Amara tried to smile at the little girl and held out her arms to her.
"Masha," Rook said quietly. "This is Countess Amara. She's going to take you out of here."
The little girl frowned and clung more tightly to Rook. "But I wanna leave with you this time."
Rook blinked her eyes rapidly for a few seconds, then said, "We are leaving this time, baby. I'll meet you outside."
"No," the little girl said, and clung tighter.
"But don't you want to go flying with Amara?"
The little girl looked up. "Flying?"
"I'll meet you on the roof."
"And then we leave and get ponies?" Masha asked.
Rook smiled and nodded. "Yes."
Masha beamed at her mother and didn't object as Rook lifted her to Amara's back. The little girl wrapped her legs around Amara's waist and her arms around Amara's throat. "All right, Masha," she said, tensing her throat muscles against the child's grip. "Hold on tight."
Rook turned to the great bed and tore off a quilted silk sheet large enough to serve as a pavilion. She hurried to one of the large wardrobes, flicked a corner of the sheet around one of its legs, and tied it with brisk, efficient motions. "Ready."
"Your Grace?" Amara asked. "Are you ready?"
Lady Placida looked up, her face blank and remote with concentration. She knelt on the floor facing the opposite wall, her hands folded calmly into her lap. At Amara's words, she shifted her stance into something resembling a sprinter's crouch, and said, "I am."
Amara's heart began to race, and she felt her legs trembling with incipient panic. She looked up at the four gargoyles on their perches, then walked across the room to stand beside Rook against one wall. She focused her eyes on the center of the ceiling, where she would be able to see any of the gargoyles when they began to move. "Very well," she said quietly. "Begin."
Lady Placida focused her defiant eyes on the opposite wall and growled, "Lithia!"
Lady Placida growled, raising a clenched fist, and cried, "Lithia!"
And at that, the floor of the chamber heaved and bucked, and the stone formed into the shape of a horse, head and shoulders rising from the ground as it rushed at the opposite wall.
Simultaneously, Amara called out to Cirrus. Locked in the stone room as they were, she was far from the open air the fury loved, and Cirrus responded to her call sluggishly, weakly. She had expected nothing more-for the moment-and simply drew upon the fury's native swiftness to quicken her own movements.
So when the four gargoyles simultaneously exploded into abrupt life, she saw the sudden reaction abruptly slow, as her own senses became distorted through her communion with her fury.
The gargoyles opened their eyes, revealing glittering green emeralds that glinted with their own faint light. Shaped into the rough form of lions, their heads were a monstrous mix of a man, a lion, and a bear. Sharp horns curled out from the sides of their broad heads, pointing directly forward from their eyes in deadly prongs, and their forefeet bore oversized talons like those of a bird of prey.
As Kalarus had warned Lady Placida, the gargoyles focused immediately upon the child.
Amara saw the gargoyle nearest her as it leapt from its perch, drifting down toward her like a falling leaf. She pushed off from the wall, dancing away from its pounce, and felt the floor shudder at the impact, then heard an enormous booming sound from somewhere behind her.
Masha wailed as her grip on Amara's neck began to slip. As tightly as the little girl clung, Amara's speed of reaction had nearly pulled her clear of the child entirely. She seized one of Masha's arms with one hand, a leg with the other, and had to reverse her momentum as the second gargoyle slammed to the floor across the chamber and flung itself at her.
She only just evaded it, dived, and fell to the floor rolling as the third earth fury leapt at her and passed through the space her head had occupied an instant before. She came to her feet a beat more slowly than she should have. The child on her back had altered her center of gravity, forcing her to struggle to keep her movements balanced and fluid. She leapt up onto the bed, bounced once to cross it, and ripped down the bed's canopy, dropping the heavy drapes over the head of the fourth gargoyle as she leapt away from its pursuit.
But her opponents seemed to be moving more and more quickly, and pure terror rolled through Amara as she realized that Cirrus, enclosed in stone as he was, had begun to falter. She only had seconds.
Then Lady Placida cried out again, and Amara whipped her head around in time to see the High Lady's earth fury smash into the outer wall of the tower. Stone shattered and screamed its torment, and the earth fury ripped a hole the size of a legionare's shield in the hardened siege-stone of the citadel's outer wall.
Panic gave way to exaltation as Amara felt Cirrus abruptly strengthen again, and she bounded forward, planted a sandaled foot on the head of one of the lunging gargoyles, and leapt for the opening. She flung herself through it just as Lady Placida seized her heavy chain in one hand, and pulled it from the wall with a single contemptuous jerk, taking a block of stone the size of a man's head with it.
Masha screamed again as they plummeted, and Amara called desperately to Cirrus. It was a race against gravity. Though the fury could support her and Masha without difficulty, it took precious time to establish a windstream, and the fall from the tower was not a long one.
Unless, of course, she should fail to arrest their descent, in which case it would be more than long enough.
The wind suddenly howled around her, eerily like the defiant scream of a warhorse, and the cloudy, nebulous equine shape became visible around her as Cirrus turned the fall into a forward-rushing glide no more than two feet above the ground. Amara altered course, using her momentum to slingshot herself into a vertical climb.
As she did, the little girl's scream of terror became one of excitement and exhilaration, which Amara could hardly fault her for feeling. But she also knew that it was a near certainty that Kalarus's citadel was protected by a miniature legion of wind furies whose only purpose would be to interfere with the flight of unwelcome windcrafters. Cirrus could probably bull through them, at least for the moment, but Amara knew that it was only a matter of time before she would be driven from the air.
She turned anxious eyes up at the tower, and saw Rook come sliding feet-first out of the hole in the wall. She shot off the edge. For a second, Amara thought she would fall. Instead, the former bloodcrow held a double handful of the silk sheets she'd tied to the wardrobe. Rook turned as she fell and swung toward the wall, absorbing the shock with her feet and legs with the skill of an experienced mountain climber.
Now that Rook was out of the chamber, Lady Placida was free to deal with the gargoyles without harming her allies. Horrible crashing sounds and billows of dust came from Kalarus's upper chamber. More alarm bells began to ring. Amara heard screams from within the tower, terrible, terrible sounds of men and women in mortal agony, and she realized with horror that the tower must have held many more gargoyles than the four in the bedchamber. She heard someone blowing a signal horn, the notes crisply precise-the Immortals, she supposed, immediately reacting to the alarm and organizing their efforts.
Amara shot back up to the chamber, hovering at a distance she hoped was out of the leaping distance of any of the gargoyles. "Lady Placida!"
Ten feet down the wall from the first hole, the stone exploded outward again, this time creating a much larger opening, and one of the gargoyles flew out with the debris. It fell, thrashing wildly, all the way down to the ground below, where it shattered into shards and pebbles.
Amara jerked her head back up again just in time to see one of the gargoyles leap to the first opening in the wall, green eyes glinting, and crouch to fling itself at Masha.
Amara bobbed to one side in an effort to evade the gargoyle's pounce-but before the fury could attack, an enormous block of stone attached to a heavy chain slammed into its posterior, flinging it out of the tower to fall to the stones and share the fate of its companion.
Lady Placida appeared in the opening, the chain still attached to her collar. She held it about two feet above the section of stone attached to its end, as if it were a flail. She gave Amara a curt nod, set the heavy stone down, and snapped the chain with all the effort a seamstress might use to snap thread. "Done! Get to the roof!"
"See you there!" Amara shouted. She soared upward while Lady Placida drew Rook back up into the bedchamber. Amara heard another crash a moment later, presumably the sound of bedchamber's locked door being smashed down, and she landed on the roof of the citadel, eyes searching for the presence of any further gargoyles or guards, but the roof was devoid of them-at least for the moment.
The tower's roof was quite plain, its surface broken only by two distinct features. The first was a square opening in the floor in its center, where stairs led down into the tower. Amara heard steel ringing on steel inside the opening.
Not far from the stairway down was Kalarus's aviary-a simple dome of steel bars perhaps five feet across and only waist high to Amara. Inside it was a young woman who could not have been more than fifteen or sixteen years old. Like Lady Placida, she wore nothing more than a white muslin underdress, and her dark hair was straight and listless in the heat and humidity atop the tower. There were blankets strewn about on one side of the cage, the subject of the letter she and Rook had found, no doubt.
The girl crouched in the center of the cage, eyes wide-and Amara was somewhat startled by her resemblance to Gaius Caria, the First Lord's second, quasi-estranged wife; though this child did not have the sense of bitter petulance to her features that Amara had generally seen in Caria's. The girl stared at her with a mixed expression of despair, worry, and confusion.
"Atticus Minora? " Amara asked quietly.
"Call me E-Elania," the girl said. "W-who are you?"
"Amara ex Cursori," Amara said, simultaneously holding a finger to her lips, urging the girl to silence. "I'm here to take you from this place."
"Thank the furies," the girl breathed, keeping her voice down. "Lady Placida is inside. I don't know where."
"I know, " Amara said.
The clash of steel nearby was suddenly drowned out by an enormous hissing sound, and Amara turned her head to see the head and shoulders of an armored Immortal emerge from the hole in the floor, still facing down the stairs. But before he could emerge fully, there was another chorus of hissing sounds, and what Amara could only describe as white-hot raindrops shot up from the tower's interior in a cloud that pierced the doomed Immortal soldier wherever they struck his armored body, streaking through him as easily as needles piercing cloth, leaving small, glowing holes in the steel of his armor. The man staggered, but grimly kept his feet, thrusting his blade down at someone below him.
A woman's voice rang out in an imperious tone, then a second swarm of streaking firedrops flashed through the doomed Immortal. This time, the attack left half a dozen red-hot holes in his helmet, and the man fell.
"Hurry!" called Lady Aquitaine 's voice. Aldrick emerged from the stairway first, hard-eyed gaze sweeping the tower's roof. His eyes widened a bit at the sight of Amara, and the Cursor found herself unconsciously tugging down the hem of her tunic.
"Move!" insisted Lady Aquitaine. "Kalarus is about to-"
Then Amara heard a man speak in an impossibly loud, roaring voice that literally shook the stones of the tower beneath her feet.
"No man makes a fool of me in my own house!" boomed the fury-enhanced voice.
Then a woman's voice answered, every bit as loud, nowhere near so melodramatic, and drily amused. "While the rest of us hardly need try. Tell me, Brencis," Lady Placida taunted. "Do you still have that little problem bedding women, the way you did in the Academy?"
Kalarus's answer was a roar of pure rage that shook the tower, raising dust in a choking cloud.
"Move, move!" Lady Aquitaine shouted from below, then Odiana appeared, shoving frantically at Aldrick's back. The big swordsman stumbled onto the roof, while Odiana and Lady Aquitaine hurried frantically up the stairs, diving to either side of the opening.
Less than a second later, a titanic roar shook the tower again, and a column of white-hot fire exploded from the tower below, roaring up from the stones and rising for hundreds of feet into the sky above Kalare. The air turned hot and dry in an instant, and Amara had to throw her arms across her face to shield her eyes from the blinding light of the flame Kalarus had crafted into being.
The fire passed swiftly, though the bloom of heat from so much flame had parched the air and left several of the bars in the domed cage glowing with sullen fire. Amara looked up at Odiana, Aldrick, and Lady Aquitaine. "Bernard?" she cried, hearing her own voice shaking with panic. "Where is he? Bernard?"
"No time!" Odiana spat.
Lady Aquitaine pointed at the cage. "Aldrick."
The big swordsman crossed to the cage, set his feet, and swung his blade in three swift strokes. Sparks rose from the steel bars, and Aldrick stepped back. A beat later, a dozen sections of iron bar fell to the stones with a metallic clatter, their ends glowing with the heat of parting, leaving an entire triangular section of the dome-shaped cage missing.
Aldrick extended his hand politely to Atticus Elania, and said, "This way, lady, if you please."
Lady Aquitaine gave the girl a narrow look, then turned to Odiana, and said, voice sharp, "Fire crystals."
Odiana's hand dipped into the low neckline of her slave's tunic and she tore at the lining, one hand cupped. She caught something as it tumbled from the neckline and passed it to Lady Aquitaine-three small crystals, two scarlet and one black, glittered in the palm of her hand. "Here, Your Grace," Odiana said. "They are ready."
Lady Aquitaine snatched them from Odiana's hand, muttered something under her breath, and cast them down onto the far side of the tower's roof, where they promptly began to billow with smoke-two plumes of brilliant scarlet and one of deepest black, the colors of Aquitaine.
"Wh-what's happening?" Elania asked, her voice shaking.
"The smoke is a signal," Aldrick told the girl, his tone briskly polite. "Our coach should be here in a moment."
"Lady Aquitaine!" Amara snapped. After pausing a deliberate beat, the High Lady turned to Amara, one eyebrow raised. "Yes, Countess?"
"Where is Bernard?"
Lady Aquitaine gave an elegant shrug. "I've no idea, dear. Aldrick?"
"He was holding the stairs below us," Aldrick said, his tone short. "I didn't see what happened to him."
"He couldn't possibly have survived that firestorm," Lady Aquitaine said, her voice practical and dismissive.
The words drew a spike of anger such as Amara had never felt before, and she found herself standing with her hands clenched into fists, her jaws clenched while tiny spangles of light danced in her vision. Her first instinct was to hurl herself bodily at Lady Aquitaine, but at the last instant, she remembered the child still clinging to her back, and she forced herself to stand in place. Amara took a second to control her voice, so that it would not come out as an incoherent snarl. "You don't know that."
"You saw it," Lady Aquitaine said. "You were there, just as I was."
"My lady," Odiana said, her voice hesitant, even cringing.
"Here they come," Aldrick called, and Amara looked up to see their Knights Aeris arrowing swiftly for the top of the tower, bearing the coach between them.
Lady Aquitaine glared back at Amara. Then she closed her eyes for a moment, lips pressed together, shook her head tightly, and said, "It doesn't matter at this point, Countess. With the alarm raised, we must leave immediately if we are to leave at all." She glanced at Amara, and added, in a quieter tone, "I'm sorry, Countess. Anyone left behind is on his own."
"It's so nice to feel cared for," called Lady Placida. She padded up the stairs, still holding her chain and stone in one hand. Her white muslin undergown showed half a dozen rips and any number of scorch marks. Her right hand was raised, bent at the elbow and wrist, and a small falcon of pure fire rested upon her wrist like a tiny, winged sun.
"Given how fashionably late you generally are, Invidia," she said, "I would expect you to have more tolerance for others."
She hurried onto the roof, turning immediately to offer a hand down to Rook. The young spy looked disoriented, her balance unsteady, and if Lady Placida hadn't been helping her when her balance wavered, Rook would have fallen.
Amara felt her heart stop for a single, terrible, seemingly eternal moment, then Bernard came up behind Rook, his bow in hand, his face pale and nauseated. He had one hand on the small of the spy's back and was pushing her up more or less by main strength. Relief flooded through her, and she clasped her hands tightly together and bowed her head until she could blink sudden tears from her eyes. "What happened?"
"Kalarus tried to burn us out," Bernard said, his voice hoarse. "Lady Placida countered him. Sheltered us from the flame, then sealed the stairway in stone. '
"He meant to say, 'Lady Placida and I' sealed the stairway in stone," Lady Placida said firmly. "Though your friend there was struck on the head by some debris. I've exhausted myself, and it won't take Kalarus long to open a passage through the stone we put in his way. Best we hurry."
No sooner had she spoken than the wind rose to the familiar roar of a shared windstream, and Lady Aquitaines mercenary Knights Aeris swept down and landed heavily, clumsily on the roof, the coach slamming down onto the stone.
Amara reached out to Cirrus, preparing to raise a windstream of her own, and found that her connection to the fury had grown fainter, more tenuous. She swore and shouted, "Hurry! I think Kalarus has his wind furies interfering with ours to prevent our escape!"
"Just be thankful that doing it is keeping him downstairs," Lady Aquitaine said. "I'll try to counter him until we can get farther away. Into the coach!" She flung herself inside, followed by Odiana, Aldrick, and Atticus Elania.
While Bernard covered the doorway with his bow, Amara shrugged the bewildered child from her shoulders and into Lady Placida's arms. She helped the dazed Rook into the coach, which was rapidly growing quite crowded. Then another tremble in the stone beneath her feet made her look up and around in time to see two gargoyles, much like those Lady Placida had dispatched, as they clawed their way up the outside of the tower, talons sinking into stone as if it was mud, and over its battlements.
"Bernard!" Amara screamed, pointing.
Her husband spun, drawing the bowstring to his cheek as he did, and let an arrow fly at the nearest gargoyle out of sheer reflex.
Amara thought the shot would be utterly ineffective, given that the gargoyles were made of stone and that the wind the Knights Aeris were summoning would have made such things impossible for all but the best of archers.
But Bernard was one of the best, and Amara had reckoned without the deadly combination of an earthcrafter's superhuman strength working together with the sheer, deadly expertise of a woodcrafting archer. Bernard was fully powerful and skilled enough to have qualified as a Knight Terra or Flora in any Legion in the Realm, and his war bow was one of the weapons borne by the hunters and holders of Alera's northernmost reaches-a weapon designed to put down predators that outweighed the holders by hundreds of pounds and powerful enough to punch through breastplates of Aleran steel. Too, Bernard was using a heavy, stiletto-headed arrow, one designed for piercing armor, and the experienced earthcrafter knew stone as few other Alerans could ever understand it.
All of which combined to mean that, as a rule, when the Count of Calderon released an arrow at the target, he expected it to go down. The fact that his target was living stone rather than soft flesh was only a minor detail-and certainly did not qualify as an exception to the rule.
Bernard's first arrow struck the nearest gargoyle just to the left of the center of its chest. There was an enormous cracking sound, a shower of white sparks, and a network of fine cracks spread over the gargoyle's stone chest. It leapt from the battlements to the towers roof-and fell into half a dozen still-thrashing pieces upon impact.
Before the first gargoyle fell, Bernard had drawn again, and his second arrow shattered the left forelimb of the second gargoyle, sending it into a sprawl on its side. Another arrow cracked into the gargoyle's head as it tried to rise a beat later, and the impact sheared off a quarter of the gargoyle's misshapen head, knocking it down again and evidently disorienting it as it tried to scramble upright again with futile energy.
Bernard leapt for the coach just as the windcrafters began to lift off. He caught the running board along its side with one hand, slung his bow over his neck, and used both hands to struggle to pull himself up as the coach rose away from Kalare, steadily gathering speed.
Amara called to Cirrus and found the fury more responsive, if still more sluggish than normal, presumably thanks to Lady Aquitaine countercrafting against Kalarus's wind furies. She soared up to the coach, landed with her feet on the running board, twined her left arm through the coach window, and reached down to Bernard with her right.
Her husband looked up, glanced at all the leg she was showing in her scarlet slave tunic, and leered cheerfully at her as he grasped her hand. She found herself both laughing and blushing-again-as she helped him up to the running board, then into the coach.
"Are you all right?" he shouted to her.
"No!" she called back. "You scared me to death!"
He burst out into a rolling laugh, and Amara stepped off the coach's running board and into Cirrus's embrace, stabilizing herself before darting ahead of the coach and slightly above. She looked back over her shoulder, cursing that she hadn't been able to braid her hair for the disguise, and hadn't thought to bring along something to tie it back with. Now it whipped around her face wildly, in her eyes whenever it wasn't in her mouth, and it took her a moment to get enough of it out of the way to see behind them.
She almost wished she hadn't done it.
The gleaming figures of Knights Aeris were rising from Kalare. Rook had warned them of the twenty or so who had remained in the city's garrison. Amara looked at the four mercenary Knights Aeris struggling to keep the overloaded coach in the air. They did not have the speed to evade a pursuit, and the terrain below them offered them few opportunities to play hide-and-seek with Kalarus's forces. Without being able to rise to the higher winds, they could not use the clouds as cover, the other favored tactic for evading airborne pursuit, and the only one their slower group might have successfully employed.
Which meant, Amara thought, that they would have to fight.
It was not a ridiculous prospect for them to fend off a score of enemy Knights or so-not with Amara and no less than two High Ladies of Alera there.
But as Amara watched, more Knights Aeris rose from the city. Twenty more. Forty. Sixty. And still more.
With a sinking heart, Amara realized that when Kalarus returned to his citadel, he must have come by air-and that he must have brought his personal escorts, the most capable and experienced of his Knights Aeris.
Against twenty Knights, they would have had a chance. But against five times that number-and, she felt certain, Kalarus himself...
Her throat went dry as she signaled the coach's bearers that they were being pursued.