Cursor's Fury

Chapter 30

Tavi threw down his bedroll and his regulation trunk in the smoldering ruins where Captain Cyril's command tent had been. "All right," he said to Foss, sitting down on the trunk. "Let's hear it."

"Captain's alive," Foss said. The veteran healer looked exhausted, and the grey in his hair and beard stood out more sharply than they had the day before. "Barely. Don't know if he'll ever wake up. Don't know how much use he's gonna have of his legs if he does."

Tavi grunted and worked on keeping his expression calm and remote. He wasn't sure how well he was doing it. Telling a lie to his aunt wasn't the same thing as pretending to be competent and confident when all he really wanted to do was run screaming and hide somewhere.

Around him, the Legion continued preparing to fight.

Screaming and hiding was not an option.

"First Spear should be on his feet in an hour or two," Foss continued. "Old Marcus got lucky. He was out getting more mugs for tea when it came down. Maximus was able to get to him, pull him out of the fire. He's got a few more scars from it."

"Who'd notice," Tavi said.

Foss showed his teeth. "True." He was silent for a second, then cleared his throat, and said, "We've got two more survivors so far."

"Who?" Tavi asked.

"That's the thing," Foss said. "I can't tell."

Tavi winced.

"They'll have to tell us if they wake up. Burns are too bad. Look like they got skinned. Some of it was so hot, pieces of their armor melted." Foss let out a shaking breath. "I've seen bad. But never bad like that."

"Tell me," Tavi said. "Have you seen Lady Antillus this evening?"

Foss was quiet for a long time until he said, "No, sir."

"Would it have made any difference, if she'd been there?"

Foss grunted. "Probably. Maybe. Hard to say for sure, sir."

Tavi nodded and glanced up as Max came striding up. "First Spear made it through."

Max began to smile, then shook himself, came to attention, and saluted. Tavi stiffened uncomfortably at the formality, but returned it. "That's something, at least, sir," Max said. "The auxiliaries are ready to move out. Four hundred cavalry and eighty scouts."

"What about the horses?" Tavi asked.

Max grimaced. "We're missing a pair of our courier mounts."

"We're missing two of our fastest horses. We're missing Lady Antillus." Tavi shook his head. "I'm tempted to draw unkind conclusions."

"I'm tempted to..." Max's voice dropped off into a low, muttering growl.

Foss grunted. "You think she had something to do with what hit the captain, sir?"

Tavi grimaced. Actually speaking of his suspicions aloud, in the course of his duties to one of his officers, would have the legal weight of a lawful accusation. "I don't have any way of knowing, centurion. But I've got a lot of questions that I'd like to have answered."

Max scowled. "Make me a list, sir. I'll think of some creative ways to ask them."

"While you're doing that," Tavi said, "saddle up. You're acting Tribune Aux-iliarus. I want you with them when they find the Canim."

Max grunted. "What about my fish, sir?"

"Tell Schultz he's an acting centurion."

"He isn't ready," Max said.

"He'll fit right in around here," Tavi said. "I don't want to break up century structures and surround the fish with new faces now."

Max nodded. "I'll get my horse."

"Get me one, too," Tavi said. "I'm coming."

Foss and Max traded a look. "Urn," Max said. "Captain..."

Tavi held up a hand. "I've got to get a look at what we're up against, Max. I don't know a damned thing about the terrain out there, and I need to see it if we're going to be fighting in it. I want to see the Canim for the same reason."

"They're big, sir," Max said. "They have teeth. They're strong as bulls and they run real fast. Pretty much all you need to know."

"Or maybe it isn't," Tavi said, voice harder. "Get me a horse, Tribune."

Max's objection was clear in his expression, but he saluted, and said, "Yes, sir." Then spun cleanly on a heel and marched off.

"Thank you, Foss," Tavi said. "I think we can assume our first healing station should be on the south side of the bridge. We'll need a second one on this side, in case we get pushed back. Set them up, centurion."

"Understood, Captain," Foss said, saluting.

Tavi lifted a hand, and said, "No, wait. Set them up, Tribune Medica."

Foss grimaced, though there was a defiant light in his eyes as he saluted again. "A fight with Canim and a promotion. Today isn't going to get much worse."

Ehren drifted in on soundless feet as Foss left. The young Cursor sat down cross-legged next to Tavi and watched the camp activity with a weary expression. A moment later, a squat, bulky-looking centurion rolled up at a quick march and saluted Tavi. "Captain."

"Centurion Erasmus, " Tavi said. "This is Sir Ehren ex Cursori, the agent who brought us word of the Canim incursion."

Erasmus stiffened. "The man Eighth Spear is accused of assaulting."

"The charges are dereliction of duty in time of war, attempted murder, and treason," Tavi said quietly.

Erasmus's face reddened. And well it should, Tavi thought. Those crimes carried lethal consequences. No centurion wanted to see his own men tried and executed, for all kinds of reasons.

"Frankly, centurion," Tavi said, "I have no intention of killing any legionare, especially veterans, whatever the reason, so long as I have any alternative. If this incursion is as large as it would seem to be, we'll need every sword."

Erasmus frowned at Tavi, and said, cautiously, "Yes, sir."

"I'm assigning Sir Ehren to question your legionares. Frankly, I suspect they're more stupid than treasonous, but..." He gestured at the ruined ground around them. "We obviously can't afford to take any chances with our security. Someone told the Canim where to strike. Sir Ehren, find out what the prisoners know." He paused, fighting down a sick little feeling in his stomach, then said, "Use whatever means necessary."

Ehren didn't even blink. He nodded calmly to Tavi, as if he tortured prisoners often enough to expect the order to do so.

"Centurion Erasmus," Tavi said. "Go with him. I'll give you a chance to convince your men to cooperate, but we don't have much time, and I will know if there are any more turncloaks waiting to stab us in the back. Understood?"

Erasmus saluted. "Yes, sir."

"Good," Tavi said. "Go."

They did, and Magnus appeared from the darkness. He passed Tavi a cup of tea in a plain tin mug. Tavi accepted it gratefully. "You heard everything?"

"Yes," Magnus said quietly. "I don't think you should leave the town."

"Cyril would have," Tavi said.

Magnus said nothing, though Tavi fancied he could hear disapproval in his silence.

Tavi took a sip of bitter, bracing tea. "Foss says Valiar Marcus will be on his feet soon. He's acting Tribune Tactica. Make sure he knows I want him to take charge of the town's defenses and get any unarmed civilians over the bridge and onto the north side of the river."

"Yes, sir," Magnus said quietly.

Tavi frowned and looked at him. "I'm still not sure we shouldn't hand the Legion to Marcus."

"You're the next in the chain of command," Magnus replied quietly. "The First Spear is the senior centurion, and career soldier, but he isn't an officer."

"Neither am I," Tavi said wryly.

Magnus paused for a reflective moment, then said, "I'm not sure I trust him."

Tavi paused with the cup near his lips. "Why not?"

Magnus shrugged. "All those officers, many of them powerful furycrafters, dead. He just happened to live through it?"

"He happened to be outside the tent at the time."

"Quite fortunate," Magnus said. "Don't you think?"

Tavi glanced at his torn knuckles. He hadn't had time to clean them or bandage them properly. "So was I."

Magnus shook his head. "Luck isn't usually so common. Valiar Marcus was meant to die at that meeting. But he survived."

"So did I," Tavi said quietly. And after a moment, he added, in a neutral voice, "And so did you."

Magnus blinked at him. "I was still talking to the town's militia tribune."

"Quite fortunate," Tavi said. "Don't you think?"

Magnus stared for a second, then gave Tavi an approving smile. "That's a smart way to think, sir. It's what you need in this business."

Tavi grunted. "I'm still not sure I'm ready."

"You're as ready as any Third Subtribune Logistica would be," Magnus said. "And better able than most, believe me. The Legion has enough veterans to know its business. You just need to look calm, confident, and intelligent and try not to lead anyone into any ambushes."

Tavi glanced around him, at the ruins of the tent. His mouth twisted bitterly. It was just then that the crows flooded by overhead, a raucously cawing mass of the carrion birds, thousands of them, sweeping over the Tiber and the Elinarch toward the southwest. They flew by for a solid two minutes, at least, and when a ripple of scarlet lightning went through the clouds overhead, Tavi could see them, wings and beaks and tail feathers of solid black against the red, moving together in a nearly solid mass that almost seemed to be a creature in its own right.

Then they were gone, and neither one of the Cursors on the storm-wracked ground spoke. The crows always knew when a battle was brewing. They knew how to find and feast upon those who would fall.

Magnus sighed after a few seconds more. "You need to shave, sir."

"I'm busy," Tavi said.

"Did you ever see Captain Miles unshaven?" Magnus asked quietly. "Or Cyril? It's what legionares will expect. It's reassuring. You need to give them that. Take care of your hands, too."

Tavi stared at him for a second, then let out a slow breath. "All right."

"For the record, I strongly disagree with your decision regarding Antillus Crassus. He should be imprisoned with the other suspects."

"You weren't there," Tavi said. "You didn't see his eyes."

"Everyone can be lied to. Even you."

"Yes," Tavi said. "But he wasn't lying to me tonight." Tavi shook his head. "Had he been into some kind of plot with his mother, he'd have left with her. He stayed. Confronted me directly. I'm not sure how intelligent he is, but he isn't a traitor, Magnus."

"All the same, until we know what further damage his mother might wreak-"

"We don't know for certain she was involved," Tavi said quietly. "Until we do, we should be careful with our words." Magnus didn't look happy about it, but he nodded. "Besides. Crassus is likely the most powerful furycrafter we have left in the Legion, apart from Maximus, and he's the one who has been training with the Knights Pisces. He's the only choice to lead them."

"He'll be in a position to ruin anything this Legion attempts to accomplish if you're wrong, sir."

"I'm not."

Magnus pressed his lips together, then shook his head and sighed. He drew a small case out from behind a mound of lightning-tortured earth, and opened it, revealing a small shaving kit and a covered bowl. He opened it to reveal steaming water. "Maximus should be back shortly. You clean up," he said. "I'll find you a proper cavalry weapon."

"I'm going to look, not fight," Tavi said.

"Of course, sir," Magnus said, handing him the kit. "I assume you prefer a sword to a mace."

"Yes," Tavi said, taking the kit.

Magnus paused, and said, "Sir. I think you should consider appointing a small number of singulares."

"Captain Cyril didn't use any bodyguards."

"No," Magnus said, his tone pointed. "He didn't."

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