Amara plunged into the fine mist and found it shockingly cold. She had flown through cloud cover before, of course, but never while wearing so little. The lands below were as uncomfortably sultry as anywhere in the Realm, this time of the year, but the sun seemed to have denied the unnatural clouds its warmth, somehow bypassing them to reach the land below. She could see no more than a few dozen yards in the mist, and at the speed she was flying she might as well have been blind.
Which did not bode well considering what dwelt in the sorcerous clouds.
Amara began to tremble, and she did not bother trying to tell herself it was because of the change in temperature.
It was eerily quiet for a time, with only the constant rush of wind to drown out her swift, panting breaths. And then she heard high-pitched, thready sounds, something like the howl of one of the small desert wolves of the dry mountains east of Parcia. The cries were immediately echoed from every direction, and though Amara could not see the creatures that voiced them, they grew swiftly louder and nearer.
She saw a flicker of motion in the corner of her eye and instantly changed course, banking into a slewing turn that sent the mist to swirling. Something tangible brushed against her hip, and she felt a sudden, sharp burn like the sting of red ants. Then she began to emerge from the mist, to find all four wings of Knights Aeris who pursued her cruising along the underside of the clouds, strung out in a search line-and coming straight at her.
Once more, Amara poured on the speed, even as the mist behind her suddenly exploded with howls and motion. The tentacle-waving horrors the Canim had placed in the mist rushed after her. The Knights Aeris saw them coming and struggled to evade the nightmarish mass-but again, Amara had timed things too well, and there was nothing they could do as they plunged into a forest of burning, writhing vines.
Men screamed, and died, and suddenly there was no one pursuing her.
Her heart pounded with terror and exaltation that she had survived-and at the same time, she fought down a nauseating shame and loathing of the death and pain she'd been responsible for. Some of the Knights might fight through the creatures, but none who did would be in any condition to pursue the coach. They were, if not dead, certainly out of the chase.
Amara dived and swept back toward the still-fleeing coach with all the speed she could muster, and found it under attack.
More Knights Aeris must have dropped out of the race, and perhaps a dozen of them had closed the distance and reached the coach. Flying above and ahead of the coach was a five-man wing-Lord Kalarus and his Immortals. Amara could not see why they hadn't attacked and downed the coach already. They appeared to be waiting for an opening of some kind.
Half a dozen Knights swept in on either side of the coach, below the level of its occupants, to strike at the bearers. Someone must have shouted a warning, because the coach abruptly dropped perhaps six feet and veered to one side, almost directly into the attackers on that flank.
The Knights Aeris dived in to thrust spears through the coach windows, but the coach's door suddenly flew open, and Aldrick ex Gladius appeared in the door, legs bent, one hand hanging on to something inside the coach, his long blade in the other. A pair of swift cuts shattered two spears, inflicted a wound on one Knights thigh that erupted in a deadly fountain of blood, and opened a long slash on a second Knights scalp, so that blood flew into his face and eyes and fanned out into a mist behind him.
Lady Aquitaine slipped up beneath Aldrick's arm and raised a hand in an imperious gesture. Wisps of white cloud gathered at her fingertips roiling like a miniature thunderstorm, then she hurled it out and away from her, where it expanded into an enormous bank of nearly opaque mist. From her position above and behind them, Amara saw the coach juke to one side and the other again, and the attacking Knights Aeris had to break off, blinded and unable to support one another-not to mention the fact that if they made a mistake or simply got unlucky, they might be slammed by the full weight of the dodging coach, an event likely to prove gruesomely fatal so close to the treetops below.
Then that explained it. Kalarus knew Lady Aquitaine was there, and employing only minor uses of watercrafting, saving her strength for when he, personally, assaulted the coach. Kalarus was hardly a courageous soul, spending his Knights' lives in an effort to tire-or if they were lucky, perhaps even wound or kill-Lady Aquitaine. But the tactic would give him the maximum advantage he could possibly attain in this situation, and he was playing it ruthlessly. Amara could tell just by watching the bearers at work that they were beginning to falter. Dodging and maneuvering with that much weight was exhausting them.
The enemy Knights were waiting when the coach soared out of Lady Aquitaine's cloud bank, and they immediately pressed the attack again. This time, they were ready when they closed to one side and the coach door slammed open, and as Aldrick struck at one Knight, a second's arm blurred in a furycrafted speed, hurling his spear at the big swordsman.
Aldrick's arm swept into a perfect parry-perhaps a tenth of a second too late, and the downward-cast spear drove into his right thigh and out the back of his leg.
The swordsman faltered and nearly fell, and though Amara knew that Aldrick could, at need, simply ignore pain great enough to drive a strong man unconscious, that talent would not serve to make his leg function and support weight if it had been damaged. Lady Aquitaine seized him by the collar and hauled him back into the coach, and the Knights Aeris swarmed in closer, spears and swords ready to strike.
One reeled back and fell, spinning wildly out of control as he vanished into the trees, perhaps struck by a blow or weapon. Another got too close, was hauled head-and-shoulders deep into the coach, then dropped like a stone, head lolling loosely on a broken neck. Another explosion of white mist hid everything from Amara, but she could hear cries and shouts as the enemy Knights stayed close, pressing the attack instead of withdrawing.
Kalarus led his wing a bit closer to the action and drew his sword with an anticipatory-seeming motion akin to a wolf licking its chops. He gestured with the sword, focused entirely on the coach, shouting to his escorts and...
... and, Amara realized, utterly failing to notice her presence.
Amara's mouth went completely dry, and for a second she thought her hands would lose their grip on her sword. Kalarus Brencis, High Lord of Kalare. One of the titans of furycraft, a man who had worn Ladies Placida and Aquitaine near to exhaustion, who had assaulted them and maintained a battle for control of the skies while holding up a veil, keeping himself aloft, and coordinating his men's attack. Reputed to be a swordsman of the highest caliber, his talent for firecrafting had once snuffed out an entire forest fire when a range of his expensive, exported hardwoods had nearly been consumed. Further stories claimed that he had once slain a leviathan that had haunted his coastline outright, and he wielded power and authority with consummate, calculated skill, so much so that he was threatening to topple Gaius from his throne.
Worse, Amara had seen some of what he had created in his city, for the people beholden to him, and she knew what he truly was: a monster, in every sense of the word that mattered, an odious murderer who had enslaved children with discipline collars, reared them into the mad Immortals who served him, whose agents had slain Cursors all over the face of Alera; Amara's compatriots. Some, her friends. The man had no regard for anyone's life but his own. If he turned upon Amara, he could swat her as easily as a man could an ant, and with the same amount of concern.
But if he never knew she was there-not until it was too late-then she had a chance. He was only a man. Dangerous, powerful, skilled, but he was still mortal. It might not even take a deadly blow. They were perhaps two hundred feet above the coach, but if she could drive him down, knock him out of control even for a few seconds, the forest would give him no more special treatment than it had his fallen men.
The least mistake would mean her death. Amara knew it.
If she did nothing, he would almost certainly send the coach down and kill everyone inside.
That made her choice a great deal easier than she had thought it would be. And though she began to shake harder, as she swam in a nauseating flood of her own terror, she also surged ahead, tightening her windstream down as much as she possibly could to prevent Kalarus or one of his Knights from sensing it. She flung herself out ahead of them, leading the group, judging as best she could where their course would take them.
And then she gripped her sword so hard that pain flared up and down her right arm, and dismissed Cirrus, and with the fury, her windstream.
Amara plummeted down toward the small shape of the coach far below, falling in total silence, without the use of the furycraft that might betray her presence to someone of Kalarus's skill and power. She knew how to guide her fall, arms and legs splayed out, as she rushed down with greater and greater speed, focused completely upon her target, the High Lord of Kalares bare neck, a strip of pale skin showing above the streaming cloth of his grey-and-green cloak.
Suddenly he rushed closer, in one breath several hundred feet away, and then suddenly beneath her, still flying on course, watching for the coach to emerge from the furycrafted fog. She raised the sword, both hands on the hilt, point down as she fell.
Amara screamed and struck, calling out to Cirrus as she did.
Wind rose in a massive, chaotic gale as Cirrus disrupted the windstreams of Kalarus and his escort.
At the last possible second, one of the Immortals flying beside Kalarus looked up, and snapped into an immediate roll, placing his own body between Amara's sword and Kalarus's back.
Amara struck the Immortal with bone-breaking power. The sword slammed through his mail as if it did not exist, plunged through him clear to the hilt. The impact came to her as a single hammerblow that somehow struck the whole of her body, all at once. She heard a snap, and her left arm dissolved into white-hot agony. The world spun in dizzying circles, and she could barely feel Cirrus's presence through the pain.
Something hit her lower leg, and she felt the straps of the sandal on that leg fall away, taking the sandal with them. The shock of it let her see that she had struck the thinnest branches of a particularly tall tree, and her shin had been laid open as sharply and cleanly as if struck by a knife. She called desperately to Cirrus, unable to sort out the haze of sensation, pain, color, and sound. Somehow, she managed to keep from vanishing into the trees, and found herself cruising along beside the coach, her course swaying like a drunkard, her left arm dangling uselessly, her sword no longer in her hand.
"Countess!" called Lady Placida. "Watch out!"
Amara blinked at her for a second, then turned and saw one of the Knights Aeris sweep down at her, spear in hand. She began to dodge, but knew that it was useless. She was too slow.
The enemy Knight drew back his sword to strike.
And an arrow struck him in the throat, drawing a sudden geyser of blood, and the Knight spun helplessly into the trees.
Amara blinked and looked back at the coach.
The Count of Calderon stood in a low crouch atop the coach, his war bow in hand, his legs spread and braced against the howling wind. He stood atop the coach simply balanced there, without any kind of safety strap, without so much as a rope to belay him. Bernard had cast off his cloak, and his expression held all the distant, cool indifference of a professional archer. Moving with unhurried precision, he drew another arrow, eyes focused above Amara and behind her, and another arrow flashed out.
She turned to see it strike another enemy Knight, though the shaft flew wide in the wind, slamming through the man's right arm rather than his heart. He screamed and slowed, carefully controlling his flight to let the enemy pull ahead.
"Amara! ' Bernard called. He took one end of his bow in hand and held the other out to her.
Still dazed, it took her a second to understand what she was to do, but she grabbed the bow and let Bernard pull her to a landing on the coach's roof. She sat there for a moment, and Bernard shot twice more-both misses. Without being able to touch the earth and call upon his fury's strength, he could only draw the bow part of the way back, which would both make aiming more difficult and changing the dynamics of the arrow's flight. And regardless of anyone's skill, the turbulence of flight made it enormously difficult to hit anything more than a few yards away, and the Knights Aeris were keeping their distance for the moment, dodging and weaving in and out to provoke Bernard into shooting-and expending his arrows on shots unlikely to strike his foes. They could see, just as Amara could, that only a handful of arrows remained in his quiver, but by the time Bernard realized what they were doing, only three remained.
Amara s wits unscrambled in a sudden rush. The pain was still there in her arm and left shoulder, but it was distant and of minimal importance. A glance down at the nearby treetops told her that though the coach was moving swiftly, it was weaving about, dangerously unbalanced as the bearers' strength waned.
"What are you doing, you fool? " she called to Bernard.
"No room to shoot inside, love," Bernard answered.
"If we survive this, I'll kill you with my bare hands," she snarled at him. She leaned over the side and called, "Lady Aquitaine! We've got to move faster!"
"She can't hear you!" Aldrick called back, voice tight with pain. "It's all the both of them can do to keep the coach in the air!"
Red lightning flashed, and a shadow fell across the back of the coach.
Amara looked back to see Kalarus descending toward them. His cloak had been torn in a dozen places by the same tree branches that had slashed the left side of his face to bloody, swollen meat. His teeth were gnashed in hate and rage, and when he met Amara's eyes, the blade of his sword suddenly began to glow like iron on the forge, red, then orange, then white-hot. The metal shrieked in anguished protest.
Bernard moved, hands blurring, and let fly two arrows as Kalarus closed in. The High Lord of Kalare flicked them aside with his burning blade, shattering them with armor-piercing heads. Kalarus came on, murder in his eyes. Amara hurled Cirrus against him, but she might as well have tried to stop a charging gargant with a silk thread. The High Lord powered through Cirrus as though the fury had not been there.
She wanted to scream in frustration and terror, in helpless protest that this scum, this, this... creature was going to kill her, kill her husband, kill everyone in the coach, and drag Alera into total chaos. She turned to Bernard, eyes searching for his. She wanted to be looking at him when Kalare's blade took her life. Not at the animal who had killed her.
Bernard's face was pale, but his eyes held no trace of defeat, no hint of surrender. He looked down at Amara, a single, fleeting glance-and winked at her.
Then he set his last arrow to string and loosed it as Kalare closed to within ten feet of the coach. Once more, Kalare sneered, blade moving with sinuous grace to strike the arrow before it could reach him. Its shaft shattered into splinters.
But the arrow's head, a shaped, translucent crystal of rock salt like the ones he'd loosed against the windmanes in Calderon, exploded into powder.
It tore into Kalarus's wind furies, blanketing him, ripping his windstream to shreds, murdering the power that kept him aloft.
Kalarus had time for one brief, mystified expression of shock and disbelief.
And then he screamed as he fell like a stone into the trees below.
Then there was silence, but for the surf-thunder of steady wind.
Bernard lowered his bow slowly and let out a long breath. He nodded his head pensively, and said, "I think I'll write Tavi and thank him for that idea."
Amara stared at her husband, speechless.
She needed to tell the bearers to keep going for as long as they could before setting down to rest beneath the canopy of the forest, somewhere near a large stream or small river, so that she could send word to the First Lord. But that could come in a moment. For now, the need to look at his face, to realize that they were alive, that they were together, was far more important than mere realms.
Bernard slung his bow over his shoulder and knelt beside Amara, reaching gently for her arm. "Easy. Let's see what you've done to it."
"One of your salt arrows," she said quietly, shaking her head.
He smiled at her, his eyes alight with green, brown, and flecks of gold; colors of life and growth and warmth. "It's always the little things that are important," he said. "Isn't it."
"Yes," she said, and kissed him gently on the mouth. "Excellent," said the water figure of Gaius, a translucent form that lacked the solid-color enhancement the First Lord used to favor. "Well done, Countess. What is the status of the rescuees?"
She stood beside a large, swift stream that rolled down from the hills many miles from Kalare. The forest here was particularly thick, and they'd barely managed to get the coach down through it in one piece. The bearers had all but collapsed into sleep, without even unhooking their flight harnesses. Bernard went around to each man, gently freeing them from the coach and letting them stretch out on the ground. The High Ladies were in a similar state, though Lady Aquitaine managed to seat herself primly at the base of a tree before leaning her head back against it and watching Odiana help Aldrick to the stream to tend to his wound.
Lady Placida hardly seemed strong enough to keep her head held up, but she insisted on staying with Atticus Elania, who had been injured during the flight-not by a weapon, but when the wounded Aldrick had half fallen back into the coach. He'd fallen hard against one of the crowded seats and broken the girl's ankle. Lady Placida had managed to ease Elania's pain, then promptly fallen back onto the grass to sleep.
Rook stepped out of the coach with her eyes closed, holding her daughter's hand. She found a patch of ground near the stream bank, where the sunlight reached the warm earth. She sat in the light, holding her daughter, her face weary and sagging with something rather like shock.
"Countess?" prodded Gaius gently.
Amara looked back to the water-image. "My apologies, sire." She took a deep breath, and said, "Atticus Elania Minora was injured during the escape, but not seriously. A broken ankle. Well have it crafted well again soon."
Gaius nodded. "And Lady Placida?"
"Exhausted but otherwise well, sire."
Gaius raised an inquisitive eyebrow.
Amara explained. "She and Lady Aquitaine spent themselves in an effort to speed our escape and hinder the pursuit. Only a bit more than a score of nearly a hundred Knights Aeris managed to catch up to us, and without the ladies' efforts I am certain we would have been overpowered and killed."
"Where are you now?" Gaius asked. Then immediately raised a hand. "No, best not say. This communication could be observed by others. In general, what is your situation?"
"We pressed on for as long as we could after Kalarus fell, sire, but we didn't make it terribly far. It's possible that a follow-up search could find us, so we'll only rest here for an hour or two, then move on."
Gaius lifted both eyebrows. "Kalarus fell?"
Amara smiled and inclined her head. "Courtesy of the good count Calderon, sire. I am not certain he is dead, but if he did survive it, I doubt he will be in any condition to run a revolution."
Gaius's teeth showed in a sudden, wolfish smile. "I'll want details in person as soon as you can manage it, Countess. Please convey my thanks to His Excellency of Calderon," the First Lord said, "and to the Ladies and their retainers as well."
"I'll try to keep a straight face when I do, sire."
Gaius threw back his head and laughed, and when he did the water-image changed. For a moment, there was color in it, greater detail, and more animation. Then he shook his head, and said, "I will leave you to your rest and travel then, Cursor."