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Cursor's Fury, Page 34

Jim Butcher

  “No disrespect intended, but that’s the beauty of an axe, sir. It’s both.”

  “Not within the context of what we know,” Tavi said.

  “Um?” Max said. “What?”

  Tavi held up a hand and said, “Look, we know that the Canim landed in great numbers, but we haven’t seen any regular troops. The raiders we’ve seen have been running around a like a rogue gargant, without any coordination or plan. None of them carried quality weapons, and none of them wore steel armor.”

  “Which means?”

  “They’re levies, Max. Untrained conscripts. Farmers, outlaws, servants. Whoever they could push out in front of them armed with something sharp.”

  Max’s face twisted into a pensive scowl. “But all they’re doing is throwing them away, sending them out in random groups like this.”

  “But they’re causing all kinds of chaos by doing it. I think the Canim intentionally brought expendable troops with them,” Tavi said. “They aren’t here to fight us. They’re here to provide a distraction. We’re supposed to focus on them, just like we have been all day. I’ll bet you they hoped to draw the First Aleran out onto open ground so that they could swamp us.”

  “Crows,” Max spat. “Bastard dogs don’t need us to make a mistake that big. More likely they did it so that the Canim scouts can move around freely in the chaos. They can find the best route for their regulars while they’re taking out our scouts.”

  Tavi blinked and snapped his fingers. Then he dug into his pockets and withdrew the bloody little gem he’d taken from Lady Antillus. He held it up next to the gems in pommel of the jeweled bloodsteel sword.

  They were identical.

  “That’s where I’d seen that gem before,” Tavi said quietly. “Varg wore a ring and an earring with the same kind.”

  Max let out a low whistle. “Crows,” he said quietly. “I guess my stepmother’s had it now.”

  “Yes, she has,” Tavi growled.

  Max nodded slowly. “So. What do we do now, sir?”

  Tavi glanced up at the legionare. “Hagar.”

  The veteran saluted. “Captain.” Then he withdrew, quietly leading his mount away.

  “Recommendation?” Tavi asked quietly.

  “Get back to the Elinarch and fort up,” Max said promptly. “The Canim wouldn’t have gone to all this trouble if they weren’t planning to come this way.”

  Tavi shook his head. “Once we do that, we lose any chance we might have had of gaining any more intelligence about their capabilities. If they can repeat that stunt with the lightning, or if Lady Antillus really has pitched in with them, they could blast the gates down and swamp us in an hour.”

  “If regulars catch us out here in the open, we won’t have to worry about that problem. But it’s your call, sir.”

  Tavi chewed the question over for a moment. “Fall back,” he said quietly. “We’ll leave a line of pickets behind us to warn us when they’re in sight. Wake the men and ask for volunteers.”

  “Sir,” Max said, saluting. He immediately rose, barking commands, and the weary legionares began to stir.

  The column was forming—a much more difficult prospect in the dark, Tavi noted—when a rippling chill flickered down Tavi’s spine and made the hairs on his arms stand up. He glanced around him in the evening gloom, then headed for the darkest patch of shadows on the west side of the camp.

  When he got close, he saw a flicker of pale skin within a dark hood, and Kitai whispered, “Aleran. There is something you must see.”

  There was something very odd, very alien in her voice, and Tavi realized that Kitai sounded . . . afraid.

  Kitai glanced about, drew back her hood, and met Tavi’s eyes with hers, poised in perfect, graceful suspension of motion, like a hidden doe ready to flee from a grass lion. “Aleran, you must see this.”

  Tavi met her gaze for a moment, then nodded once. He went to Max and murmured, “Take them back to town. Leave two horses here.”

  Max blinked. “What? Where are you going?”

  “Kitai’s found something I need to see.”

  Max lowered his voice to a fierce whisper. “Tavi. You’re the captain of this Legion.”

  Tavi answered just as quietly, and just as fiercely. “I am a Cursor, Max. It is my duty to acquire information for the defense of the Realm. And I’m not about to order anyone else to go out there tonight. I’ve gotten enough people killed today.”

  Max’s expression became pained, but then a centurion called out that the column was ready.

  “Go,” Tavi said. “I’ll catch up to you.”

  Max exhaled slowly. Then he squared his shoulders and offered Tavi his hand. Tavi shook it. “Good luck,” Max said.

  “And to you.”

  Max nodded, mounted, and called the column into motion. Within a moment, they were out of sight. A moment more, and the sound of their passage faded as well, leaving Tavi suddenly alone, in the dark, in a strange part of the country filled with enemies only too glad to kill him in as painful and horrible a fashion as possible.

  Tavi shook his head. Then he started stripping out of his armor. A beat later, Kitai was at his side, pale, nimble fingers flying over straps and buckles, helping him remove it. He drew his dark brown traveling cloak from his saddlebags, donned it, and made sure that both horses would be ready to move when he and Kitai returned.

  Then, without a word, Kitai headed out into the night at a vulpine lope, and Tavi fell into pace behind her. They ran through the night and the occasional flicker of bloody lightning, and Kitai led him up into the rolling hills that framed that stretch of the Tiber valley.

  His legs and chest were burning by the time they reached the top of what seemed like the hundredth hill, nearly two hours later, then Kitai’s pace began to slow. She led him over the next few hundred yards at a slow, perfectly silent walk, and Tavi emulated her. It took them only a moment more to reach the lip of the hill.

  Light glowed in the distance, bright and golden and steady. For a moment, Tavi thought he was looking at the burning city of Founderport—until he saw that the light of the tremendous fire was actually behind the city, from his perspective, its light making the city walls stand out as sharp, clear silhouettes.

  It took him a moment longer to recognize what he was seeing.

  Founderport wasn’t burning.

  The Canim fleet was.

  The fire roared so loudly that he could actually, faintly hear it, as a far-distant moaning sound. He could see, amidst smoke and fire, the shapes of masts and decks of sailing vessels being consumed by flame.

  “They’re burning their own ships behind them,” Tavi whispered.

  “Yes, Aleran,” Kitai said. “Your people would not have believed it, from the lips of a Marat. Your eyes had to see.”

  “This isn’t a raid. It isn’t an incursion.” Tavi suddenly felt very cold. “That’s why there are so many of the Canim this time. That’s why they’re willing to sacrifice a thousand troops just to keep us occupied.”

  He swallowed.

  “They mean to stay.”

  Chapter 33

  Tavi stared out at the burning ships, so far away, and thought about all the implications their presence would mean. It meant that whatever the Canim had done in the past, matters had altered, and drastically.

  For all of Alera’s history, conflict with the Canim had been for control of the various islands between Alera and the Canim homeland—harsh, pitched fights for seaside fortifications, mostly, usually with a naval battle or two mixed in. Every few years, Canim raiding ships would hurtle from the deep seas to Alera’s shores, burning and looting towns where they could, carrying away the valuables to be had there, and occasionally seizing Alerans and dragging them off to a fate no one had ever been able to ascertain. Whether they wound up as slaves or food, it was certainly an unpleasant ending.

  More infrequent were larger Canim incursions, some of which had curled around the coastline to the seafaring cities like Parcia, and d
ozens of ships swept down together in a much larger attack. The Canim had burned Parcia to the ground some four hundred years before and had leveled the city of Rhodes no fewer than three times.

  But Ehren had said that this invasion force was infinitely larger than any previously seen. And they had no intention of striking at Alera and returning to their homeland. The Canim, for whatever reason, were there to stay, and the implications of that were terrifying.

  For the Canim, their attack upon Alera was literally a do-or-die situation. They had nothing to lose, everything to gain, and they would be certain that the only way to ensure their own safety would be to destroy the folk of Alera, legionare and holder, city and steadholt alike. They were trapped, desperate, and Tavi well knew the kind of berserk, fearless ferocity any trapped creature could display.

  He watched the fires for a moment more, then said to Kitai, “This is the first time I’ve ever seen the sea. I wish it hadn’t been like this.”

  She did not answer him—but her warm hand slipped to his, and their fingers intertwined.

  “How did you see the fires in the first place?” Tavi asked Kitai. “What were you doing all the way out here?”

  “Hunting,” she said quietly.

  Tavi frowned. “Hunting what?”



  “Because I killed the man you wished to make talk. I thought it proper to make amends for that discourtesy.” She looked from the distant pyres to Tavi. “When you were returning to your camp with the prisoners, I saw the High Lady of Antillus ride from the city by the great bridge. Since then, I have tracked her. She has gone to ground nearby. I can show you where. Perhaps she will have the answers you wanted to find.”

  Tavi frowned and stared at Kitai for a moment. “Do you have any idea how dangerous she is?”

  Kitai shrugged. “She did not see me.”

  Tavi gritted his teeth for a moment, then said, “She’s too much for us to handle.”

  “Why?” Kitai said.

  “She’s a High Lady,” Tavi said. “If you had any idea all the things she could do . . .”

  “She is a coward,” Kitai said, contempt in her tone. “She lets others do all her killing for her. She arranges accidents. Things in which she will never be found and blamed.”

  “Which does not mean that she couldn’t burn us to cinders with a flick of her hand,” Tavi said. “It can’t be done.”

  “Like taking Max from the Grey Tower could not be done, Aleran?”

  Tavi opened his mouth to argue. Then he closed it again and scowled at Kitai. “This is different.” He narrowed his eyes. “But . . . why in the world would she be all the way out here? You say she’s camped?”

  Kitai nodded. “A narrow gulch not far from here.”

  Tavi’s legs ached terribly, and his belly was going to be screaming for food once he got the long run out of his system. Lady Antillus was a deadly opponent, and with no witnesses, out here in the wilderness, she would almost certainly kill them both if she became aware of them—but the chance to learn more about any arrangements the traitorous Citizen might have made with the enemy was irreplaceable. “Show me, “ he told Kitai.

  She rose and led him farther into the night, over the crest of the hill and down its far side, where the ground rose to the rocky bones of ancient mountains that had been worn down to rounded hills, broken here and there by jagged fissures. There, the heavy, low foliage and large trees of the river valley gave way to lower scrub brush, scrawny evergreens, and patches of brambles that, in some places, had grown into thickets several feet tall.

  Kitai tensed slightly, as she began to walk along a thicket, and she slowed down to stalk forward in careful, perfect silence. Tavi emulated her, and she led him through a narrow opening in the thicket. After a few feet, they were forced to drop to a crawl. Small thorns jabbed at Tavi, no matter how carefully or slowly he moved, and he had to clench his teeth and strangle his own painful exhalations before they could give him away.

  Ten apparently endless yards later, they emerged from the thicket into a comparatively heavy growth of evergreens, and Kitai prowled slowly forward in the relatively open, pine-needle-covered spaces beneath the trees, until she came to a halt and beckoned to Tavi. He eased up next to her, lying on his stomach beside her and staring out and down through the tree’s branches, into a small, semicircular area located within one of the larger fissures in the stone hills. Water trickled down a rock face, into a pool barely larger than a steadholt cook’s mixing bowl, then continued on its way down through the stone.

  The low campfire, sunken into its own little pit to hide its light better, was not more than twenty feet from where they lay. Lady Antillus sat beside the pool, evidently in the midst of a conversation with a small and vaguely human-shaped water-sculpture that stood on the surface of the tiny pool.

  “You don’t understand, brother mine,” Lady Antillus said, her tone agitated. “They aren’t here with an overly large raiding force. They came in hundreds of ships, Brencis. Which they then burned behind them.”

  A tinny, petulant voice came from the water-sculpted figure. “Don’t use my name, foolish child. These communications may be intercepted.”

  Or eavesdropped upon, Lord Kalarus, Tavi mused.

  Lady Antillus let out an exasperated sound. “You’re right. If we’re overheard, someone might suspect you of treason. If all the Legions and killings and abductions haven’t managed it already.”

  “Rising up against Gaius is one thing,” the water figure said. “Being found in collusion with the raiding Canim is something else. It could motivate the neutral High Lords to come out against me. It might even draw a rebuke from the northern Lords—including your own dear husband, and I have worked far too hard to allow that now.” The figure’s voice became quiet and dangerous. “So guard. Your. Tongue.”

  Lady Antillus’s back straightened in subtle, frightened tension, and her face turned pale. “As you wish, my lord. But you have yet to see my point. The Canim haven’t come here merely to create this cloud cover to slow down the First Lord’s troops. They haven’t come here simply to raid and provide a distraction to divide his forces. They intend to stay.”

  “Impossible, ‘ Kalarus responded. “Preposterous. They’d be swept back into the sea before the summer is out. They must know that.”

  “Unless they don’t,” Lady Antillus said.

  Kalarus snarled something incoherent. “Are you at the meeting point?”

  “To conclude the bargain. Yes.”

  “Impress upon Sari the futility of his position.”

  Lady Antillus hesitated before saying, “He’s powerful, my lord. More so than I would have been willing to believe. His attack upon the command of the First Aleran was . . . much more intense than I would have thought possible. And came more swiftly than we had believed. I was forced to . . . to leave several minor matters unattended.”

  “All the more reason to give the dog a pointed reminder of that with which he must contend. You need not fear his breed’s power, and you know it. Give him my warning, then return to Kalare.”

  “What of your nephew, my lord?”

  “Crassus is welcome, too, of course.”

  Lady Antillus shook her head. “He remains with the Legion.”

  “Then he takes his chances.”

  “He isn’t ready for war.”

  “He’s grown. Old enough to make his own choices. If he hasn’t been thoroughly prepared to survive those choices, that is neither fault nor concern of mine. Take it up with his parents.”

  Her voice took on the barest hint of heat. “But my lord—”

  “Enough,” the figure of Kalarus snarled. “I have work to do. You will obey me in this.”

  Lady Antillus stared for a second, then shivered. She bowed her head. “Yes, my lord.”

  “Courage, little one,” Kalarus’s image said, tone softer. “We are near the end of the race. Just a little longer.”

the image slid back down into the tiny pool, and Lady Antillus sagged. Tavi saw her hands clenched into fists so tight that her nails had cut into her palms. Tiny droplets of blood fell to the stone floor of the fissure, sparkling in the light of the small fire.

  Then she rose abruptly, and flicked a hand at the stone of the fissure wall. It stirred, pulsed, then writhed into a bas-relief image of a young man. In fact. . .

  It was a life-sized image of Tavi, carefully and chillingly detailed.

  Lady Antillus spat upon it, then struck out at it with one fist, furycraft infusing the blow with such power that it literally tore the stone head from the fissure wall and sent out a cloud of stone fragments that rattled to the ground. Her next blow struck the figure in the heart, her fist driving halfway to her elbow in the stone. Cracks sprang out from the point of impact, and more pieces of the statue broke off and fell to the ground. She whirled, took two long paces back from the image, then howled and drove her open palm toward the remnants of Tavi’s likeness. Fire split the darkness and the quiet night with a blaze of sudden light and thunder, and the stones shrieked protest.

  A cloud of dust and smoke covered everything. Stone clattered on stone. When the haze cleared, there was an enormous, glass-smooth hollow fully five feet deep where the stone image had been.

  Tavi gulped.

  Beside him, Kitai did, too.

  He forced himself to breathe slowly and evenly, to control the fearful trembling of his limbs. He could feel Kitai shivering against him. They crept away from the High Lady’s little camp as silently as they came.

  It took most of forever to crawl back out of the painful thicket without making noise, and Tavi wanted to break into an immediate sprint as soon as he was upright again. It would have been a mistake, so close to Lady Antillus—possibly a fatal one. So he and Kitai prowled slowly and carefully for nearly half a mile before Tavi finally stopped beside a brook and let out a shaking breath.