Cursor's Fury

Chapter 33


Tavi stared out at the burning ships, so far away, and thought about all the implications their presence would mean. It meant that whatever the Canim had done in the past, matters had altered, and drastically.

For all of Alera's history, conflict with the Canim had been for control of the various islands between Alera and the Canim homeland-harsh, pitched fights for seaside fortifications, mostly, usually with a naval battle or two mixed in. Every few years, Canim raiding ships would hurtle from the deep seas to Alera's shores, burning and looting towns where they could, carrying away the valuables to be had there, and occasionally seizing Alerans and dragging them off to a fate no one had ever been able to ascertain. Whether they wound up as slaves or food, it was certainly an unpleasant ending.

More infrequent were larger Canim incursions, some of which had curled around the coastline to the seafaring cities like Parcia, and dozens of ships swept down together in a much larger attack. The Canim had burned Parcia to the ground some four hundred years before and had leveled the city of Rhodes no fewer than three times.

But Ehren had said that this invasion force was infinitely larger than any previously seen. And they had no intention of striking at Alera and returning to their homeland. The Canim, for whatever reason, were there to stay, and the implications of that were terrifying.

For the Canim, their attack upon Alera was literally a do-or-die situation. They had nothing to lose, everything to gain, and they would be certain that the only way to ensure their own safety would be to destroy the folk of Alera, le-gionare and holder, city and steadholt alike. They were trapped, desperate, and Tavi well knew the kind of berserk, fearless ferocity any trapped creature could display.

He watched the fires for a moment more, then said to Kitai, "This is the first time I've ever seen the sea. I wish it hadn't been like this."

She did not answer him-but her warm hand slipped to his, and their fingers intertwined.

"How did you see the fires in the first place?" Tavi asked Kitai. "What were you doing all the way out here?"

"Hunting," she said quietly.

Tavi frowned. "Hunting what?"

"Answers."

"Why?"

"Because I killed the man you wished to make talk. I thought it proper to make amends for that discourtesy." She looked from the distant pyres to Tavi. "When you were returning to your camp with the prisoners, I saw the High Lady of Antillus ride from the city by the great bridge. Since then, I have tracked her. She has gone to ground nearby. I can show you where. Perhaps she will have the answers you wanted to find."

Tavi frowned and stared at Kitai for a moment. "Do you have any idea how dangerous she is?"

Kitai shrugged. "She did not see me."

Tavi gritted his teeth for a moment, then said, "She's too much for us to handle."

"Why?" Kitai said.

"She's a High Lady," Tavi said. "If you had any idea all the things she could do..."

"She is a coward," Kitai said, contempt in her tone. "She lets others do all her killing for her. She arranges accidents. Things in which she will never be found and blamed."

"Which does not mean that she couldn't burn us to cinders with a flick of her hand," Tavi said. "It can't be done."

"Like taking Max from the Grey Tower could not be done, Aleran?"

Tavi opened his mouth to argue. Then he closed it again and scowled at Kitai. "This is different." He narrowed his eyes. "But... why in the world would she be all the way out here? You say she's camped?"

Kitai nodded. "A narrow gulch not far from here."

Tavi's legs ached terribly, and his belly was going to be screaming for food once he got the long run out of his system. Lady Antillus was a deadly opponent, and with no witnesses, out here in the wilderness, she would almost certainly kill them both if she became aware of them-but the chance to learn more about any arrangements the traitorous Citizen might have made with the enemy was irreplaceable. "Show me, " he told Kitai.

She rose and led him farther into the night, over the crest of the hill and down its far side, where the ground rose to the rocky bones of ancient mountains that had been worn down to rounded hills, broken here and there by jagged fissures. There, the heavy, low foliage and large trees of the river valley gave way to lower scrub brush, scrawny evergreens, and patches of brambles that, in some places, had grown into thickets several feet tall.

Kitai tensed slightly, as she began to walk along a thicket, and she slowed down to stalk forward in careful, perfect silence. Tavi emulated her, and she led him through a narrow opening in the thicket. After a few feet, they were forced to drop to a crawl. Small thorns jabbed at Tavi, no matter how carefully or slowly he moved, and he had to clench his teeth and strangle his own painful exhalations before they could give him away.

Ten apparently endless yards later, they emerged from the thicket into a comparatively heavy growth of evergreens, and Kitai prowled slowly forward in the relatively open, pine-needle-covered spaces beneath the trees, until she came to a halt and beckoned to Tavi. He eased up next to her, lying on his stomach beside her and staring out and down through the tree's branches, into a small, semicircular area located within one of the larger fissures in the stone hills. Water trickled down a rock face, into a pool barely larger than a steadholt cook's mixing bowl, then continued on its way down through the stone.

The low campfire, sunken into its own little pit to hide its light better, was not more than twenty feet from where they lay. Lady Antillus sat beside the pool, evidently in the midst of a conversation with a small and vaguely human-shaped water-sculpture that stood on the surface of the tiny pool.

"You don't understand, brother mine," Lady Antillus said, her tone agitated. "They aren't here with an overly large raiding force. They came in hundreds of ships, Brencis. Which they then burned behind them."

A tinny, petulant voice came from the water-sculpted figure. "Don't use my name, foolish child. These communications may be intercepted."

Or eavesdropped upon, Lord Kalarus, Tavi mused.

Lady Antillus let out an exasperated sound. "You're right. If we're overheard, someone might suspect you of treason. If all the Legions and killings and abductions haven't managed it already."

"Rising up against Gaius is one thing," the water figure said. "Being found in collusion with the raiding Canim is something else. It could motivate the neutral High Lords to come out against me. It might even draw a rebuke from the northern Lords-including your own dear husband, and I have worked far too hard to allow that now." The figure's voice became quiet and dangerous. "So guard. Your. Tongue."

Lady Antillus's back straightened in subtle, frightened tension, and her face turned pale. "As you wish, my lord. But you have yet to see my point. The Canim haven't come here merely to create this cloud cover to slow down the First Lord's troops. They haven't come here simply to raid and provide a distraction to divide his forces. They intend to stay."

"Impossible, ' Kalarus responded. "Preposterous. They'd be swept back into the sea before the summer is out. They must know that."

"Unless they don't," Lady Antillus said.

Kalarus snarled something incoherent. "Are you at the meeting point?"

"To conclude the bargain. Yes."

"Impress upon Sari the futility of his position."

Lady Antillus hesitated before saying, "He's powerful, my lord. More so than I would have been willing to believe. His attack upon the command of the First Aleran was... much more intense than I would have thought possible. And came more swiftly than we had believed. I was forced to... to leave several minor matters unattended."

"All the more reason to give the dog a pointed reminder of that with which he must contend. You need not fear his breed's power, and you know it. Give him my warning, then return to Kalare."

"What of your nephew, my lord?"

"Crassus is welcome, too, of course."

Lady Antillus shook her head. "He remains with the Legion."

"Then he takes his chances."

"He isn't ready for war."

"He's grown. Old enough to make his own choices. If he hasn't been thoroughly prepared to survive those choices, that is neither fault nor concern of mine. Take it up with his parents."

Her voice took on the barest hint of heat. "But my lord-"

"Enough," the figure of Kalarus snarled. "I have work to do. You will obey me in this."

Lady Antillus stared for a second, then shivered. She bowed her head. "Yes, my lord."

"Courage, little one," Kalarus's image said, tone softer. "We are near the end of the race. Just a little longer."

Then the image slid back down into the tiny pool, and Lady Antillus sagged. Tavi saw her hands clenched into fists so tight that her nails had cut into her palms. Tiny droplets of blood fell to the stone floor of the fissure, sparkling in the light of the small fire.

Then she rose abruptly, and flicked a hand at the stone of the fissure wall. It stirred, pulsed, then writhed into a bas-relief image of a young man. In fact...

It was a life-sized image of Tavi, carefully and chillingly detailed.

Lady Antillus spat upon it, then struck out at it with one fist, furycraft infusing the blow with such power that it literally tore the stone head from the fissure wall and sent out a cloud of stone fragments that rattled to the ground. Her next blow struck the figure in the heart, her fist driving halfway to her elbow in the stone. Cracks sprang out from the point of impact, and more pieces of the statue broke off and fell to the ground. She whirled, took two long paces back from the image, then howled and drove her open palm toward the remnants of Tavi's likeness. Fire split the darkness and the quiet night with a blaze of sudden light and thunder, and the stones shrieked protest.

A cloud of dust and smoke covered everything. Stone clattered on stone. When the haze cleared, there was an enormous, glass-smooth hollow fully five feet deep where the stone image had been.

Tavi gulped.

Beside him, Kitai did, too.

He forced himself to breathe slowly and evenly, to control the fearful trembling of his limbs. He could feel Kitai shivering against him. They crept away from the High Lady's little camp as silently as they came.

It took most of forever to crawl back out of the painful thicket without making noise, and Tavi wanted to break into an immediate sprint as soon as he was upright again. It would have been a mistake, so close to Lady Antillus-possibly a fatal one. So he and Kitai prowled slowly and carefully for nearly half a mile before Tavi finally stopped beside a brook and let out a shaking breath.

He and Kitai crouched down together by the brook, cupping water with their hands and drinking. Tavi noticed, as they did, that Kitai's hands were trembling. Though she struggled to remain calm, behind her exotic eyes he could see the fear she held tightly leashed.

After they drank, they crouched together in silence for a moment. Tavi found Kitai's hand in the darkness and squeezed it tight. She squeezed back and leaned into him, her shoulder against his, and both of them stared at the reflections of occasional crimson lightning in the water.

Far in the distance, Tavi heard the low, alien, blaring call of a Canim war horn.

Kitai's fingers squeezed tighter. "They're coming," she whispered.

"Yes," he said. He lifted his eyes to the west, from where the horn call had come.

There was a terrible sense of helplessness in the moment, a sudden and crushing realization that in the face of all that was happening, he was very, very small. Vast forces were in motion, and he could do nothing to stop them, and almost nothing to influence them. He felt like a legionare piece on a Indus board-small, slow, and of very little value or ability. Other hands were directing the pieces, while like a ludus legionare, he had little to say about those moves and precious little ability to change the outcome of the game, even if he made them himself.

It was terrifying, frustrating, unfair, and he leaned back against Kitai, taking solace in her presence, her scent, her touch.

"They're coming," he murmured. "It won't be long now."

Kitai looked up at him, her eyes searching his face. "If it is true, if they are a great host, can your Legion destroy them?'

"No," Tavi said quietly. He closed his eyes for a moment, helpless as a ludus piece, and every bit as likely to be destroyed with the killing came and hurtled them into a grim endgame.

Endgame.

The wolfish Canim war horns sounded again.

Ludus.

Tavi took a sudden deep breath and rose to his feet, mind racing. He stared out at the light of the burning ships in Founderport s harbor, reflecting against the low clouds overhead.

"We can't destroy them," he said. "But I think I know how we can stop them. "

She tilted her head. "How?"

He narrowed his eyes, and said, very quietly, "Discipline."


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