A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith


  But exhaustion from a full day of being on the run, followed by a meal of the thick, slightly stale trail bread that Shevraeth had stashed a couple of weeks before—intending to change it out once a month—defeated uneasiness, and they fell asleep one by one, most lying close by one another for comfort.

  Shevraeth and two volunteers paced a close perimeter on watch, all three staying in a circle where they could see one another. Just like on camp games.

  Drill, plans in place. Everyone knowing what to do, Shevraeth thought. It makes all the difference between panic and purpose.

  Marlovair had insisted that he be the second watch, and Shevraeth agreed. Marlovair might not be aware of it, but Shevraeth knew that some of his regained authority was the direct result of Marlovair choosing to obey. The concept of command was no more tangible than air, but as vital. But it did not, as Valdon Shagal had said in Take Heed my Heirs!, originate in your own mind, no matter how much you think it your right to have it. It originates in the minds of others, when they choose to obey. And as soon as you forget that fact, you start becoming a tyrant as you try to force those minds to align with yours.

  When the moon had moved roughly halfway on its arc, Shevraeth declared a watch change. He left it to Marlovair to divide his fellow guards and set his knives carefully on the grass, then lie down within reach of them.

  Urgent whispers jolted into his dreams, followed by a hiss, “It’s the king!”

  Shevraeth lunged up, and remembered his knives. He fumbled on the grass, still half-asleep, then straightened. There was Senrid’s boyish face in the weak blue light of dawn.

  Senrid was grinning. “It worked, it worked! Everyone is out, everyone is safe.”

  Marlovair rubbed his eyes. “So Norsunder really invaded?”

  Shevraeth made a wry face, suppressing the urge to say, Do you actually think I made that up?

  Senrid flexed his hands. “Mages only. And I don’t think I can hold the wards.” He hissed out his breath. “Two years of work. Did not last a day. That’s Detlev for you. Look, Shevraeth, you have to get out now; I don’t know if they’re coming over the borders or not. I’ll send your things when I can. Well done,” he added, flashing another grin. Then he waved his hands. “But I can’t hold ’em out any more. Go.” And then in the formal voice, so everyone understood what was happening, “You are relieved.”

  “You have the post,” Shevraeth responded as bewildered boys flipped gazes back and forth between them. Before anyone could say anything Shevraeth reached into his shirt, gripped the medallion, said the words.

  The last thing he saw before the world was wrenched away was Marlovair’s astonished face.

  FORTY-SEVEN

  Painfully life, light, and sound coalesced into sense again, leaving Shevraeth feeling as if he’d been dragged over rocks by a runaway horse. He staggered. A hand took his arm in a kind but firm grip and helped him a few paces to—

  A chair. He dropped into it, breathing hard against the surges of nausea that slowly receded. Someone put a warm cup of something clean-smelling into his fingers; he drank, and the last of the magical residue swept away.

  “You transferred a long distance,” a young woman said. She was maybe his age, and wore a green robe.

  She spoke in Sartoran, the Sartoran accent of the Remalna side of the continent.

  “I’m home,” Shevraeth whispered.

  The young woman shrugged faintly, and he remembered that he’d spoken in Marloven.

  In Remalnan: “I did come a long way.”

  It felt strange to speak his home tongue again. He’d been writing it in letters, but he had not shaped the spoken words for so long the muscles around the front of his mouth felt clumsy.

  “You’re Remalnan.” The young woman’s freckled brow cleared. “You’ll find your money-changer at the end of the street. Guild-approved,” she added, giving him a second, puzzled stare as he stood up.

  He knew where he was now. This was a magic-transfer Destination, probably in the Guild Hall, which was where most were located, unless owned by someone.

  The air over the tiled floor flickered as if a thousand moths passed briefly into a ray of light, then a man appeared: short, fat, merchant robes. Another young person in green moved to help him to a chair to recover, and to clear the tiles in case someone else came through. No two could occupy the same space—that danger had long since been protected against—but the newcomer would force the old out if someone lingered, knocking them quite far if it was a long enough transfer.

  Shevraeth walked out into a noisy street that smelled strongly of brine. The light was filtered through breaking clouds. The air was cool, and underneath the tang of the sea familiar scents teased at Shevraeth’s memory. The sun was overhead—midday. I am in candle time again, not bell time.

  Candle time. The urge to do something—to scout, to retrieve supplies, to run for weapons—still gripped Shevraeth with immediacy, as his mind struggled to accept the fact that Senrid, Marlovair, the first-year seniors, and Marloven Hess were now four months’ sea journey away. Unless he bought a transfer token—with what?

  And what would I do, besides becoming another thing for Senrid to worry about? Shevraeth stared at the busy street unseeing, as he counted up facts one by one. Beginning with the realization he did not know the next stage in Senrid’s plans, because Senrid had never included him in them. The troubles in Marloven Hess were now Marloven troubles. Shevraeth was home, one less trouble for Senrid to worry about.

  Shevraeth had to accept it, and get on with his life.

  At home.

  Home. Despite all the dire letters, happiness made him smile. He’d see his parents again. Savona. His old ponies, his room above the waterfall, the quiet forests of Renselaeus. He’d hear his own language again. Home.

  He stepped off the Guild Hall porch into the street, which was clogged with wagon, cart, horse, and foot traffic, people wearing a wild variety of colors and styles of clothes. Had he arrived in the middle of a festival?

  No. These were everyday clothes. He was so used to the ubiquitous gray of Marloven Hess’s enormous armed force in the royal city—the plain clothes of the civs. Around him rose the chatter of at least four languages.

  He blinked. He walked. He breathed. But still did not feel quite real.

  Oh, but I am so close to home.

  So... how to get there? He had nothing whatsoever in the way of money. All he had were his clothes, the practice knife in his belt, and the two in his boots. Oh, and the medallion.

  His fingers closed around it. The magic was now gone from it. Untrained as he was, he could still sense by the lack of tingle in the metal that the magical spells on the heavy gold had been spent. Leaving a medallion of solid gold.

  Maybe Senrid expected it back. If so, the Renselaeus family could easily replace it. But right now, it was time to sell it. Shevraeth remembered what the transfer chamber worker had told him, and set out down the street, utterly unaware of how people took one look at him and stayed out of his way.

  The money changer had strung little flags over the door, representing the currencies they handled. The Remalnan green and gold was among them. Soon he was at the counter, smelling familiar spices, and speaking the language of home. The medallion brought a goodly sum; the proprietor offered as a matter of course to transfer a message through the Scribe Guild. Shevraeth agreed and paid the fee without demur.

  What to say—in case there were Galdran spies along the message route?

  Reality was shifting by slow degree.

  On the paper he wrote: Father, I’m in the Port of Ela. Will arrange for a horse and start for home tomorrow. Unless you have other orders.

  He was out of the habit of signing the letters he’d sent through his golden box, since there were only three people who had access to the magic. This letter would come through the Scribe Guild, so he must sign it. His fingers were ready to write Shevraeth. He caught himself, and penned deliberately, Vidanric Renselaeus. But it f
elt like he was writing about someone else.

  He sealed the letter with waiting sealing wax and handed it off to be sent to his father through the Scribe Guild representative in Renselaeus. Then he asked who had the best riding horses. The proprietor called for his daughter, who emerged from the back, a pen stuck behind her ear. She gave him directions. He thanked them and left, and used more of the money to get himself a room at an inn that overlooked the harbor. He sat on the tiny terrace outside the room as he ate the meal he’d ordered. His eyes watered from sweet peppers and ginger-root and coriander that had become unfamiliar. It all tasted so good—so like home!

  He stared out to sea, where the westering light spangled on the water. A mass of ships rolled gently on the waves, yards crossed, as they waited for the tide to change. Shevraeth—Vidanric—tried to gather his wits together into one place and one time. He still felt divided between two selves. Shevraeth had become comfortable, full of purpose. He had left Vidanric behind when he was fifteen. Being Vidanric again felt like pulling on old clothes that he’d long outgrown. He wondered if the messages had arrived yet, and what everyone was saying.

  Where was everyone? Had Senrid taken the first-year seniors to Stad? Was Forthan riding the border, watching for Norsundrian invaders?

  Where was Senelac?

  He put down his fork (forks again!) and rubbed his eyes. One thing, distance made no difference whatsoever to that kind of hurt. Good riddance, he thought with a pang of anger, but he pressed the palms of his hands against his temples, consciously forcing away the wrath. He would not let himself start thinking of Fenis Senelac as a villain. There were too many good memories, and as for the end—well, she’d been as unhappy as he was.

  He finished the food and ventured out to find the horse auction. It was mid-afternoon now. He wandered along the streets, guided by landmarks, until at last he reached the bazaar. It was located halfway up a hill, large and clean and airy, the animals looking well-fed, their feet well-cared for if perhaps not to the exacting standards of the Marloven girls. He watched as buyers and sellers dickered, handling the animals, riding, checking them over. To his eye they were hard-mouthed, uncouth.

  The owner, an older man, was impatient at the young warrior’s questions at first. But the questions kept coming, more and more specific about history and training. The man gradually became more deferential. When at last Vidanric was shown a young two-year-old that had been labeled on the high-spirited side, he asked for a ride.

  The animal seemed puzzled, slow, even uncertain, tossing its head and sidling. Vidanric fought his impatience, reminding himself that he’d been riding Marloven style for three and a half years. He gently but firmly repeated a simple command—knee, spoken command, praise when the horse moved—and felt a beginning response to his touch. He gave the horse a couple rounds in the paddock, and when he finally dismounted, discovered several people watching, their expressions difficult to parse. Shrugging, he thoroughly checked the horse over, liking its long legs, its intelligent response. Its coloring was nothing extraordinary: it was a dark gray with dapples that indicated it would lighten in color. After three years of mostly dun and fawn-colored Nelkereth racers with their beautiful arched necks, small heads, and perfectly proportioned limbs, it did not seem a beauty. But he did not care for that.

  He was going home.

  “I’ll take this one. We’ll train on the road.” A wave of sadness gripped him, and he knew it for a reminder of the Marloven girls.

  He would train this horse, and if he heard Senelac’s voice as he remembered the Marloven methods, well, he could live with that.

  “Yes, sir.” The seller bowed repeatedly. “Yes, sir.”

  “I’ll be by tomorrow morning,” Vidanric said. “I’ll want a feed bag, and gear for a cross-country ride.”

  A deep bow. Whispers from some of the others watching.

  Strange. Everyone seemed strange. Bowing seemed strange.

  I’ve forgotten all our customs. Or maybe I never noticed half of what was around me, he thought, striding off with a martial swing that caused heads to turn in his wake, as a young woman said to her companion, “Where do you learn to ride like that?”

  o0o

  The only other purchase he made was a sword. He felt a little foolish buying one, especially at first when he couldn’t seem to find a decent cavalry blade, much less anything in Marloven steel. The straight sword he’d been used to as a small boy seemed unbearably clumsy. He had always known he’d have to come home to it again, but he hesitated, about to walk out, when the armorer—anxious for a sale—said, “Are ye looking for one of those big swords from foreign parts?”

  “A cavalry sword.” Vidanric gestured, flicking his fingers slightly outward at the tip.

  “Ah! I do have one. Old. No one has ever wanted it, so I’ve kept it in the back. Bide here.” The man ran into the dark room beyond, from which came the unmusical clangs of steel and a few thumps, then he emerged victorious, brandishing a dulled blade with a worn wooden handle.

  Vidanric took it, frowning as he hefted it, then—with a care to either side—gave it an experimental swing or two. Not bad, actually—not as well-balanced as he was used to, but heavy enough. Solid tang, handle fitted by someone who knew their business.

  “I’ll not charge for a sharpening.” The man was obviously glad to get rid of something he must have bought from a traveler off a ship ages ago.

  “Then I’ll take it,” Vidanric said, though it and the horse had seriously diminished his stock of coins. But all he had ahead of him was a few days’ easy ride along the coast of Gil al Mardgar and he’d reach Renselaeus, which lay between the harbor and Remalna. If need be he could sleep outside. The weather was warm.

  The next morning he paid off his shot at the inn, and arranged the saddle pad to carry the horse feed as well as to allow easy access to his sword. He stopped at the Remalnan travelers’ exchange, and was sharply disappointed to discover that there was no message for him. Not surprising, he told himself. His father probably didn’t trust this method of communication any more than he did. His parents knew he was coming. That was good enough.

  Galdran and his spying and threats were becoming more real as Marloven Hess’s concerns gradually faded from his immediate thoughts. He wished again that he’d been able to stop at least for his gold case. Strange, how you go your entire life being used to messages traveling no faster than a messenger can ride or sail, but as soon as you get a magical aid, you adapt at once, and become impatient at its absence, when life reverts to its regular course.

  He mounted up, taking a little time to work with his young horse, who seemed receptive to his touch and his voice. They threaded through the early morning traffic, moving slowly enough that Vidanric was able to listen to some of the talk around him. Most was about immediate and personal concerns, but twice he heard the word ‘refugees’ and once “If Sartor falls again—” but the rest of that sentence was about trade laws and how they’d change.

  The horse was promisingly well-behaved despite slow oxen-drawn wagons taking, as only the heavy can, the very middle of the road, the shrieking children darting in and out of the crowds, boisterous sailors, dashing carriage horses, ordinary riding hacks, and stolid mules drawing carts. Vidanric could hardly wait to get out on the open road.

  FORTY-EIGHT

  The coastal road was well tended by Gil al Mardgar’s Road Guild. There were road-houses every so often, some of them no more than roofs on poles to pull under when a heavy rainfall occurred, but that was sufficient. Traffic was steady enough that Vidanric was never alone at any of these, as bands of rain swept through.

  He fell into conversation during each of these stops as he (missing his rainproof cloak) and other travelers watched rain wash down the sides of the road. Everyone he met asked if he was a warrior on liberty from somewhere. The first two or three times he said “I’m going home to Remalna.” Every time he gave that answer the conversation dried up.

  Wondering if
the cause was he or Remalna, the fourth time it happened, with a fellow his own age who was carrying a wagonload of rugs, he answered instead, “I finished training. I’m riding around to see the sights.”

  And the fellow opened up, talking about trade, horses, travel, which inns were good and which bad, and sights along the coastal roads. “You won’t want to risk inland.” He waved his hand. “Hear tell of brigands and the like inland, especially close to the border. You won’t want to go into Remalna if you don’t have to—everyone says the brigandage is on order of their king. Some say, in fact, he’s the leader of ’em.”

  “Really?” Vidanric asked. “What do the people of Remalna say about that?”

  The young man sidled glances at Vidanric’s weapons, and stepped closer to the doorway. He looked uncomfortable. “Dunno, except the owner insists we pay to put our goods on boats, though it adds to the cost, and stay at sea along Remalna’s coast. Then land at Nal Hamath or Tussora and go up-river.”

  “So Remalna is a nation of brigands?”

  The young man made a little business of peering out from under the roof toward the sky. “Rain’s lifting. Best be on my way. Look, all I’m saying is, you better not only have business well-established if you go to Remalna, but papers saying so. I don’t point a finger at anyone, not at all, but there’s bad news coming out of there. That’s all, so take heed or take ire as you will.”

  “Thanks for the warning.” Vidanric wondered what he had done to make the fellow so uneasy.

  The traveler was not the last person to warn Vidanric against continuing on that road. Despite the rumors naming Remalna a nest of brigands, Vidanric cut inland. The first cause was an inn that gouged most of the rest of his money from him. If the rest of the inns along the common road were that grasping, he might as well sleep outside. He could see the purple line of Renselaeus on the horizon, too hazy for him to gauge distance with any accuracy. But it was there. And not too soon. He was out of money, except for a scattering of coppers that would get him another meal or two.

 
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