Cursors fury, p.27
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       Cursor's Fury, p.27

         Part #3 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  “If they want to storm the city, they must destroy its Knights,” Isana said. “Is that it?”

  “Pretty much. They’ve got to know that time isn’t on their side, too. They’ve got to take the city before reinforcements arrive. The only way to do it fast is to do it bloody.” The old soldier shook his head. “This is going to be a bad one. Like Second Calderon.”

  Isana’s memory flashed back to the battle. The corpses had been burned in bonfires that reached forty feet into the sky. It had taken most of a year to clean the blood and filth from the stones of Garrison. She could still hear screams, moans, cries of the wounded and dying. It had been a nightmare.

  Only this time, it would not be a few hundred noncombatants in peril, but thousands, tens of thousands.

  Isana shuddered.

  Giraldi finally turned from the window, shaking his head. “You need anything from me?”

  Isana drew in a deep breath and shook her head. “Not now.”

  “I’ll leave you to it, then,” Giraldi said. “I’ll be right outside.”

  Isana nodded and bit her lip.

  Giraldi paused at the door. “Steadholder. You thinking you can’t do this?”

  “I . . . “ Isana swallowed. “I’ve never . . . I don’t think I can do it.”

  “You’re wrong,” Giraldi growled. “Known you for years. Fact of the matter is, you can’t not do it.” He nodded to her and slipped outside. He shut the door behind him.

  Isana bowed her head at Giraldi’s words. Then she turned back to her patient.

  She had treated infected wounds often, both in her capacity as a steadholt’s healer and during her term of service in the Legion camps. Standard practice was to encourage increased blood flow through the site, then to painstakingly focus on the afflicted tissues, destroying the infection a tiny piece at a time. Once Rill had severely weakened the infection, the patient’s body itself could eliminate whatever sickness was left in the wound.

  She’d done it with training injuries in the camps, for young legionares too foolish to properly clean and care for a minor cut. She’d done it for holders and their children, even for livestock. Infections were a tricky business, requiring both delicacy, to finely control the actions of her fury, and strength, to assault the invading fevers. It had rarely taken her more than half an hour to render such a wound manageable once more.

  Isana sent Rill gliding into the tub, surrounding Fade with the fury’s presence. Isana’s senses, extended through the water fury, usually felt the presence of an infection as a low, sullen, hateful kind of heat. Exposure to it was unpleasant but bearable, on a scale somewhat similar to being burned by a long day in the sun.

  But Fade’s wound was different. The instant her fury touched upon the battered man’s wound, Isana felt it as a searing blaze, hotter than an oven, and she flinched back from it by pure reflex.

  Fade groaned in his sleep and stirred before settling down again. He was in the grip of a fever dream. She felt his confusion as a series of flashes of one emotion, then another, none of them remaining long enough to be clearly understood. Isana set her jaw in determination. Then, focusing again on Rill, she pressed her senses back into the waters of the tub and reached for Fade’s wounded hand.

  As she touched upon the wound, she felt every muscle in her body grow suddenly tight, as the pulsing, malevolent fire of the garic-oil infection seared its way into her perceptions. She held herself against the pain, marshaling her thoughts and her focus, and pressed harder against the wound site.

  She saw at once why Veradis regarded this crafting as a difficult and dangerous one. Infections had life of their own, and Isana had encountered several different breeds, attempting to spread through the body of the victim, like the freemen of a steadholt marching into a new wilderness to make it their own.

  The garic fever, though, was no mere steadholt of settlers. It was a Legion, a horde, a civilization of tiny, destructive creatures. That was why the usual, uncomfortable heat was so much more intense and painful. The fever was already destroying Fade’s hand, corroding the veins and vessels, working its way in threads and tendrils to the bones of his hand and wrist. If Isana attempted the usual course of action, attacking the fever directly, it would tear apart Fade’s hand, allow the infection to spread to different areas of the body while maintaining its painful and dangerous density, send him into shock, and likely kill him. She could not simply attempt to crush it.

  Instead, she would have to lay siege to the fever in the stronghold it had made of the wound. Attacking it by inches, she should be able to chip slowly away at the teeming mass of infection to wash it out through the blood in pieces small enough for Fade’s body to combat them successfully. As she did so, she would simultaneously have to keep pressure against the infection, to keep it from fracturing into larger pieces as she undermined it, chipping it away.

  But there was so much of the fever. It could take days for her to finish the job, and all the while, it would be attempting to grow, spread, and destroy. If she worked too swiftly, freeing masses of infection too large, Fade’s body would not be able to combat them, and the infection would spread with lethal consequences. If she worked too slowly, breaking off pieces too small, the fever would breed faster than it could be destroyed. And all the while, she would be forced to endure the pain of proximity and keep her focus on the task.

  It seemed almost impossible. But if she allowed herself to believe that, she would never be able to help him.

  Giraldi was right. Isana would rather lose her own life than stand aside and watch as a friend died.

  Isana tightened her fingers on Fade’s hand and prepared to call out to Rill. She closed her eyes and tried to ignore the sounds of drums and trumpets and far-distant shouts of the wounded and dying.

  Isana shivered. At least Tavi was safe and well away from this insanity.

  Chapter 24

  The rest of the journey to Kalare was neither swift nor easy. Each day required severe effort on behalf of the Knights Aeris to keep the coach airborne and moving without rising more than a few hundred feet above the ground. It was grueling work. The fliers needed rest breaks every hour or so, and after three days both Amara and Lady Aquitaine began to take turns wearing flight harnesses yoked to the coach in order to give the men a chance to rest. Each night, after the meal, they devised the plan for rescuing the hostages.

  The sky became covered with a low, growling overcast, perpetually rumbling with thunder and flickering with lightning, though no rain ever fell. The deadly scarlet haze now reached down to some point within the overcast. One afternoon, in an attempt to rise higher in the hopes of it making their travel quicker, Amara realized that they had accidentally ascended into the red haze, and she saw those deadly creatures begin to condense from the fine mist. Amara had led the coach in an emergency dive back out of the clouds, and no one was harmed, but they scarcely dared fly too much higher than the treetops lest the creatures renew the attack.

  At Amara’s command, they had ceased their journey two hours before sundown, the coach coming down into a region of heavy forest so thick that Lady Aquitaine had to land first and alone to employ her furies to will enough of the ancient tree branches to move so that the coach would have a place to come down.

  Panting with effort and weariness, Amara unhooked the harness from the coach and sat down in place, leaning her back against the coach itself. By now, evening camp had become a routine, neatly organized without the need for her to issue any orders. She and the other three bearers settled down to rest, while the others brought out the canopies, prepared food, found water. To her embarrassment, she actually fell asleep, sitting against the coach, and she didn’t wake until Bernard touched her shoulder and set a metal camp plate down onto her lap.

  The heat of the plate on her thighs and the warmth of Bernard’s hand on her shoulder stirred up a number of rather pleasant but inconvenient memories. She looked from his hand, warm and strong and quite . . . knowledgeable, up to her
husband’s face.

  Bernard’s eyes narrowed, and she saw an answering fire to her own in them. “There’s a pretty look,” he murmured. “I always enjoying seeing that one on your face.”

  Amara felt her mouth stretch into a languid smile.

  “Mmm,” Bernard rumbled. “Even better.” He settled down beside her, a plate of his own in his hands, and the aroma of food suddenly washed through Amara’s nose and mouth, and her stomach reacted with the same mindless, animal lust the rest of her felt by virtue of being near Bernard.

  “Fresh meat,” she said, after her third or fourth heavenly bite. “This is fresh. Not that horrible dried trail rope.” She ate more, though the roasted meat was still nearly hot enough to sear the roof of her mouth.

  “Venison,” Bernard agreed. “I was fortunate today.”

  “Now, if only you could hunt down a bakery for fresh bread,” she teased.

  “I saw one,” Bernard said, gravely. “But it got away.”

  She smiled and nudged his shoulder with hers. “If you can’t get me bread in the middle of the wilderness, what good are you?”

  “After dinner,” he said, catching her eyes with his own, “we can go for a walk. I’ll show you.”

  Amara’s heart beat faster, and she ate the next bite of venison with an almost-wolfish hunger, never looking away. She wiped a little juice from the corner of her mouth with one fingertip, licked it clean, then said, “We’ll see.”

  Bernard let out a low, quiet laugh. He studied the others at the fire for a moment, and said, “Do you think this plan will work?”

  She considered while chewing. “Getting into the city, even the citadel, is fairly simple. Getting out again is the problem.”

  “Uh-huh,” Bernard said. “A Cursor should be able to lie better than that.”

  Amara grimaced. “It’s not Kalarus or his Knights or his Legions or his Immortals or his bloodcrows that I’m worried about.”

  “You’re not?” Bernard asked. “I am.”

  She waved a hand. “We can plan for them, deal with them.”

  Bernard’s eyes flicked over toward the fire and back to Amara, his look questioning.

  “Yes,” she said. “Getting in depends on Rook. I think she’s sincere, but if she’s setting us up for betrayal, we’re finished. Getting out again depends on Lady Aquitaine.”

  Bernard scraped the last of his meal around his dish with his fork. “Both of them are our enemies.” His upper lip twitched away from his teeth in a silent snarl. “Rook tried to kill Tavi and Isana. Lady Aquitaine is using my sister to promote her own agenda.”

  “When you put it that way,” Amara said, trying to keep her voice light, “this plan sounds . . .”

  “Insane?” Bernard suggested.

  Amara shrugged a shoulder. “Perhaps. But we have few options.”

  Bernard grunted. “Not much to be done about it, is there.”

  “Not much,” Amara said. “Compared to our allies, Kalarus’s forces only seem mildly threatening.”

  Bernard blew out a breath. “And worrying about it won’t help.”

  “No,” Amara said. “It won’t.” She turned her attention back to her dish. When she finished it, her husband brought her a second plate, from where the others ate near the fire, and she set to it with as much hunger as the first.

  “It’s that much of a strain?” Bernard asked quietly, watching her. “The wind-crafting?”

  She nodded. She’d broken the hard trailbread into fragments and let them soak up juice from the roast to soften them, and she ate them between bites of meat. “It doesn’t seem so bad, when you’re doing it. But it catches up to you later. “ She nodded at the fire. “Lady Aquitaine’s men are having thirds.”

  “Shouldn’t you do that, too?” Bernard asked.

  She shook her head. “I’m all right. I’m lighter than they are. Not as much to lift.”

  “You’re stronger than them, you mean,” Bernard murmured.

  “Why would you say that?” Amara asked.

  “Lady Aquitaine doesn’t even take seconds.”

  Amara grimaced. It was one more thing to remind her of Invidia Aquitaine’s abilities. “Yes. I’m stronger than they are. Cirrus and I can lift more weight with less effort than they can, relatively speaking. Lady Aquitaine’s furies are such that her limits are more mental than physical.”

  “How so?” Bernard asked.

  “Air furies are . . . inconstant, fickle. They don’t focus well on any single thing for long, so you have to do it for them. It takes constant concentration to maintain flight. Lady Aquitaine does that easily. It takes even more concentration to create a veil, to hide something from sight.”

  “Can you do it?” Bernard asked.

  “Yes,” Amara said. “But I can’t do anything else while I am—I can barely walk. It’s more wearying and takes much more focus than flying. Lady Aquitaine can do both of them at the same time. It’s something well beyond my own skills and strength alike.”

  “She’s no more impressive than you are, in flight. She hardly seemed able to follow you when we dived out of that cloud the other day.”

  Amara smiled a little. “I’ve had more practice. I fly every day, and I only have the one fury. She’s had to divide her practice time among dozens of disciplines. But she’s been doing it longer than I have, and her general skills and concentration are far better than mine. With some time to focus on flying, to practice, she’d fly circles around me, even if her furies were only as strong as Cirrus—which they aren’t. They’re a great deal stronger.”

  Bernard shook his head, and mused, “All that skill, all those furies at her command, all the good she could do—and she spends her time plotting how to take the throne, instead.”

  “You don’t approve.”

  “I don’t understand,” Bernard corrected her. “For years, I would have given anything for a strong talent at windcrafting.”

  “Everyone would like to fly,” Amara said.

  “Maybe. But I just wanted to be able to do something about the crowbegotten furystorms that come down on my steadholt,” Bernard said. “Every time Thana and Garados sent one down, it threatened my holders, damaged crops, injured or killed livestock, destroyed game—and did the same for the rest of the steadholts in the valley. We tried for years to attract a strong enough windcrafter, but they’re expensive, and we couldn’t find one willing to work for what we could pay.”

  “So,” Amara said, giving him a coy little glance, “your hidden motives are at last revealed.”

  Bernard smiled. She loved the way his eyes looked when he smiled. “Perhaps you could consider it for your retirement.” He looked into her eyes, and said, “You’re wanted there, Amara. I want you there. With me.”

  “I know,” she said quietly. She tried to smile, but it didn’t feel as if it had made it all the way to her face. “Perhaps one day.”

  He moved his arm, brushing the back of his hand unobtrusively against the side of her stomach. “Perhaps one day soon.”

  “Bernard,” she said quietly. “Yes.”

  She met his eyes. “Take me,” she said. “For a walk.”

  His eyelids lowered a little, and his eyes smoldered, though he kept the rest of his face impassive and bowed his head politely. “As you wish, my lady.”

  Chapter 25

  Max blinked at Tavi and then said, incredulously, ‘You took it?”

  Tavi grinned at him and tossed a heavy grain sack up into the bed of the supply wagon.

  “She’s been going insane about her purse. She hasn’t stopped complaining to Cyril since she lost it.” Max hit his forehead with the heel of his hand. “Of course. You took it and bribed Foss and Valiar Marcus to let you ride.”

  “Just Foss. I think he handled Marcus’s cut on his own.”

  “You’re a crowbegotten thief,” Max said, not without a certain amount of admiration.

  Tavi threw another sack into the supply wagon. There was room for only a few more sacks
, and the timbers of the wagon groaned and creaked under the weight of the load. “I prefer to think of myself as a man who turns liabilities into assets.”

  Max snorted. “True enough.” He gave Tavi and oblique glance. “How much did she have?”

  “About a years worth of my pay.”

  Max pursed his lips. “Quite a windfall. You have any plans for what’s left?”

  Tavi grunted and heaved the last sack into the wagon. His leg twinged, but the pain was hardly noticeable. “I’m not loaning you money, Max.”

  Max sighed. “Bah. That everything?”

  Tavi slammed the wagon’s gate closed. “That should do it.”

  “Got enough to feed the Legion for a month there.”

  Tavi grunted. “This is enough for the mounts of one alae. For a week.”

  Max whistled quietly. “I never did any work in logistics,” he said.

  “Obviously.”

  Max snorted. “How much money is left?”

  Tavi reached into a pocket and tossed the silk purse to Max. Max caught it and shook it soundlessly. “Not much,” Tavi said in a dry tone. “Not many Antillan-made crowns are floating around the Legion, so I’ve been getting rid of them a little at a time.”

  He walked back through the dark to the steadholt’s large barn and traded grips with a gregarious Steadholder who had agreed to sell his surplus grain to the Legion—especially since Tavi was offering twenty percent over standard Legion rates, courtesy of Lady Antillus’s purse. He paid the man their agreed-upon price, and returned to the wagon. Max held up the silk purse and gave it a last, forlorn little shake before tossing it back to Tavi. Tavi caught the purse.

  And something clicked against his breastplate.

  Tavi threw up a hand, frowning, and Max froze in place. “What?”

  “I think there was something else in the purse,” Tavi said. “I heard it hit my armor. Give me some light?”