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.