The Legion followers camp lay farther from the actual Legion camp than was the norm: While the Legions had inhabited the standard-format fortifications built into the town itself, there was not room enough for townsfolk, Legion, and followers alike. The newer portions of the town had been built outside the protection of the walls, and the followers had pitched their tents on the common land surrounding the city, on the downriver side of the town.
It wasn't a pleasant camp, by any means. The ground was soft and too easily churned into mud by passing feet. Footprints filled with water that oozed into them, which in turn gave birthplaces to uncounted midges, mites, and buzzing annoyances. When the wind blew from the river or the city, it carried a distinct odor in one or more of several unpleasant varieties.
But for all that, the followers' camp had been set up in roughly the same order as it had been at the training grounds, and Tavi picked out the flutes and drums of Mistress Cymnea's Pavilion without trouble. He wound his way there through the darkened camp. The sharp smell of amaranthium incense, burned at each fire to ward off insects, made his nose itch and his eyes water slightly.
Tavi glimpsed a shadow ahead of him and came to a stop beneath a single lonely furylamp hung beside the entrance to the Pavilion. Tavi unfastened and removed his helmet and held up a hand in greeting. Bors, lurking near the entrance as always, lifted his chin a fraction of an inch by way of reply, then held up a hand, indicating that Tavi should wait.
He did, and after a moment, a tall, slender shadow replaced Bors, and walked with swaying grace to him.
"Mistress Cymnea," Tavi said, bowing his head. "I hardly expected to see you up this late."
Cymnea smiled from within her cloak's hood, and said, "I've been following Legions since I was a little girl, Subtribune. Shouts and signal drums in the middle of the night mean one of two things: fire or battle."
Tavi nodded. "Canim," he said, and his voice sounded grim, even to him. "We aren't sure how many. It would appear to be a major incursion."
Cymnea drew in a sharp breath. "I see."
"Captain Cyril's compliments, Mistress, and he wants the camp followers to be ready to withdraw into the city's walls should it become necessary."
"Of course," she said. "I'll see to it that the word is spread. "
"Thank you." Tavi paused. "The captain didn't say anything about it, Mistress, but if you're entertaining any Legion personnel..."
She gave him a brief smile. "I know the drill. I'll get them sober and send them home."
"Thank you," Tavi said, with another bow.
"Subtribune, ' she said, "I know that you have your duties, but have you seen Gerta this evening?"
"Ah," Tavi said. "I saw her in town earlier this evening."
Cymnea frowned. "I worry about slavers, her running off alone in a strange town. She's such a fragile little thing. And not quite right in the head."
Tavi worked very hard to hold back both a bark of laughter and a wide smile. "I'll grant that's true, but I'm sure she's all right, Mistress," he said seriously. "Eli-narch is a law-abiding town, and the captain won't tolerate any nonsense from the men."
"No," Cymnea said. "The best of them never do."
"You know the trumpet call to flee to the city?"
She nodded and bowed her head to him. "Good luck, Subtribune. And thank you for the warning."
"Good luck, Mistress," he said, returning her bow. He nodded to the silent presence of Bors, then headed back to town at a steady if uncomfortable jog.
In the outbuildings before the town's walls, Tavi heard a movement to his right a fraction of an instant too late to allow him to evade. Something hit his side in midstride, and sent him to the ground on his face. Before he could rise, what felt like steel bars wrapped around one of Tavi's wrists and pinned the wrist high up on his back. The fury-assisted pressure was painful in its own right, and one of the banded plates of Tavi's armor ground against his ribs.
"All right, Scipio," hissed a voice. "Or whatever your name really is. Hand over my mother's purse."
"Crassus," Tavi growled. "Get off me."
"Give me her purse, you thief!" Crassus shouted back.
Tavi clenched his teeth against the pain. "You're making me late for an officers' meeting. We're mobilizing."
"Liar," Crassus said.
"Get off me, Sir Knight. That is an order."
Crassus's grip tightened. "You're a fool as well as a liar. You've merely annoyed her, and you think what she's done so far is bad? You haven't seen what she can do when she's angry."
"The crows I haven't," Tavi spat. "I've seen Max's back when he changes his tunic."
For whatever reason, the words hit Crassus hard, and Tavi felt him rock back from them, almost as if they'd been a physical blow. The pressure on his wrist eased just enough that Tavi had room to move-and he was in a position to make a real fight of it. The incredible strength offered by the use of an earth fury was enormous, but earthcrafters often forgot its limitations. It did not make its user any heavier; and one's feet had to be on the ground.
Tavi got a knee under his body and slithered out of Crassus's loosened grip. He seized the Knight's tunic at the throat, twisted with the weight of his whole body, and used arms and legs both to throw him up onto the wooden porch of a nearby shop. Crassus hit hard, but rolled back up onto his feet, his face dark with rage.
Tavi had followed Crassus onto the porch, and when Crassus lifted his head to glare at him, Tavi's kick was already halfway to the young man's head. His boot struck Crassus on the mouth, a stunning blow, and he reeled back.
Tavi slipped aside a clumsy counterblow with one hand and struck Crassus with closed fists, nose and mouth, followed by a hard push that slammed the back of Crassus's head against the shop's wall. The young man wobbled and fell. When he growled and started getting up, Tavi struck him again.
Crassus staggered up again.
Tavi sent him crashing to the wooden floor again with precise, heavy blows.
All in all, he had to beat Crassus back to the ground four times before the young Knight let out his breath in a groan, blood all over his face and nose, and lay on his back.
Tavi's hands hurt terribly. He hadn't been wearing his heavy fighting gloves, and he'd ripped several knuckles open on Crassus's head. Though he supposed he shouldn't have been surprised that it was at least as thick as Max's.
"We through?" Tavi panted.
"Thief," Crassus said. Or so Tavi supposed. The word came out mushy and barely understandable. Which was the expected result if one's lips were split and swollen, one's nose broken, and when several teeth may have gone missing.
"Maybe. But I'd die before I lifted a hand against my own blood."
Crassus looked up and glared, but Tavi saw a flicker of shame in the young man's eyes.
"I take it this is about the red stone?" Tavi asked.
"Don't know what you're talking about," Crassus said sullenly.
"Then I don't know anything about a purse," Tavi said, frowning at the beaten young man. Tavi didn't have the advantages of a skilled watercrafter, but he was as good as anyone without that advantage could be, when it came to reading people. Crassus wasn't lying to Tavi about the stone. He was sure of it.
"You'll get what you want now," Crassus said quietly. "You'll report me to the captain, won't you. Have me cast from the Legion. Sent home in shame."
Tavi regarded Crassus for a moment. Then he said, "You don't get dishonorably discharged for falling down a flight of stairs."
Crassus blinked at him. "What?"
"Sir Knight, just what the crows do you think those drums are for? Lulling the fish to sleep? We're mobilizing, and I'm not going to do anything that robs the Legion of a capable Knight and our Tribune Medica." Tavi extended his hand. "As far as I'm concerned, you fell down some stairs, and that's the end of it. Come on."
The young man stared at Tavi's hand for a moment, blinking in confusion, but then hesitantly reached out and let Tavi help him to his feet. He looked frightful, and while Tavi knew the injuries were painful, they weren't serious.
"I take it your mother sent you to speak to me?" Tavi asked him.
"No," Crassus said.
Tavi arched a skeptical eyebrow.
Crassus eyes flashed with anger. "I'm not her valet. Or her dog."
"If she didn't tell you to do it, why are you here? "
"She's my mother," Crassus said, and spat blood from his mouth. "Trying to look out for her."
Tavi felt his eyes widen, as he suddenly realized the young man's motivation. "You didn't do it to protect her," he said quietly. "You were trying to protect me."
Crassus froze for a second, staring at Tavi, then looked away.
"That's why you didn't draw a sword on me," Tavi said quietly. "You never intended for me to be hurt."
Crassus wiped at his mouth with a corner of his sleeve. "She's... got a temper. She's reached the end of it. She left earlier tonight. I thought to find you and return the purse to her. Tell her I found it on the ground." He shook his head. "I didn't want her to do anything rash. Sometimes her anger gets the better of her."
"Like with Max," Tavi said.
Crassus grimaced. "Yes." He looked back toward the camp. "Maximus... some of those scars he took for me. Confessed to things I had done, trying to protect me." He glanced at Tavi. "I don't like you, Scipio. But Max does. And I owe him. That's why I came here. I wanted to reconcile us somehow. I thought if we could..." He shrugged. "Spend some time together, and not back at Antil-lus. Mother told me she was going to offer him an apology for how she has treated him."
Tavi felt a surge of anger for Max's stepmother. She'd offered him something, all right. She'd tried to kill him again. But Tavi had a strong suspicion that Crassus's opinion of her was anything but objective. He felt sure that the young knight would never allow himself to believe that his mother had Max's murder in mind.
Tavi reached into his pocket and withdrew the silk purse, shaking the small red stone out of it as he did, so that the stone remained in his pocket. He offered the purse to Crassus.
Crassus took it, and then said quietly, "I could report this to the captain."
"And I could suddenly remember that there are no stairs around here," Tavi replied without rancor. "But I think we've both wasted enough effort for tonight."
Crassus bounced the empty purse on his palm a few times, then pocketed it. "Maybe I should have just asked you for it."
Tavi grimaced, and said, "Sorry about your, uh, your face. "
Crassus shook his head. "My own fault. I jumped you. Hit you first." He touched his nose lightly and winced. "Where'd you learn that throw?"
"From a Marat," Tavi replied. "Come on. I'm already late. And we'll both be needed tonight."
Crassus nodded, and they started walking.
They hadn't gone twenty paces when the brightest dance of scarlet fire Tavi had yet seen in the glowering overcast rushed from one horizon to the other and back again, rippling back and forth like some vast and unthinkably swift wave.
"Crows," Tavi said softly, staring up at the display.
And then the night was torn with blinding white light and a wall of thunder that smashed against Tavi in a sonic tsunami, staggering him, almost robbing him of his balance. He managed to steady Crassus when the young man began to fall. It lasted for a bare heartbeat, then the thunderous sound vanished into a high-pitched ringing tone in his ears, while the flashing streak of light remained burned into his blinded eyes, shifting colors slowly against the blackness.
It took several moments for his eyes to readjust to the night, and even longer for his ears to stop ringing. His instincts screaming, he hurried forward as fast as he could, to return to the town and the legion's fortification there. Sir Crassus, his expression somewhat dazed, followed along.
Fires burned in the fortifications. Tavi could hear the screams of wounded men and terrified horses. There were shouts and cries all around them, and confusion ran rampant.
Tavi reached the captain's command tent and stopped in his tracks, stunned.
Where Cyril's command had been, there was now a great, gaping hole torn in the blackened earth. Fires burned in patches all around it. Bodies-and pieces of bodies-lay scattered in the ruins.
Overhead, the thunder from the unnatural storm rumbled in what sounded to Tavi like hungry anticipation.
"Scipio!" shouted a frantic voice, and Tavi turned to find Max running forward through the chaos.
"What happened?" Tavi asked, his voice shocked.
"Lightning." Max panted. He had lost half of one eyebrow, singed away by the head, and there were blisters on the skin of his forehead and along one cheekbone. "A crowbegotten wall of lightning. Came down like a hammer, not twenty feet away." Max stared at the ruins. "Right on top of the captain's meeting."
"Great furies," Tavi breathed.
"Foss and the healers are with some survivors, but it doesn't look good for them." He swallowed. "As far as we can tell, you're the only officer able to serve."
Tavi stared at Max. "What do you mean?"
Max looked at the results of the lightning strike grimly and said, "I mean that you are now in command of the First Aleran, Captain Scipio.'