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First Lords Fury, Page 5

Jim Butcher
than at any time in Aleran history. In fact, if they could have produced even more equipment, the Realm had volunteers enough for a dozen more Legions to add to the thirty already encamped.

  Ehren shook his head. Thirty Legions. Just over two hundred thousand steel-clad legionares, each one part of a Legion, a living, breathing engine of war. The lower ranks of the Citizenry had been distributed among the Legions, so many that every Legion there had a double-sized cohort of Knights ready to do battle. And, beyond that, a full bloody Legion Aeris, its ranks consisting solely of those with the skills of Knights Aeris, led by the upper ranks of the Citizenry, had been harassing the foe for months.

  And standing by beyond even that force was the First Lord and the High Lords of the Realm, each a furycrafter of almost unbelievable power. There was strength enough in that camp to rip the earth to its very bones, to set the sky on fire, to draw down the hungry sea from the north, to raise the winds to a killing scythe that would destroy any caught before it, all protected by a seething sea of steel and discipline.

  And yet refugees, fleeing the destruction spreading from the heart of the Realm, continued to flood in. There was a desperate edge to the voices of centurions driving their troops to drill. Couriers, riding the winds, went roaring into the skies on thunderous columns of fury-guided air, so many that the Princeps had been forced to establish a policy for lanes of approach to prevent the fliers from collisions. Smithies burned their forges day and night, creating, preparing, repairing, and would continue doing so until the vord overran them.

  And Ehren knew what was driving all of it.

  Fear. Unmitigated terror.

  Though the gathered might of all Alera spread for miles around Riva, the fear was a scent on the air, a shadow hovering at the edges of vision. The vord were coming, and calm, quiet voices whispered in every mind with the capacity for thought that even the power gathered there would not be enough. Though Gaius Sextus had died like a rogue gargant brought to bay, crushing his foes as he fell, the fact remained that he had fallen. There was an unspoken thought lurking behind everyone's eyes - if Gaius Sextus could not survive the vord, what chance did anyone else possess?

  Ehren nodded to the commander of the score of guards surrounding the command tent, spoke the current passphrase, and was admitted to the tent without needing to so much as slow his steps. Nothing much really slowed Ehren's steps these days, he reflected. Gaius Sextus's letter to then-High Lord Aquitaine had apparently seen to that - among other things.

  "Five months," snarled a rumbling voice, as Ehren entered the tent. "Five months we've been sitting here. We should have been moving south against the vord weeks ago!"

  "You're a brilliant tactician, Raucus," replied a deeper, quieter voice. "But long-term thinking was never your strongest suit. We can't know what surprises the vord have in store for us on ground they've had time to prepare. "

  "There's never been evidence of any defenses," Antillus Raucus, High Lord Antillus retorted, as Ehren brushed aside the second tent flap and entered the tent proper. Raucus faced the Princeps across a double-sized sand table in the center of the tent that bore a map of all Alera upon it. He was a big, brawny man with a craggy face long used to winter winds, and he wore the scars of a soldier upon his face and hands, the reminders of nicks and cuts that had been so numerous and frequent that not even his considerable skills at furycraft could smooth them away. "In all of our history, this is the most powerful force ever assembled. We should take this army, ram it right down their throats, and kill that bitch of a Queen. Now. Today. "

  The First Lord was a leonine man, tall and lean, with dark golden hair and black, opaque eyes beneath the simple, undecorated steel band of his coronet, the traditional crown of a First Lord at war. Dressed in his own colors of scarlet and black, still, Aquitainus Attis - Gaius Aquitainus Attis, Ehren supposed, since Sextus had legally adopted the man in his last letter - faced Raucus's insistent statement with total calm. In that, at least, he actually was like Sextus, Ehren thought.

  The First Lord shook his head. "The vord are obviously alien to us, but just as obviously intelligent. We have prepared defenses because it is an intelligent measure that even fools realize increases our ability to defend and control our land. We would be fools ourselves to assume that the vord cannot reach the same conclusion. "

  "When Gaius led our forces against the vord, you advised him to attack," Raucus pointed out. "Not retreat. It was the correct course of action. "

  "Given how many vord came to the final assault on Alera Imperia, apparently not," the First Lord replied. "We had no idea how many of them were out there. If he'd taken my counsel, our assault would have been enveloped and destroyed - and the vord were expecting us to do so. "

  "We know their numbers now," Raucus said.

  "We think we do," Aquitaine shot back, heat touching his voice for the first time. "This is our last chance, Raucus. If these Legions fall, there is nothing left to stop the vord. I will not waste the blood of a single legionare if I cannot be sure to make the enemy pay a premium for it. " He folded his hands behind his back, took a breath, and released it again, reassuming his air of complete calm. "They will come to us, and soon, and their Queen will be compelled to accompany them and coordinate the attack. "

  Raucus scowled, his shaggy brows lowering. "You think you can mouse-trap her. "

  "A defensive battle," Aquitaine replied, nodding. "Draw them to us, endure the assault, wait for our moment, and counterattack with everything we have. "

  Raucus grunted. "She's operating with furycraft now. And on a scale equal to anyone alive. And she's still got a guard of the Alerans she took before Count and Countess Calderon ruined that part of her operation. "

  Not even Antillus Raucus, Ehren noted, was willing to point out openly to the new Princeps that his wife was among those who had been compelled to take up arms with the vord.

  "That's unfortunate," Aquitaine said, his voice hard. "But we'll have to go through them. "

  Raucus studied him for a few seconds. "You figure on taking her yourself, Attis?"

  "Don't be ridiculous," Aquitaine said. "I'm a Princeps. It's going to be me, and you, and Lord and Lady Placida and every other High Lord and Lord and Count who can raise a weapon and the entire Legion Aeris and every other Legion I can arrange to be there besides. "

  Raucus lifted his eyebrows. "For one vord. "

  "For the vord," Aquitaine replied. "Kill her, and the rest of them are little more than animals. "

  "Bloody dangerous animals. "

  "Then I'm sure hunting fashions will become all the rage," Aquitaine replied. He turned around and nodded. "Sir Ehren. Have the reports come in?"

  "Yes, sire," Ehren replied.

  Aquitaine turned to the sand tables and swept a hand in invitation. "Show me. "

  Ehren calmly walked to the tables and took up a bucket of green sand. Raucus winced when he did. The green sand marked the spread of the croach across Alera. They'd run through several buckets already.

  Ehren dipped a hand into the bucket and carefully poured green sand over the model of a walled city on the sand table that represented Parcia. It vanished into a mound of emerald grains. It seemed, to Ehren, an inadequate way to represent the ending of hundreds of thousands of Parcian lives, both the city's population and the vast number of refugees who had sought safety there. But there could be no doubt. The Cursors and aerial spies were certain: Parcia had fallen to the vord.

  The tent was silent.

  "When?" Aquitaine asked quietly.

  "Two days ago," Ehren said. "The Parcian fleet was continuing the evacuation right up until the very end. If they stayed near the coastlines, they could have employed much smaller vessels as well and loaded all of the ships very heavily. They may have taken as many as seventy or even eighty thousand people around the cape to Rhodes. "

  Aquitaine nodded. "Did Parcia unleash the great furies beneath the city on the enemy?"

bsp; "Bloody crows, Attis," Raucus said quietly, reproof in his voice. "Half the refugees in the entire south were at Parcia. "

  The First Lord faced him squarely. "No amount of grieving will change what has happened. But prompt action based upon rational thought could save lives in the near future. I need to know how badly the enemy was hurt by the attack. "

  Raucus scowled and folded his heavy arms, muttering beneath his breath.

  Aquitaine put a hand on the other man's shoulder for a moment, then turned to face Ehren. "Sir Ehren?"

  Ehren shook his head. "There was nothing to indicate that he did so, Your Highness. From what we have heard from the survivors, High Lord Parcius was assassinated. The vord didn't assault and breach the walls until after he had fallen. " He