It was a long and weary march back to the horses, and an even wearier ride all the way back to the Legion fortifications at the Elinarch. Tavi arrived in the coldest, heaviest hours of the night. It still seemed odd to him that despite the blazing heat of late summer in the southwest of the Realm, the night managed to be just as uncomfortably cool as in the Calderon Valley.
They were challenged by mounted pickets in two lines as they approached, and as they crossed the final open ground to the town, Tavi took note of silent shapes in the tree lines-local archers and woodsmen, most likely, always moving west with steady caution. The First Spear must have sent them out to watch and harass the incoming Canim army, and to attempt to take the foe's scouts as they advanced. It was a measure Tavi should have thought of himself-but then, that's why he'd left Valiar Marcus in charge of the defenses.
Tavi and Kitai rode into the half of the town on the southern end of the Eli-narch, then across the great bridge, their footsteps ringing on the stone. The water-mud-fish scent of the great Tiber River rose up to them. They were better than a hundred feet off the water, at the top of the bridge's arch, and Tavi closed his weary eyes and enjoyed the cool breeze that flowed over him.
Word of his return went ahead of him, called from one sentry to the next. Magnus, as the captain's senior valet, was there to meet him and accompanied them to the command tent-a general-issue Legion tent now instead of Cyril's larger model. Several people entered and left as they approached, all moving at a brisk trot. They had to dance around each other as they did.
All in all, that tent looked grossly undersized and inadequate, in the center of the circle of lightning-blasted earth. That was appropriate, Tavi supposed. He was feeling somewhat undersized and inadequate himself.
"No, crows take it," snarled Valiar Marcus's voice from within the tent. "If our food supplies are on the south bank, and the dogs take it, we'll be eating our boots when we fall back to the north."
"But I just had my whole century toting supplies over there like pack mules," protested a second voice.
"Good," Marcus snapped. "They'll know the exact route to return them."
"Marcus, those storage houses are on the docks, not behind the city walls. We can't leave them unsecured, and our own storage buildings haven't been completed. "
"Then dump them somewhere. Or commandeer a house."
Tavi slid off his horse, stiffened muscles complaining. He beckoned Kitai, and she leaned down toward him. Tavi muttered a quiet request, and she nodded before turning her horse and kicking it into a run toward the followers' camp.
Magnus watched her go, frowning. The darkness and her hood would have hidden her features from the old Cursor, but she was still obviously a woman. "Who is that, sir?" he asked Tavi.
"Later," Tavi said. He flicked his eyes at the tent. Magnus frowned, but then nodded.
Tavi took a moment to order his thoughts, tried to project all the authority he could fabricate, and entered the tent. "Don't commandeer a house," he said, "ask for a volunteer. You won't have any trouble finding residents willing to sacrifice for the good of the only thing standing between them and a horde of Canim."
The tent bore two tables made of empty water barrels and planks. Paper, much of it half-consumed by flame, lay scattered in complete disarray over all of them. Two fish sat at each table, attempting to sort out the surviving papers in the light of a single furylamp.
The First Spear and the argumentative centurion snapped to attention and saluted. "Sir," Marcus said.
The fish were a beat behind the centurions, and began to rise. Tavi felt certain that if they did, they'd knock the crude tables over and undo whatever they had accomplished.
"As you were," Tavi told them. "Get back to work." He nodded at Marcus. "First Spear. And Centurion...?"
"Centurion Cletus. I know your men are tired. We're all tired. We're going to get more tired. But crows take me if I let the Legion be tired and hungry. So find a storage building and secure the food."
Cletus clearly did not like the notion. No centurion would want his men to be forced into action while bone-tired from physical labor if he could possibly avoid it. But he was Legion to the core and nodded at once. "Yes, sir." He turned to leave.
Tavi nodded in approval. "Take one of the fish centuries to help you haul. Grains and dried meat first, the perishables after."
Cletus paused and bowed his head to Tavi in silent thanks, then departed.
The stocky First Spear had lost most of the short-cropped hair from one side of his head due to the fire, and the fresh-healed skin, where the healers had been able to help him most, was pink and shiny and slightly swollen. It made his scowl no less ferocious, his ugly, craggy face even uglier and craggier.
"Captain," Marcus growled. "Glad to see you back in one piece. Antillar said something about you scouting out the Canim."
"Not quite," Tavi said. "A scout picked up on a trail and tracked it back to..." Tavi glanced at the fish sitting at the tables.
"Right," Marcus said. "Boys, get out. Get some food and report back to your century."
"Magnus, send for Tribunes Antillar and Antillus, please," Tavi said. "I want them here for this."
"Right away, sir," Magnus said, and slipped out of the tent, leaving Tavi alone with the First Spear.
"You look like something the crows have been at, Marcus," Tavi said.
The First Spear narrowed his eyes at Tavi, then grunted out a muted chuckle. "Since I was a boy, sir."
Tavi grinned and sat down on one of the stools. "What's our status?"
The First Spear waved an irritated hand at the parchment-covered tables. "Difficult to say. Gracchus was a good Tribune Logistica, but his records were organized about as well as your average forest fire. We're still trying to sort out where everything is stored, and it's making it hard to get anything done."
Tavi sighed. "My fault. I forgot to appoint a replacement Tribune Logistica to coordinate before I left."
"To be fair, they wouldn't have gotten much done yet in any case."
"Ill take care of it. What about the militia?"
The First Spear scowled. "This is a major smuggling town, sir. "
Tavi grunted. "Graft, I take it?"
"They have the best council money can buy," he confirmed. "There weren't two hundred full suits of armor, and they hadn't been maintained very well. I think odds are pretty good that some of Kalarus's outlaw legionares are wearing the rest of the town's stores. Little bit better on swords, but not much. There are a lot of privately owned swords here, though. Placida sends them home with his legionares when they finish their service, and there are a lot of Placidan freemen that move out this way."
"What about the steadholts?" Tavi asked.
"Word's been sent, but it's going to take a while for any volunteers to arrive. So far, only men from the nearest circle of steadholts have showed up."
Tavi nodded. "The defenses?"
"In the same shape as the armory, pretty much. Give us two days and we'll have them up to code."
"We won't get them," Tavi said. "Plan on fighting before afternoon."
Marcus's expression became more grim, and he nodded. "Then I recommend we focus the engineering cohort on the southern wall. The Legion may be able to hold it long enough for the engineers to finish the other positions."
Tavi shook his head. "No. I want fortifications on the bridge. Stone, sandbags, palisades, whatever you can get that will hold up. I want five lines of defense on the bridge itself. Then put the engineers on our last redoubt at the northern end of the bridge and tell them to make it as big and nasty as they possibly can."
The First Spear stared hard at him for a moment. Then he said, "Sir, there are a lot of reasons why that isn't a very good plan."
"And more reasons why it is. Make it happen."
A heavy silence fell, and Tavi looked up sharply. "Did you hear me, First Spear?"
Marcus's jaw clenched, and he stepped close to Tavi, dropping into a loose crouch to look him in the face. "Kid," he said, in a voice that would never have carried from the tent. "I might be old. And ugly. But I ain't blind or stupid." His whisper turned suddenly harsh and fierce. "You are not Legion."
Tavi narrowed his eyes, silent.
"I'm willing to let you play captain, because the Legion needs one. But you ain't no captain. And this ain't no game. Men will die."
Tavi met the First Spear's eyes and thought furiously. Valiar Marcus, he knew, was perfectly capable of taking command of the Legion from him. He was well-known among the veteran legionares, respected by his fellow centurions, and as the senior centurion present was, rightfully, next in the chain of command since no actual officers of the Legion were capable of exercising authority. Short of simply killing him, Tavi had no way to prevent him from seizing Legion command if he chose to do it.
Worse, the First Spear was a man of principle. If he thought Tavi was genuinely going to do something uselessly idiotic and kill legionares who didn't have to die, Marcus would take command. If that happened, he would not be prepared to face the threat that was coming. He would fight with courage and honor, Tavi was sure, but if he tried to apply standard Legion battle doctrine, the Legion would not live to see another sunset.
All of which meant that the next battle Tavi had to fight was right here, right now, in the mind and heart of the veteran First Spear. If he had Marcus's support, most of the rest of the centurions would follow. Tavi had to convince Valiar Marcus so thoroughly that he actively supported Tavi's course of action instead of merely accepting it as one more distasteful order he had to obey. The tacit, indirect resistance of unwilling obedience to orders perceived as foolish could kill them just as thoroughly as the Canim.
Tavi closed his eyes for a moment. Then he said, "I asked Max once how you won your honor name. Valiar. The Crown's House of the Valiant. Max told me that when he was six years old, Icemen came down and took the women and children from a woodcutter's camp. He told me that you tracked them for two days through one of the worst winter storms in living memory and assaulted the entire Iceman raiding party. Alone. That you took the captives from them and led them home. That Antillus Raucous gave you his own sword. That he appointed you to the House of Valiar himself, and told Gaius to honor it or he'd call him to juris macto."
The First Spear nodded without saying anything.
"It was stupid of you to do that," Tavi said. "To go into the storm. Alone, no less. To attack what? Twenty-five Icemen on your own?"
"Twenty-three," he said quietly.
"Would you send Cletus there out to do that?" Tavi asked. "Would you send me? One of the fish?"
Marcus shrugged. "No one sent me. I did what I had to do. Truth be told, I waited until most of the Icemen were asleep and cut the throats of half of them before they could wake up."
"I figured it was something like that. But before you left, you didn't know how many of them there were. Or that you'd have a chance to take them while they were asleep. You didn't know if the weather would worsen and kill you. There, at that time, it was an act of insanity."
"It wasn't insane," Marcus said. "I knew them. I knew what I could do. I had advantages."
Tavi nodded. "So do I."
The old soldier's eyes narrowed. "This isn't a gang of angry Marat we're talking about, kid. This isn't a Lord's personal soldiery, or an outlaw Legion. We're going up against the Canim. You don't know them. You've never seen anything like them."
"You're wrong," Tavi said.
The First Spear lifted a lip from his teeth in a sneer. "You think you know them? You trying to tell me you've fought them, kid?"
Tavi met his gaze steadily. "Fought them, side by side with legionares and alone. I've seen them kill legionares I knew by name, and felt their blood hit my face. I've seen Canim killed. I killed one alone."
Marcus narrowed his eyes in suspicion.
"More than that," Tavi said. "I've spoken to Canim. I learned to play Indus from a Cane. Learned about their society. I even speak a little of their language, First Spear. Do you understand any Canish, Valiar Marcus? Do you know anything about their homeland? Their leaders?"
Marcus was silent for a moment before he said, "No. Every Cane I ever saw was too busy trying to kill me to give me any schooling."
"They aren't monsters. They aren't anything like us, but they aren't mindless killing machines, either. You know the difference between their raiders and their regulars, I take it?"
The First Spear grunted. "Raiders are bad enough. I never faced their regulars, but I know men who have. They're worse. Bigger, stronger, better fighters. You don't take them down without Knights and casualties."
"The raiders are their conscripts. They're not even their active military. The regulars you've heard about are their soldiery. Specifically, they come from an entire social class of hereditary soldiering bloodlines. Their warrior caste."
He grunted. "Like our Citizens?"
"Something like," Tavi agreed. "But there's another caste that's usually at odds with them. The ritualists. Like the ones who called this cloud cover down. Like the ones who struck the captain."
"Hngh," Marcus said. "They have furycraft?"
"I don't think so," Tavi said. "Or at least, not like Alerans use it. But they have some kind of power that lets them do similar things. Three years ago, they threw a series of storms at the coasts. The First Lord himself had to assist in stopping them. Fantus told Cyril that these clouds overhead were definitely not a windcrafting. However they do it, it works."
The First Spear pursed his lips. "Sounds like these ritualist dogs are dangerous. Kalarus would never have made a bargain with them if he didn't think he could crush them later."
"I think the Canim betrayed him."