Cursors fury, p.26
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       Cursor's Fury, p.26

         Part #3 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  Amara drew her sword and regarded the diving Knights grimly. “Watch for any that get past me,” she shouted. Then she called to Cirrus and shot up to meet the oncoming foe, swifter than an arrow from the bow.

  The oncoming Knights Aeris hesitated for a moment as she rushed them, and she exploited their mistake by pouring on all the speed at her command. Amara was arguably the fastest flier in Alera, and the advancing Knights were unprepared for the sheer velocity of her charge. She was on the foremost Knight before the man had fairly drawn his sword and stabilized his windstream to support a blow. Amara swept past the man and struck, both hands on the hilt of her blade.

  She had aimed for his neck, but he ducked at the last moment and her sword struck the side of his helmet. The sturdy blade shattered under the sheer force of the blow, metal shards tumbling in the scarlet light. Amara felt an instant of painful, tingling sensation in her hands, which then immediately went numb. Her windstream fluttered dangerously, sending her into a lateral tumble, but she gritted her teeth and recovered her balance in time to see the doomed enemy Knight plummeting toward the earth, knocked lethally senseless by the blow.

  The other two Knights saw their comrade’s plight and rolled into a dive, their furies driving them down faster than the unconscious Knight could fall—but it would be a near thing, both to catch him and pull out of the dive in time. The coach would have valuable minutes to flee, to place more distance between it and the observers, so that Lady Aquitaines veil could hide it from sight once more.

  Amara pressed her numb-tingling hands against her sides, keeping an eye on the diving Knights, and banked around to glide back to the coach. From here, she could see through the crafting Lady Aquitaine’s furies held around the coach, though she could not make out many details. It was like staring at a distant object through the wavering lines of heat arising from one of Alera’s causeways in high summer. If she’d been much farther away, she might not have seen the coach at all.

  Amara shook her head. Though she could, if she had to, veil herself in a similar fashion, her own abilities would be pushed to their utmost to do so. Lady Aquitaine’s veil was twenty times the volume, at least, and she did it while also muffling the gale that held them all aloft, as well as propelling herself. She might not have Amara’s training or experience in aerial conflict, but it was a potent reminder of how capable—and dangerous—the woman truly was.

  Something hit Amara from below, a sudden blow that drove the breath from her body and made her vision shrink to a tunnel of black with a vermilion sky at the far end. She’d been sinking in a shallow dive to rejoin the coach, and her own descent made the blow far more powerful than it might have been on its own.

  For a second, she lost her reference to sky and earth completely, but her instincts warned her not to stop moving, and she called desperately to Cirrus for more speed, regardless of the direction in which she flew. She fought her way through the disorientation, past the pain in one thigh and the hollow-gut sensation of having her breath knocked from her, and realized that she was soaring almost straight up, bobbing and weaving drunkenly. Feathery, faint oceans of bloodred cloud surrounded them, a mere translucent haze.

  Amara shot a glance over one shoulder and realized her mistake. Though she had been watching the descending pair of Knights, she had forgotten the first attacker, who had to have possessed speed to challenge Amara’s own, to have ascended again so quickly.

  Now he pressed hard behind her, a young man with muddy eyes and a determined jaw, now holding one of the short, heavy bows of horn and wood and steel favored by huntsmen in the rolling forests and swamps of the southern cities. He had a short, heavy arrow fitted to the string, the bow half-drawn.

  She felt the air around her ripple, and knew that the knight had loosed the first shaft, and that she did not have time to evade it. Amara directed Cirrus to deflect the missile, the air between her shoulder blades suddenly as thick and hard as ice, but it struck with such force that Cirrus was unable to maintain the pace of her flight, and her speed dropped.

  Which, she realized with a sudden surge of fear, had been the point of shooting at her in the first place.

  The enemy Knight was upon her in an instant, the column of air that propelled him interfering with hers, and Cirrus faltered even more.

  And to make things worse, that inexplicable sense of a hostile presence returned, stronger, nearer, more filled with anger and hate.

  The enemy Knight shot ahead of her, above her, and his windstream abruptly vanished as he turned, an open leather sack in his hands, and hurled half a pound of rock salt directly into Amara’s face.

  Another whistling shriek split the air, this time agonized, and as the salt tore into the fury in a cloud of flickering blue lights, briefly outlining the form her fury took most often, that of a large and graceful destrier whose legs, tail, and mane terminated in continuous billows of mist. The fury reared and bucked in torment, and its pain slammed against Amara’s consciousness, and she suddenly felt as if a thousand glowing embers had crashed into her, the sensation at once insubstantial and hideously real.

  With another scream, Cirrus dispersed like a cloud before high winds, fleeing the pain of contact with the salt.

  And Amara was alone.

  Her windstream vanished.

  She fell.

  She thrashed her arms and legs in panic, out of control, desperately calling upon her furycraft. She could not reach Cirrus, could not move the air, could not fly.

  Above her, the enemy Knight recalled his fury and recovered his air stream, then dived down after her, fitting another arrow to his bow, and she suddenly knew that he did not mean to let her fall to her death.

  He was a professional and would take no chances.

  He would make sure that she was dead before she ever hit the ground.

  Amara fumbled for her knife, a useless gesture, but twisting her hips to reach it sent her into an uncontrolled, tumbling spin, more severe and more terrifying than anything she had felt before.

  She saw in flashes, in blurred images.

  The ground waxed larger beneath her, all fields and rolling pastures in the ruddy sunlight.

  The scarlet sun scowled down at her.

  The enemy Knight raised his bow for the killing shot.

  Then the misty scarlet haze they fell through moved.

  Ground.

  Sky.

  Sun.

  The scarlet haze condensed into dozens of smaller, opaque, scarlet clouds. Ruddy vinelike appendages emerged from the undersides of each smaller cloud, and writhed and whipped through the air with terrifying and purposeful motion.

  An eerie shriek like nothing Amara had ever heard assaulted her ears.

  A dozen bloody vines shot toward her pursuer.

  The enemy Knight loosed his shot. The impact of the bizarre tendrils sent the shaft wide.

  The Knight screamed, one long, continuous sound of agony and terror, a young man’s voice that cracked in the middle.

  Dark crimson cloudbeasts surrounded him, vines ripping, tearing.

  His screams stopped.

  Amara’s vision blurred over, the disorientation too great, and she called desperately, uselessly to Cirrus, struggling to move as she would if the fury had been there to guide her. She managed to slow the spinning, but she could do nothing else. The land below rose up, enormous, prosperous—and ready to receive her body and blood.

  Cirrus was beyond her call.

  She was going to die.

  There was nothing she could do about it.

  Amara closed her eyes, and pressed her hands against her stomach.

  She didn’t have the breath to whisper his name. Bernard.

  And then gale winds rose up to surround her, pressing hard against her, slowing her fall. She screamed in frustration and fear at her helplessness and felt herself angling to one side, pulling out of the fall as if it had been an intentional dive.

  The land rushed up and Amara came to earth in the furrowed
field of a stead-holt. She managed to strike with her feet and tried to fold herself into a controlled roll to spread out her momentum. The rich, fresh earth was soft enough to slow her momentum, and after fifty feet of tumbling she fetched up to a halt at the feet of a steadholt scarecrow.

  She lay on her side, dazed, confused, aching from dozens of impacts suffered during the landing, and covered with earth and mud and what might have been a bit of manure.

  Lady Aquitaine alighted near her, landing neatly.

  She was in time to be sprinkled with the blood of the Knight taken by the cloudbeasts. Amara had beat it to the ground.

  Lady Aquitaine stared up in shock, bright beads of blood on one cheekbone and one eyelash. “Countess?” she breathed. “Are you all right?”

  The coach descended as well, and Bernard all but kicked the door off its hinges in his hurry to exit and run to Amara. He knelt with her, his expression almost panicked, staring at her for a breath, then examining her for injuries.

  “I managed to slow her fall,” Lady Aquitaine said. “But she’s been badly bruised and may have cracked some bones.”

  The words sounded pleasant to Amara, though she could not remember what they meant. She felt Bernard’s hand on her forehead and smiled. “ M all right, my lord,” she murmured.

  “Here, Count,” Lady Aquitaine said. “Let me help you.”

  They fussed over her, and it felt nice.

  Fear. Pain. Terror. Too much of it for one day.

  Amara just wanted to rest, to sleep. Surely things would be better after she rested.

  “No broken bones,” Lady Aquitaine said.

  “What happened up there?” Bernard asked, his voice a low growl.

  Lady Aquitaine lifted her eyes to the red skies above.

  Droplets of blood still fell, tiny beads of red that had once been a human being.

  She frowned and murmured, perplexed, “I have no idea.”

  Chapter 23

  The next morning, Isana woke when Lady Veradis opened the door. The pale young healer’s dark-circled eyes were even more worn than the day before, but she wore the colors of her fathers house in a simple gown. The young woman smiled at Isana and said, “Good morrow, Steadholder.”

  “Lady,” Isana said, with a nod. She looked around the room. “Where is Fade?”

  Lady Veradis entered the room, bearing a tray covered with a cloth napkin. “Being bathed and fed. I’ll have him brought in once you are ready.”

  “How is he?”

  “Somewhat disoriented with fever. Weary. Otherwise lucid.” She nodded at the food. “Eat and ready yourself. I will return presently.”

  Isana pushed worry from her mind, at least long enough to wash herself and partake of the sausages, fresh bread, and cheeses Veradis had brought. Once some of the food had touched her tongue, Isana found herself famished, and ate with abandon. The food would be necessary to keep her strength up during the healing, and she should take as much as she could.

  A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door and Veradis asked, “Steadholder? May we enter?”

  “Of course.”

  Veradis came in. Three guards bore a healer’s tub readied with water. The tub wasn’t as large as the one from the day before, and it bore spots of rust and wear that marked it as a well-worn member of its breed. It had probably been stored in a closet somewhere, forgotten until the sudden attack on the city demanded the use of every tub that could be found. The guards set it down on the floor, then one of them drew a low chair over to sit beside it.

  A moment later, Giraldi came in, supporting Fade with one shoulder despite his limp and his cane. Fade wore only a long, white robe, his face was flushed with fever, his eyes glazed, and his wounded hand had swollen up into a grotesque mockery of itself.

  Giraldi grimly helped the scarred man over to the tub and had to help Fade remove the robe. Fade’s lean, wire-muscled body showed dozens of old scars Isana had never seen before, especially across his back, where the marks of the whipping that had accompanied his branding stood out from his skin, as thick as Isana’s littlest finger.

  Fade settled weakly into the tub, and when he laid his head back against the wooden rest, he seemed to fall asleep instantly.

  “Are you prepared?” Veradis asked quietly.

  Isana rose and nodded, without speaking.

  Veradis gestured to the chair. “Sit, then. Take his hand.”

  Isana did so. The low chair put her head on a level with Fade’s, and she watched the scarred slave’s features as she reached down to take up his healthy hand and grip it between hers.

  “It isn’t a terribly complicated crafting,” Veradis said. “The infection has a natural tendency to gather at the site of the wound. So concentrated, his body cannot drive it out. You must dilute the infection, spreading it more thinly throughout his body, where he will have a chance to fight it off.”

  Isana frowned and drew in a slow breath. “But that will spread the sickness throughout his whole body. If I stop, the infection could take root anywhere. One site is bad enough. I could not handle two at once.”

  Veradis nodded. “And it could take his body days to fight off the infection.”

  Isana bit her lip again. Days. She had never maintained a healing furycraft for more than a few hours.

  “It isn’t a very good way to help him,” Veradis said quietly. “It is, however, the only way. Once you begin, you cannot stop until he has won through. If you do, the garic oil will corrupt his blood entirely. He’ll die within an hour.” She reached into a pocket and drew out a soft, supple cord, offering it to Isana. “Are you sure you wish to attempt this?”

  Isana studied Fade’s scarred face. “I can’t tie that with one hand, lady.”

  The young healer nodded, then knelt and, very carefully, bound Isana’s hand loosely together with Fade’s. “A very great deal will depend upon him, Steadholder,” she murmured as she worked. “Upon his will to live.”

  “He will live,” Isana said in a quiet voice.

  “If he so chooses, there is hope,” Veradis said. “But if he does not, or if the infection is simply too great, you must end the crafting.”

  “Never.”

  Veradis continued as if Isana had not spoken. “Depending on the progress of the infection, he may become delusional. Violent. Be prepared to restrain him. Should he lose consciousness altogether, or if he bleeds from the nose, mouth, or ears, there is little hope for his life. That’s how you will know when it is time to break away.”

  Isana closed her eyes and shook her head, firmly, once. “I will not leave him.”

  “Then you will die with him,” Veradis said, her tone matter-of-fact.

  I should have, Isana thought bitterly. I should have twenty years ago.

  “I strongly urge you not to throw away your life in vain,” Veradis murmured. “In fact, I beg you. There are never enough skilled healers during war, and your talents could prove invaluable to the city’s defense.”

  Isana looked up and met the young woman’s eyes. “You must fight your battle,” she said quietly. “And I must fight mine.”

  Veradis’s tired gaze focused elsewhere for a moment, then she nodded. “Very well. I will look in on you if I can. There are guards in the hall. I have instructed them to serve as attendants, should you need food or any kind of assistance.”

  “Thank you, Lady Vera—”

  Isana’s words were suddenly drowned by a titanic booming sound, so loud that it shook the stones of the citadel and rattled the glass in the windows, cracking it in several places. There was a second boom. Then, much more faintly, a rumble of drums, a series of clarion calls of military trumpets, and a sound like wind rushing through thick forest.

  Lady Veradis drew in a sharp breath, and said, “It’s begun.”

  Giraldi stumped over to the window and peered out. “Here come Kalare’s Legions. Forming up near the south gate.”

  “What was that sound?” Isana asked.

  “Knigh
ts Ignus. Probably tried to blast the gate down, first thing.” He squinted for a moment, then said, “Cereus’s Legions are on the walls now. Must not have taken the gate down.”

  “I must go,” Veradis said. “I am needed.”

  “Of course,” Isana said. “Thank you.”

  Veradis gave her a fleeting smile, and murmured, “Good luck.” She departed on silent feet.

  “To all of us,” Giraldi growled, frowning out the window. A series of smaller detonations came rippling through the predawn air, and Isana could actually see the light of the fires reflected against the glass.

  “What’s happening?” she asked.

  “Kalare brought his firecrafters up. Looks like they’re blasting the walls.”

  “Aren’t they too thick to blast through?” Isana asked.

  Giraldi grunted in the affirmative. “But it creates rough spots to help troops climb ropes and ladders. If they get lucky, they might crack the wall. Then they could bring in watercrafters and use them to widen the break or undermine the wall.”

  A brilliant glow suddenly poured through the windows, the light a cool, bluish color rather than the orange-gold of dawn.

  Giraldi grunted. “Nice.”

  “Centurion?”

  He glanced at her over his shoulder. “Cereus let the firecrafters go to town until he could tell where most of them were. Then he moved his Knights Flora to the walls and turned on every furylight and lamp in the city so they could see to shoot.”

  “Did it work?”

  “Can’t see from here,” Giraldi said. “But the legionares on the walls are cheering them on.”

  “Perhaps they’ve killed Kalare’s firecrafters, then.”

  “They didn’t get all of them.”

  “How do you know?”

  Giraldi shrugged. “You never get them all. But it looks like they’ve given Kalare’s forces something to think about.”

  Isana frowned. “What happens now?”

  Giraldi frowned. “Depends on how bloody they’re willing to get. Cereus and his people are on their home ground, familiar with the local furies. It gives them an advantage over Kalare’s Knights. They tried a lightning assault and failed. Now as long as Cereus keeps his Knights intact and uses them well, Kalare’s forces will get massacred if they charge in against Cereus’s Knights.”