Home > Iron and Magic (The Iron Covenant #1)(8)

Iron and Magic (The Iron Covenant #1)(8)
Author: Ilona Andrews

“Any time you decide to leave, you can, isn’t that right, Dog?”

“Yes, Centurion!”

“This isn’t the 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 second 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 the 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 second century halted.

“About face.”

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 second century roared.

A magic wave rolled over them. Hugh reached for the familiar power and concentrated.

“Century, dismissed.”

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.

Hugh’s 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 sheathed 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 decided 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, right by Bluegrass.”

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 forests.

“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 farmland, 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.

“Why not?”

“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 Nez. 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 most. They expect us to betray them.”

“We followed orders,” Hugh said.

“It was still a betrayal.”

He puzzled over it. Roland had 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 or the one before that. Two flares back.”

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