Princeps' FuryJim Butcher
Amara laughed at that and slipped her fingers between his.
"But Calderonus Amara . . ." He shook his head. "I've . . . never heard it said aloud. Did you realize that?"
Amara frowned and thought about it. "No. I suppose it's because for so long we were . . ." Her cheeks flushed. "Improper."
"Illicit lovers," Bernard said, not without a certain amount of satisfaction. "Frequent illicit lovers."
Amara's cheeks grew warmer. "Yes. Well. Your people, whom we spent most of our time together among, hardly wished to throw that in your face. So they just called me your lady."
"Exactly. So now there's this new person, you see. Calderonus Amara."
She looked obliquely up at him. "Who is she?" she asked quietly.
"A temptress who seduces married men in their bedrolls in the depths of the night where all the stars can see, apparently."
She laughed again. "I was cold. As I recall, the rest was your idea."
"I don't recall it that way at all," he said gravely, his eyes shining. His fingers tightened gently in hers. "She is also the wife of that Calderonus fellow. The founder of House Calderonus. Something that . . . something that could last a good long while. Something that could stand, and grow. That could do a lot of people a lot of good."
Amara felt herself quail a little inside, but steeled herself against it. "For that to happen, a House needs children, Bernard," she said quietly. "And I'm not . . . We haven't . . ." She shrugged. "At this point, I'm not sure it's going to happen."
"Or it might," Bernard said. "Some things can't be hurried along."
"But what if I can't?" she asked, without malice or grief in the tone. After a second, she felt startled to realize that she didn't feel any, either. Or at least, not nearly so much as she had in the past. "I'm not trying to gather sympathy, love. It's a rational question. If I can't provide you with an heir, what will you do?"
"We adopt," Bernard said promptly.
She arched an eyebrow. "Bernard, the laws regarding Citizenship--"
"Oh, to the crows with those codes," Bernard spat, grinning. "I've read them. They're mostly an excuse for Citizens not to give up their money and status to anyone but their own children. Great furies know, if it was all based upon blood, all those bastard children, like Antillar Maximus, should certainly be inheriting Citizenship."
"Adopt the bastard of a Citizen," Amara mused.
"They'd have every bit as much potential for strong furycraft as a child born of us would," Bernard said. "And crows, there are enough of them, the way some Citizens carry on. Why not provide some kind of positive direction for a few of them? I'd bet every sword in my armory that nearly every one of those mercenary Knights of the Aquitaines is a bastard child of a Citizen."
"Suppose we manage to get away with it?" she asked him. "Then what?"
He arched an eyebrow at her. "We raise them."
"Yes. You'll be a good mother."
"Ah. It's that simple, is it?"
He laughed, a warm, booming laugh that rolled through the trees. "Raising a child isn't complicated, love. It isn't easy, but it isn't complicated, either."
She tilted her head, looking up at him. "How's it done, then?"
He shrugged. "You just love them more than air and water and light. From there, everything else comes naturally."
He stopped and tugged gently on her hand, turning her to face him. He touched her cheek, very lightly, with the blunt fingertips of one hand.
"Understand me," he said quietly, his eyes earnest. "I haven't given up on the idea of your bearing my children, and I never will."
She smiled quietly. "Depending on what nature has to say," she replied, "we may have to agree to disagree on that issue."
"Then let me tell you exactly where I'm drawing the line, Calderonus Amara," he rumbled. "I'm building a future. You're going to be in it. And we're going to be happy. I'm not willing to compromise on that."
She blinked up at him several times. "Love," she said in a near whisper, "in the next few days, we're going to begin a mission for the Crown that, in all probability, will kill us both."
Bernard snorted. "Heard that before. And so have you." He leaned down and kissed her mouth, and she was suddenly overwhelmed with the enormous, warm, gentle power behind that kiss, and the touch of his hand. She felt herself melt against him, returning the kiss measure for measure, slow and intent as the light began to change from wan grey to morning gold.
It ended a time later, and she felt a little dizzy.
"I love you," she said quietly.
"I love you," he said. "No compromises."
The last ridgeline between them and their eventual area of operation was at the top of a long slope, and Amara's horse reached it several moments before Bernard's. The poor beast labored mightily under Bernard's sheer size, and over the course of many miles, it had added up to a steep toll in fatigue.
Amara crested the rise and stared down at the broad valley, several miles south of the city of Ceres. The wind was from the north, chill without being unpleasant--even the depths of winter were seldom harsh, there in the sheltered southern reaches of the Realm. She turned her face into the wind and closed her eyes for a moment, enjoying it. Ceres lay several leagues north of their current position, at the end of the furycrafted causeway that ran through the valley below. From there, she and Bernard would be able to wait for the Vord to pass by, then slip among them.
The wind suddenly felt a little colder. She shivered and turned her head to survey the valley below her.
The sky to the south was smudged with a dark haze.
Amara drew in a sharp breath, lifted her hands, and called to Cirrus. Her fury shimmered into the space between her hands, bending light, letting her see into the far distance much more clearly than she could have on her own.
Dozens and dozens of plumes of smoke rose into the sky, far to the south--and crows, so many of them that from where she stood they almost seemed like clouds of black smoke themselves, wheeled and swirled over the valley.
Amara turned her gaze to the causeway, and with Cirrus's help, she could now see, as she had not before, that the furycrafted road was crowded with people, traveling with as much haste as they could manage--holders, mostly, men, women, and children, many of them half-dressed, barefoot, some of them carrying unlikely bits of household paraphernalia, though most carried nothing. Some of the holders were doing their best to herd livestock. Some drove carts--many loaded with what looked like wounded legionares.
"It's too soon," Amara breathed. "Days too soon."
She was hardly aware of Bernard's presence until he rumbled, "Amara. What is it?"
She shook her head and wordlessly leaned over, reaching out to let him see through the sightcrafting Cirrus had provided.
"Crows," Bernard breathed.
"How could this have happened?" Amara asked.
Bernard was silent for a second, then let out a sharp, bitter bark of laughter. "Of course."
She arched an eyebrow at him.
"We were told that they're furycrafting now, correct?"
He gestured at the road below. "They're using the causeways."
A chill went through Amara's belly. Of course. The explanation was utterly simple, and yet she had never even considered it. The furycrafted roads of Alera, whose construction allowed Alerans to travel swiftly and almost tirelessly across the countryside, were a staple of life, practically a feature of the landscape. They were also the single most reliable advantage Alera had in defending the Realm against the foes that so often outnumbered her. The causeways allowed the Legions to march a hundred leagues in a single day--more, if the need was dire. They meant that the Legions would always be able to field a maximum amount of force to ideal positions.
Of course, none of those enemies had used furycraft.
If Bernard was right, and the Vord could make use of the causeways, Amara wondered, then what else could they do? Could t
hey intercept messages sent by water fury through the rivers of the Realm? Could they tamper with the weather? Could they, bloody crows, rouse the sleeping wrath of one or more of the Great Furies, as Gaius had done with Kalus, the previous year?
Amara stared at the fleeing holders and the rising smoke and the circling crows, and in her heart became abruptly certain of a simple, undeniable fact.
Alera could never survive what was coming.
Perhaps if they had acted sooner, in accord, instead of bickering and infighting, something could have been done. Perhaps if more people had heeded their warnings, and had been willing to back their belief with resources enough to create some kind of sentinel organization, it might have been nipped in the bud.
But instead . . . Amara knew--not feared, not suspected, but knew--that they were too late.
The Vord had come, and Alera was going to fall.
"What are we going to do?" Amara whispered.
"The mission," Bernard replied. "If they're using the causeway, they've got their crafters with them. In fact, it should make them easier to find. We just follow the road."
Amara began to reply, when her horse suddenly threw back its ears and danced sideways for several steps with several harsh breaths of apprehension. Amara steadied the animal only with difficulty, keeping the reins tight and speaking quietly. Bernard's mount reacted in much the same way, though he had far more skill at calming the beast. A touch of his hand, a brush of earthcraft, and a murmur of his rumbling voice calmed his mount almost immediately.
Amara swept her gaze left and right, to see what had startled the horses so.
She smelled it before she saw it--putrescence and rotting meat. Then a breath later, she saw the grass lion emerge from the shadows beneath a stand of scraggly pine trees.
The beast was eight or nine feet long, its golden hide dappled with greenish stripes that would blend perfectly with the tall grasses of the Amaranth Vale. A powerful creature, far more heavily muscled than anything resembling a common house cat, the grass lion's upper fangs curved down like daggers from its upper jaws, thrusting past its lower lip, even when its mouth was closed.
Or, more accurately put, a living grass lion's fangs would do so. This grass lion no longer had a lower lip. It had been ripped or gnawed away. Flies buzzed around it. Patches of fur had fallen away to reveal swelling, rotted flesh beneath, pulsing with the movements of infestations of maggots or other insects. One of its eyes was filmy and white. The other was missing from its socket. Dark fluid had run from its nostrils and both its ears, staining the fine fur surrounding them.
And yet it moved.
"Taken," Amara breathed.
One of the more hideous tactics employed by the Vord was their ability to send small, scuttling creatures among their enemies. The takers would burrow into their targets, killing them and taking control of their corpses, directing them as a man might a puppet. Amara and Bernard had been forced to fight and destroy the remains of scores of taken holders, years before in the Calderon Valley, during the first Vord outbreak--the one that had been stopped before it could become too large to contain. The taken holders had been oblivious to pain, swift, strong beyond reason--but not overly bright.
The grass lion stopped and stared at them for the space of a breath. Then two.
Then, moving with a speed that a living beast could not have bested, it turned and bounded into the trees.
"A scout!" Bernard hissed, kicking his horse into motion after it. "We have to stop it."
Amara blinked for a second, but then slapped her mount's neck with the reins, left and right, and sent it after Bernard's mount. "Why?" she called.
"We've killed one Vord queen," Bernard shouted back. "I'd rather whichever one was commanding this force didn't learn that we were in the area, and set out to actively hunt us down."
Amara lifted a hand to shield her face as branches slapped against her. "Useless," she spat. "I'm going high!"
Amara seized her bow and quiver. She slipped her feet from the stirrups, lifted them to the saddle, then smoothly rose, and all as part of the same motion, leapt into the air. At her silent bidding, Cirrus rushed into the space beneath her, catching her up and sweeping her skyward. Her wind fury brushed aside tree branches from her path until she shot up into the open air over the ridge and wheeled south, to follow the path of the fleeing Vord scout. She spotted Bernard at once, and focused ahead of him until she caught a flash of racing motion perhaps thirty or forty yards in front of him.
The taken grass lion was not running the way a true grass lion would. Such a beast, running through the trees and brush, would have been all but invisible, even to Amara, moving with lithe, silent grace through its natural habitat. Possessed by the Vord, though, the grass lion simply ran in a straight line. It smashed through thickets, heedless of brambles and thorns. It tore through brush, shouldered aside saplings, and altered course only to avoid the trees and boulders it could not plow aside or leap across.
For all that it lacked grace, it was fast, though. A true grass lion was not a cross-country runner, even if it could move very swiftly over short distances. Taken by the Vord, it ran at its best speed, tirelessly, and it was steadily leaving Bernard's horse behind.
Stopping the scout was up to Amara. Bernard was right in that--their mission was already dangerous enough. Should the Vord learn that they were in the area and dispatch even a relatively small portion of their forces to hunting Bernard and Amara down, that mission would become impossible. As Amara had demonstrated to Bernard only that morning, if the Vord knew more or less where they were located, no amount of stealth would provide protection for long.
Amara gained a little more altitude, the better to look ahead, and saw that the fleeing Vord's straight-line path crossed a clearing in the woods, up ahead. That would be the best place to strike. She was a fair hand with a bow, for someone without any appreciable skill at woodcrafting, but hitting a target racing among the trees while she herself rode a gale-force wind was out of the question.
Of course, one would have to be mad or desperate to stand in the path of a fleeing grass lion armed only with a medium-weight hunting bow--much less that of a Vord-possessed grass lion. Amara supposed she qualified as at least one of those things, though she did not care to examine too closely which one. She poured on the speed, flashing ahead to the clearing, and touched down in the open grass.
She had little time. She drew two arrows from her quiver, thrusting one into the earth at her feet and setting the other to her string. She took a deep breath to steady herself, raised her bow, and the Vord scout came crashing out of the brush.
She called upon Cirrus to borrow from the wind fury's swiftness, and time seemed to slow, giving her ages and ages to aim the arrow.
The possessed lion ran with its half-rotted tongue hanging out. Its ears, which would normally have been stiff and upright, flopped and wriggled like wilted leaves of lettuce. There was some kind of greenish mold or lichen growing on its fangs. Its shoulder struck the edge of a windfall as it came into the clearing and a small shower of woodchips exploded into the air with the sheer power of the impact, ripping the insensate flesh with no noticeable effect whatsoever.
Amara loosed the arrow. It leapt gracefully over the forty yards between her and the grass lion, struck its skull just over the brow, and glanced off the hard bone to bury itself in the powerful, hunched shoulders.
The Vord scout did not so much as twitch.
Amara snatched up another arrow.
Clods of earth flew up from beneath the lion's feet, propelled by the raw power of its legs. Amara tried not to think of what would happen if a battering ram of four hundred pounds of rotting meat and hard bone slammed into her at the rate the beast was moving. She set another arrow to string as the lion's passage startled a covey of birds from the grass, sending them up in a slow-motion panic of feathers and beating wings and glassy eyes.
She dropped to one knee, drew the arrow to full
extension, and held it, waiting, timing each plunge of the taken lion's ruined body, tracking its motion, waiting for the timing to be perfect.
Twenty yards. Fifteen. Ten.
When it was ten feet away, she loosed her arrow and flung herself flat to one side.
The shaft stabbed out and vanished into the lion's open mouth, its broad point plunging into the back of its throat.
The lion's front limbs suddenly went loose, and its jaws and muzzle snapped down, smashing violently into the earth, plowing a shallow furrow as its momentum carried it forward. Its spine and hindquarters twisted and flipped up and over, then came smashing down onto the earth as well, forcing Amara to jerk her knees up to her chest, lest her legs be crushed underneath the beast's descending weight.