulder to the crowd as it packed and ran about him, screaming as it tried to distance itself from what it had come to see.
‘Hold levium,’ he called into the tumult.
He gritted his teeth and took blow after blow to his body from jostling elbows, feet and knees. He was forced back pace by pace but still held his sword away from them, knowing that to let it fall would be to hurt an innocent.
The crowd dispersed and Jhered had sight of the twenty once again. He began to move forwards, calling the levium on and pushing himself through the few hardier souls that hadn’t fled at the first sight of metal and blood. The steppe cavalry, and there had to be thirty of them at least, had driven into his people and were turning to ride out and regroup. At least five were down but behind them, the crews were lining up with bows strung and ready.
‘Get the injured away; let’s reform that line.’
He ran onto the dockside. The steppe were wheeling their mounts. They paused, assessing the renewed force against them. Jhered knew what they would do.
‘Archers! Keep them back. Let’s make them pay for every shaft they fire.’
Bows were dragged from backs, arrows nocked and the steppe began to gallop across them at no more then twenty yards separation. A volley of arrows came from the crew, ripping into the Tsardon. Two were turned, one was struck from his horse but the others did not pause. With legs controlling their horses, the cavalry tore past, turned in their saddles and fired. Jhered felt shafts whistle past him and heard the cries of the wounded behind him.
Already, the steppe were slowing to turn again. Another volley came from the crew but they were not as accomplished as their enemy. Not enough arrows fell in the target area to even give them pause for thought. This was not a skirmish the Conquord would win. Jhered turned.
‘Run for the ships. Do it now. Crew fall back. One more volley.’
Levium helped their wounded up and began to hurry them towards the triremes still sixty yards distant along the docks from which every seaman was scattering. Jhered grabbed a shield from an Atreskan legionary standing with his mouth open.
‘Fight!’ he yelled into his face. ‘You’ve got a bow, idiot. Use it.’
He swung back to the Tsardon, ramming his arm through the shield’s loops. They were riding in hard, heading directly down the dockside five abreast. Behind them and rushing down the hill were Menas, Harin and their levium. Arrows ripped into the back of the Tsardon charge, deflecting a little of its intensity. But those at its head came on oblivious to the new trouble. Bows were bent and arrows flew. The levium had not been prepared for this. How could they be?
Jhered ducked behind his shield and stepped smartly to the edge of the dock, scant inches from a tumble into the water. An arrow thudded into the shield. He heard hoofs close to him and lashed out with his blade, feeling it bite into flesh. A horse screamed and a rider was catapulted from his saddle. He let the weapon go lest he be dragged off his feet with it. The horse plunged right off the dockside and into the sea. He crouched low, his shield above his head. Horses thudded past him and he felt the swipe of a blade nick into the shield. Beside him, the legionary was less fortunate. He’d stretched his bow and taken a sword in the neck for his efforts. He sprawled on the stone, blood flushing from his body.
Jhered peered right. Levium ahead of the charge were fighting amongst the steppe. Left, Harin and Menas had reached the dockside and came on at a charge. And behind them, more riders, more soldiers. Tsardon and Atreskan. They were running out of time.
Jhered drove to his feet in the shadow of a trailing steppe horse slowed by the weight of comrades ahead. He reached up and dragged the rider from his saddle. The man struck the ground on his back and the last he saw was Jhered’s shield crushing down on his face.
The remainder of the steppe were disengaging. He heard foreign shouted orders and saw the concerted wheel away. Heels dug into flanks. The riders surged back along the dockside. Menas and her team fired into their midst, dropping another three, before dodging left and right. He saw Harin duck a flashing blade and leap onto the deck of a merchant vessel. He rolled once and regained his feet. Jhered beckoned them on.
‘Let’s get aboard. They’re regrouping.’
It was a blind run now. The crew had fallen back to the gangplanks and had bows trained over their heads. Thirty yards to run. Jhered dropped his shield and stooped to drag a wounded woman to her feet. She’d taken an arrow through her shoulder and had a deep cut in her side.
‘Come on, up and run,’ he said.
She gasped in pain. Another levium came to her other side and the three of them half-ran along the dockside. They skirted the bodies of their people on the way, each one registering in Jhered’s mind for the revenge he would extract from Yuran and the Tsardon. His mind was blank with fury and he glared at the Atreskan soldiers stationed on the docks. None had moved to their aid bar one and now they could see their own men riding with the Tsardon. He had no words for their cowardice and indecision.
Through the stone, he felt the rumble of hoofs. Arrows flew over his head from his crew.
‘Get on board!’ he yelled. ‘Get that damn sail deployed.’
It was already happening. The skippers of both vessels were as ready as they could be. Jhered could see oars positioned ready to push off the quay and men stood ready at the fore and aft ropes. Archers stood on the deck, shield men in front of them. Arrows fell. One ripped through the flesh of Jhered’s left arm where it supported the wounded woman. The pain was extraordinary. His grip threatened to loosen but he forced himself to clutch harder.
He dared a glance behind. The Tsardon had pulled up still in arrow range. Atreskan swordsmen were running past them. He upped his pace a little more, dragging the woman with him, realising that the arrow had punctured her back, pinning them together.
He ran through the thin line of his own archers and thumped onto the gangplank. Crew tried to take the woman from him.
‘No, no. Leave her.’
He moved to the stern and knelt down below the gunwale. Levium were racing up both gangplanks. Most were on board now. He saw Menas fire one last arrow before shouting for the lines to be loosed. Oars pushed at the dock wall. The Hark’s Arrow moved away. The sail was deployed, wind taking it immediately and beginning to move the vessel towards the centre of the lake. Menas dropped her bow and leapt for the side as the gang plank fell into the water. Harin was there, gripping her hands where they clung to the rail. Others grabbed her back, pulling her into the ship. Arrows whipped across the deck, thudded into plank and mast. Harin was thrown back, a shaft embedded in the top of his shoulder.
Jhered waited until the Appros moved again before he ducked his head down and looked at the woman in his arms. She too was still alive but her breathing was ragged and her face sweating and pale.
‘Hold on,’ he said. ‘Help is coming.’
He turned them both and sat with his back to the gunwale. He breathed in the sea air and looked back along the ship. Atreskan and Tsardon arrows still flew and he gestured for the levium to keep down until they were out of range.
‘Keep to the centre of the channel,’ he ordered the steersman who crouched over the tiller. ‘We don’t want to face their artillery as well.’
‘Yes, my Lord Exchequer.’
‘Get us home,’ he said. ‘We have a Conquord to save.’
But it wasn’t just Estorea that he had to contact. What he’d seen was a disaster that could sweep the Conquord aside. They needed a weapon the enemy did not know existed and could never possess. And he knew where to get it.
He stroked the woman’s head and prayed Harkov had reached Westfallen in time.