Princeps fury, p.50
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       Princeps' Fury, p.50

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  Tavi couldn't see what happened from his vantage point on the ground, behind the Legion's wall of shields, but heartbeats later, there was an enormous roar and hellish blue-white light flared ahead of him, burning the black silhouette of the massed ranks into his vision. The Legion let out a shout of exultation at the return of their Knights, and surged forward, driving the Vord back into the sudden vacuum the Knights Ignus had burned into their ranks.

  Tavi sprinted up to the earthworks to join Crassus, but by the time he got there, the situation was in hand--at least for the moment. The Vord had reeled back from the breach, and every time they began to press in more closely, one of the Knights Ignus unleashed a blast of fire in their midst.

  "Max is coming," Crassus panted to Tavi. His face was streaked with sweat from the effort of his recent furycrafting. He turned to point back toward the city, where Max and a column of armored figures were marching at the quick step from the Legion camp outside the city walls. "He's bringing the engineers and our Knights Terra. We'll close up the breach and--"

  On the outer earthworks, Canim horns blared and brayed, and at that signal, dozens of ritualists appeared among the Canim on the walls. All of the hooded figures threw back their pale mantles, dipped their hands into the pouches of blood they wore slung at their sides, and cast scarlet droplets into the air. Again, Tavi wasn't in position to see the results of the working, but he saw the great, billowing clouds of greenish mist form and fall, and heard the screams of agony among the Vord as it descended upon them, scouring the earthen walls clean of attackers.

  "Form up!" bellowed a strident voice from the breach below. "Crows take your idiot eyes, form up! Dress the ranks before they hit us again!"

  Tavi looked down to see Valiar Marcus--absent his crested centurion's helmet--striding among the Aleran lines. The First Spear's armor was horribly dented over his left shoulder, and that arm hung limply at his side--but he carried his centurion's baton in his right hand and made liberal use of it, shoving soldiers into line, rapping them sharply on their helmets to get their attention. Marcus had thought quickly, Tavi saw. The scarred veteran must have realized that his crested helm had marked him as a target when the battle had gotten under way and he'd removed it. A quick scan showed Tavi that there was a notable absence of crested helms among the ranks--but the centurions were still visibly doing their jobs, maintaining their presence by virtue of their batons, voices, and sheer force of will.

  "It's going to take us several hours to load the supplies and all the refugees," Tavi said. "We have to hold them. Marcus is in charge of the breach. Support him. I'm going to talk to Varg."

  "Aye, Your Highness," Crassus said, slamming a fist to his heart. "We'll do our part, never fear."

  Tavi rushed up to the walls, taking advantage of the brief respite in the battle as the Vord recoiled from the massive scourge of acidic blood magic the ritualists had released upon them. He had to pace almost half a mile along the walls until he found Varg, who was striding the wall among his own people.

  Tavi nodded to him and began speaking without preamble. "Three hours. We have to hold them that long at least."

  Varg looked from Tavi out to the field, where the Vord were still pouring in from all over the countryside. The base of the wall was a ruin of melted chitin and half-formed bodies, all that was left after the ritualists' counterattack. "Three hours. That could be a long time."

  "It will take that long for the transports to dock and for our people and supplies to load on," Tavi said. "There's no point in rescuing them now only to let them starve to death at sea."

  Varg growled out his agreement. "What of our fighters?"

  Tavi laid out the withdrawal plan for him. "None of which matters if we can't hold now."

  Already, the Vord had recovered from the sting of the first repulsion, and were beginning to mass again, preparing to assault the earthworks once more en masse.

  "We will hold," Varg growled. "We will wait for your signal."

  For three hours, more and more Vord poured in from all across the countryside, their numbers growing ever larger, their attacks more focused and cohesive: and for three hours, the last defenders of Canea cast them back.

  The casualty rate was hideous, the worst fighting any of them had seen--and for the First Aleran, that was saying something indeed. Once the earthcrafters had closed the breach in the earthworks, the Legions fought to defend a relatively tiny section of the defenses--proportional to their numbers.

  It was the Canim who carried the lion's share of the battle.

  Shuarans and Narashans fought side by side, reserve forces of warriors charging forward more and more frequently to come to the aid of hard-pressed militia fighters in their far lighter armor. Ritualists screamed to the night sky and sent death in multiple, hideous forms down upon their attackers--Varg had, it turned out, been bleeding volunteers from his people a bit at a time, regularly, on their way to Canea, saving up a store of blood for the ritualists to use. They unleashed it on the Vord, holding back nothing, to terrible effect, until they were pouring their clouds of acid down the faces of the earthworks not to kill Vord, but to further dissolve the corpses that were piling up higher and higher, building a ramp for the Vord that followed in their wake.

  For the Alerans, the fight was grueling and desperate. Blocks of legionares, working together, could fend off the wave-assaults of the enemy, but when a formation was broken, or when any of the men were isolated, death followed close behind. Antillar Maximus, leading a cadre of Knights Terra and Ferrous, launched himself time and again into the fray, where the more deadly weapons of the powerful Knights would crush the Vord like so many toys, driving them back from the more vulnerable legionares.

  Tavi did everything he could to make sure the men could fight on stable ground, and to facilitate the rotation of the rear ranks with those in the fore, fighting the exhaustion that was certain to do them more harm, in the end, than any Vord form or poison. Those wounded too badly to be able to walk were taken from the field, stabilized, and loaded onto the ships that waited for them at the bottom of the city of Molvar. Other wounds were quickly closed, then the men were sent back to the defenses, until there was barely a spear in the Legion who wasn't at least half-populated by the walking wounded.

  When the Vord press became too great, firecrafters would lend their aid to the defenses--but the Knights Ignus quickly tired, and soon only Crassus remained capable of laying out the supporting fire the Legions required to survive. Tavi could only urge the young man on, silently, from his position at the rear of the fighting, and wonder at how the young Tribune could keep rising to his feet, again and again, to destroy more of the Vord.

  Meanwhile, behind the battle, the civilians filed down the stairways hurriedly crafted into the stone, down to the water, there to board the vast ice ships. Canim families bore crushing loads with them, everyone lending a hand to the effort to pile supplies on the ships, the knowledge of the certain death that howled at the earthworks driving them to cooperation and orderly conduct more surely than any law or tradition ever could.

  Twice, the Vord breached the earthworks and began pouring down the terraces--but both times, Anag and the Shuaran taurg cavalry charged, shattering the momentum of the advance, which was then pushed back by blocks of Varg's elite warriors, led personally by the Warmaster.

  And then, after more than four endless, nightmarish hours, the horns Magnus had stationed at the piers began to sound the retreat.

  "That's it!" Tavi screamed, turning to the trumpeter he'd kept near him. "Signal the Canim! Sound the retreat!"

  As the silver trumpet shrilled, the First Spear turned to Tavi from his place in the ranks, eyes searching. Tavi flashed Marcus several hand signals, and the veteran centurion began barking orders that were repeated instantly through the ranks.

  Once more, the Canim horns brayed, and the ritualists came forward for one last, mass summoning of blood magic. The Vord reeled back from the destruction--and in that moment o
f opportunity, the defenders turned and withdrew from their positions.

  "Go!" Tavi shouted, waving men past him, willing them to retreat in good order, to escape, to survive. "Through the city gate and down to the ship! The route is marked by our colors! Go, go, go!"

  Four hours of hard fighting made a poor prelude to the mile and a half of hard marching the men would have to make before they could board their ships, but none of them seemed anything less than eager to take to his heels. Despite the hours of slaughter and havoc they and the Canim had wreaked upon the Vord, the enemy numbers outside the walls had not visibly diminished--this was a battle they could not possibly win, and they knew it. They could only hope to survive.

  The Vord came over the walls and began to pour down them like a black flood finally breaching a strained levy, pursuing the retreating forces--but the taurg cavalry flung itself forward into the foremost elements of the advance. The taurga, bellowing their fury and fear, smashed into the oncoming Vord with a ferocity and power of impact that Tavi had never seen, an unstoppable hammerblow that left acres of Vord crushed into the Canean soil.

  Again and again the taurga charged, and here and there, one of the great mounts fell, pulled down by the sheer weight of numbers, spilling a blue-and-black-armored Canim warrior onto the cold earth to a savage death.

  But all they could do was slow the oncoming tide.

  Tavi pushed along at the rear of the Aleran forces, a shoulder under one of Crassus's arms, hauling the exhausted young Tribune along by main force. He was exhausted, and every nerve felt strained. Everything happened very rapidly, and at the same time in achingly slowed distortion.

  The Canim and Alerans alike flowed into Molvar through the city's several gates, and went rushing down to the docks, where the ships stood waiting for them, lined up in specific order. Boarding instructions were designed for speed, not organization. Each ship would take its maximum load from the first to reach it, then clear the piers in the port for the next.

  If Tavi had known, when he was younger, how much of war depended upon vast and complex ways of organizing where people were supposed to walk, eat, sleep, and relieve themselves, he thought he would have had a completely different opinion on the subject.

  He was among the last Alerans to enter the city, and he could see the Vord, halfway across the open ground, rushing toward the city as the Canim at the gates swung them closed and locked them shut.

  "Go!" Tavi urged them silently. "Go, go, go!"

  Outside, he heard the Canim cavalry sound their own retreat, then the taurga racing toward the stone piers. Tavi could not imagine the danger and mayhem that was about to ensue when several hundred blood-maddened Canim guided the battle-frenzied taurga down narrow stone staircases so that they could board the ice ships, but it was plain to him that no sane man would want to be anywhere close.

  Even as Tavi kept urging his men to hurry on through the city, their way marked by pennants made from strips of red-and-blue cloth, he saw the Canim on the walls of the city begin to rush through the walls and buildings with lit torches, setting them aflame. The fires had been laid hours before, and spread rapidly, smoke coming up in a sudden veil.

  Molvar would burn to shield their escape.

  "Max!" Tavi gasped, still hauling Crassus along by one arm. "Here, help me!"

  Max appeared from the confusion and smoke and got beneath his brother's other arm. "I can handle him. You should move ahead, get to a ship!"

  "Once all of our people are ready to go, I will," Tavi responded. "Stop slowing me down, and get moving."

  "Captain!" Marcus appeared out of the smoke, coughing. "West wind is rising! The fire's spreading toward us faster than we can move away!"

  "Get to the front of the line with some Knights!" Tavi called back. "Knock down some walls if you have to!"

  "Yes, sir!" Marcus saluted and vanished again.

  As they got closer to the piers, the line came to a halt, the men backed up in the street, pressed chest to shoulder blades with their fellows. Tavi could hear Marcus bellowing orders in a smoke-roughened voice, somewhere ahead of them. Men had begun to shout and mill about in panic, as the roar of the fire grew nearer, along with the light of the spreading flames.

  "Stand easy, men!" Tavi called. "We'll get through. We're going to be--"

  Tavi didn't know how the Vord had gotten through. Perhaps it had been one of the first to reach the city, and had plunged through the flames before they had risen to deadly intensity. Perhaps its froglike form had been specifically designed to resist heat. Perhaps it had just gotten lucky. Regardless, Tavi didn't realize that it was there at all until something disturbingly like a hand seized a weary, wounded legionare beside him, holding the man's entire head in its grasp, and flung him to his back on the ground.

  Just as it happened, there was a surge of motion and a roar of triumph from the Legion ahead of Tavi. Men stumbled forward as the restraining pressure of the bodies in front of them was released.

  Tavi screamed for help, but his voice was lost amidst the shouts and the roaring fire and wind. The Vord hunched over the fallen legionare, moving with a hideously lithe ferocity. Sparks flew from the armor over the legionare's belly as the Vord raked at him with shining green-black claws.

  Tavi drew his sword, needing no conscious effort to call upon the furies within the Aleran steel. His sword struck through the arm with which the Vord had the legionare pinned, then through its slender neck in a pair of rapid strokes, followed by a fury-enhanced kick that prevented the Vord's mass from falling on the downed legionare and pinning him there.

  Tavi flashed the stunned-looking man a quick grin and hauled him to his feet. "No lying down on the job, soldier. Watch my back until we get to the ship, eh?"

  The man answered his smile with one of his own and drew his sword. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

  The two of them hurried through the thickening smoke to catch up with the retreating legionares, and Tavi found himself beginning to cough and struggle for breath. There were more of the Vord in the haze, moving as swiftly as shadows, glimpsed for only a second before they were gone again. An eerie shriek rose through the smoke, and others answered it from all around, the cries echoing between buildings and becoming strangely distorted as they bounced around stone.

  Elsewhere in the streets, they heard the snarls and roars of fighting Canim, mixing with the shrieks of the Vord. They were under attack, as they descended through their own routes to the harbor.

  The smell of seawater, tar, and fish, the odor of every harbor Tavi had ever encountered, suddenly reached him through the acrid stench of smoke. The legionares were emerging from one of the several streets to the harbor, where their ships waited to receive them. Enough light shone through the smoke from the burning city above them to light their way, even without the lamps set up along the piers, and Tavi could hear Marcus and other centurions bellowing orders, counting off men to each ship.

  "Form on me!" Tavi called, sword still in hand, and began organizing the legionares at the rear into an outward-facing defense, swords and shields at the ready, with spears in the second rank, their gleaming steel points protruding in a defensive thicket.

  He'd acted none too soon. Vord rushed them through the smoke, half a dozen of the froglike beasts bounding out of the shadows and confusion, only to meet the armor and steel of the readied Legion. Once they were in position, Tavi let a trio of baton-wielding centurions take over the defense, which slowly contracted backward onto the wharves as the legionares behind the wall of shields boarded their vessels.

  The ships began to warp away from the piers as they filled, turning to sail down the channel and out of the harbor. The smaller Aleran ships had few problems, but the passage was a far tighter fit for the larger Canim vessels, and the process of emptying the harbor was agonizingly slow. It had to be. A ship, if mishandled, could sink in the channel and block it for every vessel behind. Even moving at the most frantic pace that could be managed, the ships practically touchin
g one another as they sailed out, it was more than an hour before the rear of the column stepped slowly backward onto the piers. All the while the smoke thickened, and the fires drew nearer.

  Tavi checked to see that Marcus was counting off the last thousand men onto half a dozen ships that had hurriedly thrown lines to the piers and tossed down gangplanks. The Slive was the last ship, tying on to the end of the pier, and Tavi could see Kitai standing in the prow.

  Tavi counted off men from the last line, sending them back to board a ship one by one, until only he, Marcus, and half a dozen legionares remained, marching slowly backward down the stone pier while half a dozen of the frog-Vord ghosted through the smoke, wary of rushing forward after an hour of clashing uselessly against Legion shields.

  Only forty yards remained as the last of the legionares boarded and the ships cast off. Then twenty. Then ten.

  Five yards from the gangplank of the Slive, something seized Tavi's leg in an iron grip and hauled him off the pier and down into the cold water of the harbor. He plunged into frigid and utter darkness, and the weight of his armor pulled him down like a sinking stone.