As soon as word traveled inward from the perimeter patrol outside Iasca Leror’s royal city that the king’s banner had been spotted, people put down tools and lined the main street behind the city gate. When low clouds rumbling overhead brought huge splats of rain, some ducked inside doorways, but no one returned to work or home.
At last the tower and the now-visible outriders exchanged the thrilling trumpet chords announcing the return of the king. The Bell Runners enthusiastically plied the ropes, and people surged from under cover to line the streets, and began to shout and pound on hand drums.
The rhythmic shout gained volume as their young king rode through the city gates, tall and straight, his red hair darkened to the shade of his father’s by the rain, color emphasizing his cheekbones. They cheered him and his men all the way to the castle gates, and only when he was inside did they go back to work in small clumps, everybody laughing and cheerful. Innkeepers promised to draw an ale for everyone (many knowing that that would begin an evening of festive largesse) to cheer the northern victory as they looked forward to the stories the returning warriors would tell.
Inside the castle courtyard Evred slipped from his saddle, leaving his Runners to supervise as the last remnant of his army—the King’s Riders who guarded the city and castle—rode over to their barracks to dismount, unpack, and then reunite with families for the promised liberty.
The warm splatters of rain dotting brown circles on the honey-colored flagstones began to merge as the young queen appeared, short like Inda, her wide brown eyes and unruly brown curls so much like his. But where Inda was broad in chest and shoulder, Hadand-Gunvaer was broad in bosom and hip. She and Evred clasped hands, and the tower sentries—men and women—sent up a cheer.
Deheldegarthe: a fighting queen, one who had by her own hand defended the kingdom. It, like Sigun for the king, was the highest accolade—one that must be given, never asked for.
The royal pair smiled upward, and as the rain abruptly increased walked inside together; Hadand observed her beloved’s distant gaze, and waited for him to return from wherever his thoughts had taken him.
The air was motionless and warm inside the tower, assailing Evred with familiar smells, comfortable smells, which were now free from the power to harm; his uncle and brother had receded to occasional distorted voices in dreams.
When he and Hadand reached his outer chamber, he discovered chilled wine-and-punch waiting. “Ah,” he said on a long outward breath. “How good it is to be home.”
“Your last report via the magic case stated that all is well in the north.” Hadand dropped onto a waiting mat.
Evred sat down next to her, and cradled the broad, shallow wine cup in both hands. “It is as well as can be expected. Ndand Arveas is there in the Pass, holding Castle Andahi while Cama rides back and forth from Idayago to Ghael. We’ll have to find someone to back her until Keth grows. Though she’s strong enough to hold it on her own.”
Hadand’s lips parted. She longed to say, So why don’t you make her a Jarlan, and let her pick her own Jarl? Why can’t women command castles? It seemed so obvious—especially since it had been women who had held Castle Andahi in the teeth of the entire Venn invasion, down to the last one.
But now was not the time for new ideas. She had learned through letters from women across the kingdom that most of the men who had gone north to fight (those who returned) longed to resume the old ways, the comfort of tradition.
So she turned her attention to Evred even as he studied her. Both, out of lifetime habit, tried to descry the inner workings of the other’s mind: as children they had shared everything, but time, and experience, had built personal boundaries that were difficult to surmount, despite their best intentions.
“We’ll have to establish watches all along the north coast,” Evred went on, sounding tired. “Something like Flash’s beacon system, which would have worked, had there not been treachery from within. But I’m keeping our best dragoon captains up there, headquartered at Ala Larkadhe, since my twin cousins want to swap off yearly as Jarls of Yvana-Vayir and commanders of the northern force.”
“Aren’t they young for that?” Hadand asked.
“Year older than I was when I was first sent north to command,” Evred said wryly. “And yes, my authority was limited. So will theirs be, at least at first. They know Cama is under Inda in chain of command, and they report to him. They accepted it without argument. Good boys, both of them. Though Beaver never seems to stop talking.”
Hadand said, “Will they keep swapping off by year?”
“For now. I hope by the time their cousin finishes here as a horsetail and can serve as Randael at Yvana-Vayir they’ll settle it among themselves. . . if we do not have any more war.”
Hadand’s brown, unwavering gaze was so much like Inda’s—and yet not. Evred realized he was searching for Inda in Hadand’s eyes. His emotions roiled until he locked them down hard. “To finish with Ala Larkadhe, the Morvende archive in the white tower was closed to me.”
Her face changed from the tension of worry to comprehension. She knew what that archive meant to him. “Did the Morvende say anything?”
“Nothing. I permitted the archive to be used as a transport, which seems to have alerted them. But the closing was inevitable, because I dared to lead an army to war.” He tried, and failed, to keep the bitterness from his voice. “It appears that no one wishes to hear my reasons.”
Hadand poured more punch, maintaining a compassionate silence. She perceived the effort he made to relax, to look up, and around. “All seems well here.”
“Yes. But we had no war to contend with.” How it hurt her, to see the effort he made; what could she do? She had worked hard to have everything just right when he came home at last, down to his favorite foods here, now rapidly cooling.
He looked blankly at the biscuits, then up. “The war, yes. You must have questions. I know my reports were scant. Those magical boxes. I still don’t really trust them. Even if I could send a sheaf of papers instead of quarter-sheets folded small, there was still the matter of trying to find the time to write on them.”
“I have questions indeed. Beginning with the Venn surrender. What exactly happened? I’ve heard several conflicting accounts, and Inda has never written to me. Tdor says he wrote only that he was still alive.”
He frowned, yet she knew Inda was all right. Tdor had sent a message when Inda arrived safely home, that they were about to marry. And though Tdor had not written since, Hadand knew that nothing disastrous had happened, or surely, surely she would have heard.
“It really was not a surrender, though everyone believes it to have been.” He spoke slowly, hesitating between words.
She breathed in relief. The problem was obviously not Inda. Absurd to have thought it concerned him! “What exactly happened with the Venn? Are they really gone so suddenly? So many rumors have run ahead of you, and like you say, your report was scanty. I have it by heart now, I’ve read it so many times, trying to wring extra meaning from every pen stroke.”
His smile was perfunctory. “Some of those rumors began just after the battle. I did nothing to interfere with them.” Evred drank his punch down, then pressed his fingers to his temples, eyes closed. “It seemed to hearten the men to think that Durasnir, the Venn Fleet Commander, surrendered to Inda. That he and Inda fought a duel. That he knelt before me and swore allegiance. None of those things happened. He asked for a truce, said that their king was dead, and that Prince Rajnir had to sail home to claim their crown.”
“That was all?”
“There was one thing more. It was very strange. I don’t know why I did it, but I asked if they were coming back.”
“He’d lie about that, of course,” Hadand exclaimed.
“So I thought the moment the words were out.” Evred crumbled a rye biscuit without awareness of what his fingers were doing, as he thought back. “I braced for threat, or dissembling. Scorn, even. We heard none of that. You must realize first that we learned before the attack that the one we have to fear is the mage Erkric, who was using magic in aid of the war. According to Inda’s Venn lover, the Dag Signi—do you remember her?”
Hadand vividly remembered the small, older woman who had so kindly and quietly renewed all the castle magic spells for them, working all night while Evred and Inda raised the entire city to march to war. But Evred so distrusted magic that Hadand only signified assent, without speaking.
Evred said, “She told us that Dag Erkric has attempted to strike a bargain with Norsunder in an effort to learn magic that will control minds. It is possible that he has done so.”
“I find that more difficult to believe than anything,” Hadand exclaimed. “You know how I’ve been researching magic ever since I could read, but I’ve never found mention of magic—in our present time—that does that. In the days of Old Sartor, perhaps. We thought it all figurative language.”
“I have trouble believing it, too. I retained my distrust of Dag Signi to the end, but something that Commander Durasnir said seemed to corroborate . . . well, you tell me what you think.” Evred leaned forward. “He asked Inda if he’d ever met Ramis of the Knife. The mystery pirate who commanded the ship with black sails.”
“The pirate who Inda said caused the rift to the sky through which the Brotherhood of Blood command ships were forced. I remember that.” Hadand poured more punch, in hopes of getting Evred to at least drink, if he would not eat. “I always thought this mysterious Ramis was a, oh, a dream figure or something.”
“Inda insists he’s a real man. He met him. Spent some time with him in converse. Anyway, Inda answered Durasnir. Told him that Ramis had said there were three men who were dangerous to Inda: Prince Rajnir, the mage Erkric, and Durasnir himself. After which Durasnir said, ‘Two of us must obey.’ And then he vanished by magic. Shortly thereafter, the Venn marched back down the pass, boarded their ships, and sailed away.”
“Two of them? But that just means the commander and the mage must obey the king.”
“Why did he not say so?”
Hadand’s eyes narrowed, bringing Inda forcibly to mind.
She said, “You think the Commander of the Venn, your enemy, was warning you in some way? But that makes no sense. A threat I can understand. A warning?”
“If Dag Erkric truly does control their prince—now their king, surely—then the warning becomes clear. The danger we both share is the threat of magic. Unfortunately Durasnir spoke in Sartoran, so the only ones of our people who understood him were Inda and Taumad.”
“Well, what does Inda say? He could ask Dag Signi.”
“They don’t discuss the war. It’s an honorable truce, and I understand that. As for Inda . . .” Evred touched a ring on his hand that she had never seen before. She did not often see his hands; though they were long and beautiful, he so often hid them by clasping them behind his back.
“As for Inda, we did not talk to much purpose. He was either riding along the lines encouraging the men, especially the wounded, or else abstracted . . .” Evred paused, remembering the campfire conversations, painfully repetitive as Inda went over every move, almost every sword-stroke of the fights he could remember. After a few weeks of that, Evred thought it a victory when Inda shifted from what he should have done to what he could have done.
Evred looked up. “We seldom had much time alone to discuss that.”
Hadand did not ask why the two most powerful men in the entire kingdom couldn’t send the entire army out of hearing, if they did not want to walk apart. There were times when speech was insufficient, even impossible. She remembered the days immediately following the Jarl of Yvana-Vayir’s conspiracy: the vivid memory images, the long pauses when you couldn’t remember where you were. Waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, reliving the worst, and wondering if you could have done something to prevent it. Words had come with difficulty—if at all.
She signified agreement.
He closed his eyes and faced southwest. “He’s on his way.” And at Hadand’s questioning look, “It’s a location ring. Inda wears the other one. We used them in the Andahi Pass so we would not lose one another.”
“So you trust this ring, but not the golden notecases?”
Evred’s expression was always reserved, but now it tightened.
He made an angry, determined effort to lock away the conflict of emotions. The golden notecases had been bespelled by Dag Signi; the location rings had been provided, Evred strongly suspected, by Savarend Montredavan-An, otherwise known as Fox.
Evred knew Inda’s loyalty to Iasca Leror—to Evred himself--was total. Yet Inda had somehow gained the personal loyalty of not only the Venn mage, Dag Signi, but the potentially troublesome Fox, who now commanded Inda’s old pirate fleet, and who had—it seemed—rescued Inda from certain death at the hands of the Venn.
Evred flexed his hand, watching the muted glint on the plain gold band as lightning flared in the window. He looked up to discover Hadand waiting, her gaze steady and unwavering. “The rings only convey direction, no words. And Inda’s Venn lover had nothing to do with the rings. Yes, I know she’s proved trustworthy, but what if her unknown, unseen friends interfere? How would we know? We do not see these mages—the Venn call them dags. We do not understand their powers. And it’s not just them. What if some Venn warrior had killed Noddy early on, and taken his case? He had it, I found it after he died. Inside his pocket lay Inda’s notes. The Venn could have got the plan right there. Sometimes I want to throw the lot of those gold things into the fire,” he said in a low, savage voice. “I may yet. If I detect the merest hint of tampering. But I admit they are useful, especially with the north so unsettled. Fast communication is essential. Cama insists that the one thing keeping the Idayagans quiet is the prospect of Inda returning.”
“Inda?” Hadand’s memory of Inda was still the smiling little boy of childhood. “How so?”
Evred looked away, his expression even more remote. “You did not see him in battle. Both sides spread rumors that Inda fights like ten men, that he cannot be beaten.”
Evred paused at the sudden, unbidden memory. In the archive, he had read: What you remember about someone teaches you more about yourself than it does about the other.
When Inda did his knife drills, his movements expressed humor as well as strength, grace as well as skill. Inda fighting to kill was an order of magnitude in difference, face purple and mouth a rictus, eyes cold as death, grunting like an animal as he unleashed that terrifying strength, and yet Evred had found that aspect of Inda as deeply stirring as all Inda’s myriad moods and voices. If not more. How could desire and killing be so close?
But Hadand did not know that. He did not want her to know it, and so he shook his head. “Never mind.”
“At least we have peace.”
“No. Now we have a respite. It remains to be seen for how long.”
Hadand said, baldly, to strip the moment of the possibility of sickening coquetry, “Since the word came that you had won, and were alive, I have been drinking gerda leaf again.”
Evred thought of a son, and Inda raising that son, and smiled. That smile caused Hadand to smile, and her heart to beat fast.
And so he came to her room that night. Afterward, Hadand, longing for the unthinking tenderness of their childhood days in the nursery, waited for Evred to offer to stay, now that the threat of war was past. Would he sleep in her arms as he had when they were children? But he rose, and with unfailing courtesy wished her a good rest, and left. She was far too proud to beg him to stay, and so stared up at the ceiling, dry-eyed. She’d wept herself out at fourteen, she told herself. Fourteen was the time for tears. Now she was a woman, a queen, and tomorrow there was work to be done.
The Fox Banner Fleet was not at all surprised to be attacked by a swarm of galley pirates from the islands east of Chael. Fox had told the captains as much, saying that an attack would give Fangras and the newcomers (former privateers from Sarendan) some practice.
And practice they got: they found themselves surrounded by a combination of three fleets, led by a pair of brigantines. After a short but very fierce fight, as usual the pirates veered off, to vanish among the many small islands.
Nugget crept up on the weather deck of the Fox Banner flagship Death, trying not to cough.
The smoke thinned in the sleeting rain. She welcomed the sleet. It not only scoured the last of the smoke from her lungs, but it made a solid gray curtain, blurring Death’s battle detritus, and the hands busy with repair.
Her cap and jacket were soon as wet as everyone else’s. She slunk around the mast and dashed for the binnacle. Her battle station was Signals since with only one arm she could not pull a bow.
The Death plunged through low, pillowy fingers of smoke. Green waves slopped down the deck from a following sea. Barely visible a few ship-lengths beyond the stern, the indistinct shapes of the rest of the fleet drifted in and out of the smoke, smears of red glowing between the cold gray-green seas and the low storm clouds. She sidled around the binnacle, peering over the stern rail—
The slap came out of nowhere, catching her between one step and another. She thumped onto her rear, and let out a squawk.
Old training brought her in a roll to her knee, good arm up in a block. Annoyance—accusation—dried in her throat when she recognized the tall, lean red-haired figure looming over her, all dressed in black. Fox! He’d come up quiet as a cat.
“Where.” He snapped out the word in a way that chilled her right down to the toes. “Were you?”
“I—” She looked around wildly.
Smack! He hit her again—the stinging hit of drill, and again she tumbled over.
“Stop that!” she cried, scrambling away. She looked around for support. There was Pilvig, her best friend. And right behind her, two of the newcomers they’d taken on from Fangras’s fleet. Both teens, Nugget’s and Pilvig’s age. Mates.
But did they protest? No.
Fox was standing right over her again. She recoiled, scrambling back—and bumped up against the binnacle.
“You abandoned your station in the heat,” Fox stated. He looked terrible, his face smeared with soot and sweat, which emphasized the wintry ocean-green of his eyes, a bloody rag twisted around his right arm just above the elbow, another wrapping his palm. He smelled of smoke, sweat, and blood. The last time she’d seen him, he was leading the repel-boarder team when the pirate brigantines slid up on either side.
“You know what would happen to you in any navy, on any ship, abandoning your post in the heat of battle?”
“I can’t fight,” she wailed, turning to her friends for support.
But there wasn’t any. Not in Pilvig, nor in Mutt, who appeared from the other side of the mizzen mast. “Can’t you see?” She lifted her stump.
“Sock fights.” Fox tipped his head toward the skinny half-Chwahir who always wore a sock on his arm stump.
Nugget opened her mouth to protest that he was old—at least as old as Fibi the Delf--but caught a squint-eyed look of cold contempt from Pilvig.
Pilvig! Her best friend! Nugget scowled down at her toes. She was seventeen, taller than Sock now, she’d grown plenty strong—she was just afraid.
“You left Pilvig to do both flags and whirtler signal,” Fox said. “That meant we were left to fight two ships before Rapier heard the whirtler. If anyone had died, that would have been your fault.”
“No—they were already boarding—”
“Your. Fault. Get up.”
“Why? What are you going to do? Don’t thrash me—I promise I won’t--”
“I’m going to smack you,” he stated, “until you defend yourself. Get. Up.”
Nugget was sobbing by now, a mixture of fear, shame, and betrayal. Out came his hand again, straight toward her face—and she snapped up her arm in a forearm block. Just like morning drill. He hit her arm, nearly spinning her about.
His other hand came around for a side blow. She jumped back, her shoulder twitching—no hand!—but he brought his down anyway, just as if she had a hand there. She shifted her weight and her foot snapped up, half-instinctive, from the old days before her wound. She didn’t connect—so he smacked her ankle. It stung.
His hand came at her again. And again. And again. When she faltered or tried to argue he slapped her. After she howled, “Stop it! I’m sorry!” he gave her a knuckle-rap on the bicep of her good arm. That hurt!
He kept her working until she leaned against the binnacle panting, her good hand pressed protectively against her stump, muscles trembling with fatigue.
Fox said, “You’ve been out for drill every day, but you never scrap. That is going to change. From now on, you’re going to scrap with me.”
A soft whistle from the background, and a snort.
“And every time I hear ‘but’ I’m going to give you another watch on cleaning duty. Two watches if you start a sentence with But Inda always said. You’re already on the crew to rebuild the damage the brigantines’ cut booms did to the jib, and to repaint the fire damage. Then you’re going to be scrapping with me. An entire watch. Tomorrow, another one.”
Everyone was gathered now, and not a single face gave her pity, or sympathy.
Fox showed his teeth. “There is nobody on the seas who fights nastier than I do. And I’m not going to stop scrapping with you until you’re the second nastiest. Get used to it.”
The ship creaked, blocks rapped, the sea hissed down the deck at their feet, then poured away.
“Now go repack the signal flags.”
He turned away. Shortly after the door to the cabin slammed. The crew dispersed, some talking in low voices. But no one talked to her. Not even Pilvig.
Nugget gulped on a sob as the rain hissed down around her. She picked up the first signal flag. It was the same one she’d thrown down before she ran to hide: Engaged with enemy.