Amara hadn’t seen the Count of Calderon for months. When she and her escort of Knights Aeris swept down into the Calderon Valley, and to Bernard’s fortress-town of Garrison, she felt a flutter of excitement low in her belly.
To her surprise, Garrison had grown visibly, even in the weeks since she had last visited. What had begun as a tent-town on the Aleran side of the fortress walls had become a collection of semi-permanent wooden homes, and now she could see that Bernard had found the money to hire enough earthcrafters to begin erecting buildings of stone, which would provide shelter from the deadly furies of this frontier of the realm.
The really surprising development was what was happening on the outside of the protective walls of the fortress. Tents were spread out over the ground into an open market, and she could see a few hundred people moving about them, doing business as they might on any market day. That wasn’t so terribly unusual. The shocking thing was that most of the people moving around the improvised market were Marat.
The pale barbarians and their beasts had been little but an infrequent and vicious menace from the perspective of Aleran history, and only twenty years or so earlier, an invading horde had massacred the Crown Legion, which was still recovering from heavy losses in a previous campaign. Thousands of legionares and camp followers and holders of the valley had died in a single day, including Princeps Gaius Septimus and all but one of his personal armsmen—Sir Miles, now Captain of the newly recreated Crown Legion.
It had been one of Alera’s bitterest defeats, and though the First Lord and his legion had scoured the valley of Marat, nothing could bring his son and heir back from the grave. Alerans died. The next First Lord died. There was no shortage of hard feelings between Alerans and their barbarian neighbors.
And yet, there were the peddlers and merchants, doing business with the Marat as they might in any town in the Realm. Many horses grazed lazily over the plain leading deeper into Marat territory, and Amara could see two dozen massive gargants doing the same. A group of perhaps a dozen wolves loitered in the morning sunshine on a mound of weather-worn boulders half a mile away. The Horse and Gargant tribes were, more than any other Marat, allies of the Alerans—or more precisely, allies of Bernard, Count of Calderon, and so their presence was understandable. But the Wolf tribe had struck her as the cruelest and most bloodthirsty of the Marat, and had invariably been a foe of the realm.
Times, it would seem, were changing, perhaps for the better, and she felt a fierce surge of pride that Bernard had been one of the people responsible for that change.
Amara tried to remain relaxed and calm, but despite her efforts, she found herself hundreds of yards ahead of her escort. The sentry over the gate called up a relaxed challenge, and waved her in before she’d finished giving her name. After years of visiting the Count of Calderon, most of the legionares regularly stationed there knew her face by now, especially the remaining veterans of Giraldi’s century. Those men, cut down to a bare sixty serving legionares, were the only century in the history of the realm to have twice received the scarlet stripe of the Order of the Lion for valor, and they enjoyed sporting the red blazon on both legs of their uniform trousers with the same casually false disregard other legionares did their weaponry and armor.
Amara swept down into the courtyard, willing her wind fury, Cirrus, to bring her to earth still moving, and stepped with unconscious grace into a smooth trot that carried her across the courtyard and up the stairs that lead to the Count’s office and chambers. She went up the stairs two at a time, though she knew it made her look like an overeager girl bound for the arms of her lover—but she couldn’t manage any more than that.
Before she reached the top of the stairs, the door above her opened and Bernard appeared in the doorway. He was a large man, broad-shouldered and strong, his dark hair and beard, both clipped legion short in legion-fashion, salted with threads of premature silver. His strong, weather-darkened face broke into a wide smile, and he caught Amara up in his arms as though she weighed no more than a newborn lamb. She twined her arms around his neck and buried her face into the space between his throat and his shoulder, holding tight and breathing in the scent of him—leather and fresh-cut hay and woodsmoke.
He promptly carried her inside, into his spare, utilitarian office, and she nudged the door shut with her foot in passing.
As soon as they were alone, she caught his face between her hands and kissed his mouth, slowly, luxuriously, thoroughly. He returned the kiss with slowly building heat for several moments before breaking it off to murmur, “Are you sure this is the best way to conceal our marriage?”
Amara looked up at him, smiling and then nuzzled close and closed her teeth on the skin of his throat, a quick, delicate little bite. “What married couple,” she murmured, her fingers already undoing the buttons of his tunic, “behaves like this?”
His voice deepened into a rough growl, and she felt him shift her weight to hold on one arm, while the other slid along her thigh. “But no one’s watching us now.”
“I like to be thorough,” she replied, lips moving against his skin, her breath coming more swiftly. “It’s the safest thing.”
Her husband’s growl deepened into a rumble, and he abruptly turned with her and sat her on the edge of his oaken desk. There was the sound of steel rasping on steel as he drew the dagger from his belt and set it beside her on the desk. She protested, “Bernard, not ag–”
His mouth covered hers in a sudden, scorching kiss that briefly silenced Amara. He opened the heavy jacket of her flying leathers, and one hand tightened on the small of her back, all but forcing her to arch her body to meet his mouth as he nuzzled her through the thin muslin of her blouse. His teeth scored lightly over the tips of her breasts, a sharp and sweet little agony, and the sudden inferno that the touch ignited erupted through her body, utterly robbing her of the ability to speak anything but a low and desperate moan of need.
She found herself squirming, hips grinding against his, as he took up the knife and with quick, certain flicks, cut the leather cords binding the seams on the outside of one leg of her leather breeches. Far from objecting, she urged him to hurry with her hands and body and mouth, and began tearing at his own clothing as she felt the air touch more and more naked skin.
Her eyes met his, and as she always did, Amara felt stunned at the depth of desire in them, that this man, her secret husband, actually wanted her so very badly. At first she had hardly believed what she had seen in his face, and even now it was a feeling that remained fresh and new. More, it sparked an answering desire far beyond anything she had ever dared hope to feel. For Amara, it was exhilarating that a man should want her so genuinely, so desperately. This man. Her husband, her lover.
He made Amara feel beautiful.
He kissed her, hands and mouth roaming over her until she thought she would lose her mind. She let out a low cry, gave her desires free rein, and he took her there on the desk, his presence, his strength, his scent, his touch all blending into torturous pleasure she could hardly endure. Her desire to touch and to feel drove all thoughts from her mind. Nothing mattered but what she could taste, hear, feel, smell, and she embraced it with abandon.
Hours later, she lay with him in his wide bed, her long, slender limbs twined with his. She could not remember precisely when he had carried her into his chambers, but the angle of the sunlight striking one wall through a high, narrow window told her that afternoon was rapidly fading toward twilight. She was naked, but for the single silver chain she wore around her neck, and Bernard’s heavy Legion ring set with a green stone that hung upon the necklace. One of his arms was around her, and his body was a heavy, relaxed presence.
Amara lay there, sleepy and content, idly stroking one of her own slender, honey-brown hands over the cords of muscle in one of his arms. She had seen Bernard casually lift loads that even a gargant would not consider a light burden, through the power given him by his earthcrafting, and she found it eternally amazing that so strong a man could be so very, very gentle too.
“I missed you, my lady,” he murmured, his voice pitched low, a lazy, satisfied growl in his tone.
“And I you, my lord.”
“I’ve been looking forward to this trip.”
Amara let out a wicked little laugh. “If you had your way, we’d stay right here.”
“Nonsense,” he said, but smiled as he did. “I miss my nephew.”
“And that’s what you’ve been looking forward to,” she murmured. She moved her hand. “Not this.”
Her husband’s eyelids fluttered shut and he let out a low hiss. “Don’t get me wrong. Mmmm. I have no objections to that. None at all.”
He felt the soft, dark hairs of his chest brush against her cheek as she smiled. “I suppose it works out then.”
Bernard laughed, a relaxed and warm sound. He tightened his arm around her slightly and kissed her hair. “I love you.”
“And I you.”
He fell quiet for a moment, and she felt herself tense up a little. She could sense that he wanted to ask her, and that he was uncertain about whether or not to speak. His hand slid over her belly, strong and gentle.
She knew that he could not feel the scars that the Blight had left over her womb, but she flinched for an instant regardless. She forced herself to remain quiet and relaxed, and covered his hand with both of hers. “Not yet,” she said. She swallowed and said, “Bernard . . .”
“Hush, love,” he said, voice strong and sleepy and confident. “We’ll keep trying.”
“But . . .” She sighed. “Two years, Bernard.”
“Two years of a night here, a night there,” he said. “We’ll finally have some time together in Ceres.” His hand drifted over her skin, and Amara shivered. “Weeks.”
“But love. If I can’t give you a child . . . your duties as a Count call for you to pass the strength of your crafting down to children. You owe it to the realm.”
“I’ve done my part for the realm,” Bernard said, and his tone became unyielding. “And more. And I will give the Crown its talented children. Through you, Amara. Or not at all.
“But . . .” Amara began.
He turned to face her and murmured, “Do you wish to leave me, my lady?”
She swallowed and shook her head, not trusting herself to speak.
“Then let’s have no more talk of it,” he said, and kissed her rather thoroughly. Amara felt her protests and worries beginning to dissolve into fresh heat.
Bernard let out another low growl. “Think you we’ve thrown off sufficient suspicion for this visit, my lady?”
She laughed, a throaty sound. “I’m not sure.”
He let out another low sound and turned his body to her. His hand moved, and it was Amara’s turn to shiver in pleasure at a touch. “We’d best play it safe, then,” he murmured. “And attend to duty.”
“Oh,” she whispered. “Definitely.”
* * * * *
In the coldest, darkest hours of the night, Amara felt Bernard tense and sit bolt upright in bed, his spine rigid with tension. Sleep dragged hard at her, but she denied it, slipping from the depths of formless dreams.
“What is it?” she whispered.
“Listen,” he murmured.
Amara frowned and did. Gusts of winds rushed against the stone walls of Bernard’s chambers in irregular surges. From far away, she thought she could hear a faint sound on the wind, inhuman shrieks and moans. “A furystorm?”
Bernard grunted and swung his legs off the side of the bed and rose. “Maybe worse. Light.” A furylamp on the table beside the bed responded to his voice, and a golden glow arose from it, allowing Amara to see Bernard dress in short, hurried motions.
She sat up in bed, pressing the sheets to her front. “Bernard?”
“I just have to make sure it’s being taken care of,” Bernard said. “It won’t take a moment. Don’t get up.” He gave her a brief smile and then paced out across his office and opened the door. Amara heard the wind slam against it, and the distant sound of the storm rose to a deafening howl until he shut the door behind him.
Amara frowned, and rose. She reached for her flying leathers, and then regarded the sliced ties with a sigh. Instead, she dressed in one of the Count of Calderon’s shirts and draped one of Bernard’s capes around her. It was large enough to wrap around her several times and fell past her knees. She closed her eyes for a moment and breathed in the lingering scent of her husband on the fabric, then opened the door to follow him.
The wind hit her like a physical blow, a cold, wet wind heavy with a fine mist. She grimaced and willed her wind fury, Cirrus, into the air around her in order to shield her from the worst of wind and rain.
She stood at the top of the stairs for a moment, peering around the fortress. Furylamps blazed against the storm, but the wind and gusts of cold rain blunted their radiance, reducing it to little more than spheres an arms-length across. Amara could see men hurrying through the storm-cast shadows and standing their watches atop Garrison’s walls in armor and spray-soaked cloaks. The barracks that housed the contingent of Knights attached to the forces under Bernard’s command opened, men spilling out of them and hurrying for the walls.
Amara frowned and called to Cirrus again. The fury lifted her in a smooth rush of wind from the steps and deposited her on the heavy stone roof of the building, which allowed her to see over the fortress walls and out over the plains beyond.
The furystorm lurked there like an enormous beast, out over the broad, rolling plains that marked the beginning of Marat territory. It was an enormous, boiling cauldron of lightning and scowling storm cloud. Its own inner fires lit the lands about in a display brighter than the light of a strong moon. Pale, luminous forms swept in and around bolts of lightning and rolling mist—windmanes, the savage and deadly furies that accompanied the great storms.
Lightning flashed abruptly, so brightly that it hurt Amara’s eyes, and she saw fire reach down from the storm in a solid curtain that raked at the ground and sent earth and stone spraying up from the impact in clouds and pieces she could see from miles away. Even as she watched, whirling, twitching columns of fire lit cloud descended from the storm and touched upon the earth, darkening into half a dozen howling funnels that scattered earth and stone into a second, earth-bound storm cloud.
She had never seen a storm of such raw, primal power, and it frightened her to her bones—though not nearly as much as when the tornados, each howling like a thing in torment, turned and flashed across the lightning-pocked earth toward the walls of Garrison. More wails, though infinitely smaller, rose in ragged dissonance as the windmanes came soaring down from the clouds overhead, outriders and escorts for the deadly vortices.
Heavy iron alarm bells sounded. The gates of the fortress opened, and perhaps two dozen Aleran traders and half as many Marat came running through them, seeking shelter from the storm. Behind her, she could hear other bells ringing as the folk of the shantytown were admitted to enter the safety of the stone shelters within the fortress.
Cirrus whispered a warning into her ear, and Amara turned to find the nearest of the windmanes diving upon the men on the walls over the gate. A flash of lightning showed her Bernard, his great war-bow in hand, bent to meet the wild fury’s attack. It glittered off the tip of his arrow—and then the heavy bow thrummed and the arrow vanished, so swiftly did the war bow send it flying.
Amara found her heart in her throat—steel was of absolutely no use against windmanes, and no arrow in the realm could slay one of the creatures. But the windmane screamed in agony and veered off, a ragged hole torn in the luminous substance of its body.
More windmanes dove down, but Bernard stayed on the wall, calmly shooting those glitter-tipped arrows at each, while the Knights under his command focused their attention upon the coming storm.
The Knights Aeris of Garrison, windcrafters at least as strong as Amara, each and every one, as well as those who had escorted her here, lined the walls, shouting to one another over the maddened, furious howls of wind and storm. With a concentrated effort, each of them focused upon the nearest of the whirling tornados, and then together they let out a sudden shout. Amara felt a shift in air pressure as the Knight’s furies leapt forth to at their command, and the nearest tornado abruptly wobbled, wavered, and then subsided into a murky, confused cloud that slowed and all but vanished.
More windmanes shrieked their anger and dove at the Knights Aeris, but Bernard prevented them from drawing near, sending unerring shots through each of the glowing, wild furies as they charged. Together the Knights focused on the next tornado, and the next, each one being dispersed. In only moments, the last of the tornados bore down upon the walls, but it withered and died before it could quite reach.
The storm rolled overhead, rumbling, lightning flashing from cloud to cloud, but it had a weary quality to it, now. Rain began to fall, and the thunder shrank from great, roaring cracks of sound to low, discontented rumbles.
Amara turned her attention to the walls, where the local Knights Aeris were returning to their quarters. She noted, in passing, that the men hadn’t even bothered to don their armor. One of them, in fact, was still quite naked from bed, but for the legionare’s cloak he held wrapped around his waist. Her own escort looked a bit wild around the eyes, but wry remarks and lazy laughs from the Knights of Garrison seemed to be steadying the men.
Amara shook her head and descended back to the stairs, retreating into Bernard’s chambers. She slipped some more wood onto the fire and stirred it and its attendant furies to greater heat and light. Bernard returned a few moments later, bow in hand. He unstrung it and set it in a corner.
“I told you,” he said, amusement in his tone. “Nothing worth getting out of bed for.”
“Such things are common here?” she asked.
“Lately,” he said, frowning faintly. He had gotten soaked in the rain and spray, and he peeled wet clothing on his way to stand beside the fire. “Though they’ve been rolling in from the east lately. That’s unusual. Most of the furystorms here start up over old Garados. And I can’t ever remember having this many this early in the year.”
Amara frowned, glancing in the direction of the surly old mountain. “Are your holders in danger?”
“I wouldn’t be standing here if they were,” he replied. “There are going to be windmanes out until the storm blows itself out, but that’s common enough.”
“I see,” she said. “What arrows did you use on those windmanes?”
“Target points, covered in a salt crystal.”
Salt was the bane of the furies of the wind, and caused them immense discomfort. “Clever,” Amara said. “And effective.”
“Tavi’s idea,” Bernard said. “He came up with it years ago. Though I never had the cause to try it until this year.” He broke into a sudden grin. “The boy’s head will swell up when he hears about it.”
“You miss him,” Amara said.
He nodded. “He’s got a good heart. And he’s the closest thing I’ve had to a son. So far.”
She doubted it, but there was little use in saying so. “So far,” she said, her tone neutral.
“Looking forward to Ceres,” Bernard said. “I haven’t spoken to Isana in weeks. That’s strange for me. But I suppose we’ll have time on the trip.”
Amara said nothing, and the crackling of the fire emphasized the sudden tension that built up between them.
Bernard frowned at her. “Love?”
She drew in a breath and faced him, her eyes steady on his. “She declined the First Lord’s invitation to be transported by his Knights Aeris. Politely, of course.” Amara sighed. “Aquitaine’s people are already bringing her to the conclave of the Dianic League.”
Bernard frowned down at her, but his eyes wavered away, moving to the warmth of the fire. “I see.”
“I don’t think she would have cared to keep much company with me anyway,” Amara said quietly. “She and I . . . well.”
“I know,” Bernard said, and to Amara her husband suddenly looked years older. “I know.”
Amara shook her head. “I still don’t understand why she hates Gaius so much. It’s as though it’s personal for her.”
“Oh,” Bernard said. “It is.”
She touched his chest with the fingers of one hand. “Why?”
He shook his head. “I’m as ignorant as you are. Ever since Alia died . . .”
“Younger sister,” Bernard said. “She and Isana were real close. I was off on my first tour with the Rivan Legions. We were way up by the Shieldwall, working with Phrygia’s troops against the icemen. Our parents had died a few years before, and when Isana went into service in the Legion camps, Alia went with her.”
“Where?” Amara asked.
Bernard gestured to the western wall of the room, indicating the whole of the Calderon Valley. “Here. They were here during the First Battle of Calderon.”
Amara drew in a sharp breath. “What happened?”
Bernard shook his head, and his eyes looked a bit more sunken. “Alia and Isana barely escaped the camp before the horde destroyed it. From what Isana said, the Crown Legion was taken off guard. Sold its own lives to give the civilians a chance to run. There were no healers. No shelter. No time. Alia went into childbirth, and Isana had to choose between Alia and the baby.”
“Tavi,” Amara said.
“Tavi.” Bernard stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Amara. She leaned against his strength and warmth. “I think Isana blames Alia’s death on the First Lord. It isn’t rational, I suppose.”
“But understandable,” Amara murmured. “Especially if she feels guilty about her sister’s death.”
Bernard grunted, lifting his eyebrows. “Hadn’t ever thought of it that way. Sounds about right. Isana has always been the type who blames herself for things she couldn’t have done anything about. That isn’t rational either.” He tightened his arms on Amara, and she leaned into it. The fire was warm, and her weariness slowly spread over her, making her feel heavy.
Bernard gave her a last little squeeze and then picked her up. “We both need more sleep.”
She sighed and laid her head against his chest. Her husband carried her to the bed, undressed her of the clothing she’d thrown on before rushing into the rain, and then slipped into the sheets with her. He held her very gently, his presence steady and gentle, and she slipped an arm around him before falling into a doze that quickly sank toward deeper sleep.
She considered the furystorm in the drifting stillness that comes just before dreams. Her instincts told her that it had not been natural. She feared that, like the severe storms two years ago, it might be a deliberate effort on behalf of one of the realm’s enemies to weaken Alera. Especially now, given the events stirring across the realm.
She choked down a whimper and pressed herself closer to her husband. A quiet little voice in her thoughts told her that she should take every moment of peace and safety that she could find—because she suspected they were about to become memories.