Amara thought furiously, struggling to find alternative courses of action. She forced herself to look at the situation in dispassionate, emotionless terms. No foe was invincible, no situation utterly insoluble. There had to be something they could do to at least improve their chances, and that meant that she needed to make some kind of assessment of their foe's capabilities and resources.
And at once, she saw that things might not be entirely hopeless.
True, there were scores of Knights Aeris on the way, but only twenty had been in Kalare on their regular post. The rest had returned to Kalare with their master-and that meant that they'd already been traveling, probably since before first light, which meant that they might not have the endurance for a protracted chase-particularly if they were forced to pursue through the energy-sapping lower winds.
And then another thought came to her. There had been no slowly approaching roar of such a large group of fliers coming in at low altitude. They'd clearly heard Lady Aquitaines Knights approaching minutes before they'd reached the tower. They should have heard a group with twenty times as many windcrafters coming for three or four times as long as that, before they'd actually entered the citadel. Which meant...
In fact, now that she thought about it, it could hardly have been anything else. Kalarus had most certainly not spent the previous ten or eleven days flying along the nape of the earth as Amara's party had. His presence would have been absolutely necessary with one or more of his Legions-he could not simply throw away days and days in travel. While he might be sadistic, ruthless, and inhumanly ambitious, he was not stupid.
Which meant that Kalarus and his Knights had come through the upper air in a far-more-conventional approach, after either half a day or a day and a half of travel. The former would give him time to fly from Ceres back to Kalare-the latter would be about right for him to be returning from the forces put in place to stymie Lord Parcia's Legions.
And if Kalarus could carry groups through the upper air when the rest of the Realm was grounded by the Canim's unnatural cloud cover, it would give him an enormous advantage in the campaign.
It also meant, she realized with a cold ripple of nausea, that it likely meant that if he had overcome the Canim's interdiction of the upper air when even Gaius could not, it was because Kalarus was meant to be able to do so. It meant coordination with the most bitter foe of the whole Realm.
Kalarus had made a bargain with the Canim.
The fool. Could he possibly have found a better way to declare to Alera's enemies that she was vulnerable to attack? Or a way more certain to alienate him from any of Alera's Citizenry who might otherwise remain neutral?
Not that their lack of neutrality would be of any use to Amara. She and the rest of her company would be long dead by then if Kalarus truly could use the upper air while their party was reduced to low-level flight.
But flight at the upper levels would be both totally concealed and totally blind. Kalarus could no more easily see through the clouds than anyone else. Though he might be able to travel farther, faster, leaping ahead of them if they pulled away, all they would have to do to confound such a leapfrog pursuit would be to alter their course.
A sprint, then, was their best option-a straight bid to outpace the pursuing Knights Aeris, who were bound to be weary after their travel. That should at the very least thin out the numbers of their pursuers. And it was not impossible that the High Ladies might, between them, make it more difficult for their pursuers to continue the chase. Ladies Placida and Aquitaine were already weary from their efforts, true-but then, so was Kalarus.
Amara nodded once, decided. She idly noted that bare seconds had passed since she'd first spotted the pursuit, but she felt sure her reasoning was sound. They might even have a real chance of escape.
She sideslipped into view of the coach's bearers and signaled for them to flee at their best speed. The flight leader signaled in the affirmative, and the winds rose as he passed signals to his men, and they gathered their furies and ran for it. Amara nodded once at them, and darted down to fly beside the coach's window.
"We're under pursuit!" she called. "Kalarus and four- to fivescore Knights Aeris. But his escort has to be tired if they flew in today. We're going to try to outpace them."
"The coach is overloaded!" Aldrick shouted back. "The men can't hold a hard pace for long!"
"Your Graces/' Amara called to Ladies Placida and Aquitaine. "I hope you might be able to help our fliers or discourage our pursuers somewhat? If we're able to outrun them, we might not have to fight."
Lady Aquitaine gave Amara a cool little smile. Then she glanced at Lady Placida, and said, "I think I'm more of a mind to discourage Kalarus and company."
"As you wish," Lady Placida said, with a bleak nod, supporting the wilting form of Rook. Then she leaned across the coach and offered Amara the hilt of the longer blade she'd carried with her from Kalarus's tower chamber. "In case you're of a similar mind to Lady Aquitaine, Countess."
Amara took the sword with a nod of thanks and traded a look with Bernard. Then she flicked over to the other side of the coach, long enough to lean her face in the window and press her mouth to his.
"My turn, " she breathed.
"Careful," he said, voice rough.
She kissed him again, hard, then called to Cirrus and rose above the coach, sword in hand.
What followed was little different than any other day of flying-except for the small details. The wind sang and shrieked all around them. The landscape rolled by, hundreds of feet below, so slowly that one would be led to believe that they hardly moved at all.
Little things gave the lie to the routine appearance. The coach swayed and shimmied as the bearers took advantage of the flowing winds, cutting to one side or another, jockeying up or down by several feet, eking every extra bit of speed they could from their efforts. Amara felt the winds shifting around her, sometimes easing Cirrus's labor, sometimes making it fractionally more difficult, as wills and talents greater than her own contended for the sky. Lady Placida's skill certainly gave them more speed with less effort than they would have otherwise had, but Amara felt sure that Kalarus's furies struggled against them-and so close to the heart of his domain, he would have an enormous advantage against strangers to it.
Lady Aquitaine's power was a sullen whisper that fled swiftly past Amara and the other Knights Aeris, interfering with the windstreams of the pursuing Knights, degrading their efforts, forcing them to work harder to maintain the pace. Within moments, Amara saw the first overwearied Knight suddenly descend, exhausted past the ability to continue pursuit. Others fell by the wayside as the miles rolled by, but not swiftly, and not in the numbers Amara had hoped for.
Worst of all was one last small, simple detail.
Kalarus and his Knights were slowly, surely closing the distance.
The coach's bearers saw it as well, but there was little they could do about it, regardless of how unnerving it was to watch happen. Amara drove them relentlessly, repeatedly answering their frantic signals with orders to continue on their course with all possible speed, and over the course of the next hour she was rewarded for it with the sight of another twenty-six enemy Knights dropping out of the pursuit.
Some instinct warned her to keep an eye on the skies above them, and as the enemy Knights closed to within perhaps fifty yards, she saw a stirring in the heavy grey clouds above them, strands of mist drawn down into swirling spirals, pulled out of place as if by the passage of more Knights Aeris, though none were visible.
She realized what she was seeing at the last second, and screamed a frantic signal to the bearers. Only those on the left side of the coach saw her, but they realized what her panicked gestures meant, and they twisted in their harnesses, throwing the whole power of their furies in against the coach. Their efforts pushed the coach sharply to one side, and the loss of lift sent them into a steep and sudden descent, as the men on the far side of the coach struggled to prevent the coach from sliding into a deadly spin.
Amara rolled to the other side only a second before she saw through the wavering form of a rapidly approaching veil, and saw five figures flying in a classic V-shaped attack formation dive down between her and the evading coach. She saw the gleaming collars on the throats of the Knights Aeris-more of those crowbegotten Immortal madmen, she thought-then she met gazes with High Lord Kalarus himself. His already-thin features were stretched to vulpine proportions by strain, desperate ambition, and rage, and his eyes burned with pure hatred as he swept past, his diving attack foiled by Amara's warning.
But though Kalarus's attack had been hidden by the veil he'd crafted over it until almost too late, it had succeeded in one sense. The coach had been slowed, and the swiftest Knights Aeris behind the coach swept down on it, swords gleaming.
Amara sliced through the air down to the Knights Aeris, and shouted, "Lower! As close to the ground as you can!" The frantically weary men responded at once, the dive giving them enough speed to stay ahead of their attackers for a few more moments, while Amara maneuvered, rolling out widely to one side-then abruptly reversing the motion with every ounce of speed Cirrus could bring her, slicing into the wake of those Knights nearest the coach, who in their excited rush had drawn just a bit too far ahead of their comrades.
Amara didn't even attempt to use her sword. Instead, she ground her teeth and angled her arms, wrists turned in such a way to set her spinning in a tight, corkscrewing circle. Then she cried out to Cirrus and poured on the speed, rushing up on the wearied Knight's backs.
Amara's windstream, by the time she blew past them, was a swirling vortex set on its side to their plane of movement, and scattered the half dozen Knights Aeris like dry leaves before an autumn gale. The tactic was hardly an original one, and every Knight Aeris had gone through a great deal of training that would enable him to recover from a windstream suddenly disrupted in such a fashion. However, that training had never been intended to counter the tactic while flying only ten or fifteen feet above the treetops, while High Lords and Ladies battled for influence of the broader winds, at the ends of exhausting chases that had already whittled their numbers down to less than half of their original company.
The near-exhausted Knights Aeris would have recovered and flown on within a handful of seconds.
But Amara had not left them that much time.
Men tumbled wildly out of her wake. She heard a sickly-sharp crunching sound as one of them slammed bodily into the solid trunk of a particularly tall oak. Of the other five, four of them dropped down into the branches, and even the fragile uppermost parts of the trees spun and tumbled them, given how swiftly they were flying when they struck. If they avoided solid impacts with the central trunks of the trees, they might survive the fall, so long as they were very, very lucky.
The last of the Knights Aeris, like Amara, found himself thrown a bit higher by the collision of wildly contradicting windstreams-but he was still slower to recover his equilibrium than the Cursor. By the time he had, Amara streaked across his flight path again, blade striking down at his back. The blade was a fine one, and links of shattered mail flew up from the blow. The wound she inflicted wasn't deep-but the shock and pain were enough to distract the Knight, and he joined his companions in vanishing through the branches of the waiting forest and disappearing from sight.
Her eyes lingered on the spot in the trees where the men had gone down, just for a moment. She couldn't feel it now, remorse and nausea and a hypocritical empathy for the men she'd maimed and killed. She refused to. But she'd just murdered six men. Granted, it was in service to the Realm and in self-defense-but it hadn't even been a fight. As tired as they'd been, they could not possibly have survived the vortex a fury as powerful as Cirrus had thrown into them, except by accident, as the last man had. Even he had never seen her sword coming. It was one thing to kill an enemy in battle, but it hadn't been one. Not really. It was an execution.
It was frightening. Frightening that she could make herself do such a thing, and even more frightening because she knew that if she made a similar mistake, she could be killed just as easily. There was at least one windcrafter among their enemies who could swat her from the skies just as ably as she had the wearied Knights. She was every bit as vulnerable, as mortal, as they were-more so, in fact, given that all she wore was the ridiculously brief red silk tunic. Should she tumble into the trees, at her rate of speed, totally unarmored, she would be crushed and slashed to ribbons all at the same time.
Crows, as it was, thanks to her costume, she was going to be windburned and chapped in places human beings rarely suffered such things. Assuming she managed to survive at all.
Amara jerked her eyes from the trees and pulled her thoughts back into focus, back to her duty. She looked up to find that the coach had managed to draw a bit away from her, and checking around her revealed that a dozen vengeful brothers of the Knights she had downed were closing on her, using the speed gained from their own dive to bring her within reach of their charge.
Amara waited until they were nearly on top of her, banked to one side, then shot upward with all the speed she could muster, hoping to draw them all into a climb-in their condition, the effort might prove too taxing for them to sustain and take them from the chase entirely.
It didn't work out the way Amara had hoped it would. These knights were flying in tight, triangular wings of three men each-a formation that was difficult to maintain without long practice in cooperative flying effort. While the lead man would find it no easier to fly, those on his flanks had a much steadier and more easily maintained windstream. The net result was a formation that let two men effectively rest while the third did the lion's share of the work, cycling through with each of the three taking turns in the lead. It was excellent for longdistance flight, and a sign that these men knew their trade.
The faster Knights she'd cast from the sky must have been younger, less experienced, probably some of the Knights who had been left behind in Kalare when Lord Kalarus began his campaign. These men, though, were clearly veterans. One wing followed her with patient caution, close enough to make her work to stay ahead of them, but clearly not attempting to overrun her. Another wing began a slow, shallow climb, while the others swept out to her flanks and shot ahead.
She was in trouble, and she knew it. The enemy Knights Aeris were employing the patient, ruthless tactics of a wolf pack. The slowly climbing wing would eventually rise to whatever altitude she did, though without spending nearly so much effort. The nearest group would stay on her heels and force her to keep maneuvering, taxing her own endurance while the enemy switched out with relatively rested Knights always ready to step into the lead. The two wings on the flanks would keep her boxed in, until either she faltered and was taken down by the immediate pursuers, or until the higher-flying wing could be in a position to dive and overtake her, probably in order to fling salt at Cirrus and send her tumbling to her death far below.
She had drawn off a considerable portion of the remaining Knights Aeris, at least. But while they were running her down, Kalarus and his Immortals would assault the coach.
Amara ground her teeth, struggling to think of what else she could do. Scarlet lightning rolled through the clouds overhead, and the thunder that followed shook against her stomach and chest and pressed painfully on her ears. Amara suddenly stared up at the clouds.
"Oh," she told herself out loud. "That is an awful idea." She took a deep breath. "Though I suppose I'm not wildly spoiled for choice."
She decided, nodding firmly.
Then she called to Cirrus again and shot up into the rumbling thunder and blood-colored lightning of the Canim storm clouds.