A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith

  Three or four more commands followed, all conveyed through his legs. He performed each and watched the horse’s ears, her breathing, feeling her great muscles beneath him. Finally he was told to flex both legs all the way down, and the mare stopped.

  Senelac gestured, a flick of the fingers, and he leaped down.

  “Come here.”

  She led the way to a narrow door between two sets of stalls. They passed tack rooms, everything hanging neatly, and tables where girls and boys worked under the supervision of one man and one woman. Beyond that lay a room with stacks of bagged oats. At the other end they passed through another door that opened onto a courtyard.

  This yard was enclosed by a high wall. It extended nearly the length of the front courtyard. On its far side he could make out hoof beats and the high voices of smaller boys.

  Before him was an amazing sight. Obstacles lay strewn all over this yard, about which three girls on horseback rode steadily. All three of the girls had their hands tied loosely behind their backs, and they were blindfolded.

  And yet they rode as if they could see, as if they held reins—even when the animals leaped over low obstacles.

  “They have to learn to trust their mounts, to understand them, listen to them, before they can truly guide,” Senelac said.

  Shevraeth nodded, so astonished at what he saw that he did not know how to respond. Presently he said, “Can you do that?”

  A soft chuckle. “Since I was ten. We Senelacs have always been good, and I’m the best. My brother saw to that. Come.” A whack from her palm against his arm.

  He followed her inside, but they did not go through to the barn. Instead she made an abrupt turn into the space with the feedbags, and when he stepped inside after her, she whirled around and shut the door, setting her shoulders to it.

  “You have a good seat, light hands, and you have the instinct to listen to your mount. I think I’ve reached a decision,” she said. “But a question or two first. To be sure. See, the king wants you to ride. They don’t.” A tip of her head in the direction of the boys’ side of the academy.

  Shevraeth thought: why? It was easy to assume that the others had taken a dislike to him, except he knew that people rarely acted with one motive. Besides, only a few had ever seen him, and of those a handful had actually spoken to him. No, the issue lay not with him, but elsewhere.

  He’d been frowning down at his hands, and looked up. Senelac was waiting for a response.

  So he said, “What is it? Do they think I’ll take the knowledge away and come back with an army?”

  Her quick grin was both merry and a little wry. When she spoke, it was with decided approval. “Some fear that, yes. Others would love that. They know you come from the other side of the continent, but some of ’em are so ignorant for all they know that’s a day’s ride away. A few have the stupid reason of wanting to keep our military superiority just to keep it. Some are afraid of change. We’ve had so much, of late.”

  He nodded. That made sense.

  “So, do you want to learn to ride?” She jerked a thumb toward the hidden court. “Really ride?”

  “Yes,” he said.

  She grinned again. “Good. Then be here every morning before dawn. Every morning. I’ll put you into the class with the little boys, as ordered, but in addition.” She laughed softly. “You’ll ride bareback, and learn how a horse moves, what their muscles do, how they talk to you. I will teach you myself.”


  Russav: I think I have time for a couple of observations.

  Shevraeth did not add he hoped he had the strength for one. Every part of his body hurt, right down to the bone. Especially in the mornings when he first woke. But mentioning that even in a letter seemed too much like whining. He would let no complaints past either lips or fingers. It would prove what at least half his bunkmates seemed to believe, and what some of the older ones sneered, barely within earshot: that he was soft. A coddled foreigner. Clumsy. Weak.


  The reason I have time is that this is Restday. Last week’s Restday was taken up by punishment drill when three of my barracks-mates celebrated the lifting of the mess-gag and the inspections by breaking rules. Never mind which ones they broke. Too many to list. Angry as the others were, no one blabbed. So we all put in an entire afternoon cleaning, scouring, sweeping, then when we were really tired, various weapons drills. Not the fun ones, of course.

  Today’s Restday was mostly taken up by the first wargame of the season. They live for these wargames. Talk about them endlessly. This particular wargame was considered an easy one, that is, we march out to the field beyond the horse training paddocks, divide into ridings, carrying these grubby flags and nothing else. The goal is to protect your flag and steal everyone else’s, and to that end we spent the entire day out under a heavy rainstorm chasing about after these flags.

  We lost. The barracks one over won, the prize being our barracks flag, which is hung over their door, and they take precedence for a few days in mess line and at lineup for the colt classes. From the way they strutted and the rest cursed, this stuff really seems to matter.

  All that by way of a reason for the week-and-a-half gap in writing, not my observations, which are these:

  One, they use a lot of wood. I try not to show my dismay, because I know our Compact would be regarded as overly stringent by the rest of the world. They all have their own ways of dealing with wood that is acceptable to both the natural and magical world, and to prove it Fire Sticks are as common here as at home. The beds and benches and tables are all made of wood, though from the look and feel it is centuries old and has hardened into something not unlike iron. Doors, too, and my knuckles taught me that our tapestry custom of knocking on the door frame hurts. (And some of the others assumed I’d been fighting. More of that anon.) But the wood that goes into arrows! Yes. They shoot arrows, not only on foot but from horseback. The sight of the seniors riding at the gallop and shooting at posts is impressive, make no mistake. At first I was not going to learn it (I was an abysmal failure at archery at the test) but the more I think about what my father said about the king’s responsibilities and mysterious murders, the less I am convinced I’m right to refuse learning whatever they teach me. I don’t have to use it. Or even to like it. But I think I had better know it.

  Janold entered, shaking rain off his hair. “Lights out soon.”

  The others looked up, one from reading, some from repairing their clothes, most from the card game taking place on Hauth’s and Andaun’s beds, which had been shoved together for the purpose. Shevraeth was the only one writing; two were already asleep.

  I will say they retrieve every arrow they can, and they reuse wood as scrupulously as we would.

  I am running out of free time, and who knows if next Restday will afford me any. So my second is this. I can understand having places for quarrels, I can barely understand why some of the bigger boys or the ones good at scrapping would spend time prowling that area looking for fights. I cannot get a grip on what I first thought bare-faced hypocrisy: the universal emphasis on obeying the rules, enforced with those disgusting canes, yet everyone from the highest to the lowest participates in overlooking their breaking, when it comes to these same duels. There is something at work here that is not courtly lying, which until now has been my internal standard for hypocrisy.

  The strangest thing of all is that the dueling has its own set of rules, strictly obeyed or you set off yet another round of duels. When I say ‘duels’ it does not mean two people with weapons of choice. Here there are no weapons (and now I know why!) it’s all fistfights, and there can be any number involved—

  The lights-out bell tolled, the sour note reverberating down the high stone walls between the barracks buildings and then echoing faintly off the higher castle walls. Shevraeth knew by now that he would have enough time to stopper his ink bottle, shove the on-going letter inside his trunk, fling his clothes off, and get into bed before the glowglobe would be clapped

  Some grumbled and griped, but silence fell. As had happened for the past two weeks, Shevraeth slid promptly into exhausted sleep, waking at first-bell, which was a full watch—what they called four hours—after midnight. Two thirds of a candle at home.

  Once or twice that week Stad had also got up, dressing hastily then vanishing through the door without even looking Shevraeth’s way.

  The others still had half a watch of sleep ahead, but Shevraeth pulled on his clothes, tiptoed to the cleaning frame and felt the sleep-grit snap from eyes, mouth, skin. On the ship journey he’d learned how to brush his own hair, for his father had warned him that there would be no personal servants at the academy. He ran his fingers impatiently through his hair, yanking through snarls, then tied it with his ribbon. He picked up his boots and trod noiselessly to the door, as he had every morning since his first interview with Senelac. Sniff, listen. Good, no rain. He ran across the courtyard, and as soon as he was through the archway to the main passage he paused and shoved his feet into his boots.

  Then he ran, for the morning was chill. The run was excruciating at first. He passed the archways leading to the other colt barracks, one, two, three, and then he began to feel warm, the ache in his muscles lessening to what he now considered bearable. Strange, that. At home, this much ache would have caused him to take an easy day or two at his desk, reading and writing. There were no easy days here. Ever.

  He reached the great barns and looked around the globe-lit riding paddock, fighting yawns as he performed the by-now familiar tasks: locating the night watch stable hand, selecting a horse experienced at night training, mounting, riding round and round and round, attention to seat, grip of legs, and all the subtle signals the horse sent to him in response to his own body’s signals.

  When Senelac arrived before dawn she stood in the still-dark barn, observing him. That made the fifth time this week he was there not only on time, but earlier than she was. As soon as she entered the yard she began issuing a stream of criticisms.

  Business as usual.

  The one good thing about getting up so early, he’d discovered, was that he was thoroughly warmed up by breakfast time. He followed the others inside, his thoughts as usual confined inside his own head. He was not the only silent one at those early meals, though the first-week mess gag had been lifted, and the mess hall filled with noisy voices at each meal—unless an entire barracks had enough defaulters to put them under the gag rule again.

  After breakfast they ran to their first class. He had not expected to like archery, given the ban against it at home. The first week he hadn’t done anything but practice drawing the bow and pretend shooting, over and over until his arms quivered like loose string. Already he could feel a kind of inward calm once he began the rhythm: raise, aim, draw, shoot—the arrow arm snapping back. He wasn’t the only one practicing the form over and over, at least. Sloppy shooting arms had landed several boys over scrub age in that class.

  On his way to knife throwing he paused at the fence of the big paddock. A riding of older boys galloped in line. On command they drew their arrows and shot, arms snapping back to a straight line from fingertip to fingertip before arcing down to nip another arrow and in the same smooth half-circle bringing another arrow to the string. As the horses galloped along a track, the boys shot at spaced targets.

  Their movements were so smooth, deliberate—accurate—Shevraeth decided to adapt that same circle to his knife throwing.

  He rarely missed dead center that day.

  He scarcely noticed the others watching speculatively. He was locked inside his head, partly from tiredness, partly from the rarity of conversation. Mostly from intense concentration. When the master dismissed the class, most of the boys took off running. Shevraeth followed more slowly, his thoughts still on that smooth circle, and how it also applied to the saber-fighting from horseback. He could see how effective it was, once you built up your strength and speed, but it required him to unlearn all he’d learned about point, about the narrow bounds of the polite duel of the east. If you could call dueling polite—

  Whop! Pain—someone yanked his hair.

  He jerked around, right arm snapping up in a block. His forearm knocked the hand away as he looked up into unfamiliar pale blue eyes.

  “Cut that hair off,” said the boy. A senior, by his size, by the fitted coat.

  Shevraeth fought against the haze of surprise, confusion, tiredness. He did not recognize this senior. He was not a radlav, because he did not have a wand.

  The practice area was filled with seniors. He had forgotten one of his father’s earliest rules: Be observant at all times.

  Everyone stared at him, expecting him to respond.

  His heart thumped. “What’s it to you?”

  “Your presence,” came the retort, “is an insult.” And on some laughter from behind, the senior curled his lip.

  Shevraeth crossed his arms. “I’m desolated.” Too late his muscles responded to old home habit, and he performed a slight, ironic bow, one hand up in mirror mode. It did not take much imagination for the Marloven boys to interpret that as a kind of airy dismissal.

  Several of the seniors laughed.

  The class Shevraeth had been practicing with, the boys next level down from senior, had backed up, all watching the foreigner, the seniors, the foreigner. The rules didn’t cover this situation. Did they protect the foreigner, who wasn’t really one of them yet, or let him stand alone, though he hadn’t done anything to be gated out?

  The seniors’ laugh seemed to anger Shevraeth’s opponent even more than his bow. He flushed with anger, then said, loudly, “The king says we all go by the regs. That means outlanders too.” The word ‘king’ was delivered with a teeth-baring sneer.

  There’s something other than my long hair at stake here.

  The bell rang for third class, and the younger boys broke and ran. Shevraeth turned away. His shoulder blades twitched, but he kept his pace steady and did not look back.

  At sword practice, he was no longer locked in his thoughts. He was intensely aware of the reflective gaze of the seam-faced master, and the whispers and furtive stares of the little boys. Word of the strange encounter had somehow spread ahead of him.

  While he stood there with the spring sunlight warming his body in its shapeless gray tunic, his mind returned to that wintry day. After his father had told him he was coming here, his mother had summoned him for her own interview.

  “Will you promise me something, my boy?” she had said.

  “Of course, Mother.”

  She was tiny and birdlike. He’d been taller than her at thirteen, and he was the smallest of most of the boys their age at court.

  When she hugged him, he felt the trembling in her arms, and a swoop of sorrow had gone through his middle. “I know you intend to keep your promise, but I also know what I ask will not be easy,” she had said. “It seems that you must learn something of war, if only to understand how best to prevent it, or failing that, how to control it with as little cost as can be. Too many of our records show that wars conducted by those who know nothing of the matter can be more bloody, and long-lasting, than fights against conquerors such as the Marlovens of the past. Learn, therefore, what they have to teach, but do not become one of them.”

  “I don’t want to become any Marloven,” Vidanric had protested.

  “You know that they number among your ancestors,” Princess Elestra replied, smiling at him. “And I don’t mean any Marloven. I mean the royal family, the same ones who produced Ivandred the Conqueror.”

  Whose descendent I am going to now, Vidanric had thought.

  “It was Ivandred’s sister Theraez who came among us and married into the Calahanras family. Her granddaughter married one of the Renselaeus brothers. You therefore have a double cousinship with the young Marloven king. That might, indeed, lie behind his decision to accept you into their training, which at least historically was kept very secret.”

  Vidanric had bow
ed agreement.

  “I tell you only to give you perspective, and thus to come to my request. Promise me on your honor that you will endeavor, at least once a week—every day if you can—to perform an act of kindness. It will not count if it is meant to gain you something, whether praise, friendship, or material. It must be unseen, unspoken. Promise me.”

  He’d been trying to keep that promise, but without anyone knowing. It would be sickening to be caught at it, to force some boy who maybe didn’t even want him here to say thank you—if he had manners. So Shevraeth gave some surreptitious twitches to Ventdor’s bed (he couldn’t seem to ever get it straight) before inspection, put Stad’s boots through the cleaning frame one night when Stad had fallen asleep without meaning to. Stad was up as early as Shevraeth, vanishing somewhere. It couldn’t be punishment. Stad never did anything wrong. But he never said where he was in Shevraeth’s hearing. He also stayed up late when they were offered extra practice after supper. He worked hard, and he slept like he’d been knocked cold.

  Shevraeth also left the last hunk of cheese for someone else, when he would have liked it. Little things all. But he meant them as kindnesses, and he hoped no one saw him at it.

  This promise to his mother, so unexpectedly difficult to keep, was still on his mind at the midday meal. He sensed the stares again, though when he looked around no one met his eyes. Round-faced Baudan set his tray down abruptly next to him, and said, “You gonna cut your hair?”

  Shevraeth put his bread down. “I take it someone’s been blabbing. Nothing better to talk about?”

  Baudan snorted. “Everyone always blabs about Tdanerend Sindan.”

  Stad was sitting across from Shevraeth. He leaned forward. “Sindan was supposed to be Thanar Valdlav.”

  Shevraeth had learned that the Thanar Valdlav was the head boy commanding the academy foot exercises, as opposed to Danas Valdlav, the boy cavalry commander. Those were the exact translations of the academy ranks, but he still hadn’t quite figured out the implied meanings. Zheirban—the Danas Valdlav—was supposedly the highest ranking boy at the school, but there were many who seemed to think Thanar Valdlav as high, or rather at least as important. Shevraeth couldn’t figure out if this was because of some elusive attribute of the rank, or because of the boys themselves.

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