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Cursor's Fury, Page 39

Jim Butcher

  The animal needed no encouragement, and it fled for the shelter of the town.

  Fast as the beast was, it wasn’t fast enough to avoid another Canim that threw itself at the horse in a frenzy, clawed hands ripping at the horse’s withers, drawing a splatter of blood. The horse’s body shook with the scream of pain Tavi could not hear, and the animal veered wildly, ripping the reins from Tavi’s hands.

  A glance over his shoulder showed him more acolytes rushing forward, and others sprinting through the ranks of squatting warriors—though the warriors themselves did not rise. One of them threw a dart of some kind. Tavi could not see if it struck, but the horse bucked in pain and nearly faltered before thundering on.

  Tavi reached for the reins, but his head was still whirling, and the horse was pounding over open ground as fast as it could move. It was difficult enough simply to stay seated, and by the time Tavi recovered the reins, he looked up to see the broad waters of the Tiber not fifty feet ahead.

  Tavi looked around wildly to find the walls of the city several hundred yards to the east. He checked over his shoulder. Behind him, dozens of ritualists were not ten seconds behind. The beast’s injuries must have slowed its pace. Tavi turned the horse toward the town, but its feet slipped on the loose earth and shale near the river, and the mount fell, taking Tavi with it.

  The water of the river slapped him hard in the face, and there was a brief and terrible pressure on one of his legs. The horse thrashed wildly, and Tavi knew that the panicked animal could easily kill him in its frenzy. Then the horse’s weight was gone, and Tavi tried to rise.

  He couldn’t. The leg that had been pinned beneath the horse had sunk into the clay of the river’s bottom. He was trapped there, with the surface less than a foot away.

  He almost laughed. It was inconceivable that he had escaped an entire army of Canim, survived that deadly, bloody lightning, only to drown.

  He forced himself not to thrash in panic and instead reached down, digging his fingers into the clay. It had been softened by the water, or the task would have been hopeless, but Tavi was able to work his knee lose, and from there to pull the rest of his leg from the cold grasp of the river’s bottom.

  Tavi rose from the river, looked wildly around him, and saw the standard lying half out of the water. He sloshed to the river shore and seized it up, taking it in a fighting grip, and looking up to face twenty or more of the ritualist acolytes, in their black cloaks and mantles of human skin. They had fallen upon the horse as it came from the water, and now their claws and fangs were scarlet with new blood.

  Tavi looked back to his left, and saw that the Aleran cavalry was already on the move over the Elinarch. It would be a futile gesture. By the time they arrived, there would be nothing of Tavi left to rescue.

  Strange, that it was so quiet, Tavi thought. He saw his death in the eyes of the bloody Canim. It seemed that such a thing should have been a great deal noisier. But he heard nothing. Not his enemies snarls, nor the cries from the city. Not the gurgle of water as the Tiber flowed around his knees. Not even the sound of his own labored breath or the beating of his heart. It was perfectly silent. Almost peaceful.

  Tavi gripped the standard and faced the oncoming Canim without moving. If he was to die, it would be on his feet, against them, and he would take as many of the things with him as he possibly could.

  Today, he thought, I am a legionare.

  The fear vanished, and Tavi abruptly threw back his head and laughed. “Come on!” he shouted to them. “What are you waiting for? The water’s fine!”

  The Canim rushed at him—and then suddenly slid to a halt in their tracks with two dozen panicked, inhuman stares.

  Tavi blinked, entirely confused. Then he looked behind him.

  On either side of him, the waters of the Tiber had flowed into solid form, into water-sculptures similar to those he had seen before.

  Similar, but not the same.

  Two lions, lions the size of horses, stood at his sides, their eyes flickering with green-blue fox fire. Though formed of water, every detail was perfect, down to the fur, down to the battle scars upon their powerful chests and shoulders. Stunned, Tavi lifted a hand and touched one of the beasts on its flank, and though its substance appeared to be liquid, it was as hard as stone beneath Tavi’s fingers.

  Tavi turned to face the Canim again, and as he did so both lions opened their mouths and let out roars. Tavi could not hear it, but it set his armor to buzzing, and the surface of the waters rippled and jumped in place for a hundred feet in every direction.

  The Canim flinched away from the river, and their stance changed, becoming wary, their eyes apprehensive. And then, almost as one, they turned and fled over the grass, back toward the Canim host.

  Tavi watched them go, then slogged up out of the river and planted the standard’s butt on the ground. He leaned wearily against it and turned his head to consider the enormous furies that had risen to his defense.

  A faint tremble in the earth warned him of approaching horses, and he looked up to find Max and Crassus thundering up to him on horses of their own. Each of the young legionares dismounted and came toward him. Max’s mouth started moving, but Tavi shook his head, and said, “I can’t hear anything.”

  Max scowled at him. Then he turned to the larger of the two water furies. The great old lion greeted Max and nuzzled his hand as affectionately as a pet cat. Max placed his hand on the fury’s muzzle and nodded, the gesture both grateful and dismissive, and the fury sank back into the river.

  Beside him, Crassus went through almost precisely the same routine, and the second water lion also sank from sight. The half brothers stood in their place for a moment, staring at one another. Neither of them spoke. Then Crassus flushed and shrugged. Max opened his mouth and let out a bark of the laughter Tavi was familiar with, then shook his had, punched his brother lightly on the shoulder, and turned to Tavi.

  Max faced him and mouthed, words exaggerated so that Tavi could read them, That was not in the plan.

  “He read my bluff,” Tavi said. “But I made him look pretty bad. It might have worked.”

  Max mouthed, This it what it looks like when it works? You are insane.

  “Thank you,” Tavi said. He tried to sound dry.

  Max nodded. How had is your leg?

  Tavi frowned at him, puzzled, and looked down. He felt startled to find, high on his left thigh, a wide, wet stain of fresh blood on his breeks. He touched his leg tentatively, but felt no pain. He hadn’t been injured there. The fabric wasn’t even torn.

  Then an inspiration hit him, and he reached into his pocket. At the very bottom, precisely at the top of the bloodstain, Tavi found it—the scarlet stone he’d stolen from Lady Antillus. It felt oddly warm, almost uncomfortably so.

  “I’m fine,” Tavi said. “I don’t think that’s mine.” He frowned down, and then peered out at the Canim host, and then at the scarlet clouds overhead.

  You need not fear his breed’s power, and you know it, Kalarus had told Lady Antillus. And then immediately after, he had ordered her to fly to Kalare. But if she could have flown, why would she steal horses?

  Because the stone would have protected her from the Canim ritual sorcery that blanketed the skies.

  Just as it had protected Tavi from the same power.

  His heart beat faster. He tried to think of another explanation, but it was the only thing that made sense. How else could he have survived a blast of the same power that had slain the Legion’s officers?

  Of course. The Canim had known precisely where to strike. Legion commanders kept their tents in the same location in any camp, no matter where they went. No one was supposed to have survived that blast—no one but Lady Antillus, who would have had the stone with her had not Tavi stolen it when he took her purse.

  The original treason became clear to Tavi. After assuming command of the Legion according to proper chain of command, Lady Antillus was probably supposed to lead the union in a retreat, so that the Ca
nim could control the bridge, thereby preventing any sort of Aleran incursion from the north that could march through to Kalarus’s lands.

  Of course, that had been before she knew the Canim were arriving in such enormous numbers. Kalarus had tried to use them as a weapon, but they had turned and sliced into his own hand.

  Hey, Max mouthed, sticking his face into Tavi’s. Are you all right?

  Max and Crassus suddenly whipped their heads toward the Canim host, then they both started back for their horses. Max mouthed to Tavi, They’re coming. We need to go.

  Tavi grimaced, nodded, then took the standard and mounted behind Max. The three of them rode for the town as the Canim host began to stir once more. Out of sheer defiance, Tavi raised the standard and let the wind of their passage send the blackened eagle flying where anyone with eyes could see.

  Tavi couldn’t hear it as they rode back through the town’s gates, but as they closed behind them he looked up at the battlements and around the courtyard in surprise. Every man in sight, fish and veteran alike, pale-eyed northmen and dark-eyed southerners, old, young, Knight, centurion, and legionare all stood facing Tavi, slamming their steel-cased fists to their breastplates in what had to be a deafening thunder as together they shouted and cheered their captain’s return.

  Chapter 40

  Pain flashed through Tavi’s head again, sudden, harsh, and every bit as painful as the lightning blast that had deafened him. Someone started screaming sulfurous expletives with great volume and sincerity.

  A second later, Tavi realized that the cursing was his own, and he came to an abrupt stop. He could suddenly hear the battle he knew was raging at the gates, the deafening howls of a sea of Canim punctuated in surges by the shouting and cheering of the town’s defenders.

  “There you go, sir,” Foss rumbled. “Your eardrums were broken. Happens to young Knights Aeris a lot when they’re showing off. Eardrums can heal up on their own, but it can take a while, which we don’t have, and keeping sickness out of them isn’t any fun.” The big healer crouched down at the head of the healing tub and snapped his fingers on either side of Tavi’s head. “Hear that? Both sides?”

  The snaps had an odd reverberation to them that Tavi had never heard before, but he could hear them. “Good enough. You shouldn’t be wasting energy on me in any case.”

  “Deaf Captain won’t be much help to us, sir,” Foss disagreed. “And we’re staying ahead of the wounded so far.”

  Tavi grunted and pushed himself up out of the tub. His muscles and joints screamed protest. Sari’s thunderbolt may not have killed him, but the fall from the horse had done him no favors. He started climbing back into his clothing. “Help me armor up?”

  “Yes, sir,” Foss drawled, and stood by, helping with the buckles on Tavi’s armor.

  “What’s the count?” Tavi asked quietly as he worked.

  “Seventy-two injured,” Foss said at once. “All but eleven are back in the fight. Nine dead.”

  “Thank you, Foss. Again.”

  The veteran grunted and slapped a hand on Tavi’s breastplate. “You’re set.”

  Tavi put on his sword belt and slipped a replacement gladius Magnus had dug up into the scabbard. Outside, a fresh round of singing broke out of the troops waiting in the courtyard to reinforce the walls or gate. The verses now contained a great many disparaging references to the men currently on the walls, complemented by enthusiastic boasting of the men waiting for the alleged incompetents to step out of their way.

  Magnus entered the tent and nodded. “Sir,” he said. “Crassus asked me to tell you that Jens is finished.”

  “Jens?” Tavi asked.

  “Our only Knight Ignus, sir.”

  “That’s right,” Tavi said. “Good. Thank you, Magnus.” He beckoned and strode out of the tent, back toward the fighting on the wall. As he left the tent, Ehren appeared at his side and kept pace on Tavi’s left, and Tavi nodded to him.

  “What’s happening?” Tavi asked Magnus.

  “The Canim sent about a third of their raiders forward. Valiar Marcus says that the regulars have shifted their position, and that they’re ready to move forward fairly quickly.”

  Tavi grimaced. “Crows take it.”

  Magnus lowered his voice. “It was worth a try. It may be that the Canim’s loyalties are not so fractured as we hoped.”

  “Looks that way.” Tavi sighed. “They’re using their raiders to wear us down. They’ll send the regulars in once they’ve softened us up.”

  “Quite probably,” Magnus said.

  “What about Tribune Cymnea’s project?” Tavi asked.

  “Let’s just say it’s a good thing you weren’t in the river for very long, Captain.”

  “Good,” Tavi said. “Come nightfall, the Canim will try to get some troops across. They’ll want to hit us in the rear and send the regulars through the front door.” He paused as a thought struck him. He squinted up at the dim outline of the lowering sun behind the bloody clouds. “Two hours?”

  “A little less, “ Magnus said.

  They had to pause as Crassus and his half dozen Knights Aeris swept overhead to strafe the enemy lines with howling winds and bursts of flame. The miniature gale supporting them temporarily precluded conversation.

  “What about the bridge?” Tavi asked, when he could be heard again.

  “The engineers say they’d like more time to strengthen it, but they always say that. They’ve got it up to what you asked for.” Magnus paused. “Did you want to give the order now?”

  Tavi bit his lip. “Not yet. We hold the gate until sundown.”

  “You don’t know that the regulars will come then,” Magnus said. “And it’s going to be hard on the men at the gate to stay there. Not to mention the fact that it’s going to be difficult for them to maneuver and retreat in the dark.”

  “Send for fresh troops from the north side of the river then,” Tavi said, glancing at Ehren. The Cursor nodded. “Then tell the First Spear to increase the rotation on the walls and keep our men as rested as possible.”

  “If we do that, we’ll have to start using the fish.”

  “I know,” Tavi said. “But they’ve got to get into the mud sometime. At least this way, they’ll have the veterans to back them up.”

  Magnus grimaced. “Sir, the plan isn’t going to be easy, even if we move right now. If we wait another two hours . . .” He shook his head. “I don’t see what there is to be gained by the wait.”

  “Without more Knights Ignus, we’ve only got one really big punch to throw. It’s got to count. The regulars are their backbone and this may be our only chance to break it.” He glanced back at Ehren and nodded, and the spy set out at a swift jog to deliver Tavi’s orders.

  “How long has Marcus been on the wall?”

  “Since it started. Call it almost two hours.”

  Tavi nodded. “We’ll need him fresh and in charge when we fall back, wouldn’t you say?”

  “Definitely,” Magnus said. “The First Spear has more experience than anyone on the field.”

  “Anyone on our side of it, anyway,” Tavi muttered.

  “Eh? What’s that?”

  “Nothing,” Tavi sighed. “All right. I’m going to order him down. Get some food into him and make sure he’s ready for nightfall.”

  Magnus gave Tavi a wary look. “Can you handle them up there on your own?”

  “I’ve got to get in the mud, too,” Tavi replied. He squinted up at the wall. “Where’s the standard?”

  Magnus glanced up at the walls. “It had been burned and muddied pretty thoroughly. I’m having a new one made, but it won’t be ready for a few more hours.”

  “The burned one is just fine,” Tavi said. “Get it for me.”

  “I’ll put it on a new pole, at least.”

  “No,” Tavi said. “Saris blood is on the old one. That will do.”

  Magnus shot Tavi a sudden grin. “Bloodied, dirty but unbroken.”

  “Just like us,” Tavi agr

  “Very good, sir. I’ll send it up with Sir Ehren.”

  “Thank you,” Tavi said. Then he stopped and put a hand on Magnus’s shoulder, and said, more quietly. “Thank you, Maestro. I don’t think I’ve said it yet. But I enjoyed our time at the ruins. Thank you for sharing it with me.”

  Magnus smiled at Tavi and nodded. “It’s a shame you’re showing an aptitude for military command, lad. You’d have been a fine scholar.”

  Tavi laughed.

  Then Magnus saluted, turned, and hurried off.

  Tavi made sure his helmet was seated snugly and hurried up onto the battlements, making his way down the lines of crouched legionares, bearing shields, bows, and buckets of everything from more pitch to simple, scalding water. He deftly made his way through the fighting, not jostling or interfering with any of the men, and found the First Spear, bellowing orders ten yards down the wall from the gates, where the Canim were attempting to get more climbing lines—these of braided leather and rope, not chain—while their companions below showered the walls with rough spears and simple, if enormous, stones.

  “Crows take it! “ Marcus bellowed. “You don’t have to stick your fool head up to cut a line. Use your knife, not your sword.”

  Tavi crouched and, while he waited for Marcus to finish bellowing, drew his knife and sawed swiftly through a braided line attached to a hook that landed near him. “Let’s keep the hooks, too, Tribune,” Tavi added. “Not throw them back out to be reused against us.” Tavi checked the courtyard below, then tossed the hook down.

  “Captain!” shouted one of the legionares, and a round of shouts of greeting went up and down the walls.

  Valiar Marcus checked over his shoulder and saw Tavi there. He gave him a brisk nod and banged a gauntlet to his breastplate in salute. “You all right, sir?”

  “Our Tribune Medica set me right,” Tavi said. “How’s the weather?”

  A thrown stone from below clipped the crest of the First Spear’s helmet, and the steel rang for a second. Marcus shook his head and crouched a little lower. “If the sun was out, we’d still be fighting in the shade,” he said a moment later, teeth flashing in a swift, fighting grin. “Two or three of them gained the wall once, but we pushed them back down. We burned down six more rams. They aren’t trying that one anymore.”