Tavi woke up with his head pounding, but his instincts screamed warnings, and he most carefully did not move or alter the patterns of his breathing. If he was still alive, it meant that his captors intended him to be that way. Announcing that he was alert would profit him nothing. Instead, he kept himself limp and passive and sought to learn whatever he could about his surroundings and his captors.
He was sitting in a chair. He could feel the hard wood under him, and his legs were bound, one to each leg of the chair. His elbows rested at the right height for the arms of a chair, though he could not feel his hands. He surmised that his wrists were bound, and that his bonds had cut off the circulation to his hands.
He could hear the creaking of wood around him. Most of the buildings in the city were constructed of stone. The only wooden structures were outside the walls of the capital itself, or else were the storage houses and shipwrights down at Riverside. He took part of a breath through his nose and caught the faint smell of water and fish. The river, then, and not outside the capital's walls. He was in a warehouse or a shipwright's-or, he amended, upon a ship. The Gaul was a wide, deep river, the largest in all Alera, and even deepwater vessels could sail up it to the capital.
"Were you able to fix him?" growled a male voice. From the sound of it, it was coming to him from an adjacent room, or possibly from the other side of a thin door or heavy screen. The voice itself had the quality of one shut indoors. His captors, then, most likely.
"I stopped the bleeding," said a voice, a woman's. It had an odd accent, from somewhere in the south of the Realm, Tavi thought, perhaps Forcian. "He'll have to see a professional about getting his nose back, though."
The man let out a laugh that had nothing to do with merriment. "That's rich. Serves him right for letting a little girl get to him."
There was an oppressive silence.
"You aren't little, Rook," the man said, his tone defensive.
"Bear in mind," Rook said, "that the girl is a Marat. They are physically stronger than most Alerans."
"Must be good exercise, bedding all those animals," he said.
"Thank you, Turk, for reminding me why some of us attend to the jobs that require intelligence, while others are restricted to the use of knives and clubs."
Turk snorted. "I get the job done."
"Then why is the Steadholder not dead?"
"Someone interfered," Turk said. "And no one told us that the old man was that good with a blade."
"Very true," Rook said. "The armsman protecting the coach was, goodness, skilled at arms. I can see why you were taken off guard."
Turk growled out a vitriolic curse. "I got the boy, didn't I?"
"Yes. The old crow might even decide not to make you sorry you weren't with the men at Nedus's manor."
"Don't worry," Turk said, sullen. "I'll get her."
"For your sake, I hope you are correct," Rook said. "If you will excuse me."
"You're not staying? I thought you were done."
"Try not to think too much," she said. "It doesn't do anyone any favors. I have a few loose ends to trim before I go."
"What do you want us to do with these two?"
"Keep them until the old crow arrives to question them. And before you ask, the answer is no. You aren't to touch either one of them meanwhile. He'll tell you how he wants you to handle it afterward."
"One of these days," Turk said in an ugly tone, "someone is going to shut your mouth for you."
"Possibly. But not today. And never you."
A door opened and closed, and Tavi chanced a quick peek up through the veil of his hair. He was in a storage house, surrounded by wooden shipping crates. A muscular, ill-favored man, dressed in a sleeveless river rat's tunic, stood glaring at the door as it closed. To Tavi's right, there was another chair, and Kitai was tied into hers just as he was into his-except that she'd had a leather satchel drawn over her head and tied loosely shut around her neck.
Tavi lowered his head again, and a second later Turk, the ugly man, turned and walked across the floor toward him. Tavi remained still as the man pressed fingers against his throat, grunted, and stepped over to Kitai. Tavi opened an eye enough to see him touch her wrist, then turn and stalk out of the warehouse. He slammed the door shut behind him, and Tavi heard a heavy bolt sliding into place.
Tavi agonized for a moment over what to do. The place may have had some sort of furycrafted guardian set to watch him-but on the other hand, the presence of any kind of formidable guardian would have drawn the attention of the civic legion's furycrafters, who regularly inspected the warehouses in Riverside. That meant that if there were any furies set to watch him, they would probably only raise the alarm, rather than attacking.
Tavi tested his bonds, but there was not an inch of the ropes that were not inescapably tight. If he'd been conscious when tied, he could have attempted to keep his muscles tight so that when he relaxed them there would have been some margin of slack in the ropes to allow him to wriggle out of them. But it hadn't happened that way, and there seemed little he could do now.
Even if he had been free, it might not have done him any good. There was only one door to the storage house-the one Turk had just walked out. Tavi tested his chair. It wasn't fastened down, and the legs thumped quietly on the floorboards as he wiggled back and forth.
Kitai's head jerked up, lifting the leather satchel. Her voice was muffled. "Aleran?"
"I'm here," he said.
"You are all right?"
"Got a headache I'm going to remember for a while," he responded. "You?"
She made a spitting sound from inside the hood. "A bad taste in my mouth. Who were those men?"
"They were talking about trying to kill my aunt Isana," Tavi said. "They probably work for Lord Kalare."
"Why did they take us?"
"I'm not sure," he said. "Maybe because getting rid of me will make Gaius look weak. Maybe to use me to try to lure Aunt Isana into a trap. Either way, they aren't going to let us go after this is over."
"They will kill us," she said.
"Then we must escape."
"That would follow, yes," Tavi said. He tensed up, testing his bonds again, but they were secure. "It's going to take me hours to get out of these. Can you get loose?"
She shifted her weight back and forth, and Tavi heard the wood of her chair creaking under the strain. "Perhaps," she said, after a moment. "But it will be loud. Are we guarded?"
"The guard left the building, but there might be furies watching us. And the men who took us won't be far away."
The satchel tilted suddenly, and Kitai said, "Aleran, someone comes."
Tavi dropped his head forward again, as it had been when he awoke, and a second later the bolt rattled and the door opened. Tavi caught a quick glimpse of Turk and another, taller man entering the warehouse.
"… sure you can see that we'll have her before sunrise, my lord," Turk was saying in an unctuous tone. "You can't listen to everything Rook has to say."
The other man spoke, and Tavi had to force himself not to move. "No?" asked Lord Kalare. "Turk, Turk, Turk. If Rook had not asked me to give you a second chance, I'd have killed you when we came through the door."
"Oh," Turk mumbled. "Yes, my lord."
"Where is he?" Kalare asked. Turk must have answered with a gesture, because a moment later, footsteps approached. From a few feet in front of him, Tavi heard Kalare say, "He's unconscious."
"Rook rang his bells pretty good," Turk replied. "But there shouldn't be any lasting damage, my lord. He'll be awake in the morning."
"And this?" Kalare asked.
"Barbarian," said Turk. "She was with the other one."
Kalare grunted. "Why is she hooded?"
"She put up a fight before we got her bound. She bit Cardis's nose off."
"Off?" asked Kalare.
"Yes, my lord."
Kalare chuckled. "Amusing. The spirited ones always are."
"Rook said to ask you what you wanted done with them, my lord. Shall I detach them?"
"Turk," Kalare said, his tone pleased. "You've employed a euphemism. Next thing you know, you'll be showing signs of sagacity."
Turk was silent for a blank second, then said, "Thank you?"
Kalare sighed. "Do nothing yet," he said. "Live bait will do us more good than a corpse."
"And the barbarian?"
"Her too. There's a chance she's the result of some kind of fosterage agreement between the barbarians and Count Calderon, and until there is leisure to extract the information from them, there's little point in making myself a blood enemy of the Marat. Not until it will profit me."
Suddenly fingers tangled in Tavi's hair, painfully strong, and jerked his face up. Tavi managed to keep himself totally limp.
"This little beast," Kalare said. "If the woman wasn't a greater threat, I think I would enjoy seeing him flayed and thrown into a pit of slives. That such a waste of a life could have dared to lay a finger on my heir." His voice shook with anger and disdain, and he released Tavi's hair with a flick of his wrist that made the muscles in Tavi's neck scream.
"Shall I arrange for his transport, my lord?"
Kalare exhaled. "No," he decided. "No. There's no point in giving him a chance to survive, given what I have planned for his family. Even something like this could grow into a threat, given time. We'll throw them all into the same hole."
His boots thudded on the floor as he walked back to the door. Turk's heavier, clumsier steps followed, and the door opened and closed again, the bolt fastening.
Tavi checked to make sure that they were alone, then said, to Kitai, "You bit off his nose?"
Her voice was muffled by the satchel as she replied. "I couldn't reach his eyes."
"Thank you for the warning."
"No," she said. "I said someone was coming. I didn't mean through the door."
"The floor," she said. "I felt a vibration. There, again," she murmured.
Tavi could hardly feel his feet, but he heard a faint, scraping noise from somewhere behind him. He twisted his head enough to see a floorboard a few feet away quiver and then suddenly bow upward, as if made from supple, living willow rather than dried oak. He saw someone beneath the floor work the floorboard free and draw it down out of sight. Two more floorboards followed it, and then a head covered with a shock of tousled and dusty hair emerged from the hole in the floorboards and blinked owlishly around.
"Ehren," Tavi said, and he had to labor to control his excitement and keep his voice down. "What are you doing?"
"I think I'm rescuing you," Ehren replied.
"There are guards here," Tavi told his friend. "They'll sense what you've done to get in here."
"I don't think so," Ehren said. He gave Tavi a shaky smile. "For once it's a good thing my furies are so weak, huh? They don't make much noise." He winced and began to wriggle up through the hole in the floor.
"How did you find us?" Tavi asked.
Ehren looked wounded. "Tavi. I've been training to be a Cursor as long as you have, after all."
Tavi flashed him a fierce grin, which Ehren struggled to return as he gave up on crawling up through the hole, and lowered himself to start passing a hand steadily over another of the boards, which quivered and slowly began to bend. "I was out asking questions, and I noticed that a man was following me. It stood to reason that whoever took your aunt might have an interest in following me around. So I went back up to the Citadel, turned around once I was out of his sight-"
"And tailed him back here," Tavi said.
Ehren coaxed the board into bending still more. "I swam out under the pier and listened to a couple of men talking about the prisoners. I thought maybe it could have been your aunt, so I decided to take a look."
"Well done, Ehren," Tavi said.
Ehren smiled. "Well. It was sort of a happy accident, wasn't it. Here, almost got it."
The board creaked and began to move, when Kitai hissed, "The door."
The bolt on the warehouse door rattled, and the door opened.
Ehren hissed and dropped down into the hole and out of sight, except for the white-knuckled fingers of one hand, holding the warped board flat against the floor with his weight.
Tavi licked his lips, thinking furiously. If he remained inert, the guards would have nothing better to do than notice the missing boards.
He lifted his head to face Turk. The broad-chested man wore a curved Kalaran gutting knife on his belt, and his eyes were stormy. Behind him walked a lean, skinny man in the same river sailor's clothing, and another curved knife rode on his belt. He was bald and looked as though he had been made from lengths of knotted rawhide-and his nose was missing. Watercrafting had left what remained a shade of fresh pink, but it gave him a skeletal look, his naval cavities reduced to a pair of oblong slits in his face. Cardis, then.
"Well," Turk said. "Look at that. Kid's awake."
"So what," Cardis snarled, stalking over to the bound and hooded Kitai. He tore off the leather hood, took a fistful of the girl's hair, and savagely tore it out of her scalp. "I don't give a bloody crow about the boy."
Kitai's eyes blazed with emerald fire, something wild and furious rising up behind them. Her face bore bruises on one cheek, and dried blood clung in brown-black clots to the lower half of her face.
"Don't touch her!" Tavi snarled.
Cardis almost idly dealt Tavi's face a sharp, stinging blow with his open hand, then turned back to Kitai.
The Marat girl stared at Cardis without flinching or making a sound, then deliberately slipped her tongue between her lips and licked at the blood on her upper lip, a slow and defiant smile crossing her face.
Cardis's eyes went flat and dangerous.
"Cardis," Turk snapped. "We're not to harm either of them."
The other man stared down at Kitai and tore out another heavy lock of hair. "So we don't mark them up. Who's to know?"
Turk growled, "My orders are from the old crow himself. If I let you cross him, he'll kill you. And then he'll kill me for not stopping you."
Cardis's voice rose to a furious scream as he gestured at his face. "Do you see what that little bitch did to me? Do you expect me to just stand here and take that?"
"I expect you to follow orders," Turk spat.
"You know what."
Cardis bared his teeth and drew his knife. "I've had about as much of this dung as I'm going to take for one day."
Turk drew his knife as well, eyes narrowed. He flicked a glance aside at Tavi, then his eyes paused on the floor behind them. "Bloody crows," he muttered. "Look at this." He took a couple of steps to stand over the hole in the floor.
"What?" Cardis asked, though his voice was less angry.
"Looks like someone is trying to-"
Ehren's head and shoulders popped up out of the hole, and the little scribe drove his knife straight down through Turk's heavy leather boot and the foot inside it to bury its tip in the floor. Turk let out a startled cry and tried to dodge, but his pinned foot could not move with him, and he fell to the ground.
Kitai let out a sudden and bloodcurdling howl of primal wrath. Her body jerked once, twice, and the chair she was tied to shattered into pieces still attached to her limbs. She swung one arm in a broad arc, and smashed the heavy wooden arm of the chair still tied to her wrist into Cardis's knife arm. The knife tumbled free and rang as it hit the floor.
Ehren shouted and the fourth board popped free. Then he swarmed up out of the hole in the floor and started kicking Turk in the head. Turk managed to slash clumsily at Ehren's leg with his curved knife, and scored. Ehren staggered back, his leg unable to support his weight. He fell to the ground just behind Tavi, scrambled to seize Cardis's dropped knife, and hacked desperately at Tavi's bonds.
Tavi saw Turk jerk the dagger impaling his foot clear of his flesh, tossed the knife into a half flip, seized the blade, and flung it at Ehren's back.
"Down!" Tavi snarled. Ehren might not have been physically imposing, but the young scribe was quick. He dropped to the floor and the flung knife struck flat against the back of Tavi's chair and clattered down.
The ropes came free from his arms as Turk charged toward them. Tavi hopped in the chair to twist it around, then overbalanced himself to land hard on his side. He'd been too slow. Turk darted in with his curved Kalaran knife.
Kitai let out a shriek and swung at Turk. She missed, but it forced the man to dodge and bought Tavi a precious second. He seized Ehren's knife from the floor and turned just as Turk seized his hair. The knife flashed down. Tavi blocked the slash by interposing his forearm with Turk's wrist, simultaneously slashing up with his knife.
The blow whipped across Turk's inside upper thigh and bit deep. Blood sprayed.
Kitai seized Turk from behind, her encumbered hands gripping the back of his skull and the point of his chin. She howled and twisted her body in a sudden, savage motion, and broke the man's neck. He fell in a jellylike heap to the floorboards. Kitai promptly seized Turk's knife in one hand, and ripped his shirt clear of his chest with the other, her eyes wild, focused on his heart as she drove the knife down and started cutting.
"Kitai," Tavi panted, cutting the bonds on his legs free. "Kitai!"
Her face snapped up toward him, a terrifying mask of rage and blood. Blood dripped from the curved knife, and the fingers of her other hand were already set inside the opening she had cut, ready to tear the body open and take the heart.
"Kitai," Tavi said again, more quietly. "Listen to me. Please. You can't do this. There's no time."
She stared, frozen, the wild light in her eyes fluttering uncertainly.
"My legs," he said. "I can't feel them. I need you to help me get out of here before more of them come."
Her eyes narrowed with an anticipation that was almost lustful. "More. Let them come."
"No," Tavi said. "We have to leave. Kitai, I need to cut you loose. Give me the knife." He offered her his hand.
She stared at him, and the wild energy seemed to recede, leaving her panting, bruised, and covered in welts, small cuts, and rope burns. After a second of hesitation, she reversed her grip on the knife and passed him its hilt before kneeling beside him.
"Great furies," Ehren breathed quietly. "Is… is that a Marat?"
"Her name is Kitai," Tavi said. "She's my friend." He started cutting the ropes from her as gently as he could. She simply sat, waiting passively, her eyelids drooping lower and lower as the wild and furious energy that had filled her ebbed away.
"Ehren," Tavi said. "Can you walk?"
The other boy blinked, nodded once, and cut cloth from the hem of his tunic. He wound it several times around his calf and tied it off. "Thank goodness they didn't have any furies."
"Maybe they did," Tavi said. "Thugs like that tend to be earthcrafters, and this warehouse is on the pier. They aren't touching the ground. But we've got to get out of here before someone else shows up." He rose and tugged on Kitai's hand. "Come on. Let's go."
She rose, and hardly seemed conscious of her surroundings.
"There's a knotted rope on your left," Ehren said. "Take it down to the water. Go in as quietly as you can and head for shore. I'll be along in a moment."
"What are you going to do?" Tavi asked.
Ehren gave him a tight smile. "Put those boards back and let them wonder what the crows happened in there."
"Good thinking," Tavi said. "Well done." He climbed down to the rope, got his feet steadily on one of the knots, and paused. "Ehren?"
"What time is it?"
"Not sure," Ehren replied. "The moon's going down, though."
Tavi's flesh went cold and crawled with goose bumps. He started down the rope, encouraging Kitai to follow him, desperate to hurry but forced to move deliberately, quietly, until he was safely away from Lord Kalare's killers.
The moon was going down.
The Canim were coming for the First Lord.
Amara stared out of the mouth of the cave at the taken as the morning light grew. "Why aren't they moving faster? It's as though they want us to come out and slaughter them before they're in position."
"We should already be doing it," grumbled a new voice from behind Amara.
"Giraldi," Bernard growled. "You shouldn't be standing on that leg. Get back with the rest of the wounded."
Amara glanced aside as the centurion limped heavily to the front of the cave to stand beside Bernard, herself, and Doroga. "Yes, sir. Right away sir." But he found a place on the wall and leaned on it with no evident intention of moving anywhere, and regarded the enemy line of battle-such as it was.
"Giraldi," Bernard said, his voice a warning.
"If we get through this, Count, you can demote me for insubordination if it makes you feel better."
"Fine." Bernard grimaced and nodded reluctantly to Giraldi, then turned to watch the enemy.
The taken had been forming into a column of a width approximately equal to that of the cave's mouth for several minutes. The formation was not complete yet, and the front ranks, well out of bow range even for Bernard and his Knights Flora, consisted of the largest of the taken holders and legionares, the youngest and strongest of the men the vord had captured. The queen simply crouched at the head of the column, never moving, unsettling and shapeless in her dark cloak.
"Looks like they're going for quick and dirty," Giraldi growled. "Form up a column and push it right down our throats."
"The taken are very strong," Doroga rumbled. "Even Aleran taken. And we are outnumbered."
"We'll take a stand ten feet down the tunnel," Bernard said. "That will keep our fronts matched, reduce the advantage of numbers." He drew his heel across the dirt floor. "We form the shieldwall here, on this side of the tunnel, and leave the other to Walker and Doroga."
Giraldi grunted. "Three shields across, it looks, sir."
Bernard nodded. "Swords on the front rank. Spears in the next two." He nodded to a slightly raised shelf along one wall that had been used as a place for sleeping mats. "I'll be there with the archers and take what shots we can. We're low on shafts, though, so we'll have to be cautious. And you'll have our Knights Terra on the ground level in front of us, ready to assist either Doroga or the legionares if they need the pressure taken off them."
Giraldi nodded. "Nine men fighting at a time. I suggest six squads, Count. Each of them can take ten minutes of every hour. That will keep them as rested as we can get them and let us hold out the longest."
"Doroga," Bernard asked. "Are you sure you and Walker won't need resting time?"
"Walker can't back much farther down this tunnel," Doroga said. "Get us a couple minutes to breathe now and then. That will be as much as we can ask for."
Bernard nodded. "We'll need to give some thought to what craftings we'll want to use, Giraldi," Bernard began. "Brutus is still hiding us from Garados. What have your men got that isn't on the official list?"
"All of them have some metalcraft, sir," Giraldi said. "I've got one man who's a fair hand at firecrafting. He was a potter's apprentice for a while, and managed the fires there. I'm not saying he could call up a firestorm, but if we set up a trench with fuel and a low flame, he could maybe turn it into a barrier for a little while. Two men with enough windcraft to blow up a lot of smoke and dust. I daresay that they could probably help the Countess, if she's of a mind to try another windstorm. We've got a man who knows enough water to be damned good at poker, and he says that there's a stream at the back of the cave he might be able to call out when we run short on water. And I've got one more man who had a smart mouth when he first signed on, and he wound up digging most of the latrine trenches for about three years."
Bernard snorted. "He get his mouth under control?"
"No," Giraldi said. "He built up enough earthcraft that it wasn't a challenge for him anymore. With your permission, I thought I would have him help me prepare a fallback position deeper in the cave. Trench, earthwork, nothing fancy. If we need it, it won't save anyone, but it might make them pay more to get to us."
"Fine," Bernard said. "Go ahead and-"
"No," Amara said. Everyone stopped to blink at her, and she found herself fumbling for a way to put her thoughts into words. "No overt crafting," she said, then. "We don't dare use it."
"Because I think it's what they are waiting for," she said. "Remember, that the taken could indeed employ crafting, but that they only did so after we had called up craftings of our own. After we had set forces in motion."
"Yes," Bernard said. "So?"
"So what if they waited because they couldn't initiate a crafting?" Amara said. "We all know how critical confidence and personality is to initiating a furycrafting. These taken may have Aleran bodies, but they aren't Alerans. What if they can only use their talent at furycraft once someone else gathers enough furies into motion?"
Bernard frowned. "Giraldi?"
"Sounds pretty thin to me," the centurion said. "No offense, Countess. I'd like to believe you, but there's nothing to suggest that your guess is anything more than that."
"Of course there is," Amara said. "If they could use crafting, why haven't they? Wind or firecraft could have taken or burned the air from this cave and left us all unconscious. A woodcrafter could have grown the roots of the trees over this cave down and choked us on dust, and an earthcrafter could manage the same and worse. A watercrafter could have flooded the cave from that stream your legionare sensed, Giraldi. We know that the vord are under time pressure to finish us and vanish before the Legions arrive. So why haven't they used crafting to bring things to a swift conclusion?"
"Because for some reason they can't," Bernard said, nodding. "It explains why they didn't attack last night. They wanted to draw us out so that we would call up our battlecraftings and assault them. Especially since the vord believe that we still have a strong firecrafter with us. That many taken holders-maybe even a Knight or two, now-could turn all that energy against us and finish us in minutes."
Giraldi grunted. "It would also explain why they are forming up so slow now, and right where we can see them. Crows, if it was my command and we did have a firecrafter, I'd hit them right now, before they got themselves into order. Hope to knock them all out at once."
"Exactly," Amara said. "They're an intelligent foe, gentlemen. If we continue to react as predictably as we have been, they'll kill us for it."
Outside, the sky flickered with silver light, and thunder rumbled down from the looming peak behind the cave. Everyone paused to look up, and Amara took a few steps outside the mouth of the cave to send Cirrus questing through the air and the winds.
"It's a furystorm," she reported a moment later. "Something is building it up awfully quickly."
"Garados and Thana," Bernard said. "They're never happy when the holders are moving around their valley."
"The cave should offer us some shelter from the windmanes," Amara said. "Yes?"
"Yes," Bernard said. "If we last that long. Even Thana can only build up a storm so fast."
"Will the windmanes attack the vord?"
"Never bothered my people," Doroga said. "But maybe they got good taste."
"Giraldi," Bernard said. "Organize the fighting squads and get the first two teams up into position. Get that stream brought up for water and that trench dug now."
"But-" Amara began.
"No, Countess. The men will need water if they're fighting. So we do it now, before the taken come any closer, and while we're at it, we dig those last ditch fortifications. Move, centurion."
"Yes, my lord," Giraldi said, and limped heavily back into the cave.
"Amara," Bernard said. "Get our Knights into position by that shelf, and get whatever water containers we have available up here for the fighting men."
"Yes, Your Excel-" Amara paused, tilted her head, and smiled at Bernard. "Yes, my lord husband."
Bernard's face brightened into a fierce smile, his eyes flashing. "Doroga," he said.
The Marat headman settled onto the ground between Walker's front claws. "I will sit here and wait for you people to stand in lines so that we can fight."
"Keep an eye on the queen," Bernard said. "Make sure she doesn't pass a cloak off to one of her taken and use them as a false target. Call me if she gets to within arrow range."
"Maybe I will," Doroga agreed laconically. "Bernard. For the only man here who had a woman last night, you are strung pretty tight."
Amara let out a nervous little laugh, and her cheeks flushed hot. She took two steps to Bernard and leaned up to kiss him again. He returned it, one hand touching her waist, a possessive gesture.
She withdrew from the kiss slowly, and searched his eyes. "Do you think we can hold out?"
Bernard began to speak, then stopped himself. He lowered his voice to a bare whisper. "For a little while," he said quietly. "But we're outnumbered, and the enemy has no fear of death. The men will get injured. Tired. Spears and swords will break. We'll soon run out of arrows. And I'm not so confident that Giraldi's man can bring up any water. With furycrafting, we might hold out for several hours. Without it…" He shrugged.
Amara bit her lip. "You think that we should use it after all?"
"No," Bernard said. "You've made your case, Amara. I think you've seen what we haven't. You're one damned sharp woman-which is one of the reasons I love you." He smiled at her, and said, "I want you to have something."
"What?" she asked.
"It's an old Legion custom," he said quietly, and took the thick silver band set with a green stone from his right hand. "You know that legionares aren't allowed to marry."
"And that most of them have wives," Amara said.
Bernard smiled and nodded. "This is my service ring. Marks my time with the Rivan Fourth Legion. When a legionare has a wife he isn't supposed to have, he gives her his ring to hold for him."
"I could never wear that," Amara said, smiling. "It's not quite big enough for my wrist."
Bernard nodded and drew a slender silver chain from his pocket. He slipped the ring through it, and placed the necklace gently about her throat, clasping it with a dexterity surprising for a man so large. "So a soldier will put his ring on a chain like this," he said. "It isn't a marriage band. But he knows what it means. And so does she."
Amara swallowed and blinked back sudden tears. "I'll be proud to wear it."
"I'm proud to see it on you," he said quietly. He squeezed her hands and glanced past her as a light drizzle began to come down. "Maybe it will make them miserable."
She half smiled. "It's a shame we don't have another, oh, thirty or so Knights Aeris. With that many, I might be able to do something with that storm."
"I wouldn't mind another thirty or forty earth and metalcrafters," Bernard said. "Oh, and perhaps half a Legion to support them." His smile faded, eyes sharpening as he watched the vord. "Better get moving. They'll be here in a moment."
She squeezed back hard, once, then hurried into the cave to round up their knights, as grim-faced veteran legionares began to arise, weapons and armor prepared, and fell into ranks with quiet, confident purpose. Giraldi hobbled by, using a shield as a kind of improvised crutch, giving quiet orders, tightening a buckle here, straightening a twisted belt there. He broke the century into its "spears," its individual files, ordering each file into its own squad.
The men of the first squad marched in good order to the front of the cave, while the others formed up behind them, ready to move forward if needed.
Amara rounded up the Knights, placing the archers on the elevated shelf and setting their remaining four Knights Terra on the ground before them. Each of the large men had strapped on their heavy armor and bore the monstrously heavy weaponry that only fury-born strength could wield. When those men cut into the unarmored ranks of the taken, it would be pure carnage.
Thunder rolled again, loud enough to shake the cave, and on the heels of the thunder, an eerie howl rose up through the morning air and sent rivulets of cold fear rippling over Amara's spine. Her mouth went dry, and she took a step up onto the elevated shelf to be able to see.
Outside, the file of taken was on the march, moving swiftly toward the cave. It was an eerie sight. Men, women, even children, dressed in Aleran clothing and Legion uniforms, all the clothing stained, twisted, rumpled, dirty, with no effort made to correct it. Faces stared slackly through the rain, eyes focused on nothing, but they moved in inhumanly perfect unison, step for step, and each of them bore weapons in their hands, even if they gripped only a heavy length of wood.
"Furies," breathed one of the legionares. "Look at that."
"Women," said another man. "Children."
"Look at their eyes," Amara said, loudly enough to be heard by everyone around her. "They aren't human anymore. And they all will kill you if you give them the chance. This is the fight of your lives, gentlemen, make no mistake."
The queen prowled along aside the lead rank until they reached bow range, at which time she fell back along the far side of the column, shielded from view by the file of taken. From behind the file, that eerie call rose up again, and Walker shook himself as he rose from his crouch, enormous claws flexing, and answered the call with a rumbling, trumpeting battle call of his own.
Bernard came up from the back of the cave and leapt up onto the shelf, his great bow in hand. "Men, you'll be happy to know that we'll have plenty of water to drink, compliments of Rufus Marcus. And it only tastes a little bit funny."
There was a rumble of low laughter from the readied legionares, and a couple of calls of, "Well done, Rufus!"
Outside, the column of empty-eyed taken grew closer, marching with steady speed through the rain.
"Careful now," Bernard said. "Front rank, keep your shields steady, mind your bladework, and don't get greedy with the spears. Second rank, if a man goes down, do not pull him back. That's for third rank to do. Get your shield into place."
The steady tramp of hundreds of feet striking in unison grew louder, and Amara felt her heart begin to race again.
"Keep them from closing if you can!" Bernard called over the noise. "They're all going to be stronger than they look! And by the great furies, don't let any of your swings hit the allied auxiliaries."
"Just me and you," Doroga rumbled to Walker. "But they are calling us allied auxiliaries."
The gargant snorted. Another low round of chuckles rustled among the legionares.
The tramp of feet grew louder.
And hundreds, if not thousands, of crows came flashing over the crown of the hill outside the cave in a sudden, enormous, raucous cloud.
"Crows," breathed a number of voices in a whisper, including Amara's. The dark fliers always knew when there was a slaughter in the making.
The tread of feet shook the earth.
Doroga and Walker bellowed together.
The Alerans joined them.
And then the first rank of the taken raised their weapons, crossed into the cave, and slammed into a wall of Legion shields and cold blades.