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Cursor's Fury, Page 46

Jim Butcher

  Tavi felt a little nauseous at the statement. “We have to take down the bridge, Max. We’ve got to get our engineers out to the top of the arch so that they can collapse it.”

  “I thought we didn’t have enough bodies who could earthcraft,” Max said.

  “If you will remember,” Tavi said, “the Pavilion has a rather large number of employees who are quite practiced at earthcraft.”

  Max blinked. “But those are dancers, Calderon. Professional, ah, courtesans.”

  “Who have practiced earthcrafting every day of their professional lives,” Tavi said. “I know, stonework isn’t the same thing, but you’ve always told me that any application of one area of furycraft carries over toward different uses of the same gift.”

  “Well,” Max said. “Yes, but . . .”

  Tavi arched an eyebrow. “But?”

  “Crafting a room full of legionares into a frenzy is one thing. Altering heavy stonework is another.”

  “I’ve had them practicing,” Tavi said. “They aren’t exactly engineers, but this isn’t a complicated crafting. It’s a demolition. All the engineers really need to get it done is earthcrafting muscle, and the dancers have got that. If we can get them and our engineers to the top of the bridge, they can take it apart.”

  “Big if,” Max said quietly.


  Max lowered his voice in realization. “Someone will have to hold the Canim back while they work. Whoever does that will either go into the river or be trapped on the southern half of the bridge, when it goes.”

  Tavi nodded. “I know. But there’s no way around it. It’s going to cost us to get it done, Max. We’ve got to hold through the night. If we can do that, we’re still going to take heavy losses pushing the Canim back through our own defenses. Maybe enough to break us.”

  “Give the men some credit,” Max said. “Like I told you. They believe. Especially the fish. They’ll bloody well fight.”

  “Even if they do,” Tavi said, “we might not be able to win through. It might not be possible.”

  “Only one way to know for sure.”

  “And if it is possible,” Tavi said, “whoever holds the Canim off is going to die.” He was quiet for a moment, then said, “I’ll lead it. I’ll ask for volunteers.”

  “It’s suicide,” Max said quietly.

  Tavi nodded. Then he shivered again. “Any chance you could do something about this rain?”

  Max squinted up. “It isn’t crafted. I think a strong enough crafter could change some things. But to do that, you have to be up inside it, and with those things floating around . . .”

  “Right,” Tavi said. “Crows take this rain. Without it, they’d still be waiting for the town to burn down. Without it, we could build a massive fire on the bridge and let it hold them off until daylight.”

  Max grunted. “What I wouldn’t give for twenty or thirty Knights Ignus right now, instead of all those Aeris. Thousands of Canim, all trapped on that narrow bridge. With a solid bunch of Knights Ignus, we could turn those dogs into kindling.”

  An idea hit Tavi, so hard that the bowl tumbled from his suddenly numb fingers and shattered on the stone of the bridge.

  “Calderon?” Max asked.

  Tavi held up a hand, thinking furiously, forcing his weary mind to quicken and consider the notion, the possibilities.

  It could work.

  By crows and thunder, it could work.

  “He told me,” Tavi heard himself say in amazement. “He bloody well told me exactly where to hit them.”

  “Who did?” Max asked.

  “Nasaug,” Tavi said. He felt a sudden, wide grin stretch across his mouth. “Max, I’ve got to speak to the men,” he said. “I want you to get your brother and every Knight Aeris we have to meet me outside the town gates. They’ll need time to practice.”

  Max blinked. “Practice what?”

  Tavi glared up at the heavy storm clouds with their chilling rain and scarlet lightning, while Canim howls drifted toward him from the enemy positions on the Elinarch. “An old Romanic trick.”

  Chapter 47

  “Are you sure this will work, Steadholder?” Giraldi asked quietly. The centurion had hauled the room’s bed over to the side of the healing tub, and Isana now lay on it, her hand still bound to Fade’s. His sword lay in its sheath along the length of her body.

  Isana tightened the fingers of her other hand on the sword’s hilt. “Yes.”

  “Furycrafting in your sleep,” Giraldi said. He didn’t sound happy. “Sounds dangerous.”

  “Fade was able to make contact with me when I was in a state of near sleep,” she said. “If I am asleep, as he is, I might reach him again.”

  “He isn’t taking a nap, Steadholder,” Giraldi said. “He’s dying.”

  “All the more reason to make the attempt.”

  “Even if you do it,” Giraldi said, “is it going to make a difference now? Even if he decides he wants to live, there’s only so much that it can do for him.”

  “You don’t know him like I do, ‘ Isana replied quietly. “He has more will than any man I’ve ever known. Save one, perhaps.”

  “And if his will is to die?” Giraldi pressed. “I can’t let that happen to you, Isana.”

  Isana felt her voice crackle with sudden fire. “Neither can he. He simply needs to be reminded of the fact.” She turned to the centurion. “No interruptions.”

  Giraldi clenched his jaw and nodded once. “Luck.”

  Isana laid her head back down on the pillow and closed her eyes, all the while still focused upon the crafting. She held on to that focus as hard as she could. Her exhaustion made war upon her concentration, but only for a brief, dizzying moment. And then . . .

  And then she was back at Calderon. Back twenty years. Back at that terrible night.

  This time, though, the dream was not her own.

  She saw her younger self, hurrying through the night, rounded with pregnancy, gasping with pain. Her little sister Alia walked beside her, holding one of Isana’s arms to steady her as they stumbled through the night. Araris walked with them, first before, then beside, then behind, his eyes sharp and glittering and everywhere.

  In the distance, flashes of light against the night sky painted the outline of trees and hills upon Isana’s vision, darkly dazzling. From here, the roar of clashing armies sounded like the sea crashing upon the shore at high tide, back where the Crown Legion pitted itself against the Marat horde.

  She followed the images of the dream, a silent and invisible witness to them, but the awareness of things she could not possibly know flowed through her thoughts. She was impressed that her younger self had maintained such a pace, and certain that it was not enough to have outpaced any barbarian trackers. Already, they had circled two enemy positions—a shock to Isana, who had known nothing of it at the time—and on one of his heartbeat-long forays out of sight of Isana and her sister, Araris had silently slain a Marat lying in ambush, never making mention of it.

  Isana saw her younger self abruptly lose her balance and fall, crying out and clasping at her swollen belly. “Crows,” the younger Isana swore, breathless. “Bloody crows. I think the baby is coming.”

  Alia was at her side immediately, helping her up, and the younger woman traded an uncertain look with Araris.

  Araris pressed forward. “Are you sure?”

  Isana watched as another spasm wrenched her younger self, and she spewed a stream of profanity worthy of a veteran centurion. It took her a moment to catch her breath, then she gasped, “Reasonably so, yes.”

  Araris nodded once and looked around him. “Then we must go to ground. There’s a cave not far from here.” He looked around him for a moment, clearly evaluating his choices.

  The dream froze in place.

  “This was my first mistake,” said a voice from beside Isana. Fade stood there, ragged, scarred, dressed in rags, a figure utterly beaten down by hardship and time.

  “Fade?” Isana asked quietly.

  He shook his head, his eyes bitter. “I never should have left you there.”

  The dream resumed. Araris vanished into the night. He moved like a shadow through the woods, casting about for perhaps three or four minutes, until he found the dark outline of the cave’s entrance. Then he spun and ran back toward Alia and Isana.

  As he approached, he suddenly became aware of another Marat hunter, not ten feet from the two young women, unseen in the shadows. He moved at once, his hand darting to his belt, to the knife there, but it seemed to Isana to happen very slowly. The Marat arose from his hiding place, bow in hand, an obsidian-tipped arrow already upon the string. Isana realized, through Fade’s recollection of the scene, that the Marat had seen Alia’s golden hair, an incongruous bit of lighter shadow. He had aimed at her because he could more easily see her.

  Fade threw the knife.

  The Marat released the arrow.

  Fade’s knife buried itself to the hilt in the Marat’s eye. The hunter pitched over, dead before his body struck the ground.

  But the arrow he’d released struck Alia with a simple, heavy thump. The girl let out an explosive breath and fell to her hands and knees.

  “Crows,” Fade snarled, and closed the distance to them. He stood there for a moment, torn.

  “I’m all right,” Alia said. Her voice shook, but she rose, blood staining her dress, several inches below one arm. “Just a cut.” She picked up a shard of a shattered wooden shaft, black crow feathers marking the Marat missile. “The arrow broke. It must have been flawed.”

  “Let me see,” Araris said, and peered at the wound. He cursed himself for not knowing more of the healing arts, but there was not a great deal of blood, not enough to threaten the girl with unconsciousness.

  “Araris?” Isana asked, her voice tight with pain.

  “She was lucky,” he said shortly. “But we must get out of sight now, my lady.”

  “I’m not your lady,” Isana responded, by reflex.

  “She’s hopeless,” Alia sighed, her voice carrying a tone of forced good cheer. “Come on, then. Let’s get out of sight.”

  Araris and Alia helped Isana to the cave. It took them far longer than Araris would have liked, but Isana could barely keep her feet. At last, though, they reached the cave, one of several such sites Septimus’s scouts had prepared in the event that elements of the Legion might need a refuge from one of the violent local furystorms, or from the harsh winter squalls that came howling down out of the Sea of Ice.

  Its entrance hidden by thick brush, the cave bent around a little S-shaped tunnel that would trap any light from giving away its location. Then it opened up into a small chamber, perhaps twice the size of the standard legionares tent. A small fire pit lay ready, complete with fuel. A quiet little stream had been diverted to run through the back corner of the cave, murmuring down the rock wall to a small, shallow pool before continuing on its way beneath the stone.

  Alia helped Isana to the ground beside the fire, and Araris lit it with a routine effort of minor furycraft. He spoke the furylamps to life as well, and they burned with a low, scarlet flame. “No bedrolls, I’m afraid,” he said. He stripped out of his scarlet cloak and rolled it into a pillow, which he slipped beneath Isana’s head.

  The younger Isana’s eyes were glazed with pain. Her back contorted with another contraction, and she clenched her teeth over an agonized scream.

  Time went by as it does in dreams, infinitely slowly while passing in dizzying haste. Isana remembered little of that night herself, beyond the steady, endless cycles of pain and terror. She had no clear idea of how long she lay in that cave all those years ago, but except for a brief trip outside to obscure signs of their passing, Araris had watched over her for every moment of every hour. Alia sat with her, bathing her brow with a damp kerchief and giving her water between bouts of pain.

  “Sir Knight,” Alia said finally. “Something is wrong.”

  Araris ground his teeth and looked at her. “What is it?”

  The true Isana drew in a sharp breath. She had no memory of the words. Her last memory of her sister was of seeing her through a haze of tears as Alia used the wet cloth to wipe tears and sweat from Isana’s eyes.

  “The baby,” Alia said. The girl bit her lip. “I think it’s turned wrong.”

  Araris stared helplessly at Isana. “What can we do?”

  “She needs assistance. A midwife or a trained healer.”

  Araris shook his head. “There’s not a steadholt in the whole of the Calderon Valley—not until the new Steadholders arrive next year.”

  “The Legion healers, then?”

  Araris stared steadily at her. Then he said, “If any of them lived, they would have been here already.”

  Alia blinked at him in surprise, and her brow furrowed in confusion. “My lord?”

  “Nothing but death would have kept my lord from your sister’s side,” Araris said quietly. “And if he died, it means that the Marat forces were overwhelming, and the Legion died with him.”

  Alia just stared at him, and her lower lip began to tremble. “B-but . . .”

  “For now, the Marat control the valley,” Araris said quietly. “Reinforcements from Riva and Alera Imperia will arrive, probably before the day is out. But for now, it would be suicide to leave this place. We have to stay until we’re sure it’s safe.”

  Another contraction hit the young Isana, and she gasped through it, biting down on a twisted length of leather cut from the singulare’s belt, even though she was too weakened by the hours of labor to manage a very loud scream. Alia bit her lip, and Araris’s eyes were haunted as he watched, unable to help.

  “Then . . .” Alia straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. It was a heartrending gesture for Isana to see now, a child’s obvious effort to put steel into her own spine—and almost as obviously failing. “We’re on our own then.”

  “Yes,” Araris said quietly.

  Alia nodded slowly. “Then . . . with your assistance, I think I can help her.”

  He lifted his eyebrows. “Watercrafting? Do you have that kind of skill?”

  “Sir?” Alia said hesitantly. “Are we spoiled for choice?”

  Araris’s mouth twitched at one corner in a fleeting smile. “I suppose not. Have you ever served as a midwife before?”

  “Twice,” Alia said. She swallowed. “Um. With horses.”

  “Horses,” Araris said.

  Alia nodded, her eyes deep with shadows, worried. “Well. Father actually did it. But I helped him.”

  The younger Isana screamed again.

  Araris nodded once the contraction had passed. “Get her other arm.”

  The ragged image of Fade, standing beside Isana, said, “This was the second mistake. Fool. I was such a fool.”

  Together, the pair dragged Isana into the shallow pool. Araris stripped out of his armor with hurried motions and knelt behind Isana, supporting her upper body against his chest while Alia knelt before her.

  Isana stared at the entire thing, fascinated by Fade’s memories. She remembered none of this. She had never been told of this.

  Araris gave the young Isana his hands, and she squeezed them bloodless through each contraction. Alia knelt before her sister, hands framing her belly, her eyes closed in a frown of concentration. The scene acquired a timeless quality, somehow removed from everything else that was happening, existing in its own, private world.

  Alia suddenly fell to her side in the pool, splashing water. Araris’s gaze snapped up to her. “Are you all right?”

  The girl trembled for a moment before closing her eyes and rising again. Her face had gone very pale. “Fine,” she said. “Just cold.”

  “Fool,” Fade mumbled from beside Isana. “Fool.”

  Isana’s belly twisted in sudden, horrible understanding of what was coming.

  An hour passed, Alia encouraging her sister, growing steadily more unsteady and more pale, while Araris focused the whole of his concentration on suppo
rting Isana.

  In time, there was a tiny, choked little cry. Alia gently took a tiny form in her arms, and wrapped it in the cloak that lay nearby and ready. The baby continued to cry, a desperate, horribly lonely little sound.

  Alia, moving very slowly, reached out and passed the baby to the young Isana. She saw a fine down of dark hair. The miserable little infant began to quiet as his dazed mother pressed her against him, and he blinked up at her with Septimus’s grass green eyes.

  “Hail, Octavian,” Alia whispered.

  Then she slid down to the ground, into the pool, suddenly motionless.

  Araris saw it and panicked. With a cry, he drew Isana and the baby from the pool. Then he returned for Alia. She did not move. Did not breathe.

  Fade tore her dress from the wound and there found an ugly sight. The broken end of an arrow pressed up from the wound like some obscene splinter, and Araris realized with a shock that several inches of arrow, tipped with the head of volcanic glass, had pierced her deeply.

  Darkness fell.

  “She lied,” Fade said quietly to Isana. “She was more worried about you than she was herself. She didn’t want to distract me from helping you and the baby.”

  Tears blurred her vision, and her heart felt a fresh stab of pain at witnessing Alias death—and then a horrible, crushing mountain of guilt that her little sister had died to save her fell upon Isana’s shoulders.

  “I never should have left you both alone,” Fade said. “Not even for a moment. I should have seen what was happening to her. And Tavi . . .” Fade swallowed. “He never found his furies. It had to have happened during the birthing. The cold maybe. Sometimes a difficult birth can damage the child, impair his mind. If I had only remembered my duty. Used my head. I betrayed him—and you, and Alia and Tavi.”

  “Why, Fade?” Isana whispered. “Why do you say that?”

  “I can’t,” he whispered. “He was like a brother. It should never have happened. Never”

  And then, suddenly, the scene shifted again. Isana and Fade stood back at the Legion camp, just before the attack. Septimus stood before them in his command tent, eyes hard and calculating. A steady stream of orders flowed from his lips, giving commands to his Tribunes as Araris helped him into his armor.