Cursors fury, p.33
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       Cursor's Fury, p.33

         Part #3 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  Tavi found himself answering their howls with his own, and kicked his horse forward until he could slip aside from the blow of a sickle-sword and drive his own blade in a straight, heavy thrust through the neck of the Cane who had swung at him. The Cane wrenched and contorted viciously as Tavi’s blade struck, tearing it from his hand.

  Tavi let the horse take him by, and drew his short sword, though it was a weapon ill suited to mounted use, and turned, looking for more of the foe.

  But it was over.

  The Aleran cavalry had taken the Canim by surprise, and not one had escaped the swift mounts and blades of the First Aleran. Even as Tavi watched, the last living Cane, the one he had left his sword in, clutched at the weapon, spat out a blood-flecked snarl of defiance, and collapsed to the earth.

  Tavi dismounted and walked across the bloodied ground amidst a sudden and total silence. He reached down and took the hilt of his sword, planted a boot on the chest of the Cane, and heaved the weapon free. Then he turned to sweep his gaze around the young cavalrymen and lifted his weapon to them in a salute.

  The legionares broke out into cheers that shook the earth, while horses danced nervously. Tavi recovered his mount, while spear leaders and centurions bellowed their men back into position.

  Tavi was back on his horse for all of ten seconds before a wave of exhaustion hit like a physical blow. His arm and shoulder ached horribly, and his throat burned with thirst. One of his wrists had blood on it, where it looked like it had trickled out from the torn knuckles beneath his gauntlets. There was a dent as deep as the first joint of his finger in his breastplate, and what looked like the score marks of teeth on one boot that Tavi did not remember ever feeling.

  He wanted to sit down somewhere and sleep. But there was work to do. He rode over to the refugees, and was met by a grizzled old holder who still had the general bearing of the military—perhaps a retired career legionare himself. He saluted Tavi, and said, “My name’s Vernick, milord.” He squinted at the insignia on Tavi’s armor. “You aren’t one of Lord Cereus’s Legions.”

  “Captain Scipio Rufus,” Tavi replied, returning the salute. “First Aleran Legion.”

  Vernick grunted in surprise and peered at Tavi’s face for a moment. “Whoever you are, we’re mighty glad to see you, Captain.”

  Tavi could all but hear the old man’s thoughts. Looks too young for his rank. Must be a strong crofter from the upper ranks of the Citizenry. Tavi felt no need to disabuse him of the notion—not when the truth was considerably more frightening. “I wish I could give you better news, sir, but we’re preparing to defend the Elinarch. You’ll have to get your people behind the town walls to make them safe.”

  Vernick heaved out a tired sigh, but nodded. “Aye, milord. I figured it was the most defensible spot hereabouts.”

  “We’ve not seen any Canim until we got here,” Tavi replied. “You should be all right—but you need to hurry. If the incursion is as large as we suspect, we’ll need every legionare defending the town of Elinarch’s walls. Once the gates close, anyone on this side might not get in.”

  “I understand, milord,” the holder said. “Don’t you worry, sir. We’ll manage.”

  Tavi nodded and saluted him again, then rode back to the column. Max rode out to meet him and tossed Tavi a water flask.

  Tavi caught it, nodded his thanks to Max. “Well?” Tavi asked, then drank deeply from the flask.

  “This was as close to ideal as we could ever expect. Caught them on flat, open ground between two forces,” Max said quietly. “Fifty-three dead Canim. Two Aleran dead, three wounded, all of them fish. We lost two horses.”

  Tavi nodded. “Pass the spare mounts off to those holders. They’ll make better speed if they can put some of their little ones on the horses’ backs. See if they have room in the wagon for our wounded. Speak to a holder named Vernick.”

  Max grimaced and nodded. “Yes, sir. You mind if I ask our next step?”

  “For now, we keep moving down the valley. We kill Canim and help refugees and see if we can spot their main force. I want to send word to the alae in the hills to concentrate again. I don’t want bands of eight taking runs at any Canim battlepacks.”

  Tavi found himself staring at two riderless horses in his own formation, and he fell silent.

  “I’ll see to it,” Max said. He took a breath, and asked, very quietly, “You all right?”

  Tavi felt like screaming. Or running and hiding. Or sleeping. Or possibly a combination of the first several, followed by the last. He was not a trained leader of legionares. He had never asked to be in a position of command such as this, never sought to be. That it had happened to him was a simple and enormous fact that was so stunning that he still had not come to grips with its implications. He was accustomed to taking chances—but here, he would take them with lives other than his own. Young men would die—already had died—based upon his decisions.

  He felt disoriented, lost somehow, and he almost welcomed the desperation and haste the situation had forced on them, because it gave him something clear and immediate to sink his energy into. Reorganize the command. Decide on a strategy. Deal with a threat. If he kept going forward through the problems without slowing down, he could keep his head on his shoulders. He wouldn’t have to think about the pain and death it was his duty, as captain of the Legion, to prevent.

  He did not want to pretend that nothing was wrong and project an aura of authority and calm to the young legionares around them. But their confidence and steadiness was critical to their ability to fight and would ultimately improve their chances of survival. So he ignored the parts of himself that wanted to scream in bewildered frustration and focused on the most immediate crisis.

  “I’m fine,” he told Max, his voice steady. “I don’t want to push things too far. If we move too far down the valley and the horses play out, the Canim will run us down before we can get back to Elinarch. But we’ve got to do everything we can for the holders who are still alive.”

  Max nodded. “Agreed.”

  “Max. I’ll need you to tell me when you think we’re hitting our limits,” Tavi said quietly. “And I don’t want you pulling any craftings if you don’t absolutely need to. You’re my hole card, if it comes to that. And you’re the closest thing we have to a real healer.”

  “Got it,” Max said, just as quietly. He gave Tavi half a smile. “I’ve seen officers on their third hitch that didn’t handle themselves that well in action. You’re a natural.”

  Tavi grimaced. “Tell that to the two who aren’t coming back.”

  “This is a Legion,” Max said quietly. “We’re going to lose more before the day’s out. They knew that there were risks when they volunteered.”

  “They volunteered to be trained to handle themselves and led by experienced officers,” Tavi said quietly. “Not for this.”

  “Life isn’t certain or fair. That isn’t anyone’s fault. Even yours.”

  Tavi glanced at Max and nodded grudgingly. He turned his horse, staring farther down the valley, where more helpless holders tried to run for safety. It felt like the day must have been nearly over, but the cloud-veiled sun couldn’t have been halfway to its peak. “What were their names, Max? The men who died.”

  “I don’t know,” Max confessed. “There hasn’t been time.”

  “Find out for me?”

  “Of course.”

  “Thank you.” Tavi squared his shoulders and nodded to himself. “I’m going to speak to our wounded before they go, but more holders will need our help. I want to be moving again in five minutes, Tribune.”

  Max met Tavi’s eyes when he saluted, and said, quietly, fiercely, “Yes, Captain.”

  Chapter 32

  “Bloody crows,” Tavi swore, frustrated. “It doesn’t make any crowbegotten sense, Max.”

  The sun was vanishing beyond the horizon, and Tavi’s alae of cavalry had clashed with the Canim raiders in no less than six swift, bitter engagements that day, all against smaller pa
cks than the first. Three more legionares died. Another nine were wounded in action, and one broke his arm when his weary horse stumbled on the trail and threw him from the saddle.

  “You worry too much,” Max told him, and leaned idly against the trunk of a tree. The pair were the only two legionares standing, other than the half dozen men spread around the group, on watch. The rest lay on the ground in silent, hard sleep, exhausted after the day of marching and fighting. “Look, the Canim don’t always do things that make sense.”

  “You’re wrong,” Tavi said, his tone firm. “It always makes sense to them, Max. They think differently than we do, but they aren’t insane or stupid.” He waved his hand at the countryside. “All those loose packs. No organization, no direction. No cohesive force. This is a major move. I’ve got to figure out what they’re doing.”

  “We could just keep on riding until we got to the harbor. I’ll bet you we’d figure it out then.”

  “For about five minutes. Then our horses would collapse from exhaustion, and the Canim would rip our faces off.”

  “But we’d know,” Max said.

  “We’d know.” Tavi sighed. He shook his head. “Where is he?”

  “Messengers are sort of funny about wanting to get where they’re going in one piece and breathing. This is hostile territory. Give him time.”

  “We might not have time.”

  “Yes,” Max drawled. “And worrying about it won’t get him here any faster.” Max opened a sling bag and dug out a round, flat loaf of bread. He broke it in half and tossed one to Tavi. “Eat, while you have a chance. Sleep, if you like.”

  “Sleep,” Tavi said, faint scorn in his voice.

  Max grunted, and the two of them ate. After a moment, he said, “Notice anything?”

  “Like?”

  “Every one of your legionares is either on his back or wishing he was there.”

  Tavi frowned at the shadowed forms of recumbent soldiers. Even the sentries sagged wearily. “You aren’t sleeping,” Tavi pointed out.

  “I’ve got the metalcraft to go without for days if I have to.”

  Tavi grimaced at him.

  “You’re missing my point. You aren’t sleeping, either,” Max said. “But you aren’t stumbling around. Your mouth is running faster than any horse in Alera.”

  Tavi stopped chewing for a second, frowning. “You don’t mean that I’m using metalcraft?”

  “You aren’t,” Max said. “I could tell. But you’re rolling along just fine.”

  Tavi took a deep breath. Then he said, “Kitai.”

  “Granted, she’d put a bounce in any man’s step,” Max said. “But I’m serious. Whatever herb you’re using . . .”

  “No, Max,” Tavi said. “It’s . . . I can do without sleep a lot better than I used to. Since Kitai and I have been—”

  “Plowing furrows in the mattress?”

  It was dark enough for Max not to be able to see Tavi’s sudden blush, thank the great furies. “I was going to say together. You ass.”

  Max chortled and swigged from a skin. He passed it to Tavi.

  Tavi drank and grimaced at the weak, watered wine. “I haven’t needed as much sleep. Sometimes I think I can see more clearly. Hear better. I don’t know.”

  “Bloody odd,” Max said, thoughtfully. “If handy.”

  “I’d rather you didn’t talk about it, “ Tavi said quietly.

  “Course,” Max said, taking the skin back. “Surprised the crows out of me, to see her here. Figured she’d stay in the palace. She liked the toys.”

  Tavi grunted. “She’s of her own mind about such things.”

  “Least she’s safe back at Elinarch now,” Max said.

  Tavi gave him a level look.

  “She’s not?” Max asked. “How do you know?”

  “I don’t. I haven’t seen her since she led us into town last night. But I know her.” He shook his head. “She’s out here somewhere.”

  “Captain!” called one of the sentries.

  Tavi turned and found his sword in his hand, a split second after Max’s weapon leapt from its own sheath. They eased back as the sentry called an all’s-well signal, then they heard hooves approaching.

  A battered-looking, gaunt legionare appeared from the darkness, his age marking him as a veteran. His helmet had a smear of what looked like dark red Canim blood on it. He swung down from his horse, gave Tavi a weary salute, and nodded to Max.

  “Captain,” Maximus said. “This is Legionare Hagar. I served with him on the Wall.”

  “Legionare,” Tavi said, nodding. “Good to see you. Report.”

  “Sir,” Hagar said. “Centurion Flavis sends his compliments, and advises you that his alae has encountered and dispatched fifty-four Canim raiders. Seventy-four refugees were given what assistance he could, and he directed them to seek refuge in the town of Elinarch. Two legionares were slain and eight wounded. The wounded are en route back to Elinarch.”

  Tavi frowned. “Did you encounter any enemy regulars?”

  Hagar shook his head. “No, sir, but Centurion Flavis suffered both of his fatalities and the majority of his unit’s injuries fighting three Canim garbed and equipped differently than the standard raiders.”

  “Three?” Max burst out.

  Hagar grimaced. “It wasn’t long ago, Antillar, the light was starting to go grey on us. And these things . . . I’ve never seen anything that fast, and I saw Aldrick ex Gladius fight Araris Valerian when I was a boy.”

  “They went down hard, eh?”

  “Two of them didn’t go down at all. They got away, and Flavis let them go. It would have been suicide to send anyone out into the dark after them.”

  Tavi felt a sensation almost akin to that of his mouth watering at the scent of a fine meal. “Wait. Differently garbed? How so?”

  Hagar turned to his horse, and said, “I’ve got it here, sir. Flavis said you might want to see it.”

  “Flavis was right, “ Tavi said. “Tribune, a lamp please.”

  “It will give away our position, sir,” Max said.

  “So will the scent of a hundred horses,” Tavi said drily. “I need to see this.”

  Max nodded and fetched a lamp. He draped his cloak over it, then murmured, “Light.” Very little of the golden glow of the furylamp emerged from beneath the cloak, and the three of them hunkered down to examine the gear Hagar had brought.

  A hooded black cloak big enough to make a small tent was first, wrapped around the rest. Within the cloak lay a pair of short fighting blades—or what would have been so, for a Cane. The blades of the weapons were three feet long, curved, and made of the tempered, scarlet bloodsteel from which the Canim forged their best equipment. The spines of the knives bore teeth like those of a wood saw, and the pommel of one was made in the shape of a wolf skull, complete with tiny scarlet gems for eyes. Half a dozen heavy, metal spikes were next, as long as Tavi’s forearm and as thick as his thumb. A Cane’s enormous arm could throw them entirely through a human target, or crack a man’s skull through a good helmet. Finally, the equipment included a matte black chain of some strange and enormously heavy metal that made almost no sound when link brushed against link.

  Tavi stared down at them for a moment, thinking.

  “Looks more like a Cursor’s gear,” Max said quietly. “Smaller than their normal stuff. Light. Perfect to disable a target and make an escape.”

  “Mmm,” Tavi said. “Which is exactly what they used it to do. Add in how well they fought, and it indicates that they might be elite soldiers of some kind. Certainly scouts.”

  “Either way, they’ve got regulars behind them somewhere.”

  Tavi nodded grimly. “And now they know where we are.”

  Max frowned and fell silent.

  “Sir,” Hagar said, “I should also tell you that the scouts may have taken heavy losses.”

  Tavi grunted and frowned. “How so?”

  “Only about forty-five of the eighty that went out this morning made th
e rendezvous. Scouts are an independent bunch, and they can get pinned down in a hiding place for days, sometimes. No one saw any bodies, but a couple of them found signs that some of their companions had been attacked.”

  “They want to keep us blind,” Tavi said, nodding. “Hold on.” Tavi rose and walked over to one of the horses they’d used to carry supplies. He unloaded a heavy square of leather wrapped around a bundle, untied the cord holding it closed, and drew out a pair of Canim sickle-swords and one of their axes. He brought them over and tossed them down beside the other gear. He squinted down at them for a long moment, tracking an elusive thought that danced about just beneath the surface of realization.

  “If they know we’re out here,” Max said quietly, “we’d best not linger. We don’t want to get hit by a squad of their regulars in the dark.”

  Hagar nodded. “Flavis is already on the way back to the Elinarch.”

  Tavi stared at the weapons. There was something there. An answer. He knew it.

  “Sir?” Max said. “We might need to get a move on. Whatever they’re doing or however many they are, they aren’t going to be able to sneak up on the town.”

  Suddenly, realization hit Tavi in a flash, and he slammed a fist against his palm. “Crows, that’s it.”

  Hagar blinked at him.

  Tavi pointed at the sickle-swords and the Canim axe. “Max. What do you see.”

  “Canim weapons?”

  “Look closer,” Tavi said.

  Max pursed his lips and frowned. “Um. Bloodstain on that one. Edges are nicked up pretty bad on those sickle-swords. And there’s rust on . . .” Max paused and frowned. “What are those stains on the sickles and the axe?”

  “Exactly,” Tavi said. He pointed at the bloodsteel gear. “Look. Edges in excellent shape. High quality craftsmanship.” He pointed at the gear taken from the slain raiders. “Rust. Much lower quality manufacture. More damage on them. Less care taken of them—and those stains are green and brown, Max.”

  Max raised his eyebrows. “Meaning?”

  “Meaning that 1 grew up on a steadholt,” Tavi said. “Those are stains you get from scything crops,” he said, pointing at the sickles, then tapped the axe, “and from chopping wood. These aren’t weapons. They’re tools.”