Inda by Sherwood Smith


  Silence, except for the wind rushing through the pennants overhead.

  “The first month or so, you ignorant lambs are going to learn everything there is to know about horses’ habits and needs, and that means you are going to work. Hard.”

  Pause. Pace, pace, no answer.

  The tutor lifted his hand toward the gate to the training areas. For the very first time he spoke Marlovan, the language of war. “And now, my little lambs, it is time to be sheared.”

  A great shout went up from behind the gate, and Inda and the boys all drew together instinctively. Inda, remembering his brother’s lavishly described horror stories about the traditional shearing of the scrubs, saw the tall blond boy who’d kicked Dogpiss in the mess hall—his name still unknown—looking pale and scared. Inda turned away, pleased, but not two breaths later a painful jab in his back brought his head around to see that same boy, a big, brawny boy, staring straight ahead, a telltale smirk twisting his lips.

  The scrubs shuffled through the gate, to find the expected, seemingly endless two rows of older boys waiting. Not the seniors, the ones who had earned the right to bind their hair up into horsetails. These were the eleven- to sixteen-year-olds, the older ones with hair in clubs, the younger with their shorter hair pulled into squirts in back: the pigtails.

  “Go! Go! Go!” The Marlovan chant sent birds squawking.

  The first boys began running down the middle of the lines, and of course got slapped and shoved from side to side, some of them falling, to be kicked until they rose again and ran on.

  Three. Four. Inda felt a spurt of anger almost as hot as the one he’d felt at the senseless attack on skinny little Dogpiss, who hadn’t given that big turd the least trouble.

  It was his turn, and he began to run, shoulders hunched, jaw tight, until he realized that the slaps were mere stings, and he’d received much worse from his brother. He did stumble and fall once, but the kicks thudded with more sound than sensation against his sturdy tunic. He scrambled up to the sound of laughter, felt the hands propelling him onward. Run, run, and there was the end, and the Go! Go! Go! was laughing, not cruel, and then one of the orderlies reached for him, whipped out his hair tie with expert fingers, and snip, snip, there went his braid. His head felt light, his neck cold, and he couldn’t help fingering his hair as he joined the small group of shorn boys. His hair, never neat, had sprung up in curls all over his head, but at least he wasn’t the only one with that problem.

  They all looked strange. No, they all looked the same, with their squared-off hair in back, and Inda, staring at the boys, realized that the shearing run wasn’t just a way to humiliate them with this silly short hair. He realized it had made them into a group, even that big blond horseapple. Well, they were academy boys now, and city people would know them as academy, commanders-in-training, set apart from civilians. They belonged.

  He rejoiced in his heart, grinning foolishly like most of the others. Why, that wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d heard.

  Some of the boys had already vanished, and the arms master howled at the rest of them to get ready for inspection and their very first callover, and if they weren’t ready, they’d be scrubbing floors for a month . . .

  Inda laughed as he ran back to the barracks, noticing that he had no problem finding it. Breathless laughter, joking insults about looks, easy chatter—until they reached the pit. The blond boy and a couple of others were still missing.

  But that was not what made them all stop, staring in shock.

  There was his bunk next to Dogpiss’, but their carefully smoothed sheets were trampled all over with dirty, horse dung-clumped hay, their mattresses ripped and scattered, their gear chests open and full of something that reeked enough to make their eyes water.

  Inda looked up, dazed, sick. Several boys backed slowly away, their gazes averted. He remembered Tanrid’s stories, and knew what it meant.

  He and Dogpiss had been bunk-scragged.

  Chapter Six

  TWO days later, Inda finished up his punishment chores in the stable and trudged back toward the scrub barracks. He tucked his cold hands inside his armpits—

  Pain! Elbow! The world spun. A familiar grip on his arm, familiar breathing, and Inda resigned himself to a thrashing. He just hoped Tanrid would tell him why.

  Tanrid pulled Inda around the side of the stable, next to one of the huge feed sheds, held him against the wall, and frowned down into his face. There were his hard brown eyes, his unsmiling mouth, his sun-streaked brown hair now pulled proudly up into a tail high on the back of his head.

  Tanrid’s frown was not angry, it was urgent. Inda could see that clearly enough in the reflected light from the torches on the castle wall just behind the sheds. “I heard you got shit-scragged. First morning! And a fight in the mess hall?”

  “Not shit-scragged—” Inda gasped.

  “What were you thinking?” Tanrid shook him, thumb pressed agonizingly into that awful place just beside his elbow joint.

  Inda blinked away tears and managed to get out two words: “Attacked . . . Dogpiss . . .”

  Tanrid abruptly eased the pressure, but kept hold. Inda drew in a shuddering breath and spoke faster. “The fight in the mess hall was instinct. Marlo-Vayir Tvei kicked Dogpiss Noth off the bench, his head cracked, and, well, I just acted.”

  “Did the beaks come in? Wave the willow?”

  Inda shook his head. “No beaks, no caning. Pigtails landed on us, pulled us apart. But I—”

  “No buts. Do. Not. Fight in the mess hall.” Another jab in the elbow joint, and Inda gasped. “Any fight, they don’t like the reasons—and they never do—we all eat outside. All. Rain or not. There’s always rain this time of year. No justice, no negotiation. Happened twice to me so far, both times from scrubs scouting the rules. If your fart-faced litter of scrubs lands us outside, we’ll scrag you all. Got it?” Another poke.

  “Yes.” You never told me that, Inda thought with resentment. You never told me anything that didn’t make you look good.

  “So you weren’t shit-scragged?”

  “Not dog turds, or shit.” Inda looked down in embarrassment. He’d only actually seen human excrement once—the inevitable experiment of the small child. But he’d heard about how not using the Waste Spell, and putting your own shit in someone else’s shoes, or room, or bed, had not only sparked feuds between entire clans, but even wars. “In our bunks.”

  “Horse?” Tanrid spoke in relief.

  “Yes.”

  Tanrid nodded once. “That’s what I thought. Just a bunk-scrag, but there are three different rumors going around, and as usual people only tell the story they think is the fun niest. I had to check, because if it wasn’t horse, Father would want to know. It becomes a family matter. Details?”

  “After the shearing, we got back for inspection and our first callover, and there were our beds, torn up, horse plops in hay all over. Our tack, full of horse piss. We got wands, of course, but we couldn’t fix the beds in time—”

  “You didn’t blab.”

  Inda couldn’t hide his scorn. “Course not. We got a jawing for being slobs. Stuck with a month’s stable cleaning, only it’s swap-off. One, then t’other. Entire pit got mess hall gag.”

  “Ah.” Tanrid’s expression altered. “The swap means they knew you weren’t to blame.”

  “That’s what a couple of boys said.”

  “But the mess gag, well, it could mean anything. Go on. You know who did it, right?”

  “Not sure. They must’ve done it right after they were sheared, because they weren’t with the rest of us. But they kept laughing when we tried to clean up before inspection.”

  “Who’re ‘they’?”

  “Marlo-Vayir Tvei and someone called Basna Tvei. I learned their names at callover. Who are the Basna family?”

  “Northerners. They owe fealty to Sindan-An from way back, before they allied with Tlen.”

  Sindan-An and Tlen, two powerful landholding clans, so famed for th
eir prowess their names appeared in most of the ballads. They were the crown’s supporters in the north.

  Tanrid added, “Basna Ain is one of the senior horsetails, going into the King’s Dragoons next year.”

  “Oh.” The king. Inda had also learned that Sponge was the king’s second son—something Sponge had tried to hide and that Inda was still trying to comprehend. “But I don’t know who else bunk-scragged us. Or why.”

  Tanrid glanced about again, then muttered, “I don’t know—yet—if there’s any connection, but you better know this. The Sierlaef hates his brother.”

  Inda gaped. “Why? Sponge is the future Sierandael!”

  “The rumor is, he wants Buck Marlo-Vayir as Sierandael. I don’t know how true it is. I don’t run with the Sier-Danas.”

  Sier-Danas. The Marlovan term for “high rank Honor Guard.” So the royal heir had a gang of privileged followers, then. Huh.

  Tanrid said in a rapid whisper, “As for the bunk-scrag, there are other ways to find things out. You can’t bribe the stable hands to get wands and not have someone pay more to find out who bribed ’em. But you listen.” He shook Inda once, hard. “If you disgrace the family, I’ll scrag you myself.”

  Tanrid let him go and strode away. Moments later the sunup bells began to ring, and Inda dashed through narrow causeways between stone buildings, falling in with the scrubs who tumbled out of the barracks, still warm and sleepy-eyed.

  Dogpiss was first, his wispy yellow hair drifting into his watchful blue eyes. He mouthed, Where were you? and Inda mouthed back, Brother ambushed me.

  Dogpiss grimaced in sympathy, but they did not speak as they followed the others to the parade court, some still tugging and tucking at clothing.

  Master Gand waited, his sun-bleached horsetail flagging in the wind, his old gray military coat straining at powerful arms crossed before him, booted feet planted apart. A single glance at him was enough to straighten up the lines of boys.

  Master Gand looked down their neat rows, expression blank, and began the callover. A visceral awe, a kind of thrill-pang, suffused Inda when he heard “Montrei-Vayir,” the name of the royal family, and Sponge sang out, “Here.”

  In Marlovan. Now they spoke the language of the old plains warriors from whom most of them had descended. The bunk-scrag had taken some of the joy out of that. But it was still so strange to be standing right next to a member of the royal family, about which he’d heard so many stories—good ones as well as bad—bringing a brief image of Shendan Montredavan-An to mind.

  Gand said, “After inspection, report to the stable. First-bell after noon, report to the east practice court. We’ll find out if you know which end of a sword to grip.”

  Intake of breath. Everyone wanted to get at weapons—whether bow, lance, or sword, it didn’t matter.

  “In a day or so we’ll form up ridings. Questions?”

  “Captain Gand.”

  Inda kept his eyes forward and suppressed a wry look at the voice of the annoying lick everyone was calling Smartlip.

  The arms master looked around with exaggerated surprise, and someone muffled a snicker. “Is there one of my dragoons about?” Gand asked, and of course no one answered. He then faced Smartlip and studied the scrawny boy for a long, long pause. A very long pause, during which not just Smartlip but his friends began to feel the prickle of fear, as did others who were afraid of more mass punishments than they’d already gotten. Smartlip’s sharp face lost its smirk, his expression going from blank to lip-biting fear, and sure enough, out came his tongue licking round and round his chapped lips.

  Gand finally spoke. “You are not a dragoon, last I heard, Lassad. Am I misinformed?”

  “No, Master Gand,” Smartlip quavered.

  Only the cold breeze moved, bringing the smell of rain. “You are a scrub, and I am your tutor. I am not your captain. If you ever manage to gain the age, the experience, and the wit to be put into a dragoon riding, then, and only then, will you address me as Captain Gand. Until then, you will not presume, or you and I and ‘Captain’ Willow will have a little discourse on assumptions. And Captain Willow has a lot more to say than Master Willow. Understood?”

  “Yes, Master Gand.”

  “Now, ask your question.”

  Smartlip swallowed, his sweaty hands stiff.

  “Are we going to wait all morning?” Gand asked in a low voice that struck fear into every single boy.

  Smartlip glanced in fear his crony’s way, getting a glare in return, and Smartlip realized he was in trouble no matter what he said or did. So he stated in a wooden voice utterly devoid of the enjoyment he’d so looked forward to, “Master Gand. We . . . I . . . it’s been two days. You haven’t permitted us to speak. At mess. Master Gand. I just wanted to say that some of us . . . I . . . feel that we ought not to be punished for the sloppiness of two people.”

  Master Gand stopped right in front of Smartlip, but his eyes—pale they were, and merciless—appraised the entire row. The breeze fingered the pennants overhead, and scoured the bare necks of the still, silent, frightened boys.

  At last Gand said in that terrible, low voice, “You will stay silent at mess for a month, Lassad. A month. Do you comprehend month, Lassad?”

  “Master Gand.” A nod.

  “Thirty-six days. Perhaps, in that time, you will come to realize that I am not stupid.” A smile. “I suspect that the reverse probably won’t happen.” He looked up. “As for the rest of you, I think silence is to the benefit of all. You will continue to remain silent at mess until I see . . . shall we say . . .” His gaze drifted along the row. “. . . a better attitude toward learning.” His gaze did not stop on Inda, or Dogpiss, whose beds had been scragged and who had gotten stable duty as a result. His gaze lingered on the husky boy now called Tuft who at Landred Marlo-Vayir’s insistence had put Smartlip up to the questions, a boy from a powerful family made up of two great clans. The boy swallowed, feeling very small just now, and hoped that Smartlip wouldn’t break and squeal.

  Meanwhile Master Gand’s gaze moved to Marlo-Vayir, who kept his sneer hidden, though it made his teeth ache.

  “Dismissed.”

  The scrubs filed out in silence, most of them so relieved their knees shook, a couple of them angry, one or two thoughtful, and Dogpiss—as usual—barely restraining laughter.

  During breakfast Dogpiss kept making horrible grimaces and insulting gestures toward the miserable Smartlip, encouraged by the strangled snickers of his own friends.

  Most of the boys ate fast and bustled out. There was no reason to stay, enduring the inventively derisive comments of the pigtails and being unable to respond. Inda ate a little more slowly, grateful for the chance to sit, think, and watch.

  Beginning with freckle-faced Kepa, who was sitting next to Sponge. Inda had seen him snickering with Marlo-Vayir Tvei, but he was always making jokes with everyone, mostly stupid jokes, about which masters looked like which horse butts, and the like. His laugh, his grin, brought to mind Cousin Branid at home in Tenthen. Branid grinned just like that during the winters when he bootlicked Tanrid by spying on everyone and reporting it back—and then joked around with his victims, insulting Tanrid behind his back, all as if he really thought no one noticed.

  Dogpiss grinned all the time too, but after two days it was clear that he thought everything was funny, even getting muzzled at mess and having to talk with hands and grimaces.

  Dogpiss made jokes just to make jokes; Kepa made jokes to bootlick. That was the difference.

  Not that any of it mattered. Inda dug his wooden spoon into the thick oatmeal that was considered good for both boys and horses who were facing a heavy day of training.

  The important thing first. Sponge’s royal brother evidently didn’t like Sponge, but Inda couldn’t imagine why not. He bent lower over his food, eating slowly as he thought over the past two days. Sponge had not done anything wrong by Inda’s standards.

  The urge to ask Tdor, so habitual, had to be dismissed. But in re
membering that she was far to the southwest, Inda also remembered his promise. He was supposed to talk to Hadand, but he had no idea how to find her—if he even got the time away. So far they had not one free moment, and how was he supposed to get into the royal castle without getting himself in more trouble than he was already in?

  Inda sighed, shifted on the bench, then brought his mind back to Sponge. He remembered Tanrid’s words about the Sierlaef. Hadand was to marry him! Did she hate Sponge too?

  The questions bred more questions, multiplying so rapidly he groaned and got up, his food half-eaten, to try to distance himself from his thoughts. A mistake. They stayed right in his head.

  He remembered the long labors lying ahead until midday meal, and as he walked he forced himself to swallow down the last few bites, shoveling them in so fast his nose stung. He stashed bowl and spoon in the barrel of magic-cleaned water, surreptitiously brushing his fingers over the rim to feel the tingle of magic. He liked the weird sensation of magic, rare as it was.

  Inda then ran back to the scrub barracks, apprehensive of what he might find—especially when he spied Marlo-Vayir Tvei and Smartlip over by their own beds. But then he saw Noddy and Sponge busy tidying things; then, Noddy took up the broom from the corner and slowly started sweeping it over the already clean floorboards, which were scuffed by several generations of boys’ boot heels. Inda, old hand at practical jokes, knew instantly that they were on guard. But they weren’t guarding Dogpiss’s or his own bed. Oh, of course! Oldest trick there is.

  A single bell rang, echoing against the stone walls.

  Sponge just stood, arms folded.

  “Come on, we’ll be late,” Smartlip muttered.

  Marlo-Vayir cast a glance back, then vanished out the door.

  Inda said, “They were going to do their beds and blame us.”

  Sponge whistled softly. “I wasn’t sure if they’d have the frost, after that warning today.”

  “We stayed around to make sure they didn’t try,” Noddy said over his shoulder as he restored the broom to its place.

  Dogpiss appeared, breathing hard. “They scrag their own bunks?”

 
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