While dawn was half an hour away, Lady Aquitaine summoned four Wind-wolves, mercenary Knights long in service to the Aquitaines-and responsible for no few lost lives themselves. Allegedly responsible, Amara reminded herself firmly. There was no proof.
Amara, Bernard, Rook, and Lady Aquitaine met them atop the northernmost spire of Cereus's citadel. The Knights Aeris and the coach they bore swept up to the spire from within the city, keeping lower than the rooftops whenever possible.
They were dressed for travel-Amara in her close-fit flying leathers and her sword belt, Bernard in a woodsman's outfit of brown and green and grey, bearing his axe, bow, bedroll, and war quiver. Lady Aquitaine wore clothing similar to Amara's, though the leathers' layers sandwiched an impossibly fine mesh of steel, providing greater protection for the High Lady. She also wore a sword, something Amara had never pictured Invidia Aquitaine using-but she bore the long, slender blade as casually as Amara did her own.
Once the coach had landed, the door opened, and one of the most deadly swordsmen alive emerged from it. Aldrick ex Gladius stood half a head taller than even Bernard, and moved with a kind of placid grace, no motions wasted. He had a pair of swords belted to his left side, a Legion-issue gladius and a duelist's longblade. His wolfish grey eyes found Lady Aquitaine, and he gave her a curt nod. "Your Grace."
Behind him, a woman in a pale green gown peered at them from her seat in the coach, her beautiful, pale face a ghostly contrast with her dark hair and eyes. Amara recognized Odiana, another of Aquitaine's mercenary Knights. Her head tilted oddly to one side as she studied the others, and Amara saw the colors of her silk dress pulse and swirl, tendrils of dark red and vermilion slithering over the fabric covering her shoulders, a disquieting sight.
Aldrick stared at them for a moment, eyes never leaving Amara and Bernard. "This is too much load for the coach, milady. Well never outrun their Knights Aeris."
Lady Aquitaine smiled. "It will just be the four of you," she told Aldrick. "The Countess and I will travel outside the coach. Assuming that is acceptable, Countess?"
Amara nodded. "I'd planned on it in any case."
Aldrick frowned for a moment, then said slowly, "This is not a wise decision, my lady."
"I'll survive having my hair blown about, thank you," she replied. "But I am willing to listen to an alternative suggestion, assuming you have one."
"Leave one of them here," he said immediately.
"No," Amara said. Her tone made the word into a command.
When Lady Aquitaine did not dissent, Aldrick's frown deepened.
"The sooner we leave," Lady Aquitaine said, "the farther away from the city we can get before daylight. Count Calderon, Madame Rook, please have a seat."
Bernard glanced at Amara, who nodded. Rook had been provided with a simple brown dress, and she had altered her features, though it had seemed considerably more of an effort for her than it had for Lady Aquitaine. She still limped slightly, and she looked exhausted-and there was a noticeable absence of weaponry on her person-but she entered the coach under her own power. Bernard and Aldrick faced one another for a second, before Aldrick bowed slightly, and said, "Your Excellency."
Bernard grunted, gave Amara a wry glance, and entered the coach. Aldrick followed him in, and the Knights Aeris at the carry poles hooked their flight harnesses to them and, with an unavoidable cyclone of wind, lifted the coach from the stones of the tower and launched into the air, slowly but steadily gaining altitude.
"Countess," Lady Aquitaine said, as they prepared to fly, "I assume you have seen aerial combat before."
"I haven't," she said in a matter-of-fact voice. "You're in command. I suggest that I attempt to veil us."
Amara arched an eyebrow at the proud High Lady, impressed. Invidia might be arrogant, ruthless, ambitious, a dangerous enemy-but she was no fool. Her suggestion was a good one. "That large a windstream will be difficult to hide."
"Impossible, in fact, if any Knights Aeris pass nearby," Lady Aquitaine said. "But I believe I will be able to reduce our chances of being seen at a distance."
Amara nodded. "Do it. Take position on the coach's left. I'll take the right."
Lady Aquitaine nodded, twisting her hair into a knot at the nape of her neck and tying it there. "Shall we?"
Amara nodded and called to Cirrus, and the two women stepped up onto the tower's battlements and leapt into the predawn sky. Twin torrents of wind rose and lifted them swiftly into the sky. They easily overtook the slowly rising wind coach, and Amara took up a position on the right side of the coach, between it and the general direction of Kalarus's approaching forces.
They had gained nearly four thousand feet of altitude before the sun rose, reducing the landscape beneath to a broad diorama, every feature on it seemingly rendered in miniature. If they continued ascending to risk the swift high winds of the upper air, the land would resemble a quilt more than anything else, but at sunrise Amara could still see details of the land beneath them-notably, travelers on the road from the south, fleeing toward the protection of the walls of Ceres.
And, beyond them, marching at speed down the road toward Ceres, came Kalarus's Legions. Shadows yet blanketed much of the land below, but as the early golden light began to fall upon the column between gaps in the terrain, it glinted on their shields, helmets, and armor. Amara raised her hands, focusing part of Cirrus's efforts into bending the light, bringing the landscape beneath into crystalline, magnified focus. With the fury's aid, she could see individual legionares.
Both Legions below moved swiftly, their ranks solid and unwavering-the marks of an experienced body of troops. This was no ragged outlaw Legion, raised and trained in secret in the wild, its ranks consisting mostly of brigands and scoundrels. They must have been Kalare's regular Legions, those the city had maintained from time out of mind. Though they saw less action than the Legions of the north, they were still a well-trained, disciplined army. Mounted riders flanked the infantry in greater numbers than in most Legions, who typically maintained only two hundred and forty cavalry in a pair of auxiliary wings. There were perhaps three times that number in Kalarus's Legions, the horses all tall and strong, their riders wearing the green-and-grey livery of Kalare.
"Look!" called Lady Aquitaine. "To the north!"
Amara looked over her shoulder. Though very far away, Amara spotted another column of troops marching down toward Ceres from the foothills north of the city-the Crown Legion, coming to the city's defense. Amara noted with satisfaction that, as Gaius had promised, they were nearer Ceres than the southern Legions and would beat them to the city's walls.
Over the next few moments, the sun's golden light dimmed a shade and took on the same ruddy hue as the stars.
A disquieting sensation flickered through Amara's awareness.
She frowned and tried to focus upon it. As the sun's light changed, or perhaps as they rose higher into the air, there was a subtle shift in the patterns of wind around her. She could sense them through Cirrus as the fury became uneasy, the windstream it provided her wobbling in tiny fluctuations. The hairs on the back of her neck rose, and Amara suddenly had the distinct impression that she was being watched, that a malevolent presence was nearby and intent upon doing her harm.
She drew in closer to the coach's side, rising a bit to look over it at Lady Aquitaine. The High Lady had a frown on her face as she peered around her, one hand upon the hilt of her sword. She turned a troubled gaze on Amara. Roaring wind made conversation problematic, but Lady Aquitaine's shrug and a slight shake of her head adequately conveyed that she, too, had sensed something but did not know what it was.
Bernard leaned his head out the window of the coach, his expression concerned. Amara dropped closer, flying beside the coach closely enough to hear him. "What's wrong?"
"I'm not sure."
"That woman of Aldrick's is having some kind of seizure," Bernard called. "She's curled up in a ball on the floor of the coach."
Amara frowned, but just before she spoke she saw a shadow flicker across the wall of the coach. She put a hand on Bernard's face and shoved him hard, back into the coach, and used the impulse of it to roll to the right. World and sky spun end over end, and she felt an intruding windcrafting interfere with Cirrus's efforts to keep her aloft. Simultaneously, the form of an armored man in the green-and-grey colors of Kalare flew nearly straight down, sword gleaming red in the altered sunlight. The blade missed Bernard's head, and the Knight Aeris tried for a swift cut at Amara. She avoided it by darting straight up and watched the enemy Knight shoot far past them, fighting to pull out of his dive and pursue.
Amara checked around her again and saw three more armored figures half a mile above and ahead of the coach. Even as she watched, the three Knights banked, sweeping down to intercept the coach's course.
Amara called to Cirrus, and the furious winds around her let out a high-pitched whistle of alarm like the cry of a maddened hawk, to alert the others to the danger. She darted ahead of the coach, so that its bearers could see her, and flicked her hands through several quick gestures, giving orders. The bearers banked the coach to the left and put on all the speed they could muster. It leapt ahead through the eerie vermilion sky.
That done, Amara darted like a hummingbird to Lady Aquitaine 's side of the coach, flying in close enough to speak.
"We're under attack!" she said, pointing ahead and above them.
Lady Aquitaine nodded sharply. "What do I do?"
"Keep the veil up and see if you can help the coach move any faster."
"I will not be able to aid you, Countess, if all my concentration is on the veil."
"Right now there are only four of them. If every picket Knight can see us from miles away, we'll have forty on us! Keep the veil up unless they get close. They'll have salt. They'll try to injure the bearers' furies with it and force the coach down. We have to stop them from getting that close. I want you to take position above the coach."
Lady Aquitaine nodded and flitted into position. "Where will you ber"
Amara drew her sword and regarded the diving Knights grimly. "Watch for any that get past me," she shouted. Then she called to Cirrus and shot up to meet the oncoming foe, swifter than an arrow from the bow.
The oncoming Knights Aeris hesitated for a moment as she rushed them, and she exploited their mistake by pouring on all the speed at her command. Amara was arguably the fastest flier in Alera, and the advancing Knights were unprepared for the sheer velocity of her charge. She was on the foremost Knight before the man had fairly drawn his sword and stabilized his windstream to support a blow. Amara swept past the man and struck, both hands on the hilt of her blade.
She had aimed for his neck, but he ducked at the last moment and her sword struck the side of his helmet. The sturdy blade shattered under the sheer force of the blow, metal shards tumbling in the scarlet light. Amara felt an instant of painful, tingling sensation in her hands, which then immediately went numb. Her windstream fluttered dangerously, sending her into a lateral tumble, but she gritted her teeth and recovered her balance in time to see the doomed enemy Knight plummeting toward the earth, knocked lethally senseless by the blow.
The other two Knights saw their comrade's plight and rolled into a dive, their furies driving them down faster than the unconscious Knight could fall-but it would be a near thing, both to catch him and pull out of the dive in time. The coach would have valuable minutes to flee, to place more distance between it and the observers, so that Lady Aquitaines veil could hide it from sight once more.
Amara pressed her numb-tingling hands against her sides, keeping an eye on the diving Knights, and banked around to glide back to the coach. From here, she could see through the crafting Lady Aquitaine's furies held around the coach, though she could not make out many details. It was like staring at a distant object through the wavering lines of heat arising from one of Alera's causeways in high summer. If she'd been much farther away, she might not have seen the coach at all.
Amara shook her head. Though she could, if she had to, veil herself in a similar fashion, her own abilities would be pushed to their utmost to do so. Lady Aquitaine's veil was twenty times the volume, at least, and she did it while also muffling the gale that held them all aloft, as well as propelling herself. She might not have Amara's training or experience in aerial conflict, but it was a potent reminder of how capable-and dangerous-the woman truly was.
Something hit Amara from below, a sudden blow that drove the breath from her body and made her vision shrink to a tunnel of black with a vermilion sky at the far end. She'd been sinking in a shallow dive to rejoin the coach, and her own descent made the blow far more powerful than it might have been on its own.
For a second, she lost her reference to sky and earth completely, but her instincts warned her not to stop moving, and she called desperately to Cirrus for more speed, regardless of the direction in which she flew. She fought her way through the disorientation, past the pain in one thigh and the hollow-gut sensation of having her breath knocked from her, and realized that she was soaring almost straight up, bobbing and weaving drunkenly. Feathery, faint oceans of bloodred cloud surrounded them, a mere translucent haze.
Amara shot a glance over one shoulder and realized her mistake. Though she had been watching the descending pair of Knights, she had forgotten the first attacker, who had to have possessed speed to challenge Amara's own, to have ascended again so quickly.
Now he pressed hard behind her, a young man with muddy eyes and a determined jaw, now holding one of the short, heavy bows of horn and wood and steel favored by huntsmen in the rolling forests and swamps of the southern cities. He had a short, heavy arrow fitted to the string, the bow half-drawn.
She felt the air around her ripple, and knew that the knight had loosed the first shaft, and that she did not have time to evade it. Amara directed Cirrus to deflect the missile, the air between her shoulder blades suddenly as thick and hard as ice, but it struck with such force that Cirrus was unable to maintain the pace of her flight, and her speed dropped.
Which, she realized with a sudden surge of fear, had been the point of shooting at her in the first place.
The enemy Knight was upon her in an instant, the column of air that propelled him interfering with hers, and Cirrus faltered even more.
And to make things worse, that inexplicable sense of a hostile presence returned, stronger, nearer, more filled with anger and hate.
The enemy Knight shot ahead of her, above her, and his windstream abruptly vanished as he turned, an open leather sack in his hands, and hurled half a pound of rock salt directly into Amara's face.
Another whistling shriek split the air, this time agonized, and as the salt tore into the fury in a cloud of flickering blue lights, briefly outlining the form her fury took most often, that of a large and graceful destrier whose legs, tail, and mane terminated in continuous billows of mist. The fury reared and bucked in torment, and its pain slammed against Amara's consciousness, and she suddenly felt as if a thousand glowing embers had crashed into her, the sensation at once insubstantial and hideously real.
With another scream, Cirrus dispersed like a cloud before high winds, fleeing the pain of contact with the salt.
And Amara was alone.
Her windstream vanished.
She thrashed her arms and legs in panic, out of control, desperately calling upon her furycraft. She could not reach Cirrus, could not move the air, could not fly.
Above her, the enemy Knight recalled his fury and recovered his air stream, then dived down after her, fitting another arrow to his bow, and she suddenly knew that he did not mean to let her fall to her death.
He was a professional and would take no chances.
He would make sure that she was dead before she ever hit the ground.
Amara fumbled for her knife, a useless gesture, but twisting her hips to reach it sent her into an uncontrolled, tumbling spin, more severe and more terrifying than anything she had felt before.
She saw in flashes, in blurred images.
The ground waxed larger beneath her, all fields and rolling pastures in the ruddy sunlight.
The scarlet sun scowled down at her.
The enemy Knight raised his bow for the killing shot.
Then the misty scarlet haze they fell through moved.
The scarlet haze condensed into dozens of smaller, opaque, scarlet clouds. Ruddy vinelike appendages emerged from the undersides of each smaller cloud, and writhed and whipped through the air with terrifying and purposeful motion.
An eerie shriek like nothing Amara had ever heard assaulted her ears.
A dozen bloody vines shot toward her pursuer.
The enemy Knight loosed his shot. The impact of the bizarre tendrils sent the shaft wide.
The Knight screamed, one long, continuous sound of agony and terror, a young man's voice that cracked in the middle.
Dark crimson cloudbeasts surrounded him, vines ripping, tearing.
His screams stopped.
Amara's vision blurred over, the disorientation too great, and she called desperately, uselessly to Cirrus, struggling to move as she would if the fury had been there to guide her. She managed to slow the spinning, but she could do nothing else. The land below rose up, enormous, prosperous-and ready to receive her body and blood.
Cirrus was beyond her call.
She was going to die.
There was nothing she could do about it.
Amara closed her eyes, and pressed her hands against her stomach.
She didn't have the breath to whisper his name. Bernard.
And then gale winds rose up to surround her, pressing hard against her, slowing her fall. She screamed in frustration and fear at her helplessness and felt herself angling to one side, pulling out of the fall as if it had been an intentional dive.
The land rushed up and Amara came to earth in the furrowed field of a stead-holt. She managed to strike with her feet and tried to fold herself into a controlled roll to spread out her momentum. The rich, fresh earth was soft enough to slow her momentum, and after fifty feet of tumbling she fetched up to a halt at the feet of a steadholt scarecrow.
She lay on her side, dazed, confused, aching from dozens of impacts suffered during the landing, and covered with earth and mud and what might have been a bit of manure.
Lady Aquitaine alighted near her, landing neatly.
She was in time to be sprinkled with the blood of the Knight taken by the cloudbeasts. Amara had beat it to the ground.
Lady Aquitaine stared up in shock, bright beads of blood on one cheekbone and one eyelash. "Countess?" she breathed. "Are you all right?"
The coach descended as well, and Bernard all but kicked the door off its hinges in his hurry to exit and run to Amara. He knelt with her, his expression almost panicked, staring at her for a breath, then examining her for injuries.
"I managed to slow her fall," Lady Aquitaine said. "But she's been badly bruised and may have cracked some bones."
The words sounded pleasant to Amara, though she could not remember what they meant. She felt Bernard's hand on her forehead and smiled. " M all right, my lord," she murmured.
"Here, Count," Lady Aquitaine said. "Let me help you."
They fussed over her, and it felt nice.
Fear. Pain. Terror. Too much of it for one day.
Amara just wanted to rest, to sleep. Surely things would be better after she rested.
"No broken bones," Lady Aquitaine said.
"What happened up there?" Bernard asked, his voice a low growl.
Lady Aquitaine lifted her eyes to the red skies above.
Droplets of blood still fell, tiny beads of red that had once been a human being.
She frowned and murmured, perplexed, "I have no idea."