Pain flashed through Tavi's head again, sudden, harsh, and every bit as painful as the lightning blast that had deafened him. Someone started screaming sul-furous expletives with great volume and sincerity.
A second later, Tavi realized that the cursing was his own, and he came to an abrupt stop. He could suddenly hear the battle he knew was raging at the gates, the deafening howls of a sea of Canim punctuated in surges by the shouting and cheering of the town's defenders.
"There you go, sir," Foss rumbled. "Your eardrums were broken. Happens to young Knights Aeris a lot when they're showing off. Eardrums can heal up on their own, but it can take a while, which we don't have, and keeping sickness out of them isn't any fun." The big healer crouched down at the head of the healing tub and snapped his fingers on either side of Tavi's head. "Hear that? Both sides?"
The snaps had an odd reverberation to them that Tavi had never heard before, but he could hear them. "Good enough. You shouldn't be wasting energy on me in any case."
"Deaf Captain won't be much help to us, sir," Foss disagreed. "And we're staying ahead of the wounded so far."
Tavi grunted and pushed himself up out of the tub. His muscles and joints screamed protest. Sari's thunderbolt may not have killed him, but the fall from the horse had done him no favors. He started climbing back into his clothing. "Help me armor up?"
"Yes, sir," Foss drawled, and stood by, helping with the buckles on Tavi's armor.
"What's the count?" Tavi asked quietly as he worked.
"Seventy-two injured," Foss said at once. "All but eleven are back in the fight. Nine dead."
"Thank you, Foss. Again."
The veteran grunted and slapped a hand on Tavi's breastplate. "You're set."
Tavi put on his sword belt and slipped a replacement gladius Magnus had dug up into the scabbard. Outside, a fresh round of singing broke out of the troops waiting in the courtyard to reinforce the walls or gate. The verses now contained a great many disparaging references to the men currently on the walls, complemented by enthusiastic boasting of the men waiting for the alleged incompetents to step out of their way.
Magnus entered the tent and nodded. "Sir," he said. "Crassus asked me to tell you that Jens is finished."
"Jens?" Tavi asked.
"Our only Knight Ignus, sir."
"That's right," Tavi said. "Good. Thank you, Magnus." He beckoned and strode out of the tent, back toward the fighting on the wall. As he left the tent, Ehren appeared at his side and kept pace on Tavi's left, and Tavi nodded to him.
"What's happening?" Tavi asked Magnus.
"The Canim sent about a third of their raiders forward. Valiar Marcus says that the regulars have shifted their position, and that they're ready to move forward fairly quickly."
Tavi grimaced. "Crows take it."
Magnus lowered his voice. "It was worth a try. It may be that the Canim's loyalties are not so fractured as we hoped."
"Looks that way." Tavi sighed. "They're using their raiders to wear us down. They'll send the regulars in once they've softened us up."
"Quite probably," Magnus said.
"What about Tribune Cymnea's project?" Tavi asked.
"Let's just say it's a good thing you weren't in the river for very long, Captain."
"Good," Tavi said. "Come nightfall, the Canim will try to get some troops across. They'll want to hit us in the rear and send the regulars through the front door." He paused as a thought struck him. He squinted up at the dim outline of the lowering sun behind the bloody clouds. "Two hours?"
"A little less, " Magnus said.
They had to pause as Crassus and his half dozen Knights Aeris swept overhead to strafe the enemy lines with howling winds and bursts of flame. The miniature gale supporting them temporarily precluded conversation.
"What about the bridge?" Tavi asked, when he could be heard again.
"The engineers say they'd like more time to strengthen it, but they always say that. They've got it up to what you asked for." Magnus paused. "Did you want to give the order now?"
Tavi bit his lip. "Not yet. We hold the gate until sundown."
"You don't know that the regulars will come then," Magnus said. "And it's going to be hard on the men at the gate to stay there. Not to mention the fact that it's going to be difficult for them to maneuver and retreat in the dark."
"Send for fresh troops from the north side of the river then," Tavi said, glancing at Ehren. The Cursor nodded. "Then tell the First Spear to increase the rotation on the walls and keep our men as rested as possible."
"If we do that, we'll have to start using the fish. '
"I know," Tavi said. "But they've got to get into the mud sometime. At least this way, they'll have the veterans to back them up."
Magnus grimaced. "Sir, the plan isn't going to be easy, even if we move right now. If we wait another two hours..." He shook his head. "I don't see what there is to be gained by the wait."
"Without more Knights Ignus, we've only got one really big punch to throw. It's got to count. The regulars are their backbone and this may be our only chance to break it." He glanced back at Ehren and nodded, and the spy set out at a swift jog to deliver Tavi's orders.
"How long has Marcus been on the wall?"
"Since it started. Call it almost two hours."
Tavi nodded. "We'll need him fresh and in charge when we fall back, wouldn't you say?"
"Definitely," Magnus said. "The First Spear has more experience than anyone on the field."
"Anyone on our side of it, anyway," Tavi muttered.
"Eh? What's that?"
"Nothing," Tavi sighed. "All right. I'm going to order him down. Get some food into him and make sure he's ready for nightfall."
Magnus gave Tavi a wary look. "Can you handle them up there on your own?"
"I've got to get in the mud, too," Tavi replied. He squinted up at the wall. "Where's the standard?"
Magnus glanced up at the walls. "It had been burned and muddied pretty thoroughly. I'm having a new one made, but it won't be ready for a few more hours."
"The burned one is just fine," Tavi said. "Get it for me."
"I'll put it on a new pole, at least."
"No," Tavi said. "Saris blood is on the old one. That will do."
Magnus shot Tavi a sudden grin. "Bloodied, dirty but unbroken."
"Just like us," Tavi agreed.
"Very good, sir. I'll send it up with Sir Ehren."
"Thank you," Tavi said. Then he stopped and put a hand on Magnus's shoulder, and said, more quietly. "Thank you, Maestro. I don't think I've said it yet. But I enjoyed our time at the ruins. Thank you for sharing it with me."
Magnus smiled at Tavi and nodded. "It's a shame you're showing an aptitude for military command, lad. You'd have been a fine scholar."
Then Magnus saluted, turned, and hurried off.
Tavi made sure his helmet was seated snugly and hurried up onto the battlements, making his way down the lines of crouched legionares, bearing shields, bows, and buckets of everything from more pitch to simple, scalding water. He deftly made his way through the fighting, not jostling or interfering with any of the men, and found the First Spear, bellowing orders ten yards down the wall from the gates, where the Canim were attempting to get more climbing lines-these of braided leather and rope, not chain-while their companions below showered the walls with rough spears and simple, if enormous, stones.
"Crows take it! " Marcus bellowed. "You don't have to stick your fool head up to cut a line. Use your knife, not your sword."
Tavi crouched and, while he waited for Marcus to finish bellowing, drew his knife and sawed swiftly through a braided line attached to a hook that landed near him. "Let's keep the hooks, too, Tribune," Tavi added. "Not throw them back out to be reused against us." Tavi checked the courtyard below, then tossed the hook down.
"Captain!" shouted one of the legionares, and a round of shouts of greeting went up and down the walls.
Valiar Marcus checked over his shoulder and saw Tavi there. He gave him a brisk nod and banged a gauntlet to his breastplate in salute. "You all right, sir?"
"Our Tribune Medica set me right," Tavi said. "How's the weather?"
A thrown stone from below clipped the crest of the First Spear's helmet, and the steel rang for a second. Marcus shook his head and crouched a little lower. "If the sun was out, we'd still be fighting in the shade," he said a moment later, teeth flashing in a swift, fighting grin. "Two or three of them gained the wall once, but we pushed them back down. We burned down six more rams. They aren't trying that one anymore."
"Not until it gets dark," Tavi said.
The First Spear gave him a shrewd look, and nodded. "By then, it shouldn't matter."
"We hold," Tavi said. "Until they bring the regulars in."
Valiar Marcus stared at him for a moment, then made a sour face and nodded. "Aye. It'll cost us, sir."
"If we can break their regulars, it could be worth it."
The grizzled soldier nodded. "True enough. We'll see to it, then, Captain."
"Not you," Tavi said. "You've been here long enough. I want you to sit down, get a meal in you, some drink. I need you fresh for sundown."
The First Spear's jaw set, and for a second Tavi thought he was going to argue.
Then a shout went up down the wall, and Tavi looked to see Ehren hurrying toward them down the wall-and though the little Cursor kept his head down, he bore the blackened standard upright, and the men cheered to see it.
The First Spear looked from the men to the standard to Tavi and nodded. "Use your head," he said. "Trust your centurions. Don't take any chances. We got another veteran cohort coming in five minutes to relieve this one."
"I will," Tavi said. "See Magnus. He's got something ready for you."
Marcus nodded, and the pair exchanged a salute before the old soldier made his way back down the wall, keeping his head down. Ehren hurried to Tavi's side, keeping the standard high.
The attack continued without slacking, and Tavi checked in with each of the two centurions on the wall-both veterans, both worried about their men. Tavi saw a number of legionares breathing hard. A man went down, struck on the helmet by a stone almost as large as Tavi's head. The cry for a medico went up. Tavi seized the man's shield and blocked the crennel with it, hiding the medico as he hurried to the fallen man. A spear struck against the shield, and a moment later another stone struck it so hard that it slammed back into Tavi's helmeted head hard enough to make him see stars, but then another legionare stepped into position with his own shield, and the fight went on.
It was terrifying, but at the same time it had become an experience oddly akin to an afternoon of heavy labor back at his old home on the steadholt. Tavi moved steadily along the wall, from position to position, encouraging the men and watching for any change in behavior from their foes. After what seemed almost an hour, fresh troops arrived to relieve the legionares, and the men on the wall switched out smoothly, one crennel at a time, with their replacements. And the battle went on.
Twice, the Canim raiders managed to get a number of hooks up into locations where a barrage of stones had disrupted the defenses, but both times Tavi was able to signal Crassus and his Knights Aeris to deliver a burst of pain and confusion to the enemy, delaying them in turn until the Aleran defense could solidify again.
Against the raiders, the legionares' archery had considerably greater effect. The wild troops were not nearly as disciplined as the regulars, which slowed them down considerably as they struggled to work together. Their armor was also much lighter, where they had any at all, and arrows that struck and inflicted injuries were almost more useful to the defense than outright kills. Wounded Canim thrashed and screamed and had to be carried away from the fighting by a pair of their comrades, vastly slowing the pace of whatever operation they'd been attempting, whereas the dead were simply left where they fell.
The Canim dead numbered in the hundreds, and in places the corpses lay so thick that the Canim had been forced to stack them in piles, like cordwood-piles that they then used for shelter from enemy arrows. Even so, Tavi knew, they could afford the losses far more easily than the Alerans. As far as Sari was concerned, Tavi thought, their deaths would simply reduce the number of hungry mouths to feed. If thev could kill any Alerans while they died, so much the better.
And then it happened. The legionares on station began switching out with the next unit in the rotation, one with a much higher concentration of green recruits. A particularly thick shower of rocks were thrown up from the base of the wall, lobbed up on a high arc to come almost straight down upon the defenders. The stones wouldn't hit with the same killing force as those hurled directly at a target, but they were so large that they hardly needed more than a few feet to fall to attain enough speed to be dangerous to even an armored legionare.
Tavi was about twenty feet away when it happened, and he clearly heard a bone snapping, just before the injured men began screaming.
There was a sudden, furious wave of Canim howls and war cries, and more ropes and hooks were thrown up along the whole length of the wall, just as another group of Canim appeared from their rear areas and charged forward, bearing another heavy ram.
Tavi stared for a second, trying to understand everything that was happening, knowing full well that he had to act, and quickly, or risk being overrun. He had to direct the force of his Knights to where they would do the most good. If the Canim gained the walls, they would still be contained to one degree or another, hampered by being forced to climb a rope, they could pour in added numbers, but only in a trickle. If the gates were breached, their entire force could pour through as quickly as they could fit. Whatever else happened, the gates had to hold.
Tavi let out a sharp whistle and signaled Crassus to attack the enemy center-he had to trust that the young Knight Tribune would see the ram and correctly identify it as the largest threat to the town's defenses. There was little more he could do about the oncoming ram, because the only legionares not fully occupied fending off the assault were the men directly over the gate. Tavi pointed at half of the men there. "You, you, you, you two. Follow me."
Legionares seized shields and weapons, and Tavi led them down the wall, to the first point of attack, where two Canim had already gained the walls while more came behind them. A green recruit screamed and attacked the nearest Cane, forgetting the founding principle of Legion combat-teamwork. The Cane was armed with nothing but a heavy wooden club, but before the young le-gionare could close to within range of his Legion-issue gladius, the Cane took a two-handed swing that slammed the heavy club into the legionares shield, sending him sailing into the air to fall to the stone courtyard below, where he landed with bone-shattering force.
"Ehren," Tavi shouted, as he drew his own sword. The Cane took club in hand again, raising it to strike at Tavi before he could close the range.
But just as the Cane began to swing, there was a flash of steel in the air, and Ehren's skillfully thrown knife struck the Cane's muzzle. The blade's point missed by an inch or so, and it only drew a single, short cut across the Cane's black nose, but even so, the knife was deadly. The Cane flinched from the sudden pain in such a sensitive area, and it threw off the timing and power of its attack. Tavi slipped aside from the heavy club, drove in hard, and struck with a single slash that opened the Cane's throat clear to the bones of its neck.
The mortally wounded Cane dropped his club and tried to seize Tavi, teeth bared, but Tavi kept driving forward, inside the Cane's easy reach, and the legionare coming along behind Tavi added his own weight to Tavi's rush, as did the man behind him, so that their weight drove the Cane back against the battlements, where the legionares dispatched the raider with ruthless savagery.
Tavi hacked down at a heavy rope on the battlements, but the tough stuff refused to part despite several blows, and another Cane gripped the top of the wall, to haul himself up. Tavi slashed at the Cane's hand, drawing a cry of pain, before the raider fell back, and Tavi finished the job on the rope.
He looked up in time to see his legionares chopping their way down the wall, dispatching the second Cane, though the creature's sickle-sword took one veteran's hand from his arm before it fell. Legionares hacked at the remaining climbing lines. There was a howl of wind, then a roar and a blossom of fire at the gate, and all the while, more of those high-arcing stones rained down on Aleran heads and shoulders.
"Buckets!" Tavi shouted. "Now!"
Legionares seized the buckets of pitch, scalding water, and heated sand, and hurled them down upon the Canim at the base of the walls, eliciting more screams. It gave some of the defenders precious seconds to throw down the remaining lines, while archers had the opportunity to send arrows slicing down into the foe, inflicting even more injury, even before Crassus and his Knights made a second run along the wall, blinding and deafening the foe with the gale of their passing.
The morale of the attackers broke, and they began fleeing from the walls, at first hesitant, then in an enormous wave. The archers sent arrows flying after them as swiftly as they could loose them, wounding still more, while legionares began to whoop and cheer again.
Tavi ignored the Canim, looking up and down the wall. The attack had been repulsed, but it had cost the defenders, badly. The high-arced stones had been distressingly effective, and the medicos rushing to assist the injured were far outnumbered by the casualties. The green troops coming up to the walls weren't moving with the swift certainty of the veterans, and the rushing medicos and legionares attempting to carry the wounded to help weren't helping matters. The legionares had barely held the wall before, and if they did not reorganize and restore discipline to the defensive positions on the battlements, the Canim might well overwhelm them. Or at least, they might have, had they not broken instead of maintaining the attack.
The deep Canim horns blared and jerked Tavi's gaze to the host outside the walls.
The black-armored regulars had risen to their feet, and were moving with terrible, casual speed for the walls of the town.