Princeps' Fury, Page 25Jim Butcher
"Hngh," Doroga said, shaking his head. He turned to Isana, and said, "Big Shoulders says that you have drawn weapons. Your actions say that you did not come to speak of peace."
Isana stared around at the Icemen for a moment. Then she licked her lips, and said, "I might say the same by the way they have arranged themselves all around us."
Doroga snorted in dark amusement, and rumbled at the Icemen, evidently conveying her words.
Big Shoulders, apparently the leader of the group, narrowed his eyes to slits, staring at Doroga. Then he simply looked around the circle of Icemen.
Isana felt a sudden surge of emotion, a mixture of feelings so complex and tangled that she could not possibly have given it a name. There was no source to the feeling--just the sensation itself, as loud and as clear and as pure as the emotions of an infant suddenly finding itself hungry or uncomfortable. Had it been a physical sound, it would have left her ears ringing. Even so, the sensation was overwhelming. She shuddered and swayed in place.
The Icemen, meanwhile, moved as a group, careful to come no closer to the Alerans as they all gathered behind Big Shoulders, watching the Alerans from beneath heavy, shaggy brows. None of them spoke.
None of them spoke.
"Good," Doroga said, nodding to Big Shoulders. He turned to Isana. "Your turn, Alerans. Put away your weapons."
"Do it," Isana said quietly.
"Isana--" Aria began, her eyes narrowed.
"That wasn't a request, Your Grace," Isana said in a quietly firm tone. "Weapons away, both of you."
Isana fancied that she could hear Aria's teeth grinding--but both she and Araris sheathed their swords.
"There," Doroga said in satisfaction. "Now you are all acting like something more than honor-hungry whelps." He gestured at Isana. "Tell him what you want."
Isana lifted her eyebrows. "What do you mean?"
"Alerans like to make this kind of thing complicated," Doroga said, shaking his head. "Should see all the papers some scribe of Sextus's kept sending me to mark on. Couldn't read them, even when I learned to read. What is the point of your letters if you don't use them to make yourself understood?"
Isana blinked at the Marat.
Doroga gestured impatiently. "Tell him what you want, Isana. It is not a complicated task."
Isana turned to Big Shoulders. "We want peace," she told the Iceman. "We wish our peoples to stop fighting one another."
Doroga rumbled quietly. From Big Shoulders, Isana felt a surge of surprise, then confusion, then outrage. His heavy brows lowered even farther.
Doroga said something else, the thick-sounding words spilling out rapidly.
Big Shoulders pointed at the Shieldwall with his spear, speaking in a clear, anger-edged voice.
Doroga nodded and told Isana, "He wishes to know if your words will bind Fire Sword."
Isana frowned at the Marat.
"The High Lord back there," Doroga clarified.
"Yes," Isana replied. "I speak with the voice of the First Lord himself. High Lord Antillus is obliged to honor my words as Sextus's own."
Doroga relayed her words to Big Shoulders, who grounded the butt of his spear upon hearing them, frowning at Isana. The Iceman stared at her for a silent minute.
On an impulse, Isana withdrew the control she normally used to restrain her emotions entirely. She turned toward Big Shoulders. Her words wouldn't be important, she somehow knew. What was critical was the intention behind them.
"I know that much blood has been spilled. But we now face a threat that could prove deadly to both of our peoples. We wish to make peace, so that more of our folk will be able to fight this enemy. But this is also an opportunity to create a lasting peace between our peoples, the way we have begun to do with the Marat."
Big Shoulders stared for another silent minute, as Doroga relayed her words. The Iceman glanced aside at Doroga when he was finished. They exchanged words several times, while Doroga nodded, his expression calm.
Big Shoulders grunted. There was another surge of that complex emotion, too fast and dense and thick for her to sort out, then as one the Icemen turned and shambled off into the snow. They entered the nearest copse of trees and vanished from sight.
Isana let out her breath slowly and realized that her hands were shaking--and not with the cold.
"And so," Aria said. "They decline."
"I'm not sure they do," Isana replied. "Doroga?"
Doroga shrugged. "Big Shoulders believes you. But his word is not the word of all the Gadrim-ha. He is the youngest of his station, the least influential. He goes now to confer with the other war leaders."
"They couldn't be bothered to send a senior representative?" Aria asked.
"They assumed it was a trap," Doroga replied with a shrug. "And acted accordingly."
"How long?" Isana asked. "How long before he returns?"
"As long as it takes," Doroga replied calmly. "Patience is important when dealing with the Gadrim-ha."
"Time is critical," Isana replied quietly.
Doroga grunted. "Then perhaps Sextus should have sent someone sooner than today." He nodded to them, then went back to the gargant, Walker, and hauled himself swiftly up the saddle rope. He lifted his cudgel in salute, and said, "I will signal your legionares when they have returned."
"Thank you," Isana replied.
The Marat nodded to them and muttered something to Walker. The gargant turned and plodded calmly through the snow, following the footsteps of the Icemen.
Isana watched him go, then exhaled heavily and nodded. "Come on," she said quietly to her companions.
Aria's eyes lingered on the trees where the foreigners had disappeared. "Where are we going?"
"Back to the Wall," Isana said. "There are questions that need answers."
Amara leaned close to her husband to whisper directly into his ear, and said, "We must talk."
Bernard nodded. Then he put his hand on the ground, and Amara felt a faint tremor in the earth beneath their feet as he called upon his earth fury, Brutus, to create a hiding place. A few seconds later, the ground under them simply began to flow away, a slithery sensation in the soles of her feet, and they sank downward.
Amara shuddered as walls of earth reached up to surround them. The view, as the night sky with its sudden, horribly cold sleet receded, must have been almost exactly like that had by a corpse as it was lowered into a grave. A moment later, all view of the sky vanished as the earth above them flowed into the form of a roof to the small chamber Bernard had created, leaving them in complete, subterranean darkness.
"We can talk here," he murmured. He spoke in little more than a whisper, but even so, after days of silence, it almost seemed like a shout to Amara.
She conveyed to him everything she had seen at the end of the battle.
Bernard exhaled heavily. "Lady Aquitaine. Taken?"
Amara shook her head, then realized that in the darkness he could not see the gesture. "I don't think so. The people we've seen taken were just walking corpses. They never had any expressions on their faces. They weren't . . ." She sighed in frustration. "They all looked like something was missing."
"I know exactly what you mean," Bernard rumbled.
"Lady Aquitaine looked . . . I'm not sure. Smug. Or excited. Or afraid. There was something underneath the surface. And she looked quite healthy. So did the Citizens I saw near her."
"Bloody crows," Bernard said. "Would even she side with the Vord against Alera?"
"I don't know," Amara said. "Once, I wouldn't have thought anyone would do such a thing."
"No," Bernard said. "It's got to be some other kind of control. If you saw them taking prisoners, then it would appear that the Vord intend to place them under similar constraints."
"That was my thought as well," Amara said. "But what are we to do about it?"
"Take our findings to the First Lord," Bernard replied.
"The Legions are already running," Amara countered. "We
would have difficulty catching him--never mind the fact that we have not yet completed our mission."
"We observed their crafters during the battle, just as he wished."
"Observing and understanding are not the same thing." She fumbled for his hand and squeezed it. "Right now, I can't tell the First Lord anything but superficial details. We need to understand more before it will do any good. We've got to see what's going on before we go back."
Bernard made an unhappy growling sound, low in his chest.
"You don't agree?"
"I'm getting tired of sleeping on the ground. Must be getting old," Bernard said. "What do you have in mind?"
She squeezed his hand tight. "We have an idea which direction they took the prisoners. I think we should find out what's being done to them."
Bernard was quiet for a moment before he said, "Whatever they're doing, it seems obvious that they're going to be doing it in a very well-protected location."
"We won't be dodging the occasional patrol or outbound raiding party. They'll have real sentries. A lot of them."
"I know that, too," she said. "But so far, none of the Vord have spotted us. If I didn't think we had a real chance of succeeding, I wouldn't even suggest it."
Bernard was silent for a long moment. Then he said, very quietly, "One condition."
"All right," she said.
"Once we get what we need, I want you to get out, immediately. Fly, fast as you can, back to the First Lord."
"Don't be ridiculous," she snapped.
"Nothing ridiculous about it," he said. "If you leave at once, odds are excellent that you'll make it back to the First Lord. If you stay with me, you'll double your risk of being found and killed before you can get the information back."
"Have worked alone before, love. I'll be harder to locate alone in any case. You won't be doing anything but improving my odds of getting out."
Amara frowned at the darkness. "And you're quite sure that you're not doing this simply to protect your poor little helpless wife?"
He let out a quick, amused chuckle. "Don't let her hear you refer to her like that. She'll call up a windstorm that rips the hide right off you."
"Bernard, I'm serious."
His fingers stroked over hers, the motion somehow reassuring. "So am I. If we're going to take on additional risk, I want to be crowbegotten sure that what we learn gets back to Gaius." He paused meditatively, then added, "And if it makes my poor little helpless wife a little more likely to come out of it in one piece, that's a happy coincidence."
She reached out in the dark and found his face, cupping his cheek with the fingers of her free hand. "Maddening man."
"I am what I am, Countess," he replied, and kissed her palm gently. "We'd best get moving. There's not much air in here."
Amara sighed. "Back to quiet again. I miss talking to you."
"Patience, love. We'll have plenty of time for that when the work is done."
She leaned over and kissed his mouth, lingering for a moment, mouth moving slowly and intently on his.
Bernard let out a growling exhale. "There are some things I miss, too."
"We'll discuss them when we're finished," he said. "At length."
Amara found herself smiling into the dark. "Good. Anything to make you more determined to get home."
His fingers squeezed hers. Then she felt the earth begin to tremble again, and the light of the gloom-shrouded night bloomed like a darkling sunrise above them. They rose slowly and emerged into the cold, sleeting evening. Without needing to signal one another, they brought up the concealing furycraftings again, their furies winding layers of veils around them even as their cloaks changed their hues, darkening to become one with the night.
Bernard signaled that he would take the lead, then started out into the night, the sound of rattling sleet blanketing the few sounds he made as he moved. Amara wasn't sure of their direction, in the gloom, but she knew that Bernard had a nearly supernatural facility with fieldcraft. He would lead them to the south, in the direction the Vord had taken the Aleran prisoners--and away from their friends and allies, who were retreating from the Vord.
Amara shivered against the cold and the sleet, and fervently hoped that she had been right in her assessment of their abilities--and that she had not just committed herself and her husband to cold and pitiless deaths at the hands of their inhuman foes.
"There's frozen ground back in Alera, too, soldier," Valiar Marcus barked. "Without a palisade, we'll be easy meat for the first gang of Shuarans to come along. So put your back into it and dig, or I'll have you at a whipping post until your balls freeze and drop off."
The startled legionare, one of the Free Aleran troopers, started up from where he sat, his face showing chagrin that quickly turned to sullen anger. The spear of legionares working on that section of the palisade wall turned darkening faces toward him.
Bloody crows, Marcus thought. It was perhaps unwise to threaten a fanatical former slave with a lashing. He had no desire to fight eight men by himself, but neither could the First Spear back down from any show of open insubordination.
Marcus turned to square his shoulders and face the men, keeping them all within his field of vision. "You know how the Legions maintain discipline, legionare , or ought to."
The recalcitrant legionare, perhaps bolstered by the support of his fellows, drawled, "And maybe it's time that changed, centurion."
Marcus took one step forward, called up strength from the earth, and struck the man with a backhanded blow. The legionare was flung from his feet and crashed into the stack of loose poles that the Legions had brought with them from Alera. The man and the material spilled into a disorderly sprawl. The legionare moaned once and lay in a senseless puddle.
Marcus regarded the man distantly for a moment, and said, "I disagree." He turned his gaze to the other legionares, who stood stunned and staring, and said in a quiet voice, "You'll have to work a bit harder to get your section put up in time, gentlemen."
A tall, wiry man in the helmet of a centurion from the Free Aleran came striding down the line of men erecting the camp's palisade and paused, glowering at the men in front of Marcus. His eyes swept back and forth across them, and fastened on the man on the ground. He grunted, turned to Marcus, and gave him a nod. "First Spear."
"Centurion," Marcus replied.
"Problem with these men?"
"I've been giving them a motivational talk," Marcus said.
The Free Aleran centurion glanced at the unconscious man. He didn't quite smile. "You men are lucky. I'd have had you all at the whipping post."
"But--" protested one of the ex-slaves.
"And I'd have been right to do it," the centurion snapped. "We told you when you signed on that the Free Aleran Legion was not about taking vengeance. We told you that you would be held to the standards of behavior of every other Legion, dealt with in the same way as any free soldier. Now get your lazy asses to work before I decide that the First Spear was too lenient on you, interpret your actions as refusal to obey a direct order while the Legion is in enemy territory, and have you all hanged."
The men were shocked from their stasis by the centurion's words, perhaps. In any case, they leapt back to the work with a will.
Marcus faced off with the centurion and nodded to him. "Thank you," he said in a quieter tone.
"Bugger off, you crowbitten piece of Citizen bootlicking trash, sir," the centurion responded in a voice just as quiet as Marcus's. "You don't know these men, or what they've seen. If you have a problem with our legionares--even idiots like Bartillus, there--you deal with it through our officers. Sir."
"There is no our, here, centurion," Marcus replied, narrowing his eyes. "We're all Alerans here. We'll all die together if it comes to a fight with the Shuarans."
The centurion glared at Marcus a moment longer. Then he grunted, a tone of vague assent, and
turned to start back down the line of laboring men. He barked orders for a pair of them to carry the unconscious Bartillus to the healers.
Marcus watched him go and shook his head. Bloody crows, he must be going senile not to have realized how sharp the division between the former slaves and the First Aleran had been. In the wrong situation, they would be as eager to fight the First Aleran as they would the Canim.
And besides that, he admitted to himself, the Free Aleran centurion had a point. Had the men he'd been passing been members of the Crown Legion, or of the First Imperian, he would most likely have spoken to the centurion in charge of the men, though he was technically within his rights to brace the men directly for such an obvious breach of discipline.