Inda by Sherwood Smith

  Inda flushed. He knew that, even despite his brother’s rough training, he would not be useful as a fighter, not until he got some size and muscle—and far more drill.

  “No one doubts your courage,” the captain said, knowing at a glance what Inda was thinking. “But we don’t know how many there are. They don’t know if we have anything worth attacking us for. And if they do attack, and we lose, and they find out who you are, at best it means death for us and a terrible ransom for your parents, Indevan-Dal.” He hesitated, wondering how much of the truth to tell young Inda, whom he liked. He reflected on where the boy was going—and who might call him to question—then said only, “They know the King’s Guard patrol the border of Montredavan-An land, directly north and west. I have sent a Runner ahead, by covert route. We should have aid soon.”

  So they did not gallop, but looked expectantly north-westward. That night the inner perimeter was paced ceaselessly and the outer ridden by armed guards, though the brigands seemed to have vanished.

  By the next morning there was the expected relief party—not one but two sets of armed Riders, half in crimson and gold, the royal colors, and half in old gray coats much like those the Algara-Vayir Riders usually wore, but their banner was a golden eagle, wings outspread, against black.

  Inda realized what he was seeing: the Montredavan-An Riders, who were permitted to patrol just inside their border, but they could not ride beyond, and the King’s Guard, who rode just outside the same borders, making sure no one else entered or exited the forbidden land.

  Inda watched as the Montredavan-An Riders lined up at one side of the road, the only sound the clopping of horse hooves and the snapping of their black and gold banner in the wind as they deferred to the King’s Guard.

  The captain of the King’s Guard indicated the silver and green banner as he said, “Algara-Vayir?”

  Captain Vranid saluted. “I am Riders’ Captain Nollan Vranid, charged with the safety of Indevan-Dal Algara-Vayir, who is summoned to the king’s training.”

  The Guard captain said, “Your road lies east.”

  “So it would. We rode westward to avoid brigands. I sent my Runner to report to you.” A wave of the hand toward the Runner who’d rejoined them that morning. On the nod of acknowledgment from the Guard captain, he continued. “We counted a dozen, all well-mounted, just over the Faral-Thad frontier. If they ride true to form there are at least treble that number hidden in the hills.”

  The Guard captain said, “Yesterday I dispatched half a wing to investigate. They have not yet returned to report.”

  Vranid saluted again.

  “Captains,” the Montredavan-An leader said. “We will patrol and watch for these brigands. But first I feel obliged to offer this truth: the Jarlan, herself granddaughter to Tdanar-Gunvaer, would take it amiss if a party from Algara-Vayir, from her kin-sister, in finding itself so near our border, did not pass through Montredavan-An lands for a single night.”

  The Guard captain considered. Treaty forbade any war parties entering Montredavan-An land. But this was no war party, it was an escort to a boy summoned by the king’s brother.

  He looked at the leaders. The Montredavan-An captain studied the horizon; the other frowned between his horse’s ears as though something of import lay there. They awaited his decision, without plea, argument, or persuasion. There was no suggestion of conspiracy here. More to the point, there seemed little to conspire about in a second son being conveyed on order from the royal city. And there was that reminder that the Montredavan-An Jarlan was related to the king and the Shield Arm through old Queen Tdanar. Occasionally parties were allowed in—and of course the border was crossed all the time by women’s Runners as they wrote letters back and forth, like women everywhere. The captain himself had to spend many weary evenings dutifully reading long letters about home affairs that the women always seemed to be writing: letters about children, horses, dogs, crops, even gardens, punctuated with all kinds of historical references, as the girls always seemed to get more training that way. Never about kingdom affairs, at least. He wondered what he’d do—that is, how he’d feel—if he ever did have to confiscate a letter, then arrest one of the tired, patient female Runners—

  —and shook his head. That was irrelevant right now.

  So. His decision? In his experience, men would hide their true thoughts, but boys did not. Therefore the Algara-Vayir boy’s reaction would decide the matter.

  He turned his attention to Inda, looking for either a smirk or anxiety, and saw only faint question and mostly boredom.

  Inda stared back, idly wondering what the granddaughter of so fierce a Marlovan queen would be like to meet. He knew that his mother had been intended to marry the Jarl of Montredavan-An, but was sent instead to his father through a complicated treaty, and the king’s cousin brought here to marry the Jarl. He was curious to see where his mother had grown up.

  The Guard captain finally sat back, and his mount shifted beneath him. Even she was bored. “Bad weather on the west. It would seem ill, I believe, to deny the Jarlan’s hospitality for a soggy camp bed.” He smiled faintly, saw no response in either the Montredavan-An or Algara-Vayir parties beyond polite acquiescence, and so he raised his fist and his men trotted past, around a green hillock, and out of sight.

  The Montredavan-An captain handed off the patrol to his next in command, taking three men with him as the Algara-Vayirs reassembled into columns. At their head, the captains rode side by side north toward Darchelde. Vranid said, “It was far too easy to lure those brigands after us.”

  The other nodded. “There will be trouble. But it will happen in your lands, not here. You must have been sent so far west by the Iofre for a purpose, then?”

  “Yes. She wanted to make certain the Jarlan found out about this new arrangement with the second sons.” They paused, both reflecting on how difficult it was to get communication across the Montredavan-An borderland. Vranid glanced back at the road where the King’s Guard had vanished, their dust still hanging in the air. “Your watchdog does not seem a bad sort.”

  “Could be far worse,” the captain replied as he motioned his own Runner ahead to report to the castle. “We nearly had one sent by the Sierandael.” They both paused, thinking of the king’s brother. “And so we take care that his reports will never betray the slightest sign of friendship on our part.”

  Vranid laughed.

  No one spoke to Inda during the winding ride up into increasingly forested hills. After the road descended into a cool, dark green-lit valley they rode upward again, and when the forest cleared they saw before them a magnificent castle, built of the familiar sand-colored stone in a very old style, with columned archways. Built across the broadest hill, it conveyed the impression of widespread wings, overlooking the river valley below. Inda, gazing up at that vast edifice, remembered that it had once been the royal castle. Black-and-gold banners at all eight towers lifted in the wind; bow women stood on each tower, composite bows strung but held, no arrows nocked. There were women at the sentry stations where Inda would have expected to see men with their long bows. These women—big, strong women all—held long bows. There were few men in sight.

  The gates opened. The Riders entered the court.

  What drew the eye first were the two massive iron-studded doors at the top of two stairways sweeping in impressive curves to either side—curves, Inda realized, impossible to get a battering ram up.

  One of those doors opened and a short woman bustled through.

  She ran lightly down one of those broad curves, and Inda saw a wide, youthful smile and prominent eyes the color of spring grass. She was followed by several women, bows at the ready, their robes and riding trousers probably hiding several knives. Skimming down the staircase last of all was a short girl with a merry face and golden curls escaping her braids.

  “Welcome to Darchelde,” the woman sang out in Iascan.

  “Jarlan-Edli.” Vranid struck his palm over his heart. “Fareas-Iofre would wis
h her greetings to be given you.”

  “When you return,” the Jarlan said in her clear voice for the two spies that the king’s brother had placed among her servants, “you are to convey my best greetings to her. Do come within. Accept our hospitality before you resume your journey.”

  Inda wasn’t listening. He saw the girl studying him from behind her mother. She laughed soundlessly when her eyes met Inda’s. Then she stuck out her tongue.

  Inda would have stuck his out right back, but he was aware of everyone turned his way. At a sign from Captain Vranid, Inda dismounted, and stable hands led his horse away.

  The Jarlan gestured to the girl. “My dear, take Indevan-Dal in charge. When time permits, introduce him to your brother.”

  “When time permits.” Inda heard the faint emphasis the Jarlan put on those words, an emphasis that reminded him of his mother when she spoke to Joret or Hadand or sometimes Tdor, and he knew instinctively the words carried extra meaning.

  He kept silent as the girl stepped forward, and saluted with palm to heart. She looked more or less like the children at Castle Tenthen: bare feet, smock, baggy riding trousers—but her smock was embroidered, and clean. “Come along, Indevan-Dal,” she said, and when they were away from the slow-moving adults, who were still exchanging stiff and formal politenesses, “I’m Shendan Montredavan-An, but you can call me Shen. Everyone here does, and we aren’t allowed to see anyone else.”

  Once again she laughed soundlessly, eyes crinkled.

  “I’m Inda,” said he, following her up the stairs.

  At the top Shen paused before the huge carved door that stood open, and gave him a mocking smile. “Know you the ‘Hymn to the Beginning?”

  Inda shrugged, instantly wary. Was this Shendan about to test him on history? “Since we’ve been singing it at New Year’s Firstday, oh, since I was able to talk, I guess I do.”

  Shendan just crossed her arms as she led the way into an enormous hall built between the huge fireplaces from before there were the magical Fire Sticks. “So let’s hear it.”

  Inda glanced around, hiding his surprise. This castle was obviously far older than his own home, yet all the joins in the stone had been smoothed with plaster, and the paintings of stylized eagles, of riders and old legends on the walls were fresh. It really did look like a castle for kings—but then it was really the first Savarend Montredavan-An who had conquered Iasca Leror, despite all the songs about Bederian Montrei-Hauc and his prowess. He had made the peace, formed the kingdom, and then lost the throne by a knife in the night, right in this very castle.

  This family had produced the first real Marlovan king, and now were exiles on their own lands. Old history seemed suddenly immediate, and he wondered what Shendan was going to say next. He suspected he would not find out until he answered as she wanted, so he chanted in Marlovan, the words sounding to him, as always, like the galloping of a horse:Maralo Venn of ancient day, riding Hesea Plain

  Wide as the wind’s home, free as the eagle.

  Led by three warlords wielding the sun:

  Montrei-Hauc the mountain-gift,

  Montrei-Vayir plains masters,

  Montredavan-An, lords of the forests.

  Allies and equals, before they were kings

  Shendan echoed in a derisive singsong, “ ‘Allies and equals, before they were kings.’ How many lies in that line?”

  Inda knew plenty of girls, but not one was anything like this Shendan. “Not lies,” he stated. “Poetic embellishments. That’s what my mother calls ’em.”

  Shendan cast him a sideways look, full of inward laughter. “I should have known you’d be familiar with such things. Your mother grew up here, after all, and I’m glad she taught you. I’ll bet a horse you even know the dates in Sartoran time.”

  Marlovan history was sung, and time was measured by great deeds, not years. But Inda said, “Your ancestor made a treaty by marriage with the Cassadas family in 3682, when he took over Iasca Leror.” After which they changed their name to Cassad, and became as Marlovan as the rest of us.

  “And do you know when Anderle Montrei-Vayir had my ancestor, as you call him, assassinated?”

  “3718,” Inda said, feeling uncomfortable—as if it had happened last week, and not almost two hundred years ago.

  “Well, lies or poetry, it sounds good, doesn’t it? All right, then. Skip away to ‘riding the ranges’—”

  Inda chanted,Riding the ranges, valiant and venturous,

  Marlovan war kings defended the holdings

  Great Vayir strongholds, from the high throne.

  Yet treaties beholden, deeds of famed prowess

  Bound Jarls and King at year’s Convocation.

  War drums and danger through all four seasons

  Brought fire and feud by—

  The old words, sung over and over since Inda was small, suddenly took on different meaning now that he was standing in the stronghold of the Montredavan-Ans so vilified in the song.

  Shendan’s mouth curved in her soundless laugh, then she continued:—gold-greed and fame-fire

  Burned a hunger never to assuage.

  Bones broken like spear-shafts,

  Shields piled in towers,

  Such was the vision of the Montredavan-An king.

  Fame-fire—the craving for never-ending renown—that was the way the words translated, but until now Inda had never thought about what they really meant. His face heated under Shendan’s trenchant gaze. What came next were the triumphant verses about how the new Jarls swore allegiance to the new Montrei-Vayir king, who pledged peace and plenty. He said, “So the old songs lie, is that it?”

  Shen snorted. “Didn’t it ever seem silly to you that all the dogs yapping at Anderle Montrei-Vayir’s heels added ‘Vayir,’ which means ‘plains,’ onto their family names, just when they left riding the plains and moved into the castles they’d stolen from the Iascans? ‘Great Vayir strongholds’ indeed!”

  Inda had always liked those verses. He grimaced. “Dogs including my own ancestors.” He pointed at her. “But it wasn’t strut when the Haucs and the Davan-Ans and the Vayirs put ‘Montrei’ before their names?”

  Shen’s lips tightened. “It was always part of our name. It had all slurred together by the time the Haucs and the Vayirs thought to put ‘Montrei’ to theirs. Montrei means ‘leader.’ ”

  “It means ‘fist’ in ancient Venn,” Inda retorted. For the first time he was glad of all those afternoons studying with his mother when the rest of the boys were out running around, free as air. “Marlovans changed that to mean the strongest leader. Montrei-Hauc, leaders of the mountain families, Montredavan-An, leaders of farmers and forest, and Montrei-Vayir, leaders of the plains. It was supposed to unite them. But it didn’t.”

  Shendan lifted her shoulders, then gave him a reluctant grin. “You’re the first boy I’ve ever talked to who knew that. Besides my brother.”

  “My ancestors pretty much had to add Vayir onto their names, I was told,” Inda said. He was ready to make peace if she was.

  Shen nodded, and indeed returned a kind of peace offering. “I learned that too, and why: because they got their title by marriage even before my great-father rode into Darchelde. I think old Anderle, so good at backstabbing, probably expected your Algaras to turn Iascan, and maybe expand Choraed Elgaer’s borders at the expense of the incoming Marlovans, and so your ancestors had to add Vayir or find his army at your castle gates.”

  Inda’s mother had told him that some families spoke of unity when tacking “Vayir” onto their names, but most of them had done it to avoid Anderle’s wrath—and his retribution. Only the very strongest landholding families, like the Tlens and the Sindan-Ans, could really choose whether to add it or just keep their names as they were.

  But he didn’t say any of that now.

  Shendan was used to being the smartest of any boy or girl she met, not that she met many, exiled here on her own land. A daughter of a king without a crown. And here was one who would ri
de out free and easy, and she just had to test him one more time.

  So she laughed softly, hugging her arms to her, and stepped closer, staring straight into his eyes. “Did you know,” she asked in that goading voice, “that that very next generation stopped speaking Marlovan? Except for all their silly titles they were acting more Iascan than the Iascans, because the real Iascans thought us a lot of barbarians.”

  Inda retorted, “Iascans had writing. Marlovans did not. They used Iascan for records, and Marlovan for war. It’s a matter of what’s easier, not if they were barbarians.”

  “ ‘Marlovan for war.’ Not until recently. No one spoke it at all, except at your academy, did you know that? Until the last generation or so, Marlovan was for ignorant boys in a stupid war school!”

  At home Inda would have taken that as a challenge to be settled out in the fields, the other boys and girls yelling encouragement, but he remembered he was a guest, and so he had to behave like one. No matter how much frost this daughter of kings flung at him.

  Shendan snorted again, then she noticed Inda’s red face and his tightly pressed lips, and all the anger drained out of her. She’d expected arrogance, maybe even pity, and all she’d found was more civility than she’d offered—that and equal knowledge.

  So she finally spoke the truth. “Anyway Mother says we live with the result, which is the treaty that binds us here to our land for ten generations, on pain of death if anyone enters or leaves without due escort. We can only defend our land, we can’t go beyond it. So while I can go to the queen’s training in a few years, my brother has never been to your academy, can never go, is supposedly forbidden to learn to use a sword here, though he can learn while at sea. But he can never bear one here. Understand now?”

  Inda drew in a breath. So it wasn’t just a test, it was a way—maybe the only bearable way—for this strange girl to warn him. “You don’t want me strutting about getting to go to the academy when I meet your brother.” He might have added that he hated strut, but he didn’t. Such statements, usually in Branid’s mouth, just sounded like more strut, and anyway it was a fair warning since Shendan didn’t know him at all.

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