Inda by Sherwood Smith

  Hawkeye lifted his head and howled out yips. Battle, finally! Maybe this will please Father at last, he thought, the fox cry burning his throat. How many times had he been forced to hear, “You’re the son of a princess, and you haven’t yet seen a drop of blood shed in battle. I live for the day you can show your mettle!” This is the day, Father. “Yip! Yip! Yip!” From behind came answering yips from his men, and he laughed, a laugh scarcely less wild than his fox yips.

  Still galloping, everyone strung bows, fitted arrows, took aim, all as swift and smooth as in uncounted drills, and shot at the advancing forms. The lines wavered, serried, and again the horn, and again the whiffling flight of arrows, but what was that ahead? More of them?

  Light? Light! The dragoons, trained to deal with water, bridges, with fighting once they’d jumped off their horses, now used fire: one carried, as always, campfire embers in a special silver holder, and now he rode along just as he had in countless drills, touching fire to oil-soaked strings that the dragoons bound around their arrows, their fingers nimble even in the darkness.

  On their own signal they fired, sending golden arcs crossing the sky into that vast, unorganized mob of Idayagans, and summer grasses caught fire here and there. Again the ranks wavered, but there were too many of them, the Marlovans could see that now. Far too many, and the Idayagans were about to close in from the east as well as the south.

  We’re outnumbered thrice and thrice again, Tanrid thought, slinging his bow over its saddle clip. He shoved his quiver around to the middle of his back, then angled his shield up his forearm. He drew steel, in both hands. Last, because he knew how this horse got distracted and then turned wild, he put his reins in his teeth. His hands shook, and he recognized desire, but it was a desire different from sex, it had nothing of tenderness in it, the exquisite husbanding and releasing of force. This was a different desire, a more powerful one. He rode hard toward the enemy’s steel, knowing that at last he could unleash all his strength, that there would be no more wargames, not today. Every blow was meant to destroy.

  “Yip! Yip! Yip!” Tlen and Hawkeye shrieked the fox cry, and now everyone around joined in. “Yip! Yip! Yip!” in a voice that meant “Kill! Kill!”—a cry that raised the hairs on the backs of the necks of those in the front ranks of their enemies: maybe they’d caught these terrible horse warriors by surprise, and they certainly outnumbered them, but that sure hadn’t scared them.

  Hearts on both sides hammered faster than horses’ hooves, faster than the war drums thrumming at the outer wings of the riders, and the war horns blared their brassy challenge at the sky.

  The dragoons slung their bows over their backs and readied their lances and shields, standing up in the saddles, heels locked down in the stirrups. The horses, sensing the imminent charge in the actions of their riders, tossed and pawed and whinnied as they formed up into tight lines.

  The Marlovans were outnumbered, but they would go down fighting, and that was all Manther could think. He was already faint from loss of blood, but the pain was gone, and he seemed to float on his horse’s back as they homed on the target.

  Tanrid grinned when he saw the ruddy light spreading, silhouetting the enemy, to catch the gleam of fire on steel, and then the dragoons galloped straight into the first ranks of the enemy, lances smashing through shields, and the men holding shields, so that rings of shock rippled back through the Idayagans, while horns called and recalled.

  The dragoons were halted by the packed mass of enemies, each clearing a space by yanking out their swords and laying into the disorganized, half-panicked masses with ferocious skill and speed, just as the rest of the Marlovans hit in a second wave.

  Tanrid wept with joy, with despair, for he did not want to die so far away from home, but—slash, shove, smash! Three, four enemies fell, his cavalry sword too fast, too deadly in its swing for inexpert straight swords to parry, especially upward, or for those big, heavy shields that they couldn’t see over, had obviously not been trained to maneuver, to block.

  “Tanrid?” That was Cassad.

  Tanrid spat out the reins, guiding his horse now only with his knees. But that was familiar, too: one of the first games the ponies played at the academy was riding obstacles with your hands tied behind your back.

  “Round the Sierlaef!”

  They were completely surrounded now, the front ranks of the Idayagans in total disarray, but unable to retreat as the mass of their forces pressed in from behind. An Idayagan captain shouted, trying to rally his troops, and pointing with his sword at the Sierlaef’s golden shield. Tanrid, seeing this action, sent his horse plunging toward Aldren-Sierlaef. The Marlovan strategy had narrowed to that, he thought: their duty was to close around the royal heir, until the very last one fell.

  Tanrid obediently wheeled again, tightening in with the others, a circle long drilled. They all fought on, but still the enemy kept pressing forward, untrained, ill-equipped, the real threat their numbers. Tanrid and the Sier-Danas round the Sierlaef struck again and again at faceless enemies until their arms shivered like string puppets’, their breath burned their dry throats, the smoke made their vision blur, their horses stumbled with weariness. They circled the heir, just as their own men closed around them. Cassad and Tanrid both saw, too late, four of the enemy force a gap and launch themselves against Manther, who fell, still weakly swinging his sword, his old academy tunic black down the side, before the Jaya-Vayir armsmen closed in and the four vanished under Vayir steel. Riderless horses ran about in rare pockets of empty, trampled field, tails ghostly in the red light, and Tanrid began to weep in bitter rage, for these were not worthy foes—they barely knew how to fight—but they would win from overwhelming numbers.

  Rage gave Tanrid enough will to lift his sword again and again, though he knew his last thrust would be soon; his horse had stumbled twice, great-hearted as she was.

  It was then that the horns cried in the distance, sounding like an echo, a dream, but coming faster, too fast for a dream. And then the ranks around them faltered, many falling back, faces turning west. The Idayagans knew it before the Marlovans: the Harskialdna, somehow, was there, not way to the northwest riding blind toward the ruined bridges, but right here, galloping to the rescue.

  And so the Harskialdna had his moment of glory at last, but it was an empty glory, though he would smile and preside over the victory dances afterward while his men proclaimed him Harskialdna Sigun, because it was not, after all, his rescue. It was Jened Sindan’s.

  Chapter Ten

  THE Marlovans now ruled an empire larger than Sartor. Following the news came the repercussions.

  For the Pim ships, the first result was the sight of the Pim agent rowing out the day they arrived at the harbor of Bren. “The Venn are putting trade sanctions on Iascan goods,” he warned. “Sail fast, or sell up.”

  Captain Beagar summoned the other two captains, canceled all liberty, and kept the fleet anchored out in the bay, even though it meant paying extra for goods to be brought in and out by the villagers in small boats who made their living doing just that.

  The second result occurred when the Pim Ryala tacked down the last of the strait, trying to catch the last of the western winds before winter swept up from the southeast.

  “Deck hai! Venn sail hull down, west-northwest!”

  Venn. They’d seen them before; they’d always passed by. No one paused in their work. The bosun and purser were still arguing about the stowage of the hundred-year glowglobes against the heavy seas of winter; the bosun’s mates oversaw a party replacing the foremast topsail lifts and braces; Inda was teaching a new rat how to coil down ropes.

  “Venn! Hull up, and closing!” the lookout yelled.

  Inda grabbed the rope from the girl and coiled it fast, knowing what would come next:

  “Flags!” Beagar yelled from the door to his cabin.

  Inda already had the glass from the binnacle. He ran up the shrouds to the mainmast.

  The tall ship sailed with such speed
the water purled down the sides, leaving a splendid wake. Long, lean as a cutter in line, though quite large, its prow curved up rather than jutting forward in a bowsprit: Inda had seen that singular profile on the horizon a few times. For the first time he saw one close. Towers of square sails augmented by boom-extended studding sails high and low gave the ship the look of a raptor in flight. The spread of the foretopsail stretched in the shape of a highly stylized bird, with symbols above and below.

  The Venn ran signal flags up.

  Inda checked three times before he called, “Says to come dead. We’re to be boarded.”

  From the look on the captain’s face he had expected to be required to report aboard the Venn, not be boarded; the first was humiliating, the second both humiliating and deadly serious. “Sheets up,” Beagar said heavily.

  The hands ran to their stations, and for a short time the only sound was the flap of loosened sails. The ship swiftly lost way, lolling slackly on the ocean.

  Inda watched from the masthead as the Venn ship flashed its tremendous square sails: first the studding sails vanished, then the royals dropped and the lower sails clewed up, all at the same time, with the same sort of deadly grace as a riding of dragoons approaching at a gallop, lances lowered at exactly the same moment. The Venn was now stripped to fighting sail, giving a clear view for archers in the tops.

  Everyone on the Pim Ryala wondered uneasily why the Venn readied for battle when making contact with a merchant vessel.

  The Venn ship closed on the weather side and then spilled its wind, heaving to beside the Pim Ryala. Inda swept his glass aft and caught sight of the Ryala’s consorts, busy shortening sail to maintain a prudent distance. There was nothing else to do. These tall-masted, ocean-crossing Venn vessels weren’t just full of highly trained sailors, they were also full of marine warriors and—rumor insisted—mages.

  The deck watch lined up on either side of the waist, silent as the Venn lowered a longboat and sent over a large, armed party of those marine warriors, rowed by equally tall, strong-looking sailors in precise rhythm.

  Inda watched, then belatedly realized he ought to be down there on deck. He leaned out to catch a stay, but a strong, hairy hand grabbed the scruff of his neck. “Bide,” Scalis muttered, spitting downwind. “Don’t move.”

  Sky and sea stayed serene, seabirds arrowing overhead, heads flicking right and left as they watched the perplexing actions of the humans below, crawling about their wooden nests. Scolding, unheard, the birds flapped away. Below, the tall Venn marines climbed nimbly up the side and onto the deck. They ignored the custom of the southern seas and waited for the merchant captain to salute them first. He did, stone-faced, though inside Captain Beagar was sick with anxiety.

  His comprehension of the interiors of kingdoms was hazy, but he knew the Venn had taken everything north of the strait except Ymar at the thumb, still held by the Everoneth, apparently with the unlikely help of the Chwahir on the opposite coast.

  The Marlovans had now taken the westernmost end of the Sartoran continent, directly opposite the Venn. It was time, apparently, for the Venn to react.

  Up in the tops old Scalis knew one thing: the Venn were going to be hunting Marlovan blood. And his boy Inda, his prize scrapper who could even parse his letters, in two languages yet, was some kind of Marlovan, probably a runaway stable boy. Scalis was not about to let these Venn piss-heads get him.

  Dun the carpenter’s mate paused, setting down his carpenter’s tools. They’re coming here because they’re searching for us, he thought. It was not even a question.

  Lieutenant Tigga of the Reed-Skimmer gave the brig a quick scan. Five years patrolling the strait had given him insight into these southerners. The south was an astonish ingly chaotic welter of lands, tongues, customs, and alliances, but even so there were motivations and reactions, shared by most humans. Universals, you might say.

  Fear foremost—to be expected. Trepidation, resentment. Anger, imperfectly hidden in downward gazes, gripped hands, the determined silence when their captain standing up on the aft-castle deck saluted first, aboard his own ship, a salute that Tigga acknowledged with the barest nod.

  But no sign of desperation. He knew at once that he would not find Marlovan warriors or spies on this old tub; he was even familiar with the Pim name from a recently acquired list of Iascan merchants. But orders must be followed.

  So he said, in Dock Talk, “Return to your duties.” Having issued orders on the captain’s own deck, he now turned his face up to the captain. “If you will lead the way?”

  Captain Beagar descended to the main deck and Tigga followed the furious man to his cabin, ostensibly paying no heed to Captain Vaki of the marines, who motioned his men to their search. Tigga spared a moment of brief sympathy for Beagar, subordinated on his own ship, but it was necessary, not just for the implementing of orders, but to underscore the supremacy of maritime command in these wretched waters. He had no sympathy for Vaki, who longed to get away from sea duty and be promoted to land once again. The command struggles of the land warriors on Drael were almost as alien to him as those of the southerners on their own continent. What interested Tigga—what he understood—were those who lived on the sea.

  Beagar indicated, with expressive irony, the door to the cabin, and followed the tall Venn. At least whatever was about to take place would happen in private, and not before the hands. The Venn could, and would at the slightest opportunity, do much more. And no one would stop them.

  “Your cargo and destination?” Tigga asked.

  His Iascan was clear, fluent, accented with the precise consonants of Venn—or Marlovan. The man himself typical of the Venn: tall, pale-haired, pale eyes, strong features.

  In a flat voice Beagar named the cargo and the ports he was scheduled to stop in, as from below came the random thumps and clunks of Vaki’s searchers. Tigga’s quarry was living and breathing.

  “You are now warned. By what you southerners call the New Year, there will be a total embargo against Iascan sea trade. You have three passes of the moon to make other plans. If you have any Marlovans among your mariners, surrender them now.”

  Beagar did not speak or move.

  Tigga dismissed the captain from his attention and paced the companionway of the old brig, scanning the closed, resentful faces of the crew on watch. He dropped down to the lower deck, where the off-watch were obviously hoping to get back into their hammocks and their interrupted sleep. They froze at the sight of him, reacting with bewilderment when he rapped out in Marlovan, “Liegemen of Tlennen-Harvaldar, in uniform or out, will be put to death.”

  Silence. A few of them realized what language he spoke, but belatedly, without the reaction of the familiar.

  He did not see the blond carpenter’s mate just behind him in the companionway, who blanched at the sound of Marlovan and retreated soundlessly.

  As Tigga moved down to the hold to confront the purser, his two mates, two cook’s helpers, and the bosun’s third mate, Dun’s thoughts raced ahead to the inevitable betrayal on deck, unless he could divert those watchful Venn eyes. Most on the ship were aware of the growing tension between the larboard and starboard mids and their rats, but few cared. Dun had watched, because it was his duty to watch, though he never interfered when Norsh, now a third mate, alternately hounded Taumad and spied on him with frustrated hunger. He never interfered when Norsh was joined in his prowling, glowering enmity by Fassun, smoldering with humiliation over the defeat of Idayago and now hating all southern Iascans, and by Faura, who on passing the threshold from girl to young woman had conceived a longing for the impervious Taumad almost as obsessive as Norsh’s. Her own reaction to his indifference was a breach with Jeje, whom Tau had admitted within the guarded citadel of his friendship.

  When that voice echoed up from below, “Liegemen to Tlennen-Harvaldar, in uniform or out, will be put to death,” Norsh drew a deep breath.

  Dun watched the young man grin, his gaze flickering. The easiest way to get at Tau wo
uld be through Inda Elgar, the reading mid that some said was secretly a Marlovan—

  Dun crossed his arms. His own betrayal didn’t matter; the penalty was already death. If that Venn up there heard someone accuse Inda of being Marlovan, the response would be immediate and final, that much Dun knew. They’d execute the boy right on deck, because Inda would never deny it.

  “If you say a word,” Dun murmured, staring straight into Norsh’s eyes, “you will not live past the night watch.” Away, fast, before the mate could recover enough to ask questions that Dun would not answer.

  Dun heard steps along the gangway. He paused until Tigga reached the deck, then emerged just as Tigga looked around, then bawled in a topmast voice, for the third time, “Liegemen of Tlennen-Harvaldar, in uniform or out, will be put to death.”

  Tau had recognized it below, a language he’d sometimes overheard in his mother’s pleasure house, and one he hadn’t expected to hear out on the water, so very far away from home.

  He knew what would come next, and so he had time to think and to smile, and after the Venn’s extraordinary declaration, to laugh, drawing all eyes to him. So that Tigga missed it when Inda, high in the tops, jerked around, his mouth open. Then pain exploded across Inda’s face, and a voice snarled, in Dock Talk, “Get it right, ye stupid rat.”

  Get what right? Inda blinked away the spots in his vision resulting from the clout, and realized he must have missed an order: Scalis wanted those lifts tended. Silently he helped the two men working, but the shock of memory echoed that short speech, and in Marlovan! Wrong word order, odd word endings, but otherwise the accent of home.

  Will be put to death.

  “Piss-hair is looking for horse turds?” came the hoarse whisper of Niz, who’d swung himself down to the crosstrees. They sat side by side, their skinny bodies blocking Inda from view below, where Tigga was confronting Tau.

  “The Marlovan tongue amuses you?” Tigga asked in a soft voice, studying the golden gaze before him, the winning smile, the open hands.

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