Winner of the 2013 Aurora Award!
From the author of the bestselling Blood books, a brilliant new tale of shape-changers, mages, soothsayers,and a power-mad emperor.
The Empire has declared war on the small, were-ruled kingdom of Aydori, capturing five women of the Mage-Pack, including the wife of the were Pack-leader. With the Pack off defending the border, it falls to Mirian Maylin and Tomas Hagen—she a low-level mage, he younger brother to the Pack-leader—to save them. Together the two set out on the kidnappers’ trail, racing into the heart of enemy territory. But with every step the odds against their survival, let alone their success, grow steeper...
SENSES NEARLY OVERPOWERED by the scent of sweat and gunpowder and onions, Tomas followed his nose through the 1st Aydori Volunteers, searching for his greatcoat. When his uncle, Lord Stovin, had ordered the Hunt Pack out before dawn, Tomas had left his coat folded on Lieutenant Harry Kyncade’s saddle, up out of the dew. His cousins might think it funny to hide his uniform, mask the scent, force him to hunt it out, to go naked or stay in fur, but not Harry. Since their first days at school, they’d been as inseparable as duties and responsibilities allowed, and Tomas trusted Harry to keep safe the only clothing he had with him.
Unfortunately, the 1st—along with the remains of the armies from the overrun Duchies of Pyrahn and Traiton— had moved into battle formation while he was gone and Tomas had only a vague idea where Harry was.
He felt the soldiers’ attention on him as he passed. They might not know for certain who he was, but, given that he currently looked like a black wolf, they knew what. For many of them, this had to be the first time they’d seen a member of the Pack so close. Because they couldn’t know how acute his hearing was, he chose to ignore comments on his size, his color, and the unfortunate fact he had burrs in his tail.
“Finally decided to join us, Lord Hagen?” Harry’s voice cut through the ambient noise.
Tomas raised his head. Harry stood by his pony, a little apart from his men, holding the missing greatcoat.
Two quick steps and a leap over the head of a sitting soldier, too startled to do anything but swear, put him at Harry’s side. He changed and turned at Harry’s gesture, allowing the other man to slide the sleeves up over his arms, grimacing as the fabric came in contact with filthy skin. He needed a long bath and the vigorous application of a scrub brush.
“If you mean did I decide to spend the remainder of the day sitting around with you doing nothing,” he replied, tightening the belt and turning, “then, yes.”
“Then I’m thrilled to give the pleasure of my company.” Reins looped over the crook of his elbow, Harry straightened Tomas’ collar. “Where were you? Off chasing rabbits?”
“I wish.” Not that he’d have objected to a rabbit; the duckling he’d grabbed on the riverbank hadn’t been much of a meal. “Scouts got sent out just before dawn.”
Harry’s eyebrows rose until they almost disappeared under the edge of his plumed shako. “And?”
“And nothing,” Tomas admitted. He nodded across the river at the Imperial army lined up and waiting, helmets gleaming in the afternoon sun. “They had sharpshooters with those new rifled muskets stationed along both flanks. Shitheads were shooting anything that moved. No one could get close.”
“They shot at you?” Eyes, flecked with Fire-mage red, gleamed as Harry ruffled Tomas’ hair. “But you’re so adorable.”
“Shut up.” At eighteen, he remained slight enough he could pass in low light as a very large black dog, but he drew the line at adorable. Leaning against the shoulder of Harry’s pony, he scratched at the mud drying on his left foot. The Imperial army would have expected scouts from upstream, so he’d crossed downstream where the banks were marshy and found himself expected anyway. “They’re waiting for something.”
“Really?” Harry snorted, and gestured expansively at the surrounding Volunteers, who pointedly ignored both young men. “I wouldn’t have guessed, given that we’ve been waiting for them. This is no way to run a war.”
Straightening, Tomas rolled his eyes. “Next time I talk to my uncle, I’ll tell him you think you could do things better.”
They turned together to stare at the command post. Harry’s men had taken up a position close enough to command that Tomas could see Lord Stoven, one bare foot up on a stump, talking with General Krystopher, military commander of the Duchy of Pyrahn. General Lamin, leader of the Traitonian army, was conspicuously absent.
General Lamin had a problem with the Pack and had been heard to refer to them as no more than vicious animals.
Lord Stoven had been forced to show teeth to prevent the younger members of the Hunt Pack from provoking an incident. As it was, Tomas knew for a fact that after the no more than vicious animals comment made the rounds, his cousin Jared had honored the Traitonian Lancers with a visit, panicking their horses. The sturdy mountain ponies used in Aydori were exposed to the Pack from birth, but nothing panicked enemy—or allied—cavalry like a large predator suddenly up close and personal.
Before the Duchy of Traiton had been overrun by the Imperial army, General Lamin’s prejudices hadn’t mattered much. But the Imperial army had pushed the retreating Traitonian army over the border into Pyrahn and kept pushing until the elderly Duke of Pyrahn had brought his grandchildren into Aydori for safety and asked for help. Where only a few short months before there’d been two independent Duchies as a buffer between Aydori and the Kresentian Empire, now there was a river. And not a very deep river at this point, Tomas noted.
There was a bridge about a quarter mile southeast, but the Imperial commanders had concentrated the bulk of their forces at the shallows rather than be caught in the shooting gallery the bridge and the road, deep in a rock cut, would become. In answer, the 1st Aydori and the Hunt Pack had set up on the ridge across from them. The ground angling down to the river was rocky and steep, but the Hunt Pack didn’t care and the 1st held the high ground—they could wait for the Imperials to come to them.
Tomas frowned across the river. Adding insult to injury, they weren’t facing even an entire division of the Imperial army. Of the three divisions, the regiments that made up the Shields never left the heart of the Empire, the Spears were quelling rebellion in the northeast, so the emperor had only the Swords to aim at Aydori. Or those Swords not bringing the Imperial boot down on the recently conquered Duchies, at any rate.
“I wonder if that’s why they’re hanging back so far.” Squinting didn’t bring their colors into any better focus, but there had to be cavalry. There was always cavalry. “So their horses don’t spook if the wind comes back up.” There’d been heavy gusts of wind in the early morning, but, by the time the sun reached its highest point, the air was barely moving.
“Possible. But it looks like mostly infantry and artillery over there. You don’t end up ruling most of this continent by being stupid enough to send horses against you lot.” Harry bumped Tomas’ shoulder. When Tomas growled softly, Harry laughed. “Yeah, you’re tough. Besides, even if they were loitering about close enough for our nine pounders to reach their lines, that’d still be too far for an Air-mage to send scary wolf scent.”
“If they were close enough for our artillery to hit them, their artillery could hit us.”
“And that,” Harry snorted, “is pretty much the whole point of war.”
“Danika could do it.”
“To my knowledge, your sister-in-law has no experience with artillery.”
“What?” Tomas twisted and stared. “Is your hat too tight again? I meant that Danika could send our scent across to them!”
Tomas felt his cheeks heat. Harry had never let differences in social standing stop him from pulling Tomas’ tail. “Oh, bite me!”
“Not likely. You bite back. Besides, moot point,” Harry reminded him. “Your brother would never allow Lady Hagen anywhere near a battle in her condition, no matter how powerful an Air-mage she was.”
“True.” Tomas sighed and returned to trying to force an explanation for the delay by power of will. He hated waiting.
“Maybe the Imperials took one look at us and were so scared they shit themselves and we’re waiting for the laundry to return their trousers.”
“They didn’t smell scared.”
“Joke, you ass.” Harry drove his elbow into Tomas’ ribs. “If we don’t move soon, the sun’ll be against us. Go tell Lord Stoven I’m willing to lead a sortie against their lines. Draw them out. Prove to him I’m the right man for Geneviene.”
“You haven’t enough mage-craft for the artillery,” Tomas told him, elbowing back. Most of the Fire-mages in the army were artillery, but poor Harry hadn’t been able to pass muster. “What makes you think you have enough mage-craft for Geneviene?”
“Love makes my fire burn hotter.”
“Oh, puke. She’s probably going to marry Gregor.”
“What’s he got that I don’t?”
“I hope he gets mange,” Harry muttered sulkily. “I hope he . . .”
Raising a hand to cut Harry off, Tomas stepped forward. “Something’s happening.”
A pale blue bulge rose above the heads of the closest Imperial ranks.
“What the . . . ?”
“I don’t know.”
It continued rising until it looked like an upside-down teardrop.
“What’s that underneath it?”
“I don’t know.” Squinting, Tomas leaned forward. “A basket? Is it mage-craft?”
“If it is, it’s not like any I’ve ever heard of.”
Another time, Tomas might have needled Harry about testing too low to get into the university, but something about that thing in the air made him uneasy. “If they’ve put one of their long nines in that . . .”
“Too heavy,” Harry interrupted and, although he sounded as sure of himself as he always did, Tomas could smell the beginning of fear.
Tomas glanced over at his uncle. Lord Stoven had his eyes locked on the Imperials, one hand on Colonel Ryzhard Bersharn’s shoulder. Ryzhard, married to Stoven’s oldest daughter, was one of the most powerful Air-mages in Aydori. Not as powerful as Danika, but he was here.
After a long moment, Ryzhard shook his head.
What did that mean?
An Aydori lieutenant galloped in from the south, his pony sitting back nearly on its haunches as he hauled on the bit. Tomas thought he recognized the officer attached to General Lamin. Ears pricked forward, he tried and failed to separate words from the noise. The lieutenant was still talking when General Krystopher pulled out a telescope and turned back toward the Imperials.
“Harry.” Tomas reached out blindly, and closed his hand around Harry’s wrist. “If they’ve got a man with a telescope in that thing, they could see right into our lines. Locate our commanders.”
“Yeah?” Harry sounded calm, but then Harry always sounded calm. “And how would they get the location back to the ground?”
“Air-mage. Either up in the basket sending their voice down on a breeze or on the ground listening to the breezes and non-mage observer’s voice. Or both, just to be sure; it’s really up there.”
“The Imperials think they’re too good to use mages.”
“Then they write the coordinates on a piece of paper and drop it in a weighted pouch.”
“Fine. Doesn’t matter. We’ve already established we’re too far away for the artillery to . . .” Harry pulled free of Tomas’ grip and took a step forward, his pony following. “Now what?”
As the first few ranks of Imperial infantry peeled back, Tomas’ hands fell to his belt, working the buckle free. Whatever was about to happen, he needed to be back with Lord Stovin and he’d get there faster in fur. He saw sparks, heard a whistle . . .
“We’re too far for artillery!”
The blast wave slammed Tomas face-first into the ground. Something heavy landed on his right leg, pinning him. He felt it jerk from multiple impacts as he fought to get free. He could smell smoke and blood and shit and gunpowder. Over the ringing in his ears, he could hear screaming.
Finally, scraping skin off against the ground, he dragged his leg free and rolled over to see that he’d been trapped by the bulk of Harry’s pony. Its head and one shoulder missing, its body had absorbed a number of small balls of shot from a secondary explosion.
His lip curled off his teeth as he fought his way out of his sodden greatcoat and changed.
The scents separated into their component parts and his nose took him to Harry, lying in a crumpled heap against his pony’s head, both legs gone at mid thigh. He changed again—this needed hands—and grabbed up the reins to tie off the stumps.
Harry’s fingers touched his wrist. “Don’t bother.”
“You’re in no shape to cauterize them.”
“Idiot. Can’t cauterize myself.”
“Then shut up.”
“Tomi . . .”
Even in skin, he smelled Harry’s bowels let go. Felt Harry’s last breath against his shoulder. Let the reins drop from shaking fingers.
Spun on one hind foot, nails gouging the dirt, and raced for the command post. Lord Stovin would have orders. Lord Stovin would . . .
He heard another whistle.
Saw General Kystopher point. Saw Lord Stovin change.
The blast flung him head over tail.
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