Princeps fury, p.26
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       Princeps' Fury, p.26

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  Within his rights, but unwise. And it sent the wrong message to the men of both Legions--that the command of the expedition did not trust the Free Aleran's officers. He would avoid a repetition of such foolishness in the future.

  "First Spear!" Marcus looked up from his thoughts to spot one of Magnus's runners charging toward him. The young man came to a panting halt and saluted him. "Sir!"

  Marcus restrained a sigh, and declined to tell the valet that "sir" was used to address officers, not centurions. "What is it, son?"

  "Sir, Sir Magnus's compliments, and a message from the Princeps has arrived, sir. He said you would wish to be informed immediately."

  Marcus nodded once, sharply. "Take me to the messenger."

  Marcus watched Foss and his best men struggle to save Antillus Crassus's life. The young Knight Tribune, wounded in a dozen places, lay almost completely still in the healing tub, his breathing barely disturbing the water. His skin showed fresh, pink patches where he must have, in desperation, closed a dozen more such wounds as the ones he still sported. Given that he had likely done it while flying--and likely while fighting as well--it was a wonder the boy was alive at all.

  He had flown into the Legion's camp, barely conscious, and collapsed two of the Legion's white canvas tents as he crashed to earth. He had been taken from the wreckage directly to the healers, and had not yet woken to give any message.

  "Foss?" Magnus asked again. The old Cursor Callidus stood at the healer's right hand, intently focused upon the wounded man.

  Foss shook his wide shoulders in irritation and growled under his breath. The big man's black hair and beard were too long for the letter of the regulations, but the Tribune Medica was, frankly, too good at his job to be called to task for them. "I'm trying to stack up grains of sand, here, Magnus, and you keep bumping my bloody arm. Go to the bloody crows and let me work."

  Marcus turned and hurried from the tent, crossing the open stretch of ground that lay between the tents of the First Aleran's healers and those of the Legion of ex-slaves. He strode into the tent and looked around.

  The Tribune Medica rose from where he sat at a small table, writing in a ledger. He frowned at Marcus warily. "First Spear."

  "Sir," Marcus said, saluting the man. "We have word from the Princeps, but his messenger is gravely wounded. I had hoped that you would lend us Dorotea."

  "I would," the other man said. "But she's busy. It seems one of our legionares was rather badly injured by some overzealous centurion."

  Marcus looked past the Tribune to see the hapless Bartillus lying senseless in a healing tub, his lower face bruised and swollen all along his jawline. Kneeling behind him, her fingers resting lightly on his temples, was a woman in a plain grey homespun gown. She was lean, dark-haired, and exquisitely beautiful. She wore no jewelry or adornment, save for the slender, sinister metal band of a discipline collar at her throat.

  Even as Marcus watched, he saw the wounded man's jaw shift weirdly beneath his skin. Seconds later, the swelling began to subside and the bruises began to lighten.

  "This is a minor and routine injury, sir," Marcus said. "And the messenger's life might depend on securing the most skilled healer in the camp. Our Tribune Medica is pressing hard at his limits."

  The Free Aleran Tribune grunted. "I'll send her over presently."

  "With respect, sir," Marcus said, "Antillus Crassus is dying now."

  The woman's eyes opened instantly, and she met Marcus's gaze with her own. Her stare was penetrating. She removed her hands from Bartillus's head and rose to approach the Tribune Medica.

  "I've knitted the bone and controlled the swelling, sir," she said in a soft voice, her eyes downcast. "I'd be happy to help Tribune Antillus."

  The Tribune frowned at her, then at Marcus. Then he waved his hand in a vague gesture, and said, "Don't be gone any longer than you need to be."

  "Yes, sir," Dorotea answered. She looked up at Marcus briefly. "I'm ready, First Spear."

  Marcus nodded to her, and they hurried to cross the field back toward the First Aleran's healers.

  "The Princeps told you who I am," the woman observed.

  "Aye, Your Grace."

  She shook her head wearily. "No, no, no. I am no longer that woman."

  "Because of that collar," Marcus said. "There must be some way to remove it."

  "I don't want to remove it," she said calmly. "To be honest, I like the person I am now a great deal more than who I once was."

  "That's the collar talking," Marcus said quietly.

  Dorotea, the former High Lady of Antillus, walked for several steps before she admitted, "Possibly. However, the fact is that there is no future for High Lady Antillus, whereas Dorotea has saved lives, helped people, and done more good in the past three years than she had in her entire previous life."

  "But you're trapped there," Marcus said. "Bound to obey the commands of others. Forbidden to do harm, even to defend yourself."

  "And liking it that way, First Spear." She looked ahead to the healer's tent. "How severe are my son's injuries?"

  "I'm no healer," Marcus replied. "But I've seen Foss handle very serious injuries. Some of them were my own. If he's struggling . . ."

  Dorotea nodded once, her expression serene. "Then we shall see what we shall see." She glanced obliquely at Marcus. "Does my son know?"

  Marcus shook his head.

  She nodded. "I should prefer to keep it that way. It's better for everyone."

  "Of course."

  "I thank you." Dorotea's eyes flickered with uncertainty and fear, and her footsteps increased in speed as they drew near the tent. "Oh," she breathed. "Oh, I can . . . He's in so much pain."

  Marcus did not follow her. A few seconds after Dorotea entered the tent, Magnus pushed the flap aside and walked up to Marcus, his eyes hard.

  "What in the name of the great furies do you think you're doing?" he hissed at Marcus. "You know who she is."

  "Yes," Marcus said placidly.

  "And it never occurred to you that she might well hold a grudge against the Crown for the way her brother and his resources were destroyed? That she might resent her current status intensely enough to strike out at the Crown in vengeance?"

  "She's bound to do no harm," Marcus pointed out.

  "And she'll not need to do any harm to kill the Princeps, if he is in trouble. All she'll have to do is fail to save the messenger. Given her limits, how often in a lifetime of waiting could such an opportunity for vengeance present itself?"

  "If the messenger was anyone else, I'd agree with you," Marcus said calmly. "She won't allow her child to die to satisfy her vengeance--presuming that she wants such a thing."

  The Cursor stared steadily at Marcus for a long moment. Then he said, softly, "And if you're wrong?"

  "I'm not."

  The old Cursor's eyes narrowed. "You've given it much more thought than I would have expected from a career soldier."

  Tension made an iron bar of the First Spear's neck, but he forced himself not to allow it to spread to his shoulders and back, where Magnus would have no trouble observing it. "Wasn't a hard batch of thinking," Marcus said, keeping his tone even and confident. "I was there when the two of them came down to join the First Aleran. Saw them together. She doted on that boy."

  Magnus made a noise that seemed to be a grudging agreement. His worried eyes shifted from Marcus to the healer's tent. "I'd best be inside, in case Crassus wakes."

  "Go ahead," Marcus said. He glanced across the open ground to the walls of the city of Molvar, barely half a mile away. "There's plenty of work to be done on the palisade, still, and we want it in place before we move the stores up from the ships."

  Magnus nodded. "What of the Narashans?"

  "They're making camp on the plain on the opposite side of the city," Marcus said. "I'm making arrangements to establish runners between our camps."

  Magnus arched an eyebrow in silent question.

  "They're the closest thing we have to an ally,"
Marcus said.

  "The enemy of my enemy is my friend?" the Cursor asked.

  "The enemy of my enemy is just that," Marcus replied. "It's foolish to assume anything more. But we share a common interest that is threatened by a larger foe. If Narashan relations with the Shuarans fall to bits, Nasaug is practical enough to take any help he can get."

  "And if our relations with the Shuarans fall out, there is a bond between Nasaug and the Free Aleran," Magnus murmured. "Enough of one to convince them to assist us?"

  "No knowing," the First Spear replied. "Can't hurt to keep talking to them."

  "Agreed," Magnus said. "I'll send someone as soon as we know something. Meanwhile, let the Knights Aeris know that they may be needed to fly at a moment's notice."

  "Aye."

  The elderly Cursor nodded and turned to head back into the healer's tent.

  Marcus watched him go, then raised a hand to rub at the wooden muscles on the back of his neck. Crows take it, what is the matter with me today? Magnus was right to be suspicious. Valiar Marcus might be a consummate soldier, a stalwart veteran, but such men did not tend to make such delicate and dangerous wagers with the safety of someone like the Princeps--or if they did make them, they put their money on the conservative side of the bet. What in the world had prompted him to fetch Lady Antillus to assist Crassus without first conceiving a convincing explanation as to why Marcus would bring her?

  The First Spear turned on a heel and marched back out toward the palisades, taking a route that would let him walk past the barracks area of the Legion's Knights.

  There was plenty of work to occupy his mind--which was likely the problem.

  Crassus survived.

  Marcus strode into the healer's tent three hours later, to find the young Tribune lying on a cot, covered by a blanket. Lady Antillus was nowhere to be seen, but Magnus was sitting on a camp stool beside the cot, a simple wooden framework with a sheet of canvas serving as the bed. Foss hovered nearby and seemed to be busy cleaning out a tub--but Marcus could all but feel the man itching to tell them to leave his patient to recover in peace.

  Magnus nodded to the First Spear as he entered. "He's dozing," he said quietly. "But I wanted you here when I asked him to speak."

  "Certainly." Marcus came to stand beside Magnus, frowning down at the young man. Crassus was pale, but whole. Where there had been three or four wounds on his shoulders and head, there was only the pink skin of freshly healed flesh. The wounds were all punctures--lines no more than two inches wide that had gaped like open mouths over deep wounds. Marcus would have thought them to be dagger wounds, had it happened to the boy on the streets of an Aleran city.

  But what the crows had given the boy such wounds in the skies over Canea?

  "Crassus," Magnus said quietly, touching the boy's shoulder. "Tribune. Report."

  Crassus opened his eyes, and took a moment to focus them, first on the roof of the tent, and then upon Magnus. "The Princeps. He's imprisoned on the roof of a tower. Sent me to let you know what was going on, and to lead the Knights Aeris back to be ready to extract him if need be."

  Magnus spluttered, "If need be? He's been imprisoned. What more need does he need?"

  The First Spear firmly stopped himself from beginning his next sentence with the word "obviously." "Could be that he thinks there might be some advantage to be gained if he stays where he is," Marcus said.

  Crassus looked up at him and nodded. In short, simple sentences, he described their journey to the fortified city of Shuar, what they had learned about the events of the past three years in Canea, and of their encounter with its master.

  "He's after information," Magnus said. "Whatever the Shuarans know about the Vord. Crows take his arrogant eyes, that boy will be the death of me. He should never expose himself to such danger. This is why there are Cursors in the first place!"

  "He's the Princeps," Marcus said firmly. "Crassus, what are his orders?"

  "To bring the Knights Aeris back with me to Shuar," Crassus replied. "But he doesn't know everything."

  "At least someone realizes it," Magnus muttered darkly.

  The First Spear restrained himself from shaking the Cursor. "What did you see on the way back?"

  "Survivors," Crassus said. "Narashan survivors. Twenty, maybe thirty thousand. They're being held in a camp about ten miles from Shuar. Lararl's ritualists are draining their blood to fuel their sorcery."

  "Bloody crows," Marcus breathed. "If Nasaug hears that . . ."

  "His entire force will march within the hour," the Cursor said grimly. "Is that where you got hurt, son?"

  "No, sir," Crassus replied. "I was attacked when I was about halfway back here."

  Marcus clenched his jaw and kept quiet.

  "The Vord," Crassus said. "Lararl has his entire force at Shuar, defending the fortifications. But they've tunneled their way beneath them, into the center of the plateau. They're pouring up out of the ground like ants." He grimaced. "And some of them fly. They dropped on me when I was off my guard, trying to get a good look at the forces on the ground."

  Dead silence filled the tent.

  Magnus began to speak, then paused, swallowed, licked his lips, and rasped, "How many?"

  "I can't be certain. My best guess is that there are eighty, maybe ninety thousand of them. They're marching toward Shuar. They'll be there in a day, two at most."

  "Bloody crows," Foss breathed. Marcus turned to see the healer staring at Crassus, his expression stunned.

  "Well," Magnus said, his voice a monotone. "Well, well, well. First Spear?"

  Marcus blew out a breath. "I'd say this just turned from a diplomatic mission into a retreat. We need to get the Princeps back here and take him back to Alera before the Vord overrun Shuar and come for us. We should send the Knights Aeris to get the Princeps and his companions. We'll expedite repairs and get off this frozen rock."

  Crassus pushed himself up, and swung his legs down off the cot.

  "Hey," Foss snapped. "You can't do that. Lie down before you tear those wounds open again."

  Crassus shook his head. "I've got to go with them."

  "The crows you do," Foss replied. "Lie down. That's an order."

  Magnus lifted a hand to forestall the healer. "Crassus is right, Foss. Our Knights Aeris have only a vague idea of where the city is, much less where the Princeps is located within it. And I daresay, they cannot fly as well concealed as the boy was. They'll need to take a route that leads them around the Vord in the interior."

  Crassus nodded to Foss. "If they go without me, there's no guarantee that they'll even reach the Princeps, much less find him and get him out in one piece."

  Foss shook his head. "If you go haring off right now, flying and fighting like you haven't a care in the world, you're going to rip open those wounds." The big healer moved to the side of the cot, put a hand on Crassus's shoulder, and looked the young man in the eyes. "Do you hear me? If you don't rest now, you are likely going to die."

  "Yes," Crassus said, his voice calm and utterly weary. "Where is my armor?"

  CHAPTER 24

  Tavi sat with his feet dangling over the edge of Lararl's tower and watched the ongoing battle below. Farther along the tower's roof, Varg and Durias sat together, also watching, speaking quietly to one another. The next day had dawned cold but clear, and without the constant chill of the rain and sleet, the rooftop was bearable, given short breaks inside the warmth offered by the earthcrafted shelter.

  Tavi could only admire the effectiveness and efficiency of the Shuarans' defense against the Vord, against an enemy so vast that he literally could not readily number them, despite a clear day and hours of trying. A few hours ago, it had occurred to him that it was more like watching the sea surge forward than observing an enemy army in action. The Shuarans stood defiantly against that tide, and wave after wave broke upon the granite of their determination.

  Tavi shivered. It had not been a pleasant realization.

  Though the mountain might stan
d for a while, the sea would eventually wear it away.

  In the end, the sea always won.

  Maximus approached, his bootsteps distinctive on the stone roof. Tavi glanced back and saw Max's shadow puddled against his feet. Noon.

  "Two days. He should have been back by yesterday evening," Max said quietly. "We should have heard from him or seen something."