The night fell, dark and thick beneath the ritualists' shroud of storm clouds. The night made the Canim battle cries even more terrifying, and Tavi could feel the primal, inescapable dread of fangs and hungry mouths rising in the back of his thoughts. No furylamps lit the walls as he ran to his position above the gate, and the orange band of a fading sunset was the only light. He couldn't see the men on the wall well enough to make out expressions, but as he walked past them he could hear restless movement among them-and noted that they were uniformly far more slender than most of the more mature ranks of veterans. The First Spear had kept the cohort of fish on the wall.
"Marcus?" Tavi asked as he reached the center wall.
"Sir," growled a dark form near him.
"Yes, sir," the First Spear said. "We're ready."
"Men know the signal?"
"Yes. Sir," Marcus growled, tone tight. "That's what I mean when I say we're ready, sir."
Tavi started to snap a reply but held his tongue. He stood on the wall in silence as the light continued to fade. Drums rattled outside. Horns blared. Night fell, blackness only broken by flashes of scarlet lightning.
Then there was a sudden silence.
"Here they come," Tavi breathed.
Howls rose into the air, louder and louder. The ground began to shake.
"Stand by furylamps," Tavi barked. The order was repeated by spear leaders up and down the wall. A flash of lightning showed Tavi a mass of black-armored Canim closing on the gates, and he called, "Furylamps now!"
A dozen large furylamps, suspended by chains to be hung five feet down the outside of the walls, flared into light. They cast a cold blue light out over the ground before the walls, illuminating the ground for the Aleran defenders while glaring into the eyes of the attacking Canim.
"Engage!" Tavi cried, and legionares snapped into two-man teams, shield-man and archer. Arrows darted down into the heavily armored Canim warriors, but this time, many of the warriors carried heavy shields of scarlet steel, and arrows struck with small effect. The deadly, heavy javelins came next, striking legionares standing between the merlons. One archer took an instant too long to aim, and a spear struck him, its tip exploding from his back, while the force of the impact threw him from the battlements entirely to land on the stones of the courtyard. Another legionare had not properly secured his shield to his arm, and when a spear struck it, the top edge of the shield spun back, striking him in the face and wrenching his arm from its socket in a burst of crackling pops.
"There," Tavi said, pointing at a tight group of Canim approaching in two rows. "Their first ram. Ready pitch."
"Ready pitch!" bellowed Marcus.
The ram closed on the gate and slammed against it once. Then the men over the gate dumped pitch down upon the attackers-but something went wrong, for no howls of pain came up. Tavi risked a deadly second leaning out over the battlements to peer down. A long section of wood, no thicker than Tavi's leg, lay smoldering beneath the splashed pitch, but it was far too light to have been an actual ram. The Canim must have abandoned it after a single strike against the gates for the sake of showmanship.
It had been a decoy, Tavi realized.
A second group surged forward, several Canim beneath some kind of portable canopy constructed from overlapping shields, and made for the gates. Tavi clenched his teeth. Even if they'd had more pitch ready, it might have been useless against the ram's canopy.
The ram slammed into the gates, hard enough to rattle the battlements beneath Tavi's boots. Again, in half the time it would have taken a team of Alerans wielding a ram to swing again. Boom, boom, boom, then, with the next strike, there was a single, sharp crack as one of the timbers of the gate gave way.
"That's it!" Tavi called. "Courtyard!"
The legionares waiting in the courtyard turned and double-timed away from the gates, toward the bridge, following a single row of widely spaced furylamps. As they did, more hooks flew up over the wall, attached to steel chains, and as the gate began to give way, more armored warriors gained the walls beneath the cover of hurtling spears.
"They're through!" Marcus snapped.
Outside, Canim horns began blaring a charge, and many of the black-armored warriors parted to allow the raiders an unobstructed charge at the gates. Thousands of the inhuman raiders surged forward in a massive wave of fangs and muscle.
"Fall back! Frying pan!" Tavi bellowed. "Fall back! Frying pan!"
The gate gave way, and the Canim let out a roar. Tavi and the legionares on the wall rushed down in frantic, terrified haste. One young legionare stumbled and fell down several stairs and sprawled on the courtyard. There was a sharp, hissing sound, and he cried out in sudden agony. Two of his fellows seized him and began dragging him between them.
"Go!" Tavi shouted, half-pushing legionares past him and down the stairs, while he swept his gaze through the confusion and darkness to make sure none had been left behind. "Go, go, go!"
"That's all of them!" Marcus shouted.
Together, the pair of them hurried down to the courtyard and sprinted across it. Tavi could feel uncomfortable heat through the soles of his hobnailed boots after half a dozen strides. He could hear the gate fall behind him, and the Canim howled in triumph.
Marcus let out a cry beside him, and Tavi saw the First Spear fall. A Canim javelin had struck his lower leg, sinking into his calf just below the bend of his knee.
Marcus managed to fall on his shield, preventing his flesh from striking the stones and sizzling like a slab of bacon, like the poor legionare who had fallen a few seconds before. He tried to wrench the javelin from his leg, but the tip must have struck bone. He couldn't pull it fre$.
Tavi slid to a stop and went back for the First Spear. A javelin struck sparks from the stones a few feet away. Tavi grabbed Marcus's arm and hauled him almost entirely off his feet. The First Spear let out a cry of pain between his clenched teeth, and hobbled along as quickly as he could, until in desperation, Tavi lifted him clear onto one of his shoulders and ran.
Then he reached the edge of the courtyard, and he saw the shapes of Knights Aeris crouched on rooftops. A sudden wind began sweeping down, blowing in a gale at the gates, foiling the accuracy of any further missiles. Tavi looked over his shoulder, to see raiders plunging through the gates the warriors had opened, breaking into sudden howls of agony as their bare feet struck the heated stones of the courtyard. They could no more have turned back against the tide of their own assault than they could have swum up a waterfall. Thousands of their frenzied fellows poured through the breached gates, and their screams split the air.
Canim desperately tried to find escape from the heated stones, leaping up onto houses, shops, and other buildings around the courtyard. Still, more poured through, and in seconds there were no more such places to go. Canim fell, succumbing to agony, only to have it doubled and redoubled as their flesh fell fully onto the courtyard stone. The gale winds blew into Canim eyes, ears, and noses, and the confusion changed the assault into a madhouse of the dead and dying.
And still more Canim poured in, the raiders now maddened and howling, thirsting for blood, walking on the burned and burning bodies of their dead and dying fellows to find respite from the sizzling stone of the courtyard. They oriented on the bridge, and Tavi saw them begin charging toward it. He put his head down and ran, flanked by Knights Aeris, who moved from roof to roof and kept the nearest Canim blind to Tavi and the stragglers from the walls.
It seemed to take forever to run the few hundred yards to the Elinarch-and to the defenses the engineers had constructed upon it. Using clay from the riverbed, they had constructed a series of five walls spaced evenly over the bridge, earthcrafted into shape, and then blasted with firecrafting until the clay had baked into a consistency almost as tough and hard as stone, leaving an opening scarcely wide enough for two men. At the southern end of the bridge was another such barrier, this one fully as large as the city's walls themselves.
Tavi and the covering Knights Aeris rushed through the newly created defenses while the Canim, goaded to fury by the heated stones, rushed forward.
"Medico!" Tavi shouted. Foss appeared, and Tavi all but dumped the First Spear into the healer's arms. Then he ran for the wall and pounded up the crude steps built into it to the improvised battlements there. Max and Crassus, together with the First Aleran's cohort prime, waited, already in position with the other Knights Aeris spread along the wall. The last of the Knights Aeris followed Tavi up to the walls.
Max and Crassus both looked exhausted, and Tavi knew that the firecraft-ing they'd used to heat the stones had been intensely fatiguing. But if they looked bad, the skinny young redheaded Knight Ignus beside them looked nine-tenths dead. He sat with his back against the battlements, his eyes focused elsewhere, shivering in the cool of the evening. Ehren appeared out of the night's shadows, still bearing the Legion's standard. Tavi nodded at him, and Ehren planted the blackened eagle standard in a socket in the adobe battlements the engineers had prepared for it.
Enough furylamps remained in the town to let Tavi see the raiders charging through the town, bounding over rooftops with inhuman grace, and their eyes gleamed red in the near darkness. Their cries and howls grew louder and louder.
Tavi watched them impassively, until the nearest one he could see was no more than fifty yards from the bridge. "Ready," he said quietly, to Max.
Max nodded, and put a hand on Jens's shoulder.
Tavi tried to count the oncoming Canim, but the shifting light-now only furylamps, now dancing red lightning strobes-made it impossible. More than a thousand of them, maybe even two or three times that many. He waited a few instants more, to give the Canim as much time as possible to pour more troops into the city.
"All right," he said quietly. "Frying pan's done. Time for fire."
"Bring up the wind!" Crassus commanded, and he and his Knights Aeris faced the oncoming foe and brought up a strong, steady wind.