Furies of Calderon, Page 5Jim Butcher
Tavi picked up Dodger's trail within an hour, but from there it wasn't so easy. Tavi tailed the flock throughout the morning and into the early afternoon, stopping only to drink from an icy brook and to eat some cheese and salt mutton his uncle had brought with him. By then, Tavi knew that Dodger was living up to his name and leading them on a merry chase, looping back and forth through the barrens.
Though gloomy Garados grew ever taller and darker with storm clouds, Tavi ignored the glowering presence of the mountain and kept his focus on his work. Noon was well past when he finally caught up to the wily ram and his flock.
He heard the sheep before he saw them; one of the ewes let out plaintive bleats. He looked back over his shoulder, to where his uncle followed several dozen strides behind him, and waved a hand to let Bernard know he'd found them. He couldn't keep the grin off his face, and his uncle answered Tavi's smile with his own.
Dodger had led the flock into a dense thicket of brambles and thorns nearly as tall as Tavi himself and a hundred feet deep. Tavi spotted Dodger's curling horns and approached the old ram carefully, talking as he always did. Dodger snorted and pawed at the earth with his front hooves, shaking his curling horns threateningly. Tavi frowned at the ram and approached him more slowly. Dodger himself weighed better than a quarter ton, and the tough breed of mountain sheep the frontier folk of Alera favored, sheep big enough and strong enough to defend themselves against thanadents and worse, could become aggressive when threatened. Careless shepherds had been killed by their overexcited charges.
A sharp, sweet smell made Tavi stop in his tracks. He recognized the scent of slaughtered sheep, of offal and blood.
Something was very wrong.
Tavi approached more slowly, eyes carefully sweeping around. He found the first dead sheep, one of the lambs, several yards short of the brambles. He knelt down and studied the remains, searching for clues as to what had killed the animal.
It hadn't been slives. Slives could kill young sheep, even adults if they had numbers enough, but the poisonous lizards swarmed over corpses and ravaged them into strips of flesh and bared bones. The lamb was dead, but it only showed a single wound-a massive, clean cut that had nearly severed the lamb's head from its neck. A thanadent's talons might have been capable of inflicting such a wound, but when one of the great mountain beasts took a kill, it either devoured it on the spot or else dragged it off to a secluded lair to feed. Wolves-even the great wolves of the savage, barbarian infested wilds east of the Calderon Valley-could not have struck and killed so cleanly. And besides, any predator would have begun to devour the lamb. Beasts did not kill for sport.
The ground around the lamb was grossly disturbed. Tavi checked around quickly for tracks, but he found only the hoof-marks of the sheep and then some marks he was not familiar with, and could not even be sure were tracks. One partially disturbed track may have been the outline of a human heel, but it could as easily have been the result of a round stone being rolled out of its place.
Tavi rose, puzzled, and found two more corpses laying on the ground between the first lamb and Dodger's refuge in the thicket-another lamb and a ewe, both dead of similar massive, clean wounds. A powerful fury might have been capable of causing those wounds, but furies rarely attacked animals without being compelled to do so by their crafter. If an animal had not done the killings, only a man could have. He would need a viciously sharp blade-a long hunting knife or a sword, and might need fury-enhanced strength to help as well.
But the frontier valley rarely had visitors, and none of the holdfolk wandered through the pine barrens. Garados's looming presence made the land for miles about it seem heavy with apprehension, and it was nearly impossible to get a good night's sleep so near the old mountain.
Tavi looked up and frowned at Dodger, who remained in the entrance to the thicket, horns presented in warning, and Tavi suddenly felt afraid. What could have struck down those sheep that way? "Uncle?" Tavi called. His voice cracked a little. "Something is wrong. "
Bernard approached, frowning, his eyes taking in Dodger and the flock,
then the dead sheep upon the ground. Tavi watched his uncle take it in, and then Bernard's eyes widened. He rose and drew the short, heavy sword of the legionare from his belt. "Tavi. Come over to me. "
Bernard's voice took on a sharp edge of anger and command that Tavi had never heard in uncle before. "Now. "
Tavi's heart began to pound in his chest, and he obeyed. "What about the flock?"
"Forget them," Bernard said, his voice crisp and cold. "We're leaving. "
"But we'll lose the sheep. We can't just leave them here. "
Bernard passed the sword to Tavi, scanning slowly around them, and fitted an arrow to the string of his bow. "Keep the point low. Put your other hand on the small of my back and leave it there. "
Tavi's fear rose sharply, but he forced it away and obeyed his uncle. "What's wrong? Why are we leaving?"
"Because we want to get out of the barrens alive. " Bernard started pacing silently away from the thicket, his face set in concentration.
"Alive? Uncle, what could-"
Bernard tensed abruptly and spun to one side, lifting his bow.
Tavi turned with him and saw a flash of motion beyond a small stand of young trees before them. "What is th-"
There was a hissing wail from their opposite side. Tavi whipped his head around, but his uncle was slower, spinning his entire body with his bow at arm's length, an arrow drawn back to his cheek. Tavi could do little but watch their attacker come.
It looked like a bird-if a bird could be eight feet tall and mounted on a pair of long, powerful legs, thicker and stronger-looking than a racing horse's, and tipped with wicked claws. Its head sat on the end of a long, powerful, flexible neck, and sported a hawk's beak, enlarged many times, sharp-looking and viciously hooked. Its feathers were colored in all dark browns and blacks, though its eyes were a brilliant shade of gold.
The bird bounded forward, taking a pair of steps and leaping into the air, both claws coming forward to rake while it beat at the air with ridiculously undersized wings. Tavi felt his uncle shove at him with his hip as he turned, and fell away and to one side, Bernard between him and the oncoming horror.
Bernard loosed his arrow without sighting. The arrow flew, struck at a poor angle, and glanced off the thing's feathers, skittering away in a blur of
black and green fletching. The beast landed on Bernard, its claws raking, its vicious beak whipping forward and down toward him.
When hot droplets of his uncle's blood struck his face, Tavi began to scream.
The bird-thing's talons lashed out, raking and tearing. One of them ripped through Uncle Bernard's tough leather breeches at the thigh. Blood welled and flowed. Another talon tore through his hair, down toward his throat, but Bernard raised his arm, sliding the lethal claws away on the wood of the bow. The creature's vicious beak darted down at him, but again Bernard parried the attack away.
The great bird's beak darted to one side and snapped the heavy wood of the bow like a dry twig. It gave way with a sharp detonation as the heavy tension of the string was released.
Tavi raised the sword and started toward his uncle, screaming, but it didn't sound like his own voice. It was too high, too thin, and too terrified to be his voice. The bird's head swiveled toward him, golden eyes focusing on him with a terrible, mindless intensity.
"Brutus!" shouted Uncle Bernard, as the bird's attention focused on Tavi. "Take him!"
The earth at the bird's feet shuddered and then ripped itself upward, as Brutus came to Bernard's call.
A thin layer of soil peeled back away from raw stone. Brutus surged up from the earth like a hound emerging from boiling surf, head and shoulders of a great hunting dog made of soil and stone. The fury's eyes glowed green as emeralds and shone with a faintly luminous light. Brutus planted his front paws on the ground, hauling h
is pony-sized body forward, and stone jaws closed on the thigh of the attacking bird.
The bird let out a whistling teakettle scream, and its beak flashed down at the fury's head. The beak struck sparks from the stone, and one of the earthen hound's ears fell off, but Brutus didn't so much as flinch.
Tavi let out a shout and swung his uncle's sword with both hands. It struck at the base of the bird's neck, and Tavi felt the blow in his hand as the bird struggled and thrashed, a quivering sensation like that of a fish on a line. He drew back the sword and struck again. Dark blood splashed and stained the blade.
Tavi kept on swinging the sword, once dodging aside from the bird's free
talon. Again and again the heavy weapon bit into the bird's body or neck. Again and again, dark blood splashed up from the blade.
Brutus wrenched the bird to one side and threw it to the ground with bone-crushing force. Tavi screamed again, the blood roaring in his ears, and swung the sword at the bird's head like an axe. Tavi heard and felt the crunch of impact, and the bird collapsed, ceasing its thrashing and its teakettle screams.
Tavi trembled violently. There was dark blood on his clothes and on the sword in his hands and scattered over the bird's feathers and on the ground. Brutus still held the bird's thigh in his granite jaws. A stench wafted up from the body, foul and rotten. Tavi swallowed and felt his stomach roil. He turned away from the bird's body and toward his uncle, who lay prone on the ground.
"Uncle," Tavi said. He knelt down beside the man. There was blood on Bernard's clothes and on his hands. "Uncle Bernard. "
Bernard turned his pale face up to Tavi, his features twisted in a grimace of pain. He had both hands clamped to his thigh, squeezing until his knuckles had turned white. "My leg," he said. "We've got to tie off my leg, boy, or I'm finished. "
Tavi swallowed and nodded. He put down the sword and unfastened his belt. "What about Brutus'?" he asked.
Bernard shook his head, a tight, small motion. "Not yet. Can't get anything through to him like this. "
Tavi had to haul with both hands to move his uncle's leg enough to let him slip the belt around it, and doing so drew a grunt of pain from the big man. Tavi wrapped the belt as tightly as he could and then tied it off. Bernard let out another low sound of pain and removed his hands, slowly. Blood soaked his breeches, but no fresh scarlet appeared. The wound looked horrible. Muscles lay open, and Tavi thought he caught a glimpse of white bone beneath. His stomach heaved again, and he looked away.
"Crows," he breathed. He was still shaking, his heart still beating too quickly. "Uncle. Are you all right?"
"Hurting pretty good. Keep talking to me until it passes a little. "
Tavi fretted at his lip. "All right. What was that thing?"
"Herdbane. They have them further south. Feverthorn Jungle mostly. Never heard of one this far north before. Or that big. "
"They kill for sport?"
"No. Too stupid to know when to stop. Once they scent blood, they tear apart anything that moves. ''
Tavi swallowed and nodded. "Are we in danger now?"
"Maybe. Herdbane hunt in pairs. Go look at the bird. "
"Look at the crow-eaten bird, boy," Bernard growled.
Tavi rose to his feet and went back over to the herdbane. Its free leg twitched, the talons opening and closing spasmodically. The smell of offal surrounded him, and Tavi held his breath, covering his nose and mouth with one hand.
Bernard grunted and sat up, though his head dropped for a moment as he did, and he had to brace his hands on the ground. "You killed it with the first blow, Tavi. You should have stepped back and let the thing die. "
"But it was still fighting," Tavi said.
Bernard shook his head. "You'd laid its neck open. It wasn't going to be fighting for long. Takes time to bleed to death, and until they do they can take you with them. Look at its neck. Right behind its head. "
Tavi swallowed and walked around the corpse, and around Brutus as well, until he stood behind the bird's beak and looked as his uncle had directed him.
Something disturbed the feathers just behind the bird's head. He knelt down and reached out with tentative fingers to brush some of the feathers away and peer at whatever it was.
A circlet made out of a braid of several types of rough cloth and hide encompassed the bird's throat, denting in the muscle where it pressed. "There's some kind of collar on it," Tavi said.
"What's it made of?" Bernard rumbled.
"I don't know. Cloth and some leather in a braid. It doesn't look familiar. "
"That's a Marat collar. We need to get out of the barrens, Tavi. "
Tavi looked up, startled. "There aren't any Marat in the Calderon Valley, Uncle. The Legions keep them out. There hasn't been a Marat here since they had the big battle years and years ago. "
Bernard nodded. "Before you were born. But two cohorts at Garrison doesn't necessarily keep them out if they aren't coming in numbers. There's a Marat warrior up here, and he isn't going to be happy that we killed his bird. Neither is its mate. "
"Marks on the top of her head. Mating scars. We killed the female. "
Tavi swallowed. "Then I guess we should go. "
Bernard nodded, the motion weary, unsteady. "Come here boy. "
Tavi did, kneeling close to his uncle. One of the sheep let out a bleat, and Tavi frowned, looking up. The small flock milled around, and Dodger began to trot about, shoving them roughly back into a group with his horns.
"Brutus," Bernard said, his voice gruff and unsteady. He drew in a deep breath, expression becoming one of concentration. "Let go of the bird. Take us both back home. "
The stone hound dropped the bird and turned toward Bernard. Brutus sank down into the earth again. Tavi felt the patch of ground he stood on begin to quiver and move. Then with a groan of tortured rock, a slab of stone perhaps five feet across rose up beneath them and began sliding southward, like a raft on a slow-moving river. The earth-raft drifted toward the entryway to the little clearing, slowly gathering speed.
Bernard muttered, "Just wake me up when we get back. " Then he laid down and closed his eyes, his face and body going immediately slack again.
Tavi glanced at his uncle, frowning, and then back at the sheep. Dodger had them herded into the thicket again and had presented his horns-and not toward Tavi.
"Uncle Bernard," Tavi said, and he thought his voice sounded high-pitched and panicky. "Uncle Bernard. I think something is coming. "
Tavi's uncle did not respond. Tavi looked around for his uncle's sword, but he had left it lying beside the herdbane's body, and it was now two dozen strides away. Tavi clenched his hands into frustrated fists. This was all his fault. If he hadn't shirked his duties to impress Beritte, he wouldn't have needed to come looking for Dodger and his uncle wouldn't have needed to follow him.
Tavi shivered. Suddenly, the possibility of death seemed very real, looming stark and close.
Shadows fell over the valley, and Tavi looked up to see racing clouds darken the sun, and he heard a distant rumble of thunder. Wind made the trees and scant brush begin to sway and stir, and the earth raft seemed to crawl. Though already up to the walking pace of a man, and still accelerating, Tavi found himself desperate to move faster and terrified that it might already be too late.
Tavi swallowed. If something came after them now, his uncle would not be able to help him. Tavi would have to handle it alone.
A high, whistling screech came from the trees to the west of them, up the slope.
Tavi jerked his head in that direction, but saw nothing. The screech repeated itself.
A second screech answered it, this time from the east of the earth-raft and from unnervingly close at hand. A third? Brush rattled perhaps fifty paces back in the trees. Then again, closer. Tavi thought he saw something moving toward them. Closing in.
"They're coming," he said, in a quiet voice.
Tavi swallowed. Though Brutus might eventually reach the pace of a running man and hold it for hours or days, he wouldn't get there in time to help them escape. Bernard had no chance at all of evading another herd-bane as he lay unconscious, and Brutus's focus was all on bearing the pair of them back toward home.
Which meant that the only way his uncle could escape was if the herd-banes went looking somewhere else. If someone led them off in another direction.
Tavi took a deep breath, rolled off the earth-raft to one side of the trail, and lay completely still. If the herdbanes tracked movement, surely they would have more trouble with the wind rising and the trees and brush swaying in it. He would remain still for a while and then start making plenty of noise and motion, to draw the hunters away from their vulnerable prey.
Thunder rumbled again, and Tavi felt a tiny, cold raindrop splash on his cheek. He looked up and saw vast and dark clouds growing around the mountain. Another cold raindrop fell on him, and he felt a rush of fear that nearly forced him to empty his stomach. Furystorms could be deadly to anyone caught out in the open. Without the solid protection of the steadholt's walls or the protection of his own furies, he would be nearly helpless before the storm. Breathing fast and light, Tavi picked up several rocks that seemed a good size for throwing. Then he turned to the west and hurled the stone on the highest arch he could manage.
The stone flew in silence and struck on a tree trunk, making a sharp sound. Tavi pressed against the base of the tree and held still.
There was a whistle from the other side of the trail, and something
moved through the brush, toward it. Tavi heard steps behind him, and then a great dark form flashed past him in near silence, a bound that took it across the rough trail Brutus's passage had made. Another herdbane, this one darker, larger than the first. It ran on its toes, though its talons rattled against fallen pine needles and its feathers brushed through the limbs of the evergreens. It went toward the spot where the stone had landed, vanishing back into the brush.
Tavi let out a breath. He threw another stone, farther away, back toward the clearing, rather than in the direction where Brutus was slowly bearing his uncle to safety. Then he crouched low and headed back toward the clearing himself, tossing a new stone every few paces. The wind kept rising, and more tiny, stinging droplets of near-frozen rain began to fall.
Tavi labored to keep his breathing as silent as he could and crept back to the clearing, quiet as a cat, creeping the last few paces on his belly, under the overhanging branches of one of the evergreens. The sheep were nowhere to be seen.
But the second herdbane was already there.
So was the Marat.
This herdbane stood at least a head taller than the first, and its feathers were darker, its eyes a browner shade of gold. It stood over the corpse of the bird Tavi had killed, one leg cocked up underneath its body, leaning its neck down to nuzzle its beak against its dead mate's feathers.
The Marat was the first Tavi had seen. He was tall, taller than anyone Tavi knew. He looked not unlike a man, but his shoulders were very broad, and his body heavy with flat, swift-looking muscle. He wore only a cloth around his hips, though that seemed mostly utilitarian, worn only to provide a belt to hang several pouches from, and from which depended something that looked like a dagger made of black glass. His hair was long and thick and looked sickly white in the dim grey light that shone through the rain clouds. He had tied dark feathers into his hair, here and there, and they lent him a savage aspect.
The Marat moved to the herdbane's body and knelt over it, reaching out to lay both wide, powerful-looking hands upon the beast. He let out a soft, keening sound, which was echoed by the male beside him, and both went still for a moment, bowing their heads.
Then the man snarled, splitting his lips apart, and his head turned this way and that, looking around him, white teeth bared. His eyes, Tavi saw, were precisely the same shade of gold as the Herdbane's, inhuman and bright.
Tavi remained where he was, hardly daring to breathe. The Marat's features were not difficult to read. He was furious, and as the man turned his head in a slow circle around the clearing, Tavi saw that his teeth and his hands were stained with scarlet blood.
The Marat stood and held a hand to his mouth. He took a breath and blew, a wailing whistle flying from his lips, loud enough to make Tavi wince. He blew a short sequence, the notes higher and lower, long and short. Then he fell silent.
Tavi's brow furrowed into a frown, and he dropped his jaw a little, half-closing his eyes, and listened.
After a time, there came, half-mangled by the rising winds, a whistling answer. Tavi had no way of knowing what the answer said, but that there was an answer in itself was frightening enough. The whistling communication could mean only one thing: There were more than one of the barbarians here.
The Marat had returned to Calderon Valley.
Perhaps they were simply hunting, taking refuge from detection in the humanity-free area in the pine barrens around Garados. Or perhaps, Tavi's panicked thoughts ran, they were the advance scouts for a horde. But that seemed mad. A horde hadn't been seen in more than fifteen years-not since before Tavi was born, and while they had enjoyed a brief spate of victory, destroying the Crown Legion and slaying the Princeps Gaius, the Aleran Legions had crushed the horde only weeks later, dealing them such a deadly stroke that everyone had assumed that the Marat would never return.
Tavi swallowed. But they had returned. And if they meant to return in force, the Marat in the valley were probably advance scouts. If they were, they would never let one rather skinny and undersized boy who had seen them escape to warn others of their presence.
The Marat returned to glaring around the clearing. He seized several feathers and jerked them out of the dead herdbane, then reached up and tied them to strands of his hair. He made a whistling sound at the living herd-bane, moving one hand in a gesture. The bird responded by moving in that direction in long, stalking steps, its eyes sweeping back and forth.
The Marat, meanwhile, dropped down to all fours. He sniffed at the blood on the fallen herdbane's claws and then, to Tavi's disgust, leaned down and ran his tongue along it. Then he closed his mouth with his eyes narrowed, tasting the blood as though it were a wine. The Marat opened his eyes again, remained low, on all fours, and began casting around the floor of the
clearing like a dog after a scent. He paused at the fallen sword and picked it up, staring down at the weapon stained with the herdbane's blood. Then he lowered the blade to wipe it clean on the grass of the clearing and slipped it through his cloth-belt.
The wind continued to rise and changed directions at every breath. Tavi felt it brush against his back. He froze in place, sure that if he moved he would be immediately seen.
The Marat jerked his head up, abruptly turning to look directly at Tavi's hiding place. The boy swallowed, tensing in fear. The Marat let out another whistle and made a hand signal. The herdbane stalked toward Tavi's hiding place.
Just like a chicken after a bug, Tavi thought. And I'm the bug.
But a few steps later, the herdbane let out a shriek, turning to face south. The Marat followed the herdbane, golden eyes reading the signs of passage in the earth. He crouched down, nostrils flaring and looked up with a sudden, eager light in his eyes.
The Marat rose and began to stalk southward after Tavi's wounded uncle.
"No!" Tavi shouted. He threw himself to his feet and out of his hiding place, hurling one of his remaining stones at the Marat. His aim proved true. The rock struck the Marat high on the cheek, and blood welled from the gash.
The Marat stared at Tavi with those golden, bird-of-prey eyes and snarled something in a tongue Tavi could not understand. His intentions, though, were clear even before he drew the glass dagger from his belt. His eyes burned with anger.
The Marat let out a
whistle, and the herdbane whirled toward him. Then he pointed at Tavi and let out that same whistling teakettle battle cry the dead bird had used.
Tavi turned and ran.
He had run from those larger and stronger than him for the whole of his young life. Most games at the steadholt involved chasing of one kind or another, and Tavi had learned how to make his small size and quickness work for him. He ran through the densest thickets of bracken he could find and slipped through mazes of thorns, windfalls, sinkholes, and young evergreens.
The wind grew stronger, filling the air with fallen pine needles and dust. Tavi ran west to lead them away from his uncle. The eerie wailing of the herdbane and its master raced after him, but fear gave his feet wings.
The boy's heart pounded like a smith's hammer, heavy and swift. He
knew that he was alone, and that no one would come to help him. He had to rely on his own wits and experience, and should he falter or slow, the pursuing Marat and herdbane would have him. Sunset was drawing near, and the vast storm building over Garados had begun to spread over the valley. Should the Marat, the storm, or the darkness catch him unprotected in the open, he would die. Tavi ran for his life.