She rode to catch up with the cavalry units, not meeting the eyes of the infantry who she knew would be gazing up at her as she passed. All of them would be thinking the same thing.
Ogres ate carrion.
That dead soldier girl couldn’t be considered anything but.
Damia could have ordered them to give her a decent burial, but not if she wanted the ogres to continue to fight under her command and in the army of King Hunyadi.
She tried not to think about it as she rode south. After a while, she noticed that the sense of excitement and joy and victory had dispersed. It seemed that her battalion did not feel like celebrating anymore.
The fox and the coyote crossed the Atlantic Bridge side by side, and the old gods of Rome and Greece followed behind. Shaken by the Sandman’s attack, Kitsune had transformed not long after they had set off again, preferring animal instinct and the relative isolation of the fox to the questions and concerns she would no doubt have encountered in her more human façade.
When she had begun the long crossing over the bridge, she had been touched to discover that Coyote had also taken animal form. The change that the past weeks had wrought upon him had been subtle at first, but now he seemed a different creature entirely. Her cousin had thrown off the cowardly guise he had worn for so long. He had sacrificed an eye trying to protect her. Though he had cleaned it, the wound was hideous to behold. Yet Kitsune would always see it as a mark of his valor, and a reminder of what he had lost. For a short time, the knowledge that he would be half-blind from then on had weighted her with guilt. But despite his pain, Coyote expressed no regret. He seemed only grimly determined, and so she took his demeanor as her inspiration. Had anyone ever suggested she might look to him for example, she would have laughed. But Coyote had changed. War had changed them all.
He fell into step beside her without a glance or a nudge, offering the comfort of his presence. A kind of relief went through her. In all her life, she had never felt such terror as she had when the Sandman had come for her. Coyote had been there for her then, and he shared the burden of the aftermath with her now.
A strong wind gusted across the bridge. The morning had dawned gently, soft white light on the horizon. Now the sun began to rise in earnest and the sky deepened to a glistening azure. Breathing the sweet air off of the river seemed to ease some of the tension and fear that lingered in the fox, and the further they traveled from the eastern bank, the better she felt.
The pilings of the bridge were set on tiny islands that dotted the river, many of them thick with trees. When the fox came to one particular island she paused a moment to peer into the branches of the many cherry trees that grew there. Once upon a time—not long ago, and yet it seemed distant in her memory—she and Frost had nearly died there at the hands of the demon of the cherry trees. Oliver Bascombe had saved their lives. The demon had been destroyed, but the memory came back to her powerfully. It might have been on that island that she had first begun to realize—even if only in her heart—that Oliver was something more than just an ordinary man.
The coyote nudged her.
The fox glanced at him. She smiled a smile that only an animal would recognize, gave a twitch of her tail, and trotted on. After a few steps she glanced back to see the gods trailing behind. Cronus came last, as always, huge and lumbering with his almost simian gait. Kitsune felt a fondness toward him she would never have imagined. The others were all so aloof, whether grim or giddy, but the simplicity of the Titan bonded her to him.
As the morning wore on, that formidable band of somber ancients arrived on the western bank of the Atlantic River. The moment they stepped off of the bridge, Kitsune altered her form again. With a thought, her fur slipped around her shoulders as a cloak and parted around her face as a hood. When she turned to look, the rangy little coyote had changed as well. He nodded to her, his missing eye a dark pit.
“You feeling any better?”
Kitsune nodded, scanning the bank of the river and the wide expanse of the Truce Road, which rose up the hill to the west.
“He could have killed me,” she said without looking at Coyote.
“I thought you told me he was dead?”
“He was. I saw him die. Him and the Dustman and a human called Halliwell.”
Coyote pushed his hands into his pockets, glancing back at the gods as the last of them marched to the riverbank. “Then what did we just fight? What did this to me?” He pointed to his missing eye. “And what made him pause like that? He could have broken you apart before any of us could help.”
She shivered. A sick grin touched her lips. “Thanks for the image.”
Coyote shrugged. “It’s just the truth.”
“I know. But I don’t have any answers.”
The gods surrounded her, then. Assurances were exchanged and the march began again. They kept to the middle of the Truce Road and did not encounter a soul along the way, neither Lost One nor legend. In the trees on the roadside, animals foraged and capered, and a trio of hawks circled in the sky perhaps a mile off.
At the top of the hill, Kitsune stopped again.
Below them, the road turned slightly southward. Thick groves of apple and pear trees lay on either side, and other fruits grew there as well. Past the orchards was a broad expanse of crops—corn and wheat and barley and a hundred other things.
“What is it?” Bellona asked, impatience in her voice.
Kitsune turned to look into the dark eyes of the goddess of war. Behind her, Hesperos and Salacia seemed troubled, gazing down across the orchards and crops.
“You’ve never traveled this way before?”
Bellona shook her head. “But I feel something—a powerful presence here.”
“The gods of the Harvest,” Kitsune explained. “They linger, gathered together from a hundred cultures. They travel afar, but they have made a kind of home here.”
Bellona flinched. She glanced back at Hesperos and Salacia, the closest of her companions, and Kitsune saw anxiety in their eyes. It could not have been called fear—not for beings of their power and history—but their hesitation was plain.
“What is it?” the fox-woman asked.
The goddess of war did not reply, so Kitsune glanced at the others.
“If this is the sanctuary of other gods,” Salacia said, “we should not enter without being given leave.”
Most of the other gods kept to themselves. Ares, in particular, made no move to approach the conversation the Borderkind were having with his kin. Coyote reached into his pocket and produced a hand-rolled cigarette and then a match with a flourish that drew all eyes to him. He lit the cigarette and drew a lungful, then shook out the match. It vanished in his hand like some parlor trick. Smoke plumed from his nostrils.
“Kitsune and I will go. If there’s a concern about going into their territory without permission, it’s best you all stay here. Tricksters are expected to break the rules.”
Slowly, Bellona nodded. Kitsune thought she might be reluctant to admit Coyote was right, but she had no choice.
“All right,” the fox-woman said, glancing at her cousin. “With me, then.”
She started down the hill.
“You’re the boss,” Coyote said, following.
Kitsune wondered when that had happened. Once she’d been nothing but mischief, a little trickster in copper fur, capering in the forests and dallying with men and legends. Now the last of the bitter old gods followed her lead, and the never-reliable Coyote watched her back.
Together the tricksters followed the Truce Road, accompanied only by the sound of the breeze rustling the trees on either side and their own soft footfalls on the hard earth. A loud bark came from behind them. Only when Kitsune turned did she realize it had been the voice of Cronus. He made as if to follow them, perhaps taking her safety as his mission, but Bellona and Ares had halted him.
Kitsune smiled softly. It could not hurt to have a Titan watching over her.
The air filled with the sweet smell of apples and pears at their fullest ripeness. Orange nectar drifted on the breeze. Kitsune shivered with the heady pleasure of those and a dozen other scents all in impossible simultaneous bloom. Her mouth watered.
Coyote began to stray toward a peach tree.
“No,” she said, grabbing his arm. “Not without an invitation. Stay to the road.”
He nodded, still smoking his cigarette. Its herbal smell mixed with the aromas of fruit, and she realized this was his way of offering peace to the gods of the Harvest even before they had encountered those earth deities. Silently, she approved.
Long minutes passed.
When they at last reached the end of the orchards and the sides of the road turned to field upon field of crops that rippled and swayed in the breeze, they saw the first of the gods moving in amongst the corn. Stalks danced aside as it passed.
On the road ahead, figures began to emerge. Some of them she recognized. There were lovely, ethereal females and animals whose bodies were made entirely of stalks and husks and branches. Twice while traveling with Oliver she had encountered a group of these gods—once upon this very spot—and now she saw the Kornbocke step from the rows, its head high despite the heavy rack of antlers upon its head. The Appletree Man ought to have been back in the orchards, but he was there as well, and shuffled upon thick, knotted roots to the edge of the road.
The hard-packed dirt of that ancient road—once the symbol of truce between the Two Kingdoms—trembled.
“This can’t be normal,” Coyote whispered. “They don’t come out like this every time a traveler passes by.”
Kitsune agreed. Something transpired here that she did not understand.
Even as the thought touched her mind, the road ahead erupted with thick cornstalks, rustling against one another.
“What the hell?” Coyote asked, stub of a cigarette dangling in his hand. When he dropped it, roots thrust from it down into the soil of the road, and a tiny garden of herbs grew up on the spot. The ravaged socket of his missing eye had changed his face so that his expression was difficult to read.
Kitsune stared at the herbs, then looked at the corn that grew wild right before their eyes. A trickle of fear ran down her back. Once she had feared very little, but the Sandman had unsettled her.
Determined, she stepped forward.
The cornstalks twined around one another, twisting and layering and building themselves into a tall, humanoid figure.
“Ahren Konigen,” she whispered as the features became clear.
Coyote shot a glance at her. “The harvest king?”
Konigen stood watching them, though he had only blank, shadowed pits where the corn husks that comprised his face were indented to imply the presence of eyes.
The gods of the Harvest gathered round them. Coyote shifted nervously.
“You are welcome here, Kitsune,” Ahren Konigen said, his voice a rustle.
The wind rippled the crops. The gods of the Harvest seemed to sigh.
“You have our thanks,” Kitsune replied.
Konigen did not seem to hear her. “We have been awaiting your arrival. You travel slowly, for legends and gods.”
Kitsune blinked. She frowned and glanced back up the hill to where the old gods of Greece and Rome waited in the road.
“We met with difficulty across the bridge,” Coyote replied for her, reaching up to touch the raw flesh at the edge of his empty eye socket.
She turned and saw the knotted brows of the harvest king draw more tightly together, stalks twisting. “The roots have carried the news. We might have come to your aid, but your trouble ended quickly.”
“It’s kind of you, Konigen,” Kitsune said. “And you are right. We do not travel swiftly enough. We journey toward the border to help King Hunyadi repel an invasion—”
The king raised his hands to take in all of the other gods of the Harvest, and the two tricksters as well.
“Do you think word has not reached us?” he asked in that rustling voice. The husks of his face rearranged themselves into what might have been a smile. “Word travels fast along the roots underground, and sometimes on the breeze from tree to tree. We have been waiting for you, Kitsune, because a vote has been taken.”
Confused and a bit worried, Kitsune studied him. She glanced at Coyote, trying to form the question that needed to be asked. Konigen did not wait.
“You have been our ally in the past. You and Oliver Bascombe, who revealed the crimes of Aerico and returned Appleseed to us. The schemes of Atlantis threaten us all. When we learned that you traveled this way, in league with the gods of Europe, the Harvest voted. We will join you in this journey. The Harvest will stand or fall with Hunyadi. With Euphrasia. For if Atlantis should win, surely they will burn us to the ground.”
Kitsune drew back her hood, staring at Konigen with wide eyes. Her copper fur glistened in the sunlight as the wind billowed it around her.
“Your Highness, I cannot find the words to thank you.”
The king of the harvest inclined his head, almost courtly. “There is no need. You have proven your mettle, trickster. We call you friend. And this matter concerns us all.
“Now, call down the gods from across the river and we will all be as one, allied in this cause, with destruction or victory the only possible outcomes.”
Kitsune felt the shadow of the night’s terror dispelled at last. A vibrant energy surged up through her. She wished, in that moment, that the next turn in the road would bring them to the enemy, so that they could join in the battle that very moment.
“It would be our honor,” she said.
Coyote glanced around at the Harvest gods gathered there. Further into the fields, other things moved through the crops. Kitsune wondered how many there were, guessing at least two hundred. Most would not have the power that Konigen or the Kornbocke had, but they were all very difficult to kill and could be cunning and cruel when the need arose.
“Let’s be off, then,” Konigen said. “I have sent word ahead to Oliver that we would join his band by midday, and the sun is already overhead.”