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Cursor's Fury, Page 35

Jim Butcher

  He and Kitai crouched down together by the brook, cupping water with their hands and drinking. Tavi noticed, as they did, that Kitai’s hands were trembling. Though she struggled to remain calm, behind her exotic eyes he could see the fear she held tightly leashed.

  After they drank, they crouched together in silence for a moment. Tavi found Kitai’s hand in the darkness and squeezed it tight. She squeezed back and leaned into him, her shoulder against his, and both of them stared at the reflections of occasional crimson lightning in the water.

  Far in the distance, Tavi heard the low, alien, blaring call of a Canim war horn.

  Kitai’s fingers squeezed tighter. “They’re coming,” she whispered.

  “Yes,” he said. He lifted his eyes to the west, from where the horn call had come.

  There was a terrible sense of helplessness in the moment, a sudden and crushing realization that in the face of all that was happening, he was very, very small. Vast forces were in motion, and he could do nothing to stop them, and almost nothing to influence them. He felt like a legionare piece on a Indus board—small, slow, and of very little value or ability. Other hands were directing the pieces, while like a ludus legionare, he had little to say about those moves and precious little ability to change the outcome of the game, even if he made them himself.

  It was terrifying, frustrating, unfair, and he leaned back against Kitai, taking solace in her presence, her scent, her touch.

  “They’re coming,” he murmured. “It won’t be long now.”

  Kitai looked up at him, her eyes searching his face. “If it is true, if they are a great host, can your Legion destroy them?”

  “No,” Tavi said quietly. He closed his eyes for a moment, helpless as a ludus piece, and every bit as likely to be destroyed with the killing came and hurtled them into a grim endgame.


  The wolfish Canim war horns sounded again.


  Tavi took a sudden deep breath and rose to his feet, mind racing. He stared out at the light of the burning ships in Founderport’s harbor, reflecting against the low clouds overhead.

  “We can’t destroy them,” he said. “But I think I know how we can stop them.”

  She tilted her head. “How?”

  He narrowed his eyes, and said, very quietly, “Discipline.”

  Chapter 34

  Isana, exhausted, did not lift her head to ask, “What day is it, Giraldi?”

  “The twenty-ninth day of the siege. Dawn’s in a few hours more.” Isana forced herself to churn thoughts through her weary brain. “The battle. Is Lady Veradis likely to be free today?”

  Giraldi was silent for a long minute. Then he dragged a stool across the floor to Isana and sat down on it in front of her. He leaned down and lifted her chin with callused, gentle fingers, so that she had to look up at him. “No,” he said quietly. “She won’t, Isana.”

  Isana struggled to process the thought. Not today, then. She must hold another day. Another eternal, merciless day. She licked her dried, cracked lips, and said, “Gaius will come soon.”

  “No,” Giraldi said. “There’s something about this storm that keeps Knights Aeris from flying more than a few yards off the ground. The First Lord could not send rapid response troops to lift the siege, and Kalarus has disrupted the causeways between Ceres and the capital. It will take them another week to march here.”

  A week. To Isana, a week almost seemed like a mythical amount of time. Perhaps that was a mercy. A single day was a torment. Just as well that she could not clearly remember how many days were in a week. “I’m staying.”

  Giraldi leaned forward. “Kalarus’s forces have breached the city walls. Cereus and Miles managed to collapse enough buildings to contain them for a time, but it’s only a matter of hours, probably less than a day, before he’s forced back to the citadel here. The fighting is worse every hour. Cereus and Miles have lost more Knights, and now the enemy’s take a greater and greater toll of the rank-and-file legionares. Veradis and her healers work to save lives until they drop. Then they get up and do it again. None of them can come to help you.”

  She stared at him dully.

  Giraldi leaned forward and turned her head toward Fade. “Look at him, Isana. Look at him.”

  She did not wish to. She could not quite remember why, but she knew that she did not want to look at Araris. But she could not summon up the means to deny the centurion’s command. She looked.

  Araris, Fade, her husband’s closest friend, lay pale and still. He’d coughed weakly for several days, though that had ceased sometime in the blurry, recent past. His chest barely rose and fell, and it made wet sounds as it did. His skin had taken on an unhealthy, yellowish tinge in patches around his torso and neck. He had cracks in his skin, angry sores swollen and red. His hair hung limp, and every feature of his body looked softened, more indistinct somehow, as if he’d been a still-damp clay statue slowly melting in the rain.

  Two things stood out clear.

  The brand on his face, which looked as hideous and sharp as ever.

  The mostly dried blood beneath his nostrils, and the accompanying flecks of ugly, dark scarlet on his lips.

  “You remember what Lady Veradis said,” Giraldi told her. “It’s over.”

  Isana stared at the blood and remembered what it meant. She didn’t have strength enough to shake her head, but she managed to murmur, “No.”

  Giraldi turned her face back to his. “Crows take it, Isana,” he said, his voice frustrated. “Some fights can’t be won.”

  Fire-thunder erupted nearby outside, rattling the room’s furniture and sending ripples across the glassy surface of the water in the healing tub.

  Giraldi looked at the window, then back to Isana. “It’s time, Steadholder. You haven’t slept in days. You tried. Great furies know you tried. But he’s going to die. Soon. If you don’t withdraw, you’ll die with him.”

  “No,” Isana said again. She heard the unsteady quaver of her voice as she did.

  “Bloody crows,” Giraldi said, his tone at once gentle and anguished. “Steadholder. Isana. Crows and ashes, girl. Fade wouldn’t want you to throw your life away for no reason.”

  “The decision is mine.” So many words took a noticeable effort, and she felt short of breath. “I will not leave him.”

  “You will” Giraldi said, his voice heavy and hard. “I promised Bernard I’d watch over you. If it comes to that, Isana, I’ll cut you loose of him and drag you out of this room.”

  A quiet and very distant surge of defiance whispered through Isana’s thoughts, and it gave her voice a barely audible growl of determination. “Bernard would never abandon one of his own.” She took a breath. “You know that. Fade is mine. I will not leave him.”

  Giraldi said nothing. Then he shook his head and drew the knife from his belt. He reached for the rope that kept her hand in contact with Fade’s.

  The defiance returned, stronger, and Isana caught the centurion’s wrist in her fingers. Joints crackled with tension. Her knuckles turned white. Then she lifted her head and glared into the centurion’s eyes. “Touch us,” she said, “and I’ll kill you. Or die trying.”

  Giraldi’s head rocked back—not from the grip of Isana’s weakened fingers, she knew, and not from the feebly voiced threat. It had been her eyes.

  “Crows,” he whispered. “You mean it.”


  “Why?” he demanded. “Why, Isana? Don’t tell me Fade is just a simpleton slave that took a liking to following your nephew around. Who is he?”

  Isana struggled to think clearly, to remember who knew and who was supposed to know and who absolutely could not know. But she was so tired, and there had been so many years—and so many lies. She was sick to death of the lies and the secrets.

  “Araris,” she whispered. “Araris Valerian.”

  Giraldi mouthed the word to himself, his eyes visibly widening. Then he looked from the wounded man to Isana and back, and his face
went absolutely white. The old soldier bit his lip and looked away. His features sagged visibly, as if he’d suddenly aged another ten years. “Well,” he said, his voice shaking. “A few things make more sense.”

  Isana released his wrist.

  He looked down at the knife for a moment, then returned it to its sheath on his belt. “If I can’t stop you . . . I may as well help you. What do you need, my lady?”

  Isana’s eyes widened suddenly as she stared at Giraldi, and she suddenly saw how to get through to Fade. Her heart labored, sudden hope spreading through her exhausted mind in a wave of sudden, tingling heat.

  “That’s it,” she said.

  The old soldier blinked and looked behind him. “It is? What is it?”

  “Giraldi, bring me tea. Something strong. And find me his sword.”

  Chapter 35

  It was a long and weary march back to the horses, and an even wearier ride all the way back to the Legion fortifications at the Elinarch. Tavi arrived in the coldest, heaviest hours of the night. It still seemed odd to him that despite the blazing heat of late summer in the southwest of the Realm, the night managed to be just as uncomfortably cool as in the Calderon Valley.

  They were challenged by mounted pickets in two lines as they approached, and as they crossed the final open ground to the town, Tavi took note of silent shapes in the tree lines—local archers and woodsmen, most likely, always moving west with steady caution. The First Spear must have sent them out to watch and harass the incoming Canim army, and to attempt to take the foe’s scouts as they advanced. It was a measure Tavi should have thought of himself—but then, that’s why he’d left Valiar Marcus in charge of the defenses.

  Tavi and Kitai rode into the half of the town on the southern end of the Elinarch, then across the great bridge, their footsteps ringing on the stone. The water-mud-fish scent of the great Tiber River rose up to them. They were better than a hundred feet off the water, at the top of the bridge’s arch, and Tavi closed his weary eyes and enjoyed the cool breeze that flowed over him.

  Word of his return went ahead of him, called from one sentry to the next. Magnus, as the captain’s senior valet, was there to meet him and accompanied them to the command tent—a general-issue Legion tent now instead of Cyril’s larger model. Several people entered and left as they approached, all moving at a brisk trot. They had to dance around each other as they did.

  All in all, that tent looked grossly undersized and inadequate, in the center of the circle of lightning-blasted earth. That was appropriate, Tavi supposed. He was feeling somewhat undersized and inadequate himself.

  “No, crows take it,” snarled Valiar Marcus’s voice from within the tent. “If our food supplies are on the south bank, and the dogs take it, we’ll be eating our boots when we fall back to the north.”

  “But I just had my whole century toting supplies over there like pack mules,” protested a second voice.

  “Good,” Marcus snapped. “They’ll know the exact route to return them.”

  “Marcus, those storage houses are on the docks, not behind the city walls. We can’t leave them unsecured, and our own storage buildings haven’t been completed.”

  “Then dump them somewhere. Or commandeer a house.”

  Tavi slid off his horse, stiffened muscles complaining. He beckoned Kitai, and she leaned down toward him. Tavi muttered a quiet request, and she nodded before turning her horse and kicking it into a run toward the followers’ camp.

  Magnus watched her go, frowning. The darkness and her hood would have hidden her features from the old Cursor, but she was still obviously a woman. “Who is that, sir?” he asked Tavi.

  “Later,” Tavi said. He flicked his eyes at the tent. Magnus frowned, but then nodded.

  Tavi took a moment to order his thoughts, tried to project all the authority he could fabricate, and entered the tent. “Don’t commandeer a house,” he said, “ask for a volunteer. You won’t have any trouble finding residents willing to sacrifice for the good of the only thing standing between them and a horde of Canim.”

  The tent bore two tables made of empty water barrels and planks. Paper, much of it half-consumed by flame, lay scattered in complete disarray over all of them. Two fish sat at each table, attempting to sort out the surviving papers in the light of a single furylamp.

  The First Spear and the argumentative centurion snapped to attention and saluted. “Sir,” Marcus said.

  The fish were a beat behind the centurions, and began to rise. Tavi felt certain that if they did, they’d knock the crude tables over and undo whatever they had accomplished.

  “As you were,” Tavi told them. “Get back to work.” He nodded at Marcus. “First Spear. And Centurion . . . ?”

  “Cletus, sir.”

  “Centurion Cletus. I know your men are tired. We’re all tired. We’re going to get more tired. But crows take me if I let the Legion be tired and hungry. So find a storage building and secure the food.”

  Cletus clearly did not like the notion. No centurion would want his men to be forced into action while bone-tired from physical labor if he could possibly avoid it. But he was Legion to the core and nodded at once. “Yes, sir.” He turned to leave.

  Tavi nodded in approval. “Take one of the fish centuries to help you haul. Grains and dried meat first, the perishables after.”

  Cletus paused and bowed his head to Tavi in silent thanks, then departed.

  The stocky First Spear had lost most of the short-cropped hair from one side of his head due to the fire, and the fresh-healed skin, where the healers had been able to help him most, was pink and shiny and slightly swollen. It made his scowl no less ferocious, his ugly, craggy face even uglier and craggier.

  “Captain,” Marcus growled. “Glad to see you back in one piece. Antillar said something about you scouting out the Canim.”

  “Not quite,” Tavi said. “A scout picked up on a trail and tracked it back to . . .” Tavi glanced at the fish sitting at the tables.

  “Right,” Marcus said. “Boys, get out. Get some food and report back to your century.”

  “Magnus, send for Tribunes Antillar and Antillus, please,” Tavi said. “I want them here for this.”

  “Right away, sir,” Magnus said, and slipped out of the tent, leaving Tavi alone with the First Spear.

  “You look like something the crows have been at, Marcus,” Tavi said.

  The First Spear narrowed his eyes at Tavi, then grunted out a muted chuckle. “Since I was a boy, sir.”

  Tavi grinned and sat down on one of the stools. “What’s our status?”

  The First Spear waved an irritated hand at the parchment-covered tables. “Difficult to say. Gracchus was a good Tribune Logistica, but his records were organized about as well as your average forest fire. We’re still trying to sort out where everything is stored, and it’s making it hard to get anything done.”

  Tavi sighed. “My fault. I forgot to appoint a replacement Tribune Logistica to coordinate before I left.”

  “To be fair, they wouldn’t have gotten much done yet in any case.”

  “I’ll take care of it. What about the militia?”

  The First Spear scowled. “This is a major smuggling town, sir.”

  Tavi grunted. “Graft, I take it?”

  “They have the best council money can buy,” he confirmed. “There weren’t two hundred full suits of armor, and they hadn’t been maintained very well. I think odds are pretty good that some of Kalarus’s outlaw legionares are wearing the rest of the town’s stores. Little bit better on swords, but not much. There are a lot of privately owned swords here, though. Placida sends them home with his legionares when they finish their service, and there are a lot of Placidan freemen that move out this way.”

  “What about the steadholts?” Tavi asked.

  “Word’s been sent, but it’s going to take a while for any volunteers to arrive. So far, only men from the nearest circle of steadholts have showed up.”

  Tavi nodded. “T
he defenses?”

  “In the same shape as the armory, pretty much. Give us two days and we’ll have them up to code.”

  “We won’t get them,” Tavi said. “Plan on fighting before afternoon.”

  Marcus’s expression became more grim, and he nodded. “Then I recommend we focus the engineering cohort on the southern wall. The Legion may be able to hold it long enough for the engineers to finish the other positions.”

  Tavi shook his head. “No. I want fortifications on the bridge. Stone, sandbags, palisades, whatever you can get that will hold up. I want five lines of defense on the bridge itself. Then put the engineers on our last redoubt at the northern end of the bridge and tell them to make it as big and nasty as they possibly can.”

  The First Spear stared hard at him for a moment. Then he said, “Sir, there are a lot of reasons why that isn’t a very good plan.”

  “And more reasons why it is. Make it happen.”

  A heavy silence fell, and Tavi looked up sharply. “Did you hear me, First Spear?”

  Marcus’s jaw clenched, and he stepped close to Tavi, dropping into a loose crouch to look him in the face. “Kid,” he said, in a voice that would never have carried from the tent. “I might be old. And ugly. But I ain’t blind or stupid.” His whisper turned suddenly harsh and fierce. “You are not Legion.”

  Tavi narrowed his eyes, silent.

  “I’m willing to let you play captain, because the Legion needs one. But you ain’t no captain. And this ain’t no game. Men will die.”

  Tavi met the First Spear’s eyes and thought furiously. Valiar Marcus, he knew, was perfectly capable of taking command of the Legion from him. He was well-known among the veteran legionares, respected by his fellow centurions, and as the senior centurion present was, rightfully, next in the chain of command since no actual officers of the Legion were capable of exercising authority. Short of simply killing him, Tavi had no way to prevent him from seizing Legion command if he chose to do it.

  Worse, the First Spear was a man of principle. If he thought Tavi was genuinely going to do something uselessly idiotic and kill legionares who didn’t have to die, Marcus would take command. If that happened, he would not be prepared to face the threat that was coming. He would fight with courage and honor, Tavi was sure, but if he tried to apply standard Legion battle doctrine, the Legion would not live to see another sunset.