Inda by Sherwood Smith

  The boy’s mouth lost the grim tightness. Anderle-Sierandael laughed inwardly, but out loud only said, “Eat up.” And, after a time, “I told Tanrid that command begins at home. He needs to get that scrub brother of his in order.” The Royal Shield Arm smiled. “The shoeing was an amusing prank, but one we can’t afford, not with the threat of war within our lifetimes.”

  The Sierlaef frowned. “You. S-s-said s-soon.”

  “I thought it would be soon. That is, within the next ten years. Your father did as well,” his uncle said. “The Venn have established those outposts across the strait, and one day they will bring down transports full of warriors.”

  The Sierlaef put his knife down. “No ships.”

  His uncle sat back, smiling a little. “It’s true, we have had no success building a fleet. Just as I predicted. I regret the loss of good men, and the money that went into the building. It does seem to mean, though, that when war does come, we will do the best if we meet it with our strengths. Also, one of those lost was the Montredavan-An boy, who your father sent aboard the Cassad—a generous gesture, but frankly, I am relieved a pirate’s knife or sword or boat hook took care of potential trouble that one day might’ve threatened your reign right here.”

  Savarend Montredavan-An dead? They had never met, of course. The Montredavan-Ans were forbidden to step on any road but those that led directly to the sea, and even that only under guard, but still the Sierlaef had heard things about the red-haired Savarend, only a couple years younger than he was himself: how brilliant he was with the bow, how superlative his skills at riding. How they thought he might have even had sword training, though no one had seen him at it, forbidden as it was. Just as well he was dead—the Sierandael had said the Montredavan-Ans were nothing but trouble, and the rumors about Savarend had proved it.

  The Sierlaef grinned.

  His uncle opened his hands. “Your father says that all the reports from the east are that the Venn fleet has taken a smashing from the Chwahir and Everoneth. As much as anything can be decided with ships,” he added, shrugging dismissively. “On the water, battle can’t be decisive, for who can possibly hold command over water? But a fleet can be diminished, and if the reports are true, then the Venn will need time to rebuild. That might take two years, depending on what has happened—or it might take ten. More. If so, it will be you who defends the homeland.”

  “Me.” The royal heir licked his lips.

  The Sierandael saw the anticipation. Now it was time to redirect the Sierlaef’s anger. Part of command, of course, is to know who is to be cherished for the greater good, and who is expendable. He drummed his fingers on the table. “If you are one day to ride north as Aldren-Harvaldar, as our royal great-fathers did in the old days, then you need to think about the matter of command. Who are you going to leave behind to defend your kingdom? We do have plans, but if those do not come to pass, are you going to leave a fumbling archivist in command, someone who hides from his duty in order to waste his time translating worthless old papers into worthless new papers?”

  The Sierlaef’s face hardened again, but this time the anger was not directed at his uncle.

  The Sierandael watched as the boy picked up his plate, jammed it into the barrel with a liquid splorch, and strode off in the direction of the palace.

  Sponge had puzzled over a page or so of the Sartoran record before he realized that he had not yet eaten that day. He recalled the noon bells ringing. So he tucked the book under his arm—glad that it was a book, and not a scroll, as those were so unwieldy—and trod up to the schoolroom in the residence wing.

  He smelled hot cream soup with baby carrots in it, and his mouth watered. He ran inside the central chamber that all the royal children shared, with its plain, battered wooden furnishings and the sturdy woolen rugs on the floor, woven with bright birds and flowers, sent by his mother’s brother.

  Sponge looked around, sensing a difference. Nothing had changed. Except—“Dormouse!”

  The small, scrawny boy at the far table looked up, grinning. Though he’d been gone two years, Barend did not look the least bit different. His triangular head and prominent front teeth still made him resemble a rodent. “Spongie!”

  “When did you get back?”

  Barend’s bony shoulder jerked up to his ear. “Yesterday, early. You all were busy with the end of the games. Mama and I spent the day together in her rooms.”

  Sponge sorted through what was unsaid and opened his hand.

  “You’re a little taller,” Sponge observed.

  Barend looked wry. “A finger’s breadth. Not as tall as you, and I never will be, despite the two years I got on you.” He shrugged. One’s size couldn’t be helped. And the years away from his father’s scorn had done a lot for his self-respect. “I’m glad you’re the first one back,” Barend said, his smile fading.

  Sponge shook his head. “Don’t spoil it. What’s to eat?”

  Sponge helped himself to the food, which was still warm in the crockery dishes, and saw that Barend had paper and chalk next to him. He was busy drawing, as he always was, whenever he could get the chance. So Sponge opened his book, and the two boys ate and worked in companionable silence.

  ... the screams of those on the field rendered it impossible to hear the horn calls. I never considered before how alike are the two sounds, horns and screams of agony. I will not forget . . .

  Sponge shuddered. The beginning of this one was far different from the ballads.

  He bent over, and his lips moved as he shaped the words.

  ... I saw my cousin shouting as he hacked at the tor-helm . . .

  Tor-helm. Tor. People, us. That would be a term for the leader of the other side, without knowing his title or rank.

  ... who had already thrown down his sword. At this sign the rest of his war-party swarmed the opposite side and began killing . . .

  Sponge winced and skipped to the next page.

  ... had forgotten our own family, lying on the ground, and so, despite my own wound, I felt I ought to commandeer those who could pick up a pole and tear cloth to fashion stretchers and bear our wounded from the field . . .

  Sponge sighed. He’d only read five pages of the thirty in the book, but so far, there had been no hint of glory. Yet it was a famous battle, one seen in tapestries and heard of in old songs.

  Sponge looked up at the tall row of windows. The rain had begun, soft and steady, for this was no short summer storm.

  Barend snorted, rubbing his nose on his sleeve, then went back to his sketching; it wasn’t just horses anymore. Barend drew ships, in amazing detail. Sponge admired his ability, but secretly wished Barend would return to drawing horses. Horses were alive, beautiful. Ships were boring.

  Sponge sat back to think about what he was reading. The room was quiet, except for the snap of the mage-fire in the fireplace and the hiss of rain outside the windows.

  So when the door slammed open both he and Barend jumped.

  The Sierlaef strode in, and the sight of Sponge sitting there in his gray academy tunic, with a book open before him, sent a lightning strike of hot fury right between his eyes.

  Both boys stilled. The Sierlaef closed on them in three hard strides and glanced down. Not even Iascan! It was one of those soul-eating Sartoran things that they’d tried to force him to learn. So Sponge was already bootlicking the king, was he?

  He grabbed the front of his brother’s tunic and hauled him away from the table. “Train.” And he flung him against the wall.

  “Papa asked me to read that,” Sponge answered, trying dizzily to get to his feet.

  The Sierlaef backhanded him into the wall. Sponge couldn’t think past the lightning searing through his head, but his body had learned this lesson. He twisted, just enough to fall heavily, distributing the force of the fall along his length.

  “No lip,” the Sierlaef said. “Listen. Obey.” His voice started bleating on the consonants in the last word, and in frustration he lashed out, slapping Sponge aga

  Now Sponge was conscious of falling right, of how it really did work. It was a tiny triumph, but it was still a triumph.

  It didn’t keep him from biting the inside of his mouth when he was struck there. The sight of blood spurting from between his lips caused the Sierlaef to step back.

  “Obey,” he said again, to justify the sight of that blood. “No disgrace. In spring. Hear?”

  “Yes, Aldren-Sierlaef,” Sponge said, and coughed on the horrible taste in his mouth.

  The Sierlaef slammed out.

  Barend went for a wet cloth, holding it against Sponge’s aching head until the blood stopped flowing. No need to speak. Sponge would do the same for him when Barend’s father came for him.

  When Sponge pulled away, Barend got shakily to his feet. He was home, all right. And he could sketch all he wanted, pretending his mind was out there on the water, skimming before the wind, but he knew he was here, and winter would be long and full of pain and fear.

  Sponge wiped his mouth. “I’ll teach you something,” he said, stumbling toward the casement that opened onto the sentry walk, his old retreat. “Maybe it’ll help you if pirates attack. It’ll definitely help you here.”

  Barend grinned. “Well, we have until spring.” He ventured a joke. “By then, pirates might be welcome.”

  When Hadand and Kialen came in at last, having finished their duties with the queen, it was in expectation of a cozy nursery party, a welcome for the two who had been gone. But they both felt the tension in the air before they saw the blood on the floor, being cleaned up by Barend. Kialen Cassad, never far from fear, began to tremble and feel faint. Hadand kindly sent her to her room to lie down, and Kialen was glad to leave, closing the door soundlessly behind her.

  Hadand looked at Barend, saw no bruises. “Sponge?”

  Barend jerked a shoulder at the window.

  Hadand knew where to find him. He’d always gone out into the rain. He’d said once that it felt good, that it numbed pain.

  She opened the casement and walked out onto the sentry walk. There he was, at the far end, a small, bony figure crouched down. She went to him and put her arms around him, not caring about rain, or about the clamminess of his skin, or how he shuddered.

  He leaned against her, and they were both silent. When the shuddering eased a little, she said, “Was there a reason?”

  “He said that I won’t disgrace him in the spring, that I have to train. In obedience.”

  So that was why Sponge was so upset! They both knew what that meant: a long winter of dreary chores, of no books or talk, except in stolen moments. The Sierlaef would have him wanding horse droppings, and pitching hay, and doing the chores of servants. And there would inevitably be more beatings.

  Sponge waited, blinking rain from his eyes. He could hear from Hadand’s compressed breathing how upset she was, and yet there was nothing more. No word, no offering of that valuable lesson in the evasions that Sponge wouldn’t have even known about had it not been for Inda.

  He could not believe her concern was false. He must not look for falsity, or he might find it where it did not exist. It was terrible enough to doubt. Hadand loved him. He knew that. She had shown it in uncounted other ways all his life. But it seemed she didn’t trust him enough for this one thing.

  “It’s cold,” Hadand said at last, when she realized that Sponge had withdrawn by degrees, that he sat quiescent in her arms, without leaning against her.

  Perhaps he thought himself too old for comfort. Only two years lay between them, after all; he was not really a little boy any more. She sat back and looked into his face, but it was cold, his lips blue, one cheek swollen, tangled hair in his eyes. She had no clue as to what he was thinking.

  They both walked inside, and Hadand ordered hot cocoa with cream, rare and expensive, and she made it herself, the way Sponge liked it. But Sponge’s pensive mouth stayed pensive, and after a time she went to her own rooms, feeling that she had somehow lost something important.

  She cried herself to sleep.

  Chapter Twenty-two

  SPRING arrived at last.

  S Inda had just slipped inside his room after another secret Odni training session when Tanrid strode into his room, causing him to jump guiltily.

  But Tanrid didn’t smack him, or order him to stop lazing about, or order him down to stable duty. He just said, “There you are. Listen. We’re leaving for the royal city.”

  “The royal city?” Inda repeated, disbelief warring with joy. “When?”

  “Father’s orders; we’re to ride by noon. We’re meeting a war party on the road. Going after those brigands that killed Mother’s Runner.”

  “War party?” Inda asked. “Then it wasn’t a few skulkers?”

  “Father says some spy discovered a whole wing’s worth of ’em, maybe more, massing at the river fork in the south of Hesea, to attack all spring travel—south, north, west.” Tanrid grinned. “Instead of farmers and tradesmen, they’re gonna find us.” He strode rapidly down the hall.

  Inda laughed with an elation he hadn’t felt for months. “Fiam!” he yelled, dashing out the door. “Fiam!”

  Long before noon he stood in the sleety rain by the horses the Riders had gathered in the courtyard. A war party! And after that? The academy! With Sponge, Noddy, Dogpiss, and Cama!

  He was full of joy until Tdor appeared at his side, rain making her thin nose glow dull red and turning her lips blue. She gazed into Inda’s face, wincing away from the new black eye and the cuff-mark on the opposite cheek-bone, upset to see the joy he did not try to hide. “Just remember this plan is not a war game, you haywit,” she scolded.

  Inda stared at her in surprise. Of course he knew that. And he could have explained that he was just so happy to be getting away from the long, cold winter of drudgery, of beatings, of enforced silence, of hard stable work and even harder work down in the women’s court, unseen by his brother, who had assumed he was lazing around in bed, and punished him for his own good.

  But she should know all that, he thought hazily, feeling angry, betrayed even, so he snapped, “Of course it’s not a game.” His voice came out sounding hard, with as much derision as Tanrid used on a good day. She stepped back a pace, her eyes rounding in hurt surprise as he added, “What d’you think we’ve been training for, anyway?” which was another of the things Tanrid had said, usually before one of those beatings.

  Tdor’s lower lip trembled. Remorse snuffed his anger but she was already headed back to the castle.

  His father appeared then, like all of them wearing his winter riding coat, bespelled against cold and wet weather. He was escorting Joret and her personal Runner, who were riding with them, as Joret was to begin the queen’s training this spring.

  The noise of everyone mounting up was louder than the rain.

  They formed up swiftly into two columns. The bannermen moved to the front, their horses shaking their heads. The Adaluin raised his arm, then flattened his hand in the signal to wait as the Iofre appeared, rain speckling her robes darkly.

  She came to Inda and reached up to caress his face. “Be well, my son,” she murmured; then, she turned to Tanrid and spoke her farewell, touching the hand that loosely held his reins.

  She moved to Joret and stood on tiptoe to whisper to her. Joret leaned down to clasp her hands, her blue eyes serious as she spoke her soft farewell. Inda looked past them for Tdor, who did not appear. But they were about to ride.

  He gestured to his mother, “Tdor—” He realized he didn’t know what else to say without sounding whiny.

  The Iofre read his unhappy, half-ashamed, half-stubborn expression, and recognized the underlying regret. She said, “I will carry your farewell to her.”

  Inda winced, swallowing in a tight throat. It was better than nothing; it would have to do. He’d make it up to her when he returned in the autumn, he promised himself.

  The Iofre last exchanged a few low-voiced words with the Adaluin, who bent from his saddle pad to h
ear her. Then she stepped back, now thoroughly wet, but she did not heed it.

  Her worried gaze lingered on Inda as the Adaluin raised his fist. The cavalcade rode out through the gates, turning westward instead of to the east.

  Two weeks later they met the Jaya-Vayir war party on the coast road at a small village a day’s ride north of Marth-Davan. By then Inda was familiar with his father’s plan, as amended by the king and agreed to by the Jarls of Cassad and Jaya-Vayir.

  Inda’s excitement bounced between the plan and the prospect of seeing some of his scrub friends again: not just Rattooth Cassad, but Cama Tya-Vayir, who had been sent south out of Iasca Leror in search of a healer trained in arts unknown in Marlovan-held territory. The Cassads still had connections in that part of the world, and so the Jarl of Cassad had sent his sons to keep Cama company as well as to see a bit of the world.

  The Algara-Vayir war party halted when they saw dust hanging high in the air. Inda peered down the sunny road past the last round-walled house, spotted the yellow and white banners of the Cassads, the green and purple of the Jaya-Vayirs. Past them . . . He gave a yip of joy when he saw the pale yellow head riding between Cama’s dark one and Rattooth’s straw-colored, messy locks: Dogpiss!

  Inda fidgeted until the outriders met, followed by the Adaluin and the Jarl of Jaya-Vayir. As soon as the leaders signaled consent to break formation, he yelled, “Dogpiss!” The younger boys all rode to one side, the horsetails to the other. “What brings you here?” Inda exclaimed.

  Dogpiss grinned. “M’ father was sent down by the king himself as a reinforcement to your dad. Since we were leaving for the royal city anyway, he brought Whipstick and me along. We rode down the coast road, missed you, met these pugs”—his thumb jerked between Cama and Rattooth—“so we turned back.”

  “Pugs!” Rattooth snorted. “I loved how Whipstick pugged you good last night, when you kept farting and wouldn’t let us sleep.”

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]