Amara woke, buried to her armpits in the earth. Loose dirt had been piled over her arms, and into her hair. Her face felt thick, heavy, and after a moment, she realized that her entire head had been liberally smeared with mud.
She struggled to gather her wits through a pounding headache, piecing together fragments of memories and perceptions until with a dizzying rush of clarity she remembered where she was, and what had happened to her.
Her heart started to thud hard in her chest, and fear made her buried limbs feel cold.
She opened her eyes, and bits of dirt fell into them, so that she had to blink quickly. Tears formed to wash the dirt out. After a few moments, she was able to see.
She was in a tent. The commander’s tent in the camp, she guessed. Light poured into it through a gap in the flap that served as a door, leaving the tent’s interior described in terms of dimness, shadow, and dark.
“You awake yet?” croaked a voice from behind her. She turned her head, trying to look. She could barely see Fidelias out of the corner of her eye, but he was there, hanging in a cage of iron bars by straps around his shoulders and outstretched arms, leaving his feet dangling a good ten inches off of the floor. He had a swelling bruise on his face, and his lip had been split and was crusted with dry blood.
“Are you all right?” Amara whispered.
“Fine. Apart from being beaten, captured, and scheduled for torture and interrogation. You’re the one who should be worried.”
Amara swallowed. “Why me?”
“I think this can safely be considered a failing mark in your graduation exercise.”
Amara felt her mouth curve into a smile, despite the circumstances. “We have to escape.”
Fidelias tried to smile. The effort split his lip some more, and fresh blood welled. “Extra credit–but I’m afraid you won’t get the chance to collect on it. These people know what they’re doing.”
Amara tried to move, but she couldn’t struggle up out of the earth. She barely succeeded in freeing her arms enough to move them–and even so, they were thickly encrusted with dirt. “Cirrus,” she whispered, sending her thoughts out, towards her fury. “Cirrus. Come pull me out.”
She tried again. And again. Her wind fury never responded.
“The dirt,” she said, finally, and closed her eyes. “Earth to counter air. Cirrus can’t hear me.”
“Yes,” Fidelias confirmed. “Nor can Etan or Vamma hear me.” He stretched his toes towards the ground, but could not reach. Then he banged his foot against the iron bars of his cage.
“Then we’ll have to think our way out.”
Fidelias closed his eyes and let out a slow breath. Then he said, gently, “We’ve lost, Amara. Checkmate.”
The words hit Amara like hammers. Cold. Hard. Simple. She swallowed, and felt more tears rising, but blinked them away with a flash of anger. No. She was a Cursor. Even if she was to die, she’d not give the enemies of the Crown the satisfaction of seeing her tears. She thought for a fleeting moment of her home, the small apartment back in the capital, of her family, not so far away, in Parcia by the sea. More tears threatened.
She took up her memories, one by one, and shut them away into a dark, quiet place in her mind. She put everything in there. Her dreams. Her hopes for the future. The friends she’d made at the Academy. Then she shut them away and opened her eyes again, clear of tears.
“What do they want?” she asked Fidelias.
Her teacher shook his head. “I’m not sure. This isn’t a smart move for them. Even with these precautions, if something went wrong, a Cursor could slip away and be gone as long as he was still alive.”
The flap of the tent flew open, and Odiana walked through it, smiling, her skirts swirling in the drifting dust the daylight revealed. “Well then,” she said. “We’ll just have to remedy that.”
Aldrik came in behind her, his huge form blocking out the light completely for a moment, and a pair of legionares followed him. Aldrick pointed at the cage, and the two went to it, slipped the hafts of their spears through rings at its base, and lifted it, between them, carrying it outside.
Fidelias shot Aldrick a hard look and then licked his lips, turning to Amara. “Don’t be proud, girl,” he told her, as the guards started carrying him out. “You haven’t lost as long as you’re alive.”
Then he was gone.
“Where are you taking him,” Amara demanded. She swept her eyes from Odiana to Aldrick, and tried not to let her voice shake.
Aldrick drew his sword and said, “The old man isn’t necessary.” He went outside the tent.
A moment later, there was a sound not unlike a knife sinking into a melon. Amara heard Fidelias let out a slow, breathless cry, as though he had tried to hold it in, keep from giving it a voice, and been unable to do so. Then there was a rustling thump, something heavy falling against the bars of the cage.
“Bury it,” Aldrick said. Then he came back into the tent again, sword in hand.
The blade shone scarlet with blood.
Amara could only stare at the blade, at her teacher’s blood. Something about it would not register on her mind. It simply would not accept the fact of Fidelias’ death. This wasn’t how it was supposed to work. The plan should have protected them. It should have gotten them close, and away safely again. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. It had never happened like that at the Academy.
She tried to stop the tears from coming, to push Fidelias’ face into the dark place in her mind with all the other things she cared about. They only flooded over her again, bursting free, and as they did the tears came with it. Amara did not feel clever, any more, or dangerous, or well trained. She felt cold. And dirty. And tired. And very, very alone.
Odiana let out a soft sound of distress and came to Amara’s side. She knelt down with a white kerchief in her hand and reached out to dab at Amara’s tears. Her fingers were gentle, soft. “You’re making clean spots, love,” the woman said, her voice gentle.
Then she smiled as, with her other hand, she crushed fresh earth against Amara’s eyes.
Amara let out a cry and thrust out a hand to defend herself, but she wasn’t able to stop the water witch. She swept at her burning eyes with her dirt-crusted hands, but it did her little good. Her fear and sorrow turned itself into furious anger and she started screaming. She screamed every imprecation she could at them, every curse she had ever heard in her lifetime. She howled, incoherent, and she sobbed into the earth, making muddy tears that burned her eyes. She thrashed her arms and struggled, useless against the grip of the ground she was buried in.
And in answer, there was only silence.
Amara’s anger faded, taking with it whatever strength she had left. She shook with sobs that she tried to hold in. Tried to keep hidden from them. She couldn’t. Shame made her face burn, and she knew that she was trembling, from cold and from terror.
She started blinking her eyes again, slowly gaining back her vision–and as she did, she saw Odiana standing over her, just out of arm’s reach, smiling, her dark eyes glittering. She took a step and with one dainty, bare foot, she kicked more dust into Amara’s eyes. Amara twisted and turned her head away, avoiding it, and shot the woman a hard glare. Odiana hissed, and drew her foot back to kick again, but Aldrick’s voice rumbled across the tent first.
“Love. That’s enough.”
The watercrafter flashed Amara a venomous look, and retreated from her, to the back of Aldrick’s stool, where she rested her hands on his shoulders in a slow caress, eyes on Amara the entire while. The warrior sat on it, his sword across his lap. He ran a cloth along its length, and then tossed it onto the earth. It was stained with blood.
“I’ll make this simple,” Aldrick said. “I’m going to ask you questions. Answer them truthfully, and I’ll let you live. Lie to me or refuse to answer, and you’ll wind up like the old man.” He looked up, his expression entirely without emotion, and focused on Amara. “Do you understand?”
Amara swallowed. She nodded her head, once.
“Good. You’ve been in the palace recently. The First Lord was so impressed with the way you handled yourself during the fires last winter, he asked you to visit him. You were taken to his personal chambers, and spoke with him. Is that true?”
She nodded again.
“How many guards are stationed in his inner chambers.”
Amara stared at the man, her eyes widening. “What?”
Aldrick looked up at her. He stared for a long and silent moment. “How many guards are stationed in the First Lord’s inner chambers.”
Amara let out a shaking breath. “I can’t tell you that. You know I can’t.”
Odiana’s fingers tightened on Aldrick’s shoulders. “She’s lying, love. She just doesn’t want to tell you.”
Amara licked her lips, and then spat mud and dirt onto the floor. There was only one reason to be asking questions about the inner defenses of the palace. Someone wanted to take direct action against the First Lord. Someone wanted Gaius dead.
She swallowed, and bowed her head. She had to stall them, somehow. Stall for time. For the opportunity to find a way to escape–or failing that, to kill herself before she could reveal the information.
She quailed at that thought. Could she do that? Was she strong enough to do that? Before, she would always have thought she was. Before she had been taken, captured, imprisoned. Before she had listened to Fidelias die.
Don’t be proud, girl. Fidelias’ last words to her came back, and she felt her resolve weaken further. Had he been telling her to cooperate with them? Did he think the First Lord was already doomed?
And, she thought, should she? Should she go along with them? Offer to throw in? Should she cast aside what she had been taught, what she believed, for the sake of preserving her life? She couldn’t attempt a ploy–not with Odiana there. The water witch would be able to sense whether or not she was sincere, damn her.
Everything was lost. She had led Fidelias to his death. Gambled his life and lost it. She had lost her own life as well. She might be able to redeem one of them, if she cast her lot with her captors’.
Another surge of anger flooded through her. How could she even be thinking such a thing? How could he have died? Why hadn’t he seen it coming, warned her–
Amara lifted her head, abruptly, and blinked her eyes several times. Her anger evaporated. Why hadn’t Fidelias warned her, indeed. The trap had been too well laid. They had been taken too cleanly. Which meant–
Which meant that Aldrick and Odiana had known that they were coming. And by logical extension . . .
She focused her eyes on the pair of them and swallowed, lifting her chin a bit. “I won’t tell you,” she said, and kept her voice calm. “I’ll not tell you another thing.”
“You’ll die,” said Aldrick, rising.
“I’ll die,” Amara agreed. “You and your water witch can go to the crows.” She took a breath and then raised her voice, honed it to a dagger’s edge. “And so can you, Fidelias.”
She had a moment to take satisfaction in the flicker of surprise in Aldrick’s eyes, the simple gasp that came from Odiana. Then she turned her eyes to the door and narrowed them, keeping her face set in a cold, hard mask.
Fidelias appeared in the doorway, his clothes still rumpled. He had washed the ‘bruise’ off the side of his face, and was holding a clean white cloth to his bleeding lip. “I told you she’d see through it,” he murmured.
“Do I get graded on it, patriserus?” Amara asked.
“A plus.” Fidelias stared at her, and his mouth twisted into a grimace. “You will tell us what you know about the palace, Amara. It might get ugly before it’s over, but you will. This is checkmate. You don’t have to make it hard on yourself.”
“Traitor,” Amara said, dropping the word lightly.
Fidelias flinched. His grimace darkened to a scowl.
Odiana looked back and forth at the sudden silence, and then offered, in a helpful tone, “Shall I fetch the branding irons, then?”
Fidelias turned to them and said, “I think we’ve been hamhanded enough, for the moment.” He focused his eyes on Aldrick and said, “Give me a few moments alone to talk to her. Maybe I can get her to see common sense.”
Aldrick regarded Fidelias with a steady gaze, and then shrugged. “Very well,” he said. “Love, would you?”
Odiana stepped around Aldrick’s stool, eyes focused intently upon Fidelias. “Do you intend to assist her in any way or to attempt to prevent us from discovering what we wish to know?”
Fidelias mouth quirked up at the corner, and he focused on the water witch. “Yes, I do. No, I don’t. The sky is green. I am seventeen years old. My real name is Gundred.” The woman’s eyes widened, and Fidelias tilted his head to one side. “You can’t tell if I’m lying, ‘love’? I’m not some child. I’ve been deceiving crafters stronger than you since before you were born.” His gaze flicked past Odiana to Aldrick. “It’s in my best interests to get her to talk. In for a sheep, in for a gargant.”
The swordsman smiled, a sudden show of white teeth. “Not going to offer me your word of honor?”
The Cursor’s lip curled. “Would it matter if I did?”
“I’d have killed you had you tried,” Aldrick said. “A quarter hour. No more.” He rose, taking Odiana gently by one arm, and led her out of the tent. The water witch shot a glare at both Fidelias and Amara, and then left.
Fidelias waited until they were gone, then turned to Amara and simply looked at her, saying nothing.
“Why?” she asked him. “Patriserus. Why would you do this to him?”
He stared at her, expression not changing. “I have served as a Cursor for forty years. I have no wife. No family. No home. I have given my life to protecting and defending the crown. Carrying its messages. Discovering its enemies’ secrets.” He shook his head. “And I have watched it fall. For the past fifteen years, the house of Gaius has been dying. Everyone knows it. What I have done has only prolonged what is inevitable.”
“He is a good First Lord. He is just. And as fair as anyone could want.”
“This isn’t about what’s right, girl. It’s about reality. And the reality is that Gaius’ fairness and justice has made him a great many powerful enemies. The southern High Lords chafe at the taxes he lays upon them to maintain the Shieldwall and the Shield Legion.”
“They always have,” Amara interjected. “It doesn’t change that the taxes are necessary. The Shieldwall protects them as well. Should the icemen come down from the north, they would perish with the rest of us.”
“They do not see it that way,” Fidelias said. “And they are willing to do something about it. The House of Gaius is weakened. He has no heir. He has named no successor. So they strike.”
Amara spat, “Attica. Who else?”
“You don’t need to know.” Fidelias crouched down in front of her. “Amara. Think about this. Ever since the Princeps was killed, it has been in motion. The house of Gaius died along with Septimus. The royal line was never very fertile–and the death of his only child has been taken as a sign by many. His time is past.”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
Fidelias snarled, “Get it out of your head, child.” He spat on the ground, face twisted in fury. “The blood I’ve shed in the Crown’s service. The men I’ve killed. Is that any more right? Are their deaths vindicated because I serve this First Lord or that one? I’ve killed. I’ve done worse, in the name of protecting the Crown. Gaius will fall. Nothing can stop that now.”
“And you have cast yourself in the role of . . . what, Fidelias? The slive that rushes in to poison the wounded buck? The crow that soars down to peck at the eyes of helpless men not yet dead?”
He looked at her, eyes flat, and gave her a smile empty of mirth or joy or meaning. “It’s easy to be righteous when you are young. I could continue to serve the Crown. Perhaps prolong the inevitable. But how many more would die? How many more would suffer? And it would change nothing but the timing. Children, like you, would come in my place–and have to make the decisions I am making.”
Amara let her voice resonate with contempt. “Thank you, so much, for protecting me.”
Fidelias’ eyes flashed. “Make this easy on yourself, Amara. Tell us what we want to know.”
“Go to the crows.”
Fidelias said, without anger, “I’ve broken men and women stronger than you. Don’t think that because you’re my student, I won’t do it to you.” He knelt down, to look her in the eyes. “Amara. I’m the same man you’ve known. We’ve shared so much together. Please.” His hand reached for her grime-covered one. She didn’t fight his grasp. “Think about this. You could throw in with us. We could help make Alera bright and peaceful again.”
She returned his gaze, steady. Then said, very quietly, “I’m already doing that, patriserus. I thought you were too.”
His eyes hardened like ice, brittle, distant, and he stood up. Amara lurched forward, clutching at his boot. “Fidelias,” she said, pleading. “Please. It isn’t too late. We could escape, now. Bring word back to the Crown and end this threat. You don’t have to turn away. Not from Gaius. And. . .” She swallowed and blinked back tears. “And not from me.”
There was a pained silence.
“The die is cast,” Fidelias said, finally. “I’m sorry you couldn’t be shown reason.” He turned, jerking his leg from her grasp, and walked out of the tent.
Amara stared after him for a moment, then looked down, to where she had palmed the knife Fidelias always kept in his boot, the one he didn’t think she knew about. She shot a glance up to the tent, and as soon as the flap fell, she started attacking the dirt that pinned her. She heard voices talking outside, too quietly to be understood, and she dug furiously.
Dirt flew. She broke it up with the knife and then frantically dug it away with her hands, shoving it away, making as little noise as she possibly could–but even so, her gasps for breath grew louder, bit by bit, as she dug.
Finally, she was able to move, just a bit, to shove enough loose earth forward to wriggle. She reached out an arm and dug the knife into the ground, as hard as she could, and used it as a piton to pull herself forward, up. A sense of elation rushed through her as she strained and wriggled and finally started snaking her way free of the confining earth. Her ears sang with a rush of blood and excitement.
“Aldrick,” snapped the water witch, from outside the tent. “The girl!”
Amara stumbled to her feet and looked around wildly. She lurched across the tent to grasp the hilt of a sword laying across a table, a light gladius little longer than her own forearm, and spun, her body still clumsy from its imprisonment, just as a dark shape filled the entry flap to the tent. She lunged out at it, muscles snapping together to drive the point of the sword in a vicious stroke at the heart of the figure in the doorway–Aldrick.
Steel glittered. Her blade met another and was swept aside. She felt her point bite flesh, but not much or deeply. She knew she had missed.
Amara threw herself to one side as Aldrick’s blade rose in a swift counter, and was unable to escape a cut that flashed a sudden, hot agony across her upper left arm. The girl rolled, beneath a table, and came up on the far side from Aldrick.
The big man came into the tent, and stalked her, pausing across the table. “Nice lunge,” he commented. “You pinked me. No one’s done that since Araris Valerian.” He smiled, then, that wolfish show of teeth. “But you aren’t Araris Valerian.”
Amara never even saw Aldrick’s blade move. There was a hissing hum, and then the table fell into two separate pieces. The man started towards her, through them.
Amara threw the gladius at him and saw his sword rise up to parry it aside. She dove for the back of the tent, now holding only the little knife, and with a quick move slashed a hole in the canvas. She slipped through it, and heard herself whimpering in fear as she began to run.
She flashed a glance behind her as Aldrick’s sword opened the back side of the tent in a pair of strokes and he came through after her. “Guards!” the swordsman bellowed. “Close the gate!”
Amara saw the gate start to swing shut, and she slipped to one side, ran down a row of white tents, gathering up her skirts in one hand and cursing that she hadn’t seen fit to disguise herself as a boy so that she could have worn breeches. She looked behind her. Aldrick still pursued, but she had left him behind like a doe outstripping a big slive, and she flashed a fierce smile at him.
Caked dirt fell off of her as she ran for the nearest wall, and she prayed that she could get enough of it off of her to call to Cirrus. A stepladder rose up to the wall’s defensive platform in front of her, and she took it in three long strides, barely touching it with her hand.
One of the legionares, a guard on the wall, turned towards her and blinked in shock at her. Amara made a ridge of her hand, let out a shout, and drove her hand into the man’s throat, never slowing. He tumbled over backwards, gagging and choking, and she ran past him, to the wall, looking over.
Ten feet down, to the ground level, and then another seven or eight feet of ditch lay beneath her. A crippling fall, if she didn’t land correctly.
“Shoot!” someone shouted, and an arrow hissed towards her. Amara threw herself to the side, and then grasped the top of the wall with one hand and vaulted it, throwing herself out into empty space.
“Cirrus!” she called–and felt the stirring of wind around her, finally. Her fury pressed up against her, turned her body to a proper angle, and then rushed down beneath her, so that she landed on a cloud of wind and blowing dust rather than upon the hard ground of the ditch.
Amara gained her feet again and ran without looking back, stretching, covering the ground in leaps and bounds. She ran to the north and the east, away from the practice fields, away from the stream, away from where they had left the gargant and its supplies. The trees had been cut to make the walls of the encampment, and she had to run across nearly two hundred strides of broken stumps. Arrows fell around her, and one struck through a hanging fold of her skirts, nearly tripping her. She ran on, with the wind always at her back, Cirrus an invisible presence there.
Amara reached the shelter of the trees and paused, breathing hard, looking back over her shoulder.
The gates of the camp swung open, and two dozen men on horses, long spears gleaming, rode out and turned as a column, straight towards her. Aldrick rode at their head, dwarfing the riders nearest him.
Amara turned and ran on, through the trees, as fast as she could. The branches sighed and moaned around her, leaves whispering, shadows moving and changing ominously around her. The furies of this forest were not friendly to her–which made sense, given the presence of at least one powerful woodcrafter: she would never be able to hide from them, in this forest, when the trees themselves would report her position.
“Cirrus,” Amara gasped. “Up!”
The wind gathered beneath her and pushed her up off the ground–but branches wove together above her, moving as swiftly as human hands, joining together, and presented her with only a solid screen. Amara let out a cry and crashed against that living ceiling, then tumbled back to the ground. Cirrus softened her fall with an apologetic whisper against her ear.
Amara looked left and right, but the trees were joining hands, everywhere–and the forest was growing darker as the roof of leaf and bough closed overhead. The beating of hooves came through the trees.
Amara struggled back to her feet, the cut on her arm pounding painfully. Then she started running again, as the horsemen closed in, behind her.
She couldn’t have guessed how far she ran. Later, she only remembered the threatening shadows of the trees, and a burning fire in her lungs and her limbs that even Cirrus’ aid couldn’t ease. Terror changed to simple excitement, and that transformed, by degrees, to a sort of exhausted lack of concern.
She ran until she suddenly found herself looking back–and into the eyes of a mounted legionare, not twenty feet away. The man shouted and cast his spear at her. She stumbled out of the path of the weapon, and away from the horseman–into a sudden flood of sunshine. She looked ahead of her, and found the ground sloping down for no more than three or four strides–and then ending in a sheer cliff that dropped off so abruptly that she could not see how far down it went, or what was at the bottom.
The legionare drew his sword in a rasp of steel, and called to his horse, the animal responding as an extension of his own body, and pounded towards her.
Amara turned without hesitation, and threw herself off of the cliff.
She spread her arms and screamed, “Cirrus! Up!” The wind gathered beneath her in a rush as her fury flew to obey, and she felt a sudden, fierce exultation as, with a screaming whistle of gale winds, she shot up, up into the autumn skies, her wake kicking up dust devils along the ridge that cast dirt up in the face of the unfortunate legionare and set his horse to rearing and kicking in confusion.
She flew on up, away from the camp, and paused after a time, to look behind her. The cliff she’d leapt from looked like a toy from there, several miles behind her and one below. “Cirrus,” she murmured, and held her hands before her. The fury gusted and swirled a part of itself into that space, quivering like the waves rising from a hot stone.
Amara shaped that air with her hands, bending the light, until she was peering back at the cliff through her spread hands as though she stood no more than a hundred yards away. She saw the hunting party emerge, and Aldrick dismount. The legionare who had seen her described her escape, and Aldrick squinted up at the sky, sweeping his eyes left to right. Amara felt a chill as the man’s gaze paused, directly upon her. He tilted his head to the man beside him, the woodcrafter Knight from before, and the man simply touched one of the trees.
Amara swallowed and swept her hands back towards the rebel Legion’s camp.
Half a dozen forms rose up over the treetops, which swayed and danced beneath the winds as though they had been the bushes in a holtwife’s herb garden. They turned and as one they sped towards her. Sun glinted off of steel–armor and weapons, she knew.
“Knights Aeris,” muttered Amara. She swallowed and let her hands fall. Normally, she would have been confident of her ability to outrun them. But now, wounded, and already exhausted in body and spirit, she was not so sure.
Amara turned and bade Cirrus to bear her north and east–and prayed that the sun would set before her foes caught up to her.