Cursors fury, p.40
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       Cursor's Fury, p.40

         Part #3 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher

  “Not until it gets dark,” Tavi said.

  The First Spear gave him a shrewd look, and nodded. “By then, it shouldn’t matter.”

  “We hold,” Tavi said. “Until they bring the regulars in.”

  Valiar Marcus stared at him for a moment, then made a sour face and nodded. “Aye. It’ll cost us, sir.”

  “If we can break their regulars, it could be worth it.”

  The grizzled soldier nodded. “True enough. We’ll see to it, then, Captain.”

  “Not you,” Tavi said. “You’ve been here long enough. I want you to sit down, get a meal in you, some drink. I need you fresh for sundown.”

  The First Spear’s jaw set, and for a second Tavi thought he was going to argue.

  Then a shout went up down the wall, and Tavi looked to see Ehren hurrying toward them down the wall—and though the little Cursor kept his head down, he bore the blackened standard upright, and the men cheered to see it.

  The First Spear looked from the men to the standard to Tavi and nodded. “Use your head,” he said. “Trust your centurions. Don’t take any chances. We got another veteran cohort coming in five minutes to relieve this one.”

  “I will,” Tavi said. “See Magnus. He’s got something ready for you.”

  Marcus nodded, and the pair exchanged a salute before the old soldier made his way back down the wall, keeping his head down. Ehren hurried to Tavi’s side, keeping the standard high.

  The attack continued without slacking, and Tavi checked in with each of the two centurions on the wall—both veterans, both worried about their men. Tavi saw a number of legionares breathing hard. A man went down, struck on the helmet by a stone almost as large as Tavi’s head. The cry for a medico went up. Tavi seized the man’s shield and blocked the crennel with it, hiding the medico as he hurried to the fallen man. A spear struck against the shield, and a moment later another stone struck it so hard that it slammed back into Tavi’s helmeted head hard enough to make him see stars, but then another legionare stepped into position with his own shield, and the fight went on.

  It was terrifying, but at the same time it had become an experience oddly akin to an afternoon of heavy labor back at his old home on the steadholt. Tavi moved steadily along the wall, from position to position, encouraging the men and watching for any change in behavior from their foes. After what seemed almost an hour, fresh troops arrived to relieve the legionares, and the men on the wall switched out smoothly, one crennel at a time, with their replacements. And the battle went on.

  Twice, the Canim raiders managed to get a number of hooks up into locations where a barrage of stones had disrupted the defenses, but both times Tavi was able to signal Crassus and his Knights Aeris to deliver a burst of pain and confusion to the enemy, delaying them in turn until the Aleran defense could solidify again.

  Against the raiders, the legionares’ archery had considerably greater effect. The wild troops were not nearly as disciplined as the regulars, which slowed them down considerably as they struggled to work together. Their armor was also much lighter, where they had any at all, and arrows that struck and inflicted injuries were almost more useful to the defense than outright kills. Wounded Canim thrashed and screamed and had to be carried away from the fighting by a pair of their comrades, vastly slowing the pace of whatever operation they’d been attempting, whereas the dead were simply left where they fell.

  The Canim dead numbered in the hundreds, and in places the corpses lay so thick that the Canim had been forced to stack them in piles, like cordwood—piles that they then used for shelter from enemy arrows. Even so, Tavi knew, they could afford the losses far more easily than the Alerans. As far as Sari was concerned, Tavi thought, their deaths would simply reduce the number of hungry mouths to feed. If they could kill any Alerans while they died, so much the better.

  And then it happened. The legionares on station began switching out with the next unit in the rotation, one with a much higher concentration of green recruits. A particularly thick shower of rocks were thrown up from the base of the wall, lobbed up on a high arc to come almost straight down upon the defenders. The stones wouldn’t hit with the same killing force as those hurled directly at a target, but they were so large that they hardly needed more than a few feet to fall to attain enough speed to be dangerous to even an armored legionare.

  Tavi was about twenty feet away when it happened, and he clearly heard a bone snapping, just before the injured men began screaming.

  There was a sudden, furious wave of Canim howls and war cries, and more ropes and hooks were thrown up along the whole length of the wall, just as another group of Canim appeared from their rear areas and charged forward, bearing another heavy ram.

  Tavi stared for a second, trying to understand everything that was happening, knowing full well that he had to act, and quickly, or risk being overrun. He had to direct the force of his Knights to where they would do the most good. If the Canim gained the walls, they would still be contained to one degree or another, hampered by being forced to climb a rope, they could pour in added numbers, but only in a trickle. If the gates were breached, their entire force could pour through as quickly as they could fit. Whatever else happened, the gates had to hold.

  Tavi let out a sharp whistle and signaled Crassus to attack the enemy center—he had to trust that the young Knight Tribune would see the ram and correctly identify it as the largest threat to the town’s defenses. There was little more he could do about the oncoming ram, because the only legionares not fully occupied fending off the assault were the men directly over the gate. Tavi pointed at half of the men there. “You, you, you, you two. Follow me.”

  Legionares seized shields and weapons, and Tavi led them down the wall, to the first point of attack, where two Canim had already gained the walls while more came behind them. A green recruit screamed and attacked the nearest Cane, forgetting the founding principle of Legion combat—teamwork. The Cane was armed with nothing but a heavy wooden club, but before the young legionare could close to within range of his Legion-issue gladius, the Cane took a two-handed swing that slammed the heavy club into the legionares shield, sending him sailing into the air to fall to the stone courtyard below, where he landed with bone-shattering force.

  “Ehren,” Tavi shouted, as he drew his own sword. The Cane took club in hand again, raising it to strike at Tavi before he could close the range.

  But just as the Cane began to swing, there was a flash of steel in the air, and Ehren’s skillfully thrown knife struck the Cane’s muzzle. The blade’s point missed by an inch or so, and it only drew a single, short cut across the Cane’s black nose, but even so, the knife was deadly. The Cane flinched from the sudden pain in such a sensitive area, and it threw off the timing and power of its attack. Tavi slipped aside from the heavy club, drove in hard, and struck with a single slash that opened the Cane’s throat clear to the bones of its neck.

  The mortally wounded Cane dropped his club and tried to seize Tavi, teeth bared, but Tavi kept driving forward, inside the Cane’s easy reach, and the legionare coming along behind Tavi added his own weight to Tavi’s rush, as did the man behind him, so that their weight drove the Cane back against the battlements, where the legionares dispatched the raider with ruthless savagery.

  Tavi hacked down at a heavy rope on the battlements, but the tough stuff refused to part despite several blows, and another Cane gripped the top of the wall, to haul himself up. Tavi slashed at the Cane’s hand, drawing a cry of pain, before the raider fell back, and Tavi finished the job on the rope.

  He looked up in time to see his legionares chopping their way down the wall, dispatching the second Cane, though the creature’s sickle-sword took one veteran’s hand from his arm before it fell. Legionares hacked at the remaining climbing lines. There was a howl of wind, then a roar and a blossom of fire at the gate, and all the while, more of those high-arcing stones rained down on Aleran heads and shoulders.

  “Buckets!” Tavi shouted. “Now!”
br />   Legionares seized the buckets of pitch, scalding water, and heated sand, and hurled them down upon the Canim at the base of the walls, eliciting more screams. It gave some of the defenders precious seconds to throw down the remaining lines, while archers had the opportunity to send arrows slicing down into the foe, inflicting even more injury, even before Crassus and his Knights made a second run along the wall, blinding and deafening the foe with the gale of their passing.

  The morale of the attackers broke, and they began fleeing from the walls, at first hesitant, then in an enormous wave. The archers sent arrows flying after them as swiftly as they could loose them, wounding still more, while legionares began to whoop and cheer again.

  Tavi ignored the Canim, looking up and down the wall. The attack had been repulsed, but it had cost the defenders, badly. The high-arced stones had been distressingly effective, and the medicos rushing to assist the injured were far outnumbered by the casualties. The green troops coming up to the walls weren’t moving with the swift certainty of the veterans, and the rushing medicos and legionares attempting to carry the wounded to help weren’t helping matters. The legionares had barely held the wall before, and if they did not reorganize and restore discipline to the defensive positions on the battlements, the Canim might well overwhelm them. Or at least, they might have, had they not broken instead of maintaining the attack.

  The deep Canim horns blared and jerked Tavi’s gaze to the host outside the walls.

  The black-armored regulars had risen to their feet, and were moving with terrible, casual speed for the walls of the town.

  Chapter 41

  Tavi drew in a sharp breath as the regulars approached. He’d been certain that they would strike at sundown—but that was an hour away, and Marcus was not on the wall. If the trap was to be successfully sprung, the Canim would need something to occupy their attention, and the plan had been for the Alerans to fall back in a fighting retreat, forcing the Canim to keep the pressure on the withdrawing troops.

  The problem with that sort of ploy was that it would be all too easy for the false panic to become perfectly genuine and for the situation to spin totally out of anyone’s control. Given that their discipline and training were the only things that gave the Legion anything like a fighting chance against a foe like the Canim, putting it at risk was the maneuver of a foolish or desperate commander.

  Tavi supposed he could well be both.

  “I need Max at once,” Tavi told Ehren, and the young Cursor immediately leapt from the wall to the bed of a wagon parked beneath, then sprinted off across the courtyard.

  “Centurions, finish the rotation and clear these walls of noncombatants!” Tavi shouted. “Medicos, use those wagons and get the wounded back to the secondary aid station!” Then he turned and flashed another hand sign to the rooftop several streets away where Crassus and his Knights Aeris waited. Tavi drew his hand in a wave, right to left, and then drew it in a sharp, slashing motion across his throat. Crassus turned to one of his Knights, and they descended from the rooftop.

  Tavi whirled to check on the Canim and found the raiders pulling back, leaving the regulars plenty of room in which to work. For the first time, at the crest of the hill, Tavi made out the outlines of several black-cloaked, pale-mantled Canim. Sari, or at least some of his ritualist acolytes, were apparently intent on observing the regulars’ assault.

  “Move!” Tavi shouted, as the regulars marched closer. “Reserves, withdraw to your secondary positions near the bridge!” Tavi whirled, spotted the nearest centurion, and growled, “Get those men’s shields strapped on tighter. One of those hurled stones will spin the bloody things on their arms and smash their brains out.”

  The young centurion turned to face Tavi, his face pale, saluted, and began bellowing at the indicated legionares.

  The centurion was Schultz. Tavi took a look left and right, and found few faces as old as his own. Only the centurions were veterans at all, and even they looked like young men serving in their first term of service in that rank.

  Crows, he shouldn’t have ordered the veterans off the wall, but it was too late to change it now. After the pounding they’d just received, after brutal and exhausting battle on the wall, they might not have held up against a tide of armored Canim. It was possible that the fish would be better suited to the maneuver than the veterans—if only because they were too inexperienced to realize just how much danger they were about to face.

  Tavi bit on his lip and silently, savagely berated himself. That was no way to think about young men who were about to put their lives on the line for their Realm, their fellow legionares—and for him. He was about to order these young men into a storm of violence and blood.

  And yet the cold fact was that if the ploy worked, it could cripple the Canim army, perhaps beyond its will to fight. If Tavi had to sacrifice a hundred legionares—or a thousand—to contain the Canim invasion, it would be his duty to do precisely that.

  The walls were finally cleared, the wounded headed back to the next aid station, the reserve cohort coming up behind the fish on the wall marching for the fallback point. Tavi looked up and down the walls one more time—and saw quietly terrified young men, all of them pale, all of them standing ready.

  Boots pounded down the battlements, and Max arrived at Tavi’s side, along with Ehren. Crassus was a dozen steps behind, and Tavi glanced over his shoulder to find most of the Knights Aeris not yet judged ready to fly in combat rushing into positions opposite the gate.

  “Great bloody crows,” Max panted as the Canim came on.

  “Ready, Captain,” Crassus added. “Jens is all set.”

  “This is one bloody big throw of the dice, sir,” Max said. “I never heard of such a thing being used.”

  “How much time have you spent working within a steadholt’s woodshop, Max?” Tavi asked him.

  He scowled. “I know, I know. I just never heard of it before.”

  “Trust me,” Tavi said. “Sawdust is more dangerous than you know. And if the grain storehouse was on this side of the town, it would have been even better. He watched as the regulars closed, and said, “All right. You two get back and be ready to cover us.”

  Crassus saluted and turned to go, but Max remained in place, frowning out at the Canim.

  “Hey,” Max said. “Why’d they stop?”

  Tavi blinked and turned around.

  The Canim regulars had, indeed, stopped in their tracks, several dozen yards out of arrow range. To Tavi’s increased surprise, they all settled down onto their haunches again, and they were so many that even that sounded like a rumble of distant thunder.

  “That,” Ehren said quietly, “is a whole lot of Canim.”

  At the front and center of the regulars, a single figure remained standing—the same Cane Tavi had addressed earlier in the day. He swept his gaze around the armored Canim, nodded, then took a long, curved war sword from his side. He held the weapon up, facing the town, then deliberately laid it aside. Then he strode out onto corpse-strewn killing ground between and stopped halfway to the wall.

  “Aleran Captain!” the Cane called, his deep, growling voice enormous and unsettling. “I am Battlemaster Nasaug! I have words for you! Come forth!”

  Max let out a grunt of surprise.

  “Well,” Ehren murmured, beside Tavi. “Well, well, well. That is interesting.”

  “What do you think, Max?” Tavi murmured.

  “They think we’re stupid,” Max said. “They’ve already broken faith with us once. They tried to murder you the last time you went to them, Captain. I say we return the favor. Call up our Knights Flora, shoot him full of arrows, and let’s get on with it.”

  Tavi snorted out a low laugh. “Probably the smart thing.”

  “But you’re going to go talk to him,” Max said.

  “Thinking about it.”

  Max scowled. “Bad idea. Better let me go. He gets frisky, I’ll show him how we do things up north.”

  “He’s already seen me, M
ax,” Tavi said. “It has to be me. If he makes a move first, take him down. Otherwise, leave him alone. Make sure everyone else knows it, too. And get Marcus back up here, meanwhile.”

  “You think you’ve driven a spike between their leader and the warriors?” Ehren asked.

  “Possibly,” Tavi said. “If this Nasaug had hit us instead of stopping out there, it could have been bad. Now we’re getting a chance to breathe and reorganize. I can’t imagine Sari’s terribly pleased about that.”

  Ehren shook his head. “I don’t like it. Why would he do that?”

  Tavi took a deep breath, and replied, “Let me go ask him.”

  Tavi did not ride out to meet the Canim this time. Instead, he went to the gates, which opened just enough to let him step outside the protection of the walls. The ground beneath the walls stank of blood and fear, fire and offal. Canim bodies lay piled in windrows, and since the fighting had ceased, thousands of crows descended to begin feasting upon the dead.

  Tavi fought to keep his stomach under control as he walked out to meet the Battlemaster—a rank akin to an Aleran captain, a commander in charge of an entire force. Twenty yards from the Cane, he drew out his sword and laid it down on the ground beside him. With or without it, he stood little chance against an armored and experienced Cane afoot—but he could all but feel the watching eyes of his fellow Alerans behind him. They would be of greater protection than any horse or suit of armor. In all, Tavi had the position of greater strength, for Nasaug was in the reach of Tavi’s companions. Tavi was far from Nasaug’s.

  Nonetheless, as Tavi approached the Cane, he had to admit that Nasaug’s sheer size was more than frightening enough to protect him from Tavi, personally. Not to mention that his natural weaponry was considerably more fearsome than Tavi’s. It was not a situation of perfect balance, but it was as close to one as they were likely to get.