Cursor's Fury

Chapter 53


Max came running up to Tavi after the last of the ritualists had been slain. The maddened Canim had neither given nor asked for quarter, which Tavi supposed was just as well. He wasn't at all sure that he could have restrained his le-gionares after the losses they'd suffered.

"Calderon," Max demanded. "He tried the lightning on you. Again." Max was sweating from the effort of his crafting and looked pale. "How the crows did you survive it?"

Tavi reached to his belt and drew the Canim knife they'd captured while engaging the raiding parties the day before the battle. He held up the skull-shaped pommel. A bloodstone glimmered wetly in one of the eyes. Wet, red blood dribbled down from the jewel and over the handle. "We had another gem, remember?"

"Oh," Max said. "Right." He frowned. "So how come you can hear me?"

"Opened my mouth and had some lining in my helmet," Tavi said. "Foss said it made a difference. Something about air pressure."

Max scowled at Tavi, and said, "Gave me a heart attack. Thought you were dead, and you just had another gem the whole time." He shook his head. "Why didn't you just give that one to Crassus?"

"Wasn't sure it would work," Tavi said. "I knew the one I gave him would. He was more important than me for this."

The young Knight in question descended wearily from the sky and landed on the bridge to the cheers of the Knights Pisces. Crassus walked slowly over to Tavi and saluted. "Sir."

"Well done, Tribune," Tavi said, his voice warm. "Well done."

Crassus smiled a bit, and Max clapped him roughly on the shoulder. "Not bad."

Ehren, still bearing the standard, also offered his congratulations, though Kitai only gave Crassus a speculative glance.

Tavi looked around him, struggling to order his thoughts. It was more difficult than he had thought it would be. Too many emotions were rushing back and forth through him. Elation that his plan had succeeded. Crushing guilt, that so many had died for that success. Fury at the Canim, at Kalarus, at the treacherous Lady Antillus, and fury, too, for Sari and his like, whose lust for power had killed so many Alerans and Canim alike. Sickness, nauseous sickness at the sight and scent of so much blood, so many corpses, cut down with steel or charred by the savage sunfire he'd had his Knights unleash on the enemy. Giddiness that he had, against difficult odds, survived the past several days. And... realization.

His work was not yet done.

"All right," he said, raising his voice. "Schultz, get the wounded to the healers and fall back to the wall. Tell the First Spear I want him to consolidate units with too many losses into functioning cohorts and take up defensive positions until we're sure the enemy has withdrawn from the town and is on his way back to Founderport. Get everyone a meal, some rest, especially the healers, and tell him..." Tavi paused, took a breath, and shook his head. "He'll know what to do. Tell him to shore up defenses and see to our people."

Schultz gave him a weary salute. "Yes, sir."

"Max," Tavi said. "Go get our horses."

Max lifted his eyebrows. "We going for a ride?"

"Mmmm. Bring one alae of cavalry. We're going to follow the Canim withdrawal and make sure they want to keep moving away."

"Yes, sir," Max said, saluting. He gave a sharp whistle and a hand signal to someone on the wall and marched away.

"Sir Ehren, if you would, find Magnus and make sure he knows what has happened."

"Right," Ehren said. He nodded to Tavi and passed over his standard. "I don't get along very well with horses, anyway."

Tavi issued several more orders to other members of the Legion, but after that he found himself standing over Sari's fallen form. The Cane looked far smaller now, broken like a toy at Tavi's feet. His skinny body and mangy fur were only partly concealed by the scarlet armor, and his yellowed teeth were worn.

Tavi tried to find some sense of satisfaction that he had taken the life of an enemy of the Realm, of a murderous slive whose plans had nearly killed his friends and his patron at Wintersend, years ago. But he couldn't. Sari had been a threat. Now he was dead. There was no rancor in that thought, for Tavi-nor pride. Nor shame. But perhaps a twinge of regret. Sari might have been a murdering traitor, but Tavi doubted that every Cane who had followed him was the same kind of monster. And his orders had slain thousands of them. They, too, had been dangerous, but not in the same, malicious way. Or not entirely in that way. Regardless, he'd had little choice. But he wished he could have found a way that didn't involve so much blood. So much death.

He felt Kitai's presence behind him and glanced over his shoulder at her. They were now alone upon the bridge, though the wall behind them was manned by legionares. Tavi wondered how long he'd been staring at the dead.

Kitai stepped up to stand beside him, also regarding the fallen.

"You had to," she said quietly. "They would have killed you. Killed everyone."

"I know," Tavi said. "But..."

Kitai looked up and regarded him for a moment, a faint frown marring her brow. "You are mad, Aleran," she said, her tone gentle. "You can be strong. Hard." She laid her fingertips on Tavi's breastplate. "But beneath that, you bleed for the fallen. Even those who are not your own folk."

"I doubt there's another Aleran alive who has spent more time talking to Canim than I," Tavi said. "My people usually skip straight to the killing. So do theirs."

"You think this wrong?"

"I think..." Tavi said, frowning. "I think that it's been going on for so long, neither of us can consider the possibility of stopping it. There's too much history. Too much blood."

"In your place, they would not bleed for you."

"Doesn't matter," Tavi said. "It isn't about being fair and equal. It's about the difference between right and wrong." He stared out at the bloody Elinarch. "And this was wrong." His vision blurred with sudden tears, but his voice stayed steady. "Necessary. And wrong."

"You are mad, Aleran," Kitai said quietly. But her fingers found his, and they stood with clasped hands for a time. Rolling storm clouds still lay overhead, but now they were in motion, restless, and between heavy showers, there were frequently breaks in the clouds to let more sunlight in.

Tavi suddenly snorted out a little laugh.

Kitai tilted her head and waited.

"My ludus game with Nasaug. I was giving him a warning. Showing him that he should fear us. Or trying to, at least. But the whole time, he was playing me like one of the pieces. Pushing me where he wished me to be."

"In what way?" Kitai asked.

"He used me to kill Sari," Tavi said. "He couldn't abandon his countrymen with him. Nor could he permit Sari to lead them to disaster. Nor could he actually enlist my aid, the way Sari conspired with Kalarus. He saw me trying to call Sari out of their host, and he led that night assault and made sure that if Sari didn't step in at once, Nasaug would carry the day. Then, instead of backing Sari up, he stood back and watched. And we killed Sari for him. Just like he wanted."

Kitai shook her head. "The Canim are more like your people than mine, I think," Kitai said. "Only the mad would handle things in such a manner. When my father disagreed with Atsurak leading my people, he challenged him and killed him. It was over in minutes."

Tavi smiled. "Not all of us can be as wise as the Marat." He felt the smile fade. "I did what he wanted. But I may have made a mistake, in the long term."

Kitai nodded. "Nasaug may not have Sari's powers, but he will lead his people much more ably than Sari ever could have."

"Yes. Inspire loyalty. Courage. Nasaug is cut off from his home, from help. But he could turn every single Cane with him into the equals of his warriors. We dealt with the raiders fairly well, but we barely gave the warriors a bloody nose. Imagine if he'd had fifty thousand of them, instead of ten. He would have taken the bridge in a day."

"I will imagine it when it is before me, ' Kitai said firmly. "You beg fate to make your fears into reality, Aleran. But for the moment, they are only fears. They may come. If so, then face them and overcome them. Until then, pay them no mind. You have enough to think on."

Tavi took a deep breath and nodded. "You're probably right. I'll try."

Behind him, Tavi heard the makeshift walls groan and squeal. He looked over his shoulder, to where the engineers were raising the opening in the walls so that horses could slip through. Moments later, Max and his cavalry rode toward them.

"You go to watch the Canim retreat?" Kitai asked.

"Yes. Nasaug might rally them and hit us again, before we can recover. I don't think we could stop him, but as long as we keep them in sight, we can always take the bridge down before they reach it."

"I will go with you," Kitai said. Her tone brooked no dissent.

Tavi gave her part of a smile. "Once people have time to catch their breath, they're going to realize that you aren't Aleran."

Kitai's teeth flashed in a smile. "That will be interesting."

Tavi felt like ten miles of bad road, but he and Kitai mounted up and rode forth with Max and the cavalry. They trailed the main body of the Canim host at a distance as they marched back to Founderport. Twice during the ride, they were attacked by wounded Canim, stragglers who had fallen behind the column. The attacks were swift, brutal, and ended quickly, and the cavalry advanced in a loose line, finishing off any Canim who could not keep pace with the retreat.

At the end of the day, Tavi watched, exhausted, as a team of eight horsemen entered the occupied ruins of a barn in one of the burned-out steadholts. Tavi followed behind as they swept the ruins, and snarls and the ringing chimes of weaponplay sang out into the dusk.

Tavi watched as a single large, shadowy form leapt a ruined wall and ran. The Cane was slower than most, its gait unsteady, and in its panic it fled directly toward the Aleran cavalry outside the ruins. A second team spurred forward to intercept the lone Cane.

Then Kitai let out a harsh, sudden breath from her horse, beside Tavi's, and hissed, "Stop them. Do it now."

Tavi blinked at her, but then immediately barked, "Second spear, halt!"

The horsemen hauled their mounts to a stop, looking over their shoulders in confusion.

"Come, Aleran," Kitai said, and set out after the lone Cane.

"Wait here," Tavi told Max. "We'll be back in a minute."

"Uh. Sir?" Max said.

Tavi ignored him and followed Kitai. She led him into the twilight, until they found the fleeing Cane, crouched in the feeble shelter offered by a half-collapsed earthen overhang beside a stream.

She stared at them with wide, frightened eyes, and gathered a number of small, piteously mewling forms to her breast.

She.

She.

Tavi stared at her, speechless. A female Cane, with young. Newly born from the look of it. She must have been giving birth while the Canim retreat began. No Aleran had ever actually seen a female Cane, and over the centuries it had given rise to a number of unsavory rumors about how the Canim perpetuated themselves. The truth was simpler, more obvious, and embodiment of it shivered in the rain before him, clutching her young to her, as desperate and as frightened as any Aleran mother would be in her place.

Tavi stepped forward, toward the female Cane. He lowered his chin toward his chest and bared his teeth.

The female's eyes flashed with desperate anger, waging against even more desperate fear, and then her ears flattened, and she tilted her head far to one side, her body bending to bare her throat in abject surrender.

Tavi relaxed his own stance and nodded at the Canim female. Then he tilted his head slightly to one side, and moved a hand at her in a brushing-away gesture.

The female lifted her head and stared at him, ears twitching.

"Go," Tavi told her. He struggled to remember the proper Canish word, and settled for the one Varg would occasionally use when he thought Tavi was taking too long to move a piece on the ludus board, while making the same gesture. "Marrg."

The female stared at him for a moment. Then she bared her throat again, rose, never taking her eyes from him, and vanished into the dark.

Tavi watched her go, thinking furiously.

The Canim had come to Alera-and brought their mates and offspring, their families with them, something that had never happened before.

Which meant...

"Great furies," Tavi breathed. "I am not afraid of Nasaug anymore."

Kitai stared after the female Cane and nodded grimly.

"I'm afraid," Tavi whispered, "of what drove him from his home."


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