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Princeps' Fury

Jim Butcher

  That statement drew another round of interesting growl-mutters, and within a moment, two of the warriors had found a barrel, filled it with freshwater, and unceremoniously deposited their commanding officer in it.

  Tavi had been correct in his assessment of the wound. It had incapacitated the Cane with pain and debilitating damage to major muscles, without destroying tendons or slicing open major blood vessels. The crafting used to repair such damages was not precisely easy, but it was fairly simple and straightforward, and Antillar Maximus excelled at such tasks. Within moments, he withdrew his hand from the water and chanted what every Legion healer did after he wrapped up work with a legionare on a comparatively minor injury, "Done. You'll be hungry and tired tonight. That's normal. Eat plenty of meat, drink plenty of liquid, sleep as much as you are able."

  The Canim began to help Anag out of the barrel, but he waved them out and climbed out on his own. He sprang down to the pier and landed on the leg that had been wounded, taking most of his weight on it. He let out a small growl of discomfort--Tavi knew from experience that the leg would ache like the devil for an hour or so yet--but he was able to use it.

  The Canim warriors watched with ears forward and eyes bright as Anag practiced a pair of sword-practice footwork sequences including a long lunge, performing them smoothly. They flicked their ears in acknowledgment afterward. It was something along the same lines of cheers or applause from Aleran troops.

  Anag approached Tavi and bared his throat. Tavi matched the gesture, but a little less deeply.

  "The use of your healer's skills is appreciated," Anag growled.

  "He is a warrior, and no true healer," Tavi replied. "My healers would be mildly insulted at the comparison."

  "I meant no offense," Anag said, perhaps a shade more quickly than he might have.

  "None is perceived," Tavi replied. "As I was responsible for your injuries, it seemed fitting to me to restore you."

  Anag tilted his head, his eyes searching. "You were responsible for sparing my life when you might have killed me. You owed me nothing."

  "You were doing your duty, protecting your pack leader--even one such as he," Tavi replied. "I would not offer an insult to Lararl by depriving him of a valuable warrior's service, even temporarily, when I had the means to make it otherwise."

  Anag nodded, then bared his throat again, a shade more deeply. "I will see to accommodating your people as well, Tavar of Alera. You have my word."

  "It is appreciated," Tavi said gravely. "And I give you mine that my people will abide peaceably here and will not lift a weapon save to defend themselves from attack."

  "It is appreciated," Anag replied. "Your weapons, please."

  Tavi arched an eyebrow.

  Varg looked at him, then smoothly drew his sword and passed it over, hilt first, to Anag. "Aleran," he prompted.

  Tavi understood that the surrendering of weapons carried multiple levels of significance to the Canim, but he was unsure exactly what was contained within this particular gesture. Still, it wasn't something worth jeopardizing their hosts' willingness to grant them shelter over, not with the ships still at sea and bad weather on the way, so he slipped both baldrics from his shoulders and passed over the swords hilt first. "Why?"

  "We have sought shelter and refuge from Lararl, a Warmaster of the Shuar," Varg said. "The local pack leader has granted it, provisionally. Now we must go and speak to Lararl, and he will decide our fate."

  That sounded fairly ominous. "Meaning what?" Tavi asked.

  Varg blinked at Tavi as if he had asked a rather foolish question. "Meaning that we have surrendered to the enemy, Aleran. You are a prisoner of war."


  The air coach lurched wildly to one side and suddenly plummeted. If Ehren hadn't been wearing the safety strap secured around his waist, he'd have slammed his head against the roof of the coach. As it was, his stomach lurched up into his throat, and his arms flew upward, seemingly of their own accord. The book he'd been holding flew up and smacked into the ceiling of the coach, bounced, then simply floated there, as the coach continued to fall, faster and faster.

  The wind roared, but Ehren could hear the sounds of men screaming to one another over it.

  "What's happening?" Ehren shouted.

  The First Lord, his expression calm, leaned over to look out the coach's window. "It would seem that we're under attack," he called back, as the coach continued to dive.

  "But we're still miles from the Vord's territory!" Ehren protested.

  "Yes," Gaius said. "Rather inconsiderate of them."

  Ehren snatched at his book. "What do we do?"

  "The spin has stopped, which means we're in a controlled dive," Gaius replied, and settled back into his seat as if they were having an idle discussion while waiting for tea. "We let our Knights Aeris do their jobs."

  Ehren swallowed and clutched his book to his chest. A few seconds later, the floor of the coach suddenly pressed up hard against him, and he found himself almost doubled over by the abruptly enormous weight of his own body. The coach pitched to the left abruptly, then to the right. There was a scream of agony from one of the men outside.

  Something slammed against the side of the coach, and blood-smeared fingers smashed through the window beside Ehren, clutching desperately to the window frame despite the jagged teeth of broken glass remaining. Ehren leaned over to see a young Knight Aeris, his face pale, one arm dangling uselessly, hanging on for his life.

  Ehren tore off his straps and shoved open the wind coach's door. The sudden drag made the cart slew toward the door side, creating a windbreak by the door. Ehren wrapped one safety strap around his wrist and leaned out the door of the coach, reaching for the wounded Knight.

  He seized the man by the collar of his mail. The Knight let out a shriek at the sudden touch, then focused bleary, terrified eyes upon Ehren.

  The Cursor gritted his teeth, let out a scream, and hauled with all of his strength, using his legs and back as well as his arm. It occurred to him that if the strap broke, he and the young Knight would doubtlessly fall to their deaths together--but there wasn't time to spare for worrying about such things.

  Fortunately, the young Knight wasn't on the brawny or heavy side, and Ehren was able to drag him into the coach, all but throwing him to the floor.

  "The door!" the First Lord called, helping to pull the wounded man the rest of the way in. "Close it! It's slowing us down!"

  Ehren staggered in the wildly swaying coach, trying not to step all over the wounded Knight, and leaned out to grasp at the door.

  He had a short look at the outside. The coach was racing along at a dangerous pace, skimming thirty feet above the six-foot-long grass stalks of the central plains of the Amaranth Vale. The sun had all but set, and the sky was scarlet and midnight blue.

  It was also full of Vord.

  Ehren wasn't sure exactly what he was looking at. He recognized the shapes of the Knights Aeris readily enough, the familiar armored forms streaking by, supported by their furies' windstreams. But there were more--many more--of the strange, black, glistening shapes with wings like dragonflies, greenly translucent.

  An instinct made him look up in time to see one of the enemy plunging down toward him. He had a second, perhaps two, to get a look at it.

  It almost looked human.

  It had two arms, two legs, a head, with a face that was human in shape--but eerily featureless except for its segmented eyes. Dragonfly wings buzzed behind its shoulders, and its arms terminated not in hands, but in a single, gleaming, scythe-shaped talon a little less than two feet long--almost precisely the same length, Ehren realized, as a legionare's gladius. Its armor, too, resembled a legionare's lorica, though it melded seamlessly with its skin, all of it made from the same gleaming, dark chitin.

  It looked, in fact, a great deal like a Knight Aeris.

  And it was coming straight for him.

  Ehren scrambled back, pulling the door shut, and flung his back against the
rear wall of the coach. One of the vordknight's vicious scythes slammed through the wood of the door where he'd been crouching an instant before. The eerie, featureless face appeared at the side window, not six inches from Ehren's own, staring in at him through the glass.

  Ehren was never sure precisely when he had drawn the knife, but in the same instant he saw that face, his right arm snapped forward, to shatter the window and bury his knife to the hilt in the vordknight's glittering eye.

  It screamed, a wailing shriek that sounded like tearing metal and the snarls of a wounded dog. Green-brown blood sputtered from the wound in a miniature fountain.

  Ehren let go of the knife, braced his back, screamed for strength again, and lashed out with the heel of his boot, kicking at the scythe still transfixing the door. It snapped and broke cleanly, like the edge of a horse's hoof, and the vordknight vanished from sight, falling away from the racing coach.

  Gaius looked up from where he knelt over the wounded Knight and gave Ehren a sharp nod of approval.

  And then he heard a piercing trumpet, a clarion call that carried even over the roar of wind and the shouts and cries of battle.

  "Ah," Gaius said, glancing up briefly. "Excellent."

  From outside the coach came a flash of light and a deafening racket of thunder--and another, and another. Interspaced within the head-rattling thunderclaps were smaller flashes of light, accompanied by hollow, heavy booms, and Ehren turned to see a vordknight, its wings burned completely away, its body twisted and cracked by fire, plummet past the coach's window. The coach banked smoothly to the right and began to gain altitude again--smoothly, this time, instead of with the sharp panic of combat.

  A moment later, there was a knock on the coach's door. Ehren didn't remember actually deciding to draw another knife, but he was just as glad that his fingers had preempted him.

  "Stay your hand," Gaius said calmly. "Let him in please, Sir Ehren."

  Ehren swallowed and opened the coach door, to find an elderly man dressed in very fine but rather outdated armor, riding a windstream parallel to the coach. He had shorn his head, but the stubble of his beard was mostly silver, and his eyes were sunken with fatigue--but shone with bitter rage.

  "Your Grace," Ehren stammered. He stepped back from the door, nodding to the High Lord Cereus to enter.

  "Sire," Cereus said with a nod, closing the door behind him.

  "Your Grace," Gaius replied. "A moment." He closed his eyes briefly, then lifted his hand from the wounded Knight. The man lay there pale and still, but his chest was still moving, and he was no longer bleeding. "Thank you."

  "No thanks are necessary, sire. Whatever those other jackals want to pretend, Sextus, you are the First Lord of Alera and my lord. I only did my duty."

  "Thank you all the same," Gaius replied quietly. "I'm sorry about Vereus. He was a fine young man."

  The High Lord glanced out the coach's window at the coming darkness. "Veradis?"

  "Safe," Gaius said. "And will be so while I have breath in my body."

  Cereus bowed his head. He took a deep breath, and said, "Thank you."

  "No thanks are necessary," Gaius said, smiling faintly. "Whatever those jackals want to pretend, I am your lord. Duty flows uphill and down." He frowned again and looked out the window. "I'll have our Legions in position to support Ceres in another week. What can you tell me about the Vord advance?"

  Cereus looked up wearily. "That it is accelerating, despite everything we can do."

  "Accelerating?" Ehren blurted. "What do you mean?"

  The old High Lord shook his head and spoke without any inflection. "I mean, Sir Ehren, my lord, that my city does not have a week.

  "The Vord will be upon us in two days."


  Amara held the arrow nocked firmly against the bowstring, and kept enough steady pressure against it to ensure a swift and certain draw, but not too much to tire her arm. It had been a surprisingly difficult skill to learn, at least until she'd developed enough of the proper musculature to use the bow her husband had made for her. She took a slow step forward and put her foot down silently, her eyes focused into the middle distance, at nothing, the way she'd been trained. The forest was almost silent in the stillness just before dawn, but Cirrus, her wind fury, carried every tiny sound to her ears as clearly as if it'd been a voice speaking from directly beside her.

  Trees creaked in tiny breaths of wind. Sleeping birds stirred, their feathers rustling. Something scuttled among the higher branches of a tree, probably a squirrel getting an early start on the day, or a night rodent of some kind crawling back to its nest. Something rustled, perhaps a deer making its way through the brush--

  --and perhaps not.

  Amara focused Cirrus on the sound and located a second rustling, that of cloth on cloth. Not a deer, then, but her target.

  She pivoted toward the sound, in perfect silence, moving slowly to keep it, focusing on maintaining her own invisibility. Learning to master the use of the furycrafted cloth had been simpler than she had expected--certainly easier than employing a windcrafted veil. All she had to do was maintain a low level of concentration, focusing on the colors of her surroundings, drawing them in from what she saw, and the cloth would absorb and mimic them, rendering her into little more than a blur of background color. Granted, the original designer of the cloth, an expensive clothier in Aquitaine, had nearly shrieked the skies down when she'd heard how her invention, designed as the absolute pinnacle of wealthy fashion, was to be used.

  The thought made Amara smile. Just a little.

  She couldn't see anything where her ears told her something should be, but that didn't matter. She drew the bow in a slow, practiced motion, and loosed the arrow.

  The arrow flew, swift and straight, and from the empty air appeared a form of blurred color that eventually resolved itself into the shape of her husband. The blunted wooden arrow hadn't been a deadly threat, but as he cast back his own color-shifting cloak and rubbed at his ribs, wincing, Amara found her own side twinging in sympathy.

  "Ouch," she murmured, parting her cloak and revealing herself. "Sorry."

  He looked around for a moment until he spotted her and shook his head. "Don't be. Well done. What did you think?"

  "I had to use Cirrus to track the sound of your movement. I never saw you, not even when I knew where you where."

  "Nor I, you, even tracking you with earthcraft. I'd say the cloaks work then," Bernard said, his wince of pain broadening into a grin. "Aquitainus Invidia may not have given a crow's feather about the Realm, but it seems that her fashion sense is going to be of service."

  Amara laughed and shook her head. "When that seamstress heard we wanted her to break those gowns down and refashion them into traveling cloaks, I thought she was going to start foaming at the mouth--the more so when one was to be made for you."

  Bernard made his way quietly through the brush, as always seeming to pass through it with hardly a branch or leaf disturbed by his presence, despite his size. "I'm sure a liberal dosing of silver and gold eased the symptoms."

  "That will be up to Gaius's accountants," Amara said smugly. "I had a letter of credit with the Crown's seal upon it. All she could do was pray that I wasn't some sort of confidence artist watercrafted into the semblance of Calderonus Amara."

  Bernard paused for a moment, blinking. "My."

  She tilted her head. "What is it?"

  "That's . . . the name of my House."

  Amara wrinkled up her nose at him and laughed. "Well, yes, my lord. So it would seem. Your letters are all signed His Excellency, Count Calderonus Bernard, remember?"

  He didn't smile in reply. His expression was, instead, very thoughtful. He fell into a pensive silence as they walked back to their camp, after the final tests of their new equipment. Amara walked beside him without saying anything. It never helped Bernard to prod at him while he was forming thoughts. It sometimes took her husband time to properly forge the things in his head into words, but it was--at
least usually--worth the wait.

  "It's always been a job," Bernard said at last. "My rank. The way being a Steadholder was. Something I did for my livelihood."

  "Yes," Amara said, nodding.

  He gestured vaguely toward the northeast, toward Riva, and their home in Calderon. "And it's been a place. Garrison. The town, the fortress, the people who lived there. The problems to be solved and so on. Do you follow?"

  "I think so."

  "Calderonus Bernard was just that fellow who was supposed to make sure everyone had somewhere to go during furystorms," Bernard rumbled. "And who made sure that men with more time on their hands than sense didn't bother people trying to work for a living, and who was trying to build up a lasting peace with his neighbors to the east rather than occasionally being eaten by them."