Princeps' Fury, Page 36Jim Butcher
The thought of that chilled Isana. Back at her own steadholt--her former steadholt, she supposed wistfully--there would be a flurry of activity. Harvest would have been well over a few weeks ago. Elder Frederic would be at Araris's old forge, laboring on weapons instead of horseshoes. Children would be gathering slender branches, smoothing and straightening them into arrow shafts, while their older siblings were taught how to fletch feathers, fix nocks, and secure arrowheads onto them.
Isana bowed her head and set the dispatches aside. She had seen what war could do to the steadholts of the Calderon Valley. She had seen the slaughtered livestock, the burned-out buildings, the broken, discarded bodies. Isanaholt had been spared the scythe, so far. But it could easily, so easily, be her own stock that was hacked apart, her own outbuildings fired, her own people piled in pathetic windrows of empty flesh on the bloodied earth.
She set the dispatches aside and bowed her head. Was it selfish of her to worry so for the people on her own steadholt when so many other steadholts were in danger? When so many other steadholts had already been overwhelmed by the enemy? She was claiming the title of First Lady. She had a responsibility to far more people than the folk of a single tiny steadholt--yet they were Alerans, too.
Besides, was there really any choice? Could she not fear for them?
There was a brisk knock at the door and Isana looked up as the door opened to reveal Antillus Raucus. She could hear the movement of feet on stone in the hallway outside. Evidently, the High Lord had been accompanied by singulares when he came calling. Isana wasn't sure if she was amused by the fact that he might have felt threatened enough to need them. More likely, he had brought them as witnesses to verify that he had not attempted any wrongdoing in coming to speak to her.
Or to restrain Araris while he did carry out said wrongdoing.
The big Antillan High Lord filled up the doorway, a broad-shouldered, ruggedly handsome man who looked, Isana realized, a great deal more like Maximus than his legitimate son, Crassus. That explained a great deal about Maximus's upbringing.
She rose and inclined her head with as much poise and restraint as she could convincingly pretend to. "Your Grace."
Raucus ground his teeth as he returned the gesture with a bow, then said, voice tight and hard, "Your Highness."
"Have you come to concede and accompany me south with your Legions, sir?" Isana inquired.
"I have not."
She arched an eyebrow at him. "Then what brings you here? Strictly speaking, you should have sent your second to speak to mine."
"I already spoke to your second," Raucus replied. "And I don't send others to do things for me when it's clearly my obligation to act."
"Ah," Isana said. "I did not send Aria to you, sir. If she has spoken to you, she took it upon herself to do so." She reflected for a second, then added, "As out of character for her as that seems."
Raucus's mouth twitched at one corner, more bitter than amused, and he shook his head. "She couldn't talk you out of it either, eh?"
"Something like that," Isana said.
"I came here to offer you a chance to leave," Antillus said, his tone steady, his words carefully neutral. "Take Rari and Lady Aria and get off my land. We won't mention your challenge again. To anyone."
Isana considered that for a moment. It was a significant gesture. Many folk in the southern portions of the Realm often sneered at the tendency of the more conservative to defend vigorously such notions as their sense of personal valor, but the fact was that in the war-torn north, such a thing was a survival trait. Without the personal courage to face his foes--and more importantly, his legionares' belief in that courage--Antillus Raucus would face a horde of problems that could otherwise be avoided. When men had to stand on the battlefield, their courage itself a weapon that was every bit as deadly to the enemy as swords and arrows, one could not afford to appear as a coward to one's men.
By offering Isana a chance to simply depart, Raucus was running the very real risk of appearing, to his men, to have been skittish about taking her on--particularly after the clash of their furycraft before the walls earlier that day. Granted, if Isana left quietly, and no one said anything further about it, that damage would be minimized, but there were bound to be rumors, regardless.
She supposed it made sense, from Raucus's perspective. The man simply could not accept that the threat facing the Realm was greater than that which he'd spent his entire life--and the lives of who knew how many of his legionares-- fighting.
"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I can't do that."
"You're strong," he said in that same distant, uninflected tone. "I'll give you that. But you aren't stronger than I am." His gaze was steady. "If you see this through, I'll kill you. Don't think I won't."
Isana gestured at the table. "You've seen the dispatches. You know the danger."
His features shifted subtly, hardening. "I've spent my life fighting a war no one in the south can be bothered about. Burying men no one down there mourns. Seeing steadholts devastated. I know what they're going through, Your Highness. I've seen it more than once, visited on my own people."
"Then it should make you more eager to stop it--not less."
His eyes flashed in sudden anger. "If I take my Legions from the Wall, the Icemen will slaughter thousands of holders who can't protect themselves. It's as simple as that. Never mind what will happen to the rest of Alera if the Icemen decide to press south and grind us to pieces between two enemies."
"What if they're willing not to do that?"
"They aren't," Raucus growled. "Whatever you talked about in half of an hour today, take it from someone who has spent a lifetime dealing with them. They'll fight. That's all there is to it."
"You use that phrase a great deal," Isana said. She rose and lifted her chin, meeting Raucus's eyes. "What if you're wrong, my lord?"
"What if you are?" Isana demanded, her voice still gentle. "What if you could achieve a truce with the Icemen and take your forces south to the relief of the First Lord? What if you could be saving thousands of lives, right now--but you aren't?"
His gaze never wavered. A long, silent moment passed.
"I'll make sure your coach is standing by," he said quietly. "Be gone by morning, First Lady."
He bowed to her again, his back and shoulders stiff, then turned and swept from the room.
Isana felt herself begin to shake a moment later, in simple reaction to the tension and stress. She grimaced and folded her hands in her lap, closing her eyes and willing Rill into her own body, to exert some measure of control over her nerves. She urged blood to flow more smoothly, calmly through her limbs, and felt her hands warm up a little. She crossed the room to sit by the little fire-place, her hands extended, and took deep breaths until her quivering fingers stilled.
Araris entered silently and shut the door. He stood there, a silent presence against her senses, his concern a small thing beside the steady warmth of his love.
"He called you Rari," Isana said, without turning.
She didn't need to see him to know that a small smile had quirked up the unmarred side of his face. "I was in my first term at the Academy when he and Septimus were in their second. I followed them around a lot. Raucus bought me my first . . ." He coughed and she felt a flush of mild embarrassment from him. ". . . drink."
Isana shook her head, and enjoyed the feel of the smile that came to her mouth. "Thirty years ago. It doesn't seem like it should have been such a long time."
"Time goes by," Araris replied. "But yes. It doesn't feel like it was all that long ago to me, either." His mouth quirked into a small smile. "Then my knees ache and I see grey hairs in the mirror."
She turned to face him. He was leaning back against the door, legs crossed, arms folded over his chest. Isana walked over to him and ran the fingers of one hand lightly over his hair, caressing the silver that peppered the dark brown. "I think you're beautiful."
He captured her fingers in his,
and kissed them delicately before murmuring, "You have gone mad."
She shook her head, smiling, and pressed herself against Araris, laying her head on his armored chest. His arms slid around her a moment later.
"You're taking an awful risk," he told her.
"I have little choice," she replied. "The only way to take the Shield Legions south is with Raucus's cooperation. You know the man. Do you think he would murder an essentially unarmed woman in cold blood?"
"Not back when I knew him. But he isn't the man he was when we were young," Araris said. "He's harder. More bitter. I know you want to try to reach out to him, Isana, but bloody crows."
Isana said nothing. She just held on to him.
"Maybe you should think about his offer," Araris said. "Maybe there's another way."
"Take him south. Let him see the Vord for himself. Reading dispatches is one thing. Seeing it with your own eyes is another."
Isana inhaled and exhaled deeply and closed her eyes. "Open eyes are of little use when the mind behind them is closed."
Araris stroked her hair with one hand. "True enough."
"And . . . and there's no time." How could it go so quickly when you needed it most?
"If he . . . hurts you," Araris said calmly, "I'm going to kill him."
She lifted her head sharply and met his eyes. "You mustn't."
His scarred face was completely immobile. "Mustn't I?"
She framed his face with her hands. "The point of this is to reach his heart, Araris. He's built up layers and layers of defenses around his emotions--and being up here, it's easy to see why. He's channeled his passion into protecting his people, fighting the threat that's right here in front of him. Even if I die, trying to reach him, I might get through. I think he's a decent man, beneath the calluses and scars. If my blood is what it takes to wash them away, so be it."
Araris stared down at her for a long moment.
"Bloody crows," he whispered, finally. "I've never known such a woman as you, Isana."
She found her face warming, but she couldn't look away from his steady gaze.
"I love you," he said, simply. "I'll not try to carry you off before you can go out and get hurt tomorrow. I won't try to change what you are."
She didn't trust herself to speak. So she kissed him. Their arms slid around one another, and time went by on the wings of a falcon.
When he finally broke the kiss, though, there was something cold and hard in his voice.
"But I'm not changing who I am, either," he said in that same calm, steady voice. His eyes flashed and hardened. "And if he hurts you, my love, I'll leave his corpse out there on the snow at the foot of his precious Wall."
Tavi walked slowly forward, shivering beneath the damp coldness of his body-heat-concealing cloak. The weather had cooperated with them remarkably well. Cold rain, mixed with soft-frozen sleet, continued to fall, and the wind had died down to almost nothing as night closed in and slowly drew talons of ice across the face of the land.
As surprise assaults went, it was the most miserable one he could remember actually participating in. His nose was running freely, and he had already, he thought, caught the cold Max had glumly predicted. He didn't want to keep sniffling, and yet wiping at his face with a cloth wasn't something he could spare attention for, either. As a result, his face looked like a small child's--all in all a great deal less dignified than befitted a Princeps of the Realm, he was certain.
Kitai walked on his left, and slightly ahead of him. Her senses were sharper than his, and though he didn't like the idea of letting the young woman be the first to step closer to oncoming danger, he knew better than to ignore the advantage to be gained by doing so. To his right, and slightly behind him, Maximus walked with his hand on his sword. His rough-hewn friend's expression was placid, distant, his eyes focused on nothing, though Tavi had no doubt that Max was perfectly aware of everything around him. He doubtless had a number of furycraftings held ready to use, and doing so was an effort of will and concentration that demanded the most out of the young Antillan.
On the opposite side of Kitai from Tavi, Durias kept pace with a distinctly unhappy expression on his face. Granted, that might be because the blocky former slave was just as cold and wet and uncomfortable as Tavi. It might also be because Tavi was leading him into the stronghold of a horde of nightmare creatures in an alien land two thousand miles from his home.
Max and Kitai had both faced gratuitous amounts of danger with him before--and not always for reasons as desperate and concrete as those before them now. Durias, though, was a new companion. He'd gotten where he had in life by being a man of both competence and conviction, and Tavi had never seen him comport himself with less than complete integrity and sound reasoning.
Durias had to be wondering what he had done to deserve this.
As if sensing Tavi's gaze, Durias turned to him, an inquiring look upon his face. Tavi gave him what he hoped was a reassuring nod, and sternly kept himself from smiling. It just wasn't the proper time for it.
Behind them, the Canim walked upon their broad shoes, leaving dish-shaped impressions in the thick surface of the croach. Thus far, none of their steps had actually broken that surface. The steady, cold rain barely had time to begin to fill each dent before it vanished, the surface of the strange substance rebuilding itself.
Kitai abruptly lifted a hand, and every member of their hunting party froze in place.
The woods ahead of them shivered, then a trio of the enormous, froglike Vord came into sight, not twenty yards away. They padded by on broad, flapping feet, their movements sinuous and awkward at the same time.
Tavi tensed, and found his own hand moving toward his sword. They weren't yet halfway into the croach-covered area around the Vord's tunnel. If they were seen now, they might never have a chance to strike down the queen--or of escaping the Vord's domain alive. Should one of the frog-Vord notice them, it could mean their lives.
But none of the three even glanced toward Tavi and his companions.
Tavi let out a shuddering breath and closed his eyes in relief--just for a second. He could sense the same reaction from the others.
Kitai waited until the Vord had passed from sight, then glanced back at Tavi, nodded, and started forward again. They all followed her, their pace deliberate and steady, avoiding thin patches of the croach that might be more easily broken than other places.
It was during one such detour that Tavi came across a broken section of croach. Three parallel claw marks, perhaps an inch apart, had been raked through the thin sections of croach at the base of a fallen tree. The marks were oozing fresh, brightly glowing green liquid, and Tavi stared at it in horror.
The wax spiders would already be on the way. His group would shortly be discovered, and they hadn't even been responsible for the alarm that would surely be raised. It wasn't so much the thought of being killed that bothered Tavi--though it certainly did. He just hated the idea of dying because some other fool had made a mistake. He stared at the damaged croach, thinking furiously, and motioned the others back.
Everyone obeyed, except for Varg. The scarred old Cane came forward, his strides exaggerated but confident upon the broad shoes, and froze when he saw what Tavi was staring at. The Cane's eyes narrowed instantly, and began flickering at the trees all around them, his lips peeling back from his fangs.
Tavi began to back up, only to realize that it was too late.
One of the wax spiders had come, gliding across the ground toward them. It had too many legs to be a real spider, of course, but that was the closest thing Tavi could think of in form and movement. Its body was covered in a translucent white chitin, and it was about as big as a medium-sized dog, perhaps thirty-five or forty pounds in weight, though its long limbs made it look larger. A number of glossy eyes glittered greenly on its head, just above the bases of a pair of thick, thorn-shaped mandibles, fangs that Tavi knew bore a swift-acting, dangerous poi
Tavi dropped his hand to his sword without thinking.
Varg's huge paw-hand closed over his. "Wait," the Cane rumbled. "And do not move."
Tavi blinked at the Cane, then back to the spider. The creature was barely a dozen feet away. It would be sure to notice them around the damaged croach and raise the alarm. As Tavi watched, the spider abruptly oriented on them, turning its entire body on its many legs, and began bobbing up and down in agitation, a precursor to the whistling shrieks with which it would warn the rest of the Vord.
Before it could make a sound, something exploded out of the darkness beneath the thick branches of the fallen pine, a dark-furred blur that moved in perfect silence and hit the wax spider like a stone from an old Romanic war engine. The spider was driven across six feet of croach, its legs flailing helplessly as its attacker ripped savagely at the joint of its head and body.