Tavi drew in a sharp breath as the regulars approached. He'd been certain that they would strike at sundown-but that was an hour away, and Marcus was not on the wall. If the trap was to be successfully sprung, the Canim would need something to occupy their attention, and the plan had been for the Alerans to fall back in a fighting retreat, forcing the Canim to keep the pressure on the withdrawing troops.
The problem with that sort of ploy was that it would be all too easy for the false panic to become perfectly genuine and for the situation to spin totally out of anyone's control. Given that their discipline and training were the only things that gave the Legion anything like a fighting chance against a foe like the Canim, putting it at risk was the maneuver of a foolish or desperate commander.
Tavi supposed he could well be both.
"I need Max at once," Tavi told Ehren, and the young Cursor immediately leapt from the wall to the bed of a wagon parked beneath, then sprinted off across the courtyard.
"Centurions, finish the rotation and clear these walls of noncombatants!" Tavi shouted. "Medicos, use those wagons and get the wounded back to the secondary aid station!" Then he turned and flashed another hand sign to the rooftop several streets away where Crassus and his Knights Aeris waited. Tavi drew his hand in a wave, right to left, and then drew it in a sharp, slashing mo-tion across his throat. Crassus turned to one of his Knights, and they descended from the rooftop.
Tavi whirled to check on the Canim and found the raiders pulling back, leaving the regulars plenty of room in which to work. For the first time, at the crest of the hill, Tavi made out the outlines of several black-cloaked, pale-mantled Canim. Sari, or at least some of his ritualist acolytes, were apparently intent on observing the regulars' assault.
"Move!" Tavi shouted, as the regulars marched closer. "Reserves, withdraw to your secondary positions near the bridge!" Tavi whirled, spotted the nearest centurion, and growled, "Get those men's shields strapped on tighter. One of those hurled stones will spin the bloody things on their arms and smash their brains out."
The young centurion turned to face Tavi, his face pale, saluted, and began bellowing at the indicated legionares.
The centurion was Schultz. Tavi took a look left and right, and found few faces as old as his own. Only the centurions were veterans at all, and even they looked like young men serving in their first term of service in that rank.
Crows, he shouldn't have ordered the veterans off the wall, but it was too late to change it now. After the pounding they'd just received, after brutal and exhausting battle on the wall, they might not have held up against a tide of armored Canim. It was possible that the fish would be better suited to the maneuver than the veterans-if only because they were too inexperienced to realize just how much danger they were about to face.
Tavi bit on his lip and silently, savagely berated himself. That was no way to think about young men who were about to put their lives on the line for their Realm, their fellow legionares-and for him. He was about to order these young men into a storm of violence and blood.
And yet the cold fact was that if the ploy worked, it could cripple the Canim army, perhaps beyond its will to fight. If Tavi had to sacrifice a hundred legionares-or a thousand-to contain the Canim invasion, it would be his duty to do precisely that.
The walls were finally cleared, the wounded headed back to the next aid station, the reserve cohort coming up behind the fish on the wall marching for the fallback point. Tavi looked up and down the walls one more time-and saw quietly terrified young men, all of them pale, all of them standing ready.
Boots pounded down the battlements, and Max arrived at Tavi's side, along with Ehren. Crassus was a dozen steps behind, and Tavi glanced over his shoulder to find most of the Knights Aeris not yet judged ready to fly in combat rushing into positions opposite the gate.
"Great bloody crows," Max panted as the Canim came on.
"Ready, Captain," Crassus added. "Jens is all set."
"This is one bloody big throw of the dice, sir," Max said. "I never heard of such a thing being used."
"How much time have you spent working within a steadholt's woodshop, Max?" Tavi asked him.
He scowled. "I know, I know. I just never heard of it before."
"Trust me," Tavi said. "Sawdust is more dangerous than you know. And if the grain storehouse was on this side of the town, it would have been even better. He watched as the regulars closed, and said, "All right. You two get back and be ready to cover us."
Crassus saluted and turned to go, but Max remained in place, frowning out at the Canim.
"Hey," Max said. "Why'd they stop?"
Tavi blinked and turned around.
The Canim regulars had, indeed, stopped in their tracks, several dozen yards out of arrow range. To Tavi s increased surprise, they all settled down onto their haunches again, and they were so many that even that sounded like a rumble of distant thunder.
"That," Ehren said quietly, "is a whole lot of Canim."
At the front and center of the regulars, a single figure remained standing-the same Cane Tavi had addressed earlier in the day. He swept his gaze around the armored Canim, nodded, then took a long, curved war sword from his side. He held the weapon up, facing the town, then deliberately laid it aside. Then he strode out onto corpse-strewn killing ground between and stopped halfway to the wall.
"Aleran Captain!" the Cane called, his deep, growling voice enormous and unsettling. "I am Battlemaster Nasaug! I have words for you! Come forth!"
Max let out a grunt of surprise.
"Well," Ehren murmured, beside Tavi. "Well, well, well. That is interesting."
"What do you think, Max?" Tavi murmured.
"They think we're stupid," Max said. "They've already broken faith with us once. They tried to murder you the last time you went to them, Captain. I say we return the favor. Call up our Knights Flora, shoot him full of arrows, and let's get on with it."
Tavi snorted out a low laugh. "Probably the smart thing."
"But you're going to go talk to him," Max said.
"Thinking about it."
Max scowled. "Bad idea. Better let me go. He gets frisky, I'll show him how we do things up north. "
"He's already seen me, Max," Tavi said. "It has to be me. If he makes a move first, take him down. Otherwise, leave him alone. Make sure everyone else knows it, too. And get Marcus back up here, meanwhile."
"You think you've driven a spike between their leader and the warriors?" Ehren asked.
"Possibly," Tavi said. "If this Nasaug had hit us instead of stopping out there, it could have been bad. Now we're getting a chance to breathe and reorganize. I can't imagine Sari's terribly pleased about that."
Ehren shook his head. "I don't like it. Why would he do that?"
Tavi took a deep breath, and replied, "Let me go ask him."
Tavi did not ride out to meet the Canim this time. Instead, he went to the gates, which opened just enough to let him step outside the protection of the walls. The ground beneath the walls stank of blood and fear, fire and offal. Canim bodies lay piled in windrows, and since the fighting had ceased, thousands of crows descended to begin feasting upon the dead.
Tavi fought to keep his stomach under control as he walked out to meet the Battlemaster-a rank akin to an Aleran captain, a commander in charge of an entire force. Twenty yards from the Cane, he drew out his sword and laid it down on the ground beside him. With or without it, he stood little chance against an armored and experienced Cane afoot-but he could all but feel the watching eyes of his fellow Alerans behind him. They would be of greater protection than any horse or suit of armor. In all, Tavi had the position of greater strength, for Nasaug was in the reach of Tavi's companions. Tavi was far from Nasaug's.
Nonetheless, as Tavi approached the Cane, he had to admit that Nasaug's sheer size was more than frightening enough to protect him from Tavi, personally. Not to mention that his natural weaponry was considerably more fearsome than Tavi's. It was not a situation of perfect balance, but it was as close to one as they were likely to get.
Tavi stopped ten feet from Nasaug, and said, "I am Rufus Scipio, Captain of the First Aleran."
The Cane watched him with dark and bloody eyes. "Battlemaster Nasaug."
Tavi wasn't sure who moved first, and he didn't remember consciously deciding to make the gesture, but both of them tilted their heads very slightly to one side in greeting.
"Speak," Tavi said.
The Cane's lips peeled back from his fangs, a gesture that could indicate either amusement or a subtle threat. "The situation prevented me from recovering my fallen within the time limit you granted me," he said. "I wish your permission to recover them now."
Tavi felt his eyebrows lift. "Given how matters transpired before, my men may be nervous about yours so near the walls."
"They will approach unarmed," Nasaug replied. "And I will remain here, within range of your Knights Flora, as a pledge of their conduct."
Tavi stared at Nasaug for a long moment and thought he saw a certain amount of smug amusement in the Cane's eyes. Tavi smiled, a baring of his own teeth, and said, "Do you play ludus, Nasaug?"
The Cane lifted his helmet from his head, ears twitching and flicking as they came out from beneath the steel. "At times."
"Allow me to call out a messenger to send word to my men while you send for your own. Your men, unarmed, may approach until the sun is set. I will remain here with you until that time, in order to help avoid any unfortunate misunderstandings."
A burbling growl came from Nasaug's throat-quite possibly the most threatening chuckle Tavi had ever heard in his life. "Very well."
And so, in the next five minutes Tavi faced Nasaug across a traveling ludus set, a case whose legs unfolded to support it as a small, portable table. Plain discs of stone were carved on one side with piece designations, rather than being the full miniature statuettes of a conventional board. Tavi and Nasaug began playing, while eighty Canim, armored but unarmed, trooped forward, digging through the carnage at the base of the walls to locate the black-armored corpses of their fallen brothers in arms. None of them passed within a twenty-foot circle of the two commanders.
Tavi watched the Cane as the game began, and he opened with what seemed to be a reckless attack.
Nasaug, for his part, narrowed his eyes in thought as the game progressed. "Nothing wrong with your courage," he said, several moves in. "But it does not secure a victory alone."
A few moves later, Tavi replied, "Your defense isn't as strong as it might be. Pushing it hard enough might shatter it."
Nasaug began to move in earnest then, exchanging the first few pieces, while more moved into position, gathering for the cascade of exchanges that would follow. Tavi lost a piece to the Cane, then another, as his attack began to slow.
Footsteps suddenly approached, and a Cane in the accoutrements of one of Sari's acolytes stalked up to them. He bared his teeth at Tavi, then turned to Nasaug and snarled, "Hrrrshk naghr lak trrrng kasrrrash."
Tavi understood it: You were ordered to attack. Why have you not done so?
Nasaug did not respond.
The acolyte snarled and stepped up to Nasaug, put a hand on the Battle-master's shoulder, and began to repeat the question.
Nasaug turned his head to one side, jaws flashing, and in a single, vicious snap tore the hand from the end of the acolyte's arm, following it with a vicious kick that sent the other Cane sprawling, screaming in pain.
Nasaug reached up and took the acolyte's severed hand from his mouth and idly threw it at him without looking up from the board. "Do not interrupt your betters," he growled, also in Canish. Tavi could make out most of it. "You may tell Sari that had he wished an immediate attack, he should have given me time to recover my fallen from the Alerans. Tell him that I will attack when and where it suits me." The Battlemaster glanced at the acolyte, and snarled, "Move. Before you bleed to death."
The wounded Cane clutched the bleeding stump of his arm to his belly and retreated, making high-pitched whimpering noises in his throat.
"Apologies," Nasaug then said to Tavi. "For the distraction."
"No offense was given," Tavi replied, his tone thoughtful. "You have little love for the ritualists."
"Your eyes can see the sun at midday, Captain," Nasaug replied. He studied the board a moment later, and said, "Your strategy was sound. You know much of us."
"Some," Tavi replied.
"It took courage and intelligence to attempt it. For this, you have earned respect." Nasaug looked up at Tavi for the first time since the game began. "But however much I may despise Sari and those like him, my duty is clear. Sari and his ritualists are few, but they have the faith of the maker caste." He tilted an ear in a vague gesture at the enormous number of raiders. "They may be fools to believe in the ritualists, but I will not turn upon the makers or desert them. I have studied your forces. You cannot stop us."
"Perhaps," Tavi said. "Perhaps not."
Nasaug bared his teeth again. "Your men are half-trained. Your officers were slain, your Knights far weaker than they should be. There is little help to be had from the Alerans of the city." He pushed a ludus Lord forward, beginning his own attack. "You have not seen our caste in battle, but for the probe this morning. You will not repulse us again, Aleran. Before tomorrow's sunset, it will be over."
Tavi frowned. Nasaug wasn't posturing. There was neither threat nor anger nor enjoyment in the tone of his voice. He was simply stating a fact, attaching no emotion to it, no menace. It was far more disturbing than anything else he could have said.
But Nasaug was a warrior Cane. If he was anything like Varg, his words were like blood-never loosed unless necessary. And then as little as possible. "I wonder why you bother to speak of it."
"To offer you an alternative. Retreat and leave the bridge sound. Take your warriors, your people, your young. I will give you two days to travel, in which I will make sure no forces are sent after you."
Tavi regarded the board for a silent moment and altered the position of a single piece. "Generous. Why offer it?"
"I do not say we will destroy you without loss, Captain. It will save lives of my warriors and your own."
"Until we fight again another day?"
Tavi shook his head. "I cannot give you the bridge. It is my duty to hold it or destroy it."
Nasaug nodded once. "Your gesture to allow us to take back our fallen was a generous one. Especially given how Sari dealt with you. For that, I offered you what I could." The Cane began moving his pieces in earnest, and the rapid exchange began. It took him only three moves to see what Tavi had done, and he stopped, staring at the board.
Tavi's reckless assault had been nothing of the kind. He had spent a great deal of time thinking about Ambassador Varg's stratagem in their last game together, and he had adapted it to his own strengths as a player. The sacrifice of some of his lesser pieces earlier in the game had given the greater pieces a far more dominant position, and within the next two moves he would control the skyboard completely and have the positioning and power he would need to strike down Nasaug's First Lord. His pieces would take terrible losses to do it, but Nasaug had seen the trap a bare move too late, and he could not possibly escape it.
"Things," Tavi said quietly, "are not always as they seem."
The last of the fallen Canim had been found and borne back to the Canim camp by their unarmed fellows. A grizzled Cane nodded to Nasaug in passing.
Nasaug stared at Tavi, then tilted his head very slightly to one side in acknowledgment of the defeat. "No. Which is why my warriors will not be the first to enter the town."
Tavi's heart all but stopped in his chest.
Nasaug had figured out the trap. He might not yet know the details, but he knew it was there. Tavi kept all expression from his face and stared impassively at the Battlemaster.
Nasaug let out another rumbling chuckle and nodded at the board. "Where did you learn that strategy?"
Tavi regarded the Cane, then shrugged. "Varg."
His ears came to quivering attention, pricked forward at Tavi.
"Varg," he growled, very low. "Varg lives?"
"Yes," Tavi replied. "Prisoner in Alera Imperia."
Nasaug narrowed his eyes, his ears twitching. Then he lifted a hand and beckoned.
The grizzled Cane returned, bearing a cloth bundle held upon his upraised palms. At a nod from Nasaug, the Cane set the bundle down on the ludus board and unfolded it. Tavi's gladius, the one he had cast aside that morning, lay within.
"You are dangerous, Aleran," Nasaug said.
Instinct told Tavi that the words were a high compliment. He kept his eyes steady, and said, "I thank you."
"Respect changes nothing. I will destroy you."
"Duty," Tavi said.
"Duty." The Battlemaster gestured at the sword. "This is yours."
"It is," Tavi replied. "You have my thanks."
"Die well, Aleran."
"Die well, Cane."
Nasaug and Tavi fractionally bared their throats to each other once more. Then Nasaug backed away several paces before turning and striding back toward his army. Tavi folded up the ludus board back into its case, recovered both of his blades, and made his own way back to the city. He slipped in through the gates just as deep drums began to rumble and Canim war horns began to blare.
Tavi spotted Valiar Marcus and called to him. "First Spear, get the men into position! This is it!"