Princeps fury, p.49
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       Princeps' Fury, p.49

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  Varg exchanged a look with his son, then the pair of them stood up in their stirrups and peered out across the land. They stared for a long, silent moment.

  Nasaug let out an explosive snarl, and lashed his startled taurg into a sudden, ground-shaking gallop that made the other two taurga bawl and rumble in complaint. Half a dozen Shuaran refugees who were just arriving had to throw themselves out of the way before the taurg flattened them. Durias and Varg brought their beasts under control again. Varg growled low in his throat, glanced at Tavi, then dismounted and tossed the reins of his beast to Durias.

  Tavi dismounted as well, dodged a sullen kick Durias's taurg aimed at him, and hurried after Varg, who was striding up the terraces to the top of the earthworks beside the gateway. Tavi came to a stop beside him and watched Nasaug's progress.

  Out on the plain outside the earthworks, a large group of refugees was moving together. Unlike the majority of the Shuarans, though, these Canim were all dark-furred. Among them moved, often with the aid of canes and crutches, warriors in red-and-black armor, and at the heart of the group, a long spear bearing a simple twin pennant of red-and-black cloth stood above the rest of the group.

  "My people," Varg said, his voice very deep and very quiet. "Some of them survived."

  "Ten thousand or so, according to my scouts," Tavi agreed quietly. "I know that isn't many."

  Varg was silent for a moment before he growled, "It is everything, gadara. Some of our warriors live among them." He arched one paw-hand, dark claws spreading fiercely. "We did not fail them entirely." He turned his eyes to Tavi. "Where were they?"

  "Lararl had them near the fortress."

  Varg turned pensively back toward the plain, then narrowed his eyes, a growl shaking his chest. "His ritualists needed blood."

  Tavi said nothing.

  Nasaug reached the group a moment later, and all but broke his taurg's neck hauling it to a halt. The mount snapped at his arm as Nasaug dismounted, but the Cane struck it between the eyes with one enormous fist, staggering the three-quarter-ton mount as easily as if it had been a drunk staying too late at a wine house.

  The arriving Narashans let out cries and howls as Nasaug reached them and began striding through them, toward the banner at the heart of the group.

  "That was what it meant, back in Lararl's chambers," Varg said. "When you told him that everyone was to leave."

  Tavi said nothing.

  Varg turned to him, and said, "Lararl would not have given up a military resource in such a desperate situation without cause. You demanded it of him, Tavar."

  "I couldn't tell you they were near," Tavi said quietly. "You would have gone to get them, and to crows with the circumstances."

  Varg narrowed his eyes and growled deep in his considerable chest. It made Tavi acutely aware of exactly how large the Cane really was.

  Tavi took a steadying breath and turned to meet Varg's eyes. He cocked an eyebrow at the Cane, daring him to deny the statement, and hoped that Varg's intense passions on the subject weren't about to express themselves at his expense.

  Varg looked back out at the plain and let his growl rumble away to nothing. After a long moment, he said, "You protected them."

  "And the Shuarans," Tavi said in a very soft, very nonchallenging voice. "And myself. We're all standing in the same fire, Varg."

  Varg rumbled out another growl, one containing a tone of agreement. Then he turned from Tavi, strode down the terraces, and out onto the plain, toward the oncoming group of Narashan survivors.

  Tavi watched them come. A moment later, Durias climbed the stairs beside him, and asked, "How'd he take it when he realized you didn't tell him?"

  "He didn't like it," Tavi said. "He understood it."

  "It's a strength of their mind-set," the young centurion said, nodding. "Working through the logic of others dispassionately." Durias smiled. "Though if they'd come to harm because of it, it wouldn't have stopped him from gutting you."

  "Don't I know it," Tavi said. "But I didn't have any good choices."

  Durias squinted out at the Narashans for a second, then his eyes widened. "Bloody crows."

  Tavi glanced at him. "What?"

  "That banner," Durias said. "That isn't a common symbol among them."

  "What does it mean?"

  "Warriors rarely use spears," Durias said. "They gave the Free Aleran a hard time because our standards were mounted on them. They're considered to be a female's weapon."

  Tavi lifted his eyebrows. "So?"

  "So the spear standard in the colors of the range means a matron of a high warrior bloodline," the young centurion told him. "And I--"

  His voice was suddenly drowned out when ten thousand Canim throats erupted into wordless howls, and though the sounds were not human, Tavi could hear the emotions that drove it--raw celebration, sudden and unexpected joy. He traded a glance with Durias, and the two leaned forward, watching.

  As Varg approached, the small sea of singing Canim parted, and Nasaug appeared, walking beside a Canim female as tall and as dark-furred as he, their hands joined. Even as they walked, half a dozen young Canim, one of them scarcely larger than an Aleran child, came bounding out of the crowd and rushed Varg, baying in high-pitched tones. The Warmaster planted his feet, and was shortly inundated in delighted, furry children and wagging tails. A gang wrestling match ensued, in which Varg pinned each of the children to the earth with one hand and nipped at their throats and tummies, to squeals of protest and delight.

  "Bloody crows," Durias breathed again. The young centurion turned to Tavi, and said, "Your Highness. Unless I'm very much mistaken, you just saved the lives of Varg's family. Nasaug's mate, and their children. Furies, you practically brought them back from the dead."

  Tavi stared out at the plain for a time, watching as the female caught up and dragged the pups from their grandsire, then exchanged deep bows of the head with Varg, showing him the deference of a confident subordinate to a much-respected superior. Then they embraced, after the Canim fashion, their muzzles touching, heads resting together, their eyes closed.

  "Maybe," Tavi said. His throat felt a little tight. "None of us have survived this yet."

  The night was clear, and when the scream of the windstreams of the Legions' Knights Aeris drifted across the fortifications, Tavi emerged from the command tent and looked up to see the forms of his Knights speckling the face of the almost-full moon. The sentries were taking note of it at the same time, and horns rang through the camp, alerting officers of the return of the Aleran fliers.

  "Yes!" Tavi snarled, as Marcus came out of the tent behind him. "They're here! Magnus!"

  The old Cursor was already hurrying toward the tent, from where he'd been resting briefly nearby, still tugging his tunic into place. "Your Highness!"

  "Get everyone who isn't fighting into the ships, now! I don't want to lose a minute."

  "Very good, Your Highness."

  "Gradash!"

  The grey-furred old Canim huntmaster came out of the tent on Marcus's heels, squinting up at the sound of the incoming windcrafters. "I am here, Tavar."

  "I think you should send word to your people now, and get them moving toward the piers as we discussed."

  "Aye." He turned to a pair of whippet-thin young Canim runners who had been waiting nearby, and began growling instructions.

  "Marcus," Tavi continued. "I want you at the breach with the men. The minute you see the signal, fall back to Molvar and get to the ships."

  "Sir," Marcus said, banging a fist to his breastplate. The First Spear turned, barking orders, and was shortly mounted and riding out to the earthworks.

  Kitai and Maximus came out of the command tent, and stood watching with Tavi as the Knights Aeris came in to land in two groups, one dropping into the landing area of the former slave Legion, the other landing in the First Aleran's--except for a single armored figure that came down not twenty yards from the command tent.

  "Crassus!" Tavi called, grinning. "You're lookin
g well."

  "Sir," Crassus replied with an answering smile. He saluted Tavi, who returned the gesture, then clasped forearms with the young officer. "I'm glad to see you got back in one piece."

  "Tell me," Tavi said intently.

  "It's working," Crassus hissed, his eyes bright with triumph. "It took us a bloody lot of crafting to pull it off, and the witchmen aren't at all comfortable, but it's working."

  Tavi felt his mouth stretch out into a fierce grin. "Hah!"

  "Bloody crows!" Maximus said, frustration and delight warring in his voice. "In the name of all the great furies, what are you two talking about?"

  Crassus turned to his half brother, grinning, and embraced him. "Come on," he said. "See for yourself."

  Crassus led them all to the cliffs overlooking the sea below Molvar. In the silver light of the moon, the sea was a monochrome portrait of black water and white wave-caps--and riding upon that dark sea were three white ships, ships so enormous that for a moment it seemed that Tavi's eyes had to be lying to him. And he'd known what to expect.

  He turned to see the faces of the others, who were simply staring in disbelief at the enormous white vessels. They watched as tiny figures moved about on the decks of the sail-less ships--engineers of the First Aleran, whose tiny forms upon the white decks showed the true size of the ships: Each of them was nearly half a mile in length and more than half as wide.

  "Ships," Max said, his tone dull. "Really. Big. Ships."

  "Barges, really," Gradash corrected him, though the old Cane's own voice was sober and quiet. "No masts. What's making them move?"

  "Furycraft," Tavi replied. "Witchmen are using seawater to push them." He turned to Crassus. "How many levels deep?"

  "Twelve," Crassus said, something smug in his voice. "Cramped for a Cane, but they'll fit."

  "Ice!" Kitai exclaimed suddenly, her tone enormously pleased. "You crafted ships from ice!"

  Tavi turned to her and nodded, smiling. Then said, to Gradash, "I remembered the ice mountains you showed me as we arrived. And if the leviathans truly avoid them, we should have no problems with them on the way back to Alera."

  The old Cane stared at the ships, his ears quivering. "But the ice mountains. They roll like taurga with itchy backs."

  "The keels go fairly deep, and are weighted with stone," Crassus assured the Cane. "They should be stable, provided they don't take a big wave broadside. They won't roll."

  "Roll, crows," Maximus sputtered. "Ice melts."

  "It also floats," Tavi said, feeling a little smug himself, though he probably didn't deserve it. He hadn't been working himself to exhaustion for days to make them happen, after all.

  "The firecrafters have been making coldstones nonstop," Crassus told Max. "There are enough of them there to keep the ships from melting for three weeks, by which time they'll have made more--and the engineers stretched a granite frame throughout. They think they'll hold, if we can avoid the worst of the weather."

  Tavi slammed a fist on the pauldrons of Crassus's armor. "Well done, Tribune," he said fiercely.

  "So," Kitai said, smiling. "We get everyone on the ships, and we leave the Vord screaming their frustration behind us. This is a fine plan, Aleran."

  "If the weather holds," Max said darkly.

  "That's what Knights Aeris are for," Crassus said calmly. "It will be hard work, but we'll do it. We have to do it."

  Canim horns brayed from the earthworks, pulsing out in odd, baying signals. Tavi held up a hand for silence and watched Gradash.

  The old Cane took in the horn calls and reported, "The first of the main body of Lararl's regulars have been sighted, Tavar."

  Max whistled. "One crowbegotten fine retreat, if they held together all the way from the fortress."

  Tavi nodded agreement. "And that means that the Vord won't be far behind. We need to get moving, people. The enemy is close." He began giving rapid orders, rounding up a couple of couriers to get them out to the right portions of the Legion, when a surge of terrified realization from Kitai hit him like a punch in the belly. He stopped in the middle of his sentence and turned to her.

  "Aleran!" she said, staring out at the breach in the earthworks where the First Aleran was stationed.

  Tavi spun to see the First Aleran under assault. Enormous blue-armored Canim had, in the midst of passing peacefully through their positions, suddenly whirled to attack. In the bright moonlight, Tavi could see the Shuarans hacking into the surprised Alerans, fighting in perfect unison and entirely without regard for their own lives.

  He sucked in a breath and realized what had happened. "Taken," he spat. "Those Shuarans have been taken by the Vord." He turned to the others, and said, "The Vord aren't close. They're here."

  CHAPTER 44

  The Vord surged toward the defenses around Molvar in a great, dark wave, and the last defenders of Canea rose to meet them in a single, enormous roar of defiance and hate. Signal horns, Canim and Aleran alike, bayed and shrilled across the fey, silver-lit landscape, and from the west poured a great wave of the enemy, chitin gleaming and winking beneath the great eye of the winter moon.

  Tavi knew that he was speaking, because orders were flying off his lips more rapidly than he could keep track of them, and all around him officers of the Legion were slamming out salutes and sprinting away, but it seemed that he didn't actually understand anything he was saying. His thoughts were racing, trying to cover every possible outcome of the next minutes and hours, anticipating everything, taking every measure he possibly could. Then he was swinging up behind Kitai onto a taurg and racing toward the battle.

  The First Aleran had hacked down the taken Shuarans, suffering ruinous casualties in doing so--anything taken by the Vord was enormously strong, oblivious to pain, and fought with mindlessly suicidal ferocity. Though the taken Canim were down, several Alerans had joined each of the fallen enemy upon the earth--and the enemy's ruse had paid a dividend. The Legion's ranks had been badly disrupted, and the Vord's first thrust came hard on the heels of their opening gambit.

  The Legion was being driven back from the breach in the earthworks, while more Vord--always more Vord--assaulted the rest of the defensive positions, preventing the Canim from coming to the Alerans' aid. Now the Legion fought to defend a twenty-foot-wide corridor, the opening in the earthworks. Ten-foot walls flanked the opening, and legionares with spears crouched in ranks atop those walls, thrusting their weapons into the press of armored Vord bodies below, while the infantry fought with shield and sword to keep the Vord from forcing their way through the engineered bottleneck and past the fortifications.

  Tavi drew his sword and flung himself from the plunging taurg as the beast began to ride through the scattered and reeling legionares who had been driven out of position and away from their various centuries. "Legionares!" he bellowed. "To me!"

  "Captain!" called a dazed legionare.

  "Form up on me!" Tavi called to the scattered soldiers. "You, you, you, you're spear leaders! Line them up! Legionares, fall in on this line!"

  Once he had the men organized into a fighting century, a block ten files long and eight legionares deep, he sent them forward, to the support of the men already fighting. He did it over and over, until the scattered soldiers were accounted for, and realized as he did that the Vord had imitated the enemy yet again. Tavi's group might have hunted down and killed the nearby queen a few days before, but the Vord were returning the compliment--the taken Shuarans, it seemed, had focused their efforts upon killing the centurions within each century. Crested helms lay far more thickly among the fallen Alerans than they should have and in the press of battle, without the leadership of the men wearing them, the organization vital to the Legion's order of battle had frayed.

  The additional centuries helped to stiffen the lines, though Tavi knew that it would only be for a few moments--fortunately, those moments were enough.

  The air screamed as forty Knights Aeris swept down upon the battle. Tavi lifted his sword, signaling Crassus, w
ho flew at the head of the Knights--each of whom flew paired with another Knight, carrying a third armored form between them.

  "Crassus!" Tavi shouted into the din of battle, pointing to the walls overlooking the bottleneck. "On the wall!"

  But the young Tribune hadn't needed Tavi's gesticulations to see where his help was needed. Signing instructions to his men, Crassus touched down on the wall overlooking one side of the breech, along with half of his flight. The other half landed on the other side, where each pair of Knights Aeris deposited the men they'd brought to the fight--the Knights Ignus of the First Aleran.