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Cursor's Fury, Page 37

Jim Butcher

  Max and the First Spear had probably been correct to let him get as much rest as possible. Great furies knew, he’d need his wits about him today.

  “All right,” he said quietly. “Ehren, I know I don’t have any authority to give you a command, but . . .”

  Ehren quirked an eyebrow. “Since when have you let niceties like the law slow you down?”

  Tavi grinned. “I don’t mind law. Provided it doesn’t get in the way.”

  Ehren snorted. “Seems like yesterday we were dodging bullies in the Academy courtyard. Now it’s an army of Canim.” He gave Tavi a long-suffering look and sighed. “All right. I’m in.”

  Tavi nodded. “Thank you.”

  Ehren nodded back.

  “Tell Magnus to get you a courier’s horse,” Tavi said. “Armor, too. I want you close to me. I may need a messenger today, and I want it to be someone I trust.”

  “Of course,” Ehren said.

  “And . . .” Tavi frowned. “If things don’t go well here, Ehren, I want you to go. Take word back to Gaius, yourself.”

  Ehren was silent for a minute. Then he said, in a whisper, “You’re a Cursor, Tavi. It’s your duty to go yourself, if it comes to that.”

  Tavi reached up and ran his hand over the short, bristling hairs on his head. “Today,” he said quietly, “I’m a legionare.”

  Tavi stood atop the city walls on the southern half of the town, on the battlements over the gate. The defenses were neither as tall as those of the fortress of Garrison, back in his home in the Calderon Valley, nor were they built as thick, but for all of that they were obdurate Aleran siege walls, grounded in the bones of the earth itself and all but impervious to any damage not supported by massive furycraft.

  Of course, he had no idea if they would withstand whatever strange powers the Canim ritualists seemed to possess. He kept his face calm and confident and his mouth shut. Victory, today, depended far more upon the courage of his men than upon their raw strength, and he would not allow himself to weaken their morale. So though he was acutely afraid of a second bolt of crimson lightning, which might come down precisely where he was standing, he stood there without moving, his breathing steady, hopefully looking utterly indifferent to the oncoming danger.

  Around him stood the veterans of the First Spear’s century. Their brother centuries within their cohort waited along the length of the walls, ready to defend them or lend support to their cohort-brothers. In the courtyard behind them waited two more entire cohorts, one with a mixed level of experience, the second composed almost entirely of fish—including what had been Max’s century. In total, nearly a thousand legionares stood in arms and armor, at the ready.

  Tavi knew that behind them, placed at key defensive positions, ready to move in to support the defenders of the gate, were another thousand men, and behind that, at the base of the bridge, were three thousand more. The rest maintained a watch on the northern side, while the remaining cavalry waited at the apex of the bridge, ready to respond to any enemy thrust from unexpected quarters.

  When the Canim came, the first thing Tavi saw was the crows.

  At first, he thought it was a column of black smoke rising from the hills southwest of the town. But instead of drifting with the wind, the darkness rose, widening, stretching out into a line, then Tavi could see that it was the crows he’d been looking at, spinning over the heads of the Canim host like a wagon wheel on its side. He half expected to see the Canim only a moment later, but nearly a quarter of an hour went by while the vast disc of wheeling crows grew larger.

  Tavi understood. He had underestimated the number of crows. Four or five times as many of the carrion birds as he guessed whirled over the Canim. Which meant that this was the largest murder of crows he had ever seen—including those that had descended upon the carnage of the Second Battle of Calderon.

  A mutter went up and down the wall among the legionares. Tavi got the sense that they had never seen that many of the scavenger birds, either.

  Then they heard the drums and droning war horns. The sound of the drums began as a low rumble, hardly audible, but rose quickly to a distant, steady, pulsing crash. The horns screamed mournfully through the din, and the whole was like listening to the cries of some unimaginably vast wolf loping through a thunderstorm.

  Tavi could feel the men growing restless behind him, expressed in a thousand uncomfortable shiftings of stance, in mutters, in the rasp of metal on metal as legionares fought their own anxiety by checking and rechecking their arms and armor.

  On the open ground nearest the town, horsemen and infantry alike appeared, moving toward the town—the pickets and skirmishers who had been watching for the Canim and harassing them on their way in. They had gathered into groups as they retreated, and came toward the town at a weary trot after a full day and more in the field. Not all of the skirmishers would return. Some had undoubtedly fallen. Others, the most woodcrafty auxiliaries and local volunteers, would remain in the field, hiding from the enemy host, watching its movements, and striking its flanks and rear in hit-and-run missions.

  At least, that was the plan. Tavi was well aware of how quickly and lethally reality could deviate from his intentions.

  The last of the returning troops reached the shelter of the city’s walls, and the gates rumbled shut behind them. The drums and horns drew nearer, and Tavi wanted to scream with the sheer frustration of waiting. He longed to fight, to kill, to run, to do anything at all, really.

  But it was not yet time to act, and his men had to be feeling much the same as he. So Tavi stood facing the enemy, apparently calm, apparently bored, and waited.

  The first of the Canim finally stalked into sight over the top of the last hill to hide them from his view. A skirmish line of raiders, spread out before the army, crested the hills in a line half a mile across. Upon sighting the city, and the Aleran defenders upon its walls, they tilted back their heads and let out long, ululating howls. The warbling cries sent the hairs on the back of Tavi’s neck to standing.

  A burst of chatter rose up from the cohort of fish in the courtyard behind them, and Tavi heard Schultz telling them to pipe down.

  “All right, Marcus,” Tavi said. He was surprised at how calm his own voice sounded. “Raise the standard here.”

  Marcus had opposed any move that would identify the captain’s position to the enemy, but Tavi had overruled him, and one of his men lifted the banner of the First Aleran, with its red-and-blue eagle, to fly in the wind at the tip of the wooden shaft from a long battle lance. As the banner first flew into the breeze, Tavi stepped up onto the battlements, where the legionares could all see him. He drew his sword and raised it over his head, and this time a thousand swords did the same, a chorus of steely chimes that rose in defiance of the eerie howls and savage drums.

  Tavi threw back his head and let out his own cry of challenge, wordless, throwing all of his impatience and fear and rage into it, and he was instantly followed by a thousand legionares, a furious storm of sound that shook the walls of the town.

  As the full numbers of the Canim host crested the rise, they were met with the sight of a thousand steel-clad legionares, bright swords in hand, standing to battle and casting screams of defiance into their enemy’s teeth. Unafraid, furious, and spoiling for a fight, the First Aleran stood behind their captain, ready—and more than ready—to meet the Canim host. Though outnumbered, strong position, furycraft, and sheer will would make them a dangerous foe.

  Or so Tavi wanted the Canim to believe. Uncle Bernard had taught him a great deal about successfully facing down a predator threatening a flock. First impressions were important.

  Tavi leapt back down from atop the stone merlon, as the cheers died, and the First Spear began roaring out an old Legion marching song. It had more to do with wanton maids and mugs of ale than war and battle, but every legionare knew it, and it had a seemingly inexhaustible number of verses. The First Spear bellowed out the opening call, and the refrain came as a rumbling, rhythmic shout
from the rest of the legionares.

  It was part of Tavi’s plan to keep his men occupied with their singing as the Canim host came over the hill—Canim in armor of lacquered black, oddly ornate, here and there touched with various colors in what was probably some sort of system of denoting personal honors won. Many thousands of them, every one of them large, lean, enormous—and, if what Varg had told him about their life spans was true, each of them probably possessed much more personal experience and knowledge than even his veteran legionares.

  The men kept the song up while Tavi counted enemy numbers, eventually coming to a grim estimate—twenty thousand Canim regulars, at the least, and twice that many raiders, roving in loose packs of fifty or so ahead of the main body of the army, loping along its flanks, ranging out behind it, following the way lean wild dogs would follow a herd of grass lions, waiting to scavenge from the larger predators’ kills.

  The Canim outnumbered them ten to one, and facing regulars toe-to-toe would not yield the decisive successes of the cavalry assaults upon isolated packs of raiders. Men now singing around him would die. Tavi himself might die. The fear that came with those thoughts made Ehren’s statement that he was a Cursor, and that his duty was to report to the First Lord, a poisonously seductive one. He could be on a horse and riding away from the Canim and the Legion alike in moments, should he wish it.

  But Tavi had also made a promise to Captain Cyril, to serve the Legion as well as the Crown. He could not abandon that promise. Nor could he leave his friend behind him, and Max would never leave fellow legionares in danger, not if ordered to do so by Gaius himself.

  Tavi desperately wished he could leave. But then, so would anyone born with brains enough to walk and talk. So did every man there with him on the wall and waiting behind.

  He would stay. Regardless of the outcome, he would see it through to the end.

  With that decision, the fear faded, replaced with a sense of quiet purpose. He did not quit feeling afraid—it simply became a part of the situation, of the day before him. He had accepted it, the possibility of death, and in so doing it had lost some of its power over him. He found himself able to focus, to think more clearly, and felt certain that this was the best thing he could have done for himself, and for the men now following him. That confidence in turn reassured him about his own plans, that they gave the Legion, if not a certain victory, at least a fighting chance to survive.

  And so he faced the enemy as the skirmish packs of raiders parted, scarlet lightning flashed madly in the clouds, and, with an earthshaking roar, the Canim regulars washed over the earth toward the city like a tide of howling shadow.

  Chapter 37

  Tavi was sure that his voice would sound every bit as weak and thready as he felt, but it came out smooth and strong. “All right, Marcus. Let’s open negotiations.”

  “Ready!” bellowed the First Spear, and along the walls, legionares snapped into their standard defense formation—one man bearing a shield stepping up to his crennel, while his partner, armed with a bow, stepped up close to the shield-man’s flank. At a nudge from the archer’s hip, the shieldman would swiftly step aside as his partner took his place, loosed a shot, and reversed the process, letting the shield move back to cover both men, providing but a bare second for the enemy to hit a living target.

  Though all legionares were given basic training in the use of a bow, they were hardly a substitute for Knights Flora. The legionares had the reach on the their foe, but the Canim were swift, difficult targets, and well armored. Several Aleran arrows found their marks, and some of the enemy went down—but not many, especially when compared to the number of Canim still remaining.

  The Canim covered the distance to the walls with unnerving speed—not so swiftly as horsemen, perhaps, but far more quickly than a man could run. Once they were within perhaps sixty or seventy yards, the oncoming Canim hurled a shower of javelins thicker and heavier than an Aleran battle spear.

  The weapons hit hard. Beside Tavi, there was a heavy, crunching sound and a grunt of surprise as one of the javelins smashed into a veteran’s shield. The Canim weapon shattered, but threw the legionare to the ground and left an enormous dent in the shield’s surface.

  Down the wall, one of the archers stepped up for a shot, just as the missiles flew. A spear slammed completely through one biceps, its red steel tip passing all the way through, to half the length of the weapon’s haft. The hit legionare cried out and fell.

  “Medico!” Tavi shouted, and the waiting healers rushed to the man.

  “Sir!” Marcus shouted, and Tavi felt something hard hit him between the shoulder blades an instant before something else hit the back of his helmet. Thunderous sound filled his ears, and he fell to one knee. In the corner of his eye, he saw a Canim javelin arc away from him on a skewed, wobbling line of flight.

  “Keep your eyes open, sir!” bellowed Marcus as he hauled Tavi back to his feet. “The men know what to do.”

  “Ram!” screamed a grizzled legionare farther down the wall. “Here comes their ram!”

  “Ready over the gate!” Marcus roared.

  Tavi took a quick look around the sheltering merlon. Below, the Canim surged for the wall. Perhaps twenty feet behind the leading Canim came a tightly packed group bearing a rough wooden ram nearly three feet in diameter between them. Around them, new ranks of Canim hurled their javelins as the whole of the body charged the walls, and more of the creatures came within range, so that there was a continual stream of deadly shafts arching through the air. Tavi barely jerked his head back in time to avoid one such javelin, and it flew past him to bury itself to the base of its head in the wooden beam of a two-story building behind him.

  “Lines!” called another legionare, just as the shapes of several enormous iron hooks the size of boat anchors, attached to lengths of steel chain flew up from the ground outside the wall. The hooks landed with heavy clanks, and their chains were drawn tight. Legionares seized and threw down most of them before they could settle into position, but a few caught solidly, and their chains rattled as Canim began swarming up them.

  Tavi suddenly heard and felt an enormous boom, an impact that made the walls tremble beneath his boots, the sound loud enough to drown even the howling chaos of the battle for a moment. The ram had reached the gate, and it seemed inconceivable that it could withstand the terrible power driving its weight for long.

  “Ready!” shouted the First Spear, leaning out to look down despite the deadly javelins still hurtling through the air. He flicked his head to one side to idly dodge an incoming missile, then growled, “Now!”

  The bowmen over the gate had already dropped their bows. Now they lifted large wooden buckets of hot pitch, grunting and straining with the effort, and poured them down to splash over the area before the gate, eliciting shrieks of surprise and agony from the Canim beneath them—and liberally spattering the wooden ram with the material, as well.

  Marcus got back under cover, and shouted to Tavi. “Ready!”

  Tavi nodded and lifted his fist, glancing back over his shoulder at the courtyard.

  At the signal, Crassus and a dozen of his Knights Pisces, as the Legion had generally dubbed them during the march, suddenly shot up out of the courtyard on columns of wind. They shot out over the river, dodging and weaving in a flight pattern meant to make it difficult to target any single Knight in the air, banked around to face the city again, and streaked by no more than sixty feet over the earth, scattering hundreds of startled, circling crows as they did.

  More missiles flew up at the flight of Knights, but none found their mark, and as Crassus flashed past the gates, Tavi saw him point a finger and cry out. A flickering bead of white-hot fire appeared before him and screamed earthward, striking the pitch-soaked wooden ram and bursting into a sudden cloud of angry fire.

  The flame seared and burned, and Canim screamed. The deadly hot pitch took fire as well, dooming anything already soaked in it to a swift and terrible demise.

  Atop the
walls, Tavi saw one of the Canim reach the wall above his scaling chain, but hard-faced legionares were waiting. Swords and spears lashed out, and the Cane fell out of sight. Other legionares used captured javelins as pry bars, levering the heavy grappling hooks out of position and sending more Canim to the earth.

  Tavi could not have said precisely what it was that let him understand it, but he sensed the sudden hesitation in the Canim charge. He turned to Crassus and whirled his arm in a circle over his head.

  The Knight Tribune had blackened eyes since Tavi had broken his nose, but they were sharp, and the flight of Knights banked and hurtled along the walls again upon a furycrafted gale, casting dirt and dust into the Canim’s eyes and noses while Crassus hurled half a dozen more blazing spheres down into the Canim, tiny beads of light blossoming into explosions of flame.

  Before Crassus and his Knights could make another pass, the low horns of the Canim sounded in rapid rhythm, a signal to the attacking troops, and the armored regulars below began a swift and orderly withdrawal. They were back out of bow range within two minutes, though the Alerans on the walls sent as many arrows as they could into the departing ranks.

  Crassus began to lead his Knights into a harrying action, but Tavi saw the movement, and lifted his spread hand straight over his head, clenched it into a fist, and drew it back down to shoulder level. Crassus saw the signal, acknowledged it with a raised fist, and he and the other Knights returned to the fortifications.

  Around him, legionares let out cheers and rained defiant insults on the backs of the departing Canim. Every man there knew that the battle was far from over, but for the time being, at least, they were alive and unbeaten, and Tavi did nothing to discourage the jubilation given them by the small victory in the opening moments of the battle. He sheathed his sword and watched the retreating Canim, breathing hard though he had barely been physically involved. He leaned out over the battlements and looked down. Still, broken forms lay below, totaling perhaps seven- or eight-score dead. None of the Canim left behind were wounded—only the dead lay there. The regulars had taken their wounded with them.