Farewell, mother Roma.
The shining columns,
The endless roads,
The mighty legions,
The peaceful fields.
Born in fire,
The light in darkness.
Farewell, mother Roma.
Never again will your sons return.
–A poem, inscribed in stone in the ruins of Appia
Good riddance, gluttonous whore! Victory Germania!
–An addendum to the poem, scratched in far cruder letters
“This way, my Lord!” screamed the young Knight Aeris, beckoning as he altered the direction of his windstream and dove down through the twilight sky. He was bleeding from a wound in the neck, where one of the razor-sharp shards of ice the creatures hurled like javelins had slipped beneath the rim of his helmet. The young fool was fortunate to be alive, and neck wounds were notoriously treacherous. If he didn’t stop flailing about and have it attended to, it might tear wider and cost the Legion an irreplaceable asset.
High Lord Antillus Raucous adjusted his own windstream to match the young Knight’s dive and followed him down toward the embattled Third Antillan Legion upon the Shieldwall. “You!” he snarled, passing the young Knight without particular effort upon his own, far stronger furies. What was the idiot’s name? Marius? Karius? Carlus, that was it. “Sir Carlus, get to the healers. Now.”
Carlus’ eyes went wide with shock as Raucous shot ahead, leaving the younger man behind as if he had been hovering in place instead of power diving for the earth at his most reckless speed. Raucous heard him say, “Yes, my l—” but the rest of the word vanished into the gale roar of the High Lord’s windcrafted wake.
Raucus bid his furies to enhance his sight, and the scene below him sprang into magnified vision. He assessed the Legion’s situation as he swept down upon them. Raucous spat out an oath. His captain had been right to send for aid.
The Third Antillan’s situation was desperate.
Raucous had cut his teeth in battle at fourteen years of age. In the forty years since, scarcely a month had passed in which he had not seen action of one scale or another, defending the Shieldwall against the constant menace of the primitive Icemen of the north.
In all that time, he had never, not once, seen so many of them.
A sea of the savages spread out from the Shieldwall, tens of thousands strong, and as Raucous dove closer he was suddenly enveloped by a chill far deeper than the mere bite of winter. Within seconds, crystalline laceworks of frost had formed across the surface of his armor, and he had begin the familiar effort of low-grade firecrafting to ward away the cold.
The enemy had built mounds of snow and corpses against the Shieldwall, piling them into ramps. It was a tactic he had seen before, in the most determined assaults. The Legion had responded with their usual doctrine—burning oil and blasts of fire from their Knights Ignus.
The wall itself was very nearly a feature of the land, a massive edifice of granite furycrafted from the bones of the earth, fifty feet tall and twice as thick. It must have cost the Icemen thousands of lives to mount those ramps, to see them melted down, and to mount them again, and again, and again—but they had done it. The cold had lasted long enough to sap the legionares of their strength, and the battle had raged long enough to wear the Third’s Knights down, until they could no longer sustain the effort needed to keep the foe at bay.
The Icemen had gained the wall itself.
Raucous felt his teeth clench in frustration and rage as the apelike creatures swarmed over the breach in the defenses. The largest of the brutes was as tall as an Aleran legionare, but far broader across the shoulders, far thicker through the chest. Their arms were long, with enormous hands, and their leathery hides were layered with a sparse coating of wiry, yellow-white fur that could make them all but invisible in the frozen wastes of the north. Yellow-white eyes glared from beneath shaggy brows, and a pair of heavy tusks jutted up from massively muscled jaws. Each Iceman bore a club of bone or stone in his hands, some of them edged with chips of sharp, unnaturally hard ice which, like the cold of the winter itself, seemed to bend itself to the will of the savages.
The legionares rallied behind the crested helmet of a centurion, struggling to push forward and seal the breach—but the furycraftings that were supposed to keep the top of the wall clear of ice were failing, and their footing had become treacherous. Their foe, more at home on the slippery surface, began to drive the legion back into a pair of separate, vulnerable elements, as more and more of their kind surged onto the wall.
The yellow-eyed sons of crows were killing his men.
The Third Antillan had minutes of life left in it, and after that, the Icemen would be through them, and that horde would be free to ravage the lands beyond. There were a dozen Steadholts and three small towns within a few hours’ march for the horde, and though the militias of every town along the Shieldwall were well maintained and diligent in their continued training—Raucous would permit nothing less—against such an enormous number of the foe, they would be able to do nothing but die in a futile effort to allow their women and children time to flee.
He wouldn’t allow it to happen. Not to his people. Not to his lands.
Antillus Raucous, High Lord of Antillus, let the rage boil up inside him in a white-hot fire as he swept his sword from its sheath at his side. He opened his mouth in a wordless roar of pure wrath, bellowing to his furies, calling out to the land around him, to his land that he had fought to defend for a lifetime, as had his father, and his father, and his father before him.
The Aleran High Lord screamed his outrage to the land and the sky.
And the land and the sky gave answer.
The clear twilight air boiled and blackened with stormclouds, and dark streamers of mist followed him in a spiral as he dove. Thunder magnified the High Lord’s battle cry tens of thousands of times over. Raucous felt his rage flow into the sword in his hand, and the blade burst into scarlet flame, burning through the cold air in a sizzling hiss, lighting the sky around him as if the sun had suddenly risen back above the horizon.
Light fell onto the desperate legionares, and faces began to turn skyward. A sudden roar of hope and wild excitement rose up from the legion, and lines that had begun to buckle abruptly locked into place again, shields binding together, firming, holding.
It took a few seconds more before the first of the Icemen began to look up, and only then, as he readied himself to enter the fray, did the High Lord unleash the furies of his skies against the foe.
Lightning came down from the sky in threads so tiny and numerous that more than anything, they resembled burning rain. Blue-white bolts raked the Icemen on the ground below the shield, killing and burning, sending Icemen into screaming confusion—and suddenly choking the pressure of their advance onto the wall.
Raucous flung his sword’s point down as he closed on the exact center of the Icemen’s position atop the wall, and called fire from the burning blade, sending out a white-hot column of flame that charred flesh to ash and blackened bone in a circle fifteen feet across. At the last second, he called upon his wind furies to slow him, landed hard upon the unyielding stone of the wall—now cleared of the treacherous ice.
Raucous called strength up from the earth, shattered two hurled clubs with sweeps of his burning blade, swept a wave of fire over a hundred of the foe between himself and the southern side of the wall, and then began grimly hacking his way northwards. The Icemen were no fools. They knew that even the mightiest furycrafter could be felled if enough spears and arrows and clubs were thrown at them—and Raucous knew it too.
But before the shocked Icemen could coordinate their attacks, the High Lord of Antillus was among them with his deadly sword, giving them no chance to overwhelm his defenses with a storm of missiles—and no Iceman alive, no dozen of the savages, was the match for the skill Antillus Raucous with steel in his hand.
The Icemen fought with savage ferocity, each of them possessed of far more strength than a man—but not more than an enraged High Lord, drawing power from the stones of the land itself. Twice, Icemen managed to seize Raucous with their huge, leathery hands. He broke their necks with the use of one hand, and flung the corpses through several ranks of the enemy around him, knocking down dozens at a time.
“Third Antillan!” Raucous bellowed, all the while. “To me! Antillus, to me! Antillus, for Alera!”
“Antillus for Alera!” came the thunder of his legionares reply, and his soldiers began to reverse the tide and drive the foe from the walls. The veteran legionares, bellowing their war cry, fought their way to the side of their lord, hammering their way through the enemy who had been close to overwhelming them moments before.
The enemy resistance melted abruptly, vanishing like sand washed away by a tide, and Raucous sensed the change in pressure. The Third Aleran’s Knights Ferrous cut their way to his side and fell in on his flanks, and after that, it was only a matter of dispatching the animals who remained on the wall.
“Shields!” Raucous barked, mounting up on a crenel, where he could overlook the Icemen’s snow-ramp below. A pair of legionares immediately came to his side, covering all three of them with their broad shields. Spears, arrows, and thrown clubs hammered against the Aleran steel.
Raucous focused his attention on the snow ramp below. Fire would melt it, right enough, but it would be an enormous effort. Easier to shake it apart from beneath. He nodded sharply to himself, laid a bare hand on the stone of the Shieldwall, and sent his attention down through the stones. With an effort of will, he bade the local furies to move, and the ground outside the Shieldwall suddenly rippled and heaved.
The great structure of ice cracked and groaned—and then collapsed, taking a thousand screaming savages with it.
Raucous rose, nudging the shields aside, as a great cloud of ice crystals leapt into the air. He gripped the burning sword in hand, and stared out intently, waiting for his view of the enemy. For a moment, no one on the wall moved, as they waited to see through the cloud of snow.
There was a cry from further down the line, one of triumph, and a moment later the air cleared enough to show Raucous the enemy, routed and in full retreat.
Then, and only then, did Raucous let the fire fade from his sword.
His men crowded against the edge of the wall, screaming their defiance and triumph at the retreating enemy. They were chanting his name.
Raucous smiled and saluted them, fist to heart. It was what one did. If it gave his men joy to cheer him, he’d be even more of a heartless bastard than he was not to let them have their moment. They didn’t need to know that the smile was a false one.
There were too many still, silent forms in Antillan armor for it to be genuine.
The efforts of the day’s furycrafting had exhausted him, and he wanted nothing so much as a quiet patch of dry, flat space to go to sleep on. Instead, he conferred with his Captain and the Third’s staff, then went to the healer’s tents to visit the wounded.
Like accepting cheers, one didn’t deserve, it was also what one did.
Those men lying wounded had become so in service to him. They had suffered their pains for him. He could lose an hour of sleep, or two, or ten, if it meant easing that pain for a few moments for the cost of nothing more than a few kind words.
Sir Carlus was the last of those Raucous visited. The young man was still fairly groggy. His injuries had been more extensive than he had known, and the watercrafting that had healed them had left him exhausted and disoriented. Neck injuries could be that way. Something to do with the brain, Raucous had been told.
“Thank you, my lord,” Carlus said, when Raucous sat down on one edge of his bunk. “We couldn’t have held without you.”
“We all fight together, lad,” Raucous replied roughly. “No thanks need be given. We’re the best. It’s how we do our work. How we do our duty. Next time, it could be the Third saving me.”
“Yes, my lord,” Carlus said. “Sir? Is it true what they say? That you challenged the First Lord to the juris macto?”
Raucous snorted out a quiet laugh. “That was a while ago, lad. Aye, true enough.”
Carlus’ dulled eyes glittered for a minute. “You’d have won, I wager.”
“Don’t be daft, boy,” Raucous said, rising, and giving the young Knight a squeeze on the shoulder. “Gaius Sextus is the First Lord. He would have handed me my head. And still would. Think about what happened to Kalarus Brencis, eh?”
Carlus didn’t look happy to hear that answer, but he said, “Yes, my lord.”
“Get some rest, soldier,” Raucous said. “Well done.”
At last, Raucous turned to leave the tent. There. Duty done. At last he could get a few hours of rest. The increased pressure on the Shieldwall, of late, had left him wishing that he had demanded that Crassus serve his first Legion hitch at home. Great furies knew, the boy could make himself useful now. As could Maximus. The two of them, it seemed, had at least learned to coexist without attempting to murder one another.
Raucous snorted at his own train of thought. He sounded, to himself, like an old man, tired and aching and wishing for younger shoulders to bear his burdens. Though he supposed he would rather grow old than not.
Still. It would be nice to have the help.
There were just so many of the crowbegotten savages. And he’d been fighting them for so bloody long.
He walked toward the stairway leading down into the fortifications within the Shieldwall itself, where a heated chamber and a cot waited for him. He’d gone perhaps ten paces when a scream of wind, the windstream of an incoming Knight Aeris, howled in the distance.
Raucous paused, and a moment later, a Knight Aeris soared in, escorted by one of the Third Aleran’s Knights who had been flying patrol. Night had fallen, but the snow always made that a minor inconvenience, particularly when the moon was out. All the same, it wasn’t until the man had landed that Raucous spotted the insignia of the First Antillan upon his breastplate.
The man hurried to Raucous, panting, and slammed his fist to his heart in a hasty salute. “My lord,” he gasped.
Raucous returned the salute. “Report.”
“Message from Captain Tyreus, my lord,” the Knight panted. “His position is under heavy attack, and he urgently requests reinforcements. We’ve never seen so many Icemen in one place, my lord.”
Raucous looked at the man for a moment and then nodded. Then, without another word, he summoned his wind furies, took to the air and headed west, towards the First Antillan’s position, a hundred miles down the wall, at the best speed he could manage for the distance.
His men needed him. Rest would have to wait.
It was what one did.
* * * * *
“And I don’t care how hungover you are, Hagan!” said Captain Demos, in a perfectly conversational voice that nonetheless carried the length of the ship and up and down the dock. “You get those lines coiled properly or I’ll have you scraping barnacles all the way across the Run!”
Gaius Octavian watched the surly, bleary-eyed sailor turn back to his work, this time performing more to the liking of the Slive‘s captain. The ships had begun leaving the harbor at Mastings on the morning tide, just after dawn. It near to midmorning, now, and the harbor and the sea beyond looked like a forest of masts and billowing sails, rolling over the waves to the horizon. Hundreds of ships, the largest fleet Alera had ever seen, were now sailing for open sea.
The only ship still in port, in fact, was the Slive. It looked stained, old and worn. It wasn’t. Its captain simply chose to forgo the usual painting and piping. Its sails were patched and dirty, its lines dark with smears of tar. The carved female figure on the prow, so often made to resemble benevolent female-form furies and revered ancestors on other ships, looked more like a young riverfront doxy than anything else.
If one didn’t know what to look for, the sheer amount of sail she could hang and the long, lean, dangerous lines of the Slive might go completely overlooked. She was too small to be matched squarely against a proper warship, but swift and nimble on the open see, and her captain was a dangerously competent man.
“Are you absolutely sure about this?” rumbled Antillar Maximus. The Tribune was of a height with Tavi, though more heavily muscled, and his armor and equipment were so scratched and dented by use that they would never have passed muster on a parade ground. Not that anyone in the First Aleran Legion gave a bloody crow’s feather about that.
“Whether I’m sure or not,” Tavi replied quietly, “his ship is the only left in port.”
Maximus grimaced. “Point,” he growled. “But he’s a bloody pirate, Tavi. You have title to think about now. A Princeps of Alera shouldn’t have a vessel like that as his flagship. It’s… dubious.”
“So’s my title,” Tavi replied. “Do you know of a more competent captain? Or a faster ship?”
Max snorted out another breath and looked at the third person on the dock. “Practicality over all. This is your fault.”
The young woman spoke with perfect assurance. “Yes it is,” she said calmly. Kitai still wore her long white hair in the fashion of the Horse clan of the Marat people, shaved to the scalp along the sides and left long in a swath over the center of her skull, like the mane of one of the Horse clan’s totem mounts. She was dressed in leather riding breeches, a loose white tunic, and duelist’s belt bearing two swords. If the cool of the mid-autumn morning disturbed her in her light dress, she showed no signs of it. Her green eyes, upturned at the corners, as all of her people, roamed over the ship alertly, like a cat’s, distant and interested at the same time. “Alerans have a great many foolish ideas in their heads. Pound on their skulls often enough, and some of them are bound to fall out eventually.”
“Captain?” Tavi called, grinning. “Will your crew be fit to sail at any point today?”
Demos came over to the ship’s railing and leaned his forearms on it, staring down at them. “Oh, aye, your Highness,” he replied. “Whether or not you’ll be on it when it does is another matter entirely.”
“What?” Max said. “Demos, you’ve been paid half the amount of your contract, up front. I gave it to you myself.”
“Yes,” Demos replied. “I’ll be glad to cross the sea with the fleet. I’ll be glad to take you and the pretty barbarian girl.” Demos pointed a finger at Tavi. “But his Royal Highness there doesn’t set foot aboard my ship until he settles up with me.”
Max narrowed his eyes. “Your ship’s going to look awful funny with a big hole burned straight through it.”
“I’ll plug it with your fat head,” Demos retorted with a wintry smile.
“Max,” Tavi said gently. “Captain, may I come aboard to settle accounts?”
Max growled under his breath. “The Princeps of Alera should not have to ask permission to board a pirate ship.”
“On his own ship,” Kitai murmured, “Captain outranks Princeps.”
Tavi reached the top of the gangplank and spread his hands. “Well?”
Demos, a lean man, slightly taller than average, dressed in a black tunic and breeches, turned to lean one elbow on the rail and study Tavi. His free hand, Tavi noted, just happened to fall within an inch or two of the hilt of his sword. “You destroyed some of my property.”
“That’s right,” Tavi said. “The chains in your hold you used to imprison slaves.”
“You’re going to replace them.”
Tavi rolled one armored shoulder in a shrug. “What are they worth to you?”
“I don’t want money. It isn’t about money,” Demos said. “They were mine. You had no right to them.”
Tavi met the man’s eyes steadily. “I think a few slaves might say the same thing regarding their lives and freedom, Demos.”
Demos blinked his eyes, slowly. Then he looked away. He was quiet for a moment, before murmuring, “I didn’t make the sea. I just sail on it.”
“Here’s the problem,” Tavi said. “If I give you those chains, knowing what you’re going to do with them, I become a part of whatever those chains are used for. I become a slaver. And I am no slaver, Demos. And never will be.”
Demos frowned. “It would seem that we are at an impasse.”
“And you’re sure you won’t change your mind?”
Demos’ eyes flicked back to Tavi and hardened. “Not if the sun fell out of the sky. Replace the chains or get off my ship.”
“I can’t do that. Do you understand why?”
Demos nodded. “Understand it. Even respect it. But that doesn’t change a crowbegotten thing. So where are we?”
“In need of a solution.”
“There isn’t one.”
“I think someone’s told me that once or twice before,” Tavi said, grinning. “I’ll replace your chains, if you’ll make me a promise.”
Demos tilted his head, his eyes narrowing.
“Promise that you’ll never use any other set, any other restraints, but the ones I give you.”
“And you give me decrepit pieces of rust? No thank you, your Highness.”
Tavi lifted a placating hand. “You’ll get to inspect the chains first. Your promise will be contingent upon your acceptance.”
Demos pursed his lips. Then he nodded abruptly. “Done.”
Tavi unslung the heavy courier’s bag from its strap over one shoulder, and tossed it to Demos. The captain caught it, grunted under the weight, and gave Tavi a suspicious look as he opened the bag.
Demos stared for a long, silent moment. Then, link by link, he drew a set of slaver’s chains out of the bag.
Every link was made of gold.
Demos ran his fingertips over the chains for an astonished minute. It was the fortune of a mercenary’s lifetime, and much, much more. Then he looked up at Tavi, his brow furrowed in a confused frown.
“You don’t have to accept them,” Tavi said. “My Knights Aeris will fly me out to one of the other ships. You’ll join the fleet. And you can take up slaving again at the end of your contract.
“Or,” he continued, “you can accept them. And never carry slaves again.”
Demos just shook his head slowly for a moment. “What have you done?”
“I’ve just made it more profitable for you to stop slaving than to continue it,” Tavi said. “Which is exactly what I’m going to do to the rest of Alera.”
Demos smiled faintly down. “You give me chains fashioned to my own size, Your Highness. And ask me to wear them freely.”
“I’ll need skilled captains, Demos. I’ll need men whose word I can trust.” Tavi grinned and put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “And men who have the fortitude to bear up under extreme prosperity. What say you?”
Demos dropped the chains back into the bag and slung it over one shoulder, then inclined his head more deeply than Tavi had seen him make the gesture before. “Welcome aboard the Slive, my lord.”
Demos immediately turned and began bawling orders to the crew, and Max and Kitai came up the ramp to stand next to Tavi.
“That was well done, Aleran,” Kitai murmured.
Max shook his head. “There’s something broken inside your skull, Calderon. You do all your thinking sideways.”
“It was Ehren’s idea, actually,” Tavi said.
“Wish he was coming with us,” Max rumbled.
“That’s the glamorous life of a Cursor,” Tavi replied. “But with any luck, we won’t be gone long. We sail Varg and his people back home, make some polite noises to keep diplomatic channels open, and then come right back home. Two months or so.”
Max grunted. “Gives Gaius time to gather support in the Senate, declare you his heir all legal and official.”
“And puts me somewhere that is both beyond the reach of potential assassins and of unquestionable of importance to the realm,” Tavi said. “I am particularly fond of the former.”
The sailors began casting off mooring lines, and Kitai took Tavi’s hand firmly. “Come,” she said. “Before you splatter your breakfast all over your armor.”
As the ship pushed away from the dock and began to rock with the motion of the sea, Tavi felt his stomach began to slowly roil, and he hurried to his cabin to relieve himself of his armor and make sure that he had plenty of water and an empty bucket or two available. He was a terrible sailor, and life on a ship was pure torment.
Tavi felt another twinge in his belly and thought longingly of nice, solid ground, be it ever so littered with assassins.
Two months at sea.
He could scarcely imagine a greater nightmare.
* * * * * *
“This stinks,” complained Tonnar, from five yards behind Kestus’ mount. “This is like some kind of bad dream.”
Kestus glanced down at the field hatchet strapped to his horse’s saddlebag. It would be hard to get much strength behind a throw while riding a horse, but Tonnar’s head was so soft, it probably wouldn’t matter. Of course, then there would be the matter of the moron’s corpse and potential murder charges.
True, Kestus had the entire deserted run of the wilderness southwest of the Waste to hide the body in, but there was the matter of the new man to complicate things. He glanced back at the third member of the patrol, the slender, wiry pipsqueak who called himself Ivarus and had enough sense to keep his mouth shut most of the time.
Kestus was a strong believer in avoiding complications. So he did what he usually did when Tonnar flapped his lips. He ignored him.
“Do you know what it’s like closer to the Waste?” Tonnar continued. “Wild furies everywhere. Outlaws. Pestilence. Starvation.” He shook his head mournfully. “And when old Gaius blew Kalare off the face of the earth, he sent about half the able bodied men in the whole area away with it. Women are throwing themselves at men for a couple of copper rams or the heel of a loaf of bread. Or just to have someone around who they think will protect their brats.”
Kestus thought wistfully of murder.
“I talked to this one guy from the northern march,” Tonnar went on. “He plowed four women in one day.” The loudmouth slashed the extra length of his reins savagely at the branches of a nearby tree, scattering autumn leaves and striking his mount’s neck sharply by mistake. The horse twitched and jolted, and Tonnar barely kept from being thrown.
The man cursed the horse savagely, kicking harder than necessary with his heels and jerking hard on the reins to bring it back under control.
Kestus idly added theoretical torture to the theoretical murder, because done right, it might be funny.
“And here we are,” Tonnar snarled, waving his arm in a broad circle at the silent expanse of trees all around them. “Men are making fortunes and living like lords, and Julius leads us out into the middle of nowhere. Nothing to see. Nothing to loot. No women to bed.”
Ivarus, his face mostly hidden beneath the hood of his cloak, broke a branch about as thick as a man’s thumb from a tree beside the trail. Then he nudged his horse up into a trot and drew up alongside Tonnar.
“We could have them lining up to spread their legs for us for the price of a piece of bread,” Tonnar was saying. “But no—”
Ivarus quite calmly lifted the branch and broke it over Tonnar’s head. Then, without a word, he turned and nudged his horse back into his original position.
“Bloody crows!” Tonnar bellowed, reaching one hand up to clutch at his skull. “Crows and bloody furies, what is wrong with you, man?”
Kestus didn’t bother trying to hide his smile. “He thinks you’re a bloody idiot. So do I.”
“What?” Tonnar protested. “Because I want to tumble a girl or two?”
“Because you want to take advantage of people who are desperate and dying,” Kestus said. “And because you haven’t thought things through. People are starving. Disease is rampant. And soldiers get paid. How many legionares do you think have been murdered in their sleep for the clothes on their back, the coins in their purse? How many do you think have fallen sick and died, just like all those holders? And in case it slipped your notice, Tonnar, all those outlaws would have every reason to kill you. You’d probably be too busy trying to stay alive to spend any time humiliating women.”
“Look,” Kestus said. “Julius got us all the way through Kalare’s rebellion in one piece. None of our company died. And out here, we’re out of the worst of it. It might not pay as well, or have the… opportunities, as the patrols nearer the Waste. But we aren’t dying of plague or getting our throats cut while we sleep, either.”
Tonnar sneered. “You’re just afraid to take chances.”
“Yep,” Kestus agreed. “So’s Julius. Which is why we’re all in one piece.” So far.
The loudmouth shook his head and turned to glare at Ivarus. “You touch me again and I’m going to gut you like a fish.”
“Good,” Ivarus said. “Once we hide the body, Kestus and I can switch out our mounts with yours and pick up the pace.” The hooded man glanced up at Kestus. “How much longer until we get back to camp?”
“Couple of hours,” Kestus replied laconically. He gave Tonnar a very direct glance. “Give or take.”
Tonnar muttered something under his breath, and subsided. The rest of the trip passed in blessed, professional silence.
Kestus liked the new man.
They rode into the glade that Julius had chosen as their camp as twilight settled over the land. It was a good site. A steep hillside had provided them a place to earthcraft something that almost resembled shelter from the weather. A small stream trickled nearby, and the horses whickered, their steps quickening as they recognized the place where they would receive some grain and rest.
But just before he rode out of the shelter of the belt of heavy evergreens that surrounded the glade, Kestus stopped his horse.
Something was wrong.
His heartbeat sped up a little, as a tension with no obvious explanation seized him. He remained still for a moment, trying to trace the source of his unease.
“Bloody crows,” sighed Tonnar. “What is it now—”
“Quiet,” Ivarus whispered, his voice tense.
Kestus glanced back at the wiry little man. Ivarus was on edge as well.
The camp was completely silent and still.
The company of rangers that was supposed to patrol this area of what had once been the lands of the High Lord Kalarus Brencis numbered a dozen strong, but three and four-man patrols moved in and out of the camp on a regular basis. It was not inconceivable that all but a pair of the rangers were out on their rounds. It was not unthinkable that whoever was minding the camp might have gone on a quick local sweep, hoping to turn up some game.
But it didn’t seem very likely.
Ivarus brought his horse up beside Kestus’ and murmured, “The fire’s out.”
And that pinpointed it. In an active camp, a fire was kept alight almost as a matter of course. It was too much of a headache to let it go out and continually rebuild it. Even if the fire had burned down to hot coals and ashes, there was still the scent of wood smoke. But Kestus couldn’t smell the camp’s fire.
The wind shifted slightly, and Kestus’ horse tensed and quivered with sudden apprehension, its wide nostrils flaring. Something moved, perhaps thirty yards away. Kestus remained still, fully aware that any motion would draw attention toward him. Footsteps sounded, crunching on fallen autumn leaves.
Julius appeared. The grizzled ranger wore his usual forest leathers, all deep browns, grays, and greens. He stopped at the fire pit, staring down at it, and otherwise not moving. His mouth hung slightly open. He looked pale and weary, and his eyes were dull and flat.
He just stood there.
Julius never did that. There was always work to be done, and he detested wasted time. If nothing else, the man would spend any idle time he had fletching more arrows for the company.
Kestus traded a glance with Ivarus. Though the younger man did not know Julius the way Kestus did, Ivarus’ expression said that he had reached the same conclusion as Kestus had as to the proper course of action—a cautious, silent withdrawal.
“Well there’s old Julius,” Tonnar growled. “Happy now?” Tonnar growled, kicking his heels into his horse’s flanks and nudging the beast into motion. “Can’t believe he let the fire die. Now we’ll have to rebuild it before we can eat.”
“No, fool!” hissed Kestus.
Tonnar looked back over his shoulder at them with an exasperated expression. “I’m hungry,” he said plaintively. “Come on.”
The thing that ripped its way from the earth beneath the feet of Tonnar’s mount was like nothing Kestus had ever seen.
It was huge, the size of a wagon, and covered in a gleaming, slick-looking green-black shell or armor of some kind. It had legs, a lot of them, almost like a crab’s, and great, grasping pincers like the claws of a lobster, and glittering eyes recessed into deep divots in that strange shell.
And it was strong.
It ripped a leg from Tonnar’s horse before Kestus could so much as cry out a warning.
The animal went down, screaming, blood flowing everywhere. Kestus heard Tonnar’s bones breaking as the horse landed on him. Tonnar began to scream in agony—and kept screaming as, with the other claw, the monster, whatever it was, ripped his belly open, right through his mail, and spilled his entrails into the cool air.
A half-hysterical thought flashed through Kestus’ stunned mind: the man couldn’t even die quietly.
The creature began to methodically rip the horse apart, its motions as swift and sure as a butcher hard at work.
Kestus felt his eyes drawn to Julius. His commander turned his head slowly to face them, and opened his mouth in a slow, wide gape.
Julius screamed. But the deafening sound that came out was nothing even remotely human. There was something metallic to it, something dissonant, an odd, warbling tone that set Kestus’ teeth on edge and set the horses to dancing and tossing their heads, their eyes rolling whitely in sudden fear.
The sound died away
And an instant later, the forest came alive with rustling.
Ivarus lifted his hands and drew back his hood, the better to hear the sound. It came from all around them, cracklings of crushed fallen leaves, rasping of pine needles against something brushing through them, snapping of twigs, pinecones, fallen branches. No one sound was more than a bare murmur. But there were thousands of them.
The forest sounded as if it had become one enormous bonfire.
“Oh, great furies,” breathed Ivarus. “Oh bloody crows.” He shot a wide-eyed glance at Kestus as he whirled his horse, his face pale with terror. “No questions!” he snarled. “Just run! Run!”
Ivarus suited action to his words, kicking his mount into a run.
Kestus tore his eyes away from the empty-eyed thing that had been his commander, and sent his horse leaping after Ivarus’.
As he did, he became aware of . . .
Things, in the forest. Things moving, keeping pace with them, shadows that remained only half-seen in the deepening darkness. None of them looked human. None of them looked like anything Kestus had ever seen. His heart pounded with raw, instinctive terror, and he called to his mount, demanding more speed.
It was madness to ride like this—through the forest, in the deepening dark. A tree trunk, a low branch, a protruding root, or any of a thousand other common things could kill a man or his horse if they collided with them in the night.
But the things were drawing closer, behind and on either side of them, and Kestus realized what it meant: they were being hunted, like fleeing deer, with the pack in full pursuit, working together to bring down the game. Terror of those hunters overrode his judgment. He only wished his horse could run faster.
Ivarus splashed across a creek and abruptly altered his course, sending his mount plowing through a thorny thicket, and Kestus was hot on his heels. As they tore through the thicket, ripping their hides and the hides of their mounts, Ivarus reached into his belt pouch and drew forth a small globe made of what looked like black glass. He said something to it, then spun in his saddle, shouted, “Down!” and threw it at Kestus’ face.
Kestus ducked. The globe zipped over his hunched shoulders, and into the dark behind them.
There was a sudden flash of light and a roar of literal flame. Kestus shot a glance over his shoulder, to see fire spreading over the thicket with such manic intensity that it could only have been the result of some kind of furycraft. It washed out like a wave, spreading in all directions, burning the dried material of the thickets in eager conflagration—and it was moving fast. Faster than their horses were running.
They burst free of the thicket barely a panicked heartbeat ahead of the roaring flame—but not before two creatures the size of large cats came flying out of the blaze, burning like flock of comets. Kestus got a glimpse of a too-large, spider-like creature—and then one of them landed on the back of Ivarus’ horse, still blazing.
The horse screamed, and its hoof struck a fallen log or a depression in the forest floor. It went down in a bone-breaking tumble, taking Ivarus with it.
Kestus was sure that the man was as good as dead, just as Tonnar had been. But Ivarus leapt clear of the falling horse, tucked into a roll, and controlled his fall, coming back to his feet several yards later. Without missing a beat, he drew the short gladius from his belt, impaled the creature still clinging to his mount’s haunches, then hacked the second burning spider-thing from the air before it could reach him.
Before the its corpse had hit the ground, Ivarus hurled two more of the black globes into the night behind them, one to the left and the other to the right. Blazing curtains of fire sprang to life in seconds, joining with the inferno of the burning thicket.
Kestus fought his panicked horse to a halt, savagely forced it to turn, and rode back for Ivarus, while the wounded horse continued to scream in agony. He extended his hand. “Come on!”
Ivarus turned and, with a single, clean stroke, ended the horse’s suffering. “We won’t get away from them riding double,” he said.
“You don’t know that!”
“Crows, man, there’s no time! They’ll circle that screen and be on top of us in seconds. Get out of here, Kestus! You’ve got to report this.”
“Report what?” Kestus all but screamed. “Bloody crows and—”
The night went white, and red-hot pain became Kestus’ entire world. He dimly felt himself fall from his horse. He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t scream. All he could do was hurt.
He managed to look down.
There was a blackened hole in his chest. It went through the mail, just at his solar plexus, dead center of his body. The links surrounded it had melted together. A firecrafting. He’d been hit with a firecrafting.
He couldn’t breathe.
He couldn’t feel his legs.
Ivarus crouched over him, and examined the wound.
His sober face became even grimmer. “Kestus,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do.”
Kestus had to work for it, but he focused his eyes on Ivarus. “Take the horse,” he rasped. “Go.”
Ivarus put a hand on Kestus’ shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said again.
Kestus nodded. The image of the creature dismembering Tonnar and his mount flashed to mind. He shuddered, licked his lips and said, “I don’t want those things to kill me.”
Ivarus closed his eyes for a second. Then he pressed his lips together and nodded, once.
“Thank you,” Kestus said, and closed his eyes.
* * * * *
Sir Ehren ex Cursori rode Kestus’ horse until the beast was all but broken, using every trick he’d ever learned, seen, heard about or read about to shake off pursuit and obscure his trail.
By the time the sun rose, he felt as weak and shaky as his mount—but there was no further sign of pursuit. He stopped beside a small river and leaned against a tree, closing his eyes for a moment.
The Cursor wasn’t sure if his coin would be able to reach Alera Imperia from such a minor tributary—but he had little choice but to try. The First Lord had to be warned. He drew out the chain from around his neck, and with it the silver coin that hung from it. He tossed the coin into the water and said, “Hear me, little river, and hasten word to thy master.”
For several moments, nothing happened. Ehren was about to give up and start moving again, when the water stirred, and the surface of the water stirred, rose, and formed itself into the image of Gaius Sextus, the First Lord of Alera.
Gaius was a tall, handsome man, who appeared to be in his late forties, if one discounted the silver hair. In truth, the First lord was in his eighties, but like all powerful watercrafters, his body did not tend to show the effects of age that a normal Aleran would. Though his eyes were sunken and weary-looking, they glittered with intelligence and sheer, indomitable will. The water sculpture focused on Ehren, frowned, and spoke.
“Sir Ehren?” Gaius said. “Is that you?” His voice sounded strange, like someone speaking from inside a tunnel.
“Yes, sire,” Ehren replied, bowing his head. “I have urgent news.”
The First Lord gestured with one hand. “Report.”
Ehren took a deep breath. “Sire. The vord are here, in the wilds to the southwest of the Waste of Kalare.”
Gaius’ expression suddenly stiffened, tension gathering in his shoulders. He leaned forward slightly, eyes intent. “Are you certain of this?”
“Completely. And there’s more.”
Ehren took a deep breath.
“Sire,” he said quietly. “They’ve learned furycrafting.”