Tavi shivered in the rain, struggling to hide it from the men around him, and wanted nothing in the world so much as to be warm and asleep.
The Alerans had made ready to meet the next assault in less than an hour. Torches and furylamps beat back the darkness far more effectively than they had under the first withering assault, and the legionares themselves were more organized, more determined.
At least Tavi hoped they were.
Tavi stood atop the last adobe wall with Valiar Marcus. The First Spear moved with a noticeable limp thanks to the Canim javelin. His leg was tied off with a bloodstained bandage, the wound closed with needle and thread, evidence that Foss's healers were badly overworked. Under most circumstances, a wound like Marcus's would have been closed, treated, and the First Spear returned to action virtually whole. The healers had been treating so many light injuries-and closing off far worse ones in order to keep more badly wounded men alive until they could be seen to later-that the First Spear had, by all reports, asked a wounded veteran to withdraw the javelin, then cleaned and stitched the wound himself, covered it with a bandage, and stumped back to his post.
Rain continued to fall, cold and steady. The occasional flashes of scarlet lightning showed little more than sheeting rain. Tavi had been able to make out occasional movement in the darkness, but the Aleran-built defensive wall across the bridge prevented him from making out any details.
However, the simple fact that Tavi could stand on the wall and observe told him one thing: the Canim bolt throwers had ceased their deadly thrumming.
"I thought you were listed as out of action, First Spear," Tavi said.
Marcus glanced at the nearest legionare and lowered his voice until the man would not overhear. "I never held much with reading, sir."
"You able?" Tavi asked.
"Yes, sir," Marcus said. "I won't be running any races, but I can stand on a wall."
"Good," Tavi said quietly. "We'll need you."
"Sir," Marcus said. "There's no way to know if their warriors have pulled back."
"No. But it makes sense," Tavi replied. "The warriors are their nutcracker. Then the raiders come in and mop up. It saves casualties among their most effective troops and gives their raiders experience."
"It doesn't make sense," Marcus growled. "Another hard push, and they'd have finished us."
"I know that," Tavi said. "You know that. Assume that Sari and the ritualists know it as well. I don't think they want Battlemaster Nasaug to have the glory of a victory that looks too much like his own. Sari has to be the one to finish us to stay in the good opinion of the maker caste. It gives him the glory and lets him share it out to the makers. The makers have first call on the loot if they're the first ones to overrun us. Nasaug gets upstaged. Sari gets to stay popular with the makers."
"If you're right," Marcus said.
"If I'm wrong," Tavi said, "well probably catch some of those steel bolts before much longer."
The First Spear grunted. "At least it'll be quick." There was uncharacteristic bitterness in his voice.
Tavi looked at Marcus's stocky, lumpy profile for a moment. Then he said, "I'm sorry. About the prime cohort. The men of your century."
"Should have been there with them," Marcus said.
"You were wounded," Tavi said.
"And I stood with them for you," Tavi said.
Marcus's rigid stance eased a bit, and he looked at Tavi. "I heard. After you carried me out like a lamed sheep."
Tavi snorted. "The sheep I worked with were twice your size. Rams were even bigger."
Marcus grunted. "You were a holder?"
Tavi clenched his jaw. He'd forgotten his role, again. He could blame it on his weariness, but all the same, Rufus Scipio had never been near a steadholt. "Worked with them for a while. My folks told me it was a learning experience."
"Worse trades you could learn if you mean to lead men, sir."
Tavi laughed. "I didn't plan it to happen like this."
"Wars and plans can't coexist, sir. One of them kills the other."
"I believe you," Tavi said. He stared up the long, empty stretch of bridge, rising toward its center, two hundred yards of sloping stone thirty feet across, littered with fallen Alerans and Canim alike. "We've got to last until daylight, Marcus."
"You want to push them at first light?"
"No," Tavi said. "Noon."
Marcus grunted in surprise. "We aren't going to get any stronger. The longer this fight goes on, the less likely it is that we'll be able to push them back."
"Noon," Tavi said. "You'll have to trust me on this one."
"Because I'm not sure that we don't have more spies in the camp. Need to know only, First Spear."
Marcus stared at him for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Thank you," Tavi said quietly. "When we push through to the center of the bridge, I'm going to drive forward with one cohort, while the engineers work."
"One cohort?" Marcus asked.
Tavi nodded. "If the plan works, one cohort will be enough. If it doesn't, we should be able to hold the Canim off long enough for the engineers to finish."
Marcus took a slow breath. The First Spear understood the implications.
"I'm going to ask for volunteers," Tavi said quietly.
"You'll get them," Marcus said. "But I don't see why we shouldn't hit them at first light, cut the bridge, and call it a day."
"If we lose the bridge, they'll be able to secure their entire northern front with just a few of their troops, and the rest of them will be free to kill Alerans elsewhere. As long as the bridge is up, we'll be able to put Legions into the territory south of the bridge, and they won't dare divide their forces." Tavi narrowed his eyes. "This is our job, Marcus. It isn't a pretty one, but I can't just hand it to someone else."
There was a quality of frustration to Marcus's grunt of acknowledgment.
"I'll hold the volunteers back to rest until we push. The rest of First Aleran is at your disposal, as are our Knights Flora."
"All six of them." Marcus sighed.
"Tell them to keep their heads down. If those marksmen start up again, they're going to be your only chance to counter them."
"Teach your grandmother to suck eggs, sir," Marcus muttered.
Tavi snorted and turned to the First Spear. "You've got to hold them, Marcus. At any cost."
Marcus let out a slow breath. "Yes, sir." He stared at the night for a moment before he said, "Offer you a suggestion, sir?"
"Go ahead," Tavi said.
"Don't split up a cohort when you get your volunteers. These men know each other. Trained together. It makes a difference."
Tavi frowned. "I won't take anyone with me who doesn't want to go."
"Then make sure men who are willing to die for you have every chance to survive. You owe them that."
Tavi arched an eyebrow. "Three hundred and twenty men, all volunteering together? How likely is that?"
Marcus gave him a sidelong look, and said, "Sir. It's the infantry."
Three cohorts volunteered to spearhead the attack.
Tavi had them draw lots. By the time the Canim renewed their assault, he stood at the north end of the Elinarch with the winners. Or, he thought, the losers. Depending on whether or not his idea worked.
His heart skipped a few beats, but he sternly ordered it back to work.
"Sir," Schultz said, "when Antillar Maximus was our centurion, he was senior centurion in this cohort, and his century was first century. But I'm only an acting centurion, sir. I don't have the seniority to command first century, much less the cohort."
Tavi glanced at the fish. "I've spoken to the other centurions. They agree that you know what you're doing, Schultz, and that your century is still the best disciplined. So you're senior centurion until I tell you you're not. Do you hear me, soldier?"
"Yes, sir," Schultz responded at once.
"Good," Tavi said.
A roar went up from the legionares on the last wall, and every man in the spearhead cohort looked suddenly tense. Canim horns blared, and heavy drums rolled, and the screaming roar of combat came down to the town as the rest of the Legion battled the Canim on the bridge.
Tavi listened for two minutes before seeing the signal on the wall, a blue banner lifted beside the Legion's standard.
"Good call, Captain," Max observed, his voice amused. He walked forward from the rear of the cohort, buckling on the much-longer sword preferred by duelists and mounted legionares. "They did what you thought they would. They're hitting us with their raiders."
Tavi exhaled very slowly, and nodded. "You ready?"
"Born ready, ' Max replied cheerfully, drawing a round of quiet chuckles from the waiting Legion. The only three Knights Terra in the Legion came with him, their armor clanking, their vicious, oversized weapons weighing heavy on their shoulders.
Tavi nodded to the Knights and raised his voice. "Tribune Antillus?"
"Ready when you give the word, sir," called Crassus from the rear of the cohort, where he waited with his Knights Aeris-and the Legions' engineers, including their new recruits, the dancers from the Pavilion, now dressed in the armor of slain or incapacitated legionares.
"All right, then," Tavi said. "Keep the men in this courtyard, but let them get some food and rest. Once we start pushing, there won't be time for anything else."
Maximus nodded to Schultz, who began giving orders for his inexperienced cohort to fall out for food and remain nearby.
"Captain," Max said, under the cover of the noise. "Sit down. We have some time to wait through, and you haven't rested."
"No," Tavi said. "I need to be on the wall with the First Spear until it's time to move. I'll come back and get you then."
"Captain," Max said, in exactly the same tone of voice. This time, though, he put a hand on Tavi's shoulder, and his fingers clamped down on it like steel bands. "You aren't going to do anything up there that he can't. You let yourself get too tired, and it will slow down your wits. And since we're betting it all on your wits, sir, I think it best that you make sure they're ready to perform." Max met his eyes. "Please, Calderon."
Tavi closed his eyes for a second, and that horrible fatigue threatened him again. Part of him wanted to snarl at Max to shut up and follow orders. The rest realized that the big Antillan was right. He was asking these men to risk their lives carrying out a course of action he had planned. He owed it to them to give them his very best effort when they put everything on the line.
"All right," Tavi said. "I'll sit down. But just for a minute."
"A minute," Max said, nodding. "That's fine."
Tavi slipped out of his helmet, sat down with his back against the stone columns at the base of the Elinarch, and closed his eyes. He'd never be able to get any sleep, but at least he could take a few moments of quiet to order his thoughts, to go over the possibilities, all the things that could go wrong with his plan.
Try as he might, he couldn't think of anything else he might do, and after a few moments of effort, he shook his head and opened his eyes.
Gloomy daylight greeted his gaze, the veiled sun barely visible through the overcast above the land. Tavi blinked up at it in confusion for a second. A muscle cramp seized his neck and set off a series of similar painful contractions in the muscles between his shoulder blades. He labored to his feet and bent, trying to stretch the muscles, until the cramps eased.
"Sir," said Schultz from behind him.
"Centurion," Tavi mumbled, turning. "How long was I asleep?"
"Hours, sir," Schultz replied. "Tribune Antillar said to leave you be."
Tavi muttered something about Max-under his breath. It wouldn't do for a Legion's captain to call one of his Tribunes names in front of the men, after all.
"Oh," Schultz said. He swallowed, then hurried to one side and picked up a plate covered with a soft napkin and a tankard that lay nearby. "He told me to give you these first thing, sir."
Tavi ground his teeth, but managed to keep from snatching the plates from Schultz's hands. "Thank you."
"Welcome, sir," Schultz said. Then he hastily backed away as though he expected Tavi to rip his head off.
Tavi suffocated a grumpy snarl, wolfed down the food and drank the water in the tankard. By the-time he finished, the lingering after-spasms of the muscle cramps had vanished.
"Can you form words yet, sir?" Max asked, striding up to Tavi. He nodded to Schultz, and the acting centurion bellowed for the cohort to fall in. Le-gionares began to rise from where they'd dropped into sleep on the ground or sat awaiting their turn to fight.
"Don't make me hurt you, Max," Tavi said. He cocked his head, frowning up the slope of the bridge, where the sound of battle continued. "Our status?"
"Valiar Marcus did it," Max said. "He held them."
Tavi gave Max a look.
"But you knew that, " Max said. "Since we're all standing here."
Max gave him an easy grin. "Just trying to lighten things up a little, sir. You're always so grumpy in the morning." He nodded toward the walls. "The raiders have been attacking all morning. Our Knights Flora started going through arrows like water, and the First Spear caught them flat-footed between assaults and pushed them back to the second wall about an hour ago."
"Losses?" Tavi asked.
"Heavy," Max said, his expression sobering. "Without proper gates, someone has to meet the Canim on foot as they come through, and even their raiders are hard to kill for any legionare. And those ritualists came up a while ago, started throwing these smoking censers at our people. The smoke was poison. Killed a lot of men. Not quick."
"What happened?" Tavi asked.
"Our Knights Flora started dropping any ritualist that stuck his nose out, and the wind changed after sunrise. It would blow back onto the Canim if they tried it now. No smoke since then."
A cart rumbled up, drawn by a pair of harried horses led by a young boy. He turned the cart around, and Tavi could see light shining on the blood that lay inside. The boy called out, and legionares came running from the bridge, bearing their injured comrades to the cart. They were clearly desperate, and loaded men as swiftly as they possibly could. When the cart was filled, the boy called to the horses, leading them back to the healers as fast as they could run.
Tavi watched, sickened, as another cart passed the first. There were more, coming along behind them, to pick up wounded and bring them back to the healers.
Tavi tried to swallow. "How many?"
"Uh. Around eleven hundred dead, I think," Max said, his tone quiet, neutral. "About the same number of men out of action. Foss and his boys look like something the crows have been at. It's all they can do just to save men who are bleeding out."
Tavi watched as more of the legionares following his orders were loaded onto the half dozen carts for the wounded.
The dead were stacked like cordwood into the last of the carts. It was the largest of the carts in service, with a high-railed bed, and it required the patient, enormous strength of a team of oxen to pull.
"The First Spear has his men ready for the push," Max said. "But they're tired, and barely holding together. He says if we don't hit them soon, we won't be able to."
Tavi took a deep breath, nodded once, then put on his helmet. "Our Knights?"
"On the way, sir," Max said.
Tavi laced his helmet into position and stalked over to the waiting cohort of fish. Max kept pace beside him, and the armored figures of the Knights Terra with him followed him. Before Tavi had reached the fish, Crassus and his Knights Pisces marched double time into position beside the volunteer cohort. Crassus called the halt, and the Knights stopped with commendable discipline, given how little time they'd spent in marching drill. The engineers, meanwhile, hurried into position at the rear of the other two forces.
Tavi stopped before them all, looking the men over, trying to think of what to say to them at a time like this. Then he stopped and blinked at the armor of the two groups of men.
The legionares' armor had changed. Instead of the blue-and-red eagle of the First Aleran, the insignia over their hearts had become the perfect black silhouette of, not an eagle, but a flying crow.
Beside them, the Knights Pisces' armor had changed as well. Again, the original insignia of the Legion had been replaced-this time with the finned, solid black shape of a shark, jaws opened wide.
Tavi arched an eyebrow and glanced at Crassus. "Tribune. Was this your doing?"
Crassus saluted Tavi, and said, "We watched the Canim trying to swim the river this morning, sir. Apparently, they never realized how bad a bunch of fish could hurt them." Crassus straightened his spine. "It seemed appropriate, sir."
"Hngh," Tavi said. He glanced at Schultz. "And what about you, acting centurion? Did you men also take it upon yourselves to change your uniforms?"
"Sir," Schultz said with a crisp salute. "We just wanted to match the standard, sir!" Schultz glanced aside at Tavi. "And to let the Canim know that this time the crows are coming for them, sir!"
"I see," Tavi said. He turned to speak to Max, and found Ehren standing beside Max, dressed in an ill-fitting breastplate. The little Cursor carried Tavi's standard in his right hand, and the armor and helmet made him look a great deal more formidable than Tavi would have expected.
Standing beside Ehren was Kitai. The Marat girl wore another set of armor which, while clearly not her own, fit her tall, athletic form perfectly adequately. She'd slung a Legion-issue gladius from either hip. Her mouth was curled up into a small, excited smile, and her exotic green eyes burned with the intensity of her anticipation.
"What are you two doing here?" Tavi asked.
"It occurred to me, Captain," Ehren said, "that since the First Lord already has messages on the way about the Elinarch, he and his captains will be here within a week or two at the most, and it would take me nearly four weeks to ride it. The fastest way to get him that message was to stay here, Captain."
Kitai snorted, and said, "Aleran, did you really expect us to allow you to order us to stay away from danger while you faced it alone?"
Tavi met Kitai's eyes for a long and silent moment. Then he glanced at Ehren. "I don't have time to argue with you both," he said quietly. "But if we survive this, I'm going to take it out of your hides."
"That," Kitai murmured, "could prove interesting."
Tavi felt his cheeks heat up, and he turned back to the men.
"All right, people," Tavi said, loudly enough to be heard by all. "The Canim did what we expected. Their raiders tried to finish what the warriors started. First Spear Valiar Marcus and your Legion-brothers didn't let them do it. So now that we're all rested, it's our turn. We're going to push them over the center wall at the bridge apex. You and I, along with Tribune Antillar, all of our Knights, and our fellow legionares are going to hit the Canim hard enough to knock their teeth all the way back across the crowbegotten ocean."
The cohort rumbled with a low, growling laugh.
"If this goes well," Tavi said. "We'll carry the day, and the beer's on me." He paused at another laugh. "But no matter what happens, once we've gotten the engineers into place to destroy the bridge, we've got to hold. No matter what else happens, that bridge has got to come down. You knew that, and you're here anyway."
Tavi drew his blade, snapped to attention, and saluted the ranks of crow-signed young men in front of him.
"First Aleran, Battlecrow Cohort!" Tavi bellowed. "First Aleran, Knights Pisces! Are you with me?"
They answered him with a roaring crash of voices and drawn steel. Max, Ehren, Kitai, and the Knights Terra fell into position around him as Tavi turned and led his Battlecrows and Knights Pisces onto the Elinarch.