Inda by Sherwood Smith


  It just made no sense, why the Sierandael let the Sierlaef treat his brother this way. Inda felt frustrated at the lack of opportunity to see Hadand and ask her. He couldn’t ask Sponge, who loved talking about everything else, but he never talked about himself, or his family.

  Inda shook his head, and then there was no time to think, because the sun had set, and it was time for supper. As prisoners of war they still had to work, but at least only for this camp. They could not cross the stream. Prisoners cooked, ate, then retreated to sit on their bedrolls and watch the rest of the game. They couldn’t even sing or dance at the campfire. They could only drum for the dancing. But at least they couldn’t be forced on any night maneuvers. They were honor-bound to sit tight until sunup, at which time they could try to escape. That thought swiftly resigned most of them to having lost house points by an entire double-riding of ten being captured.

  After a week of outdoor cooking the scrubs were quick and efficient, and so the enemy campfire started early, the first-year horsetails and the youngest pigtails doing war dances and fox-yipping because they were sure they were going to win.

  Yet from the look of the growing leaps of flame on the other side of the stream, it seemed the Sierlaef thought his group would win.

  “Look at that strut,” one of the pony captains exclaimed, hands on hips.

  “Yeah,” said two or three pigtails.

  “Not just strut,” muttered a fourth, glaring at the Sier-Danas. “Midwinter frost.”

  The others glowered in that direction as the other army finished feeding the big campfire on the top of a knoll, then began dancing round it, drums thrumming, like they’d already gotten the banner!

  “Frost,” muttered an older Tlen cousin. “On a banner game.”

  “Royal frost,” said Ennath Ain sourly.

  “Shut up, shut up, shut up,” came several agonized whispers. Whipstick Noth just stared, arms crossed, his lips curled in the same way his father’s did when he saw a sloppy drill.

  “Get to work, you dog turds,” the pony captain snarled with a glance across the stream at the Sierlaef, silhouetted against the golden flames, and the crowd hastily dispersed.

  Banished, sitting under the stars with blankets round their shoulders, the scrubs stared across at the other camp.

  “What ice,” Dogpiss whispered, his eyes so wide and excited the firelight reflected in them, two dancing flames. “And won’t we just burn their butts. Come on. We can be over and back in three songs, just four of us.”

  Tuft was, of course, instantly ready to go. So was Flash.

  Inda, half asleep in his warm blanket, roused enough to realize that Dogpiss wasn’t just talking generally, he actually intended to do something.

  Dogpiss had his sting here, whatever it was.

  Alarm flared in Inda. Working his reluctant tongue in his stiff jaw, he whispered, “No.”

  Dogpiss and Tuft turned his way. Tuft sat back. Cama—half the time now called Squint, due to Dogpiss’ indefatigable efforts—grimaced in disgust, but he was resigned to waiting. After all, they were really honor-bound to stay. Flash flopped back in his blanket.

  But Dogpiss scooted near, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Just a few moments. You could count to ten and we’ll be back.”

  Noddy said tiredly, “Not on a banner game, chicken-wit.”

  “We’re not doing the game, turd-face,” Dogpiss murmured, leaning closer, so as not to rouse the other boys, most of whom had fallen asleep already.

  Only Kepa lay awake, but he said nothing. He was furious that Dogpiss hadn’t picked him to help with the sting. Well, he still had a chance.

  He sat up and muttered, “Whatever it is you’re doing, I’ll go. Even if Algara-Vayir is a rabbit’s foot, some of us aren’t scared.”

  Dogpiss flipped up the back of his hand in scorn and dismissal, then scooted closer to Inda, so close Inda could feel his breath on his cheek.

  He whispered, “Why, if the flag was right out, I mean, if it was the other side, I’d leave it right there, a-lyin’. This is better than a sting, it’s a score, the fastest, the best yet. A royal score, you might call it.” He snickered.

  Before he could blab again about his conversation with the Sierlaef, Inda shook his head. “No.”

  Kepa saw that shaking head. They’re talking about me. Inda’s in charge—he’s always in charge—and he’s a coward! Fury burned him. He’d never done anything to Inda!

  Noddy, disgusted with Dogpiss, flung himself over in his blanket, face turned away.

  Inda returned to watching those fires. How strange, that the Sierlaef would stage a triumph campfire, especially so far from where the bedrolls lay. Especially when he was pretty sure they were hiding the flag right there, in the—

  How long had his thoughts drifted? Not long, but long enough. Something bothered him besides the Sierlaef’s strange ruse; it had to be a ruse. And Dogpiss—

  Dogpiss was mighty quiet. Tiredly Inda counted the shapes, and then, his heart thumping, he counted again.

  And yes, there was Dogpiss’s blanket, draped over a rock.

  He edged close to Noddy and whispered in his ear, “Dogpiss bunked out. I’ve got to get him back. Keep everyone silent.” He sat up, and saw the gleam of firelight in Kepa’s watching eyes, but he paid no attention. Noddy would keep them still.

  Chapter Twenty-nine

  THE Sierlaef sat near the campfire, not hearing the wild drumming, the songs, horsetails singing with two of the Companions yipping counterpoint, not seeing the old war dances around crossed swords, brought out just for the campfire. He smiled, laughing inside because he knew they’d think his smile was at the songs, the dancing, but it was actually because he’d set up his plan so perfectly.

  Dogpiss Noth was an idiot. If he wasn’t over there doing something nasty at the campsite right now, well, then the Sierlaef could call himself an idiot too. But he wasn’t. No, that boy had been so easy to set up. The Sierlaef didn’t care what it was that Dogpiss had smuggled into the game. It was enough to know that he’d put him in the right place.

  Too bad that idiot Sponge, strutting Sartoran all the way, couldn’t have been in that riding too, but his uncle had said to keep Algara-Vayir Tvei and Sponge separate.

  All was going according to plan.

  And to fix it all in place he’d put Hawkeye on guard, his wildest, hardest-riding and fighting Sier-Danas, with a few sips of strictly forbidden double-distilled rye in him to make his temper worse for being detailed guard duty. Liquor always made Hawkeye wilder. And meaner.

  Any moment now the yells would crack the sky, Dogpiss getting thumped and Hawkeye doing the thumping. And so there would be no chance of Dogpiss getting collared quietly by some sympathetic Ain and hustled back to the other side. The whole camp would hear, and that meant the whole camp would see those scrubs nicked honor points while under Inda Algara-Vayir’s command.

  Those points would lose the game for his own side, not that the Sierlaef cared. He was too old for banner games anyway.

  Well, tomorrow he’d go back in private instead of public triumph. His uncle would be proud of his cleverness, and maybe the rules governing royal heirs could change for next year.

  He chuckled softly, his ear turned toward the quiet camp.

  But when the yells came, the sound too quickly turned wrong. “Hey, you!” And then a scream.

  A scream?

  The drums stopped.

  Honor, the game, rules covert and overt were forgotten. The Sierlaef ran with everyone else, stumbling toward the stream from both campfires, to find Inda standing there, his face bleached pale in the starlight, and Hawkeye Yvana-Vayir wringing his hand as though he could shake free from his fingers the impact of Dogpiss’ face.

  “I thought he was a pigtail spy,” Hawkeye cried. “Just gave him a smack! He, he was wet, I guess, and so he slipped—”

  No one listened. The boys stood around staring down at Dogpiss’ dark form lying half in and half out of the stre
am, until Cassad snapped, “A light!”

  Several boys ran to fetch torches.

  “Master Starthend,” Buck declared.

  “He’s still riding the far perimeter,” Manther said.

  “Shoot off a whistler, dolt!” Tanrid yelled, his voice cracking, and Buck ran off himself to fetch a bow and one of the eerie whistling arrows that they knew were only for dire emergency, and which they’d never before had to use.

  Whipstick said nothing, only bent down and gently tried to lift his brother, backing away when the first torch came bobbing down, and in its uneven light they saw the killing gash from the rock point that had bashed in his temple.

  “He’s still breathing!” someone sobbed.

  But he was wrong, it was just the flickering torchlight.

  Inda could see it, and would, over and over again, that night, and all during the long, terrible ride the next day, how he’d caught up with Dogpiss, grasping his wrist, his living wrist, all bony like his own, and then Dogpiss launching himself away over a rock, and both boys being taken by surprise by Hawkeye, who had been skulking behind a huge stone, so unmoving they hadn’t seen him in the darkness, and how Hawkeye had risen, and moving fast—like all horsetails moved fast—cracked Dogpiss across the face.

  Wet, shivering, his boot heels sliding on stone, Dogpiss hadn’t had a hope of catching himself, and at the first contact of the side of his head with that jagged stone, his spirit had fled, still laughing, maybe a little surprised.

  Inda could still see, as he would all his life, Dogpiss’ face as Whipstick turned him over, his eyes still wide open, reflecting the cold, distant stars overhead.

  When the Sierlaef finished his report, Anderle-Sierandael threw his head back and laughed.

  The Sierlaef stood before his uncle in the Royal Shield Arm’s private room, the big doors closed, his personal Runners on double guard outside. That laughter, so amused, so calm, made the royal heir ashamed of the tears he had wept all during the night. Shame brought anger, defensive anger.

  The Sierandael stood there silhouetted in front of the window, against which rain drummed. “Summer!” he exclaimed. “This must be the wettest summer I’ve seen in my life.”

  No answer from the boy.

  His uncle turned around, his dark eyes narrowed, the smile still creasing the sides of his mouth. “Think, boy. Did you really believe that command, that training for command, for war, would see you all safely to old age?”

  The Sierlaef gripped his hands tightly behind his back.

  The Royal Shield Arm regretted the laugh, but really, it was so perfect, so much better than he ever could have hoped for. When he thought of the time he’d wasted concocting the next stumbling block for that damned Algara-Vayir brat, he could crow with laughter. Oh, the boy could still grit his teeth like a hero through the punishment, but he would never in the future command anything more than his House guard. Not after he couldn’t keep a boy in his riding from dying while dishonoring his barracks! And the Sierandael would see to it the blame stayed right there on Inda’s shoulders. The Sierlaef—still so very much a boy—didn’t need to know his uncle had received a report at dawn, nor did he need to know just how far he’d thought ahead in order to make certain the incident avoided disastrous results.

  The immediate issue here was that his nephew’s trust had faltered over an imagined moral question, and that had to be resolved fast.

  He could already see doubt in the familiar pucker between the Sierlaef’s brows, and quickly sought the words to alter that into conviction. “The fact that an accident occurred, and the boy slipped on the rocks and cracked his own head open does not rob you of your success. You managed it all with skill. And you will continue to manage with skill.”

  The Sierlaef frowned, ramming his knuckles against the back of a chair. “Why him? Inda.”

  “Why Indevan Algara-Vayir? You did not see him stand there before me and gloat about how much he looked forward to fighting by the side of Sponge as Royal Shield Arm.”

  The Sierlaef grimaced.

  His uncle said, “The Algara-Vayirs are trouble. Their father courted your father back when we were young, and now this Indevan, who of course won’t inherit, wants to use Sponge to gain influence. You’ve just put a halt to that. You must think in the long term, my boy. Never lose sight of the long term, because you want a long reign, am I correct?”

  The Sierlaef waved a hand in agreement, his lips working, until at last he uttered the word, “Noth. D-dog-p- piss.”

  His uncle felt a spurt of alarm. “What about him?”

  “Talk. I s-set him—”

  The Sierandael raised a hand. “Let me get this clear. Did you order him to try anything outside of the rules?”

  “No.” The Sierlaef gripped his hands behind his back. “Hint. S-st-sting—”

  “Did you give him clear direction? In other words, could he have taken your words as permission? No. An order to run a ruse outside the rules?”

  The Sierlaef thought back, frowning. His head ached; he knew what Dogpiss had understood and what he hadn’t, but how could he explain it without revealing his uncle’s command about Inda Algara-Vayir? He couldn’t.

  Relief and regret warred inside him. He looked into his uncle’s face and realized what his uncle wanted him to say. It would make things so much easier. And it wasn’t as if anything they did or said could bring the Noth boy back to life.

  “No,” he said.

  The Sierandael smiled. “Then that matter is cleared up.”

  The royal heir nodded once, then turned around and stalked out, because he knew his uncle was right. He was always right. But all he could see was that dead boy, and tough Whipstick Noth sobbing his guts out, and so he plunged down through the private wing and out to the street, straight to his favorite pleasure house to bury himself in Kies’ ready arms, where he didn’t have to hear the boys playing the memory drum songs, where he could drink himself insensible. So what if he didn’t have leave? No one would throw him out of the academy.

  And so the Sierlaef was thoroughly, numbingly drunk that night, when the academy stood at attention in the great parade ground, the older boys tapping the big drums with a slow, steady beat, as everyone, young and old, hummed the Hymn to the Fallen, the melody so deep-rooted no one could trace it, they just grew up knowing it, as they grew up knowing that it was never sung for those who died peacefully in bed, but for those who fell honorably on the field.

  Inda stood in line, physically present but morally ostracized. The rules required him to be outcast, surrounded in silence, until judgment had been passed. But the isolation of the rules could never match the isolation of his own anguish, intensified by physical misery. The torches held high by Whipstick’s barracks-mates streamed like fire-ribbons toward the sky, the colors smeared not just by the tears he could not prevent, but by mounting fever, as yet unnoticed, unacknowledged.

  Whipstick stood straight and alone before the small bier that held his brother’s still body, a black sash of mourning tied around his middle. At the right stood the Sierandael, at the left the king and his heir. Whipstick waved his torch once over his brother and then began the Words of Disappearance, but Inda never heard them.

  The ache in his body, clamoring now as insistently as the ache gripping his mind and heart, overwhelmed him, and Whipstick’s falter, his pause to choke on one valiantly strangled sob, sent a pang so fierce through Inda that mind and body could no longer cope. The torches snuffed, one by one, and then the world died.

  He crumpled up without a sound, and didn’t wake even when two of the bigger boys, at a gesture from Master Brath, carried him down to the lazaretto.

  When he woke, the headache tightened round his skull, and for a time he could not think, did not know where he was.

  But then he saw a face. Familiar. Long, hound-jowled, or would be one day.

  “Noddy.” His voice was gone.

  “Don’t talk yet. You’ve been asleep two days. We’ve swapped of
f checking, when we can.” Noddy smothered a cough, then sneaked a look over his shoulder, a gesture so uncharacteristic the first faint stirrings of alarm tingled through Inda.

  “Sick?” Inda asked.

  Noddy shrugged slightly, his turtle shrug. “Near all of us. You’re the only one who went toes up.” He coughed, sniffed, then said, “I’m not supposed to be here, but Sponge somehow got the healer’s assistant decoyed. First this.” He held out a cup.

  Inda tried to raise his head and winced against the hammer of headache. Noddy helped, and Inda drank down an infusion of expensive steeped Sartoran leaf laced with willow bark.

  Almost at once he felt some of the fever-ache ease.

  Noddy sat there, waiting, his dark eyes so serious that Inda gradually realized something was very wrong.

  Dogpiss.

  Fresh grief ripped into Inda’s heart, and the silence stretched.

  At last Noddy said, with another sideways look, “I daren’t stay long. Since I don’t have any fever I’m supposed to be in the stable, but Cama is doing my chores.” He smothered a cough.

  “Why shouldn’t anyone visit me?” Inda whispered. “Oh. Judgment. But they know it was just D . . .” He couldn’t say the name. His eyes prickled. “His sting.”

  Noddy sighed. “No. It’s not that easy. Somehow the beaks have got the idea that you and Dogpiss were running a ruse.”

  “What?”

  “Yes. And you were in command.”

  Inda thought that through and gasped, which set off a fit of coughing.

  When he lay back, exhausted and pale, Noddy grimaced. “Maybe coming was a bad idea, but we thought you had better know. Judgment was postponed for a week or so—that’s how long the healer said you would likely be sick—but then you’re going to have to face Master Brath.”

 
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