“My ass hurts,” said Antillar Maximus, Tribune Auxiliarus of the First Aleran.
“My ass hurts, sir,” Tavi corrected him.
“Hey. Sacred right.”
Tavi grunted where he lay prone, and peered steadily through the yellow and brown winter grass of the Vale at the valley beneath them. “Just imagine if you’d marched here instead of riding.”
“No thank you, sir,” Max replied. “I’m too busy imagining I decided to take a few more terms at the Academy so that I could practice my earthcrafting with wealthy and beautiful Citizen girls, sir, instead of riding around the back of beyond looking to pick a fight with big, scary monsters.”
The two of them lay low, and Max’s voice was pitched barely louder than a whisper, for all that it never stopped running. As long as they didn’t stand up and present the enemy force marching through the valley below with a beautiful silhouette, they were far enough above them to avoid being seen. Probably.
“I make that four thousand,” Tavi murmured after a moment. “You?”
“Forty two hundred,” Max replied promptly. For all his complaining, the big Antillan was every bit the trained observer Tavi was. In fact, Tavi trusted his friend’s estimate over his own.
Tavi frowned, thinking. “Figure one cohort for camp security . . .”
“. . . and one more for scouting ahead and behind as they march,” Max continued the thought.
“Bloody crows,” Tavi sighed. “A full Legion.”
Max let out a grim sound of agreement. “Looks that way.”
Tavi felt a cold little shiver run along his belly.
In the valley below, an army of Canim marched steadily through the dry grass. The wolf-headed warriors moved with steady purpose, a good three thousand of them spread in a loose, horseshoe-shaped arrangement around a core of solid, heavily armored troops marching in ranks. Three thousand raiders shifting position would not have stirred Tavi to launch any kind of assault. Conscripted Canim, with a minimum of military discipline, the raiders were dangerous only by virtue of their numbers and their tremendous size and strength. The average Cane stood between seven and eight feet tall, and that was in their standard, half-crouched posture. Standing erect, they would have been a foot taller than that, and the sheer speed and power held within those lean frames was terrifying.
Still, the Canim army now occupying much of the territory of the cities of Ceres and Kalare could afford to lose three thousand of their dregs. It was the core of disciplined troops marching at their center, members of the elite Canim warrior caste, that had drawn Tavi from the fortifications.
A thousand of those hardened, disciplined, supremely dangerous troops represented a tithe of the Canim’s total number of heavy infantry. In all their clashes with the Canim, the First Aleran had killed a relatively limited number of the warrior caste. Canim losses had been almost universally drawn from among their raiders. Nasaug, the leader of the Canim forces, never used his best troops except in devastatingly well-timed assaults, and the vast majority of Aleran losses had been at the hands of the Canim warrior caste.
Ehren’s report of a thousand of them shifting position had represented an opportunity to inflict serious harm upon Nasaug’s troops. A thousand were not so many as to be undefeatable, but more than enough to represent a significant lost to the enemy’s prize corps of troops. When Tavi had learned which territory they were moving through, he had ordered his most mobile and dangerous units into the field at once.
The Canim warriors were walking through a deathtrap.
This particular valley had remarkably steep walls, and the lattice of tiny streams that ran through it provided enough water to ensure a growth of luxuriant grass—which had not yet flushed into the lush, verdant sea of green it would become within a few more weeks. For now, it was a ten-mile long, one-mile wide box filled with kindling and a thousand of Nasaug’s finest.
The First Aleran’s Knights Ignus were already in position, with the far more numerous Knights Aeris beside them. At Tavi’s signal, the Knights Ignus would set the valley ablaze while the Knights Aeris used their furies to call forth a gale and send a sudden riptide of fire and fury over the foe. The Battlecrows stood at the head of the valley, ready to set a backfire and blockade the valley’s only means of egress, while Max’s cavalry stood ready to sweep down from the other end of the valley and crush any Canim who managed to escape immolation.
Which was why the second legion marching beside the Canim company was a problem.
They were Alerans.
Better than four thousand Alerans in full Legion regalia marched beside the most dangerous historic foes of the realm, under banners that did not correspond to any of the great cities of Alera. Worse, they were moving in good order. Two years ago, Tavi would never have understood how difficult such an apparently-simple maneuver actually was. It took serious discipline to achieve such uniform movement, and was evidence of a disturbing amount of competence on behalf of whoever was training those troops.
“Give me a lens, please,” Tavi said quietly.
The big Antillan rose up a little, leaned over Tavi, and held his hands out on either side of Tavi’s face, fingers spread. The air between Max’s palms blurred, and suddenly the force below them seemed to rush hundreds of yards closer, as Max’s furies bent the air, magnifying Tavi’s view.
“Those aren’t Kalaran banners,” Tavi murmured after a moment’s study.
Max let out a skeptical grunt. “Maybe Kalare didn’t want to be openly associated with them.”
“He’s already attacked his neighbors without warning, kidnapped several family members of his fellow High Lords, and had dozens and dozens of Citizens murdered by his pet maniacs,” Tavi pointed out. “You really think he’s worried about covering up his involvement with the Canim at this point?”
“Put that way,” Max said. “No.”
Tavi let out a little snort of a breath. “Take a look at their gear.”
Max moved his hands up to hold before his own face. A moment later, he reported, “It’s old. I mean, everything looks to be in pretty good shape, but the armor is of a design that went out of use years ago. There are lots of missing pieces too. Mismatched greaves, nonstandard-length spears, that kind of thing. ” Max grunted. “Never seen any banners like that, either. Brown and green? Who uses brown and green for banners? They’re supposed to be visible. That’s the point of banners.”
“Exactly,” Tavi said quietly, watching the enemy column’s progress.
“They’re almost in position,” Max said, lowering his hands. “Once their leading elements hit that old streambed, there’s no way they’re getting out in time.”
“I see them,” Tavi said.
Max nodded and said nothing for a minute. Tavi watched the disciplined, but partially equipped legion march steadily in step with the far larger Canim.
“Sir,” Max said, “They’re in position. It’s time to signal Crassus, sir.”
“It doesn’t make sense, Max,” Tavi said. “This has got to be a legion of volunteers from within the occupied territory. Why would they be fighting beside an army of invaders?”
“Who knows. Maybe Nasaug is forcing them into it. Holding their families prisoner or something.”
“No,” Tavi said. “Nasaug is too smart for that. You don’t take a man’s home and family away, demand that he serve and obey you, and then put a weapon in his hand and give him four thousand friends just as angry and well-armed as he is.”
“Sir,” Max said, “at this point, the longer we delay the attack, the more the Canim vanguard is going to be able to pressure the Battlecrows at the head of the valley.”
“Why?” Tavi demanded to no one in particular. “Why are they down there?”
Max’s voice gained a tense edge. “Captain, at this point it’s academic. Should I order the attack?”
Tavi stared at the valley below. Fighting the Canim was one thing. He’d been doing that for a while. He respected them enough to regret the necessity of killing them, though he knew he had little real choice in the matter. It was war. If Alerans didn’t kill the Canim, the Canim would promptly kill Alerans, and it was as simple as that.
Except that the cobbled-together legion below was not made up of Canim. They were Alerans. They were people Tavi had sworn to safeguard and protect.
But they were also the enemy. Two years had taught him that no matter how experienced the army or how skilled the commander, the calculus of war had a single, unalterable constant: Death.
More than four thousand Alerans were about to die, and die horribly, and they shouldn’t have been there at all. Tavi could not afford to let such a tempting target as the vulnerable column of Canim regulars get past—even if the only way to get them was to destroy the strange legion with them, whoever they were.
His duty was clear.
Four thousand Alerans. He was about to murder more than four thousand fellow Alerans.
“Bloody crows,” he whispered.
Tavi fought the sudden urge to throw up as he raised his hand and began to flash the signal that would travel down the relay line, ordering his men to begin the attack.
Before he could lift his arm enough to give the signal, Tavi felt an odd, sourceless, faint sensation of shock and surprise. He puzzled over it an instant before he realized that the emotions had not been his own. He had sensed them, if only dimly, coming from another source nearby, and Tavi whipped his head around in a sudden panic.
The enemy scout wore loose clothing of plain homespun that had been intentionally stained with earth and plant juices. He was a blocky little brick of a man, not tall, but with grotesquely overdeveloped shoulders and a neck that was literally thicker than the base of his skull. Despite his ragged clothing, he wore genuine legionare’s boots, and though his leather sword belt shone with age, it bore a genuine gladius at his hip—and there was nothing old or ragged about the short, powerfully curved hunting bow in his hands. He had emerged from the tall grass and scrub on the ridge not ten feet away.
Tavi got his legs underneath him and whipped his knife from his belt, releasing the heavy blade into a throw almost directly from its sheath. There was no time to grip the knife properly, to set himself to throw or to aim. The knife tumbled through the air, and Tavi noted that even if it had hit point-on, instead of landing almost flat against the enemy scout’s upper arm, it wouldn’t have inflicted anything more than a scratch.
But that hadn’t been the point of the throw. The scout released the arrow strung to his bow in an instinctive snap-shot, but flinched away from the whirling knife, and his arrow flew wide.
Tavi charged after his knife, put his head down, and plowed an armored shoulder into the scout’s belly. The shock of impact jarred his shoulder and neck, and the scout let out a sickly-sounding croak as he fell. Tavi came down on top of the scout, seized the man’s homespun tunic in both hands, and slammed his helmeted forehead against the scout’s face. Tavi felt the shock of the blow through the steel, and heard the scout’s nose break with a squishy crunch.
The scout reacted by lifting one iron-strong hand and clamping it down on Tavi’s throat. Tavi felt the fury-assisted strength of the scout’s arm, and knew that if he didn’t do something, the earthcrafter would snap his neck.
Tavi brought his armored knee up in a savage blow that struck home between the scout’s legs, and for a single instant, the power in that deadly arm faltered. Tavi slammed his helmet against the scout’s face again and then again, and the man sagged limply back to the ground.
The entire fight had taken all of three or four seconds.
Tavi fell back from the man, his throat on fire. It was hard to suck air in through his mouth, and for a second he feared that the enemy scout had managed to crush his windpipe, but after a few seconds more he was able to gulp down great breaths of air.
Max had his sword out and had been on the way, but Tavi’s reaction had been the swifter, and the big Antillan’s face was pale. “Bloody crows,” he hissed. “Captain?”
“I’m all right,” Tavi choked out. “Did they see? Did they hear anything?”
Max rose to a low crouch and looked slowly around, then dropped down again. “There’d have been some noise by now. “He met Tavi’s eyes. “Captain. You have to signal the attack now.”
Tavi stared at the senseless young man lying limp in the grass. He reached up to touch the front rim of his helmet, and his fingers came away wet with blood.
“I know,” Max said, his voice low and hard. “I know you don’t like killing. I know that they’re our own people. I know this is hard and horrible. But that’s what war is, Captain. You’ve got to order the attack.”
“Signal Crassus,” Tavi said quietly.
Max let out a low breath of relief and nodded, beginning to rise.
“Do not engage. Fall back to the rally point and meet us there.”
Max stared at Tavi, his eyes widening.
Tavi continued, wiping his hands clean of blood on the dry grass. “Get word to the Battlecrows to abandon their position and fall back.”
Max remained still for a moment. “Captain,” he said quietly. “We aren’t going to get another opportunity like this one.”
Tavi narrowed his eyes as he looked up at his friend. “We’re leaving, Tribune. You have your orders.”
“Yes, sir,” Max said at once, and very quietly. Then he paced off through the grass where he would, Tavi knew, begin flashing hand signals down the line of riders.
Max returned a moment later and watched the enemy forces below begin to march out of the ambush area and out of their reach. “Bloody crows, Calderon. Why?”
“Why not burn four thousand of our own people to death?” Tavi asked. He gestured at the downed scout. “Look at him, Max. What do you see?”
Max stared down at the unconscious man for a moment. Then he frowned, leaned closer, and tugged aside the man’s tunic a bit, before he rose again. ”Muscles are all lopsided, misshaped. He’s been chained to a wheel or a plow, for them to develop like that,” he said quietly. “He’s got lash scars. ” His right cheek twitched in a tic that Tavi thought Max didn’t know he had. “Curling over his shoulders. More on his belly. Collar scars on his neck, too. He’s a slave.”
“He was a slave,” Tavi replied quietly. “No collar now. “He nodded down at the army below. “We wanted to know what could make an Aleran fight beside a Cane, Max.”
Max grimaced and said, “They’re freeing slaves.”
Tavi nodded slowly.
“How many?” Max asked. “How many do you think they have?”
“Can’t be too many,” Tavi said. “They don’t have a lot of gear, if this man’s equipment is any indication. And if they were raising really large numbers, Ehren’s spies would have heard something about them. Which makes sense.”
“How?” Max said.
Tavi nodded at the slave legion below. “Those men know that if they lose, they’re dead men, Max. Some slaves have it bad, but a lot of them don’t. My guess is that the ones willing to fight are a lot less common than the ones who just want to stay low and quiet until the fighting is over.”
“But those are going to fight like the crows are coming for them,” Max said, his voice grim.
“Yes,” Tavi said quietly.
Max was silent for a minute. Then he said, “All the more reason to order the attack. I know why you didn’t do it. Great furies know I agree with your principles. But a lot of men are going to have to die to stop them now. You could have have done that without a loss. It’s going to cost us.”
“It won’t cost as much as creating a legion of martyrs,” Tavi said quietly. “If I’m right, then right now, four thousand slaves have taken up arms. If we’d wiped them out, Max, if we’d proven to every slave in the occupied territory that Alera didn’t give a crow’s feather about their lives, Nasaug wouldn’t have four thousand fresh troops ready to fight. He’d have forty thousand terrified, outraged volunteers. Read history, Max. The Canim have. “Tavi shook his head. “Men fight hardest for their lives—and for their freedom.”
Max drew in a slow breath, his rough, appealing features drawn into a pensive frown. “This was a trap,” he said quietly. “We were offered those warriors as bait.”
“This could have been a trap,” Tavi said, nodding. “But Nasaug doesn’t plan operations with only one purpose if he can possibly help it. I think this was something else, too.”
“What?” Max said.
“A message. “ Tavi rose, nodding to the downed scout. “Come on. We’d better clear out before his friends notice that he’s missing and come looking for him. “Tavi leaned down and rolled the limp man onto his side.
“What are you doing?”
“Making sure he doesn’t choke on his own blood,” Tavi said. “Let’s move.”
They moved at a crouch out to where they’d left the horses, hidden in a thick copse of evergreens. ” Tavi?” Max asked.
“Is that really why you didn’t order the attack? Did you really think it was a trap?”
Tavi regarded his friend steadily. “You think I felt sympathy for them.”
“No,” Max said. “I bloody well know you did, Calderon. I know you. But we’re at war. I’m not sure you can afford that. I’m not sure the men can afford it.”
Tavi paused beside Acteon, one hand on the saddle, one on the reins, and stared at nothing in particular. “I think,” he said quietly, “that I have a duty to Alera, Max. All Alerans. “ He took a deep breath and mounted. Then he said, his voice distant and very calm, “And yes. That’s why I didn’t kill them all.”
Max mounted a moment later and rode up beside Tavi as they moved back toward the rally point. “That works for me. “He glanced back at the ridge behind them and let out a low chortle.
“What?” Tavi asked.
“Your singulare has been walking around in your shadow for almost two years now. The first day he’s not here, and you charge out into the field and get yourself half-choked to death. He’s going to be furious. So’s Kitai.”
Tavi let out a rough-sounding chuckle. It grated painfully in his throat. “Don’t worry, Max. I’ll deal with them.”
Max’s smile faded. “Senator Arnos was hoping to put a big new feather in his cap for this conference with the First Lord. He and the War Committee are not going to be happy about you letting those regulars get away.”
Tavi felt his eyes narrow as his smile turned into a simple baring of his teeth. “Don’t worry, Max,” he said. “I’ll deal with them, too.”