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First Lords Fury, Page 4

Jim Butcher
multiple decks and a vast capacity for their precious cargo - all that remained of once-proud Canea. Makers, females, and pups filled the three ships, and the Narashan captains of the vessels escorting her had orders to spill their crews' blood like seawater if that was what it required to protect the civilians.

  The ships had enormous, flat decks, and no mast could stretch high or broad enough to hang enough sail to move the vessel, but the Alerans had managed to overcome the problem with their typical ingenuity. Hundreds of poles with crossbars had been placed on the topmost deck of the ship, and they billowed with every form of cloth one could imagine. They alone would not propel the ice mountains, but Tavar was, correctly, of the opinion that even a small contribution would prove significant over time. Then, too, the wind demons with the Aleran fleet had been tasked with bringing up enough of a breeze to lighten the load on the water demons who truly drove the vast ships.

  Propelled primarily by Aleran sorcery, the ice ships had proved to be steady in the water. If the quarters for his people were a bit cold - albeit less so than one would have imagined - their discomfort was a small price to pay for survival. Some of the sick and elderly had been transferred to Varg's transports to get out of the cold, but for the most part matters had proceeded with relative simplicity.

  Varg looked up and down the length of his ship, watching his sailors tending to their work. His warriors and sailors were painfully lean, though not cadaverous. Gathering rations had been a hurried affair during the escape, and there were thousands of mouths to feed. Priority for food went to the Aleran wind and water demons, then sailors, with civilians close behind. The demon Legions followed, thanks to the necessity of maintaining their fragile forms, and last came Varg's warriors. The order might have been reversed during lean times in a land campaign, but here, on the open water, those most vital to the fleet's progress and purpose had priority.

  Varg watched as a hunting ship sailed into the fleet from outside the formation. It moved sluggishly, even under full sail, but its speed was adequate to catch the ice ships. A massive form floated in the water behind the hunting ship - the corpse of a medium-sized leviathan.

  The demons' work, again. Leviathans were fiercely territorial, but they hated the cold of the chilled sea surrounding the ice ships. Hunting vessels would sail out of the bitterly cold water and draw the attention of a leviathan. Then air and water demons would work together to slay it, somehow drowning the creatures on air even while they were in the water.

  It was a dangerous business. Two out of ten hunting ships never returned - but those that did brought enough food with them, in the form of the leviathans, to feed the entire fleet for two days. The taste of leviathan meat and blubber was indescribably foul, but it kept a body alive.

  Nasaug came to his side and watched the hunting ship with Varg. "Warmaster. "

  "The good Master is gone?"

  "Yes," Nasaug said. "And surly. "

  Varg bared his teeth in a grin.

  "Father," Nasaug said. He paused to choose words carefully. Varg turned to face him and waited. When Nasaug did that, what he had to say was generally unpleasant - and worth listening to.

  "In three weeks we will reach Alera," Nasaug said.

  "Yes. "

  "And fight the vord beside the demons. "

  "Yes. "

  Nasaug was silent for a long moment. Then he said, "Khral is a scheming fool. But he has a point. There is no reason for the Alerans to keep us alive once we have won the war. "

  Varg's ears twitched in amusement. "First we must win the war," he rumbled. "Many things can happen in the passing of time. Patience. "

  Nasaug flicked his ears in agreement. "Khral is building a following. Speaking to gatherings on the ice ships. Our people are afraid. He is using that fear. "

  "It is what bloodspeakers do," Varg said.

  "He could be dangerous. "

  "Fools often are. "

  Nasaug did not gainsay him, but then he rarely did. The younger Cane straightened his shoulders in resignation and looked out to sea.

  Varg put a hand on his pup's shoulder. "I know Khral. I know his like. How they think. How they move. I have dealt with them before, as have you when you fed Sarl to the Tavar. "

  Nasaug showed his fangs in a grin of remembrance.

  Varg nodded. "If necessary, we will deal with them again. "

  "This problem might be better removed now than later. "

  Varg growled. "He has not yet stepped outside the code. I will not kill him improperly. "

  Nasaug was quiet for a moment more. Then he looked back behind them at the tiny, cramped cabin built just behind the forecastle, the smelliest and most uncomfortable quarters on the ship.

  It was where Varg's Hunters lived.

  "Hunters do not exist to circumvent the code," Varg growled, "but to preserve its spirit against its letter. Of course they could do the job. But it would only give Khral's ambitious underlings additional fire - and a genuine grievance to rally their followers behind. We may need the ritualists before all is done. " He leaned his paw-hands on the rail and turned his nose into the wind, tasting the sky and the sea. "Master Marok is the brother of one of my finest enemies, and seniormost of the followers of the Old Path. I have his support within the ritualist camp. "

  Nasaug flicked his ears in acquiescence and seemed to relax a bit. He stood with his sire for a moment, then bared his throat and departed back to his duties.

  Varg spent an hour or so on deck, inspecting, offering encouragement, snarling at imperfection. All was quiet, otherwise, which he mistrusted. There hadn't been nearly enough adversity during this crossing. Ill fortune must be holding its balest bolt until it could be sure it was lethal.

  Varg returned to his book, an ancient Aleran writing apparently handed down since their people's prehistory. Tavar had said that they were not sure how much of the material was original and how much had been added in over the centuries - but if half of it was truth, then the Aleran warmaster described in its pages had been competent, if a shade arrogant. It was easy to see how his memoirs had influenced the strategies and tactics of the Aleran Legions.

  Though, Varg mused, he was not at all convinced that this Julius person, whoever he was, would have had a very great deal to teach Tavar.

  Sir Ehren ex Cursori walked toward the tent at the heart of the vast Legion camp outside the ancient city of Riva. He looked up the hill toward the walled city and felt uncomfortable for what must have been the hundredth time in a few days. The walls of Riva were high and thick - and offered him a conspicuous lack of comfort, considering that he and the surviving Legions under the command of First Lord Aquitaine were on the outside of them. Traditionally, when attacking a city, that was where the enemy tended to congregate.

  Oh, certainly, the palisade walls around each Legion were a perfectly defensible barrier, he knew. But the modest earthworks and wooden walls were not enough to stop the vord.

  Then again, the walls of Alera Imperia herself hadn't stopped them, either.

  Ehren shook his head and brushed off the heavy thoughts with a sigh. There was no good in dwelling over what even the true First Lord of Alera, Gaius Sextus, had been powerless to stop. But at least in dying, Gaius had given the people of Alera a fighting chance to survive. The fire-mountain that had arisen as the vord closed their jaws on the heart of Alera had all but wiped out their horde, and the Legions brought down against all hope from the far northern cities by Gaius Isana had savaged the survivors.

  Against any other foe the Alerans had faced, that would have been quite sufficient, Ehren reflected. It seemed quite unfair that such an enormous act of wanton destruction should prove to be nothing more than a moderate setback, regardless of who the enemy might be.

  A quiet and rational part of his mind, the part that did all of his mathematics when he was faced with columns of figures, told him that the vord would be Alera's last foe. There was no way, none at
all, to defeat them with the forces Alera had remaining. They were simply breeding too swiftly. Most wars, in the end, came down to the numbers. The vord had them.

  It was as simple as that.

  Ehren firmly told that part of his mind to go to the crows. It was his duty to serve and protect the Realm to the best of his ability, and he would not better attend to that duty by listening to such demoralizing naysaying, regardless of how correct it might be in a historical - and literal - sense.

  After all, even driven to her knees, Alera was still a force to be reckoned with. The greatest gathering of Legions in a thousand years had congregated on the open plain around the city of Riva - the vast majority of them made up of veterans from the continually warring cities of Antillus and Phrygia. Oh, true, some of the troops were militia - but the militia of the sister cities of the north were quite literally as formidable as any of the active Legions of the south, and smithies were turning out weapons and armor for the Legions more rapidly