Cursor's Fury

Chapter 23


The next morning, Isana woke when Lady Veradis opened the door. The pale young healer's dark-circled eyes were even more worn than the day before, but she wore the colors of her fathers house in a simple gown. The young woman smiled at Isana and said, "Good morrow, Steadholder."

"Lady," Isana said, with a nod. She looked around the room. "Where is Fade?"

Lady Veradis entered the room, bearing a tray covered with a cloth napkin. "Being bathed and fed. I'll have him brought in once you are ready."

"How is he?"

"Somewhat disoriented with fever. Weary. Otherwise lucid." She nodded at the food. "Eat and ready yourself. I will return presently."

Isana pushed worry from her mind, at least long enough to wash herself and partake of the sausages, fresh bread, and cheeses Veradis had brought. Once some of the food had touched her tongue, Isana found herself famished, and ate with abandon. The food would be necessary to keep her strength up during the healing, and she should take as much as she could.

A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door and Veradis asked, "Steadholder? May we enter?"

"Of course."

Veradis came in. Three guards bore a healer's tub readied with water. The tub wasn't as large as the one from the day before, and it bore spots of rust and wear that marked it as a well-worn member of its breed. It had probably been stored in a closet somewhere, forgotten until the sudden attack on the city demanded the use of every tub that could be found. The guards set it down on the floor, then one of them drew a low chair over to sit beside it.

A moment later, Giraldi came in, supporting Fade with one shoulder despite his limp and his cane. Fade wore only a long, white robe, his face was flushed with fever, his eyes glazed, and his wounded hand had swollen up into a grotesque mockery of itself.

Giraldi grimly helped the scarred man over to the tub and had to help Fade remove the robe. Fade's lean, wire-muscled body showed dozens of old scars Isana had never seen before, especially across his back, where the marks of the whipping that had accompanied his branding stood out from his skin, as thick as Isana's littlest finger.

Fade settled weakly into the tub, and when he laid his head back against the wooden rest, he seemed to fall asleep instantly.

"Are you prepared?" Veradis asked quietly.

Isana rose and nodded, without speaking.

Veradis gestured to the chair. "Sit, then. Take his hand."

Isana did so. The low chair put her head on a level with Fade's, and she watched the scarred slave's features as she reached down to take up his healthy hand and grip it between hers.

"It isn't a terribly complicated crafting," Veradis said. "The infection has a natural tendency to gather at the site of the wound. So concentrated, his body cannot drive it out. You must dilute the infection, spreading it more thinly throughout his body, where he will have a chance to fight it off."

Isana frowned and drew in a slow breath. "But that will spread the sickness throughout his whole body. If I stop, the infection could take root anywhere. One site is bad enough. I could not handle two at once."

Veradis nodded. "And it could take his body days to fight off the infection."

Isana bit her lip again. Days. She had never maintained a healing furycraft for more than a few hours.

"It isn't a very good way to help him," Veradis said quietly. "It is, however, the only way. Once you begin, you cannot stop until he has won through. If you do, the garic oil will corrupt his blood entirely. He'll die within an hour." She reached into a pocket and drew out a soft, supple cord, offering it to Isana. "Are you sure you wish to attempt this?"

Isana studied Fade's scarred face. "I can't tie that with one hand, lady."

The young healer nodded, then knelt and, very carefully, bound Isana's hand loosely together with Fade's. "A very great deal will depend upon him, Steadholder," she murmured as she worked. "Upon his will to live."

"He will live," Isana said in a quiet voice.

"If he so chooses, there is hope," Veradis said. "But if he does not, or if the infection is simply too great, you must end the crafting."

"Never."

Veradis continued as if Isana had not spoken. "Depending on the progress of the infection, he may become delusional. Violent. Be prepared to restrain him. Should he lose consciousness altogether, or if he bleeds from the nose, mouth, or ears, there is little hope for his life. That's how you will know when it is time to break away."

Isana closed her eyes and shook her head, firmly, once. "I will not leave him."

"Then you will die with him," Veradis said, her tone matter-of-fact.

I should have, Isana thought bitterly. I should have twenty years ago.

"I strongly urge you not to throw away your life in vain," Veradis murmured. "In fact, I beg you. There are never enough skilled healers during war, and your talents could prove invaluable to the city's defense."

Isana looked up and met the young woman's eyes. "You must fight your battle," she said quietly. "And I must fight mine."

Veradis's tired gaze focused elsewhere for a moment, then she nodded. "Very well. I will look in on you if I can. There are guards in the hall. I have instructed them to serve as attendants, should you need food or any kind of assistance."

"Thank you, Lady Vera-"

Isana's words were suddenly drowned by a titanic booming sound, so loud that it shook the stones of the citadel and rattled the glass in the windows, cracking it in several places. There was a second boom. Then, much more faintly, a rumble of drums, a series of clarion calls of military trumpets, and a sound like wind rushing through thick forest.

Lady Veradis drew in a sharp breath, and said, "It's begun."

Giraldi stumped over to the window and peered out. "Here come Kalare's Legions. Forming up near the south gate."

"What was that sound?" Isana asked.

"Knights Ignus. Probably tried to blast the gate down, first thing." He squinted for a moment, then said, "Cereus's Legions are on the walls now. Must not have taken the gate down."

"I must go," Veradis said. "I am needed."

"Of course," Isana said. "Thank you."

Veradis gave her a fleeting smile, and murmured, "Good luck." She departed on silent feet.

"To all of us," Giraldi growled, frowning out the window. A series of smaller detonations came rippling through the predawn air, and Isana could actually see the light of the fires reflected against the glass.

"What's happening?" she asked.

"Kalare brought his firecrafters up. Looks like they're blasting the walls."

"Aren't they too thick to blast through?" Isana asked.

Giraldi grunted in the affirmative. "But it creates rough spots to help troops climb ropes and ladders. If they get lucky, they might crack the wall. Then they could bring in watercrafters and use them to widen the break or undermine the wall."

A brilliant glow suddenly poured through the windows, the light a cool, bluish color rather than the orange-gold of dawn.

Giraldi grunted. "Nice."

"Centurion?"

He glanced at her over his shoulder. "Cereus let the firecrafters go to town until he could tell where most of them were. Then he moved his Knights Flora to the walls and turned on every furylight and lamp in the city so they could see to shoot."

"Did it work?"

"Can't see from here," Giraldi said. "But the legionares on the walls are cheering them on."

"Perhaps they've killed Kalare's firecrafters, then."

"They didn't get all of them."

"How do you know?"

Giraldi shrugged. "You never get them all. But it looks like they've given Kalare's forces something to think about."

Isana frowned. "What happens now?"

Giraldi frowned. "Depends on how bloody they're willing to get. Cereus and his people are on their home ground, familiar with the local furies. It gives them an advantage over Kalare's Knights. They tried a lightning assault and failed. Now as long as Cereus keeps his Knights intact and uses them well, Kalare's forces will get massacred if they charge in against Cereus's Knights."

"If they want to storm the city, they must destroy its Knights," Isana said. "Is that it?"

"Pretty much. They've got to know that time isn't on their side, too. They've got to take the city before reinforcements arrive. The only way to do it fast is to do it bloody." The old soldier shook his head. "This is going to be a bad one. Like Second Calderon."

Isana's memory flashed back to the battle. The corpses had been burned in bonfires that reached forty feet into the sky. It had taken most of a year to clean the blood and filth from the stones of Garrison. She could still hear screams, moans, cries of the wounded and dying. It had been a nightmare.

Only this time, it would not be a few hundred noncombatants in peril, but thousands, tens of thousands.

Isana shuddered.

Giraldi finally turned from the window, shaking his head. "You need anything from me? "

Isana drew in a deep breath and shook her head. "Not now."

"I'll leave you to it, then," Giraldi said. "Ill be right outside."

Isana nodded and bit her lip.

Giraldi paused at the door. "Steadholder. You thinking you can't do this?"

"I... " Isana swallowed. "I've never... I don't think I can do it. '

"You're wrong," Giraldi growled. "Known you for years. Fact of the matter is, you can't not do it." He nodded to her and slipped outside. He shut the door behind him.

Isana bowed her head at Giraldi's words. Then she turned back to her patient.

She had treated infected wounds often, both in her capacity as a steadholt's healer and during her term of service in the Legion camps. Standard practice was to encourage increased blood flow through the site, then to painstakingly focus on the afflicted tissues, destroying the infection a tiny piece at a time. Once Rill had severely weakened the infection, the patient's body itself could eliminate whatever sickness was left in the wound.

She'd done it with training injuries in the camps, for young legionares too foolish to properly clean and care for a minor cut. She'd done it for holders and their children, even for livestock. Infections were a tricky business, requiring both delicacy, to finely control the actions of her fury, and strength, to assault the invading fevers. It had rarely taken her more than half an hour to render such a wound manageable once more.

Isana sent Rill gliding into the tub, surrounding Fade with the fury's presence. Isana's senses, extended through the water fury, usually felt the presence of an infection as a low, sullen, hateful kind of heat. Exposure to it was unpleasant but bearable, on a scale somewhat similar to being burned by a long day in the sun.

But Fade's wound was different. The instant her fury touched upon the battered man's wound, Isana felt it as a searing blaze, hotter than an oven, and she flinched back from it by pure reflex.

Fade groaned in his sleep and stirred before settling down again. He was in the grip of a fever dream. She felt his confusion as a series of flashes of one emotion, then another, none of them remaining long enough to be clearly understood. Isana set her jaw in determination. Then, focusing again on Rill, she pressed her senses back into the waters of the tub and reached for Fade's wounded hand.

As she touched upon the wound, she felt every muscle in her body grow suddenly tight, as the pulsing, malevolent fire of the garic-oil infection seared its way into her perceptions. She held herself against the pain, marshaling her thoughts and her focus, and pressed harder against the wound site.

She saw at once why Veradis regarded this crafting as a difficult and dangerous one. Infections had life of their own, and Isana had encountered several different breeds, attempting to spread through the body of the victim, like the freemen of a steadholt marching into a new wilderness to make it their own.

The garic fever, though, was no mere steadholt of settlers. It was a Legion, a horde, a civilization of tiny, destructive creatures. That was why the usual, uncomfortable heat was so much more intense and painful. The fever was already destroying Fade's hand, corroding the veins and vessels, working its way in threads and tendrils to the bones of his hand and wrist. If Isana attempted the usual course of action, attacking the fever directly, it would tear apart Fade's hand, allow the infection to spread to different areas of the body while maintaining its painful and dangerous density, send him into shock, and likely kill him. She could not simply attempt to crush it.

Instead, she would have to lay siege to the fever in the stronghold it had made of the wound. Attacking it by inches, she should be able to chip slowly away at the teeming mass of infection to wash it out through the blood in pieces small enough for Fade's body to combat them successfully. As she did so, she would simultaneously have to keep pressure against the infection, to keep it from fracturing into larger pieces as she undermined it, chipping it away.

But there was so much of the fever. It could take days for her to finish the job, and all the while, it would be attempting to grow, spread, and destroy. If she worked too swiftly, freeing masses of infection too large, Fade's body would not be able to combat them, and the infection would spread with lethal consequences. If she worked too slowly, breaking off pieces too small, the fever would breed faster than it could be destroyed. And all the while, she would be forced to endure the pain of proximity and keep her focus on the task.

It seemed almost impossible. But if she allowed herself to believe that, she would never be able to help him.

Giraldi was right. Isana would rather lose her own life than stand aside and watch as a friend died.

Isana tightened her fingers on Fade's hand and prepared to call out to Rill. She closed her eyes and tried to ignore the sounds of drums and trumpets and far-distant shouts of the wounded and dying.

Isana shivered. At least Tavi was safe and well away from this insanity.


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