For a thousand years, the people of Alera have united against the aggressive and threatening races that inhabit the world, using their unique bond with the furies—elementals of earth, air, fire, water, wood, and metal. But in the remote Calderon Valley, the boy Tavi struggles with his lack of furycrafting. At fifteen, he has no wind fury to help him fly, no fire fury to light his lamps. Yet as the Alerans’ most savage enemy—the Marat horde—return to the Valley, Tavi’s courage and resourcefulness will be a power greater than any fury, one that could turn the tides of war...
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Praise for FURIES OF CALDERON
“Jim Butcher’s new novel is epic fantasy in the best way, inspired by Tolkien, but not just another imitation. Like Tolkien, Butcher’s book understands that even the greatest of stories can be guided by the smallest of people. It’s the men and women on the ground, at the cutting edge, who get to decide all the things that really matter. Butcher’s book is sharp, fast-moving, full of deadly dangers and double dealing.” —New York Times bestselling author Simon R. Green
“Filled with plot twists and white-knuckled suspense, this is a ripping good yarn that delivers terrific magic and non-stop action. A page-turner all the way.”
—Deborah Chester, national bestselling author of The King Betrayed
“Butcher has created a fascinating world and magic system, and peopled it with some truly engaging characters — and intriguing hints of a great Destiny . . . the start of a promising series.” —Locus
“With strong, likable characters and a graceful storytelling style, this series debut should appeal to fans of epic fantasy.” —Library Journal
“Absorbing fantasy . . . Butcher does a thorough job of world-building, to say nothing of developing his action scenes with an abundance of convincing detail. This page-turner bodes well for future volumes.” —Publishers Weekly
“A real page-turner, with the classic plot of a kingdom threatened by both an outside invader and internal treachery enlivened by an abundance of original details and sheer storytelling gusto . . . A promising series-launcher.”
Praise for Jim Butcher’s
“What’s not to like about this series? . . . I would, could, have, and will continue to recommend [it] for as long as my breath holds out. It takes the best elements of urban fantasy, mixes it with some good old-fashioned noir mystery, tosses in a dash of romance and a lot of high-octane action, shakes, stirs, and serves.” —SF Site
“Filled with sizzling magic and intrigue . . . will have fans rapidly turning the pages.” —Booklist
“Intense and wild . . . a skillful blend of urban fantasy and noir, sure to satisfy any fan and leave them begging for more.” —Green Man Review
“A haunting, fantastical novel that begins almost as innocently as those of another famous literary wizard named Harry.” —Publishers Weekly
“Few horror, fantasy, or mystery tales get any better than this wonderful plot that smoothly combines all three genres into one novel.” —BookBrowser
“Good fun for fans of dark fantasy mystery.” —Locus
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
FURIES OF CALDERON
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Copyright © 2004 by Jim Butcher.
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ACE Ace Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,
For my son, hero in training. And in memory of my father, a hero in truth.
I would like to thank Jennifer Jackson, for her excellent advice in reworking this book. Thanks to my wife and son, as always, and to the beta reading asylum. And a whole ton of thanks to all those insane men and women of the International Fantasy Gaming Society, with whom I have spent many a weekend slaying and being slain in return. Keep your foam swords dry, carry lots of water on course, and watch out for snakes and head shots.
But can anyone tell me why I have to keep carrying these whistles into games?
The course of history is determined not by battles, by sieges, or usurpations, but by the actions of the individual. The strongest city, the largest army is, at its most basic level, a collection of individuals. Their decisions, their passions, their foolishness, and their dreams shape the years to come. If there is any lesson to be learned from history, it is that all too often the fate of armies, of cities, of entire realms rests upon the actions of one person. In that dire moment of uncertainty, that person’s decision, good or bad, right or wrong, big or small, can unwittingly change the world.
But history can be quite the slattern. One never knows who that person is, where he might be, or what decision he might make.
It is almost enough to make me believe in Destiny.
FROM THE WRITINGS OF GAIUS PRIMUS FIRST LORD OF ALERA
“Please, Tavi,” wheedled the girl in the predawn darkness outside the steadholt’s kitchen. “Just this one little favor?”
“I don’t know,” said the boy. “There’s so much work today.”
She leaned in closer to him, and the boy felt her slender body mold against his, soft and flower-scented and delightful. She pressed her mouth to his cheek in a slow kiss and whispered in his ear, “I’d be very grateful.”
“Well,” the boy said. “I’m not sure if, um.”
She kissed his cheek again and whispered, “Please.”
His heart pounded more quickly, and his knees felt weak. “All right. I’ll do it.”
Amara rode atop the swaying back of the towering old gargant bull, going over the plan in her head. The morning sun shone down on her, taking the chill out of the misty air and warming the dark wool of her skirts. Behind her, the axles of the cart squeaked and groaned beneath their loads. The slave collar she wore had begun to chafe her skin, and she made an irritated mental note to wear one for a few days in order to grow used to it, before the next mission.
Assuming she survived this one, of course.
A tremor of nervous fear ran down her spine and made her shoulders tighten. Amara took a deep breath and blew it out again, closing her eyes for a moment and blocking out every thought except for the sensations around her: sunlight on her face, swaying of the pungent gargant’s long strides, creaking of the cart’s axles.
“Nervous?” asked the man walking beside the gargant. A goad dangled from his hand, but he hadn’t lifted it in the entire trip. He managed the beast with the lead straps alone, though his head barely came to the old bull’s brown-furred thigh. He wore the plain clothes of a peddler: brown leggings, sturdy sandals, with a padded jacket over his shirt, dark green on homespun. A long cape, tattered green without embroidery, had been cast over one shoulder as the sun rose higher.
“No,” Amara lied. She opened her eyes again, staring ahead.
Fidelias chuckled. “Liar. It’s not a brainless plan. It might work.”
Amara shot her teacher a wary glance. “But you have a suggestion?”
“In your graduation exercise?” Fidelias asked. “Crows, no. I wouldn’t dream of it, academ. It would cheapen your performance.”
Amara licked her lips. “But you think that there’s something I should know?”
Fidelias gave her a perfectly guileless look. “I did have a few questions.”
“Questions,” Amara said. “We’re going to be there in a few moments.”
“I can ask them when we arrive, if you prefer.”
“If you weren’t my patriserus, I would find you an impossible man,” Amara sighed.
“That’s sweet of you to say,” Fidelias replied. “You’ve come a long way since your first term at the Academy. You were so shocked when you found out that the Cursors did more than deliver missives.”
“You love telling that story even though you know I hate it.”
“No,” Fidelias said with a grin. “I love telling that story because I know you hate it.”
She looked down at him archly. “This is why the Cursor Legate keeps sending you away on missions, I think.”
“It’s a part of my charm,” Fidelias agreed. “Now, then. My first concern —”
“Question,” Amara corrected.
“Question,” he allowed, “is with our cover story.”
“What question? Armies need iron. You’re an ore smuggler, and I’m your slave. You heard there was a market out this way, and you came to see what money could be made.”
“Ah,” said Fidelias. “And what do I tell them when they ask where I got the ore? It isn’t just found by the roadside, you know.”
“You’re a Cursor Callidus. You’re creative. I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
Fidelias chuckled. “You’ve learned delegating skills, at least. So, we approach this renegade Legion with our precious ore.” He nodded back toward the squeaking cart. “What’s to stop them from simply taking it?”
“You’re the harbinger of a smuggling network, representing several interests in the business. Your trip is being watched, and if the results are good, others might be willing to bring supplies as well.”
“That’s what I don’t understand,” Fidelias said, his expression innocent. “If this is indeed a renegade Legion, as rumors say, under the command of one of the High Lords, in preparation for overthrowing the Crown—aren’t they going to object to any word about them getting out? Good, bad, or indifferent?”
“Yes,” Amara said. She glanced down at him. “Which works in our favor. You see, if you don’t return from this little jaunt, word is going to spread all around Alera about this encampment.”
“Inevitable, since word would get out anyway. One can hardly keep an entire Legion secret for long.”
“It’s our best shot,” Amara said. “Can you think of anything better?”
“We sneak in close, furycraft ourselves into the camp, obtain evidence, and then run like the crows were after us.”
“Oh,” Amara said. “I considered it. I decided it was too brainless and predictable.”
“It has the advantage of simplicity,” Fidelias pointed out. “We recover the information, give solid evidence to the Crown, and let the First Lord launch a more comprehensive antisedition campaign.”
“Yes, that’s simpler. But once whoever is running this camp knows that they have been observed by the Cursors, they will simply disperse and move their operations elsewhere. The Crown will simply spend money and effort and lives to pin them down again—and even then, whoever is putting out the money to field their own army might simply get away.”
Fidelias glanced up at her and let out a low whistle. “So you want to get in and out undetected, get word to the Crown and — then what?”
“Lead a few cohorts of Knights Aeris back down here and crush them where they lie,” Amara said. “Take prisoners, have them testify against their backers, and wrap it all up right here.”
“Ambitious,” he commented. “Very ambitious. Very dangerous, too. If they catch on to us, they’ll kill us. And it’s reasonable to expect that they’ll have Knights as well — and that they’ll be on the lookout for a Cursor or two.”
“That’s why we don’t get caught,” Amara said. “We play the poor, greedy smuggler and his slave, haggle for all the money we can get from them, and leave.”
“And keep the money.” Fidelias frowned. “On general principle, I like any mission that involves a profit. But, Amara—there’s a lot that could go wrong with this one.”
“We are the First Lord’s messengers, are we not? His eyes and ears?”
“Don’t quote the Codex at me,” Fidelias snapped, annoyed. “I was a Cursor before your mother and father had called their first furies. Don’t think that because the First Lord has taken a shine to you that you know better than I do.”
“You don’t think it’s worth the risk?”
“I think there’s a lot you don’t know,” Fidelias said, and he looked very old for some reason. Uncertain. “Let me handle this, Amara. I’ll go inside. You stay here, and I’ll pick you up on the way out. There’s no reason to risk both of us.”
“No,” she said. “In the first place, this is my mission to run. In the second, you will need your full attention to play your role. I’ll be able to make observations—especially from up here.” She slapped the gargant’s broad back, and the bull snorted up a small whirlwind of trail dust in response. “I’ll also be able to watch our backs. If I get the impression that they’re onto us, we can get out of there.”
Fidelias muttered, “I thought we’d just use this guise to pose as travelers. Get close and slip into the camp after dark.”
“When no one else is coming in and when we’re certain to arouse suspicion if we’re seen?”
He blew out a breath. “All right,” he said. “All right. We’ll do it your way. But you’re gambling yourself with the crows.”
Amara’s stomach fluttered again, and she pressed a hand to it, trying to will the fear away. It didn’t leave. “No,” she said. “I’m gambling both of us.”
Though the gargant’s plodding steps seemed slow, each covered many strides of a man. The great beast’s thick-clawed feet ate the miles, though it stripped the bushes and trees of leaves along the way, adding to the layers of blubberyfat beneath its hide. If allowed, the humpbacked beast would wander into the richest forage and graze, but Fidelias handled it with a sure and calm hand, keeping the beast moving along the road, while he marched at the quickstep beside it.
A mile more, by Amara’s estimation, and they had come within picket distance of the insurgent Legion’s camp. She tried to remind herself of her role — that of a bored slave, sleepy and tired from days of travel — but it was all she could do to keep the mounting tension from rising in her shoulders and back. What if the Legion turned out to be nothing more than rumor, and her intelligence gathering mission, so carefully outlined and planned, turned out to be a costly waste of time? Would the First Lord think less of her? Would the other Cursors? It would be a paltry introduction into the ranks, indeed, if she stepped forth from the Academy and straight into a monumental blunder.
Her anxiety grew, like bands of iron stretching across her shoulders and back, and her head started to pound from the tension and the glare of the sun. Had they made a wrong turn? The old trail they followed seemed too well-worn to be an abandoned lumber track, but she could be wrong. Wouldn’t they be seeing the smoke of a Legion’s fires? Wouldn’t they hear something, by now, if they were as close as she suspected?
Amara was on the verge of leaning down to call to Fidelias, to ask his advice, when a man in dark tunic and leggings and a gleaming breastplate and helmet melted into view beneath the shadows of a tree on the road no more than ten strides in front of them. He appeared without a warning of any kind, without a flicker of movement — furycrafting involved, then, and a fairly skilled woodworking at that. He was a giant of a man, nearly seven feet tall, and he bore a heavy blade at his side. He lifted one gloved hand and said, his tone bored, distant, “Halt.”
Fidelias clucked to the gargant bull, slowing the beast to a stop after several steps. The wagon creaked and groaned, settling onto its wheels beneath the weight of the ore.
“Good morning to you, master,” Fidelias called, his voice oozing nervous, obsequious good cheer. The senior Cursor doffed his hat and clutched it in his slightly trembling hands. “And how are you doing on this fine autumn morn?”
“You’re on the wrong trail,” said the dark giant. His tone was dull, almost sleepy, but he laid a hand on the hilt of his weapon. “This land is not friendly to travelers. Turn around.”
“Yes, master, of course we will, master,” Fidelias simpered. “I am but a humble peddler, transporting his cargo in the vain hope of finding a ready market. I have no desire for trouble, good master, only for the chance to attempt to recoup my losses on this most excellent but lamentably ill-timed bounty of —” Fidelias rolled his eyes skyward and dragged one foot through the dust of the trail. “Iron.” He shot the giant a sly smile. “But, as you wish, good master. I’ll be on my way.”
The dark man stepped forward and said, “Hold, merchant.”
Fidelias glanced back at him. “Master?” he asked. “Can I perhaps interest you in a purchase?”
The dark man shrugged. He stopped a few feet from Fidelias and asked, “How much ore?”
“Nearly a ton, good master. As you can see, my poor gargant is all but done in.”
The man grunted, eyeing the beast, and swept his gaze up it, to Amara. “Who is this?”
“My slave, good master,” Fidelias said. His voice took on a cringing, wheedling tone. “She’s for sale, if you like the look of her, master. A hard worker, skilled at weaving and cooking—and more than capable of giving a man an unforgettable night’s pleasure. At two lions, she’s surely a bargain.”
The man snorted. “Your hard worker rides while you walk, merchant. It would have been smarter for you to travel alone.” He sniffed. “And she’s as skinny as a boy. Take your beast and follow me.”
“You wish to buy, master?”
The soldier gave him a look and said, “I didn’t ask you, merchant. Follow me.”
Fidelias stared at the soldier and then swallowed, an almost audible gulp. “Aye, aye, master. We’ll be only a pace or three behind you. Come on old boy.” He picked up the gargant’s lead straps in shaking fingers and stirred the great beast into motion again.
The soldier grunted and turned to start walking back down the road. He let out a sharp whistle, and a dozen men armed with bows appeared from the shadows and brush on the sides of the trail, just as he had a moment before.
“Keep the men here until I return,” the man said. “Stop anyone from coming past.”
“Yes, sir,” one of the men said. Amara focused on that one. The men all wore the same outfits: black tunics and breeches with surcoats of dark green and dark brown. The speaker, in addition, wore a black sash around his waist—as the first soldier had. Amara checked around, but none of the other men wore a sash — only those two. She made a mental note of it. Knights? Possibly. One of them had to have been a strong woodcrafter, to have hidden so many men so thoroughly.
Crows, she thought. What if this rebel Legion turns out to have a full contingent of Knights to go with it? With that many men, that many powerful furycrafters, they could be a threat to any city in Alera.
And, as a corollary, it would mean that the Legion had powerful backing. Any furycrafter strong enough to be a Knight could command virtually what price he wished for his services. They could not be casually bought by any disgruntled merchant set to convince his Lord or High Lord to lower taxes. Only the nobility could afford the cost of hiring a few Knights, let alone a contingent of them.
Amara shivered. If one of the High Lords was preparing to turn against the First Lord, then there were dark days ahead indeed.
She looked down at Fidelias, and he glanced up at her, his face troubled. She thought she could see the reflection of her own thoughts and fears there in his eyes. She wanted to talk to Fidelias, to ask him for his thoughts on the matter, but she couldn’t break her role now. Amara ground her teeth and dug her fingers into the pad of the gargant’s riding saddle and tried to calm herself again, while the soldier led them to the camp.
Amara kept her eyes open as the gargant’s plodding steps brought them around a bend in the trail and over a small hill, into the valley beyond and behind it. There, the camp spread out before them.
Great furies, she thought. It looks like a city.
Her mind took down details as she stared. The camp had been constructed along standard Legion lines: a stake-wall and ditch fortification built in a huge square, surrounding the soldier’s encampment and stores. Tents of white fabric had been erected within, row after row of them, too many for easy counting, laid out in neat, precise rows. Two gates, opposite one another, led into the camp. The tents and leantos of the camp’s followers spread out around it in ragged disarray, like flies buzzing around a sleeping beast.
People were everywhere.
On a practice field beside the camp, entire cohorts of men were drilling in formation combat and maneuvers, ordered about by bawling centurions or men in black sashes mounted on horseback. Elsewhere, archers riddled distant targets with their arrows, while furymasters drilled other recruits in the application of their basic warcraftings. Women moved among the camp, as well—washing clothes at a stream that passed by, mending uniforms, tending fires, or simply enjoying the morning sunlight. Amara saw a couple of women wearing sashes of black, on horseback, riding toward the practice field. Dogs wandered about the camp and set up a tinny racket of barking upon scenting the gargant as it came over the hill. To one side of the camp, not far from the stream, men and women had established what looked like a small market, vendors hawking wares from makeshift stalls and spreading them upon blankets on the ground.
“You’re here between breakfast and lunch,” said the soldier. “Or I’d offer you some food.”
“Perhaps we’ll take lunch with you, master,” Fidelias said.
“Perhaps.” The soldier stopped and looked up at Amara, studying her with quiet, hard eyes. “Get her down. I’ll send out a groom or two to care for your beast.”
“No,” insisted Fidelias. “I’ll be keeping my goods with me.”
The soldier grunted. “There’s horses at the camp, and they’ll go mad if they smell this thing. It stays here.”
“Then I stay here,” insisted Fidelias.
“The slave then,” he said. “She can stay here with the beast and keep him quiet. He’d spook if strange hands cared for him.”
The soldier squinted at him, hard and suspicious. “What are you up to, old man?”
“Up to? I’m protecting my interests, master, as any merchant would.”
“You are in our camp. Your interests are no longer an issue, are they?” The soldier put no particular emphasis on his words, but he laid one hand on the hilt of his sword.
Fidelias drew himself up, voice shocked and outraged. “You wouldn’t dare.”
The soldier smiled. His smile was hard.
Fidelias licked his lips. Then shot a glance up at Amara. She thought she saw something in it, some kind of warning, but he only said, “Girl. Get down.”
Amara slid down off of the back of the beast, using the leather straps to help lower herself down its flanks. Fidelias clucked to it and jerked down on its straps, and the gargant settled lazily to earth with a contented rumble that shook the ground nearby. It leaned its great head over, tore up a mouthful of grass, and began chewing on it, huge eyes half-closed.
“Follow me,” the soldier said. “You too, slave. If either of you gets more than three strides away from me, I’ll kill you both. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” said Fidelias.
“I understand, master,” echoed Amara, keeping her eyes lowered. They followed the soldier then and crossed the stream at a shallow ford. The water was cold and flowed quickly over Amara’s ankles. She shivered, gooseflesh racing up and down her legs and arms, but kept pace with Fidelias and the soldier.
Her mentor dropped back beside her and murmured, very low, “Did you see how many tents?”
She jerked her head in a nod. “Close.”
“Well kept and neat, too. This isn’t a gang of malcontent Steadholders. Professional military.”
Amara nodded and whispered, “Serious money behind them. Is it enough for the First Lord to bring it to the Council?”
“An accusation without anyone to accuse?” Fidelias grimaced and shook his head. “No. We have to have something that incriminates someone behind it. Doesn’t have to be ironclad, but we need something tangible.”
“Do you recognize our escort?”
Fidelias shot her a look. “Why? Do you?”
Amara shook her head. “I’m not sure. Something about him seems familiar.”
The other nodded. “They call him the Sword.”
Amara felt her eyes widen. “Aldrick ex Gladius? Are you sure?”
“I’ve seen him in the capital, in the past. I saw his duel with Araris Valerian.”
Amara glanced up at the man ahead of them, careful to keep her voice down. “He’s supposed to be the greatest swordsman alive.”
“Yes,” said Fidelias. “He is.” Then he cuffed her along the head and said, loud enough for Aldrick to hear, “Keep your lazy mouth shut. I’ll feed you when I please and not a second before. Not another word.”
They walked in silence, then, into the camp. Aldrick led them through the camp’s gate and down the main path dividing the camp in half. He turned left and led them to what Amara knew would be, in an Aleran Legion’s camp, the commander’s tent. A large tent sat there, and two legionares stood outside it, breastplates gleaming, armed with spears in their hands and swords at their belts. Aldrik nodded to one of them and went inside. He appeared a moment later and said to Fidelias, “You. Merchant. Come inside. The commander wants to speak to you.”
Fidelias stepped forward, and Amara moved to follow him. Aldrick put a hand on Fidelias’s chest and said, “Just you. Not the slave.”
Fidelias blinked. “You expect me to just leave her out here, good master? It could be dangerous.” He shot Amara a glance, which she did not miss. A warning. “To leave a pretty young girl in a camp full of soldiers.”
Aldrick said, “You should have thought of that before you came here. They won’t kill her. Get inside.”
Fidelias looked back at her and licked his lips. Then he stepped forward into the tent. Aldrick looked at Amara for a moment, his eyes distant, cool. Then he stepped back inside. A moment later, he came back to the opening of the tent, dragging a girl with him. She was petite, even emaciated, and her clothes hung off of her like a scarecrow’s. The collar around her neck, even on its smallest sizing, hung loosely. Her brown hair looked dry, brittle as hay, and she had dust on her skirts, though her feet were clean enough. Aldrick shoved the girl out unceremoniously and said, “Business.” Then he tugged the flap of the tent closed and went back inside.
The girl tumbled to the ground, along with a woven basket, and landed with a soft cry in a tangle of basket and skirts and frizzy hair.
Amara knelt down beside the girl and asked, “Are you all right?”
“Oh, fine,” the girl snapped. She rose shakily to her feet and kicked a puff of dust at the tent with her toe. “Bastard,” she muttered. “Here I am trying to clean things up for him, and he throws me around like a sack of meal.” Her eyes sparkled with defiance, and she turned to Amara. “I’m Odiana.”
“Amara,” she responded, feeling her mouth tug up at the corners. She glanced around her, licking her lips, and thought for a moment. She needed to see more of the camp. Try to find something she could take with her. “Odiana, is there any place to get a drink around here? We were traveling for hours, and I’m parched.”
The girl tossed her frizzy hair over one shoulder and sniffed at the commander’s tent. “What’s your pleasure? There’s some cheap beer, but it’s mostly water. Optionally, we could get a drink of water. And if none of that suits you, I think there’s some water.”
“I’ll have the water,” Amara said.
“A dry wit,” Odiana noted. She hooked the handle of the basket over the crook of her arm and said, “This way.” Then she turned and walked with a kind of bristling, crackling energy through the camp, toward the opposite gate. Amara caught up with her, eyes flicking around. A troop of soldiers came jogging by, boots striking the ground in rhythm, and the two girls had to skip back, between two tents, to let them pass.
Odiana sniffed. “Soldiers. Crows take them all, I am sick to death of soldiers.”
“Have you been here long?” Amara asked.
“Since just after the new year,” the other said. “But there are rumors that we’ll be leaving soon.”
Amara’s heart pounded. “Going where?”
Odiana looked at her with an amused smile. “You’ve not been around soldiers much, have you. It doesn’t matter where you go. This,” she gestured broadly, at the camp, “never changes. It’s the same, if you’re down by the ocean or up at the Wall. And the men never change. The sky never changes, and the earth doesn’t change enough to notice. This is it.”
“But still. You get to go to new places. See new things.”
“Only new stains on uniforms,” said Odiana. The soldiers passed, and the girls stepped out onto the track again. “But I’ve heard further north and maybe east a ways.”
Odiana shrugged. “Is that what’s that way?” She walked along and opened the basket as they neared the stream, rummaging around inside. “Here,” she said. “Hold these.” She thrust a pair of dirty plates into Amara’s arms. “We can wash them while we’re here. Crows, soldiers are so messy. But at least the legionares keep their tents clean.” She fished out a bone and threw it toward a passing dog. Then an apple core, from which she took a judicious nibble before wrinkling up her nose and tossing it into the stream. Next came a piece of paper, which she hardly glanced at before flicking it aside.
Amara turned and stomped the paper flat with her foot, before the wind could catch it. Then she bent over and picked it up.
“What?” asked Odiana. “What are you doing?”
Amara picked up the paper. “Well. Um. It hardly seems like a good idea to just toss it on the ground if you’re trying to clean up.”
“If it isn’t in the camp, no one will care,” Odiana said. She tilted her head to one side, watching, as Amara unfolded the paper and studied the writing inside. “You can read?” the slave asked.
“Some,” said Amara, distracted. She read the note, and her hands started shaking as she did.
Legion Commander, Second Legion,
You are hereby ordered to strike camp and make for the rendezvous point. You should arrive no later than the tenth full moon of the year, in preparation for winter. Maintain drilling until you march, and dispatch the men in the usual manner.
There was more, but Amara skipped over it, barely skimming, to see what was at the bottom.
Atticus Quentin, High Lord of Attica
Amara’s breath caught in her throat, her heart racing. Her fears were true. Insurrection. Rebellion. War.
“What does it say?” asked Odiana. She shoved another plate into Amara’s hands and said, “Here. Put these in the stream.”
“It says . . .” Amara fumbled with the plates, moving to the water’s edge and leaning down to drop them in. “It, uh. I can’t really read it.” She fumbled with the note, sliding it away, into one of her shoes, mind racing with the implications.
“You know,” said Odiana, voice bright and cheerful, “I think you’re lying. You don’t often run into literate slaves. Who ask questions about troop movements. And who are also politically learned enough to realize the wider implications of one little note. That’s the kind of thing you expect from, oh, I don’t know.” Her voice dropped, and she almost puffed, “One of the Cursori.”
Amara stiffened and turned just in time to catch Odiana’s bare heel in the chin. Pain flashed through her, dull and hot. The wasted-seeming girl had far more strength than Amara would have credited to her, and the blow stunned Amara and sent her tumbling back into the stream.
She stood up out of it, shaking water from her face and eyes and drawing in a breath to cry out to her furies—but water rushed down into her mouth and nose as she inhaled, and she began choking. Amara’s heart raced with sudden panic, and she reached up to her face — only to find it coated to above the nose with a thin layer of water. She scraped at it with her fingers, but it didn’t flow down, and she couldn’t clear it away. She struggled and choked, but only more water rushed in, coating her like a layer of oil. She couldn’t breathe. The world began to glaze over with darkness, and she grew dizzy.
The letter. She had to get the letter out, back to the First Lord. The proof he would need.
She made it to the bank before the water filling her lungs made her collapse. She writhed, smothering on dry land, and found herself staring at Odiana’s bare, clean feet.
Amara looked up as the wasted slave girl stared down at her, a gentle smile on her face. “You needn’t worry, love,” the girl said. And she began to change. Her sunken cheeks filled out. The gangling limbs gained rondure, beauty. Hips and breasts began to curve in enticing lines, filling out the clothes she wore. Her hair grew a bit longer, lustrous, darker, and she shook it out with a little laugh, before kneeling down next to Amara.
Odiana reached out and stroked fingers through Amara’s damp hair. “You needn’t worry,” she repeated. “We aren’t going to kill you. We need you.” Calmly, she removed a black sash from the basket, and tied it around her waist. “But you Cursori can be a slippery breed. We’ll take no chances. Just go to sleep, Amara. It will be so much easier. And then I can send all the water back and let you breathe again.”
Amara struggled and fought for simple breath, but none came. Darkness gathered, points of light appearing before her eyes. She clutched at Odiana, but her fingers had gone nerveless and weak.
The last thing she saw was the beautiful watercrafter leaning down to place a gentle kiss upon her forehead. “Sleep,” she whispered. “Sleep.”
And then Amara sank down, into the blackness.
Amara woke, buried to her armpits in the earth. Loose dirt had been piled over her arms and into her hair. Her face felt thick, heavy, and after a moment, she realized that her entire head had been liberally smeared with mud.
She struggled to gather her wits through a pounding headache, piecing together fragments of memories and perceptions until, with a dizzying rush of clarity, she remembered where she was and what had happened to her.
Her heart started to thud hard in her chest, and fear made her buried limbs feel cold.
She opened her eyes, and bits of dirt fell into them, so that she had to blink quickly. Tears formed to wash the dirt out. After a few moments, she was able to see.
She was in a tent. The commander’s tent in the camp, she guessed. Light poured into it through a gap in the flap that served as a door, leaving the tent’s interior described in terms of dimness, shadow, and dark.
“You awake yet?” croaked a voice from behind her. She turned her head, trying to look. She could barely see Fidelias out of the corner of her eye, but he was there, hanging in a cage of iron bars by straps around his shoulders and outstretched arms, leaving his feet dangling a good ten inches off of the floor. He had a swelling bruise on his face, and his lip had been split and was crusted with dry blood.
“Are you all right?” Amara whispered.
“Fine. Apart from being beaten, captured, and scheduled for torture and interrogation. You’re the one who should be worried.”
Amara swallowed. “Why me?”
“I think this can safely be considered a failing mark in your graduation exercise.”
Amara felt her mouth curve into a smile, despite the circumstances. “We have to escape.”
Fidelias tried to smile. The effort split his lip some more, and fresh blood welled. “Extra credit — but I’m afraid you won’t get the chance to collect on it. These people know what they’re doing.”
Amara tried to move, but she couldn’t struggle up out of the earth. She barely succeeded in freeing her arms enough to move them — and even so, they were thickly encrusted with dirt. “Cirrus,” she whispered, sending her thoughts out, toward her fury. “Cirrus. Come pull me out.”
She tried again. And again. Her wind fury never responded.
“The dirt,” she said, finally, and closed her eyes. “Earth to counter air. Cirrus can’t hear me.”
“Yes,” Fidelias confirmed. “Nor can Etan or Vamma hear me.” He stretched his toes toward the ground, but could not reach. Then he banged his foot against the iron bars of his cage.
“Then we’ll have to think our way out.”
Fidelias closed his eyes and let out a slow breath. Then he said, gently, “We’ve lost, Amara. Checkmate.”
The words hit Amara like hammers. Cold. Hard. Simple. She swallowed and felt more tears rising, but blinked them away with a flash of anger. No. She was a Cursor. Even if she was to die, she’d not give the enemies of the Crown the satisfaction of seeing her tears. She thought for a fleeting moment of her home, the small apartment back in the capital, of her family, not so far away, in Parcia by the sea. More tears threatened.
She took up her memories, one by one, and shut them away into a dark, quiet place in her mind. She put everything in there. Her dreams. Her hopes for the future. The friends she’d made at the Academy. Then she shut them away and opened her eyes again, clear of tears.
“What do they want?” she asked Fidelias.
Her teacher shook his head. “I’m not sure. This isn’t a smart move for them. Even with these precautions, if something went wrong, a Cursor could slip away and be gone as long as he was still alive.”
The flap of the tent flew open, and Odiana walked through it, smiling, her skirts swirling in the drifting dust the daylight revealed. “Well then,” she said. “We’ll just have to remedy that.”
Aldrik came in behind her, his huge form blocking out the light completely for a moment, and a pair of legionares followed him. Aldrick pointed at the cage, and the two went to it, slipped the hafts of their spears through rings at its base, and lifted it, between them, carrying it outside.
Fidelias shot Aldrick a hard look and then licked his lips, turning to Amara. “Don’t be proud, girl,” he told her, as the guards started carrying him out. “You haven’t lost as long as you’re alive.”
Then he was gone.
“Where are you taking him?” Amara demanded. She swept her eyes from Odiana to Aldrick and tried not to let her voice shake.
Aldrick drew his sword and said, “The old man isn’t necessary.” He went outside the tent.
A moment later, there was a sound not unlike a knife sinking into a melon. Amara heard Fidelias let out a slow, breathless cry, as though he had tried to hold it in, keep from giving it a voice, and been unable to do so. Then there was a rustling thump, something heavy falling against the bars of the cage.
“Bury it,” Aldrick said. Then he came back into the tent again, sword in hand.
The blade shone scarlet with blood.
Amara could only stare at the blade, at her teacher’s blood. Something about it would not register on her mind. It simply would not accept the fact of Fidelias’s death. The plan should have protected them. It should have gotten them close and away safely again. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. It had never happened like that at the Academy.
She tried to stop the tears from coming, to push Fidelias’s face into the dark place in her mind with all the other things she cared about. They only flooded over her again, bursting free, and as they did, the tears came with them. Amara did not feel clever anymore, or dangerous, or well trained. She felt cold. And dirty. And tired. And very, very alone.
Odiana let out a soft sound of distress and came to Amara’s side. She knelt down with a white kerchief in her hand and reached out to dab at Amara’s tears. Her fingers were gentle, soft. “You’re making clean spots, love,” the woman said, her voice gentle.
Then she smiled as, with her other hand, she crushed fresh earth against Amara’s eyes.
Amara let out a cry and thrust out a hand to defend herself, but she wasn’t able to stop the water witch. She swept at her burning eyes with her dirt-crusted hands, but it did her little good. Her fear and sorrow turned itself into furious anger, and she started screaming. She screamed every imprecation she could at them, incoherent, and she sobbed into the earth, making muddy tears that burned her eyes. She thrashed her arms and struggled, useless against the grip of the ground she was buried in.
And in answer, there was only silence.
Amara’s anger faded, taking with it whatever strength she had left. She shook with sobs that she tried to hold in, that she tried to keep hidden from them. She couldn’t. Shame made her face burn, and she knew that she was trembling, from cold and from terror.
She started blinking her eyes again, slowly gaining back her vision — and as she did, she saw Odiana standing over her, just out of arm’s reach, smiling, her dark eyes glittering. She took a step, and with one dainty, bare foot, she kicked more dust into Amara’s eyes. Amara twisted and turned her head away, avoiding it, and shot the woman a hard glare. Odiana hissed and drew her foot back to kick again, but Aldrick’s voice rumbled across the tent first.
“Love. That’s enough.”
The watercrafter flashed Amara a venomous look and retreated from her, to the back of Aldrick’s stool, where she rested her hands on his shoulders in a slow caress, eyes on Amara the entire while. The warrior sat with his sword across his lap. He ran a cloth along its length and then tossed the rag onto the earth. It was stained with blood.
“I’ll make this simple,” Aldrick said. “I’m going to ask you questions. Answer them truthfully, and I’ll let you live. Lie to me or refuse to answer, and you’ll wind up like the old man.” He looked up, his expression entirely without emotion, and focused on Amara. “Do you understand?”
Amara swallowed. She nodded her head, once.
“Good. You’ve been in the palace recently. The First Lord was so impressed with the way you handled yourself during the fires last winter, he asked you to visit him. You were taken to his personal chambers, and spoke with him. Is that true?”
She nodded again.
“How many guards are stationed in his inner chambers?”
Amara stared at the man, her eyes widening. “What?”
Aldrick looked up at her. He stared for a long and silent moment. “How many guards are stationed in the First Lord’s inner chambers?”
Amara let out a shaking breath. “I can’t tell you that. You know I can’t.”
Odiana’s fingers tightened on Aldrick’s shoulders. “She’s lying, love. She just doesn’t want to tell you.”
Amara licked her lips, and then spat mud and dirt onto the floor. There was only one reason to be asking questions about the inner defenses of the palace. Someone wanted to take direct action against the First Lord. Someone wanted Gaius dead.
She swallowed and bowed her head. She had to stall them, somehow. Stall for time. For the opportunity to find a way to escape—or failing that, to kill herself before she could reveal the information.
She quailed at that thought. Could she do that? Was she strong enough? Before, she would always have thought she was. Before she had been taken, captured, imprisoned. Before she had listened to Fidelias die.
Don’t be proud, girl. Fidelias’s last words to her came back, and she felt her resolve weaken further. Had he been telling her to cooperate with them? Did he think the First Lord was already doomed?
And, she thought, should she? Should she go along with them? Offer to throw in? Should she cast aside what she had been taught, what she believed, for the sake of preserving her life? She couldn’t attempt a ploy—not with Odiana there. The water witch would be able to sense whether or not she was sincere, damn her.
Everything was lost. She had led Fidelias to his death. Gambled his life and lost it. She had lost her own life as well. She might be able to redeem one of them, if she cast her lot with her captors.
Another surge of anger flooded through her. How could she even be thinking such a thing? How could he have died? Why hadn’t he seen it coming, warned her —
Amara lifted her head abruptly and blinked her eyes several times. Her anger evaporated. Why hadn’t Fidelias warned her, indeed. The trap had been too well laid. They had been taken too cleanly. Which meant —
Which meant that Aldrick and Odiana had known that they were coming. And by logical extension . . .
She focused her eyes on the pair of them and swallowed, lifting her chin a bit. “I won’t tell you,” she said, and kept her voice calm. “I’ll not tell you another thing.”
“You’ll die,” said Aldrick, rising.
“I’ll die,” Amara agreed. “You and your water witch can go to the crows.” She took a breath and then raised her voice, honed it to a dagger’s edge. “And so can you, Fidelias.”
She had a moment to take satisfaction in the flicker of surprise in Aldrick’s eyes, the simple gasp that came from Odiana. Then she turned her eyes to the door and narrowed them, keeping her face set in a cold, hard mask.
Fidelias appeared in the doorway, his clothes still rumpled. He had washed the ‘bruise’ off the side of his face, and was holding a clean white cloth to his bleeding lip. “I told you she’d see through it,” he murmured.
“Do I get graded on it, patriserus?” Amara asked.
“A plus.” Fidelias stared at her, and his mouth twisted into a grimace. “You will tell us what you know about the palace, Amara. It might get ugly before it’s over, but you will. This is checkmate. You don’t have to make it hard on yourself.”
“Traitor,” Amara said, dropping the word lightly.
Fidelias flinched. His grimace darkened to a scowl.
Odiana looked back and forth at the sudden silence and then offered, in a helpful tone, “Shall I fetch the branding irons, then?”
Fidelias turned to them and said, “I think we’ve been ham-handed enough, for the moment.” He focused his eyes on Aldrick and said, “Give me a few moments alone to talk to her. Maybe I can get her to see common sense.”
Aldrick regarded Fidelias with a steady gaze and then shrugged. “Very well,” he said. “Love, would you?”
Odiana stepped around Aldrick’s stool, eyes focused intently upon Fidelias. “Do you intend to assist her in any way or to attempt to prevent us from discovering what we wish to know?”
Fidelias’s mouth quirked up at the corner, and he focused on the water witch. “Yes, I do. No, I don’t. The sky is green. I am seventeen years old. My real name is Gundred.” The woman’s eyes widened, and Fidelias tilted his head to one side. “You can’t tell if I’m lying, ‘love’? I’m not some child. I’ve been deceiving crafters stronger than you since before you were born.” His gaze flicked past Odiana to Aldrick. “It’s in my best interest to get her to talk. In for a sheep, in for a gargant.”
The swordsman smiled, a sudden show of white teeth. “Not going to offer me your word of honor?”
The Cursor’s lip curled. “Would it matter if I did?”
“I’d have killed you had you tried,” Aldrick said. “A quarter hour. No more.” He rose, taking Odiana gently by one arm, and led her out of the tent. The water witch shot a glare at both Fidelias and Amara and then left.
Fidelias waited until they were gone, then turned to Amara and simply looked at her, saying nothing.
“Why?” she asked him. “Patriserus. Why would you do this to him?”
He stared at her, expression not changing. “I have served as a Cursor for forty years. I have no wife. No family. No home. I have given my life to protecting and defending the Crown. Carrying its messages. Discovering its enemies’ secrets.” He shook his head. “And I have watched it fall. For the past fifteen years, the house of Gaius has been dying. Everyone knows it. What I have done has only prolonged what is inevitable.”
“He is a good First Lord. He is just. And as fair as anyone could want.”
“This isn’t about what’s right, girl. It’s about reality. And the reality is that Gaius’s fairness and justice has made him a great many powerful enemies. The southern High Lords chafe at the taxes he lays upon them to maintain the Shieldwall and the Shield Legion.”
“They always have,” Amara interjected. “It doesn’t change that the taxes are necessary. The Shieldwall protects them as well. Should the icemen come down from the north, they would perish with the rest of us.”
“They do not see it that way,” Fidelias said. “And they are willing to do something about it. The House of Gaius is weakened. He has no heir. He has named no successor. So they strike.”
Amara spat, “Attica. Who else?”
“You don’t need to know.” Fidelias crouched down in front of her. “Amara. Think about this. Ever since the Princeps was killed, it has been in motion. The house of Gaius died along with Septimus. The royal line was never very fertile — and the death of his only child has been taken as a sign by many. His time is past.”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
Fidelias snarled, “Get it out of your head, child.” He spat on the ground, face twisted in fury. “The blood I’ve shed in the Crown’s service. The men I’ve killed. Is that any more right? Are their deaths vindicated because I serve this First Lord or that one? I’ve killed. I’ve done worse, in the name of protecting the Crown. Gaius will fall. Nothing can stop that now.”
“And you have cast yourself in the role of . . . what, Fidelias? The slive that rushes in to poison the wounded buck? The crow that soars down to peck at the eyes of helpless men not yet dead?”
He looked at her, eyes flat, and gave her a smile empty of mirth or joy or meaning. “It’s easy to be righteous when you are young. I could continue to serve the Crown. Perhaps prolong the inevitable. But how many more would die? How many more would suffer? And it would change nothing but the timing. Children, like you, would come in my place — and have to make the decisions I am making.”
Amara let her voice resonate with contempt. “Thank you, so much, for protecting me.”
Fidelias’s eyes flashed. “Make this easy on yourself, Amara. Tell us what we want to know.”
“Go to the crows.”
Fidelias said, without anger, “I’ve broken men and women stronger than you. Don’t think that because you’re my student, I won’t do it to you.” He knelt down to look her in the eyes. “Amara. I’m the same man you’ve known. We’ve shared so much together. Please.” His hand reached for her grime-covered one. She didn’t fight his grasp. “Think about this. You could throw in with us. We could help make Alera bright and peaceful again.”
She returned his gaze, steady. Then said, very quietly, “I’m already doing that, patriserus. I thought you were, too.”
His eyes hardened like ice, brittle, distant, and he stood up. Amara lurched forward, clutching at his boot. “Fidelias,” she said, pleading. “Please. It isn’t too late. We could escape, now. Bring word back to the Crown and end this threat. You don’t have to turn away. Not from Gaius, And . . .” She swallowed and blinked back tears. “And not from me.”
There was a pained silence.
“The die is cast,” Fidelias said, finally. “I’m sorry you couldn’t be shown reason.” He turned, jerking his leg from her grasp, and walked out of the tent.
Amara stared after him for a moment, then looked down, to where she had palmed the knife Fidelias always kept in his boot, the one he didn’t think she knew about. She shot a glance up to the tent, and as soon as the flap fell, she started attacking the dirt that pinned her. She heard voices talking outside, too quietly to be understood, and she dug furiously.
Dirt flew. She broke it up with the knife and then frantically dug it away with her hands, shoving it away, making as little noise as she possibly could — but even so, her gasps for breath grew louder, bit by bit, as she dug.
Finally, she was able to move, just a little, to shove enough loose earth forward to wriggle. She reached out an arm and dug the knife into the ground as hard as she could and used it as a piton to pull herself forward, up. A sense of elation rushed through her as she strained and wriggled and finally started snaking her way free of the confining earth. Her ears sang with a rush of blood and excitement.
“Aldrick,” snapped the water witch, from outside the tent. “The girl!”
Amara stumbled to her feet and looked around wildly. She lurched across the tent to grasp the hilt of a sword lying across a table, a light gladius little longer than her own forearm, and spun, her body still clumsy from its imprisonment, just as a dark shape filled the entry flap to the tent. She lunged out at it, muscles snapping together to drive the point of the sword in a vicious stroke at the heart of the figure in the doorway—Aldrick.
Steel glittered. Her blade met another and was swept aside. She felt her point bite flesh, but not much or deeply. She knew she had missed.
Amara threw herself to one side, as Aldrick’s blade rose in a swift counter, and was unable to escape a cut that flashed a sudden, hot agony across her upper left arm. The girl rolled beneath a table and came up on the far side from Aldrick.
The big man came into the tent and stalked her, pausing across the table. “Nice lunge,” he commented. “You pinked me. No one’s done that since Araris Valerian.” He smiled then, that wolfish show of teeth. “But you aren’t Araris Valerian.”
Amara never even saw Aldrick’s blade move. There was a hissing hum, and then the table fell into two separate pieces. The man started toward her, through them.
Amara threw the gladius at him and saw his sword rise up to parry it aside. She dove for the back of the tent, now holding only the little knife, and with a quick move slashed a hole in the canvas. She slipped through it and heard herself whimpering in fear as she began to run.
She flashed a glance behind her as Aldrick’s sword opened the back side of the tent in a pair of strokes and he came through after her. “Guards!” the swordsman bellowed. “Close the gate!”
Amara saw the gate start to swing shut, and she slipped to one side, ran down a row of white tents, gathering up her skirts in one hand, cursing that she hadn’t seen fit to disguise herself as a boy so that she could have worn breeches. She looked behind her. Aldrick still pursued, but she had left him behind, like a doe outstripping a big slive, and she flashed a fierce smile at him.
Caked dirt fell off of her as she ran for the nearest wall, and she prayed that she could get enough of it off of her to call to Cirrus. A stepladder rose up to the wall’s defensive platform in front of her, and she took it in three long strides, barely touching it with her hand.
One of the legionares, a guard on the wall, turned toward her and blinked in shock at her. Amara made a ridge of her hand, let out a shout, and drove her hand into the man’s throat, never slowing. He tumbled over backward, gagging and choking, and she ran past him, to the wall, and looked over.
Ten feet down to the ground level, and then another seven or eight feet of ditch lay beneath her. A crippling fall, if she didn’t land correctly.
“Shoot!” someone shouted, and an arrow hissed toward her. Amara threw herself to the side, grasped the top of the wall with one hand, and vaulted it, throwing herself out into empty space.
“Cirrus!” she called—and felt the stirring of wind around her, finally. Her fury pressed up against her, turned her body to a proper angle, and rushed down beneath her, so that she landed on a cloud of wind and blowing dust rather than on the hard ground of the ditch.
Amara gained her feet again and ran without looking back, stretching, covering the ground in leaps and bounds. She ran to the north and the east, away from the practice fields, away from the stream, away from where they had left the gargant and its supplies. The trees had been cut to make the walls of the encampment, and she had to run across nearly two hundred strides of broken stumps. Arrows fell around her, and one struck through a hanging fold of her skirts, nearly tripping her. She ran on, with the wind always at her back, Cirrus an invisible presence there.
Amara reached the shelter of the trees and paused, breathing hard, looking back over her shoulder.
The gates of the camp swung open, and two dozen men on horses, long spears gleaming, rode out and turned as a column, straight toward her. Aldrick rode at their head, dwarfing the riders nearest him.
Amara turned and ran on through the trees as fast as she could. The branches sighed and moaned around her, leaves whispering, shadows moving and changing ominously around her. The furies of this forest were not friendly to her — which made sense, given the presence of at least one powerful woodcrafter. She would never be able to hide from them in this forest, when the trees themselves would report her position.
“Cirrus,” Amara gasped. “Up!”
The wind gathered beneath her and pushed her up off the ground — but branches wove together above her, moving as swiftly as human hands joining together and presented her with a solid screen. Amara let out a cry and crashed against that living ceiling, then tumbled back to the ground. Cirrus softened her fall with an apologetic whisper against her ear.
Amara looked left and right, but the trees were joining branches everywhere—and the forest was growing darker as the roof of leaf and bough closed overhead. The beating of hooves came through the trees.
Amara struggled back to her feet, the cut on her arm pounding painfully. Then she started running again, as the horsemen closed in, behind her.
She couldn’t have guessed how far she ran. Later, she only remembered the threatening shadows of the trees and a burning fire in her lungs and her limbs that even Cirrus’s aid couldn’t ease. Terror changed to simple excitement, and that transformed, by degrees, to a sort of exhausted lack of concern.
She ran until she suddenly found herself looking back— and into the eyes of a mounted legionare, not twenty feet away. The man shouted and cast his spear at her. She stumbled out of the path of the weapon and away from the horse-man, into a sudden flood of sunshine. She looked ahead of her and found the ground sloping down for no more than three or four strides, and then ending in a sheer cliff that dropped off so abruptly that she could not see how far down it went or what was at the bottom.
The legionare drew his sword in a rasp of steel and called to his horse. The animal responded as an extension of the man’s body and pounded toward her.
Amara turned without hesitation and threw herself off of the cliff.
She spread her arms and screamed, “Cirrus! Up!” The wind gathered beneath her in a rush, as her fury flew to obey, and she felt a sudden, fierce exultation as, with a screaming whistle of gale winds, she shot up, up into the autumn skies, her wake kicking up dust devils along the ridge that cast dirt up in the face of the unfortunate legionare and set his horse to rearing and kicking in confusion.
She flew on, up and away from the camp and paused after a time to look behind her. The cliff she’d leapt from looked like a toy from there, several miles behind her and one below. “Cirrus,” she murmured, and held her hands before her. The fury gusted and swirled a part of itself into that space, quivering like the waves rising from a hot stone.
Amara shaped that air with her hands, bending the light, until she was peering back at the cliff through her spread hands as though she stood no more than a hundred yards away. She saw the hunting party emerge and Aldrick dismount. The legionare who had seen her described her escape, and Aldrick squinted up at the sky, sweeping his eyes left to right. Amara felt a chill as the man’s gaze paused, directly upon her. He tilted his head to the man beside him, the woodcrafter Knight from before, and the man simply touched one of the trees.
Amara swallowed and swept her hands back toward the rebel Legion’s camp.
Half a dozen forms rose up over the treetops, which swayed and danced beneath the winds, as though they had been the bushes in a holtwife’s herb garden. They turned, and as one, they sped toward her. Sun glinted off of steel — armor and weapons, she knew.
“Knights Aeris,” muttered Amara. She swallowed and let her hands fall. Normally, she would have been confident of her ability to outrun them. But now, wounded, and already exhausted in body and spirit, she was not so sure.
Amara turned and bade Cirrus to bear her north and east — and prayed that the sun would set before her foes caught up to her.
Tavi slipped out of his room, down the stairs, and through the silence of the last shreds of night before dawn. He entered the cavernous shadows of the great hall, noting a faint glow of light in the kitchens beside the great hall. Old Bitte rarely slept more than a few hours a night, and Tavi heard her moving through the kitchen, preparing it for the coming breakfast meal.
He unbolted the door and left the great hall for Bernardholt’s courtyard. One of the steadholt’s dogs lifted his head from the empty barrel he used as a kennel, and Tavi stooped to scratch the old hound’s ears. The dog thumped his tail against the barrel’s interior and laid his head back down to sleep. Tavi drew his cloak over his shoulders against the chill of the dying autumn night and opened the postern door to leave the safety of Bernardholt.
The door opened to reveal his uncle Bernard, leaning casually against the doorway, dressed in leathers and a heavy green cloak for a day in the wilderness beyond the steadholt’s fields. He lifted an apple to his mouth and crunched into it. Bernard was a large man with broad shoulders and the heavy muscles of hard labor. His dark hair, cropped close in a Legion cut, showed a fleck or two of grey, though none such appeared in his close-trimmed beard. He wore a quiver of hunting arrows at his side, riding beside his Legion-issued sword, and he carried the stave to the lightest of his bows unstrung in his hand.
Tavi drew up short, with a flutter of apprehension. Then he spread his hands, silently conceding the victory to Bernard, and then offered his uncle a faint smile. “How did you know?”
Bernard returned the smile, though there was a wary cast to it. “Fade saw you drinking a lot of extra water last night, after you came in so late, and pointed it out to me. It’s an old soldier’s trick to get up early.”
“Oh,” Tavi said. “Yes, sir.”
“I counted the flocks,” Bernard said. “Looks like we might be a few heads short.”
“Yes, sir,” Tavi said. He licked his lips nervously. “I’m going to bring them in now.”
“I was under the impression that you had done so last night. Since you marked down a full count on the tally slate.”
Tavi’s cheeks grew warm, and he felt glad for the dimness. “Dodger led his ewes and their lambs out last night, when I was trying to bring the south flock in. I didn’t want you to worry.”
Bernard shook his head. “Tavi, you know that today is important. The other Steadholders will be arriving for the truthfind, and I don’t need any distractions.”
“I’m sorry, Uncle. Why don’t you stay here, then? I can find Dodger and bring him back in.”
“I don’t like you wandering around the valley alone, Tavi.”
“I’m going to have to eventually, uncle. Unless you planned on following me around for the rest of my life.”
Bernard sighed. “Your aunt would murder me.”
Tavi gritted his teeth. “I can do it by myself. I’ll be careful and be back before noon.”
“That’s not really the point. You were supposed to bring them in last night,” Bernard said. “What kept you from it?”
Tavi swallowed. “Um. I’d promised to do someone a favor. I didn’t have time to get them both done before dark.”
Bernard sighed. “Crows, Tavi. I really thought you had done a lot of growing up this season. That you were learning to handle responsibility.”
Tavi felt suddenly sick to his stomach. “You’re not going to gift me the sheep, are you?”
Bernard said, “I don’t begrudge you getting your fair dues. I was glad — I am glad to help you get started with your own flock. But I’m not just going to throw them away. If you can’t show me that you’ll take care of them properly, I can’t give them to you.”
“It isn’t like I’d be keeping them long.”
“Perhaps not. It’s the principle of the thing, lad. Nothing comes free.”
“But Uncle,” Tavi protested. “It’s my only chance to make something of myself.”
Bernard grunted. “Then you probably shouldn’t have chosen to . . .” He frowned. “Tavi, what did you need to do that was more important than the flocks?”
Tavi’s face grew warmer yet. “Um.”
Bernard arched an eyebrow and said, “Oh, I see.”
“There’s a girl.”
Tavi knelt and tightened the straps on his boots to hide his scowl and said, “Why would you say that?”
“You’re a fifteen-year-old boy, Tavi. There’s always a girl.”
“No, there isn’t,” Tavi insisted.
Bernard mused over that for a moment and shrugged. “When you want to talk about it, let me know.” He pushed himself off the wall with one shoulder and strung his bow with one leg and the pressure of an arm. “We’ll discuss your gifting later. Where do you think we should pick up Dodger’s trail?”
Tavi drew his leather sling from his pouch and put a couple of smooth stones into the pocket of his tunic. “Won’t Brutus be able to find him?”
Bernard smiled. “I thought you said you could do this on your own.”
Tavi frowned at his uncle and scrunched up his nose, thinking. “Cold’s coming on, and they know it. They’ll want evergreens for shelter and for food. But the gargants were turned out to forage on the southern slope of the valley, and they won’t go anywhere near gargants if they can help it.” Tavi nodded. “North. Dodger has taken them into the pine hollows over the causeway.
Bernard nodded in approval. “Good. Remember that furycrafting is no substitute for intelligence, Tavi.”
“And intelligence is no substitute for a fury,” Tavi muttered sourly. He kicked at the ground, scuffing up a small cloud of dust and dried, dead grasses.
Bernard laid a heavy hand on Tavi’s shoulder, squeezed, and then started walking north, down the old lane worn by the passage of carts and draft animals and feet. “It’s not as bad as you think, Tavi. Furies aren’t everything.”
“Says the man with two of them,” Tavi said, following him. “Aunt Isana says you could challenge for full Citizenship if you wanted to.”
Bernard shrugged. “If I wanted to, perhaps. But I didn’t come into my furies until I was almost your age.”
“But you were a slow bloomer,” Tavi said. “I’m way past that. No one’s ever been my age and furyless.”
Bernard sighed. “You don’t know that, Tavi. Relax, boy. It will come to you in time.”
“That’s what you’ve told me since I was ten. If I’d had furies of my own, I could have stopped Dodger and still . . .” He choked down his anger before he could blurt out the words.
Uncle Bernard glanced back at Tavi, smiling with only his eyes. “Come on, lad. Let’s pick up the pace. I need to be back before the other Steadholders arrive.”
Tavi nodded, and they broke into a mile-eating lope down the winding lane. The sky began to lighten as they passed the apple orchards, the beehives, and then the northern fields laid fallow for a season. The lane wound through a forest of mostly oak and maple, where most of the trees were so ancient that only the most meager grass and brush could grow beneath them. By the time the predawn pale blue had given way to the first tints of orange and yellow, they had reached the last stretch of woods before leaving the lands of Bernardholt. There the forest was not so old, and smaller trees and brush, some of it still living despite the lateness of the season, stood thick and heavy. Golden and scarlet leaves covered the dried skeletons of the smaller brush, and the naked, sleeping trees swayed in a chorus of gentle creaking.
And then something in his surroundings brought an odd kind of pressure to Tavi’s senses. He stopped and let out a short, warning hiss of breath. From a full jog, Bernard abruptly dropped to a crouch, and Tavi instinctively followed suit.
Bernard looked silently back at Tavi, cocking an eyebrow in a silent question.
Tavi stayed on all fours and crawled up beside his uncle. He kept his voice to a whisper between panting breaths and said, “Up ahead, in that last stand of trees by the brook. There’s usually a covey of quail there, but I saw them heading along the lane.”
“You think something spooked them out,” Bernard said. He murmured, “Cyprus,” and flicked his right hand toward the trees beside him in a signal to the lesser of his two furies. Tavi looked up and saw a shape glide down from one of the trees — vaguely humanoid and no larger than a child. It turned pale green eyes toward Bernard for a moment, crouching down like an animal. Leaves and twigs seemed to writhe together to cover whatever shape lay beneath them. Cyprus tilted its head to one side, focusing on Bernard, and then made a sound like wind rustling through the leaves and vanished into the brush.
Tavi was winded from the run and struggled to slow his breathing. “What is it?” he whispered.
Bernard’s eyes slipped out of focus for a moment before he answered. “You were right. Well done, boy. There’s someone hiding near the footbridge. They’ve got a strong fury with them.”
“Bandits?” Tavi whispered.
His uncle’s eyes narrowed. “It’s Kord.”
Tavi frowned. “I thought the other Steadholders were supposed to be arriving later today. And why would they be hiding in the trees?”
Bernard grunted, rising. “Let’s go find out.”
Tavi followed his uncle on down the road. Bernard walked with quiet purpose toward the causeway, as if he had every intention of traveling past the hidden men. Then, without warning, he spun to his left, arrow in hand, drew back the bow and loosed a grey-feathered shaft at a clump of bushes and detritus a few paces from the near side of the small, stone footbridge that crossed a murmuring brook.
Tavi heard a scream, and the leaves and bushes thrashed wildly. A moment later a boy about Tavi’s age emerged from the bushes, one hand clenched upon the seat of his breeches. He had a broad, strong build and a face that would be handsome if it had been less petulant. Bittan, of Kordholt, Kord’s youngest son. “Bloody crows!” the boy howled. “Are you insane?”
“Bittan?” called Bernard in obviously feigned surprise. “Oh dear. I had no idea that was you back there.”
From further down the trail, a second young man rose out of hiding—Kord’s eldest son, Aric. He was leaner than his brother, taller, and several years older. He wore his hair pulled back into a tail, and pensive frown lines had already established themselves between his eyebrows. He watched Bernard warily and called, “Bittan? You all right?”
The boy screamed, furious, “No I’m not all right! I’m shot!”
Tavi peered at the other boy and muttered to his uncle, “You shot him?”
“Just grazed him.”
Tavi grinned. “Maybe you hit him in the brain.”
Bernard smiled a wolfish smile and said nothing.
From still further back in the brush, leaves crackled and dead wood snapped. A moment later, Steadholder Kord emerged from the bracken. He wasn’t terribly tall, but his shoulders seemed too large for him, and his brawny arms looked unnaturally long. Kord wore a patched and faded grey tunic, badly in need of a thorough washing, and heavy gargant-hide leggings. He wore his symbol of office, the heavy chain of a Steadholder around his neck. The chain was smudged and looked greasy, but Tavi supposed that it made a better match for his unkempt greying hair and patchy beard.
Kord moved with an aggressive tension, and his eyes were cold with anger. “What the crows do you think you’re doing, Bernard?”
Bernard waved a friendly hand at Kord, but Tavi noted that he held an arrow along with the bow in his other. “Little accident,” he said. “I mistook your boy there for some kind of robber lurking by the road to attack travelers.”
Kord’s eyes narrowed. “Are you accusing me of something?”
“Of course not,” Bernard drawled, his smile not touching his eyes. “This is just a misunderstanding. Thank the great furies no one got hurt.” He paused for a moment, his smile vanishing before he said, quietly, “I’d hate to have someone get hurt on my land.”
Kord snarled, a sound more bestial than human, and rolled forward a furious step. The ground under his feet rumbled and quivered, restless little hummocks rising and falling as though some kind of serpent slithered about just beneath the surface.
Bernard faced Kord without looking away, stirring, or changing his expression.
Kord growled again, and with a visible effort choked back his anger. “One of these days I’m going to get upset with you, Bernard.”
“Don’t say things like that, Kord,” Tavi’s uncle replied. “You’ll frighten the boy.”
Kord’s eyes flicked to Tavi, and the boy felt suddenly uneasy under that intense and angry regard.
“He come into any furies yet, or are you finally going to admit what a useless little freak he is?”
The simple comment pierced Tavi like a thorn, and he opened his mouth to make a furious response.
Bernard settled his hand on Tavi’s shoulder and said, “Don’t worry about my nephew.” He glanced at Bittan. “After all, you’ve got other concerns. Why don’t you head on down to the steadholt? I’m sure Isana is getting something ready for you.”
“Think we’ll stay here a while,” Kord said. “Maybe eat a little breakfast.”
Excerpted from "Furies of Calderon"
Copyright © 2005 Jim Butcher.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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