A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith

  Lennac chose the stream, and Marec was left with the better position, the grassy hill at the south, adjacent the road.

  Shevraeth leaned against a rock, wishing the three of them could be near enough to chat. No, the time had to be endured alone, so they’d do their job.

  Each of the three Houses separated, dividing into the ridings their senior rads had appointed earlier. Then Marec blew the horn, and the game began.

  Shevraeth watched, at first idly, as the groups of boys jockeyed for position; he soon spotted the riding captains of the other two sides, and was mentally comparing them to their own boys when he realized what he was doing.

  He frowned, straightening up. How strange. How very strange—he was gauging not only the ridings’ strengths, but what sort of offense it looked like they’d been ordered to try by their rads. And how those tries would match against the orders that Lennac had given them for defense as well as offense.

  He assessed the boys as individuals, as leaders... their movements as ridings... the ridings’ success or lack.

  He’d got it. He was understanding the entire battle.

  When had that happened? Was it because for the first time he stood completely outside the contest, as Senrid had suggested last year?

  It was almost dizzying, this insight. Shevraeth stepped forward and leaned his elbows on a low branch of the tree, and now he could not only see the shape of the whole battle, but he found he could predict the next immediate movement of the three leaders. To the rocks, and realize that’s a dead end—you, yes, flank ’em, that’s it. And Torac decoying the enemy, so they don’t notice. . . I think you’ve got it, Lasda. If you keep them together, and Torac keeps their attention—

  “You see it now?”

  The light voice startled him. He sidestepped, a hand half-rising in a defensive gesture, then he recognized Senrid-Harvaldar, and his hand dropped.

  If Senrid noticed, he gave no sign. His gaze was on the small boys running about below. “That one, the one with the ears. He’s running ’em all in your House, don’t you think?”

  Senrid’s assessment had taken about three breaths. Shevraeth’s own triumph soured into self-mockery. But Senrid had been observing these games ever since he was small, because he’d been forbidden to participate.

  “I remember now. His name is Lasda.”

  “Yes, I see it.” Shevraeth leaned on the branch. “I guess I needed to play a number of those games as a participant, a marker on the board, before I could comprehend the whole.”

  Senrid flicked his fingers out in the open-hand gesture of assent. He was shorter than Shevraeth remembered, the top of his blond head clearing Shevraeth’s shoulder. Shevraeth had grown, but the king had not. In fact, Senrid was exactly as round-faced as last year, no whit of difference.

  Senrid stood under this scrutiny without speaking. He had no plans to discuss why he’d taken the spell to halt aging. Sometimes he wasn’t sure he could explain it to himself. “I have something for you.” He pulled out a metallic token that had been affixed to a gold chain.

  Shevraeth held out his hand, looking a question.

  Senrid said, hating the necessity, “It’s a transfer token.” His guts tightened, but he forced his tone to stay even. “There’s evidence that Siamis might return.”

  Shevraeth’s light eyes widened, then narrowed speculatively. “And you expect to be his initial target?”

  “Not his.” Senrid turned his attention down to the shrieking boys on the field. How he hated giving voice to his fears, though he knew it was stupid to dread that speaking the words would turn probability to certainty. The certainty had already happened. His voice was flat, devoid of expression. “It’s not Siamis that worries me. At least, he’s a big threat, bigger than I can handle. But there’s a worse one.”

  “There is?” Shevraeth’s heartbeat quickened.

  Senrid flicked his hand out. “Siamis was betrayed to Norsunder when he was a few years younger than us. Records say he was betrayed by his uncle, Detlev Reverael ne-Hindraeldrei, at least that seems to be the way to say it, in the old tongue. He was, we are told, a dyranarya.”

  “What is that?”

  Senrid’s shoulder lifted, a sharp movement. “No one’s exactly sure. Except that they controlled people by thought. And he and I have tangled before. He promised me we would meet again. From all I can gather he keeps his word. When it suits his purpose.”

  Below, the small boys screeched and jumped and shouted, as the last struggle for the flags commenced. Around them the shadows had lengthened, leafing tree-branches segmenting the field, light and shadow.

  Shevraeth tried to think of something to say, then realized nothing was adequate. So he held up the golden token. “I take it I am to wear this?”

  Senrid turned his head. “Day and night.”

  Below, Tlen led a wedge of boys running up the hill among the rocks. When they saw Senrid and Shevraeth their round pink mouths opened, and their hands thumped their chests in salute to their king. Then they veered, sudden as birds, and fled downhill again, yelling wildly as they plunged right into the midst of a clump of the enemy. The yells were sharper, higher, more exaggerated: they were conscious of being watched.

  “It seems unfair that the only living Old Sartorans would be those one would exert oneself never to meet.” Shevraeth flung the chain over his head and slipped the token inside his tunic. The metal token thunked against his chest, cold and ungiving.

  Senrid grinned again, that quick, toothy grin. “Oh, there is also Lilith the Guardian, but she is even more rarely met. And as dangerous, in her own way.”

  Shevraeth had heard of her—of course. In old, old ballads. “She’s real? I mean, not in the historic sense, but lives?”

  “She, too, has recourse to someplace outside of time. Because she does live. I’ve seen her.”

  Shevraeth whistled. “And you can read Old Sartoran.”

  “Only marginally. If that. Liere and I have been trying to study it. But with all the success of a couple of puppies trying to learn the famed Colendi flower symbols, their ribbon symbols, their fans and the rest of it.”

  Shevraeth laughed. “I wonder which one is the more obscure, Old Sartoran—about which my father had some pungent things to say, when he told my tutor to confine his exertions to modern history—or Colend’s court customs.”

  Senrid made a sudden movement. “I’m beginning to think that the Old Sartorans didn’t deliberately set out to be obscure, it’s that they had to employ metaphor to describe things for which they otherwise had no terms. They were, we believe, a lot closer to the non-human beings in this world—were until we humans almost managed to destroy ourselves along with everything else. So, if that’s true, then human language wouldn’t suffice, would it? I mean, how would you describe red to a blind man?”

  Shevraeth was about to agree when a sudden cry of triumph rose, shrill as the cries of gulls over the Remalnan marshes. A riding of boys scrambled to lift up one of their number, who waved a flag triumphantly. As they paraded around, dancing and crowing and hooting insults at the losing Houses, Shevraeth said, “But I understand there are few records of those first days.”

  “Very few. Very rare. At least that I know of. And most of those are copies, whose texts could have been tampered with.”

  Shevraeth said, “So there is no way, really, to translate metaphor into meaning?”

  Senrid’s teeth showed in that brief, startlingly unpleasant grin. “Oh yes there is. Fall into the hands of Siamis, or worse, Detlev. They’d probably be glad to discourse on the verities of their day, right before they rip your identity from out of your skull, and all without moving their hands. See that you keep that thing always by you. If I do have to act, there probably will be no time for warning.”

  He jerked round and walked rapidly down the far side of the hill to where a horse waited at the stream a little distance away.

  Lennac called “Shevraeth? You and Marec get them unpacked, clean, and sort
ed out. They’ve earned their first scarfle, don’t you think?”

  He hadn’t seen the king.


  Russav Savona did not write back immediately.

  Shevraeth knew that his parents and Russav would not take along a communications device when summoned to court by King Galdran. There were no resident mages in Remalna by law. If the king knew about the golden cases, he would forbid them to anyone but himself. They’d explained how their rooms were searched sporadically by the king’s spies while they were on protracted outings, and so they did not dare leave any kind of communication anywhere in Athanarel Palace.

  Answers would have to wait upon his mother’s making excuses to go home to Renselaeus, where she could read Shevraeth’s letters in safety. Russav would have to wait until she returned. Then he’d have to find an opportunity to slip his letters into her hand—and after that find an opportunity to collect any answers.

  The fact that he wouldn’t get an answer any time soon was Shevraeth’s excuse not to write anything about Senelac, but in truth he wasn’t sure what to write. He found himself thinking about her, and missing the daily riding lessons of the year before. Wishing he had any excuse to see her again.

  Another thing he kept thinking about was that strange reaction from the girls when one of them mentioned Darchelde.

  On his next rec period he returned to the Residence library, and found Darchelde on the big map. It seemed to be a wooded area near the southeastern border of the kingdom.

  A persistent tug of memory caused him, over the succeeding days whenever he had liberty, to delve through some of the histories in a more methodical manner. No mention... no mention... no mention... he was beginning to think that Darchelde was another of those oddities erased and yet not erased from history, like Ivandred Montredaun-An.

  Ivandred! On impulse he went searching deliberately for the single brief, dry mention of Ivandred Montredaun-An that he’d found on one of his early forays.

  He’d read it without interest, for it gave the barest facts of Ivandred’s rule. Now, knowing a bit more, he realized the facts were not dry at all, but freighted with hidden meaning, sparse as they were between 4408, when Ivandred came to the throne and 4418 when, as it stated so blankly, He left the kingdom.

  Left the kingdom not over a physical border, but riding at the gallop at the head of his cherished First Lancers, unbeatable warriors according to the records, the gold-and-black fox banner snapping in the wind as they rode straight into a rift shimmering between ground and sky. A rift that opened onto the blackness of Norsunder.

  The banner of the damned.

  There were no drawings of that fox banner anywhere in the library, but Shevraeth suspected he had already seen it, in Remalna’s royal palace, before he embarked on his long journey. His father had taken him to the dusty archives that Galdran had no interest in, and had opened one of the Calahanras records, showing him sketches made by a living hand over three centuries ago. These had been drawn during the visit Ivandred made to Remalna, escorting his sister Tharaez—or Therais, as the Marlovens had pronounced it. Not Ther-RAY-ez, but THAR-ray-is, the ending a soft almost unvoiced sound—like the ‘ya’ of Hesea in the kingdom’s name in those days.

  One of the courtiers had made sketches of the visitors. There was one of Ivandred, a profile, not very good, indicating a tall blond man. Several sketches followed that Shevraeth figured were attempts to capture the grace of the Marloven horses, bred on the plains of Nelkereth. Last was a sketch of a slightly sinister, curiously raptorish fox face, its mane like flames. It was gold, set against a black background: the Montredaun-An fox banner.

  Ivandred, Norsunder—and Darchelde, which was the ancestral Montredaun-An home.

  Interesting, somewhat menacing stuff, as was so much Marloven history, but Shevraeth did not think that the Ivandred years were the reason the girls had reacted as they had. What had Maddar been saying? He couldn’t recall it, but instinct insisted the reference was far more recent.

  One mystery solved, to reveal another mystery.

  At least there wasn’t any mystery about the new training. His gratitude to Forthan for his thoughtfulness intensified when his own House began the mounted hand-to-hand fighting part of their cavalry drill. Shevraeth, now used to the basics, had said nothing; he did not know most of his Housemates yet, as he bunked in the Puppy Pit, but he was very aware of the sidled glances, the covert signs of expectation when the first drills began. But he did not fall off his saddle, or drop his willow sword. Khaniver had used real steel with him the last few days before the official beginning of the academy year. He knew how to grip the horse with his legs to balance for sword blocks and strikes, and how to lock his heels down into the stirrups to brace. And he knew the ring of steel down through muscle and bones, and how to sustain it while on the move. He wasn’t fast—not enough time for that—but he was one of the few who kept hold of his weapon. Two boys even fell out of the saddle.


  Russav: It’s been a month now, and we’re near our first overnight with the Puppies. Not, you need to understand, that they call it an ‘overnight.’ As anyone will immediately grasp, there are overnights and non-overnights that last over a night. The first, you will have guessed, are the wargames that go into the night. But the second ones are the scouting forays. The small boys are not permitted to wargame till midnight until they are older. Their first year is mostly scouting, which means tracking and map reading and making. So there is no fighting at night. Each class of older boys has to do one tracking and scouting camp for the scrubs, planning and executing it being their own lesson. My class had their lesson last year when I was recovering from Sindan’s loving attentions.

  The boys may consider these to be mere chores, but I confess to you I greeted the news with (hidden) relief. I trust that means we rads get some sleep. But boys being what they are, I suspect we won’t.

  Meanwhile, I’ve made another discovery. Useless as it is—can you imagine Nenthar on horseback, actually attacking someone, instead of hiding behind a rock and sending his bully-boys in? No, how about Galdran? Now there’s an image! Galdran on horseback, swinging a sword!—well, absurd as it all is, I really enjoy horseback fighting. I’ve probably lost my pretence of civilization at last. Maybe I never was civilized, but riding about on a grassy plain whacking and stabbing at my fellow man with a willow blade from the back of a high-bred horse is more fun even than horse racing.

  But as usual, my pleasure was short lived. I know now what the true purpose of this kingdom serves in my life, and that is to crush me thoroughly whenever there is the least danger of my feeling the tiniest modicum of success.

  What now, you ask? I will tell you. They began us on lance drills. Just drill. We don’t pretend to actually use them even for fake charges until next year. The first drill is to grip the thing and describe a circle. Simple-sounding, eh? If you’d seen those attempts at a circle, you would have thought we were more drunk than Grumareth on a good gambling day, and about as graceless... and in case we thought it wasn’t as bad as it seemed, one look at the masters’ faces as they obviously tried not to laugh...



  Russav Savona stared out his window, not seeing the brilliant fuzz of light green all through the garden behind Athanarel Palace. He read the letter again, paying close attention so he would remember it all when he had a chance to answer it. Then he put it on the fire and stood there until it was consumed.

  Midway through the night, he was returning from one of the king’s interminable card parties when Shevraeth’s reference to drunken Grumareth brought the letter to mind.

  He’d been drinking himself, matching the adults glass for glass to prove he could do it and keep his wits. Abruptly he took the lantern from the hand of the servant lighting his way to his rooms. “I’ll light my own way.” And because this man was one of the king’s spies, he added in his best drawl, “I was put in mind of a theatrical, and I want to see if
we have the props in storage.”

  The man bowed.

  Savona yawned without quite covering his face with his fan. The spy betrayed disgust, but no surprise. More vagaries of the nobles to gossip about, then, and thus no alarm to report to the king.


  They parted, and Savona’s sense of his own cleverness lasted until he reached the old storage area out behind the guard barracks.

  He’d nearly reached the big barns when he was challenged by a roaming sentry. He lifted the lantern up so the light shone on his face, and the guard, who was his own age, gave him a polite bow. But his eyes were curious as he said, “Is there anything you need, your grace?”

  “Yes. A way into the storage shed. The big one, where all the old armor and so forth is kept.”

  “Old armor, your grace?” the sentry asked.

  Savona had already thought out his answer on the walk. He staggered slightly—drunk as Grumareth—and then said, “M’dad showed me the old stuff before he died. I was very small, but I carry a memory of fabulous armor, rusting in ancient glory, and a rack of astonishing old weapons we hardly touch now. I’m thinking of a sort of theatrical, d’you see, for the king’s pleasure.”

  “Oh. I know what your grace wants,” said the sentry.

  “I hope it’s still there.” Savona gestured drunkenly with his fan as the sentry lifted the bar to the broad door and led the way in by the light of Savona’s lantern.

  The sentry paused by the door to hang the lantern on an old hook, and took down another lantern, its candle wicked and ready. He lit it and carried them both inside, past racks of horse gear and halberds and spears, from practice gear to the fancier weapons used at ceremonials.

  At the rear wall they found the rack of lances that Savona had remembered. And despite the fact that he was much bigger and taller than he’d been at four, they were as large as he’d remembered.

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