The Elinarch was a marvel of Aleran engineering. It arched over the waters of the Tiber for a distance of more than half a mile, a span of solid granite drawn from the bones of the world. Infused with furies of its own, the bridge was very nearly a living creature, healing damage inflicted upon it, shifting its structure to compensate for the heat of summer, the cold depths of winter. The same crafting that allowed the roads to support and strengthen Aleran travelers also surged in unbroken power throughout the length of the bridge. It could alter its surface to shed excess water and ice, and smooth grooves collected rainwater in small channels at either side of the bridge during rainstorms.
During this storm, though, those channels ran with blood.
Tavi led his men at a quick march up the bridge. Twenty feet after they started, Tavi saw the trickles of blood in the channels. At first, he thought that the reddish overcast was simply shining on water, runoff rain. But the rain had stopped hours before, and the gloomy day drained color from the world, rather than tinting it. He didn't really, truly realize it was blood until he smelled it-sharp, metallic, unsettling.
They were not large streams-only as deep, perhaps, as the cupped palm of an adult man, only as wide as his spread fingers. Or rather, they would not have been large streams of rainwater. But Tavi knew that the blood running down the slope of the bridge had carried the lives of many, many men out onto the unforgiving, uncaring stone of the bridge.
Tavi turned his eyes away from it, forcing them to focus ahead, on the uphill march that still remained before him. He heard someone retch in the ranks behind him, as the legionares realized what they were seeing.
"Eyes forward!" Tavi called back to the legionares. "We have a job, gentlemen! Stay focused!"
They reached the final defensive wall, which was now manned by perhaps half a cohort of legionares-all of them wounded but capable of bearing arms. They saluted Tavi as he and his volunteers approached.
"Go get those bastards, boys!" bellowed one grizzled centurion.
"Send 'em to the crows, Captain!" called a wounded fish with a bloodied bandage around his head.
"Give it to 'em!"
"Take em down!"
"Kick their furry-"
"Assault formation!" Tavi called.
On the move, the cohort's formation changed, shifting into a column two legionares wide. Their pace slowed somewhat as the column squeezed through the opening in the northernmost defensive wall, and Tavi kept them in the slender formation as they double-timed to the next defensive wall. The din of battle grew louder.
The bulk of the Legion was there, at the next wall. Tavi could see Valiar Marcus's short, stocky form on the wall, bellowing orders. Legionares stood at the wall, then in two long lines at either side of the bridge, where the rough steps up to the improvised battlements awaited them. As defending legionares on the wall were cut down, the next men in line took their places. Tavi shuddered, imagining a nightmare wait in a line to pain and death with little to do but watch the blood of your brothers in arms flow past you in the gutter.
A larger force was positioned to block the opening in the center of the wall. The legionares nearest the opening fought with shield and short blade, but those behind them plied spears, reaching over and around the shieldmen to wound and distract the constant stream of Canim raiders trying to batter their way in by main strength. Canim bodies lay in piles that had become makeshift barricades. Alerans lay unmoving among them, their fellows unable to drag them free in the furious press of melee.
A cry went up, and the weary legionares of the First Aleran roared in sudden hope.
"Max!" Tavi called. "Crassus!"
"Boys!" Max called. Then he grinned at Crassus and flashed his half brother a wink. Crassus returned it as a pale, ghastly parody of a smile. Max and Crassus took over the head of the column, with the Knights Terra filling the next two ranks, then Tavi with Ehren. Kitai, perhaps inevitably, did not run in formation but out to one side of the column, green eyes bright, her pace light and effortless despite the weight of the borrowed armor.
"Alera!" Tavi cried, raising his sword to signal the charge. The column picked up speed. His heart was beating so hard that he thought it might break his ribs.
Valiar Marcus's head whipped around, and he screamed orders. At the very last moment, the force on the ground split, ducking to either side. With a triumphant howl, several Canim poured through the opening.
They were met by the sons of Antillus Raucus, bright steel in their hands.
To Tavi, Max and Crassus's attack was a glittering blur. Max took a bare step ahead and hit them first, all speed and violence and deadly timing, his blade lashing out high. He struck the nearest Cane and laid open its weapon arm to the bone at the shoulder, then pivoted to one side, blade passing through a second Cane's throat. He lashed out again, another strike that hammered aside an incoming sickle-sword.
Crassus fought with such flawless coordination with Max's attack that he might have been his brothers own shadow. He dispatched the disarmed Cane with a thrust that went through the roof of its mouth, blocked a desperate, frenzied attack from the Cane whose throat was already gushing out its life onto the bridge, and struck the third Cane's weapon hand from its arm while Max struck its blade, throwing open its defenses.
The brothers went through the leading Canim and hit the opening in the wall without even slowing down. Canim screams and cries came from the opening, then the Knights Terra were through and spreading out to either side. Tavi and Ehren were next, and the stinking metal-sewer smell of the dead was suffocating, the small passage terrifyingly confining. They emerged from it in the space of a breath, though it had seemed much longer to Tavi, and he found himself staring at an enormous length of sloping bridge rising toward the improvised walls built at the Elinarch's apex.
Momentum was everything. Max and Crassus began slashing a way through the Canim as if they were Rhodesian scouts chopping a clear trail through the jungles of their home. Once the Knights Terra were able to fan out to either side of them, they brought their enormous weapons into play. Tavi watched as a sword swung with fury-born strength tore a Cane in half at the waist, to let it fall to the ground in two confused, bleeding, dying pieces. A great hammer rose and fell, crushing another Cane with such force that the tips of broken bones in its rib cage and spine ripped their way out through its skin.
Tavi saw a flash of movement in the corner of his eye, and turned to see one Cane bound entirely over the Knights and land on the stones before him. It swept an enormous cudgel at his head. Tavi ducked it, faked to one side, then darted in close before the Cane could recover its balance. He slashed hard in an upward stroke, laying open the huge arteries in the Cane's inner thigh, spun from its way as the Cane fell, and used the momentum of the spin to strike the back of the Cane's neck. The blow was not strong enough to cut through the Cane's thickly furred and muscled neck entirely, but it was more than sufficient to split open its spine at the back of the neck, and dropped it at once to the ground, helpless as it bled to death.
A second Cane bounded over the line, landing outside of Tavi's sword reach. It whirled on Ehren.
The little Cursor flicked the standard pole out, the Legion's blackened eagle-crow now, Tavi supposed in some detached corner of his mind-standard lashing out and snapping like a whip into the Cane's nose. The blow did nothing more than startle the Cane for the space of a second. Tavi could have struck in that second, but he didn't. Instinct warned him not to, and Tavi recognized and trusted the intuition.
Kitai's armored figure descended from the wall behind them, swords in either hand sweeping down, opening horrible wounds on the Cane. The Marat girl had bounded up the stairs while they labored through the tunnel, and she had hurled herself from the battlements a beat after they emerged. Kitai rolled forward, under the blind, furious swipes of the Cane's sickle-sword, came to her feet behind the raider, and cut it down in a short, vicious flurry of slashing blades.
Kitai flicked blood from her swords and circled to continue forward on Tavi's right, while Ehren took his left. They pressed ahead, furious sound and violence all around them, and behind them the Battlecrows began to emerge from the passage through the wall, led by acting centurion Schultz, the shaft of the spear behind Max and Crassus's deadly point.
The Canim had not been prepared to defend themselves against an attack, Tavi realized. The enemy must have known that the Aleran's ability to fight was faltering, must have known that time and wounds were taking their toll. The Canim, Tavi somehow knew, had spent the last hour or more in eager anticipation of the final, deadly fall of the Aleran defenders, and when the defenders had abandoned the opening in the wall, the Canim had known that the time for the final, killing rush had come at last. They had pressed forward, hungry for the killing blow that would destroy their enemies.
Instead, they found themselves faced with the deadliest swordsman in the Legion and the superhuman power of the Knights Terra, followed by the blackened, bloody banner of the captain who had defied Sari and his ritualists, shamed him before the host, and lived to tell the tale despite the terrible powers the ritualists had sent after him.
Battles are fought in muddy fields, in burning towns, in treacherous forests, in unforgiving mountains, and on the blood-spattered stones of contested bridges, Tavi realized. But battles are won within the minds and hearts of the soldiers fighting them. No force was defeated in battle until it believed that it was defeated. No force could be victorious unless it believed it could be victorious.
The First Aleran believed.
The Canim raiders weren't sure.
At that time, on that bridge, before the terrible swords of the sons of Antil-lus, before the crushing power of the Knights Terra, before the blackened banner of the First Aleran and the reckless, frenzied charge of the Battlecrows, those two facts were what mattered.
It was as simple as that.
The resistance of the Canim forces on the bridge did not simply waver-it abruptly vanished, as panic descended on them. Max and Crassus pressed the assault, and Tavi led the Battlecrows after them. On the walls behind them, trumpets rang. Valiar Marcus had seen the Canim break, and the rest of the weary Legion began rushing forward to lend their strength and momentum to the advance.
The advance had to cover most of five hundred yards, all uphill to the defenses at the bridge's apex-which had not, after all, been designed to defend against an assault from the Aleran side of the bridge. Without battlements, the only real protection they offered the Canim was the simple impediment of movement caused by the walls themselves and the relatively small opening in them.
That opening, however, also slowed the Canim now attempting to flee. The legionares were slower on foot than their opponents, but caught up to them as the choke point in the wall stranded them on the northern side.
Tavi was barely able to get his cohort into a more conventional fighting front, incorporating the Knights in its center, before the vengeful Alerans fell on the Canim. Canim screamed. Legionares went down. Tavi fought to keep the lines stable, to get the wounded clear of the fighting before they were trampled. The desperate Canim rushed up onto the improvised battlements and threw themselves over, perfectly willing to fall rather than face the juggernaut of the First Aleran's advance. A few even cast themselves off the bridge. It was a long, dangerous fall to the water from there, the maximum height of the bridge from its surface.
Dangerous as it might have been, the waiting sharks were a far more serious threat-and after two days of constant blood-taint in the water and relatively little food, they were hungry. Nothing that fell into the river came out alive again.
Tavi was the first legionare to mount up onto the battlements at the bridge's center. Ehren was close behind him, and a roar went up from the Alerans as the black eagle/crow banner gained the wall.
Tavi watched as Max and his Knights plunged through the opening in the wall to make sure the Canim had a reason to continue their retreat. They were followed by a number of excited Battlecrows who should have been taking defensive positions, but who had allowed the heat of battle to control their movements. Max, Crassus, and the Knights Terra settled for crippling blows upon the fleeing Canim where they had to, and the following legionares finished up the gruesome work the Knights had begun.
Tavi had no idea whether Max realized how far past the wall the assault had actually rolled, and he signaled the Battlecrows' trumpeter to sound the halt. The clarion call rolled out over the downhill slope of the far side of the bridge, and at its signal Max looked around him, and even a hundred yards away, Tavi could see the expression of dismay on Max's face as he saw how far forward he'd come.
Beside Tavi, Kitai sighed and rolled her eyes. "Alerans."
Max got the Knights and legionares stopped and began an orderly withdrawal back to the wall at the bridge's center.
Tavi glanced over his shoulder, then turned and started back down to the surface of the bridge, barking out orders. "Bring up the engineers! Knights Aeris to the wall! Battlecrows, with me!"
Ehren followed hard on his heels. "Uh, sir? Shouldn't we be preparing to, uh, you know. Defend against a counterattack?"
"That's what we're doing," Tavi said. He stalked through the opening in the wall and out onto the surface of the bridge. Tavi stared down the Elinarch's slope, to where the Canim were already rallying, down at the next defensive wall. "Schultz! Bring them up!"
"Right," Ehren said. His voice sounded distinctly nervous. "It's just that it seems a shame that the engineers went to all this trouble to build us a real nice wall, and here we are out in front of it. Not using it. I'm just worried that it might hurt their feelings."
"The Knights need the space on the walls and the engineers can't afford to be interrupted by a breakthrough. We have to buy them all room to work in," Tavi said.
"Us," Ehren said. "And one cohort." He stared down the bridge. "Against the next best thing to sixty thousand Canim."
"No," Kitai put in quietly. "Us against one."
Tavi nodded. "Sari."
Ehren said, "Ah." He glanced back as the Battlecrows filed into place around them. "You don't think there's a chance he might bring a friend or two?"
"That's the idea," Tavi said. "Make sure they can see the standard."
Ehren swallowed and adjusted the standard against the wind. "So they know exactly where you are."
"Right," Tavi said.
Down the slope of the bridge, brassy horns began to blare once more-this time in a different sequence than used before. Tavi watched as Canim began to emerge from the opening in the next wall, and his heart sped up as he did.
Every single one of them wore the mantles and hoods of the ritualists. They fell into rows, clouds of greenish smoke dribbling from censers, many of them clutching long bars of iron, each end ribbed with dozens of fang-shaped steel blades. They formed the spearhead of a column of raiders, pouring out onto the bridge by the dozens. The hundreds. The thousands.
"Oh, my," Ehren said quietly.
"There," Tavi said to Kitai, barely suppressing a surge of excitement. "Coming up from the back. See the bright red armor?"
"That is he?" she asked. "Sari?"
Ehren said, "Signal your Knights Flora. Have them kill him when he advances. They could almost do it from here."
"Not good enough," Tavi said. "We can't simply kill him. The next ritualist down the ladder will just step into his place. We've got to discredit him, break his power, prove that whatever he promised the rest of his people, he isn't able to deliver."
"He can't deliver if there's an arrow stuck through his gizzard," Ehren pointed out. But he sighed. "You always seem to do things the hard way."
"Habit," Tavi said.
"How are you going to discredit him?"
Tavi turned and beckoned. Crassus leapt lightly down from the wall, as if the ten-foot drop did not exist. He made his way to Tavi's side through the troops and saluted him. "Captain."
Tavi walked a bit ahead of the troops, out of easy earshot. "Ready?"
"Yes, sir," Crassus said.