A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith

  A Stranger to Command

  Sherwood Smith

  Book View Café Edition

  ISBN: 978-1-61138-072-9

  Copyright © 2008 Sherwood Smith



  “You’re a new one.”

  The ‘new one’—a boy of fifteen—paused inside the courtyard, mentally translating the words.

  “Yes, I am,” Vidanric Renselaeus said carefully in the language he’d been studying so hard since winter.

  The Remalnan boy and the Marloven man regarded one another. The Marloven had short fair hair, square cut in back, his clothing a fitted gray tunic over loose riding trousers that were tucked into high blackweave riding boots and belted at the waist with plain blackweave. Everyone Vidanric had seen so far in this enormous castle built of honey-colored stone appeared to be dressed in gray. They all wore blackweave riding boots, their hair—mostly variations of light colors—square-cut in back. They looked bewilderingly alike.

  To the Marloven, on duty to sort out the academy boys, the newcomer was obviously a foreigner. He was weedy, as fifteen-year-olds typically are. Under his wide-brimmed riding hat his long pale blond hair was tied with a ribbon. He was dressed in foreign clothes that looked well made but fussy to the Marloven eye: over a fine cambric shirt he wore a long split-tailed riding jacket of brown linen, trousers to match, lace edges at cuffs and neck. You heard about people wearing lace, but this was the first time he’d actually seen it.

  At the boy’s shoulder stood a bearded minion of some sort, holding the reins of two clumsy outland horses loaded with baggage.

  This boy had to be the foreigner everyone had heard rumors about. Some foreign toff invited, no one knew why, to attend the cavalry academy. But the king was a boy himself. Maybe that had something to do with it.

  He said, “You’ll be with the colts.”

  Vidanric repeated the word, then said doubtfully, “Young horses?”

  “Your class.” The Marloven turned his hand toward the inner courtyard. Didn’t the foreigner know anything? Obviously not. “You’re called colts.” With rare consideration he added, “You won’t call yourselves that, of course. That’s what you’re called.”

  Vidanric’s misgivings about this journey had worsened at the first glimpse of the enormous castellated city. And here was this man making no sense whatsoever.

  The Marloven wanted the foreigner out of the way, and under someone else’s eye. “This would be your first year?” he said slowly and distinctly.

  “Yes. First year,” Vidanric repeated, wondering why the man sounded so ironic. He tried to enunciate clearly; the sides of his mouth and his jaw felt tight.

  “That. Building.” The Marloven extended his hand again, palm open toward a stone archway that led to another peach-stone courtyard, from Vidanric’s limited view, exactly like the one he stood in. “Through. There.”

  The words were flat, the consonants precise, but at least Vidanric understood. He turned to Leffain, his courier.

  The Marloven added, “No. Servants. Beyond. This. Wall.”

  Vidanric realized he was being mocked, but the man had already moved on to a group that entered the court, their rapidly-spoken Marloven beyond Vidanric’s ability to untangle.

  Leffain was busy with the saddlebags. Vidanric blinked against streaming sunlight. The Marloven capital Choreid Dhelerei rose around him, a bewildering complexity of mighty towers surmounted by snapping flags and high walls prowled ceaselessly by sentries—walls within walls. Three times on the way in he and Leffain had encountered massive gates. Sentries had assessed them at a glance, saying, “Academy that way.”

  The last wall had been so thick the archway through was more of a tunnel, blackish green with age underneath, but they had reached the academy at last. Or at least the academy’s forecourt, crowded with people, horses, carts.

  Now it seemed Vidanric was to go on alone.

  Leffain held out Vidanric’s travel bag. “Marlovens. I told you, my lord, they don’t have courtly manners. Just speak out when you have to.”

  Vidanric hoisted the bag over his shoulder and walked slowly through the archway into the next court. Leffain followed a few steps, leading the horses by the reins. He owed no duty to these Marlovens, but he did to Vidanric’s father. For the Prince of Renselaeus’s sake, and for his own, he would see the boy acknowledged by constituted authority, or the closest semblance possible in this infamous academy.

  Several boys peered over the stone wall opposite, their shorn heads looking exactly alike on their bare necks. One of them yelled what sounded like insults to someone unseen, but his words were too quick, too flat, too slangy for Vidanric to follow.

  Another young man—short, fair-haired, dressed in gray—emerged from the low wood-and-stone building adjacent the wall. He gestured toward the doorway and said to Vidanric, “First year. Upper school.”

  Though the man had spoken as if making a statement rather than asking a question, he seemed to be waiting for an answer.

  So Vidanric said, “Yes.”

  The man’s mouth soured at the edges. “Take your gear inside. Choose a rack. The nags go with the servant.” The man gave the horses, standing there in their Sartoran-style saddles and bridles, a contemptuous glance.

  Vidanric had already encountered this attitude toward outland horses. The Marloven breed really was as beautiful as the histories claimed, the saddles were scarcely more than what Vidanric thought of as saddle-pads to support stirrups and sword-sheaths. No bridles at all, only the briefest of halters to attach reins to. Marloven riders and their animals seemed to understand one another without words.

  So he ignored the look, and hastened to explain about the courier, lest Leffain feel he had been insulted. “He’s not—”

  The man turned away as Vidanric spoke, addressing another gray-tunicked man. They vanished through the same archway Vidanric had entered.

  “—a servant, he’s—” Vidanric stumbled to a halt. “What now? Did I do something wrong?”

  Leffain handed him a second bag, one that clanked. “Let it go, my lord.”

  They had spent nearly four months together, first on board the trade vessel—which at first had made him vilely sick—and then on the long ride up from the Bay of Jaire, speaking Marloven every day.

  “As you say,” Vidanric assented, with a polite gesture.

  “My lord marquis. I have seen you to your door,” Leffain responded—in Sartoran, the language of formality. “And acknowledged by constituted authority, as your father decreed. Now I will leave you here at your destination.”

  “I thank you, Courier Leffain. Please tell my father I’ll write as soon as I find out how letters are sent from here.”

  Leffain bowed, mounted his horse, and gathered the reins of Vidanric’s. The animal huffed, ears flicking, and shouldered against Leffain’s mount. The two animals had snapped and snorted at one another for most of the days of travel. Now they seemed ready to bicker again.

  One of the boys peering over the wall pointed at the horses and gave a raucous laugh. He exchanged fast, scornful words with the other boys until someone snapped out a command behind them. The heads turned sharply as one, then vanished. The sound of running feet dwindled away fast.

  Vidanric turned to Leffain, but the courier and the two horses had vanished into the tunnel archway.

  Vidanric was alone.

  He hitched his clothing bag over his shoulder, gripped his gear bag, and trod inside the low building.

  It was dark inside after the bright sun in the courtyard. The faint but distinct odors of horse and boy-sweat caught at the back of his throat. He was used to big, airy rooms on a mountain-top, or the clean, subtly perfumed rooms o
f court.

  Low beds made of slatted wood frames lined the room on both sides, head against the wall and foot forming a central aisle. The beds all had thin mattresses on them, stuffed (he would soon discover) with old armor quilting. Some were made up with plain cotton sheets, quilting-stuffed pillows, and coarse-woven cotton-wool summer blankets, others were still bare mattress. Stored beneath each was a sturdy wooden trunk with iron-reinforced corners.

  The walls, beds, trunks, doorways, were gouged, slashed, nicked and rough, looking to Vidanric as if mad wolves had chewed the wood. The plank floor was swept clean, but utterly unadorned, and it, too, bore scrape and gouge marks. To someone raised to cherish wood this room seemed crude, almost savage.

  A thump against his shoulder knocked him stumbling.

  “Here.” A boy exclaimed from behind. “Nip a rack or not. Don’t sit in the road like a horse apple.”

  Vidanric translated the gist and stepped aside. The boy pushed on past without a look, throwing his bag onto a bed midway along the wall. The beds were fast filling. If Vidanric wanted fresh air, he’d better claim one under a window, and quick.

  One was left, at the end farthest from the door, next to the open cupboard that appeared to contain the bedding. He dropped his bags onto this bed.

  The muted ching! of the weapons bag caused a sudden silence.

  Every boy in the room stared at him.

  Someone said, “You’re asking for a breeze.”

  Vidanric whispered the words. They still made no sense. The Marlovens talked fast, those precise consonants, sharpened vowels, flat tone. Leffain had warned him that his own accent was marred by Sartoran intonations.

  Vidanric tried to mimic the others’ accent as he pointed at the open window. “Breeze?”

  Laughter. Sudden and loud.

  Then a tall boy walked in, and the laughter stopped. Vidanric could not see why this boy would so instantly command such a reaction just by his presence, unless it was his being older, for he was dressed exactly like the others. No, he wasn’t. He was dressed like the two men Vidanric had seen. His gray tunic fitted him, and a brass-topped long stick stuck slantwise through his belt, a blackweave weapon belt. The other boys wore loose, lighter thigh-length tunic-shirts, belted by sashes.

  The boy with the stick looked around, then said, “Inspection directly after callover.”

  The boys Vidanric’s age launched into action, some unpacking, others changing, a few dashing through the door as the older boy continued down the aisle between the bunks, looking neither right nor left. Everyone got out of his way.

  Vidanric still hadn’t moved. The older boy gave Vidanric a fast, assessing scan, which he returned, gaining a swift impression of a square, bony face—a facial structure he was to find repeated in infinite variety in Marloven Hess—dark blue eyes, sun-bleached yellow hair cut squared above the high collar of his tunic, parted in the middle on top, sweeping back over his ears.

  “You’re the new one. The foreigner,” the boy said, observing and not questioning, at least to Vidanric’s ear; his last word did not end in rising inflection the way he was accustomed to hearing questions posed.


  “Name.” It sounded like a demand, but the boy’s attitude was not that of a demander, and Vidanric wondered if he was hearing the question mode after all.

  “Vidanric Renselaeus, Marquis of Shevraeth.” Very aware of the silent but listening boys in the room, Vidanric spoke his name quickly, automatically—thinking when it was too late that adding his title, as was proper at home, might sound pompous here. Then he remembered Leffain had told him titles were completely different in Marloven Hess, organized along old military hierarchy. There was no such thing as a duke or a marquis or baron. Or, for that matter, a lord.

  Sure enough, the older boy frowned, an ordinary human frown of puzzlement. He seemed less daunting. “You have many names, it seems. Vih-DAWN-rik. I want to say VIH-dunrid,” he added with a brief, wry almost-smile. “Vih-dan-rik. RenSLAY-ahsss.” The sound was too heavy, too harsh. He stumbled over ‘marquis,’ an old Sartoran word that obviously had no equivalent here—he mistook it for a third name, ending with, “Shev-RAY-eth.” The ‘th’ sounded hard, almost a ‘d’ but at least it was recognizable.

  The boy lifted his chin again. “King wants only names used. Family names. SHEV-ray-eth.” This time he switched the emphasis to the first syllable, the way of most names in Marloven.

  Vidanric was about to correct him, then decided not to. The thought of hearing ‘Renselaeus’ mangled over and over in that braying, hissing Ren-SLAY-ass prompted Vidanric to agree. No one need know ‘Shevraeth’ was a territorial name, part of his title as his father’s heir. He ducked his head, mentally adjusting: he was now Shevraeth, with the emphasis on the shev.

  The boy said, “Shev-ray-eth, I am Janold, the aran radlav for this colts barracks.” He indicated the room. “Colts are first and second year boys in the upper school.”

  Shevraeth frowned. Aran meant house, though they had several words for ‘house’ that obviously had different meanings, but Leffain hadn’t been able to define them more precisely. Rad, radr, meant lieutenant. Lav?

  Janold saw his question. “‘Lav’ is specific to the academy. We use the same rankings as the cavalry and army, only with lav appended.” He grinned. “We don’t have real rank out there. Only in here.” A thumb jerked over his shoulder, then down at the floor.

  Shevraeth closed his eyes, rapidly translating. Leffain had wisely given him military vocabulary first, so all those words were familiar by now. He said, trying to match the Marloven question mode, “How shall I properly address you?”

  A soft whisper from behind, instantly silenced when Janold glanced to one side. “Janold Radlav will do under orders. My name the rest of the time. We use rank as part of our names only for parade. Big games. Inspection. Punishment. Radlav is actually several academy ranks—aran means I’m in charge of this barracks House—and we almost never use the lav except when we’re outside the academy.” His voice lifted, which stopped the hiss of whispers somewhere behind. “The king has given me specific orders. He wishes you to be made comfortable, and for your questions to be answered. There will be an interview when you have settled in.”

  Silence behind, a reflective silence on the part of the new barracks mates. Obviously the foreigner didn’t know what that meant, but they sure did.

  Janold turned his attention to the bags on the bunk. “Did you bring weaponry from your homeland?” he asked, indicating the gear bag.

  Shevraeth nodded. “I thought I was supposed to.”

  “We are not permitted steel except in weapons classes, and then it is furnished us,” Janold explained. “We can store your gear for you.”

  Shevraeth said, “Very well.”

  Janold gave him a sharp, considering glance, wondering if the foreigner was mocking him. ‘Well’ what, or was that foreign-talk for agreement? “Well?” he repeated, and this time his voice rose incrementally at the end.

  Shevraeth had been trained by his parents not only to listen, but to watch. Not that you could always tell what people were thinking, but sometimes their bodies provided clues that their words, their tones, even their faces did not. Janold had stiffened, and Shevraeth realized he’d somehow said the wrong thing.

  His hands gestured in peace mode, fingertips touching then opening out. “It is a common expression where I come from, an agreement. It sounded odd when I said it,” he added. “The Marloven ‘well’ seems to relate to being and doing, was my first impression.” And on Janold’s open-handed gesture, “What say you for agreement?”

  “Yes will do,” Janold said, somewhat wryly, but with less edge than before.

  Both were aware of the silent listeners. Janold added, “You had better get your things stored into the trunk there under the rack.” He pointed to the bed. “And you’ll need to get kitted out before the bell rings for noon mess, so I suggest you make it fast. Baudan! You appear to ha
ve nothing to do. Get him—” A side-glance at the other new boy standing uncertainly at the bed across from Shevraeth and one over. “Get him and Faldred there ready to ride by the bell.”

  Janold hesitated, his gaze on the foreigner’s hair. By regulation everyone dressed the same, a rule going back to a bloody dispute in the past when the sons of commanders had expected perks because of birth-rank. But there was no rule about hair. Everyone in the military wore their hair the same; it was a mark of distinction.

  He found himself reluctant to explain that to this boy with the toff clothes and manner. The fellow couldn’t be an idiot or the king would not have invited him here. Let him figure it out.

  So he picked up the gear bag and walked out, scattering the listeners to their supposed tasks.


  As soon as he was gone, everyone started talking at once. They all looked so alike in their loose tunic-smocks, their hair short and pale. No, a couple of them had dark hair, and three or four of them brown. There were also a couple of redheads, one tall, and one short.

  Shevraeth shut his eyes and tried to follow all the conversations, but only caught occasional words: “Sword... didn’t get a squint at what he carries... ‘well’? Maybe it means sick, in foreigner-lingo... king.”

  The Marloven word for king—harvald—was the word Shevraeth heard them using most.

  He opened his eyes.

  Baudan was a short, solid boy with hair so pale it was almost white. He elbowed the others aside without ceremony, picked up Shevraeth’s travel bag, and upended it.

  Out fell all the expensive clothing that Shevraeth’s mother had overseen the making of, with loving care. Nothing ostentatious—from the point of view of a courtier in Remalna. Everything designed for movement, except for one formal suit, and that was in a subdued pearl gray, the lacing modest, the sash of raw silk the shade of straw said to be the latest fashion in Colend. Nothing inappropriate for sitting in a royal court under the king’s critical eye. But the colors, the fabric, the lines, were as out of place here as a peacock in a barnyard full of roosters.

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