A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith


  Lennac winced. No one liked remembering what the Regent had done to Ndarga after that daring raid on his favored seniors, hand-picked to be in the best barracks, the one to which he gave his name. But then his expression lightened—he shifted from memory to idea. “You think Tevac will think of it?”

  “I’m almost sure. If he does, send him to me. I’ll give him a suitable punishment in the eyes of the others, for the rules must be kept, but it will be training.” And he made a quick sketch in the air, what looked like three lines, with his finger wiggling briefly at the end of two of the lines.

  Lennac pursed his lips in a silent whistle. “Oh, yes.” And he saluted, the smack of his hand against his tunic underscoring his conviction.

  Senrid stopped behind his chair, thumping his fist lightly on the chair back. “Go ahead and take your liberty-watch, Lennac. I’m going to keep Shevraeth here for a bit, since he’s the only ready-to-hand foreigner we’ve got.”

  Lennac saluted and vanished through the open door. His footsteps rapidly diminished, then Liere dropped her legs down and hopped from the table. “Fenis is back,” she said, cocking her head.

  “Gonna get a riding lesson?” Senrid asked.

  “At night,” Liere answered. “I want to learn how to ride at—” Her brow wrinkled and her eyes blanked.

  She was listening on some plane unavailable to him—and Senrid, also with that blank look, was answering.

  The moment lasted a heartbeat or two, then Liere gave Shevraeth a shy smile and flitted through the door, her bare feet soundless on the steps.

  Senrid said, “I didn’t lie to Lennac, though I misled him. He probably thinks we’re talking languages and so forth. He can’t know—none of them can know—but I want you to lead an attack on the city.”

  Shevraeth repeated, “Attack?” Then realized he meant a war game of some sort.

  “Covert attack. Yes. I need to plan the defense of the city, though if Norsunder gets this far, we’re probably lost. I don’t know. But I have to try, don’t you see? But I can’t find any records for the situation we’re in now.” He was pacing again, quick steps, a fist thumping table, chair, window sill, then back again, as he passed. “You because no one will expect you, and because you don’t really know the city yet, am I right?”

  Shevraeth hesitated. He’d been to a number of eateries and inns, but Senelac had always had the lead, or told him directions by the “Two lefts and then a right” method, if they met. “I know a few streets—the newer, straight ones. But mostly I get lost,” he said finally.

  “Excellent. Ah, for my purpose. First game, see, the enemy commander won’t know the city. Keriam is in the process of finding you some attackers—never mind what we’re looking for. They will only be told their commander is at the academy, and nothing else. They’ll accept you as their commander because they will have Keriam’s word that it’s by my order. One thing you can attest to in our favor is that if Marlovens are given a clear chain of command they generally fall right in. So you are going to take down the city however you can.”

  “But—what about the city people?”

  “Oh, they’ll go right along. Most of ’em with enthusiasm. Before my uncle, apparently all-city drills were more or less a regular occurrence, going way back. If we shut down business the crown pays for food and drink, makes it a special occasion. The city folk used to love getting involved, and I don’t think it’ll be any different now. I’ll give you the list of symbols—they’ll all know them, too. Like, your people will have strips of red cloth if you discover you have to set fire to a room or a house. Citizens have to stop and count to a certain number for fighting a wood-structure fire, and a different number, lower, for stone. Everyone uses wood weapons, well chalked. You take an arm or leg hit, you can move, but not use the limb. Hits in kill parts, you’re supposed to fall in place and wait until the bells for the end, because they have to practice getting around bodies. Though older people don’t have to lie on stones. They can tie their kill cloth around a footstool or chair and put it out in their place.”

  Shevraeth winced. Then, trying to hide his reaction, he said, “But is it really covert if they know the attack is coming—if they are watching for it?”

  “No and yes. Yes, because I want them in the habit of watching. Norsundrians will not dress like us, they almost never use disguise. There’s too much, oh, historical terror attached to the sight of those gray uniforms. I will give the city a real surprise attack, but after we have a few of these planned-for ones. Right now, I want it as real as we can get it, short of hurting anyone.”

  “Understood.”

  “But you have to think like a Norsundrian. You don’t care about life, you have a goal: to do whatever it takes to capture this city with a small force. This first game, you’ll be limited—it’s to be a covert attack. Supposing they sent their warriors over the border one at a time—assuming they break my wards and... well, never mind the magic end. But they don’t want to raise an alarm. Depending on how this one goes, next we’ll do a full-on war attack, the entire academy against the city, and in that one we’ll assume they’ll have made maps, so the boys knowing the city will be appropriate to the plan. D’ya see?”

  Shevraeth whooshed out his breath. “A Norsundrian, am I?”

  Senrid did not smile. “Good practice for you. If—when—they come, your own kingdom will not be exempt.”

  “Right,” Shevraeth said, trying out the idea. “If I think like an attacker, then I can... plan for defense at home.” And Galdran will have me assassinated, if I am too competent?

  Later. Later.

  “That’s the idea.” Senrid dropped into his chair, but his hands were still restless. “Soon as Keriam sends me the signal that he has his people, I’ll set a day. The first one, no one in the city can move until someone comes with the word, or they see the enemy. We’ll provide you with some kind of outfit to mark you and your command as the enemy. Leave that to me. Your job is to plan what a Norsundrian would do, and how to do it, without actually seeing the city—my ancestors have always been untrusting, and never permitted city maps to be made. You notice there are no street names on display, just a few corner landmark signs. In the past, when the bells rang for attack, there was always someone whose job it was to remove the ones near them. Not that the castle can be hidden, but anything that slows an enemy down is a good defensive tactic.”

  Shevraeth thought, The first goal of a Norsundrian would be to kill you—unless they want you to be twisted to their service. I don’t know which one is worse. He said, “Are you playing, too?”

  “Absolutely. I expect you to come after me. If you do win, at least I get a chance to learn something, and not in a Norsundrian dungeon.” His tight-cornered grin flashed, and Shevraeth knew the whispers about Senrid were true. He had indeed been in a Norsundrian dungeon. And had somehow gotten out alive.

  Senrid went on, “Guard captains as well—if you can find ’em. If it’s going to work, the game has to be bigger than the all-academy summer game out on the fields.” His voice lowered, husky with strain. “I’ve got to learn how to defend this city. If I can.” He looked away, then up. “When Siamis came, they used a combination of magic and then warriors. I think I have the magic end worked out—my friend Hibern and some others have been playing around with wards and so forth—but we need plans for the fighting part.”

  Shevraeth hesitated.

  “Speak,” Senrid said impatiently.

  “Well, I do not wish to seem to impugn your thinking, but don’t you have an experienced commander who could give you plans based on experience?”

  Now Senrid was drumming with his knuckles on the table. “In a word, no. Keriam is all I have left of the competent army leaders. Though I’ve got good captains, all of them are on duty at the borders. Forthan would be running it, but he’s not back yet from where I sent him, and he’s the best of the young ones. You have to realize that the army at command level is mostly young. My uncle saw to it that al
l the good ones my father’s age either suffered heroic accidents in the field, or else were quietly assassinated, leaving mostly old men who could keep their heads down and endure. And then there were the stinkers who supported my uncle. Gone, now. This, too, is a Marloven tradition, though you won’t see it lauded in the records. A tyrant kills off the good commanders who don’t back him soon’s he gets power; if he gets overthrown, those of his bully-boys the new ruler doesn’t execute usually get lynched by former victims.”

  The Regent sounded like Galdran. We are not so very different after all, Remalna and Marloven Hess. And again Shevraeth appreciated the reach of his father’s vision.

  “I know I have smart boys in the academy with more experience at command than you, but I really think you are smart enough to put your mind to this matter—and you are not familiar with the city as they all are. Right now that’s what I want. A Norsundrian won’t know the city, so I want to hear about trying to sneak through it from your point-of-view. Might help us plan a better defense. So will you do it?”

  The situation, the new possibilities in the real world, Senrid’s tension, all compounded Shevraeth’s own unease. “Right. All right. Have you any records on battles specifically with Norsunder?”

  “Not much. You’d think we had, wouldn’t you? Maybe my uncle destroyed them. Anyway, Hibern, the friend I mentioned before. She’s off studying magic. Said she’d search the archives in Sartor. She has talked with Atan, that is Queen Yustnesveas of Sartor, who is a scholar and mage more than she is a queen. Yet. Anyway, Hibern believes she’ll let her loose in their archives, no problem.”

  Shevraeth tried to hide his amazement at Senrid’s world-wide reach. He didn’t brag; these famous names and places were part of his life.

  So was the threat.

  “You’ll keep this one unspoken, right?”

  Shevraeth lifted his hands, gesturing from old habit in truth mode. “Of course. So if the academy gets a defensive assignment, I go along with it?”

  “Absolutely. Keriam will see to it your assignment will be something that makes it possible to sneak away without letting down your riding. So. If Hibern gets back before we pick a date, I’ll let you know what she finds. Any last questions?”

  “No.”

  Senrid slapped the table with a flat hand, and then got to his feet. His restlessness made Shevraeth restless. He gripped his hands tightly behind his back.

  Senrid said, “Ask me anything. Lennac and Marec will probably ask about your interview. You have to have an answer for their questions or they will suspect something.”

  “Very w—ah, what was this?” Shevraeth made the three lines in the air. “Tevac being in my charge.”

  “Ah.” Senrid grabbed up a pen lying at the other end of the table, dipped it in the inkwell, then turned over a piece of paper that had cryptic numbers and signs on it in the same neat hand Shevraeth had seen on the map so long ago.

  Senrid drew a line with a slight curving hook at one end, then under it a parallel line with an almond-shape at the end under the first line’s hook. Then below that, the third line, ending in an odd bracketing version of one of the Marloven letters. It was a highly stylized shape of a speeding raptor, beak open—that was the bracket—an inimical eye above. Yet if you turned it sideways, there were three letters of the Marloven alphabet, stylized, but recognizable, with long tails.

  “Symbol for those we call the king’s scouts,” Senrid said. “More like a secret arm. Short chain of command—their orders come directly from me. Parallel to the military, so I can put them above or below any rank, for temporary orders, at need. But they usually act alone, or at most in twos or threes.”

  “You mean spies?” Shevraeth asked, but before his natural distaste could show in his face, once again his father’s words whispered in his mind, from long ago: May as well call these trusted servants of mine couriers, though they are really spies. They don’t trouble anyone unless attacked, but they gather information and bring it to me.

  Images of quiet, bearded Leffain flickered through his mind, quick as fireflies in the wind. How he knew Marloven. How he talked to every single person on their journey west over the Sartoran Sea. How he chatted at every inn they stopped at, and once or twice had vanished, leaving Shevraeth to study or sleep or roam about sight-seeing, and he’d never explained where he was.

  Senrid was watching him closely. “They were spies and assassins in the past, and their history has varied according to the kings who used them. My uncles’ scouts all vanished the week before I took the throne.”

  “Vanished?”

  “Killed. But not on my order—I hadn’t known what to do about them—they were hand-chosen by Uncle Tdanerend, you see, and trained to think themselves above any moral constraint, their only limit the Regent’s will. Very secret, and lethal even by our standards.” Senrid looked grim. “Keriam didn’t even know them all. But someone not only knew them all, that person had them taken out in a single week. And I don’t know by whose command any more than I know who did the deed.”

  Silence. A night bird cried in the distance, its low sound faint through the open window. Shevraeth’s hands had gone cold; this was probably the most frightening thing he had learned in two years of grim lessons.

  His throat was dry. “So you don’t know if was an ally or an enemy with his own plans.”

  “Right. But failing more information, I’ve been building my own scout arm. People quick to think, to look outside the rules, while still maintaining honor. Good at action. I don’t want assassins, I want people who not only get news, but can figure out a way to solve a problem with whatever is at hand.”

  “People? Or men.”

  “People.” Senrid’s quick smile this time was bland.

  By now Shevraeth’s mind was on the verge of dizziness, though not quite that—it was the effect of too many new ideas, chased by a rapid series of reactions. He still wasn’t used to it, but he recognized it.

  Senrid, still short, younger than Shevraeth, looked like a boy in everything but his eyes. “So if Tevac does what I think he’s going to, it proves he knows how to think around the rules. I’ll see that he gets the training he needs. Got enough?”

  “History,” Shevraeth said. “Tevac. And the meaning of words.”

  Senrid flicked up his hand in salute.

  Shevraeth bumped his fist against his heart, the salute instinctive now, and left.

  He stopped inside the academy walls, picked a fence out of the line of sight of the academy barracks, and sat down to think it all through as the wind steadily turned more moist, and clouds piled overhead.

  When the first spatters of rain began, he ran the last few steps to the Puppy Pit. The barracks was quiet except for the slow breathing of small boys in sleep.

  Lennac and Marec were lying in wait in Marec’s room, a single candle burning on Marec’s tiny camp table as they played a game of cards’n’shards.

  “What was all that about?” Marec asked, throwing the hand-painted cards on the table. “He kept you a long time.”

  “Oh, we didn’t talk much. I took a walk, then sat. It’s perfect weather out there. Was, until the rain began.” By now it was a steady tippety-tap against the windows.

  Marec said, testing, “Word is, the king’s been out of the kingdom a lot. Did he go to yours?”

  “Not that he said. We talked some history. Told me what he had in mind for Tevac. And we also discussed the meaning of words.”

  Marec rolled his eyes. “Better you than me.”

  Lennac lifted his brows, but didn’t say anything.

  o0o

  Father: my next assignment is as a Norsundrian commander. I am to attack Choreid Dhelerei, perhaps the most guarded city in the world, outside of Narad in Chwahirsland and perhaps one or two others in the northern half of the world. Yes, you did read those words. After I recovered from the shock, my reaction was twofold: fear that I will not be adequate to the task, and determination that I will use for Remalna
whatever I end up learning. Senrid said Remalna will not be exempt from any attack, if Norsunder does come. No, he said when. Anyway I cannot ask anyone here for advice, as my being commander is secret. So if you have any thoughts to share, here is the brief outline of what I will be doing...

  o0o

  . . . and so, my son, I will study the family papers for descriptions of Norsunder’s taking of Sartor a century ago. I have not reread them—it was heart-breaking—but I will begin studying them tonight with your assignment in mind.

  Russav and your mother send their greetings; Galdran has been keeping everyone close at hand. Perhaps related to that—he does not want anyone on the roads seeing it, that much is clear—I have another report to make. This is another of those situations in which one truly hates to be proved right. But word has reached me—and I waited only until I could send a courier to testify to its truth or falsity—that Galdran has ordered the renovation of Chovilun Fortress, so long left in disuse as it is not a home, or even a center for overseeing a county or duchy. It has historically had one function: to house warriors. No, two functions: that extensive dungeon under ground, from which, as you will remember from your lessons, great numbers of prisoners never again emerged.

  THIRTY-ONE

  “In history class they were talking about the Vasande Leror conflict. But no one gave any details,” Shevraeth said to Senelac. “I checked the map. It’s a tiny country—half the size of mine, and I thought we were small—to the east of us here. But anyway, apparently the former Regent sent people to take it, or take the royal city, or what exactly happened? The master didn’t say, and I was afraid to ask lest they don’t go into details before the foreigner.”

  “No, it’s more that everyone knows them, and many of us have relatives involved. My big brother was there. And, well, most everyone is pretty ashamed of it, in short.”

  Stad grimaced. “Though the truth is, the Regent gave shameful orders. The light cavalry managed to postpone carrying out a wholesale slaughter by a lot of unnecessary riding around in the depth of winter. The king was missing at the time, you see, and the Regent had assumed the crown at last.” He opened a hand toward Senelac. “But—well, wasn’t your oldest brother part of the riding who found the king?”

 
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