Inda by Sherwood Smith

  “We’ll be back.” Tanrid realized he’d spoken and bent forward to stroke his nervous mount.

  Embarrassment always made him sensitive to sound. He heard soft laughter from one of them, and because he couldn’t see her face, because he was listening so intently, the back of his neck prickled.

  For a moment there, all he’d been able to think about were those lovely shapes beneath the revealing clothes—that and the peculiar pain of what the boys called saddle-wood, but now he turned his head and looked at the girls.

  Still smiling, all of them, lazily raising one hand. Behind them an ordinary house, built here close to the road, which never happened at home except in walled villages. Lots of curtained windows, a truck garden on the northeast side to make the most of the sun. He’d already seen a lot of farmhouses just like this one, here in the north, houses all by themselves, a sign that war seldom came this way, he guessed. An ordinary farmhouse, not a pleasure house.

  Tanrid said, “How much you charge for sex?”

  The first girl looked confused, the second’s lips parted, the third’s face tightened in quick, reflexive anger. Then she shook her head, smiling. “Free and friendly. We don’t need money. We like pretty fellows, is all, and we’re bored.”

  “Which one is the prince?” the first one asked, tossing her curls and arching her back. She laughed exultantly when she saw the impact in those hot foreign gazes. “I hope it’s you,” she added to Buck Marlo-Vayir. “You’re the handsomest.”

  “I want the prince. I’ve never seen a prince. I want a tussle with one,” the second one said, jutting a hip and putting both arms up over her head, then running her fingers through her hair. She glanced the Sierlaef’s way. It was a quick, assessing look, then she pouted, making kissy lips.

  “We like pretty girls, and we’re bored, too,” Cassad called, laughing. “We’ll return.”

  “We’ll be waiting.” The first girl cooed in a breathy voice that was now, Tanrid thought uneasily, too breathy.

  Cassad made ribald remarks as they rode away, laughing at his own wit. If things were quiet—of course they would be—the outriders were to find a camp beyond the village, where there was grass and water.

  “Wine,” Buck said presently. “We daren’t raid, I suppose. Anyone have any coin? If we sent a fast Runner to the town we rode past this morning, we could have it back by the time we finish camp. What do you say?” He spoke to the Sierlaef, but Tanrid said, “No.”

  The Sierlaef’s head jerked round. “What?”

  Tanrid looked back. The house was out of sight by now, behind one of the forested hills. Hills that could hide things—like archers, or an ambush. The countryside had been empty for uncounted days, so quiet they had come to assume that nothing ever happened here, outside of the growing of rice along all the river marshland, and cotton in the fields.

  But quite suddenly, after days and days of boredom, Tanrid’s mind galloped and he was seeing danger everywhere. Real, dream, or cowardice?

  While Tanrid wrestled mentally, the Sierlaef was also veering between conflicting emotions. First there was the insistence of desire. It had been so long. Too long. At home, all he could think of was Joret. Now, months away from Joret, he felt desire again, and the prospect of a tumble with one of those tight-waisted, billowy girls made him start to tremble.

  And Tanrid had the presumption to say no! “What,” he said again, glaring at Tanrid.

  Tanrid glanced around at the trees, even at the sky, and then said, low, “Let’s talk in camp.”

  The sun was setting by the time the camp perimeter was laid out, and the Sier-Danas met together at the center, away from the command tents.

  Manther Jaya-Vayir said, “Cousin Tanrid. What’s wrong? Nothing with the girls, surely. They’re just girls.”

  Everyone knew girls here blanched white as sand at the sight of a knife, unlike the girls at home. Most of the men too, for that matter.

  Tanrid drew his sleeve across his sweaty face. The evening was sultry, making everyone feel ill at ease. “They aren’t pleasure girls, but they were acting like ’em.”

  “Flirting,” Cassad said with a shrug. “And so were we.”

  “That’s what I thought, but did you watch ’em? They talked and acted like pleasure house girls, yet the one got mad when I asked about money.”

  Cassad gestured, palm out. “Different customs.”

  “Except we’re enemies,” Manther said. “Why so friendly? Not just friendly, but ...” He frowned. “Personal.”

  “Like they were hiding something. I think it’s a ruse,” Tanrid said swiftly.

  “Ruse?” the Sierlaef said with scorn, miming a stabbing. “Fight us?”

  “Not a real fight. But, say, they get us drinking, get us into bed, and while we’re bare-ass and drunk and humping away, they pull knives on us.”

  Buck crowed in derision.

  Cassad snorted. “Even with our trousers off we could dust ’em, knives or no knives.”

  Tlen, who’d been silent, looked up, frowning. The Sierlaef punched him in the arm, and Tlen said, “They asked about the prince. They knew who we were.”

  “That’s nothing.” It was Cassad’s turn to scoff. “They probably spotted his war shield. Even Idayagan girls who’ve never seen a warrior in their lives are probably smart enough to figure that the only person carrying gold like that has to be royal. I still don’t smell a ruse.”

  The Sierlaef swung his head Hawkeye’s way. Hawkeye Yvana-Vayir was the wildest of them all, the first to fight, the one who rode the hardest, yet the half-tamed horses he rode always adored him. “You?”

  Hawkeye stroked his sharp-cut chin. “They spotted the shield because they were on the lookout for it. They did seem to know we were not riding at the front.”

  Tlen turned all the way round, then shrugged. “Someone’s been on watch. But we saw no sign of it.”

  They all considered these words. When they thought about it, it did seem like someone had been on the watch.

  Hawkeye jerked his thumb at the heir. “I say we send some of our own men in our clothes. If nothing’s wrong, they have a good time. If something’s wrong, we can be right out there, with a riding, waiting.”

  “And won’t we look stupid, standing around a house listening to them whoop it up, if nothing’s wrong,” Buck retorted.

  Hawkeye shrugged. “Then we go ourselves. So long as we don’t see a war party creeping up, we and our own Runners can handle any number of assassins in that house, I should think. So if nothing’s wrong we make it out to be a game of our own, and return, ourselves, tomorrow. We’re as far east as we can go, we have to turn back and start west again to meet the Harskialdna anyway, so what’s an extra day?”

  Tanrid had been drumming his fingers in a war tattoo, as he mentally reviewed the map. “Damn,” he said.

  “Oh, what now?” Buck groaned with annoyance, slewing around to glare at him.

  Tanrid dropped onto his knees, smearing the ground with his sleeve. Then he sketched in a rough approximation of the Idayagan coast. “So we’re here, hard up against the hills. Two rivers there to the west, which either we or the Harskialdna have to cross, before we meet. Two rivers between us and the rest of our forces. All they’d have to do is bring down their own bridges. If we have to ford rivers on horseback, shooting us is mere target practice.”

  Buck sneered. “You afraid of shadows now?”

  “No,” Cassad said before Tanrid could speak, with a characteristic sudden mood swing. “You know, he’s right. I mean, if we saw so obvious a tactical advantage—forces split by two rivers—”

  Tlen stroked his thumb along his knife handle.

  Cassad poked him. “And even if they don’t have an army, it would be a neat, easy ruse to capture and kill the royal heir and his future Jarls in one night. Catch us in bed, we even look bad. There wouldn’t be any songs about that,” he added with grim humor. “Not on our side, anyway.”

  Manther Jaya-Vayir said in his s
oft voice, “I say we send either liegemen or Runners to the girls. And watch from outside.”

  Hawkeye turned to Tanrid. “I think you’re right.” And to the Sierlaef—they all faced the Sierlaef—“Well?”

  The Sierlaef wound his finger in the air, and pointed.

  The boys each picked out a personal Runner or trusted armsman, and lent them their House tunics and good sashes. Buck couldn’t bring himself to tell his armsman anything more than “It’s a ruse the Sierlaef wants to run.” Cassad, Hawkeye, Jaya-Vayir, and Tanrid all told their men exactly what was going on; Tlen had chosen Kepri-Davan Ain, childhood friend, former academy mate, and now his family’s future dragoon captain. They both thought it a prime joke, and Kepa Ain took on his role with enthusiasm.

  After some discussion (the armsmen were included) they all decided against the armsmen wearing mail: that would make the girls suspicious, though the thought of the girls believing that Marlovans wore chain mail to bed made them all laugh.

  The laughter didn’t last long. Tanrid felt strange, watching his own Runner, known to him since childhood, ride off wearing his best green fine-wool tunic, that silver owl stitched by his mother; then he shrugged away the feeling. This ruse affair was too easy, that was what bothered him.

  He looked around, sniffing the air. It smelled of dust, of sweat, of summer herbs and grasses. Not a whiff of horse on the wind, but there wouldn’t be any. War up here was different, they’d been told that for years.

  The others joked back and forth as they slipped into their war gear, for they hadn’t even been wearing mail, not since they’d come through the pass and found things so quiet, and the weather so miserably hot. Quilting, mail, and over it their old gray academy war coats. Then they strapped on their wrist and palm guards and loaded up with knives; no bows or arrows, not for scouting a house.

  Tanrid finished first and found the captain of his personal guard, who had just sat down to eat.

  The man put his food down. Tanrid walked him a little way away, and pointed east, at where the silent, forest-covered hills of Lower Ghael rose, touched with sunset colors. “I want you to take a riding and scout up into those hills soon’s you have moonlight. No horses, no noise.” He added, uneasy and not sure why, “And I’ll see that you get extra liberty soon as we meet the Harskialdna.”

  The man squinted up at the hills. The subtle quirk of smile narrowing his eyes was not the least derisive; he was used to boys being ill at ease with their first command in real life. He struck his fist against his breast, and that was that.

  Soon the Sier-Danas were riding westward again, only this time they circled far around to the rear of the farm, leaving their well-trained horses to crop grass next to a stream out of sight of the house and its outbuildings.

  It was fully dark, the moon just about to rise, as the boys belly-crept through the gardens behind the house, bringing not just their knives but their swords, customarily used only from horseback, though they had also trained to fight on foot. The men’s horses waited in an adjacent shed, obviously well cared for, everything peaceful. All the windows in the house were lit, though the curtains were drawn. Inside they heard female laughter and male voices.

  “No, I’m the prince!” That was Buck’s fellow, an arrogant barracks-raised young dragoon from home named Hemrid. Buck didn’t know it, but Tanrid’s Runner had warned him, which prompted Hemrid to act the fool. “I command everyone to get drunk!”

  The voices rose and fell, punctuated with much laughter, as the moon silently rose and started climbing toward the top of the sky. Then, one by one, the voices softened, and quiet settled over the house.

  The Sierlaef peered up between the cabbages again and again, and when an unseen stalk of some sort of weed caused his nose to itch once too often, he became angry and was reaching to smack Buck to signal the retreat when his eyes caught a flicker of movement.

  He went still, as he had on so many wargames at home. They had not thought to stain their faces; he knew his pale face might be discerned if he moved.

  They were all watching. Silent, black figures moved noiselessly from around the barn beyond the shed toward the back of the farmhouse.

  The Sierlaef rose, uttering a strangled yell.

  The figures stopped, and then milled about, sharp male voices exclaiming.

  “Attack! Attack!” Buck yelled, rising, drawing his knife. “Hemrid! Attack!”

  The figures beat them inside, of course, and their leader was smart enough to bar the door and douse the lights. Tanrid and Hawkeye together kicked the door to splinters as Cassad flung a wheelbarrow through a window. At first everything was chaos, fighting in a house—an unfamiliar one at that—but Tanrid, suspecting what had happened as soon as he smelled the mulled wine and heavy herbs lingering in the hot kitchen air, picked up a chair and smashed it into the fireplace, which still contained burning embers. He paused long enough for flames to catch the ragged ends of the chair leg, and then he swept the fire to curtains, pillows, anything that would burn.

  Screaming, yelling, sudden lunging figures melded together into a wine-and-herb-soaked haze, but one image stayed clear: their liegemen all dead, stabbed just moments before, while slumbering deeply under the effect of sleep herbs in the wine.

  The Sierlaef’s inarticulate howl intensified the terrifying sound of Cassad’s savage yips as he dashed through, knife and sword whirling.

  The boys caught and killed everything that moved, a rage-filled murderous attack that had no joy in it, just a lust for vengeance. When all the Idayagans were dead, they ran out, Tlen sobbing with rage and grief combined, Jaya-Vayir hissing in pain. Before the fire took hold, one of the enemy had lunged out at him from a dish cupboard, scoring him deeply across the back of his neck.

  Tanrid himself had a couple of cuts, but he ignored the sting. Beatings back in his academy days had hurt far worse. What drove him now was the growing conviction that this incident was not isolated, that his having been right about the ruse meant he was right about something far larger, far more threatening.

  And so he rode hard, bent close over his horse’s flying mane as they galloped cross-country toward their camp, the liegemen’s riderless horses stringing behind Cassad.

  The outer perimeter sentries shouted. Buck waved and yelled, “Sierlaef!” Tanrid barely registered this breach of ritual, and Manther nearly fell from his horse and was caught by Cassad; Tanrid’s eyes searched the camp, found the camp commander.

  Before he could speak a screamer arrow whistled in the distance, and then another, closer: signal arrows, one from the outer perimeter sentries and the other from Tanrid’s liegeman.

  The Sier-Danas were all waiting, poised with weapons at the ready, when the riding thundered into camp. The captain wheeled his horse, sending dirt hissing into the fires, as he shouted, “Army on the move! Foot warriors coming down out of the hills.”

  That was what Tanrid had missed: foot warriors. No horses. They wouldn’t have speed, but they could use terrain that cavalry couldn’t. Like rocky hills.

  “How m-many?” the Sierlaef snapped.

  “At least a wing, probably more.”

  All they had was one flight—a third of a wing—plus their personal armsmen.

  Tanrid flung himself down, reaching for their map, now much the worse for folding and refolding and coming through rainstorms. He beckoned to the Sierlaef, who had just opened his mouth to command the camp to mount up and ride west at the gallop. “Look,” he whispered.

  The Sierlaef stared down. They couldn’t ride west. Of course, the bridge would be ruined. And forcing their horses to swim across would provide easy targets for even the worst shots. “South.”

  The signal to mount up and abandon camp ripped into the soft, still summer air, thrilling rises of notes, followed by the war drums, as the boys grabbed their shields, bows, and quivers, and cantered southward in the foreign moonlight, riding in perfect formation.

  There they saw the lines and lines of waiting warriors a
dvancing from the south.

  The Sierlaef’s mind veered. They had ridden straight into a well-planned trap. “ ‘Tack!” That was all he could get out—and no one listened.

  Cassad flicked his reins against his horse’s neck, sending the animal plunging up next to Tanrid, who scanned back then forward again.

  “Fan out?” Manther called from Tanrid’s other side in a voice tight with pain. Not to the royal heir, but to Tanrid.

  The Sierlaef saw it all as his father’s two Runners closed in tightly on either side of him, weapons at the ready: the Sier-Danas, the dragoon captain, turned to Tanrid, not to him. And Tanrid galloped at a slant, catching one of the heralds’ horns, and blew three times, the signal for righthand shift. Then the Sierlaef saw Tanrid’s plan, and knew it was good. He’d sensed the ruse, he’d foreseen some sort of attack, and now he knew what to do. And the Sierlaef didn’t. The real truth was that though he was in command and he would one day be king, he didn’t really know what to do.

  Except fight.

  He clapped his heels to his horse’s sides on the trumpet’s signal. The well-trained riders swept to the west almost as one; then the long horn wailed again, signaling, “Shoot!”

  Buck gripped his shield close, the shield he’d slung at his horse’s side every day for weeks but hadn’t really touched since their first ride through the pass. Who would have thought these farmers could put together a whole army? He rode easily, knees gripping his sweet four-year-old mare, who was obedient to his wish. Well, they would go down fighting, then, he thought, exulting in the freedom of righteous rage.

  Tlen muttered the Waste Spell three times, but he still felt like he had to pee. For Father, he thought, struggling to find some purpose, some of the elation he saw in Buck’s face, but all he could think of was Kepa Ain’s laugh before he rode off wearing Tlen’s own House coat, his jaunty wave. Tlen’s right hand tightened on his sword hilt, his left forearm settling his shield into its long familiar position, aligned along his body so it looked from a distance like the wings of a hawk folded for the stoop.

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