Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Princeps' Fury

Jim Butcher

  Tarsh bared every fang in his head. "This is not Narash, tree-runner. You have no authority here."

  "I am garada to Lararl, Tarsh," Varg rumbled. "And every warrior in your range knows it. Lararl will have the throat of anyone who denies him the pleasure of spilling my life's blood."

  Tarsh snarled. "I will send a courier to Lararl, of course. But that is all. You may abide here to await an answer. Your ships will stay where they are."


  Tarsh coughed out a growling laugh. "You will accept it, Varg. I am pack leader here."

  "A storm approaches," Varg said. "Many of my vessels are damaged. Lives will be needlessly lost if they are not given the shelter of the harbor."

  "What are they to Shuar, Narashan ape? My warriors have their orders. If your ships attempt to sail up the fjord, we will destroy them."

  Varg's lips peeled back from his fangs. "Is this Shuaran hospitality, then? Shuaran honor?"

  "If you do not care for it," Tarsh suggested, his voice openly mocking, "seek elsewhere."

  Varg's eyes narrowed further. "Were I not honor-bound to take up quarrels with Lararl instead of with his pack leaders, I would have your throat."

  Tarsh's leering snarl seemed to grow more self-satisfied. "Many decrepit old creatures have used such an excuse to hide their weakness."

  Varg, instead of answering, glanced aside, just for an instant, at Tavi.

  Tavi blinked.

  Insults like those Tarsh was offering Varg were more than a mere invitation to a challenge to a fight--they were practically demanding it. Under any normal circumstance, any Cane who spoke to another that way could expect an instant and violent response. Varg, in particular, was not one to gladly suffer either insults or fools, and from what Tavi had seen, he didn't know how to back down from a fight. Which meant that for whatever reason, something to do with the Canim concept of honor, Varg couldn't act against this windbag.

  But perhaps Tavi could.

  It seemed that this was the moment for diplomacy.

  "Varg is correct," Tavi said calmly, stepping forward. "There is no time for this foolishness. His people and mine seek safety from the winter and give you our word that our intentions are peaceful. We need to work out the best way to get them all into the harbor before the storm arrives."

  Every set of eyes on the pier swiveled to Tavi and hit him like a physical weight.

  "Oh bloody crows," Maximus whispered, somewhere behind him.

  "This creature," Tarsh said after a moment. "It is the Aleran leader?"

  "I am," Tavi said.

  Tarsh growled and turned to the warriors behind him. "Kill it."

  Oh, bloody crows, Tavi thought.

  Uncle Bernard had been right after all.


  The nearest Cane, a particularly muscled brute, drew and threw his axe in the same underhanded motion, a smooth and professional cast that sent the weapon through a single tumble before its razor edge sliced at Tavi's face.

  Tavi had both of his short blades free of their sheaths before the axe had begun to fly. Rather than dodging aside, he deflected the heavily tumbling weapon back upward and over his head. Tavi had time for the brief thought that most sensible men would, at that point, dive for the boat and run like mad for the Slive.

  Instead, Tavi borrowed speed from the cold wind circling the cauldron of Molvar's harbor, and as time seemed to slow, he launched himself toward Tarsh.

  The warriors on the dock tried to stop him. Two more axes tumbled toward him, spinning gracefully. Tavi rolled his shoulder from the path of one weapon, though its blade cut a perfectly straight slice from the hem of his cloak. The other he deflected with a sweep of his armored forearm. The shock of impact shook him hard enough to rattle his teeth, but he simply tightened his jaw and moved on.

  The heavily muscled warrior who had first thrown his axe managed to step in front of Tarsh, but Tavi was on him before he could get his secondary weapon into a proper guard position. As he closed, Tavi could sense the strange midnight blue metal of the warrior's sword, and instinctively sensed a flaw in its manufacture, a weak point a few inches above the tang. He thrust high, forcing the Cane to lift the weapon to protect his throat and face. Tavi then swung with his other weapon, striking the weak spot of the sword, shattering it.

  The Cane reeled as flying shards of steel cut into his face. Tavi laid a whipping slash across one of the warrior's thighs--painful, but not deadly, forcing him to put his weight upon his other leg. Then, with a single, powerful motion, he called upon the earth for strength enough to sweep that foot from beneath the Cane with his own leg, toppling the wolf-warrior to the ground.

  The sweep likely saved the Cane's life. Tarsh's wavy-bladed sword thrust straight for Tavi's throat, and would have transfixed the Canim warrior's left lung had he still been standing.

  Tavi never lost his forward momentum, dropping under the thrust, reversing his grip on one blade as he went. He fended off the Cane's sword with the blade in his left hand, while with fury-assisted strength, he drove the sword in his right hand down like a spike through Tarsh's paw-foot and into the stone of the pier.

  Tarsh howled in agony and hacked down at Tavi with his blade. The blow was swift and as powerful as any earthcrafter's--but it was not nearly as skilled as Tavi would have expected. It lacked the instantaneous reflex response that would have made it a deadly counterattack, and Tavi was able to strike it aside with his gladius, then surge to his feet and shove the point of his weapon up and into the soft underside of Tarsh's throat.

  "Do not move!" Varg thundered in a voice whose raw authority rang from the stones and echoed around the harbor. And as swiftly as that, the dock was motionless, the other warriors, one in the very act of drawing his arm back to throw his weapon, holding their positions as if frozen in a sudden arctic gale.

  Tavi had already stopped his motion, even before Varg had spoken. The very tip of his sword, no more than a quarter of an inch of steel, lay buried in Tarsh's throat. A tiny rivulet of blood trickled from it and down the shining steel of Tavi's weapon. Tarsh stood frozen, hardly daring to breathe. His sword clattered from his hand and to the pier.

  Without taking his eyes from Tarsh, Tavi gave Varg an acknowledging nod. "I appreciate the courtesy."

  "Of course, gadara," Varg rumbled.

  Tarsh's ears quivered in shock and his eyes widened.

  "Hear me, pack leader," Tavi said quietly--too quietly for the nearby Canim warriors to hear, he hoped. "Varg has named me gadara, and I have responded in kind. I will not permit you to take advantage of his sense of honor in order to abuse it and thus cheapen his reputation." He narrowed his eyes. "I wish it to be intact when I kill him. Do you understand me?"

  Tarsh continued to look shocked for a few seconds. Then his lips quivered on one side of his muzzle, briefly baring his fangs.

  Tavi promptly stomped on the foot that his gladius held pinned to the stones.

  It took Tarsh several moments to regain his breath.

  "I asked you a question," Tavi said.

  Tarsh bared his fangs in earnest. "I understand."

  "Good," Tavi said. He reached down and jerked his gladius clear of the stone and the luckless Tarsh's foot. Then he withdrew his blade from the golden-furred Cane's throat and stepped two quick paces back from Tarsh. He raised his voice, and said, "Now. Pick up your sword."

  Tarsh just stared at Tavi for a blank second.

  "Did you lose your hearing with your ear, Tarsh?" Tavi asked tartly. "Pick up your sword."

  The Cane let out a snarl and snatched up his weapon--careful, Tavi noted, to keep his weight off his injured foot.

  "Out of respect for Lararl, who holds the respect of Varg, I have not killed you out of hand," Tavi said. "Instead, I give you this choice. Behave honorably toward Varg, as you know Lararl would have you act--or face me, here and now, in front of everyone, to the death. And after I've killed you, I will give your second the same choice."

Tarsh's eyes glittered. "What makes you think that you are worthy of my attention, Aleran scum?"

  Tavi spread his swords in mocking invitation. "I'm the size of a half-grown puppy, Tarsh. You've got twice my reach, three times my weight, several times my strength, you're fighting on your home ground and with your own men all around you. Except for that little hole in your foot, you hold absolutely every advantage. Surely only a coward of legendary proportion would be afraid to fight me."

  From the ranks of Canim warriors came a number of coughing growls--the Canim approximation of Aleran chuckles, or so Tavi judged them. The loudest such sound came from the wounded Cane on the ground--the one Tavi had put there.

  Tarsh's eyes swept back and forth across the ranks of his men, and his ears flattened slightly toward his skull.

  Tavi could follow his line of thought easily enough. A moment ago, Tarsh might have been able to order his men to dispatch Tavi as he would tell them to kill any other animal. Now, however, the situation had changed. Varg had recognized Tavi as gadara, a respected foe, a word more highly regarded than "friend" among the wolf-warriors. More to the point, Tavi had issued a direct and personal challenge, changing the situation from a group assault to an issue of dominance and personal strength. And, most importantly, Tavi had demonstrated the virtues most unquestionably held valuable by Canim warriors--courage, confidence, and most importantly, competence in the arts of violence.

  "Think carefully Tarsh," Varg growled, unmistakable amusement in his voice. "I would, before I dueled this Aleran." He turned to the assembled warriors. "Who is the second to this pack leader?"

  The wounded, heavily muscled Cane on the ground tilted his head slightly to one side. "I serve in that capacity, Warmaster Varg."

  Varg's nostrils twitched. "You are of the bloodline of the Red Rocks."

  "Anag," the Cane said, flicking his ears in the affirmative. "You slew my grandsire, Torang, at Blackwater Fen."

  "Torang Two-Swords, that tricky old bastard," Varg said, jaws dropping open in a grin. He gestured with a paw-hand at one line of white hairs among the black fur along his jaw, just above his throat. "He gave me this scar." He gestured at his chest and belly. "And two more, here and here. I was under the healers for an entire moon after I fought him, and his pack stopped our advance cold."

  Anag lifted his head slightly in pride. "When I was young, he spoke well of you, Warmaster. He died in good company."

  Varg turned to Tarsh. "Fight the Aleran, Tarsh. I would rather deal with a true Cane than you."

  Tarsh's huge chest bubbled with a growl, but he did not meet Varg's gaze or show any teeth. "Warmaster," he said after a moment, keeping most of the snarl out of his words. "I will make arrangements for your people."

  "And the Alerans," Varg said. "I will speak to Lararl about them. Until then, I expect the same treatment of Tavar and his people that you give to me."

  Tarsh gave Tavi a look of flat hatred, but said, "It will be done." He turned and stalked away, pausing only to stand over the wounded Anag and say, "See to it." Then he walked off the dock and into the darkness of the city.

  Tavi stepped over to Varg, and asked, quietly, "Tavar?"

  "If you are to be here, you need a proper name," the Cane said with a shrug--a gesture shared by both races. "It is close to your own, and has an appropriate meaning."

  Tavi tilted his head, waiting for him to continue, but Varg only parted his jaws in a small smile, then nodded to Anag. "Perhaps this is an opportunity."

  Tavi glanced at the wounded Cane, then nodded at Varg and turned to walk back toward the longboat. Maximus, his face somewhat flushed, said, "Bloody crows, Calderon. That was a near thing." He tossed Tavi a cloth.

  Tavi caught it and immediately began wiping the blood from his swords. "We were lucky Varg was on our side."

  "On our side?" Max demanded, barely keeping his voice down. "He just forced you into a position where you had to fight twenty Canim and take their leader prisoner to keep from being cut to ribbons."

  "It worked out," Tavi said calmly, sheathing each weapon as he finished wiping it clean. "Now come on. I want you to heal Anag."

  "You want me to heal one of the Canim who tried to kill you," Max said.

  "The one who came closest, really," Tavi replied. "Shouldn't be too much work. I was careful not to hit anything delicate. Just stop the bleeding and get him back on his feet so he can make arrangements for the fleet."

  Max sighed and began climbing out of the boat. "I'm glad Magnus isn't here." Max gained the dock, and said, "You know, Tavi, it occurs to me that this might not work."

  "What might not?"

  "Watercrafting," Max said.

  "You just crafted the boat all the way in," Tavi replied.

  "Through the sea," Max said. "The same sea that touches the shores of Alera. But if we put this Cane into a tub of the local freshwater, I have no idea if it will work. There might not even be any furies in it."

  "I had no problem with metalcrafting, and a little windcraft, just now."

  "Metal from an Aleran sword," Max said. "Wind from the same air that touches Alera."

  "I just used a bit of earthcrafting, too," Tavi said. "Don't tell me these stones are Aleran rock."

  Max frowned. "That doesn't . . . everyone I've ever talked to, every paper I've ever read on the subject said that . . . Tavi, it just shouldn't work like that."

  "Why not?"

  "Because," Max said. "No one thinks it should. And I read up on it before we left, too, believe me."

  "What happened to accomplishing the impossible through ignorance?"

  Max grimaced. "I suspended my usual policy on this subject. I wanted to . . . you know. Be sure that if you needed . . . that I'd be able to . . ."

  "Protect me?"

  "I didn't say that," Max said quickly.

  "Max, my father had full command of his furycraft. By all reports, he was nearly as strong as the First Lord himself--even without inheriting Gaius's furies. And someone murdered him." Tavi shook his head. "I'm not going to get picky about my friends doing what they can to make sure it doesn't happen to me."

  Max nodded, though his expression was undoubtedly relieved. "Glad you're not being a fool about it."

  "Fortunately, I was fool enough not to know that furycrafting shouldn't be possible here, when it clearly is," Tavi said. "Now, as your Princeps and captain, I hereby order you to forget that nonsense you read and heal Anag so that he can get our people safely to shore."

  "Already forgotten, Your Royal Highness," Max drawled, banging a fist to his armored chest in salute.

  Tavi nodded, and the two of them walked forward, to rejoin Varg, who was crouched on his haunches, speaking quietly to the wounded Anag.

  "What a bloody mess," Max said, in Canish. The big Antillan leaned down to squint at Anag's wounds. Max had learned his swearing from Gradash, and was fluent. "Did you have to carve his bloody thigh all the way to his cursed bone? Look, you slashed right through his fire-gnawed armor, and the bloody edges were hot enough to sear the wound partly shut, or he'd have been worm fodder by now."

  One of the other warrior Canim had stepped forward protectively behind Anag and had one paw-hand on the handle of his axe. He growled throatily at Max.

  "Don't draw that bloody axe, you puppy-mating furball," Max growled back, without even looking up. "Unless you've decided you want to eat it." He looked up at Anag. "I'm a healer. I've got to stop the bleeding before we move you to a tub and repair the muscle. So I need to touch your leg. All right?"

  Anag looked steadily at Max, his eyes wary.

  "Their sorcery is not like ours," Varg rumbled. "It has saved my life once before. They made no claim on my blood thereafter."

  Anag glanced at Varg, then Tavi, and nodded once at Max.

  Max laid his hand on the Cane's blood-smeared leg and closed his eyes. There was a rippling sound, something like knuckles popping in rapid succession. Anag let out a short, surprised, growling sound. Then Max exhaled and
drew his hand away. The gaping wound was closed, no more muscle visible beneath it, and no fresh blood leaked out onto the stones of the pier.

  That drew a round of surprised mutters from the Canim, along with a great deal of interest. Twenty of the enormous wolf-warriors crowded around, noses quivering and sniffing as they eyed the wound, then Max. There wasn't any overt hostility in them, but simply being amidst a crowd of eight-foot-tall armored, warrior Canim, muttering to one another in their growling, snarling tongue, was more than unsettling enough, even without a naked weapon in sight.

  "It's closed," Max said, breathing a little heavily from the exertion of the crafting, "but it will tear open again if you try to use it. If we get the wound into a tub of clean water, so that the entire wounded limb is under the surface, I can repair the muscle, and it should be good as new by the time you wake up in the morning."