A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith


  Forthan waited for Senrid to speak. He did not know why he’d been summoned. The king had always been about as hard to decode as letters, even when he was five years old, and Forthan ten, new from the farm where his parents had discussed with him the hard facts: that they would not survive the Regent’s increasingly brutal taxes unless they took the bounty for giving up a son to the growing demands of the army. He had agreed, and a cousin had taken his place as heir to the farm. That was life.

  ‘Giving up’ it had been in those days, that now seemed a long-ago nightmare. The nightmare had begun with giving up your name and taking a number, the Regent’s desperate plan to control the worsening corruption and in-fighting. His idea had been that if you had a number, not a name, then your loyalty would cease to be to your family and you would be loyal only to the Regent.

  Of course the only ones forced to give up their names were those from families not attached to historic rank.

  Ret Forthan, under his modest number, had earned point after point until he was discovered by Keriam while riding the kingdom on inspection, and he was brought to the academy despite his lack of family. Previously you got in by birth, though all pretended it was merit. But it had been the merit of a glorious past, not through present efforts.

  Their rare glimpses of the king, who was not permitted to train, had been discussed in whispers, Forthan remembered, as Senrid stared sightlessly out into the fallen snow. What he did, what he said. His trying to get training all by himself, when most small boys were still chasing around with sticks and trying to scamp chores.

  Training. Forthan remembered stealing up to the castle with Jarend Ndarga when the king was barely ten. After the Regent put him up against the post in front of all the army and Guard commanders as well as the entire academy. Crime? Sneaking down to a training session—“Flouting orders. A king has to learn to obey orders before he can issue them,” the Regent had announced before the entire assembly.

  The upper school had all known that the real crime had been committed by them, and not the king, when they made the costly mistake of trying to talk the Regent into letting the king join the academy. But the king had paid the price.

  You did. Not. Argue with the Regent.

  Life under the Regent meant rewards for treachery, sneaking, lying, and bullying, so long as it was in his favor, and punishments for wanting justice according to King Indevan’s laws.

  And so they’d been forced to line up and watch injustice carried out according to a distortion of the law. They couldn’t take the pain away, so afterward they did what they could, and Forthan’s nerves chilled as he considered that horrifying week: night after night they risked a century apiece for breaking bounds as they hopped the wall, ignored by the guards in silent collusion, to talk the king through his recovery, fading away again before dawn. Every day for a week, though for the first three or four nights Senrid lay on his stomach with his face turned to the wall, without speaking. He never did speak that week, but the fifth day they got him to eat, and felt it as a victory.

  Forthan didn’t understand the king, whose words were even more oblique than the foreigner’s, but he could always sense someone he’d trust at his back. So far, he’d been right. The king was someone he could trust.

  “What do you think?” Senrid asked finally.

  “About reading?”

  Senrid lifted a shoulder impatiently. “I know you can read now. And I want you reading the real field reports in the archive, not the bran gas others wrote afterwards as records, or if you do, compare them. That’s what I’ve been doing, and I think there’s a lesson in it, how people will resee events, and put themselves in as the heroes. It’s as much bran gas as predicting new eras of peace and golden ages.”

  Forthan thought, What’s behind all that?

  “What do you think of my experiment—having the foreigner here?”

  “I like Shevraeth. He’d make a good rad, one I’d have under me. No swank. I don’t even think he knows how good a rad he’d make.”

  Senrid said, “Keriam wants to give him more responsibility.” He turned, almost a jerk, and started pacing along the windows, a restless habit that Forthan had seen before. Meant something was disturbing him. On his way back he said, “After Convocation. Shift your things over to the Guard.”

  Forthan struck his fist over his chest. He’d expected the order, but it was good to have it come at last. Except why was Senrid angry?

  “Problem with the academy?” he asked.

  Senrid turned around fast. “Problem with the kingdom. With the world. I don’t see my way clear enough. I need more time to learn, to find out what I should change and how, but there isn’t time.” His fist pounded lightly on the table next to him. “I told Liere and the others in the north, when Siamis left his sword behind it wasn’t a surrender. Despite what they wanted to believe about new eras of peace, and alliance, and good magic prevailing.” His mouth twisted. “I told them you don’t leave behind a four thousand year old sword that’s been kept outside of time, except as a warning. Liere was the only one who believed me. Sent me a message a few days ago, telling me I was right.”

  Forthan felt sick. “Siamis is back?”

  “Not yet. But he, or one of them, walked into that palace up north, ripped through all their magical wards, and took the sword. Left everything else. Don’t you see it’s the back of the hand?” Senrid flipped his hand up in the age-old gesture of contempt.

  Forthan didn’t doubt it. “So it means war? In the north?”

  Senrid whirled around and started his pacing again. “I don’t know—who is there to talk to? They don’t know. The smartest ones are my age, but like me they’re just learning. The older ones still seem to be asleep, or living in the past, in the time before Siamis came out into the world from wherever he’d been hidden. They don’t seem to see it, that Old Sartorans don’t think like us, not when the world they were born in was four thousand years ago. Time doesn’t mean the same thing. Their view of the world isn’t the same. Nothing is the same. We don’t know what to expect, except trouble.”

  Whirl, pace.

  “There’s a new one, a renegade Chwahir, who’s been forcing his way up command in Norsunder’s temporal forces. He’s apparently brilliant—and mad.” Senrid looked grim. “And one of these days he’s going to be coming out of Norsunder looking for well-trained armies.”

  Like us.

  Neither said the words, but they were thinking them. And could see it in the other’s face.

  Forthan felt cold grip his neck. “What do we do?”

  Senrid looked out the window again. “I don’t know.”

  EIGHTEEN

  New Year’s Firstday came and went, uneventful except when Shevraeth accompanied the rest of the winter stay-overs to the castle to watch the exhibitions. Forthan and his chosen troop performed riding, archery, fighting on horseback and on foot, spear tossing, and then a kind of organized target-game on a snow-dusted parade ground. Their audience was made up of city folk and Jarls, all crammed together in stone stands that had to be centuries old.

  The first exhibition was held at night, lit by the ubiquitous torchlight. The second-year seniors rode past one another in lines, lance in hand, tagging (or tigging, as they called it) their partners’ lances each time they passed.

  The lances looked spectacular when handled well, but Shevraeth had enough training by now to suspect they were tough to learn. At least that was for the seniors to worry about. He might very well be gone by then. Odd. Though he wanted to see home again, he didn’t feel the unalloyed relief he would have felt last spring at the prospect of being sent away.

  After that Forthan and a small group of third-year seniors rode around and around in circles, breath clouding, horses’ hooves kicking up frost-bursts of white as the seniors worked through choreographed fights with real, lethally sharpened curve-tipped swords.

  The audience roared approval. Shevraeth looked out at the ruddy-crowned silhouettes of Marloven Jar
ls, countryside captains, and city people. Mostly male voices, from the sound, but not all.

  After the exhibition, Shevraeth found his way to the library, which was marginally warmer than the outside. He picked out a handful of promising histories and sat down to read a little of each, to determine which—if any—he’d take it to the senior rec room to read and report on to his parents.

  All that week, as he passed to and fro from the library, he figured there was plenty of statecraft happening in those vast rooms on the first floor from which deep voices emanated, occasionally punctuated by Senrid’s higher voice. If so, Shevraeth wasn’t getting a sniff of it.

  He was not the only one who knew nothing of Senrid’s concerns over events in the northern lands: most of the Jarls did not know, and wouldn’t have cared if they had. Whatever happened beyond the borders was of little interest unless there was an army lining up.

  After New Year’s Week was over the Jarls departed at the heads of their entourages—a tenth of the size deemed appropriate, or practical, in their great-fathers’ day—their banners snapping in the icy wind as they rode into the snow-covered plains under the gray sky.

  Then the boys who’d done the exhibitions brought food and drink from the city to the senior barracks for a going-away party. Everyone knew that Forthan was moving out. That night, in fact. His few belongings had already been shifted over to the Guard barracks, where, for a time, he’d be patrolling the city and continuing his training.

  o0o

  In Remalna, Russav Savona had been permitted by the king to spend New Year’s with Shevraeth’s parents. This is how the four of them were able to write letters back and forth via the golden cases, Shevraeth and Russav mainly exchanging jokes, and Shevraeth and his parents talking about reading, and events at home.

  The first few days, Shevraeth had scrupulously hid when reading the letters, burning them as quickly as he read them. The many notes caused him some consternation until he discovered that the no-communication rule was suspended over winter, when two or three boys received runners from home, all carrying messages.

  And so he enjoyed his correspondence with his parents, who gave him amusingly worded glimpses into the outer world—what they knew of events.

  Not even his father was yet aware that Siamis, the Old Sartoran sorcerer who’d put the entire world under enchantment for an entire year, was again at large.

  o0o

  After Forthan moved to the Guard barracks, it was right back to the winter schedule. Forthan was glimpsed occasionally going about Guard duty. The days slipped by, some bitter cold, memorable only for the ferocity of the wind howling unhindered across the plains as storm after storm passed. Shevraeth and the others were either busy in the warm rec room, or else keeping up their practice as best they could.

  Gradually the scent of the wind changed. It had gone from the bone-aching smell of old ice to a whiff of mud and sodden grass when one of the new seniors appeared abruptly, dumped his gear onto a bunk, and said to Shevraeth as though they had known one another all their lives, “Forthan said to get you riding to halter. If you’re agreed, we can begin tomorrow, now that there’s some ground to fall on.”

  “Riding to halter?” Shevraeth repeated, now somewhat used to these abrupt meetings without a scrap of the politesse it was unthinkable to omit at home.

  “Sword.” The fellow waved a finger. “On horseback.”

  “I thought we were to be trained next year. My group, I mean.”

  The fellow was blond, like most of them, with a long, square-chinned face, otherwise unremarkable. He grinned. “Yep. But they all practice at home. Though they’re not supposed to. Forthan said, better to dump on your butt here,” he jerked a thumb at the seniors’ private practice court, “than before your House. And learn it right the first time. If you’ve a mind.”

  “Thank you,” Shevraeth said. “I’d like that.”

  A shrug was his only answer. “I always come early—my dad being on spring training duty over at guard-side.” The fellow paused, then pointed down at Shevraeth’s fine brownweave court shoes. “Better visit supply. Get some boots made.” He was gone on the last word.

  This training opportunity, Shevraeth realized as he trudged over to the supply building where the academy boot-maker worked, was Forthan’s way of paying Shevraeth back for the lessons—as usual, no word, no way of thanking him.

  The boots were ready the next morning; they were stiff, the high heels making him stand differently. But they were comfortable at once in a way his old ones never had been, with enough wiggle room for growth in the squared toes. Getting used to how the heels made his walk change, he made his way across the academy to the seniors’ huge court.

  And by the next day’s end he’d discovered the hard way that riding well and fighting from horseback well were two different skills, only connected by some similar commands, and by the grip of the legs on the horse.

  The very first bout, in fact the very first hard strike that he blocked, he had about a heartbeat to congratulate himself for having met blade to blade before his partner ripped his blade down, twisted, and Shevraeth lost his balance and tumbled right out of the saddle, squawking and clutching desperately as the horse snorted and danced away, then looked at him reproachfully, ears flat.

  Khaniver—his partner—grinned.

  Shevraeth climbed grimly back onto his mount, ignoring the shaking of his legs and ringing of his ears. At least he knew how to fall, though falling into the frigid, slimy mud of new melt was no experience he wanted to repeat.

  But repeat it he did. Several times. Though each day brought fewer errors and at last he managed to stay in the saddle. He considered that a mighty victory.

  o0o

  Grass shoots fuzzed the fields when he received a summons to Keriam’s office.

  Shevraeth made his way along the stone corridors, hunching his ears into his coat. The wind was still bitter, moaning in a low, shuddering howl across the vast plains.

  He was too cold to think, and so he wasn’t particularly worried, or even curious, at the summons. He was grateful for the warmth of the office, and Keriam’s familiar grizzle-haired, stocky bulk behind the desk, neat in the black-and-tan uniform.

  Shevraeth saluted, an automatic gesture by now, and Keriam waved him to the waiting chair, which meant he wasn’t in trouble. Not that he’d expected any—but there was always the chance he’d tripped over some invisible rule without realizing.

  “What do you know about homesickness?” Keriam asked.

  Shevraeth stared in surprise.

  Keriam watched that surprise. That much had been deliberate, the better to gauge the foreign boy’s reactions. Instead of recognition followed by scorn, by derision, even by affront or anger, Shevraeth’s expression became pensive, and he said, “Is this a personal question?”

  Keriam waved a hand, pleased he’d called his man right. But he would not make the foreigner self-conscious by pointing that out. “I’m talking about our new ten-year-olds. Many of them—sometimes most of them—are happy as pups the first night or so, and then when the newness wears off, they, well, they get homesick.”

  Shevraeth would never have imagined such a conversation here, of all places. “So you are asking what I would do?”

  Keriam opened his hands. “The Regent, you have to understand, gave out explicit regs concerning homesickness, oh, twelve years ago. We were to beat the weakness out of them.” He saw the quick contraction of disgust in Shevraeth’s face, followed by that peculiar blandness he seemed able to draw on like a cloak of invisibility. And Keriam rejoiced, convinced he’d been right.

  Shevraeth looked inward, remembering long ago, when Russav Savona first came to them. He’d been, what five? His parents recently dead, both of them, and the grown-ups would not tell the boys where, when, or how, even. Savona had fought and kicked and thrown things for what seemed days and days. Shevraeth remembered hearing his howls of rage turn into tears every single time, until at last Savona consen
ted to let Shevraeth’s own mother come to him, and then stroke his head, and finally he climbed into her lap.

  Shevraeth remembered his own feelings, watching another boy in his mother’s lap. How at first he’d wanted to push Savona off, until he saw his own mother’s quiet tears, and then his feelings changed, and he thought, There is enough lap for two. My turn will come. And it had. Little as she was, his mother somehow managed to have lap enough for two.

  He looked up. “If they cannot have comfort, the sort of comfort you get at home, then the next thing is being busy.” We’ll keep Russav busy, Danric, dear. Every day something new, something fun. And if you can make him laugh before you go to sleep at night, well, then, you can order whatever you like for dinner the next night, and we will not complain. Even if it is nut-and-chocolate cake every day.

  He nodded. “Fun, busy, make them so tired they fall into bed. But if they wake in the night, I see nothing wrong with whatever sympathy one can give.” He looked away from memory. “Do you have a different view?”

  “I don’t have any view as yet. I can tell you that I’ve always placed the most sympathetic rads down in the small boys’ school. You might have noticed that while some come into the upper school their first year, as you did, for many reasons we hold to tradition and most boys come in at ten. Under the Regent that end of school was expanded because he believed that the younger they came in the more amenable they were to his... ideas of training. My rads were picked to... complement that training. Specifically I told them to circumvent what I thought were... counter-effective orders.”

  Shevraeth was beginning to understand his Marlovens by now. Keriam and his rads had actually been in some danger of discovery by Senrid’s uncle Tdanerend, the Regent, in their effort to infuse the Regent’s rules with some humanity. “Does the king have a new rule?”

  “He doesn’t have any rule, as yet, so you will find boys of all ages in some classes. Some seniors staying five or six years instead of three. Or only two. And not necessarily for reasons of skills either superlative or wanting. He says he doesn’t know enough to figure out what’s best for both kingdom and individuals, so we keep experimenting. I like your strategy. I like it well enough to put you in as a radlav this year.”

 
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