Read on if you’re interested in the lives that make great adventure! In The Young Hounds we follow two children of the count, the militaristic heir and his more artistic sister, as they struggle to make sense of a world of war and an enemy they know only by rumor and legend. The court of this land, foreign to its rulers, is stagnant and dying. There will be no peace here. The reasons why baffle even the stoutest hearts.
Fans of medieval fantasy and medieval history will find a lot to enjoy here, so take some time out of your day and read this novella, which comes with cover art by the fantastic K Thor Jensen! Just continue on if you’d like to read it online, but I’ve also made it available in the ePub format for your e-readers. Plus, the ePub version has three extra small pieces with it, two of which I’ve put up already as previews and a third that’s new, so check it out!
But however you do it… Enjoy!
The two long men who stood in the center of the great hall were almost identical. One lean, Gonsalo, skin like soil under a full moon, black with luster, dressed in flaring trousers and a short jacket in the local style with a wide scarf of blue deeper than the sky wound around his neck and shoulders. The other broad-shouldered, broad-armed. Gavril of a sunset color, in his western tabard which was holy black except for the streaks of lightning embroidered over the chest, three gnarled digits reaching out from the trunk. His trousers were straight, his tunic of a light and unvaried color. Gavril’s hair was a smoothly coiffed cloud, Gonsalo’s scalp was almost bare. Gonsalo had a beard which flared over his chest where at its end were several tiny blue and white ribbons knotted in as if someone had dashed them in like salt to the broth. Gavril’s extended from his hairline in tutored arcs that met in a tuft at the point of his chin. Both wore their swords, which was their right as master captains and which usually meant they wanted something.
Pia knew exactly what it was these two wanted: to put on armor and serve the realm. She also knew that her husband would do what he could to deny it to them.
Every eye in the great hall was fixed on the rider who knelt on one knee before the throne, and there were many eyes upon her. Gonsalo and Gavril had brought their retinue, each having a few knights each, Gonsalo’s wearing pale and blue western wear standing to one side and Gavril’s in black and argent opposite. There were the grandees of the realm in their local costume, people who would have been petty nobles in their old land Sedonia yet here held respectibility, influence, even power. Servants stood against the dully painted walls with ewers of water, trays of small cakes and rolls, fans, cloths, anything that may conceivably be called on. Down the center of the hall, from the throned dais to the two guards at either side of the entrance doors, ran a sumptuous carpet of red predominant with intricate designs of argent and bronze. It was on this that Gavril, Gonsalo, and the messenger waited.
‘Kiril, wine,’ Pia called, raising her silver goblet. She was a dark woman with a smallish body that she wrapped in simple layers: a long gown, an overskirt, a short soft jacket, and a shawl. Her hair lifted from the base of her neck like fire. Her face seemed capable of deep passion but, as the slender Kiril poured her wine, she felt none of that. Bearded, aging Kiril had never been her favorite. His command of the Delquin language was halting, even after having served the Delquin lords of this place for over twenty years. She felt that he resented her presence here because she had come from abroad yet acted as superior to him. Yet she was the wife of the count. That was the truth of it. He was seneschal and cupbearer, a servant. It was right for him to defer.
Whatever her own rank, not she but her husband was the count, so it was on his say and no one else’s that Kiril could ever be dismissed. Until she could find a way to get rid of the man, she had to call on him when she was thirsty. Now he bent down and poured wine for her. Now he stood back again and pretended disinterest in what was happening in front of him.
Zora, the magister, reinforced wards and protections for the noble family upon the dais. She wore the black robe of her office, voluminous with open sleeves which captured the air as she traced figures with her fingers, the index and pinky nails on each hand painted black, the other three untouched, and it was with those painted fingers that she drew. Her hair was braided, bound up into a tight knot behind her head and from that knot trailed three separate locks, thin and tight, that sometimes stroked the back of her neck. Rich brown skin showed the comforts of a high-born life and lines of strain around her eyes and mouth showed the long years of study, ritual, and remembrance. She spoke words of power which called upon the gods to protect these their chosen servants against even the subtle arts and the divine. She bowed her head and pressed her palms together, the warding complete. A reverent silence remained.
‘Speak up, then,’ Gavril said. Gonsalo nodded. The heel of his hand sat on the pommel of his sword, tilting the scabbarded weapon so that to Pia it resembled a tail. An appendage of the man.
The scout remained on one knee.
‘She cannot understand you,’ Pia said, speaking the language of the Pystoi which was known in this land. And now to the woman, ‘Speak, child. Let us hear what news you’ve brought.’
The scout nodded and clasped her hands together.
‘Heaven keep you, lords,’ she said to Pia and the count. She spoke Pystoi well but with a strong accent giving both harshness and sibilance. ‘I come here on behalf of my village of Dabisham which is under your protection. I’ve ridden with all the haste I can. I must tell you that not one day ago, riders which must have been Kusurians were seen in our distance. A scouting party, at least a dozen, perhaps twenty. They did not come close.’
‘Where is Dabisham?’ Gavril asked in his own native Delquin language. When the scout didn’t respond, Gavril looked pointedly at Pia, who stared him back. She was not answerable to him. She did not serve him. Kiril, however, was bound to serve everyone in the hall.
‘To the north and east, lords,’ the scout said when she understood. ‘Almost to the green hills where the people of three villages take their animals to graze.’
‘I know it,’ said Krasimir in Delquin. This was a slender man with a hard face and a bold nose. Curly hair surrounded his head from the wide unkempt surge at the top to the short and grizzled beard. The marshal of the realm wore no badge but his sword and the conical helmet he kept by habit underneath his arm.
Pia could never understand why these knights, the master captains Gavril and Gonsalo especially, refused to speak in anything but the Delquin tongue. Neither was new to these lands. Even in their retinues they rarely kept anyone who was not thoroughly Delquin, or in Gonsalo’s case his native Norian, in blood and bearing. They came here, it seemed, to be foreigners for the rest of their days. None of them doubted that they would die in this place, invested or upon the field. The prestige of the master captain carried with it an inevitable doom. Perhaps only those mad enough to keep themselves so alien had the stuff which sustained such lancer lords.
‘Is there anything else you must tell us?’ Pia said in Pystoi to the scout.
‘No, your grace. Once we saw the riders, it was decided that we would send someone here to the city as soon as they had gone. I am the fastest rider in the village so I was chosen. I came as fast as I could.’
‘Of course,’ Pia said. ‘Kiril, arrange this woman some food and a place to sleep in the castle. And some coin to take back to her people. She can return to Dabisham in the morning.’
Kiril nodded. He stabbed two fingers through the air at one of the servants against the wall and called him over quickly. The court watched quietly as the servant gathered up the scout who bowed her head again and was led out of the hall.
‘Do you see?’ Gavril howled. The doors hadn’t even shut behind the scout and servant. His voice, even with that tiny outlet, probably shook throughout the castle. He spoke in Delquin but that was no cipher, not here. Heedless, Gavril stomped toward the dais and gestured passionately, still loud: ‘They make their plans to invade us. The Kossors will not wait another month to destroy us. They will move and quickly. We have to be quicker.’
‘Waiting will be our undoing,’ Gonsalo said. ‘We cannot always wait for the blade to strike.’
‘Their captains are expert,’ warned Janneke. ‘We have not won in the field against the armies of Marudham Sardar in near a year.’
‘We cannot be afraid forever,’ Gavril said.
‘Caution is not fear,’ said Janneke. It was a little humor that the captain of the city walls needed a stool or ladder in order to see over the battlements, but she was indespensable. Stout and dark Janneke came from the wild Paerren lands of the far west and she had long devoted herself to the defense of this new land.
‘Caution is fear’s cousin,’ Gavril said.
‘This is war, not your loose incantations,’ Janneke said. ‘You don’t make reality by inventing it. We must not attack until we are prepared. As it is, we can barely be sure of holding the walls if we are attacked.’
‘And that is why we must attack now, before the Kossors can capitalize against us. We must convince them to look to their own defenses rather than probing ours.’
‘And how will more of your good Black Zealots being pierced dead by Kossor arrows help that?’
Kiril spoke abruptly in his broken Delquin: ‘My lord the count will speak.’
Both Janneke and Gavril, and the courtiers who had begun to murmur along the sides of the hall, became silent and looked up to the dais, to the throne beside Pia. Her own was relatively simple, a curule chair of supple wood inlaid and embellished with gold, arms and legs carved into a fluid whole, the back arcing up only somewhat so that its roughened gold ran right under her shoulderblades. The throne of her husband was high-backed in the style of the great ducal chairs from Delquin lands, more solidly gold and studded with many jewels at the ends of the chair arms. The man who lingered in that great chair was Meleager, second of his name in the dynasty which came from Tarquin the White through his son Tolinder, count of the city called Lucnoss which was his seat.
Gaunt he had been always but years ago he sat straight and watched his subjects with bright eyes. Now the throne held him up. He might have been as composed stretched out upon a bier, named for him or not. His clothes were of lush velvet and silk and, were he in sacred black rather than his muted greens and golds, he may have been taken for a magician. His stormcloud of black coiled hair sagged under its own untidy weight. His cheeks and chin were shorn of hair but a legion of knuckle-sized boils swarmed his face instead. Eyes brown and strong had retreated, the light from bleak depths shining to nothing by the time it reached the cavern gate. But he did speak and when he spoke his voice was made firm.
‘We’ve seen riders at Dabisham,’ Meleager said. ‘That is all. I cannot be convinced that we should be so hasty as to move now, without further thought. Unless you have given it some?’
‘Yes, your grace,’ said Krasimir the marshal. ‘I have, begging for your approval, discussed how best to strike at the Kossors with the other captains. We should seize the town of Nitraj.’
‘The town with the tower,’ Pia said.
Gavril confirmed it. ‘It is little defended, this we know,’ he said. ‘The Kossors do garrison the tower but only with a few soldiers. The town is without strong walls or any native protection. If we summon our forces swiftly we can take it before the Kossors can think to respond. Once we’ve done so, we’ll have the advantage of the highest point for miles around. We can deter their raiders and better prepare our city.’
‘And won’t the Kossors try to retake Nitraj?’ Janneke asked. ‘Marudham Sardar is like her father: she will not allow us to hold what is hers.’
Meleager ordered wine. He observed the argument with interest while Kiril poured.
‘But we will be more prepared for them than they were for us,’ Gavril said. ‘Our zealots will garrison the town. Marudham Sardar sits right now in the citadel of Ilbin scheming against her fellow Kossors. Nitraj is not a personal holding of hers. When she hears it has been taken she will send a small force and we will bloody them. After that, we will fortify the town, build our armies, and prepare to drive the Kossors back further.’
‘And how will all of this be paid for?’ Meleager asked.
‘Alexandar, come. Read me your last count of our treasure.’
The man he summoned was fat with a stern face and hair kept short like a shadow over his earth-brown scalp. He was chamberlain and dressed in a lovely tunic and trousers, befitting his office even if that was the least part of it. He opened a book and found a page quite late in its order.
‘Two thousand, three hundred and nine ducats,’ Alexandar said. ‘Gold, minted in Noriana. The city of Buselli. Also we have stores of grain on the order of four thousand bushels, we own twelve herds, four of—‘
‘None of which are easily converted into coin here,’ Meleager said.
‘No, your grace.’
‘Do you think two thousand ducats is enough to fund this great adventure and all it will draw down on us?’ Meleager asked the captains.
Gonsalo looked like he wanted to wriggle out of his clothes and slither away. Krasimir’s lips pursed tightly against a point he had made many times before.
‘Heaven will help us,’ Gavril said. ‘We have powerful magicians with us, like Zora, like the magus Tryphosa of the Temple of Cidas. We will find a way.’
Meleager drank from his cup. He set it down.
‘Our situation with coin is not unknown to me,’ Krasimir said. ‘But what use will that coin be to us when we’ve been enslaved by the Kossors? We must strike. Everything else will come later.’
‘Zora?’ asked Meleager. ‘The captains seem to require the power of your magic.’
‘I am no warrior in the way of our blessed captains,’ Zora said slowly, ‘but I do not shrink from war. I cannot conjure you wealth, no magician can. I could only protect you. My place is here, however; regardless of the decision I cannot go. I can and will prepare the arcanum for your use if you wish it but that is all. With both Black and Blue Zealots away from the city, I must be here to work my wards.’
‘No,’ she said flatly. ‘The risk is too great.’
‘We must see to our own walls,’ said the seneschal. ‘The tower of Nitraj will not protect the city of Lucnoss against a Kossor host.’
‘Then I’ve made my decision,’ said Meleager. ‘I am inclined to keep what we have gained, what two sacred quests have carved out of this strange land, and not to gamble it away recklessly. I have been entrusted with the completion of those quests, to hold this land until I or another can come to repair our damaged honor. We will not go to take Nitraj. We will remain and watch to see if the storm grows or if it fades away.’
Gavril and Gonsalo took to one knee, and so did Krasimir, and Janneke, and the rest of the court, acknowledging that the discussion had been ended. They stood up as one body. No one spoke, not a courtier, not Zora speaking wards nor even the count. Pia, who had been waiting for the next issue to be raised, only looked at her husband when she realized that it wasn’t. He gazed at her on the border of amusement.
‘And what are your thoughts on this, wife?’ he asked.
‘Your decision has been taken with appropriate consideration,’ Pia said. ‘I only ask you to remember that your devoted Kiril is your seneschal, the master of your domestics. Zora is your magister whose business is the subtle health of this court and realm. Janneke is the captain of the walls who does not ride out to battle. These are not your war leaders. It is Gavril who was chosen by Casoria the spinner to lead the Black Zealots, Gonsalo by Cidas the sky father to lead the Blue. It is Krasimir who you yourself chose to command your army in the field.’
‘And I should consider their advice,’ Meleager said.
‘Which you have, husband,’ she said.
Meleager bowed his head briefly. He sipped his wine, then took a longer drink.
‘Janneke,’ Meleager said. ‘My court is paranoid this morning. How are we progressing on the repair of the northern rampart? Let’s hear something to put us at ease.’
Pia knew exactly why her husband had not asked her before his decision was made. He knew that she hated their being surrounded by Kossor lords, that she would even side with the captains against his word to fight them, and he would not allow his consort to hold the reins of his county. While the subject was changed for them, Pia accepted the frustrated looks of Gavril and Gonsalo and Krasimir. She knew that the call for war would not stop until the war came, and it had to come.
Blandine explored the vase on the sill before her. She’d looked at it many times. The flowers it held were pretty, plucked from the city and gathered by her faithful minder to beautify her rooms. They were changed often. The vase had been here longer than she had. Stout but well curved, its form glazed by blues and whites, a brush of green, square geometries which resembled flowers with petals interlocking. It was of native Rutemi making, as were most of the luxuries which filled the room. There were tiny nicks on it where someone had been careless. Seven of them, or six. She frowned and counted without speaking, tilting her head to see around its side.
‘Honored,’ said her tutor in formal address, ‘I don’t believe you’re thinking about right angles, are you?’
Her tutor was called Nicanor, a willow branch made man, his hair twisted into tight dreadlocks which ended below his ears, his jaw long, his nostrils wide, his eyes sleepy but always searching. He touched her shoulder and leaned over to inspect what little she’d written.
‘I’m sorry, teacher,’ she said. ‘Maths, numbers, it is… my mind wanders.’
‘Do we have to continue now?’ She turned her shining eyes on him, eyes bronze which edged on green.
‘Soon I will be gone,’ her tutor said. ‘No one will teach you mathematics then. I do feel I have a duty.’
Blandine looked at her paper, mostly empty. Next to it was another sheet, older and ripped small along the sides, full of diagrams and small notes in straight-lined Pystoi. Nicanor squeezed her shoulder.
‘For me,’ he said. ‘Come, let’s finish and then we will study the poems of Elnes, her second book. You won’t be read those when I’m gone, either.’
It had only been two years ago that Nicanor had come here from immortal Arma to instruct Blandine. It felt like he had always been here. She had forgotten that the works of eastern writers like Elnes and the great calculator Orsonos were next to blasphemy for those, like her parents, who came from the lands of the old empire. Nicanor had taught her from these and from others. For what use she could not say, but she had come to enjoy learning, knowing. Nicanor said that was enough.
The young woman, daughter of Meleager and Pia, leaned forward over the table and wrote with one forearm down. Her face was round and its tendency to cheerfulness was clear even as she made her face stony in thought. Her braided hair was divided into two neat bundles which sat at the back of her head. Sunlight from the window kept her paper lit and goldened her pure dark skin.
Nicanor looked at the equations she copied. Here he stopped her to point out messy penmanship. Repetition made knowledge, that was his way. An old way even with new ideas. Yet even when Blandine wished to leave this tedium aside, she had learned. This law of triangles was important, Nicanor had said when they started the work. He’d made a square in one corner of his flat triangles and called it the foundationstone. All of geometry would spring from this law. What inspired her particularly was that the Rutemi geometers had greatly simplified the drier works of the old Pystoi masters. If she did have to study maths again, she’d be better off working from the Rutemi methods.
‘That’s good,’ Nicanor said as she came to the end. ‘Repeat until you see it clearly in your mind whenever you need it.’
‘Yes, teacher,’ Blandine said.
‘And you’ll commit the law of triangles to your memory?’
‘Good. Perhaps I’ll leave your mother or good Elpis a set of incomplete equations for you to practice. I would like to see how you progress.’
‘But you won’t be here to correct my mistakes,’ Blandine said.
‘You are a very intelligent child,’ Nicanor said. ‘You will feel, I’m sure, if you’ve made a mistake. Return to your work at a later date and review it. And trust yourself.’
‘Yes, teacher.’ Blandine didn’t think she could trust herself with maths. She’d be hopeless without Nicanor over her shoulder. She considered this a while, then realized that she was not writing and Nicanor was not making her write. She saw him staring out of the tall and lean window. Blandine’s chambers sat against the castle’s west wall with a view out to the ocean. Her teacher was looking far beyond it.
‘What will you do when you return to Arma?’ she asked.
‘I am not sure,’ Nicanor said. ‘Sleep first, I think. The voyage by water is never comfortable. Sleep and then, I don’t know. I’ve spent the last ten years tutoring splendid children such as yourself in their capitals and manor houses. Perhaps now I’ll take up a position in university. They’d say it’s right for one of my age to get settled and be rewarded. And I could study.’
‘Wouldn’t you rather study in Hafsa?’ Blandine asked. Nicanor laughed. ‘Or the land of Chos?’ He roared. ‘Teacher?’
‘Honored, things are not so simple as that,’ he said. She could feel all the strength he wasted twisting his voice to sound jovial. ‘No, not so simple. The empire of Arma has been at war with the lords of this land for generations. To study at their royal seat of Hafsa, I would be exiled forever from my own people. And ancient Chos… no.’ He sighed into a laugh. ‘No, I will return to The City and continue my studies within the university like a good Armadan citizen.’
‘Then you should stay,’ Blandine said. ‘You are accepted here, you know that. Somehow we can find scholars who know these eastern traditions, who you can gain more from. And my father will protect you here. He will. He has until now.’
‘I do not fear the swords or spears of the Kossor,’ Nicanor said. ‘Only I have been told reliably that war will come here soon, war that hasn’t been seen since the Second Quest twenty years past. I fear siege, honored. Perhaps it won’t come to that, but if it comes, no one could leave.’
She understood sieges. She’d been a baby during the last siege of Lucnoss itself, a siege which the gods saw collapse within six weeks. Her father and mother had instructed her on what she should do if the castle was surrounded. Find safety. Rally the people. Escape had never been an option, not even for her. It chilled her to think of it. Not for the first time she envied him.
‘Who’s told you that fighting will come soon?’ Blandine asked. ‘The gods?’
‘Their servants,’ he said. ‘The master captains, separately. It isn’t the Kossors who will bring war. The captains want it.’
‘But my father doesn’t. I know he doesn’t.’
‘Ah, you are young, honored. Very bright but still young. You must know that the count cannot take his nobles by the throat and drag them where he wants. But they have many hands and they can, together, drag him along. As long as Gavril and Gonsalo live, there will be war.’
She placed her hands in her lap and scowled at them. Nicanor stood behind her and took hold of her arms. Her face went hot because now he could feel her trembling, holding her fear tight.
‘Be strong, my child,’ Nicanor said. ‘The zealots are mighty knights, they can defeat the Kossor armies. The walls of Lucnoss will hold. But for the people around you to be strong, you must be strong. I hope that I have taught you that much at least.’
Blandine, with her eyes squeezed shut, made herself nod. Visions of riders with sabres curved like the moon fought against her desperate indifference.
‘Come, let us read from Elnes,’ he said.
Her eyes remained shut but she smiled. She adored the poets. These eastern writers, these mystics, she would miss far more than the mathematicians. Yet still she sat with eyes closed tightly. Still she trembled. She knew that he could feel it.
Be strong, he said to her. The zealots would win. The walls would hold. But he wasn’t staying. He was leaving.
Three people standing one on the other’s shoulders would not outmeasure the wooden bar. It was stretched horizontally, supported by six posts high as a man could reach over his head. From its side and spaced evenly apart emerged three hooks and on those hooks were hung rings of brass that burned warmly in the evening sunlight. The heat didn’t seem to touch proudly-sitting Nevena as she brought her sand colored horse around. In her right hand she held her lance aimed at a star not yet revealed. A doublet of hardened leather was her only protection. She checked that her braided hair was well kept back, then spurred the horse into action. Clumps of dirt and shards of browning grass sprayed in the wake of its hooves which branded the earth and shook the air. The point of her lance circled, tighter, rang out when it caught the inside of the first ring. She slipped it off the hook, not slowing, in full gallop again she dipped the lance, threaded the second ring, lifted it free. The tiny brass rings caught at the middle of her lance and now they caught the sunlight and flashed brightness over the field.
Under the canopy, Roger threw up his hand against the flash. When he brought it down again he saw Nevena and her horse trotting back in his direction. All three rings were free of their hooks. Light applause was given Nevena from the others and Roger joined in. She bowed from the saddle, then swung her leg back over the horse and leapt to the ground. Sweat rolled down her face so that her dark cheeks shone near as much as the brass rings. She tossed her lance to the servant Muhilan who worked to get the rings free. Another servant, Sendhen, offered Nevena a cloth to wipe her face as she came into the shade.
‘It does make me not want to tilt,’ said Stoyan. He was tall, a few inches above Roger himself, with rich brown skin and a patchy beard he did not have the heart to cut away. He hadn’t braided his hair, usual for horseriders, but his canopy of curly black hair provided him enough cushion against his helmets. His doublet was unbuckled.
‘Can’t beat that?’ Nevena laughed.
‘No, well… no,’ said Stoyan. ‘And when am I ever going to need to against a Kossor? They’ll probably be miles away anyhow, bloody cowards.’
‘It’s okay to be jealous,’ Roger said.
‘And you aren’t?’ Nevena said. She threw herself atop a heap of pillows which was laid out on the canopy’s rug floor. Sendhen the servant came and took the cloth and offered pomegranates which Nevena refused.
Roger didn’t see the point in being jealous of Nevena’s riding but he was anyway. For years they’d heard that she had the blessing of swift-stepping Noris. She had prayed to that god since she was a child. She had been gifted. Whenever she rode Roger watched her, he tried to see what she did differently and replicate it. It didn’t matter the horse or the lance, or even the height of the rings. She would take them at full speed. Missing one was as rare as true cool in daylight.
‘If you don’t want to tilt, I’ll go,’ Jason said. He was stocky and he always looked sleepy except when he was truly burning with excitement. He looked out at the field where Mulihan was busy setting the rings back in place.
‘That’s fine,’ Stoyan said. He let out a creaking sigh as he sat down against pillows. Sendhen had already brought a cool sharbat drink to Nevena and now offered one to Stoyan, who took the cup and nodded thanks. ‘Think I’m getting saddlesores anyway.’
Roger snorted and Benedito chuckled. Benedito’s hair was braided and had been for years longer than Roger’s. Most would only draw their several braids up and pin them when it came time for battle. Benedito pinned his in a neat spiral at all times. He had the slightly protruding chin that was well known among the Norians, and ears that stuck out slightly as if to catch the wind. When he laughed he sounded childish. But Benedito was older and he had seen battle. He’d spilled blood and had his spilt. Roger could not say the same.
Roger detested the way some familiar servants, especially his old minder Elpis and the seneschal Kiril, used to call him ‘the young lord’. Yet he could not argue. His beard, like Stoyan’s, peeked out like gosling feathers, black against the brown of his cheeks. His braids were short and shook around whenever he turned. At nineteen years he hadn’t yet filled out and perhaps he never would. A strong young man, he thought, but not mighty. Not yet mighty. Not scarred, not experienced, not fully grown. Still, he’d made them stop using that name for the most part.
‘Don’t get too comfortable,’ Roger said. ‘We’ll have war here soon.’
‘War?’ Stoyan said. ‘We’re always at war, heaven bless us. It’s no cause for alarm.’
Roger couldn’t fight the smile on his face. Stoyan could never be completely serious. Jason led one of the horses, a light coated western, away from the hitching post and mounted it. He trotted out to the field and caught a lance from Mulihan. He rode about at an easy pace some, reacquainting himself with riding and maneuvering this weapon.
‘Actual war,’ Roger said to Stoyan, trying to sound stern. ‘Not just saying it. Actually marching.’
‘Where’d you hear this?’ Stoyan asked.
‘Someone’s always saying it,’ Nevena said.
‘More raiding,’ said Terko. ‘That’s what it always is. Kossors getting greedy and it’s time to hit them back.’ Terko was the son of a woman who’d been fully knighted through her service as a raider. He kept his face shorn clean and his braids, when not bound up for battle, hung far down his back. He’d refused sharbat in favor of plain water. Terko always claimed it was better against the heat than anything else.
‘Not just raiding,’ Roger said. ‘War.’
‘Where did you hear it?’ Stoyan asked, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees.
‘Two days past, I overheard the master captains talking in the corridor,’ Roger said. ‘Not much. Gavril said that they could not afford to wait much longer, that they must strike the Kossors soon. Gonsalo seemed in agreement.’
‘And what about your father?’ Nevena asked.
‘I don’t know,’ Roger said. ‘I don’t think he wants war but he’ll have it. If both zealot orders want to go to war I don’t see how he can resist.’
‘You would be surprised,’ Stoyan said. ‘The power of a count is great within his court. Anyway, it’s a mistake to go to war.’ Terko agreed firmly. ‘What have we got? There’s no chance we can field even half of the soldiers that Marudham Sardar could. I haven’t heard the Kossors were raiding our settlements more often. This isn’t the time.’
‘We have to do something,’ Benedito said.
‘Yes, we can’t just sit here,’ Nevena said. ‘If they are coming, I agree with Benedito.’
‘Hold on,’ Stoyan said, pointing with his chin, ‘he’s about to go.’
Jason atop the cream colored horse stared at his target with intent. Nothing moved in the air. Mulihan and Sendhen stood still while the others, the children of knights and nobles, approached the edge of shade. Jason kicked his heels and the horse surged ahead. Rapid hoofbeats. The lance zigged through the air, then looped, his grip tightening. Jason’s hair licked at the humidity. The first brass rang out. Roger lifted an eyebrow. The second ring was caught. Jason dipped his shoulders and stabbed forward to seize the third. His chest swelled and crashed like he was suffocating, but his laughter soon reached them all.
‘Hey, what are you laughing about?’ Nevena called. ‘That was terrible, hand over your spurs!’
Stoyan and Benedito laughed, and Nevena beamed. It hadn’t been Jason’s greatest showing. He’d gone in slow, clearly slower than Nevena, and he’d lost some control after the second ring.
‘I was thinking,’ Jason said as he dismounted. He used his sleeve to scrub sweat away from his face and handed the lance off to Mulihan. He gathered his breath but expelled half away again in laughing. ‘I was thinking about if I’d fallen off the horse reaching out to get the last one. Casrie love me, I didn’t.’ He kissed his fingertips and pressed them to the sky.
‘It’d serve you right,’ Stoyan said.
‘Anyway, what were you all talking about? I almost thought you weren’t gonna watch me.’
‘Roger says there’ll be war,’ Nevena said.
‘War?’ Jason said. ‘Good.’ Sendhen gave him a towel which he used, and a sharbat which he guzzled half of before sighing out chilled air. ‘Get us out of this boredom, huh?’
‘Just like that?’ Stoyan asked.
‘It’s what we’re all training for, isn’t it?’ Jason said.
‘Don’t be an idiot,’ Terko said. ‘If Roger’s right then this is serious. And it won’t help. We’ve got to prepare if we’re going to attack, we’ve gotta do a lot of preparing. I haven’t seen any of that. There’s been no stockpiling. Do you all have a full set of battle-ready weapons?’ He shook his head. ‘An attack would be disaster. It’ll be easier for us to keep this land we’ve got.’
‘Listen, Terko, don’t you call me an idiot,’ Jason said. ‘I just don’t want to sit around here like a coward until I wither and die.’
‘So you’ll jump into a fire just because you’re bored, huh?’ Terko said. ‘Pathetic.’
‘We’re both familiar with arms,’ Jason said sternly. ‘We can find out very quickly who’s pathetic.’
‘Both of you, enough,’ Roger snapped.
‘Take a longer look before you jump in this fire,’ Terko shot at Jason.
‘Thinking about it,’ Benedito said in a loud voice. Both Terko and Jason turned, so everyone else did too, as Benedito reached out past the canopy and scooped four tiny stones. He shook the sand out from between his fingers and came back into the shade. ‘We’ve got to go to war.’ On the sand just past the rug he arranged them again. ‘Now let’s say this is us here, Lucnoss.’ He pointed to one rock close against the rug. ‘The rug is the ocean. Here is Ilbin, here Firtis, and here Pasbeg.’ The first was further ‘inland’ than Lucnoss, the second higher along the coast, the third lower and away from the sea. The friends all crowded around now to see what Benedito was laying out. ‘Up until now we’ve been able to get ships in, those few that will still come. That’s been our lifeline. But the Kossors have got us pretty well surrounded on land, and they have the greater ports of Thimaq and elsewhere in Chos to blockade us if they wanted. Effectively, we’re trapped. If we stay in the trap then we will surely wither and die. Breaking out may not be a good chance, but it is a chance.’
Roger scrutinized the diagram. It was correct as far as he could see, and it came to the same conclusion he had. He supposed he shouldn’t begrudge Benedito for working it out like this first. Benedito had the experience, after all.
‘So if you were going to strike,’ Roger challenged, ‘where would you do it?’
‘As if we are,’ Terko snorted.
‘But if we were,’ Roger said, ‘I would be for it.’
Jason agreed, and Benedito and Nevena. Then Stoyan nodded. Terko kept his lips tight but he said nothing.
‘So?’ Roger asked.
‘Well, not knowing the details exactly it’s difficult to say,’ Benedito said. ‘But we shouldn’t chance anything that will let them use their cavalry, that’s for certain.’
Quietly, while the young highborn spoke, Mulihan carried a bucket of water out to the horses. He cupped some water in a hand and matted it on the sandy horse’s nose and lifted the bucket so the horse could drink.
The day’s brightness which filled her bedchamber was sour in Blandine’s sight. The sun was too cheerful for a day like this. A hand touched her side and she lifted her arms up. Elpis, her elderly minder, tugged the loose white gown to smooth out any folds there. Those bony hands nimbly cinched a plain dark belt around Blandine’s middle. Elpis began to smooth the dress again but Blandine slapped lightly at her hands. The old woman laughed and went away, letting Blandine adjust herself.
‘Where’s the mirror?’ Blandine asked. ‘I’d like to net my hair.’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Elpis said. ‘I guess your mother has it. I’ll do it, don’t worry.’
‘Fine,’ Blandine said. ‘I’d love a mirror of my own.’
Elpis said: ‘Your parents have sought hard for one that’ll suit you, child. One fitting for a count’s daughter.’ Then: ‘I’ve your second gown now.’
‘Kydian glass is superior, Kydian craftsmanship supreme, no use buying unless from a top Kydian maker,’ Blandine recited drolly. She turned to face Elpis, lifted her arms and leaned forward, allowing her minder to slip the red-purple dress over her body. This one did not reach quite as low as the white gown beneath but its colors and material were much richer. At each hem and edge it was embroidered with silver thread worked into a band of teardrops and petals. Elpis tugged at the material around her middle. ‘I don’t care about all that, I just want to see myself so I can get dressed.’
‘Things are difficult now, you know that,’ Elpis said. ‘The ships we get in are few and how many of them are likely to bring a mirror, fragile thing like that? It isn’t easy to find one in good condition, you know. Buy too quick and you’ll be looking at your nightmares instead of your dreams.’
Elpis touched Blandine’s face affectionately, then went to search for Blandine’s other clothing. ‘Just be patient, child.’ She stood up, holding a soft, light colored jack. Before she could give it to Blandine, she bowed her head. Blandine was puzzled for just a second. Her mother was behind her, slightly taller than Blandine herself and dressed for a morning at home.
‘Your grace,’ Elpis said.
‘Hello, mother,’ Blandine said. She held her arms out and motioned for Elpis to continue.
‘A pleasure to see you, dear Elpis, and of course my lovely daughter,’ said her mother. ‘I could hear you from the corridor. I thought I’d come and see that no one was attacking you.’
‘Just Elpis,’ Blandine said.
‘That’s good. At least she can’t overpower you.’ It was impossible to know what her mother meant by the smile she gave. Since she was young she’d remembered being made uneasy by it. It was genuine, sometimes. Sometimes at the oddest moment.
‘Did you want something?’ Blandine asked. Elpis had slipped the short top over both her arms now and the two of them worked at smoothing away the wrinkles.
‘Well, now I want to know what you’re getting dressed up for,’ her mother said. ‘Your father and I will be very angry if you’ve gotten engaged without telling us.’
‘I’m not “getting dressed up”,’ Blandine said. ‘I’m going out. It’s right to show our people that we are proud and noble, isn’t it? That’s what you always said.’
Her mother laughed behind her hand. She walked further into the room and examined Blandine’s appearance. The young woman’s cheeks burned but she couldn’t just run from her mother.
‘You do look beautiful, Blandine,’ she said. ‘It is a bit too much fuss over an aged tutor, isn’t it? Don’t you think? I can have someone run a message out to him before he leaves instead.’
‘I’m not making a fuss,’ Blandine said. ‘I’m going out. Yes, I will see Nicanor to his ship. He’s been very nice to me and I’ve learned a lot from him. I’m sad to see him go. That’s all.’
‘Just think, Elpis, all these beautiful clothes,’ said Blandine’s mother. ‘She’ll ruin them walking around the filthy docks.’ Elpis clenched her hands together and lowered her head rather than do anything which could be taken as agreement either way.
‘Mother, I promise you, if I find a suitor I’ll tell you and father before I ever even speak a word to him. Until then, can I please get dressed in peace?’
‘Of course, I’m not warlike,’ her mother said. Blandine huffed and picked at the velvet jack, looking away. Elpis peeked an eye open to see what had gone by. Blandine’s mother cleared her throat. ‘But you will take a chair out, won’t you?’
‘Yes, mother,’ Blandine said.
‘And you will bring Kasrin along, won’t you?’
Her mother hummed and looked at Blandine and sighed. ‘You do look beautiful, my sweetling.’ With another smile, her mother slipped away. Blandine motioned Elpis to come over and took a seat on a small chair in the middle of the room. Elpis began to tie up the young woman’s hair so that it could be held with strong thread.
For once Blandine was glad that the sky remained clear and cloudless. The heat battered everything, yes, but it meant little would foul up their day. A light breeze wafted through the openings of the sedan chair, brushing her nose. She hoped it blew in a good direction for sailing.
Berhan and Lemuel bore the covered chair from the front and back, balancing it between them on two long poles. She tried not to look too long at Berhan’s excitingly broad shoulders. To her right walked Kasrin, a tall brown woman whose dreadlocked hair was twisted together at the nape of her neck. She wore a hauberk of mail, a tabard of white with the black stallion’s-head of Lucnoss encircled, and a short ‘city sword’ belted at her hip. On Blandine’s left walked Nicanor, a laden satchel strapped across his back and a parasol held high against the sunbeams.
From this short distance it seemed like the dockers carrying heavy bundles this way or dragging ropes in the other were doing so on the surface of the water. Closer still she could hear the feet striking board, then see the wooden walkway that they used. A series of towers overlooked the curving harbor and flying from their tops were banners of the county seal, the horse’s head with blank eyes and stern countenance. Ships with tall masts rocked lightly as the water swam underneath and bobbed when heavy weights were dumped onboard.
‘Here is fine,’ Blandine said. Berhan and Lemuel brought themselves to a stop.
‘Are you sure, honored?’ Kasrin said. ‘There’s no need for you to walk. Your mother wouldn’t—’
‘She probably wouldn’t,’ Blandine said. ‘I’ll get out now.’ The two carriers set the chair down and allowed Blandine to step out. She stretched her legs and patted her skirt to smooth it. She smiled at her teacher. ‘Shall we?’
She and Nicanor walked at the same pace. Kasrin walked several paces behind them and the carriers brought the chair after. Nicanor shifted the parasol, giving up some of himself to the bright heat in order to shade Blandine. The smells of the dock were abominable (fish offal, human waste, rot, slag, and every kind of smell from spice to swineflesh mingling in the air) but she kept her stomach calm. She shouldn’t shy away from such things. They were part of the world and she meant to be part of it, too.
‘I wish you didn’t have to go,’ Blandine said. ‘There’s so much I want to learn.’
‘And you will,’ Nicanor said. ‘You have that spirit.’
‘I wonder if I should watch myself around Berhan,’ Blandine muttered. ‘If the threat of Kossors is enough to actually push you away from here.’ He, like Lemuel and many of the servants, was of Kossor blood; in particular, he was Rutemi, from the Rutah of which Lucnoss was a part. Those few Kossors who remained after the vengeant takeover of the city were of the lower orders. Many came into service of the incoming Sedonian lords. Many continued their work from before, such as loading on the docks. The number of half-vests and flat turbans told her that this was still true.
‘Don’t say that,’ Nicanor said. He looked over his shoulder to see if the carriers had heard. ‘You will be safe here, trust me. And remember that the poet Elnes was a Kossor, and Orsonos the mathematician. They aren’t evil.’
‘Then stay,’ Blandine said.
‘I am not going because of them,’ Nicanor said. ‘I’m going because this peace that we’ve enjoyed is going to be broken soon, not by the Kossors but by the master captains. Can you convince those knights, those zealots, to change what’s in their mind?’
‘I’ll try,’ she said.
Nicanor smiled. ‘If I was to entrust that job to anyone, I would choose you, honored.’
They stopped before a ship that Nicanor examined rapidly. He handed Blandine the parasol and approached it, shading his eyes, taking a moment to decide who was best to talk to.
‘Is this the Traveling Star?’ Nicanor called indiscriminately, in Pystoi to be most widely understood. ‘Captained by a Norian called… Alberto?’
‘Alvarito,’ corrected one of the men, dressed in baggy sailor’s garb. He leaned over the side of the ship. ‘Who are you? The Armadan?’
‘I am. Nicanor, from The City.’
‘Yes, we know about you,’ the man Alvarito said. His speaking rolled in ways not native to the language of old Pystos. ‘Okay, brother Nica, you come on board whenever you like. We want to leave today evening, maybe tomorrow morning, depends on the wind. You come on board after we leave, we pick you up when we get back.’ Someone on the ship laughed.
‘I’ll board shortly,’ Nicanor said. He turned to Blandine and laid a hand on her shoulder. She had understood all they said. Pystoi was the language of learning, so she’d learned to some small degree. Thanks to him. ‘I must go, honored,’ he said to her in the Delquin tongue.
‘You must feel happy to speak your own way again,’ Blandine said in simple but well-formed Pystoi.
Nicanor laughed. ‘Oh, yes,’ still in Delquin. ‘It will be some small comfort.’
Blandine hooked him with both her arms and squeezed his middle. He patted her back to ask for relief she wouldn’t give.
‘I will miss you severely,’ Blandine mumbled against his chest. Now she spoke her own language. How to express sorrow in someone else’s? She didn’t know, so she didn’t try.
‘And I you, honored,’ Nicanor croaked. ‘Never think that I will forget you. Of all my students, you are the jewel.’
She released him somewhat and looked up at him. She bounced up onto her toes and kissed his cheek. He smiled warmly at her.
‘Gods keep you,’ she said. ‘Orline of the scrolls, and Cidas in the sky, and Jory, and Janna and Piros, and all of them.’
‘And heaven preserve you,’ he said. ‘Forever and always.’ He bowed deeply before her, then he kissed her hands, his beard brushing her knuckles. She watched him stand up again, smile at her, watched him turn and walk to the plank and walk up onto the ship. He looked back at her and lifted his hand. She lifted hers. The man Alvarito touched Nicanor on the shoulder to get his attention and Nicanor turned away to speak to him.
Blandine could have sat and stared at the ship whose name she’d forgotten already until it finally pushed out of the harbor and onto the open ocean. She could have waited here, hoped that his mind would change. She checked her eyes for tears and then looked back up at the castle they’d left.
‘Let’s go,’ she said to Kasrin who had been until now standing silently aside from the lordling.
‘Do you want your chair?’ Kasrin asked.
‘No, not now,’ Blandine said. She bunched and lifted her skirts so that they didn’t drag along the ground. ‘I’d like to walk alone a bit.’
So she did, as well as she was able. With Kasrin and Berhan and Lemuel trailing behind she walked inside herself and dreamed that she would meet her teacher again at the end of her road.
Roger rubbed his arms and looked out down the road for the horses and riders which hadn’t yet arrived. The chill he felt was odd. It was a little breeze that slipped underneath his tunic, scored his arms and grazed his ribs. The morning was still ink purple but looking out over the city and the long flat land to the east he saw the energetic red that would begin the day. Which meant it was too early. If Kiril the seneschal found him here he’d get a scolding. If his mother found him, she might even grab hold of his braids. He touched the back of his head to soothe the phantom pain. It was improper for the son of the count to stand freezing like a beggar. But some things had to be done. The two guards on duty would keep their mouths shut for the moment.
The citadel keep which was the only home Roger had ever known sat on a hill overlooking much of the city around them. An expansive yard separated the gray stone walls of the keep from the surrounding walls whose battlements even now had soldiers patrolling with heavy steps and murmuring to one another. Beyond was an absentminded arrangement of roofs and rising trails of dark smoke and wide thoroughfares with fallen horses and shanties sticking out and which disappeared as abruptly as they emerged. Only one such thoroughfare really concerned him, though, and he soon saw what he’d been expecting.
The formidable main gates of the citadel, called the Gate of the Martyrs for the blood that was spilled here during the city’s capture, were pulled open and a troop of knights urged their horses through, climbing the cobblestone path to the citadel itself. The rider in the lead wore a fully black tabard with the three-fingered bolt and he wore no helmet so that his surge of hair stood like a standard. Behind him were six others with the same tabard, the retinue that a knight of his stature was alotted by custom.
Roger hurried to meet the Black Zealots as they rode up the path. Their leader Gavril with his great hair pulled his horse’s reins to slow him down. The others did likewise and Roger came up alongside them.
‘Captain Gavril,’ Roger said. ‘I greet you before the sun does, hoping that the sun will bring you blessings.’
‘And I you,’ Gavril said. ‘But why in the name of the gods are you out here? Sleep, child.’
Roger’s cheeks burned and he was glad that the darkness could hide his scowl. But he let it pass. They could not call him child forever.
‘I come with a request, or an offer,’ Roger said. ‘I offer my service in the field, captain. If you’ll have it.’
‘In the field?’ Gavril turned to another knight to ask: ‘Are we going to the field? I thought we were going to the castle. Unless there’s a battle in the castle that you haven’t told us about, Roger.’
‘I’ve heard things,’ Roger said, ‘and seen things. I know there will be war soon. My place is on the battlefield, defending the land that is mine. It’s my birthright and more than that it’s my duty, one which I’ll swear upon the names of the gods on the day I succeed my father.’
The party had arrived at the castle doors now and grooms hurried out to take the horses. Gavril dismounted and checked his sword at his side. Roger waited while the master captain’s horse was led away, himself on one side and the captain on the other. Gavril looked soberly at the young man. The others stood off just enough that they wouldn’t be taken as eavesdroppers.
‘You’re right, no one can deny you a place on the battlefield,’ Gavril said. ‘Just don’t be so eager to put your life in danger. The Kossors are a fearsome enemy despite their erratic methods. They won’t care that you’re the son of the count.’
‘I can fight,’ Roger said. ‘I’m skilled with the longblade and the shield. I can ride. I can shoot, if I need to.’
‘It’s easy to say all that, but not so easy to survive a battle,’ Gavril said. ‘Whether or not you can do that is something I’ll have to see for myself. But later. I have to prepare for court.’ Gavril gestured to the door guards so they would open the door, then took Roger by the shoulder. ‘You will need to keep in your impulsiveness on the battlefield. Rash movements are certain to get you killed by spear, sword, or arrow-shaft.’
‘Yes, captain,’ Roger said.
They walked into the castle, the high-ceiling entrance corridor reaching out ahead of them with outflows that led away from the castle center.
‘And there’s another thing that’s important for a soldier,’ Gavril said.
Gavril pushed Roger away from him by the shoulder and kept walking.
‘Sleep!’ he called into the air, continuing on his way down the entrance corridor. Some part of Roger wanted to sleep now, just as a favor to Gavril, but the excitement of even that minor acceptance was too much. He turned down the side way, intent on the kitchens.
A bright sun ruled the day and Roger bowed his head before it. Janna whose face was light laid her heat over the city and citadel, making Roger’s breath sit in his lungs. In this country they called the god of the sun Iram. Perhaps this Iram was annoyed that the questers from faraway lands still called upon their distant god to save them. It was the way of the gods sometimes. If Roger had known Iram’s rites he would have considered invoking him. Since he didn’t, he wiped the early sweat from his own face and carried on into the courtyard with the heat draped over him like a cloak of lead.
He had his sword belted at his left hip and wore his arming doublet unstrapped, fit for practice. A Black Zealot had found him an hour ago and summoned him for a demonstration. It wasn’t likely that Roger would need his sword but a knight’s proper manner was to show their station by it. This would be before the master captain. Propriety was due.
Some servants traveled from one modest outbuilding to another, toting sacks some, hurrying others, and still others idling though sparing a nod or a bow for the passing lord. Long and open stables marked what was called the rear of the citadel, just over it being the high double walls which ringed first the citadel and then the quarter of Lucnoss called the Old City. Between the horse-hall and the keep was a broad field which on holy days would host games and dances for the castle population. Now a small group of children pushed along a hoop with a stick. Near to the stables stood another group, these all adults, ranged around a wooden post as high as Roger’s collar. Most wore only their light tunics and trousers, but folded on the ground in the naked dirt Roger saw the three-fingered bolt.
‘So you’ve come, my young lord,’ called Gavril. His tunic clung tight to his muscular frame due to sweat, both from the heat and from the exercise. Another knight stood at the wooden pell, keeping his shield high between striking the pell with a sturdy stick-sword, each crack splitting the sound of laughter and horses whickering into clean portions.
‘Yes, captain,’ Roger said. He bowed at the shoulder, hands firmly at his sides.
‘Brought a new blade for me, have you?’
‘Ah. No, captain. It’s mine.’
Gavril shook his head and smiled. ‘Let me have a look at it.’
Slowly, Roger undid his sword-belt, letting his tunic hang more loosely. He extended the blade pommel-first to Gavril who drew it quickly and held it so he could examine it, touching the blade with gloved hand and turning it over carefully. It was a well-made sword, bladed fore and back, a deep and precise fuller running from hilt up past its half, a crossguard with simple spherical ends and a pommel the same. The leather wrapping the hilt and the brightness of the blade were the newest parts. No one would give the count’s son an unclean sword.
‘A very good weapon,’ Gavril said. ‘From the West Marches, I think. You know whose sword this was?’
‘Urien,’ Roger said. ‘He fought alongside Tarquin the White in the First Quest. My father told me about it.’
‘Right alongside him,’ Gavril said. ‘He was the greatest of Tarquin’s household guard that followed him from Dalcusa. He was killed at Nurennos, where Tarquin was captured, but Urien’s body was brought back. Some said that the loss of such a splendid warrior was greater than the loss of… well.’ He tapped the wrapped hilt. ‘And you know what’s under this?’
Tarquin of Ardule, then duke of Dalcusa, had been called ‘the White’ because of his mercilessness, his shining pride which blinded him to everything else. He was known as a man who waded in blood with a song in his heart. Urien, his right hand, his hound, had this sword made on the eve of their departure for the Vengeant Quest. As a secret seal he’d had the hilt engraved to show his station, a white hound which lay beneath the leather. After the Battle of Nurennos, the sword had gone to Tarquin’s son Tolinder and had remained in the Lucnoss armory until Roger requested a blade of his own.
‘A very good sword,’ Gavril said. He nodded at Roger’s hand and Roger held up the scabbard. Gavril aimed carefully, then in a single motion re-sheathed the sword. ‘You won’t need it now, so set it down there with our things.’ As Roger went away, Gavril barked out orders to the others, making room for Roger to have his trial. The lord came back and was given use of a wooden sword and a shield. The sword-stick was lighter than his sword but not so greatly. He tested it with light swings, feeling how it tugged at his wrist and weighted him at the elbow.
‘Whenever you like,’ Gavril said.
Roger positioned himself stoutly: feet square, shield balanced in front, sword-arm flexible and ready, jaw set. He began, an outside swing from the right which smacked the pell loudly, and drew himself into his stance. He struck it again in the same way, bringing himself back when he was finished, evening his breathing. He struck it again. The cloak of heat hung heavier with every strike and he could feel the sweat rising up all over his skin. He struck it again. His feet shifted, forward and back, powering every strike, basing himself strongly again.
Two in succession, a crack and its twin, from the outside and from in, and then returned. Again he stepped in, slashed from the outside, cut from the inside, set. Each attack was fluid, not beating the pell but hitting and drawing his weapon along it as though he were slicing open flesh. His attacks were swift so that he barely had time to breathe between them. He would take a short gulp of air and then spring forward again, to slash, to backslash, and to balance.
From the outside, from the inside, and now he threw his left shoulder forward to smash the pell with his shield. He did it again. He moved so quickly that even the added motion didn’t seem to make the exercise longer. Three distinct beats, two sharp and one dense, and so loud that nothing could get between them. He sprang from the balls of his feet, pushed forward so that every strike would hit the pell squarely.
Strike, in, shield, pommel to the top of the pell. Once more, with great speed, with sweat now sticking his tunic against his body, pouring away from him. Once more. His right arm pulsed, his left arm tensed, he didn’t stop. He had only to attack the pell. He did so with fury.
Outside strike, inside strike, shield rush, pommel strike, shield strike as the edge of the shield cracked the pell. He felt his ribs as he breathed. Outside, inside, shield, pommel, shield.
Now a low slash. Outside, inside, grunt, shield, gasp, pommel, shield, groan, slash. He took only a breath.
Outside, inside, shield, pommel, shield, slash, shield. Breath. He started again.
Outside, inside, shield, pommel, shield, slash, shield, pommel.
‘Good,’ Gavril said. Roger’s arms hung as if he held them by strings. He panted desperately for air he’d forbidden from his lungs throughout the exercise. He could read smirks on the faces of some zealots but sweat got into his eyes and he had to wipe it away.
‘Alright, Myrrine,’ Gavril said. A woman with hair hair braided long and a scar running across her collarbone stepped forward. She was armed like Roger, sword-stick and shield, and like Roger her brown skin shone with perspiration. She didn’t gasp like Roger did, though. She held her sword and shield up at the ready while Roger had to drag his along.
Myrrine approached swiftly, shield ready. Roger forced his arms to swing, wildly hacking the air with his sword-stick and forcing her to keep her distance. Finally he got his shield up, fighting against its inordinate gravity. Myrrine’s first attack hit Roger’s shield and felt like it’d pull his shoulder out of the socket. Her second sent Roger horribly off balance, staggering away until he roughly spun around and found his feet. She advanced again, shield high. With her whole arm and body she swung out her sword to knock Roger to the ground. At that moment, Roger ducked, then surged ahead and shoulder-shoved her at the hip, throwing her into a sprawl onto the dirt while he tried to regain his balance. Myrrine sprang back to her feet before Roger had finished his second stumble and readied herself again.
‘That’s it, Myrrine,’ Gavril announced. ‘You know the rule: hit the ground and you’re dead.’ Myrrine cast an evil look at Roger who was far too busy filling his lungs to notice. ‘Battle has no mercy, remember that. Joaquim, go ahead.’
Another one. Roger breathed shuddering breaths and tried to keep himself still. Joaquim was taller both Myrrine and Roger, with a face that showed great experience. That rule still echoed in Roger’s head. He didn’t need to worry about his form or about delivering a strong stroke. He only needed to bring this big bastard to the ground first.
Joaquim did not set his shield in place. He walked casually toward Roger, an approach that made Roger walk backwards. The heat crushed Roger’s lungs. It taxed his arms. Sighing and tired, he pitched his sword-stick onto the ground in front of him. Joaquim looked curiously at the gesture. Roger suddenly launched his whole body forward, his shield high as he leapt at the distracted Joaquim and then hit the dirt with a violent thud. Joaquim had moved out of the way. Roger could hear his chuckling for the brief moment before his own low baying filled his ears. His chest and arm throbbed with agony and he quickly worked to free himself of the shield so he could hold himself.
Roger cried out when his arm was yanked to a side. Gavril squatted next to him now, rough hands pressing on Roger’s arm.
‘It’s not broken,’ Gavril said. ‘You’ll mend.’ Gavril stood up and extended his left hand. Roger took hold with his own left, his shield-arm. He had to. When Gavril pulled, pain shot through that just injured arm. Still, Roger pulled as well, gritting his teeth, shifting his feet to get them under him so that he could stand again. Gavril patted the aching shoulder. ‘You overwork yourself. But you were right, young lord.’
‘Captain?’ Roger said.
‘What you said to me before. You do have a place on the battlefield.’
Roger bowed to hide his smile.
‘Thank you, captain.’
Meleager count of Lucnoss, second of his name, was not an old man but he seemed frail. His study had become a sanctuary, a place apart from the court and from his family. The bound books on his shelves were mostly records from his father’s and grandfather’s time, and from his. Light rayed in from a small window near the ceiling. On the left-hand wall a tapestry showing the Tarquinlings, Tolinder in front with his long braids and Teia behind, with a small image of Tarquin himself floating up to heaven. Its sister piece had been at Firtis where Teia had been count, but after that city fell its fate was lost. Truthfully, Meleager had never liked to look at this weaving, but it was of his heritage so he couldn’t dispose of it. Having nowhere else to put it he’d hung it here. It used to be the room he visited least.
The count lifted his silver cup and Kiril filled it with dark wine. Meleager gestured gratefully, then tipped the cup at his lips and drank. A candleflame stood still atop its wax, a golden dish between it and the desk. Pia, her dark skin offset by the soft yellow silk she wore, moved in behind Kiril and touched his arm. He turned and opened his mouth but she pressed a finger to hers, then took the pitcher of wine from him and with a wave of the hand dismissed him. Kiril hesitated for a moment, looking to the count who didn’t look back, then shuffled away without a sound.
‘Wine,’ Meleager said when he’d drained his cup.
‘Of course,’ Pia said.
Meleager looked up, his eyes wide for a moment. He let her pour for him. He took a deep drink. Pia then took the cup from him and took a drink of her own. She idly studied the liquid that remained.
‘I assume you’re pleased about how court went,’ Meleager said.
‘I hope I said nothing out of order,’ Pia said.
‘Telling the master captains that we must stay out of war is impossible,’ Meleager said. He held his hand toward Pia, fingers spread to accept the goblet, but she acted as though she hadn’t seen it. ‘I only wish they would understand. How can they? How can you, even? I can see it. War will ruin us. It is so clear to me. But I can’t make them see it.’
‘We are in a dangerous position,’ Pia said. ‘Even Janneke admitted that we would not be able to hold the city against a concentrated attack. We would have to fight eventually.’
‘Janneke,’ Meleager said bloodily. ‘I’d counted on her to help me hold the captains off. Instead she supports this idiotic plan for the zealots. So if they want to go, let them. I can’t rein them in forever.’
‘But you won’t just let them go, will you?’ Pia said. ‘You will aid them.’
‘I will not. Their plan has called for the zealots alone to take this tower of Nitraj. That is what I agreed to.’
‘What about Krasimir, who supports them?’
‘Krasimir supported their plan,’ Meleager said. ‘We made no arrangements for him to march out with the city’s defenders. With the zealots gone, we cannot spare these soldiers.’
Pia began to drink and emptied the cup as Meleager finished speaking.
‘Husband,’ she said, setting the cup down. Meleager took it and Pia grabbed the pitcher. She ignored his scowl. ‘If the zealots go and they are crushed, we will be much weaker here. That must be more likely if fewer soldiers go with them. If this attack succeeds, we will be stronger. You must either help them or not allow them to go at all.’
‘And if they all go and are crushed?’ Meleager said, waggling the cup at Pia. ‘What is to stop this trap we are locked in from destroying us then?’
‘Have more faith in our magicians and our gods,’ Pia said.
‘There is other wine in the keep,’ Meleager said. He set the cup down. ‘Don’t think you have me hostage.’
‘I don’t,’ Pia said. She poured again. Before he could take the cup, she lifted it and drank. ‘The Kossors do.’
A steady meter, beating true, without variation was the style of Prochorus of Terenos. The tale of Cleon, heaven cursed, on his journey east into the long-lived realm known then as Malgarya. Three promises he made to the gods above the clouds. To let him live and lead so his people might fight on. Youthful Blandine read all aloud, picking her way carefully in this old language living on in ink. Her mother had a jeweler’s eye, watching that her daughter saw with fascination these heroic deeds. For if Cleon had never lived, there would not have been a great City with which to civilize the world.
The journeys of Cleon the mad, despite their age did not interest Blandine at all. How could she tell her mouther, though? Everything had been fought out before. The classic works were important as her mother had said then and would say again. The old masters were best. They would show her the world as it really was. He, by which she meant Nicanor, had done well in teaching Blandine how to read Pystoi. But Nicanor had still failed. He hadn’t introduced Blandine to the true literature she should know.
Education was a matter of knowing these true works because culture depended on it. To see that some rich lord decked himself in rosethorns without roses and to know he referenced the poet Cariton. The Journey of Cleon was essential. And in it, unlike in whatever Latter Armadan nonsense Nicanor had filled her with, was the character of Arma and of these people, the Rutemi and the Malgars, who Cleon had warred against in his time as well. To read the works of Prochorus, and of Kallistrate of Phoros, and Cariton, was to know the spirit that moved each race in a way that had been forgotten in these times.
Never mind that, if these classics were being studied so regularly, then this spiritual understanding couldn’t have been lost. Never mind the question of how the chamber poetry of Roxana was less instructive than a story of a cursed man slaying a six-headed lion. Now Blandine missed Nicanor more dearly than before. But persevere, he’d told her. Keep strong. There may be something to learn from even this dullness. So Blandine did not complain overmuch. She read. Once wed, which was her destiny, life would scheme to keep her locked inside the walls of some manor or keep. The key to freedom, she could see, hid in caves and frigid waters only tutored minds would dare to go.
The Black Zealots had chosen a large stone manor within the city proper to be their headquarters, the Prefecture of the Servants of Casoria, just after the city was taken. Minor expansions and improvements made it a keep nearly as strong as the citadel itself. It, like that central point, also had a broad yard which could accommodate teams of domestics if needed. At the moment that yard was clear of lesser servants so that the greater ones, the zealots, could perform their exercises.
If Roger was the youngest among them, he wasn’t eager to find out. It would only twist his stomach tighter. He did not wear the three-fingered bolt like the others did. The hauberk that draped from his shoulders hung heavily, the weight unfamiliar to him who typically exercised in a leather doublet. Sweat rolled down his cheeks, from the heat, the weight, the effort of keeping the lance held high. Underneath him stood his horse, a compact and powerful mount which seemed only to keep still when he pressed with his knees just so. Roger needed his horse to keep still, so his legs remained tense.
To either side of him were zealots, lances held at the same angle as his, horses kept just barely in check. Behind him there were others, and also in front. The spears danced lightly but if one was about to strike another it was pulled away and into good position. They were formed eight broad and nine deep, packed tight so that elbows and lance-ends scraped against thighs and sides and horse flanks.
‘Forward!’ called out Gavril. He rode along the side of the formation, watching as it got into motion. Roger pressed his heels against his horse’s sides to get him moving, but not too hard so that the horse wouldn’t bolt. Awareness and patience were key here. He did not push himself to leap into action, he moved with the group and waited until he was needed.
‘Back!’ Gavril cried. Roger tugged on his horse’s reins, encouraging it to step backwards which it did, the zealots doing the same but with greater ease.
‘Forward-left cross!’ Gavril called. This was tricky. Firstly, forward diagonal motion was against a horse’s instincts. The horse preferred to turn its body, Roger could feel it, but he held the reins and used his knees to make it face ahead while gradually shifting left. The formation got loose here and Gavril howled at them to form up. Roger found it difficult to keep his horse moving while also holding up the lance and making sure that he was formed up. He kept working, trying to ignore his body heating up and his muscles beginning to ache. No matter what else, he would not give up today.
At the rear entrance to the Prefecture, the door which opened out onto the yard, stood a zealot in his black tabard and Kiril, seneschal of the castle. Kiril saw that one of the riders was not in a black tabard. He rubbed his jaw when told by his escort who the strange soldier was.
The double doors opened and Roger, son of Meleager and Pia, heir presumptive to the county of Lucnoss, stepped into his father’s hall alone. The full court was assembled, the courtiers in fine clothing and the servants in their livery lining the walls, the dais upon which stood Kiril the seneschal and Zora the magister and sat his mother in her curule chair and in his throne his father the count. He stared longer than he should have at his sister, sat beside their mother in a smaller and plainer version of that curule chair. They would experience their first court from opposing sides.
Roger, on the advice of his servant Myron, wore a velvet robe of blue trimmed with gold and silver, and had his waist belted in simple white cord like a sinner. He did not wear his sword, though he had a right to do so. The reason he’d been summoned in such an imperious manner was a mystery to him but Myron had made sense: best not to take chances.
He strode along the geometried rug toward the dais. Against the walls he saw Janneke and Krasimir, Alexandar, Voyka with her leather book. When Roger saw Zora’s upturned hand he stopped. With words and hands she worked her wards, drawing upon the powers of immortal spirits and weaving them invisibly into a true protection. Roger, standing below the dais, did not feel the magic washing over him.
His father shifted upward in his seat and he rubbed his upper lip. His mother leaned over to whisper something to Blandine. Roger knelt before them and touched his heart with his right hand.
‘My lords, I answer your summons,’ Roger said.
‘On your feet,’ his father said, voice tired.
‘It seems that you wish to call yourself a knight,’ said the count.
‘I do,’ Roger said. ‘A defender of this realm on the field of battle.’
‘I can remember you when you were tripping on your own gown,’ his father laughed. ‘I can remember you screaming for your nanny when you’d scrape your elbow.’ Laughter bubbled over from several mouths. Roger set his jaw and kept himself from quaking.
‘We were all children before we grew,’ Roger said.
‘And then, what? When did you grow and I’ve missed it? Wife?’
Roger’s mother smiled thinly at him. ‘He is taller now. And broader.’
‘But as much a child,’ his father said. There was more laughter.
‘I am not a child,’ Roger said.
‘You are a child. You are my child. You will remain so until I say otherwise. Further, you will not venture beyond the walls of this castle until I say otherwise.’
‘Father, my lord,’ Roger stammered. He wanted to scream. Not leave the citadel? Not even step foot into the city? He forced his eyes shut, then opened them again. ‘My lord, it is my duty to defend and preserve this land. I cannot do that by being… by being restrained here.’
‘But you wish to do that by killing yourself, instead, is that right?’
‘I am aware that you exercised with the Black Zealots. Whether they hope to recruit you or simply use you, I do not know. What they have told you about our county and the lands of the Kossors, I do not know. I don’t wish to know. But you will not die with them.’
‘Father.’ Roger said, but there was no point. The fact that his father knew about his drills with the Zealots told him that there would be no appeal. For the first time he realized that the master captains, reliable attendants of the count’s court, were not here. Who else would speak up for him? His mother and sister spoke only to one another.
‘You will stay within these walls until I decide that you may leave them again,’ said the count. ‘Do you understand me? I will not have my son sacrifice himself on the altar of glory. Cidas the sky-father hates selfishness of your kind. You may care nothing for this dynasty but I care. It is my duty to preserve it and so I will.’
Roger exhaled slowly and tried to make his breath carry all his frustration. There was too much to dispel at once. He quickly knelt down and touched his heart again.
‘Yes, my lord,’ he said.
His father raised his cup so that Kiril could pour him wine. ‘You may stay if you wish,’ said his father. ‘There is some other business to attend to and you may learn something.’
‘I would rather leave you to handle it, father,’ Roger said. ‘If it pleases you.’
The count waved his hand, then gestured at Kiril to stop pouring. Roger pushed himself up and spun around on his heel, walking quickly out of the hall and taking care not to look at anyone.
After the court’s expenses were read out and delegated, after sundry disputes throughout the city and the county had been heard and decided, the court began its procession outward. Blandine found the whole thing strangely exhausting. If not for her mother she might have been reading, or walking in the yard, but her mother had insisted this would be good for her. She couldn’t see how.
Blandine almost rose but her mother touched her shoulder to stop her.
‘What did you see today?’ her mother asked. ‘In your brother.’
‘I don’t know,’ Blandine said. ‘He was saddened that father made his decision, certainly.’
‘Saddened, yes,’ her mother said. ‘But think. I told you not to go see your tutor to the docks, yet you did. Would you have refused me if I’d brought you before the court? Would your heart have let you take that decision even so?’
Her mother stood up and so Blandine stood up.
‘I don’t know,’ Blandine said.
It was an earnest statement.
Fury. No matter what lay before him on his march, all Roger saw reminded him of his fury. The walls themselves, every stone, owned by his father. And he inside owned by his father. He climbed stairs and nearly upended a pair of servants. They were creatures of his father. He owed them no apology.
In front of the entire court his father had dragged him and whipped him. In front of his own sister. Somehow he restrained himself from pulling down candlestands or smashing a chair into splinters. He didn’t even yell. Instead he burst into his room and took his sword, then hurried out with it. There was no use belting it. He wasn’t going far.
Heat gripped him all over but he walked intently across the yard, squinting as the sun made the world glow. Roger drew his sword from its scabbard. In his sight was the pell. Waiting. His blade caught the sunlight and threw a flash into his eyes but he didn’t even pause. He knew what he meant to do. He would attack until he was tired. He would waste this fury, unseemly for the son of a count, and clear his mind to think.
‘My young lord, I hope you aren’t going to ruin the blade of Urien’s sword.’
Now Roger did pause. He withstood his own indignation so that when he turned it would be slow and seem casual. Gavril with his wide hair and the three-fingered bolt on his black tabard approached.
‘Captain,’ Roger said with a slight bow. ‘I only thought… the blade must be sturdy enough.’
‘That blade will hold,’ Gavril said, ‘but the more you beat it the worse it will be. A dull and warped blade cannot kill anyone.’
Roger bowed again, deeper. He sheathed the sword.
‘I understand, though,’ the captain continued. ‘It is difficult to be told your rights mean nothing.’
Roger gawped. ‘I—but—you know about that already? But you weren’t at court!’
‘I wasn’t, and I’m not there now. I got a messenger from the count last evening telling me that I would not be required at court today, which is to say that I wasn’t wanted. Gonsalo got a similar message. You, however, were specifically summoned. That told me enough. You needing to hear something that we were supposed not to hear? He had to be pulling you away from us.’
‘I’ve been forbidden to leave the citadel,’ Roger said. ‘That’s what he said.’
Roger sat with his back against the pell. He leaned his scabbarded sword against his knee.
‘Regardless,’ said Gavril, ‘I’ll leave a set of armor where I said I would. If, for some reason, you can find it of use on the appointed day, it will be there for you.’
Roger looked up. He wanted to thank the captain in so many ways that he couldn’t choose. Finally he swallowed it.
‘I could use more armor,’ Roger said. ‘Or, I know of those who could.’
‘We do not have enough to outfit every pup you’re friends with, honored,’ Gavril said. ‘A set of armor for you, yes. For others, untested, I don’t think so.’
‘They can fight and they can ride,’ Roger said. ‘And they’ll do whatever else is required. As will I.’ Roger got up and brushed his gown clean. ‘We are ready.’
Gavril studied the countours in Roger’s young face, the set of his jaw and his mouth, the flare of his nose, the furrow in his brow. The captain exhaled.
‘What can be found will be found,’ Gavril said. ‘I hope your friends know that this is a deadly mission.’
Gavril patted Roger’s elbow and nodded to the sword. ‘Get yourself a stick-sword, you should know better,’ Gavril said. ‘You’ll need the Hound’s blade full sharp whenever you first see the field. We’ll speak later, my young lord. I suppose I’d better present myself as a petitioner. The count may not wish to speak to me but I need to see him.’
Gavril of the Black Zealots bowed low and Roger returned it from the shoulder. The others would have to be told. Somehow. His mind traveled to the small purse of coins he’d saved. Hopefully he wouldn’t have to take too much out.
There was not as much space inside these saddlebags as Roger would have liked, but he didn’t want to complain later so he set to wedging his extra clothing inside. Particularly important was his tabard, argent and blazoned with the white lily of Lucnoss bordered in red. Kossors, he knew, would not likely respect the lineage he showed on his chest. Still, he wouldn’t hide. If they wanted to kill the son of a count, let them know that they were doing it.
Roger paused at that thought and had to gather himself again.
His sword, owned first by Urien the Hound, was laid upon his bed. He wondered if the sword might by chance be attuned to this sort of warfare, if it could find his targets by some spirit that had animated itself in the steel. Most likely he would not draw it. Whichever lance he was given would be his tool.
There was a tapping at his door. Quickly, he tossed the saddlebag onto the bed and flung his sheets over the bag and sword. Roger expected Myron, even though he’d told the man to be elsewhere, so he was surprised to see his sister in the doorway.
‘Hello, Roger,’ said Blandine.
‘It’s late, you know,’ Roger said. ‘You should be getting ready for bed.’
‘You don’t look like you’re going to sleep,’ she said. She was dressed in a purplish shift that hung loose. He was in a belted tunic, trousers, and boots.
‘I’m trying to get used to constant readiness,’ Roger said. ‘I’ll sleep in these tonight.’
It approached the truth but Blandine didn’t look convinced. She studied the lump in his bed.
‘What is that?’ she asked.
‘Sheets,’ Roger said but Blandine was already moving, already lifting up the sheet.
‘That sword,’ she said.
‘Roger… I know what you must be thinking.’ Blandine gripped her own hands. ‘I know what you want to do. But please. Please don’t go.’
‘Go where?’ Roger said.
She lifted the sheet away even further to reveal his saddlebags and she sighed heavily.
‘I just don’t want anything to happen to you,’ she said. ‘Please.’
‘Sister, I don’t know what you’ve got in your head,’ Roger said.
‘You’re going to ride out with the zealots. I know that’s what you’re planning.’
‘How do you figure that?’
‘I’m your sister,’ said Blandine. ‘I know you.’
‘Then you should know that I’m not about to go get killed for nothing. Don’t worry. Tomorrow you’ll see me early, as usual. Don’t think I won’t tease you for being jumpy, either.’
Blandine smiled and blushed and shook her head. Roger took the sheet from her and drew it back over his equipment. As quickly as her face had glowed it now turned to coals which burned with a different light.
‘Gods keep you, brother,’ Blandine said.
‘And you. Sleep well.’
Blandine hovered for a moment, then withdrew and pushed the door closed. Roger pulled the sheet back again and resumed packing. He wouldn’t be late.
The night guards each had a silver coin to keep them quiet. The stablehands had been more difficult, not only needing the silver but also profuse assurances that they wouldn’t be in trouble from the count. Knowing the servants’ passageways, Roger managed to get out of the keep without being seen by more than a rheumy eye. In the courtyard he saw the shapes of his companions – Nevena and Jason, Terko and Stoyan and Benedito – loitering together. Speaking only in low voices, they retrieved their horses from the stables and walked them out of the Gate of Clouds with a bit more silver to make sure the guards swallowed what they’d seen.
The party of six walked their horses through the streets of the city, seeing only by starlight and the very few fires kept going. Only after they’d put the citadel walls several yards behind them did Benedito fish out a little torch and light it. They slowly picked their way toward the Black Prefecture so they could retrieve their armor. Each had a shirt of mail, though only Roger and Nevena got breastplates and the distribution of helmets was uneven in quality. They armed themselves as best they could, then left the Prefecture and took the long road out of the city.
Only now, at the city’s skirt, did they mount up and heel their horses into a quick trot. The rest of the force had left in the morning but, being so large a group, would drag more slowly than the six swift and eager riders. They’d catch up. Roger was sure of it.
When finally dark blues crept up against the black of night, Roger could see the dirt clinging to his own trousers and running all the way up the legs of his horse. They’d ridden hard through the night, Benedito’s reckoning of the stars keeping them on a vague course. Unless they saw a fire it would be impossible to actually find the camp. So they rode slightly east of north into the morning. Only now that the darkness waned could they see the shapes of walkers and riders and carts in a long and loose train. Roger heeled his horse in that direction and his companions followed.
No one hailed them as they rode in among the camp followers. Most this far back were bringing baskets, toting or dragging them, clothes filthy from their drudge. Terko hacked loudly and spat, a hand against his nose. Roger wasn’t pleased with the smell of this train either. He imagined most of the attendants had been little washed before they were summoned for this trip. That and the shit of many horses, and whatever was used to clean clothes and armor. He touched his nose briefly but pulled his hand away. This was the smell of a camp on the move. He had to be used to it.
Stoyan rode up beside Roger and asked: ‘So what now?’
‘I’d better find Captain Gavril,’ Roger said. ‘So he’ll know I’ve arrived.’
‘And where’s he likely to be?’ Nevena asked, flanking Roger on the other side.
‘No idea,’ Roger said.
‘Hopefully not far,’ Terko grumbled. He spat again into the earth well churned by the marchers ahead.
‘You, man,’ Benedito said to a man with a heavy sack strapped across his back. ‘What’s going on here?’
‘We’re walking, as you see,’ the man said.
‘How far is it to Nitraj?’ Benedito asked.
‘Oh, I don’t know, I’m just doing as I’m told.’
‘Tomorrow, they say,’ said a woman with a covered wicker basket under her arm. Her sleeves were rolled back and her forearms were filthy. ‘We’ll be there tomorrow.’
‘And where will I find the captains?’ Roger asked her. ‘Do you know?’
‘Somewhere up ahead,’ said she. ‘Up with the fighters.’
‘Ai,’ Jason groaned. ‘I’m not looking forward to more of a ride.’ The others seemed to have the same idea. Truthfully, Roger’s thighs and crotch would have thanked him for a break from the saddle. But he refused it. He didn’t want to waste time, or for Gavril to think that he’d been too afraid of his father to come.
‘I’ll go,’ Roger said. ‘The rest of you stay around here so I can find you when I get back.’
He opened his saddle bag and pulled at its insides until he came up with his argent tabard and, with Stoyan’s help, slipped it over his head so that the lily of Lucnoss sat over his chest. Waving to his companions, he set his horse off toward the head of the line. The irregular spread of camp followers was lightly defended by a few riders along the edges. Roger worked around the carts that were being pulled along. No one seemed eager to make way for him but he rarely let it bother him, simply pulling around them and continuing on.
Never before had Roger seen an arcanum but one rolled just ahead of him now, as majestic as he had imagined it to be. It was a large wagon nearly twice as wide as it was long, lacquered in sacred black and adorned by symbols traced in thin silver. Even the wheels were black and as the climbing sun touched them it showed the permanent wards etched into their surface and spokes. Three masts stood high from the deck of the arcanum, bare and black now, made to hold symbols of the gods and invoke their protection for the army. Riding alongside it, Roger could see the altar on its top, the surface smooth and black, red cloth covering its sides. He bowed his head in respect for those who dwelt in heaven and then moved on.
There was a slight pain in Roger’s lower ribs that he could not place in his memory. He could feel every lift and fall of the ground underneath his horse’s feet. Past the arcanum was the rear guard of the army, marching in a far more solid formation than the camp followers had. Like the others, they were not eager to let him through, but these soldiers actually raised a fuss. Infantry pressed their shoulders together and muttered curses under their breath. The few riders Roger saw back this far cast stony looks that Roger thought it best to escape from. Always he kept his eyes open for the master captains but he saw not a sign of them.
The Black Zealots marched together near the middle of the army. Some of these did recognize him but none were particularly friendly as he sidled up to their group. Soon enough he was told that both Gavril and Gonsalo were up ahead inspecting the force, or out with the scout troop, or helping to procure supplies. No one had a definite idea except that they hadn’t been seen in some time. Disappointed, Roger turned his horse back and forded the trudging legion to find his companions.
‘We’ll just end up at the rear, doing nothing,’ Benedito said after Roger had returned. He, Nevena, Jason, and Terko had dismounted while Stoyan actually mounted up again to greet Roger. ‘I bet that’s what the captains would have told you.’
‘Probably,’ Roger said. The pain in his ribs was hunger, he’d decided. He had stowed a few flat rolls before riding out. He reached for his saddlebag but saw that his hand was dirty.
‘We could move ahead,’ Stoyan said. ‘At least come up to the rear guard, have a chance of being in place.’
‘There’s no rush,’ Jason said. ‘We’ll be at the town tomorrow. We can always move up later. Right now I honestly wish I could lie down right here.’
Roger wiped his hand several times on his hip, then he took out a roll and bit into it. When he chewed he could feel a little sting in his ribs. His face soured. He could taste mud. His hand was still smeared with dirt. He spat the bread out, then wanted to scrape his tongue but thought better of it. He took another bite, careful not to put his fingers anywhere near the portion he meant to eat. The pain wasn’t hunger but he kept eating anyway.
They kept on the march as the sky brightened and the shining face of Janna soared to oversee the world. Rest wouldn’t come soon. Roger had found that the army had only started moving an hour or so before he and his arrived. They meant to march until dusk, leaving them in a strong position to storm Nitraj in the morning. Roger decided he’d take that opportunity to find Gavril. He had dismounted by the time the sun began its dive. His horse needed rest. The smell of the army still bothered him but it was only a bother by now. He sighed heavily, dragging his foot out of the softened dirt again, deciding against using his hand to wipe down his trousers.
‘I think something’s going on,’ said Benedito. Janna dreamed of blood, the priests said, and so the clear blue of day became a spreading redness from the sky’s edge as the day drew to its close. For some time Roger had been inwardly sure they were slowing down but he couldn’t place it. Now he tried to stand up taller as if that would help him see past the endless heads and helmets before him. He laid a hand on his saddle, ready to spring up. Electricity ran through him, dulled somewhat from fatigue but still hot, still live.
‘Hey!’ Benedito cried. ‘Come back here!’ Roger whipped his head around and saw a pair of lightly armed men hustling in the opposite direction of the march. Benedito stared after them but didn’t try to catch them.
‘That’s the third one I’ve seen,’ Terko said.
‘The third?’ Roger said. ‘And you didn’t say anything?’
‘I didn’t think anything of it.’
‘It’s battle,’ Benedito said. ‘It must be. There are always a few who cut and run at the beginning.’
‘We weren’t supposed to fight until tomorrow,’ Roger said.
‘Seems we’ve been stopped short,’ Benedito said.
This was not good. Roger had never before been in battle but he knew that a plan going awry was not good. Quickly, Roger vaulted up onto his horse’s back, and his friends all did the same. Chatter had grown among the camp followers and few were walking with any speed. The gap from the attendants to the arcanum grew longer, a minute’s gallop standing between them now, the distance widening. The mass of people ahead were in fact spreading out in their separate clusters, finding their position. What lay beyond he couldn’t see. A horde of Kossor riders each launching a hundred arrows. A phalanx mounted and armored in silver. Roger felt his jaw quivering. His hand tightened on the reins.
Something smacked the air and Roger spun to try and find it. There was another, and then a scream. A young man stumbled forward and pitched to the ground, landing on all fours. An arrow shaft stuck out from just under his right breast. He collapsed.
‘They’re on us,’ Benedito said.
‘Where?’ Nevena cried out.
A shadow brushed across the edge of Roger’s vision. He turned and stared. An arrow cut the air over his head.
‘There!’ he cried.
How many there were he couldn’t tell. At least a dozen, possibly twice that. They charged full tilt, leaning low over the necks of their steeds. Roger had heard that the Kossor riders whispered words of worship into the ears of their horses, telling the horse that they were of the same spirit, urging the horse on with magic. He drew a breath slowly, then ripped his sword free of the scabbard.
‘Form up, quickly!’ Roger cried. He reached behind him and unbuckled the shield from his saddle. Arrows continued to slice into the supply camp, sending many scattering, many others retreating inside themselves. The screams of humans and horses shot up loudly, then stretched until another overlaid it, and the urgency of each became confused with the rest.
‘You’re insane,’ Stoyan said next to him. Stoyan held his shield high against the arrows.
‘We’ve got to stay,’ Roger said. ‘They’ll slaughter the camp.’
‘I didn’t say I was going,’ Stoyan said.
Roger glanced around. He saw Stoyan of course, and Benedito, and Nevena, and Jason, and Terko. Several of the riding guards who before now had been in disarray also came up. He could see the nerves on them. He lived in his own. He wanted to say a thousand things. One of the guards gasped as his horse sank underneath him, an arrow swathed in erupting blood buried in its throat. A pair of attendants hurried forward to try and free him from the downed horse. There was time for one thing, if that.
‘Together!’ Roger howled. ‘For the Emperor!’
Roger only knew of the Emperor vaguely, a name in the long histories his uncles used to tell, but as a cry for battle that name brought out the instinct in all of them to draw their weapons and drive their horses into the galloping storm of Kossor arrows.
The brace that Roger led loosened up with each yard they covered. There was no discipline in it. Roger wanted to forget the others, to see one of these Kossors as the pell or as the rings which he had run before with the sword. He couldn’t. He was in command. He had to hear their hooves, their breathing, their panic. And he couldn’t lose himself in them. Stoyan and Nevena kept close, and Benedito rode well. Arrows continually hissed in the air.
‘Keep together!’ Roger yelled. ‘Together!’
He could feel them close, the dirt being kicked up, the dust that rose above it, his compatriots riding hard with steel unleashed. Before them the Kossors charged in, now coming head on at Roger and his riders. He kept his shield up before his chest, his sword primed at his side, ready to beat an attack and deliver one of his own. The ache which had returned in his legs was drowned by battle-thrill which threatened to send him into tears. Another rider went down; he felt the loss more than heard it, though by now his senses were so overwhelmed that they ran together.
There was a chirp from a bird. Not a bird. He saw no bird. A whistle. The scrape of steel? A signal.
‘With me!’ Roger howled. He leaned low over his horse’s neck and booted it cruelly in the ribs. He needed speed. The horse complied. He gradually leaned his course to the left. The Kossors swung harder but through some god’s providence Roger had guessed the direction correct. Nevena was just behind Roger and the cobbled-together group found itself charging almost to the rear of the Kossor force. A vision of a marvelous charge into their group, Roger leading a flawless destruction of the enemy which crumpled helplessly at his touch, swam before Roger’s eyes. A chirp. He saw through the dream: the Kossors were dividing sharply and now there was no intuition to guide him. Confused, he slowed and the others slowed with him, some riding past before wheeling around awkwardly.
With almost impossible speed the two halves of the Kossor attackers had swung back and came charging together with Roger’s force in the middle. Terror clutched at his neck but his voice was stronger: ‘On my left!’ He jerked his horse’s reins to force it around and then kicked his horse hard to get it moving. The others did the same, following just behind him as before. Nevena came to his side, and then Benedito, their swords colored warm in the sunset.
Ahead there were the Kossors. Their bows had disappeared or transformed into sabres. They rode with fury on slender horses, steel teeth biting at the air. Roger kept himself steady. Soon they would be kicking dust together, breathing the same air. In the middle of the enemy was a rider in his light and whipping clothes with his sword outstretched, looking for flesh to taste. The rider saw some weakness in the vengeant charge and his arm swung up and came down. Yelling madly as their horses thundered against one another, Roger drove his sword into the rider’s body just under the ribs until he felt the crossguard jam into his stomach.
Roger didn’t know that he was in the air until he inhaled dust through his nostrils and in the next instant the entire world had slammed into his back. A twitching man lay on top of him, the two connected by the sword Roger held impaling the man in the stomach. There was a snap amidst the infernal pounding of horse steps. Roger tasted blood, iron and grime in it, and spat it out. The man on top of him was dead. Heavy and dead. Roger didn’t know if he breathed the fumes of the grave himself. He did not know what the land of the dead would look like.
‘Gods, gods,’ Roger wept. He tried to push the man’s body off him but he couldn’t find the leverage. All the tiredness he’d managed to force down in that brief action now ruled his limbs. It was an eternal struggle but he did manage to push the dead man off of him. He touched the man’s face. Warm still, but not vital. Everything slack.
Roger looked up to see what was going on, but even the act of raising his head made his whole body creak with pain from his back out to the tips of his fingers. He made himself look, though. If he wasn’t dead yet, he didn’t intend to get that way through carelessness.
The Kossors had disappeared it seemed, until he caught sight of them in the distance chased by a party of others. What then surprised him was the huge mass of soldiery that was now marching back in his direction. He dove for his sword and grabbed the hilt, then kicked at the dead man’s stomach so he could pull the blade free. The sword dripped with fresh gore until he drew it across his trouserleg so that only streaks remained.
He turned and saw Stoyan riding towards him. Stoyan held his arm out and Roger took it, pulling himself up into the saddle behind his friend.
‘Heaven save us we thought you were dead,’ Stoyan said.
‘I suppose not,’ Roger said. ‘You chased away the Kossors?’
‘We tried,’ Stoyan said. ‘It was the Blue Zealots who did it, though.’
‘The Blue Zealots? We must have beaten the Kossors quickly.’
‘No such luck,’ Stoyan said. ‘We’re in retreat. I don’t know how bad it is but that’s why the Zealots doubled back.’
Roger exhaled but said nothing more. He looked around to see the camp followers slowly turning themselves around. He saw Terko and Benedito riding among them with swords drawn and eyes aimed at the distance. He breathed with relief and felt a shudder escape from him, the pain from his fall squeezing at his lungs. But he could still feel it. His veins still pulsed with life.
He would not get up. He would lie on the field forever staring at the sky turned black in its contemplation. Around him the horses, the spears, the tents. He would not get up again. If he met the gods they would find him thus.
Those gods that he would or would not meet had different names and shapes than the gods that Roger knew. But he had also heard that the gods changed themselves, that the old Delquin gods were not quite the same as the ones he worshipped. No doubt they would still demand obeisance, whatever their form. No doubt they would shield those who gave it.
The small fire which Roger watched twisted its tendrils to and fro in the air, orange heat drawing up into a thread and vanishing. Around it his companions sat, all accounted for, settling their roaring empty stomachs with flatbread they’d brought or borrowed. He heard the others talking but he didn’t join them. He could feel the ache in his elbow and shoulder from the impact of that charge. His wrist hummed with dull pain. But he was glad for it, dimly glad, as the other one now felt nothing.
After their retreat in the field, the army had marched back toward Lucnoss in a close order, guarding itself against another attack from the Kossor host. It happened that the Kossor force was not that much greater in number than the vengeants. As the Kossors did not wish to risk defeat in a chase, the vengeants had a simple escape. Now they camped for the night, a full guard on to ensure they wouldn’t be caught unaware. Roger thought he would sleep immediately but he couldn’t. He thanked the pain for being there.
‘Here you are,’ came a familiar voice, and Roger saw Gavril of the Black Zealots with his hair darker than the night’s backing. A servant came alongside him, rolling a barrel in front of her. Roger quickly got to his feet, followed by the others. ‘Proper as always, honored? It’s not needed, I’m sure you’re tired.’
‘Thank you, lord,’ Roger said, bowing slightly but staying on his feet. His friends murmured the same thing at the master captain.
‘I thought I would come by to thank you,’ Gavril said. ‘Many have said how you brought together your riders to thwart the Kossors. Saved our whole supply train. We need quick and brave knights like you.’
‘I thank you,’ Roger said again, bowing more deeply. His face burned with a heat different than that plaguing his arm and ribs.
‘So I managed to find a cask of ale for you and yours,’ Gavril said, tapping the barrel with his foot. The servant lifted a bag off from her shoulder and sat it on the barrel, the pewter mugs inside clanking together. ‘But don’t drink too much, young lord. Urien was always moderate.’
Roger thanked the master captain again. Gavril took the servant away, leaving the group with the ale and mugs. Jason immediately got to opening up the cask and pouring himself a cup.
‘He’s right,’ Nevena said. ‘You were brave. Selfless.’
‘Oh yes, my young lord,’ Stoyan mocked with a florid bow. ‘You are my golden and eternal hero! Please come marry my daughter.’
‘Lay off,’ Terko said. ‘He did well.’
‘I’m just teasing,’ Stoyan said. He pushed a cup into Roger’s hands and then sat down next to him, wrapping an arm around Roger’s shoulder and clinking the lord’s cup with his own. ‘Roger, you really are my hero, you know.’
Roger shook his head while the others chuckled. Stoyan took a deep drink. Life, that was what Stoyan wanted to celebrate. Roger hadn’t tasted the ale yet. He wondered if the gods had some true name, unknown to Delquine or Armadan or Kossor, that could only be known beyond the curtain between life and death. Perhaps the other man knew those true names now. In the future, far in the future, perhaps Roger would ask him.