Running boots hammered the ground outside the command tent, and Antillar Maximus shouted the password at the sentries stationed there as if he intended to bowl them out of his way with sheer volume. Tavi looked up from his reports immediately, lifting a hand, and Maestro Magnus stopped speaking. The old Cursor gathered together loose pages from the table, resorting to holding the last several down with one hand. An instant later, Maximus flung the tent’s door flap aside, letting in a rush of wind scented heavily with spring rain.
Tavi smiled at Magnus’s forethought. No pages went flying. The old Cursor had been wounded only two days before–but he’d taken only a single night’s rest after Tribune Foss had released him for duty, and though battered and obviously stiff, he had returned to the command tent the next morning.
“Tavi,” Max said, panting, “you need to see this. I’ve had them bring your horse.”
Tavi arched an eyebrow at Max’s use of his first name and rose. “What’s happening?”
“You have to see it,” Max said.
Tavi checked the fittings on his armor to make sure they were tight, slung the baldric of his gladius over his shoulder, and followed Max out to the horses. He swung up, waited for Max and the two legionares currently on guard duty to mount up as well, then gestured for Antillar to lead the way.
In the days since the landing, the Canim and the Alerans had settled down into their camps in good order. Only one sticking point was any cause for concern–the little stream that fed the well in the valley between the two Aleran camps ran so deeply that there was no way to reroute it to within reach of either Legion camp. As a result, all three groups had to use the wells Tavi’s engineers had sunk into the rocky ground in the valley, and a series of shallow pools in the approximate center of the Canim camp had been the results.
So far, they had shared the water without serious incident–which meant that no one had been killed, though one Canim and two Alerans had been injured. Tavi followed Maximus to the southernmost gate of the Canim camp. Two of the warrior-caste guards were on duty there, one in the scarlet and black steel armor of Narash, the other in Shuaran midnight blue and black. The Narashan lifted a paw-hand in greeting, and called, “Open the gate for the Warmaster’s gadara.”
The gate, made from leviathan hide stretched over a frame of enormous leviathan bones, swung open wide, and they entered the Canim fortifications.
“It started about ten minutes ago,” Max said. “I told Crassus to stay with it and write down anything he heard.”
Tavi frowned ahead of them, idly keeping his horse from sidestepping as they entered the Canim camp, and the wolf-warriors’ scent filled the beasts’ nostrils. There was a crowd gathered ahead of them, and more were heading that way. Even mounted on a tall horse, Tavi could barely see anything over the craning heads of the Canim in front of him, most standing to their full eight feet or more to peer ahead.
The press of traffic became too much, and Tavi and his men halted, the air around them full of the snarled vowels and growled consonants of the Canim tongue. Max tried to get them moving through the crowd again, but even his legionare’s bellow could make no headway against the ferocious, roaring buzz of the Canim crowd.
Deep, brassy Canim horns brayed, and a small phalanx of red-armored Canim warriors came marching stolidly through the crowd like men walking against the current of a quick-running stream. Tavi recognized Gradash, the silver-furred huntmaster–a rank of warrior roughly equal to that of centurion–guiding the warriors. He directed them to fan out around the Alerans, then tilted his head slightly to one side, a gesture of respect. Tavi returned it.
“Tavar,” Gradash called. “With your consent, I will take you forward.”
“Thank you, huntmaster,” Tavi replied.
Gradash bared his throat again and began shouting more commands. In short order, gawkers found themselves savagely shoved aside, and the Alerans’ horses began moving forward once more.
They drew near the central watering pool within a moment, and found dozens of Alerans there, mixed in among the Canim to gather around the pool. Tavi saw why, and sucked in a breath through his teeth.
No wonder everyone had come to stare.
A cloaked form stood upon the surface of the water. The cloak was made of rich, grey fabric with a deep hood. Tavi couldn’t see any of the features of whoever was beneath the cloak, except for dark lips and a pale, delicate chin. His heart lurched in his chest, even so.
It was the Vord queen.
The troop of Canim soldiers led Tavi and his party to the far side of the pool, where Varg and Nasaug were standing, together with a grey-furred old Cane wearing sections of Vord chitin that had been fashioned into armor. He wore a red mantle and hood over that, the cut of which was identical to the garments worn by Canim ritualists–but this was the first time Tavi had seen such a garment made of anything but the pale, supple leather of human flesh.
The Vord queen never moved. Tavi glanced down the line of pools and saw what seemed to be identical images standing upon each of them. Crowds continued to gather.
“Bloody crows,” Max swore. “That’s a watersending.”
Tavi felt his jaw tighten. Projecting an image through a watercrafting was a relatively difficult use of furycraft. Projecting several of them was impossi–well, not impossible, clearly… but very, very improbable. Tavi wasn’t sure if Gaius Sextus himself could have managed it.
“She’s just standing there,” Max said, frowning. “Why is she just standing there?”
“Ferus,” Tavi said to one of his guards. “Go back to the camp. Tell Crassus I want every Knight Aeris we have immediately flying reconnaissance out to fifty miles. I want our Knights Terra to patrol out to ten miles and make sure nothing is tunneling toward us. Cavalry is to ride escort, no group smaller than twenty, back before nightfall.”
Ferus slammed his fist to his chest and turned his mount to begin working his way out of the Canim camp.
Max grunted. “You think it’s supposed to be a distraction?”
Tavi gestured at the crowds. “If it isn’t, it’s doing a crowbegotten good job of it. No reason to take chances. Come on.” Tavi nudged his horse forward until he was standing next to Varg and Nasaug.
“Morning,” Varg said, studying the watersending.
“Good morning,” Tavi replied.
“I ordered my fastest ships put out to sea already,” Varg replied. “Borrowed some of your witchmen to go along and keep an eye on the ocean.”
Many of the watercrafters who professionally used their talents to conceal ships from leviathans had grown used to the Canim during the pair of voyages over the past six months. Canim in general were not disposed to admiration of furycrafting, but their ships’ crews had been more than mildly impressed with the skills of the witchmen. “You think they’re coming in by sea?”
Varg’s ears twitched in an ambivalent motion, a Cane gesture that meant more than a shrug but less than “no.” “I think that the queen had to come back here after she went to Canea. I think she did not use one of our ships. They have carried out operations in all terrain. No reason to take chances.”
Tavi nodded. “I sent scouts by land and air.”
“Expected you would,” Varg said, showing his teeth in a gesture that might have been meant to be an Aleran smile of approval–or a Canim gesture of threat. Given Varg’s personality, Tavi decided it was probably both. Varg knew Tavi well enough to anticipate his reaction and had wanted him to know it. Such ability was an invaluable asset in an ally. In an enemy, it was terrifying.
Max snorted out a breath, and observed, to Nasaug, “You fellows throw out the most complimentary threats of anyone I ever met.”
“Thank you,” Nasaug said gravely. “It will be an honor to kill one so courteous as you, Tribune Antillar.”
Max barked out a belly laugh and bowed his head slightly to one side, showing his throat to Nasaug. The younger Cane’s mouth lolled open in a small Canim grin.
They waited in silence for several more minutes as the crowd continued to grow.
“Ah,” Tavi said.
Varg glanced at him.
“That’s why the queen hasn’t spoken,” Tavi explained. “She’s causing her image to appear. And she’s waiting for word to spread about it, so that there’s time for an audience to gather.” He frowned. “Which means…”
“Means she can’t see through it,” Varg rumbled. “She isn’t gaining intelligence this way.”
Tavi nodded. It would explain how the Vord queen was making multiple images appear. Sending the projection forth wasn’t the difficult part of the watersending. Bringing light and sound back from the other side was the difficult part. “She wants to speak to us,” Tavi said. “Everyone, I mean. Crows, she must be causing this image to appear in every body of water large enough to support it.” Tavi shook his head. “I wish I’d thought of that.”
Varg grunted. “Handy, in time of war. Issue orders to the populace. Alert them to enemy movements. Keep your makers from being taken by surprise. Tell them what you need produced, save the time lost to waiting on messengers.” Varg narrowed his eyes. “Vord queen doesn’t need any of that, though.”
“No,” Tavi said. “She doesn’t.”
“The Vord are orderly. Logical. She must have an objective in this.”
“She does,” Tavi said. He felt his mouth harden into a line. “It’s an attack.”
The image stirred, and silence fell over the gathering.
The Vord queen lifted her hand in a gesture of greeting. There was something unnatural in the gesture that made it look like a formal motion, as if she was consciously forcing the movements of her joints to adhere to constraints to which she was not accustomed.
“Alerans,” she said, and her voice rang out loudly, amplified to be heard for hundreds of yards in every direction. The Canim nearest the pool folded their ears back against their skulls and erupted into a chorus of snarls in reaction to the explosion of sound.
“I am the Vord. I have taken the heart of your lands. I have laid siege to your strong places. I have slain your First Lord. You cannot destroy me. You cannot withstand me.”
Silence fell for long heartbeats. The Vord queen let the words sink in.
“The Vord are eternal. The Vord are everywhere. Among the stars, between the worlds, we conquer. We grow. Against us, no victory is possible. You may withstand us for a time, but in ten years, in a hundred years, in a thousand years we will return, stronger and wiser than before. We are inevitable. Your kind is doomed.”
Another silence. Tavi looked around at the crowd. Every face was fixed upon the image of the Vord queen. The Alerans looked pale, or sickened, or simply stared in fascination. Canim body language was more difficult to read, but even the wolf-warriors seemed subdued. This was the face of the creature who had all but wiped out their entire civilization–millions upon millions of Canim, entire nations, the smallest of which was nearly as half as large as Alera herself.
But regardless of the individual reaction, every person there watched.
“I bear you no personal hatred or animosity. I have no desire to inflict pain or suffering upon any individual. I do what I do to protect my children and allow them to prosper. This world is their legacy. They will have it.”
The image moved, deliberately lifting her slender, pale hands. She drew back her hood, slowly, to reveal the exotically beautiful face of a young woman–one who looked, in fact, very like Kitai. She had the same high cheekbones, the same long, fine white hair, the same sharp cleanliness of features softened by full lips and wide, canted eyes. But where Kitai’s eyes were brilliant green, the Vord queen’s eyes were black, faceted like an insect’s reflecting the light in a mesmerizing, alien glitter of colors.
“But I am willing to offer you this chance, Alerans. There need not be war between our peoples. I will take your cities. But for those with the wisdom to bow before the tide of history, I will provide places of safety in which you will be permitted to govern yourselves, to support your families, and to live out the natural course of your lives in complete autonomy, save for this: You will not be permitted to bear children. This is within my power.
“The war can end. The fighting can end. The death and famine and suffering can end. I will open the Amaranth Vale to be resettled by your people. And while you are there, you will have my protection. No outsider will be permitted to harm you. The full might of the Vord will shield you. My power will allow you to live long lives, free of every pestilence and plague known to your kind.
“I beg you to see reason, Alerans. I offer you peace. I offer you health. I offer you safety. Let the strife between us end. Your leaders have not protected you. Your Legions have been laid waste. Millions of lives have been lost to no purpose. Let it end.
“I make you this offer. Any Aleran who wishes to enter my protection must do only this: Come, unarmed, to any part of the world within the sphere of our control. Tie a band of green cloth around your arm. This will be the signal to my children that you have bowed to the natural order. You will be fed, given care, and transported to places of safety, freedom, and peace.”
There was nothing but silence.
Bloody crows, Tavi thought. That’s brilliant.
“Fail to set aside your irrational need to continue this conflict, and you will leave me no other choice.” Her hands rose to replace the hood, veiling her alien beauty again. Her voice dropped to a quiet, calm, uninflected murmur. “I will come for you.”
Tavi stopped himself from shuddering, but only barely. Max didn’t bother to try.
“Tell your neighbors. Tell your friends. Tell any who were not here to see that the Vord offer you peace and protection.”
Silence reigned. No one moved.
Max said, very quietly, “Peace and protection. You think she’s serious?”
“No children,” Tavi murmured back. “A stranglehold takes longer to kill than does a clean thrust–but it makes you just as dead.”
“You don’t feel it when you go, either,” Max replied.
“At least now I know why,” Tavi said.
“The Vord queen is keeping a steadholt of Alerans captive, near Alera Imperia. Like animals in a zoo. It was an experiment, to see if it could be made to work.”
Max blinked at him. “How did you know about that?”
Max grimaced. “If everyone heard this, in all Alera… Tavi you know that there are going to be people scared enough to do anything.”
“If we lose even part of our people to desertion or surrender, it could kill us. We’re at the brink.”
“That’s why she’s doing it. I said it was an attack, Max.”
Varg looked over at Tavi with narrowed eyes, his ears pricked forward. The Cane was close enough to have heard even their lowered voices.
“What are we going to do about it?” Max sighed. “Crows, look at them.”
Everyone, Canim and Aleran alike, stared at the image of the Vord queen. Their fear and uncertainty filled the air like woodsmoke.
“Tavar,” Varg growled suddenly. “Your helmet.”
Tavi glanced at the Cane. Then he drew his helmet off and passed it over to Varg.
The Warmaster of the Canim leapt up onto the low stone wall on the edge of the pool, helmet in hand. He stalked through the shallow water until he stood before the image of the Vord queen.
Then he swept the helmet in a horizontal arc, catching the water that formed the hooded head of the Vord queen, decapitating the watery image.
Then he flung back his head and drank the helmet empty in a single draught.
Varg rose to his full nine feet in height before roaring, his basso voice a challenge to the volume of the watersending itself, “I AM STILL THIRSTY!” His sword rasped clear of his scabbard as he lifted it high and faced the Canim soldiers. “WHO WILL DRINK WITH ME?”
Thousands of eyes focused on the Warmaster. The silence became something brittle and crystalline, something that was on the brink of shattering, changing. Fear and rage and despair surged in the air, like the confused, shifting winds that preceded a storm or the currents that could rip swimmers in any direction when the tides began to change.
Tavi dismounted and strode forward to stand beside Varg. His hobnailed boots clicked on the stone of the wall and splashed through the water. He took back his helmet from Varg’s grasp, swept it through the watery heart of the image of the Vord queen, and drank deeply.
Steel rasped on steel as ten thousand swords sprang free of their sheaths. The sudden, furious roar of the Canim shook the air with such force that the water of the pools danced and jumped as if under a heavy rainstorm. The watersendings could not maintain their integrity in the face of that disruption, and they collapsed, splashing back down into the pools, shaken to bits by the enraged howls of Canim and Aleran alike.
Tavi joined them, shouting in wordless anger, and drew his sword, lifting it high.
The storm of approval from the Canim redoubled, making the plates of Tavi’s lorica vibrate and rattle against one another, resolving into a thundering chant of, “VARG! TAVAR! VARG! TAVAR!”
Tavi exchanged a Canim salute with Varg, then turned and went back to his horse. He mounted up on the dancing, nervous animal and beckoned Max and his second guard. As they rode from the Canim camp, the crowd, still howling his Canim name, parted before and around them in an armored sea of swords and fangs and wrath.
Tavi kicked his mount into a run and headed back to the First Aleran’s camp.
“What are we going to do?” Max called as they rode.
“What we always do when the enemy attacks us,” Tavi said. He bared his teeth in a wolfish smile. “We’re going to hit back.”