Inda by Sherwood Smith

  “You decide that.”

  Emboldened by the fact that Noth hadn’t been annihilated, the other boys started in with questions.


  “What you see is what you get.”

  “What bells do we have to stop at, if nobody’s won?”


  “What if—”

  “I think that’s enough. Wait until you see your terrain, and figure it out from there. Now. The ridings.”

  They stilled, some betraying partisanships by little signs. Gand did no more than purse his lips, but Sponge, Inda, and Dogpiss, watching narrowly, knew what was coming next before Gand even spoke. Dogpiss grimaced. Inda repressed a sigh.

  Sponge, as always, hid his reaction.

  Gand noted it all, though he gave no sign. He called out, “Sindan-An. Noth. Ndarga. Askan. Tya-Vayir.”

  Of course they’d split up friends, Dogpiss’ wry glance, his slight shrug, signaled to Inda.

  Inda’s roll of the eyes, his sideways glance, returned awareness of the fact that at least the followers of Marlo-Vayir Tvei (now known through the academy as Cherry-Stripe, a nickname he would have resented had he gotten it from his fellow scrubs, but because it had come from the horsetails, he used it with pride) would be split as well.

  Whispers burned through the others, quick as grassfire, and Gand paused. The whispers ceased. “Marlo-Vayir. Algara-Vayir. Kepri-Davan. Lith. Fijirad.”

  A groan from Smartlip, quickly stifled.

  “Basna. Montrei-Vayir. Fera-Vayir. Lassad. Arveas. And obviously, the rest of you are in the final group.”

  Cherry-Stripe looked stunned, as if he’d really thought he’d have his own followers.

  Inda watched Noddy sigh, his long face resigned, as he studied Mouse Marth-Davan. Tdor’s cousin was the youngest, smallest, and most timid of all the boys. He still didn’t talk unless forced to.

  Tdor. It still hurt to think of home. At least he was getting used to that ache just above his gut, just like his feet were getting used to the unfamiliar ache of wearing boots every day. Only when would he see Hadand?

  Forget that right now. See who else was in Marth-Davan and Noddy’s group. Ennath, Biscuit Tlen—separated from his kin, when they usually moved as a mob—and Rattooth Cassad. He surveyed the two sturdy, pale-haired boys, and wondered what would they be like when not following Cherry-Stripe’s orders.

  Impressions streamed through Inda’s mind, most wordless, made up of images, tones of voice, bits of conversation half-heard over the past few days.

  “Your flags will be waiting,” Gand said. “As for the masters: your Ains may have told you that we are effectively invisible on the field, unless we talk to one of you. If we do, you will not like it, I promise you that. We are testing your brains here, not your strength. Save that for the targets, not for one another. Let’s go.” Gand gestured toward the north.

  The boys loped off through the stone archway and along the newly flagged path. Some ran faster, anxious to get to the site first, others matched pace with friends seemingly to commiserate, but actually to test old alliances against the new. Gand vanished somewhere behind them; Inda watched the Tlen cousins hang back and wait for Cherry-Stripe, presumably for orders. Oh, great. And Cherry-Stripe was in Inda’s own riding.

  Sponge’s eyes turned his way. He altered his stride. Dogpiss loped up on the other side.

  “No expectations,” Sponge said. “Right?”

  “Play to win,” Dogpiss said, grinning.

  Inda saw his relief, but pain across the back of his head banished further thought. Then Dogpiss gasped, stumbled, felt the back of his head, still healing from the bruise he’d gotten the first night.

  They both spun around to see Cherry-Stripe staring straight ahead, but Smartlip’s smirk betrayed them. Dogpiss flashed up the back of his hand, and Inda snickered. Smartlip flushed, then deliberately bent and picked up a bigger rock.

  Cama jogged sideways and whapped him so hard Smartlip stumbled and measured his length on the ground. Laughter from all the boys, Rattooth and Biscuit included, caused Smartlip to bounce up and take a wild swing at Cama.

  A willow wand snapped across his shoulder blades. Smartlip yelped with pain. Cama was next. He gasped.

  Gand loomed over them, having appeared seemingly from nowhere. “Report for five apiece at evening callover.”

  “But I didn’t do anything,” Smartlip whined in outrage.

  “You are,” Gand said in a soft voice, without breaking stride, “implying that I am blind? Or that I lie?”

  Smartlip cringed. “No, Master Gand.”

  “Good. Then you only need add on three, for stupidity always requires its own reward.” Gand glared at them all. “Run,” he commanded, and they ran.

  As the boys streamed up the road toward their war game site, a fire arrow arced over Castle Tenthen far to the southwest.

  Spring was the season for war games all over Iasca Leror. The defense of the land around each castle was the Shield Arm’s concern, but inside the walls, defense belonged to the women.

  Joret, who would one day be Iofre, commanded the day’s defense of Castle Tenthen.

  The signal arrow sputtered against the gray, cloudy sky, and moments later a band of attackers led by Branid obeyed the signal and stormed the back gate, where they found defenders ready for them.

  Pans of lake water poured down into the boys’ faces and screams choked off into gasps. Younger boys wailed in disgust; the water was brackish and nasty-tasting. Despite Branid’s assurance (emphasized by his fists on the smaller boys) that if they were fast the girls would be taken by surprise, the girls had obviously figured out their feint so long ago they’d had time to fetch and drag mucky lake water up to the walls. They could see Liet up there, laughing.

  Elsewhere great poles were tapped symbolically against the invaders’ ladders, which meant everyone on the ladder was either dead or hurt—had they been real attackers the ladders would have been poled away from the wall with the invaders midway up, and the swamp water would have been hot cooking oil with rolled balls of rice paper set afire, floating on top.

  Lightning crackle-hummed overhead, bright, sudden, and lethal. Thunder roared, drowning out voices and the creaking of the wind-tossed trees. Joret, high on the tower, waved the blue flag that signaled a cease. The gates in the north and south opened, and the castle denizens—family, ward, servant, stable hand, and guard alike—abandoned the semblance of battle and retreated inside the great gates to seek warmth and a change of clothes.

  Tdor, who had commanded the south gate defense against the boys, watched from behind a hay shed as attackers streamed in, mixing with defenders running down the guard stairs. As she expected, as soon as Liet’s back was turned, Branid attacked her, flinging her into the mud edging the horse pond. Caught by surprise, facedown in the slippery mud, Liet could not flip over or use wrist or ankle to hook one of Branid’s limbs.

  Branid rubbed her face in the liquid mud, then yanked her head up by the hair. “You’re a pug,” he yelped. “Say it!” Back into the mud. “Pug! Pug! Pug!”

  Liet gargled for breath, writhing weakly.

  Two, three loping steps and Tdor closed her fingers on Branid’s collar. He was solid and slippery with splashed mud, but Tdor had been training all her life in the fighting form the women called the Odni, which used men’s size and strength against them. Now she used his own surprise, his instinctive turn, to pull him off balance. A hard palm-strike under the chin, a foot hooked into his armpit, and he squelched into the mud with a satisfying splat while Liet rose, sobbing with fury.

  Branid began to yell, saw who had attacked him, and fell back in surprise. Tdor caught up a clump of muddy grass and stuffed it into his mouth, then dropped onto him.

  Branid gagged, his hands trying to claw the mud from his mouth, but she had his elbows pinned securely under her knees.

  Words formed—“You will leave Liet alone”—but she heard Fareas-Iofre’s calm v
oice from a year ago, Never issue a command you cannot enforce, and so she crowed, “See how you like it!”

  And she forced herself to roll off and get to her feet. “Allies means allies,” Tdor said, slinging mud off her hands. “Liet’s my ally. When we have a real attack, she’ll be yours.”

  Branid’s muddy face contorted with his convulsive spitting and gagging. When he could speak he shrieked, “Allies! Shit! You should hear what she says about you behind your head.”

  Tdor raised her palm, pushing away his words. “Who cares? When we fight, she does her job. Same when you’re on my side.”

  Branid mumbled in Marlovan, just loud enough for her to hear, Marth-Davan coward.

  Tdor wiggled her hands at her ears. I don’t hear you!

  Branid ran off without a backward glance. Lightning flashed again, and rain came suddenly, cold needles that turned into warm drops by the time Tdor reached the door to the baths.

  The scrubs reached the fields beyond the academy.

  A few boys, Inda and Sponge among them, watched who was talking and who scouting as they ran. Dogpiss shut out the other boys’ chatter and scouted the terrain: rectangular, big enough for running, but not for riding. Walled at the closest short side—a low, ancient stone wall, the rocks fallen from it at some points—trees at the far end, the left long border a stream, and the road the right. In his experience, ground was picked first, then a strategy was developed.

  “I see the best digs,” he said, cutting through his riding’s chatter. And he took off, the others running after him.

  “Now, first thing, we have to pick a captain,” Cherry-Stripe declared, eying his riding. Only two listened—Kepa was trying to get rid of that sniveling Smartlip; Inda watched the field. Why?

  Noddy and Rattooth, who ordinarily had little to say to one another, saw what Dogpiss had done, exchanged a couple of brief remarks on what was the second best ground to claim. They began to run, the remaining three of their riding following.

  Arveas, Fera-Vayir, and Basna grouped together, glaring at Smartlip, who lurked behind Kepa. They could see from his sullen expression, his angry gestures, that he was whining. “Does Gand want us to lose?” Flash asked, arms crossed. “A snitch and a royal rabbit.”

  Glances Sponge’s way. Coward or not, he was still a king’s son. He was standing apart, watching the ridings.

  Basna rubbed his chin. “Have you seen him rabbiting yet?”

  Fera-Vayir Tvei shrugged. “Cherry-Stripe’s brother in the Sier-Danas says he’s a rabbit, so he must be a rabbit.”

  “We can test,” Flash offered. He grinned. “It’d be fun.”

  Basna snickered. “Why not? We lost anyway.”

  Abandoned by Kepa, Smartlip caught up. He glared with his characteristic challenge and anxiety. “So who’s captain?”

  Basna pointed at Sponge. “He’s captain. Of course.”

  Sponge looked at them one at a time, then said, “No.”

  Meanwhile, Cherry-Stripe kept glaring at Inda, waiting for his attention. He had to be the leader. Buck would thrash him if he weren’t. “I’m riding captain,” he stated in a louder voice. Kepa, Lith, and Fijirad obediently twisted their thumbs skyward in agreement, but Inda still kept looking around. What a pug! Cherry-Stripe spoke right at him. “I say we don’t bother with thumbs-up vote, but fight for it.”

  He stepped right up to Inda, who stood on tiptoe, looking over Cherry-Stripe’s shoulder at the other boys across the field.

  Cherry-Stripe said louder, “Strongest wins. We’re supposed to be leaders, and—”

  Inda turned his way at last. “All right,” he said, waving his hands. “Be the leader, Cherry-Stripe. We all know you and Cama and Tuft are the strongest, and blah blah blah. But do it fast, because look! I just knew Dogpiss would find the best defense digs straight off. See, he’s got that bend in the stream, all those rocks. No one’s going to flank him now, and a straight on attack will break all of us up. And there go Rattooth and Noddy, heading for those trees over there. If we jaw all day, we’re going to end up with the worst spot.”

  Lith looked back, then at Cherry-Stripe. He said to Inda, “We’re closer. If we run, we can take the trees first.”

  Inda promptly started running, Lith and Fijirad on either side. Kepa hesitated, and Cherry-Stripe irritably waved him on. Stupid bootlick. “I’ll run Rattooth off,” he shouted, and forced himself to sprint his fastest, until his side hurt and his heart thumped in his ears. He caught a glimpse of Rattooth’s face and felt satisfaction burn through him when the smaller boy swerved.

  Now Cherry-Stripe needed to know if the others had seen that. He loped toward his riding despite the stitch in his side.

  “. . . and Cherry-Stripe is our captain,” Inda was saying, waving his way. “Make it fast! I see Dogpiss scouting all the leaders. You know he’s going to think the same thing.”

  “What?” Cherry-Stripe gasped.

  “Alliance,” Biscuit said. “We go after the other ridings one at a time, share the flags square, two apiece.”

  “But I—” Cherry-Stripe saw the other boys all thumbing or speaking agreement, and knew he’d lost his chance of issuing a counter command. Anyway Inda’d told them he was captain of the riding. Since everyone was watching him, he said, “So now we have ten. We rush them. I can take any two or three.” His confidence was back. This is how war games ought to be fought, just like home. The strongest always wins—

  But they were looking at him again. He frowned, realizing someone else had spoken, and he’d missed it.

  “And what then?” That was Inda, repeating himself.

  “Thrash ’em, of course—” Then he remembered that stupid ruling he’d scorned back in the courtyard.

  “Can’t,” Kepa said, looking disgusted. “Beaks’ll land on us if we have any real fun.”

  “Pin ’em,” Noddy suggested. “Join us or be our prisoners.”

  Nods of agreement.

  “Who do you want guarding prisoners?” Inda asked.

  “You guard your own.” No, wait, that wouldn’t work. Cherry-Stripe didn’t want to be stuck watching some stupid boy when he could be capturing flags and glory. “No. No.”

  Inda glanced Kepa’s way, and Cherry-Stripe did, too, just to meet that eternal bootlicking grin. He was no help. So—ah! Cherry-Stripe laughed in relief. “Kepa, you’ll be jailer.”

  Kepa’s grin stretched even wider. He loved the idea of being jailer. He could kick and punch anyone who tried to escape and get away with it.

  Noddy sighed, stone-faced. “Dogpiss kipped the best digs.”

  “Yeah.” Inda snorted a laugh. “We got to roust ’em out.”

  Cherry-Stripe opened his mouth to say they should rush Dogpiss’ riding, except he looked across at the boulders, the water behind the riding, the driftwood the boys were busy piling up, and knew that the suggestion was stupid. Desperate for a command he could hand out, a good one, he looked around. “Let’s get our own fort,” he said, then hated how his voice didn’t sound commanding, it sounded more like a question.

  But the others agreed, and Cherry-Stripe felt easier, that he was properly in command. They secured their trees, took up guard positions, and looked out to assess the other groups.

  Cherry-Stripe now needed to score a flag on his own.

  Dogpiss, watching them from across the field, muttered, “Inda’s riding’s going to go after Sponge’s first. You watch. Get the weak riding off their flank, then come in strength against us, ’cause we got the best digs. Let’s strike first.” He jerked his thumb at Cama and Ndarga, one big boy, one small. “I’ll go too—maybe we can get Flash and Basna to join in with us.”

  Tuft and Cama both agreed. Tveis of big brothers who would one day command vast plains, they both recognized in Dogpiss a future dragoon captain, just like his father. Sindan-An Tvei (now known as Tuft from the day of the shearing) rounded on Lan and said loftily, “You and I guard the flags.”

  Lan rolled his eyes at Tuft’s Vayi
r frost.

  Inda watched them all, intent, loving the prospect of battle, relieved that the way he used to let Branid lead, or think he led, worked with Cherry-Stripe. Dogpiss’ pale yellow head turned—he was planning a fast attack, probably on Sponge’s group, maybe try to get them to ally.

  Inda said to Cherry-Stripe, “Are you going to take command against Dogpiss’ advance?”

  Cherry-Stripe looked wildly around the field. He saw Dogpiss, who just seemed to be running around like the other boys. Advance? Yes, he was heading straight for Sponge’s riding. He shouted, “After me!” and launched at his fastest run, well ahead of the others, and pounded straight for Cama, the biggest of Dogpiss’ three-man advance charge. Fijirad flung himself on Dogpiss, and the two tumbled wildly over the grass, legs and arms scrambling for holds; Tuft forgot he was to guard the flag and launched over the rocks to Cama and Dogpiss’ rescue.

  Lan hesitated, took the square of old canvas that served as their flag, and shoved it under a flat stone. Then he too ran after them, yelling wildly.

  As Dogpiss’ riding gathered around the fight, all shouting insults or orders that no one listened to, Inda muttered to Noddy, “You and your riding go take Sponge. You just know they made him their riding captain.”

  Noddy shrugged, his long face not changing. He motioned for his group and repeated the order, adding, “Take Flash first. And Basna. Then Sponge.” The others agreed—they knew by now that Flash and Basna were among the best scrappers in the entire scrub class.

  Noddy watched them aim straight for Sponge’s riding, but he lingered, observing Inda, who beckoned to little, skinny Mouse Marth-Davan, and when the boy trotted over, Inda bent his head and whispered to Mouse.

  Mouse smiled, then scudded lightly away from the battle through the trees, heading up to the far end of the field and back down—unnoticed by anyone. Noddy felt his armpits go cold when he realized that Mouse was going to make the pinch on at least one flag—maybe even two. And no one outside of Inda and Mouse realized it.

  Except Noddy. And . . . Noddy saw Sponge watching, too. Just before the attackers reached Sponge and Flash and Basna, taking the three boys down onto the grass. Flash and Sponge wrestled with their attackers, Flash with skill and Sponge with clench-jawed determination; the others watched for a moment, seeing the prince fighting desperately. Then they all dove into a mad scramble of arms and legs, grass and dust flying in all directions, as everyone tried to take everyone else prisoner.

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