Inda by Sherwood Smith

  He fought mightily, but without success, as the bigger boys held him down and scrubbed the remainder of their food over his face and clothing, then carried him down to the stream and tossed him in.

  Dogpiss emerged, streaming, shivering, green-splotched, whooping with laughter. The horsetails’ green mouths were evidence of their having been royally stung. They realized too late that Dogpiss’ green skin was a banner of triumph.

  The horsetails nursed their grievance in silence during the wearying days following.

  The last jog was accomplished single file at night, under cover of rain, after they had set up a false camp and waited until the sun went down. All they got was cold food and a long walk, stopping frequently so the scouts and scout dogs ahead could find and be certain of their trail, everything metal muffled against jingling, and no talk whatsoever allowed.

  That cold, soggy walk seemed eternal to the youths, but it did finally end. Midway through the night they were separated, all according to plan. In silence the young people were taken up the trail to a ridge lying east of the battle site, accompanied by a young Jaya-Vayir Rider captain popular with the boys, and two each of Algara-Vayir and Jaya-Vayir armsmen. Shelter meant a sort of warmth, and their first thought on reaching that camp had been to burrow down and sleep.

  The Adaluin and the Jarls then turned north and eased up through a silent forest of beech and pine toward the northern end of the bridge, where they took cover and waited out the night.

  Dawn found the young people camped amid trees and rocks on the far side of a little gully, with strict orders to lie low. Captain Samred and his four Riders had spent the night on a ceaseless patrol bounded by the gully, the road lower down, and the river. Weak light showed to the west, thick trees forming a dark, tangled line between the road and the great Marlovar River that flowed toward the bridge where their fathers lay in wait.

  The next thought of the horsetails was vengeance on Dogpiss, and that no adults were present to interfere with their creativity.

  Tanrid muttered in surprise, “Hey. Dogpiss isn’t here.”

  Inda kept his face averted so no one saw his grin.

  “Shall I fetch water?” asked Joret’s Runner, Gdand.

  Sudden silence behind him brought Inda’s attention around. All the older boys were staring, or trying not to stare, at Joret, who sat beside a tree, her face turned resolutely toward the forest as she swiftly braided her glossy blue-black hair.

  “I can wait,” Joret replied softly.

  Unconcerned with Joret, Gdand, and the riveted horsetails, Cama picked at his eye, all purple and pink with healing flesh, which made Inda’s stomach turn. The imprint of Smartlip’s heel was still clear. Rattooth watched as well, his lips curled in fascinated revulsion.

  No one spoke. The horsetails made hasty, self-conscious groomings of clothing and hair, and everyone packed up their bedrolls. Tanrid had been given charge of the cheese and biscuits. He passed out shares with quick efficiency. Inda took Dogpiss’ and laid it aside.

  “Where did your brother go?” Cassad murmured to Whipstick Noth, who shrugged. Whipstick was in a rotten mood because, until last night, he’d thought it was only these Vayir boys who’d be stashed away, that he’d be able to ride with his father. But Jarend-Adaluin had insisted the king meant all the youths. Even those accompanying unexpected reinforcements.

  Was that a scream?

  No, it was probably some bird. Much as he wanted to, Whipstick knew he couldn’t hear the battle. They were not far, but definitely out of earshot.

  “Soon as he sticks his nose up we’ll find out where he’s been,” was the grim answer from Tanrid. He added, “And we don’t have to be nice about it, either, since he’s broken bounds.”

  With this prospect before them, the horsetails’ moods improved, and they fell into quiet conversation, with no more than occasional glances Joret’s way to see if she was listening.

  Joret piled her gear neatly, her unstrung bow in its weather wrap, sat against a tree, and unrolled a scroll to study.

  Inda scanned the area. The Chardaus flowed behind them; right below them was the great east-west road leading to the bridge. Elsewhere the land was a lot steeper, more forested, than it had seemed on the map. Their little valley was protected, especially in this low-cloud, drizzly weather—

  He frowned, listening. Riders on the road! They didn’t look like danger; they were just ambling along. Brigands didn’t ride out in the open like that. These fellows were talking like it was Restday in the city.

  “Should we warn ’em, d’ya think?” Cama asked, adjusting his eyepatch. “They won’t want to ride into a battle.”

  “Silence,” Tanrid ordered. “We’re to lie low, remember?”

  Inda frowned. Something was wrong. Six riders, no weapons in sight, dressed like farm folk, except for—

  “Horses,” he breathed. “Down.”

  He hadn’t meant to issue a command. The horsetails looked surprised, and Tanrid raised a hand to smack him for frost, but Cassad Ain caught his wrist. “Inda. What do you see?”

  “No farmers have horses like that,” Inda whispered back.

  They peered through bushes at the riders, who chatted and laughed, but yes, they all glanced furtively about them as they gestured, and the horses were pretty, not purebred Nelkereths, but definitely high-bred, and what was more important, definitely trained. Nervous, too, they could tell by looking at their ears.

  Inda’s mind was fast adding up the details. “They keep scanning west,” he murmured, thoughts racing faster now, like a plunging stream, no, a waterfall, but sharp and clear: the details all converged somehow from endless possibility into a continuous stream of probability.

  “Do you think they’re searching for the main battle?” Whipstick elbowed up next to him. “It couldn’t be for us.” His tone made it a question. “Could it?”

  Inda was more sure by the moment. “If they know about the battle, why aren’t they over there? And if they don’t, why are they scouting? I think they are looking for us.”

  Silence. Joret, the horsetails, and the scrubs all peered down through leaves and tall grasses. Now that the riders were nearer, that the idea had been put into their minds, they could see how the men were scanning methodically, despite laughter and a lounging posture that looked more and more false. Scanning—watching—with expectation.

  “We should call the perimeter guard,” Cassad whispered.

  Whipstick jerked his thumb up. “I’ll go.”

  A noise behind them brought their heads around, and the bigger boys scrambled for knives—

  A green-splotched face, perfectly camouflaged, emerged from a shrub. Dogpiss!

  He belly-crawled into the camp, eyes wide with terror. “They’re dead. I saw two of ’em. Throats slit. One b-b- bleeding to death, killed just now. They killed a couple of them first.”

  “Who’s dead?” Whipstick clutched the front of Dogpiss’ tunic. His brother trembled in his grip. “Samred? Our guard?”

  Dogpiss’ muddy hand pointed shakily down toward the river.

  “Then we fight,” Tanrid said, mouth thinning.

  “No, no,” Inda said, agonized. “Look!”

  Again his brother raised a hand, for he was the ranking boy here, but again Cassad halted him. “He’s right. If they’re searching, and others attacked our guards, then we had better double or even triple the number we see.” He indicated the six riders, passing westward along the road. “A trap. They’re closing in.”

  “A trap . . . for us,” Tanrid murmured, and the impact hit them all at once: they’d been betrayed.

  And if they had been betrayed, so had their fathers.

  “Say twelve to eighteen of them, maybe more. Even with the ones Captain Samred and the riders killed, there have to be a lot of them to kill our men. We only have our knives and bows,” Inda said, not even aware of talking. His mind ran too fast.

  “We fight,” Tanrid stated. “We won’t be rounded up like sheep for

  “We run,” Cassad countered, grim. “We’re no use dead.”

  “Run where?” Tanrid snapped, looking around at the unfamiliar territory, and the others looked around too—except for Inda, who had already scanned the terrain.

  He considered them: Tanrid, Cassad Ain, Manther, Whipstick, Cama, Dogpiss, Rattooth, Joret, Gdand, himself. Ten against maybe close to twenty grown men, armed men, used to fighting.

  His thoughts ran faster, falling into a pattern of order. He turned his head. “Dogpiss. Where were you? River?”

  Dogpiss turned his thumb up. “Wanted to see if I could spot the bridge where the battle is. Big turning—”

  “Never mind that. You lead the way. And Joret. You’re good with a bow, so you cover us as we come after.” Joret thumbed up—she was already strapping on her palm guard with its steel thumb ring. “You both,” Inda added, looking at Gdand. “Then we make it to the river. Swim to the bridge.”

  Gdand was short and sturdy, and she would be as good with a bow as she was with knife fighting, or she wouldn’t be an Algara-Vayir Runner. “I’ll scout the trail,” she murmured, and backed away through the shrubs that Dogpiss had emerged from.

  Joret had already strung her bow, the only signs of emotion a glow along her cheekbones and a slight tremble in her fingers. She crushed her scroll into the front of her smock, and shook free all her arrows, so carefully made all winter, feathers beautifully fletched in the tight Marlovan spiral. She looked down and then hesitated, glancing up at Inda.

  It was Inda, not the older boys, who knew each person’s strength, whose mind shaped action and order out of the shock that gripped them all. “Leave some for Tanrid and Cassad Ain,” he said, and Joret complied.

  The older boys had only a few arrows along; theirs awaited them at the academy. Joret and Gdand had each designed and made her own, something that the arms mistress at Tenthen House required for the honor of the House.

  Cassad saw the plan. “You and I cover the rear, Tanrid.”

  Yes. Like in wargames. They knew that drill.

  Drill. If life fell into the patterns of drill, they could act, even though the adults set to guard them were dead, the plan betrayed.

  “Now,” Tanrid said, and they could move: they not only had a plan, but orders.

  They abandoned the camp, leaving their bedrolls and gear, everything except for weapons, and withdrew swiftly, Dogpiss, Joret, then Whipstick, who would not let his brother out of his sight. Inda followed Rattooth, and as soon as he moved that, ephemeral clarity disintegrated into impressions, worries, sensory details that formed no more order than the dancing motes of sun on running water.

  He’d been in command only long enough to set them into motion. Then he was merely a terrified boy, especially when they were spotted by a dark form in a tree who shouted, “They’re here! To me, to me—”

  Twang! Tanrid shot. They all heard the smack of the arrow’s impact and the dark form fell, now making hoarse, gurgling noises, until he landed with a sickening, meaty thud.

  The younger boys followed Dogpiss’ trail of slippery mud and broken weeds, as insects chirruped angrily around them. Horse riders emerged from the brush to the north, two abreast, in a frighteningly short time.

  The two twangs! from Tanrid and Cassad were almost simultaneous; a fletched arrow sprouted in one’s throat and in the other’s gut, and both fell.

  “Fan out! Fan out!” the boys heard a man yell.

  “That one’s got whistlers,” Tanrid cried, but Cassad was already belly-crawling through the long grasses to grab the dying man’s warning arrows, while Tanrid took aim at the bobbing heads retreating through the trees.

  Faster. Crawl faster! Impressions splintered then, and afterward none of them clearly remembered that retreat, or how they got the various scrapes and bruises that marked them. The horsemen, hampered by the uneven terrain and by the deadly aim of the skilled bows, followed at a discreet distance, forming a ring that advanced at a thundering yell when at last the children tumbled onto the rocky riverbank.

  But even as they charged, Wheng! Zang! Again and again, with trained speed, Joret, who was now poised behind a rock on the river’s edge, emerged just long enough to shoot arrows, each hitting its mark, and the five horsemen behind their dead leaders veered off. From the other side of a tumbling stream Gdand sent two arrows, one thunking squarely into a rider’s back. He tumbled into the brush.

  Cassad and Tanrid had already run out of arrows. Yelling wildly, the boys splashed into the river and began swimming directly out into the middle of the current.

  Joret, still perched on her rock, shot until she saw no enemies; then, she slung her bow over her shoulder and dove in, Gdand following. The remaining brigands appeared cautiously and ranged along the riverside. One or two splashed into the water, but were called back by those who realized they would never catch up, not in that icy water, and so they stood and watched as their quarry swirled away down the river.

  Inda, looking back once, realized the brigands were not shooting, though two of them had bows. That had to mean they’d had orders to take him and his companions as hostages.

  That’s proof, Inda thought hazily, as he gasped and kicked hard through the bitterly cold current sweeping him along. If they had orders, then they definitely knew we were coming.

  Chapter Twenty-four

  BLEAK gray light leaked between the eastern cloud bands when ten or twelve of the brigands appeared, riding slowly toward the bridge.

  Enticingly slow.

  They were watched by the three commanders, who were crouched down behind a jumble of rocks and shrubbery on a hillock from which they could see the converging roads.

  “Another decoy,” the Jarl of Jaya-Vayir said, drawing out his knife and running a thumb along it.

  The Jarl of Cassad eased his position, wincing against the lightning radiating from his hip. Up all night, waiting, watching. War is a young man’s game. “Decoy from what?” he forced his tired mind to think. “We know where they are.”

  “The question is if they know where we are,” the Adaluin murmured, thinking of their own forces lying on the other side of the bridge, waiting; Noth’s men scouting in two perimeters, and their reinforcements down the road waiting for a signal arrow that had yet to be shot. The brigands, instead of following their customary pattern of attacking in force, had been sending out these little scouting parties all night, as if—

  “Impossible,” the Jarl of Jaya-Vayir muttered, thinking of those long, wearying treks through the night forest in the rain, doubling around and then back again, splitting the parties and doubling yet again, as they crept into position.

  The Adaluin’s hand tightened on his sword, but from uneasiness, frustration. He glanced eastward, now seeing instead of blackness the forested ridges, and farther out, the hills. Nothing there, of course. No one could attack through that terrain. Which was why they sent the boys there—

  No. It was impossible. Was it? All the sorties had come from the west, north, south, never from the east. He faced the other Jarls. “The only thing in the east is the boys.” And in saying it, realized he had it at last.

  Cassad’s face changed from disbelief to anger.

  Jaya-Vayir’s jaw slackened. “But that would mean—”

  “They not only knew we were coming, they know our plan.”

  The Jarl of Cassad glared at the Adaluin, both their minds grappling with the stunning realization: betrayal. Jaya-Vayir got to his feet, feeling old and stiff as he turned his eyes from one to the other. Both of them looking as creaky as he felt, and he wished he hadn’t been so generous through the long night with sips from his flask of distilled rye. Never again, he thought tiredly. Unless it’s the Venn themselves.

  “But it’s the king’s plan,” Cassad murmured.

  And all three faced east. The boys—sent to the east, to be safely out of the way, by order of the king.

  No one wanted to speak. They looked at one another, a
nd then all three of them thought of Captain Noth, sent at the last moment as reinforcement, directly by the king.

  The king hadn’t betrayed them. But someone close to him—

  Sick terror gripped the Adaluin, followed by hot, killing rage. I will not lose a second family.

  He motioned to his waiting Runner. “Get Noth.” The man struck fist to heart, then vanished noiselessly into the underbrush. The Adaluin turned to Cassad. “If they don’t know about Noth, we can bring the dragoons around the back way to close the trap on their own trap.”

  Cassad bared his long teeth. “And hammer them.” He gripped his weapons, the cold, sour wind off the marshes whipping his long, graying horsetail.

  Jaya-Vayir said, “First we need to secure those children—”

  Faint over the roar of the river warbled a triple owl hoot. The commanders paused, as poised for action as their highly bred scout hounds, until a message was relayed from the far perimeter: “Someone in the river!”

  A young Jaya-Vayir Runner dashed up. “River patrol’s pulling the boys and girls out of the water.” He panted, smacking his fist to his chest.

  Cassad said to the Adaluin, his hands flexing, “They must have figured it out.”

  “Or the attack went awry,” the Adaluin replied. “Either way, we no longer stand between the enemy trap and our heirs.”

  Captain Noth arrived, moving silently and swiftly.

  The Adaluin said, “It’s a trap. But we’re going to close it.” Noth’s grim expression hardened. The Adaluin said, “I am afraid it is you yourself who must take the boys and Joret to the royal city. I don’t trust anyone else. Take a single riding of your most trusted men, and leave me all the rest.”

  Noth saluted and backed away, speaking in a rapid whisper to his second in command.

  All three leaders motioned to their runners and started giving orders, in quick, cryptic words—as speedy as they were in their young days in the academy so long ago. All three were furiously angry, the cold anger that comes from a narrow escape from the unthinkable. They would not halt until they spent all their rage in exacting retribution.

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