Home > Iron and Magic (The Iron Covenant #1)(7)

Iron and Magic (The Iron Covenant #1)(7)
Author: Ilona Andrews

There you are.

Nez 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 three grand, Hugh decided.

The Legatus of the Golden Legion. The most powerful Master of the Dead Roland could find besides himself or his daughter.

Nez 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?” Nez raised a cup of coffee.

“Why not?” Hugh swung from his saddle, tossed the reins on the hook in the rail, walked up the two short steps, and landed on a bench opposite Nez.

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?” Nez 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 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.

Nez 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.”

Nez 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?”

Nez 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.

Hugh 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.

“You?”

“There is a time and place for everything.” Hugh leaned back. “I’ve got a nice place picked out. Good supply, good defenses. Trees.”

“Trees?” Nez blinked.

Hugh nodded. “Eventually a man’s got to put down roots. Looking forward to sitting on my porch, drinking a cold beer.”

Nez 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 Nez’s eyes. The Legatus grimaced and nodded. “That’s the truth.”

They stared at each other in silence.

“Do you miss him?” Nez asked quietly.

The void yawned in his face. Missed? The memories alone tore Hugh 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 grabbed the reins, 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, to look 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.”

The mutter came from the center of the column. “I’m fucking done running.”

Hugh stopped and turned.

“Century, halt!” Lamar roared.

Beside Hugh the long column of the Iron Dogs came to a stop, huffing and puffing, eighty soldiers arranged in two lines. When he’d arrived 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 sectioned 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 the 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 man had 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?”

“No, Centurion!”

   
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