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.
"Jens," Max said to the young Knight. "You can let it go."
Jens let out a gasp and sagged like a man suddenly rendered unconscious by a blow to the neck.
And the entire southern half of the town became a sudden and enormous bonfire. Tavi could see, in his mind's eye, the boxes and barrels that had been filled with fine sawdust, intentionally manufactured by volunteers through the town and the followers camp for the past several days, and stored in whatever containers they could find-then scattered still more sawdust liberally throughout each building. In each container was a furylamp, put in place by Jens, each tiny fire fury leashed to his will, restrained from flickering to life within the fine, volatile sawdust.
When Jens released them, hundreds of tiny furies had suddenly been free to run amok, and the barrels and barrels of sawdust all but exploded into flame. The dust-strewn buildings went up like torches, and the strong winds commanded by Crassus's Knights both fed the fires more air, making them hotter and hotter, and blew them back toward the onrushing enemy.
Tavi watched as Canim died, horribly, consumed by the flames, trapped within the city's stone walls. Some of them might have survived, he supposed. But even with the wind keeping the conflagration away from the bridge, the heat of it was uncomfortable on Tavi's face. The fire made an enormous roaring sound, drowning out the occasional thunder of the lightning overhead, the cries of the dying Canim, and the cheers of the Alerans watching their terrifying foes fall.
Tavi let it go on for five or ten minutes. Then he signaled Crassus with a wave of one hand, and the Knight Tribune and his Knights Aeris sagged in relief, ceasing their efforts. There was a long silence on the walls, broken only by the low roar of flames, and the occasional shriek of tortured wood as burning buildings fell in upon themselves.
Tavi closed his eyes. He could, quite faintly, make out another sound beneath the fire-the long, mournful, angry howls of grieving Canim.
"At ease, people," Tavi said to no one in particular. "Maximus, Crassus, get yourselves and your people some food and some rest. It will be a couple of hours before those fires die down enough to let them through. But when they come, they're going to be angry."
Crassus frowned at Tavi, and his voice sounded heavy. "You don't think this will convince them to go somewhere else?"
"We cost them plenty," Tavi said. "But not from their best. They can afford it."
Crassus frowned and nodded. "What's next, then?"
"Next, you get some food and rest. We've still got a bridge to defend. Send something up for the prime cohort, too."
"Yes, sir," Crassus said. He saluted, then began giving orders to his men, and they descended from the wall. Moments later, several fish arrived carrying pots of spiced tea and fresh bread, and at a nod from Tavi, the veterans on the walls went to collect food and drink. Tavi took advantage of the moment to walk down to the far end of the wall. He slipped up onto the wall itself, hung his feet over the side, and sat with his head leaning against a merlon.
Tavi heard Max's footsteps approach.
"You all right?" Max asked.
"Go get some food," Tavi said.
"Balls. Talk to me."
Tavi was quiet for a second, then said, "Can't. Not yet. "
Tavi shook his head. "Let it be, Max. We still have work to do."
Maximus grunted. "When we re done, we'll go get drunk. Talk then."
Tavi made an effort to smile. "Only if you're buying. I know how much you can drink. Max."
His friend snorted, then made his way from the wall, leaving Tavi alone with this thoughts.
Tavi's stratagem had lured maybe half a Legion of Canim to their deaths in the inferno, but the burning buildings lit up the countryside beyond the walls and the enormous numbers of Canim moving toward the river. He couldn't tell, at a glance, that the enemy had taken any losses at all.
The cold, leaden reality of mathematics pressed relentlessly into his thoughts. He'd known that the Canim army outnumbered the Alerans, but numbers mentioned on paper, on a tactical map, or in a planning session were entirely different than numbers applied to a real, physical, murderous enemy you could see marching toward you. Looking out at thousands of Canim, all in view and moving for the first time, Tavi gained an entirely new perspective on the magnitude of the task they faced.
It made him feel bitterly, poisonously weary.
At least he'd gained a few hours of respite for the men. For whatever it was worth. Except for those who had already died, of course. They now had all the time in the world to rest.
He sat for a moment, watching half of the town he was defending burn. He wondered how many homes and businesses he'd just destroyed. How many hard-earned generations of wealth and knowledge he'd sacrificed. How many irreplaceable family heirlooms and artifacts he'd burned to ashes.
He wasn't sure precisely when he fell asleep, but something cold on his face woke him. He jerked his head upright, wincing as he found his neck had stiffened as he leaned it against the adobe merlon, and muscles tied themselves into knots. He rubbed at his neck with one hand, blinked his eyes a few times, and heard a little plinking sound. Then again. Cold water struck one cheek.
Tavi looked up at the sullen clouds, and more rain began to fall-first lightly, but it rapidly built up to a torrent, a storm that brought the pent-up rain from the clouds in sheets so thick that Tavi had to spit water from his mouth every few breaths. His heart lurched in panic, and he hurried to rise to his feet.
"To arms!" he bellowed. "All cohorts to their positions!"
The sheeting rain hammered down onto the burning town and began strangling the flames. Clouds of steam and smoke billowed up, and, together with the rain, they hid the view of the enemy entirely.
Once more, the Canim horns began to blare.
Shouts sounded through the downpour, muffled by the rain. Boots thudded on stone. Tavi ground his teeth and slammed his fist against the merlon. The veterans on the wall snapped into motion, strapping on shields, stringing bows that would be rendered largely ineffective by the rain. As the fires died, the forms of the men on the wall grew murky.
"Lights!" Tavi shouted down at the men on the bridge below. "Get some lights up here, quick!"
One of the legionares on the wall shouted, and Tavi spun to see black-armored forms, almost invisible against the darkness, rushing forward with incredible speed. Tavi turned to order more men into the makeshift "gate" in the wall, a simple arch barely wide enough for two men to walk through upright-and a tiny fit indeed for a Cane. As he did, he bumped into a veteran hurrying into position with his bow, and both men slipped on the water-slicked adobe battlements.
Otherwise, they would have died with the others.
Even as legionares moved to battle positions, there was a humming sound and then a series of miniature thunderclaps. A spray of blood erupted from a veteran three feet from Tavi, and the man dropped without a sound. Down the wall, the same happened to others. Something slammed through a shield and killed the veteran behind it. One of the archers jerked, then collapsed. Another's head snapped back so sharply that Tavi clearly heard his neck break. The corpse fell near him, head lolling to one side, eyes open and unblinking. A vaned metal shaft as thick as the circle of Tavi's thumb and forefinger protruded from the helmet. As Tavi stared, a thin trickle of blood slithered down over one of the legionares sightless eyes, and was almost instantly thinned and washed away by the rain.
Seconds later, Tavi heard that humming, thrumming sound again, and there were screams from the bridge below. Then a horrible bellowing roar, and Nasaug burst through the tiny opening with terrifying ease and agility, curved war sword in his hand. The Cane Battlemaster killed three legionares before any of them had time to react, the massive sword shattering bone even through steel armor, and slicing through exposed flesh with terrible efficiency. He parried another legionares thrusting sword, seized the rim of the man's shield with one paw, and with a simple, clean motion threw the man twenty feet through the air, over the side of the bridge, to fall screaming to the river below.
Nasaug batted another pair of legionares aside, then shattered the fury-lamps being brought up to the wall with several swift kicks, plunging the entire area into darkness. By the increasingly frequent bursts of red lightning, Tavi saw more Canim enter behind Nasaug, their long, lean bodies almost seeming to fold in upon themselves as they came through the opening.
The veteran beside Tavi rose and lifted his bow to aim at Nasaug.
"No!" Tavi shouted. "Stay down!"
A buzzing thrum sounded, and another steel bolt ripped through the le-gionare's lower back, straight through his armor, until an inch of the bolt's tip showed through the veteran's breastplate. The man gasped and fell-and a second later screamed in pure, feeble terror as the savage snarling of Canim rose from the darkness. Legionares fought warriors in the nightmarish murk, broken by flashes of bloody light. Men and Canim screamed in rage, defiance, terror, and pain.
Tavi lay frozen. If he rose, whatever marksmen were releasing those deadly steel bolts would kill him-but the Cane assault had come so swiftly and terribly that Tavi was already cut off from the legionares below. If he descended to the bridge, he'd be facing the Canim alone, with nothing but his gladius.
Tavi didn't remember drawing his sword, but his fingers ached from how hard he squeezed the hilt as he desperately tried to think of a way out.
And then the shadowy shape of a black-armored Cane, its eyes reflecting bits of red light in the dimness, started up the steps to the wall. Tavi knew it would spot him in mere seconds.
He had just run out of time.