Inda by Sherwood Smith

The pirate fleet at first seemed to be a mass of lights, a deceptively beautiful sight. Those resolved under the hazy, cloudy darkness into a great many smaller craft, all narrow, knife-sharp, built for the chase and the kill and not for trade. In command were three rake-masted raffees, their foresails blank, and one older trysail. These were magnificent ships, built for speed.

  All of them equipped with cut-booms swung out and secured.

  Niz appeared at Inda’s side, eyes nearly closed. “You know what blank tops’l means.”

  Inda nodded once. “Woof told me, hire before last, just before we left Freeport. They want to join the Brotherhood.”

  Niz spat over his shoulder, down into the sea. “Means them has to do something bad enough to catch redsails’ eye.”

  They watched in grim silence as smaller two-masted pirates swarmed up in pairs, one sailing windward and one to the lee, aiming to sheathe the row of traders.

  The four ships, on signal, veered in two directions, attempting to evade, but they were just too slow. The pirate craft closed in.

  Inda’s fire teams were the first to respond from the tops of all four ships. The raffees and the big trysail hung back until Inda’s convoy was beset by bands of small craft, many of which were set ablaze by Inda’s bow crews. But as soon as they veered away to repair their damage they were replaced by more pairs.

  A crack from behind was followed by another—the mainmast of the second ship lurched and fell, taking the top of the foremast with it; the Toola lost its foremast, pirates swarming over its rail.

  “Take command,” Kodl shouted.

  Inda stood on the taffrail, ignoring the arrows flying, as he observed the battle, the impossible battle. Even though the pirates had not yet gotten close enough to sweep those cut-booms down their side, two of the convoy were partially dismasted, and pirates were now closing on the third.

  They wouldn’t win this one.

  But they would fight as if they could.

  He signaled to his marines. Rage and despair twisted his guts into knots of fire at the sight of the four great silhouettes drifting along, watching the smaller ships do the work.

  He shifted his gaze aft. The hammocks had long ago been brought up, the fire netting, and both sets of shields: one to use if needed, and the others the small round spiked shields tipped outward from the railing to ward incoming arrows and to slow boarders.

  Kodl met Inda’s eyes, saw the grim, distant battle look that tightened his features. Inda pointed toward the Vixen, and Kodl said, “Dun, Mutt. Signal Jeje to run north for aid.”

  The fire arrow arced up into the sky. Inda knew the pirates were watching, but the Vixen was too fast for them to chase, at least with this wind. Mutt stood on the gaff boom, despite the arrows whizzing around, and held up a lamp, counting five and covering it twice. Then he jumped down.

  Jeje hauled wind in so tight an arc the little craft slanted at a steep, sharp angle, the rail nearly submerged; then it scudded northward, gathering speed like a bird in flight. Signals flashed from the command ship and two small, fast pirate schooners separated out to chase. Everyone on both sides watched the pale blobs of sail as long as they could. The distance between the Vixen and its pursuit increased just before they all faded into the thick darkness. The pirates, perhaps judging that the fleeing scout might actually find aid, decided to launch all their small craft for the attack.

  On Inda’s signal Thog and Uslar took all the young marines aloft to shoot boarders. They carried all their reserve arrows.

  Three times they repelled boarders through the remainder of the long night—doing enough damage to the enemy that the first of the big ships finally sailed in at an angle, aiming for the weather rail of Inda’s ship, cut booms out and steady, fire reflecting like heated blood along the steel blades. Using their oil barrels and Thog’s fire team’s superb shooting, they nearly destroyed the trysail by fire. There was no triumph in that, not with two raffees still drifting along, the railings lined with pirates watching the entertainment by torchlight as the eastern horizon slowly brightened, revealing the spikes of pirate arrows everywhere—masts, rails, deck, binnacle, helm—like some kind of creature at bay, and splashed along the sides with shocking amounts of bright red blood from where they’d repelled the early boarding forays from launches.

  Daylight revealed further horror: Toola and its consorts had completely fallen into enemy hands, launches going to and from the third big pirate ship.

  On some hidden signal the last two raffees flashed their sails and bore down, fast, sleek, and expertly handled, one lee and one starboard. Their sails had been wet; close-woven nets, also wet, were raised as well. Though Inda’s bow crews shot as fast as they could, the arrows may as well have been grass stalks for all their effect.

  Aching with exhaustion, Inda saw at close quarters the effect of a massive ship driving expertly handled cut booms. The crew made one last tremendous effort to evade, but the faster ships adjusted course, the one on the lee only slightly slowed by the wind catching in the trader’s sails.

  The sound of the cut booms was unforgettable, a shrieking, grinding extended crash, and the trader’s mizzen- and mainmast shrouds ripped free, the mainmast falling with excruciating slowness.

  A flicker of white and gold brought Inda’s gaze around as Tau rode a boom out in a wildly desperate act, snagging Thog round the waist just before she would have fallen overboard, tangled in ropes. She cried “Let me die!” and Inda heard Tau’s “I can’t.”

  The mast slammed across the stern of the lee pirate. Its boarders had retreated safely forward, lining the forecastle rail; on a signal they shouted and ran aft, kicking aside the trader’s topsail hands, who had been smashed with the mast to the pirates’ deck. The boarders leaped up onto the mast, using it as a bridge, and swarmed onto the trader’s deck.

  Inda and his fighters took up their stations. No one spoke, but they gripped their weapons, breathing hard, limbs trembling. Inda’s heart thundered in his ears, throwing him back in memory to the drums on the plains beyond the academy, and the horsetails preparing for attack. He heard Tau’s laughter rising, and Inda felt the urge to cry the fox yip, an urge so strong he gave in for the first time since he’d left home, shrieking on a high, harsh note that raised the hairs on listeners’ necks.

  And the pirates were on them, gold hoops in their ears, smelling of blood and sweat, and swinging steel.

  Inda snapped apart his staff and stamped forward, wood humming.

  His body fought as it had been trained to fight, his mind, cut loose from worry and memory ran free, and there was even a brief echo of the ferocious joy that drove him in other fights as he smashed flesh and bone, sending sprays of pirate blood back into the faces of their fellows.

  They were human, they could die.

  In fact, his disengaged mind noted certain things: these pirates had been drilled, were under command; that some were far better than others at fighting.

  That some of them were scanning.


  He shrieked the fox yip again, and this time there was an echo from Dun at his left, almost immediately taken up by Kodl and then Wumma and the rest. Inda did not dare to glance behind him; he only saw, when he jerked his head to fling sweat out of his eyes, that the captain of the trader lay dead, his first mate beside him, on the companionway. Then the fighting increased in fury, and the impressions were no more than flickers: Scalis shouting curses—abruptly cut off. Niz toppling overboard, a dozen arrows stuck in him, his hands outflung loose and empty as he fell.

  Tau lying on the deck, one hand groping for his knife, and then relaxing. Next to him Rig falling, clubbed from behind.

  At Inda’s right Kodl went down on one knee. Inda lunged to cover him; then a hot spray of blood nearly blinded him and Kodl fell back, weapons dropping, hacked apart by three pirates.

  Dun pressed up to Inda’s left, a dark-smeared sword in one hand and a broken staff in the other, blond hair spattered with red, his face distorte
d into a rictus of effort and hate. He’s never fought so well, Inda thought, ducking a humming sword. Dun’s sword was a blur of light, whirling in strokes and shield defenses that brought back images of Captain Gand.

  They did not speak. Could not speak, as they retreated step by step to the mainmast, Thog’s arrows zinging down in a lethal rain all around them, but the pirates still pressed forward, trampling the fallen from both sides.

  And so Inda fought until his breath burned his throat and lungs and his arms felt like logs. He fought on, blinded by tears when with a groan Dun stumbled to his knees, a sword thrust through him from the back. The dying man tried even then to shield Inda from a blow aimed at his head, he said something, reaching with one blood-sticky hand, the other pawing uselessly at the steel standing so obscenely out from between his ribs, but Inda could not hear over the roars and clashes, and then Dun collapsed onto the deck.

  Just a glance, a painful glance, but Inda paid for it; the staff was smashed out of his weaker hand and he backed up, his breath keening in his parched throat.

  Pirates leaped over Dun. Two, three, four—but at an incomprehensible shout two of them retreated back, and the first pair closed on Inda.

  Inda hurled the other short staff straight into the face of the closest pirate, who ducked—and laughed.

  Inda whipped out his knives and fought hand to hand.

  Tried to fight hand to hand.

  The tall, slim, black-clad pirate who came at him was far better at fighting. He seemed to know every throw, every feint, before Inda made it; he even held his knives up his forearm like Hadand’s arms mistress in the royal city at home; fast, deadly, but all blocks; he didn’t use the knives on Inda. Instead he sheathed them at the last moment and used his hands once, twice, and Inda was down, gasping for breath.

  Sunlight glared into his eyes, half-blinding him. He blinked to rid his eyes of stinging sweat as the pirate with the black bandana dropped down beside him, red hair drifting from under the kerchief, his face silhouetted by the sun directly above his head. But the morning light shone on the face just behind the redhead, a triangular face. A familiar face . . . A Cassad? Here?

  Someone flung Inda over, then wrenched his hands behind his back and bound them. He was yanked up and slammed back to the deck, face up.

  And then the redhead bent close; the Cassad blocked the sun, so light reached the redhead’s face as he whispered urgently in Marlovan: “Act stupid, and I can keep you alive.”

  Memory threw Inda back to when he was ten years old, the days just before he first arrived at the academy. He knew that voice. He knew that sharp-boned, sardonic face.

  It was Savarend Montredavan-An.


  THE day following the Disappearance ritual, Evred-Varlaef worked long on his tribute to Tanrid-Laef Algara-Vayir. The official version would state that he was killed on the king’s service by a band of brigands. What he took great care with was the private letter to Fareas-Iofre.

  Evred, hating the necessity of a lie, wrote both letters by his own hand instead of dictating them to a scribe. He told the truth in describing how bravely Tanrid had fought before he died. That much he could do to honor Tanrid and his family. The real message—about Inda—had taken careful thought and many burned pieces of the imported heavy linen paper only used for important communications, expensive and limited as it was.

  What he finally settled on was a tribute in the form of verses of an Old Sartoran ballad about the long-sought, beloved son who had sailed west to unknown lands. To that he added a line in the same rhyme and meter that described in typically convoluted Sartoran symbolism how watchful eyes sought him still.

  Evred trusted that Inda’s mother, whom he’d never met but whose three children he had come to know well, would be able to tease out his real intention. And find a measure of comfort.

  But his mood was bleak as he folded Tanrid’s hair clasp into his own letter, sealed it, then handed it to the grim-faced young man in blue with the owl over his heart and a black sash round his waist.

  The sight of Tanrid’s personal Runner in his black sash dashing tiredly into the courtyard of Tenthan Castle two months later, seen from her upper window, was a shock of ice to Fareas-Iofre’s spirit. At first she did not even notice the herald at his side as the dogs in the kennel began to howl, first one, then all of them, hoarse with misery. The hairs on her arms and the back of her neck prickled; then grief struck hard, a knife straight through flesh and ribs to the heart: Tanrid was dead.

  How could the dogs possibly know? she wondered, walking to the window, her eyes burning with pain. The same way they had known the day before Tanrid returned from the academy each year, and afterward, from his long rides either for the Shield Arm or at his father’s command. What world exists side by side with ours, yet unperceived by us, for the animals with whom we share our homes, our lands, our lives?

  She had time to prepare herself, to hide shaky hands in her sleeves, as Evred’s royal herald and Tanrid’s Runner were both brought upstairs to her formal room. The herald handed her the official letter, which she laid aside; then he stepped back with a courteous salute, leaving the Runner to give her the bulky personal letter.

  She unsealed it and the heavy silver hair clasp fell into her lap: Tanrid’s grandfather’s clasp, and no son to hand it to. Grief struck again, harder, and her fingers closed con vulsively around the cold metal. She drew in a painful breath, forced herself to read the words written there, and then handed the letter to Joret.

  “Please go downstairs, refresh yourselves,” she said to the two men. “This is to be delivered at the funeral fire?” She touched the official scroll, and when the herald saluted again, she gave it back to him unread.

  To Tanrid’s Runner she said, “Were you there?”

  A shake of the head, and a spasm of pain, and helpless anger. “He left me with orders to see to the horses. We’d just arrived, you see. He took fresh ones—” He stopped, swallowing.

  “We shall speak later,” she murmured. “Rest now. You have had a hard ride.”

  They left without further speech.

  When the door had shut behind them Joret looked up, her face blanched, her body still as death for two, three long breaths. “The verses?” she said finally, and handed the letter to Tdor, who stood behind her chair. “He means Inda, doesn’t he?”

  The Iofre pressed the palms of her hands against her eyes. “I believe it means he intends to continue the search.” Fareas dropped her hands. “Evred-Varlaef honors us by writing to us himself. That is no scribal hand. Yet there is that in his wording that makes me wonder what it is he does not say. Brigands.”

  “With no more identification or explanation.” Grief made Joret feel cold all over. Tdor looked on in silent compassion. Tanrid had been a part of Joret’s life, as much a part as the castle, as the seasons. The prospect of life with him, while not exciting, had given her purpose.

  Joret, still in the icy grip of shock, couldn’t believe she would never see him again, until she looked into Fareas’ face and saw the anguish there.

  Jared-Adaluin arrived home a day later, and knew as soon as he saw his black-sashed Riders on the castle wall what must have happened.

  He felt his age as he trod up the stairs. He was alone now, so he could let the tears fall, but they did not come. Pain, braced against ever since he married the second time, was just as steely a knife as the first time. He had kept his sons by his second marriage at a distance so he would never again suffer like that and all it meant was that the pain was worsened by regret. He had just begun in recent years to know Tanrid, to speak freely to him, and listen to his words. Just a year or two of knowing one another, after all that enforced distance, and now he was gone. Dead.

  Fareas-Iofre found him on the first landing, leaning against the wall with one trembling hand, rocking slightly back and forth, his breath coming in quick rasps.

  “Come,” she murmured, touching his gaunt cheek. “Come. They are lay
ing the bonfire. We must decide what we will say.”

  He saw the red rims to her eyes, the bruised skin beneath. Together they entered their son’s rooms, so still, and stood amid the splendid old furnishings that Jarend-Adaluin’s father, the Tanrid for whom Jarend had named his son, had inherited from his own grandfather.

  “I have something to show you,” Fareas-Iofre said, relieved that at last, after all this time, she had a reason to bring up Inda’s name without betraying Ndara-Harandviar.

  He held out shaking fingers, and she laid Evred’s letter into his hands. He looked at it without comprehension, and she pointed out the verses at the end. “There, in Sartoran, he repeats an old song, but what it means is that he knows where Inda is. He’s at sea. He’s alive.”

  Jarend-Adaluin stared at the meaningless letters in confusion; then he looked up, frowning. He was about to ask why the prince wrote in so strange a fashion, but then he remembered the conference in the king’s room, and Jened Sindan promising to take Inda away somewhere.

  Jarend crushed the paper against him and recalled that day, which seemed so remote in memory but so immediate in emotion. He still did not know why Inda had been singled out for disgrace, only that, somehow, the Sierandael had been behind it. But he could not make that kind of treasonous accusation without proof, unless he wanted civil war as a direct result. Jarend therefore had not spoken, contenting himself with Sindan’s assurance that Inda, though surely going to some kind of exile, at least would be safe.

  That decision he had regarded as an act of prudence as well as of loyalty, but now, with his heir dead, he wondered if he had been a coward not to force the issue, even at the cost of his long friendship with the king. Except that Anderle-Sierandael surely wanted just that . . .

  He rubbed his stinging eyes with the back of his free hand. Then he turned to his wife, who waited, patient and quiet, her hands hidden in her sleeves. “What think you?” he asked.

  “That we declare Inda the heir, and we await his return. It is enough to avow he lives.” She gestured toward the stairway. “We can tell the Noth boy the truth.”

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