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.