In the midst of freaking out, she felt grateful for that much. Not that she wanted to be grateful to Frost, but she couldn’t help it. She and the winter man had spent a good deal of time, now, keeping each other alive.
But what he’d just said made her forget any favors he’d ever done her.
“What do you mean, ‘Don’t scream’?”
Frost narrowed his eyes. Ice-blue mist swirled up from them. “Precisely what I said. You will want to scream. You will be afraid. But I swear to you that I will not drop you.”
They had moved on from the air shark sighting perhaps another half mile. From the scrim of a stony ridge, they saw the troops mustered on the isthmus. Many were sleeping, but others were on patrol. Collette found herself strangely unafraid of encountering Atlantean soldiers, but if they were seen and a patrol raised the alarm, she feared what might answer that call.
She turned to Frost. “I won’t scream.”
The winter man nodded. If he doubted her, he did not put voice to those doubts.
He burst into a swirl of snow and ice. Frigid wind buffeted her. Collette shivered again and turned up her collar. Before her eyes the storm that was Frost grew, churning. The blizzard rose twenty feet in the air and spread a dozen in either direction.
She held her breath, staring in amazement at the power of the storm. The power of the winter man.
Then she gasped as the blizzard rushed at her. It whipped around her, circling a moment, and her teeth chattered. Her muscles clenched and she hugged herself against the icy grip of the storm. When the blizzard lifted her up off of the ground, blowing her up into the sky as though she had been catapulted, Collette nearly did scream.
Her mouth opened, but the freezing wind seared her throat and she clamped her lips. Her eyes went wide and she could not even curl in upon herself for warmth. The blizzard hurtled her through the air, buffeting her, carrying her on a slingshot wind, in a cocoon of driving snow. Her bones ached with the cold and she tried to breathe but found she could not. The wind lashed her face and she felt despair grip her heart. How could she survive this?
Barely aware of what she was seeing, she glimpsed enormous ships of glass in the distance, festooned with sails. She saw troops massing below as she spun across the sky in the grip of the blizzard.
Then the wind lessened. She found herself sliding downward, drifting. The blizzard buffeted her, blasted her, keeping her aloft. Her arms and legs pinwheeled as she descended.
The ground rushed up. At the last moment a final, powerful gust slowed her fall. Collette landed in a pile of fresh snow, tumbling through the white stuff and then onto rough, prickly grass and rocky earth.
The cold withdrew. The warmth of the southern night felt like a gift. Her flesh was seared. Her cheeks burned with the bite of the cold that had enveloped her. It was like nothing else she had ever felt and she wondered if she had frostbite.
The thought frightened her, but slowly, feeling and warmth returned to all but her hands and cheeks. Carefully, she sat up.
The snow was gone. Frost stood over her.
“We have to go. The hours before dawn are few, and we have no time to lose.”
Collette stared at him. “Don’t ever do that again.”
His eyes narrowed. “What else—”
“Leave me behind, next time.”
She wasn’t sure if she meant it, and it seemed clear Frost was not sure either. Collette didn’t care. She got up and marched north with him, bones still aching. It took a very long time for full feeling to return to her hands.
They’d gone only a few miles when they reached the end of the Isthmus. The Kingdom of Euphrasia spread out to the east and west. Already, Collette felt safer, and less inclined to be hostile toward Frost.
A Euphrasian cavalry patrol stopped them on the road. When they discovered that these strangers walking north were Frost of the Borderkind and Collette Bascombe, Legend-Born, a kind of euphoria seemed to come over them. One of the soldiers dismounted and gave Collette his horse. As she slid into the saddle, she felt a grim determination settle into her. They had arrived at last. Survived, at least this long. And now the war would truly begin.
Frost flowed through the air beside her as she rode, and one of Hunyadi’s horsemen paced her on the other side. The familiar feel of the horse beneath her, the leather reins in her hand, filled her with new vigor.
They rode through the battle lines set up by Euphrasian troops, who were dug in and waiting for the attack they knew would come with the dawn. The cavalryman signaled to the soldiers on the ground and soon voices could be heard. Collette heard them calling her name. At first she didn’t understand. How could any of these people know her name? Then she heard shouts of “Legend-Born,” and she understood.
The human soldiers were all Lost Ones. She represented the hope of their parents and grandparents and ancestors. For those who had been born in her world and crossed over themselves, she would seem even more like a savior come to their rescue. The legend said she could get them home again. And for the others, she would seem like Moses, ready to bring them to the Promised Land.
If only they knew that the world they so wanted to return to was only a more ordinary reflection of this one, she wondered if they would still long to go there. But perhaps they would. This world wasn’t home. Not really. They wanted to be reunited with their people. She could understand.
The thought made her wonder about Oliver. She had done her best not to think of him over the past few hours. But Collette felt sure he was all right. She had come to believe that if anything happened to him—if death came for her brother—she would know. Once, the idea would have seemed foolish to her. But now she knew it was not so far-fetched.
Hope went through the ranks as they passed. When she rode into the camp on the hill overlooking the battlefield, the word continued to spread. She could almost feel morale rising. Frost whipped along beside her, a blizzard sliding through the night air, but she could almost hear laughter coming from the storm he made.
The dour winter man was happy.
A small group of men and women in uniform—officers and advisors—were clustered outside a large tent at the apex of the hill. Twenty yards away, the cavalryman who’d accompanied them held up a hand to halt them. Collette pulled on the reins. She and the horseman both dismounted. The winter man coalesced out of the air and stood beside her. A young soldier—no more than a girl, really—ran over to take the reins of the two horses and led them away. Another, a boy of perhaps sixteen, came over and saluted the cavalryman.
“Run and tell the king that Frost has come with Collette Bascombe.”
The boy’s mouth opened in a kind of gasp, and then he grinned as he turned to bolt up the hill toward the tent of King Hunyadi. Collette’s heart soared at the reaction her arrival had brought out in the troops, but a shadow lingered there as well. These people had no idea of the kind of horrors Atlantis had mustered. Hunyadi might, but the soldiers likely did not. She feared for them.
Moments later, the boy came back down the hill. Behind him walked a bearded man with a wide-brimmed hat and a cane with a brass head that glinted in the moonlight. When he passed the conversing officers, they fell silent and shifted slightly away from him. Power seemed to radiate from him. Yet from the officers’ reaction she knew this could not be the king.
The man shooed the boy away and came down to meet them. He ignored Collette completely, turning to Frost.
“I’d not thought to see you alive again.”
The winter man cocked his head. His fingers were like ice knives and from the way he stood, Collette wondered if Frost would attack the man or embrace him. He did neither.
“Are you disappointed?” the winter man asked.
“Quite the opposite,” the tall, bearded man replied. He cast a quick glance at Collette and a smile touched his lips. “You’ve done well, Arcturus.”
Frost bristled. He tossed his head back, hair clinking. “That’s not my name.”
The man waved away the complaint. Collette saw that the brass head of his cane was the head of a fox, and she remembered Oliver telling her about him. The enigmatic Wayland Smith.
“Atlantis attacks at dawn,” Frost said. “I have details on their forces for the king.”
Smith nodded. “Most of which I’ve already provided.”
“I also observed the Yucatazcan warriors—those who retreated are now regrouping. But they don’t seem to have the heart for it. I wonder if they haven’t realized, by now, that they’re being manipulated.”
Wayland Smith frowned. “That may be, old friend, but they will still fight. They will fight and die because that is the command from Palenque. King Mahacuhta is dead, but Prince Tzajin lives. The only way the Yucatazcans will stop fighting is if the crown commands it, and that’s not going to happen as long as Tzajin is a prisoner in Atlantis.”
Frost swore under his breath. Cold mist plumed upward from the edges of his eyes again. “You’re sure of that?”
“I saw him with my own eyes. Hunyadi needed a spy.”
The winter man seemed surprised. “That’s unlike you, taking so overt a role. You so love working in the shadows.”
Smith gripped the head of his cane and glanced again at Collette, who’d watched the whole exchange.
“Time, I think, for you to speak to the king.”
Ovid Tsing led his army along the Orient Road. Even above the stink of unwashed soldiers, he could smell the ocean on the breeze. The night was clear and warm and the starlight picked out each man and woman of the long march. At the back of the army, the Stonecoats trudged along at a steady pace.
The Jokao were tireless. They had also turned out to be an excellent source of information. Whenever the King’s Volunteers—as they had begun to call themselves—stopped to rest, the leader of the Stonecoats would come and report what news the ground knew. As incredible as it seemed to Ovid that these stone soldiers could feel vibrations that traveled from stone to stone underground, he had no doubt of their value.
Atlantis had landed troops on the Isthmus of the Conquistadors. They massed there, now, preparing for war come dawn.
Ovid walked with one hand on his bow and the other on the hilt of his sword. He often marched in the ranks, but now he had come out in front of the King’s Volunteers. The Jokao estimated that they were barely a mile northeast of the Euphrasian army.
We’re here, Mother, he thought. It’s time.
Shaking off the ache of the long march, Ovid picked up his pace. Even as he did, he heard a familiar clacking sound and glanced to his left. The leader of the Jokao had come abreast of the front ranks of the King’s Volunteers and now joined Ovid in the lead. Once upon a time, the Jokao had been slaves in Atlantis. They despised the Atlanteans—Truce-Breakers, the Jokao called them—more than anyone. Ovid wondered if the three marks on the Jokao’s chest had been given to the Stonecoat while enslaved, but did not know how to ask without risking offense.
“We’re close, now?” Ovid asked.
The Stonecoat nodded. “Quite close. A rider comes.”
Ovid frowned and studied the road ahead. The moon and stars were bright enough that on the open road he could see quite clearly. As far as the horizon—a low hill—he could see nothing. But he did not argue. If the Jokao said a rider approached, then it had to be true.
Less than two minutes passed before a figure on horseback crested the hill.
The rider came on quickly. Ovid turned and called a halt to the King’s Volunteers. The order went back through the ranks and quickly they came to a stop. When they had first set out, such cohesion had been difficult. Now, working together was second nature.
The horse’s hooves kicked up dust from the road. The rider pulled the reins tight and came to a stop close enough that Ovid could have reached out and touched the animal. In the moonlight, the mounted soldier scanned the King’s Volunteers and then looked down at him.
“Our outriders spotted you hours ago and sent back word,” the soldier said, fine and neat in the uniform of the army of Euphrasia, emblazoned with the colors of King Hunyadi. His eyes narrowed. “Commander Damia Beck has sent me to discover your purpose. You’re not soldiers, that’s clear enough.”
Hands still on his weapons, Ovid glared at him. “Is it? We’ve among us men and women—and Stonecoats as well—who’ve marched from a dozen towns and cities along the Orient Road from here to Twillig’s Gorge. We’ve weapons and some of us training, and we’ve come to fight the invaders with our last breath. We’re the King’s Volunteers, boy. I doubt he’d have you send us away.”
The horse snuffled and sidestepped a few feet, perhaps unnerved by the presence of the leader of the Jokao. The rider, also, studied the Stonecoat for a long moment.
“Come with me to see Commander Beck,” the rider said. “Your troops remain here unless and until she or the king says otherwise. Is that clear?”
Ovid glanced at the Stonecoat, who nodded and withdrew back through the lines to join his kin. Then Ovid shouted for LeBeau, the swordsman who was one of his three lieutenants.
Without a word, LeBeau emerged from the troops and stood rigid, awaiting his instructions. They really were an army, now.
“It seems I must go and reassure this soldier’s commander that we support the king and not the enemy. Until I return, the King’s Volunteers are yours. And if I haven’t returned by dawn, attack the Atlantean invaders and kill as many as you can.”
LeBeau smiled thinly at that. “It’ll be my pleasure.”
The rider reached down for Ovid. “With me, sir.”
Ovid stared at his hand.
“There isn’t time for pride or propriety,” the rider said. “You’ve brought the king a great many soldiers. If you want them to be of use, ride with me.”
Ovid took his hand reluctantly and allowed himself to be assisted onto the saddle behind the cavalryman. The soldier spurred his horse and then they were galloping up the hill. From the crest of the hill, Ovid could see the ocean. Below them, the Orient Road wound through the sprawled camp of the Euphrasian army, with various battalions of infantry and cavalry divided like neighborhoods. Indeed, the army seemed like an entire city from that vantage point. Legends and Borderkind were scattered amongst them, though many had gathered to the south, not far from where soldiers had dug in to guard against nighttime assault.