Cursor's Fury

Chapter 8


"Bloody crows," Cyril snarled. "Get moving, Subtribune."

Tavi grasped the outside of the ladder with his hands and slid down it, feet pressing the sides of the ladder rather than using the rungs. He hit the ground, flexed his legs to absorb the shock, and sprinted for the infirmary tents. He heard Captain Cyril land behind him, then keep pace with Tavi despite the weight of his armor.

"Make a hole!" Tavi shouted at the recruits gathered outside the tent, doing his best to imitate Max's tone, volume, and inflection when he issued orders. "Captain coming through!"

Fish hastened to stand aside, most of them throwing hasty, suddenly remembered salutes as Cyril came through. Tavi swept the tent flap aside and held it for the captain, then followed him in.

The healer within was a veteran named Foss. He was most of seven feet tall, built like a Phrygian mountain bear, and his armor was of the style of standard Legion-issue from nearly forty years ago and looked slightly different than the current design. It bore an impressive number of dents and dings, but was impeccably maintained, and the man moved in it like it was his own skin. Foss had a short, thick brush of grey hair cropped close to his head, and deep-set, narrow eyes.

"In the tub," he snarled to the fish carrying Max, gesturing them to a long wooden watercrafter's trough filled with water. "Careful, careful. Crows take it, man, do you want to tear the wound open even farther?"

They got Max into the tub, still in his armor. The water covered him up to his chin, with his head resting on a supporting incline. Muttering darkly to himself, Foss reached in and adjusted the incline, lowering it until the water covered all of Max but his lips, nose, and eyes. Then he knelt behind Max and thrust his hands into the water, closing his eyes.

"Give him room to work, recruits," Captain Cyril said in a quiet voice. He pointed at the opposite corner of the tent, and the bloodstained young men hastened to obey him.

Tavi bit his lip, staring at his friend. Max's skin looked strange-waxy and colorless. He couldn't see if Max still drew breath.

"Healer," Cyril murmured a moment later.

"Give me some quiet here," growled Foss, his rumbling basso threatening. After a good half a minute, he added, "Sir." He went on muttering to himself under his breath, mostly colorful vulgarities from what Tavi could hear. Then Foss drew in a breath and held it.

"He's been hurt before," Tavi said to the captain. "Do you think he'll be all right?"

Cyril never took his eyes from Max. "It's bad," he said shortly.

"I saw him run through. That should have killed him. But he was up and walking inside four hours."

Cyril's gaze moved to Tavi, his expression remote, hard, though his voice remained very quiet. "Your babbling might distract Foss. If you want to help your friend, put your bloody teeth together and keep them that way. Or get out."

Tavi's cheeks flushed with warmth, and he nodded, closing his jaws with an audible click. It was a physical effort to stop talking. Max was his friend, and Tavi felt terrified. He did not want to lose him. His instincts screamed at him to shout, to order the healer to work faster, to do something. But he knew that he couldn't.

Tavi hated the helpless feeling that knowledge sent through him. He'd had a lifetime to get familiar with it, when his lack of furycrafting continually put him at a disadvantage in virtually every facet of his life. He would have given anything to have a healer's skill at watercrafting, to be able to help his friend.

The captain was right. The best thing he could do for Max was to shut his mouth and wait.

There wasn't a sound for nearly two minutes, and every second of it felt like a week.

Then Foss exhaled a low, agonized groan, bearish body sagging forward over Max.

Max suddenly jerked and drew in a ragged, choking breath.

Foss grunted, still sagging, and his rumbling voice sounded unsteady. "Got him, Cap," he said after a moment. "It was real close."

Tavi heard Cyril exhale slowly himself, though he kept his face from any expression. "I thought Lady Antillus was here today," he said. "How is it that she was not here to care for Maximus?"

Foss shook his head and slowly sat up again, drawing his arms from the bloodied water to sit down immediately on the canvas floor. "Lunch with her son, she said."

"Ah, yes. Family lunch," Cyril said. "How is he?"

"Bad, Cap. He's tougher'n a gargant leather boot, but he bled out more than I've ever seen a man survive."

"Will he recover?"

Foss shook his head again. "Wound is closed. He's breathin'. But losing that much blood can do bad things to a man's head. Maybe he wakes up. Maybe he doesn't. Maybe he wakes up, and he ain't himself no more. Or can't walk. Or he wakes up simple."

"Is there anything we might do to help him?"

Foss shrugged and from his sitting position fell wearily onto his back, rubbing at his forehead with one blunt-fingered hand. "Don't know that he needs anything but time. But I'm just an old Legion healer. Maybe the High Lady knows better than me, or can see more than I can about him."

"Crows," the captain muttered. He turned and frowned at the recruits, still in their corner-eight of them, Tavi noted, a spear of men who would march in file together and share the standard Legion tent. "File leader," Cyril commanded.

One of the young men, a tall and gawky youth, came to attention and saluted. "Captain, sir."

"What's your name, son?"

"Schultz, sir. "

"Report," Cyril said. "What happened, recruit Schultz?"

"It was an accident, sir."

Cyril was silent for a second, staring at the recruit, who swallowed and blanched and grew even more rigid.

"The captain knows it was an accident, recruit," Tavi said. "Tell him the particulars of it."

The boy's face reddened. "Oh. Sir, sorry, sir, yes, sir. Um. We were our cohort's strongest spear at our sword lessons. First ones to get issued live swords, sir. Centurion Antillar had us running our drills with live blades for the first time, all in a row, sir. He was going to show us to our whole cohort, sir, before they got their blades. He went up and down the line, watching us, calling our mistakes, sir."

"Go on," Cyril said. "How was he injured?"

The boy shook his head. "Sir, it was an accident. He had just corrected me and he was walking away from me, where he could watch the whole line of us. And I went through a number eight thrust." The recruit shifted his feet into a fighting stance and swept his right arm straight up from down low by his leg. Such a stroke from a sword could disembowel a man, and though difficult to use, in the close press of combat it could be devastating. "And the sword... just slipped out of my hand, sir."

"It slipped," Cyril said quietly, his gaze level.

The recruit snapped back to attention. "Yes, sir. I haven't ever had that happen before. It slipped and it flew out spinning and it struck Centurion Antillar in the side of the neck, sir." He looked down at himself, and for the first time seemed to see the blood all over him. "I didn't mean it to happen, sir. Not at all. I'm sorry, sir."

The captain folded his arms. "He had just finished correcting you. He had his back to you. Your sword inexplicably flew from your grasp and struck his throat. You say it was an accident."

"Yes, sir."

"And you expect me to believe that?"

The recruit blinked at him. "Sir?"

"Men have lost their tempers with their centurions in the past. Sometimes they were angry enough to kill them. Perhaps you couldn't stand Antillar's criticism of your technique. It's a hot day. You've not eaten. Maybe you lost your temper and killed him."

The recruit's mouth dropped open. "Sir... " He shook his head. "I'd never, no sir, Centurion Antillar, no sir."

"We'll see," Cyril said quietly. "I will be looking into this more thoroughly. Get back to your cohort, recruits. Schultz. Don't attempt to leave the camp. The men who I'd send to hunt you down would have orders to execute you on sight."

The young man swallowed and saluted again.

"Dismissed."

Schultz led his fellow recruits out of the tent, and only a second later the flap flew open again and an armored Knight entered, accompanied by the beautiful Lady Antillus. The Knight jerked to a stop upon seeing Max in the tub, his mouth dropping open. Lady Antillus drew in a breath, placing the fingers of one hand over the bodice of her blue-on-blue silk gown, her eyes wide.

For some reason he could never have put a name to, Tavi did not believe Lady Antillus's gesture was a genuine one. It was too smooth, perhaps, too flowing to be true shock and distress.

"Great furies preserve," she said. "What has happened to my stepson?"

"According to the recruit whose weapon struck him, it was a training accident, my lady," Cyril said.

Lady Antillus's expression grew distressed. "He looks horrible. I take it that Foss has seen to him?"

Foss grunted from the floor. "Aye, m'lady. But he lost a lot of blood."

"What is his prognosis?" she asked the healer.

"Urn. What?" Foss asked.

"He's not in immediate danger," Tavi interjected. "But the extent of the damage that may have been inflicted by blood loss is not yet clear."

Lady Antillus's attention turned to Tavi, and he could feel the full, throbbing force of her personality behind that gaze. She was not a tall woman, in particular, and she had dark hair that fell in a straight, shimmering curtain to her hips. Her face was pale, with a touch of the perpetually ruddy cheeks that come to those living in the northern climates, and her eyes were the color of deep amber. She had stark cheekbones and thin lips, and taken together it made her look too harsh to be conventionally beautiful-but the grace of her carriage and the steady, burning fires of intelligence in her amber eyes combined into an impressive, attractive whole.

Once again, Tavi was struck with the notion that she looked familiar to him, but for the life of him he could not track down the proper memory.

"I don't believe we've spoken, young man," she said.

Tavi bowed to her at the waist. "Subtribune Scipio Rufus, m'lady. I, of course, know who you are."

The Knight stepped forward, staring at the silent Max. It wasn't until he did that Tavi realized that he was several years younger than Tavi himself. He was a little under average height and slender. His hair was long and auburn, his eyes ivy green, and his armor was of masterful quality-and completely unmarred.

"Mother," the young Knight said quietly, "he looks like death. Shouldn't we... do something? Take care of him?"

"Of course, we-"

"No," Captain Cyril said, overriding her with his own voice.

Lady Antillus stared at Cyril in shock. "Excuse me?"

The captain bowed slightly toward her. "Beg pardon, lady. I ought to have said, 'not yet.' The centurion has endured a great shock, but his injuries have been ably closed. I judge that he needs rest, first. Any further crafting could tax whatever strength remains in him and do more harm than good."

"Right," the young Knight said, nodding. "He's got a point, Mother-"

"Crassus," Lady Antillus snapped, her voice cool and edged.

The young Knight dropped his eyes and shut his mouth at once.

Lady Antillus turned back to Cyril. "In good conscience I must ask: Are you actually arrogant enough to think you know better than a trained watercrafter? Are you a Tribune Medica, Captain?"

"I am the Tribune Medica's commanding officer, Tribune," Cyril said in a perfectly calm voice. "I am the man who can tell the Tribune Medica either to follow her orders or depart the service of this Legion."

Lady Antillus's eyes widened. "Do you dare speak to me so, Captain?"

"Leave this tent. That is my order, Tribune."

"Or what follows?" she asked in a quiet voice.

"Or I will discharge you in dishonor and have you escorted from this camp."

Lady Antillus's eyes flashed with anger, and the air of the tent suddenly became stiflingly warm. "Beware, Cyril. This is foolishness."

The captain's mild tone never changed. "This is foolishness, what, Tribune?"

Heat rolled off the High Lady as if from a large kitchen oven, and she spat, "Sir."

"Thank you, Tribune. We'll discuss this again when Maximus has had the chance to rest." Then his own eyes and expression hardened for the first time, and the captain's face looked harder than the steel of armor or sword. His voice dropped to barely a murmur. "Dismissed."

Lady Antillus spun on her heel and stalked from the tent. The heat of her anger lingered, and Tavi felt his face beading with sweat.

"And you, Sir Crassus," Cyril said, his voice assuming its more usual, brisk tones. "We'll take care of him."

Crassus nodded once without lifting his eyes, then hurried out.

Silence fell over the tent. Cyril let out a long breath. Tavi mopped at the sweat now running into his eyes. The only sound was that of droplets of water falling from the crafting tub as Max breathed, the slight motion overflowing the tub's edge, here and there.

"Someone's never getting promoted ever again," observed Foss from his place on the floor.

Cyril showed the exhausted healer a fleeting smile before shrugging his shoulders and straightening his spine, reassuming his usual air of detached command. "There's not much trouble she can cause for me by accusing me of issuing orders to a lawful subordinate."

"Not official trouble," Tavi said quietly.

"What are you saying, Subtribune?"

Tavi glanced at his friend, silent in the tub. "Accidents happen."

Cyril met Tavi's eyes and said, "Aye. They do."

Tavi tilted his head. "You knew. That's why you welcomed Max to the staff meeting. To warn him that she was here."

"I simply wanted to make an old friend welcome," Cyril said.

"You don't think that recruit hurt Max. You knew that she was outside. That was for her benefit, to make her think that you didn't realize what was happening."

The captain's frown deepened. "Excuse me?"

"Captain," Tavi began. "Do you think that Lady-"

"No," Cyril said, sharply, raising warning a hand. "I don't think that. And neither do you, Scipio."

Tavi grimaced. "But it's why you didn't want her close to Max."

"I simply gave her an order and made sure she followed it," Cyril said. "But be careful with your words, Scipio. Should you say the wrong thing and be overheard, you'll find yourself in juris macto with the High Lady. She'd burn you to cinders. So unless you get something solid, so solid that it will stand up in a court of law, you keep your mouth shut and your opinions to yourself. Do you understand me?"

"Yes, sir," Tavi replied.

Cyril grunted. "Foss."

"I never hear or remember or repeat anything, sir."

"Good man," Cyril said. "When Maximus wakes up, we need to have a familiar face here. He's going to be confused, disoriented. As strong as he is, he could do some damage if he panicked." Cyril drummed his fingers idly against the hilt of his sword. "I've got an hour or so. Scipio, go tell Gracchus that I'm giving you special duty for a day or two. Get a big meal. Bring some food with you. I'll spell you, or send the First Spear in my place."

Tavi swallowed. "Do you really think he's in danger, sir?"

"I've said everything I intend to. The important thing now is to prevent any further accidents. Now move."

"Yes, sir," Tavi said, and saluted.

But then he paused at the door to the tent. Max was helpless. It was a horrible, cynical thought, but what if the captain's confrontation with the High Lady had been staged for Tavi's benefit? What if by walking away from Max, Tavi was in fact condemning his friend to death?

Tavi looked over his shoulder at the captain.

Cyril stood over the tub. He looked up at Tavi and arched an eyebrow. Then the captain frowned, and Tavi had the uncomfortable impression that Cyril had seen the direction of Tavi's thoughts.

Cyril met Tavi's gaze, his eyes steady. Tavi could see the strength in the man-not the raging strength of storms that underlay Gaius's rage, or the smoldering fire of Lady Antillus's anger. This strength was something older, humbler, as steady and sure as the rolling hillsides of the Vale, as set in place as the ancient, worn old mountains around it, as unchanging in the face of turmoil as waters of a deep well. Tavi couldn't have said how he knew it, but he did: Cyril respected the power of those like Lady Antillus, but he did not fear them. He would neither bow his knee nor stain his honor for her or her like.

"Maximus is Legion," the captain said, chin lifted proudly. "If harm comes to him, it will be because I am dead."

Tavi nodded once. He touched his fist to his heart and nodded to the captain. Then he turned and hurried from the tent to follow Cyril's orders.


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