Inda by Sherwood Smith


  Not because he was a royal cousin, but because he was wild. His nickname was the result of his getting drunk his first week at the academy and walking straight into a door. All he cared about was fast horses, good drink, and being the best in a fight.

  “Montrei-Vayir!”

  Hearing his name snapped the heir out of his reverie. It was Sponge’s turn to be tried by Master Gand. He got an idea.

  The others saw his shift in focus and watched as the Sierlaef pointed down at the scrub court and said, “Coward.”

  The surprised companions snapped their attention down onto that red-haired boy. A coward? That was the worst thing you could accuse anyone of—even worse than being thief! Sponge was a coward! Was that why he was so slow?

  But he stood right up to the master, not flinching, nor crying, or cringing. He took the blows—and he earned a lot—with no change of face at all.

  The seeming contradiction struck all the Sier-Danas, one by one. They turned assessing gazes from the boy on the court to his royal brother, and with practice the Sierlaef’s companions gauged his thin, bony face. Most of the time the royal heir listened to their opinions, but rare was the mood that permitted contradiction. The jut of his jaw, the narrowed hazel eyes, those were the signal flags for Agreement Only.

  The Sierlaef’s Sier-Danas read the signals with the ease of long habit. Sponge was to be considered a coward, then. They shrugged, then returned their attention to the court.

  “Who’s the tall butterhead with all the cuts?” The quietest Sier-Danas, Manther Jaya-Vayir, spoke up. His brother, too, was nine and would be in the next Tvei group.

  “That butterhead’s Buck’s brother,” Tlen said.

  “Best start calling him Cherry-Stripe,” Cassad said, looking at all those tiny sword cuts.

  “He shows promise,” Manther said agreeably.

  A grunt of agreement came from the Sierlaef, who never spoke if he could help it; single words and sometimes phrases he could manage without stuttering, but rarely a whole sentence, unless he practiced it over and over.

  “Three lefties altogether,” Tlen observed. “No. Four. That last one there switched to left.”

  Approval. Lefthanders were usually faster with a sword, because they had to be, and they were unexpected; also, the Sierlaef was left-handed.

  “Algara-Vayir Tvei’s solid,” Cassad said, eying Inda with judicious interest.

  “Slow,” the Sierlaef said. “Like his Ain.”

  Tanrid Algara-Vayir of Choraed Elgaer might be considered slow by some, but he was fearless, strong, tenacious, and could be vicious when crossed. He was also the son of a prince, the highest rank after the king’s own family. The Algara-Vayirs had, by marriage and treaty, acquired their title even before the Montrei-Vayirs had taken the throne from the Montredavan-An family. Everyone knew that old history, but they didn’t know why the Sierandael hated the Algara-Vayirs.

  The Sier-Danas figured the Sierandael’s hatred had something to do with why the Sierlaef had not invited Tanrid Algara-Vayir into their circle, but that was one of the questions you didn’t put to the royal heir.

  So no one said anything as the five watched Inda stand up to an onslaught from a master bent on finding out every weakness.

  Just about then the last of the Sier-Danas, Buck Marlo-Vayir (so named when he was just a scrub and climbed up on a war horse to strut his riding skills, just to be launched butt over head), slid up onto the roof, and at a gesture from the prince the other four obligingly wriggled over to make space.

  “I have to do a signal run with the ponies,” Buck reported. “Just got my orders. I leave after supper.”

  Shrugs and acknowledgments. Part of the horsetails’ duties was commanding the rides of the upper-level pigtails—the level they’d all been last year—called ponies.

  “Gand tickled up your Tvei,” Cassad said, waving a long, muscular arm. “We’re gonna call him Cherry-Stripe.”

  Buck Marlo-Vayir, now an Ain, looked down at his brother Landred, who was waiting against the wall. “Coo,” he said, thinking about how Landred would feel when he hit the baths that night—and how much worse it would hurt in the morning when he woke up. He snorted, with no vestige of sympathy. “Cherry-Stripe, yah. Look at him strut.”

  “Won’t,” the royal heir said. “If.”

  From long practice Buck decoded the threat. “He won’t drop the reins again,” he promised, remembering his swift, brutal confrontation with his younger brother the night before. “He just got overeager, and he mistook his target. He also didn’t understand the rules of the mess hall. He does now.”

  The royal heir said, “Good.”

  Down below, Gand said, “All right, put your equipment away, and we’ll move on to archery, and then knives.”

  The king’s heir and his five companions watched the scrubs file into the far court, now empty of older boys. Two of them remembered their scrub days; Buck wondered if he was going to get more orders concerning Sponge. Probably.

  They watched as Dogpiss Noth and two other boys picked up bows, strung them, took aim, and hit fast, three times in a row. Noth’s arrows smacked straight into the center ring three times, with a force surprising from one so little and stringy. Cassad thought of entertaining ways to run ’em; Tlen scorned them for a litter of pups, as clumsy and unaware as the young dogs in the scout kennel. The royal heir grunted.

  Hearing it, the other horsetails waited for him to speak.

  “Good,” the Sierlaef said. But his tone promised more.

  So they watched in silence as another three boys shot, and then a third group.

  “Good group. Mine. One day.”

  For the Sierlaef, that was a very long speech.

  The Sier-Danas bent their minds to decoding it, as below, another three scrubs came up to shoot: Inda, Sponge, and Noddy.

  “So you don’t want us to ride ’em, then?” Cassad Ain finally asked, seeing that the others were reluctant.

  “Only ones w-with him.”

  The pronunciation of “him” singled out Sponge as effectively as if he stood alone.

  The five big boys, strong, well trained, leaders, and favorites, all considered the Sierlaef’s words. An exchange of glances. First at the thin face of future royal command, the humorless eyes, and then by semaphore at Buck, their speaker.

  “Want us to scrag him?”

  Thump! The last arrows slammed into the targets: Inda’s shot first ring, Sponge’s on the outside ring, Noddy’s center.

  “No.”

  The five reacted with the philosophical disappointment of the seventeen-year-old for whom life has been one continuous wargame that he always wins. And at a sign from the Sierlaef they slipped back down the roof, dropped to the wall, and ran easily along the two hand widths’ span of stone twice the height of a man from the ground.

  Back in the archery court Sponge turned his face upward at last. He’d known they were there. From his earliest days he had grown sensitive to inimical eyes. Now that they were gone, he could look up. What he—and he alone—observed now was the brilliant beauty of the rain-washed sky above them all, the flights of spring birds arrowing toward distant fields, the shape and color of the stone walls and towers, peachy in the morning light, their lines an intersecting work of art.

  Along one of those walls he saw the six horsetails move away and then stop, their focus elsewhere.

  The Sierlaef paused where the new wall intersected the old and stared down into the vast parade ground where the Guard gathered only for formal occasions: Convocation, command promotions, formal punishment.

  The Sierlaef turned his head and gave his Sier-Danas a faint smile. “Barend.”

  The Sier-Danas identified the single name with Barend-Dal, the only son of the Sierandael, and absent for at least a year, sent to sea to train as a ship commander.

  The Sierlaef pointed at the clean sweep of the parade ground. “Chwahir.”

  Barend-Dal visited the land of the Chwahir on his sea journ
eys, they translated, still staring uncomprehendingly at the parade ground. Chwahir, military kingdom far to the east. Chwahir, seldom seen this far west. Chwahir, constantly at war with their neighbors.

  “Post,” the Sierlaef said, pointing.

  The court below was bare, but they had all seen the flogging post set up from time to time.

  “Chwahir. Have ’em. Permanent.”

  Yecch, Tlen thought, and Cassad repressed a wince. What was the heir on about now?

  Good question, but for someone else, Buck thought, for they were the Sier-Danas, and the Sierlaef’s weird mood was no threat to them. Their lives were laid out before them: the future king’s Companions, first in honor, first in war, first in power. So long as they never showed cowardice or treachery they would never be tied to that post down there, to be flogged before the assembled Guard—and maybe even the academy, if the crime was heinous enough.

  Main thing was, the heir didn’t want his brother scragged. Fine.

  The Sierlaef said, “S-scrag. His f-friends. Hard.”

  He looked up, saw muted surprise in his followers but didn’t care, nor would he explain that he wanted his brother alone, friendless, so he would beg their father to let him quit. To let him spend his life in the archives, scribbling his worthless Sartoran messes. He would never go to war, he would never interfere with Aldren Harvaldar-Sigun, war king triumphant.

  Sponge would be the stupid one, the one without fame or honor.

  And if he tried to refuse the future his brother planned out for him—which was treason—he’d end up down at that post.

  At that thought, the Sierlaef smiled, and he said it again, as back in the practice court the masters waved the scrubs over to the throwing knives. “Scrag ’em hard.”

  Chapter Eight

  HEADMASTER Brath faced Master Gand across the old desk. “There’s no proof. No accusations. We cannot act on hearsay.”

  Gand shook his head. “We both know how to sift rumor from truth. There’s no use wasting time debating what we can notice and what we cannot. Look, I have to get down to the stable. Olin just told me Clover’s begun foaling. She’ll want me there.”

  Headmaster Brath scrubbed a hand through his thinning, sun-bleached hair, his gray eyes anxious. “Have you a suggestion?”

  “Yes.” And you will dislike it for all the wrong reasons. “Fix up some excuse, take the Sierlaef and his followers out, and thrash them till they can’t stand. Tonight. Or you are in for a summer of trouble.”

  The headmaster blanched. Then fury suffused his face, even his neck, but Gand sensed fear behind the headmaster’s diffuse gaze. Brath began in a strained voice, “I could be wrong ...” That only to satisfy convention, so that Gand couldn’t call him out for a duel. “. . . but I fail to see how a dishonorable misuse of my position of authority will solve today’s trouble, much less that of a season.”

  Silence. They stood there in the bare, quiet office, dust from the riding rings drifting in the open windows, and regarded one another: Gand, placed by the king in charge of the new boys; Brath, commander of the academy, appointed by the king’s brother. Brath never would have sent Gand down to run scrubs. No one understood why the king had. As for Gand, he had become accustomed, since giving up the field, to the idea of spending the rest of his life training the senior horsetails without family position who were destined for dragoon command. This order had puzzled him as much as it had Brath.

  Gand gently rapped his knuckles on the desk. “How much truth do you want to hear?”

  Brath’s mouth tightened, then he took Gand by surprise. “Whose truth?” he said, so softly Gand had to bend forward to hear it. “At what cost?”

  Gand shook his head. Brath sank back into his chair, his forehead beaded with sweat. His gaze dropped to the neat stacks of paper lying in a row across the top of the ancient desk. Gand touched his palm over his heart in salute, for the forms had to be maintained. They had to live in this place and see one another every day. Brath nodded in return, and Gand departed.

  Spring. Time for young animals to enter the world.

  Olin, stable hand for the past forty years, squinted at the hazy green treetops, just visible over the walls. Trees only interested him as gauges of season. He shifted his attention to Gand, approaching now, correctly assessing that walk. Gand’s face was about as wooden as expected from a dragoon, but his walk was as good as talk.

  Gand stalked in and overhead the small brown sparrows and finches fluttered, chirping, then resettled in the rafters.

  Olin grimaced at his crony Yennad. They both knew Brath. But no one spoke; Olin bent down to massage Clover’s shivering skin, her spasming belly.

  The mare looked up at him, her great brown eyes patient, still, apprehensive. The bond between horse and human was as old as the Marlovan language. The plains people loved all their animals, but especially those few that descended in a pure line from the wild horses on the blessed plain of Nelkereth, like Clover: proud of neck, with a small graceful head, beautiful line of chest and leg, made for running before the wind, color the silvery cream of snow in the sunset, faces and feet pale brown.

  Olin murmured soothingly to the mare, his voice more tender than any lover had ever heard it.

  “Here she comes,” Yennad said, from over Olin’s shoulder. He was certain that the foal was a filly. He was usually right.

  Yennad was even older than Olin, both of them wounded too many times, decades ago, to ride easily anymore. Yennad said to Gand, his brown, seamed face sour, “Me granddad always told us, no good’d come o’ this training ’em on one ground. Walls all around. Marlovans don’t live natural within walls.”

  Olin inwardly dismissed Yennad’s prognostications. He too had inherited a distrust of castles and the owning of land. But in Olin’s view, the problems lay not with Marlovans adopting the Iascans’ castles and pottery and the exquisite folded steel they made in their mountain forges out beyond the royal city. The true problems lay between fathers and sons, between brothers and uncles, and those problems were not new. It’s just that their ancestors, when they squabbled, could ride off to fight somewhere else instead of being forced to hold their ground.

  Yennad muttered under his breath as Clover shivered and rolled her eyes. Gand stroked Clover’s nose, murmuring in a low, steady voice.

  He pretended not to hear the condemnation of change, the dire predictions of what happened when tradition was set aside. Gand’s own grandfather had said once, wheezing with laughter before the winter fire, No one likes change unless he makes it himself. Then it’s innovation.

  The foal made her entry into the world to the sound of human voices, the gentle touch of human hands, the smell of human and horse combined. A filly—most welcome—soon stood shivering near her mother, lipping the air.

  And in good time. Gand heard the noon bells, and remembered his twenty charges. He left Clover to expert hands, veering between buildings with swift steps. His own skill, it appeared to the distant royal eye, was with human young, though he himself would never have defined himself that way.

  Gand sometimes contemplated why the king did.

  At what cost?

  The question unsettled him because he couldn’t define it, unlike a problem on the field. The king could have, but he had not. To his brother he’d said only, We must put someone in charge of the Tveis who can identify the varieties of training the young Randaels inevitably will show, and form them all to your standards. To which the Sierandael had agreed. The king had not spoken his real reason to anyone, lest it seem a criticism of his brother, or show fa voritism to his second son, in whose training he must not interfere any more than he had in his heir’s. But for some reason the Sierlaef had neglected his brother and the Sierandael, usually so observant, had missed it. Gand, the king believed, would fix it.

  Gand sidestepped down the alleyway, with a quick and silent tread. His pace eased when he recognized his nephew, who was pushing a cart full of clean practice jackets between the stora
ge buildings. Neither looked at the other while a string of first-year pigtails erupted from the practice court archway, shouting, laughing, thumping against each other as they ran up the stone alley toward their pit and vanished into its court; when the alley was clear, Emad did not stop, but he shifted his grip, waiting until his Uncle Gand was next to him.

  Emad said under his breath, “On way to mess, Marlo-Vayir, Cassad, Basna shying gravel at the boys around him.” The pronoun meant Evred-Varlaef; neither actually spoke his name.

  Gand looked each way along the narrow space between the weatherworn buildings made of unadorned stone and wood, and up, then sniffed the air. No witnesses. Still, the less said the better. “And at mess?”

  “Joal reports nothing. He sat with Cassad. No trouble.”

  “Stable?”

  “No trouble. All separate tasks.”

  They parted, Gand continuing on to the scrub court. There stood his charges in their two rows of ten, barely containing their anticipation at the prospect of their first war game.

  He let the moment draw out, knowing how effective silence was. Amusement rooted deep in his belly, but no sign of it was permitted to shoot past his chest. There must be no laughter in his voice, though they so strongly reminded him of all the young animals in the stable and kennel. They really were young animals, barely able to see past themselves. But holding their invisible longe lines were men who for their own purposes appeared to be training some of these boys for disaster.

  He would avert it if he could.

  “Kek-kek-kek!” A blue-tail hawk cried, stooping some smaller bird, just behind the bell tower. Two or three of the many flaxen heads lifted, and then faced forward again.

  “You will have noted,” Gand said, “that this group is not the traditional thirty-six. We’ll still divide into four ridings, but each with only five. You select your leader. You’ll each have a flag to defend. The goal is to protect your own flag and capture as many of your enemies’ flags as you can. Questions?”

  Pause. The boys exchanged looks.

  Dogpiss Noth said, “Master Gand. Do we take prisoners?”

 
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