Princeps fury, p.24
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       Princeps' Fury, p.24

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  Though the fire of Aquitaine's sword was out, the metal still glowed and hissed with every raindrop. His armor, elaborate, beautifully made lorica, was crusted with a thin sheath of ice across the shoulders and upon the bracers that covered his forearms.

  "It's working," Aquitaine said shortly. "Their wings can't handle the ice."

  "Naturally," the First Lord replied calmly. "We'll fall back to Uvarton, cutting the causeway every mile as we go."

  Aquitaine frowned and turned to stare back out toward the south. "Their greatest advantage is their mobility, their flight. We should move forward with every legionare, now, and take them head-on."

  "Their greatest advantage is the ability of the Vord queen to coordinate their movements," Gaius countered. "If we march our men out there into the dark and the storm, it will be a hopeless mess. The Vord will have no such disadvantage. We retreat. More of our reinforcements will meet us every day."

  "As will theirs," Aquitaine said. "We should hit them now, hard, try to thin them out."

  "If need be, I'll ground them again, Your Grace." Gaius's eyes hardened. "We retreat."

  Aquitaine frowned steadily at Gaius for a long moment. Then he said, "This is the wrong move."

  "Were I a young man," Gaius said, "I would think so as well. If you would be so kind, please notify the other High Lords. Sir Ehren, please take word to the Crown Legion and to the First and Third Imperian."

  Ehren and Aquitaine both saluted the First Lord. Aquitaine simply stepped up onto the battlements and dropped off the tower. The roar of his windstream came up to them a beat later. Ehren turned toward the door, but paused, looking back at the First Lord.

  "Are you going to be all right, sire?"

  The First Lord, his silver hair plastered to his head by the rain, stared down at the valley to the south and shook his head slowly. "None of us are going to be all right." Then he glanced at Ehren and jerked his chin in a sharp gesture toward the door. "On your way."

  "Sire," Ehren said, and turned to go back down the stairs and tell the Legion commanders which way to run.

  CHAPTER 21

  When the sun rose the next morning, Isana was already awake. She took a brief, simple breakfast that Araris brought from the Legion's mess hall, and then put on her warmest cloak and went up to the top of the Shieldwall again. Aria fell into step beside her along the way, as she passed the High Lady's chambers.

  Isana felt Aria's tension and worry at once, thick enough to breach her self-control. She frowned at the other woman. "Aria?"

  "Word from the south. The First Lord has engaged the Vord."

  Isana traded a quick look with Araris. "And?"

  "The Vord have taken Ceres. The Legions are falling back toward Alera Imperia, trying to slow the Vord enough for refugees to stay ahead of them."

  Isana drew in a quick breath. "Your husband?"

  "He's well. For now." Aria shook her head. "But they confirmed that the Vord are using furycrafting, and on a significant scale. Rhodus Martinus was slain in the battle. Several dozen Citizens and nearly a hundred Knights Aeris were also killed or are unaccounted for."

  Isana shuddered at that last. Unaccounted for. In the course of a normal war, one could generally expect such soldiers, missing after a battle, to have been killed and their bodies fallen in some hidden place, to have been scattered by the tides of conflict, or to have been captured by the enemy and taken to some sort of prison. When fighting the Vord, though, capture could mean something infinitely more hideous than death. Worse, it could mean that the Vord had gained several of the furycrafters that Alera had lost.

  "Then we had best get to work," Isana said, doing her best to sound calm and confident.

  Placidus Garius met them at the head of the stairs as they emerged into the light of predawn. He saluted crisply. "Your Highness. If you'll come this way, our engineers have just finished crafting a stairway down the northern face of the Wall."

  Isana lifted an eyebrow. "There weren't any already?"

  Garius fell into pace beside Isana and shook his head. "No, milady. It would be too easy for the enemy to use it against us, were we to leave a permanent stairway." His eyes flicked uneasily to the north. "They're dangerous enough without giving them any help."

  "Garius," Aria asked, "did your father contact you?"

  Garius turned back to look at his mother and nodded grimly. "He did. Here we are, milady." He'd led them to a staircase that ran down the northern face of the Shieldwall and into the snow-covered country beyond. He pointed to a slight rise of ground to the north. "That hill there is where the meeting is set to take place. We'll be watching from here, and you'll have help right away when things get violent."

  "'When'?" Isana asked. "Not 'if'?"

  Garius shook his head. "Milady . . . you haven't been up here. You don't understand. You might talk to them for an hour, or a day. But in the end, there's only one way this is going to fall out." He touched a hand to the hilt of his sword to illustrate his point.

  "You don't think it's possible to reach an agreement with the Icemen?"

  "No, Your Highness," Garius said, without malice. "Realistically, I just don't think it can happen."

  "When is the last time anyone tried?"

  Garius sighed. "You just don't--"

  "Understand?" Isana asked quietly. "No. I don't. The conflict between the Icemen and Alera has been nothing but a plague on our land. I doubt it's done anything better for theirs. And given what's coming at us, we have little choice but to secure some kind of armistice, if not a peace. We need it to survive."

  He gave her a brief, strained smile and a nod. "I sincerely wish you the best of luck, Your Highness."

  Isana nodded. "Thank you, Garius." She turned to Araris. "Ready?"

  Araris, dressed again in his mail, a sword hanging from either hip, nodded. "I'd better go down first," he said quietly. Then he started down the stairs. Isana and Aria followed.

  The Shieldwall, Isana decided, looked a great deal smaller from the air than it did from ground level. The face of the enormous Wall, pitted and pocked by time and weather and war, rose beside her into a massive cliff face as she went down the stairs. Upon reaching the bottom, they found the ground covered in several inches of snow. Araris turned and began slogging through the snow, breaking a path for Isana and Aria.

  As she followed Araris, Isana glanced back at the Shieldwall with an irritated frown. How was she to forge a peace amidst such mistrust? Garius might be a good soldier and a good son, but his mind was completely closed with intolerance. Couldn't the young idiot see that a peace was not merely desirable but crucial to survival?

  It was enough to make Isana want to slap him.

  Though the hill wasn't far away, it took them a solid quarter of an hour to reach it through the snow--only to find no one waiting for them. A slow scan around the land beyond the hilltop showed them stands of evergreens clothing increasingly high hills, but no delegation from the Icemen.

  Aria frowned, looking around them, and Isana felt a surge of impatience escape the High Lady's restraint. "Where are they?"

  "If Doroga is with them, they'll be waiting for the sun to rise," Isana replied.

  "Why?"

  "The Marat regard the sun as a higher power. They worship it, and conduct all their most important business only under its light."

  "I see," Aria replied. "I suppose barbarians have many strange customs."

  Isana fought down her own surge of irritation, attempting to rein it in before Aria sensed it. "Doroga is quite urbane, in most senses of the word. Furthermore, he has put himself in harm's way for the sake of the Realm twice over, and has personally saved the lives of my brother and my son. I would appreciate it if you would refrain from insulting him."

  Aria's lips compressed, but she only nodded once and turned away to watch for the Iceman negotiators. The cold wind continued to blow from the north, and Isana wrapped her cloak more tightly around herself. She looked back at the Shieldwall behind them, lo
oming black and massive in the dim light. She could see, here and there, the dark form of a legionare on guard, the outlines of their spears slender and wicked against the grey sky.

  What must it look like, to one of the Icemen, she wondered. Isana had seen more furycraft at work than most, including the raising of siege walls, and even to her the Shieldwall seemed almost unreal in its sheer mass. Did the Icemen still tell stories of the empty hills that were suddenly rived by the great Wall? She had been told that the engineers that built it had raised the Wall in sections about half a mile long--an effort of furycrafting so massive that Isana could hardly imagine how many artisans and Citizens had been required to complete its construction.

  If it seemed that way to her, what must it seem like to one of the enemy? Something out of a nightmare, perhaps, a fortress wall that spanned the length of a continent. A wall that resisted any efforts to break it down, a wall that was always watchful, always guarded, always sure to spill forth Aleran legionares, no matter how stealthily or carefully the Icemen approached. Alerans saw the Shieldwall as a massive defensive construction. How might the Icemen view it? As a massive prison wall? As the first of what might be many such barriers, each encroaching upon more of their territory? Or might they view it simply as an obstacle, something that had to be overcome, the way that some Alerans regarded high mountains and remote forests?

  Impossible to say, since no one had asked. Or at least, no one of whom Isana was aware.

  Beside her, Araris stood resolutely still, facing to the north, but his eyes were restless, flicking from one group of evergreens to the next. "I don't like this," he muttered.

  "Relax," Isana said quietly. "Don't borrow trouble."

  He nodded once in reply--but he kept his hands near the hilts of his weapons.

  Something stirred in one of the nearby stands of trees. Araris stepped in front of Isana and turned toward it at once, his fingers wrapping around the hilts of his swords. Aria, in response, turned in the opposite direction, watching their backs in case the first movement was some sort of distraction from the true assault, and Isana could clearly sense her wariness and tension.

  The trees shook and swayed. Snow fell from their needles and branches to the ground. They shook again, and a massive creature plodded into sight from among the trees, shouldering the smaller evergreens aside without detectable effort. The gargant was huge, even for its breed, a great, dark-furred beast, with tusks as thick as Isana's forearms thrusting up from its lower jaw. The large beast would have outweighed a dozen prize bulls, easily, and Isana was familiar with the sheer, overwhelming physical power of a gargant--and with the rider who rode on the back of this one.

  He was a Marat, one of the pale-skinned barbarians who lived to the east of Isanaholt in Calderon. Like the beast he rode, he was large for his kind, nearly as tall as Isana's brother and even more heavily layered in muscle. His white hair was held back from his face by a band of plaited red cloth, and a sleeveless tunic of the same color, open down the front, barely managed to stretch across his chest and shoulders without splitting. Despite the snow and cold, beyond the tunic and a pair of deer-hide trousers, he wore nothing--neither a cloak, nor shoes, nor a hood, although he did carry a long-handled cudgel in his right hand. He looked perfectly comfortable in the freezing weather and lifted a hand to the Alerans in greeting as his gargant shambled steadily through the snow and up the little hillock.

  "The Marat mediator?" Aria asked.

  "Doroga," Isana called.

  The Marat lifted a broad hand. "Good morning," he rumbled in reply. He seized a braided leather cord hanging from the saddle blanket that covered the gargant's back, and swung down to earth as lightly as a boy coming down from an apple tree. "Isana and Scarred-Face," he said, nodding to Isana and Araris. He peered at Araris, and said, "Cut your hair. You look different."

  Araris inclined his head. "Somewhat, yes. And not very."

  Doroga nodded judiciously and studied Aria for a moment. "This one I do not know."

  Isana sensed Aria stiffen, as she replied, voice cold, "My elder brother was killed at the First Battle of Calderon. He died defending Gaius Septimus from your kind."

  Isana barely stopped herself from sucking in a surprised and outraged breath through her teeth and half turned toward Aria. "Doroga is a friend--"

  Doroga grunted as he held up a hand, casually interrupting Isana. He eyed Aria without excitement. "My father, three brothers, half a dozen cousins, my mother, her two sisters, and my closest friend died there as well," he answered in a steady voice. "All of us lost the battle at the Field of Fools, lady of the cold voice."

  "So all is forgotten?" Aria spat. "Is that what you mean?"

  "There is no use in chewing at old wounds." He stepped in front of Aria, whose eyes were level with his, and met her gaze. His voice came out a low rumble, calm, steady, and not in the least bit yielding. "That battle ended more than twenty years ago. Today's battle is fought far to the south, where many good Alerans, your own husband among them, now fight the Vord. In case you have forgotten, our purpose here is to make peace." Doroga's eyes flashed, and though his expression never changed, behind him the enormous dark-furred gargant suddenly let out a warning rumble that shook snowflakes from the surface of the snowbound ground around them. "Let it be, Aleran."

  The High Lady of Placida's eyes narrowed, and Isana could clearly sense her tension and anger. She held her breath, hardly daring to add anything to an already-overstrained situation. She could hardly imagine talks progressing smoothly were Aria to roast their mediator to the ground--or, she supposed, if the enormous Marat, his nose only inches from Lady Placida's, snapped her slender neck. Isana realized, belatedly, that in delivering his words, Doroga had closed the distance purposefully, in order to be too close to be cleanly struck by the long dueling sword Aria wore at her hip should she attempt to draw it. The Marat was no fool.

  Aria's hand twitched once toward the hilt of her blade, then she slowly moved both hands down to her thighs and smoothed her dress. She nodded once, sharply, to Doroga, the gesture in itself a kind of wordless concession, and turned to walk several paces away through the snow and stand facing the Shieldwall.

  Isana stared at Aria, still surprised at the woman's vehemence. Surely Doroga's presence had come as no surprise to her. Had she been overwhelmed by her emotions at the sight of one of the Marat, despite herself? The High Lords and Ladies of Alera were, generally speaking, past masters of controlling their responses--yet Aria had nearly attacked Doroga outright. Isana felt certain that had he demonstrated any aggression in response, beyond simply standing up for himself in the face of a threat, violence almost certainly would have ensued.

  She decided that it was most politic to simply regard the incident as over. It would also, she thought, be a fine idea to ignore the way the snow had swiftly melted away to nothing out to an arm's length all around Aria's feet.

  She turned to Doroga, to find him frowning pensively at the High Lady as well, his dark eyes thoughtful. His gaze met hers, and she clearly sensed his puzzlement and concern. He, too, had found something odd in Aria's reaction.

  No, Isana thought. The barbarian chieftain was definitely no fool.

  Isana smiled at him, and gestured toward the sun. "We stand before The One, Doroga. When will the Icemen arrive?"

  Doroga leaned casually on his cudgel, and drawled, "The Gadrim-ha were here before either of us." He called out something in a tongue she did not understand.

  Isana's eyes widened as half a dozen mounds of snow within thirty feet of them trembled, then rose into the forms of the white-furred Icemen. They simply stood, like men rising from a nap, and shook themselves, flinging fine, powdery snow from their pelts unmelted. Though none of them were as tall as Doroga, their overlong arms and overbroad shoulders carried the same suggestion of tremendous power. They bore crude weapons--axes and spears, made from wood and leather bands and stone--but Isana noted that the weapons looked far thicker and heavier than anything
any but the strongest of Alerans could wield without using earthcraft.

  She also noted that the Icemen rose in a circle around the Alerans. Araris was at her side in an instant, sword in hand, raised to a low guard. His eyes were focused into the middle distance, keeping track of all movement in his field of view with his peripheral vision, rather than watching any single foe. Aria, moving in the same instant, put her back to Araris's, her own sword in hand.

  The Icemen finished shaking themselves and turned to face Isana in a motion curious for its unison. One of them, a bit larger than the others, growled at Doroga. The Marat rumbled something in reply. The leader of the Icemen repeated his original growl, shaking his spear for emphasis.