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.