Princeps fury, p.48
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       Princeps' Fury, p.48

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  There was a crack like a miniature thunderbolt and the creature dropped as still and dead as if crushed by an enormous hammer. One of Bernard's arrows protruded from the base of its skull, sunk all the way to the green-and-brown fletching.

  Amara looked up to see her husband leap from a low rooftop to the back of a wagon, bow in hand, and from there to the courtyard beside her. He strode to the nearest wooden cage, presumably filled with metalcrafters, and ran his hand along the top. It immediately groaned and warped and fell to pieces, freeing the prisoners inside.

  "Are you all right?" Bernard asked, extending his hand to her, his eyes wide with fear. "Are you hurt?"

  She took it, and he hauled her to her feet. "I'll . . . yes, all things considered. I mean, I'm fine. The blood isn't mine. It's Brencis's."

  "Oh," Bernard breathed, his face sagging in nearly comic relief. "Good."

  Pleasure washed through her from the collar bound about her thigh at his approval. "Oh," she breathed. "Love, please. Be careful of your words."

  Bernard blinked at her, then seemed to understand. His face clouded and he stepped in close to her, setting his bow aside. He growled in his throat, seized the steel collar about her throat and snapped it clear of her neck with his bare hands. "I never found the key to the first one," he told her, kneeling. The collar about her thigh was rather a tighter fit, and his fingers felt warm and rough, sliding beneath it. "Hold still. It could cut you."

  She saw him pause for a heartbeat, and she had a wild thought that he was being tempted. He didn't have to take the collar off her, did he? No one could except for him, after all. What if he simply left it on her? The collar pulsed with pure bliss again at the very thought, and Amara swayed on her feet, struggling to remember why that would be a bad thing--

  And then there was another sound of snapping metal, and her thoughts were abruptly clear again.

  "Foul thing," Bernard spat, rising with the broken steel circlet in his hand.

  "Vord!" screamed one of the prisoners still trapped inside a wooden cage.

  One of the lizard-forms had swarmed over a nearby wall and leapt down onto one of the water-drenched cages holding the miserable firecrafters, raking at them with its talons.

  Bernard spun, lifted the steel circlet, and threw it with fury-born strength. The metal struck the Vord in midlimb and ripped through it like paper. The Vord fell, shrieking and spraying filthy-looking blood all over the courtyard around it.

  Amara tossed her sword to one of the freed metalcrafters as more Vord swarmed over the walls. She pointed at the other cages, and snapped, "Free them!"

  "Yes, my lady!" shouted the man. He spun to the nearest suspended cage of earthcrafters and slashed it open with the fine steel blade, the bars parting in a shower of sparks, before he moved on to the one beside it.

  Bernard had taken up his bow again, and Amara watched as he calmly shot a pair of oncoming Vord from the walls. "We can't hold them," he said. "Get the windcrafters and get them out of here."

  "Don't be ridiculous," Amara retorted. "We're all leaving together."

  "There are too many of them. Our people aren't armed. Half of them can barely stand," Bernard said. A vordknight buzzed down from above, and he shot it through the center of its chest. It fell to the ground like a wounded pheasant, and one of the freed earthcrafters smashed it with a heavy iron bar ripped from the walls of the cage that had recently held him.

  But more Vord were coming. Many more. They swarmed over the walls from every direction, and the thrum of vordknight wings quivered in the air all around them, before materializing into half a dozen of the winged horrors, diving upon some of the still-dazed, defenseless prisoners.

  A sphere of white-hot fire erupted abruptly in the air--not among the Vord, but immediately above and behind them. For an instant, Amara thought that the firecrafter's aim and timing had been badly off, but the wash of heat blackened and curled the Vord's relatively delicate wings, and the eruption of hot wind from the firecrafting sent them spinning and tumbling completely out of control to crash haphazardly to the ground.

  "Bloody crowbegotten bugs!" roared a gravelly voice, and a blocky old man, his silver hair still shot with streaks of fiery red limped into sight, being supported by the slender, bedraggled young woman Brencis had called Flora.

  "Gram?" Bernard said, surprise and delight on his face.

  The old firecrafter squinted about until he spotted Bernard. "Bernard! What the crows are you doing in the south?"

  Bernard shot one of the crashed vordknights who had survived the fall and risen to its feet in the courtyard. "Rescuing you, apparently."

  "Bah," Gram growled, and Amara finally placed the old man as the previous Count of Calderon. He raised his hand and waved it in a circle, and a sheet of fire arose atop the walls surrounding the courtyard, a red-hot curtain that came from nowhere and drew howls of pain and protest from dozens of as-yet-unseen Vord. "Move to the Vale, Gaius says. Retire in wealth and comfort, he says. My ass, the crowbegotten old confidence man." He squinted at Bernard. "Figure us a way out of this mess, boy. I can't hold this for more than half an hour or so."

  "Half an hour?" Bernard asked, grinning.

  "The wooden cages," Amara said. "We can use them as wind coaches, long enough to get clear of the city at least."

  Bernard turned to her and kissed her hard on the mouth. Then he drew his sword and tossed it to another freed metalcrafter. He pointed at that man and the one who had taken Amara's sword. "You, you. You're on guard. Kill anything that gets through." He jabbed a finger at the freed earthcrafters. "Arm yourselves with something and help." He spun to the Citizens, gathering loosely around Lord Gram. "Anyone with any watercrafting, do what you can to help the others shake off the aphrodin, starting with Citizens and windcrafters."

  One of the Citizens, a man who would have been pompously impressive if he'd been clean, groomed, and standing in a civilized part of the world, demanded in a dazed voice, "Who do you think you are?"

  Bernard took one step forward and rammed his clenched fist into the dissenter's mouth.

  The other man dropped bonelessly to the ground.

  "I," Bernard said, "am the man who is going to save your lives. You two, toss him into one of the wooden cages. He'll slow us down less when he's unconscious. Move it people!"

  "Do as he says!" bellowed Lord Gram.

  Citizens scrambled to obey.

  "Bloody crows," Amara breathed. "Do you know who that was?"

  "An idiot," Bernard said, his eyes sparkling. "He can challenge me to the juris macto later, if he likes. Shall we get to work?"

  "What should I do?"

  "The windcrafters and coaches. Get them ready."

  Amara nodded. "Bernard, the slaves . . ."

  "We'll take whoever disarms himself and wants to go," Bernard said. "If there's room." He leaned down and kissed her swiftly, again, then growled, "When I get you out of here, Countess . . ."

  A thrill ran through her that had nothing to do with furycrafted collars. "Not until we've both bathed. Now, don't make me punch you in the mouth, Your Excellency."

  He winked at her, then turned, barking orders as the freed Aleran Citizens and Knights prepared to make good their escape.

  Half an hour later, dozens of makeshift wind coaches sailed up from the captured city, Vord shrieking useless protest behind him. Perhaps a score of vordknights attempted to stop the coaches, but were driven away by half a dozen firecrafters, and moments later the coaches were too high and moving too swiftly for any winged pursuit to catch up with them.

  Amara vaguely remembered working as hard as she could to help keep one of the coaches aloft, and bringing it in for a brutal but nonlethal landing an endless amount of time later, as the sun began to rise. Then someone put a stale piece of bread into her hand, which she ate ravenously. A moment later, there was a warm fire--a real fire, by the great furies, and its heat wrapped her in blessed warmth.

  Bernard pressed her head gently down onto a
cloak he'd spread on the ground, and said, "Rest, my Countess. We'll have to move again soon. I'll keep watch."

  Amara was going to protest that he needed rest, too, she honestly was, but the fire was beautiful and warm and . . .

  And for the first time in weeks, Amara felt safe.

  She slept.

  CHAPTER 43

  Tavi stood atop the earthworks and stared out across the rolling plain. His armor and helmet had been scoured clean and freshly polished by the First Aleran's valets, and gleamed in the setting sun.

  Since they had arrived the night before, thousands more refugees had appeared, and the flow of Canim makers fleeing the Vord was only growing heavier. The crafters of the Legions had made sure that there was freshwater available, but food was in much shorter supply, and shelter was almost nonexistent.

  Heavy, purposeful footsteps marched up behind Tavi and stopped.

  "What is it, Marcus?" Tavi asked.

  "Your Highness," Valiar Marcus replied. He stepped up beside Tavi and stood in a natural-looking parade rest. "Did you sleep?"

  "Not nearly enough," Tavi said. "But that's going around." He nodded at the berm that was Molvar's only defense. "You and your people must have worked without stopping."

  "It was the Canim, sir," Marcus replied, his voice serious. "The ground around here has got a lot more rock than earth in it. Thousands of them were out here, moving stones. I knew that some of their warriors were strong, but bloody crows." He shook his head. "You should see what some of their makers can do. The ones who lift heavy things for a living, I mean."

  "Impressive?"

  "Terrifying," Marcus said. "This berm is as much rock as earth. Considering that Your Highness sent all of our engineers on a different mission, our men had to work like mad to keep up with the Canim."

  Tavi nodded. "Well, it shouldn't have surprised us. We saw evidence enough of what they could do at Mastings, and even more since we've gotten here."

  "Yes, sir."

  "Do you have the latest reports?"

  "Such as they are," Marcus said. The faintest trace of reproach laced his voice. "We could do a lot better if our Knights Aeris were available, sir."

  "They're busy," Tavi said. "How much time do we have?"

  "The Canim mounted packs have been encountering the Vord closer and closer to the port, sire. They're steering refugees in this direction."

  "What is the count on refugees?"

  "Just over sixty thousand, give or take."

  Tavi grunted. "Has there been any contact with the main body of Lararl's forces?"

  "No," Marcus said quietly. "But on the positive side, no sightings of the Vord main body yet, either."

  "I'd almost feel better if we had seen them," Tavi said. "They have a way of turning up where they aren't expected."

  "Your Highness is becoming paranoid," Marcus said. "I approve."

  "Highness!" called another voice, and Magnus came puffing up the terraces to the top of the berm. The old Cursor's hair was in disarray, as if from sleep, and he clutched a sealed letter in his hand. He came and passed it over to Tavi, still huffing. His eyes stayed steadily on Marcus. Marcus stolidly ignored him.

  Tavi took the letter, glancing between them. "Something I should know about, gentlemen?"

  "Not that I know of, sir," Marcus said. He glanced at the old Maestro. "Magnus?"

  Magnus stared at the First Spear for a moment more before he turned to Tavi. "No, Your Highness."

  Tavi eyed them both again, then opened the letter and read it. "Hah," he said. "Crassus will be back sometime tonight. Marcus, do you remember those stairs we were talking about crafting into the cliff face when we first got here?"

  "Yes, Highness."

  "Make it happen, three times, on the farthest outthrust promontories within the fortifications--near where I've had you stockpiling supplies." Tavi frowned, thinking. "We'll need some lamps or furylamps set up on the stairs, too, so that they can be seen from the sea. If we don't have enough of our own, ask the Shuarans. They use a lantern that looks like it's designed to handle mist and spray."

  Marcus and Magnus both blinked at Tavi.

  "We're going to need a means to load people and supplies onto the transports," Tavi told them. "The wider the stairs, the better. Wake Maximus. He's good with stone."

  "Ah, sir?" Marcus asked carefully. "What transports?"

  "The ones Crassus is bringing."

  The old Cursor frowned. "And the reason these transports cannot avail themselves of the Shuarans' perfectly respectable port is . . . ?"

  Tavi found himself grinning at them. "They wouldn't fit."

  Both of the men frowned severely at him.

  "Meanwhile," Tavi continued, "we should start getting all of our own noncombatants loaded up. Magnus, get that in motion, if you would, and make sure our captains are ready to set sail. After that, I want you to coordinate with the Tribune Logistica and work out the fastest way to get our men from the fortifications down to the ships and out to sea."

  "Tavi," Magnus blurted. "Slow down. Are you sure you wish to ask our men to engage the Vord when we have no watercrafters to tend the wounded and only a score of Knights to support the legionares."

  "With luck, they won't need to," Tavi said. "And our crafters will be back before the night is out. If we've done it quickly enough, we might be able to slip away without taking on the second queen at all." He turned his eyes to the lowering sun, frowning. "Time is the critical factor, here, gentlemen."

  Marcus and Magnus struck their fists to the hearts and, after one last exchanged glance, they turned to be about their duties.

  "Captain!" Durias called. Tavi glanced down to see the stocky legionare waving frantically at him from the back of a puffing taurg at the base of the terraced wall. "They made it! They're here!"

  Tavi turned and hurried down the berm. He took Durias's offered hand and swung up onto the taurg behind the former slave. "Take me to Varg."

  They found Varg walking the earthworks on the opposite side of the city from Tavi. Varg's militia--though they could scarcely be called that anymore after nearly two years of training beside Varg's warriors and conflict against the Aleran Legions--was spread around the fortifications, and the Canim Warmaster had placed blocks of heavily armored warriors at regular intervals around the wall. The militia would hold the line, and the warriors would be used as a reserve, ready to lend their tremendous power to the militia should the Vord breach the defense.

  "Varg!" Tavi called. "There is something you should see."

  The big Cane looked down from the wall, and his ears twitched in mild amusement. "Is there?"

  "I do not know," Nasaug said, the Cane's resonant voice coming from where Nasaug sat upon his own taurg beside Durias's mount, along with a spare beast for Varg. "He would tell me nothing."

  Varg grunted. "Only a fool seeks a quarrel with a tavar." He came down the terraces, slammed the open taurg on the snout when it tried to snap at him, and mounted.

  They rode to the single opening in the earthworks that bestrode the road leading out of Molvar. "When are the engineers going to close this up?" Durias asked him.

  "They aren't," Tavi said.

  Durias blinked. "Why build the wall if you're only going to leave an enormous and obvious weakness in it?"

  "Because it means we know where the enemy will concentrate his strength," Varg growled. "The defenses are thin. The enemy is many. If every spot was as good as any other, the Vord would simply attack at random, and we would have no way to predict where to concentrate our strength against them."

  "Leave them a big, obvious opening to exploit," Tavi said, "and we can be certain where their main thrust will fall. This is where the Legions will fight."

  Durias nodded, looking around. "That's why we're putting up the lower berms inside, then, along the road. They can't be seen from the outside. When the Vord come through, they'll be walking into a death trap."

  "It'll be worse than that," Tavi said. "You've never s
een what firecrafters can do in an enclosed area." He glanced up at Varg, and added, with very mild emphasis, "Neither have you, Warmaster."

  Varg paused a moment, meeting Tavi's gaze, before he replied just as mildly, "My ritualists will be there as well, gadara. It should be interesting."

  Tavi carefully suppressed a quiver of unquiet at the thought of some of the things he'd seen the Canim ritualists do. He showed Varg his teeth, and said, "That's for later. My scouts spotted something I think you'd want to know about." He pointed across the rolling landscape outside the earthworks.