“How long has she been down?” rumbled a deep, male voice. Her brother, Isana thought. Bernard.
The next voice was old and quavered slightly. Isana recognized old belldame Bitte’s quiet confidence. “Since just before midday.”
“She looks pale,” said another male voice, this one higher, less resonant. “Are you sure she’s all right?”
Bernard answered, “As sure as I can be, Aric. There are no wounds on her.” He let out a slow breath. “It looks like she might have collapsed, pushing her crafting too hard. I’ve seen her work herself into the ground before.”
“It might also be a reaction to the struggle,” Amara said. “Shock.”
Bernard grunted agreement. “Green legionares do that after their first battle, sometimes. Great furies know it’s a terrible thing to kill a man.” Isana felt her brother’s broad, warm hand on her hair. He smelled like sweating horses, leather, and road dust, and his voice was quietly anguished. “Poor ‘Sana. Is there anything more we can do for her?”
Isana took a deep breath and made an effort to speak, though it came out at hardly more than a whisper. “Begin with washing your hands, little brother. They smell.”
Bernard let out a glad cry, and she was immediately half-crushed in one of his bear hugs.
“I may need my spine unbroken, Bernard,” she rasped, but she felt herself smiling as she did.
He laid her back down on the bed immediately, carefully restraining his strength. “Sorry, Isana.”
She laid her hand on his arm and smiled up at him. “Honestly. It’s all right.”
“Well,” said Bitte, her tone crisp. She was a tiny old woman, white haired and hunched but with more wits than most, and she had been an institution in the valley for years before the First Battle of Calderon had ever taken place, much less the more recent events. She stood up and made shooing motions. “Out, everyone, out. You all need to eat, and I daresay Isana could use a few moments of privacy.”
Isana smiled gratefully at Bitte, then told Bernard, “I’ll come down in a few moments.”
“Are you sure you should-” he began.
She lifted a hand, and said, more steadily, “I’ll be fine. I’m starving.”
“All right,” Bernard relented, and retreated before Bitte like an indulgent bull from a herding dog. “But let’s eat in the study,” he said. “We have some things to discuss.”
Isana frowned. “Of course, then. I’ll be right there.”
They left, and Isana took a few moments to pull her thoughts together while she freshened up. Her stomach twisted in revulsion as she saw the blood on her skirts and tunic, and she got out of the clothes as quickly as she possibly could, throwing them into the room’s fire. It was wasteful, but she knew she couldn’t have put them on again. Not after seeing the darkness close in on the young man’s eyes.
She tore her thoughts away from that moment, and stripped her underclothing off as well, changing into clean garments. She took her long, dark hair down from its braid, idly noting still more strands of grey. There was a small dressing mirror upon a chest of drawers, and she regarded herself in it thoughtfully as she brushed out her hair. More grey, but to look at her one would not know her age, of course. She was slim (far too much so, by fashionable standards), and her features were still those of a girl only a bit more than twenty years of age-less than half of the years she had actually lived. If she lived to be Bitte’s age, she might look as old as a woman in her mid thirties, but for the grey hairs which she refused to dye into darkness. Perhaps that was because that between her too-thin body, and the apparent youth gifted to watercrafters, the grey hairs were the only things that marked her as a woman rather than a girl. They were a dubious badge of honor for what she had suffered and lost in her years, but they were all she had.
She left her hair down, rather than braiding it again, and frowned at herself in the mirror. Taking dinner in the study instead of the hall? It must mean that Bernard-or more likely Amara-was concerned about what might be overheard. Which meant that she had come with some kind of word from the Crown.
Isana’s stomach twisted again, this time in anxiety. The killer in the barn had arrived with quite improbable timing. What were the odds that such a thing would happen only hours before the Crown’s messenger arrived in the Valley? It seemed that the two could hardly be unrelated.
Which begged the question-who had sent the killer after her? The enemies of the crown?
Or Gaius himself.
The thought was not as ridiculous as others might think, given what she knew. Isana had met Gaius and felt his presence. She knew that he was a man of steel and stone, with the will to rule, to deceive and, when necessary, to kill to protect his position and his people. He would not hesitate to order her slain should she become a threat to him. And for all that he knew, she might be one.
She shivered, and pushed her worries down, forcing herself to wrap her fears with thoughts of confidence and strength. She’d been keeping secrets for twenty years, and she knew how to play the game as well as any in the realm. As much as she liked Amara, and as much as she liked seeing that she made Isana’s brother happy, Amara was a Cursor and loyal to the crown.
She could not be trusted.
The stone halls of the Steadholt would be cold as the evening blanketed the valley, so she drew a heavy shawl of dark red about her shoulders to add to the deep blue dress, donned her slippers, and moved quietly through the hallways to Bernardholt-no, to Isanaholt’s study. To her study.
The room was not a large one, and this deep in the stone walls of the steadholt there were no windows. Two tables filled up most of the space, and a slate-board and shelves filled the walls. In the winter, when there was more time than could be filled with work, the children of the Steadholt learned their basic arithmetic, studied records of furycrafting for guidance in the use of their own furies, and learned to do at least a little reading. Now, Bernard, Amara, and Aric, the Valley’s youngest Steadholder, occupied one table, which was laid out with the evening meal.
Isana slipped in quietly and shut the door behind her. “Good evening. I’m sorry I wasn’t on hand to greet you properly, your Excellencies, Steadholder.”
“Nonsense,” Aric said, rising and smiling at her. “Good evening, Isana.”
Bernard rose as well, and they waited for Isana to sit down before they did themselves.
They ate in quiet conversation for a while, chatting about little of consequence, until the meal was finished. “You’ve hardly spoken at all, Aric,” Isana said, as they pushed plates aside and sat sipping at cups of hot tea. “How did you and yours weather the winter?”
Aric frowned. “I’m afraid that’s why I’m here. I . . .” He flushed a little. “Well. To be honest, I’m having a problem and I wanted to consult with you before I bothered Count Bernard with it.”
Bernard frowned. “For fury’s sake, Aric. I’m still the same man I was two years ago, title or no. You shouldn’t worry about bothering me when it’s hold business.”
“No sir,” Aric said. “I won’t, your Excellency, sir.”
The young man promptly turned to Isana and said, “There have been some problems, and I’m concerned that I may need the Count’s help.”
Amara covered her mouth with her hand until she could camouflage the smile behind a cup as she drank. Bernard settled back with a tolerant smile, but Isana felt something else from him-a sudden stab of anxiety.
Aric poured a bit more wine into his cup and settled back from the table. He was a spare man, all arms and legs, and still too young to have the heavier, more muscular build of maturity. For all of that, he was considered to be uncommonly intelligent, and in the past two years had worked hard enough on the two Steadholts under his authority to entirely separate himself from what was now generally considered to be an unfortunate blood relation with his late father, Kord.
“Something’s been hunting on the eastern steadholt,” he said in a serious tone. “We were missing nearly a third of the cattle we had to turn out to wild forage over the winter, and we assumed that they’d been taken by thanadents or even a herdbane. But we’ve lost two more cows from our enclosed pastures since we’ve brought them in.”
Isana frowned. “You mean they’ve been killed?”
“I mean they’ve been lost,” Aric said. “At night, they were in the pasture. In the morning they weren’t. No tracks. No blood. No corpses. Just gone.”
Isana felt her eyebrows lift. “That’s . . . odd. Cattle thieves?”
“I thought so,” Aric said. “I took two of my woodcrafters and we went into the hills to track down whoever it was. We searched for their camp, and we found it.” Aric took a large swallow of wine. “It looked like there might have been as many as twenty men there, but they were gone. The fires were out, but there was a spit of burnt meat sitting over one of them. There were clothes, weapons, bedrolls and tools laying out as if they’d all gotten up and walked away without taking anything with them.”
Bernard’s frown deepened, and Aric turned earnestly to face him.
“It was . . . wrong, sir. It was frightening. I don’t know how else to describe it to you, but it made the hair on our necks stand up. And dark was coming on, so I took my men and headed back for the Steadholt as quickly as we could.” His face grew a little more pale. “One of them, Grimard-you remember him, sir, the man with the scar over his nose?”
“Yes. Attican legionare, I think, retired out here with his cousin. I saw him cut down a pair of Wolf warriors at Second Garrison.”
“That’s him,” Aric said. “He didn’t make it back to the steadholt.”
“Why?” Isana asked. “What happened?”
Aric shook his head. “We were strung out in a line, with me in the middle. He wasn’t five yards away. One minute he was there, but when I turned around to look a moment later, he was gone. Just . . . gone, sir. No sound. No tracks. No sign of him.” Aric looked down. “I got scared, and I ran. I shouldn’t have done that.”
“Crows, boy,” Bernard said, still frowning. “Of course you should have done that. That would have scared the hairs right off my head.”
Aric looked up at him and then down again, shame still on his features. “I don’t know what to tell Grimard’s wife. We’re hoping he’s still alive, sir, but . . . ” Aric shook his head. “But I don’t think he is. We aren’t dealing with bandits, or Marat. I don’t have a reason why. It’s just . . . ”
“Instinct,” Bernard rumbled. “Never discount it, lad. When did this happen?”
“Last night. I’ve ordered the children kept in the steadholt walls, and that no one should leave in groups of less than four. I left first thing morning to speak with Isana.”
Bernard exhaled slowly, and glanced at Amara. The Cursor nodded, stood up, and went to the door. Isana heard her whisper something while she touched the wood of the door, and her ears pained her briefly, then popped.
“We should be able to speak freely now,” Amara said.
“Speak freely about what?” Aric asked.
“About something I learned from Doroga this morning,” Bernard said. “He says that there is some manner of creature he called a vord. That it was dwelling in the Wax Forest, and that something happened that caused it to leave its home.” Isana frowned, listening as Bernard told the rest of what Doroga had confided to him regarding the creature.
“I don’t know, sir,” Aric said, his voice dubious. “I’ve never heard of anything like this. A blood-drinking shapeshifter? We would have heard of such a thing, wouldn’t we?”
“According to Doroga, by the time you hear about it, it might already be too late,” Bernard said. “If he’s correct about the location of the nest on Garados, it could explain the losses at your steadholt, Aric.”
“Are you sure he isn’t telling you stories?” Aric asked.
“I saw our healers patch up better than two hundred Marat and at least as many of their beasts, Aric. That wasn’t done as a practical joke. If Doroga says he lost nearly two thousand warriors, I believe him.” He went on to relay the rest of what Doroga had told him.
Isana folded her arms and shivered. “What about the third nest?”
Bernard and Amara traded another one of those looks, and she hardly needed any of her furycrafting gifts to know that her brother lied when he said, “Doroga has trackers on its trail. As soon as we find it, we’ll hit it. But I want to focus on the nest we know about first.”
“Two thousand men,” Aric muttered. “What will you do to assault this nest? There aren’t that many in the whole valley, Bernard.”
“The Marat didn’t have any Knights with them. We do. I think we should be able to at least contain these vord until reinforcements can arrive from Riva.”
“If help arrives from Riva,” Isana said.
Bernard looked at her sharply. “What do you mean?”
“You saw how Aric reacted when you told him your source of information, and he’s actually met Doroga. Don’t let it shock you if High Lord Riva discounts a barbarian’s word altogether.”
Amara chewed on her lip, eyes narrowed. “She could be right. Riva hates the Marat for a variety of reasons.”
“But Alerans are dying, Amara,” Bernard said.
“Your argument is reasonable,” Amara said. “Riva might not be. He’s already strapped for funds after rebuilding Garrison and assisting with repairs in the steadholts. He’s going to find himself with empty pockets if he is forced to mobilize his legions. He’ll want to avoid that unless it’s absolutely necessary, and he’ll almost certainly drag his feet rather than waste money on the ghost stories of some furyless barbarian. It’s even possible that he has already left to attend Wintersend ceremonies in the capital.”
“It’s also possible he hasn’t.”
Amara held up her hand in a pacifying gesture. “I’m only saying that it’s going to be difficult to secure assistance based on the observations of a Marat hordemaster. Riva holds Doroga in contempt.”
“I’d rather do something than nothing. And in any case, I’ve already sent the messenger. It’s done. There isn’t any time to waste.”
“Why not?” Aric asked.
“According to Doroga, this nest will reproduce and divide into three more within a week’s time. If we don’t catch this one now, the vord may be able to spread more rapidly than we can find and destroy them. That being the case, if Riva doesn’t respond at once, we may have to fend for ourselves.”
Aric nodded, though he didn’t look happy. “What can I do to help?”
“Return to your steadholt,” Amara said. “Start filling containers with drinking water, preparing tubs for the healers, bandages, the like. We’ll use Aricholt as our base of operations while we locate the nest.”
“Very well,” Aric said, rising from the table. “In that case, I wish to return immediately.”
“It could be dangerous for you, after dark,” Amara warned.
“I’ll swing wide around the mountain,” Aric said. “My place is with my holders.”
Bernard stared at him for a moment and then nodded. “Be careful, Steadholder.”
They murmured their goodbyes, and Aric left the study.
After the door had shut, Amara turned to Isana and offered her an envelope.
“What’s this?” Isana asked.
“An invitation to Wintersend, from the crown.”
Isana lifted her eyebrows. “But that’s in a few days.”
“I am given to understand that his Majesty has already set several Knights Aeris aside to fly you in.”
Isana shook her head. “I’m afraid that isn’t possible,” she said. “Especially not before this vord situation is settled. Healers will be needed.”
Amara frowned at her. “This isn’t precisely a request, Steadholder Isana. You are needed in the capital. You’ve become quite the bone of contention.”
Isana blinked. “I have?”
“Indeed. By elevating you to a position of equality with the male members of the gentry, Gaius has tacitly declared a sort of equality of status between men and women. As a result, many folk have taken it as permission to establish a number of equities formerly denied women. And others have taken shameless advantage of the opportunity. Various cities have begun to tax the sale of female slaves as heavily as males. The Slaver’s Consortium is furious and demands legislation to re-establish the previous status quo, and the Dianic League has rallied against them.”
“I don’t see what that has to do with me attending Festival in the capital.”
“The balance of power has begun to shift in the Senate. Gaius needs the support of the Women’s Society if he is to prevent it from flying out of control. So he needs you there, at Festival, highly visible to everyone in the realm, to show how strongly you support him.”
“No,” Isana said flatly. “I have more vital duties here.”
“More vital than protecting the stability of the realm?” Amara asked in a mild tone. “My. You must be very busy.”
Isana rose sharply to her feet, her eyes narrowed, and snarled, “I don’t need a child like you to tell me my duty.”
Bernard rose, staring at Isana in shock. “Sana, please.”
“No, Bernard,” Isana said. “I am not Gaius’ pet dog to sit up and hop through hoops when he snaps his fingers.”
“Of course not,” Amara said. “But you are the only person who might give him the advantage he needs to prevent the realm from falling into a civil war. Which is why someone ordered you killed in the first place-or hadn’t that occurred to you?”
Bernard put a warm hand on Isana’s shoulder to steady her, but Amara’s words struck her like a cup of icy cold water. “Civil war? Has it come to that?”
Amara pushed her hair back tiredly. “It grows more likely each day. The Slaver’s Consortium is supported by several of the southern cities, and the northern and shield-wall cities favor the Dianic League. It is imperative that Gaius maintains control over the Senate’s majority, and the Dianic League is the lever he needs. My orders were to give you this information, then accompany you and your brother to the capital.”
Isana sat down again slowly. “But that has now changed.”
Amara nodded. “If Doroga is right about the vord, they could be a deadly threat. They must be dealt with without delay, so Bernard and I will stay here and do so, and join you as soon as we are able.”
“And,” Bernard rumbled, “We think we know where the third group of vord are going.”
Isana arched an eyebrow.
Bernard reached into a sack he’d brought with him and drew out an old, battered leather pack. “Doroga’s scouts found this along a trail leading directly toward the capital.”
Isana blinked at the pack. “Isn’t that Fade’s old pack?”
“Yes,” Bernard said. “But Fade gave it to Tavi before he entered the Wax Forest. Tavi lost it during the battle there. His scent is all over it.”
“Blood and crows,” Isana swore. “Are you telling me that this creature is following him?”
“It appears so,” said Amara. “The Knights Aeris will arrive in the morning. Isana, you need to get to the capital and gain an audience with Gaius as soon as possible. Tell him about the vord, and make him believe you. He needs to find their nest and stop them.”
“Why can’t you send a courier to him instead?”
“Too risky,” Bernard answered. “If the courier is delayed, or if Gaius is preoccupied with preparations, we’d be better off having the extra help here.”
Amara nodded. “He will see you, Holder Isana. You may be the only one who will be able to cut through protocol and get to him immediately.”
“All right. I’ll do it. I’ll talk to him.” Isana said. “But not until I am sure Tavi is safe.”
Amara grimaced but nodded. “Thank you. It was never my intention to send you into that snake pit alone. There will be a lot of people interested in you. Some of them can be quite deceptive and dangerous. I can provide you with an escort-a man I trust, named Nedus. He’ll meet you at the citadel and should be able to help you.”
Isana nodded quietly and rose. “Thank you, Amara. I’ll manage.” She took a step toward the door and wavered, nearly falling.
Bernard caught her before she could. “Whoah. Are you all right?”
Isana closed her eyes and shook her head. “I just need to rest. It will be an early morning.” She opened her eyes and frowned up at her brother. “You will be careful?”
“I’ll be careful,” he promised. “If you promise that you will.”
She smiled faintly at him. “Done.”
“Don’t worry, Sana,” he rumbled. “We’ll make sure everyone is kept safe. Especially Tavi.”
Isana nodded, and started for the door again, steadier. “We will.”
Presuming, of course, that they weren’t already too late.