Home > Captain's Fury (Codex Alera #4)(8)

Captain's Fury (Codex Alera #4)(8)
Author: Jim Butcher

"Why?" Tavi demanded to no one in particular. "Why are they down there?"

Max's voice gained a tense edge. "Captain, at this point it's academic. Should I order the attack?"

Tavi stared at the valley below. Fighting the Canim was one thing. He'd been doing that for a while. He respected them enough to regret the necessity of killing them though he knew he had little real choice in the matter. It was war. If Alerans didn't kill the Canim, the Canim would promptly kill Alerans, and it was as simple as that.

Except that the cobbled-together Legion below was not made up of Canim. They were Alerans. They were people Tavi had sworn to safeguard and protect.

But they were also the enemy. Two years had taught him that no matter how experienced the army or how skilled the commander, the calculus of war had a single, unalterable constant: death.

More than four thousand Alerans were about to die, and die horribly, and they shouldn't have been there at all. Tavi could not afford to let such a tempting target as the vulnerable column of Canim regulars get past-even if the only way to get them was to destroy the strange Legion with them, whoever they were.

His duty was clear.

Four thousand Alerans. He was about to murder more than four thousand fellow Alerans.

"Bloody crows," he whispered.

Tavi fought the sudden urge to throw up as he raised his hand and began to flash the signal that would travel down the relay line, ordering his men to begin the attack.

Before he could lift his arm enough to give the signal, Tavi felt an odd, sourceless, faint sensation of shock and surprise. He puzzled over it an instant before he realized that the emotions had not been his own. He had sensed them, if only dimly, coming from another source nearby, and Tavi whipped his head around in a sudden panic.

The enemy scout wore loose clothing of plain homespun that had been intentionally stained with earth and plant juices. He was a blocky little brick of a man, not tall, but with grotesquely overdeveloped shoulders and a neck that was literally thicker than the base of his skull. Despite his ragged clothing, he wore genuine legionare's boots, and though his leather sword belt shone with age, it bore a genuine gladius at his hip-and there was nothing old or ragged about the short, powerfully curved hunting bow in his hands. He had emerged from the tall grass and scrub on the ridge not ten feet away.

Tavi got his legs underneath him and whipped his knife from his belt, releasing the heavy blade into a throw almost directly from its sheath. There was no time to grip the knife properly, to set himself to throw or to aim. The knife tumbled through the air, and Tavi noted that even if it had hit point on, instead of landing almost flat against the enemy scout's upper arm, it wouldn't have inflicted anything more than a scratch.

But that hadn't been the point of the throw. The scout released the arrow strung to his bow in an instinctive snap shot, but flinched away from the whirling knife, and his arrow flew wide.

Tavi charged after his knife, put his head down, and plowed an armored shoulder into the scout's belly. The shock of impact jarred his shoulder and neck, and the scout let out a sickly sounding croak as he fell. Tavi came down on top of the scout, seized the man's homespun tunic in both hands, and slammed his helmeted forehead against the scout's face. Tavi felt the shock of the blow through the steel, and heard the scout's nose break with a squishy crunch.

The scout reacted by lifting one iron-strong hand and clamping it down on Tavi's throat. Tavi felt the fury-assisted strength of the scout's arm, and knew that if he didn't do something, the earthcrafter would snap his neck.

Tavi brought his armored knee up in a savage blow that struck home between the scout's legs, and, for a single instant, the power in that deadly arm faltered. Tavi slammed his helmet against the scout's face again, then again, and the man sagged limply back to the ground.

The entire fight had taken all of three or four seconds.

Tavi fell back from the man, his throat on fire. It was hard to suck air in through his mouth, and for a second he feared that the enemy scout had managed to crush his windpipe, but after a few seconds more he was able to gulp down great breaths of air.

Max had his sword out and had been on the way, but Tavi's reaction had been the swifter, and the big Antillan's face was pale. "Bloody crows," he hissed. "Captain?"

"I'm all right," Tavi choked out. "Did they see? Did they hear anything?"

Max rose to a low crouch and looked slowly around, then dropped down again. "There'd have been some noise by now." He met Tavi's eyes. "Captain. You have to signal the attack now."

Tavi stared at the senseless young man lying limp in the grass. He reached up to touch the front rim of his helmet, and his fingers came away wet with blood.

"I know," Max said, his voice low and hard. "I know you don't like killing. I know that they're our own people. I know this is hard and horrible. But that's what war is, Captain. You've got to order the attack."

"Signal Crassus," Tavi said quietly.

Max let out a low breath of relief and nodded, beginning to rise.

"Do not engage. Fall back to the rally point and meet us there."

Max stared at Tavi, his eyes widening.

Tavi continued, wiping his hands clean of blood on the dry grass. "Get word to the Battlecrows to abandon their position and fall back."

Max remained still for a moment. "Captain," he said quietly. "We aren't going to get another opportunity like this one."

Tavi narrowed his eyes as he looked up at his friend. "We're leaving, Tribune. You have your orders."

"Yes, sir," Max said at once, and very quietly. Then he paced off through the grass where he would, Tavi knew, begin flashing hand signals down the line of riders.

Max returned a moment later and watched the enemy forces below begin to march out of the ambush area and beyond their reach. "Bloody crows, Cal-deron. Why?"

"Why not burn four thousand of our own people to death?" Tavi asked. He gestured at the downed scout. "Look at him, Max. What do you see?"

Max stared down at the unconscious man for a moment. Then he frowned, leaned closer, and tugged aside the man's tunic a bit before he rose again. "Muscles are all lopsided, misshapen. He's been chained to a wheel or a plow, for them to develop like that," he said quietly. "He's got lash scars." His right cheek twitched in a tic that Tavi thought Max didn't know he had. "Curling over his shoulders. More on his belly. Collar scars on his neck, too. He's a slave."

"He was a slave," Tavi replied quietly. "No collar now." He nodded down at the army below. "We wanted to know what could make an Aleran fight beside a Cane, Max."

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