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Cursor's Fury, Page 52

Jim Butcher

  Maximus nodded to Schultz, who began giving orders for his inexperienced cohort to fall out for food and remain nearby.

  “Captain,” Max said, under the cover of the noise. “Sit down. We have some time to wait through, and you haven’t rested.”

  “No,” Tavi said. “I need to be on the wall with the First Spear until it’s time to move. I’ll come back and get you then.”

  “Captain,” Max said, in exactly the same tone of voice. This time, though, he put a hand on Tavi’s shoulder, and his fingers clamped down on it like steel bands. “You aren’t going to do anything up there that he can’t. You let yourself get too tired, and it will slow down your wits. And since we’re betting it all on your wits, sir, I think it best that you make sure they’re ready to perform.” Max met his eyes. “Please, Calderon.”

  Tavi closed his eyes for a second, and that horrible fatigue threatened him again. Part of him wanted to snarl at Max to shut up and follow orders. The rest realized that the big Antillan was right. He was asking these men to risk their lives carrying out a course of action he had planned. He owed it to them to give them his very best effort when they put everything on the line.

  “All right,” Tavi said. “I’ll sit down. But just for a minute.”

  “A minute,” Max said, nodding. “That’s fine.”

  Tavi slipped out of his helmet, sat down with his back against the stone columns at the base of the Elinarch, and closed his eyes. He’d never be able to get any sleep, but at least he could take a few moments of quiet to order his thoughts, to go over the possibilities, all the things that could go wrong with his plan.

  Try as he might, he couldn’t think of anything else he might do, and after a few moments of effort, he shook his head and opened his eyes.

  Gloomy daylight greeted his gaze, the veiled sun barely visible through the overcast above the land. Tavi blinked up at it in confusion for a second. A muscle cramp seized his neck and set off a series of similar painful contractions in the muscles between his shoulder blades. He labored to his feet and bent, trying to stretch the muscles, until the cramps eased.

  “Sir,” said Schultz from behind him.

  “Centurion,” Tavi mumbled, turning. “How long was I asleep?”

  “Hours, sir,” Schultz replied. “Tribune Antillar said to leave you be.”

  Tavi muttered something about Max—under his breath. It wouldn’t do for a Legion’s captain to call one of his Tribunes names in front of the men, after all.

  “Oh,” Schultz said. He swallowed, then hurried to one side and picked up a plate covered with a soft napkin and a tankard that lay nearby. “He told me to give you these first thing, sir.”

  Tavi ground his teeth, but managed to keep from snatching the plates from Schultz’s hands. “Thank you.”

  “Welcome, sir,” Schultz said. Then he hastily backed away as though he expected Tavi to rip his head off.

  Tavi suffocated a grumpy snarl, wolfed down the food and drank the water in the tankard. By the time he finished, the lingering after-spasms of the muscle cramps had vanished.

  “Can you form words yet, sir?” Max asked, striding up to Tavi. He nodded to Schultz, and the acting centurion bellowed for the cohort to fall in. Legionares began to rise from where they’d dropped into sleep on the ground or sat awaiting their turn to fight.

  “Don’t make me hurt you, Max,” Tavi said. He cocked his head, frowning up the slope of the bridge, where the sound of battle continued. “Our status?”

  “Valiar Marcus did it,” Max said. “He held them.”

  Tavi gave Max a look.

  “But you knew that, “ Max said. “Since we’re all standing here.”

  “Max . . .”

  Max gave him an easy grin. “Just trying to lighten things up a little, sir. You’re always so grumpy in the morning.” He nodded toward the walls. “The raiders have been attacking all morning. Our Knights Flora started going through arrows like water, and the First Spear caught them flat-footed between assaults and pushed them back to the second wall about an hour ago.”

  “Losses?” Tavi asked.

  “Heavy,” Max said, his expression sobering. “Without proper gates, someone has to meet the Canim on foot as they come through, and even their raiders are hard to kill for any legionare. And those ritualists came up a while ago, started throwing these smoking censers at our people. The smoke was poison. Killed a lot of men. Not quick.”

  “What happened?” Tavi asked.

  “Our Knights Flora started dropping any ritualist that stuck his nose out, and the wind changed after sunrise. It would blow back onto the Canim if they tried it now. No smoke since then.”

  A cart rumbled up, drawn by a pair of harried horses led by a young boy. He turned the cart around, and Tavi could see light shining on the blood that lay inside. The boy called out, and legionares came running from the bridge, bearing their injured comrades to the cart. They were clearly desperate, and loaded men as swiftly as they possibly could. When the cart was filled, the boy called to the horses, leading them back to the healers as fast as they could run.

  Tavi watched, sickened, as another cart passed the first. There were more, coming along behind them, to pick up wounded and bring them back to the healers.

  Tavi tried to swallow. “How many?”

  “Uh. Around eleven hundred dead, I think,” Max said, his tone quiet, neutral. “About the same number of men out of action. Foss and his boys look like something the crows have been at. It’s all they can do just to save men who are bleeding out.”

  Tavi watched as more of the legionares following his orders were loaded onto the half dozen carts for the wounded.

  The dead were stacked like cordwood into the last of the carts. It was the largest of the carts in service, with a high-railed bed, and it required the patient, enormous strength of a team of oxen to pull.

  “The First Spear has his men ready for the push,” Max said. “But they’re tired, and barely holding together. He says if we don’t hit them soon, we won’t be able to.”

  Tavi took a deep breath, nodded once, then put on his helmet. “Our Knights?”

  “On the way, sir,” Max said.

  Tavi laced his helmet into position and stalked over to the waiting cohort of fish. Max kept pace beside him, and the armored figures of the Knights Terra with him followed him. Before Tavi had reached the fish, Crassus and his Knights Pisces marched double time into position beside the volunteer cohort. Crassus called the halt, and the Knights stopped with commendable discipline, given how little time they’d spent in marching drill. The engineers, meanwhile, hurried into position at the rear of the other two forces.

  Tavi stopped before them all, looking the men over, trying to think of what to say to them at a time like this. Then he stopped and blinked at the armor of the two groups of men.

  The legionares’ armor had changed. Instead of the blue-and-red eagle of the First Aleran, the insignia over their hearts had become the perfect black silhouette of, not an eagle, but a flying crow.

  Beside them, the Knights Pisces’ armor had changed as well. Again, the original insignia of the Legion had been replaced—this time with the finned, solid black shape of a shark, jaws opened wide.

  Tavi arched an eyebrow and glanced at Crassus. “Tribune. Was this your doing?”

  Crassus saluted Tavi, and said, “We watched the Canim trying to swim the river this morning, sir. Apparently, they never realized how bad a bunch of fish could hurt them.” Crassus straightened his spine. “It seemed appropriate, sir.”

  “Hngh,” Tavi said. He glanced at Schultz. “And what about you, acting centurion? Did you men also take it upon yourselves to change your uniforms?”

  “Sir,” Schultz said with a crisp salute. “We just wanted to match the standard, sir!” Schultz glanced aside at Tavi. “And to let the Canim know that this time the crows are coming for them, sir!”

  “I see,” Tavi said. He turned to speak to Max, and found Ehren standing b
eside Max, dressed in an ill-fitting breastplate. The little Cursor carried Tavi’s standard in his right hand, and the armor and helmet made him look a great deal more formidable than Tavi would have expected.

  Standing beside Ehren was Kitai. The Marat girl wore another set of armor which, while clearly not her own, fit her tall, athletic form perfectly adequately. She’d slung a Legion-issue gladius from either hip. Her mouth was curled up into a small, excited smile, and her exotic green eyes burned with the intensity of her anticipation.

  “What are you two doing here?” Tavi asked.

  “It occurred to me, Captain,” Ehren said, “that since the First Lord already has messages on the way about the Elinarch, he and his captains will be here within a week or two at the most, and it would take me nearly four weeks to ride it. The fastest way to get him that message was to stay here, Captain.”

  Kitai snorted, and said, “Aleran, did you really expect us to allow you to order us to stay away from danger while you faced it alone?”

  Tavi met Kitai’s eyes for a long and silent moment. Then he glanced at Ehren. “I don’t have time to argue with you both,” he said quietly. “But if we survive this, I’m going to take it out of your hides.”

  “That,” Kitai murmured, “could prove interesting.”

  Tavi felt his cheeks heat up, and he turned back to the men.

  “All right, people,” Tavi said, loudly enough to be heard by all. “The Canim did what we expected. Their raiders tried to finish what the warriors started. First Spear Valiar Marcus and your Legion-brothers didn’t let them do it. So now that we’re all rested, it’s our turn. We’re going to push them over the center wall at the bridge apex. You and I, along with Tribune Antillar, all of our Knights, and our fellow legionares are going to hit the Canim hard enough to knock their teeth all the way back across the crowbegotten ocean.”

  The cohort rumbled with a low, growling laugh.

  “If this goes well,” Tavi said. “We’ll carry the day, and the beer’s on me.” He paused at another laugh. “But no matter what happens, once we’ve gotten the engineers into place to destroy the bridge, we’ve got to hold. No matter what else happens, that bridge has got to come down. You knew that, and you’re here anyway.”

  Tavi drew his blade, snapped to attention, and saluted the ranks of crow-signed young men in front of him.

  “First Aleran, Battlecrow Cohort!” Tavi bellowed. “First Aleran, Knights Pisces! Are you with me?”

  They answered him with a roaring crash of voices and drawn steel. Max, Ehren, Kitai, and the Knights Terra fell into position around him as Tavi turned and led his Battlecrows and Knights Pisces onto the Elinarch.

  Chapter 52

  The Elinarch was a marvel of Aleran engineering. It arched over the waters of the Tiber for a distance of more than half a mile, a span of solid granite drawn from the bones of the world. Infused with furies of its own, the bridge was very nearly a living creature, healing damage inflicted upon it, shifting its structure to compensate for the heat of summer, the cold depths of winter. The same crafting that allowed the roads to support and strengthen Aleran travelers also surged in unbroken power throughout the length of the bridge. It could alter its surface to shed excess water and ice, and smooth grooves collected rainwater in small channels at either side of the bridge during rainstorms.

  During this storm, though, those channels ran with blood.

  Tavi led his men at a quick march up the bridge. Twenty feet after they started, Tavi saw the trickles of blood in the channels. At first, he thought that the reddish overcast was simply shining on water, runoff rain. But the rain had stopped hours before, and the gloomy day drained color from the world, rather than tinting it. He didn’t really, truly realize it was blood until he smelled it—sharp, metallic, unsettling.

  They were not large streams—only as deep, perhaps, as the cupped palm of an adult man, only as wide as his spread fingers. Or rather, they would not have been large streams of rainwater. But Tavi knew that the blood running down the slope of the bridge had carried the lives of many, many men out onto the unforgiving, uncaring stone of the bridge.

  Tavi turned his eyes away from it, forcing them to focus ahead, on the uphill march that still remained before him. He heard someone retch in the ranks behind him, as the legionares realized what they were seeing.

  “Eyes forward!” Tavi called back to the legionares. “We have a job, gentlemen! Stay focused!”

  They reached the final defensive wall, which was now manned by perhaps half a cohort of legionares—all of them wounded but capable of bearing arms. They saluted Tavi as he and his volunteers approached.

  “Go get those bastards, boys!” bellowed one grizzled centurion.

  “Send ‘em to the crows, Captain!” called a wounded fish with a bloodied bandage around his head.

  “Give it to ‘em!”

  “Take em down!”

  “First Aleran!”

  “Kick their furry—”

  “Assault formation!” Tavi called.

  On the move, the cohort’s formation changed, shifting into a column two legionares wide. Their pace slowed somewhat as the column squeezed through the opening in the northernmost defensive wall, and Tavi kept them in the slender formation as they double-timed to the next defensive wall. The din of battle grew louder.

  The bulk of the Legion was there, at the next wall. Tavi could see Valiar Marcus’s short, stocky form on the wall, bellowing orders. Legionares stood at the wall, then in two long lines at either side of the bridge, where the rough steps up to the improvised battlements awaited them. As defending legionares on the wall were cut down, the next men in line took their places. Tavi shuddered, imagining a nightmare wait in a line to pain and death with little to do but watch the blood of your brothers in arms flow past you in the gutter.

  A larger force was positioned to block the opening in the center of the wall. The legionares nearest the opening fought with shield and short blade, but those behind them plied spears, reaching over and around the shieldmen to wound and distract the constant stream of Canim raiders trying to batter their way in by main strength. Canim bodies lay in piles that had become makeshift barricades. Alerans lay unmoving among them, their fellows unable to drag them free in the furious press of melee.

  A cry went up, and the weary legionares of the First Aleran roared in sudden hope.

  “Max!” Tavi called. “Crassus!”

  “Boys!” Max called. Then he grinned at Crassus and flashed his half brother a wink. Crassus returned it as a pale, ghastly parody of a smile. Max and Crassus took over the head of the column, with the Knights Terra filling the next two ranks, then Tavi with Ehren. Kitai, perhaps inevitably, did not run in formation but out to one side of the column, green eyes bright, her pace light and effortless despite the weight of the borrowed armor.

  “Alera!” Tavi cried, raising his sword to signal the charge. The column picked up speed. His heart was beating so hard that he thought it might break his ribs.

  Valiar Marcus’s head whipped around, and he screamed orders. At the very last moment, the force on the ground split, ducking to either side. With a triumphant howl, several Canim poured through the opening.

  They were met by the sons of Antillus Raucus, bright steel in their hands.

  To Tavi, Max and Crassus’s attack was a glittering blur. Max took a bare step ahead and hit them first, all speed and violence and deadly timing, his blade lashing out high. He struck the nearest Cane and laid open its weapon arm to the bone at the shoulder, then pivoted to one side, blade passing through a second Cane’s throat. He lashed out again, another strike that hammered aside an incoming sickle-sword.

  Crassus fought with such flawless coordination with Max’s attack that he might have been his brothers own shadow. He dispatched the disarmed Cane with a thrust that went through the roof of its mouth, blocked a desperate, frenzied attack from the Cane whose throat was already gushing out its life onto the bridge, and struck the th
ird Cane’s weapon hand from its arm while Max struck its blade, throwing open its defenses.

  The brothers went through the leading Canim and hit the opening in the wall without even slowing down. Canim screams and cries came from the opening, then the Knights Terra were through and spreading out to either side. Tavi and Ehren were next, and the stinking metal-sewer smell of the dead was suffocating, the small passage terrifyingly confining. They emerged from it in the space of a breath, though it had seemed much longer to Tavi, and he found himself staring at an enormous length of sloping bridge rising toward the improvised walls built at the Elinarch’s apex.

  Momentum was everything. Max and Crassus began slashing a way through the Canim as if they were Rhodesian scouts chopping a clear trail through the jungles of their home. Once the Knights Terra were able to fan out to either side of them, they brought their enormous weapons into play. Tavi watched as a sword swung with fury-born strength tore a Cane in half at the waist, to let it fall to the ground in two confused, bleeding, dying pieces. A great hammer rose and fell, crushing another Cane with such force that the tips of broken bones in its rib cage and spine ripped their way out through its skin.

  Tavi saw a flash of movement in the corner of his eye, and turned to see one Cane bound entirely over the Knights and land on the stones before him. It swept an enormous cudgel at his head. Tavi ducked it, faked to one side, then darted in close before the Cane could recover its balance. He slashed hard in an upward stroke, laying open the huge arteries in the Cane’s inner thigh, spun from its way as the Cane fell, and used the momentum of the spin to strike the back of the Cane’s neck. The blow was not strong enough to cut through the Cane’s thickly furred and muscled neck entirely, but it was more than sufficient to split open its spine at the back of the neck, and dropped it at once to the ground, helpless as it bled to death.

  A second Cane bounded over the line, landing outside of Tavi’s sword reach. It whirled on Ehren.