Princeps' Fury (prologue, chapters 1-3)
(Codex Alera – 5)
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."
On his previous voyages, it had taken Tavi several days to recover from his seasickness-but those voyages had never taken him out into the ocean deeps. There was, he learned, a vast difference between staying within a long day's sail of land, and daring the deep blue sea. He could not believe how high the waves could roll, out in the empty ocean. It often seemed that the Slive was sailing up the side of a great blue mountain, only to sled down its far side once it had reached the summit. The wind and the expertise of Demos' crew of scoundrels kept the sails constantly taut, and the Slive rapidly took the lead position in the fleet.
By Tavi's order, Demos kept his ship even with the Trueblood, the flagship of the Canim leader, Varg. Demos's crew chafed under the order, Tavi knew. Though the Trueblood was almost unbelievably graceful for a vessel her size, compared to the nimble Slive she moved like a river barge. Demos' men longed to show the Canim what their ship could do, and show the vast, black ship their stern.
Tavi was tempted to allow it. Anything to end the voyage a little sooner.
The greatly increased motion of the waves had increased his motion sickness proportionately, and though it had, mercifully, abated somewhat since those first few horrible days, it hadn't ever gone away completely, and eating food remained a dubious proposition, at best. He could keep down a little bread, and weak broth, but not much more. He had a constant headache, now, which grew more irritating by the day.
"Little brother," growled the grizzled old Cane. "You Alerans are a short-lived race. Have you grown old and feeble enough to need naps in mid-lesson?"
From her position in the hammock slung from the rafters of the little cabin, Kitai let out a little silver peal of laughter.
Tavi shook himself out of his reverie and glanced at Gradash. The Cane was something almost unheard of among the warrior caste-elderly. Tavi knew that Gradash was over nine centuries old, as Alerans counted them, and age had shrunken the Cane to the paltry size of barely seven and a half feet. His strength was a frail shadow of what it had been as a warrior in his prime. Tavi judged that he probably was no more than three or four times as strong as a human being. His fur was almost completely silver, with only bits of the solid, night-dark fur that marked him as a member of Varg's extended bloodline as surely as the distinctive pattern of notches cut into his ears, or the decorations upon the hilt of his sword.
"Your pardon, elder brother," Tavi replied, speaking as Gradash had, in Canish. "My mind wandered. I have no excuse."
"He is so sick he can barely get out of his bunk," Kitai said, her Canish accent better than Tavi's, "but he has no excuse."
"Survival makes no allowances for illness," Gradash growled, his voice stern. Then he added, in thickly accented Aleran, "I admit, however, that he should no longer embarrass himself while attempting to speak our tongue. The idea of a language exchange was a sound one."
For Gradash, the comment was high praise. "It made sense," Tavi replied. "At least for my people. Legionares with nothing to do for two months can become distressingly bored. And should your people and mine find ourselves at odds again, I would have it be for the proper reasons, and not because we did not speak one another's tongues."
Gradash showed his teeth for a moment. Several were chipped, but they were still white and sharp. "All knowledge of a foe is useful."
Tavi responded to the gesture in kind. "That, too. Have the lessons gone well on the other ships?"
"Aye," Gradash said. "And without serious incident."
Tavi frowned faintly. Aleran standards on that subject differed rather sharply from Canim ones. To the Canim, without serious incident merely meant that no one had been killed. It was not, however, a point worth pursuing. "Good."
The Cane nodded and rose. "Then with your consent, I will return to my pack leader's ship."
Tavi arched an eyebrow. That was unusual. "Will you not take dinner with us before you go?"
Gradash flicked his ears in the negative-then a second later remembered to follow it with the Aleran gesture, a negative shake of the head. "I would return before the storm arrives, little brother."
Tavi glanced at Kitai. "What storm?"
Kitai shook her head. "Demos has said nothing."
Gradash let out a rumbling snarl, the Canim equivalent of a chuckle. "Know when one's coming. Feel it in my tail."
"Until our next lesson, then," Tavi said. He titled his head slightly to one side, in the Canim fashion, and Gradash returned the gesture. Then the old Cane padded out, ducking to squeeze out of the relatively tiny cabin.
Tavi glanced at Kitai, but the Marat woman was already swinging down from the hammock. She trailed her fingertips through his hair as she passed his bunk, gave him a quick smile, and left the cabin as well. She returned a moment later, trailing the legion's senior valet, Magnus.
Magnus was spry for a man of his years, though Tavi always thought that the close-cropped legion haircut looked odd on him. He had grown used to Magnus' shock of fine white hair. The old man had wiry, strong hands, a comfortable pot belly, and watery eyes that had gone nearsighted after years of straining to read faded inscriptions in poorly lit chambers and caves. A scholar of no mean learning, Magnus was also a Cursor Callidus, one of the most senior of the elite agents of the Crown, and had become Tavi's de facto master of intelligence.
"Well, Kitai has alerted Demos to what Gradash said," Magnus began, without preamble. "And the good captain will keep a weather eye out."
Tavi shook his head. "Not good enough," he said. "Kitai, ask Demos if he would indulge me. Prepare for a blow, and to signal the rest of our ships to do the same. As I understand it, we've had unusually gentle weather so far, sailing this late in the year. Gradash didn't survive to old age by being a fool. If nothing else, it will be a good exercise."
"He'll do it," Kitai said with perfect confidence.
"Just be polite, please," Tavi said.
Kitai rolled her eyes as she left and sighed, "Yes, Aleran."
Magnus waited until Kitai had left before he nodded to Tavi and said, "Thank you."
"You really can say whatever you like in front of her, Magnus."
Tavi's old mentor gave him a strained look. "Your Highness, please. The Ambassador is, after all, a representative of a foreign power. My professionalism feels strained enough."
Tavi's weariness kept the laugh from gaining too much momentum, but it felt good in any case. "Crows, Magnus. You can't keep beating yourself up for not realizing I was Gaius Octavian. No one realized I was Gaius Octavian. I didn't realize I was Gaius Octavian." Tavi shrugged. "Which was the point, I suppose."
Magnus sighed. "Yes, well. Just between the two of us, I'm afraid that I have to tell you, it's a waste. You'd have been a real terror as a historian. Dealt those pig-headed snobs at the Academy fits for generations, with what you'd have turned up at Appia."
"I'll just have to try to make amends in whatever small way I can," Tavi said, smiling faintly. The smile faded. Magnus was right about one thing-Tavi was never going to go back to the simple life he'd had, working under Magnus at his dig site, exploring the ancient ruin. A little pang of loss went through him. "Appia was very nice, wasn't it?"
"Mmm," Magnus agreed. "Peaceful. Always interesting. I still have a trunk full of rubbings to transcribe and translate, too."
"I'd ask you to send some of them over, but . . . "
"Duty," Magnus said, nodding. "Speaking of which."
Tavi nodded and sat up with a grunt of effort, as Magnus passed over several sheets of paper. Tavi frowned down at them, and found himself studying several unfamiliar maps. "What am I looking at?"
"The Canim mainland," Magnus replied. "There, at the far right . . ." The old Cursor indicated a few speckles in the midst of the map, just at the edge of the paper. "The Sunset Isles, and Westmiston."
Tavi blinked at the map for a moment, looking between the isles and the mainland. "But . . . I thought it was about three week's sailing from those islands."
"It is," Magnus said.
"But that would make this coastline . . ." Tavi traced a fingertip down its length. "Crows. If it's to scale, it would be three or four times as long as the western coast of Alera." He looked up sharply at Magnus. "Where did you come by this map?"
Magnus coughed delicately. "Some of our language teachers managed to make copies of charts on the Canim ships."
"Crows, Magnus!" Tavi snarled, rising. "Crows and bloody furies, I told you that we were not going to play any games like that on this trip!"
Magnus blinked at him several times. "And . . . your Highness expected me to listen?"
"Of course I did!"
Magnus lifted both eyebrows. "Your Highness, perhaps I should explain. My duty is to the Crown. And my orders, from the Crown, are to take every action within my power to support you, protect you, and secure every possible advantage to ensure your safety and success." He added, without a trace of apology, "Including, if in my best judgment I deem it necessary, ignoring orders containing more idealism than practicality."
Tavi stared at him for a moment. Then he said, quietly, "Magnus. I'm not feeling well. But I'm sure that if I ask nicely, when Kitai gets back, she will be happy to throw you off of this ship for me."
Magnus inclined his head, unruffled. "That is, of course, up to you, your Highness. But I would ask you to look it over, first."
Tavi growled under his breath and turned his attention back to the map. The deed was done. There was no sense in pretending it hadn't been. "How accurate is this copy?"
Magnus passed over several other pieces of paper, which were virtually identical to the first.
"Mmmm," Tavi asked. "And these are to scale?"
"That remains unclear," Magnus replied. "There could be differences in the way that the Canim understand and read their maps."
"Not that much difference," Tavi replied. "I've seen the charts they drew of the Vale." Tavi traced a finger down one of the maps that had variously-sized triangles marking the locations of a number of cities. Names had been sketched next to half of them. "These cities . . . I'm sure that . . ." He gave Magnus a sharp glance. "The populations of each of these cities are enormous. As large as any of the High Lords' cities in Alera."
"Yes, your Highness," Magnus said calmly.
"And there are dozens of them," Tavi said. "In this section of coastline alone."
"Just so, your Highness."
"But that would mean . . ." Tavi shook his head slowly. "Magnus. That would mean that the Canim civilization is dozens of times larger than our own--hundreds of times larger."
"Yes, your Highness," Magnus said.
Tavi stared down at the map, shaking his head slowly. "And we never knew?"
"The Canim have guarded their coastline quite jealously over the centuries," Magnus said. "Fewer than a dozen Aleran ships have ever visited their shores-and those have only been allowed to dock at a single port, a place by the name of Marshag. No Aleran has ever been permitted off of the docks-and returned to tell about it, at any rate."
Tavi shook his head. "What about furycrafting? Have we never sent Knights Aeris to overfly it?"
"The range of any flyer is limited. A Knight Aeris could fly perhaps two or three hundred miles and back, but they could hardly expect to do so unobserved-and as we saw subsequent to the Night of the Red Stars, the Canim do possess the ability to counter our flyers." Magnus shrugged, and smiled faintly. "Then, too, it has been speculated that our furycrafting abilities would be significantly reduced, so far from Alera, and our furies' points of origin. It is possible that a Knight Aeris would not be able to fly at all."
"But no one's ever thought to test it?" Tavi asked.
"The ships that have sailed there have all been couriers and merchantment." Magnus flashed Tavi a swift smile. "Besides. Can you imagine the Citizen who would want to rush off to the domain of the Canim amidst a crowd of rude sailors, only to find out that he is just as powerless as they?"
Tavi shook his head slowly. "I suppose not." He tapped a finger on the maps. "Could this be a lie? Deliberately planted for us to find?"
"Possible," Magnus said, approval in his tone, "though I would consider it a very low-order of probability."
Tavi grunted. "Well," he said. "This is rather valuable information."
"I thought it so," Magnus said.
Tavi sighed. "I suppose I won't have you thrown off the ship just yet."
"I appreciate that, your Highness," Magnus said gravely.
Tavi traced his finger over several heavy lines, many of which ran ruler-straight. "These lines. Canals of some sort?"
"No, your Highness," Magnus said. "Those are boundary lines between territories."
Tavi looked up blankly at Magnus. "I don't understand."
"Apparently," Magnus said, "the Canim do not exist as a single governmental body. They are divided into several separate, distinct organizations."
Tavi frowned. "Like the Marat tribes?"
"Not exactly. Each territory is entirely independent. There is no overriding unity, no centralized leadership. Each is governed completely separately from all the others."
Tavi blinked. "That's . . ." He frowned. "I was going to say that it was insane."
"Mmmm," Magnus said. "Because Carna is a savage world, packed with far too many different peoples, most of them in constant conflict with one another. For we Alerans, only a united stand against our foes has allowed us to survive and prosper."
Tavi gestured at the map. "Whereas the Canim have numbers enough that they can afford to be divided."
Magnus nodded. "All things considered, it makes me rather glad that our new Princeps found an honorable, peaceful, and respectful solution to the situation in the Vale."
"Can't hurt to make a good first impression," Tavi agreed. He shook his head slowly. "Can you imagine, Magnus, what would have happened if those hotheaded idiots in the Senate had gotten their way and funded a full-scale retaliation upon the Canim homeland?"
Magnus shook his head in silence.
"With numbers like this," Tavi continued, "they could have wiped us out. Furycrafting or no, they could have destroyed us at will."
Magnus' face turned grim. "So it would seem."
Tavi looked up at him. "So why didn't they?"
The old Cursor shook his head again. "I don't know."
Tavi studied the map for a time, examining the various territories. "Then Varg, I take it, is a member of only one of these territories?"
"Yes," Magnus said. "Narash. It's the only territory which has actually made contact with Alera."
The territory of Narash, Tavi noted, was also home to the port of Marshag. "Then I suppose the next question we need to ask ourselves is-"
Outside the cabin, the ship's bell began to ring frantically. Demos began bellowing orders. A few moments later, the captain himself knocked and then opened the cabin door.
"Magnus," he said, nodding to the old Cursor. "My lord," he said, nodding to Tavi. "The old sea dog was right. There's a storm coming up on us from the south."
Tavi winced, but nodded. "How can we help you, Captain?"
"Tie down anything that isn't bolted to the floor," Demos said, "including yourselves. It's going to be a bad one."
Valiar Marcus debated the proper way to inform the proud young Canim officer that there was, in fact, a considerable distinction between telling an Aleran that he had a poor sense of smell and informing him that he smelled bad.
The young Cane, Marcus knew, was anxious to make a good showing in his language lessons in front of no less personages than both Varg, the undisputed commander of the Canim fleet, and his son and second in command, Nasaug. If Marcus made the young officer look foolish, it would be an insult that the Cane would carry stubbornly to his grave-and given the enormous lifespan of the wolf-folk, it meant that Marcus' actions could cause repercussions, good or ill, for generations yet unborn.
"While your statement is doubtless accurate," Marcus replied, in careful, slow, clearly pronounced Aleran, "you may find that many of my countrymen will respond awkwardly to such remarks. Our own sense of smell is, as you note, a great deal less developed than your own, and as such the use of language that bears upon it will carry a different degree of significance than it might among your own folk."
Varg growled under his breath and muttered, "Few, Aleran or Cane, care to be informed that their odor is unwelcome."
Marcus turned his head to the grizzled old leader of the Canim and inclined his head, in the Alearn fashion. "As you say, sir."
He had only a split-second's warning as the embarrassed young officer let out a snarl and lunged at Marcus, his jaws snapping.
Marcus had recognized the signs of brittle pride, which, it seemed, were as common and easily noted among ambitious young Canim as it was among their Aleran counterparts. Marcus was nearing sixty years of age, and would never have been fast enough to have met the Cane, had he been relying upon his senses alone to warn him-but foresight had always proved to be a far more effective defense than speed alone. Marcus had been anticipating the flash of temper and instant violence.
The Cane was eight feet of coiled, steely muscle, fangs and hard bone, and weighed two or three of Marcus-but as its jaws darted forward, it was unable to twist away when Marcus seized its ear in one calloused fist and hauled to one side.
The Cane twisted and rolled with the motion, letting out a snarl that rose to a high-pitched yelp of agony as it instinctively moved toward the source of the pull against his sensitive ear, to reduce the pressure on it. Marcus took advantage of the motion, breaking the Cane's balance, building momentum, and dropped his entire weight as well as the young Cane's full onto his furry chin, slamming it to the deck with a skull-jarring crack of impact.
The young Cane lay there stunned for a moment, his eyes glazed, his tongue hanging out of his mouth, bleeding from a small cut.
Marcus rose and straightened his tunic. "An inferior sense of smell," Marcus said, as if absolutely nothing of significance had happened, "is distinct from being told that one smells unpleasant. It's possible that someone sensitive might think you intended an insult. I personally am only an old centurion, too old to be dangerous in a fight any more, and find nothing insulting in either statement. I am not at all angry, and could do nothing about it even if I was upset. But I would hate for someone less tolerant and more capable to do you harm when, clearly, you are only trying to be friendly. Do you understand me?"
The young officer stared at Marcus with glazed eyes. He blinked a few times. Then his ears twitched in a vague little motion of acknowledgment and assent.
"Good," Marcus said, in his rough but functional Canish, smiling with only the slightest baring of his teeth. "I am glad that you make adequate progress in your efforts to understand Alerans."
"A good lesson," Varg growled in agreement. "Dismissed."
The young Cane picked himself up, bared his throat respectfully to Varg and Nasaug, and then walked rather unsteadily from the ship's cabin.
Marcus turned to face Varg. The Cane was a giant of his race, nearly nine feet tall when standing, and the Trueblood had been built to fit him. The cabin, which was as cramped as any shipboard space, to the Cane, was cavernous to Marcus. The Cane, a great black-furred creature, his coat marred with the white streaks of many scars, crouched on his haunches, the at-rest posture of his kind, negligently holding a thick, heavy scroll in his paw-like hands, open to the middle, where he had been reading during the language lesson.
"Marcus," murmured Varg, his basso growl as threatening and familiar as it always was. "I expect you want an explanation for the attack."
"You have a young officer who would be promising if he wasn't an insufferably arrogant fool, convinced of the invincibility of your kind and, by extension, his own."
Varg's ears flicked back and forth in amusement. His eyes went to Nasaug-a Cane who was a shorter, brawnier version of his sire. Nasaug's mouth dropped open, white fangs bared and tongue lolling in the Canim version of a smile.
"Told you," Varg said, in Canish. "Huntmasters are huntmasters."
"Sir?" Marcus asked. He understood the separate meanings of the words, but not their combined context.
"Senior warriors," Nasaug clarified, to Marcus. "They are given command of groups of novices. Long ago, they would form hunting packs, and teach the young to hunt. The teacher was called the huntmaster."
"These days," Varg growled, "the word means one who trains groups of young soldiers, and prepares them for their place in the order of battle. Your legions have something like them as well."
"Centurions," Marcus said, nodding. "I see."
"The pup would not have killed you," Nasaug said.
Marcus faced the younger Cane squarely and calmly. "No, sir," he replied, his voice steady. "He would not have. And out of respect for the Princeps' desire for a peaceful journey, I did not kill him."
"Why would you have done so, huntmaster?" growled Varg, his voice quietly dangerous.
Marcus turned back to face him without flinching. "Because I would far rather leave a dead fool behind me than a live enemy who has gained a measure of wisdom. In the future, I would take it as a courtesy if I was not used as an object lesson beyond those which I have already been commanded to give."
Varg bared his fangs in another Canim smile. "It is good to see that we understand one another. My boat is prepared to take you back to your ship, if you are ready, Valiar Marcus."
Varg bowed his head and neck, Aleran-style. "Then go your way, and find good hunting."
"And you, sir."
Marcus had just turned to the door when it opened, and a lean Cane, reddish-furred and small for his kind, entered the cabin. Without preamble he bared his throat slightly to Varg and said, "A severe storm approaches, my lord. We have half of an hour or less."
Varg took that in with a growl and dismissed the sailor with a jerk of his head. He glanced at Marcus. "No time to send you back and recover our boat," he said. "It looks as though you're staying for a time."
"Sire," growled Nasaug. There was a note of warning in his tone, Marcus thought. It was not difficult to guess at its source. Marcus had come to the immediate conclusion that he did not relish the notion of being effectively trapped within the hectic conditions of a ship under a storm with the angry young officer still smarting from his learning experience.
"The foremost cabin," Varg said.
Nasaug's tail lashed in a gesture that Marcus had come to recognize as one of surprise. The younger Cane quickly controlled himself and rose. "Centurion," he rumbled, "if you would come with me. It would be best to have you out of the way so that the sailors may do their work. We will do our best to keep you comfortable."
Marcus thought, with a dry amusement, that in this case comfortable was synonymous with breathing. But one learned rather quickly that the Canim had a viewpoint distinct from that of Alerans.
He followed Nasaug onto the Trueblood's deck. Its timbers had all been painted black-which would never have happened to an Aleran vessel. Quite the opposite, in fact. Ships were generally whitewashed. They made it easier for the crew to see what they were doing at night, particularly during bad weather, when few reliable light sources were to be had. All the black wood around them gave the ship a grim, funeral appearance, which was certainly imposing, particularly when combined with the black sails. A Cane's night vision, though, was far superior to an Aleran's. They likely had no trouble operating at night, whatever color the ship was tinted.
Nasaug led him to the foremost cabin on the ship-the one generally considered to be the least desirable, Marcus knew. On a sailing vessel, the wind generally blew in from the stern, and whoever was furthest downwind received the benefit of every unpleasant odor on board-and there were generally plenty to be had. The door to the cabin was low, barely Marcus' own height, but rather than simply entering, Nasaug paused and knocked first-then waited for the door to be opened.
When it did, the cabin beyond was completely unlit, windowless and dark. A quiet voice asked, "May we serve, son of Varg?"
"This Aleran huntmaster is under Varg's protection," Nasaug said. "My sire bids you to safeguard him until he can be returned to his people after the storm."
"It will be done," the voice said. "He may enter, son of Varg."
Marcus arched an eyebrow at that, and glanced at Nasaug.
The Cane gestured toward the doorway with his snout. "Your quarters, Centurion."
Marcus glanced at the dark doorway and then at Nasaug. "I'll be comfortable here, will I?"
Nasaug's ears flicked in amusement. "More so than anywhere else on the ship."
One of the critical things the Alerans had learned about dealing with the Canim, largely in thanks to the Princeps himself, was that they placed a far higher priority on body language than humanity did. Words could be empty, and statements of motion and posture were considered to be a great deal more reliable and genuine indicators of intention. As a result, one did not display physical signs of fear before the predatory wolf-warriors, if one wanted to avoid being, for example, eaten.
So Marcus firmly clubbed down the instinctive apprehension the unseen speaker had awakened in him, nodded calmly to Nasaug and stepped into the darkened cabin, shutting the door behind him. In the darkened cabin, he became acutely aware of how thin his tunic and trousers were, and for the first time since the ships had left port, more than a month ago, he missed the constant burden of his armor. He did not put his hand to his sword-the gesture was too obvious. The knives he had concealed on his person would doubtless be of more use in any fight in this blackness, in any case. It would all happen in terrible proximity.
"You are no huntmaster," said the unseen Cane after a moment. It let out a chuckling snarl. "No, no warrior."
"I am a centurion of the First Aleran Legion," he responded. "My name is Valiar Marcus."
"Unlikely," replied the voice. "It is more likely that you are called Valiar Marcus, I should judge."
Marcus felt the tension sliding into his shoulders.
"We have been watching your spies, you know. They are largely untrained. But we had no idea that you were one of them until only yesterday-and even that was the result of an accident. The wind parted a curtain and you were seen reading one of Varg's scrolls when he was out of the cabin."
A second voice, this one to the right and higher up, spoke. "Only chance revealed you."
A third voice, this one low and to his left added, "The mark of an adept of the craft."
Marcus narrowed his eyes in thought. "Varg didn't bring in that pig-headed brat to use me to teach him a lesson," he said. "He did it to delay my departure until the storm stranded me here."
"At our request," confirmed the first speaker.
Marcus grunted. But Varg had played the entire situation out as if it had been his usual planning intersecting with chance, all the way through. It meant that for whatever reason, he wanted to keep this conversation concealed, even from his own people. It implied dissension in the ranks-always useful information.
It also meant that his current hosts could only be one thing. "You're Hunters," he said quietly. "Like the ones who tried to assassinate the Princeps."
There the sound of soft motion in the dark, and then one of the Canim drew a heavy cloth away from a bowl filled with a liquid that cast off a glowing red light. Marcus could see the three Canim, lean, grey-furred members of the breed, with somewhat larger, more fox-like ears than most of the warriors he had seen. They were dressed in the loose robes patterned in grey and black that had been described upon the Hunters every time they had been seen back in the Amaranth Vale.
The cabin was small, containing two bunk beds. One Cane crouched on the floor over the bowl. Another sprawled across the top bunk at one side of the room, while a third sat in an odd-looking crouch on the bottom bunk opposite. The three Canim were all but identical, down to the shade and patterning of their fur, marking them as family, probably brothers.
"Hunters," said the first Cane. "So your folk have named us. I am called Sha."
"Nef," growled the second.
"Koh," said the third.
The wind had begun to rise, deepening the roll of the ship. Thunder rolled across the vast, open sea.
"Why have you brought me here?" Marcus said.
"To give you warning," Sha replied. "You need not fear attack at the hands of the Narash. But the other territories have given your kind no pledge of safety. They regard your kind as vermin, to be exterminated on sight. Varg can only protect you to a certain point. If you continue to Canea, you will do so at your own peril. Varg suggests that your Princeps may wish to consider turning back now, rather than continuing on."
"The Princeps," Marcus said, "is remarkably unlikely to be motivated by the possibility of danger."
"Be that as it may," Sha said.
"Why tell me here?" Marcus asked. "Why not send a messenger to the ship?"
All three Hunters stared at Marcus with unreadable expressions. "Because you are the enemy, Valiar Marcus. Varg is of the warrior caste. His honor will no more permit him to give aid and warning to the enemy than to grow fresh fangs."
Marcus frowned. "Ah, I think I see. Varg cannot do it, but you can."
Sha flicked his ears in affirmation. "Our honor lies in obedience and success, regardless of methods and means. We serve. We obey."
"We serve," murmured Nef and Koh. "We obey."
Thunder roared again, this time from terribly nearby, and the wind rose to a howl. Far beneath the scream of the storm, another sound rolled-deeper than thunder, longer, rising in a ponderous, gargantuan ululation Marcus had heard only once before, and that many, many years ago.
It was the territorial bellow of a leviathan, one of the titans of the seas who could smash ships-even ships the size of the Trueblood-to kindling. Storms generally roused them, and the turbulent waters made it a great deal more difficult for each ship's water witches to conceal their vessel from the monsters.
Men and Canim were going to die in this storm.
Marcus swallowed his fear and sat down with his back to the wall, closing his eyes. If the Hunters meant him harm, they would have done it already. Now all he had to worry about was the very real possibility of an angry leviathan smashing the Trueblood into a cloud of driftwood and leaving everyone aboard her to the mercy of the stormy sea.
Marcus found that idea to be only moderately troublesome. He supposed it was all relative. Such a death, while horrific, would at least be impersonal. There were far worse ways to die.
For example, the Princeps could discover what the Hunters had realized-that Valiar Marcus was not a simple, if veteran centurion in an Aleran legion. That he was, in fact, exactly what they had assessed him to be, namely a spy operating incognito. That he had been placed there by the Princeps' mortal enemies back in Alera was not something that the Hunters could be expected to realize, but should one of the Princeps' personnel or, great furies forbid, Octavian himself realize that Valiar Marcus was only a cover identity for Fidelias ex Cursori, servant to the Aquitaines and traitor to the Crown, there would be the crows to pay.
Fidelias had left the employ of the Aquitaines. Indeed, he regarded his letter of resignation as one of the more decisively eloquent messages he had ever sent-flawed only in the fact that it had not deprived the High Lady Aquitainus Invidia of her cold-blooded life. Yet that would not matter. Once he was discovered, his life was forfeit. Fidelias knew this. He accepted it. Nothing he did would ever change the fact that he had betrayed his oath to the Crown and cast his lot with the traitors who would have usurped Gaius' rule.
One day, he would be crucified for his crimes.
But until that day, he knew who he was and what he would do.
Valiar Marcus closed his eyes and, with the skill of most seasoned soldiers, dropped almost immediately to sleep.
Amara, Countess Calderon, wiped the sweat from her brow and regarded the thinning cloud cover with a certain amount of satisfaction. Once again, the local wind furies had attempted to marshal their strength for an assault upon the folk of the Calderon valley, one of the dangerous furystorms that so often sent its holders running for the shelter of its stone buildings. And once again, she had been able to intervene before the storm could properly take shape.
It wasn't a monumental effort, really, to unravel such an affair, provided she could reach it early enough. A great many things had to happen before a storm could build enough power to be a danger to the people under her husband's care, and if she could break it up at its earliest stages, it was a fairly simple matter to ensure that the storm never took place. It had surprised her, really.
Perhaps it shouldn't have. It was always easier to demolish something than to create it. Look at her sense of dedication to the First Lord, for example. Or her trust and love for her mentor, Fidelias.
The bitter thoughts brought quiet pain and sadness with them that were at direct odds with the cheery sunbeams that began to break through the disrupted storm clouds, bathing Amara with the wan, feeble warmth of early winter sunlight. She closed her eyes for a moment, taking in whatever warmth she could get. It was always cold, once one flew more than a mile or so above the ground, as she was now-particularly if one wore a dress instead of flying leathers, as she was now. She hadn't felt that she would need the heavier gear, given that she would only be up here for half an hour or so-a brief errand, up to moderate heights, and then back to her duties at Garrison, where the Countess of Calderon had a great many very minor, undeniably useful, and extremely satisfying tasks that required her attention.
Amara shook her head, dismissing the thoughts as much as she could, and called out to Cirrus, her wind fury. At one time, she would have sped as recklessly as she possibly could have toward Garrison-but the thunder and racket of such speeds could prove an annoyance to the holders, and it seemed unthinkably impolite to her now. And it would leave the hem of her dress in tatters and her hair in a hideous mess, besides. At one time, that wouldn't have mattered to her in the least-but appearances mattered to many of the people she had to deal with on a daily basis now, and it made them easier to deal with if she looked like the Countess they expected.
And besides. While he'd never actually said as much-he never would-her husband's eyes had spoken volumes about his approval of her more . . . polished, she supposed, appearance of late.
Amara smirked. As had his hands. Et cetera.
She glided back to Garrison at a swift but practical pace, passing over the much-expanded town to land in the original fortress that straddled the narrow mountain pass at the eastern end of the Calderon Valley, now itself serving as a citadel in a township nearly the size of a Lord's holding, rather than a simple County. What had begun as an open-air market run by a score of ambitious peddlers hawking their wares to a few hundred of the nomadic Marat passing through the area had become a regional trading post involving dozens of merchant interests and attracting thousands of visitors interested in trade, including both the pale-skinned barbarians and ambitious Aleran businessmen.
The growing town had demanded increasingly large supplies of food, and the farmers of the Valley's steadholts had expanded their households and their fields, growing more prosperous with each passing season. Alerans from other parts of the realm, attracted to the opportunity in the Calderon Valley, had begun to arrive and settle in, and Bernard had already approved the founding of four new steadholts.
Amara frowned, as she cruised in for a landing. Technically, she supposed, only two of them were actually new. The others had been rebuilt atop the ruins of the steadholts that had been destroyed by the vord infestation some years before.
Amara shuddered at that memory.
With the help of the Marat, they had been destroyed-for the moment. But they were still out there. She and Bernard had done everything they could to warn their fellow Alerans of the threat they represented, but few had been willing to listen with an open mind. They didn't understand exactly how dangerous these creatures could be. If and when the vord returned, the fools might not have time to realize their mistake, much less to correct it.
Amara had despaired of ever making enough people understand. But her husband, in his usual fashion, had simply turned his hand to another course of action. If Bernard had done all that he could to strengthen the realm as a whole, then he had done all that he could. Instead, he returned to Calderon and began to fortify the valley, doing everything within his power to prepare to defend his home and his people against the vord or any other threat that might come against them. And, given the revenue from the taxation of the booming business in his holding, those preparations were formidable indeed.
She exchanged greetings with the sentries on the walls and descended to the courtyard, before crossing to the commander's quarters. She nodded to the legionare on duty outside, and went in, to find Bernard poring over a set of plans with his secretary and a pair of legion engineers. He stood a head taller than the rest of them, and was broader across the shoulders and chest. If his dark hair was frosted with more silver at the temples than it had been in the past, it did not detract from his appearance-far from it. He still wore the short beard he always favored, though it was rather more heavily salted with gray. Dressed in a forester's green tunic and leather breeches, he wouldn't have looked like a Citizen at all, but for the excellent quality of material and manufacture of his clothing. His eyes were serious and intelligent, though the faint lines of a scowl had appeared between his brows.
"I don't care if it's never been done before," Bernard told the older of the two engineers. "Once you do it, no one will be able to say that again, now will they?"
The engineer ground his teeth. "Your Excellency, you must understand-"
Bernard's eyes narrowed. "I understand that if you speak one more word to me in that condescending tone of voice, I'm going to roll up these plans and shove them so far up your-"
"Assuming that you aren't too busy," Amara interjected smoothly, "I wonder if I might have a quiet moment with you, my lord husband."
Bernard glared at the engineer, then took a deep breath, composed himself, and faced Amara. "Of course. Gentlemen, shall we continue this after lunch?"
The three men murmured agreement. The senior engineer seized his stack of plans from the table without ever taking his eyes off of Bernard, quickly put both hands behind him, and began rolling the papers up in an almost frantic hurry as he backed from the room. Amara was put in mind of a chipmunk stumbling upon a sleeping grass lion and fleeing for its life.
She found herself smiling as she shut the door behind the chipmunk.
"Rivan legions," Bernard spat, pacing the functional, plainly appointed office. "They haven't stood to battle in so long, they might as well call them Rivan construction crews. Always finding reasons why something can't be done. Most often, because it isn't done that way."
"The useless parasites," Amara said, nodding in compassion. "Aren't your own men members of the Rivan legions, my lord?"
"They don't count," Bernard growled.
"I see," Amara said gravely. "Did not you, yourself, serve in the Rivan legions, my lord?"
Bernard stopped pacing and looked at her helplessly.
Amara couldn't stop herself. She burst out laughing.
Bernard's face twitched through half a dozen separate emotions. Then a smile broke the surface of his features and he shook his head wryly. "Breaking up storms before they have time to properly gather themselves again, are we?"
"It is my duty as Countess Calderon," Amara said. She crossed the room to him, stood on her toes, and kissed him lovingly on the mouth. He slipped an arm around the small of her back and drew her close against him, drawing the kiss out over a slow, delicious minute. Amara let out a pleased little sound as their mouths parted, and smiled up at him. "Long day?"
"Better now," he said. "You must be hungry."
"Starving. Shall we?"
They had just stepped outside when the sentry sounded a ram's horn-a challenge to incoming Knights Aeris. A moment later, the distant sound of another horn came to them in answer, and a few seconds later, a flight of Knights Aeris swept down from overhead at maximum speed, twenty strong, bearing a wind coach among them.
"Odd," Bernard said. "Twenty for a single coach? The harness only needs six."
"An escort, perhaps," Amara said.
"Nearly a legion's allotment of Knights Aeris as escorts? Who would be that important who would need them?"
The Knights waited until the last possible moment to slow down, and landed in the courtyard in front of Garrison's command building amidst a hurricane roar of furycrafted wind.
"Extra hands," Amara said, understanding, as the roar died down. "They're flying at top speed, taking turns as bearers."
Bernard grunted. "What's the rush?"
One of the Knights Aeris came running over to Bernard and slammed a fist to his breastplate in a legion salute. Bernard returned the gesture automatically.
"Your Excellency," the Knight said. He offered a sealed envelope. "I must ask you and the Countess to come with me at once."
Amara lifted her eyebrows and traded a glance with her husband. "Are we under arrest?" she asked, carefully keeping her tone neutral.
"The details are in the letter," the Knight replied.
Bernard had already opened the letter, and was reading it. "It's from the First Lord," he said quietly. "We are commanded to come to Alera Imperia at once."
Amara felt a hot flash of anger. "I don't work for Gaius anymore," she stated, her tone precise.
"Are you refusing to comply, Countess?" asked the Knight, politely.
"Amara-" Bernard began.
Amara should have remained silent, but the fires of her anger sparked memories of other fires, far more horrible, and her pain got the better of her. "Give me one reason why I should."
"Because if you do not," said the Knight politely, "then I have been ordered to arrest you and bring you to the council in chains, if necessary."
Amara felt her knuckles pop in protest as her hand clenched into a fist.
Bernard put a large, strong hand on her shoulder, and rumbled, "We'll come, captain."
"Thank you," the Knight said, his expression serious. "This way, please."
"Let me fetch a few things for the trip, please."
"Two minutes," the Knight said. "I can delay no more than that, your Excellency."
Amara blinked at him. "Why not?" she asked him quietly. "What is happening?"
"War," he said shortly. For a moment, his eyes looked haunted. "We're losing."
Tune in next Tuesday for a new installment!