Tavi had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and if he did nothing he would simply be killed.
So as the Cane mounted the stairs, Tavi let out a howl of terror and rage and threw himself bodily into the armored body of the Cane with every ounce of strength and reckless violence he could summon.
He hit the Cane hard and high on its chest. Though the Cane was far larger, Tavi's armored weight and momentum were more than enough to overcome the surprised Cane, and then Tavi drove the Cane back and down the stairs to crash heavily to the stone surface of the bridge. Before the Cane could recover, Tavi slammed his helmet repeatedly into the creature's sensitive nose and muzzle, then raised his sword, gripping the hilt with one hand and halfway up the blade with the other, and rammed it with all his strength down into the Cane's throat.
Either he missed anything vital or the Cane was simply too tough to know when it should die. It seized Tavi with one desperate arm and flung him away. Tavi slammed against the raised side of the bridge, but his armor took the brunt of the impact, and he came back to his feet as the wounded Cane rose, teeth bared in a horrible snarl.
"Captain!" shouted a voice, and fire blossomed in the night, a sudden sheet of it rising from the stone between Tavi and the wounded Cane. In the light, Tavi just had time to make out the features of his opponent-the grizzled Cane who had brought Tavi the very sword he had just employed-and then Knights Aeris descended around him.
They landed roughly, and before they hit the ground, Nasaug turned and flung one of the steel bars Tavi had examined the previous day. It struck one of the young Knights in a knee with crippling force, throwing his leg out from beneath him so that he fell to the ground.
Crassus landed beside Tavi, and with a grunt of effort flung a streamer of flame at the nearest Cane. It licked out weakly in the heavy rain, but sufficed to force the Cane to pause, and that was enough. Knights Aeris seized Tavi's arms, and under Crassus's direction, they rose from the bridge into the night sky. A flash of lightning showed Nasaug, throwing another bar at Crassus, but the young Knight Tribune flicked it deftly aside with his blade, before leading the Knights Aeris up and out of range of hurled weapons.
But not out of range of those deadly steel quarrels.
More thrums sounded from below, and one of the Knights Aeris holding Tavi grunted and fell from the sky, vanishing into the dark below. The single Knight remaining almost dropped him, and everything spun around wildly. Then Crassus was there, taking the place of the fallen Knight, and the weary band of fliers descended to the second defensive position, a hundred yards from the south end of the bridge.
The next few hours came as one enormous blur of darkness, cold, and desperation. Two entire cohorts had been all but annihilated in the first, stunning assault. The prime cohort had been slain to a man, cut to shreds by the steel quarrels and overwhelmed by the Canim warriors led by Nasaug. Ninth cohort had tried to rush forward in the confusion and stem the breakthrough at the end of the bridge, only to be cut down in the near-total darkness by Nasaug's troops. Most of a single century had managed to fall back to the next defensive position, but eight in ten of the cohort perished on the bridge. Even the wounded who made it back to the suddenly overwhelmed healers found little help. There were simply not enough hands, and men who would have survived the wounds in other circumstances died waiting their turns.
Nearly six hundred Alerans fell.
It had taken all of seven or eight minutes.
Tavi remembered shouting orders, frantic questions and answers from the First Spear. There was never enough light. The Canim destroyed every lamp they or their marksmen could reach-and furylamps were in short enough supply already, thanks to the trap Tavi had laid on the south side of the village. Twice more, Tavi found himself facing hulking Canim warriors in almost-total darkness, and fought simply to retreat and survive.
The Canim overran the next two defensive positions on the bridge, and it became a race to see who could reach the center arch of the bridge first-the Canim or the Aleran engineers who made a desperate attempt to collapse the bridge.
In the darkness and confusion, the Canim won the race. Tavi watched with helpless frustration and terror as Nasaug himself vaulted over the much lower fortifications at the apex of the bridge, slew half a dozen Alerans attempting to defend the wall, and began cutting down fleeing legionares.
Tavi knew that if the Canim were not stopped at that point, they would use the "downhill" momentum on the far side of the bridge to simply smash through the remaining defensive lines and into the town at the north end of the bridge-and into the civilians huddled there for protection.
Somehow, he and the First Spear managed to get a solid block of men together in front of the last wall upon the bridge itself, while Crassus's exhausted Knights Aeris lined the low city wall behind them. Tavi had furniture taken from the town behind them piled into two massive mounds, doused them in liquor, and had Max set them aflame to provide light for the legionares-and to keep it burning with firecrafting. The Knights sent a gale of wind into the faces of the Canim, both shielding the fires and blinding their enemies in the down-pouring rain, and a roaring charge led by the First Spear hammered into the Canim advance. Tavi watched from the wall as legionares and warriors locked in desperate, grinding battle, but in the close confines of the bridge, once the Canim's momentum was checked and the darkness broken by the bonfires, the advantage fell to the tightly coordinated, disciplined-and desperate-legionares. Step by bloody step, they drove the Canim back, until the inhuman foe leapt back over the wall to take up defensive positions of their own.
Tavi ordered the legionares back to the last wall on the bridge, fearing that they would be cut down by Canim marksmen if they remained in the open.
And for the space of an hour, the battle ceased.
Tavi sagged to the ground behind their last wall and sat there for a moment. He stripped off his helmet and tilted his head up to the sky to drink falling rain. The rainfall had been growing slowly if steadily lighter over the past hours. It made the cool evening positively uncomfortable, and spasms of shivering came and went every minute or so.
"Captain?" Ehren said quietly. Tavi hadn't heard him approach. "You all right?"
"Tired, is all," Tavi replied.
"You should get out of the rain. Get some hot food into you."
"No time," Tavi said. "They can see in the dark. We can't. They'll hit us again before dawn. I need Tribune Cymnea to round up every furylamp she can find, any wood that will burn, and every drop of liquor in the whole town. We'll need it to start fires so that the men can see. Valiar Marcus is taking a head count. Ask Foss for the count on deaths and casualties, and relay it to the First Spear."
Ehren frowned, but nodded. "All right. But after that..."
"After that," Tavi said, "take the two fastest horses you can find and get out."
Ehren fell silent.
"It's your duty," Tavi said quietly. "The First Lord needs to know about what the ritualists can do. And about those bolt throwers the Canim are using. And..." He shook his head. "Tell him that we're going to find a way to take down the bridge. Somehow. Convey my apologies that I couldn't keep it intact."
There was another silent moment. Then Ehren said, "I can't just walk away from my friends."
"Don't walk. Run. As fast as you can." Tavi rose and slipped his helmet back on. Then he put a hand on Ehren's shoulder and met his eyes. "If Gaius doesn't at least hear about it, it was all for nothing. Don't let that happen."
Rain plastered the little Cursor's hair to his scalp. Then he bowed his head and nodded. "All right."
Tavi squeezed his shoulder, grateful. At least he'd get one friend out of this mess alive. "Get a move on."
Ehren gave him a weak smile and a sloppy salute, then turned and hurried away.
Max said quietly, from the darkness nearby, "He's right, you know."
Tavi jumped, startled, and glared in the direction of Max's voice. "Crows, Max. You just scared me out of ten years of life."
Max snorted and said, "Sounds to me like you don't think you'll be using it anyway."
"You should get food," Tavi said. "Rest. We'll need your crafting soon."
In answer, Max took a ceramic bowl from beneath his cloak, and passed it to Tavi. It was so warm that he could feel it through his gloves, but as the scent of the thick stew reached his nose, a sudden demand from his belly overruled his caution, and he gulped down the stew, barely pausing to chew the meat. Max had a second bowl, and kept Tavi company.
"All right," Tavi said. "I should probably-"
"Marcus is organizing," Max said. "Said you should eat. Sit down for a minute. So relax."
Tavi began to shake his head and deny him, but his aching body prevented him from doing more than leaning up against the wall.
"This is pretty bad," Tavi said quietly. "Isn't it?"
Max nodded. "Worst I've seen."
From startlingly nearby, there was the frantic snarl of an enraged Cane and the violent thrashing of water. Max had his sword out of his sheath before the sound died away, and his gaze flickered around them. "What the crows..."
Tavi hadn't moved. "It's in the river below us."
Max arched an eyebrow. "Shouldn't it concern us if they're sending troops across."
"Not particularly. It's been happening since nightfall. They haven't made it to this side yet."
Max frowned. "Water furies?"
"You think I'd let the healers waste their time on something like that?" Tavi asked.
"You're too clever for your own good, Calderon," Max growled.
"Sharks," Tavi said.
"Sharks. Big fish with big teeth."
Max lifted his eyebrows. "Fish?"
"Mmmm. Attracted to blood in the water. Tribune Cymnea's been collecting from everyone butchering animals in the camp and the down, and dumping the blood into the river. The sharks followed the blood trail up from the sea. Hundreds of them. Now they're hitting everything that goes for a swim." Tavi made a vague gesture at the water. "Old fisherman who works this river told me it even attracted a baby leviathan. Little one, about forty feet long."
Max grunted. "Fish. Sooner or later they're going to get full, and the Cane are going to have an assault team on this side of the river. You should let me send some of my riders out to patrol the shore."
"No need," Tavi said. "Kitai will spot any Cane that gets through."
"Yeah?" Max said. "There's only one of her, Calderon. What can she do that fifty of my men can't?"
"See in the dark," Tavi said.
Max opened his mouth, then shut it again. "Oh."
"Besides, " Tavi said, "if she wasn't there, she'd be here."
Max blew out a breath. "Yeah. Always clever."
"Not always," Tavi said. He could hear the bitterness in his voice. "Nasaug made a fool out of me."
"I thought he was delaying his attack just to tweak Sari's nose. That wasn't what he was doing at all. Sari was stupid enough to order a major attack against the walls with an hour of daylight left. Nasaug managed to stall that attack until night fell, when the Canim would have a major advantage. He broke the gates, then he fixed it so their most expendable troops would soak up the losses from the fire trap." Tavi shook his head. "I should have realized what he was doing."
"Even if you had," Max said, "it wouldn't have made any difference."
"And those bolt throwers." Tavi's stomach fluttered as he thought of the men they had slain. "Why did I sit around thinking that they would only have hand-thrown weapons for ranged combat."
"Because that's all they ever have used," Max said. "No one could have seen that coming. This is the first time I've heard of it."
"All the same," Tavi said.
"No," Max said. "Crows take it, Calderon. You've done a sight more than anyone expected you to do. Probably more than you should have been able to do. Stop blaming yourself. You didn't send the Canim here."
In the dark, another Cane's scream came up from the river.
Tavi let out a tired laugh. "You know what bothers me the most?"
"When I was at the riverbank, and those Canim were coming for me, and those lions came up. For just a second..." He shook his head. "I thought that maybe it was something I'd done. Maybe they were my furies. Maybe I wasn't..." His throat tightened and closed almost shut.
Max spoke quietly from the darkness. "Father never let me manifest a fury. A creature, you know? Like your uncle's stone hound, or Lady Placida's fire falcon. But he never taught me anything about water, and in the library there was this old book of stories. There was a water lion like that in there. So... I pretty much taught myself all my watercraft. And since he wasn't around, it came out like that lion. Named him Androcles." Tavi couldn't be sure in the dimness, but he thought he might have seen Max blush. "It was kind of lonely for me, when my mother died."
"Crassus must have read the same book," Tavi said.
"Yeah. Funny. Never thought I'd have anything in common with him." He shifted his weight restlessly. "I'm sorry. That it wasn't what you'd hoped."
Tavi shrugged a shoulder. "It's all right, Max. Maybe it's time I stopped dreaming of having my own furies and got on with living. I've wanted them for so long, but... your furies don't make things different, do they."
"Not where it matters," Max said. "Not on the inside. My father always told me that a man's furycraft just makes him more of what he already is. A fool with furies is still a fool. A good man with furies is still a good man."
"Old Killian tried to tell me something like that," Tavi said. "The day of our combat final. The more I think about it, the more I think maybe he was trying to make me understand that there's more to the world than furies. More to life than what I can do with them."
"He was no fool," Max said. "Calderon. I know what you've done. I owe you my life, despite all my furycrafting. You were the one who stood at the end. And that goes double for Gaius. You've killed assassins and monsters all by yourself. You faced down a Canim warlord without arms or furycraft to protect you, and I don't know anyone else who would do that. That trap south of the bridge killed more Canim in an hour than the Legions have in the last ten years. And I still have no idea how you managed to stop their charge-I thought we were finished. And you did all of that without a single fury of your own." Max's fist lightly struck Tavi's armored shoulder. "You're a crowbegotten hero, Calderon. Furies or not. And you're a born captain. The men believe in you.'
Tavi shook his head. "Believe what?"
"Plenty," Max said. "They think you must be hiding some major furycraft to have survived that lightning strike. And not many of them really understood the whole plan with the sawdust and furylamps. They just saw you wave your hand, and the whole southern half of the town went up. You fought your way clear of the attack that killed the whole prime cohort-and some of those veterans were near Knight-level metalcrafters themselves." Another Cane screamed in the river, more distantly. "I guarantee you that right now, rumors are going around that you've got furies in the river killing Canim."
"I didn't do any of that, Max," Tavi said. "They're believing a lie."
"Balls," Max said, his voice serious. "You've done those things, Tavi. Sometimes you had help. Some of them took a whole lot of work. None of it involved furycraft-but you've done them." Max tilted his head toward the town. "They know what's over there. Any sane man would be running for the hills. But instead, they're angry. Their blood is up for a fight. You've been right there beside them in the battle. Struck blows against the Canim running on pure guts, and you've bloodied their slimy noses. The men think you can do it again. They'll follow you, Calderon."
"You've seen that force, Max. You know what's still over there. And we're tired, out of room, and out of tricks."
"Heh," Max said. "That's how belief works. The worse the situation is, the more a man's belief can do to sustain him. You've given them something to believe in."
Tavi felt a little nauseous at the statement. "We have to take down the bridge, Max. We've got to get our engineers out to the top of the arch so that they can collapse it."
"I thought we didn't have enough bodies who could earthcraft," Max said.
"If you will remember," Tavi said, "the Pavilion has a rather large number of employees who are quite practiced at earthcraft."
Max blinked. "But those are dancers, Calderon. Professional, ah, courtesans."
"Who have practiced earthcrafting every day of their professional lives," Tavi said. "I know, stonework isn't the same thing, but you've always told me that any application of one area of furycraft carries over toward different uses of the same gift."
"Well," Max said. "Yes, but..."
Tavi arched an eyebrow. "But?"
"Crafting a room full of legionares into a frenzy is one thing. Altering heavy stonework is another."
"I've had them practicing," Tavi said. "They aren't exactly engineers, but this isn't a complicated crafting. It's a demolition. All the engineers really need to get it done is earthcrafting muscle, and the dancers have got that. If we can get them and our engineers to the top of the bridge, they can take it apart."
"Big if," Max said quietly.
Max lowered his voice in realization. "Someone will have to hold the Canim back while they work. Whoever does that will either go into the river or be trapped on the southern half of the bridge, when it goes."
Tavi nodded. "I know. But there's no way around it. It's going to cost us to get it done, Max. We've got to hold through the night. If we can do that, we're still going to take heavy losses pushing the Canim back through our own defenses. Maybe enough to break us."
"Give the men some credit," Max said. "Like I told you. They believe. Especially the fish. They'll bloody well fight."
"Even if they do," Tavi said, "we might not be able to win through. It might not be possible."
"Only one way to know for sure. "
"And if it is possible," Tavi said, "whoever holds the Canim off is going to die." He was quiet for a moment, then said, "I'll lead it. I'll ask for volunteers."
"It's suicide," Max said quietly.
Tavi nodded. Then he shivered again. "Any chance you could do something about this rain?"
Max squinted up. "It isn't crafted. I think a strong enough crafter could change some things. But to do that, you have to be up inside it, and with those things floating around..."
"Right," Tavi said. "Crows take this rain. Without it, they'd still be waiting for the town to burn down. Without it, we could build a massive fire on the bridge and let it hold them off until daylight."
Max grunted. "What I wouldn't give for twenty or thirty Knights Ignus right now, instead of all those Aeris. Thousands of Canim, all trapped on that narrow bridge. With a solid bunch of Knights Ignus, we could turn those dogs into kindling."
An idea hit Tavi, so hard that the bowl tumbled from his suddenly numb fingers and shattered on the stone of the bridge.
"Calderon?" Max asked.
Tavi held up a hand, thinking furiously, forcing his weary mind to quicken and consider the notion, the possibilities.
It could work.
By crows and thunder, it could work.
"He told me," Tavi heard himself say in amazement. "He bloody well told me exactly where to hit them."
"Who did?" Max asked.
"Nasaug," Tavi said. He felt a sudden, wide grin stretch across his mouth. "Max, I've got to speak to the men," he said. "I want you to get your brother and every Knight Aeris we have to meet me outside the town gates. They'll need time to practice."
Max blinked. "Practice what?"
Tavi glared up at the heavy storm clouds with their chilling rain and scarlet lightning, while Canim howls drifted toward him from the enemy positions on the Elinarch. "An old Romanic trick."