Tavi was sure that his voice would sound every bit as weak and thready as he felt, but it came out smooth and strong. "All right, Marcus. Let's open negotiations."
"Ready!" bellowed the First Spear, and along the walls, legionares snapped into their standard defense formation-one man bearing a shield stepping up to his crennel, while his partner, armed with a bow, stepped up close to the shield-man's flank. At a nudge from the archer's hip, the shieldman would swiftly step aside as his partner took his place, loosed a shot, and reversed the process, letting the shield move back to cover both men, providing but a bare second for the enemy to hit a living target.
Though all legionares were given basic training in the use of a bow, they were hardly a substitute for Knights Flora. The legionares had the reach on the their foe, but the Canim were swift, difficult targets, and well armored. Several Aleran arrows found their marks, and some of the enemy went down-but not many, especially when compared to the number of Canim still remaining.
The Canim covered the distance to the walls with unnerving speed-not so swiftly as horsemen, perhaps, but far more quickly than a man could run. Once they were within perhaps sixty or seventy yards, the oncoming Canim hurled a shower of javelins thicker and heavier than an Aleran battle spear.
The weapons hit hard. Beside Tavi, there was a heavy, crunching sound and a grunt of surprise as one of the javelins smashed into a veteran's shield. The Canim weapon shattered, but threw the legionare to the ground and left an enormous dent in the shield's surface.
Down the wall, one of the archers stepped up for a shot, just as the missiles flew. A spear slammed completely through one biceps, its red steel tip passing all the way through, to half the length of the weapon's haft. The hit legionare cried out and fell.
"Medico!" Tavi shouted, and the waiting healers rushed to the man.
"Sir!" Marcus shouted, and Tavi felt something hard hit him between the shoulder blades an instant before something else hit the back of his helmet. Thunderous sound filled his ears, and he fell to one knee. In the corner of his eye, he saw a Canim javelin arc away from him on a skewed, wobbling line of flight.
"Keep your eyes open, sir!" bellowed Marcus as he hauled Tavi back to his feet. "The men know what to do."
"Ram!" screamed a grizzled legionare farther down the wall. "Here comes their ram!"
"Ready over the gate!" Marcus roared.
Tavi took a quick look around the sheltering merlon. Below, the Canim surged for the wall. Perhaps twenty feet behind the leading Canim came a tightly packed group bearing a rough wooden ram nearly three feet in diameter between them. Around them, new ranks of Canim hurled their javelins as the whole of the body charged the walls, and more of the creatures came within range, so that there was a continual stream of deadly shafts arching through the air. Tavi barely jerked his head back in time to avoid one such javelin, and it flew past him to bury itself to the base of its head in the wooden beam of a two-story building behind him.
"Lines!" called another legionare, just as the shapes of several enormous iron hooks the size of boat anchors, attached to lengths of steel chain flew up from the ground outside the wall. The hooks landed with heavy clanks, and their chains were drawn tight. Legionares seized and threw down most of them before they could settle into position, but a few caught solidly, and their chains rattled as Canim began swarming up them.
Tavi suddenly heard and felt an enormous boom, an impact that made the walls tremble beneath his boots, the sound loud enough to drown even the howling chaos of the battle for a moment. The ram had reached the gate, and it seemed inconceivable that it could withstand the terrible power driving its weight for long.
"Ready!" shouted the First Spear, leaning out to look down despite the deadly javelins still hurtling through the air. He flicked his head to one side to idly dodge an incoming missile, then growled, "Now!"
The bowmen over the gate had already dropped their bows. Now they lifted large wooden buckets of hot pitch, grunting and straining with the effort, and poured them down to splash over the area before the gate, eliciting shrieks of surprise and agony from the Canim beneath them-and liberally spattering the wooden ram with the material, as well.
Marcus got back under cover, and shouted to Tavi. "Ready!"
Tavi nodded and lifted his fist, glancing back over his shoulder at the courtyard.
At the signal, Crassus and a dozen of his Knights Pisces, as the Legion had generally dubbed them during the march, suddenly shot up out of the courtyard on columns of wind. They shot out over the river, dodging and weaving in a flight pattern meant to make it difficult to target any single Knight in the air, banked around to face the city again, and streaked by no more than sixty feet over the earth, scattering hundreds of startled, circling crows as they did.
More missiles flew up at the flight of Knights, but none found their mark, and as Crassus flashed past the gates, Tavi saw him point a finger and cry out. A flickering bead of white-hot fire appeared before him and screamed earthward, striking the pitch-soaked wooden ram and bursting into a sudden cloud of angry fire.
The flame seared and burned, and Canim screamed. The deadly hot pitch took fire as well, dooming anything already soaked in it to a swift and terrible demise.
Atop the walls, Tavi saw one of the Canim reach the wall above his scaling chain, but hard-faced legionares were waiting. Swords and spears lashed out, and the Cane fell out of sight. Other legionares used captured javelins as pry bars, levering the heavy grappling hooks out of position and sending more Canim to the earth.
Tavi could not have said precisely what it was that let him understand it, but he sensed the sudden hesitation in the Canim charge. He turned to Crassus and whirled his arm in a circle over his head.
The Knight Tribune had blackened eyes since Tavi had broken his nose, but they were sharp, and the flight of Knights banked and hurtled along the walls again upon a furycrafted gale, casting dirt and dust into the Canim's eyes and noses while Crassus hurled half a dozen more blazing spheres down into the Canim, tiny beads of light blossoming into explosions of flame.
Before Crassus and his Knights could make another pass, the low horns of the Canim sounded in rapid rhythm, a signal to the attacking troops, and the armored regulars below began a swift and orderly withdrawal. They were back out of bow range within two minutes, though the Alerans on the walls sent as many arrows as they could into the departing ranks.
Crassus began to lead his Knights into a harrying action, but Tavi saw the movement, and lifted his spread hand straight over his head, clenched it into a fist, and drew it back down to shoulder level. Crassus saw the signal, acknowledged it with a raised fist, and he and the other Knights returned to the fortifications.
Around him, legionares let out cheers and rained defiant insults on the backs of the departing Canim. Every man there knew that the battle was far from over, but for the time being, at least, they were alive and unbeaten, and Tavi did nothing to discourage the jubilation given them by the small victory in the opening moments of the battle. He sheathed his sword and watched the retreating Canim, breathing hard though he had barely been physically involved. He leaned out over the battlements and looked down. Still, broken forms lay below, totaling perhaps seven- or eightscore dead. None of the Canim left behind were wounded-only the dead lay there. The regulars had taken their wounded with them.
"Well," Ehren panted behind him. "That was bracing."
"Medico!" Tavi called to a nearby healer. "What's the count?"
"Three casualties, two moderate, one mild. No dead, sir."
That drew another round of shouts from the legionares, and even the First Spear almost smiled. "Good work!" Tavi shouted to them. Then he turned and headed for the stairs down to the courtyard.
"So," Ehren said, following. The little spy was hardly able to wear the armor Magnus had procured for him. "Now what happens?"
"That was just a probe," Tavi replied. "And I'll give fair odds that their leader wanted it to fail."
"Because Sari is a ritualist, but he's got a bunch of warriors to control," Tavi said. "To do that, he has to convince them that he's strong enough and worthy enough to lead them. He let the warriors take the first swing at us, knowing we'd hit them hard enough to let them know they'd been kissed. His next move is going to be to prove how worthy a leader he is, when he uses whatever powers he has to help them take the walls. He saves lives. Gets to be the hero. Proves his strength."
Ehren nodded, as he and Tavi reached the courtyard, and Tavi walked toward a horse being held there. "I see. So what are you doing now?"
"Cutting Sari's drama out from under him," Tavi replied. He sheathed his sword and mounted the horse. "If I move now, I can steal his thunder."
Ehren blinked. "How are you going to do that?"
Tavi nodded to the legionares at the gate, and they swung it wide open. He whistled up at the First Spear, over the gate, and Marcus tossed him the Legion's standard on its wooden haft. Tavi grounded it next to his boot on the stirrup.
"I'm going to ride out there and make him look like an idiot," Tavi said.
Ehren's eyes widened. "Out there?"
Ehren stared at Tavi for a second, then turned and looked out the gates, to where the Canim host waited less than a mile away. "Well, Captain," he said after a beat. "Whatever happens, I suppose someone's going to look awfully foolish."
Tavi flashed Ehren a smile and winked, though on the inside he felt more like screaming and running to a very small, very dark hiding place. It was possible that his whole plan was little more than a fantasy-but after spending so much time with Ambassador Varg, Tavi thought that his knowledge of the enemy might be the only effective weapon against them. If he was right, he could cripple Sari's support, and if extremely lucky, he might even divorce Sari from his regulars altogether.
Of course, if he was wrong, he probably wouldn't live to ride back into the shelter of the town's walls.
He closed his eyes for a second and fought against his fear, forcing himself to tightly controlled calm. Fear, now, would quite literally kill him.
Then he kicked his horse lightly and rode forward out of the protection of the First Aleran Legion and the safety of the town's walls, toward sixty thousand savage Canim.