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Cursor's Fury, Page 6

Jim Butcher

  Tavi stared at Max for a moment.

  Max accepted the flask from Magnus after he finished, and drank. Then he tapped the rudius on the ground beside him. “You cover your shieldmate no matter what happens. If your other wrist is broken, if it leaves you exposed, if you’re bleeding to death. It doesn’t matter. Your shield stays up. You protect him.”

  “Even if it leaves me open?” Tavi demanded.

  “Even if it leaves you open. You have to trust the man beside you to protect you if it comes to that. Just as you protect him. It’s discipline, Tavi. It is literally life and death—not just for you, but for every man fighting with you. If you fail, it might not only be you who dies. You’ll kill the men relying on you.”

  Tavi stared at his friend, and his anger ebbed away. It left only the pain and a world full of weariness.

  “I’ll ready a basin,” Magnus said quietly, and paced away.

  “There’s no room for error,” Max continued. He unstrapped Tavi’s left hand from the shield and passed him the water.

  Tavi suddenly felt ragingly thirsty and began guzzling it down. He dropped the flask and laid his head on the ground. “You hurt me, Max.”

  Max nodded. “Sometimes pain is the only way to make a stupid recruit pay attention.”

  “But these strokes,” Tavi said, frustrated but no longer belligerent. “I know how to use a sword, Max. You know that. Most of these moves are the clumsiest-looking things I’ve ever seen.”

  “Yes,” Max said. “Because they fit between the shields without elbowing someone behind you in the eye or unbalancing the man on your right or making your feet slip in mud or snow. You get an opening for maybe half a second, and you’ve got to hit whatever you’re swinging at with every ounce of force you can muster. Those are the strokes that get the job done.”

  “But I’ve already been trained.”

  “You’ve been trained in self-defense,” Max corrected him. “You’ve been trained to duel, or to fight in a loose, fast group of individual warriors. The front line of a Legion battlefield is a different world.”

  Tavi frowned. “How so?”

  “Legionares aren’t warriors, Tavi. They’re professional soldiers.”

  “What’s the difference?”

  Max pursed his lips in thought. “Warriors fight. Legionares fight together. It isn’t about being the best swordsman. It’s about forming a whole that is stronger than the sum of the individuals in it.”

  Tavi frowned, mulling the thought over through a haze of discomfort from his throbbing wrist.

  “Even the most hopeless fighter can learn Legion technique,” Max continued. “It’s simple. It’s dirty. It works. It works when the battlefield is cramped and brutal and terrible. It works because the man beside you trusts you to cover him, and because you trust him to cover you. When it comes to battle, I’d rather fight beside competent legionares than any duelist—even if it was the shade of Araris Valerian himself. There’s no comparison to be made.”

  Tavi looked down for a moment, then said, “I didn’t understand.”

  “You were at a disadvantage. You’re already a fair hand with a blade.” Max grinned suddenly. “If it makes you feel any better, I was the same way. Only my first centurion broke my wrist six times and my kneecap twice before I worked it out.”

  Tavi winced at his own wrist, now swelling up into a large, plump sausage of throbbing torment. “Naturally, it only stands to reason that I would learn more quickly than you, Max.”

  “Hah. Keep that talk up, and I’ll let you fix that wrist on your own.” Despite his words, though, Max looked concerned about him. “You going to be all right?”

  Tavi nodded. “I’m sorry I snapped at you, Max. It’s just . . .” A little pang of loneliness hit Tavi. It had become a familiar sensation over the last six months. “I’m missing the reunion. I miss Kitai.”

  “Can’t a day pass without you whining to me about her? She was your first girl, Calderon. You’ll get over it.”

  The little lonely pang went though him again. “I don’t want to get over it.”

  “Way of the world, Calderon.” Max reached down to slide Tavi’s good arm over one of his broad shoulders and lifted him from the ground. Max helped him over to their camp’s fire, where Magnus was pouring steaming water into a mostly full washbasin.

  Twilight lingered for a long time in the Amaranth Vale, at least compared to Tavi’s mountainous home. Every night, the trio had stopped traveling an hour before sundown, in order to give Tavi lessons in the use of Legion battle tactics and techniques. The lessons had been arduous, mostly practice exercises with a weighted rudius, and they’d left Tavi’s arm too sore to move after the first couple of evenings. Max hadn’t judged Tavi’s arm ready to train until two weeks of exercises had hardened the muscles in it into sharp, heavy angles beneath the skin. Another week had served to frustrate Tavi thoroughly with the seemingly clumsy techniques he was being forced to learn—but he had to admit that he’d never been in better fighting condition.

  Until Max had broken his wrist, at least.

  Max eased Tavi down beside the basin, and Magnus guided the broken wrist down into the warm water. “You ever awake through a watercrafted healing, boy?”

  “Lots of times,” Tavi said. “My aunt had to see to me more than once.”

  “Good, good,” Magnus approved. He paused for a moment, then closed his eyes and rested the palm of his hand lightly on the surface of the water. Tavi felt the liquid stir in a swift ripple, as though an unseen eel had darted through the water around his hand, then the warm numbness of the healing enveloped his hand.

  The pain faded, and Tavi let out a groan of relief. He sagged forward, trying not to move his arm. He wasn’t sure it was possible to fall asleep sitting up, and with both eyes slightly open, but he seemed to do so, because the next time he glanced up, night had fallen, and the aroma of stew filled the air.

  “Right, then,” Magnus said wearily, and withdrew his hand from the washbasin. “Try that.”

  Tavi drew his arm out of the tepid water of the washbasin and flexed his fingers. Soreness made the movement painful, but the swelling had all but vanished, and the throbbing pain had faded to a shadow of what it had been before.

  “It’s good,” Tavi said quietly. “I didn’t know you were a healer.”

  “Just an assistant healer during my stint in the Legions. But this kind of thing was fairly routine. It’ll be tender. Eat as much as you can at dinner and keep it elevated tonight if you want to keep it from aching.”

  “I know,” Tavi assured him. He rose and offered the healer his restored hand. Magnus smiled a bit whimsically and took it. Tavi helped him up, and they both went to the stewpot over the fire. Tavi was ravenous, as always after a healing. He wolfed down the first two bowls of stew without pausing, then scraped a third from the bottom of the pot and slowed down, soaking tough trailbread in the stew to soften it into edibility.

  “Can I ask you something?” he said to Max.

  “Sure,” the big Antillan said.

  “Why bother to teach me the technique?” Tavi asked. “I’ll be serving as an officer, not fighting in the ranks.”

  “Never can tell,” Max drawled. “But even if you never fight there, you need to know what it’s about. How a legionare thinks, and why he acts as he does.”

  Tavi grunted.

  “Plus, to play your part, you’ve got to be able to see when some fish is screwing it up.”

  “Fish?” Tavi asked.

  “New recruit,” Max clarified. “First couple of weeks they’re always flailing around like landed fish instead of legionares. It’s customary for experienced men to point out every mistake a fish makes in as humiliating a fashion as possible. And in the loudest voice manageable.”

  “That’s why you’ve been doing it to me?” Tavi asked.

  Both Max and the old Maestro grinned. “The First Lord didn’t want you to miss out on too much of the experience,” Magnus said.

  “Oh,” Tavi said. “I’ll be sure to thank him.”

  “Right, then,” Magnus said. “Let’s see if you remember what I’ve been teaching you while we ride.”

  Tavi grunted and finished off the last of his food. The practice, the pain, and the crafting had left him exhausted. If it had been up to him, he would have simply lain down right where he was and slept—which had doubtless been intentional on behalf of Max and Magnus. “I’m ready when you are.” He sighed.

  “Very well,” Magnus said. “To begin, why don’t you tell me all the regulations regarding latrines and sanitation, and enumerate the discipline for failure to meet the regulations’ requirements.”

  Tavi immediately started repeating the relevant regulations, though so many of them had been crowded into his brain over the past three weeks that it was a challenge to bring them up, tired as he was. From sanitation procedure, Magnus moved on to logistics, procedures for making and breaking camp, watch schedules, patrol patterns, and another hundred facets of Legion life Tavi had to remember.

  He forced his brain to provide facts until weariness was interrupting every sentence with a yawn before Magnus finally said, “Enough, lad, enough. Get some sleep.”

  Max had collapsed into lusty snoring an hour before. Tavi sought his bedroll and dropped onto it. He propped his arm up on the leather training helmet as an afterthought. “Think I’m ready?”

  Magnus tilted his head thoughtfully and sipped at his cup of tea. “You’re a quick study. You’ve worked hard to learn the part. But that hardly matters, does it.” He glanced aside at Tavi. “Do you think you’re ready?”

  Tavi closed his eyes. “I’ll manage. At least until something beyond my control goes horribly wrong and kills us all.”

  “Good lad,” Magnus said, with a chuckle. “Spoken like a legionare. But bear something in mind, Tavi.”


  “Right now, you’re pretending to be a soldier,” the old man said. “But this assignment is going to last a while. By the time it’s over, it won’t be an act.”

  Tavi blinked his eyes open to stare up at the sea of stars now emerging overhead. “Did you ever have a bad feeling about something? Like you knew something bad was about to happen?”

  “Sometimes. Usually set off by a bad dream, or for no reason at all.”

  Tavi shook his head. “No. This isn’t like those times.” He frowned up at the stars. “I know. I know it like I know that water’s wet. That two and two is four. There’s no malice or fear attached to it. It just is.” He squinted at the Maestro. “Did you ever feel like that?”

  Magnus was silent for a long moment, regarding the fire with calculating eyes, his metal cup hiding most of his expression. “No,” he said finally. “But I know a man who has a time or two.”

  When he said nothing more, Tavi asked, “What if there’s fighting, Maestro?”

  “What if there is?” Magnus asked.

  “I’m not sure I’m ready.”

  “No one is,” the Maestro said. “Not really. Old salts strut and brag about being bored in most battles, but every time it’s just as frightening as your first. You’ll fit right in, lad.”

  “That’s not something I’ve had much practice in,” Tavi said.

  “I suppose not,” Magnus said. He shook his head and took his eyes from the fire. “Best I rest these old bones. Best you do the same, lad. Tomorrow you join the Legions.”

  Chapter 4

  They rode into the First Aleran Legion’s training camp in the middle of the afternoon. Tavi idly picked a few loose black curls from his collar, rubbed his hand over the stiff brush of short hairs left on his head, and glared at Max. “I just can’t believe you did that while I was asleep.”

  “Regulations are regulations,” Max said, his tone pious. “Besides. If you’d been awake, you’d have complained too much.”

  “I thought it was every soldier’s sacred right,” Tavi said.

  “Every soldier, yes, sir. But you’re an officer, sir.”

  “Who should lead by example,” Magnus murmured. “In grooming as well as uniform.”

  Tavi glowered at Magnus and tugged at the loose leather jacket he wore, the leather stiff and heavy enough to turn a glancing blow of a blade, dyed a dark blue in contrast to the lighter tunic he wore beneath. He wore a Legion-issue belt and blade at his side, and though his favored training had been in a slightly longer weapon, the standard sidearm of the Legions felt comfortable in his grasp as well, particularly after the practices with Max and the Maestro.

  The Legion camp was fully the size of his uncle’s stronghold at Garrison, and Tavi knew that they were of similar size for a reason: all Legion camps were laid out in precisely the same fashion in order to make sure that all commanders, messengers, and various functionaries of the armed forces always knew their way around any given camp, as well as making it possible for militia newly recalled to duty to fit in with the highly disciplined, organized troops of a Legion. Garrison, Tavi realized, was quite simply a standard Legion camp built from stone instead of canvas and wood, barracks replacing tents, stone walls and battlements replacing portable wooden palisades. It housed less than the full complement of men it could, and while Lord Riva claimed that this was because of his confidence in Count Bernard’s alliance with the largest clans of Marat in the lands beyond Garrison, Tavi suspected it had far more to do with funds being skimmed from Riva’s military budget and into other accounts.

  The land around the camp had been trampled thoroughly by thousands of marching feet in the past several weeks. The thick, green grass common to the Vale was mashed flat, only in places rebounding from repeated trampling. Tavi could see several hundred troops at training even now, at least half a dozen cohorts of recruits drilling in the brown-gold tunics they would wear until they’d earned their steel armor. They bore large wooden replicas of actual shields, weighted and heavier than the actual items, as well as wooden poles the length of the common Legion fighting spear. Each recruit, of course, bore his own weighted rudius, and the marching men had the slack-faced, bored look of miserable youth. Tavi caught not a few resentful glares as they rode by the marching recruits, swift and fresh and lazy by comparison.

  They rode into what would have been the eastern gates of Garrison, and were halted by a pair of men dressed in the arms and armor of veteran legionares. They were older than the recruits outside, and more slovenly. Both men needed a shave and, as Tavi approached near enough to get a whiff of them, a bath.

  “Halt,” drawled the first, a man a few years Tavi’s senior, tall and broad and sagging in the middle. He dragged most of a yawn into the word. “Name and business, please, or be on your way.”

  Tavi drew rein on his horse a few feet away from the sentry and nodded to him politely. “Scipio Rufus, of Riva. I’m to serve as subtribune to the Tribune Logistica.”

  “Scipio, is it,” the legionare drawled. He pulled a wadded-up sheet of paper from a pocket, brushed what looked like bread crumbs from it, and read, “Third subtribune.” He shook his head. “To a post that barely needs a Tribune, much less three subbies. You’re in for a world of hurt, little Scipio.”

  Tavi narrowed his eyes at the veteran. “Has Captain Cyril given nonstandard orders with regard to the protocols of rank, legionare?”

  The second legionare on duty stepped forward. This one was short, stocky, and like his partner, had a belly that also spoke of little exercise and much beer. “What’s this? Some young Citizen’s puppy thinks he’s better than us enlisted men cause he’s taken one turn around the rose garden with a Legion that never marched out of sight of his city?”

  “That’s always the way,” drawled the first man. He sneered at Tavi. “I’m sorry, sir. Did you ask me something? Because if you did, something more important bumped it clean out of my head.”

  Without a word, Max hopped down off of his horse, seized a short, heavy rod from his saddlebag, and laid it across the bridge of the first sentry’s nose with a blow that kn
ocked the large man from his feet and slammed his back onto the dirt.

  The second sentry fumbled at his spear, the tip of the weapon dipping toward the unarmored Max. The young man seized it in one hand, locking it in place as immovably as if within stone, and swung the smaller sentry into the wooden palisade with such force that the entire section rocked and wobbled. The sentry bounced off and hit the ground, and before he could rise, Max thrust the end of his wooden baton beneath the man’s chin and pushed. The smaller sentry let out a choking sound and froze in place on his back.

  “Sir,” Max drawled lazily to Tavi. “You’ll have to forgive Nonus,” a thrust of the stick made the smaller man let out a croaking squeak, “and Bortus, here.” Max’s boot nudged the first sentry’s ribs. The man didn’t even twitch. “They managed to buy their way out of being cashiered out of Third Antillan a few years back, and I guess they just weren’t smart enough to remember that a lack of proper respect for officers was what got them into trouble in the first place.”

  “Antillar,” choked the smaller man.

  “I’m not speaking to you yet, Nonus,” Max said, poking his centurion’s baton into the underside of the legionare’s chin. “But I’m glad you recognize me. Makes it convenient to tell you that I’m serving as centurion here, and I’ll be in charge of weapons training. You and Bortus just volunteered to be the target dummies for my first batch of fish.” His voice hardened. “Who is your centurion?”

  “Valiar Marcus,” the man gasped.

  “Marcus! Could have sworn he retired. I’ll have a word with him about it.” He leaned down, and said, “Assuming that’s all right with Subtribune Scipio. He’s within his rights to go straight to lashes if he’d like it.”

  “But I didn’t . . .” Nonus sputtered. “Bortus was the one who—”

  Max leaned on the baton a little harder, and Nonus stopped talking with a little, squealing hiccup of sound. The big Antillan looked over his shoulder at Tavi and winked. “What’s your pleasure, sir?”