Tavi knew that the enemy was near when he saw the first massive, wheeling flights of crows, circling and swooping around columns of black smoke.
The sun rose behind them as they followed the Tiber toward the harbor town of Founderport, almost twenty miles from the Elinarch. Tavi rode with Max at the head of an alae of cavalry, two hundred strong, while the second alae, mostly made up of the more experienced troops, had been broken into eight-man divisions that moved in a loose line through the hills south of the Tiber, marking terrain and, together with the swift-moving scouts, searching for the enemy.
As the sun rose, it lit the gloomy and unnatural cloud cover overhead, and as the ruddy light finally fell through the low, undulating hills around the river, it revealed points of black smoke rolling up in the broad river valley. Tavi nodded to Max, who ordered the column to a halt. He and Tavi walked forward, to the crest of the next hill, and looked down. Max lifted his hands, bending the air between them, and let out a low, pained grunt.
"You should see this," Max said quietly.
Tavi leaned over as Max held the windcrafting for him to look through. Tavi had never seen it working from so close, and the crafting made the image far more clear and intense than his little curved piece of Romanic glass. He had to force himself not to take a moment simply to admire the marvel of the apparently close view the crafting offered. A few seconds later, as he realized what he was looking at, he had no need to feign an officer's calm, analytical distance for the sake of his troops. He had to do it to keep his stomach from emptying itself.
Max's crafting let Tavi see the corpses of steadholts-dozens of them, throughout the fertile valley. Black smoke rose from solid shapes that had once been houses and barns and halls like the ones Tavi grew up in, each inhabited by scores of families. If the Canim had taken them by surprise, there would be few, if any, survivors.
Here and there, Tavi saw small groups on the move, most of them coming toward him. Some were small, slow-moving masses in the distance. Others were larger and moved much more quickly. As he watched, one such swift group fell upon a smaller one, in the distance. It was too far away to make out any real details, even with Max's windcrafting to help him, but Tavi knew what he had to be looking at.
A Canim raiding party had just slaughtered a group of refugees, fleeing without hope of salvation from the destruction behind them.
A surge of pure, white-hot rage went through him at the sight, a primal fury that brought stars to his eyes and tinged everything he saw with red-and at the same time, it washed through him, coursed through his veins like a river of molten steel while leaving his thoughts sharp, harsh, perfectly clear in a way that had happened only once before: deep in the caverns beneath Alera Impe-ria, where a mindless agent of the creatures known as the vord had come to murder his friends and his liege.
He heard leather creaking and noted, in passing, that his fists had closed tightly enough to torture the leather of his gloves, hard enough to tear open the injuries on his knuckles. The fact did not strike him as particularly important, and the sensation came from so far away that he could barely tell it was his own.
"Crows," Max breathed, his rough-hewn face stony.
"I don't see their main body," Tavi said quietly. "No concentration at all."
Max nodded. "Raiding packs. Usually fifty or threescore Canim in each."
Tavi nodded, and said, "That means we're only looking at maybe a thousand of them here." He frowned. "What kind of numbers advantage do we need to ensure victory."
"Best if we can catch them in the open. They're big, and strong, but horses are bigger and stronger. Cavalry can stand up to them in the open. Infantry can take them on one-to-one on an open field, if they can keep their momentum and have decent support from Knights. It's when you fight them in enclosed areas or bad terrain or you stalemate them and grind to a halt that their advantages start mounting up."
Tavi nodded. "Just look at them. Moving every which way. They don't look like advance forces at all. There's no coordination."
Max grunted. "You think Ehren was wrong?"
"No," Tavi said quietly.
"Then where is their army?" Max said.
Max suddenly stiffened as, in the valley below them, the morning light and the lay of the ground revealed a group of refugees not a full mile away. They moved sluggishly down the road, obviously trying to hurry, obviously weary beyond haste. The road through the valley was not one of the major furycrafted causeways that supported the Realm-the expense of such a creation made the use of the broad, slow waters of the Tiber far more practical for shipping and travel.
Economics had left the folk of the valley at the mercy of the Canim.
Moments after they spotted the refugees, a marauding pack of Canim loped into view, hard on the heels of their helpless prey.
Though Tavi had seen Alera's ancient foes before, he had never seen them like this-moving together in the open, swift and lean and bloodthirsty. Each Cane was far larger than a human being, the smallest of them standing well over seven feet tall-though the way their lean bodies hunched at the shoulders would have meant they would have been another foot taller, standing straight. The Canim in the raiding party were tawny of fur, dressed in leathers of some hide Tavi did not recognize. They bore their odd, sickle-shaped swords, axes with oddly bent handles, and needle-pointed battle spears with bladed crescents at the base of their steel heads. Their muzzles were long, narrow, gaping open to show teeth already stained with blood as they sighted their quarry.
The refugees, mostly children and elderly men and women, together with one cart drawn by a single workhorse, spotted the foe and panicked, trying to increase their pace though they knew it was hopeless. Death, violent and horrible, had come for them.
The fury seared through Tavi, and his own voice sounded hard and calm to him as he spoke. "Tribune," he said to Max. "Divide the column. I'll take the north side of the road. You'll take the south. We'll hit them from both sides."
"Yes, sir," Max said, his voice grim, and he began to turn.
Tavi stopped him with a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Max," he said quietly. "We're going to send the Canim a message. Their raiders don't escape from this. Not one."
Max's eyes hardened, and he nodded, then whirled to face the cavalry, bellowing orders. A trumpet blasted a short series of notes, and the column divided and drew from a long line into a more compact battle formation.
Tavi mounted and drew his sword.
The sound of two hundred swords being drawn from their sheaths behind him was startlingly loud, but he kept himself from reacting. Then he lifted the sword and lowered it to point forward, the signal to move, and within seconds he found himself leading the cavalry down the road. His horse broke into a nervous trot, then quickened its pace to a smoother canter, then at Tavi's urging shifted into a full run. He could hear and feel the presence of the other legionares upon their steeds behind him, and the deafening thunder of their running horses rose around him, pounded through him, rang on his armor and beat a wild rhythm against his heart.
They closed on the refugees faster than Tavi would have believed, and when they saw Aleran cavalry riding down upon them, the refugees' expressions of terror and despair filled with sudden hope. Arms lifted in sudden shouts and cheers and breathless cries of encouragement. Tavi lifted his sword and pointed to the right, and half of the alae flowed off the road, to circle around the refugees. Max, his sword mirroring Tavi's led his hundred men to the left.
They rounded the refugees and found the Canim not fifty yards beyond. Tavi led his men in an arch that would let them charge straight down into the Canim's flanks, and as he did he realized something.
Fifty Canim seen from a mile away looked alien and dangerous.
Fifty Canim seen from a rapidly vanishing distance looked enormous, hungry, and terrifying.
Tavi suddenly became very aware that he had never fought a true Canim before, never led men into battle, never fought a live enemy from horseback. He could never remember being so frightened.
Then the rising columns of black smoke, the cries of the holders behind him brought new life to the furious fire in his veins, and he heard his shout ring out over the thunder of the cavalry charge.
"Alera!" he howled.
"Alera!" cried a hundred mounted legionares, in answer.
Tavi saw the first Cane, an enormous, stringy beast with mange in its dun-colored fur and an axe grasped in one pawlike hand. The Cane whipped the axe at him in an odd, underhand throw, and red metal glinted as it spun toward him.
Tavi never made a conscious choice of what to do. His arm moved, his sword struck something, and something slammed against his armored chest, barely registering on his senses. He leaned to the right, sword sweeping back, and as his horse thundered past the lead Cane, he struck in the smooth, graceful, effortless strike of a mounted swordsman, focused on precision and letting the weight of the charging horse give the blow both power and speed. His sword flew true and struck with a vicious force that surged up his arm in a tingling wave.
There was no time to see the results. Tavi's horse was still running, and he recovered his weapon, flicking another strike to a Cane on the left side of his path. There was a flash of bloody Canim teeth in the corner of one eye, and his horse screamed. A spear thrust at his face, and he swatted it aside with his sword. Something else slammed into his helmet, and then he was plunging past Aleran cavalry surging in the opposite direction-Maximus and his men.
Tavi led his men clear, while they maintained only a very ragged line. They wheeled about, never slowing, and once again swept forward into the now-scattered Canim on the road. This time, he seemed to be thinking more clearly. He struck down a Cane attempting to throw a spear at one of Max's men, guided the plunging hooves of his horse into the back of another cane, and leaned far down to deliver a finishing blow to a wounded Cane struggling to rise. Then he swept past elements of Max's group, and clear once more.
Only a handful of Canim were still capable of fighting, and they threw themselves forward with mad, almost frenzied howls of rage.
Tavi found himself answering their howls with his own, and kicked his horse forward until he could slip aside from the blow of a sickle-sword and drive his own blade in a straight, heavy thrust through the neck of the Cane who had swung at him. The Cane wrenched and contorted viciously as Tavi's blade struck, tearing it from his hand.
Tavi let the horse take him by, and drew his short sword, though it was a weapon ill suited to mounted use, and turned, looking for more of the foe.
But it was over.
The Aleran cavalry had taken the Canim by surprise, and not one had escaped the swift mounts and blades of the First Aleran. Even as Tavi watched, the last living Cane, the one he had left his sword in, clutched at the weapon, spat out a blood-flecked snarl of defiance, and collapsed to the earth.
Tavi dismounted and walked across the bloodied ground amidst a sudden and total silence. He reached down and took the hilt of his sword, planted a boot on the chest of the Cane, and heaved the weapon free. Then he turned to sweep his gaze around the young cavalrymen and lifted his weapon to them in a salute.
The legionares broke out into cheers that shook the earth, while horses danced nervously. Tavi recovered his mount, while spear leaders and centurions bellowed their men back into position.
Tavi was back on his horse for all of ten seconds before a wave of exhaustion hit like a physical blow. His arm and shoulder ached horribly, and his throat burned with thirst. One of his wrists had blood on it, where it looked like it had trickled out from the torn knuckles beneath his gauntlets. There was a dent as deep as the first joint of his finger in his breastplate, and what looked like the score marks of teeth on one boot that Tavi did not remember ever feeling.
He wanted to sit down somewhere and sleep. But there was work to do. He rode over to the refugees, and was met by a grizzled old holder who still had the general bearing of the military-perhaps a retired career legionare himself. He saluted Tavi, and said, "My name's Vernick, milord." He squinted at the insignia on Tavi's armor. "You aren't one of Lord Cereus's Legions."
"Captain Scipio Rufus," Tavi replied, returning the salute. "First Aleran Legion."
Vernick grunted in surprise and peered at Tavi's face for a moment. "Whoever you are, we're mighty glad to see you, Captain. '
Tavi could all but hear the old man's thoughts. Looks too young for his rank. Must be a strong crofter from the upper ranks of the Citizenry. Tavi felt no need to disabuse him of the notion-not when the truth was considerably more frightening. "I wish I could give you better news, sir, but we're preparing to defend the Elinarch. You'll have to get your people behind the town walls to make them safe."
Vernick heaved out a tired sigh, but nodded. "Aye, milord. I figured it was the most defensible spot hereabouts."
"We've not seen any Canim until we got here," Tavi replied. "You should be all right-but you need to hurry. If the incursion is as large as we suspect, we'll need every legionare defending the town of Elinarch's walls. Once the gates close, anyone on this side might not get in."
"I understand, milord," the holder said. "Don't you worry, sir. We'll manage."
Tavi nodded and saluted him again, then rode back to the column. Max rode out to meet him and tossed Tavi a water flask.
Tavi caught it, nodded his thanks to Max. "Well?" Tavi asked, then drank deeply from the flask.
"This was as close to ideal as we could ever expect. Caught them on flat, open ground between two forces," Max said quietly. "Fifty-three dead Canim. Two Aleran dead, three wounded, all of them fish. We lost two horses."
Tavi nodded. "Pass the spare mounts off to those holders. They'll make better speed if they can put some of their little ones on the horses' backs. See if they have room in the wagon for our wounded. Speak to a holder named Vernick."
Max grimaced and nodded. "Yes, sir. You mind if I ask our next step?"
"For now, we keep moving down the valley. We kill Canim and help refugees and see if we can spot their main force. I want to send word to the alae in the hills to concentrate again. I don't want bands of eight taking runs at any Canim bat-tlepacks."
Tavi found himself staring at two riderless horses in his own formation, and he fell silent.
"I'll see to it," Max said. He took a breath, and asked, very quietly, "You all right?"
Tavi felt like screaming. Or running and hiding. Or sleeping. Or possibly a combination of the first several, followed by the last. He was not a trained leader of legionares. He had never asked to be in a position of command such as this, never sought to be. That it had happened to him was a simple and enormous fact that was so stunning that he still had not come to grips with its implications. He was accustomed to taking chances-but here, he would take them with lives other than his own. Young men would die-already had died-based upon his decisions.
He felt disoriented, lost somehow, and he almost welcomed the desperation and haste the situation had forced on them, because it gave him something clear and immediate to sink his energy into. Reorganize the command. Decide on a strategy. Deal with a threat. If he kept going forward through the problems without slowing down, he could keep his head on his shoulders. He wouldn't have to think about the pain and death it was his duty, as captain of the Legion, to prevent.
He did not want to pretend that nothing was wrong and project an aura of authority and calm to the young legionares around them. But their confidence and steadiness was critical to their ability to fight and would ultimately improve their chances of survival. So he ignored the parts of himself that wanted to scream in bewildered frustration and focused on the most immediate crisis.
"I'm fine," he told Max, his voice steady. "I don't want to push things too far. If we move too far down the valley and the horses play out, the Canim will run us down before we can get back to Elinarch. But we've got to do everything we can for the holders who are still alive."
Max nodded. "Agreed."
"Max. I'll need you to tell me when you think we're hitting our limits," Tavi said quietly. "And I don't want you pulling any craftings if you don't absolutely need to. You're my hole card, if it comes to that. And you're the closest thing we have to a real healer."
"Got it," Max said, just as quietly. He gave Tavi half a smile. "I've seen officers on their third hitch that didn't handle themselves that well in action. You're a natural."
Tavi grimaced. "Tell that to the two who aren't coming back."
"This is a Legion," Max said quietly. "We're going to lose more before the day's out. They knew that there were risks when they volunteered."
"They volunteered to be trained to handle themselves and led by experienced officers," Tavi said quietly. "Not for this."
"Life isn't certain or fair. That isn't anyone's fault. Even yours. "
Tavi glanced at Max and nodded grudgingly. He turned his horse, staring farther down the valley, where more helpless holders tried to run for safety. It felt like the day must have been nearly over, but the cloud-veiled sun couldn't have been halfway to its peak. "What were their names, Max? The men who died."
"I don't know," Max confessed. "There hasn't been time."
"Find out for me?"
"Thank you." Tavi squared his shoulders and nodded to himself. "I'm going to speak to our wounded before they go, but more holders will need our help. I want to be moving again in five minutes, Tribune. "
Max met Tavi's eyes when he saluted, and said, quietly, fiercely, "Yes, Captain."