"Bloody crows," Tavi swore, frustrated. "It doesn't make any crowbegotten sense, Max."
The sun was vanishing beyond the horizon, and Tavi's alae of cavalry had clashed with the Canim raiders in no less than six swift, bitter engagements that day, all against smaller packs than the first. Three more legionares died. Another nine were wounded in action, and one broke his arm when his weary horse stumbled on the trail and threw him from the saddle.
"You worry too much," Max told him, and leaned idly against the trunk of a tree. The pair were the only two legionares standing, other than the half dozen men spread around the group, on watch. The rest lay on the ground in silent, hard sleep, exhausted after the day of marching and fighting. "Look, the Canim don't always do things that make sense."
"You're wrong," Tavi said, his tone firm. "It always makes sense to them, Max. They think differently than we do, but they aren't insane or stupid." He waved his hand at the countryside. "All those loose packs. No organization, no direction. No cohesive force. This is a major move. I've got to figure out what they're doing."
"We could just keep on riding until we got to the harbor. I'll bet you we'd figure it out then."
"For about five minutes. Then our horses would collapse from exhaustion, and the Canim would rip our faces off."
"But we'd know," Max said.
"We'd know." Tavi sighed. He shook his head. "Where is he?"
"Messengers are sort of funny about wanting to get where they're going in one piece and breathing. This is hostile territory. Give him time."
"We might not have time."
"Yes," Max drawled. "And worrying about it won't get him here any faster." Max opened a sling bag and dug out a round, flat loaf of bread. He broke it in half and tossed one to Tavi. "Eat, while you have a chance. Sleep, if you like."
"Sleep," Tavi said, faint scorn in his voice.
Max grunted, and the two of them ate. After a moment, he said, "Notice anything?"
"Every one of your legionares is either on his back or wishing he was there."
Tavi frowned at the shadowed forms of recumbent soldiers. Even the sentries sagged wearily. "You aren't sleeping," Tavi pointed out.
"I've got the metalcraft to go without for days if I have to."
Tavi grimaced at him.
"You're missing my point. You aren't sleeping, either," Max said. "But you aren't stumbling around. Your mouth is running faster than any horse in Alera."
Tavi stopped chewing for a second, frowning. "You don't mean that I'm using metalcraft?"
"You aren't," Max said. "I could tell. But you're rolling along just fine."
Tavi took a deep breath. Then he said, "Kitai."
"Granted, she'd put a bounce in any man's step," Max said. "But I'm serious. Whatever herb you're using..."
"No, Max," Tavi said. "It's... I can do without sleep a lot better than I used to. Since Kitai and I have been-"
"Plowing furrows in the mattress?"
It was dark enough for Max not to be able to see Tavi's sudden blush, thank the great furies. "I was going to say together. You ass."
Max chortled and swigged from a skin. He passed it to Tavi.
Tavi drank and grimaced at the weak, watered wine. "I haven't needed as much sleep. Sometimes I think I can see more clearly. Hear better. I don't know."
"Bloody odd," Max said, thoughtfully. "If handy."
"I'd rather you didn't talk about it, " Tavi said quietly.
"Course," Max said, taking the skin back. "Surprised the crows out of me, to see her here. Figured she'd stay in the palace. She liked the toys."
Tavi grunted. "She's of her own mind about such things."
"Least she's safe back at Elinarch now," Max said.
Tavi gave him a level look.
"She's not?" Max asked. "How do you know?"
"I don't. I haven't seen her since she led us into town last night. But I know her." He shook his head. "She's out here somewhere."
"Captain!" called one of the sentries.
Tavi turned and found his sword in his hand, a split second after Max's weapon leapt from its own sheath. They eased back as the sentry called an all's-well signal, then they heard hooves approaching.
A battered-looking, gaunt legionare appeared from the darkness, his age marking him as a veteran. His helmet had a smear of what looked like dark red Canim blood on it. He swung down from his horse, gave Tavi a weary salute, and nodded to Max.
"Captain," Maximus said. "This is Legionare Hagar. I served with him on the Wall."
"Legionare," Tavi said, nodding. "Good to see you. Report."
"Sir," Hagar said. "Centurion Flavis sends his compliments, and advises you that his alae has encountered and dispatched fifty-four Canim raiders. Seventy-four refugees were given what assistance he could, and he directed them to seek refuge in the town of Elinarch. Two legionares were slain and eight wounded. The wounded are en route back to Elinarch."
Tavi frowned. "Did you encounter any enemy regulars?"
Hagar shook his head. "No, sir, but Centurion Flavis suffered both of his fatalities and the majority of his unit's injuries fighting three Canim garbed and equipped differently than the standard raiders."
"Three}" Max burst out.
Hagar grimaced. "It wasn't long ago, Antillar, the light was starting to go grey on us. And these things... I've never seen anything that fast, and I saw Aldrick ex Gladius fight Araris Valerian when I was a boy."
"They went down hard, eh?"
"Two of them didn't go down at all. They got away, and Flavis let them go. It would have been suicide to send anyone out into the dark after them."
Tavi felt a sensation almost akin to that of his mouth watering at the scent of a fine meal. "Wait. Differently garbed? How so?"
Hagar turned to his horse, and said, "I've got it here, sir. Flavis said you might want to see it."
"Flavis was right, " Tavi said. "Tribune, a lamp please."
"It will give away our position, sir," Max said.
"So will the scent of a hundred horses," Tavi said drily. "I need to see this."
Max nodded and fetched a lamp. He draped his cloak over it, then murmured, "Light." Very little of the golden glow of the furylamp emerged from beneath the cloak, and the three of them hunkered down to examine the gear Hagar had brought.
A hooded black cloak big enough to make a small tent was first, wrapped around the rest. Within the cloak lay a pair of short fighting blades-or what would have been so, for a Cane. The blades of the weapons were three feet long, curved, and made of the tempered, scarlet bloodsteel from which the Canim forged their best equipment. The spines of the knives bore teeth like those of a wood saw, and the pommel of one was made in the shape of a wolf skull, complete with tiny scarlet gems for eyes. Half a dozen heavy, metal spikes were next, as long as Tavi's forearm and as thick as his thumb. A Cane's enormous arm could throw them entirely through a human target, or crack a man's skull through a good helmet. Finally, the equipment included a matte black chain of some strange and enormously heavy metal that made almost no sound when link brushed against link.
Tavi stared down at them for a moment, thinking.
"Looks more like a Cursor's gear," Max said quietly. "Smaller than their normal stuff. Light. Perfect to disable a target and make an escape."
"Mmm," Tavi said. "Which is exactly what they used it to do. Add in how well they fought, and it indicates that they might be elite soldiers of some kind. Certainly scouts."
"Either way, they've got regulars behind them somewhere."
Tavi nodded grimly. "And now they know where we are."
Max frowned and fell silent.
"Sir," Hagar said, "I should also tell you that the scouts may have taken heavy losses."
Tavi grunted and frowned. "How so?"
"Only about forty-five of the eighty that went out this morning made the rendezvous. Scouts are an independent bunch, and they can get pinned down in a hiding place for days, sometimes. No one saw any bodies, but a couple of them found signs that some of their companions had been attacked."
"They want to keep us blind," Tavi said, nodding. "Hold on." Tavi rose and walked over to one of the horses they'd used to carry supplies. He unloaded a heavy square of leather wrapped around a bundle, untied the cord holding it closed, and drew out a pair of Canim sickle-swords and one of their axes. He brought them over and tossed them down beside the other gear. He squinted down at them for a long moment, tracking an elusive thought that danced about just beneath the surface of realization.
"If they know we're out here," Max said quietly, "we'd best not linger. We don't want to get hit by a squad of their regulars in the dark."
Hagar nodded. "Flavis is already on the way back to the Elinarch."
Tavi stared at the weapons. There was something there. An answer. He knew it.
"Sir?" Max said. "We might need to get a move on. Whatever they're doing or however many they are, they aren't going to be able to sneak up on the town."
Suddenly, realization hit Tavi in a flash, and he slammed a fist against his palm. "Crows, that's it."
Hagar blinked at him.
Tavi pointed at the sickle-swords and the Canim axe. "Max. What do you see."
"Look closer," Tavi said.
Max pursed his lips and frowned. "Urn. Bloodstain on that one. Edges are nicked up pretty bad on those sickle-swords. And there's rust on..." Max paused and frowned. "What are those stains on the sickles and the axe?"
"Exactly," Tavi said. He pointed at the bloodsteel gear. "Look. Edges in excellent shape. High quality craftsmanship." He pointed at the gear taken from the slain raiders. "Rust. Much lower quality manufacture. More damage on them. Less care taken of them-and those stains are green and brown, Max."
Max raised his eyebrows. "Meaning?"
"Meaning that 1 grew up on a steadholt," Tavi said. "Those are stains you get from scything crops," he said, pointing at the sickles, then tapped the axe, "and from chopping wood. These aren't weapons. They're tools."
"No disrespect intended, but that's the beauty of an axe, sir. It's both."
"Not within the context of what we know," Tavi said.
"Urn?" Max said. "What?"
Tavi held up a hand and said, "Look, we know that the Canim landed in great numbers, but we haven't seen any regular troops. The raiders we've seen have been running around a like a rogue gargant, without any coordination or plan. None of them carried quality weapons, and none of them wore steel armor."
"They're levies, Max. Untrained conscripts. Farmers, outlaws, servants. Whoever they could push out in front of them armed with something sharp."
Max's face twisted into a pensive scowl. "But all they're doing is throwing them away, sending them out in random groups like this."
"But they're causing all kinds of chaos by doing it. I think the Canim intentionally brought expendable troops with them," Tavi said. "They aren't here to fight us. They're here to provide a distraction. We're supposed to focus on them, just like we have been all day. I'll bet you they hoped to draw the First Aleran out onto open ground so that they could swamp us."
"Crows," Max spat. "Bastard dogs don't need us to make a mistake that big. More likely they did it so that the Canim scouts can move around freely in the chaos. They can find the best route for their regulars while they're taking out our scouts."
Tavi blinked and snapped his fingers. Then he dug into his pockets and withdrew the bloody little gem he'd taken from Lady Antillus. He held it up next to the gems in pommel of the jeweled bloodsteel sword.
They were identical.
"That's where I'd seen that gem before," Tavi said quietly. "Varg wore a ring and an earring with the same kind."
Max let out a low whistle. "Crows," he said quietly. "I guess my stepmother's had it now."
"Yes, she has," Tavi growled.
Max nodded slowly. "So. What do we do now, sir?"
Tavi glanced up at the legionare. "Hagar."
The veteran saluted. "Captain." Then he withdrew, quietly leading his mount away.
"Recommendation?" Tavi asked quietly.
"Get back to the Elinarch and fort up," Max said promptly. "The Canim wouldn't have gone to all this trouble if they weren't planning to come this way."
Tavi shook his head. "Once we do that, we lose any chance we might have had of gaining any more intelligence about their capabilities. If they can repeat that stunt with the lightning, or if Lady Antillus really has pitched in with them, they could blast the gates down and swamp us in an hour."
"If regulars catch us out here in the open, we won't have to worry about that problem. But it's your call, sir."
Tavi chewed the question over for a moment. "Fall back," he said quietly. "We'll leave a line of pickets behind us to warn us when they're in sight. Wake the men and ask for volunteers."
"Sir," Max said, saluting. He immediately rose, barking commands, and the weary legionares began to stir.
The column was forming-a much more difficult prospect in the dark, Tavi noted-when a rippling chill flickered down Tavi's spine and made the hairs on his arms stand up. He glanced around him in the evening gloom, then headed for the darkest patch of shadows on the west side of the camp.
When he got close, he saw a flicker of pale skin within a dark hood, and Ki-tai whispered, "Aleran. There is something you must see."
There was something very odd, very alien in her voice, and Tavi realized that Kitai sounded... afraid.
Kitai glanced about, drew back her hood, and met Tavi's eyes with hers, poised in perfect, graceful suspension of motion, like a hidden doe ready to flee from a grass lion. "Aleran, you must see this."
Tavi met her gaze for a moment, then nodded once. He went to Max and murmured, "Take them back to town. Leave two horses here."
Max blinked. "What? Where are you going?"
"Kitai's found something I need to see."
Max lowered his voice to a fierce whisper. "Tavi. You're the captain of this Legion."
Tavi answered just as quietly, and just as fiercely. "I am a Cursor, Max. It is my duty to acquire information for the defense of the Realm. And I'm not about to order anyone else to go out there tonight. I've gotten enough people killed today."
Max's expression became pained, but then a centurion called out that the column was ready.
"Go," Tavi said. "I'll catch up to you."
Max exhaled slowly. Then he squared his shoulders and offered Tavi his hand. Tavi shook it. "Good luck," Max said.
"And to you."
Max nodded, mounted, and called the column into motion. Within a moment, they were out of sight. A moment more, and the sound of their passage faded as well, leaving Tavi suddenly alone, in the dark, in a strange part of the country filled with enemies only too glad to kill him in as painful and horrible a fashion as possible.
Tavi shook his head. Then he started stripping out of his armor. A beat later, Kitai was at his side, pale, nimble fingers flying over straps and buckles, helping him remove it. He drew his dark brown traveling cloak from his saddlebags, donned it, and made sure that both horses would be ready to move when he and Kitai returned.
Then, without a word, Kitai headed out into the night at a vulpine lope, and Tavi fell into pace behind her. They ran through the night and the occasional flicker of bloody lightning, and Kitai led him up into the rolling hills that framed that stretch of the Tiber valley.
His legs and chest were burning by the time they reached the top of what seemed like the hundredth hill, nearly two hours later, then Kitai's pace began to slow. She led him over the next few hundred yards at a slow, perfectly silent walk, andTavi emulated her. It took them only a moment more to reach the lip of the hill.
Light glowed in the distance, bright and golden and steady. For a moment, Tavi thought he was looking at the burning city of Founderport-until he saw that the light of the tremendous fire was actually behind the city, from his perspective, its light making the city walls stand out as sharp, clear silhouettes.
It took him a moment longer to recognize what he was seeing.
Founderport wasn't burning.
The Canim ^feet was.
The fire roared so loudly that he could actually, faintly hear it, as a far-distant moaning sound. He could see, amidst smoke and fire, the shapes of masts and decks of sailing vessels being consumed by flame.
"They're burning their own ships behind them," Tavi whispered.
"Yes, Aleran," Kitai said. "Your people would not have believed it, from the lips of a Marat. Your eyes had to see."
"This isn't a raid. It isn't an incursion." Tavi suddenly felt very cold. "That's why there are so many of the Canim this time. That's why they're willing to sacrifice a thousand troops just to keep us occupied."
"They mean to stay."