Inda by Sherwood Smith


  On Dogpiss’ crack of laughter the boys glanced at Dogpiss’ brother, who had not been invited into the horsetail group. Whipstick, thin, brown as a seasoned dragoon and almost as tough, knew better than to join the horsetails uninvited so he stayed with his father’s men. When the scrubs all turned his way he lifted a hand in salute. Inda saluted back.

  The three scrubs did not have the frost to summon him over, not Whipstick Noth, captain of the pigtail scrappers. And Dogpiss, who could have beckoned his brother over, did not because he wanted his friends to himself.

  Dogpiss said, “Cama was sent south with the Cassad boys for his eye.”

  “I know. How was it?” Inda asked, turning to Cama, who was silent as usual. “Did you see any—”

  “Later. Blab about sightseeing later. You got a hoof-kiss,” Dogpiss observed, examining Inda’s almost-healed black eye. “Fall down the stairs?”

  Hearing scrub slang again was weird after a long winter only seeing family. Inda snorted, “Most every day.”

  Dogpiss snorted as well. It was easy enough to see that Inda had had a nasty winter. Well, it was time for some fun now. They weren’t scrubs anymore, not strictly, though there wouldn’t be a regular Ain-scrub group until next year. Oh, they’d still be at the bottom rank, but at least it wasn’t all new. More important, Dogpiss had prepared for some prime practical jokes.

  “Have any fun this winter?” he asked.

  Inda just shrugged. “Naw. You?”

  “Oh, I have some good stings,” Dogpiss whispered. “But I won’t tell you. I’ll show you. Too good to risk spoiling. I don’t trust the Ains not to nose ’em out.” He turned his head, his pale hair lifting on the breeze. “Hey, Squint! You know they’re gonna call him Squint, now.” Dogpiss snickered. “I’m trying to get him used to it.”

  Cama, standing out amid all these fair heads with his dark curls and his black eye patch, shrugged and tried to look sour. It was evident he’d already resigned himself to a new nickname—they didn’t know he privately preferred anything to Meow.

  The Adaluin, as ranking commander, gestured to his bannermen to signal fall in. Scout dogs scrambled in and around the horses’ legs, sniffing, tails waving warily, but returning to heel at the snapping of the handlers. Tanrid whistled to the Algara-Vayir dogs, who raced to him, muzzles lifted, tails wagging as they pranced around his horse. He leaned down to pat every head before turning back to his friends, who, having been accustomed for eight years to parting before winter and meeting again in spring, had exchanged brief greetings. All faced the northern hills on the other side of the Chardaus River, where through the interlaced trunks and branches of budding trees they glimpsed the great east-west road.

  Inda, riding across the bridge behind the horsetails, saw them exchange fierce grins of pleasure at the prospect of battle.

  “What happened?” Dogpiss asked Inda from behind his hand.

  “One of my mother’s Runners was attacked and killed by brigands. Just before New Year’s, on the edge of Cassad lands. Shepherds found her, recognized the Runner blue and the owl badge. They reported it to the Cassads, who sent a Runner to tell us. Their attacks across the plains all the way to the mountains have worsened. And now they burn what they can’t take. Father asked the king if he could raise a force and clear them out.”

  Dogpiss rubbed his hands. “Won’t Cherry-Stripe howl when he hears we were in a battle!”

  “And Tuft,” Rattooth added.

  While the scrubs were exchanging their news, the horsetails had been doing the same.

  “Have you had a Galloper recently?” Cassad Ain asked, his prominent front teeth gleaming in the soft gray light.

  “At dawn,” Tanrid said. “Not long before we met you. Came up from the southeast under cover of dark. He said your father’s hiding out at the attack site, along with handpicked warriors from Tlen and Tlennen. I guess they were doing some training runs together in the hills over winter.”

  “Hoo! M’ cousin’ll be with them,” Cassad pronounced with conviction. “They’d have to tie him up else.”

  The four Tveis, now all listening to the horsetail conversation, exchanged grimaces. That meant three of the Sier-Danas along with Inda’s Ain. At the very least they’d be doing the horsetails’ field chores. Still, chores were inevitable, and meanwhile, the prospect of action was delightful.

  All was happening according to plan, Inda thought, glimpsing his father’s profile at the head of the column. Jarend-Adaluin’s lined face was watchful, but the set of his mouth, the ease of his shoulders, indicated that he was pleased with the unexpected augmentation of their war party.

  “So where’s the attack going to be, then?” Cassad asked.

  “Your father and his people are camped up behind the hills above the big bridge where the Chardaus River meets the Marlovar River . . .” Tanrid began. He outlined the plan, and who was to be there, and how they would trap the brigands against the river, force them to surrender, and sweep most of them off to the eastern hills to dig for ore in the mines, accomplishing two things at once: giving the local farms and villages relief from the constant raids, and gaining more miners. “It should be prime fun, at least for us to watch. We don’t get to be in it. King’s orders.”

  Groans at that, but the word “king” kept them from expressing themselves more fluently.

  “We should be able to watch, at least,” Tanrid finished.

  Inda didn’t listen. He knew the plan. He had also studied the great field map in his father’s tent the first night of their journey, while rain drummed around them: he knew that no one would be south of the Chardaus, which was the northern border of Montredavan-An territory, forbidden to them, and patrolled by the King’s Guard. What he’d learned was that no one patrolled north of the river—the king’s forces were stretched too thin—so that brigands had been preying on travelers across the southernmost reaches of the plains of Hesea, despite its being the heartland of Marlovan territory.

  Inda remembered the Galloper arriving in the bleak, bitter darkness just before dawn, his horse steaming, his blue tunic obscured by mud. Inda had watched the man gulp down hot brew with shaking fingers. He couldn’t even talk at first. He’d sat there with bowed head, hands around the mug as Jarend-Adaluin waited until he could croak out, “They are there.”

  Yes, everything was according to plan. Excitement and anticipatory triumph made Inda grin, but along with it came, well, worry, though he wouldn’t actually say it out loud, not before the others—especially the horsetails.

  But he had to figure out why he was worried. It had begun when he first saw that grown man shaking with cold, the near-dead horse. You didn’t ride horses like that in war games; you’d get yourself thrashed. As well you should.

  Inda could almost hear Tdor’s voice: Just remember this is not a war game, you haywit.

  But now, watching how some of the men checked and rechecked weapons, the way the horses’ ears twitched northward, he realized what she’d meant: that the attack was real, that someone might die. Someone besides brigands.

  Inda’s stomach swooped. That’s just cowardice, he told himself angrily. Especially since we don’t even get to ride to the attack. Jarend-Adaluin had made that clear. The boys, Joret and her Runner, and the horsetails had to remain on the outside. He’d promised the king.

  No one argued with that.

  A shifting in the lines snapped everyone’s attention forward. They’d been riding up a ridge, shaded by early leafing nut trees. The flag dipped twice, meaning it was time to break column and set up camp.

  As always, the young people were assigned to the middle of camp, directly under some leafing birch. Dogpiss and Rattooth happily squabbled over the grassiest spot for their bedrolls.

  Tanrid chirruped between his teeth and the roaming scout dogs bounded instantly to his side, lolling about, muzzles grinning, tails beating the air. Tanrid bent, examining paws, rubbing backs as the animals stretched, noses high in bliss. Inda wondered how it was
that the dogs merely obeyed him, but loved his brother. Meanwhile the boys were on watch, expecting the horsetails to land on them in some form or other, but to their surprise they paid the scrubs no attention.

  It was Inda who spotted why: Joret. Even Tanrid watched her with a kind of brooding expression that Inda could not define; he was too young to recognize it as a kind of baffled mix of embarrassment and desire. Maybe it had to do with that sex stuff. Inda still didn’t understand it, nor did he care, except for enjoying the little respites over the winter when Tanrid went off to the pleasure houses with some of the younger Riders.

  Inda saw with a rush of sympathy that Joret had withdrawn into that closed, tight-shouldered manner she drew on like a cloak when she was aware of being stared at. The color in her cheeks, the extravagant curve of her lowered lashes, did nothing whatever to hide her startling beauty. Being still in smocks—and the future wife of the Adaluin’s heir—gave her the choice of speaking or not, but she hated those restless gazes.

  And so she performed her part in the Restday bread-giving with a graceless, unsmiling brevity, relaxing only when she handed bread to the restless Tveis who cared not whose hand they received it from. They only wanted to be singing, dancing, and talking. She was especially kind to one-eyed Cama Tya-Vayir, at first out of pity, but when she looked into his face, a strange coldness tightened along the insides of her arms. One day he will be beautiful, she thought, and he doesn’t even know it.

  “As strength to the body, so strength to the spirit.” Her hand pressed his, and Cama gave her a shy, absent smile, for he was wondering what Dogpiss was hiding in his kit.

  Then the first watch departed to their posts. Inda, Cama, Rattooth, and Dogpiss perched themselves along a row of rocks that jutted up like green dragon’s teeth, remnants of an ancient fence, now moss covered, as the men began the songs. No drumming for the boys; the horsetails claimed the shallow drums used by youth. Joret was handed the drum with clashing brass cymblets. She performed her rhythms with competence, if not inspiration, her gaze on the fire, and not on the boys who waited, in vain, for her to look up so they could show off before her.

  As the songs soared and thrummed, Inda said, “So, Cama, Rattooth, I want to know what it was like down south. Any interesting sights?”

  Dogpiss put in, “Any good jokes, Squint?”

  Cama shrugged, hating to talk, of course, but at least these were friends, and used to his squeaky voice. “Different,” he said. “Real different. More than Iascan and Marlovan differences.” He waved a hand, struggling for the words. “Their songs are different. They don’t have drums at all, way south, near the Sartor Sea. There were some palaces, but no castles. Big cities. Very big, and the clothes are all different.”

  “Iascans didn’t have drums, not until the Marlovans came,” Dogpiss said, shrugging. “Mother told me that.”

  “What did they have, then, on Restday?” Cama, Dogpiss, and Inda turned to Rattooth, whose family was Iascan in origin.

  Rattooth Cassad wiggled his fingers, looking like a blond rodent with his prominent front teeth. “Reed-pipes. Though we now use ’em for Marlovan songs, of course.” A careless, confident statement resulting from that far-seeing great-mother who had said to her family on the eve of her wedding to the king of the Marlovan conquerors, We will wear their style of clothes, and speak their tongue, and learn their songs and stories, but they will learn ours. And they will use our fine swords, our pottery, our castles and farms. And one day they will forget to see us as “them.” If so, then in a sense we win the war, for we will keep what is ours, and lose no more lives.

  “I want to hear about your eye,” Dogpiss said, waving away the blather about musical customs. “Did they do anything disgusting?”

  “What was the magic like?” Inda asked, leaning close, the better to see Cama in the flickering golden light of the fire, around which young men danced, swords whirling in unison as the war drums rumbled.

  “Slow,” Cama said. “If I want to see out of this eye again, they said I have to go back. You remember, it kept opening, the cut, I mean, and I’d wake up and this gunk came out, and it hurt. It wouldn’t heal. They had to take care of that first, and then wait. First heal this bit of skin, and then that muscle. And afterward, always waiting, and the mage gets sick as if he’d fought ten duels. During the spell-casting you feel as if a thousand bees stung you. No, it doesn’t hurt. As if a thousand bees walked over you, their wings humming.”

  “Ecch,” Dogpiss exclaimed with delighted revulsion.

  “They do one little thing at a time, like I said. And so it will cost a lot. They say our ancestors knew such magic as common.”

  “Aw, that,” Dogpiss said, waving a hand. “We always hear that, how they knew it all in the old days, and we lost it all.”

  “But they did,” Inda said. “Tdor and Joret are always reading me things. Everything was different then, even time.”

  “Time,” Dogpiss scoffed, “is time. It can’t be that different. Not here.”

  There was no need to speak of what they all knew: that time did not progress at all in Norsunder, where the soul-eaters lurked, waiting for another chance to try to take the world again. If one wanted to escape from the effects of time he found his way to Norsunder. The price was that his soul belonged to the masters of that terrible place.

  “I didn’t believe time could vary in the world either. At first.” Inda thought back to that dreamlike memory from the year before, when he’d been given kinthus. But he couldn’t explain what had happened. So he said, “What Joret told me was that time here isn’t always going forward, the way we assume.”

  Dogpiss snorted. “If you try to tell me it goes backward, then I’m going to rub your face in that mud.”

  The boys laughed, Inda included. He thought, but did not say, that he had once stared up at a banner in the throne room and heard the sounds of battle, as if two times met.

  “Boys.”

  Four scrubs leaped to their feet. Four faces turned upward.

  Jarend-Adaluin stood silhouetted against the fire, the mail under his war coat jingling faintly as he gestured toward their bedrolls. “Sleep,” he said. “We shall ride hard on the morrow.”

  Chapter Twenty-three

  JUST before dawn, the younger boys were kicked awake by the horsetails. Over the gratifying yelps and howls of younger brothers, Tanrid, the ranking horsetail, issued orders for the breakdown and packing of their gear. The horsetails fixed their hair and smoothed their clothes so they could to stroll over for morning mess when Joret did.

  Tanrid had just tightened his hair in the silver owl clasp when he realized the scrubs had gone quiet. Instantly suspicious, he whirled around to see Horsepiss Noth standing nearby, arms crossed. Captain of Dragoons Horsepiss Noth. Nobody knew what his real name was—if he even had one. Twenty of his forty-five years a captain, sun-seamed and hard as old wood. So hard the horsetails, who’d just been thinking themselves so very tough, looked like a row of guilty youngsters, all failing to see the faint narrowing of the eyes, the slight shadow at the corners of the thin lips, that hinted at strictly controlled mirth.

  “Time,” he said, “for you boys to run a little drill, eh, while the scrubs finish your packing?”

  His tone promised that the scrubs were not getting the worst of morning’s work. As the horsetails picked up their weapons and trooped off to the trampled ground where the guard had already finished warm-ups, Dogpiss chortled, and Inda, who had seen the humor in Noth’s face, joined him.

  “Make it quick,” Dogpiss said to the other scrubs, and ran off to where his brother stood near the horse lines. Whipstick Noth, rejected as a mere pigtail by the lofty horsetails, had stayed with his father’s men, all of them known to him by name.

  As Inda packed Tanrid’s bedroll with efficient, absent-minded speed, he watched the Noth brothers. The grins on their faces were startlingly alike: they were up to something.

  “Come on,” Rattooth grumped. “Just because
his dad’s here, Dogpiss seems to think he can buck drudge.”

  Inda whispered, “I think they’ve got a sting in mind.”

  Rattooth’s face cleared into an expectant grin, strictly schooled by the time Captain Noth released the crimson-faced, sweat-soaked, slow-moving horsetails.

  The scrubs sat in a row eating their breakfast, watching as Whipstick put just enough saunter in his stroll toward the cook pot to catch the attention of the wary Ains. Was he gloating?

  Dogpiss drifted alongside the cook pot as the horsetails lined up, last of all, to get their food. They all watched, with ominous intensity, Whipstick’s swagger as he returned from getting seconds. Was that the back of his hand, or was he just scratching his head? They were paying scant attention to the food doled out into their bowls, and no attention whatever to Dogpiss standing helpfully right by the Rider on cook duty.

  The Ains got their oatmeal, topped with honey. Inda, observant of detail as always, frowned when he glanced in the wide, shallow wooden bowls. There were dark bits in the oatmeal, as if it had burned. But his had been perfectly cooked.

  Still eying Whipstick, who was definitely on the strut as he moved toward the horses, the horsetails began to eat.

  “Get the saddle pads on the mounts,” came the command, and Inda and Dogpiss turned their hands to that work, Dogpiss’ face crimson with repressed emotion.

  Cama was the first to realize what Dogpiss had done. The horsetails’ mouths were green—startling, bright green—as were the fronts of their tunics where they slopped in their haste to eat fast before the horses were ready.

  Laughter from the men busy gathering their gear brought the horsetails’ attention onto one another. They exchanged swift, shocked glances then realized what had happened, which of course caused universal merriment: added to their food had been tiny pellets of an herb so rich in color it bled off at the slightest touch of moisture.

  “Right,” Tanrid Algara-Vayir said, and the men laughed the more heartily, and his father smiled, as he and the other horsetails dropped their bowls onto the grass and efficiently surrounded the wheezing, weakly running Dogpiss.

 
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