Cursors fury, p.53
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       Cursor's Fury, p.53

         Part #3 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  The little Cursor flicked the standard pole out, the Legion’s blackened eagle—crow now, Tavi supposed in some detached corner of his mind—standard lashing out and snapping like a whip into the Cane’s nose. The blow did nothing more than startle the Cane for the space of a second. Tavi could have struck in that second, but he didn’t. Instinct warned him not to, and Tavi recognized and trusted the intuition.

  Kitai’s armored figure descended from the wall behind them, swords in either hand sweeping down, opening horrible wounds on the Cane. The Marat girl had bounded up the stairs while they labored through the tunnel, and she had hurled herself from the battlements a beat after they emerged. Kitai rolled forward, under the blind, furious swipes of the Cane’s sickle-sword, came to her feet behind the raider, and cut it down in a short, vicious flurry of slashing blades.

  Kitai flicked blood from her swords and circled to continue forward on Tavi’s right, while Ehren took his left. They pressed ahead, furious sound and violence all around them, and behind them the Battlecrows began to emerge from the passage through the wall, led by acting centurion Schultz, the shaft of the spear behind Max and Crassus’s deadly point.

  The Canim had not been prepared to defend themselves against an attack, Tavi realized. The enemy must have known that the Aleran’s ability to fight was faltering, must have known that time and wounds were taking their toll. The Canim, Tavi somehow knew, had spent the last hour or more in eager anticipation of the final, deadly fall of the Aleran defenders, and when the defenders had abandoned the opening in the wall, the Canim had known that the time for the final, killing rush had come at last. They had pressed forward, hungry for the killing blow that would destroy their enemies.

  Instead, they found themselves faced with the deadliest swordsman in the Legion and the superhuman power of the Knights Terra, followed by the blackened, bloody banner of the captain who had defied Sari and his ritualists, shamed him before the host, and lived to tell the tale despite the terrible powers the ritualists had sent after him.

  Battles are fought in muddy fields, in burning towns, in treacherous forests, in unforgiving mountains, and on the blood-spattered stones of contested bridges, Tavi realized. But battles are won within the minds and hearts of the soldiers fighting them. No force was defeated in battle until it believed that it was defeated. No force could be victorious unless it believed it could be victorious.

  The First Aleran believed.

  The Canim raiders weren’t sure.

  At that time, on that bridge, before the terrible swords of the sons of Antillus, before the crushing power of the Knights Terra, before the blackened banner of the First Aleran and the reckless, frenzied charge of the Battlecrows, those two facts were what mattered.

  It was as simple as that.

  The resistance of the Canim forces on the bridge did not simply waver—it abruptly vanished, as panic descended on them. Max and Crassus pressed the assault, and Tavi led the Battlecrows after them. On the walls behind them, trumpets rang. Valiar Marcus had seen the Canim break, and the rest of the weary Legion began rushing forward to lend their strength and momentum to the advance.

  The advance had to cover most of five hundred yards, all uphill to the defenses at the bridge’s apex—which had not, after all, been designed to defend against an assault from the Aleran side of the bridge. Without battlements, the only real protection they offered the Canim was the simple impediment of movement caused by the walls themselves and the relatively small opening in them.

  That opening, however, also slowed the Canim now attempting to flee. The legionares were slower on foot than their opponents, but caught up to them as the choke point in the wall stranded them on the northern side.

  Tavi was barely able to get his cohort into a more conventional fighting front, incorporating the Knights in its center, before the vengeful Alerans fell on the Canim. Canim screamed. Legionares went down. Tavi fought to keep the lines stable, to get the wounded clear of the fighting before they were trampled. The desperate Canim rushed up onto the improvised battlements and threw themselves over, perfectly willing to fall rather than face the juggernaut of the First Aleran’s advance. A few even cast themselves off the bridge. It was a long, dangerous fall to the water from there, the maximum height of the bridge from its surface.

  Dangerous as it might have been, the waiting sharks were a far more serious threat—and after two days of constant blood-taint in the water and relatively little food, they were hungry. Nothing that fell into the river came out alive again.

  Tavi was the first legionare to mount up onto the battlements at the bridge’s center. Ehren was close behind him, and a roar went up from the Alerans as the black eagle/crow banner gained the wall.

  Tavi watched as Max and his Knights plunged through the opening in the wall to make sure the Canim had a reason to continue their retreat. They were followed by a number of excited Battlecrows who should have been taking defensive positions, but who had allowed the heat of battle to control their movements. Max, Crassus, and the Knights Terra settled for crippling blows upon the fleeing Canim where they had to, and the following legionares finished up the gruesome work the Knights had begun.

  Tavi had no idea whether Max realized how far past the wall the assault had actually rolled, and he signaled the Battlecrows’ trumpeter to sound the halt. The clarion call rolled out over the downhill slope of the far side of the bridge, and at its signal Max looked around him, and even a hundred yards away, Tavi could see the expression of dismay on Max’s face as he saw how far forward he’d come.

  Beside Tavi, Kitai sighed and rolled her eyes. “Alerans.”

  Max got the Knights and legionares stopped and began an orderly withdrawal back to the wall at the bridge’s center.

  Tavi glanced over his shoulder, then turned and started back down to the surface of the bridge, barking out orders. “Bring up the engineers! Knights Aeris to the wall! Battlecrows, with me!”

  Ehren followed hard on his heels. “Uh, sir? Shouldn’t we be preparing to, uh, you know. Defend against a counterattack?”

  “That’s what we’re doing,” Tavi said. He stalked through the opening in the wall and out onto the surface of the bridge. Tavi stared down the Elinarch’s slope, to where the Canim were already rallying, down at the next defensive wall. “Schultz! Bring them up!”

  “Right,” Ehren said. His voice sounded distinctly nervous. “It’s just that it seems a shame that the engineers went to all this trouble to build us a real nice wall, and here we are out in front of it. Not using it. I’m just worried that it might hurt their feelings.”

  “The Knights need the space on the walls and the engineers can’t afford to be interrupted by a breakthrough. We have to buy them all room to work in,” Tavi said.

  “Us,” Ehren said. “And one cohort.” He stared down the bridge. “Against the next best thing to sixty thousand Canim.”

  “No,” Kitai put in quietly. “Us against one.”

  Tavi nodded. “Sari.”

  Ehren said, “Ah.” He glanced back as the Battlecrows filed into place around them. “You don’t think there’s a chance he might bring a friend or two?”

  “That’s the idea,” Tavi said. “Make sure they can see the standard.”

  Ehren swallowed and adjusted the standard against the wind. “So they know exactly where you are.”

  “Right,” Tavi said.

  Down the slope of the bridge, brassy horns began to blare once more—this time in a different sequence than used before. Tavi watched as Canim began to emerge from the opening in the next wall, and his heart sped up as he did.

  Every single one of them wore the mantles and hoods of the ritualists. They fell into rows, clouds of greenish smoke dribbling from censers, many of them clutching long bars of iron, each end ribbed with dozens of fang-shaped steel blades. They formed the spearhead of a column of raiders, pouring out onto the bridge by the dozens. The hundreds. The thousands.

  “Oh, my,” Ehren said
quietly.

  “There,” Tavi said to Kitai, barely suppressing a surge of excitement. “Coming up from the back. See the bright red armor?”

  “That is he?” she asked. “Sari?”

  “That’s him.”

  Ehren said, “Signal your Knights Flora. Have them kill him when he advances. They could almost do it from here.”

  “Not good enough,” Tavi said. “We can’t simply kill him. The next ritualist down the ladder will just step into his place. We’ve got to discredit him, break his power, prove that whatever he promised the rest of his people, he isn’t able to deliver.”

  “He can’t deliver if there’s an arrow stuck through his gizzard,” Ehren pointed out. But he sighed. “You always seem to do things the hard way.”

  “Habit,” Tavi said.

  “How are you going to discredit him?”

  Tavi turned and beckoned. Crassus leapt lightly down from the wall, as if the ten-foot drop did not exist. He made his way to Tavi’s side through the troops and saluted him. “Captain.”

  Tavi walked a bit ahead of the troops, out of easy earshot. “Ready?”

  “Yes, sir,” Crassus said.

  Tavi drew a small cloth bag from his pocket and passed it over to Crassus. The Knight Tribune opened the pouch and dumped the little red bloodstone into his hand. He stared at it for a moment, then put the gem back and pocketed it. “Sir,” he said quietly. “You’re sure this was in my mother’s pouch.”

  Tavi knew he wouldn’t accomplish anything by repeating himself. “I’m sorry,” he told Crassus.

  “It was the only such gem she had?”

  “As far as I know,” Tavi said.

  “She’s . . . she’s ambitious,” Crassus said quietly. “I know that. But I just can’t believe she’d . . .”

  Tavi grimaced. “It’s possible we don’t know the whole story. Maybe we’re misinterpreting her actions.” Tavi did not believe it for a second. But he needed Crassus to be confident, not gnawed by guilt and self-doubt.

  “I just can’t believe it,” Crassus repeated. “Do you think she’s all right?”

  Tavi put a hand on Crassus’ shoulder. “Tribune,” he said quietly, “we can’t afford to divide our focus right now. There will be plenty of time for questions after, and I swear to you that if I’m alive, we’ll find her and answer them. But for now, I need you to set this aside.”

  Crassus closed his eyes for a moment, then shivered, a motion that reminded Tavi of a dog shaking off water. Then he opened his eyes and saluted sharply. “Yes, sir.” .

  Tavi returned the salute. “On your way. Good luck.”

  Crassus gave Tavi a forced smile, traded nods with Max, who stood with the Knights on the wall, then shot up into the sky on a sudden column of wind.

  Tavi shielded his eyes from blowing droplets of water and blood and watched Crassus soar upward. Then he went back to his place in the ranks.

  “I thought that those clouds were full of some kind of creature,” Ehren said. “That’s why we couldn’t fly.”

  “They are, “ Tavi told him. “But the bloodstone is some kind of counter to the ritualists’ power. It should protect him.”

  “Should?”

  “Protected me,” Tavi said. “From that lightning.”

  “That’s not the same thing as clouds full of creatures,” Ehren said. “Are you sure?”

  Tavi took his eyes from the dwindling figure of the young Knight and stared down the slope. “No. He knows it’s my best guess.”

  “A guess,” Ehren said quietly.

  “Mmmhmm.”

  The Canim host’s drums began, and the Canim began marching toward them, their pace steady and deliberate. The sound of hundreds of growling voices chanting together rose like a dark and terrible wind.

  “What happens if you’re wrong?”

  “Crassus dies, most likely. Then the engineers and our Knights Terra take down the bridge while we hold the Canim.”

  Ehren nodded, chewing his lip. “Um. I hate to say this, but if Crassus has the gem, what’s going to stop Sari from blasting you to bits with lightning as soon as he sees you?”

  Tavi turned as Schultz passed him a shield. He started strapping it tightly to his left arm. “Ignorance. Sari won’t know I don’t have it.”

  Ehren squinted. “Why does that sound so much like another guess?”

  Tavi grinned, watching the oncoming assault. “Tell you in a minute.”

  And then Sari threw back his head in an eerie howl, and his entire host answered it with a deafening, painful gale of battle cries. Tavi’s newly healed ears twinged again, and the surface of the bridge shuddered.

  “Ready!” Tavi screamed, though his voice was lost in the tumult. He drew his sword and raised it overhead, and all around him the Battlecrows did the same. At the same signal, the Knights Flora on the wall behind him began sleeting arrows into the oncoming Canim, aiming to wound in an effort to force the Canim charge to slow for its wounded.

  Sari, though, would permit no wavering in the advance, and the Canim marched past the wounded, leaving them to bleed on the ground, hardly slowing.

  Tavi muttered a curse. It had been worth a try.

  “Shieldwall!” Tavi screamed, and the Battlecrows shifted formation, pressing closer to their fellow legionares and overlapping the steel of their shields. Kitai and Ehren could not join the wall without shields of their own, and they slipped back several rows in the formation. Tavi felt his shield rattling against those of the men beside him, and he gritted his teeth, trying to will away the terror-inspired trembling.

  Then Sari howled again, lifting his own fangstaff, and the Canim, led by the mad-eyed ritualists, charged the Battlecrows.

  Stark terror reduced Tavi’s vision to a tunnel. He felt himself screaming along with every man in the cohort. He closed even more tightly with the men beside him, and their armored forms pressed together while the ranks behind closed as tightly as they could, leaning against the men in front of them to lend their own weight and resistance to the shieldwall.

  The Canim host smashed into the Aleran shieldwall like a living, frenzied battering ram. Swords flashed. Blood flew.

  Tavi found himself fighting desperately simply to see, to understand what was happening around him—but the noise, the screams, and the confusion of close battle blinded him to anything beyond the instant. He ducked behind his shield, then barely jerked his head to one side as a sickle-sword came straight down at him, the tip of the curved weapon threatening to hook over the shield and drive into his helmet. He struck out blindly with the strokes Max and Magnus had drilled into him a lifetime before. He couldn’t tell whether or not most of them scored, much less inflicted wounds, but he planted his feet and stood his ground, bolstered by the support of the rear ranks.

  Others were not so lucky. A ritualist’s fangstaff struck and ripped through the neck of a nearby legionare like some kind of hideous saw. Another ducked behind his shield, only to have the hooked tip of a sickle-sword pierce his helmet and skull alike. Still another legionare was seized by the shield and dragged out of the wall, to be torn apart by a trio of screaming ritualists in their human-leather mantles.

  The Battlecrows stood their ground despite the losses, and the Canim assault crashed to a savage halt against them, roaring like tide from a bloody sea as it pounded fruitlessly on a stone cliffside.

  As men fell, their cohort brothers pushed up, straining forward with all the power and coordination and battlecraft they possessed.

  It was hopeless. Tavi knew it was. The cliff might stand against the ocean for a time, but little by little the ocean would grind it away—it was simply a matter of time. The Battlecrows might have stopped the opening charge, but Tavi knew that they couldn’t hold the vast numbers of Canim on the bridge for more than a few moments.

  Tavi found himself fighting beside Schultz. The young centurion dealt swift, savage, powerful blows with his gladius, downing a ritualist and two raiders with four precisely timed stroke
s—until he paid the price for his prowess, and slipped on the blood of his foes, twisting forward and out of the wall. A Cane drove a spear down at Schultz’s exposed neck.

  Tavi never hesitated. He turned and chopped through the thrusting spear’s haft in a single, hard stroke, though it left his entire left flank open to the fangstaff of the foaming-mouthed ritualist facing him. He saw the Cane strike in the corner of his eye and knew that he would never be able to block or avoid the deadly weapon.

  He didn’t have to.

  The legionare on Tavi’s left pivoted forward, slamming the fangstaff aside with his shield and flicked a menacing blow at the ritualist’s head, forcing him to jerk back to avoid it. It wasn’t much of a delay, but it was enough for Schultz to recover his balance. He and Tavi snapped back into formation, and the fight went on.

  And on.

  And on.

  Tavi’s arms burned from the effort of using shield and sword, and his entire body trembled with the exhausting effort of holding against the overwhelming foe. He had no idea how long the fight lasted. Seconds, minutes, hours. It could have been any of them. All he knew for certain was that they had to hold their ground until it was over. One way or the other.

  More men died. Tavi felt a flash of heat upon one cheek as a Canim sickle-sword passed near. Canim fell, but their numbers never seemed to lessen, and bit by bit, Tavi felt the supporting pressure of the rear ranks waning. The inevitable collapse would come soon. Tavi ground his teeth in raw frustration—and saw a flash of red only a few feet away. Sari was there, in his scarlet armor, and Tavi saw the ritualist’s fangstaff smash down onto an already-wounded legionare, slamming him to the bridge’s surface.

  Grimly, Tavi began to give the order to advance. A single, hard push might bring Sari within the reach of his blade—and he was determined that no matter what happened, Sari would not leave the bridge alive.

  As he was about to scream the order, golden sunlight suddenly washed over the bridge.

  For the space of a breath, confusion turned the combat into a spastic, inexpert affair, as virtually everyone involved turned their gazes to the sky in shock. For the first time in nearly a month, the golden sun shone down upon the Elinarch, the blazingly hot sun of a late-summer noon.