A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith


  Nermand was middling in height, stocky, with a scowling demeanor. Sometime over the past year he’d fallen out with his old followers, and now was riding mate with Andaun. And Holdan had long since stopped being Gannan’s follower. He had become one of the best riders of their year.

  There was a lot of teasing when they saw one another in their new, fitted tunics, and the weapons belts instead of the old frayed cotton sashes. Most of them wore wands now, because part of being a senior was either training or rad duty.

  It felt strange to be seniors.

  The year officially started two days later. After the new Valdlavs held their first parade inspection, the House had to report to the far field for lance training on horseback. The second-year seniors sent them off with jeers, whistles, and hoots.

  The practice was exactly as bad as the more experienced seniors gleefully predicted. Those who, like Shevraeth, had had lessons, were mostly knocked askew by the ones who hadn’t. The chaos caused everyone to drop lances, or worse, whap them into boys or horses, sending all into a milling, shouting, exasperating confusion.

  A very long watch later, they were all more or less in form on the first and simplest of the exercises. Those who’d slacked off all winter were crimson-faced with effort, and Shevraeth sympathized with how very, very sore they would be the next day.

  He scarcely had time to rejoice inwardly that he would not be one of their number when Stad eased up next to him and murmured, “After dinner, Keriam’s office.”

  Command class—already?

  Suppertime arrived with impossible speed, though once the frenetic pace abated, he discovered that he was tired. Stad appeared next to him on the way to the mess hall. Shevraeth gave a furtive scan. Senelac was ahead of him in line, getting her hot rolls. He dropped back a little on the pretence of brushing hay off his sleeve, so that he stood outside of Stad’s range of vision as she walked past—without a glance.

  Not a word, not a single glance.

  His insides flashed to snow cold and then to numb. He picked up his tray and followed Stad down the line, getting food at random. What had he done? He knew he hadn’t said anything—

  “... Shevraeth?”

  Stad had asked him something in a voiceless whisper. Not only asked, but repeated his question. “Pardon.” He grimaced. “Lance practice,” he muttered through stiff lips, picking a disaster at random.

  Stad pursed his lips in a soundless whistle. “Get whacked in the head? I saw Hauth get thumped, and Andaun, of course.” It was Andaun who had been knocked right out of the saddle.

  Shevraeth hated being thought as clumsy as those others, but it was better than the truth. So he bumped his forehead with his palm, which could have meant anything. It was time to be quiet for real; the academy was under first week mess-gag. He followed Stad past the silent lower school, then heard a far too regular tinkle-clink, the tapping of a spoon against a drinking mug.

  Shevraeth flicked a glance down the second-year colts’ table where he’d sat the year before. Marlovair and a couple of his friends beat codes on their dishes, their snickering only half muffled. When Marlovair twitched as though he felt he was being watched, Shevraeth shifted his glance away.

  Stad sidestepped, gripped his tray in one hand, then swatted the back of his cousin’s head as he passed. Marlovair opened his mouth, then shut it, rubbing his head and scowling after Stad, who did not look back.

  The second-year colts began to eat with a sedulous air.

  Stad led the way to the senior tables.

  Shevraeth chose a spot with his back to the rest of the room, so he would not be able to see the girls.

  As soon as they’d eaten they ran through the dusky twilight to Keriam’s tower, where the windows were already glowing squares of light.

  Keriam sat at his desk writing steadily until they were all gathered. Shevraeth and Stad sat all the way forward. As the others arrived Shevraeth listened to ring of heels on the stone floor, the rustle of cloth, the creak of the wooden benches as they sat. Even with the windows open Shevraeth could smell the polish on their new, fine blackweave riding boots.

  Other than a couple of furtive whispers once or twice, no one spoke. Shevraeth got the sense that the room was full—the sound of a room full of people, even when motionless, has a different quality than an empty room.

  At some point he knew Senelac was in the room. His shoulder blades itched. But he did not turn around.

  Senelac, who had chosen to sit at the very back, struggled not to peer between all those broad gray-covered shoulders to single out his. Finally she gave up. He was definitely taller, now. In fact, he was as tall as Forthan. The fitted uniform along the line of his shoulders—

  Arrrrrgh.

  She closed her eyes.

  Presently Keriam glanced up. “The first-year command class is going to continue the city attack drills. We might yet learn something, and it keeps morale up. People like to be doing, and like to see us doing. But half of you will have as your first assignment to set up a covert communication system—and the other half will try to break it.”

  He paused to let them consider it.

  Shevraeth’s first reaction was to ask why—it seemed too frivolous. Didn’t they already have all kinds of communication systems?

  Oh, but what if—

  No, they weren’t planning for what if.

  They were planning for when.

  As in, when Norsunder took the city.

  A cold, sick feeling settled in his guts as Keriam went on to outline the instructions, and then he finished: “We will continue with field problems and solutions when the first games begin. But for now this is your assignment, so I’ve seen to it that you all are assigned a perimeter patrol watch per week. You’re to see that those are minimally covered, and that your faces are seen at least once around the academy before you commence your exercise.” Pause. “Questions?”

  Nobody had any yet.

  “Stad, remain behind. Since you’ll be in charge of the first mission, you’ll need a few words of instruction.”

  They filed out, except for Stad.

  Shevraeth was full of questions, but none of them were the type of thing he could ask Keriam, at least not in front of the other seniors.

  Because he’d been the first in, he was the last out except for Stad, already deep in conversation with Commander Keriam. He started slowly down the steps, aware of the medallion swinging inside his shirt that he’d been living with for two years.

  So he was startled when a hand gripped his arm, tugging him away from the turn through the archway that would lead back in the direction of the academy. He shifted, chopped down—and stopped his hand when it touched Senelac’s forearm. He stared down into her face, wits blown, replaced by a rush of warmth that melted away that earlier snow.

  And she watched his expression go from blank to intent to the most wonderful surprise and happiness. It melted her, too.

  She gritted her teeth against words, and tugged his arm again. His arm, which felt like shaped oak. He was, it seemed, even stronger than last summer; he must have spent the entire winter drilling. Though he still looked tall and thin. No. She did a covert scan as they passed under the glowglobe outside of a boot-maker’s shuttered shop. He wasn’t thin, he was lean. She thought hazily, he would never look like Gannan, all parade-ground muscle. He was like the king, if the king ever grew up. They were muscled like mountain cats.

  He walked obediently enough beside her, and as soon as they rounded a corner she stopped in an empty intersection between the winter hay storage barns and the gear repair area, and gave in to the temptation she had wrestled with all winter, and kissed him again. And he kissed her right back, just as fiercely.

  It was as fiery as the first time, and even sweeter.

  She broke it off, her senses swimming, and groaned. “All winter,” she muttered, “I thought about you. But...” She cast a short, sharp sigh. “And here we are again. All right. Let’s see how we do, then.” She s
cowled. “But. If you ever go looking all round for me again on academy-side, I will never speak to you again. Ever. I will. Not. Risk my life’s work for a few kisses.”

  It seemed natural to him that she’d take charge of whatever relationship they had. He had no experience, she was older, and seemed to know what she was doing—but he could not hide his surprise. “Why would anyone care? No one will ever see us doing anything wrong in the academy.”

  “You idiot,” she said fiercely, jerked away, and stalked at a headlong pace. He had to lengthen his stride to keep up. “You keep forgetting you are the foreigner. Most are used to you being here. I can see you are as well. But with all the troubles—Fath is back for one purpose only, and that’s to catch Forthan. If she can, and—” She sighed again. “It’s that everyone is watching everyone. And tempers are short because of the threat.”

  He sensed she was hedging, that she protested all that because there was a reason underneath all the talk. But whatever it was, she obviously wasn’t ready to tell him yet.

  “I’ll know all your schedules by tomorrow,” she said, after they’d walked a ways down an alley behind the big houses on the main street. “I make the schedules for us this year. We can meet in the city. Take a walk to the park.” She grinned.

  Last summer Shevraeth had learned that that innocuous phrase, overheard once or twice his first year and last year, meant people were twoing.

  He was going to answer, but a dog barked at them. Through an open window upstairs came the rhythmic clatter of a loom. The harmless sounds broke the imagined perimeter of privacy and tightened Senelac up again.

  She turned abruptly away before they reached the main street, so he walked alone down through the old, mossy-smelling, low archway to the academy.

  THIRTY-FIVE

  “Shut up, shut up!” Gannan yelled, and when no one paid any heed, Stad stepped up to Gannan’s shoulder, flicked the grubby paper Gannan held in his hand, and said loudly, “Fine. Go ahead and burn the schedule, Gannan. They don’t care.”

  “That's the schedule? Why didn’t you say we've got our schedule already, Gannan?” Ventdor protested.

  “Already? I thought it would be after inspection—” Hauth proclaimed to the rest of the room, not that anyone listened to him.

  “We have to do some of that inspecting, remember, rock head?” Baudan retorted. “Or are you volunteering to do it all?”

  “Shut up, road apples,” Nermand began.

  Gannan flicked a look at Stad, got a tiny nod, and held up the paper between forefingers and thumbs as if to begin ripping.

  Instant silence.

  Gannan flushed, wishing he could promise them a big scarfle if they’d shut up about it, and do what they were told. Like he’d done last year, when he’d had to be a substitute rad. But it only worked on little boys. Now that they were all seniors and had liberty, and could bring food to the rec room, who cared? How unfair was that, and how did the other senior rads manage?

  He struggled with the impulse to issue threats—but he remembered quite well how he’d responded to rad threats, and he knew, and he knew the others knew, that he would never deal out breezes to fellow seniors, though he was legally allowed. Not that they’d do anything inside the barracks. They’d put up with it in here. But there’d be retribution out behind, with boy guards posted, and while Gannan was pretty sure he’d win against most, they’d all give him a hot time first. He did not want to risk running around with a black eye and getting laughed at. Because whether he won the fights or not, everyone would know it meant he couldn’t control his own House.

  He glared at them, then discovered that they’d been waiting in silence. So he whooshed out the worst of his anger, then said, “Here’s the schedule. Some of you will be rads on classes, which means you go there as soon as morning inspection is over.”

  Looks back and forth, a few comments began but when Stad, standing behind Gannan, raised a hand, they stopped.

  Gannan cleared his throat and began reading out the schedule. Shevraeth, who was glad that he’d have a couple of classes with Marec and Stad, expected to be in the senior classes in everything. What he did not expect was that he would be teaching the scrubs knife throwing. He’d known in a passive way that there wasn’t anything more to be taught him in that. It was now a mere matter of practice, and he did it when he wanted to think, as all the moves had become pure habit. He always hit the target now, it had ceased to be a matter of moment last year. But he hadn’t expected anyone to, well, notice. Which was absurd.

  When Gannan finished they clattered in their new, stiff boots off to breakfast. Shevraeth’s mind promptly presented him with a vivid memory of last night’s walk in the park.

  And her threat beforehand. So he avoided any glances whatever at the girls’ side, though at least during the first part of breakfast, he couldn’t think of anything else. On his way out of the mess hall Shevraeth glimpsed Marec with the new colts, who were being kept still and silent at their table until the seniors left, the way he had his colt year. Marec gave him a brief grin, which Shevraeth returned, and then he was outside.

  As they walked to the parade ground for inspection, they talked back and forth about schedules, including the fact that now, as seniors, they were expected to be doing those perimeter guard patrols during the first night watch. Only on games would they do the toughest watch, from midnight to first bell, as practice; the masters or last-year seniors would still handle those in the academy. Except if they got a gating like Sindan Hotears had earned for his House their first year as colts. Baudan wondered aloud—with grim pleasure—how horrible that month had been to endure, and he wondered how creative the other seniors got with expressing their displeasure.

  Gannan wondered to himself how humiliated their House rad had felt at not being able to control anything. He’d always wanted a wand—he’d so often dreamed all the details of beating a loudmouth into tears and terror—but he knew it would only work with the little boys. And then Keriam would drop on him. Not like the good old days, his dad kept saying, and Gannan sighed.

  o0o

  Shevraeth’s first day as a teaching rad was easy enough. The master in charge took the first session, showing the little boys how to grip the knife properly, and put them through the correct swing and release. Shevraeth and a senior from the other house, with whom he’d be swapping off this duty, observed. At the master’s request Shevraeth demonstrated by throwing a series of knives into a narrow post set up for the purpose, each landing in a precise row a hand’s width apart. Right hand then left. These things had become so habitual he was more amused by the boys’ wide-eyed awe than he was impressed by his own expertise.

  They’d be expected to run the classes the way the master did. The boys were worried about defaulters, but the rads worried about the boys making the rads look bad if the boys learned sloppily or got out of control.

  And so the day sped by.

  And then another.

  And another...

  Firstday evening the next week, the command class met again to hold their first exercise. Shevraeth was in the half chosen to play Norsundrians. The problem was to design a communications system; the setup was to get a message from the castle out to the guardhouses around the city.

  Stad’s idea was to send three messages. His team had debated hotly on whether there should be two blanks and one real one, or two false and a real, everyone saying that if the enemy finds one then everyone is put at risk. Two fake ones would lower the risk. Except, Stad pointed out, there was risk in everything. Meanwhile three, carried covertly, would get the message out faster.

  So three were sent—and three were captured, one as soon as he left the palace, one along the road, and Shevraeth’s group, watching over the farthest guardhouse from the surrounding rooftops, spotted the messenger, swung down with well-trained rapidity, surrounded their quarry, and landed on him hard.

  “Hey!” he yelped, his voice muffled by a layer of muscular bodies.

&nbs
p; “Get him up,” the second-year senior in command of their riding said briskly. “And we’ll get his message out of him.”

  “We can’t raise a ruckus here on the street,” the other senior said—with difficulty, as he was on top of the writhing pile.

  Shevraeth glanced around at the empty street; light glowed in an upstairs window over the big ironmongery on the nearer corner.

  He didn’t need to speak. All had the same thought: not wanting to explain their noise to a huge ironmonger. If he was really fond of his sleep he might not let them get to the part about king’s business.

  So the two seniors gagged their prisoner and everyone helped to bear him off, still kicking and writhing mightily, to the side of one of the city’s two rivers, which had a long swathe of green between the water and the nearest buildings. There they thumped their prisoner onto the grass.

  “Give it up or we’ll get it out of you,” the riding captain said, ripping free the gag.

  “Pooh! Pah!” The prisoner spat. “What was that? It was full of fuzz!”

  “My sash from last year. Tucked it in my pocket in case. Bit linty. Sorry.”

  “Norsundrians won’t apologize for lint, fatwit,” the other second-year senior exclaimed in disgust. “They’ll get right to the tortures.”

  “Tortures? Hey! Nobody said anything about—”

  “We’re Norsundrians, dolt! Of course there’ll be tortures!”

  The prisoner scowled, then yanked a folded paper from inside his tunic. “Let’s say you did ’em, then. I dunno if I’d ever hold out for torture. I guess it depends on how angry I’d be. Or how important it is, but one thing for sure.” He turned the scowl upward. “I am not going to sit here and let you give me skull raps and rug burns and all the rest until I rat.”

 
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