A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith


  “All right,” he said, and started toward the barracks. “Let’s run these puppies and see what we can discover.”

  o0o

  And so another month passed swiftly, without anyone paying any more attention to the passage of time than to the steady lengthening of days. Drills were ever more complicated and demanding—not that they noticed, because it had always been that way. Marec and Shevraeth, with Lennac’s good will, took over planning the scrub outings. They watched the boys’ games and discussed the results, comparing notes with Stad, who had no convenient scrubs, so he continued using whoever showed up for extra practices and was willing to try out his ideas: Stad, Shevraeth realized after a few comments about past experience, had been commanding little groups of boys before he even knew what command was. He’d apparently been ‘trying ideas’ since he was small—not that he talked about his home or family.

  It was Evrec, with meaningful rolls of the eyes, who told Shevraeth a little of Stad’s background as they walked to the baths to cool off on a withering hot day, when both happened to have rec time during the same watch.

  “His people raise horses.” Evrec splashed into the water. “But he’s got high ranking cousins. When they found out how good he was at games, well, he ended up here.”

  He went on to explain how, with their rad’s permission, he and Stad had a competition going—trying to win House contests by using their ideas on all their overnights. Shevraeth almost wished he was sleeping at the second-year colts’ barracks with his class, but on the other hand he liked having his tiny room to himself, and the scrubs had more or less settled down at last. As much as ten year olds ever settle down.

  “Marec and I don’t come up with original ideas,” Shevraeth admitted as he floated on the cool water, staring at light patterns on the stones overhead. The newer wall to the right, and the faint sounds of girl voices from beyond, testified to change. “We’ve been using what we hear. Trying them out for ourselves.”

  Evrec wondered if he should say he’d done that as well, a year or two before, then decided it sounded like bragging.

  Shevraeth went on in his light voice, “I very much fear that field command is never going to be my undiscovered talent.”

  “They all tell us study and trial and error and logic are better than brilliant ideas.”

  “Your king seems like the brilliant type.”

  Evrec grinned. “Maybe, but he’s also dog-stubborn at trial, error, logic, and study.” Then he shifted to what was far more interesting, “So do you and Marec actually study with Senelac?”

  “Yes. Well, we started a week ago.”

  “How’s that working?”

  Shevraeth hesitated, then gave a courtier’s answer, “Senelac can name, as backup, every relevant battle and its dates.”

  Evrec laughed. “Her brother Jan probably saw to that before she could read. The Senelacs are an old, old service family.”

  “But not one of high rank?” Shevraeth asked.

  “Oh, they had rank, too, but lost it along with the northern lands. Jan told us their family has a saying: Senelacs are good captains but bad governors.”

  The bell rang, ending their free time.

  o0o

  The next command class fell into a new pattern. Shevraeth’s solutions were never chosen as the best for any session, but they were seldom the worst, an epithet Keriam saved for plans depending on the wildness of chance, or for heroic charges or spectacular sneak attacks that could so easily go wrong with a change in weather, a horse stumbling, or even with the mood of the men. He also reserved his disparagement for plans that ran against nature, such as expecting cavalry to make uphill charges, or mad dashes across far too much uneven ground.

  At the end of class he regarded the seniors with grave displeasure. “Yes, you can name a battle where such a charge won, but to each of those—and there were reasons they won—I can name as many losses as there are stones in the court. Don’t let me see that again.”

  The second-year boys and Senelac sat very still.

  Keriam threw his chalk down. “You still don’t seem to understand me when I keep telling you that, so far, the supposed enemy commanders in our battle problems are neutral. We’re trying to concentrate on the basics of strategy and tactics, though it seems we’ll be at it a while yet.”

  Silence met these words, except for a scrape of feet from one end of the seniors’ bench.

  Keriam said, “In real life there is no such thing as commanders coming to battle with neutral emotions, however much the subsequent songs and stories might make our heroes seem above mere human concerns. Dismissed.”

  As soon as the seniors were out of earshot (their emotions registered in the loudness of their clatter going down the stairs), Stad said to his classmates in an undervoice, “That’s six to us and four to the seniors, all told. Where do they get those crazy ideas?”

  Senelac was walking right beside Shevraeth, but Stad’s question was not addressed to her. Stad wasn’t shutting her out deliberately, he didn’t see her.

  So she didn’t tell him which ballad the seniors had mined for that spectacular overhill charge that Keriam had thoroughly burned.

  “Overhill charge.” Evrec laughed. “They forgot to add to their solution finding a mage, and getting wings attached to their horses.”

  Marec said doubtfully, “Maybe it’s time to try to figure out solutions with different intents in the commanders. Pick the best of ours to present.”

  As the others agreed, Shevraeth turned Senelac’s way. He was waiting for her answer, though she was still invisible to the others.

  Appreciation was almost as warm as attraction. She lifted a shoulder, laughing at herself inwardly. Was she visible to Shevraeth for her brains or for her amazing and oh so fascinating looks? Better not to answer that even for herself.

  She was wrong when she assumed she was invisible to Stad. She wasn’t relevant. If girls were going to be part of the competition for command, he’d pay attention. Until then, they were extraneous to his goals. But he did observe the others.

  So as Shevraeth and Marec continued to meet with Senelac, the underlying attraction between the foreigner and Senelac was something Stad comprehended far before Marec did. But Stad considered Shevraeth a friend, so he didn’t tell anyone about the long looks that arrowed back and forth whenever he saw Senelac and Shevraeth together.

  As for Shevraeth, he sensed another page turning.

  Last year he hadn’t really noticed the girls beyond the anomaly of their presence. But now with a glance he could pretty well peg which of the older boys and girls were secretly twoing, by the way they’d covertly watch one another across the width of the mess hall. He could also spot who had quarreled—there he’d see either glares or backs turned—and who was talking a little too loud, looking in the wrong direction once too often.

  And he could spot the ones who wanted to attract attention.

  Like Ndand Fath’s hip-swinging walk into the mess. Though everyone but the seniors wore the same shapeless clothes, he couldn’t tell you how she managed to get her tunics and trousers to outline her shape, but she did. And though he (and many seniors) found her gyrations highly entertaining, the corresponding disgust in the girls as she lifted her hands to fling back her artfully arranged hair, or smoothed her hand down the front of her smock, pulling it tight to her very nice body, made it clear they had no appreciation whatsoever for Fath’s little tricks.

  Shevraeth ventured a joke when sitting with Senelac under the shade of a huge tree between two of the short streets. Marec had scrub duty, and they’d finished their work early. “I wonder if flirting Ndand Fath’s way could be considered command? She sure gets notice.”

  “She sure rides close to the limits of the rules,” Senelac said with a tight mouth and a narrow glance. “And she doesn’t really care what happens to the rest of us if she gets caught too many times.”

  Shevraeth remembered what Senelac had said about the rules—about having gir
ls as an experiment. He grimaced. He should have seen the reason the other girls resented Fath so much. He regarded Senelac in silent appreciation, thinking that, if she wanted to flirt, she’d get plenty of her own attention, even if she wasn’t as pretty as Fath. She was far more interesting.

  “If she doesn’t care, why is she here?” he asked, no longer teasing.

  She sensed his shift in mood, and her own tension faded. “Because she’s rich. Comes from a family of influence. Despite everything they said, and she said, before she came, she is not really here to train for service, she is here to catch the attention of a fellow of high rank.”

  “Like court—” He began, then shut up.

  “Court?” she repeated, and when he hesitated, she said impatiently, “I’m not so ignorant I don’t know what courts are. It’s the toffs around a king or queen, am I right? You’re one of those? Oh, but then you would be, if you’re really related to the king.” Her eyes narrowed. “Which makes me wonder why you are here. I figured you were going to be a trainer when you go back.”

  “I probably will be,” he said slowly, and—again—tried to guess what his father expected him to do with the knowledge he was gaining.

  They both shut up then, she with a troubled air, and he wondering why she didn’t ask any more questions. It was like she didn’t really want to know anything about his other life.

  That was enough of a realization to make him thoughtful. But it wasn’t enough to make him wary.

  TWENTY-SEVEN

  Shevraeth and Marec were sitting on a wall one still, oppressive summer night, their slate between them. To represent their forces they’d laid various sizes of pebbles on the slate. As they worked on their latest battle problem they pushed the pebbles back and forth, arguing agreeably in low mutters.

  They were peripherally aware of footsteps on the flagstones below. People had been crossing back and forth. But these approached.

  They mentally returned from the imaginary field where forces charged and retreated, attacked and defended, all without shedding a single drop of blood. The mighty forces dwindled into little stones, the battlefield shrank to a slate as they peered down against the torchlight, which shone on Lennac’s pale head as he flung sweat-damp hair from his eyes. Unconsciously the two on the wall also flung their hair back. It was time for a haircut, but they’d been too busy to notice.

  “There you are,” Lennac observed. “Hal was looking for you.”

  Haldred Pereth was the senior in charge of the barracks Marec and Shevraeth technically belonged to.

  “We chalked up for some duty?” Marec asked, hand poised to sweep up his markers.

  The planes of Lennac’s face shifted in the ruddy, flickering light as he grinned. “In a sense. Keriam wants a pair of first and second year Houses out for a combined two day run,” he said. “He wants a couple of second-years as enemy commanders, and I convinced Hal that you two are it. Stad and Evrec have had more than their share of chances, and everyone else in both Houses has had at least one turn, except you two.”

  Marec whistled.

  Shevraeth murmured, “I thought—”

  His mind caught up with his mouth, which he shut.

  The other two waited, then Lennac said, “Thought what?”

  Shevraeth sifted possible responses, then settled for, “I thought there wouldn’t be any command. For me, I mean. Until next year.”

  “Who told you that?” Marec asked at the same time Lennac said with a lazy wave, “Might have been true last year. This year, well, you thought wrong.” He flicked an ironic salute and walked off.

  When his footsteps had faded away again, Marec let out a long breath.

  “So what next?” Shevraeth asked, thinking, A year ago I wouldn’t even have known what to ask. “Do we pick the armies, or do they? Boundaries? Site?”

  “Everything, or he would have said.” Marec vigorously scratched his scalp, then whistled again. “Everything! I wonder what lies behind that? It really is a year sooner than we could have expected. Maybe it’s only Stad and Evrec bustling things along.”

  Shevraeth remembered Senrid’s anxious words at the end of their last conversation, and thought, Either that or they’re pushing the schedule up, trying to get everyone to learn faster. But he had no proof, so again he kept it to himself. “What do we know about the first-year colts?” Yet another thought, this one a spasm of disgust. “Besides Marlovair being in their year, and apparently he hates foreigners.”

  Marec sat back. “You’ll probably have to deal with that.”

  Shevraeth crossed his arms. “If he’s stupid enough to try to scrag me, this time it won’t be my ribs getting kicked in. But I’d really rather not.” He wondered if that sounded arrogant, and he added, “It’s too hot for all that effort.”

  Marec snickered.

  “So should you take him, or should he be in my group? Get it over with the faster, whatever idiocy he’ll inevitably try?”

  “I don’t want him. He’s mouthy, and swanks his family’s great past, and he thinks it high sport to turf the rules. I’d as soon not have his trouble and command to think about in this weather. But I’ll take him if you don’t want him. My father’s a captain of foot. I’m invisible to the rankers with swank about their ancient shields. You’re a target.”

  Shevraeth considered dumping the problem onto Marec.

  No.

  “All the more reason to get it over with,” Shevraeth said with a grimace—and knew it was the right decision. Not because of any high-mindedness. In such a ridiculous situation there was no high-mindedness. But if he shuffled the problem onto Marec, it only postponed what he’d really rather get past if he could.

  Marec opened his hands, a Marloven gesture that could mean a number of things separately—or all at once. Marec said, “As for the colts’ strengths and weaknesses, I don’t really know any more than you, situated as we are in the Pit. I know that year has always been hot at hand.”

  “Right.” Shevraeth thought, then said, “How about I scout them while you scout the territory. You have to know more about that than I do.”

  “Let’s talk about the basic plan, then I’ll know what kind of ground to pick.”

  o0o

  The next day after archery drill, Shevraeth waited until Stad was away from the others, and said, “Marec and I have been made enemy commanders on a mixed-year run.”

  Stad grinned. “I heard. And?”

  “So I know our fellows, of course, but I’ve never seen the colts in training or action. Scouting ’em out. You seen ’em?”

  Stad turned his way, trying to descry the foreigner’s motivation. As usual, his face was about as expressive as the stones shimmering in the heat waves on the great court.

  Stad paused to wipe his sleeve over his stinging eyes. At least the masters had been human enough to shift the afternoon schedule to archery, knife drill, and riding rather than lances or contact fighting, which were now first thing in the morning—at least until the heat broke.

  Never mind that. Another speculative glance. “You know your main problem is going to be Van Marlovair.”

  “Yes—”

  “Who is my cousin.”

  “I didn’t know that.”

  And it was clear that he hadn’t—the lift to his chin, to his eyelids, was about all the expression change Shevraeth ever showed, but Stad had been around him enough to pick up these signals.

  “I’m not asking for gossip. I know he hates my guts—apparently because I committed the crime of being born foreign—but he’ll have to live with it. I want to know what I can expect from them before I make my plans. Everyone says you’ve been running a lot of the upper school games this season. You have to have seen them in action.”

  “Fair enough. Van’s their leader, has been all along. Not necessarily the best, but they follow him. Even though he came a year early, because of...” Stad hesitated, hating to think of those very bad years, before Senrid was finally able to get rid of the Regent.
How much turmoil there had been in the main part of the family, reaching out to touch the side-families, such as his own. Van—named for Senrid’s father Indevan, as Stad himself was—had lived to see his family threatened by the Regent, followed by the overthrow of the government, and hard on that Norsunder’s invasion.

  Either he explained it all, or nothing.

  All would take too long, and he wasn’t sure he should. “Well. Events, you might say, and leave it at that. They’re riders first of all. A lot of old history behind that. Marlovair has one of the largest territories in the kingdom. Part of that is given over to one of the biggest horse studs, which is where my family comes in. So they’re traditionally good enough with weapons and so forth, but if you make any plan that includes a charge, you’ve got ’em.”

  “Thank you.” Shevraeth turned down one of the side-routes to the Puppy Pit.

  “At least, technically you got ’em,” Stad muttered to Shevraeth’s retreating back. “What you’re probably going to get is trouble.” Shaking his head, he trotted off to his next drill.

  o0o

  From Shevraeth’s father:

  . . . and reveling in the freedom and silence of our home, I had a chance to reflect over what I had been reading. It is as well that Galdran despises old records, for if he knew the half of what lies in his archive, he would probably set fire to it the same way we’ve heard the crazy Count of Tlanth ridded himself of his own library after the Countess’s mysterious murder.

  But it is quite enlightening to see what voices from the past have to say on the matter of kingship. I found two records, one Colendi and one Sartoran, that echoed each other most curiously, and I wonder if these writers knew of one another. When you are home, I will put them into your hands, and we can discourse on the probabilities as we sift the texts for clues. I will not tell you, therefore, what conclusion your mother reached, which is different from my own.

 
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