Princeps fury, p.19
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       Princeps' Fury, p.19

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  Oh, certainly, Tavi had managed to contain the Canim invasion--but he had no illusions about how he had done so. When he had beaten Nasaug's troops in the field, he had pitted his legionares against the Canim raiders, the equivalent of their militia. He had used his cavalry and the furycraft of his Knights to disrupt their communications and their supply lines. He had harried and danced with them, struck at them where they were weakest, and never left his forces standing still long enough to be hammered down by the foe.

  Had he done so, they would have been crushed in short order--by the warrior caste. Despite their successes, the First Aleran had never been able to claim anything more than a marginal victory in any conflict with Nasaug's ten thousand elite.

  If Tavi was not mistaken in his estimate, Warmaster Lararl of the Range of Shuar had something like a quarter of a million of them.

  And they weren't what had frightened him.

  The plains at the base of the plateau, all of them, all of them, for as far as the eye could see . . . glowed softly green.

  They were covered in the croach.

  And the croach was covered in Vord.

  There was no way for him to count them. Simply no way. There were too many. It was like staring down at an uprooted anthill. Black forms moved everywhere, seething over the landscape below, rushing and flowing in organized channels that reminded Tavi uncomfortably of a network of veins pulsing with dark blood. They spread from horizon to horizon, all moving forward, an inexorable pressure being exerted upon the massive Shuaran fortifications.

  The Canim fought. They had already piled chitinous black corpses into miniature mountains, but still the Vord came on.

  And the world behind them was nothing but dark, alien shadows and eerie green light.

  Varg stared down on the land below with an expression and posture Tavi had never seen on any Cane. His ears had simply slumped, falling limply in slightly different directions. The dark fur not covered by his armor almost seemed to go flat against his skin. He stared for long, silent moments before he finally said, in a whisper, "Tarsh in command of Molvar. Molvar, the mighty fortress. Built to defend Shuar against my people."

  Max made a hissing sound of sympathetic pain.

  Tavi bowed his head.

  Varg turned flat, dull eyes to Anag. "When?"

  "Almost two years ago," Anag said. He looked from the battle back to the rest of them. "Narash was only the first to fall, Warmaster. The other ranges are gone. They're all gone."

  "Gone?" Varg said.

  Anag looked back down to the battle, his manner weary. "Only Shuar remains."

  CHAPTER 17

  "Suddenly," Max said, "I feel very small. And as though I have been somewhat arrogant."

  "Um," Crassus said. He swallowed and cleared his throat. "Yes."

  Durias stared out at the sight below them, his craggy face bleak.

  "Now we know why Sarl decided to abandon Canea and invade Alera," Tavi murmured, thinking aloud. "He must have seen it beginning and guessed where it would lead."

  Kitai turned her green eyes toward Tavi and stared at him intently.

  So did everyone else.

  Bloody crows, Tavi thought. They're all looking at me.

  Tavi surveyed the massive struggle raging below once more, careful to keep his face calm and relaxed, nodded once as if it had told him something, though he had no idea at all--yet--what that might be, and turned to Anag. "I'd say that we have matters to discuss with your Warmaster. Let's waste no time."

  Anag inclined his head slightly to one side and immediately turned his taurg and began riding back to rejoin his column.

  Tavi and the others set out after him, but when Tavi noticed that Varg had not moved, Tavi drew his mount up short. He gestured for the others to keep going, and rode back to Varg's side.

  The Cane stared down at the battle below with dull, unfocused eyes.

  "Varg," Tavi said.

  The Cane did not respond.

  "Varg," he said, louder.

  There was no response.

  Tavi glanced after the others. The freezing rain had come on thicker, and combined with the dark they were out of sight, as was the battle below. He and the Cane were alone.

  For the first time since mounting the beast, Tavi took his taurg prod from where it hung on its saddle hook. It weighed as much as a smith's hammer, at the end of a three-foot handle to boot. He debated reaching down through the taurg to the earth below for strength but decided against it. He had enough raw muscle, barely, to control the heavy tool.

  Tavi whirled it once and slammed it as hard as he could into Varg's chest.

  The ball of the prod thudded against the Cane's armored chest, and sent Varg sprawling back, nearly knocking him out of the taurg's saddle entirely. The taurga immediately bellowed at one another, butting heads and ramming shoulders for half a minute before they backed away, settling down again.

  Varg stared at Tavi in shock, then bared his fangs and reached for his sword.

  Tavi smiled at him, showing teeth, and put the prod back on its hook. "I have work to do. I have a duty to my people back at Molvar." He turned his mount back toward the column, adding, over his shoulder, "So do you."

  Tavi wasn't sure how Varg was going to react to what he had just done. Physical violence among the Canim was . . . not what it was among Alerans. And while it was commonly employed as a disciplinary measure, it was also seen as something of an insult; it was how one dealt with an unruly puppy, not how one treated a respected subordinate. Certainly, that kind of action was not how one treated an equal. Then again, their concept of gadara, respected enemy, put an entirely different light on that kind of interaction. Enemies were supposed to hit you.

  All the same. It was entirely possible that he had just effectively offered Varg a challenge. Such things, among the Canim of Varg's status, were not confined to first blood.

  Varg's mount came hurrying out of the chilling rain behind Tavi, and fell into pace beside his own beast. After the mounts settled, Tavi glanced aside, to find Varg watching him.

  The big Cane's eyes were still dull. His fur was being plastered flat to his skull by the rain, making him seem, to Tavi, somehow smaller, more vulnerable, and more dangerous.

  Varg inclined his head slightly to one side.

  Tavi returned the gesture.

  The Cane turned away, and they rejoined the troop. As the group of taurga took to the trail again, Varg rode slightly apart from everyone else.

  "Shuar," Anag said, gesturing.

  The road had led to the fortifications they had seen from the top of the bluffs. As a military camp, it would have to be enormous. With all the supporting folk needed to keep so many warriors in condition to fight, it had to be almost unimaginably large to hold them all--a city that easily outshone Alera Imperia in sheer scale and in grim splendor, all made of dark, bleak stone, with oddly shaped, too-narrow doors and windows. The Canim did not, it seemed, put much stock in building high towers. No building in sight was more elongated than a cube, though several of them were several stories tall. All told, it must have made for some truly cavernous architecture, with buildings capable of holding many more occupants than was customary in Alera.

  Even this city, though, had been strained to its limits, Tavi could see. Dome-shaped tents stood in precise groups around the city's walls, stretching for thousands of yards over the open ground of the plateau, surrounded by simple earthworks patrolled lightly by warrior Canim in blue-and-black armor. Beyond them, cruder tents had been erected in a far-more-chaotic fashion. As they passed through them, Tavi could see evidence of tanners, smiths, and all manner of other tradesmen necessary to support such a gathering of troops. Members of the maker caste, the tradesmen had evidently overflowed whatever quarters had been intended for their use in the city proper. The cold and the rain kept most of the occupants of the tents inside them, but a few laborers--notably smiths--were still hard at work under flimsy canopies, and wide-eyed Canim children came rushing t
o the flaps of the tents to watch as the taurga came huffing and swaying through the tent city.

  "They're cute," Max commented idly. "The little ones."

  Durias snorted.

  Tavi glanced over his shoulder at the former slave and arched an eyebrow. "Not cute?"

  "They're adorable," Durias said. "But I once saw a slave owner who was being taken to his trial try to escape by taking one of them hostage. Little female, maybe five years old. He grabbed her by the scruff of the neck, picked her up, and put his arm around her throat. Held her like you might a child you had half a mind to strangle. Had a knife in his other hand."

  Kitai, riding in front of Tavi, turned all the way around in her saddle, comfortably balanced in the rhythm of the walking taurg, her expression intently interested. "What happened?"

  "That little female puppy opened up her jaws and just about tore that bad man's hand off at the wrist," Durias said. "She did dislocate his shoulder in the process."

  Tavi lifted his eyebrows. "Strong little things."

  "They don't develop the same way our children do," Durias said, nodding. "By the time they can run, their muscles are functioning almost at an adult level."

  "What happened to the slave owner?" Kitai asked. "Was he found guilty at the trial?"

  "No," Durias said shortly. "The puppy's mother was there. So was her uncle. Once the child was out of reach of the knife . . ."

  Tavi winced. Not that he mourned the loss of any man who would take a child prisoner--even the child of an avowed enemy invader--but he couldn't imagine that a slave owner, no matter how benevolent or law-abiding, could have expected to survive a trial in the hands of a government composed of ex-slaves. Such pressure could drive any man to desperate acts.

  "Don't trouble yourself, Captain," Durias said, a few seconds later, as though he had read the thoughts behind Tavi's expression. "The man was a rapist and worse. We did all that we could to spare the lives of those who hadn't actually abused women or taken a slave's life themselves."

  Tavi shook his head and chuckled wryly. "There's going to be a lot of things to be worked out once we get home, you know."

  "Slavery must end, sir," Durias said. His tone was quiet and respectful, but the words were made of granite and steel. "From there, we are willing to abide as any other freeman. But not until all Alerans are free."

  "That isn't going to be simple or easy," Tavi said.

  "Worthy things often aren't, sir."

  They drew near the gates of the fortifications themselves--massive things that rose forty feet above the level of the plateau. The falling rain had begun to coat them in ice. Low-burning torches blazed at wide intervals on the walls, providing barely enough light for the Alerans to see. That could become a problem. The Canim had excellent night vision. The light they preferred to use, when they used any at all, was a dim, red form of illumination that was hardly enough for Aleran eyes to separate solid shapes from shadows. There was no reason to suppose that the interior of their fortress would be lit well enough to prevent the Alerans from looking extremely foolish--which was to say, helpless and weak.

  And that, Tavi thought, would be a very bad message to send to the Shuaran nation.

  A horn blew atop the gates, and Anag bellowed for the column to halt. He began exchanging what sounded like formal greetings with the guard atop the gate, introducing their company.

  "Max," Tavi said. "Crassus. Once we get into the dark, we'll need to see our way. I think your swords should strike the proper tone."

  Crassus nodded and Max grunted in the affirmative. A moment later, the huge gates swung open, wide enough to allow the column of taurga to enter three abreast.

  Max and Crassus fell in on either side of Tavi, with Durias and Kitai bringing up the rear. As they passed into the blackness beneath the gates, into the tunnel that ran beneath walls a hundred feet thick, the two brothers drew their long blades and held them upright, at rest beside them. As they did so, bright tongues of flame suddenly rushed out from the hilts of the blades to their tips, golden white light that wreathed the steel and drove back the cavernous night beneath the Shuaran gates.

  As the company rode out of the tunnel and into the city beyond it, they entered what looked like a large square or marketplace, where hundreds of Canim, makers and warriors alike, were hurrying past through the rain, purpose in their strides. As the light of the blazing swords began to cast harsh, long shadows against the buildings on the far side of the square, several dozen passersby stopped to stare at the troop and the Alerans as they entered the city.

  Then an Aleran Legion trumpet abruptly rang out behind Tavi, sharp and silvery, crying out against the dark stones of Shuar. The opening bars of the Anthem of Eagles, the clarion call of the Princeps of Alera, shivered through the rain and the night, proud and cold and defiant. Tavi shot a quick, surprised glance over his shoulder, to see Durias lowering the trumpet, returning it to hang from its baldric at his side. The young centurion inclined his head to Tavi with a very small smile and winked.

  If the glare of light had slowed foot traffic around them, the cry of the trumpet stopped it completely.

  The square went deathly still and silent. Hundreds of dark Canim eyes stared intently at the visiting strangers.

  Varg nudged his mount forward, glancing once at Tavi.

  Without knowing precisely why, Tavi felt that the Cane wanted him to do the same. He guided his own taurg to stand beside Varg's.

  "I am Varg of Narash," the grizzled Cane called out, his voice carrying throughout the city around them. "This is my gadara, Tavar of Alera. We ride to seek audience with Warmaster Lararl. Let any who would bar our way stand forward now."

  Within seconds, a path leading to one of the exits on the far side of the square was entirely unoccupied.

  "Huh," Max muttered. "Guess they know him here."

  Varg let out a satisfied sound somewhere between a grunt and a growl, and made a polite, beckoning gesture to Tavi. The two of them started their mounts forward, followed closely by Max and Crassus, with their burning blades, then Durias and Kitai, and finally followed by Anag's troops, formed into a hasty honor guard.

  Word apparently rushed ahead of them as they rode. Though the cavern-dark city was filled to overflowing with Canim, the street before Tavi and Varg was, without exception, perfectly empty.

  It was an eerie ride. What would have been familiar crowd murmur in Alera Imperia was instead the continuous chorus of rumbling growls and snarls that comprised the Canim tongue. Though the light cast by the brothers' swords was bright, outside of that circle there were only dark shapes and thousands and thousands of gleaming red eyes--and the occasional glimpse of white fangs.

  The atmosphere was not helped by the fact that Max and Crassus, at Tavi's suggestion, had slowly decreased the intensity of the flames surrounding their swords, until the Alerans' eyes had adjusted more adequately to the dim red luminescence the Canim favored for light. They still could not see well, but neither had they been entirely blinded as they entered the city, and avoiding moments of apparent weakness was critically important in any dealings with their predatory hosts.

  Short of a miracle, there would be no chance whatsoever of escaping the fortress at night, Tavi realized. The simple lack of light would make it impossible, even if the sheer numbers of Canim hadn't made the entire idea laughable in the first place. To have enough light to see by, they'd have to light themselves up like a beacon, announcing to any Cane with eyes exactly where they were. And in daylight, of course, sneaking about was almost as unlikely. Which meant that they'd have to rely entirely upon furycraft, if it came to that--and surrounded by so much bleak stone, a woodcrafted veil would be out of the question, a windcrafted one frail and difficult to hold.

  Best to avoid the need to escape, then.

  If he could.

  Anag took them down several steeply sloping streets that wound down the side of the plateau, all of them built with strong gates and battlements at regular intervals--th
e road through the pass that led up to the range of Shuar proper, until, near the base of the plateau, they stopped before the largest building they had seen so far, an enormous cube of black stone at least two hundred feet high.

  After dismounting, they passed through several guard stations and past several higher-ranking officers. It took them the better part of two hours to work through the chain of command, but eventually they were shown to a chamber somewhere toward the center of the building. It was a large room, stretching out beneath a high dome overhead. Tavi was impressed by the sheer skill involved in engineering such a thing. The weight from above must have been enormous, yet the chamber's smooth dome arched gracefully, apparently unsupported by any pillar or buttress.