Amara felt a slow, quiet tension enter her shoulders. “How many?”
Bernard shrugged into the mail tunic and buckled and belted it into place. “Two hundred, maybe more,” he answered.
“But isn’t that far too small to be a hostile force?” she asked.
She frowned. “Surely you don’t think Doroga would attack us at all, much less with so few.”
Bernard shrugged, swung a heavy war-axe from the cabinet, and slung its strap over his shoulder. “It might not be Doroga. If someone else has supplanted him the way he did Atsurak, an attack is a possibility, and I’m not taking any chances with the lives of my men and holders. We prepare for the worst. Pass me my bow.”
Amara turned the fireplace and took down a bow from its rack above it, a carved half-moon of dark wood as thick as her ankles. She passed it to him, and the big man drew a wide-mouthed war quiver packed with arrows from the armoire. Then he used one leg to brace the bow, and without any obvious effort he bent recurved staves that would have required two men with tools to handle safely, and strung the weapon with a heavy cord.
She lifted her eyebrows at the bent bow. “Do you think that is necessary?”
“No. But if something bad happens, I want you to get word to Riva immediately.”
She frowned. She would hate to leave Bernard’s side in the face of danger, but her duty as a messenger of the First Lord was clear. “Of course.”
“Shall I find you some mail?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I’m already tired from the trip in. If I need to fly, I don’t want to carry any more weight than I must.”
He nodded and stalked out of the office, and she kept pace with him. Together they headed through the eastern courtyard, to the looming, enormous expanse of the wall facing the spreading plains of the lands of the Marat. The wall was better than thirty feet high and thick, all black basalt that seemed to have been formed of a single, titanic block of stone. Crenelation spread seamlessly along the battlements. A gate high and wide enough to admit the largest gargants was formed of a single sheet of some dark steel she had never seen before, called from the depths of the earth by the First Lord himself, after the battle two years ago.
They mounted the steps up to the battlements, where Giraldi’s eighty grizzled veterans, the men who had survived the Second Battle of Calderon, were assembling in good order. The blood-red stripe of the Order of the Lion was conspicuous on the piping of their trousers, and though they were dressed in their formal finery, each of the men wore his working weapons and armor of simple, battle-tested steel.
Far out on the plain, moving shapes approached the fortress, little more than dark, indistinct blotches.
Amara leaned into the space between two of the stone merlons and lifted her hands. She called to Cirrus, and the fury whirled between her hands, forming the air into a sheet of bent light that enlarged the image of the distant travelers.
“It’s Doroga,” she reported to Bernard. “If I’m not mistaken, that’s Hashat with him.”
“Hashat?” Bernard asked, frowning. “He needs her to patrol their eastern marshes and keep Wolf in line. It’s dangerous for them to travel together in such a small company.”
Amara frowned, studying them. “Bernard, Hashat is walking. Her horse is limping. There are more Horse on foot. They’ve got stretchers, too. Riderless horses and gargants. Wounded animals.”
Bernard frowned and then nodded sharply. “You were right, Centurion,” he said. “It’s a war party.”
Giraldi nodded. “Just not here to fight us. Could be that they’ve got someone chasing them.”
“No. Their pace is too slow,” Bernard said. “If someone was after them, they’d have caught them by now. Stand down and get the healers into position.”
“Yes, sir.” The centurion signaled his men to sheathe their weapons, then started bawling out orders, sending men to fetch out bathing tubs to be filled with water, and summoning Garrison’s watercrafters in order to care for the wounded.
It took more than an hour for Doroga’s wounded band to reach the fortress, and by that time the cooks had the air filled with the smell of roasting meat and fresh bread, setting up trestles laden with food, stacking a small mountain of hay for the gargants, and filling the food and water troughs near the stables. Giraldi’s legionares cleared out a wide area in one of the warehouses, laying out rows of sleeping pads with blankets for the wounded.
Bernard opened the gates and went out to meet the Marat party. Amara stayed at his side. They walked up to within twenty feet or so of the vast, battle-scarred black gargant Doroga rode, and the pungent, earthy smell of the beast was thick in her nose.
The Marat himself was an enormous man, tall and heavily built even for one of his race, slabs of thick muscle sliding under his skin. His coarse, white hair was worn back in a fighting braid, and there was a cut on his chest that had closed itself with thick clots of blood. His features were brutish, but dark eyes glittering with intelligence watched Bernard from beneath his heavy brows. He wore the tunic the holders of Calderon had given him after the battle, though he’d torn it open down the front and removed the sleeves to make room for his arms. The cool wind did not seem to make him uncomfortable.
“Doroga,” Bernard called.
Doroga nodded back. “Bernard.” He hooked a thumb over his back. “Wounded.”
“We’re ready to help. Bring them in.”
Doroga’s wide mouth turned up into a smile that showed heavy, blocky teeth. He nodded his head at Bernard in thanks then untied a large pouch with a cross-shoulder sling on it from a strap on the gargant’s riding-mat. Then he took hold of a braided leather rope, and swung down from the beasts’ back. He closed on Bernard and traded grips with him, Marat-fashion, hands clasping one another’s forearms. “I’m obliged. Some of the wounds are beyond our skill. Thought maybe your people would be willing to help.”
“And honored.” Bernard signaled Giraldi to take over seeing to the injured among the Marat, while grooms came forth to examine wounded horses and gargants, as well as a pair of bloodied wolves. “You’re looking well.” Bernard said.
“How is your nephew?” Doroga rumbled.
“Off learning,” Bernard said. “Kitai?”
“Off learning,” said Doroga, eyeing Amara. “Ah, the girl who flies. You need to eat more, girl.”
Amara laughed. “I try, but the First Lord keeps me busy running messages.”
“Too much running does that,” Doroga agreed. “Get a man. Have some babies. That always works.”
A sickly little fluttering stab of pain went through Amara’s belly, but she did her best to keep a smile on her face. “I’ll think about it.”
“Huh,” Doroga snorted. “Bernard, maybe you got something broken in your pants?”
Bernard’s face flushed scarlet. “Uh. No.”
Doroga saw the Count’s embarrassment and burst out into grunting, guffawing laughter. “You Alerans. Everything mates,” Doroga said. “Everything likes to. But only your people try to pretend they do neither.”
Amara enjoyed Bernard’s blush, though the pain Doroga’s words had elicited prevented her from blushing herself. Bernard would probably think she was just more worldly than to be so easily embarrassed. “Doroga,” she said, to rescue him from the subject. “How did you get that wound? What happened to your people?”
The Marat headman’s smile faded, and he looked back out at the plains, his countenance grim. “I got it being foolish,” he said. “The rest should first be for your ears only. We should go inside.”
Bernard frowned and nodded at Doroga, then beckoned him. They walked together into Garrison and back to Bernard’s office.
“Would you like some food?” Bernard asked.
“After my people have eaten,” Doroga said. “Their chala too. Their beasts.”
“I understand. Sit, if you like.”
Doroga shook his head and paced quietly around the office, opening the armoire, peering at the bricks of the fireplace, and picking up several books off of the modest-sized shelf to peer at their pages.
“Your people,” he said. “So different than ours.”
“In some ways,” Bernard agreed. “Similar in many others.”
“Yes.” Doroga flipped through the pages of The Chronicles of Gaius, pausing to examine a woodcut illustration on one of them. “My people do not know much of what yours know, Bernard. We do not have these . . . what is the word?”
“Books,” Doroga said. “Or the drawing-speech your people use in them. But we are an old people, and not without our own knowledge.” He gestured at his wound. “The ground powder of shadowwort and sandgrass took the pain, clotted the blood and closed this wound. You would have needed stitches or your sorcery.”
“I do not question your people’s experience or knowledge, Doroga,” Bernard said. “You are different. That does not make you less.”
Doroga smiled. “Not all Alerans think as you.”
“We have our wisdom,” he said. “Passed on from one to another since the first dawn. We sing to our children, and they to theirs, and so we remember what has been.” He went to the fireplace and stirred the embers with a poker. Orange light played lurid shadows over the shape of his muscles and made his expression feral. “I have been a great fool. Our wisdom warned me, but I was too foolish to see the danger for what it was.”
“What do you mean?” asked Amara.
He drew a deep breath. “The Wax Forest. You have heard of it, Bernard?”
“Yes,” he said. “I went there a time or two. Never down into it.”
“Wise,” Doroga said. “It was a deadly place.”
The Marat nodded. “No longer. The creatures who lived there have departed it.”
Bernard blinked. “Departed. To where?”
Doroga shook his head. “I am not certain. Yet. But our wisdom tells us of them, and warns of what they will do.”
“You mean your people have seen such things before?”
Doroga nodded. “Far in the past, our people did not live where we live today. That we came here from another place.”
“Across the sea?” Amara asked.
Doroga shrugged. “Across the sea. Across the sky. We were elsewhere, and then we were here. Our people have lived in many lands. We go to a new place. We bond with what lives there. We learn. We grow. We sing the songs of wisdom to our children.”
Amara frowned. “You mean . . . is that why there are different tribes among your people?”
He blinked at her as her Academy teachers might have done at slow-witted students, and nodded. “By chala. By totem. Our wisdom tells us that long ago, in another place, we met a creature. That this creature stole the hearts and minds of our people. That it and its brood grew from dozens to millions. It overwhelmed us. Destroyed our lands and homes. It stole our children, and our females gave birth to its spawn.”
Bernard sat down in a chair by the fire, frowning.
“It is a demon that can take many forms,” the Marat continued. “It tastes of blood and may take the shape of creature it tasted. It gives birth to its own brood of creatures. It transforms its enemies into . . . things. Things of its own creation, that fight for the creature. It keeps taking. Killing. Spawning. Until nothing is left to fight it.”
Bernard narrowed his eyes, intent on Doroga. Amara took a few steps to stand behind his chair, her hand on his shoulder.
“This is not a campfire tale, Aleran,” Doroga said quietly. “It is not a mistake. This creature is real.” The big Marat swallowed, his expression ashen. “It can take many shapes and forms, and our wisdom warns us not to rely solely upon its appearance to warn us of its presence. That was my mistake. I did not see the creature for what it was until it was too late.”
“The Wax Forest,” Bernard said.
Doroga nodded. “When your nephew and Kitai returned from the Trial, something followed them.”
“You mean wax spiders?” Bernard asked.
Doroga shook his head. “Something larger. Something more.”
“Wait,” Amara said. “Are you talking about many creatures or one creature?”
“Yes,” Doroga said. “That is what makes it an Abomination before the One.”
Amara almost scowled in frustration. The Marat simply did not use language the same way as Alerans did, even when speaking Aleran. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anything like that here, Doroga.”
Doroga shrugged. “No. That is why I have come. To warn you.” He took a step closer to them, crouching down, and whispered, “The Abomination is here. The wisdom tells us the name of its minions. The vordu-ha.” He shuddered, as if saying the words sickened him. “And it tells us the name of the creature itself. It is the vord.”
There was heavy silence for a moment. Then Bernard asked, “How do you know?”
Doroga nodded toward the courtyard. “I gave battle to a vord nest yesterday at dawn with two thousand warriors.”
“Where are they now?” Amara asked.
The Marat’s expression stayed steady and on the fire. “Here.”
Amara felt her mouth open in shock. “But you only had two hundred with . . .”
Doroga’s features remained feral, stony, as her words trailed off into silence. “We paid in blood to destroy the vord in that nest. But the wisdom tells us that when the vord abandon a nest, they divide into three groups to build new nests. To spread their kind. We tracked and destroyed one such group. But there are two more. I believe one of them is here, in your valley, hiding on the slopes of the mountain called Garados.”
Bernard frowned. “And where is the other?”
In answer, Doroga reached into his sling pouch and drew out a battered old leather backpack. He tossed it into Bernard’s lap.
Amara felt Bernard’s entire body go rigidly tense as he stared down at the pack.
“Great furies,” Bernard whispered. “Tavi.”