Cursor's Fury

Chapter 47

"Are you sure this will work, Steadholder?" Giraldi asked quietly. The centurion had hauled the room's bed over to the side of the healing tub, and Isana now lay on it, her hand still bound to Fade's. His sword lay in its sheath along the length of her body.

Isana tightened the fingers of her other hand on the sword's hilt. "Yes." "Furycrafting in your sleep," Giraldi said. He didn't sound happy. "Sounds dangerous."

"Fade was able to make contact with me when I was in a state of near sleep," she said. "If I am asleep, as he is, I might reach him again."

"He isn't taking a nap, Steadholder," Giraldi said. "He's dying."

"All the more reason to make the attempt."

"Even if you do it," Giraldi said, "is it going to make a difference now? Even if he decides he wants to live, there's only so much that it can do for him."

"You don't know him like I do, ' Isana replied quietly. "He has more will than any man I've ever known. Save one, perhaps. "

"And if his will is to die?" Giraldi pressed. "I can't let that happen to you, Isana."

Isana felt her voice crackle with sudden fire. "Neither can he. He simply needs to be reminded of the fact." She turned to the centurion. "No interruptions."

Giraldi clenched his jaw and nodded once. "Luck."

Isana laid her head back down on the pillow and closed her eyes, all the while still focused upon the crafting. She held on to that focus as hard as she could. Her exhaustion made war upon her concentration, but only for a brief, dizzying moment. And then...

And then she was back at Calderon. Back twenty years. Back at that terrible night.

This time, though, the dream was not her own.

She saw her younger self, hurrying through the night, rounded with pregnancy, gasping with pain. Her little sister Alia walked beside her, holding one of Isana's arms to steady her as they stumbled through the night. Araris walked with them, first before, then beside, then behind, his eyes sharp and glittering and everywhere.

In the distance, flashes of light against the night sky painted the outline of trees and hills upon Isana's vision, darkly dazzling. From here, the roar of clashing armies sounded like the sea crashing upon the shore at high tide, back where the Crown Legion pitted itself against the Marat horde.

She followed the images of the dream, a silent and invisible witness to them, but the awareness of things she could not possibly know flowed through her thoughts. She was impressed that her younger self had maintained such a pace, and certain that it was not enough to have outpaced any barbarian trackers. Already, they had circled two enemy positions-a shock to Isana, who had known nothing of it at the time-and on one of his heartbeat-long forays out of sight of Isana and her sister, Araris had silently slain a Marat lying in ambush, never making mention of it.

Isana saw her younger self abruptly lose her balance and fall, crying out and clasping at her swollen belly. "Crows," the younger Isana swore, breathless. "Bloody crows. I think the baby is coming."

Alia was at her side immediately, helping her up, and the younger woman traded an uncertain look with Araris.

Araris pressed forward. "Are you sure?"

Isana watched as another spasm wrenched her younger self, and she spewed a stream of profanity worthy of a veteran centurion. It took her a moment to catch her breath, then she gasped, "Reasonably so, yes."

Araris nodded once and looked around him. "Then we must go to ground. There's a cave not far from here." He looked around him for a moment, clearly evaluating his choices.

The dream froze in place.

"This was my first mistake," said a voice from beside Isana. Fade stood there, ragged, scarred, dressed in rags, a figure utterly beaten down by hardship and time.

"Fade?" Isana asked quietly.

He shook his head, his eyes bitter. "I never should have left you there."

The dream resumed. Araris vanished into the night. He moved like a shadow through the woods, casting about for perhaps three or four minutes, until he found the dark outline of the cave's entrance. Then he spun and ran back toward Alia and Isana.

As he approached, he suddenly became aware of another Marat hunter, not ten feet from the two young women, unseen in the shadows. He moved at once, his hand darting to his belt, to the knife there, but it seemed to Isana to happen very slowly. The Marat arose from his hiding place, bow in hand, an obsidian-tipped arrow already upon the string. Isana realized, through Fade's recollection of the scene, that the Marat had seen Alia's golden hair, an incongruous bit of lighter shadow. He had aimed at her because he could more easily see her.

Fade threw the knife.

The Marat released the arrow.

Fade's knife buried itself to the hilt in the Marat's eye. The hunter pitched over, dead before his body struck the ground.

But the arrow hed released struck Alia with a simple, heavy thump. The girl let out an explosive breath and fell to her hands and knees.

"Crows," Fade snarled, and closed the distance to them. He stood there for a moment, torn.

"I'm all right," Alia said. Her voice shook, but she rose, blood staining her dress, several inches below one arm. "Just a cut." She picked up a shard of a shattered wooden shaft, black crow feathers marking the Marat missile. "The arrow broke. It must have been flawed."

"Let me see," Araris said, and peered at the wound. He cursed himself for not knowing more of the healing arts, but there was not a great deal of blood, not enough to threaten the girl with unconsciousness.

"Araris?" Isana asked, her voice tight with pain.

"She was lucky," he said shortly. "But we must get out of sight now, my lady."

"I'm not your lady," Isana responded, by reflex.

"She's hopeless," Alia sighed, her voice carrying a tone of forced good cheer. "Come on, then. Let's get out of sight."

Araris and Alia helped Isana to the cave. It took them far longer than Araris would have liked, but Isana could barely keep her feet. At last, though, they reached the cave, one of several such sites Septimus's scouts had prepared in the event that elements of the Legion might need a refuge from one of the violent local furystorms, or from the harsh winter squalls that came howling down out of the Sea of Ice.

Its entrance hidden by thick brush, the cave bent around a little S-shaped tunnel that would trap any light from giving away its location. Then it opened up into a small chamber, perhaps twice the size of the standard legionares tent. A small fire pit lay ready, complete with fuel. A quiet little stream had been diverted to run through the back corner of the cave, murmuring down the rock wall to a small, shallow pool before continuing on its way beneath the stone.

Alia helped Isana to the ground beside the fire, and Araris lit it with a routine effort of minor furycraft. He spoke the furylamps to life as well, and they burned with a low, scarlet flame. "No bedrolls, I'm afraid," he said. He stripped out of his scarlet cloak and rolled it into a pillow, which he slipped beneath Isana's head.

The younger Isana's eyes were glazed with pain. Her back contorted with another contraction, and she clenched her teeth over an agonized scream.

Time went by as it does in dreams, infinitely slowly while passing in dizzying haste. Isana remembered little of that night herself, beyond the steady, endless cycles of pain and terror. She had no clear idea of how long she lay in that cave all those years ago, but except for a brief trip outside to obscure signs of their passing, Araris had watched over her for every moment of every hour. Alia sat with her, bathing her brow with a damp kerchief and giving her water between bouts of pain.

"Sir Knight," Alia said finally. "Something is wrong."

Araris ground his teeth and looked at her. "What is it?"

The true Isana drew in a sharp breath. She had no memory of the words. Her last memory of her sister was of seeing her through a haze of tears as Alia used the wet cloth to wipe tears and sweat from Isana's eyes.

"The baby," Alia said. The girl bit her lip. "I think it's turned wrong."

Araris stared helplessly at Isana. "What can we do?"

"She needs assistance. A midwife or a trained healer."

Araris shook his head. "There's not a steadholt in the whole of the Calderon Valley-not until the new Steadholders arrive next year."

"The Legion healers, then?"

Araris stared steadily at her. Then he said, "If any of them lived, they would have been here already."

Alia blinked at him in surprise, and her brow furrowed in confusion. "My lord?"

"Nothing but death would have kept my lord from your sister's side," Araris said quietly. "And if he died, it means that the Marat forces were overwhelming, and the Legion died with him."

Alia just stared at him, and her lower lip began to tremble. "B-but..."

"For now, the Marat control the valley," Araris said quietly. "Reinforcements from Riva and Alera Imperia will arrive, probably before the day is out. But for now, it would be suicide to leave this place. We have to stay until we're sure it's safe."

Another contraction hit the young Isana, and she gasped through it, biting down on a twisted length of leather cut from the singulare's belt, even though she was too weakened by the hours of labor to manage a very loud scream. Alia bit her lip, and Araris's eyes were haunted as he watched, unable to help.

"Then..." Alia straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. It was a heartrending gesture for Isana to see now, a child's obvious effort to put steel into her own spine-and almost as obviously failing. "We're on our own then. "

"Yes," Araris said quietly.

Alia nodded slowly. "Then... with your assistance, I think I can help her."

He lifted his eyebrows. "Watercrafting? Do you have that kind of skill?"

"Sir?" Alia said hesitantly. "Are we spoiled for choicer"

Araris's mouth twitched at one corner in a fleeting smile. "I suppose not. Have you ever served as a midwife before?"

"Twice," Alia said. She swallowed. "Urn. With horses."

"Horses," Araris said.

Alia nodded, her eyes deep with shadows, worried. "Well. Father actually did it. But I helped him."

The younger Isana screamed again.

Araris nodded once the contraction had passed. "Get her other arm."

The ragged image of Fade, standing beside Isana, said, "This was the second mistake. Fool. I was such a fool."

Together, the pair dragged Isana into the shallow pool. Araris stripped out of his armor with hurried motions and knelt behind Isana, supporting her upper body against his chest while Alia knelt before her.

Isana stared at the entire thing, fascinated by Fade's memories. She remembered none of this. She had never been told of this.

Araris gave the young Isana his hands, and she squeezed them bloodless through each contraction. Alia knelt before her sister, hands framing her belly, her eyes closed in a frown of concentration. The scene acquired a timeless quality, somehow removed from everything else that was happening, existing in its own, private world.

Alia suddenly fell to her side in the pool, splashing water. Araris's gaze snapped up to her. "Are you all right?"

The girl trembled for a moment before closing her eyes and rising again. Her face had gone very pale. "Fine," she said. "Just cold."

"Fool," Fade mumbled from beside Isana. "Fool."

Isana's belly twisted in sudden, horrible understanding of what was coming.

An hour passed, Alia encouraging her sister, growing steadily more unsteady and more pale, while Araris focused the whole of his concentration on supporting Isana.

In time, there was a tiny, choked little cry. Alia gently took a tiny form in her arms, and wrapped it in the cloak that lay nearby and ready. The baby continued to cry, a desperate, horribly lonely little sound.

Alia, moving very slowly, reached out and passed the baby to the young Isana. She saw a fine down of dark hair. The miserable little infant began to quiet as his dazed mother pressed her against him, and he blinked up at her with Septimus's grass green eyes.

"Hail, Octavian," Alia whispered.

Then she slid down to the ground, into the pool, suddenly motionless.

Araris saw it and panicked. With a cry, he drew Isana and the baby from the pool. Then he returned for Alia. She did not move. Did not breathe.

Fade tore her dress from the wound and there found an ugly sight. The broken end of an arrow pressed up from the wound like some obscene splinter, and Araris realized with a shock that several inches of arrow, tipped with the head of volcanic glass, had pierced her deeply.

Darkness fell.

"She lied," Fade said quietly to Isana. "She was more worried about you than she was herself. She didn't want to distract me from helping you and the baby."

Tears blurred her vision, and her heart felt a fresh stab of pain at witnessing Alias death-and then a horrible, crushing mountain of guilt that her little sister had died to save her fell upon Isana's shoulders.

"I never should have left you both alone," Fade said. "Not even for a moment. I should have seen what was happening to her. And Tavi..." Fade swallowed. "He never found his furies. It had to have happened during the birthing. The cold maybe. Sometimes a difficult birth can damage the child, impair his mind. If I had only remembered my duty. Used my head. I betrayed him-and you, and Alia and Tavi."

"Why, Fade?" Isana whispered. "Why do you say that?"

"I can't," he whispered. "He was like a brother. It should never have happened. Never"

And then, suddenly, the scene shifted again. Isana and Fade stood back at the Legion camp, just before the attack. Septimus stood before them in his command tent, eyes hard and calculating. A steady stream of orders flowed from his lips, giving commands to his Tribunes as Araris helped him into his armor.

He finished, and the tent emptied as the camp stirred itself to battle. Araris finished the last lacing on the armor and banged hard on Septimus's armored shoulder, then seized the Princeps helm from its stand and tossed it underhand to Septimus.

"I'll help ready the command position, " Araris said. "See you there. "

"Rari," Septimus said. "Wait."

Araris paused, frowning back at the Princeps.

"I need you to do something."

Araris smiled. "I'll see to it. We're sending the noncombatants out already. "

"No," Septimus said. He put a hand on Araris's shoulder. "I need you to take her out of here yourself."

Araris stiffened. "What?"

"I want you to take Isana and her sister out."

"My place is beside you."

Septimus hesitated for a moment, and glanced to the east with haunted eyes. Then he said, "No. Not tonight it isn't."

Araris frowned. "Your Highness? Are you all right?"

Septimus shook himself like a dog shedding water, and the uncertainty vanished from his expression. "Yes. But I think I finally understand what's been happening since Seven Hills."

"What do you mean?" Araris asked.

Septimus shook his head and lifted his hand. "There's no time. I want you to take them to safety."

"Your Highness, I can assign a mounted unit to escort them out."

"No. It's got to be you."

"Crows, Septimus," Araris said. "Why?"

Septimus met his eyes directly, and said quietly, "Because I know you'll take care of her."

Araris's eyes widened, and his face went pale. He shook his head. "Sep, no. No, it isn't like that. I would never want that. Not for my lord. Not for my friend."

The Princeps face suddenly lit in a smile, and he threw back his head in a belly laugh. "Crows. I know that, Rari, you fool. I know you wouldn't."

Araris ducked his head, frowning. "Still. I shouldn't. It isn't right."

Septimus thumped a fist down on Araris's shoulder. "Bah, man. I can't very well throw stones at anyone who falls in love with her. I did, after all." He glanced in the direction of the tent he shared with Isana. "She's something special."

"She is," Araris agreed quietly.

Septimus's face sobered. "It's got to be you."

"All right," Araris said.

"If something happens to me-"

"It won't," Araris said firmly.

"We can't know that," Septimus said. "No one ever can. It's got to be you. If something happens to me, I want her to be taken care of." He glanced back at Araris. "I can't stand the thought of her and the child being alone. Promise me, Araris."

Araris shook his head. "You're being ridiculous."

"Maybe," Septimus agreed. "I hope so. But promise me."

Araris frowned at the Princeps for a moment. Then he jerked his chin in a quick nod. "I'll watch over her."

Septimus clapped his arm gently, his tone warm. "Thank you."

The dream froze, locked into that image.

Fade, beside Isana, stared at the image of Septimus. "I failed him," he said. Tears rolled down his cheeks, over the burn scars. "I should have stood with him. But when push came to shove... all I wanted was to get you away from the battle. To make sure you were safe." He bowed his head. "I let my heart guide my head. I let it blind me to my duties. Blind me to possible dangers. Blind me to your sister's injuries. Blind me to what might happen to the baby."

He looked up at her, his eyes miserable. "I loved you, Isana. The wife of my best friend, my sword brother. I loved you. And I am ashamed."

Isana stared at Septimus's image for a long moment, though dream-tears blurred her dream-vision. "Fade..."

"I can't make amends for my mistakes," Fade said. "The blood won't ever be washed from my hands. Let me go. There's nothing left for me here."

Isana turned to face Fade and reached out to cup his face between her pale, slender hands. She could feel his anguished guilt, feel the pain, the self-recrimination, the bottomless well of regret.

"What happened," she said quietly, "was not of your making. It was horrible. I hate that it happened. But you didn't cause it to be so."

"Isana... " Fade whispered.

"You're only human," Isana said over him. "We make mistakes."

"But mine..." Araris shook his head. "I had a hand in this war, as well. Had Septimus lived, he would have been the greatest First Lord Alera has ever known. He'd have a strongly gifted heir. A gracious, compassionate wife at his side. And none of this would be happening."

"Perhaps," Isana said gently. "Perhaps not. But you can't hold the actions of thousands and thousands of other people against yourself. You've got to let it go."

"I can't."

"You can," Isana said. "It wasn't your fault."

"Tavi," Fade said.

"That isn't your fault either, Fade." Isana drew a breath. "It's mine."

Fade blinked at her for a moment. "What?"

"I did it to him," Isana said quietly. "When he was still a baby. Whenever I bathed him, I would think about what it would mean if he showed his father's talents. How it would draw attention to him. How it would mark him as Gaius's heir. As a target for the power-hungry maniacs of the Realm intent on seizing the throne. At first, I didn't realize what I was doing to him." She met his eyes steadily. "But when I did... I didn't stop, Fade. I pushed harder. I stunted his growth so that he would look younger than his age, so that it would seem to be impossible that he was Septimus's child. And in doing it, I stunted his mind, somehow. I prevented his talents from ever emerging, until the water furies around the Steadholt were so used to it that I hardly needed to think about it at all.

"Unlike you," she said, "I knew precisely what I was doing. And so in that, I am as much to blame for this war as you are."

"No, Isana," Fade said.

"I am" Isana replied quietly. "Which is why I'm staying here. With you. When you go, I will go with you."

Fade's eyes widened. "No. Isana, no, please. Just leave me."

She took both her hands in his. "Never. I will not allow you to fade away, Araris. And by crows and thunder, your duty is not complete. You swore yourself to Septimus." She squeezed his hands, staring hard into his eyes. "He was your friend. You promised him."

Araris stared back at her, trembling and silent.

"I know how badly your soul has been wounded-but you can't surrender. You can't abandon your duty now, Araris. You do not have that right. I need you." She lifted her chin. "Octavian needs you. You will return to duty. Or you will make your treachery true by allowing yourself to die-and taking me with you."

He began to weep.

"Araris," Isana said in a low, compassionate voice. She touched his chin and lifted it until his eyes met her. Then, very gently, she said, "Choose."

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