Max looked blankly at Tavi for a second, then asked, "Are you insane?"
"This isn't complicated," Tavi told Max. "Take this hammer and break my crowbegotten leg."
It was hard to tell in the wan light of predawn, but Tavi thought he saw his friend turn a bit green. Around them were the sounds of the First Aleran preparing to march. Centurions bellowed. Fish apologized. Veterans complained. Outside the walls, the camp followers, too, were preparing to march.
"Tavi," Max protested. "Look, there's got to be some other way."
Tavi lowered his voice. "If there is, tell me. I can't use the furies in the road for myself or my horse, I can't ride in a wagon without looking awfully suspicious, and I sure as crows can't keep pace on my own for more than an hour or three. A broken leg takes days to heal up well enough to march on it."
Max sighed. "You're insane."
"Insane?" Tavi asked. "Have you got a better idea, Max? Because if you do, this would be a good time to share it with me."
Max let out an exasperated sound, muttering several choice curses under his breath. "Bribery," he said finally. "You grease the right palms, you can get out of almost anything. It's the Legion way."
"You can loan me some money, then?"
Max scowled. "Not right now. I lost it all to Marcus at a card game two nights ago."
"Well done. "
Max's scowl deepened. "Where's your money?"
"I've been buying baths every night, remember? They aren't cheap."
Tavi slapped the handle of a small smithy's hammer into Max's hand. "Lower leg. We'll tell the medicos that a horse spooked and rolled a wagon wheel over it."
"Tavi, " Max protested. "You're my friend. I don't hit friends."
"You hit me when we were training!" Tavi said, indignant. "You broke my wristl"
"That's different," Max said, as if the distinction was perfectly obvious. "It was for your own good."
A column of mounted soldiers jogged by, tack and harness jingling. The riders were in a jovial mood, by their talk, and Tavi caught snippets of rude jokes, friendly insults, and easy laughter.
"The scouts have already left," Tavi said. He nodded at the mounted troop. "There goes the vanguard. We'll get the order to march in a minute, so stop acting like an old beldame and break my stupid leg. It's your duty."
"Crows take duty," Max said easily. "You are my friend, which is more important."
"Max, so help me, one day I'm going to beat some sense into your head with a rock," Tavi told him. "A big, heavy rock." He held out his hand for the hammer. "Give it."
Max passed the tool back to Tavi, his tone relieved. "Good. Look, I'll bet we could figure out some other way to-"
Tavi took the hammer in his grip, braced his right leg against the wheel of a nearby wagon, and before he could actually stop to think about it, he swung it hard into the side of his shin.
The bone broke with an audible crackling sound.
Pain flooded through Tavi's senses in a sudden fire, and it was suddenly all he could do not to scream. His whole body felt shockingly weak for a moment, as if the blow had transformed muscle and sinew to water, and he dropped to his rear, clutching at the wounded limb.
"Bloody crows and carrion!" Max swore, his eyes huge with surprise. "You're insane, man. Insane!"
"Shut up," Tavi said through clenched teeth. "And get me to a medico."
Max stared him for another long second, then shook his head and said, bewildered, "Right. What are friends for?" He stooped down and moved as though to pick Tavi up and carry him as one would a child.
Max rolled his eyes and grabbed one of Tavi's arms instead, hauling it over his shoulder to support his weight.
A growling, rough voice said, "There you are, Antillar. Why the crows is your bloody century lined up beside Larus's..." Valiar Marcus drew up short as he spotted Max and Tavi, and the battle-scarred old veteran's ugly face twisted into a squint. "What the crows is this, Maximus?" He glanced at Tavi and threw him a casual salute. "Subtribune Scipio."
Tavi grimaced and nodded in response to the First Spear. "I was loading the wagon," he said, focusing on the words and trying to ignore the pain. "The horse spooked. Wheel went over my leg."
"The horse spooked," the First Spear said. He glanced at the horse hitched to the supply wagon.
The greying draft animal stood placidly in its traces with its head down, sound asleep.
"Urn," Tavi said. He licked his lips and tried to think of something to tell the First Spear, but the pain of his leg made it difficult to come up with anything with his customary speed. Tavi glanced at Max.
Max shrugged at the First Spear. "I didn't see it happen. Just came along and there he was."
"There he was," the First Spear said. Valiar Marcus squinted at Tavi. Then he took two steps and bent down. He stood up again with the smith's hammer. "Spooked horse. Wagon wheel." He squinted down at the hammer, then at the two young men.
Max coughed. "I didn't see anything."
"Thanks," Tavi muttered sourly.
"What are friends for," Max said.
Valiar Marcus snorted. "Antillar, get your century to its proper place and prepare to march." He glanced at Tavi. "Going to be a nice day to march, sir," he observed. "But I suppose not everyone has the same opinion."
"Urn. Yes, centurion," Tavi replied.
The First Spear shook his head and tossed the hammer to Max. Max caught it neatly by the handle. "Best get the subtribune to a medico first," Marcus said. "Maybe drop that by the smithy wagons on the way, eh? Then get your fish to their place in the ranks. I'll tell the senior teamster to be more careful with this, ah, nervous horse, eh?"
The old horse let out a snore. Tavi hadn't known they could do that.
Max nodded, and threw the First Spear an awkward salute with the hand holding the hammer. It came dangerously close to braining Tavi in the temple, and he ducked aside from it, threatening Max's balance.
The First Spear muttered a chuckling oath beneath his breath and stalked off.
"Think he figured out your clever plan?" Max asked brightly.
"Shut up, Max." Tavi sighed, and the pair started limping for the medicos. "Is he going to talk? If someone starts asking questions, it isn't going to take them long to find out that I've got no crafting of my own. And I only know of one person in the whole bloody Realm like that. It will blow my cover."
Max grimaced. "Some spy you are. Maybe next time when I tell you the plan is crazy..."
"What? If you hadn't wasted time whining about it, we wouldn't be in this mess!"
"You wanna walk to the medico without me?" Max growled. "Is that it, Scipio?"
"If it will save me hearing more of your complaining, I might!" Tavi said.
Max snorted. "I ought to dump you in one of your latrines and leave you there." But despite his words, the big northerner bore Tavi toward the medical wagons, careful not to jostle his friend's leg.
"Just keep your mouth shut," Tavi said, when Max got him to the wagon. "Until we know what he's doing."
"Right," Max said. He left Tavi in the hands of the healers, then pulled his centurion's baton from his belt and jogged off to pull his soldiers into proper marching order.
Foss appeared from one of the other wagons. The bearish old healer hopped up into the bed of the wagon Tavi sat in and briefly examined his leg. "Hungh. Accident, huh?"
"Yes," Tavi said.
"Should have just bribed the First Spear to let you drive a wagon, kid. Don't have to be a real good bribe for something like that."
Tavi frowned. "How much? Once I get paid..."
"Cash only," Foss said, his voice firm.
"Oh. In that case, I told you," Tavi said. "It was an accident."
Foss snorted and poked at Tavi's leg.
It felt like a blade sinking into his skin, and he clamped his teeth together on a hiss of pain. "And I spent all my money at the Pavilion."
"Ah," Foss said, nodding. "Got to learn to balance your vices, sir. Lay off a little on the wenching, save something for avoiding work." He dragged a long, slender tub from the back of the wagon, and filled it from a couple of heavy water jugs. Then he helped Tavi remove his boot, an agonizing process that made Tavi promise himself that he would take off the boot before he broke his own leg, the next time.
Foss hadn't begun the healing yet when the Legion's drums rolled, putting the column on notice that it was almost time to move. A moment later, a clarion sounded from the head of the column, and the wagons and infantry began to move. At first, they moved quite slowly, until the men and horses reached the causeway, then they picked up speed. A double-quick march stepped up to a steady jog, and from there they increased the pace to a mile-eating lope that was not quite a full sprint. The horses, similarly, worked their way up to a canter, and the wagon jounced and jittered along behind them.
Tavi felt every bump in the road in his wounded leg. Each one sent a flash of pain through him that felt like some small and fiendishly determined creature taking a bite out of his leg. That went on for what felt like half a lifetime, until Foss finally seemed satisfied that the pace had steadied enough to allow him to work and slipped Tavi s wounded leg into the tub.
The watercrafting that healed the bone was quick, transforming the pain to a sudden, intense, somehow benevolent heat. When that faded a moment later, it took most of the pain with it, and Tavi collapsed wearily onto his back.
"Easy there, sir," Foss rumbled. "Here. Get some bread into you at least, before you sleep." He passed Tavi a rough, rounded loaf, and Tavi's suddenly empty belly growled. Tavi devoured the loaf, a small wedge of cheese, and guzzled down almost a full skin of weak wine before Foss nodded, and said, "That's good enough. Have you back on your feet in no time."
Tavi devoutly hoped not. He flopped back down, threw an arm across his eyes, and vanished into sleep.
He became dimly aware of alarmed shouts and blaring horns sounding a halt. The wagon slowed to a stop. Tavi opened his eyes to a sullen, overcast sky that flickered with flashes of reddish light and rumbled with threatening thunder. Tavi sat up, and asked Foss, "What's going on?"
The veteran healer stood up in the back of the wagon as it came to a halt, peering ahead. A drum rattled in a series of fast and slow beats, and Foss exhaled a curse. "Casualties."
"We're fighting already?" Tavi asked. He shook his head, hoping to slosh some of the sleep from it.
"Make a path!" called a woman's voice, louder than humanly possible, and Lady Antillus's large white horse thundered down the road, forcing legionares to scamper out of its path and other horses to dance nervously in place. She went by within a few feet of Tavi, her harness and coin purse jingling.
"Come on," Foss growled. "Nothing wrong with your arms, sir."
He motioned Tavi to help him, and the two of them wrangled a pair of full-body tubs from the wagon and to the ground. It hurt his leg abominably, sore muscles clenching into burning knots, but Tavi ground his teeth and did his best to ignore it. He and Foss dragged the tubs to the side of the causeway as Lady Antillus hauled her steed to a sliding halt and leapt down from the horse's back with an odd melding of poise and athleticism.
"Water," Foss grunted. Tavi pulled himself back into the wagon and began wrangling the heavy jugs to the end of the wagon. Wind rose to a thunderous roar, and Commander Fantus and Crassus shot down the road not ten feet above the ground, each man bearing an unmoving form over one shoulder. Lady Antillus, Foss, and four other healers met them, taking the wounded men from the Knights Aeris. They stripped the injured of armor with practiced efficiency and got both men into the tub.
Tavi observed from the bed of the wagon and kept his mouth shut. The men's injuries were... odd. Both were smeared with blood, and both thrashed wildly, letting out breathless cries of pain. Long strips of the skin on their legs were simply gone, in bands perhaps an inch wide, as though they'd been lashed with red-hot chains.
Once they were in the tubs, Lady Antillus stepped forward and seized one of the wounded Knight's head. He struggled for a moment more, then eased slowly down into the tub, panting but not screaming, his eyes glazed. She did the same for the second man, then gestured to the healers and settled down to examine the men and confer.
More thundering hoofbeats approached, though this time they were well to the side of the road, away from the danger of spooking a nervous horse or trampling an unlucky legionare. Captain Cyril and the First Spear drew up to the healers. The captain dismounted, followed by Valiar Marcus, and looked around until he spotted Knight Tribune Fantus. "Tribune? Report."
Fantus grimaced at the two young men in the tub, then saluted Cyril. "We were attacked, sir."
"Attacked?" Cyril demanded. "By who?"
"By what," Fantus corrected. "Something up at the edge of that cloud cover. Whatever it was, I didn't get a good look at it." He gestured to Crassus. "He did."
Crassus just stared at the two wounded men, his face entirely bloodless, his expression nauseated. Tavi felt a spike of sympathy for the young man, despite his enmity for Maximus. Crassus had seen his first blood spilled, and he looked too young to be dealing with such a thing, even to Tavi.
"Sir Crassus," Cyril said, his voice purposefully pitched loudly enough to shock the young Knight from his motionless stare.
"Sir?" Crassus said. He saluted a beat late, as if just then remembering protocol.
Cyril glanced at the boy, grimaced, and said in a quieter voice, "What happened up there, son?"
Crassus licked his lips, eyes focused into the distance. "I was point man on the air patrol, sir. Bardis and Adrian, there, were my flankers. I wanted to take advantage of the cover, hide us in the edges where we could still watch the ground ahead. I led them up there."
He shuddered and closed his eyes.
"Go on," Cyril said, his voice quiet and unyielding.
Crassus blinked his eyes several times. "Something came out of the cloud. Scarlet things. Shapes."
"No, sir. Definitely not. They were solid, but... amorphous, I think, is the word. They didn't have a fixed profile. And they had all these legs. Or maybe tentacles. They came out of nowhere and grabbed us with them."
Cyril frowned. "What happened?"
"They started choking us. Pulling at us. More of them kept coming." Crassus took a deep breath. "I burned off the one that had me, and tried to help them. I cut at them, and it seemed to hurt them-but it didn't slow them down. So I started chopping at those leg things until Bardis was free. I think Adrian had an arm free and struck, too. But neither of them could keep themselves up, so I had to catch them before they fell. Sir Fantus helped, or I would have lost one of them."
Cyril pursed his lips, brows furrowed in consternation. "Lady Antillus? How fare the men?"
The High Lady glanced up from her work. "They've been burned. Some sort of acid, I believe. It is potent-it is still dissolving flesh."
"Will they live?"
"Too soon to tell," she said, and turned back to the tubs.
Cyril grunted, rubbed at his jaw, and asked Fantus, "Did you get a feel for the crafting behind this overcast?"
"No," Fantus said. "It isn't furycrafted."
More thunder rumbled. Scarlet lightning danced behind veils of clouds. "It's natural?"
Fantus stared up. "Obviously not. But it isn't furycraft."
"What else could it be?" Cyril murmured. He glanced at the wounded Knights. "Acid burns. Never heard of a fury that could do that."
Fantus squinted up at the overcast sky, and asked, "What else could it be?"
Cyril's eyes followed the Knight Tribune's gaze. "Well. If life was simple and predictable, imagine how bored we'd all get."
"Bored is good," Fantus said. "I like bored."
"So do I. But it would appear that fate did not consult with either one of us." Cyril rubbed at his forehead with one thumb, his face distant, pensive. "We need to know more. Take your best fliers up and be on your guard. Get another look at them if you can. We need to know if they're going to stay up there in the cover or if they'll come down here for dinner."
"Yes, sir," Fantus said.
"Meanwhile, I want one tier of the air patrol to keep a relatively low ceiling. Say, halfway up. Then a second tier, above them, keeping an eye on the clouds. If there's trouble, the first tier can come up to help."
Fantus frowned. "That near the ground it's going to be tiring on the first tier, Captain. The men will have to take it in shifts. It will severely reduce the number of eyes we've got looking out for trouble."
"We aren't in hostile territory. Better that than to lose more of our Knights Aeris to these things. We're spread thin enough as it is. Do it."
Fantus nodded and saluted again. Then he went to Crassus and stood beside the young Knight, staring down at the men in the tubs.
Tavi glanced back at the tubs and nearly threw up.
One of the men was dead, horribly dead, his body shrunken and wrinkled like a rotten grape, gaping holes burned into the body. The other Knight was breathing in frenzied gasps, his eyes wide and bulging, while the healers worked frantically to save him.
"It would seem that someone is attempting to impede our progress," the captain said to the First Spear.
"Doesn't make much sense. The way we're marching, we're getting out of Kalarus's way. Totally out of the theater of this war. He should be happy to see us on the road."
"Yes," Cyril said. "But it would seem that someone wants us slow and blind."
The First Spear grunted. "Which means you want to move fast and find out what the crows is going on out here. Just to spite him."
Cyril's teeth flashed in a swift smile. "Take half a glass for the men and the animals to get some water. Then we're on the march again."
The First Spear saluted the captain and marched off, beckoning runners and delivering orders.
Cyril stared at the survivor of the attack. He was slowly easing down from his agonized thrashing. He stepped up to stand beside Crassus. The young Knight hadn't moved. His gaze remained on the sad, withered body of the dead man.
"Sir Crassus," Cyril said.
The captain took the young man by his shoulders and gently forced his entire body to turn away from the corpse, and toward the captain. "Sir Crassus, you can do nothing for him. Your brother Knights need your eyes and thoughts to be upon your duty. They are who you should focus upon."
Crassus shook his head. "If I'd-"
"Sir Crassus," Cyril said, his tone quiet but hard. "Writhing in recrimination and self-doubt is a game your men cannot afford you to play. You are a Knight of the Realm, and you will comport yourself as such."
Crassus stiffened to attention, swallowed, and threw the captain a steady salute.
Cyril nodded. "Better. You've done all you can for them. Return to your duties, Sir Crassus."
"Sir, " Max's half brother said. He began to look over his shoulder but arrested the movement with a visible effort, then donned his helmet and strode back toward the front of the column.
Cyril watched Crassus for a moment, then the healers began to back away from the second tub, with the air of men whose work had been completed. The young Knight in the tub, though pale as death, was breathing steadily while Lady Antillus continued to kneel beside the tub, her head bowed, her hands on the injured Knight's head.
Cyril nodded, and his gaze fell on Tavi. "Scipio?" he asked. "What happened to you?"
"Accident with a cart, sir," Tavi replied.
"Broke his leg," Foss provided with a grunt, as he returned to the wagon.
Cyril arched a brow and glanced at Foss. "How bad?"
"Lower leg, clean break. I mended it. Shouldn't be a problem."
Cyril stared at Tavi for a long moment, his eyes narrowed. Then he nodded.
Lady Antillus rose from the healing tub, smoothed her skirts, and walked sedately to the captain. She saluted him.
"Tribune," Cyril greeted her. "How is he?"
"I believe he is stable," Lady Antillus replied, her voice cool, calm. "Barring complications, he should survive. The acid ate away most of the muscle on his left thigh and his right forearm. He'll never serve again."
"There's more to serving a Legion than fighting," Cyril said quietly.
"Yes, sir," Lady Antillus said, her neutral tone speaking clearly as to her disagreement.
"Thank you, Your Grace," Cyril said. "For his life."
Lady Antillus's expression became remote and unreadable, and she inclined her head very slightly.
Cyril returned the nod, then turned to his horse, mounted, and headed back up the column.
Lady Antillus turned to Tavi after the captain left. "Scipio."
"Tribune," Tavi said, saluting her.
"Hop down from the wagon," she said firmly. "Let's see your leg."
Lady Antillus arched a brow. "I am the Tribune Medica of this Legion. You are one of my charges. Now hop down, Subtribune."
Tavi nodded and eased himself down slowly, careful to put as little weight as he could on his wounded leg.
Lady Antillus knelt and touched the wounded leg for a moment, then rose and rolled her eyes. "It's nothing."
"Foss healed it," Tavi said.
"It is a minor injury," she said. "Surely, Scipio, someone with even your modest skills of metalcrafting could ignore any discomfort it might cause and march."
Tavi glanced back at Foss, but the healer was supervising the loading of the wounded Knight into the bed of the wagon and studiously kept his eyes away. "I'm afraid not, Your Grace," Tavi improvised, regarding her thoughtfully. "It's still fairly tender, and I don't want to slow the Legion."
Clearly, he hadn't fooled Lady Antillus by starting that fire. It was depress-ingly probable that she knew or at least strongly suspected his identity, and she was out to expose him. Given how badly he'd beaten her nephew, Kalarus Bren-cis Minoris, back at that fiasco during Wintersend, he wasn't surprised at her animosity. Even so, he couldn't allow her to prove to everyone in sight who he was.
Which meant that he had to act.
"I'm sorry, Your Grace," Tavi said. "But I can't put any weight on it yet."
"I see," Lady Antillus said. Then she reached out and firmly pushed on Tavi's shoulder, forcing his weight to the injured leg.
Tavi felt a flash of pain that shot from his right heel to his right collarbone. The leg buckled and he fell, pitching forward into Lady Antillus, almost knocking her down.
The High Lady let Tavi fall and recovered her balance. Then she shook her head, and said, "I've seen little girls in Antillus bear more than that." Her eyes fell on Foss. "I don't care to waste my time dealing with obvious shirkers. Watch the leg. Get him back on his feet the moment you deem him fit. Meanwhile, he can play nurse for the casualty."
Foss saluted. "Yes, Tribune."
Lady Antillus glared down at Tavi. Then she tossed her dark hair back over one shoulder, mounted her horse again, and kicked it into a run toward the front of the column.
After she was gone, Foss snickered. "You've got a nose for trouble, sir."
"Sometimes," Tavi agreed. "Foss. Assuming I can get some cash, how much are we talking, to ride in the wagon."
Foss considered. "Two gold eagles at least."
Tavi returned his small knife to its sheath in his pocket, calmly loosened the neatly sliced strings of Lady Antillus's coin purse, and upended its contents into his hand. Three gold crowns, half a dozen gold eagles, and eleven silver bulls jingled together. Tavi selected a gold crown and flicked the coin to Foss.
The healer caught the coin on reflex and stared at Tavi, then at the silk purse. His eyes widened, and he made strangling sounds in his throat.
"That's five times your asking price," Tavi said. "And I'll help with your casualty the whole way. Good enough?"
Foss rubbed a hand back over his short-shorn hair. Then he let out a rough laugh and pocketed the coin. "Kid, you got more balls than brains. I like that. Get in."