Cursors fury, p.25
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       Cursor's Fury, p.25

         Part #3 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  “We aren’t in hostile territory. Better that than to lose more of our Knights Aeris to these things. We’re spread thin enough as it is. Do it.”

  Fantus nodded and saluted again. Then he went to Crassus and stood beside the young Knight, staring down at the men in the tubs.

  Tavi glanced back at the tubs and nearly threw up.

  One of the men was dead, horribly dead, his body shrunken and wrinkled like a rotten grape, gaping holes burned into the body. The other Knight was breathing in frenzied gasps, his eyes wide and bulging, while the healers worked frantically to save him.

  “It would seem that someone is attempting to impede our progress,” the captain said to the First Spear.

  “Doesn’t make much sense. The way we’re marching, we’re getting out of Kalarus’s way. Totally out of the theater of this war. He should be happy to see us on the road.”

  “Yes,” Cyril said. “But it would seem that someone wants us slow and blind.”

  The First Spear grunted. “Which means you want to move fast and find out what the crows is going on out here. Just to spite him.”

  Cyril’s teeth flashed in a swift smile. “Take half a glass for the men and the animals to get some water. Then we’re on the march again.”

  The First Spear saluted the captain and marched off, beckoning runners and delivering orders.

  Cyril stared at the survivor of the attack. He was slowly easing down from his agonized thrashing. He stepped up to stand beside Crassus. The young Knight hadn’t moved. His gaze remained on the sad, withered body of the dead man.

  “Sir Crassus,” Cyril said.

  “Sir?”

  The captain took the young man by his shoulders and gently forced his entire body to turn away from the corpse, and toward the captain. “Sir Crassus, you can do nothing for him. Your brother Knights need your eyes and thoughts to be upon your duty. They are who you should focus upon.”

  Crassus shook his head. “If I’d—”

  “Sir Crassus,” Cyril said, his tone quiet but hard. “Writhing in recrimination and self-doubt is a game your men cannot afford you to play. You are a Knight of the Realm, and you will comport yourself as such.”

  Crassus stiffened to attention, swallowed, and threw the captain a steady salute.

  Cyril nodded. “Better. You’ve done all you can for them. Return to your duties, Sir Crassus.”

  “Sir, “ Max’s half brother said. He began to look over his shoulder but arrested the movement with a visible effort, then donned his helmet and strode back toward the front of the column.

  Cyril watched Crassus for a moment, then the healers began to back away from the second tub, with the air of men whose work had been completed. The young Knight in the tub, though pale as death, was breathing steadily while Lady Antillus continued to kneel beside the tub, her head bowed, her hands on the injured Knight’s head.

  Cyril nodded, and his gaze fell on Tavi. “Scipio?” he asked. “What happened to you?”

  “Accident with a cart, sir,” Tavi replied.

  “Broke his leg,” Foss provided with a grunt, as he returned to the wagon.

  Cyril arched a brow and glanced at Foss. “How bad?”

  “Lower leg, clean break. I mended it. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

  Cyril stared at Tavi for a long moment, his eyes narrowed. Then he nodded.

  Lady Antillus rose from the healing tub, smoothed her skirts, and walked sedately to the captain. She saluted him.

  “Tribune,” Cyril greeted her. “How is he?”

  “I believe he is stable,” Lady Antillus replied, her voice cool, calm. “Barring complications, he should survive. The acid ate away most of the muscle on his left thigh and his right forearm. He’ll never serve again.”

  “There’s more to serving a Legion than fighting,” Cyril said quietly.

  “Yes, sir,” Lady Antillus said, her neutral tone speaking clearly as to her disagreement.

  “Thank you, Your Grace,” Cyril said. “For his life.”

  Lady Antillus’s expression became remote and unreadable, and she inclined her head very slightly.

  Cyril returned the nod, then turned to his horse, mounted, and headed back up the column.

  Lady Antillus turned to Tavi after the captain left. “Scipio.”

  “Tribune,” Tavi said, saluting her.

  “Hop down from the wagon,” she said firmly. “Let’s see your leg.”

  “Excuse me?”

  Lady Antillus arched a brow. “I am the Tribune Medica of this Legion. You are one of my charges. Now hop down, Subtribune.”

  Tavi nodded and eased himself down slowly, careful to put as little weight as he could on his wounded leg.

  Lady Antillus knelt and touched the wounded leg for a moment, then rose and rolled her eyes. “It’s nothing.”

  “Foss healed it,” Tavi said.

  “It is a minor injury,” she said. “Surely, Scipio, someone with even your modest skills of metalcrafting could ignore any discomfort it might cause and march.”

  Tavi glanced back at Foss, but the healer was supervising the loading of the wounded Knight into the bed of the wagon and studiously kept his eyes away. “I’m afraid not, Your Grace,” Tavi improvised, regarding her thoughtfully. “It’s still fairly tender, and I don’t want to slow the Legion.”

  Clearly, he hadn’t fooled Lady Antillus by starting that fire. It was depressingly probable that she knew or at least strongly suspected his identity, and she was out to expose him. Given how badly he’d beaten her nephew, Kalarus Brencis Minoris, back at that fiasco during Wintersend, he wasn’t surprised at her animosity. Even so, he couldn’t allow her to prove to everyone in sight who he was.

  Which meant that he had to act.

  “I’m sorry, Your Grace,” Tavi said. “But I can’t put any weight on it yet.”

  “I see,” Lady Antillus said. Then she reached out and firmly pushed on Tavi’s shoulder, forcing his weight to the injured leg.

  Tavi felt a flash of pain that shot from his right heel to his right collarbone. The leg buckled and he fell, pitching forward into Lady Antillus, almost knocking her down.

  The High Lady let Tavi fall and recovered her balance. Then she shook her head, and said, “I’ve seen little girls in Antillus bear more than that.” Her eyes fell on Foss. “I don’t care to waste my time dealing with obvious shirkers. Watch the leg. Get him back on his feet the moment you deem him fit. Meanwhile, he can play nurse for the casualty.”

  Foss saluted. “Yes, Tribune.”

  Lady Antillus glared down at Tavi. Then she tossed her dark hair back over one shoulder, mounted her horse again, and kicked it into a run toward the front of the column.

  After she was gone, Foss snickered. “You’ve got a nose for trouble, sir.”

  “Sometimes,” Tavi agreed. “Foss. Assuming I can get some cash, how much are we talking, to ride in the wagon.”

  Foss considered. “Two gold eagles at least.”

  Tavi returned his small knife to its sheath in his pocket, calmly loosened the neatly sliced strings of Lady Antillus’s coin purse, and upended its contents into his hand. Three gold crowns, half a dozen gold eagles, and eleven silver bulls jingled together. Tavi selected a gold crown and flicked the coin to Foss.

  The healer caught the coin on reflex and stared at Tavi, then at the silk purse. His eyes widened, and he made strangling sounds in his throat.

  “That’s five times your asking price,” Tavi said. “And I’ll help with your casualty the whole way. Good enough?”

  Foss rubbed a hand back over his short-shorn hair. Then he let out a rough laugh and pocketed the coin. “Kid, you got more balls than brains. I like that. Get in.”

  Chapter 22

  While dawn was half an hour away, Lady Aquitaine summoned four Wind-wolves, mercenary Knights long in service to the Aquitaines—and responsible for no few lost lives themselves. Allegedly responsible, Amara reminded herself firmly. There was no proof.

 
; Amara, Bernard, Rook, and Lady Aquitaine met them atop the northernmost spire of Cereus’s citadel. The Knights Aeris and the coach they bore swept up to the spire from within the city, keeping lower than the rooftops whenever possible.

  They were dressed for travel—Amara in her close-fit flying leathers and her sword belt, Bernard in a woodsman’s outfit of brown and green and grey, bearing his axe, bow, bedroll, and war quiver. Lady Aquitaine wore clothing similar to Amara’s, though the leathers’ layers sandwiched an impossibly fine mesh of steel, providing greater protection for the High Lady. She also wore a sword, something Amara had never pictured Invidia Aquitaine using—but she bore the long, slender blade as casually as Amara did her own.

  Once the coach had landed, the door opened, and one of the most deadly swordsmen alive emerged from it. Aldrick ex Gladius stood half a head taller than even Bernard, and moved with a kind of placid grace, no motions wasted. He had a pair of swords belted to his left side, a Legion-issue gladius and a duelist’s longblade. His wolfish grey eyes found Lady Aquitaine, and he gave her a curt nod. “Your Grace.”

  Behind him, a woman in a pale green gown peered at them from her seat in the coach, her beautiful, pale face a ghostly contrast with her dark hair and eyes. Amara recognized Odiana, another of Aquitaine’s mercenary Knights. Her head tilted oddly to one side as she studied the others, and Amara saw the colors of her silk dress pulse and swirl, tendrils of dark red and vermilion slithering over the fabric covering her shoulders, a disquieting sight.

  Aldrick stared at them for a moment, eyes never leaving Amara and Bernard. “This is too much load for the coach, milady. Well never outrun their Knights Aeris.”

  Lady Aquitaine smiled. “It will just be the four of you,” she told Aldrick. “The Countess and I will travel outside the coach. Assuming that is acceptable, Countess?”

  Amara nodded. “I’d planned on it in any case.”

  Aldrick frowned for a moment, then said slowly, “This is not a wise decision, my lady.”

  “I’ll survive having my hair blown about, thank you,” she replied. “But I am willing to listen to an alternative suggestion, assuming you have one.”

  “Leave one of them here,” he said immediately.

  “No,” Amara said. Her tone made the word into a command.

  When Lady Aquitaine did not dissent, Aldrick’s frown deepened.

  “The sooner we leave,” Lady Aquitaine said, “the farther away from the city we can get before daylight. Count Calderon, Madame Rook, please have a seat.”

  Bernard glanced at Amara, who nodded. Rook had been provided with a simple brown dress, and she had altered her features, though it had seemed considerably more of an effort for her than it had for Lady Aquitaine. She still limped slightly, and she looked exhausted—and there was a noticeable absence of weaponry on her person—but she entered the coach under her own power. Bernard and Aldrick faced one another for a second, before Aldrick bowed slightly, and said, “Your Excellency.”

  Bernard grunted, gave Amara a wry glance, and entered the coach. Aldrick followed him in, and the Knights Aeris at the carry poles hooked their flight harnesses to them and, with an unavoidable cyclone of wind, lifted the coach from the stones of the tower and launched into the air, slowly but steadily gaining altitude.

  “Countess,” Lady Aquitaine said, as they prepared to fly, “I assume you have seen aerial combat before.”

  “Yes.”

  “I haven’t,” she said in a matter-of-fact voice. “You’re in command. I suggest that I attempt to veil us.”

  Amara arched an eyebrow at the proud High Lady, impressed. Invidia might be arrogant, ruthless, ambitious, a dangerous enemy—but she was no fool. Her suggestion was a good one. “That large a windstream will be difficult to hide.”

  “Impossible, in fact, if any Knights Aeris pass nearby,” Lady Aquitaine said. “But I believe I will be able to reduce our chances of being seen at a distance.”

  Amara nodded. “Do it. Take position on the coach’s left. I’ll take the right.”

  Lady Aquitaine nodded, twisting her hair into a knot at the nape of her neck and tying it there. “Shall we?”

  Amara nodded and called to Cirrus, and the two women stepped up onto the tower’s battlements and leapt into the predawn sky. Twin torrents of wind rose and lifted them swiftly into the sky. They easily overtook the slowly rising wind coach, and Amara took up a position on the right side of the coach, between it and the general direction of Kalarus’s approaching forces.

  They had gained nearly four thousand feet of altitude before the sun rose, reducing the landscape beneath to a broad diorama, every feature on it seemingly rendered in miniature. If they continued ascending to risk the swift high winds of the upper air, the land would resemble a quilt more than anything else, but at sunrise Amara could still see details of the land beneath them—notably, travelers on the road from the south, fleeing toward the protection of the walls of Ceres.

  And, beyond them, marching at speed down the road toward Ceres, came Kalarus’s Legions. Shadows yet blanketed much of the land below, but as the early golden light began to fall upon the column between gaps in the terrain, it glinted on their shields, helmets, and armor. Amara raised her hands, focusing part of Cirrus’s efforts into bending the light, bringing the landscape beneath into crystalline, magnified focus. With the fury’s aid, she could see individual legionares.

  Both Legions below moved swiftly, their ranks solid and unwavering—the marks of an experienced body of troops. This was no ragged outlaw Legion, raised and trained in secret in the wild, its ranks consisting mostly of brigands and scoundrels. They must have been Kalare’s regular Legions, those the city had maintained from time out of mind. Though they saw less action than the Legions of the north, they were still a well-trained, disciplined army. Mounted riders flanked the infantry in greater numbers than in most Legions, who typically maintained only two hundred and forty cavalry in a pair of auxiliary wings. There were perhaps three times that number in Kalarus’s Legions, the horses all tall and strong, their riders wearing the green-and-grey livery of Kalare.

  “Look!” called Lady Aquitaine. “To the north!”

  Amara looked over her shoulder. Though very far away, Amara spotted another column of troops marching down toward Ceres from the foothills north of the city—the Crown Legion, coming to the city’s defense. Amara noted with satisfaction that, as Gaius had promised, they were nearer Ceres than the southern Legions and would beat them to the city’s walls.

  Over the next few moments, the sun’s golden light dimmed a shade and took on the same ruddy hue as the stars.

  A disquieting sensation flickered through Amara’s awareness.

  She frowned and tried to focus upon it. As the sun’s light changed, or perhaps as they rose higher into the air, there was a subtle shift in the patterns of wind around her. She could sense them through Cirrus as the fury became uneasy, the windstream it provided her wobbling in tiny fluctuations. The hairs on the back of her neck rose, and Amara suddenly had the distinct impression that she was being watched, that a malevolent presence was nearby and intent upon doing her harm.

  She drew in closer to the coach’s side, rising a bit to look over it at Lady Aquitaine. The High Lady had a frown on her face as she peered around her, one hand upon the hilt of her sword. She turned a troubled gaze on Amara. Roaring wind made conversation problematic, but Lady Aquitaine’s shrug and a slight shake of her head adequately conveyed that she, too, had sensed something but did not know what it was.

  Bernard leaned his head out the window of the coach, his expression concerned. Amara dropped closer, flying beside the coach closely enough to hear him. “What’s wrong?”

  “I’m not sure.”

  “That woman of Aldrick’s is having some kind of seizure,” Bernard called. “She’s curled up in a ball on the floor of the coach.”

  Amara frowned, but just before she spoke she saw a shadow flicker across the wall of the coach. S
he put a hand on Bernard’s face and shoved him hard, back into the coach, and used the impulse of it to roll to the right. World and sky spun end over end, and she felt an intruding windcrafting interfere with Cirrus’s efforts to keep her aloft. Simultaneously, the form of an armored man in the green-and-grey colors of Kalare flew nearly straight down, sword gleaming red in the altered sunlight. The blade missed Bernard’s head, and the Knight Aeris tried for a swift cut at Amara. She avoided it by darting straight up and watched the enemy Knight shoot far past them, fighting to pull out of his dive and pursue.

  Amara checked around her again and saw three more armored figures half a mile above and ahead of the coach. Even as she watched, the three Knights banked, sweeping down to intercept the coach’s course.

  Amara called to Cirrus, and the furious winds around her let out a high-pitched whistle of alarm like the cry of a maddened hawk, to alert the others to the danger. She darted ahead of the coach, so that its bearers could see her, and flicked her hands through several quick gestures, giving orders. The bearers banked the coach to the left and put on all the speed they could muster. It leapt ahead through the eerie vermilion sky.

  That done, Amara darted like a hummingbird to Lady Aquitaine ’s side of the coach, flying in close enough to speak.

  “We’re under attack!” she said, pointing ahead and above them.

  Lady Aquitaine nodded sharply. “What do I do?”

  “Keep the veil up and see if you can help the coach move any faster.”

  “I will not be able to aid you, Countess, if all my concentration is on the veil.”

  “Right now there are only four of them. If every picket Knight can see us from miles away, we’ll have forty on us! Keep the veil up unless they get close. They’ll have salt. They’ll try to injure the bearers’ furies with it and force the coach down. We have to stop them from getting that close. I want you to take position above the coach.”

  Lady Aquitaine nodded and flitted into position. “Where will you be?”