Purposeful strides approached, and by the time the tent's flap was thrown aside, Tavi had his sword in his hand and half-drawn from its scabbard.
"Whoah," Ehren said, holding up open hands. The tanned, sandy-haired little Cursor looked more amused than threatened, backlit by the cloudy light of full day. "I surrender, Captain Scipio."
Tavi blinked his eyes several times, glanced blearily around, then put his sword away. "Right. Sorry."
Ehren closed the tent flap, darkening it again.
Tavi sighed. "On the trunk to your left."
"Oh," Ehren said. "Sorry. I forgot. Light." The little furylamp on the trunk flickered to life.
"You didn't forget," Tavi said, half-smiling. "You wanted to see if I'd developed any crafting of my own yet. No."
Ehren put on an innocent look. "I hardly recognized you with your hair cut so short."
"I hardly recognized you with a tan," Tavi replied. "I'm sorry we haven't been able to talk yet, but..."
"We're working," Ehren said. "I get it."
Tavi had slept in his trousers and with his boots on. He rose, slipped on a tunic, and turned to greet Ehren with a rough hug.
"Good to see you, " Tavi said.
"Likewise," Ehren replied. He drew back and looked suspiciously at Tavi, up and down. "Crows, you've gotten taller. You're supposed to stop growing after age twenty or so, Ta-" He shook his head. "Ahem. Scipio. At the Academy, we started off the same height. Now you're as tall as Max."
"Making up for lost time, I suppose," Tavi said. "How are you?"
"Glad to be rid of the islands," Ehren said. He frowned and glanced away. "Though I wish I'd come back with better news. And given it to someone else."
"Did you speak to the prisoners?"
Ehren nodded. "They cooperated. I'm fairly sure that the dead man was Kalarus' agent, and was the brains of the operation. The rest were just... well. There's always shady business for a legionare to involve himself in."
"Especially troublemaking veterans," Ehren agreed.
"Fine," Tavi said. "Release them and send them back to their century."
Ehren blinked. "What?"
"That's an entire spear of veteran legionares, Ehren. I need them."
Tavi met the Cursor's eyes, and said, quietly, "This is my decision. Do it."
Ehren nodded. "All right," he said quietly. "The First Spear asked me to tell you that the Canim are moving through the second picket]ine now, and they're making no effort to conceal their presence. He estimates that they'll be here in an hour or so."
Tavi scowled. "I told him to wake me when the first pickets reported contact."
"He said you'd need your sleep more than he in the next day or two. Tribune Antillus agreed."
Tavi scowled. Max, of course, could rely upon his furycrafting to go for days and days without sleeping. Odds were excellent that Valiar Marcus could do it as well, but Tavi had no such resource-and though he'd needed less sleep and less time to rest in the past two or three years, he had no idea exactly to what extent he could rely upon the nebulous endurance.
Max and the First Spear had probably been correct to let him get as much rest as possible. Great furies knew, he'd need his wits about him today.
"All right," he said quietly. "Ehren, I know I don't have any authority to give you a command, but..."
Ehren quirked an eyebrow. "Since when have you let niceties like the law slow you down?"
Tavi grinned. "I don't mind law. Provided it doesn't get in the way."
Ehren snorted. "Seems like yesterday we were dodging bullies in the Academy courtyard. Now it's an army of Canim." He gave Tavi a long-suffering look and sighed. "All right. I'm in."
Tavi nodded. "Thank you."
Ehren nodded back.
"Tell Magnus to get you a courier's horse," Tavi said. "Armor, too. I want you close to me. I may need a messenger today, and I want it to be someone I trust."
"Of course," Ehren said.
"And..." Tavi frowned. "If things don't go well here, Ehren, I want you to go. Take word back to Gaius, yourself. "
Ehren was silent for a minute. Then he said, in a whisper, "You're a Cursor, Tavi. It's your duty to go yourself, if it comes to that."
Tavi reached up and ran his hand over the short, bristling hairs on his head. "Today," he said quietly, "I'm a legionare."
Tavi stood atop the city walls on the southern half of the town, on the battlements over the gate. The defenses were neither as tall as those of the fortress of Garrison, back in his home in the Calderon Valley, nor were they built as thick, but for all of that they were obdurate Aleran siege walls, grounded in the bones of the earth itself and all but impervious to any damage not supported by massive furycraft.
Of course, he had no idea if they would withstand whatever strange powers the Canim ritualists seemed to possess. He kept his face calm and confident and his mouth shut. Victory, today, depended far more upon the courage of his men than upon their raw strength, and he would not allow himself to weaken their morale. So though he was acutely afraid of a second bolt of crimson lightning, which might come down precisely where he was standing, he stood there without moving, his breathing steady, hopefully looking utterly indifferent to the oncoming danger.
Around him stood the veterans of the First Spear's century. Their brother centuries within their cohort waited along the length of the walls, ready to defend them or lend support to their cohort-brothers. In the courtyard behind them waited two more entire cohorts, one with a mixed level of experience, the second composed almost entirely of fish-including what had been Max's century. In total, nearly a thousand legionares stood in arms and armor, at the ready.
Tavi knew that behind them, placed at key defensive positions, ready to move in to support the defenders of the gate, were another thousand men, and behind that, at the base of the bridge, were three thousand more. The rest maintained a watch on the northern side, while the remaining cavalry waited at the apex of the bridge, ready to respond to any enemy thrust from unexpected quarters.
When the Canim came, the first thing Tavi saw was the crows.
At first, he thought it was a column of black smoke rising from the hills southwest of the town. But instead of drifting with the wind, the darkness rose, widening, stretching out into a line, then Tavi could see that it was the crows he'd been looking at, spinning over the heads of the Canim host like a wagon wheel on its side. He half expected to see the Canim only a moment later, but nearly a quarter of an hour went by while the vast disc of wheeling crows grew larger.
Tavi understood. He had underestimated the number of crows. Four or five times as many of the carrion birds as he guessed whirled over the Canim. Which meant that this was the largest murder of crows he had ever seen-including those that had descended upon the carnage of the Second Battle of Calderon.
A mutter went up and down the wall among the legionares. Tavi got the sense that they had never seen that many of the scavenger birds, either.
Then they heard the drums and droning war horns. The sound of the drums began as a low rumble, hardly audible, but rose quickly to a distant, steady, pulsing crash. The horns screamed mournfully through the din, and the whole was like listening to the cries of some unimaginably vast wolf loping through a thunderstorm.
Tavi could feel the men growing restless behind him, expressed in a thousand uncomfortable shiftings of stance, in mutters, in the rasp of metal on metal as legionares fought their own anxiety by checking and rechecking their arms and armor.
On the open ground nearest the town, horsemen and infantry alike appeared, moving toward the town-the pickets and skirmishers who had been watching for the Canim and harassing them on their way in. They had gathered into groups as they retreated, and came toward the town at a weary trot after a full day and more in the field. Not all of the skirmishers would return. Some had undoubtedly fallen. Others, the most woodcrafty auxiliaries and local volunteers, would remain in the field, hiding from the enemy host, watching its movements, and striking its flanks and rear in hit-and-run missions.
At least, that was the plan. Tavi was well aware of how quickly and lethally reality could deviate from his intentions.
The last of the returning troops reached the shelter of the city's walls, and the gates rumbled shut behind them. The drums and horns drew nearer, and Tavi wanted to scream with the sheer frustration of waiting. He longed to fight, to kill, to run, to do anything at all, really.
But it was not yet time to act, and his men had to be feeling much the same as he. So Tavi stood facing the enemy, apparently calm, apparently bored, and waited.
The first of the Canim finally stalked into sight over the top of the last hill to hide them from his view. A skirmish line of raiders, spread out before the army, crested the hills in a line half a mile across. Upon sighting the city, and the Aleran defenders upon its walls, they tilted back their heads and let out long, ululating howls. The warbling cries sent the hairs on the back of Tavi's neck to standing.
A burst of chatter rose up from the cohort of fish in the courtyard behind them, and Tavi heard Schultz telling them to pipe down.
"All right, Marcus," Tavi said. He was surprised at how calm his own voice sounded. "Raise the standard here."
Marcus had opposed any move that would identify the captain's position to the enemy, but Tavi had overruled him, and one of his men lifted the banner of the First Aleran, with its red-and-blue eagle, to fly in the wind at the tip of the wooden shaft from a long battle lance. As the banner first flew into the breeze, Tavi stepped up onto the battlements, where the legionares could all see him. He drew his sword and raised it over his head, and this time a thousand swords did the same, a chorus of steely chimes that rose in defiance of the eerie howls and savage drums.
Tavi threw back his head and let out his own cry of challenge, wordless, throwing all of his impatience and fear and rage into it, and he was instantly followed by a thousand legionares, a furious storm of sound that shook the walls of the town.
As the full numbers of the Canim host crested the rise, they were met with the sight of a thousand steel-clad legionares, bright swords in hand, standing to battle and casting screams of defiance into their enemy's teeth. Unafraid, furious, and spoiling for a fight, the First Aleran stood behind their captain, ready-and more than ready-to meet the Canim host. Though outnumbered, strong position, furycraft, and sheer will would make them a dangerous foe.
Or so Tavi wanted the Canim to believe. Uncle Bernard had taught him a great deal about successfully facing down a predator threatening a flock. First impressions were important.
Tavi leapt back down from atop the stone merlon, as the cheers died, and the First Spear began roaring out an old Legion marching song. It had more to do with wanton maids and mugs of ale than war and battle, but every legionare knew it, and it had a seemingly inexhaustible number of verses. The First Spear bellowed out the opening call, and the refrain came as a rumbling, rhythmic shout from the rest of the legionares.
It was part of Tavi's plan to keep his men occupied with their singing as the Canim host came over the hill-Canim in armor of lacquered black, oddly ornate, here and there touched with various colors in what was probably some sort of system of denoting personal honors won. Many thousands of them, every one of them large, lean, enormous-and, if what Varg had told him about their life spans was true, each of them probably possessed much more personal experience and knowledge than even his veteran legionares.
The men kept the song up while Tavi counted enemy numbers, eventually coming to a grim estimate-twenty thousand Canim regulars, at the least, and twice that many raiders, roving in loose packs of fifty or so ahead of the main body of the army, loping along its flanks, ranging out behind it, following the way lean wild dogs would follow a herd of grass lions, waiting to scavenge from the larger predators' kills.
The Canim outnumbered them ten to one, and facing regulars toe-to-toe would not yield the decisive successes of the cavalry assaults upon isolated packs of raiders. Men now singing around him would die. Tavi himself might die. The fear that came with those thoughts made Ehren's statement that he was a Cursor, and that his duty was to report to the First Lord, a poisonously seductive one. He could be on a horse and riding away from the Canim and the Legion alike in moments, should he wish it.
But Tavi had also made a promise to Captain Cyril, to serve the Legion as well as the Crown. He could not abandon that promise. Nor could he leave his friend behind him, and Max would never leave fellow legionares in danger, not if ordered to do so by Gaius himself.
Tavi desperately wished he could leave. But then, so would anyone born with brains enough to walk and talk. So did every man there with him on the wall and waiting behind.
He would stay. Regardless of the outcome, he would see it through to the end.
With that decision, the fear faded, replaced with a sense of quiet purpose. He did not quit feeling afraid-it simply became a part of the situation, of the day before him. He had accepted it, the possibility of death, and in so doing it had lost some of its power over him. He found himself able to focus, to think more clearly, and felt certain that this was the best thing he could have done for himself, and for the men now following him. That confidence in turn reassured him about his own plans, that they gave the Legion, if not a certain victory, at least a fighting chance to survive.
And so he faced the enemy as the skirmish packs of raiders parted, scarlet lightning flashed madly in the clouds, and, with an earthshaking roar, the Canim regulars washed over the earth toward the city like a tide of howling shadow.