Blinding light stole Tavi's sight. A sudden pressure became a single, enormous pain against either side of his head, and there was no longer any sound. He lost all sense of direction, and for a moment everything whirled around him, leaving him with no point of reference, no sense of position.
Then his sight returned in shadows that deepened into colors, and he was able to sort out his perceptions.
First-he was alive. Which came as something of a surprise to him.
Second, he was still mounted, though his horse was staggering in jerking little jumps, as though it couldn't decide whether to run or to buck him off. There was an overwhelming scent of ozone, clean and sharp.
Tavi looked down blearily. There was smoke everywhere, and he felt himself coughing though he could not hear it. The ground beneath him was burned black, the grass charred to ash. More grass burned in a twenty-foot circle around him-an area almost precisely the size of the blasted earth of the command tent.
His clothes were singed. His armor was blackened, but not hot. He still held both the reins of his mount and the lance staff that bore the Legion's standard. The standard's pole was burned along one side, but whole. The flag's eagle had been wrought of a different thread than the rest, and that thread had charred, so that instead of the azure-and-scarlet emblem, the whole of the war bird was black.
Tavi stared dully up at the black bird, while overhead him thousands of crows swirled and danced in hungry excitement. The breeze pressed silently against one cheek, and the smoke began to clear. As it did, Tavi began to gather his wits about him again, to realize where he was, and he somehow managed to get the horse to stop trying to throw him off, though it still danced restlessly.
The smoke lifted, and Tavi found himself standing not ten yards from Sari.
The Canim ritualist was stretched to his full height, head tilted back in a pose of bizarre ecstasy, jaws gaping, his bloody hand still raised to the sky. Then he flinched, evidently at some sound, and his eyes dropped to settle on Tavi. The Cane's eyes widened, his nostrils flared, and his ears quivered and flicked about. His jaws opened and closed twice, faltering motions, though Tavi could not hear any sound Sari made, if any.
Tavi was still stunned, trying to sort out what had happened, and he never gave any real thought to what he did. It flowed out of him on raw instinct as his emotions coalesced into a single incandescent fire of rage and he dug his heels into the near-panicked horse's flanks.
The terrified horse shot forward, seemingly attaining a full run within the space of a single surge of power, directly at Sari. Tavi felt himself screaming, felt the pounding of the horse's hooves striking the earth, and felt the banner drag at the air as he swung the standard down upon Sari with all of his strength and in total silence.
Tavi's aim was true. The heavy haft of the lance came down at an angle upon Sari's muzzle, and struck with such force that the Cane's jaws clamped shut on his lolling tongue and drove the ritualist to the ground.
Tavi whipped his head around in time to see on of Sari's acolytes leaping for him. Tavi pulled his mount around to face the Cane, and the warhorse's hooves lashed out and struck with terrible force. A second Cane ran at Tavi, and he jabbed the lower end of the standard pole squarely into his attacker's face, striking with such force that he clearly saw the yellow shards of shattered fangs fly into the air.
His wits returned to him in full in a sudden flash, and he knew the other acolytes would be charging as well-and that there were another sixty thousand Canim behind them. He'd fought off the first two, but even without help, they would kill him if he stayed to give them battle. He looked around wildly, got his bearings, then turned the horse for the town and gave the beast its head.
The animal needed no encouragement, and it fled for the shelter of the town.
Fast as the beast was, it wasn't fast enough to avoid another Canim that threw itself at the horse in a frenzy, clawed hands ripping at the horse's withers, drawing a splatter of blood. The horse's body shook with the scream of pain Tavi could not hear, and the animal veered wildly, ripping the reins from Tavi's hands.
A glance over his shoulder showed him more acolytes rushing forward, and others sprinting through the ranks of squatting warriors-though the warriors themselves did not rise. One of them threw a dart of some kind. Tavi could not see if it struck, but the horse bucked in pain and nearly faltered before thundering on.
Tavi reached for the reins, but his head was still whirling, and the horse was pounding over open ground as fast as it could move. It was difficult enough simply to stay seated, and by the time Tavi recovered the reins, he looked up to see the broad waters of the Tiber not fifty feet ahead.
Tavi looked around wildly to find the walls of the city several hundred yards to the east. He checked over his shoulder. Behind him, dozens of ritualists were not ten seconds behind. The beast's injuries must have slowed its pace. Tavi turned the horse toward the town, but its feet slipped on the loose earth and shale near the river, and the mount fell, taking Tavi with it.
The water of the river slapped him hard in the face, and there was a brief and terrible pressure on one of his legs. The horse thrashed wildly, and Tavi knew that the panicked animal could easily kill him in its frenzy. Then the horse's weight was gone, and Tavi tried to rise.
He couldn't. The leg that had been pinned beneath the horse had sunk into the clay of the river's bottom. He was trapped there, with the surface less than a foot away.
He almost laughed. It was inconceivable that he had escaped an entire army of Canim, survived that deadly, bloody lightning, only to drown.
He forced himself not to thrash in panic and instead reached down, digging his fingers into the clay. It had been softened by the water, or the task would have been hopeless, but Tavi was able to work his knee lose, and from there to pull the rest of his leg from the cold grasp of the river's bottom.
Tavi rose from the river, looked wildly around him, and saw the standard lying half out of the water. He sloshed to the river shore and seized it up, taking it in a fighting grip, and looking up to face twenty or more of the ritualist acolytes, in their black cloaks and mantles of human skin. They had fallen upon the horse as it came from the water, and now their claws and fangs were scarlet with new blood.
Tavi looked back to his left, and saw that the Aleran cavalry was already on the move over the Elinarch. It would be a futile gesture. By the time they arrived, there would be nothing of Tavi left to rescue.
Strange, that it was so quiet, Tavi thought. He saw his death in the eyes of the bloody Canim. It seemed that such a thing should have been a great deal noisier. But he heard nothing. Not his enemies snarls, nor the cries from the city. Not the gurgle of water as the Tiber flowed around his knees. Not even the sound of his own labored breath or the beating of his heart. It was perfectly silent. Almost peaceful.
Tavi gripped the standard and faced the oncoming Canim without moving. If he was to die, it would be on his feet, against them, and he would take as many of the things with him as he possibly could.
Today, he thought, I am a legionare.
The fear vanished, and Tavi abruptly threw back his head and laughed. "Come on!" he shouted to them. "What are you waiting for? The water's fine!*'
The Canim rushed at him-and then suddenly slid to a halt in their tracks with two dozen panicked, inhuman stares.
Tavi blinked, entirely confused. Then he looked behind him.
On either side of him, the waters of the Tiber had flowed into solid form, into water-sculptures similar to those he had seen before.
Similar, but not the same.
Two lions, lions the size of horses, stood at his sides, their eyes flickering with green-blue fox fire. Though formed of water, every detail was perfect, down to the fur, down to the battle scars upon their powerful chests and shoulders. Stunned, Tavi lifted a hand and touched one of the beasts on its flank, and though its substance appeared to be liquid, it was as hard as stone beneath Tavi's fingers.
Tavi turned to face the Canim again, and as he did so both lions opened their mouths and let out roars. Tavi could not hear it, but it set his armor to buzzing, and the surface of the waters rippled and jumped in place for a hundred feet in every direction.
The Canim flinched away from the river, and their stance changed, becoming wary, their eyes apprehensive. And then, almost as one, they turned and fled over the grass, back toward the Canim host.
Tavi watched them go, then slogged up out of the river and planted the standard's butt on the ground. He leaned wearily against it and turned his head to consider the enormous furies that had risen to his defense.
A faint tremble in the earth warned him of approaching horses, and he looked up to find Max and Crassus thundering up to him on horses of their own. Each of the young legionares dismounted and came toward him. Max's mouth started moving, but Tavi shook his head, and said, "I can't hear anything."
Max scowled at him. Then he turned to the larger of the two water furies. The great old lion greeted Max and nuzzled his hand as affectionately as a pet cat. Max placed his hand on the fury's muzzle and nodded, the gesture both grateful and dismissive, and the fury sank back into the river.
Beside him, Crassus went through almost precisely the same routine, and the second water lion also sank from sight. The half brothers stood in their place for a moment, staring at one another. Neither of them spoke. Then Crassus flushed and shrugged. Max opened his mouth and let out a bark of the laughter Tavi was familiar with, then shook his had, punched his brother lightly on the shoulder, and turned to Tavi.
Max faced him and mouthed, words exaggerated so that Tavi could read them, That was not in the plan.
"He read my bluff," Tavi said. "But I made him look pretty bad. It might have worked."
Max mouthed, This it what it looks like when it works? You are insane.
"Thank you," Tavi said. He tried to sound dry.
Max nodded. How had is your leg?
Tavi frowned at him, puzzled, and looked down. He felt startled to find, high on his left thigh, a wide, wet stain of fresh blood on his breeks. He touched his leg tentatively, but felt no pain. He hadn't been injured there. The fabric wasn't even torn.
Then an inspiration hit him, and he reached into his pocket. At the very bottom, precisely at the top of the bloodstain, Tavi found it-the scarlet stone he'd stolen from Lady Antillus. It felt oddly warm, almost uncomfortably so.
"I'm fine," Tavi said. "I don't think that's mine." He frowned down, and then peered out at the Canim host, and then at the scarlet clouds overhead.
You need not fear his breed's power, and you know it, Kalarus had told Lady Antillus. And then immediately after, he had ordered her to fly to Kalare. But if she could have flown, why would she steal horses?
Because the stone would have protected her from the Canim ritual sorcery that blanketed the skies.
Just as it had protected Tavi from the same power.
His heart beat faster. He tried to think of another explanation, but it was the only thing that made sense. How else could he have survived a blast of the same power that had slain the Legion's officers?
Of course. The Canim had known precisely where to strike. Legion commanders kept their tents in the same location in any camp, no matter where they went. No one was supposed to have survived that blast-no one but Lady Antillus, who would have had the stone with her had not Tavi stolen it when he took her purse.
The original treason became clear to Tavi. After assuming command of the Legion according to proper chain of command, Lady Antillus was probably supposed to lead the union in a retreat, so that the Canim could control the bridge, thereby preventing any sort of Aleran incursion from the north that could march through to Kalarus's lands.
Of course, that had been before she knew the Canim were arriving in such enormous numbers. Kalarus had tried to use them as a weapon, but they had turned and sliced into his own hand.
Hey, Max mouthed, sticking his face into Tavi's. Are you all right?
Max and Crassus suddenly whipped their heads toward the Canim host, then they both started back for their horses. Max mouthed to Tavi, They're coming. We need to go.
Tavi grimaced, nodded, then took the standard and mounted behind Max. The three of them rode for the town as the Canim host began to stir once more. Out of sheer defiance, Tavi raised the standard and let the wind of their passage send the blackened eagle flying where anyone with eyes could see.
Tavi couldn't hear it as they rode back through the town's gates, but as they closed behind them he looked up at the battlements and around the courtyard in surprise. Every man in sight, fish and veteran alike, pale-eyed northmen and dark-eyed southerners, old, young, Knight, centurion, and legionare all stood facing Tavi, slamming their steel-cased fists to their breastplates in what had to be a deafening thunder as together they shouted and cheered their captain's return.