“Then you bloody well cut down trees enough for your section,” Valiar Marcus bellowed. “The bloody amateur Legion has got two-thirds of its palisade up already, and you fools sit around here whining about how you had to leave your camp stakes back in Canea?” He strode down the line of laboring legionares, smacking his baton against armor plate and the occasional lazy skull. After the long and idle time spent on the ships, discipline was sadly lacking, the men unused to the weight of their armor. “If the Free Aleran has its camp up before we do, great furies help you miserable bastards, what I do to you will send you crying to the Vord for shelter!”
Marcus kept up the steady tirade as he marched up and down the First Aleran’s chosen campsite ashore. They held two neighboring hilltops, rocky rounded old nubs of mountains covered in thorns and brush. The wide valley between was for the Canim, who had set to establishing their own camp with a will. The massive, inhuman troops were well supplied with hand tools, and while they lacked the Aleran skills of furycraft, they more than made up the difference in raw physical power–and numbers.
Marcus paused to stare down at the valley below. Bloody crows, but there were a lot of Canim down there. Every one a fighter, too. Varg wasn’t willing to risk bringing his noncombatants ashore until basic fortifications had been established. Marcus could hardly blame him. If he’d been landing in Canea with the last survivors of all Alera, he wouldn’t have debarked them on open ground only five miles from the most warlike city on the continent, either.
From the hilltop, Marcus could stare north at Antillus, rings of massive, grey-white stone that sat piled atop one another upon the bones of another ancient mountain. In the afternoon light, its stones almost shone blue, reflecting the colors of the sky and the cold sea. Whoever Antillus Raucus had left in charge of his home city, most likely one of his more conservative, trusty old cronies, was almost certainly chewing his own guts out in consternation just then.
Marcus took a moment to consider the placement of the Canim camp. Any force traveling out from the city would have to pass one of the Aleran camps before it could engage the wolf-warriors. Not only that, but positioned as they were in the valley, the Canim camp could not be seen from the city walls. Oh, a small wing of Knights Aeris had overflown them within moments of their landing, but with the slightest amount of caution, the custodian of Antillus could keep quiet and prevent his civilian population from panicking until there was time to sort things out.
Not only that, but–assuming the fools could get the hilltops secured in good order–the two Aleran Legions commanded a far-more-potent advantage of terrain than did the Canim. Assaulting an Aleran Legion in a prepared position was a game that could only be won by paying the bloodiest of prices. Yet the Canim’s sheer advantage of numbers meant that an Aleran assault upon them would be an equally foolish proposition. And, by camping south of the city, the landing Legions and Canim horde alike had placed themselves squarely between Antillus and the oncoming Vord. No matter how thick the commander at Antillus might be, he’d have to appreciate that little fact.
Any number of things could have gone badly wrong–but the timing and relative positioning of the various troops had all fallen into place so smoothly that it seemed that fortune had smiled upon them all.
Nothing could be less true, of course. The entire business had been planned, and shrewdly. But then, Marcus had come to expect nothing less of the captain. That was something Octavian’s grandfather had never been. Sextus had been a grandmaster of political machinations–but he’d never led a Legion in the field, never stood and fought beside them, risked himself along with them and won his place in the eyes of the legionares. Sextus had commanded loyalty, even respect, from his subordinates. But he had never been their captain.
Octavian was. The men of the First Aleran would die for him.
Marcus continued along the circuit of the camp, bellowing imprecations and curses, snarling at every single flaw while giving perfection only stony silence. It was what the men expected of him. Rumors were flying wildly as word of the state of affairs in Alera spread among the troops, and the men were nervous. The curses and snarls of the blocky old First Spear and the other centurions were touchstones, a constant fact of life whether the Legion was at rest or about to clash with the foe. They settled the men more surely than any amount of encouragement or reassurance.
But even the tough, capable centurions gave Marcus speculative glances, as if seeking out his thoughts on their predicament. Marcus returned the glances with nothing but crisp salutes, letting them see the First Spear proceeding with business as usual.
As evening wore on, Marcus stopped at the southernmost point of the defenses and stared out at the gathering darkness. According to Octavian, the body of Vord slowly advancing on Antillus was still forty miles away. According to too many years spent in the field, Marcus knew that you never really knew where the enemy was until he was close enough to touch with a blade.
It was, he realized, partly why he had preferred his life as Valiar Marcus to the one he’d followed as a Cursor. A soldier might not know where his enemy was, but he nearly always knew who the enemy was.
“Thinking deep thoughts?” said a quiet voice behind him.
The First Spear turned to find Maestro Magnus standing behind him, less than a long step away. He had approached in perfect silence to within range of a killing stroke. Had Magnus chosen, he could have struck with the gladius at his side, or a knife he’d concealed on his person. Given Marcus’s armor, the first choice of targets would have been the back of the neck–a thrust down, at the proper angle, could sever the spine, cut one of the large blood vessels in the neck, and shut off the windpipe all at the same time. Done properly, it resulted in a certain, silent kill of even a heavily armored target.
Marcus remembered practicing it, over and over and over, back in his days at the Academy, until the motion was ingrained into the muscles of his arms and shoulders and back. It was one of the standard techniques taught to the Cursors.
Magnus had just used him for practice.
It was one form of gamesmanship among student Cursors, though Marcus had never participated, himself–a way to tell the other Cursor that you could have killed him, had you wished it. Magnus’s stance, relaxed and nonchalant to the casual observer, was centered and ready for motion, a subtle challenge. Anyone trained at the Academy would have recognized that.
So. The older Cursor was fishing.
The First Spear grunted as though nothing had happened. The nearest group of laboring legionares was a good forty feet off. There was no need to guard his speech if he lowered his voice. “Wondering how long before the Vord get here.”
Magnus stared at him for a silent minute before easing out of the stance and walking up to stand beside the First Spear.
Marcus noted the slight protrusion of a knife’s handle, where it was hidden up the old Cursor’s sleeve. Magnus might be long in the tooth, and his dueling days were long behind him. But that wouldn’t make him any less deadly should he choose to act. It was never the enemy’s muscle or weapons or furies that made him a true threat. It was his mind. And Magnus’s mind was still razor-sharp.
“Quite a while, one would think,” Magnus said. “The Antillans don’t expect them to make their first assaults for another two weeks or more.”
Marcus nodded. “They’re talking to us, eh?”
The old Cursor’s mouth twitched at one corner. “It was that or fight us. They didn’t seem eager to do that if they could avoid it.” He, too, stared to the south, though Marcus knew his watery eyes were nearsighted. “Octavian wishes to speak with you.”
Marcus nodded. Then he squinted at the other man, and said, “You been giving me looks, Magnus. What’s wrong with you? I steal your favorite boots or something?”
Magnus shrugged his shoulders. “Between the time you retired from the Antillan Legions and the time you came back to service with the First Aleran, no one recalls where you were.”
The First Spear felt his stomach begin to burn. Acid made a belch rise up through his throat. He covered it with a rough snort. “And that’s got your knickers in a twist? One old soldier goes back to life on a steadholt. It ain’t surprising that he don’t stand out, Magnus.”
“It’s perfectly reasonable,” Magnus acknowledged. “But not many old soldiers are named to the House of the Valiant. There are–were, when we left–five such men in the entire Realm. Each of them is currently a Citizen. Three Steadholders and a Count. None of them went back to life as a freeman.”
“I did,” the First Spear said easily. “Wasn’t hard.”
“There were many veterans who helped found the First Aleran,” the Cursor continued in a calm voice. “Many of them from Antillan Legions. Every one of them recalls you, at least by reputation. None of them had heard anything about what happened to you after you retired.” He shrugged. “It’s unusual.”
Marcus barked out a laugh. “You been sucking down too much leviathan liver oil.” He let his voice grow more serious. “And we’ve got plenty enemies enough without you looking for more where there ain’t none.”
The old Cursor regarded Marcus with mild, watery eyes. “Yes,” he said politely. “Where there ain’t none.”
Marcus felt his throat constrict. He knew. Knew something. Or thought he did.
Marcus doubted that the old Cursor had worked out that he was, in fact, Fidelias ex Cursori, accomplice to Attis and Invidia Aquitaine, traitor to the Crown. Certainly, he wasn’t aware that Marcus had, at the end, turned on High Lady Aquitaine, assassinating her with a poisoned balest bolt–or coming damned close to it, at any rate. And he had no way of knowing how much more the name of Valiar Marcus, First Spear of the First Aleran Legion, had come to mean to a weary, jaded old killer named Fidelias.
But the knowledge was in Magnus’s eyes. He might not have all of his facts lined up–yet–but it was plain in his manner, his actions, his words.
He knew enough.
For an instant, Fidelias felt a mad impulse to try something he’d rarely found useful in his lifetime: He thought about telling the old Cursor the truth. Whatever happened, afterward, at least the uncertainty would be gone.
His mouth opened. Fidelias noted, with a bemused sort of detachment, that he hadn’t actually decided to speak. But some part of him–the Marcus in him, likely–had proceeded without his approval.
He said, “Magnus, we should talk,” then the Vord exploded out of the gathering shadows.
There were three of them, low to the ground and moving fast. They were long beasts, six legs on lean, sinuous bodies, with slender, lashing tails stretched out behind them. They were covered in fine scales of black chitin, shining and glossy, reflecting the bloody light of the failing sun. Fidelias had an instant to observe that they moved like garim, the great lizards of the southern swamps, then he was in motion.
His gladius would be all but useless. So he reached out through Vamma, his earth fury, drawing power from the adamant bones of the old mountain beneath him. He seized a thick, heavy wooden pole, laid ready to be planted in the earth as part of the palisade.
Fidelias whirled on the nearest Vord and swung the heavy pole up and down in a vertical arc, like a man wielding an axe. The length of wood must have weighed eighty pounds, but he swung it as lightly as a child would a walking stick and struck the leading Vord with grisly, shattering power. Green-black blood sprayed out everywhere, spattering Fidelias and Magnus alike.
The pole snapped in half, one end suddenly a mass of shards and splinters. Fidelias turned to the next Vord and drove that end forward like a spear tip. The shock of impact lanced viciously up through his arms and shoulders, and even with Vamma’s influence to buttress him, Fidelias was knocked back from his feet as the pole shattered beneath the strain. He hit the ground hard. The stricken Vord thrashed wildly, dying, with several shards of wood too large and wickedly pointed to be properly called “splinters” protruding from the back of its skull.
Then the third Vord was on him.
Its teeth hit his calf, snapping down with terrifying force. He heard his leg break, but such was the power of the thing’s jaws that sensation vanished completely. Its tail lashed forward, and Fidelias struggled, his fury-enhanced strength letting him slam the Vord around before it could settle a grip on him with its claws or tail, and preventing it from bracing itself firmly with all of its six claw-tipped legs. It had incredible physical power. If it was able to plant its feet, it would simply rip Fidelias’s leg off at the knee.
The Vord’s long, slender tail suddenly whipped around his thigh, and Fidelias saw, in an instant of frozen horror, that hundreds of sharp, tiny ridges, like the teeth of a serrated knife, had suddenly extended along its length. The Vord would simply lash its tail free, cutting the muscles of his thigh from the bone in one long spiral, like carving the meat from a ham.
Magnus let out a shriek and swept his gladius down. Though the old man’s arms were lean, they were backed by the power of his own earthcrafting, and the famous sword of the Legions severed the Vord’s tail at its base.
The Vord released Fidelias and whirled on Magnus with unnerving speed and precision, and the old Cursor went down under its weight.
Fidelias pushed himself back up and saw Magnus holding the Vord’s jaws away from his face with both hands. Magnus wasn’t as strong an earthcrafter as Fidelias was. He was unable to dislodge the Vord, and the thing had managed to begin raking at him with its claws as it struggled to clamp the incredible power of its jaws over Magnus’s face.
For an instant, Magnus’s eyes met his.
Fidelias saw the branches of logic in his mind, unfolding as calmly and cleanly as if he’d been performing a theoretical exercise.
The situation was ideal. The Vord was already badly wounded. The nearest legionares were already taking up their weapons and charging forward–but they would never arrive in time to save Magnus. Fidelias himself was badly wounded. The shock was keeping him from feeling it, but he knew that even with the attentions of a Legion healer, he’d be off his feet for a few days.
No one would be able to blame him for only killing two and a half of three Vord. Fidelias would remain hidden. Valiar Marcus’s position would be secure. And to accomplish it, all Fidelias would need to do was… nothing.
Nothing but let one of them, the Vord, the foe of every living thing on Carna, rip a trusted confidant of the rightful First Lord of Alera to quivering bits of meat.
And suddenly he was consumed with rage. Rage at the lies and selfish ambition that had poisoned the heart of Alera ever since the death of Gaius Septimus. Rage at Sextus’s stubborn pride, pride that had driven him to turn the Realm into a venomous cauldron of treachery and intrigue. Rage at the things he had been forced to do in the name of his oath to the Crown, then in supposed service to the greater good of all Alera, when it seemed clear that the man to whom he had sworn his oath had abandoned his own duty to the Realm. Things that boy at the Academy, all those years ago, would be horrified to know were in his future.
It had to stop.
Here, before the greatest threat any of them had ever known, it had to stop.
Valiar Marcus let out a roar of furious defiance and threw himself onto the Vord’s back. He jammed an armored forearm between the Vord’s jaws, and felt the terrible pressure of its teeth as they clamped down. He ignored it and ripped savagely at the Vord’s head with his shoulders, twisting and worrying at the thing like a man trying to rip a stump from the earth.
The Vord let out a hiss of rage. It was too sinuous and flexible to let him snap its neck.
But as he strained and pulled, Valiar Marcus saw its scales pulled up, extending slightly from the skin of its neck, baring the tender flesh beneath to a blow struck from the proper angle.
Maestro Magnus saw it, too.
He produced the knife from his sleeve with a single flicking motion of his hand, as smoothly and swiftly as a skilled conjurer. The blade was small but bright, its edge deadly keen.
The Cursor drove it to the hilt into the Vord’s neck. Then, with a ripping twist, he opened the thing’s throat. The Vord bucked, muscles straining in sudden agony–but its jaws had suddenly lost their power.
Then the legionares arrived, swords hacking, and in a moment, it was over.
Marcus lay on his back on the earth in the aftermath. One of the legionares had gone running to find a healer and raise the alarm. The others had spread out in a line, putting their armored bodies between the gathering night outside and the two wounded old men behind them.
Marcus lay there panting and turned to look at Magnus.
The old Cursor was just staring at him, his watery eyes blank with shock, his face and white beard stained with Vord blood. He stared at Marcus and stammered out a few sounds that had no meaning.
“We got to talk,” Marcus growled. His own voice sounded rough and thin. “You’re getting a little paranoid, old man. Jumping at every shadow. You need to relax.”
Magnus looked at him. Then he turned and stared at the three dead Vord on the ground around them. One of them, the second to die, was still twitching, its tail fluttering randomly in the low brush.
Magnus wheezed out a laugh.
Marcus joined him.
When the healers came up with reinforcements, they eyed the pair of wounded old men as if they’d gone completely mad.
They could only laugh harder.