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Cursor's Fury, Page 50

Jim Butcher

  But if he never knew she was there—not until it was too late—then she had a chance. He was only a man. Dangerous, powerful, skilled, but he was still mortal. It might not even take a deadly blow. They were perhaps two hundred feet above the coach, but if she could drive him down, knock him out of control even for a few seconds, the forest would give him no more special treatment than it had his fallen men.

  The least mistake would mean her death. Amara knew it.

  If she did nothing, he would almost certainly send the coach down and kill everyone inside.

  That made her choice a great deal easier than she had thought it would be. And though she began to shake harder, as she swam in a nauseating flood of her own terror, she also surged ahead, tightening her windstream down as much as she possibly could to prevent Kalarus or one of his Knights from sensing it. She flung herself out ahead of them, leading the group, judging as best she could where their course would take them.

  And then she gripped her sword so hard that pain flared up and down her right arm, and dismissed Cirrus, and with the fury, her windstream.

  Amara plummeted down toward the small shape of the coach far below, falling in total silence, without the use of the furycraft that might betray her presence to someone of Kalarus’s skill and power. She knew how to guide her fall, arms and legs splayed out, as she rushed down with greater and greater speed, focused completely upon her target, the High Lord of Kalare’s bare neck, a strip of pale skin showing above the streaming cloth of his grey-and-green cloak.

  Suddenly he rushed closer, in one breath several hundred feet away, and then suddenly beneath her, still flying on course, watching for the coach to emerge from the furycrafted fog. She raised the sword, both hands on the hilt, point down as she fell.

  Amara screamed and struck, calling out to Cirrus as she did.

  Wind rose in a massive, chaotic gale as Cirrus disrupted the windstreams of Kalarus and his escort.

  At the last possible second, one of the Immortals flying beside Kalarus looked up, and snapped into an immediate roll, placing his own body between Amara’s sword and Kalarus’s back.

  Amara struck the Immortal with bone-breaking power. The sword slammed through his mail as if it did not exist, plunged through him clear to the hilt. The impact came to her as a single hammerblow that somehow struck the whole of her body, all at once. She heard a snap, and her left arm dissolved into white-hot agony. The world spun in dizzying circles, and she could barely feel Cirrus’s presence through the pain.

  Something hit her lower leg, and she felt the straps of the sandal on that leg fall away, taking the sandal with them. The shock of it let her see that she had struck the thinnest branches of a particularly tall tree, and her shin had been laid open as sharply and cleanly as if struck by a knife. She called desperately to Cirrus, unable to sort out the haze of sensation, pain, color, and sound. Somehow, she managed to keep from vanishing into the trees, and found herself cruising along beside the coach, her course swaying like a drunkard, her left arm dangling uselessly, her sword no longer in her hand.

  “Countess!” called Lady Placida. “Watch out!”

  Amara blinked at her for a second, then turned and saw one of the Knights Aeris sweep down at her, spear in hand. She began to dodge, but knew that it was useless. She was too slow.

  The enemy Knight drew back his sword to strike.

  And an arrow struck him in the throat, drawing a sudden geyser of blood, and the Knight spun helplessly into the trees.

  Amara blinked and looked back at the coach.

  The Count of Calderon stood in a low crouch atop the coach, his war bow in hand, his legs spread and braced against the howling wind. He stood atop the coach simply balanced there, without any kind of safety strap, without so much as a rope to belay him. Bernard had cast off his cloak, and his expression held all the distant, cool indifference of a professional archer. Moving with unhurried precision, he drew another arrow, eyes focused above Amara and behind her, and another arrow flashed out.

  She turned to see it strike another enemy Knight, though the shaft flew wide in the wind, slamming through the man’s right arm rather than his heart. He screamed and slowed, carefully controlling his flight to let the enemy pull ahead.

  “Amara! ‘ Bernard called. He took one end of his bow in hand and held the other out to her.

  Still dazed, it took her a second to understand what she was to do, but she grabbed the bow and let Bernard pull her to a landing on the coach’s roof. She sat there for a moment, and Bernard shot twice more—both misses. Without being able to touch the earth and call upon his fury’s strength, he could only draw the bow part of the way back, which would both make aiming more difficult and changing the dynamics of the arrow’s flight. And regardless of anyone’s skill, the turbulence of flight made it enormously difficult to hit anything more than a few yards away, and the Knights Aeris were keeping their distance for the moment, dodging and weaving in and out to provoke Bernard into shooting—and expending his arrows on shots unlikely to strike his foes. They could see, just as Amara could, that only a handful of arrows remained in his quiver, but by the time Bernard realized what they were doing, only three remained.

  Amara’s wits unscrambled in a sudden rush. The pain was still there in her arm and left shoulder, but it was distant and of minimal importance. A glance down at the nearby treetops told her that though the coach was moving swiftly, it was weaving about, dangerously unbalanced as the bearers’ strength waned.

  “What are you doing, you fool? “ she called to Bernard.

  “No room to shoot inside, love,” Bernard answered.

  “If we survive this, I’ll kill you with my bare hands,” she snarled at him. She leaned over the side and called, “Lady Aquitaine! We’ve got to move faster!”

  “She can’t hear you!” Aldrick called back, voice tight with pain. “It’s all the both of them can do to keep the coach in the air!”

  Red lightning flashed, and a shadow fell across the back of the coach.

  Amara looked back to see Kalarus descending toward them. His cloak had been torn in a dozen places by the same tree branches that had slashed the left side of his face to bloody, swollen meat. His teeth were gnashed in hate and rage, and when he met Amara’s eyes, the blade of his sword suddenly began to glow like iron on the forge, red, then orange, then white-hot. The metal shrieked in anguished protest.

  Bernard moved, hands blurring, and let fly two arrows as Kalarus closed in. The High Lord of Kalare flicked them aside with his burning blade, shattering them with armor-piercing heads. Kalarus came on, murder in his eyes. Amara hurled Cirrus against him, but she might as well have tried to stop a charging gargant with a silk thread. The High Lord powered through Cirrus as though the fury had not been there.

  She wanted to scream in frustration and terror, in helpless protest that this scum, this, this . . . creature was going to kill her, kill her husband, kill everyone in the coach, and drag Alera into total chaos. She turned to Bernard, eyes searching for his. She wanted to be looking at him when Kalare’s blade took her life. Not at the animal who had killed her.

  Bernard’s face was pale, but his eyes held no trace of defeat, no hint of surrender. He looked down at Amara, a single, fleeting glance—and winked at her.

  Then he set his last arrow to string and loosed it as Kalare closed to within ten feet of the coach. Once more, Kalare sneered, blade moving with sinuous grace to strike the arrow before it could reach him. Its shaft shattered into splinters.

  But the arrow’s head, a shaped, translucent crystal of rock salt like the ones he’d loosed against the windmanes in Calderon, exploded into powder.

  It tore into Kalarus’s wind furies, blanketing him, ripping his windstream to shreds, murdering the power that kept him aloft.

  Kalarus had time for one brief, mystified expression of shock and disbelief.

  And then he screamed as he fell like a stone into the trees below.

  Then there was silence
, but for the surf-thunder of steady wind.

  Bernard lowered his bow slowly and let out a long breath. He nodded his head pensively, and said, “I think I’ll write Tavi and thank him for that idea.”

  Amara stared at her husband, speechless.

  She needed to tell the bearers to keep going for as long as they could before setting down to rest beneath the canopy of the forest, somewhere near a large stream or small river, so that she could send word to the First Lord. But that could come in a moment. For now, the need to look at his face, to realize that they were alive, that they were together, was far more important than mere realms.

  Bernard slung his bow over his shoulder and knelt beside Amara, reaching gently for her arm. “Easy. Let’s see what you’ve done to it.”

  “One of your salt arrows,” she said quietly, shaking her head.

  He smiled at her, his eyes alight with green, brown, and flecks of gold; colors of life and growth and warmth. “It’s always the little things that are important,” he said. “Isn’t it.”

  “Yes,” she said, and kissed him gently on the mouth.

  “Excellent,” said the water figure of Gaius, a translucent form that lacked the solid-color enhancement the First Lord used to favor. “Well done, Countess. What is the status of the rescuees?”

  She stood beside a large, swift stream that rolled down from the hills many miles from Kalare. The forest here was particularly thick, and they’d barely managed to get the coach down through it in one piece. The bearers had all but collapsed into sleep, without even unhooking their flight harnesses. Bernard went around to each man, gently freeing them from the coach and letting them stretch out on the ground. The High Ladies were in a similar state, though Lady Aquitaine managed to seat herself primly at the base of a tree before leaning her head back against it and watching Odiana help Aldrick to the stream to tend to his wound.

  Lady Placida hardly seemed strong enough to keep her head held up, but she insisted on staying with Atticus Elania, who had been injured during the flight—not by a weapon, but when the wounded Aldrick had half fallen back into the coach. He’d fallen hard against one of the crowded seats and broken the girl’s ankle. Lady Placida had managed to ease Elania’s pain, then promptly fallen back onto the grass to sleep.

  Rook stepped out of the coach with her eyes closed, holding her daughter’s hand. She found a patch of ground near the stream bank, where the sunlight reached the warm earth. She sat in the light, holding her daughter, her face weary and sagging with something rather like shock.

  “Countess?” prodded Gaius gently.

  Amara looked back to the water-image. “My apologies, sire.” She took a deep breath, and said, “Atticus Elania Minora was injured during the escape, but not seriously. A broken ankle. Well have it crafted well again soon.”

  Gaius nodded. “And Lady Placida?”

  “Exhausted but otherwise well, sire.”

  Gaius raised an inquisitive eyebrow.

  Amara explained. “She and Lady Aquitaine spent themselves in an effort to speed our escape and hinder the pursuit. Only a bit more than a score of nearly a hundred Knights Aeris managed to catch up to us, and without the ladies’ efforts I am certain we would have been overpowered and killed.”

  “Where are you now?” Gaius asked. Then immediately raised a hand. “No, best not say. This communication could be observed by others. In general, what is your situation?”

  “We pressed on for as long as we could after Kalarus fell, sire, but we didn’t make it terribly far. It’s possible that a follow-up search could find us, so we’ll only rest here for an hour or two, then move on.”

  Gaius lifted both eyebrows. “Kalarus fell?”

  Amara smiled and inclined her head. “Courtesy of the good count Calderon, sire. I am not certain he is dead, but if he did survive it, I doubt he will be in any condition to run a revolution.”

  Gaius’s teeth showed in a sudden, wolfish smile. “I’ll want details in person as soon as you can manage it, Countess. Please convey my thanks to His Excellency of Calderon,” the First Lord said, “and to the Ladies and their retainers as well.”

  “I’ll try to keep a straight face when I do, sire.”

  Gaius threw back his head and laughed, and when he did the water-image changed. For a moment, there was color in it, greater detail, and more animation. Then he shook his head, and said, “I will leave you to your rest and travel then, Cursor.”

  “Sire?” Amara asked. “Were we in time?”

  Gaius nodded once. “I think so. But I must move quickly.” The image met Amara’s eyes, then Gaius bowed, ever so slightly, to her. “Well done, Amara.”

  Amara drew in a deep breath as she felt a flash of ferocious pride and satisfaction. “Thank you, sire.”

  The image descended back into the stream, and Amara slumped wearily down onto its banks, her arm throbbing dully, but with slowly increasing discomfort. She glanced aside at Bernard, who stood near Lady Aquitaine, in the shade of the same tree, his eyes distant as, through his connections with furies of earth and wood, he kept watch for anyone approaching.

  “Hello, Amara,” said Odiana cheerfully.

  Despite her weariness and discomfort, Amara twitched in surprise, and pain shot in burning silver lines from her shoulder to the base of her neck. The water witch had approached in total silence and spoken to her from a foot away.

  “I’m sorry,” Odiana said, a quiet laugh hidden in the words. “I didn’t mean to scare you that way. That must have hurt awfully, jumping like that, poor darling.”

  “What do you want?” Amara said quietly.

  Her dark eyes glittered. “Why, to repair your poor shoulder, little peregrine. You’ll be as useful to your lord as a falcon with one wing. We can’t have that.”

  “I’m fine,” Amara said quietly. “Thank you anyway.”

  “Tsk, tsk,” Odiana said, waggling a finger. “Lying that way. I promise you that I’ll make it stop hurting.”

  “That’s enough teasing,” Lady Aquitaine said smoothly.

  Odiana scowled at Lady Aquitaine, stuck her tongue out at her, then got up to wander idly down the stream bank.

  Lady Aquitaine rose from the base of the tree and said, “We have now reached a crossroads, Cursor. There are difficult decisions that must be made.”

  “Concerning what?” Amara asked.

  “The future,” Lady Aquitaine replied. “For instance. I must decide whether or not allowing you to live is likely to prove helpful or inconvenient. You are, after all, a quite capable agent of the Crown. Given the political climate, you could be a small but significant obstacle to my plans should you turn your hand against me.” She gave Amara a thoughtful look. “But you could be in a position to be very helpful indeed if we can reach some sort of arrangement.”

  Amara drew in a slow, deep breath, steadying herself. “I suppose it was too much to hope for that you would act in good faith, once you had what you wanted,” she said quietly.

  “We aren’t playing the game for copper rams, Cursor. You know that as well as I do.”

  “Yes. But I’ve heard this offer before. I think you know what my answer was.”

  “The last time the offer was made,” Lady Aquitaine said, “you weren’t married.”

  Amara narrowed her eyes, and said in a cold voice, “Do you really think you’ll get away with it?”

  “If I take that path?” Lady Aquitaine shrugged. “I can simply explain how we were found by one of Kalarus’s search parties, which came on us by night, and that there were few survivors.”

  “And you think people will believe that tripe?”

  “Why on earth not, dear?” said Lady Aquitaine in a cold voice. “You just told Gaius yourself that the party was still in danger of discovery, after all.” She narrowed her own gaze, her pale face bleak as stone. “And there will be no one to gainsay me. Not only will I get away with it, Countess. They’ll most likely award me another medal.”

  “My answer is no,�
�� Amara said quietly.

  Lady Aquitaine arched an eyebrow. “Principle is well and good, Countess. But in this particular instance, your options are quite limited. You can either agree to work for me . . . or Aldrick can take Aria’s head, at which point I will ask again.”

  Amara shot a hard look over her shoulder, where the still-limping swordsman stood over Lady Placida’s recumbent form, sword held in a high guard.

  “Right now,” Lady Aquitaine said, “Gaius is likely contacting Placida, telling him that his wife is safe. But if she should die now, the furies she restrains will be freed with catastrophic results to Placida’s lands and holders. From where he stands, he will have little choice but to draw the conclusion that Gaius betrayed him.”

  “Assuming,” Amara said, “that you can make good on your threat. I don’t think you’d kill another member of the League in cold blood.”

  “No, Countess?” Lady Aquitaine said, her voice cold. “You know I am perfectly willing to kill every one of you rather than risk having you in my way. You know it.”

  Amara glanced at Rook, who held Masha tight by the stream bank and had her head bowed, attempting to go unnoticed. “Even the little girl?”

  “Children of murdered parents often grow up to seek revenge, Countess. That’s a bitter life with a terrible ending. I’d be doing her a kindness.”

  Bernard placed the tip of his dagger lightly against the back of Lady Aquitaine’s neck, seized a fistful of her lustrous dark hair to hold her steady, and said, “You will kindly tell Aldrick to sheathe his sword, Your Grace.”

  Aldrick bared his teeth in a snarl.

  Lady Aquitaine’s lip lifted in a contemptuous sneer. “Odiana, dear?”

  Water suddenly surged up out of the stream in a set of writhing tentacles not too terribly unlike those of the Canim cloud beasts. They whipped up around Rook and Masha like constrictor serpents, twining around them. For a sickening second, one of the water tendrils covered their noses and mouths, strangling them, before Odiana gestured and they were allowed to breathe again.