Amara reached Aricholt by midday. The column halted half a mile from the steadholt's walls, on a rise overlooking the hollow that held the steadholt's wall and buildings cupped in a green bowl of earth. Bernard overrode the objections of both his Knight Captain and First Spear, and stalked down into the deserted steadholt to search for any potential threat. Moments later, he returned, frowning, and the column had proceeded to march through Aricholt's gate.
The place had changed, and for the better, since Amara had first seen it. Years ago, under the rule of Kord, a slaver and murderer, the place had been little more than a collection of run-down buildings around a single stone storm shelter that had to hold the residents of the steadholt and their beasts as well. Since that time, Aric had attracted new holders to move to the potentially rich and certainly beautiful area. One of his new holders had found a small vein of silver on Aries land, and not only had the revenue from the find paid off his father's enormous debts, but left him with money enough to last a lifetime.
But Aric hadn't hoarded the money away. He had spent it on his holders and his home. A new wall, as thick and solid as Isanaholt's now shielded the steadholt's buildings, all of them also made of solid stone, including a large barn for the animals-even the four gargants Aric purchased for the heavy labor his steadholt needed to prosper. Over the past years, the steadholt had changed from a ragged, weed-choked cluster of shacks and hovels housing miserable no-accounts and pitiable slaves into a prosperous and beautiful home to more than a hundred people.
Which made it all the more eerie to look down upon it now. There was no bustle of activity within the walls or in the nearest fields outside. No smoke rose from the chimneys. No animals milled in the pens or in the pasture nearest the steadholt. No children ran or played. No birds sang. In the distance to the west of the settlement, the enormous, bleak bulk of the mountain called Garados loomed in gloomy menace.
There was only a silence, as still and as deep as an underground sea.
Almost every door in the building hung open, swinging back and forth in the wind. The gates to the cattle pen stood open as well, as did the doors to the stone barn.
"Captain," Bernard said quietly.
Captain Janus, a grizzled veteran of the Legions and a Knight Terra of formidable skill nudged his horse from the head of the column of Knights that had accompanied them to Aricholt. Janus, the senior officer of the Knights under Bernard's command as Count Calderon, was a man of under average height, but he had a neck as thick as Amara's waist, and his corded thews would have been tremendously powerful, even without furycrafting to enhance them. He was dressed in the matte black plated mail of the Legions, and his rough features sported a long, ugly scar that crossed one cheek to pull up his mouth at one corner in a perpetual, malicious smirk.
"Sir," Janus said. His voice was a surprisingly light tenor, marked with the gentle clarity of a refined, educated accent.
Janus nodded. "Yes, milord. My Knights Aeris swept this entire bowl and found no one present, holders or otherwise. I put them on station in a loose diamond at a mile from the steadholt, to serve as sentinels in the event that anyone else attempts to approach. I have instructed them to observe extreme levels of caution."
"Thank you. Giraldi?"
"My lord," said the First Spear, stepping forward from the ranks of the infantry to slam his fist sharply against his breastplate in salute.
"Establish a watch on the walls and work with Captain Janus to make this place defensible. I want twenty men working in teams of four to search every room in every building in this steadholt and make sure that they are empty. After that, round up whatever stores of food you can find here and get them inventoried."
"Understood, milord." Giraldi nodded and saluted again, then spun around to draw his baton from his belt and began bawling orders to his men. Janus turned to his subordinate, his voice much quieter than Giraldi's, but he moved with the same quality of purpose and command.
Amara stood back, watching Bernard thoughtfully. When she met him, he had been a Steadholder-not even a full Citizen himself. But even then, he had the kind of presence that demanded obedience and loyalty. He had always been decisive, fair, and strong. But she had never seen him in this setting, in his new role as Count Calderon, commanding officers and soldiers of Alera's Legion with the quiet confidence of experience and knowledge. She had known that he served in the Legions, of course, since every male of Alera was required to do so for at least one tour lasting two to four years.
It surprised her. She had regarded Gaius's decision to appoint Bernard the new Count of Calderon as a political gambit, mostly intended to demonstrate the First Lord's authority. Perhaps Gaius, though, had seen Bernard's potential more clearly than she. He was obviously comfortable in his role, and worked with the intent focus of a man determined to discharge his duties to the best of his ability.
She could see the reactions of his men to it-Giraldi, a grizzled old salt of a legionare, respected Bernard immensely, as did all of the men of his century. Winning the respect of long-term, professional soldiers was never easy, but he had done it. And amazingly enough, he enjoyed the same quiet respect with Captain Janus, who clearly regarded Bernard as someone competent at his job and willing to work as hard and face exactly the same situations he asked of his men.
Most importantly, she thought, it was evident to everyone who knew him what Bernard was: a decent man.
Amara felt a warm current of fierce pride flow through her. In spare moments of.thought, it still seemed an amazing stroke of luck to her that she had found a man of both kindness and strength who clearly desired her company.
You must leave him, of course.
Serai's gentle, inflexible words killed the rush of warmth, turning it into a sinking in the pit of her stomach. She could not refute them. Bernard's duties to the Realm were a clear necessity. Alera required every strong furycrafter it could get to survive in a hostile world, and its Citizens and nobility represented the prime of that strength. Custom demanded that Citizens and nobility alike seek out spouses with as much strength as possible. Duty and law required the nobility to take spouses who could provide strongly gifted children. Bernard's strength as a crafter was formidable, and with more than one fury, to boot. He was a strong crafter and a good man. He would be a fine husband. A strong father. He would make some woman very, very happy when he wed her.
But that woman could not be Amara.
She shook her head, forcing that line of thinking from her thoughts. She was here to stop the vord. She owed it to the men of Bernard's column to focus all of her thought on her current goals. Whatever happened, she would not allow her personal worries to distract her from doing everything in her power to protect the lives of the legionares under Bernard's command, and to destroy what would be a most deadly threat to the Realm.
She watched Bernard kneel on the ground, his palm flat to the earth. He closed his eyes and murmured, "Brutus."
The ground near him quivered gently, then the earth rippled and broke like the still surface of a pool at the passing of a stone. From that ripple, an enormous hound, bigger than some ponies and made entirely of stone and earth rose up from the ground and pushed his broad stone head against Bernard's outstretched hand. Bernard smiled and thumped the hound lightly on the ear. Then Brutus settled down and sat attentively, its green eyes-real emeralds-focused on Bernard.
The Count murmured something else, and Brutus opened his jaws in what looked like a bark. The sound that came horn the earth fury was akin to that of a large rockslide. The fury immediately sank back into the earth, while Bernard stayed there, hunkered down, his hand still on the earth.
Amara approached him quietly and paused several steps away.
"Countess?" Bernard rumbled after a moment. He sounded somewhat distracted.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
There was another low shudder in the earth, this one sharp and brief. Amara felt it ripple out beneath her boots. "Trying to see if anyone is moving around out there. On a good day, I could spot something three or four miles out."
"Really? So far?"
"I've lived here long enough," Bernard said. "I know this valley. That's what makes it possible." He grunted, frowning for a moment. "That isn't right."
"There's something…" Bernard suddenly lurched to his feet, his face gone white, and bellowed, "Captain! Frederic!"
In seconds, booted feet pounded on the stones of the courtyard, and Frederic came sprinting toward them from outside the walls, where the column's gargants, with Doroga's, waited for the steadholt to be searched for hidden dangers before entering. Seconds later, Captain Janus leapt from the steadholt's wall directly to the courtyard, absorbing the shock of the fall with furycrafted strength, and jogged over without delay or excitement.
"Captain," Bernard said. "There's been a chamber crafted into the steadholt's foundation, then sealed off."
Janus's eyes widened. "A bolt-hole?"
"It must be," Bernard said. "The steadholt's furies are trying to keep it sealed, and it's too much stone for me to move alone as long as they're set against me."
Janus nodded once, stripping his gloves off. He knelt on the ground, pressed his hands to the stones of the courtyard and closed his eyes.
"Frederic," Bernard said, his voice sharp, controlled, "when I nod, I want you to open a way to that chamber, large enough for a man to walk through. The Captain and I will hold off the steadholt furies for you."
Frederic swallowed. "That's a lot of rock, sir. I'm not sure I can."
"You're a Knight of the Realm now, Frederic," Bernard said, his voice crackling with authority. "Don't wonder about it. Do it."
Frederic swallowed and nodded, a sheen of sweat beading his upper lip.
Bernard turned to Amara. "Countess, I need you to be ready to move," he said.
Amara frowned. "To do what? I don't know what you mean by bolt-hole."
"It's something that's happened on steadholts under attack before," Bernard said. "Someone crafted an open chamber into the foundation of the steadholt, then closed the stone around it."
"Why would anyone do-" Amara frowned. "They sealed their children in," she breathed, suddenly understanding. "To protect them from whatever was attacking the steadholt."
Bernard nodded grimly. "And the chamber isn't large enough to hold very much air. The three of us will open a way to the chamber and hold it open, but we won't be able to do it for very long. Take some of the men down and pull out whoever you can as quickly as you can."
He touched her arm. "Amara," he said. "I can't tell how long they've been there sealed in there. It could be an hour. It could be a day. But I can't feel anything moving around."
She got a sickly, twisting feeling in the pit of her stomach. "We might be too late."
Bernard grimaced and squeezed her arm. Then he went to Janus's side and knelt, placing his own hands on the ground near the Captain's.
"Centurion!" Amara called. "I need ten men to assist possible survivors of the steadholt!"
"Aye, milady," Giraldi answered. In short order, ten men stood ready near Amara-and ten more, weapons drawn, stood next to them. "Just in case they aren't holders, my lady," Giraldi growled under his breath. "Doesn't hurt to be careful."
She grimaced and nodded. "Very well. Do you really think they could be the enemy?"
Giraldi shook his head, and said, "Sealed up in rock, for furies know how long? I doubt it will matter even if it is the vord." He took a deep breath, and said, "No need for you to go down when they open it, Countess."
"Yes," Amara said. "There is."
Giraldi frowned but said nothing else.
Bernard and Justin spoke quietly to one another for a few moments. Then Bernard said, his voice strained, "Almost there. Get ready. We won't be able to hold it open long."
"We're ready," Amara said.
Bernard nodded, and said, "Now, Frederic."
The ground trembled again, then there was a grating, groaning sound. Directly before Frederic's feet, the stones of the courtyard suddenly quivered and sank downward, as if the ground beneath them had turned to soupy mud. Amara stepped over to the opening hole, and took in the rather unsettling sight of stone running like water, flowing down to form itself into a steeply sloping ramp leading down into the earth.
"There," Bernard grated. "Hurry."
"Sir," Frederic said. He spoke in an anguished groan. "I can't hold it open for long."
"Hold it as long as you can," Bernard growled, his own face red and beginning to sweat.
"Centurion," Amara snapped, and she started down the ramp. Giraldi bawled out orders, and the sound of heavy boots on stone followed hard on Amara's heels.
The ramp went down nearly twenty feet into the earth and ended at a low opening into a small, egg-shaped room. The air smelled stale, thick, and too wet. There were shapes in the dimness of the room-limp bundles of cloth. Amara went to the nearest and knelt-a child, scarcely old enough to walk.
"They're children," she snapped to Giraldi.
"Move it," Giraldi barked. "Move it, boys, you heard the Countess."
Legionares stomped into the chamber, seized the still forms in it at random, and hurried out again. Amara left the chamber last, and just as she did, the smooth stone floor suddenly bulged upward just as the ceiling swelled downward. Amara shot a look over her shoulder, and was uncomfortably reminded of the hungry maw of a direwolf as the bedrock flowed and moved like a living thing. The opening to the room contracted, and the walls on either side of the ramp suddenly got narrower. "Hurry!" she shouted to the men ahead of her.
"I can't!" Frederic groaned.
Legionares sprinted up the ramp, but the stone was collapsing inward again too quickly. Scarcely noticing the weight of the limp child she carried, Amara cried out to Cirrus, and her fury came howling down into the slot in the stone like a hurricane. Vicious, dangerous winds abruptly swept down the ramp beneath and behind them, and then rushed up toward the surface like a maddened gargant. The winds threw Amara into the back of the legionare in front of her before it caught the man and his charge up, and sent them both into the next man in line, until in all a half dozen legionares flew wildly up the ramp and out of the grasp of the closing stone.
The ground grated again, a harsh, hateful sound, and the stone closed seamlessly back into its original shape, catching the end of Amara's braid as it did. The braid snared her as strongly as any rope, and the winds propelling her swung her feet out and up into the air as her hair was seized by the rock. She thumped back down to the stone flat on her back, and got the wind knocked out of her in a rush of breathless, stunned pain.
"Watercrafter!" bellowed Giraldi. "Healers!"
Someone took the child gently from Amara's arms, and she became vaguely aware of the infantry's watercrafter and several grizzled soldiers with healer's bags draped over one shoulder rushing over to them.
"Easy, easy," Bernard said from somewhere nearby. He sounded winded. Amara felt his hand on her shoulder.
"Are they all right?" she gasped. "The children?"
"They're looking at them," Bernard said gently. His hands touched her head briefly, then ran back around the back of her head, gently probing. "You hit your head?"
Amara shook her head. "No. My braid caught in the rock."
She heard him let out a slow breath of relief, then felt him feeling his way along the length of the braid. When he got to the end of it, he said, "It's only an inch or two. It's right at the tie."
"Fine," Amara said.
She heard the rasp of Bernard's dagger being drawn from his belt. He applied the honed edge of the knife to the end of her braid and cut it loose from the rock.
Amara sighed as the pressure on her scalp eased. "Help me sit up," she said.
Bernard gave her his hand and pulled her to sit on the courtyard. Amara tried to get her breath back, and began methodically to work the now-loose braid out before it started tangling in knots.
"Sir?" Janus said. "Looks like we got here in time."
Bernard closed his eyes. "Thank the great furies. Who do we have here?"
"Children," Janus reported. "None of them over the age of eight or nine, and two infants. Four boys, five girls-and a young lady. They're unconscious but breathing, and their pulses are strong."
"A young lady?" Amara asked. "The steadholt's caretaker?"
Bernard squinted up at the sun and nodded. "It would make sense." He got up and paced over to the recumbent forms of the children and of one young woman. Amara rose, paused while her balance swayed a little, then followed him over.
Bernard grimaced. "It's Heddy. Aric's wife."
Amara stared down at a frail-looking young woman with pale blond hair and fair skin, only lightly weathered by sun and wind. "Sealed them in," she murmured. "And set their furies to make sure they stayed that way. Why would they do such a thing?"
"To make it impossible for anyone to get to them but the people who put them there," Bernard rumbled.
Bernard shrugged. "Maybe the holders figured that if they weren't around to get their children out, they didn't want whoever was attacking them to have the chance."
"Even if they died?"
"There are worse things than death," Doroga said. His rumbling basso startled Amara into a twitch of reflexive tension. The huge Marat headman had moved up behind them more silently than an Amaranth grass lion. "Some of them much worse."
One of the babies started squeaking out a stuttering little cry of complaint, and a moment later the infant was joined by the exhausted sobs of another child. Amara glanced up to find the children all beginning to stir.
Giraldi's watercrafter, a veteran named Harger, rose from the child beside Heddy and knelt over the young woman. He put his fingertips lightly on Heddy's temples, his eyes closed for a moment. Then he glanced up at Bernard, and said, "Her body is extremely strained. I don't know that her mind is straight right now, either. It might be better to give her the chance to sleep."
Bernard frowned and glanced at Amara, an eyebrow lifted.
She grimaced. "We need to talk to her. Find out what happened."
"Maybe one of the children could tell us," Bernard said.
"Do you think they could have understood what was going on?"
Bernard glanced at them, his frown deepening, and shook his head. "Probably not. Not well enough to risk more lives on what a small child remembers."
Amara nodded her agreement.
"Wake her up, Harger," Bernard said gently. "Careful as you can."
The old watercrafter nodded, his misgivings clear in his eyes, but he turned back to Heddy, touched her temples again, and frowned in concentration.
Heddy awoke instantly and violently, screaming in a raw, tortured wail. Her pale blue eyes flew open-torturously wide-the panicked eyes of an animal certain that its hungry pursuer had moved in for the kill. She thrashed her arms and legs wildly, and a sharp and sudden breeze, strong but unfocused, swept through the courtyard. It spun wildly, throwing up dust, straw, and small stones. "No!" Heddy shrieked. "No, no, no!"
She went on screaming the same word, over and over, and it sounded like she was tearing her own throat raw as she did.
"Heddy!" Bernard rumbled, eyes half-squinted against the wind-driven debris. "Heddy! It's all right. You're safe!"
She went on screaming, struggling, kicking, and bit the hand of one legionare who knelt along with Harger and Bernard in an attempt to restrain her. She struggled with a strength born of a fear so severe that it was its own kind of madness.
Crows take it!" Harger snarled. "We'll have to sedate her." Wait," Amara snapped. She knelt beside the struggling holder. "Heddy," she said in the softest voice she could to be heard over the screams. "Heddy, its all right. Heddy, the children are all right. The Count is here with the guard from Garrison. They're safe. The children are safe."
Heddy's panicked eyes flicked over to Amara, and her eyes focused on someone for the first time since she'd awoken. Her screams slowed a little, and her expression was tortured, desperate. It raked at Amara to see a woman in so much pain. But she kept her voice gentle, repeating quiet reassurances to the terrified holder. When Heddy had quieted even more, Amara put her hand on the young woman's head, stroking her cobweb-fine hair back from her forehead, never stopping.
It took nearly half an hour, but Heddy's screams died out into cries, then into groans, and finally into a series of piteous whimpering sounds. Her eyes stayed locked on Amara's face, as if desperate to find some kind of reference point. With a final shudder, Heddy fell silent, and her eyes closed, tears welling.
Amara glanced up at Bernard and Harger. "I think she'll be all right. Perhaps you gentlemen should leave me here with her for a little while. Let me take care of her."
Harger nodded at once and rose. Bernard looked less certain, but he nodded to Amara as well and walked over to Captain Janus and Centurion Giraldi, speaking in low tones.
"Can you hear me, Heddy?" Amara asked quietly.
The girl nodded.
"Can you look at me, please?"
Heddy whimpered and started trembling.
"All right," Amara soothed. "It's all right. You don't have to. You can talk to me with your eyes closed."
Heddy's head twitched into a nod, and she kept on shaking with silent sobs. Tears bled down over her cheekbones to fall upon the courtyard's stones. "Anna," she said after a moment. She twitched her head up off the ground, looking toward the sounds of crying children. "Anna's crying."
"Shhh, be still," Amara said. "The children are fine. We're taking care of them."
Heddy sank down again, trembling from the effort it had taken to partially sit up. "All right."
"Heddy," Amara said, keeping her voice smooth and quiet. "I need to know what happened to you. Can you tell me?"
"B-bardos," Heddy said. "Our new smith. Large man. Red beard."
"I do not know him," Amara said.
"Good man. Aric's closest friend. He sent us down into that chamber. Said that he was going to make sure that we weren't…" Heddy's face twisted in a hideous grimace of agony. "Weren't taken. Like the others."
"Taken?" Amara said quietly. "What do you mean?"
The young woman's voice became agony grinding in her throat. "Taken. Changed. Them and not them. Not Aric. Not Aric." She curled into a tight ball. "Oh, my Aric. Help us, help us, help us."
A huge, gentle hand settled on her shoulder, and Amara glanced back up at Doroga's quiet frown.
"Let her be," he said.
"We've got to know what happened."
Doroga nodded. "I will tell you. Let her rest."
Amara frowned up at the big Marat. "How do you know?"
He rose and squinted around the steadholt. "Tracks outside," he said. "Leading away. Shoes, no-shoes, male and female. Cattle, sheep, horses, gargants." He gestured around the steadholt. "Vord came in here two, maybe three days ago. Took the first. Not everyone at once. First they take a few."
Amara shook her head, her hand still resting on the curled form of the weeping holder. "Took. What do you mean?"
"The vord," Doroga said. "They get inside you. Go in through the mouth, nose, ear. Burrow in. Then you die. But they have your body. Look like you. Can act like you."
Amara stared at Doroga, sickened. "What?"
"Don't know what they look like exactly," Doroga said. "The vord have many forms. Some like the Keepers of Silence. Like spiders. But they can be little. Mouthful." He shook his head. "The Takers are small, so they can get inside you."
"Like… some sort of worm? A parasite."
Doroga tilted his head, one pale war braid sliding over a massive shoulder. "Parasite. I do not know this word."
"It's a creature that attaches itself to another creature," Amara said. "Like a leech or a flea. They feed on a host creature to survive."
"Vord are not like this," Doroga said. "The host creature doesn't survive. Just look like they do."
"What do you mean?"
"Say a vord gets into my head. Doroga dies. The Doroga that is in here." He thumped his head with his thumb. "What Doroga feels. That is gone. But this Doroga"-he slapped his chest lightly with one hand-"this remains. You don't know any better, because you only know the true Doroga"-he touched his head-"through the Doroga you can see and talk to." He touched his chest.
Amara shivered. "Then what happened here?"
"What happened among my people," Doroga said. "Takers came. Took just a few. Looked around, maybe deciding who to take next. Then taking them. Until more were taken than were themselves. Took more than seven hundred Wolf Clan like that, one pack at a time."
"Is that what you fought?" Amara asked. "Taken Marat?"
Doroga nodded, his eyes bleak. "First, them. Then we found the nest. Fought the Keepers of Silence. Like big spiders. And their warriors. Bigger. Faster. They killed many of my people, our chala." He inhaled slowly. "And then we took the vord queen at that nest. A creature who…" He shook his head, and Amara saw something she never thought she might in Doroga-the shadow of fear in his eyes. "The queen was the worst. From her, all the others are born. Keepers. Takers. Warriors. We had to keep going, or the queen would have escaped. Founded another nest. Started over."
Amara pursed her lips and nodded. "That's why you fought as you did. To the end."
Doroga nodded. "And why the queen near this place must be found and destroyed. Before she spawns young queens of her own."
"What do you think happened here?" Amara said.
"Takers came in," Doroga said. "That was what she meant when she said them and not them. This Aric she speaks of was one who was taken. This other man, who sealed her into the stone, must have been free. Maybe one of the last of your people still free."
"Then where is he now?" Amara asked.
"Taken. Or dead."
Amara shook her head. "This isn't… this is too incredible. I've never heard of such a thing. No one has ever known anything like this."
"We have," Doroga rumbled. "Long ago. So long ago that few tales remained. But we have seen them."
"But it can't be," Amara said quietly. "It can't be like that."
"Aric couldn't have been taken. He was the one who came to warn Bernard. If he was one of these vord now, then they would know…"
Amara felt a slow, vicious spike of cold lodge in her belly.
Doroga's eyes narrowed to slits. Then he spun to one side and took up the enormous war club he had left leaning against a wall. "Calderon!" he bellowed, and outside the walls of the steadholt, his gargant answered with a ringing trumpet of alarm. "Calderon! To arms!"
Amara staggered to her feet looking around wildly for Bernard.
And that was when she heard legionares begin to scream.
Amara snapped an order to the nearest healer to watch over Heddy, then called to Cirrus. Her fury gathered around her, winds swirling up a cloud of dust that outlined the vague form of a long-legged horse in the midst of the winds. Amara cried out and felt Cirrus sweep her clear of the ground and into the open sky above Aricholt.
She spun in a circle, eyes flickering over the ground beneath her and the skies about her, taking in what was happening.
In the steadholt below her, she saw legionares emerge sprinting from the enormous stone barn. The last man out let out a cry and abruptly fell, falling hard to the stony ground. Something had hold of his ankle and began hauling him back into the barn. The soldier shouted, and his fellow legionares immediately turned back to help him.
Amara held up her hands to the level of her eyes, palms facing each other, and willed Cirrus into the air before her face, concentrating the winds to bend light and draw her vision to within several yards of the stone barn.
The legionares sword slashed through a shining, black, hard-looking limb like nothing that Amara had ever seen, save perhaps the pinching claws of a lobster. The sword bit into the vord's claw-but just barely. The legionare struck again and again, and even then only managed to cripple the strength of the claw, rather than severing it completely.
The men dragged their wounded companion away from the barn, his boot flopping and twisting at a hideous angle.
The vord warrior followed them into the sunlight.
Amara stared down at the creature, her stomach suddenly cold. The vord warrior was the size of a pony, and had to have weighed four or five hundred pounds. It was covered in slick-looking, lacquer-gloss plates of some kind of dark hide. Four limbs thrust straight out to the sides from a humpbacked central body, rounded and hunched like the torso of a flea. Its head extended from that body on a short, segmented stalk of a neck. Twists and spines of chitin surrounded its head, and a pair of tiny eyes recessed within deep grooves glared out with scarlet malevolence. Massive, almost beetlelike mandibles extended from its chitinous face, and each mandible ended in the snapping claw that had crippled the legionare.
The vord rushed out of the doorway, hard on the heels of its prey, its gait alien, ungainly, and swift. Two of the legionares turned to face it, blades in hand, while the third dragged the wounded man away. The vord bounded forward in a sudden leap that brought it down on top of one of the legionares. The man dodged to one side, but not swiftly enough to prevent the vord from knocking him to the earth. It landed upon him and seized his waist between its mandibles. They ground down, and the man screamed in agony.
His partner charged the vord's back, screaming and hacking furiously with his short, vicious gladius. One of the blows landed upon a rounded protrusion upon the creature's back, and it sprayed forth some kind of greenly translucent, viscous liquid.
A string of clicking detonations emerged from the vord, and it released the first legionare to whirl on its new attacker and bounded into the air as before. The legionare darted to one side, and when the vord landed, he struck hard at its thick neck. The blow struck home, though the armored hide of the vord barely opened. But it had been enough to hurt it.
More liquid, nauseating greenish brown, spurted from the wound, and more explosive clicks crackled from the monster. It staggered to one side, unable to keep its balance despite its four legs. The legionare immediately seized his wounded companion, and began to drag the other man away from the wounded, unsteady vord. He moved as quickly as he could.
It wasn't enough.
Another half dozen of the creatures rushed out of the barn like angry hornets from a nest, and the buzzing click of the wounded vord became a terrifying, alien chorus. The vibrating roar increased, and the humped, round backs of the things abruptly parted into broad, blackened wings that let them leap into the air and come sailing at the fleeing legionares.
The vord tore them to shreds before Amara's horrified eyes.
It happened quickly-start to finish in only a handful of seconds, and there was nothing anyone could have done to save the doomed legionares.
More vord emerged from other buildings in the steadholt, and Amara saw three of them leaping forth from the steadholt's well. She heard Giraldi bellowing over the rumble of angry clicking, and a sudden flash of fire boomed into the air as one of Commander Janus's Knights Ignus unleashed furies of fire upon a charging vord.
Another scream, this one very near, snapped Amara's gaze upward, to see one of the Knights Aeris struggling against a pair of winged vord warriors. The man slashed a hand at the air, and a burst of gale-force wind sent one vord tumbling to the side, spinning end over end as it fell toward the earth. But the second vord flared its wings at the last second and it struck him belly first, legs wrapping him, jaw-claws gripping and tearing. The Knight screamed, and the pair of them plummeted toward the ground.
Below her, the veterans of Giraldi's century had immediately linked up to stand together, their backs to one of the steadholt's stone walls and the nearest building securing one flank. Eight or nine of the vord bounded forward, only to be met by a solid wall of heavy Legion tower-shields and blades in the first rank, while the two ranks behind plied their spears in murderous concert with the front row. Supporting one another, Giraldi's veterans stopped the vord charge cold, steel flashing, men screaming defiance. Blood and nauseating vord-fluid sprinkled on the courtyard's stones.
The other century was in trouble. Only half of them had managed to draw together in concentration, and pockets of a half dozen legionares or a handful of armed holders were scattered on the walls and within the courtyard. The vord had already left a dozen dismembered corpses draining blood onto the stones. Trapped and on their own, Amara knew that the other isolated groups of Alerans would die within minutes.
There was another scream almost directly below her, a child's wail, and Amara's gaze snapped down to see three of the vord wheeling in perfect unison toward the healers and the survivors below. There was no one close enough to help them.
With a howl of terror and rage, Amara drew her sword and flung herself into a dive that could have outraced a hungry falcon. She swept her dive to the horizontal at the last possible instant, and swept in front of the lead vord. She struck with her sword as she passed, and though she was not herself particularly strong, the sheer speed of her dive delivered her blow with the force of a charging bull. The shock of the impact went all the way up her arm to her shoulder, and her fingers exploded with tingling sensation and went partially numb.
Amara swept past and immediately turned to go to the defense of the endangered children and healers. The lead vord had been staggered by Amara's blow, which had taken off one of its mandibles cleanly halfway up its length. Sludgy brown-and-green ichor spurted from the broken limb.
The vord shook its head wildly, regained its balance, and turned to charge at Amara while its two companions assaulted the healers.
The vord bounded up into the air, attempting to land upon Amara, but the Cursor had seen the tactic already. As the vord leapt, she flung out one arm and called to Cirrus. A sudden flood of howling wind met the vord in midair and drove it hard into the outer wall of the steadholt. Snarling, Amara flicked her hand again, and the winds drove the creature's back straight down to the stones. When it hit, there was a snapping, crunching sound. The vord writhed and managed to roll back to its four feet, but now luminous green fluid dribbled down its outer plates to the ground. Within seconds, the vord settled smoothly to the earth, like a sail going limp as it lost the wind.
A scream behind Amara made her turn to see one of the vord seize Harger by the leg with its jaw-claw, breaking bone with a shake of its misshapen head. Amara could clearly hear the sickly snap.
The other vord snapped its mandibles around the waist of another healer, shook him hard, whipping back and forth until the man's neck broke. Then it dropped him and charged the terrified children and Heddy.
Amara wanted to scream with frustration-but then she shot a glance at the vord she had killed, and another at the one which had died beside the barn, realization dawning upon her.
If she was correct, she had found a weakness she could attack.
Amara snarled to Cirrus again, and shot across the stones of the courtyard, closing in upon the second vord, eyes seeking her target. She found it, and as she shot by the vord she lashed out with her short blade to strike the bulbous protuberance at the base of the rounded shell.
The sword bit through the vord's hide, and a sudden spray of green ichor splattered the air and the courtyard stones. The vord chattered and clicked in that bizarre fashion she had heard before, then it lurched back and forth in confusion, giving the children a chance to scramble frantically away from the creature. Amara somersaulted in midair, reversing her direction, and shot past the second vord, which had released Harger's ankle and attempted to seize him by the waist.
Amara lashed out as she passed, her sword again striking true. Half-glowing green ichor flowed. Harger rolled from beneath the vord's wildly flexing mandibles, face white with the pain of his injury. The vord whirled to charge drunkenly at Amara, but she swept herself up into the air before it could reach her. The vord staggered the last several feet, as though unable to see that its target was no longer there, and floundered down to the courtyard stones.
Amara came down near the children. Heddy and the remaining healer were trying to get them up and moving. Amara dashed to Harger's side.
"No!" Harger growled at her. Blood flowed from his ankle. "My lady, get these children clear. Leave me."
"On your feet, healer," Amara spat, and bent to seize the man's right arm and drag it over her shoulder so that she could help support him as he rose. "Head for Giraldi's century!" she shouted to the other two adults.
A shadow fell across her.
Amara looked up and saw more vord descending from above, their stiff wings buzzing in a tidal wave of furious sound. At least a dozen of the creatures were descending straight toward her, so swiftly that there was no time to flee, even had she been alone. She watched the vord coming down in a long and endless moment of fear and realized that she was about to die.
And then there was an explosion, and fire blossomed in the air, directly amidst the ranks of the descending formation of vord. They tumbled and fell, chattering clicks sharp and deafening even among the thrum of blurred wings. Two of them burst into flame outright and were blasted from the sky. They tumbled and fell to their deaths in a drunken spiral, trailing black smoke and clouds of flesh charred to fine ash.
More deadly bursts of flame killed more of the vord, but one of the creatures managed to land on the stones a few steps away from Amara and the wounded Harger. It turned to leap at her, and as Amara tried to dodge, Harger's weight suddenly dragged her down.
Then there was the deep thrum of the heavy bow of a master woodcrafter, and an arrow buried itself into the vord's recessed left eye, striking so deeply that only the brown-and-green fletching showed. The vord rattle-clicked in what looked like agony, convulsing, and a breath later, a second arrow struck home into the creature's other eye.
Captain Janus charged the blinded vord, a heavy, two-handed greatsword held lightly in his right hand alone. Janus bellowed, whipped the sword with superhuman power, and struck cleanly through the vord's armored neck, severing its head from the body. Stinking ichor spewed.
"Come on!" Bernard shouted, and Amara looked up to see him running to her, his bow in hand, green-and-brown arrows riding in the war quiver at his hip. He seized Harger, dragged the man to his own shoulder, and hauled him toward the doorway of the steadholt's great hall.
Amara rose to follow him, and looked up to see two of the Knights Ignus under Bernard's command standing in the open doorway. One of them focused on a flying vord, suddenly clenched his fist, and another booming blossom of fire roared to life, charring the creature to dead, blackened flesh.
Amara made sure all the children were accounted for, and stayed close to Bernard. Behind them, she heard Janus bellow an order, and looked over her shoulder to see the Knight Captain trotting backward after them, sword in hand and ready to defend their backs. Two more firecraftings roared above them as Amara ran into the great hall, and other explosions, farther away, added their own sullen roars to the deafening chaos of battle.
Amara dropped to her knees once they were safely inside, her body suddenly too weak and tired to support her anymore. She lay there for a few moments, panting hard, until she heard Bernard approach her and kneel next to her. He touched her back with one broad hand.
"Amara," he rumbled, "are you hurt?"
She shook her head mutely, then managed to whisper, "Tired. Too much crafting today." Dizziness and nausea, brought on by her fatigue, made it unthinkably difficult even to consider rising. "What's happening?"
"Isn't good," Bernard said, his voice grim. "They caught us unprepared."
Another set of boots approached quickly, and Amara looked up to see Janus standing over them. "Your Excellency, my Knights have saved everyone they could who had been cut off from Felix's century, but he's lost half his men so far. Giraldi's formation is holding for now."
"The auxiliaries?" Bernard asked, his voice tense.
Janus shook his head.
The Count's face went pale. "Doroga?"
"The Marat and that gargant of his have joined with what is left of Felix's century, along with my fighting men. Their defenses are firming."
Bernard nodded. "The Knights?"
"Ten down," Janus said, in a bleak, quiet voice. "All of our Knights Aeris fell trying to slow that second wave that came in. And Harmonus is dead."
Amara's belly quivered nervously. A full third of Garrison's Knights were dead, and Harmonus had been the most powerful watercrafter in Garrison. The Knights and the Legions both relied heavily upon the abilities of their watercrafters to return the wounded to action, and Harmonus's death would come as a crushing blow to both the troops' tactical capabilities and to their morale.
"We're holding them for now," Janus continued. "Giraldi's veterans haven't lost a man, and the Marat's stinking gargant is crushing these things like bugs. But my firecrafters are getting tired. They can't keep this pace up for long."
Bernard nodded sharply. "We have to concentrate our forces. Signal Giraldi to meet up with Felix's century. Get them here. We won't find a better place to defend."
Janus nodded and snapped his fist to his heart in salute, then turned to stalk out into the screaming chaos of the fighting again.
But even as he did, Amara heard a single, high-pitched squealing sound, almost like the shriek of a hawk. Before the sound had died away, buzzing thunder rolled over the entire steadholt. Amara lifted her head to the doorway, and without a word Bernard took her arm and helped her to her feet, then walked beside her to the door.
As they did, the thunder began to recede, and Amara looked up to see the vord in flight, dozens of them rising into the air and sailing away toward Garados.
"They're running," Amara said softly.
Bernard shook his head, and said quietly, "They're withdrawing the sortie. Look at the courtyard."
Amara frowned at him and did. It was a scene from a nightmare. Blood had run through the cracks in the cobblestone courtyard, outlining each stone in scarlet and leaving small pools of bright red here and there in the sunshine. The air stank of blood and offal, and of the acrid, stinging aroma of burnt vord.
The torn and mangled corpses of Knights and legionares littered the ground. Wherever she looked, Amara saw the remains of a soldier who had been alive under the morning sunshine. Now the dead lay in a hopelessly confused tangle of lifeless flesh that would make it impossible to lay them to rest in anything but a single grave.
Of the vord, fewer than thirty had been killed. Most of those had been blown out of the air by the Knights Ignus, though Giraldi's men had accounted for two more, and four lay crushed and dead on the far side of the courtyard, at the clawed feet of the chieftain's gargant, Walker.
She counted twenty-six dead vord. At least twice as many had risen into the skies when the vord retreated. Surely others must lie dead outside the steadholt's walls, but there could not have been many of them.
Amara had seen blood and death before. But this had been so savage, so abrupt and deadly that she felt as if what she had seen had entered her mind before she had the chance to armor it against the horror. Her stomach twisted with revulsion, and it was all that she could do to control herself. She did not have enough will to stop the tears from blurring her vision and mercifully shrouding the horrific scene in a watery haze.
Bernard's hand tightened on her shoulder. "Amara, you need to lie down. I'll send a healer to you."
"No," she said quietly. "We have wounded. They must be seen to first."
"Of course," Bernard rumbled. "Frederic," he said. "Get some cots out and set up. We'll bring the wounded in here."
"Yes, sir," Frederic said, somewhere behind them.
The next thing Amara knew, she was lying on a cot, and Bernard was pulling a blanket over her. She was too tired to protest it. "Bernard," she said.
"Take care of the wounded. Get the men some food. Then we need to meet and decide our next step."
"Next step?" he rumbled.
"Yes," she said. "The vord hurt us badly. Another attack could finish us. We need to consider falling back until we can get more help."
Bernard was silent for a few moments. Then he said, "The vord killed the gargants and the horses, Countess. In fact, I suspect that was the purpose of this attack-to kill the horses, our healers, and cripple whatever legionares they could."
"Why would they do that?" Amara asked.
"To leave us with plenty of wounded."
"To trap us here," Amara said.
Bernard nodded. "We could run. But we'd have to leave our wounded behind."
"Never," Amara said at once.
Bernard nodded. "Then best take your rest while you can get it, Countess. We aren't going anywhere."