Amara spread her arms and arched her back as she finally cleared the heavy cloud cover along the coast of the Sea of Ice, and emerged from the cold, blinding mist into the glorious warmth of the sunrise. For a few seconds, the edges of the clouds swirled as her wind fury Cirrus lifted her out of them, and she could see the fury's appearance in the motion of the clouds-the ghostly form of a lean, long-legged courser of a horse, swift and graceful and beautiful.
Clouds rose in peaks and valleys like vast mountains, an entire realm of slow grace and breathtaking beauty. The golden sunshine of spring turned them to flame, and in turn they shattered the light into bands of color that danced and spun around her.
Amara laughed for the sheer joy of it. No matter how often she flew, the beauty of the skies never ceased to fill her heart, and the sense of freedom and strength only grew more intense. Amara called to Cirrus, and the fury bore her straight up with such speed that the wind tightened her face to her cheekbones and a portion of cloud the size of the Citadel in Alera proper was drawn into a column in her wake. Amara angled her arms so that the wind of her passage spun her in dizzying circles, until her head spun, and the air began to grow thin and cold.
Cirrus's presence allowed her to breathe without difficulty, for a time at least, but the blue of the sky above her began to darken, and a few moments later she began to see the stars. The cold intensified, and Cirrus itself began to tire as the fury struggled to draw in enough air to keep her aloft.
Her heart pounding with excitement, she signaled Cirrus to cease.
She felt her ascent slow, and for a single delicious second she was suspended between the stars and the earth. And then, she twisted her body like a diver and fell. Her heart hammered with electric apprehension, and she closed her legs together and her arms in tight to her sides, her face toward the ground below. Within seconds, she was rushing down more swiftly even than she had risen, and her eyes blurred with tears in the wind, until Cirrus slid a portion of its being over them to protect her.
As the air thickened, she willed Cirrus back into propelling her, and her speed doubled and redoubled, a faint nimbus of light forming around her. The rolling green hills of the Calderon Valley came into sight, already defying the winter with new growth. The Valley grew larger with deceptive deliberation.
Amara poured on the speed, focusing every ounce of her will to strengthen her furycrafting, and she picked out the causeway that ran the length of the Valley to the fortified steading at its east end. Then the outpost of Garrison itself came into sight.
Amara howled her excitement and stretched her power to its limits. There was a sudden and deafening thunder. She gasped and spread her arms and legs to slow her fall, only a thousand feet from the Valley's floor. Cirrus rushed to place himself in front of her, helping to slow her even more, then she and Cirrus pulled out of the dive, redirecting her momentum to send her flashing along the causeway in a howling cyclone of wind. Exhausted and panting from the effort of producing that much speed, Amara shot toward the gates of Garrison, swifter than an arrow from the bow. She drew the winds about her as she approached the gates, and the guard standing watch over them waved her in without rising from his stool.
Amara grinned, and altered her course to bring her down on the battlements over the gate. The winds around her sent dust and debris whirling up in a billowing cloud all around the guard-a grizzled centurion named Giraldi. The stocky old soldier had been peeling away the wrinkled skin of a winter-stores apple with his dagger, and he flipped a corner of his scarlet and azure cloak over it until the dust settled. Then he resumed his peeling.
"Countess," he said casually. "Nice to see you again."
"Giraldi," she said. She loosened the straps of the sealed courier's pack she carried on her back and slid it off. "Most soldiers rise and salute when nobility visits."
"Most soldiers don't have an ass as grey as mine," he replied cheerfully.
Nor do most bear the scarlet stripe of the Order of the Lion, the mark of the First Lord's personal award for valor on their uniform trousers, Amara thought, and fought not to smile. "What are you doing standing a watch? I thought I brought the papers for your promotion last month."
"You did," Giraldi confirmed. He ate a wrinkled stripe of apple skin. "Turned it down."
"Crows, girl," he swore with a certain merry disregard for the delicacy tradition demanded be accorded her sex. "I made fun of officers my whole career. What kind of fool do you think I am to want to be one?"
She couldn't help it any longer, and laughed. "Could you send someone to let the Count know I'm here with dispatches?"
Giraldi snorted. "I reckon you already told him yourself. There ain't so many people that make great pounding bursts of thunder rattle every dish in the valley when they arrive. Everyone who ain't deaf knows you're here already."
"Then I thank you for your courtesy, centurion," she teased, slinging the pack over one shoulder and heading for the stairs. Her flying leathers creaked as she did.
"Disgraceful," Giraldi complained. "Pretty girl like you running around dressed like that. Men's clothes. And too tight to be decent. Get a dress." This is more practical," Amara called over her shoulder. I noticed how practical you look whenever you come to see Bernard," Giraldi drawled.
Despite herself, Amara felt her cheeks flush, though between the wind and cold of her passage, she doubted it would show. She descended into the camp's western courtyard. When Bernard had taken over command of Garrison from its previous Count, Gram, he had ordered it to be cleansed of the signs of the battle now two years past. Despite that, Amara always thought that she could still see stains of blood that had been overlooked. She knew that the spilled blood had all been cleaned.
What remained were the stains it had left in her thoughts,, and in her heart.
The thought sobered her somewhat, without really marring her sense of happiness in the morning. Life here, on the eastern frontier of Alera, she reminded herself, could be harsh and difficult. Thousands of Alerans had met their deaths on the floor of this valley, and tens of thousands of Marat. It was a place that had been steeped in hardship, danger, treachery, and violence for nearly a century.
But that had begun to change, in large part due to the efforts and courage of the man who oversaw it for the Crown, and whom she had braved the dangerous high winds to see.
Bernard emerged from the commander's quarters at the center of the camp, smiling. Though the cut of his clothing was a bit more stylish, and the fabrics more fine, he still wore the sober greens and browns of the free Steadholder he had been, rather than the brighter colors proclaiming his bloodlines and allegiance. He was tall, his dark hair salted with early grey, and like his beard cropped close in Legion fashion. He paused to hold the door open for a serving maid carrying an armload of laundry, then approached Amara with long, confident strides. Bernard was built like a bear, Amara thought, and moved like a hunting cat, and he was certainly as handsome as any man she had seen. But she liked his eyes best. His grey-green eyes were like Bernard himself-clear, open and honest, and they missed little.
"Count," she murmured, as he came close, and offered her hand.
"Countess," he responded. There was a quiet smoldering in his eyes that made Amara's heart race a bit more quickly as he took her hand in gentle fingers and bowed over it. She thought she could feel his deep voice in her belly when he rumbled, "Welcome to Garrison, lady Cursor. Did you have a nice trip?"
"Finally, now that the weather is clearing," she said, and left her hand on his arm as they walked to his offices.
"How are things at the capital?"
"More amusing than usual," she said. "The Slavers Consortium and the Dianic League are all but dueling in the streets, and the Senators can barely show their faces out of doors without being assaulted by one party or another. The southern cities are doing everything they can to run up the prices of this year's crops, screaming about the greed and graft of the Wall lords, while the Wall cities are demanding an increase in levies from the miserly south."
Bernard grunted. "His Majesty?"
"In fine form," Amara said. She made it a point to inhale through her nose as she walked. Bernard smelled of pine needles, leather and woodsmoke, and she loved the scent of him. "But he's made fewer appearances this year than in the past. There are rumors that his health is finally failing."
"When aren't there?"
"Exactly. Your nephew is doing well at the Academy, by all reports."
"Really? Has he finally..."
Amara shook her head. "No. And they've called in a dozen different craftmasters to examine him and work with him. Nothing."
"But otherwise, he's performing excellently. His instructors are uniformly impressed with his mind."
"Good," Bernard said. "I'm proud of him. I always taught him not to let his problem stand in his way. That intelligence and skill would carry him farther than furycrafting. But all the same, I had hoped..." He sighed, tipping a respectful nod to a pair of passing legionares callidus, walking from the mess hall with their officially nonexistent wives. "So, what word from the First Lord?"
"The usual dispatches, and invitations for you and the Valley's Steadholders to Festival."
He arched a brow. "He sent one to my sister as well?"
"Particularly to your sister," Amara said. She frowned as they went inside the command residence and up the stairs to Bernard's private offices. "There are several things you need to know, Bernard. His Majesty asked me to brief you both on the situation surrounding her attendance. In private."
Bernard nodded and opened the door. "I thought as much. She's already packed for the trip. I'll send word, and she should be here by this evening."
Amara entered, looking back over her shoulder, her head cocked. "By this evening, is it?"
"Mmm. Perhaps not until tomorrow morning." He shut the door behind him. And casually slid the bolt shut, leaning back against it. "You know, Giraldi's right, Amara. A woman shouldn't dress in tight leathers like that."
She blinked innocently at him. "Oh? Why not?"
It makes a man think things."
She moved slowly. At his heart, Bernard was a hunter, and a man of great patience when need be. Amara had found that it was a distinct pleasure to test that patience.
And even more of a pleasure to make it unravel.
She started unbinding her honey brown hair from its braid. "What sorts of things, Your Excellency?"
"That you should be in a dress," he said, voice edged with the slightest, low tone of a beast's growl. His eyes all but glowed as he watched her let her hair down.
She undid the plaits in her hair with deliberate precision and began to comb them out with her fingers. She'd worn her hair much shorter in the past, but she'd been growing it out since she found out how much Bernard liked it worn long. "But if I was in a dress," she said, "the wind would tear it to shreds. And when I came down to see you, milord, Giraldi and his men would all get to stare at what the shreds didn't cover." She blinked her eyes again and let her hair fall in mussed waves down around her face and over her shoulders. She watched his eyes narrow in pleasure at the sight. "I can hardly run around like that in front of a crowd of legionares. As I told the good centurion. It's merely practical."
He leaned away from the door and approached, a slow step at a time. He leaned close to her, and took the courier's pack from her. His fingertips dragged lightly over her shoulder as he did, and she almost felt that she could feel them through her jacket. Bernard was an earthcrafter of formidable power, and such people always carried a certain sense of purely instinctive, mindless physical desire around them like a tactile perfume. She had felt it when she first met the man, and even more so since.
And when he made the effort, it could cause her own patience to vanish first. It wasn't fair, but she had to admit that she could hardly complain about the results.
He set the pack of dispatches aside and kept stepping forward, and bodily pressed her hips against his desk and forced her to lean back a little from him. "No, it isn't," he said in a quiet voice, and she felt a slow, animal thrill course through her at his presence. He lifted a hand and touched her cheek with his fingertips. Then gently slid his hand down over her shoulder and flank to her hip. The touch of his fingers lingered and made her feel a little breathless with sudden need. He rested his hand on her hip, and said, "If they were practical, I could slide them out of my way at once. It would save time." He leaned down and brushed his lips against her cheek, nuzzling his nose and mouth in her hair. "Mmmm. Having you at once. That would be practical."
Amara tried to draw things out, but she hadn't seen him in weeks, and almost against her will she felt the sinuous pleasure of her body yielding and molding to his, one leg bending to slide her calf along the outside of his own. Then he bent his mouth to hers and kissed her, and the slow heat and sensual delight of the taste of his mouth did away with any thought whatsoever.
"You're cheating," she whispered a moment later, panting as she slipped her hands beneath his tunic to feel the heavy, hot muscles on his back.
"Can't help it," he growled. He parted the front of her jacket, and she arched her back, the air cool on her thin linen undershirt. "I want you. It's been too long."
"Don't stop," she whispered, though it was edged with a low moan. "Too long."
Boots thumped up the stairs outside Bernard's office.
One at a time.
Bernard let out an irritated groan, his eyes closed.
"Ahem," coughed Giraldi's voice from outside. "Achoo. My but what a cold I have. Yes, sir, a cold. I'll need to see a healer about that."
Bernard straightened, and Amara had to force her fingers to move away from him. She stood up and her balance wavered. So she sat down on the edge of Bernard's desk, her face flushed, and tried to get all the clasps on the jacket fastened closed again.
Bernard tucked his tunic more or less back through his belt, but his eyes smoldered with quiet anger. He went to the door, and Amara was struck by how large the man was as he unlocked it and stood in it, facing the centurion outside.
"Sorry, Bernard," Giraldi said. "But..." He lowered his voice to a bare whisper, and Amara couldn't hear the rest.
"Crows," Bernard spat in a sudden, vicious curse.
Amara jerked her head up at the tone in his voice.
"How long?" the Count asked.
"Less than an hour. General call to arms?" Giraldi asked.
Bernard clenched his jaw. "No. Get your century to the wall, dress uniform."
Giraldi frowned, head cocked to one side.
"We aren't preparing to fight. We're turning out an honor guard. Understand?"
"Perfectly, Your Excellency," Giraldi answered, his often-broken nose making the words thick. "You want our finest century on the wall in full battle gear so that we can beat some Marat around if they've got a mind to tussle, and if they don't, you want your most beautiful and charming centurion doing the greeting to make them feel all welcome."
Giraldi's smile faded, and he lowered his voice, his expression frank but unafraid. "You think there's a fight brewing?"
Bernard clapped the old soldier on the shoulder. "No. But I want you personally to tell Knight Captain Gregor and the other centurions it might be a good idea to run a weapons and arms inspection in their barracks for a while, in case I'm wrong."
"Yes, Your Excellency," Giraldi said. He struck his fist to his heart in a crisp Legion salute, nodded at Amara, and marched out.
Bernard turned to a large, sturdy wooden armoire and opened it. He drew out a worn old arming jacket and jerked it on with practiced motions.
"What's happening?" Amara asked.
He passed her a short, stout blade in a belted scabbard. "Could be trouble."
The gladius was the side arm of a legionare, and the most common weapon in the Realm. Amara was well familiar with it, and buckled it on without needing to watch her fingers. "What do you mean?"
"There's a Marat war party on the plain," Bernard said. "They're coming this way."
Amara felt a slow, quiet tension enter her shoulders. "How many?"
Bernard shrugged into the mail tunic and buckled and belted it into place. "Two hundred, maybe more," he answered.
"But isn't that far too small to be a hostile force?" she asked.
She frowned. "Surely you don't think Doroga would attack us at all, much less with so few."
Bernard shrugged, swung a heavy war axe from the cabinet, and slung its strap over his shoulder. "It might not be Doroga. If someone else has supplanted him the way he did Atsurak, an attack is a possibility, and I'm not taking any chances with the lives of my men and holders. We prepare for the worst. Pass me my bow."
Amara turned to the fireplace and took down a bow from its rack above it, a carved half-moon of dark wood as thick as her ankles. She passed it to him, and the big man drew a wide-mouthed war quiver packed with arrows from the armoire. Then he used one leg to brace the bow, and without any obvious effort he bent recurved staves that would have required two men with tools to handle safely, and strung the weapon with a heavy cord.
She lifted her eyebrows at the bent bow. "Do you think that is necessary?"
"No. But if something bad happens, I want you to get word to Riva immediately."
She frowned. She would hate to leave Bernard's side in the face of danger, but her duty as a messenger of the First Lord was clear. "Of course."
"Shall I find you some mail?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I'm already tired from the trip in. If I need to fly, I don't want to carry any more weight than I must."
He nodded and stalked out of the office, and she kept pace with him. Together they headed through the eastern courtyard, to the looming, enormous expanse of the wall facing the spreading plains of the lands of the Marat. The wall was better than thirty feet high and thick, all black basalt that seemed to have been formed of a single, titanic block of stone. Crenellation spread seamlessly along the battlements. A gate high and wide enough to admit the largest gargants was formed of a single sheet of some dark steel she had never seen before, called from the depths of the earth by the First Lord himself, after the battle two years ago.
They mounted the steps up to the battlements, where Giraldi's eighty grizzled veterans, the men who had survived the Second Battle of Calderon, were assembling in good order. The bloodred stripe of the Order of the Lion was conspicuous on the piping of their trousers, and though they were dressed in their formal finery, each of the men wore his working weapons and armor of simple, battle-tested steel.
Far out on the plain, moving shapes approached the fortress, little more than dark, indistinct blotches.
Amara leaned into the space between two of the stone merlons and lifted her hands. She called to Cirrus, and the fury whirled between her hands, forming the air into a sheet of bent light that enlarged the image of the distant travelers.
"It's Doroga," she reported to Bernard. "If I'm not mistaken, that's Hashat with him."
"Hashat?" Bernard asked, frowning. "He needs her to patrol their eastern marshes and keep Wolf in line. It's dangerous for them to travel together in such a small company."
Amara frowned, studying them. "Bernard, Hashat is walking. Her horse is limping. There are more Horse on foot. They've got stretchers, too. Riderless horses and gargants. Wounded animals."
Bernard frowned, then nodded sharply. "You were right, centurion," he said. "It's a war party."
Giraldi nodded. "Just not here to fight us. Could be that they've got someone chasing them."
"No. Their pace is too slow," Bernard said. "If someone was after them, they'd have caught them by now. Stand down and get the healers into position."
"Yes, sir." The centurion signaled his men to sheathe their weapons, then started bawling out orders, sending men to fetch out bathing tubs to be filled with water, and summoning Garrison's watercrafters in order to care for the wounded.
It took more than an hour for Doroga's wounded band to reach the fortress, and by that time the cooks had the air filled with the smell of roasting meat and fresh bread, setting up trestles laden with food, stacking a small mountain of hay for the gargants, and filling the food and water troughs near the stables. Giraldi's legionares cleared out a wide area in one of the warehouses, laying out rows of sleeping pads with blankets for the wounded.
Bernard opened the gates and went out to meet the Marat party. Amara stayed at his side. They walked up to within twenty feet or so of the vast, battle-scarred black gargant Doroga rode, and the pungent, earthy smell of the beast was thick in her nose.
The Marat himself was an enormous man, tall and heavily built even for one of his race, slabs of thick muscle sliding under his skin. His coarse white hair was worn back in a fighting braid, and there was a cut on his chest that had closed itself with thick clots of blood. His features were brutish, but dark eyes glittering with intelligence watched Bernard from beneath his heavy brows. He wore the tunic the holders of Calderon had given him after the battle, though he'd torn it open down the front and removed the sleeves to make room for his arms. The cool wind did not seem to make him uncomfortable.
"Doroga," Bernard called.
Doroga nodded back. "Bernard." He hooked a thumb over his back. "Wounded."
"We're ready to help. Bring them in."
Doroga's wide mouth turned up into a smile that showed heavy, blocky teeth. He nodded his head at Bernard in thanks then untied a large pouch with a cross-shoulder sling on it from a strap on the gargant's saddle-mat. Then he took hold of a braided leather rope, and swung down from the beasts' back. He closed on Bernard and traded grips with him, Marat fashion, hands clasping one another's forearms. "I'm obliged. Some of the wounds are beyond our skill. Thought maybe your people would be willing to help."
"And honored." Bernard signaled Giraldi to take over seeing to the injured among the Marat, while grooms came forth to examine wounded horses and gargants, as well as a pair of bloodied wolves. "You're looking well," Bernard said.
"How is your nephew?" Doroga rumbled.
"Off learning," Bernard said. "Kitai?"
"Off learning," said Doroga, eyeing Amara. "Ah, the girl who flies. You need to eat more, girl."
Amara laughed. "I try, but the First Lord keeps me busy running messages."
"Too much running does that," Doroga agreed. "Get a man. Have some babies. That always works."
A sickly little fluttering stab of pain went through Amara's belly, but she did her best to keep a smile on her face. "I'll think about it."
"Huh," Doroga snorted. "Bernard, maybe you got something broken in your pants?"
Bernard's face flushed scarlet. "Uh. No."
Doroga saw the Count's embarrassment and burst out into grunting, guffawing laughter. "You Alerans. Everything mates," Doroga said. "Everything likes to. But only your people try to pretend they do neither."
Amara enjoyed Bernard's blush, though the pain Doroga's words had elicited prevented her from blushing herself. Bernard would probably think she was just too worldly to be so easily embarrassed. "Doroga," she said, to rescue him from the subject, "how did you get that wound? What happened to your people?"
The Marat headman's smile faded, and he looked back out at the plains, his countenance grim. "I got it being foolish," he said. "The rest should first be for your ears only. We should go inside."
Bernard frowned and nodded at Doroga, then beckoned him. They I walked together into Garrison and back to Bernard's office.
"Would you like some food?" Bernard asked.
"After my people have eaten," Doroga said. "Their chala too. Their beasts."
"I understand. Sit, if you like."
Doroga shook his head and paced quietly around the office, opening the armoire, peering at the bricks of the fireplace, and picking up several books off the modest-sized shelf to peer at their pages.
"Your people," he said. "So different than ours."
"In some ways," Bernard agreed. "Similar in many others."
"Yes." Doroga flipped through the pages of The Chronicles of Gains, i pausing to examine a woodcut illustration on one of them. "My people do not know much of what yours know, Bernard. We do not have these... what is the word?"
"Books," Doroga said. "Or the drawing-speech your people use in them. ' But we are an old people, and not without our own knowledge." He gestured at his wound. "The ground powder of shadowwort and sandgrass took the pain, clotted the blood, and closed this wound. You would have needed stitches or your sorcery.": "I do not question your people's experience or knowledge, Doroga."
Bernard said. "You are different. That does not make you less."
Doroga smiled. "Not all Alerans think as you."
"We have our wisdom," he said. "Passed on from one to another since the first dawn. We sing to our children, and they to theirs, and so we remember what has been." He went to the fireplace and stirred the embers with a poker. Orange light played lurid shadows over the shape of his muscles and made his expression feral. "I have been a great fool. Our wisdom warned me, but I was too foolish to see the danger for what it was."
"What do you mean?" asked Amara.
He drew a deep breath. "The Wax Forest. You have heard of it, Bernard?"
"Yes," he said. "I went there a time or two. Never down into it."
"Wise," Doroga said. "It was a deadly place."
The Marat nodded. "No longer. The creatures who lived there have departed it."
Bernard blinked. "Departed. To where?"
Doroga shook his head. "I am not certain. Yet. But our wisdom tells us of them, and warns of what they will do."
"You mean your people have seen such things before?"
Doroga nodded. "Far in the past, our people did not live where we live today. We came here from another place."
"Across the sea?" Amara asked.
Doroga shrugged. "Across the sea. Across the sky. We were elsewhere, then we were here. Our people have lived in many lands. We go to a new place. We bond with what lives there. We learn. We grow. We sing the songs of wisdom to our children."
Amara frowned. "You mean... is that why there are different tribes among your people?"
He blinked at her as her Academy teachers might have done at slow-witted students, and nodded. "By chala. By totem. Our wisdom tells us that long ago, in another place, we met a creature. That this creature stole the hearts and minds of our people. That it and its brood grew from dozens to millions. It overwhelmed us. Destroyed our lands and homes. It stole our children, and our females gave birth to its spawn."
Bernard sat down in a chair by the fire, frowning. "It is a demon that can take many forms," the Marat continued. "It tastes of blood and may take the shape of creature it tasted. It gives birth to its own brood of creatures. It transforms its enemies into... things. Things of its own creation, that fight for the creature. It keeps taking. Killing. Spawning. Until nothing is left to fight it."
Bernard narrowed his eyes, intent on Doroga. Amara took a few steps to stand behind his chair, her hand on his shoulder.
"This is not a campfire tale, Aleran," Doroga said quietly. "It is not a mistake. This creature is real." The big Marat swallowed, his expression ashen. "It can take many shapes and forms, and our wisdom warns us not to rely solely upon its appearance to warn us of its presence. That was my mistake. I did not see the creature for what it was until it was too late."
"The Wax Forest," Bernard said.
Doroga nodded. "When your nephew and Kitai returned from the Trial, something followed them."
"You mean wax spiders?" Bernard asked.
Doroga shook his head. "Something larger. Something more."
"Wait," Amara said. "Are you talking about many creatures or one creature?"
"Yes," Doroga said. "That is what makes it an Abomination before The One."
Amara almost scowled in frustration. The Marat simply did not use language the same way as Alerans did, even when speaking Aleran. "I don't think I've ever heard of anything like that here, Doroga."
Doroga shrugged. "No. That is why I have come. To warn you." He took a step closer to them, crouching down, and whispered, "The Abomination is here. The wisdom tells us the name of its minions. The vordu-ha." He shuddered, as if saying the words sickened him. "And it tells us the name of the creature itself. It is the vord."
There was heavy silence for a moment. Then Bernard asked, "How do you know?"
Doroga nodded toward the courtyard. "I gave battle to a vord nest yesterday at dawn with two thousand warriors."
"Where are they now?" Amara asked.
The Marat's expression stayed steady and on the fire. "Here."
Amara felt her mouth open in shock. "But you only had two hundred with..."
Doroga's features remained feral, stony, as her words trailed off into silence. "We paid in blood to destroy the vord in that nest. But the wisdom tells us that when the vord abandon a nest, they divide into three groups to build new nests. To spread their kind. We tracked and destroyed one such group. But there are two more. I believe one of them is here, in your valley, hiding on the slopes of the mountain called Garados."
Bernard frowned. "And where is the other?"
In answer, Doroga reached into his sling pouch and drew out a battered old leather backpack. He tossed it into Bernard's lap.
Amara felt Bernard's entire body go rigidly tense as he stared down at the pack.
"Great furies," Bernard whispered. "Tavi."
Whirls of dust from the collapse filled the inside of Isanaholt's stables, and made the sunshine slipping here and there through the roof into soft, golden rods of light. Isana stared at the enormous crossbeam in the steadholt's stables. It had broken and fallen without any warning whatsoever a moment after she had entered the barn to distribute feed to the animals. If she had been facing the wrong way, or if she had been any slower, she would be lying dead under it with the crushed and bloodied bodies of a pair of luckless hens instead of shaking with startled terror.
Her first thought was of her holders. Had any of them been in the barn, or the loft? Furies forbid, had any of the children been playing there? Isana reached out for her fury, and with Rill's help created a crafting that slid through the air of the barn-but the barn was empty.
Which was probably the point, she thought, suddenly struck with a possible explanation for the accident. She stood up, shaking still, and went to the fallen beam, examining it.
One end of the beam was broken, snapped off with ragged spikes and splinters of wood standing out from it. The other end was far smoother, almost as clean as if it had been trimmed with a mill-saw. But no blade had done it. The wood was crumbling and dusty, as if it had been attacked by an army of termites. A furycrafting, Isana thought. A deliberate furycrafting.
Not an accident. Not an accident at all.
Someone had tried to kill her.
Isana suddenly became more intensely aware of the fact that she was alone in the stables. Most of the holders were out in the fields by now-they had only a few more days to plow and sew, and the herders had their hands full with keeping track of mating cycles, assisting in the delivery of the new lambs, calves, kids, and a pair of gargant digs. Even the kitchens, the nearest building to the stables, were empty at the moment, while the steadholt women working there took time for a meal of their own in the central hall.
In short, it was unlikely that anyone heard the beam fall-and even more unlikely that they could hear her should she call for them. For a moment, Isana wished desperately that her brother still lived at the steadholt. But Bernard didn't. She would have to look out for herself.
She took a deep, steadying breath and stole a couple of steps to a wall where a pitchfork hung by a hook set into a beam. She took the tool down, straining to be silent, willing Rill's presence to continue sweeping through the barn. The furycrafting was hardly precise-and even if there was a murderer lurking nearby, if he was a man of enough detachment, he might not have enough of a sense of emotion for Rill to detect. But it was better than nothing.
Woodcrafters could, when they needed to, exert the power of their furies to hide their presence from other's eyes, if enough vegetable matter was nearby to use as material. At the behest of a woodcrafter, trees would shift their shadows, grass would twist and bend to conceal, and all manner of subtle illusions of light and shadow could hide them from even skilled, wary eyes. And the barn was almost ankle deep in the rushes laid to help keep it warm during the winter.
Isana remained in place for several silent moments, waiting for any sign of another's presence. Patience could only help her-it would not be long before the steadholt began to fill with holders returning from the fields for their midday meal. Her attacker, if he was here, would already have come for her if he thought her vulnerable. The worst thing she could do would be to lose her head and run headlong into a less subtle attack.
Outside, the beat of running hooves approached the steadholt, and someone rode a horse in through the gates. The animal chafed and stamped for a moment, then a young man's voice called, "Hello, the steadholt! Holder Isana?"
Isana held her breath for a moment, then let it out slowly, relaxing a little. Someone had come. She lowered the pitchfork and took a step toward the door she had entered.
There was a small, thumping sound behind her, and a rounded pebble bounced once and then fell into the straw. Rill suddenly warned her of a wave of panic coming from immediately behind her.
Isana turned, raising the pitchfork by instinct, and only barely saw the vague outline of someone in the half-shadowed barn. There was a flash of steel, a hot sensation on one of her hips, and she felt the tines of the pitchfork bite hard into living flesh. She choked out a scream of terror and challenge and drove the pitchfork hard forward, throwing the weight of her entire body behind it. She drove the attacker back against the heavy door of one of the horse stalls, and she felt in exquisite detail the sudden burst of pain, surprise, and naked fear that came from her attacker.
The tines bit hard into the wooden door, and her attacker's crafting of concealment wavered and vanished.
He wasn't young enough to be called a youth, but not yet old enough to be considered a man, either. He seemed to be at that most dangerous of ages, where strength, skill, and confidence met naivete and idealism; when young men skilled at the crafts of violence could be manipulated into employing those skills with brutal efficiency-and without questions.
The assassin stared at her for a moment, eyes wide, his face already pale. His sword arm twitched, and he lost his grip on the weapon, an odd blade slightly curved rather than the more typical gladius. He pushed at the tines of the pitchfork, but his fingers had no strength in them. One of the steel tines had severed a blood vessel in his belly, she judged, some part of her mind operating with clinical detachment. It was the only thing that could have incapacitated him so quickly. Otherwise, he would have been able to strike her again with the sword, even though wounded.
But the rest of her felt like wailing in sheer anguish. Isana's link to Rill was too open and too strong to set aside easily. All of what her attacker felt flowed into her thoughts and perceptions with a simple, agonizing clarity. She felt him, the screaming pain of his injuries, the sense of panic and despair as he realized what had happened, and that he had no way to avoid his fate.
She felt him as his fear and pain faded to a sense of dim, puzzled surprise, quiet regret, and a vast and heavy weariness. Panicked, she withdrew her senses from the young man, her thoughts screaming at Rill to break the connection with the young killer. She all but sobbed with relief as the sensations of his emotion faded from her own, and she looked him in the face.
The young man looked up at her for a moment. He had eyes the color of walnuts and a small scar over his left eyebrow.
His body sagged, the weight pulling the tines of the pitchfork free of the door. Then his head lolled forward and a little to one side. His eyes went still. Isana shivered and watched him die. When he had, she pulled on the pitchfork. It wouldn't come out, and she had to brace one foot against the young man's chest to get enough leverage to withdraw the pitchfork. When it finally came free, lazy streams of blood coursed down from the holes in the corpse's belly. The corpse fell to its side, and its glazed eyes stared up at Isana.
She had killed the young man. She had killed him. He was no older than Tavi.
It was too much. She fell to her knees, and her belly lost control of its contents. She found herself staring down at the floor of the stables, shuddering, while waves of disgust and loathing and fear washed over her.
Footsteps entered the stables, but they meant nothing to her. Isana lowered herself to her side once her stomach had ceased its rebellion. She lay there with her eyes closed, while holders entered the stables, sure of only one thing: If she hadn't killed the man, he would certainly have killed her.
Someone with the resources to hire a professional killer wanted her dead.
She closed her eyes, too weary to do more, and was content to ignore the others around her and let oblivion ease her anguish and terror.