Princeps' FuryJim Butcher
Tavi slid down from the saddle, keeping a hand on it to control his descent to the ground. He winced at the shock to sore muscles as he landed. The first couple of days in the strange saddles, made for large Canim riders, had been nightmarish, but his body had finally begun to adjust.
The taurg promptly whipped its head at Tavi in an effort to crush his windpipe with the heavy ridge of bone on its skull.
Tavi ducked the attempt without really thinking about it and slashed at the taurg's vulnerable nose with the ends of his reins, still gripped in his hand. The taurg jerked its head away and tried to kick him with one of its rear legs, lashing a cloven hoof forward in an effort to disembowel him, but Tavi had already slipped forward, alongside the taurg's head, slipped the reins through the ring in its slimy, sensitive nose, and tied them securely through the ring on the standing stone.
Thus secured, the taurg settled down placidly onto its belly, as most of the rest of the riding beasts were doing.
"Crows take you, Steaks," Maximus snarled from the far side of the taurg beside Tavi. The beast was dancing in place, shuffling its mass left and right, evidently trying to kick at Max with the rear leg on the far side of its body. "One more kick out of you and I'm walking the rest of the way with a full stomach."
Tavi stepped forward, slapped the other taurg's ear to startle it, then seized its nose ring with his hand and jerked firmly. The taurg let out a startled little bawl of basso discomfort, and Maximus appeared, stuffing the reins through the ring and securing the beast as Tavi had, muttering a dark string of curses beneath his breath as he did. "Roasted. Spit on a nice long lance and roasted over a roaring fire. Then boiled. Boiled in a pot big enough to fit your entire lazy, ornery, smelly ass."
"You're taking it awfully personally," Tavi murmured. "I think Steaks and New Boots is probably treating you the same way he does everyone else."
"It isn't that's he treating me badly," Max growled. "It's that he's too stupid to understand something everything with brains enough to see the sky should know."
Tavi found himself grinning. "What's that?"
"Legionares are not afraid of dinner," Max growled, giving the taurg a dire glare. "Dinner is afraid of legionares."
Steaks and New Boots returned Max's glare with a placid stare, and began chewing cud where it lay in place.
"Bastard," Max muttered, and began unfastening the straps of the high-cantled saddle. "Spends all day trying to murder me, and still gets to sack and chow before I do." The pace and volume of his complaints began to increase steadily. "If I didn't need his legs, I'd carve them into steaks and serve them up with a nice red wine. Though I'll bet he doesn't taste any good, when you get right down to it. Why, I'll bet you could . . ."
As Max's complaints grew steadily louder and more outrageous while he tended to the taurga, Tavi gathered the saddles from his beast, Max's, and Durias's, next to Max's, and began brushing them down from the day's use.
"Well?" he asked Durias quietly, under cover of Max's noise.
The Free Aleran centurion was a rather short man, with shoulders so wide that he almost looked deformed. His neck was thicker than a lot of women's waists, his blocky face plain and scarred here and there with the irregular, fine, jagged cuts of a life spent under slavery, where the lash had wrapped around. He had dark, very intelligent eyes, and thick-knuckled, capable hands that immediately set to the task of cleaning and coiling the saddle straps.
"I counted four more supply trains today," Durias said. "All of them military, all of them escorted, all of them headed the same direction we are. None of them were ones we've passed before."
"That makes eighteen, total," Tavi said. "How sure are you about the estimates on what a Canim soldier needs for rations?"
"How sure are you about estimating what your legionares need for rations, Captain?" Durias replied, grinning.
"Point taken," Tavi said. "We passed two maker settlements today closely enough to get a good look at them, and I didn't see a single male Cane among them."
"Nor I," Durias said. "I think your theory is sound, Captain. From all the signs, the Shuaran Canim are at war."
Tavi liked Durias. The young Free Aleran had met Tavi--rather forcefully--in Tavi's capacity as the Captain of the First Aleran Legion. The public revelation of his heritage, made since then, was something Durias found too uncomfortable to confront directly, and, as a result, the young man was one of the few people who still referred to Tavi in the same terms he had before Tavi had revealed himself as a scion of the House of Gaius.
"We were expecting something like it," Tavi said quietly, looking around as he finished the last saddle.
Kitai and Crassus arrived a moment later. Crassus took up conversation with Max, whose complaints only gathered in volume and capacity--and sincerity. Max really couldn't stand the taurga.
"Anag was polite and revealed very little," Kitai reported quietly. "But some of the other warriors nearby were less disciplined. They are excited that we are drawing near to the front. They are glad that they might be able to see action and prove themselves in battle."
"Remind me, Durias," Tavi said. "Isn't it Canim practice to place hotheaded young idiots in rear-area positions precisely to avoid having attitudes like that near the actual fighting?"
"Aye, it's common enough," Durias said. "The theory is that they'll grow out of it. Someday."
"Then how do you explain Anag?" Kitai asked. "He seems sensible."
Durias shrugged. "Maybe it took."
Tavi shook his head. "More likely, someone assigned a young but competent subordinate to mitigate the sins of an incompetent senior officer." He squinted into the glowering winter sky, where occasional snowflakes were already starting to come down. "I'm getting a better picture now. Tarsh had somehow attained too much rank for his level of competence. In an actual war, he was going to get a lot of otherwise-decent soldiers killed--so Warmaster Lararl stuck him in a position where his incompetence wasn't going to get in the way of the war effort, in charge of a bunch of hotheads who needed time to season. He probably regretted losing a decent junior officer to ride herd on the lot of them, but he couldn't leave them entirely unattended."
"That would make sense if the post was in the middle of nowhere," Durias countered. "But it's still their only significant port, Captain."
"True," Tavi admitted. "Unless . . . unless Molvar has become the middle of nowhere."
Durias frowned. "What do you mean?"
Tavi held up his hand for silence as he followed that line of thought to several chilling conclusions.
Kitai's head snapped around to him, her eyes narrowed and intently focused. "Chala?"
Tavi shook his head.
Durias frowned and looked at the two of them. "What's wrong?"
"I hope I'm not right," Tavi said. "But if I am . . . we're in trouble." He looked up at Kitai. "I need to talk to Varg."
She rose and padded away without a word.
". . . and not even she would do that with you, no matter how much money or how many burlap bags were involved!" Max bawled at the peacefully reclining Steaks and New Boots, and kicked the taurg in the side. He might have slammed his foot into a stone for all the reaction the animal showed.
Crassus put a hand on his seething brother's shoulder, and said, "Honestly, Maximus. You're really taking this way too personally. You need to look on the bright side."
"I've got blisters and muscle cramps in places not meant for the touch of anything but a beautiful woman," Max spat back sullenly. "I've bitten my tongue so many times in the past three days that I whistle in musical chords when I exhale. And the smell isn't ever going to come out of my armor, I just know it." He narrowed his eyes and glared at Steaks and New Boots. "Where, precisely, is the bright side?"
Crassus considered that gravely. Then he offered, "If nothing else, the crowbegotten beast has given you something legitimate to complain about."
Max's eyebrows lifted, and his expression became that of a man who is
mulling over a new thought.
Kitai returned with Varg a moment after that.
"Aleran," Varg rumbled. "How do you like Shuar?"
"Cold and flat. And my men don't care for taurga," Tavi replied.
"Sane beings do not," Varg agreed, settling down on his haunches, the posture a casual one among the Canim. He tossed a waterskin to Durias, who caught it casually, opened it, and drank it Canim-fashion, squirting the water into his mouth without touching it to his lips. Durias tossed it back to the Cane with a nod of thanks.
"Varg," Tavi said, "from what I have seen of the maps of Shuar, the place is essentially a single enormous plateau. A natural fortress."
Varg drank from the waterskin and nodded. "Yes. Close enough to it. There are three passes into the plateau, all of them heavily fortified. The Shuar's range has always been all but impregnable." He yawned, and flicked his ears dismissively. "Not that anyone wants it."
"That's what has made them strong," Tavi said.
"That and the mines in these mountains," Varg said. "They make arms, armor, and goods of acceptable quality here. Their warriors often make alliances with other battlepacks, lend aid and support in battle."
"I noticed that Molvar was built with impressive defenses."
Varg showed his teeth. "Shuarans are lords of the mountains. Narash rules the seas. Shuarans know that they cannot challenge us there. But if there is one thing their warriors know better than any other pack, it is fortifications."
There was an outcry from the other side of the ring of stones, as four of the young warriors evidently erupted into some kind of personal brawl. Weapons were drawn, and blood followed a moment later. It might have gotten more serious if Anag had not stepped in with a taurg-goad--essentially a long-handled, heavily weighted club with a sharp spur sticking out of one side. Anag knocked half of the brawling foursome unconscious with two efficient swings, dragged another to the ground by one ear, and bludgeoned the last into docility by sheer force of will.
Once order was restored, Tavi stared at Varg for a long moment. Then he said, "Tarsh. Defending Molvar. With this band of crack troops."
Varg fell silent and returned the stare for a moment. Then he said, his voice deep and barely audible, "You see well, Aleran."
The Cane rose and stalked silently away.
Durias stared after him, an expression very like shock on his face.
Max and Crassus watched Varg go. Max came back over to Tavi, and said, "What was that all about?"
"He doesn't know," Durias said. He glanced at Tavi. "Varg isn't sure what's happening, is he?"
Tavi shook his head and said, "I don't think he's certain."
"But you are," Kitai said quietly.
Tavi grimaced. "I'm certain we'll see for ourselves tomorrow."
They slept on the cold ground, bedrolls laid out close together for simple warmth. Though there were no wood-burning fires, as there would have been in a Legion camp, the Canim instead built fires in trenches that burned low, hot, and slow on some kind of thick bricks of springy moss. The fire trenches made the nights survivable, but just barely. Max and Crassus were both familiar with firecrafting techniques used along the Shieldwall for keeping oneself warm in the bitter cold, but they couldn't be done when sleeping, and their nights were as miserable as everyone else's.
The next day began with the bawling of hungry taurga waking everyone from their sleep. Max, who had begun bringing a stone to his bedroll with him specifically to hurl at the first taurg to begin bellowing near him, threw nothing more than a muttered oath, and the day got under way almost immediately. Canim camp procedure was elementary in the morning: feed the taurga and shovel their leavings out of the ring of stones and into the mound where they would be allowed to dry and used to supplement the fuel for the fire trenches. Then saddle the beasts and mount up. The warriors ate dried jerky from their own packs as they worked or as the morning's ride began.
As on the other days they'd spent on the road, they rode at the swaying, swift pace of the taurga's loping walk, following the road southwest, continuing farther inland, as they had for the previous three days, and stopping only once at midday, to feed and water the beasts. By the time evening approached, the wind had begun to rise, swift and cold, and pellets of stinging ice fell in irregular intervals with spats of chilling rain.
Kitai drew her beast up beside Tavi's. The taurga slammed their heads together, bawling and huffing at one another until they had settled which of them had herd precedence over the other--though Tavi had no idea which of them was the superior once it was done. They behaved exactly as they had before the ruckus.
"Aleran," Kitai said quietly, "do you smell it?"
Tavi looked at her sharply and shook his head. "Not yet."
The Marat woman grimaced at him and tugged at the guide straps, to haul her taurg back into line. "Keep your nose to the wind."
It took perhaps another half an hour for Tavi's less acute senses to pick up on the scent. But once he did, the hairs on the back of his neck rose, and flashes of hideous memories flickered through his mind.
From the line of taurga ahead of him came a sudden bellowing, then one of the beasts broke out of the line. Tavi looked up to see Varg employing his goad, jabbing his taurg from the routine comfort of the company of its herdmates, driving it into a pace that was less a run than it was a continual series of bounding leaps that covered ground at an astounding rate.
One of the young warriors in the column ripped a balest from the holster on his taurg's saddle, slapped a bolt home, and raised the weapon to his shoulder, but Anag flung his goad, sending it whirling end over end, and the club slammed into the warrior and sent him tumbling from the saddle before he could send a deadly missile into Varg's back.
"Stand down!" Anag roared, his voice carrying down the entire column. "Stand down, you fool, or I'll have your throat!" The young Cane glowered at Varg, then up and down the line. "Column halt! Dismount! Ready yourselves for inspection before we arrive at the fortifications!"
The command began to echo down the length of the column as it was relayed, but Anag did not dismount. Instead, he pulled his taurg out of line and rode back down the column until he drew even with Tavi. "Aleran," he growled. "I think you should bring your people."
Tavi frowned at Anag but nodded to him. He signaled to Kitai and the others with a hand, and they turned their mounts out of the column, to follow Anag. They rode in pursuit of Varg, though at a far more sedate pace.
The dark-furred Warmaster had ridden to the top of a low rise half a mile away and halted his mount. As they approached, Varg was nothing but a black shadow against a grey sky, an outline of silent menace atop the still-puffing form of the massive taurg.
The wind grew stronger, and less chilly as they neared the crest. The rain, less frozen, grew into a steady, stinging shower that would shortly make outdoor travel all but unbearable.
And the scent grew stronger.
They crested the little rise and looked down over the edge of the Shuaran plateau, onto the lands below.
Tavi had tried to prepare himself for what he knew was coming.
Even so, his heart went sick with raw terror.
The rise upon which they stood thrust slightly out from the plateau, like the prow of some unimaginably large ship, offering a vista of the lands below that would have been spectacular if not for the dim veil of rain. Varg had not exaggerated when he said that their land was a fortress, and that the Shuarans knew how to defend it. Below them, the land dropped away into sheer cliffs and bluffs that fell hundreds, if not thousands, of feet to the plains below.
A few miles ahead of them, along the wall of the plateau, Tavi could dimly make out the dark slash of an opening in the rock, doubtless one of the passes Varg had named. Even from there, Tavi could see the shapes of stone fortifications built into it, over it, around it, through it--a citadel the size of a city in its own right, every bit as complex and grand, in its fashion, as Alera's Shieldwall. More fortif
ications ran along the top of the plateau.
And they were filled with warrior Canim.
Tavi could see the banners, the blue-and-black steel of their armor, rank upon rank of them, manning the battlements, the parapets, the towers, the gates. Tavi remembered all too vividly the shock and terror of facing the assault of ten thousand warrior-caste Canim, during the desperate battle for the Elinarch. He remembered the terrifying precision of their onslaught, the speed, the aggression, the discipline that had carried them through one successful engagement after another.