Tavi rode out past the crackling bonfire his legionares had made of the Canim's ram. The scent of burnt wood and of something astringent and bitter filled his nose. The fire popped, his mount's hooves struck the ground in the three-beat of a slow canter. Crow calls had become a constant, low background noise, like the crashing of the surf in a seaside town. Otherwise, the gloomy afternoon in the space between armies was freakishly silent.
That was fine by Tavi. The farther he could stay from the Canim host and still be heard, the better.
The ride took forever, and as he drew closer to the Canim host, they seemed larger and larger. Tavi was familiar with the enormous, dangerous presence of the Canim, but even so the sight of the monstrous warriors roused a kind of primitive, instinctive alarm that threatened to undermine his self-control far more powerfully than he would have believed. They crouched down on their haunches on the earth in organized ranks, their own version of standing at ease, tongues lolling out of open mouths as they rested after the attack.
A moment later, the odd, acrid scent of Cane filled his nose. Seconds after, his horse balked, alarmed at the smell. Tavi moved swiftly, hands tight on the reins to turn the horse's flinch into a sharp turn without breaking the animals pace. Not even his steed could be allowed to show fear, regardless of how well justified it might have been.
Tavi cantered down the line, perhaps a hundred yards from the Canim host. During the attack of the regulars, the raider troops had dispersed, spreading out into an enormous half circle around the town, hemming in the Alerans between superior numbers and the river. He wheeled his horse and rode down the lines in the other direction, finally stopping in the center of the Canim lines, before the black-armored ranks of their warriors. His horse screamed and shook its head, half-rearing, but Tavi kept the animal under control, and stared at the Canim with his chin lifted, the First Aleran's standard in his right hand.
Tavi took a deep breath. "Sari!" he cried. His voice cut through the silence, ringing out clearly. "Sari! I know you are there! I know you lead these warriors! Come out and face me! Come forth that I may speak to you!"
There was no response. Only thousands of blood-colored Canim eyes and tens of thousands of fangs.
"Sari!" he called. "I am captain of the Legion you now face! I come to you alone, to have words with you!" He took the standard into his left hand for a moment and drew his sword, holding it up for the Canim to see. Then, with a gesture of contempt, he cast it aside. "I, an Aleran! Alone! Unarmed! I bid you come to me, scavenger!" His voice turned mocking. "I will guarantee your safety if my presence terrifies you so badly that you fear for your pathetic life!"
A low, almost-subsonic murmur went through the black-armored warriors. It was a wordless expression, a muted growl, but it came from ten thousand throats, and Tavi could feel the sound vibrating the breastplate of his armor.
And then a single Cane rose to his feet. He was a big one, nearly as tall as Varg, and like the Ambassador, his coal black fur was broken by a maze of old scars. His lacquered black armor was intricately patterned with stripes of bright red. The Cane stared intently at Tavi. Then he moved his head very slightly, casting an oblique glance over his shoulder.
"Scavenger!" Tavi shouted again. "Sari! Come forth, coward!"
Then a rumbling horn blared. From the rear of the host, there appeared two rows of Canim in long black half capes and cowls with mantles of pale leather. The leader in each row carried a bronze censer suspended from dark, braided strands of rope. Viscous-looking clouds of grey-green incense oozed over the sides of the censers. The cowled Canim paced slowly to the front line of troops, then divided, spreading out in a straight line ten yards ahead of the rest of the host. They faced Tavi, then, in a single movement, settled slowly to their haunches.
Then Sari appeared from the ranks.
The Cane looked precisely as Tavi remembered him-dirty, wiry, reddish fur, where it wasn't covered, sharp features and beady, malicious eyes. Instead of his scribe's dress, though, he wore the dark cape and cowl of the Canim who had preceded him, and he wore lacquered armor of solid, bloodred. A heavy satchel the same color as his mantle rode at his side.
The ritualist walked out to meet Tavi, steps slow and deliberate, and stopped ten feet away. The Cane's eyes burned with bloody fury. It was plain to Tavi that Sari had not wished to come forth-but Tavi's phrasing, and especially his accusations of cowardice, had left Sari with little choice. He was far more likely to survive facing a single Aleran in the open than his own warriors-and the Canim, Tavi knew, had little patience for cowardice.
Tavi returned the Cane's stare, then made a slight, deliberate motion of his head, a fraction to one side, then back, a Canim gesture of greeting and respect.
Sari did not return it.
Tavi couldn't be sure, but over the ritualist's shoulder, he thought he saw the eyes of the warrior leader narrow.
"These are not your lands, Sari," Tavi said, letting his voice carry, his gaze never wavering from the Cane's. "Take your kindred and depart now, while you still have a chance to escape. Remain here, and you will find nothing but your death and the death of those you lead."
Sari let out a choking, snarling sound that passed for laughter among the Canim. "Bold words," he said, his throat and fangs mangling the words almost beyond recognition. "But empty words. Flee that hovel you defend, and we may decide to kill you on another day."
Tavi laughed, a sound full of arrogance and scorn. "You are not in your home territory. This is Alera, Sari. Are all ritualists so ignorant of lands outside their own? Or is it just you?"
"You do not face expeditions from a handful of ships this time, Aleran," Sari replied. "Never have you fought a host of our folk. Never will you defeat them. You will die."
"One day," Tavi replied. "But even if you slay me and every man under my command, others will take our place. Perhaps not today. Nor tomorrow. But it will happen, Sari. They'll keep on coming. They will destroy you. When you burned your ships, you turned any chance of survival you might have had into ashes and smoke."
Sari bared his teeth and began to speak.
"You will not pass," Tavi snarled, interrupting the Cane. "I will not yield you the bridge. I will destroy it before it can fall into your hands, if need be. You will throw away the lives of your warriors for nothing. And when the lords of Alera come to wipe our land clean of your kind, there will be no one to sing the blood songs of the fallen. No one to bear their names up through the dark sea to the blood lands. Turn away, Sari. And live a little longer."
"Nhar-fek," the Cane snarled. "You will suffer for this arrogance."
"You talk a lot," Tavi said. "Don't you?"
Sari's eyes blazed. He thrust a hand up, a dark claw pointing at sullen, cloud-covered sky. "Look up, Aleran. Your very skies are already ours. I will take you. I will make you watch. And when you and the other nhar-fek have been hunted down, to the last female, the last squalling spawn, only then will I rip out your throat, so that you can see that the earth has been purged of your, unnatural kind." One of the Cane's hands shot toward his satchel.
Tavi had been waiting for just such a thing. He had known that, whatever happened, Sari couldn't afford to be so openly challenged. If Tavi walked away from this confrontation, it would display weakness to Sari's fellow Canim-and among their kind, it would be a lethal mistake. Sari could not afford to let Tavi go free, and Tavi knew that it had only been a matter of time until Sari made a move.
Tavi lifted a finger into a dramatic point toward the Cane, and his voice crackled with sudden tension and menace. "Don't try it."
Sari froze, fangs bared in hate.
Tavi faced him steadily, finger pointing, his mount dancing restlessly in place. "You have some power, ' he said, more quietly. "But you know what Aleran furycraft can do. Move your hand another inch, and I'll roast you and leave you for the crows."
"Even if you succeed," Sari growled, "my acolytes will tear you to pieces."
Tavi shrugged. "Maybe. ' He smiled. "But you'll be just as dead."
The two faced one another, and the moment stretched on and on. Tavi fought to remain calm, confident, as a powerful furycrafter would be. The fact of the matter was that if Sari tried to rip him apart, his only choice would be to trust to his mount's speed and flee. If Sari tried some kind of sorcery, it would kill him. He was, by any reasonable standard, helpless against the Cane.
But Sari didn't know that.
And when push came to shove, Sari was a coward.
"We are speaking under truce," he growled, as though he hated the fact, and that it was the only thing keeping Tavi alive. "Go, Aleran," he said, hand lowering to his side. "We will meet again shortly."
"Now we agree on something," Tavi said. The bluff had worked. His anxiety began to give way to giddy relief, and it was almost as difficult to contain as the fear had been.
He began to turn his mount, then paused, looked at the standing Canim warrior behind the line of Sari's ritualists, and called out, "Should you wish to recover the remains of your fallen, I will permit unarmed Canim to retrieve them provided they do so in the next hour."
The Cane did not respond. But after a few pensive seconds, he tilted his head, very slightly, to one side. Tavi mirrored the gesture, then began to withdraw, turning his face into a mild breeze.
Sari suddenly sniffed, a snuffling sound nearly identical to any canine investigating a scent.
Tavi froze, and the relief he'd begun feeling transformed itself in an instant to an almost-hysterical terror. He looked over his shoulder in time to see Saris eyes widening in shock and recognition.
"I know you," the Cane breathed. "You. The freak. The messenger boy!"
Sari's hand flashed to his satchel and flicked it open, and Tavi suddenly realized that the pale leather case, like the ritualist's mantles, was made of human skin. Sari withdrew his hand, flinging it straight up over his head. His hand was covered in fresh, scarlet blood, and the droplets flew into the air, scattering, vanishing. He howled something in Canish, and the acolytes behind him joined in.
Tavi turned his horse, desperate to flee, but everything moved with nightmarish deliberation. Before he could give the beast its head, the clouds above them lit up with an inferno of scarlet lightning. Tavi looked up in time to see an enormous wheel of streaming lightning suddenly condense into a single, white-hot point overhead.
Tavi tried to kick the horse into a run, but he was moving too slowly, and he could not tear his eyes from the gathering stroke of power-the same power that had massacred the First Aleran's officers, none of whom were as helpless as Tavi.
The point of fire suddenly expanded into a blinding white light and an avalanche of furious noise, and Tavi opened his mouth and screamed in terror and disbelief. He never heard it.