He sensed the kick coming through his sleep and curled into a ball. It didn’t hurt as much this time. Émile wasn’t really trying.
“You have a client.”
He rolled up, blinking. He should’ve hidden deeper in the drum that was his nest. The drum lay on its side and was deep enough that Émile couldn’t land a good kick. But it was so nice and sunny, he’d fallen asleep on the rags in front of it.
He looked at Émile and the man next to him. The man had dark eyes. He’d learned to watch the eyes. Faces lied, mouths lied, but the eyes always told you if the man would hit and how hard. This man was large. Big hands. Powerful shoulders. Next to him Émile looked skinny and weak, and he knew it too, because he forgot to sneer. All the street people called Émile Weasel, because of the sneer, but only when he couldn’t hear. Émile was mean. He ran the street and when someone tried to stand up to him, he’d fly into a rage and beat them with a rock or a metal stick until they stopped moving.
Émile jabbed his finger in the direction of the man. “Fix him.”
The man held out his left arm and pulled back the sleeve of his leather jacket. A cut snaked from his wrist all the way to his elbow. Shallow. Easy to fix. He eyed Émile. Usually Émile made him say nonsense words and drag it out, so it would look mysterious, but the man was watching him, and it was making him uneasy.
He reached out and touched the man’s arm, letting the magic flow. The cut sealed itself.
The man squeezed his forearm, checking the spot where the wound used to be.
“See? I told you.” Émile bared his teeth.
“How much?” the man asked. His voice had an accent.
“How much what?”
“How much for the boy?”
His heart sank. He scooted deep into the drum, where he’d kept a knife hidden under his rags. He knew what happened to boys who were sold. He knew what men did to them. Rene was sold two weeks ago. Rene had been his only friend. He was fast and when he stole from the market stalls, nobody could catch him. He’d healed a boil on Rene’s back, and since then, Rene shared. They’d hide in his drum and eat the bread or pirogi Rene had nicked and pretend they were somewhere else.
Two weeks ago a man took Rene away. Émile had sold him. Three days later, after dark, he saw the same man leading Rene on a chain like a dog as they walked into a house. Rene was wearing a pink dress and he had a black eye.
Émile promised not to sell him. That was the deal. He healed clients and Émile gave him food and protected him.
“Not for sale,” Émile said.
The man reached into his leather jacket. An envelope came out. A stack of money hit the dirt in front of Émile. A thick stack. More money than he had ever seen. Émile’s eyes got big.
He was trapped in the drum. There was nowhere to run.
Émile licked his lips.
“You promised!” he yelled.
“Shut up.” Émile squinted at the man. “He’s a magic boy.”
“Take him,” Émile said.
The man reached for him. He shrank back, his hand clutching the knife hidden under his filthy blanket. He wouldn’t be walking on a chain.
The man stepped toward him, his back to Émile.
“Drop the knife,” the man said.
Behind him Émile’s face turned ugly. He lunged, a knife pointed at the man’s back. The man turned fast. His hand fastened on Émile’s wrist. Émile screamed and dropped the knife. The man pulled him over.
“Take him!” Émile squealed. “Take him!”
The man locked his left hand on Émile’s throat and squeezed. Émile clawed at the man’s arm with his free hand, flailing, trying to get away. The man continued squeezing.
Magic told him the little bone in Émile’s throat broke. It nagged at him, like an annoying itch. He would have to mend the bone to make it go away, but the man kept squeezing, harder and harder.
Émile’s eyes rolled back in his skull. The annoying buzz of magic disappeared. You can’t fix the dead.
The man let go and Émile fell, limp.
He scooted deeper into the drum.
The man crouched by it. “I won’t hurt you.”
He slashed with his knife. The man caught his hand, and then he was yanked out into the sunlight and set on his feet.
The man looked at his knife. “A sharp blade.” He held it out to him. “Here. It will make you feel better.”
He snatched the knife from the man’s hand, but he already knew the truth. The knife wouldn’t help. The man could kill him any time. He would have to bide his time and run.
The man picked up the stack of money, took his hand, and together they walked out of the alley into the market. The man stopped at the pirogi stall, bought a hot pirogi, and handed it to him. “Eat.”
Free food. He grabbed it and bit into it, the sweet apple filling hot enough to burn his mouth. He swallowed his half-chewed bite and took another. He could always try to get away later. Eventually the man would look away and then he would run. Until then, if the man bought him food, he would take it. Only an idiot gave up free food. You ate it, and you ate it quick before someone punched you and took it out of your hands.
They walked through the marketplace past the ruins of tall buildings killed by magic. Magic came in waves. One moment it was here, and then it wasn’t. Sometimes he would go to Sainte-Chapelle on the day of the service to beg by the doorway. Everyone coming out of the church said the world was ending and that only God would save them. He always thought that if God came, he would come during magic.
They kept walking, all the way to the park, to a man sitting on a bench reading a book.
“I found him,” the man with dark eyes said.
The man on the bench raised his head and looked at him.
He forgot about the food. The half-eaten pirogi fell from his fingers.
The man was golden and burning with magic, so much magic, he almost glowed. This magic, it reached out and touched him, so warm and welcoming, so kind. It wrapped around him and he froze, afraid to move because it might disappear.
“Where are your parents?” the man asked.
Somehow he answered. “Dead.”
The man leaned toward him. “You don’t have any family?”
He shook his head.
“How old are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Hard to tell because of starvation,” the man with dark eyes said. “Maybe six or seven.”
“You’re very special,” the man said. “Look at all those people out there.”
He didn’t want to look away from the man, but he didn’t want to disappoint him even more, so he turned his head and looked at the people in the market.
“Of all the people out there, you shine the brightest. They are firebugs, but you are a star. You have a gift.”
He tried to see the light the man was talking about, but he saw nothing.
“If you come with me, I promise you that I will help your light grow. You will live in a nice house. You will eat plenty of good food. You will train hard and you will grow up to be strong and powerful. Nobody will be able to stand in your way. Would you like that?”
He didn’t even think. “Yes.”
“What’s your name?” the man asked.
“I don’t have one.”
“Well, that’s not good,” the man said. “You need a name. A strong name, the kind that people will know and respect. Do you know where we are?”
He shook his head again.
“We’re in France. Do you know who that man is?” He pointed to a statue of a man on a horse. The man had a sword and wore a crown.
“That’s Hugh Capet. He was the founder of the Capet dynasty. The kingdom of France began with his reign. The descendants of his bloodline sat on the throne of France for almost nine hundred years. He was a great man and you too will be a great man, Hugh. Would you like to be a great man?”
The man smiled. “Good. All things exist in balance, Hugh. The civilization your parents built pushed the technology too far, and now the magic has returned with a vengeance. It floods the world in great waves, crushing the technological marvels and spawning wondrous creatures. It ushers in a new age from the birth pangs of apocalypse. Our age, Hugh, mine and yours. In this age, you will call me Roland.”
“Yes,” Hugh agreed. He knew the truth now. God had found him. God had saved him.
“The world is in chaos now,” Roland said. “But I will bring order to it. One day I will rule this world and you will be my Warlord, leading armies in my name to restore peace and prosperity. Today is a special day, because we met. Is there anything I can do for you on this special day? Anything at all? Ask me any favor.”
Hugh swallowed. “My friend. His name is Rene. He has dark hair and brown eyes. He was sold to a man.”
“Would you like him found?”
Roland glanced over his head at the man with dark eyes. “Find this Rene and bring him to me.”
The man with dark eyes bowed his head. “Yes, Sharrum.”
He walked away.
Roland smiled at Hugh. “Come sit by me.”
Hugh sat by the man’s feet. The magic wrapped around him and he knew that from this moment on, everything would go right. Nothing would ever hurt him again.
God was dead.
No, that wasn’t quite it. He was dead.
No, that wasn’t it either.
Voices tugged on him, refusing to let him sink back into the numbing darkness.
He was laying on something hard and wet. The stench of sour, alcohol-saturated vomit hit his nose.
He was drunk. Yes, that was it. He was drunk and getting more sober by the moment, which meant he had to find something to drink or pass out again before the void where God used to be swallowed him whole.
Cold liquid drenched him.
“Get up.” A familiar male voice, but the identity of the speaker lay deep inside his memory, and to reach for it, he would have to think. Thinking brought the void closer.
“This is pointless.” Another voice he knew and decided to not remember. “Look at him.”
“Get up,” the first voice insisted, calm, deliberate. “Landon is winning. He’s killing us one by one.”
Something stirred in him. Something suspiciously resembling loyalty and obligation and hate. He tried to sink deeper into the stupor. God didn’t want him anymore, but the darkness was happy to take him in.
“He doesn’t care,” the second voice said. “Don’t you get it? He’s lost. He might as well be dead and rotting for all the good he would do us.”
“Oh ye of little faith,” a third, deeper voice said.
“Get the fuck off this floor!”
Sharp pain punched his skull. Someone had kicked him. He briefly considered doing something about it, but that way lay reality. Staying on the floor was the better option.
“Hit him again, and I’ll split you sideways.” Fourth voice. Cold. He knew this one too. That one rarely spoke.
“Think.” The third voice. Collected, reasonable, dripping with contempt. “Right now, he’s drunk. Eventually he’ll be sober. Drunk we can fix. But if you kick him in the head, you’ll injure his brain. What good is he then? We already have one brain-damaged imbecile. We don’t need another.”
One… two… three… The count surfaced from the muddled depths of his mind. He used to count just like this to see how long the insult would take to burrow through the hard shell that was Bale’s brain.
“I’ll fucking kill you, Lamar!” Bale snarled.
“Shut up,” the first voice said.
Yes. All of them needed to shut up and leave him the hell alone. He was reasonably sure he hadn’t finished the jug of moonshine. It had to be somewhere within his reach.
“Get up, Preceptor,” the first voice insisted.
Stoyan, his memory supplied. Figured. Stoyan was always a persistent sonovabitch.
“We need you,” Stoyan said, his voice quiet and close. “The Dogs need you. Landon is killing us. We’re being purged.”
Eventually they would go away.
“He doesn’t give a fuck,” Bale said.
“Pass me the bag,” Stoyan said.
Someone knelt next to him.
“It’s not gonna matter,” Bale growled. “He’s all fucked up. He’s laying here in his own piss and vomit. You heard that dickhead at the door. He’s been in this shithole for weeks.”
Hugh heard a zipper being pulled open. Something was put in front of him. He smelled the stench of rotting blood and decomposition.
Bale kept going. “Even if he sobers up, he’ll crawl right back into the bottle and get shit-faced.”
Hugh opened his eyes. A severed head stared back at him, the brown irises dulled by a milky patina.
“He can’t even stand anymore. What are we going to do, tie him to a stick and prop him up?”
The world turned red.
“To hell with this.” Bale leaned back, readying for a kick.
Rage drove him up before Bale’s foot connected to the severed head. He locked his hand around Bale’s throat, jerked him off his feet, and slammed him down onto the nearest table. Bale’s back hit the wood with a loud thud.
“Hallelujah,” Lamar said.
Bale clawed at his arm, the muscles on his thick biceps bulging. Hugh squeezed.
Felix loomed on his right, reaching for him. Hugh hammered a cross punch into the big man’s nose with his left hand. Cartilage crunched. Felix stumbled back.
Bale’s face turned purple, his eyes glistening. His feet drummed the air.
Stoyan locked his arms on Hugh’s right bicep and went limp, adding his dead weight to the arm. Felix lunged from the left and locked himself onto Hugh’s left arm, trying to force an arm bar.
The world was still red, and he kept squeezing.
Water drenched him in a cold cascade, washing away the red haze. He shook himself, growling, and saw Lamar holding a bucket.
“Welcome back,” Lamar said. “Let go of the man, Preceptor. If you kill him, there will be nobody to lead your vanguard.”
The void gnawed at him, a big raw hole where Roland’s presence used to be. Hugh gritted his teeth and forced himself to concentrate on the head on the table in front of him.
“When?” he asked.
“Six days ago,” Stoyan said.
“What did he do?”
“Nothing,” Stoyan said. “He did nothing.”
“Rene was out,” Lamar said. “He and Camilla walked off after you were forced out. Went civilian. Rene took a teaching job in Chattanooga, high school French.”
“He wasn’t a threat to anyone,” Stoyan said. “They killed him anyway. I came to convince him to meet with you and found his body. They left him on the floor of his kitchen.”
His throbbing head made it hard to think. “Camilla?”
Stoyan shook his head.
Rene’s wife didn’t make it. Pain stabbed at Hugh, fueling his rage. Rene hadn’t been a great soldier. His heart was never in it, but he’d tried. He’d always talked of something better. Of living life after he was done.
“He and Camilla aren’t the only ones,” Stoyan said.
“Dead,” Bale said.
“Purdue, Rockfort, Ivanova, all dead,” Stoyan added. “We’re it.”
Hugh surveyed the four men. Stoyan, dark-haired, grey-eyed, in his mid-thirties, looked haggard, like a worn-out sword. Felix, a hulking mountain of a Dominican, leaned back, trying to stop a nose bleed. The bridge of his nose skewed right. Broken. Bale sulked in the corner. About five-eight or five-nine, with dark red hair, Bale was almost as broad as he was tall, all his bulk made up of bone and slabs of thick, heavy muscle. Lamar perched on the edge of the table to the far right. Tall, black, with a body that looked twisted together from steel cables, Lamar was closing on fifty and the age only made him harder to kill. His hair was trimmed short. A neat beard traced his jaw. He was an intelligence officer once and never lost the bearing. A pair of thin, wire-rimmed glasses rode his nose.
The second-in command, the silent killer, the berserker, and the strategist. All that remained of his cohort leadership.
“This is the way things are now,” Stoyan said.
“Landon Nez is going down the roster of Iron Dogs and crossing out the names,” Lamar said. “Nobody is safe. We’re all tarred with the same brush.”
The Iron Dogs. His Iron Dogs, the elite private army he’d built for Roland. The name made him wince inside. The void gaped wider, scraping at his bones.
He’d led the Iron Dogs, and Landon Nez led the Golden Legion, the necromancers who possessed mindless vampires, piloting them like remote-controlled cars. The Iron Dogs and the Golden Legion, the right and left hands of Roland. He’d hated Nez, and Nez hated him, and that was the way Roland liked it.
Hugh would’ve found a way to kill Nez eventually, but he ran out of time. Roland had purged him. Now the lifeline of magic that anchored him to the man who’d pulled him off the streets was gone. His purpose, his teacher, his surrogate father, everything that was right and true in this fucked up world was gone. Life had no meaning.
The four men were looking at him.
“How bad is it?” he asked.
“We’re down to three hundred men now, with us,” Stoyan said.
A few months ago, he’d left five cohorts of Iron Dogs, at four hundred and eighty soldiers each. He’d hammered them into an elite, disciplined, trained force; the kind of soldiers any head of state would cut off his arm to have.
“There are more out there,” Stoyan said. “Some are in hiding, some are wandering about without any direction. Landon has bloodsucker patrols out. They are hunting us down.”
What the hell had happened since he left? “Why?”
“Because of you!” Bale snarled from the corner.
Hugh looked at Lamar.
“Roland discovered an unpleasant fact,” Lamar said. “We do not follow him. We follow you. You are our Preceptor. We’re viewed as untrustworthy.”
Idiots. “You swore an oath.”
“Oaths go both ways. Show him your arms,” Lamar said.
Stoyan yanked his sleeves up. Jagged scars marked his forearms. “He told me to raze a village and hang the civilians on trees to send a message,” Stoyan said. “I told him I was a soldier, not a butcher. He crucified the lot and hung me on a cross with them. Thirty-two people. I watched them die for three days. I would’ve died there.”
“What saved you?” Hugh asked.
“Daniels saved me. She pulled me off the cross and let me go.”
The name cut like a knife. It must’ve showed on his face, because Stoyan took a step back.
He shoved the name out of his mind and concentrated on the problem at hand. Roland would’ve known Stoyan would refuse the order to butcher civilians. That wasn’t what the cohorts did. The dark arm of the Iron Dogs, which would’ve wiped the village off the face of the planet without question, no longer existed. Roland was painfully aware of that. The order had been a test of loyalty, and Stoyan failed. Roland didn’t just require loyalty, he demanded unquestioning devotion. When he failed to receive it, he must’ve decided to destroy the entire force.
A waste, Hugh realized. Hugh had sunk years into building the Iron Dogs, and Roland tossed them away like garbage.
Much like Roland had thrown him away. No, not thrown away. I was his right hand. He’s cut me off. What kind of a man cuts off his hand before going into a fight?
This new heretical thought sat in his brain, burning and refusing to fade.
He groped for the tether of magic to banish the uncertainty and found only the void. It sank its fangs into his soul. The invisible tie connected him and Roland even when the magic waves waned, and technology held the upper hand. It was always there. It had linked them since the moment Roland had shared his blood with him. Now it was gone.
The void scraped the inside of his skull, the new sharp thoughts seared his mind, and he had no way to steady himself. An urge to scream and smash something gripped him. He needed liquor, and a lot of it.
The four men watched him. He’d known each one for years. He’d hand-selected them, trained them, fought with them, and now they wanted something from him. They wouldn’t let him alone.
“Unless we do something, none of us will be alive this time next year,” Felix said.
“What is it you want to do?” He already knew, but he asked anyway.
“We want you to lead us,” Stoyan said. “The Dogs know you. They trust you. If they know you’re alive, they will find you. We can pull in the stragglers and hold against Nez.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking.” To stay awake and anchored to reality, with the void chewing on him. He would go mad.
“I’m not asking.” Stoyan stepped in front of him. “I trusted you. I followed you. Not Roland. Roland didn’t make me promises. You did. You sold me this idea of belonging to something better. The Iron Dogs are more than a job. A brotherhood, you said.”
“A family, where each of us stands for something greater,” Lamar said.
“If you fall, the rest will shield you,” Bale said.
“Well, by God, we’re falling,” Stoyan said.
Rene’s head stared at Hugh from the table. He’d saved Rene back then, many years ago, in Paris. He’d saved him again and again, in battle. In the sea of shit and blood that Hugh made, that was the one good thing he had done. Nez killed Rene for one reason only – to stab at him. No matter what he did from now on, Hugh would always have Rene’s death. He would carry it.
He’s dead now. Because of me. Because I wasn’t there. Because he was here instead, wallowing in self-pity and trying to drown the red-hot vise that clamped his skull.
Hugh studied the head, committing every detail to memory and hurled the image into the void. The old days were gone. He would fill the bottomless hole with rage or it would drive him insane. Either way made no difference.
“Do you know why you’re still alive?” Lamar asked. “Every day, every week, there are less of us, but you’re still breathing. If we found you, Nez can, too. I bet he knows exactly where you are.”
“I’m alive, because he wants me to be the last,” Hugh said. “He wants me to know.”
Nez wanted him to watch as his necromancers tore apart everything he had built, and when nothing was left, he would come calling to squeeze the last bit of blood out of the stone. Nez wanted him awake and sober. No fun chasing a dog who didn’t run. Fine. He’d be awake.
“What do we have?” Hugh asked.
“Three hundred and two men, including us,” Stoyan said.
“Whatever each one of us carries,” Bale said.
“None,” Lamar said. “We’re close to starving.”
Felix shook his head.
Hugh’s mind cycled through the possibilities. Rock bottom wasn’t the worst place to start from, and the Dogs who’d managed to stay alive were probably the smartest or strongest. He had three hundred trained killers. A man could do worse.
“We have the barrels,” Stoyan said.
“All of them.”
Life kicked him, then blew him a kiss. “Good.”
Hugh strode to the door and flung it open. Fresh air greeted him. A small, ugly town sat in front of him, little more than a street with a few buildings and a rural road, leading into the distance and disappearing between some fields. A sunset splashed over the horizon, dying slowly, and the three street lamps had come on already, spilling watery electric light onto the stretch of road in front of him. He remembered oppressive heat, but the air was cooler now.
“Fall or spring?” he asked.
“September,” Lamar told him.
“What is this town?”
“Connerville, Tennessee,” Stoyan said.
The last thing he remembered was Beaufort, South Carolina.
“Where is Nez?”
“In Charlotte,” Lamar told him. “He’s set up a permanent base there.”
Far enough to keep out of Atlanta and the surrounding lands. They belonged to Daniels now. But not so far that Nez couldn’t bring the Legion down if Roland became displeased with his precious daughter.
Stabilize three hundred Iron Dogs, arm them, and find a base to keep them alive. Simple to visualize, complicated to execute. Most of all, he had to convince Nez that attacking them now wasn’t in his best interests. If he kept the Dogs alive through the winter, by spring he would have enough people trained.
The bottle of moonshine called to him. He didn’t have to turn around to know exactly where it was, tempting him to do what severed limbs did – wither and rot. And while he rotted, his people would die one by one.
No. No, he owed Nez a debt. He was Hugh d’Ambray, Preceptor of the Iron Dogs. The Dogs paid their debts.
Magic rolled over the land. Hugh couldn’t see it, but he felt an exhilarating rush that tore through him, washing away the headache that pounded at the base of his skull. The electric lamps winked out, and twisted glass tubes of fey lanterns flared into life with eerie indigo light.
He raised his hand and let his magic flow out. A pale blue glow bathed his fingers. Felix grunted as his nose knitted back together.
Hugh picked up Rene’s head. They would bury him tonight.
“Find me some clothes. And call Nez. Tell him I want to talk.”
Black Fire Stables spread across twenty acres about a two-hour horse ride east of Charlotte. The large solid house sat in the middle of the lawn, on a rolling hillside, with stables to one side and a covered riding arena to the other. The tech was up, and the inside of the house glowed with warm electric light. Sweet green grass stretched into the distance, to the wall of the forest, shaded here and there by copses of pines, their needles carpeting the soil in a brown blanket. Red and pink roses bloomed at the gate. A rooster perched on the fence. As Hugh rode up, it cocked its head and gave him and the men behind him the evil eye.
He brought Stoyan, Lamar, and Bale with him. He needed to get Lamar’s take on Nez’s strength and Bale’s axe would help to cut them out if things went sideways. He’d sent Felix to gather what was left of the Iron Dogs, and by all rights, he should’ve sent Stoyan with him too, but that would mean listening to Bale and Lamar bickering the entire way with nobody to shut them up except him. There was only so much he could take.
Hugh halted his horse before the gate. The borrowed mare Stoyan had found somewhere wouldn’t cut it, especially not with Nez. They had to appear strong. He needed a horse, a war stallion. Problem was, he had no money.
Until a few months ago, money had been an abstract concept. He understood prices, he haggled on occasion, but he never worried about where it came from. It was something he traded for goods and services, and when he needed more, he simply asked for it, and in a few days, it was there, in the appropriate account or in his hand. Now all of his accounts had been cut off. He didn’t have a dime to his name. He must’ve earned money somehow to keep himself drunk, and he vaguely remembered fighting, but most of the months between his banishment and Rene’s head had vanished into the darkness of alcohol haze.
The door of the farm house swung open. Matthew Ryan hurried out, stocky, balding, a big smile on his broad face, as if nothing had changed. The past stabbed at Hugh. You were something. Now you’re nothing.
“Come in, come in.” Ryan pulled the gate open. “Maria just got the table set. Come in!”
They rode up to the house, dismounted, and went inside.
The dinner was a blur, superimposed on the composite of his memories. He’d come to this ranch three times before. Each time he’d been treated to dinner and left with a horse. He sat there, watching his people attack mashed potatoes like starving wolves and tried to get a grip on reality. It kept slipping through his fingers.
After dinner, he and Ryan sat on the back porch of the house, beers in hand, watching the Friesians run through the pasture. The Friesians were his breed, jet black, built like light draft horses, but fast, nimble, and lively. He’d gotten his last three stallions from these stables. He’d paid at a premium for them, too. They were his mark, vicious black horses with flowing manes.
On the far right a stallion ran a lazy circle around his pasture, black mane flowing, his coat shiny like polished silk, high-stepping gait… Black fire in motion. Yeah, that one would do.
“I need a horse,” Hugh said.
Here came the part he detested. “I can’t pay you now.” The words tasted foul in his mouth. “But you know I’m good for it.”
“We heard. Terrible business, that,” Ryan said. “Work for the man for years and have nothing to show for it. Shame, that’s what that is. A damn shame.” He let it hang.
Hugh drank his beer. He wouldn’t beg, and Ryan knew better than to push him.
“I’ve got no stallions right now. Nothing but the breeding stock.”
Bullshit. Ryan bred war horses, big and mean. In the post-Shift world, where tech and magic switched, a good horse was worth more than a car. It always worked. People who came to Ryan for a horse didn’t want a gelding.
Ryan glanced at him and shrank away, before he caught himself. A small drop of sweat formed on his temple. That’s right. Remember who you’re talking to.
“I want to show you something.” Ryan turned and yelled into the house. “Charlie, bring Bucky out. And tell Sam to come here.”
Hugh took another sip of his beer.
Ryan’s oldest son, stocky, with the same blunt features carved out of wet mud with a shovel, trotted over to the barn to the left.
A kid walked out onto the porch. Lean, dark-haired. Young, eighteen or so. There was some of Ryan there, in the broad cast of his shoulders, but not much. Must’ve gone into the mother’s side of the family.
The doors of the barn swung open, and a stallion strolled out into the small pasture.
“What the hell is this?” Hugh set his beer down.
“That’s Bucky. Bucephalus.”
Bucky turned, the afternoon sun catching his coat. He was gray gone to pure white. He practically glowed. Like a damn unicorn.
“He isn’t a Friesian,” Hugh ground out.
“Spanish Norman horse,” Ryan said. “A Percheron and Andalusian cross. Picked him up at auction. He’s big the way you like them. Seventeen hands.”
Hugh turned and looked at him.
Ryan squirmed in his seat.
“You’re trying to give me a cold blooded horse?” Hugh asked, his voice quiet and casual.
“He’s warm blooded.” Ryan raised his hands. “Look at the gait. Look at the lines. That’s Andalusian lines right there. The neck is long and the legs…”
Oh, he saw the Andalusian, all right, but he saw the Percheron, too, in the size and the big chest. Percherons ran too cold blooded for fight under the saddle; all that slow-twitch, bulky muscle dragged down their reaction time. They were difficult to anger, slow to charge, and heavy on their feet. Everything he didn’t want.
Hugh looked at Ryan.
Ryan swallowed. “He’s comfortable under the saddle. Trust me on this, after a Friesian, your backside will thank you. No feathers, so less grooming. He jumps like a Thoroughbred. Look at the lines of the head. That’s a beautiful head.”
“He is white.”
“Nobody is perfect,” Ryan said.
In his mind, Hugh reached out and squeezed Ryan’s neck until the rancher’s face turned red and his head popped.
Maria, Ryan’s wife, came up to the doorway and froze. The young kid held completely still, waiting and watching Hugh’s face.
“I bought him to breed. I thought I would diversify, you know?” Ryan was babbling now. “Had a particular mare in mind, but that deal fell through. He’s a good stallion. Powerful and fast. Bad-tempered. Bit the shit out of me and the stable hands.”
Hugh stared at him.
Sweat broke out on Ryan’s forehead. His hands shook, his words tumbling out too fast.
“You two will get along. He’s like you.”
“A big, mean sonovabitch that nobody wants.” Ryan realized what he’d blurted out. His face went white.
A stunned silence claimed the porch.
“I didn’t mean it…” Ryan said.
A cold realization rolled over Hugh, smothering all anger. He would take this horse. He had no choice.
He had no choice.
It felt like he’d fallen off of somewhere high and smashed face-first into the stone ground. A year ago, Ryan would’ve paraded every one of his stallions in front of him and he’d have had his pick.
Hugh rose slowly, walked down the steps into the grass, approached the pasture, and vaulted over the fence. Bucky spun in place and stared at Hugh. A scar crossed the horse’s white head. Someone had taken a blade of some sort to him.
Bucky blew the air out of his nostrils, his amber eyes fixed on Hugh. A dominant stance. Fine.
Hugh stared back.
The stallion bared his teeth.
Hugh showed his own teeth and bit the air.
Bucky hesitated, unsure.
Once a horse decided to bite, there was no stopping it. Sooner or later you would get bitten, especially if the horse was a habitual biter. Some bit because they were jealous; others to show displeasure or get attention. Horses, like dogs and children, followed the principle that any attention, even negative, was still attention and therefore worth the effort.
A war stallion would bite to dominate.
He had to demonstrate that he wouldn’t be dominated. Once the biting started, it was difficult to stop. Yelling, hitting the horse, or biting it back, as one guy he remembered used to do, had no effect. The point was to not get bitten in the first place. You treated a war stallion with respect, and you approached it like you were first among equals.
Bucky stared at him.
“Come on,” Hugh said, his voice calm, reassuring. Words didn’t matter, but the sound of his voice did. When it came to humans, horses relied on their hearing more than their vision.
Bucky pawed the ground.
“You’re just wasting time now. Come on.”
The stallion eyed him again. In his years Hugh had seen all sorts of horses. The Arabians who would rather die than step on a human foot; the strict, mean horses from Russian steppes that gave all of themselves, but forgave nothing; the German Hanoverians that would just as well walk through a man as around… With a cross like this he couldn’t tell what the hell he was going to get, but he’d ridden horses since he was ten years old, all those long decades ago.
Their gazes locked. There was a fire inside that horse, and it shone through his eyes. A mean sonovabitch nobody wanted. You will do. You belong with me.
“Come. I don’t have all day.”
Bucky sighed, raised his ears, and walked over. Hugh patted the warm neck, feeling the tight cords of muscle underneath, dug the sugar cube he’d stolen from Ryan’s kitchen out of his pocket, and let warm lips swipe it off his palm. Bucky crunched the sugar.
“I knew it,” Ryan said from behind the fence. The kid behind him rolled his eyes.
Bucky turned his head and showed Ryan his teeth.
Hugh stroked the stallion’s neck. “How much do you want for him?”
“A favor,” Ryan said.
The man really didn’t know when to stop pushing. “What do you want?”
Ryan nodded at his youngest son. “Take Sam with you.”
What the bloody hell? “I just told you I couldn’t pay you for the horse, and you want me to take your son with me. You know who I am. You know what I do. He’ll be dead in a month.”
“I can’t keep him.” Pain twisted Ryan’s face. “He isn’t right in the head.”
Hugh squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. It was that or he really would strangle the man. He opened his eyes and looked at the kid.
“How old are you?”
“Seventeen,” the kid said, his face flat. His eyes were dull. A liability at best, a pain in the ass at worst.
“What’s your name?”
“Are you slow?”
“I didn’t mean like that.” Ryan grimaced. “He can’t act like normal people. He doesn’t know when to stop. He caught a horse thief last month. Now, you catch a horse thief, you beat the shit out of him. Everyone understands that. That’s how things are done. You don’t get a rope and try to hang the man. If I had found him, that would be one thing. The Sheriff saw him getting ready to string the thief up.”
Hugh raised his eyebrows at the boy.
“He stole from us,” Sam said, his voice flat.
“He had the rope over the tree ready to go right there by the damn road. Why hang him by the road, I ask you?”
“A warning is only good if people see it,” Hugh said.
Sam looked up, surprise flashing in his eyes, and looked back down. The kid wasn’t as dim as he pretended.
“He was always like this. He fights and don’t know when to stop. The Sheriff told me he would let that one go, but this idiot doesn’t think he did anything wrong.”
“He stole from us.” A harsh note crept into Sam’s voice. “If one person steals and we don’t do anything, they will keep stealing.”
“See?” Ryan reached over and smacked the kid upside the head. Sam’s head jerked from the blow. He righted himself.
“Sheriff says he tries it again, he’ll end up in a cage for the rest of his life, or they’ll string him up instead and save everyone the trouble. He just isn’t made for ranch life. It’s not in him. At least this way he’s got a chance. You take him and Bucky, we’re even.”
Hugh looked at the kid. “You want to die fast?”
Sam shrugged. “Everyone dies.”
The void scoured Hugh’s soul with sharp teeth.
“Get your shit,” Hugh said. “We’re leaving.”
The magic was still down.
The tall, gleaming office towers that once proudly marked Charlotte’s Downtown had fallen long ago, reduced to heaps of rubble by magic. The waves would keep worrying at the refuse, grinding it to dust until nothing was left. Magic fought all technology, but it hated large structures the most, bringing them down one by one, as if trying to erase the footprint of the technological civilization off the face of the planet.
With construction equipment functioning barely half of the time and gasoline supplies limited and pricey, clearing thousands of tons of rubble proved an impossible task, and Charlotte did what most cities decided to do in the same situation: it settled. It carved a road roughly following the old Tryon street, with hills of concrete and twisted steel beams bordering it like the walls of a canyon, and called it a day. Stalls had sprung up here and there, clustered where the road widened, selling all the fine luxuries the post-Shift world had to offer: “beef” that smelled like rat meat, old guns that jammed on the first shot, and magical potions, which followed the tried-and-true ancient recipe of ninety-nine parts tap water to one part food coloring. This early in the morning, only half an hour past sunrise, most of the vendors were still setting up. In another half hour, they would start squawking and lunging at the travelers, trying to hawk their wares, but for now, the road was blissfully quiet.
It didn’t matter, because for once Hugh didn’t have a hangover. Yesterday, after they’d left Black Fire behind, they’d spent in the open, at an old campground. He’d wanted to drink himself into a stupor, but then he would be no good the next day, so he stayed sober. His mood had soured overnight, and when he came outside in the morning and found Sam waiting with the rest, the irritation heated up to a simmering hate.
He hated Charlotte. He hated the way it looked, the way it smelled, the rubble, the tortured skyline of the city, the white stallion under him, and the void waiting just beyond the border of awareness, ready to swallow him. He thought of getting off this damned horse, finding a hole within the rubble, laying down, and just letting it eat at his soul until there was nothing left. But he had a feeling the four men riding behind him would pull him out, set him back on the horse, and force him to keep going. There was nothing left to do but stew in his own hate.
“Friends.” Bale grinned and patted his axe.
Hugh glanced up. An emaciated figure crouched on top of the wall of the rubble canyon on the far left. Thin, a skeleton corded with muscle, the creature hunkered down on all fours, as if it had never walked upright, its hairless hide turned to a sickly bluish gray by undeath. It was too far to see much of its face, but Hugh saw the eyes, red and glowing with all-consuming hunger. No thoughts, no awareness, nothing except bloodlust, wrapped in magic that turned his stomach. A vampire.
Not a loose one. Loose bloodsuckers slaughtered everything with a pulse, feeding until nothing alive remained. No, this one was piloted by a navigator. Somewhere, within the secure rooms of Landon Nez’s base, a necromancer sat, probably sipping his morning coffee, telepathically gripping the blank slate that was the undead’s mind. When the vampire moved, it was because the navigator willed it. When it spoke, the navigator’s voice would come out of its mouth. He never liked the breed, the undead and the navigators both.
“A welcoming committee,” Stoyan said.
“Nice to be recognized,” Lamar quipped.
“Have you found a base?” Hugh asked.
“I found several,” Lamar said. “None that would have us.”
“What’s the problem?” Bale demanded.
“We are the problem,” Lamar said. “We have baggage in addition to a rich and varied history.”
“What are you on about?” Bale asked.
“He means we’ve double-crossed people before,” Stoyan told him. “Nobody wants Landon Nez as an enemy, and nobody wants to take a chance on us stabbing them in the back.”
“We need someone desperate and willing to overlook our past sins,” Lamar said. “That takes time.”
Hugh wished for something to happen. Some release. Someone to kill.
Bucky raised his tail and shit on the road.
“You gonna clean that up?” a male voice challenged.
Thank you. Thank you so much for volunteering.
Hugh touched the reins. Bucky turned.
A tall, dark-haired man stood on the side of the road. In shape. Loose clothes, light stance, plain sword, no frills. Flat eyes. There was emotion in the voice, but none in the eyes. He wasn’t angry or riled up.
Behind him another man and a woman waited; the man shorter and stockier, holding a light mace, the woman armed with another plain sword. Long blond hair.
This was a test. Nez wanted to see if the months of drinking had taken their toll. Disappointment slashed through Hugh. He couldn’t take his time. He would have to do this fast.
Hugh dismounted and held out his hand. Stoyan pulled his sword out and put it in Hugh’s palm. Hugh started toward the three fighters.
“Should we–” Sam started.
“Shut it,” Bale told him.
The leading fighter stepped forward. The man moved well, light on his feet despite his size. Hugh swung the sword in a lazy circle, warming up his wrist.
The shorter man stalked to his right; the woman moved to his left with catlike grace.
He waited until they positioned themselves. “All set?”
The leader attacked, his sword striking so fast, it was a blur. Hugh moved, letting the blade slice through the air half an inch from his cheek, and slashed, turning into the blow. The blade of Stoyan’s sword met the mercenary’s neck and sliced clean through it in a diagonal cut. The man’s head rolled off his shoulders, but Hugh was already turning. He batted the woman’s sword aside, dodged the mace, and brought the sword down in a devastating cut. The blade caught her shoulder and carved through one breast and split her stomach. She stumbled back. Hugh spun. The macer swung again, aiming for Hugh’s arm. Hugh leaned out of the way, catching the mace’s handle on the upswing, throwing his strength and weight against the man, and driving the blade up through the man’s liver into his heart. The macer was the only one to realize what was coming. His eyes widened as the blade pierced his gut. The lights went out. Hugh shoved him back, freeing the blade with a sharp tug, and turned.
The woman was still alive, but barely. He’d cut a subclavian vein and opened the superior vena cava. She would bleed out in another minute or so. He crouched by her. Her breath was coming in shallow rapid gulps. Hugh wiped the sword with her pretty blond hair, got up, and handed the blade to Stoyan. Sam stared at him, his face slack.
“I think you didn’t look hard enough for a base,” Bale said.
“I wouldn’t do so much of that if I were you,” Lamar said.
Hugh nudged Bucky, and the white stallion started down the road.
“Thinking. It’s not your strong suit.”
“One day, Lamar,” Bale growled.
The void ate at Hugh. He closed his eyes for a long moment, trying to shut it out. When he opened them, he was still in Charlotte, still riding, and the air around him smelled like blood.
The canyon of debris widened. Shops and eateries popped up here and there, evidence of the city fighting back against the rubble. All were post-Shift, new construction: thick walls, simple shapes, and bars on the windows.
“Was that vampire from the People?” Sam asked.
“The Golden Legion,” Stoyan said.
“Is that like the People?”
“The necromancers who work for Roland call themselves the People,” Stoyan explained.
“They call themselves that because they feel they are the only people. The rest of us are lesser mortals,” Lamar said.
“The best one hundred of the People make up the Golden Legion,” Stoyan said. “The Legion is led by a Legatus, the prick we’re riding to meet. Each Master of the Dead in the Legion can pilot more than one undead. A Master of the Dead can wipe out a U.S. Army platoon with one undead.”
“Depending on how big the platoon is,” Lamar said. “Regulation size for a platoon is between sixteen and forty soldiers. Forty would be pushing it for one bloodsucker. The Legion would need at least two, maybe three if the platoon is well trained.”
“The point is,” Bale said, “when we meet the Legatus, you’ll be deaf and dumb, Sam, you get me? If I hear one squeak out of you, you’ll wish you were back on the ranch getting strung up by that sheriff your daddy is so afraid of.”
“How will I know if he’s the Legatus?” Sam asked.
Hugh thought about turning around and knocking him off his horse to shut him up, but it would take too much effort.
“Because he’ll look like the rest of the People,” Stoyan said. “Like an asshole in an investment banker’s suit.”
“That’s redundant,” Lamar pointed out.
“Who’s Roland?” Sam asked.
“Someone you need to steer clear of,” Stoyan said.
“An immortal wizard with a megalomaniac complex who wants to rule the world,” Lamar said.
“Why does he want us dead?” Sam asked.
“All you need to know is that he does,” Bale growled. “Now shut the fuck up, or I’ll count your teeth with my fist and then you’ll be busy picking them up out of the dirt.”
The path turned. Ahead, on the left, a Viking mead hall stood on the corner. Built with thick timber, with a roof of wooden shingles, the mead hall resembled an upside-down longboat. A sign on the side proclaimed, “Welcome to Valhalla.”
On the side, a low deck offered several wooden tables, flanked by short benches. Landon Nez sat at the corner table, in plain view of the street.
There you are.
Landon hadn’t changed in the past few months. Still lean, like he was twisted together from steel wire. Same sharp eyes. His dark hair fell loose around his face. He wore a tailored charcoal suit. Good fabric, no padding on the shoulders, fitted through the waist, the English cut. About a grand, Hugh decided.
The Legatus of the Golden Legion. The most powerful Master of the Dead Roland could find besides himself or his daughter.
Landon nodded to him. Hugh nodded back. They’d been trying to kill each other for most of the last decade. The urge to borrow Stoyan’s sword and ride Landon down was almost too much.
“Is he Native?” Sam asked quietly.
“Navajo,” Stoyan said under his breath. “They kicked him out for piloting vampires.”
Hugh altered course, aiming for Landon. Bucky obliged.
“Join me?” Landon raised a cup of coffee.
“Why not.” Hugh swung from his saddle, tossed the rein on the hook in the rail, walked up the two short steps, and landed on a bench opposite Landon.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Stoyan and the rest of his people turn and park themselves across the street at a breakfast taco hole-in-the-wall.
“Coffee?” Landon asked.
“Nah. Trying to quit.”
“What are you doing in my neck of the woods?”
“Have I told you you’re lousy at sounding folksy?”
Folksy didn’t come naturally to Nez, and he did it in a trained bear fashion, like a circus animal forced to perform against his will. If you decided to go that route, you had to mean it and sound genuine. Landon Nez had walked out of the Navajo Nation with nothing and climbed his way all the way to a Harvard Ph.D and the top of the People’s food chain. The man would stab himself in the eye rather than be confused with common rabble.
Landon raised his eyebrows.
“It’s just us.” Hugh hit him with a broad grin. “Just go ahead and be the snobby prick you are.”
“Why are you here, d’Ambray?”
“Came to see a man about a horse.”
Landon glanced at Bucky. “Your horses do seem to be getting bigger and bigger. But white? Don’t you think it’s a bit on the nose?”
“Felt like it was time for a change. How’s life been treating you?”
Landon gave a one-shouldered shrug. “Same as always. Research. Management. Undeath is a demanding mistress.”
It would only take a second. Reach across, snap his neck. End all his earthly burdens.
He wouldn’t make it. Nez would never come here unprotected.
“What about you?” Landon asked. “Planning new campaigns?”
Here it was, probing for weaknesses. “Settling down,” Hugh said.
“There is a time and a place for everything.” Hugh leaned back. “I’ve got a nice place picked out. Good supply, good defenses. Trees.”
“Trees?” Landon blinked.
Hugh nodded. “Eventually a man’s got to put down roots. Looking forward to sitting on my porch drinking a cold beer.”
Landon stared at him a second too long. Got you.
The Legatus drank his coffee. “Have you heard any odd news from the North?”
Odd. “There is always odd news from the North.”
A shadow of alarm flickered through Landon’s eyes. The Legatus grimaced and nodded. “That’s the truth.”
They stared at each other in silence.
“Do you miss him?” Landon asked quietly.
The void yawned in his face. Missed? The memories alone tore him apart. The clarity of purpose, the warm glow of approval, the flow of magic between them… The certainty.
“There’s more to life than being a dog on a leash.” Hugh rose. “Got to leave you now. Places to be, people to kill.”
“Always a pleasure, Preceptor.”
Hugh hopped over the wooden rail, mounted his horse, and started down the street. A few moments later his people caught up with him. They rode in silence for another ten minutes.
“How did it go?” Lamar asked.
“He’ll attack us the first chance he gets,” Hugh said. “He would’ve done it already, but something in the North has him worried. He’s a careful asshole, who likes to know every card his opponent is holding. I put a doubt in his head. Right now, he isn’t sure if we have a permanent position or not, so he figures we can wait. We’re easy to find and we’re not going anywhere.”
He would have to tell Felix to send some scouts north when they got back looking for anything strange that would give Nez pause.
The headache was returning, threatening to split his skull. A reminder of too many weeks spent drinking. Hugh gritted his teeth. “Find me a base, Lamar. Someone somewhere needs something protected or something killed.”
“It all depends on the price we’d be willing to pay,” Lamar said.
“I don’t care about the price. Do whatever you have to do. We secure a base, or the Legion slaughters us like pigs come winter.”
“I’m fucking done running.”
Hugh halted and turned.
“Century, halt!” Lamar roared.
Beside Hugh the long column of Iron Dogs came to a stop, huffing and puffing, eighty soldiers arranged in two lines. When he’d come back to Split Rock, where Felix had pulled together the remaining Iron Dogs, he found three hundred and thirty-three people who used to be soldiers. They were ragged, tired, hungry, and their morale was shit.
All military was tribal, his included. For the individual Iron Dog, the cohort was their tribe, the century within the cohort was their village, and the squad within the century was their family. In a fight, the Iron Dogs stood as one. It went back to the basic primal cornerstone of human nature: he who attacks my family must die.
There used to be good-natured competition between the squads, the centuries, and the cohorts, which Hugh encouraged, because it bound the soldiers closer together. But now, with the fragments of cohorts on his hands, he had to reform them into a new unit. Teach a man to fight and you made him into a warrior. He didn’t need warriors. He needed soldiers. To make a soldier, you had to put her with other prospective soldiers and make them go through hell and back together, relying on each other.
They all had memories of walking through blood and fire with their old squad mates. He had to replace those memories with new ones, and so he did the only thing he could do to purge them. He’d cut off Felix’s scout team and formed the rest of his force, three hundred and nineteen soldiers, into a single cohort, which he split into four centuries, eighty people for the first three and seventy-nine in the last. Stoyan, Lamar, Bale, and Felix each took a century. And then he ran them, tired and starving, into exhaustion. He smoked them until their arms could no longer hold their weight. He kept them from sleeping. He did it all with them, picking a different century every day. Respect had to be earned.
The weather had conspired with him. It was hot as hell again. The tents Felix’s people managed to “acquire” – he didn’t ask for details – did the bare minimum to keep out bugs.
They were in their third week of training. Looking at the rage-filled eyes of the Second Century now, Hugh was reasonably sure that they hated his guts, which meant things were proceeding right on schedule.
“What was that, Barkowsky?” Lamar snapped, closing in on a tall, beefy Dog with a freshly sheared head.
“I said, I’m fucking done running.” Barkowsky had about an inch of height on Lamar and he made the most of it, but Lamar was harder and they both knew it.
“What did you say to me?” Lamar started.
“You’re done?” Hugh asked.
“Yeah.” Barkowsky jutted his chin in the air. The manhad been spoiling for a fight for the last three days.
“Then go.” Hugh turned his back.
“What?” Barkowsky asked, his voice faltering.
“Do you see a wall, Dog?” Lamar roared.
The old habit got the best of Barkowsky and he snapped to attention. “No, centurion!”
“Do you see guards posted?”
“Any time you decide to leave, you can, isn’t that right, Dog?”
“This isn’t SEALs. There is no bell to ring to announce you washing out,” Hugh said. “When it gets too hard and you want to give up, just quit. Get your gear and walk away. I need soldiers, not quitters.”
“Forwaard,” Lamar drawled in the time-proven cadence of drill sergeants everywhere. “Double-time, march!”
Hugh started running again. The two lines of the third century moved with him. At least they were in step, he told himself. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Barkowsky fall in to his place and keep pace.
In a perfect world, he would do this for another three weeks. He wasn’t working with raw recruits, but seasoned soldiers. Six weeks, eight max, and he would have some semblance of a unified fighting force. He didn’t have another three weeks. The game Felix’s scouts brought and what little they managed to purchase with the remainder of their money were their only sources of food. He couldn’t put his people through the crucible without feeding them. The Dogs were burning through the food supply like wildfire through dry brush. Once grain and potatoes ran out, they would have nothing except venison and rabbit. They needed more than that to keep going.
The woods ended. They ran into the field, heading toward the tall wooden walls of the palisade in the middle of it. Above the simple fortification, the sunset was beginning, painting the sky with red and yellow.
Three minutes later, they ran through the gates.
“Century, halt,” Lamar snapped.
The twin lines of the third century halted.
The sweaty, exhausted Dogs turned to face Hugh. Lamar looked no worse for wear.
“Tell your Preceptor thank you for the lovely stroll through the beautiful countryside.”
“Thank you, Preceptor,” the third century roared.
A magic wave rolled over them. Hugh reached for the familiar power and concentrated.
The twin lines broke as the Dogs shuffled their way past him, toward their tents. A faint blue glow emanated from him, clamping each soldier in turn. He healed their blisters, cuts, and bruises in a split second. They moved past him, murmuring their thanks.
“Thank you, Preceptor.”
“Thank you, Preceptor.”
“Thank you, Preceptor.”
The last Dog headed to her tent.
His stomach wailed. He healed them every day, and the rations he took were barely enough to keep him alive. Soon he would cross the line where his body ran out of reserves to compensate.
Lamar halted before him. His gaze strayed past Hugh.
“What?” Hugh asked.
“He’s doing it again.”
Hugh turned. In the small corral before his tent, Bucky glowed. A silver light shone from the stallion’s flanks, as if each hair in his coat was coated in liquid moonlight.
Hugh gritted his teeth. The next time he saw Ryan, he would kill him.
Bucky pranced in the corral.
“Everything but the horn,” Lamar said, his voice filled with pretended awe.
“Do you have something to report, or did you come to jerk my chain?”
“Good news or bad news?”
“Bad news,” Hugh said.
“We have food for five days.”
In five days, they were done. The soldiers would need more than just meat; they burned too much energy for that. They required starches. Corn, grain, rice. There were none to be had. They were out of money and unless they resorted to robbery, which would bring law enforcement on their heads, they were finished.
Stoyan emerged from the first century’s tent and pretended to loiter. Bale joined him. From the other side, Felix came up and pretended to be very interested in Bucky, who was still glowing up a storm. They were up to something.
“Good news?” Hugh asked.
“I found a base.”
“Berry Hill, Kentucky, in the Knobs.”
Berry Hill. Sounded like something out of a child’s cartoon. Hugh racked his brain, trying to remember what he knew about Kentucky. The eastern part of the state, the Eastern Coal Fields, was mostly forested hills bisected by narrow valleys. It flowed into the Bluegrass region in the north and central part of the state, where gently rolling hills offered the perfect horse country. South of Bluegrass spread Pennyroyal, a massive limestone plain full of sinkholes and caves. On the edge of Bluegrass, stretched in a rough semicircle from Pennyroyal to the Eastern Coal Fields, lay the Knobs; hundreds of steep isolated hills, like cones set to mark the border. Post-Shift, they were drowning in forest.
“East or West side?”
“West,” Lamar said. “Closest city is Sanderville, population about ten thousand, give or take. Berry Hill is a nice settlement, about four thousand people, mostly families with children. Excellent farm land, rich in supplies. The village is built by a lake.”
“Mhm.” Why did he have a feeling there was a ‘but’ coming. “Any militia?”
“Not enough to protect them. They are mostly nature magic types. Some witches, a few stray druids.”
The feeling grew stronger. “Why do they need protection?”
“Landon Nez is after their land. There is some sort of magically saturated spot on it Roland wants. Landon can’t go after them directly, because he’s been warned by the Feds that land grabbing won’t be tolerated, so he recruited some asshole politician from Sanderville to harass them into selling their land to the town. Sanderville is escalating the pressure, and they don’t want an all-out conflict.”
Bucky trotted over. Hugh reached out and patted the stallion’s cheek.
“Because their leader does the kind of magic that panics good old regular folk,” Lamar said. “They are trying to put down roots. They don’t want people coming for them with pitchforks and torches. They’re desperate.”
“And they think adding three hundred trained soldiers to their settlement will be enough of a deterrent.”
“In a nutshell.”
It sounded perfect. The settlement already had an issue with Landon. They had no militia to speak of, which meant there would be very little conflict. They had supplies that would keep his people fed.
Stoyan and Bale had drifted close enough to hear the conversation and were eyeing him.
“What’s the catch?” Hugh asked.
“They don’t trust us,” Lamar said. “We walked away from Patterson, and Willis. Both when they needed us the most. They expect us to betray them.”
“We followed orders,” Hugh said.
“It was still a betrayal.”
He puzzled over it. Roland wanted them out of those conflicts, so he took his people out. He tried to remember if he had argued against it. He wanted to think he did, but his recall was cloudy. The precise memory of the events slipped through his fingers as if he were trying to pick up water in his fist. He pulled his troops out, and their former allies died. An echo of guilt rose from the depths of his memories, and he pushed it away.
Did I even argue against it?
Yes. He did. There was a phone call when Roland told him to abandon Willis. Hugh was sure of it.
Things had been much simpler then. He didn’t have to wonder if it was right. Roland wanted it, therefore it was right. He longed for that simplicity, and at the same time, a hot, angry thought surfaced in his brain. He went back on his word. His word wasn’t worth shit. He should’ve been able to say, “I’ll do it” and that should’ve been enough assurance to guarantee an alliance.
“Their track record isn’t much better,” Lamar said. “They had an agreement with a town in West Virginia and ended up bailing on them three years ago. Before that, they bounced from town to town, either leaving because they didn’t like it or getting run off by the locals. The information is conflicting.”
“Why do they keep running?”
“There are some nasty rumors about the kind of magic they practice.” Lamar hesitated.
“Spit it out.”
“The story is, our peaceful nature magic users had some disagreements with a few covens in Louisiana. The covens decided to wipe them out and banded together during the flare. Not the last one, the one before that.”
If a normal magic flood was a wave, a flare was a tsunami. It came once every seven years. During the flare, magic reigned for several days. Weird shit crawled out of their hiding places, gods walked the earth, and impossible things became possible.
During that flare, Roland had destroyed Omaha.
“The covens called themselves the Arcane Covenant. When the flare came, they summoned something, a horde of dire wolves or demons, nobody quite knows,” Lamar continued. “They should’ve wiped our nature guys off the face of the planet, but here they are alive and thriving, while the Arcane Covenant is dead as a doorknob. Rumor says human sacrifice was involved.”
“Terrific.” Of all the fucked-up magic, human sacrifice was the one threshold even Roland wouldn’t cross. It opened the door to old, primal powers nobody wanted to resurrect.
“Nobody has proof that any of it happened,” Lamar said. “But it makes the alliance appear shaky. We’re both desperate, and Nez will expect us to cut and run the moment things get hairy.”
Hugh leaned on the corral’s fence. That was a problem. The only way to hold off Nez was to project a show of strength. The alliance had to appear unbreakable, otherwise Landon would expect them to fracture and attack anyway. Lamar was right. They had to overcome that burden. They had to appear completely united.
“There is a tried-and-true method of making an alliance appear secure,” Lamar said carefully.
Hugh glanced at him.
“A union,” Lamar said, as if worried the word would cut his mouth.
“A civil union, Preceptor.”
“What the hell are you on about?”
Lamar took a deep breath.
“Marriage!” Bale yelled out.
Hugh stared at Lamar. “Marriage?”
They had to be out of their minds. “Who would be getting married?”
The realization hit him like a ton of bricks, and he said the first thing that popped into his head. “Who would marry me?”
“You’re handsome, a big, imposing figure of a man, and um…” Lamar scrounged for some words. “And they’re desperate.”
“What the hell have you been smoking? I’m penniless, I’m exiled, I own nothing…” He left out broken.
“And a recovering alcoholic.” Lamar nodded. “Yes, but again, they’re desperate. And we’re running out of food.”
Hugh shut his eyes for a long moment. The world was sliding sideways, and he really needed to get a grip.
“Who would I be marrying?”
“The White Warlock.”
Hugh’s eyes snapped open. “You want me to marry a man?”
“No!” Lamar shook his head vigorously. “It’s a woman. A woman. Not a man.”
Thank God for small favors. He couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of his voice. “Well, I’m relieved it hasn’t quite come to that.”
“It’s a business arrangement before anything else,” Lamar said quickly. “But if you’re married, that will cement the alliance together. You said yourself, you told Nez you were ready to settle down. He will believe the marriage.”
“They have a castle,” Stoyan said. “Apparently, some rich guy bought an old castle in England before the Shift, had it disassembled, and brought to Kentucky.”
“You like castles,” Bale said.
“It’s a good defensible position,” Felix said.
“At least meet the woman,” Lamar said.
“Shut up,” Hugh said.
They fell silent.
“Did you come up with this idiotic idea?” Hugh demanded.
“It was a joint effort between me and my equivalent on the other side,” Lamar said. “If it helps, your prospective bride has to be talked into the marriage as well.”
“Perfect. Just perfect.”
He reviewed his options. He had none. He could marry some woman and feed his troops, or he could let them get slaughtered. What the hell, he’d done worse in his life.
“I’ll see her,” he said.
“That’s all we ask,” Lamar said.
The wind died. The tree line was still, the wide leaves of sycamores and frilly foliage of oaks hanging motionlessly in the fading heat of the early evening. Nothing moved.
Elara leaned on the heavy gray stones of the parapet and sent her magic forward. A sick feeling flowed back to her, a greasy, nasty smear on the soothing face of the forest, like an oil spill on the surface of a crystal-clear lake. There you are.
Rook reached for his small notebook, wrote a message, and passed it to her.
Do you see it?
“Yes. It’s alone.”
The blond spy nodded, an impassive look on his tan, scarred face. Logic said he must’ve felt emotions, but if so, they were buried so deep that no hint ever rose to the surface.
“Thank you,” Elara said.
The notebook disappeared into some hidden pocket of his soft leather jacket. He crossed the rampart to the inner edge of the battlements, hopped onto the parapet with the easy grace of an acrobat, jumped down, and vanished out of sight.
The vampire remained where it was, in the shadow of a sycamore, invisible from the wall. But now she knew it was there. There would be no escape.
An undead here, only a few dozen yards from the castle and the settlement on the other side. A creature piloted by a Master of the Dead, capable of carving its way through their settlement.
Next to her Dugas stirred, brushing a persistent insect away from his gray hair. The older man was very tall, and lean to the point of being almost wiry. A scar crossed his face, carving its way through his forehead, the empty orbit of his left eye, and across his cheek until it disappeared into his short beard. Both his beard and hair had gone white long ago, but his eyebrows kept a few black hairs, stubbornly refusing to age. He was wearing his white robe today. It suited him much better than his usual getup of Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt.
The druid stroked his beard. “They’re getting bolder by the day.”
“It would seem that way.” An undead so close to the castle meant a long-range navigator. Likely one of Nez’s Golden Legion Masters of the Dead.
“I’ll get the hunters,” Dugas offered.
“No. I’ll take care of it.”
“They’re due to arrive any minute.”
“All the more reason to handle it myself.” She smiled at him. “I’m faster than the hunters. We wouldn’t want the undead to frighten our delicate guests.”
The druid smiled into his beard. “I have a feeling this guest won’t scare easily.”
“I hope you’re right. Don’t worry. I’ll be back in time.”
She released her magic. It struck out like an invisible whip and splashed against the trunk of a white oak. She inhaled, took a single step toward that anchor, and let the air out.
The world moved.
She stood in the forest now. The wall of the castle lay fifty yards behind her. Massive trees spread their branches above her head. Magic waves destroyed technology, but they nourished the wilderness. The forest around her looked half-a-millennium old. A few yards to the left, and she would come across the remains of ruined houses, completely buried in the greenery.
The vampire ran.
She still didn’t see it, but she felt it scuttle through the underbrush, sprinting away.
Oh no, you don’t.
Elara hurried after it, anchoring and moving, each of her steps swallowing fifteen yards. She could’ve moved faster, but expending magic came at a price. She would have to replace it. Thinking about it turned her stomach.
Thinking about their “guests” turned her stomach, too. She should’ve let Dugas handle the vampire, but tension simmered in her, too close to the surface. She had to let some steam out of the pressure cooker, or she wouldn’t be able to sit through the meeting.
The undead ran for its life, bouncing off the tree trunks. The hunger inside her woke. Elara chased it, losing herself to the speed. The vampire vaulted over a huge fallen tree, and she finally caught a flash of its back, once human skin and now a thick, pallid hide.
Ahead bright red ribbons tied to the tree trunks announced the end of their land. She’d ran four miles.
The undead bolted for the safety of the ribbons, aiming for the gap between two trees.
She released her magic in a cold rush, stepped in front of the vampire, and caught the abomination by its shoulders. Her power clutched it. The hunger clawed at her from the inside. She bared her teeth.
The undead’s red eyes sparked with new, brighter fire – the navigator controlling the vampire had bailed. The sudden death of an undead could turn the navigator into a human vegetable. Those who reached the rank of Master knew when to let go.
The undead flailed, but it was too late. Elara found the small, hot spark of magic within it and swallowed it. She could almost imagine tasting it on her tongue, as if it were a delicious morsel, and for a long moment she savored it.
The vampire went limp. Elara opened her arms, and the sack of dried flesh and bone that once used to be a human body, then an undead, and now was neither, collapsed on the forest floor.
Too little, the hunger howled inside her. More. More!
She chained it again with a brutal effort of will and forced it back into the dark place she kept it.
Elara turned. She was only a few feet away from the narrow ribbon of the road that ran through the woods. Run or sneak a peek? Was it even a choice?
She stepped back a dozen yards, behind a wide old oak, climbed the low-hanging branches, and settled above the ground, melting into the shadows among the foliage, as if she were one with them.
The leading man was tall and dark haired. That matched Dugas’s description.
Her magic splayed out, masking her.
Do not see me.
The man halted his big white horse and turned toward her.
She couldn’t see his face from this distance. She couldn’t feel his magic either, but he had some, she was sure of it.
Do not see me.
Elara couldn’t see his eyes, but all her senses told her he was staring straight at her. An excited shiver ran down her spine.
She was a complete and utter idiot, she decided. Sitting here, hiding like a child afraid to get caught. Well, at least it’s good to be self-aware.
He gave the forest another long look and rode on.
Elara slipped from the tree and dashed back to the castle.
A few minutes later she stepped past the gates, straightened her long green dress, and checked her hair. Something skittered under her fingers. Elara plucked it from the long braid coiled at her neck. A spider. She walked out the gates and gently set it on the grass.
The spider escaped. She wished she could, too. Anxiety flooded her. It’s just nerves, she told herself.
Elara walked up the steps to the wall and touched Dugas’s shoulder. He turned, his brown eyes somber.
“I told you I would make it.”
He shook his head. “I know you don’t want to do this…”
“I don’t. But I’ll do it, for my people.” Perhaps d’Ambray wouldn’t prove too much of a problem.
“Pick up and leave again? No.” She shook her head. “You said it yourself, we’ve been here too long. This is home now. I’m not going to uproot us again. Not for this.”
They were done running. She wouldn’t let Nez win.
A group of riders broke free of the canopy and rode up the road toward the gates. She clenched her hands together. This was ridiculous. She had nothing to be nervous about. She could pull the plug at any time.
The riders grew closer.
Elara nodded at the leader on the white horse. “Is that him?”
Hugh d’Ambray was huge. The stallion underneath him was massive, but the man matched the horse. He had to be well over six feet tall. Wide shoulders. Long limbs. Very lean. Almost as if he should’ve been thirty pounds or so heavier. Dugas did say they were starving.
Starved or not, he looked like he could hold the drawbridge of a castle by himself.
It was suddenly very real. I don’t want to do this.
“You want me to marry Conan the Barbarian?” A drop of acid slid into her tone.
“An attractive barbarian,” Dugas pointed out.
“I suppose so, if you’re looking at it from a purely animalistic point of view.”
“Is his horse glowing?” She squinted at the stallion. If you looked just right, there was a hint of something protruding from its forehead, like a shimmer of hot air.
“It appears so.”
They made a striking image, she admitted. The horse that was glowing with silver and the rider, all in black, his dark hair falling to his shoulders. But she wasn’t interested in striking images.
“He’s been here two minutes, and already he’s riding like he owns everything he sees.”
“He very likely always rides that way. Men like him project confidence. It’s what makes others follow them into battle.”
“We agreed that we needed skilled, violent soldiers with broad backs,” Dugas said. “His back is broad enough.”
The breadth of d’Ambray’s back wasn’t the problem.
She spared a few moments for his people. Two men rode directly behind him, one tall and black, with glasses perching on his nose, and the other athletic and white, with short brown hair and an attractive, smart face. The rider behind them was just a boy, blond and tan. Why bring a boy?
Wolves coming to her door.
The riders reached the gates. D’Ambray raised his head and looked up.
His eyes were a deep, dark blue, and they stared through her. She held his stare.
Most women would find him handsome. He had a strong face, overwhelmingly masculine without a hint of the brutish thickness she’d expected. His jaw was square and strong, the lines of his face defined but not sharp or fragile, and his eyes under a sweep of thick black eyebrows were too shrewd and too cold for comfort. His eyes evaluated her with icy calculation.
She was about to share the power over her people with this man. Alarm squirmed through her. This was a bad idea. A terrible idea.
D’Ambray passed through the gate and out of her view.
“I shouldn’t do this,” Elara whispered to herself.
“Do you want me to send them off?” Dugas asked quietly.
If she said yes, he would.
She had to get a grip. She had to teach d’Ambray who she was. The White Warlock. Unclean. Cursed. An abomination. They would come to this meeting table as equals, and if they chose an alliance, she had to make sure they left as equals.
The magic escaped the world without so much as a whisper, stealing her power. That was fine. She didn’t need magic to make Hugh d’Ambray understand where they stood.
“Let’s wait to throw him out until he balks at our terms.”
“Do you want them in the great hall?” the druid asked.
“No.” She narrowed her eyes. “Put them in the green room. Next to the kitchens.”
The air smelled like fresh bread, just out of the oven, with a crisp golden crust. Hugh’s mouth watered, while his stomach begged. Clever girl.
He once starved a woman to the brink of death, trying to break her. Poetic justice, he reflected.
“The castle is in good shape,” Stoyan said softly behind him.
The castle was in excellent shape. Built with pale grayish-brown stone, the forty-foot-high curtain wall and the massive barbican, the gatehouse protecting the entrance, were both solid, as were the two bastion towers at the corners and the two flanking towers. The bailey, the open space inside the walls, was clean and well-maintained. He didn’t see a well, but they must haveone. The inner structure consisted of a constellation of buildings hugging the main keep, a hundred-foot-tall square tower. He caught a glimpse of the stables and the motor pool, attached to the east wall. The electric lamps suggested they had a working generator.
The place was massive. It needed a moat. Something he would have to remedy.
A large molosser dog trotted in through the open door, wagging its shaggy white tail. He’d seen three so far as they rode up, each over a hundred and twenty pounds. They reminded him of karakachan hounds he’d come across in the Balkans. The dog wandered over to him and Hugh patted its shaggy head. Karakachans were wolf killers. If Lamar was right about the size of their livestock herds, the dogs made sense. The castle and the town attached to the shore of the lake were wrapped in dense forest.
The inside was as well taken care of as the outside. The room where he now sat at a big rustic table was simple, the stone walls without any decoration, but it was clean, his chair was comfortable, and the temperature inside was at least ten degrees cooler. Nice thick walls.
All Hugh had to do now is convince the owner of the castle to let him share it. He got a glance at her as he rode in. Her hair was completely white. Not pale blond or bleached platinum; white. Her hazel eyes were sharp, and she looked at him like she saw a wolf at her door. He wasn’t a wolf. He was something much worse, but he needed her defendable castle and her delicious bread.
Hugh had tried to pin down her age, but the white hair threw him off. Her face looked young, but he’d barely seen anything beyond a glimpse.
Hugh leaned back. She was making him wait. That was fine. He could be patient.
Behind him someone’s stomach growled.
He’d felt something in the forest, on the way here. Something that had raised the hair on the back of his neck. He’d tangled with powers across three continents, and whatever had beenin the woods had tripped all of his alarms.
His gaze stopped on a large hand-painted map above the side door, showing Berry Hill in the center, by the edge of the Silver River Lake, with the castle on the neighboring hill. On the right and slightly above, to the northeast, lay Aberdine, another small post-Shift settlement. Higher still, past the woods, directly north, spread Sanderville. Above it in the distance on the far left was Lexington.
The heavy wooden door opened, and she walked in, followed by a one-eyed older man in a white robe, a black woman in her late forties in a pantsuit, and a petite blond.
Hugh tilted his head and took in his future bride.
Somewhere between twenty-five and thirty. A loose green dress falling almost to the floor, hiding most of her. Nice full breasts. Long legs. Pretty features, big eyes, small mouth, eyebrows darker than her hair, pale brown – probably drawn in or dyed. Tan skin, almost golden. Interesting face. Not exactly beautiful, but feminine and pretty.
A cold expression stamped her face; a hint of arrogance, some pride, and a lot of confidence. There was something regal about her. Queen of the castle.
She would be a massive pain in the ass.
Just get through it.
Hugh rose to his feet. She held out her hand.
“Elara Harper.” Her voice matched her, cold and precise.
He grasped her fingers in his and shook her hand. “Hugh d’Ambray.”
“Nice to meet you.” She sat in the chair opposite him.
Her advisers arranged themselves behind her.
“You already know Dugas,” she said.
He didn’t, but Lamar told him the druid was his counterpart, “a voice of reason.” Someone had sliced up the older man’s face. Hugh met his gaze. Dugas held his stare and smiled. A tough nut to crack.
“This is Savannah LeBlanc.”
The black woman nodded to him. Expensive clothes, professional, well put together, her dark natural hair pulled back from her face and twisted into an elegant bun. She looked like a lawyer. Hugh met her gaze. A witch, a powerful one. He couldn’t feel her magic with tech up, but he’d interacted with enough of them to recognize the bearing. Bad news.
“She is the head witch of our covens,” Elara continued.
Covens. Plural. Interesting.
“This is Johanna Kerry.”
The blond smiled at him. She had to be in her twenties, but to him she looked too young, almost a teenager.
“She is also a witch.”
Interesting crew, these three.
He introduced his people. “Stoyan, Centurion of the First Century. Lamar, Centurion of the Second Century. Bale, Centurion of the Third Century. Felix, Centurion of the Fourth Century. And Sam. He’s here to assess the horses.”
Another blond woman in jeans and a T-shirt slipped into the room through a side door. She was young and pretty, and she looked at him a moment too long.
“Can I get you anything?”
“Iced tea, please, Caitlyn,” Elara said.
The woman ducked into the doorway.
“You need an army,” Hugh said. “We need a base.”
She nodded. “You have an army, and I have a base.”
So far they were in agreement.
“Shall we talk terms?” she asked. “What do you need from us?”
“My people will need barracks, rations, and equipment,” he said.
“That’s reasonable,” she said.
“They aren’t farmers. They won’t be tending the fields or milking your cows. They won’t assist your people in daily tasks unless it’s an emergency.”
She raised her eyebrows. “So what will they be doing all day?”
“They will patrol the grounds. They will drill, perform PT, repair and fortify the castle, and take care of any external threats we will face.”
He slipped that ‘we’ in there. The sooner she saw them as allies, the sooner he would get his people fed.
“PT?” she asked.
“Physical training. You are hiring us as employees with specific jobs. We must be free to do those jobs.”
“I’m picturing three hundred people lying about, eating my food, and drinking my beer all day,” Elara said.
“Only when they are off duty. They will patrol the castle and the outer perimeter in shifts, and if they do choose to drink beer in their off hours, they will pay for it. Which brings me to another point. They will need to be paid.”
Elara leaned back. “You expect me to feed them, clothe them, equip them, and pay them?”
“Yes. I expect them to put themselves between you and danger.”
“If we paid each of your people $500 per month, the bill would come to $150,000 per month. If we had that kind of money, I would hire mercenaries. I wouldn’t have to stoop to this farce of a marriage.”
Stoop? Oh really. “When Nez slaughters your people like cattle, and you walk among their corpses, inhaling their blood, you should tell them that.”
Elara drew back. “I’ve taken care of my people until now. I’ll take care of Nez without you.”
“I can take this castle with twenty people,” Hugh said. “I can burn it to the ground, or I can kill all of you and take it.”
She leaned forward, her eyes fixed on him, icy with rage. “Try it.”
He leaned toward her. “I can do this, because my people are professional soldiers. You will treat them like soldiers.”
“We don’t need you.”
“Yes, you do. I saw Nez a month ago. He’s coming.”
The blond Caitlyn appeared in the doorway. Savannah took the pitcher from her hands, waved her off, and set the tea on the table.
Elara’s eyes narrowed. “And I should take your word for it?”
“The word of a man who betrays his friends?”
“The word of a man who is willing to marry you with all of your baggage. I don’t see a line of suitors outside this door, do you?”
She recoiled. “How do I know you’re not working for Nez?”
“He is the Preceptor of the Iron Dogs!” Stoyan snarled behind him.
Hugh raised his hand. Stoyan snapped his mouth shut.
“Nez wouldn’t bother with subterfuge,” Hugh said. “You’re not worth the trouble. You’re easy pickings.”
She opened her mouth.
“How many of your people can kill a vampire one-on-one?”
She didn’t answer.
“Each one of mine can. They’ve been trained to kill them, because Nez and I spent a decade trying to murder each other. He sent me the head of my childhood friend, and then he and I had coffee in Charlotte a week later. That’s the kind of man Nez is. So snarl all you want, princess. But you will marry me, because you have no choice. You won’t win this fight with farmers. You need a cold, ruthless bastard like me, and I’m the only one here.”
They stared at each other in silence.
“It has to be food, equipment, and board for now,” she said. “Take it or leave it.”
“I’ll take it. In return, you’ll let me make modifications and repairs to this place as I see fit. You will finance it, if needed.”
“We will discuss each modification individually,” she said.
“I may not have the money.”
“Fine. We will discuss the budget for each modification with the understanding that my requests for materials and labor are to be given first priority.”
“Fine,” she ground out. “We do not tolerate crimes here. While your people are here, they will obey the laws. If one of them murders or rapes one of my people, you will kill that soldier. If you don’t, I will, and believe me, they will wish you had done it.”
She’d caved on the upgrades. Hugh had to give her something. “Agreed. I will need fifteen horses.” They were seventeen mounts short, and horses were damn expensive.
Shit. Should’ve asked for twenty.
“And just to be crystal clear,” Elara said, “this marriage is in name only.”
“Sweetheart, you couldn’t pay me enough.”
Pink touched her tan cheeks. “If you betray us, I’ll make you suffer.”
“We haven’t even married yet, and I’m suffering already.”
“We have that in common,” she snapped.
They both leaned back at the same time. He was marrying an ice harpy. Fantastic. Just fantastic.
Dugas stepped forward, leaned, and spoke into Elara’s ear.
“I’ll need to inspect your troops,” Elara said, her voice precise. “We need to know exactly what we are buying with our food.”
“Fine.” He gave her a lazy smile. “My men will need to inspect your horses and our quarters in the castle.”
“Make your troops available to us first.”
Hugh poured himself a glass of tea and nodded at the doorway. “Look outside your walls.”
She would strangle that man. No, she would do worse.
Elara strode outside of the gate onto the top of the hill where the castle sat. Soldiers filed out of the forest, running three to a row. They wore black uniforms, some in armor, some without. Each carried a large backpack, a bedroll, and weapons. They moved in unison, their feet striking the ground at the same time.
She didn’t detect them in the forest, which meant they had to have been far behind.
The soldiers began to form a block, eight soldiers in a line. All of that equipment had to weigh at least twenty pounds. Probably a lot more.
“How long have they been running?” she asked and wished she hadn’t. Any show of interest was an opening, and d’Ambray would wedge his big dumb shoulder through it and hold it open.
D’Ambray shrugged, looming next to her, a darkness shaped like a huge man. “From Aberdine.”
“Yes.” He turned to her, his dark blue eyes calm. “Would you like them to run back and here again?”
He was completely serious, she realized.
He turned to face the soldiers. They formed four separate blocks, each eight soldiers wide, ten lines deep and froze, like dark statues against the green grass of the lawn.
“Do you want them to rest?” she asked.
“Are you tired?” d’Ambray roared next to her, his voice carrying across the field. She almost jumped.
The three hundred and twenty people roared back in a single voice. “No, Preceptor!”
“They’re ready for your inspection,” Hugh said.
Elara had to admit, they looked impressive. Guilt pinched at her. This wasn’t about d’Ambray’s people, she reminded herself. This was about keeping her people safe. If d’Ambray put his troops in jeopardy, it was on him.
The creaking of a wagon came from behind them. Slowly, carefully, George, Saladin, and Cornwall came into view, leading Dakota, a massive Clydesdale, as he pulled the wagon forward. A brown tarp hid the contents. She knew exactly what was in the cart.
Elara stepped aside to let the wagon pass. D’Ambray didn’t appear concerned.
The three men guided the wagon down the hill, slowly, as if it were made of glass. Dugas walked behind them, silent, carrying a shotgun.
The wagon came to a stop. Saladin unhitched Dakota and the three men walked away, back toward the castle.
Elara raised her head. “You said each of your people could take a vampire.”
Dugas pulled the tarp off the wagon. An undead sat in a metal cage. The moment the tarp came off, it lunged at the metal bars, its eyes glowing with insane bloodlust.
“Prove it,” Elara said.
D’Ambray nodded at his soldiers. “Pick.”
Elara stared at the rows of soldiers. She was about to sentence one of them to death. A human, even a skilled human, had very little chance against an undead.
She had to do her job. He would put his strongest people in front and in the rear, so she had to pick from the middle. “Fourth row on my left,” she said. “Third soldier.”
“Arend Garcia,” d’Ambray ordered, his voice rolling. “Step forward.”
The third man in the fourth row took a step back, turned, and marched to the edge of the line, turned, marched toward them, turned again… Dead man walking. He was in his late twenties, dark hair cut short, light eyes. Like all of them, he was lean, almost underfed. A scar crossed his face on the right side of his nose, slanting to the side and barely missing his mouth.
He was about to die. If she showed any care at all, d’Ambray would use it to get out of this test.
Arend Garcia came to a stop.
She checked d’Ambray’s face. It might as well have been cut from a rock.
“Kill the undead,” d’Ambray ordered, his voice calm.
Garcia dropped his bedroll and backpack, stepped forward, facing the cage, reached behind his back, and pulled a brutal-looking knife free. It looked like a slimmer version of a machete, its blade black.
Dugas picked up the chain attached to a heavy metal bar securing the trap door release on the cage and backed away. Garcia watched, impassive. The undead hammered itself against the bars.
Damn it. “You’re going to let your man face an undead with a knife?”
D’Ambray glanced at her. “Did you want him to kill it with his bare hands?”
“No.” She barely knew the man, and she already hated him. “At least give him a sword.”
“He doesn’t need a sword.”
Dugas yanked the chain. The bolt slid free.
The undead tore out of the cage, lightning fast, and charged Garcia.
At the last moment, the slender man stepped aside, graceful like a matador, and brought the machete down. The blade cleaved through the undead’s neck. Its head rolled onto the grass. The body ran another ten feet and toppled forward, the stump of the neck digging into the grass.
Elara realized she was holding her breath and let it out.
Garcia pulled a cloth from the pocket of his leathers, wiped the blade, slid it back into its sheath, and stood at parade rest.
“Are you satisfied?” d’Ambray asked.
“Yes.” The word tasted bitter in her mouth. She should’ve been happy. She wanted crack troops and she got them. Elara forced a calm expression over her face like a mask. “Thank you, Preceptor.”
He smiled. He was clearly enjoying every second of this. “Anything for my betrothed.”
She almost punched him.
D’Ambray nodded to Garcia. The man pulled a small knife out of the sheath on his belt. A woman broke ranks and ran up to him. Together they knelt by the fallen undead.
“What are they doing?”
“Harvesting the blood. It stays viable for quite a while when properly stored. I’ll see those barracks now.”
“This way.” Elara turned and led him inside the castle.
“About this marriage,” he said.
“I meant what I said.”
“Good, because I liked the blond that brought us tea.”
The nerve. “My people aren’t slaves, Preceptor. If Caitlyn wants to let you climb on top of her, that’s her business.”
“Excellent. Am I going to get a bedroom, or should we come up with a rotation schedule?”
He was baiting her. He had to be.
“You’re getting your own bedroom, Preceptor.”
She couldn’t kill him. She needed his troops. But she really wanted to.
“One last thing. Does the castle have a name?”
“Balle.” She pronounced it the right way, in Irish Gaelic, Balyeh.
Hugh smiled. “Home. I think I’m going to like it here.”
“We’ll do our best to make you feel welcome, Preceptor.”