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Captains Fury, Page 9

Jim Butcher

Chapter 15~16

  Chapter 15

  Durias set off at a quick pace, and the former slave's stocky body moved with surprising grace and speed over the open ground. If Tavi had not been mounted, he would barely have been able to keep the pace, despite having kept himself in training for overland marches beside his own men. As it was, Acteon followed Durias at a lazy canter, and the miles passed by. The bluff beside them gradually dwindled to a steep hillside, then blended into the gently rolling terrain of the Vale.

  After about an hour, Durias swerved to the right, leading Tavi into a young wood. They passed through it and descended into a narrow ravine that Tavi could not even see until Durias stepped into it. The ravine wound along an ancient streambed, and the roots of trees dangled out of the rough earth-and-stone walls on either side of him. The path at the bottom of the ravine divided several times, and finally ascended into an old-growth wood, completely enclosed by a canopy of fresh spring leaves. The earth was covered with low grasses, and those sparse enough. Shafts of sunlight peeked through the trees, here and there, and the sound of the wind in the leaves was a constant, murmuring susurrus.

  Nasaug was waiting for them.

  Tavi recognized the enormous, black-furred Cane at once. Most of nine feet tall, even in his hunched, casual posture, the Cane wore armor of bloodred steel, and bore an enormous, slightly curved sword in a scabbard at his side. His ears flicked forward, orienting on Tavi and Durias, and Tavi saw Nasaug's nostrils flare as he quested for their scents.

  Tavi took a moment to scan his surroundings. If he needed to flee suddenly, he wanted to know which direction offered him the best chance of evading pursuit. More to the point, he was sure that Nasaug was not the only Cane present. Tavi couldn't see them, but the wolflike beings rarely operated in anything but groups.

  Tavi nudged Acteon forward, and the horse snorted and tossed his head at the feral predator smell of the Cane. He sidestepped for a nervous second, but Tavi guided him forward with a light touch on the reins, and the battle-trained mount continued, until they stopped perhaps ten feet from Nasaug.

  "Captain," Nasaug growled. His voice was a deep, resonant thing, though his Aleran was chewed and mangled by his fangs and jaws as he spoke it. He tilted his head slightly to the right.

  "Nasaug," Tavi replied, mirroring the gesture. "Where's my man?"

  The Cane's ears twitched in what Tavi recognized as a gesture of approval. Nasaug growled something under his breath, and another Cane, smaller, his fur grizzled and thick with scars, appeared from around the trunk of the tree, leading Ehren with him.

  The Cursor's wrists were bound with leather straps, his shirt was smeared with grime, and there were dark circles under his eyes, but other than that he seemed whole.

  Tavi reached into a pocket and withdrew the black ludus piece Nasaug had sent. He tossed it to the Canim leader, who caught it with a casual flick of one pawlike hand.

  Nasaug nodded to Tavi and growled something else. The older Cane drew a knife from his belt, and Tavi felt himself tense up. His concerns were groundless. The knife parted Ehren's bonds, and then the old Cane returned it to its sheath.

  "Go to your captain," Nasaug growled.

  Ehren eyed him warily but walked quickly over to stand beside Tavi.

  "You all right?" Tavi asked.

  "Mostly embarrassed," Ehren said. "They caught me before I could approach them openly. "

  Tavi nodded, drew his knife from his belt, and offered the hilt to Ehren. The Cursor took it with a nod of thanks, and promptly turned to watch their backs.

  "You returned a scout to me," Nasaug growled. "I return one to you. The scales between us are balanced. "

  "Agreed," Tavi said. "Your troops fought well today. "

  "We do what we must," Nasaug replied. "Why do you wish to speak with me?"

  "To discuss a solution to our problems. "

  "Problems," Nasaug said. A bubbling snarl that was the Canim equivalent of a chuckle vibrated through the word. "Of which problem do you speak?"

  "I have come to believe that our peoples are dying needlessly," Tavi replied. "This war profits neither your Realm nor mine. "

  "We fight for our lives, Captain," Nasaug growled. "Another day is profit enough for me. "

  "And we fight to defend against an invader," Tavi replied. "We both have motivation in plenty to wage a war. But it is my hope that there is mutual advantage to be gained by peace. "

  Nasaug's gleaming black eyes narrowed, and his ears remained perfectly still, focused on Tavi. "Explain. "

  "I want you to leave Alera," Tavi said. "But it makes no difference to me how you go, so long as you are gone. " He gave Nasaug a small smile, showing a few teeth. "We both know that you can't hold out forever. Even if you defeat these Legions, others will be raised and sent against you. And still others will be should they fall. You're too badly outnumbered, and you know it. Sooner or later, Alera will grind you into dust. "

  Nasaug's chest rumbled with a warning growl-but he said nothing to contradict Tavi's statement. "I will not surrender to your kind. "

  "I would never ask it of you," Tavi replied.

  "What, then?"

  "Tell me how long it will take you to finish your ships. "

  Nasaug's lips peeled back from his teeth in surprise. He growled something in Canish that Tavi didn't catch, before saying, "Longer than I would prefer. "

  "My new commander believes you intend to employ them against Alera. "

  "Ships carry troops," Nasaug said. "I don't need them to take my troops to Alera. They are already here. "

  "You want to go home," Tavi said quietly.

  Nasaug was silent for most of a minute before he answered Tavi, his rumbling voice barely audible. "Yes. "

  "In other words," Tavi said, "I want you gone-and you want to leave. It seems to me that we are each in a position to solve the other's problem. "

  "In a rational world, perhaps," Nasaug said, "but we are in Alera. "

  Tavi nodded. "We are. Because Sari led your people here. "

  "Sari. " Nasaug's voice rumbled with harsh rage, and one of his feet flicked backward, scattering dirt and old leaves. "He was a coward and a fool. "

  "You never truly supported him," Tavi said. "That's why he burned your ships behind you. "

  Nasaug said nothing.

  "Why?" Tavi asked him. "Why did you follow him here?"

  "He had the proper authority. I had orders. It was my duty to follow them, no matter how insane they might seem. "

  "I understand," Tavi said, unable to stop a wry note from entering his voice.

  "And he had. . . " Nasaug let out a growl of frustration. "There is no Aleran word. He had charge of many warrior-caste families. "


  Nasaug made a small slashing motion with one paw-hand. "Not the same. "

  Tavi frowned. "But Sari does not command you now. "

  "No," Nasaug said.

  "Given the chance, would you depart peacefully?"

  The Cane tilted his head to one side, eyes narrowing. "Your forces have begun a war season against us. They do not seek a peace. "

  "What if that changed?" Tavi asked. "What if the First Lord ordered them to go no further? Would you be willing to withdraw your support from High Lord Kalarus and enter a truce until your departure?"

  Again the Cane entered a pensive silence.

  Tavi pressed him. "There has to be a reason Sari did what he did, Nasaug. He loaded every boat he could find with every Cane he could find and sailed them across the full breadth of the sea to land here. He was a coward, and we both know it. He was running from something, wasn't he?"

  Nasaug remained still.

  "If he was running from what I think he was," Tavi said quietly, "then you and your men are badly needed at home. The Legions are coming for Mastings, Nasaug. If they take it, they will burn your ships and any hope you have of returning home. Even if they
don't take it, this time, they will bleed your ranks, attack your supply lines, and hinder your shipwrights in every way they can imagine. " He leaned forward, meeting the Cane's eyes. "The fastest way for you to get home with the strongest possible force is to agree to this truce. "

  Tavi settled slowly back in his saddle and watched Nasaug, waiting.

  "Captain," he said, after a time. "You are gadara. But not all Alerans are. "

  "Gadara," Tavi said, frowning. "Enemy?"

  Nasaug made another slashing negative gesture. "Not the same. You have my respect. But you do not lead them. You do not speak in the voice of Gaius Sextus. And your people have proven to us, many times, that they are not worthy of trust. "

  Tavi frowned. "How so?"

  "Because you are monsters," Nasaug replied, his tone implying that he was stating the perfectly obvious. "You are worse than starving beasts. You slaughter one another by the thousands over matters of leadership. Your people crush those without power and take whatsoever they wish from them for the simple reason that they can. " The Cane's muzzle lifted in a gesture of contempt. "You betray, enslave, and brutalize your own kind, Aleran. Your own. If you treat your own folk this way, what fool could possibly believe you would act any differently toward mine?"

  Tavi felt himself rock back a little at the vehemence in Nasaug's voice. He had never really considered things from that point of view. Slavery, of course, had been a problem for years. It would likely continue to be one for years more. The furycrafting-based system of Citizenship, title, and privilege was utterly inflexible, and how well he had known the futility of laboring beneath it.

  Nasaug continued. "We came upon those you had enslaved and set them free. And because we had done it, when they sought arms to defend that freedom, we supported them. But I know, and you know, that your Legions will not rest until they have been destroyed-for seizing what by rights should belong to all. "

  "That is the way of some Alerans," Tavi replied. "It is not my way-nor the way of my lord, Gaius Sextus. "

  "Perhaps not, gadara" Nasaug said. "But words are nothing but air. "

  "Unless they are followed by action," Tavi countered. "I am here only because you gave me your word. "

  "I have shown you my word is good," Nasaug said.

  "Then let me show you the same of mine," Tavi said.


  "What would you consider sufficient action?"

  Nasaug let out a thoughtful, rumbling growl. "One whose word I trust over my own was once a guest of honor in your land. I am told that he is held prisoner in some stinking house of stone in Alera Imperia. "

  "You mean Varg," Tavi said. "Yes. He is held prisoner. "

  "Varg did not behave dishonorably. "

  "How do you know that?" Tavi asked.

  Nasaug flexed one paw-hand, extending his claws. "He is Varg. "

  Tavi was silent for a moment, then nodded. "He did not behave with dishonor. Quite the opposite. He warned us of the coming of a foe called the Vord. "

  "And he rots in a prison because of it," Nasaug snarled, baring his fangs. "Your word may be good, Captain. Perhaps we can make an arrangement whereby I can leave your haunted land peacefully. But it will not happen without Varg. "

  Tavi glanced down at Ehren, who shot a nervous glance up at him.

  "If I bring you Varg," Tavi said quietly, "will you be willing to withdraw your strength from Kalarus? To draw back to Mastings, build your ships, and depart this land?"

  Nasaug glanced aside, at the grizzled old Cane beside him. Neither of them said anything or moved, but Tavi felt sure they had communicated with one another nonetheless. Nasaug turned back to Tavi and nodded, once. "Yes. But this agreement will have no bearing on how I wage war against you. Until I see Varg and speak to him, face-to-face, your Legions will pay in blood for every step of ground they wish to take. "

  "I understand," Tavi said quietly. "If it can be done, it will take some time. "

  Nasaug nodded. "Then until that time, gadara, we will seek one another's throats. " His fangs shone again. "Go from this place. " He raised his voice, and called, in Canish, "Do not touch him. "

  "Ehren," Tavi said quietly. "Mount up behind me. "

  He leaned down and gave the Cursor an arm up, and Ehren scrambled up onto the saddle behind Tavi. Tavi exchanged an Aleran-style nod with Nasaug, and then turned Acteon and rode calmly and quietly from the clearing. He passed Durias, who also nodded up at him, and then they moved steadily away.

  Half an hour later, as they came out onto ground Tavi recognized, he let out a slow breath and pressed Acteon into a swifter pace over open plain.

  "You came here alone?" Ehren demanded. "Are you insane?"

  Tavi flashed a grin back at his friend. "You're welcome. "

  Ehren shook his head. "I really feel I should point out that there's no way you're going to get them to release Varg. "

  "But Gaius can," Tavi replied. "He'll see the sense of it at once. "

  "If you can reach him, maybe," Ehren replied. "What if you can't?"

  Tavi opened his mouth to give Ehren a sharp-edged retort-and was cut off by a sudden blast of furious wind.

  Acteon reared and skittered wildly to one side as a sudden gale threw up dirt and dust, blinding them all and deafening them with its roar. Acteon lunged and bucked, panicking, and Tavi lost his seat, crashing to the ground beside Ehren.

  Tavi had to squeeze his eyes almost entirely shut, but he could just barely see the gleaming forms of Knights Aeris descending around them, along with an eight-harness air coach.

  The coach landed, its bearers settling it to the ground, and one of them hurried to open the door.

  Phrygiar Navaris emerged from the coach, slender in black, her face set in an odd little smile. Behind her, the rest of the Senator's singulares also appeared, to be followed, finally, by the Senator himself.

  Arnos, still in his silk robes, walked calmly over to them, flanked by his bodyguards. He stood over Tavi for a moment, a chilly little smile of satisfaction on his face.

  "And now we know how your supposedly gallant Legion managed to survive for so long against so many Canim," he said quietly. "You've been conspiring with them the whole while, Scipio. "

  "That isn't true," Tavi snarled. "And you know it. "

  Arnos swept his hand around at the circle of Knights Aeris. "I know no such thing. You were seen meeting with one of the Canim officers, and I have better than a dozen witnesses who will attest to it. Furthermore, you were engaging in parley with the enemy against my express orders to avoid giving any impression of weakness or lack of resolve on our part. "

  Arnos lifted his chin, staring down at Tavi. "It gives me no pleasure to do this, Rufus Scipio. But I place you under arrest for refusing to follow a direct order of your superior officer in time of war. You will be taken to the nearest stockade and held there until such time as a military tribunal can be assembled for your trial. "

  Tavi just stared at Arnos, shocked by what he was hearing, cursing himself for being careless. He'd warned Max that Arnos would have had watchers in place by that evening. He should have been smart enough to realize that Arnos already had him under surveillance-probably by several of his Knights Aeris, hidden behind crafted veils.

  He'd taken a chance and gotten burned.

  He'd failed.

  "Navaris," Arnos said. "Take the prisoner into custody. " An unmistakable glitter of malice danced across his eyes. "Find someplace to lock him away until we can find time to try him for treason. "

  Chapter 16

  Valiar Marcus glared at the young mother who had approached them from the group of prisoners. She had spotted his distinctive centurion's helmet with its scarlet crest, or the baton he carried in his hand as a symbol of his rank, and she walked over to him, trailing a young legionare. The plainly dressed woman had evidently overwhelmed the young man via sheer force of personality, and he gave Marcus a half-shamed, half
-pleading look as he hurried to keep up with her.

  "Centurion," she said. She made part of a curtsey, likely the best she could do while carrying her young daughter on one hip. The child was silent, her blue eyes very wide. "No one will speak to us. No one will tell us when we may return to our homes. "

  Marcus kept the glare going for a few moments, but it was a forlorn hope. The young mother was not going to be dissuaded. "Ma'am," Marcus said, "I'm going to have to ask you to return to your place with the other prisoners. "

  "I'm not going anywhere until I get some answers," she said quietly.

  "Yes, ma'am, you are," Marcus said. "It's safest for you there. "

  The woman clenched her jaw in frustration. "I don't understand what else you need from us, centurion. None of us are armed or bore arms against the Legions. None of us know anything that you didn't find out hours ago. There's no reason for us to be sitting here, even if that nice young man is being so painstaking in asking about our Citizenship. . . "

  Her voice trailed off, and her face set in a pensive frown-then in a sudden, sick mask of fear.

  Marcus felt his knuckles tightening on the baton in frustration, and only a whisper of cracking wood let him realize that he had inadvertently summoned fury-born strength to his limbs. He'd seen that look on other women, in other places, and he hated it. "Ma'am," Marcus said quietly. He pointed at the prisoners with his baton. "Go sit down. Now. "

  She stared blankly at him for a moment. Then she took a swift breath, and said, "My name is Estellis. " Her arms tightened on her child. "This is my daughter, Estara. "

  Marcus turned his face away sharply at the words. Crows take it. He didn't want to know the woman, or her name-or, great furies help him, the name of her child. Their death warrant had already been signed. And it was his fault it had been. Their blood was going to be on his hands-perhaps literally. He did not want to know their names.

  Some part of him could feel nothing but contempt for his own dismay. It had been his suggestion, after all, that the Senator order the captain to kill another Aleran. He had assumed that Arnos would seize upon the opportunity to do so as soon as prisoners were taken from the Legion of rebel slaves. He had assumed that the order would descend upon, at most, one- or twoscore of enemy soldiers. It would have been a point of principle that he did not think the captain would have been willing to compromise.

  Marcus forced himself to turn his face back to Estellis and her daughter Estara, and to look past them at the hundreds of freemen of Othos. Dozens of families. Women. Children. Elderly. How could Arnos have considered such a monstrous course?

  Because you told him to do it, fool.

  The young woman. . . Estellis stared at him, her face pale. She did not allow herself to weep-doubtless for the sake of her daughter, who clung sleepily to her side-but her eyes shone with the effort. "S-sir. . . " she said quietly. "The children are hungry. "

  Crows take Arnos, Marcus thought viciously. Crows take him and eat him whole.

  There was still some hope. Antillus Crassus was taking his time about verifying each prisoner's lack of Citizenship. Marcus might not have noticed it if he hadn't been working with the young man for the past two years, but it smelled like the young Tribune was stalling.

  Crassus wouldn't be doing that on his own initiative. He was dutiful nearly to the point of insanity, and always worked with quiet, industrious efficiency.

  So, unless he had suddenly decided to start dragging his feet, he was still attending to his duty.

  So. The captain was up to something.

  Marcus did not know what he intended. Legally speaking, he had only two options-but the young man had a talent for discovering previously unnoticed avenues of action. Perhaps he could do it again.

  Please let him do it again.

  Marcus was already steeped in blood. Much more, and he would drown.

  He kept his expression colder and harder than stone. If the prisoners went into a panic, great furies only knew what might happen. "Ma'am," he said. He began to repeat his order, but instead he found himself meeting the gaze of little Estara. His breath left him in a long, slow exhalation. "Estellis," he said quietly. "I assure you that my captain is doing everything he can to get you back to your homes as soon as possible. But until that time, you are on the front lines of a war, around men who have seen hard battle today. For your own safety, you need to return to the others. " He considered the little girl again, and said, "I'll see what can be done about food. "

  The young woman stared at him, straining, Marcus knew, to discern if he was telling her the truth, or simply lying to her and sending her back to await slaughter, like some foolishly wayward cow. She needn't have bothered. Even if she'd had an enormous amount of talent and practice at the watercrafter's art of truthfinding, he could have told her that the sky was green with perfect conviction.

  "I. . . very well, centurion. " She dipped into another awkward curtsey. "Thank you. "

  "Legionare," Marcus growled.

  The young legionare came to attention. "Sir. "

  "Please escort Mistress Estellis and her daughter back to the others. " He nodded to her. "Ma'am. "

  The woman gave Marcus one last, uncertain glance as she turned, then walked with the young legionare back to where the prisoners sat.

  A veteran legionare-though to be fair, any of the fish who'd come this far with the First Aleran deserved to be called veterans-named Bortus leaned slightly toward Marcus. "Centurion? What are we going to do with these people?"

  "Keep your teeth together, Bortus. When I know, you'll know. " Marcus watched Estellis and Estara sit down again and grimaced.

  Whatever he was going to do, the captain had best hurry.