To Ride a Rathorn
Chapter I: An Unfortunate Arrival
1st of Summer
The sun’s descending rim touched the white peaks of the Snowthorns, kindling veins of fire down their shadowy slopes where traces of weirding lingered. Luminous mist, smoking out of high fissures, dimmed the setting sun. A premonitory chill of dusk rolled down toward the valley floor like the swift shadow of an eclipse. Leaves quivered as it passed and then were still. Birds stopped in mid-note. A moment of profound stillness fell over the Riverland, as if the wild valley had drawn in its breath.
Then, from up where the fringed darkness of the ironwoods met the stark heights, there came a long, wailing cry, starting high, sinking to a groan that shook snow from bough and withered the late wild flowers of spring in the upland meadows. Thus the Dark Judge greeted night after the first fair day of summer:
All things end, light, hope, and life. Come to judgment. Come!
On the New Road far below, a post horse clattered to a sudden stop while his rider dropped the reins and stuffed the hood of her forage jacket into her ears. It was said that anyone who heard the bleak cry of the blind Arrin-ken had no choice but to answer it. She had heard . . . but so had the rest of the valley. It probably wasn’t a summons to her at all, the cadet named Rue told herself nervously. Surely, she had done nothing that required judgment, even at Restormir, even to Lord Caineron.
Just following orders, sir.
Sweat darkened her mount’s flanks and he resentfully mouthed a lathered bit. They had come nearly thirty miles that day from the Scrollsmen’s College at Mount Alban, a standard post run between keeps, but not so easy over a broken roadway strewn with fallen trees. They were near home now and the horse knew it, but still he hesitated, head high, ears flickering.
The earth grumbled fretfully and pebbles jittered underfoot. Rue snatched up the reins to keep her mount from bolting. The damn beast ought to know by now that he couldn’t outrun an aftershock. Three days ago, a massive weirdingstrom had loosened the sinews of the earth from Kithorn to the Cataracts. The Riverland had been shaken by tremors ever since but, surely, they must end soon.
“Damn River Snake,” she muttered, and spat into the water – a Merikit act of propitiation that the Kendar of her distant keep had adopted.
The hill tribes believed that all quakes were caused by vast Chaos Serpents beneath the earth who must occasionally either be fought or fed to be kept quiet. Rue found nothing strange in such an idea but had the sense -- usually -- not to say as much to her fellow cadets.
Memory made her wriggle in the saddle: “Stick to facts, shortie, not singers’ fancies.”
That damned, smug Vant. Riverland Kendar thought that they were so superior, that they knew so much.
But only the night before on Summer’s Eve, a Merikit princeling had descended, reluctantly, to placate the great snake that lay beneath the bed of the Silver. Rue had seen the pair of feet, neatly sheared off at the ankles, which he had left behind.
The horse jumped again as a silvery form tumbled down the bank and plopped onto the road almost under his nose. With a twist and a great wriggling of whiskers, the catfish righted itself on stubby pectoral fins and continued its river-ward trudge. If the fish were coming back down from the hills, thought Rue, the worst must be over.
She kicked her tired mount into a stiff-legged trot. The sun sank. Dusk pooled in the reeds by the River Silver, then over-flowed them in a rising tide of night. Shadows seemed to muffle the clop of hooves and the jingle of tack.
They crested yet another rise, and there before them lay Tentir, the randon college.
Rue stared. All along the river’s curve, the bank had fallen in, taking trees, bridge, and road with it. Parallel to the river, fissures scored the lower end of the training fields, some only yards in length, others a hundred feet or more, all half full of water reflecting the red sky like so many bloody slashes.
Farther back, much of the outer curtain wall had been thrown down. The fields within lay empty and exposed.
The college itself stood well back on the stone toes of the Snowthorns. Old Tentir, the original fortress, looked as solid as ever. It was a massive three-story high block of gray stone, slotted with dark windows above the first floor, roofed with dark blue slate. As if as an after-thought, spindly watch towers poked up from each corner. To the outer view at least, it was arguably the least imaginative structure in the Riverland. Behind it, surrounding a hollow square, was New Tentir, the college proper. While the nine major houses had once dwelt in similar barracks, changes in house size and importance over the centuries had allowed some to seize space from their smaller neighbors. When they could no longer expand outward, they had built upward. The result from this vantage point was an uneven roofline of diverse heights and pitches, rather like a snaggle-toothed jaw. At least none of the “teeth” seemed to be missing, although some roofs showed gaping holes. Rue sighed with relief: she had expected worse.
But what was that, rising from the inner courtyard? Smoke?
Rue’s heart clenched. For a moment, she might have been looking down on Kithorn, the bones of its slaughtered garrison lying unclaimed and dishonored in its smoldering ruins. None of her generation had been alive then, eighty years ago, but no one in the vulnerable border keeps ever forgot that terrible story or the cruel lesson it had taught.
To the Riverland Kencyr, however, it was only an old song of events far away and long ago. After all, no hill tribe would dare to try its strength against them.
No. Not smoke. Dust. What in Perimal’s name…?
The post horse stomped and jerked at the reins, impatient. Why were they standing here? Why indeed? From behind came the click of hooves and a murmur of voices. The main party had almost caught up.
Rue gave her mount its head. It took off at a fast, bone-jarring trot toward stable and home.
Inside Old Tentir, shafts of sunset lanced down through the high western windows and through holes in the roof. Dust motes danced in them like flecks of dying fire. The air seemed to quiver. A continuous rumble echoed in the near-empty great hall, punctuated by the crack of a single word shouted over and over, its sense lost in the general, muffled roar.
A Coman cadet stood at the foot of the hall, before one of the western doors beyond which lay the barracks and training ward of New Tentir, the randon college. His attention was fixed on the purposeful commotion outside and his hands gripped the latch, ready to jerk the door open. He didn’t hear Rue knock on the front door at the other end of the long hall, then pound.
The unlocked door opened a crack, grating on debris, and Rue warily peered in, one hand on the hilt of the long knife sheathed at her belt. A quick glance told her that the hall was empty, or nearly so. Frowning, she pushed back the hood of her forage jacket from straw-colored hair as rough-cut as a badly thatched roof.
“Tentir, ‘ware company!” she shouted down the hall. “Somebody, come take this nag!”
A moment later she had stumbled over the threshold, butted from behind by her horse. She caught him as he tried to shove past, then led him into the hall, needing all her strength to hold him in check. In response, he laid back his ears and arched his tail. Turds plopped, steaming, onto flagstones already littered with broken slates from the roof, downed beams, and fallen birds’ nests.
Rue glanced around as she tramped on legs stiff from riding down the long hall that bisected Old Tentir. Disordered though it was, the wonder of it struck her anew. All her short life, she had dreamed of training at the randon college and now here she was, a cadet candidate sworn to the Highlord himself.
But for how long, whispered fear in the back of her mind, given the events of the past week. Rue set her jaw. Here she was and here she would stay. Don’t think of failure, she told herself. Don’t think. Look.
In the galleries of the second and third floors, rank on rank of silver collars seemed to float against the darkening walls. Suspended from each shining ring were the plaques that recorded the career of its owner -- in what class graduated, what ranks and stations held, what honors won in which battles and in which slain: white edged for the debacle in the White Hills when Ganth Gray Lord had been overthrown, blue for the Cataracts early last winter when his son Torisen had stopped the Waster Horde, black for the misery of Urakarn in the Southern Wastes, from which so few had returned, and on, and on.
Along the lower walls hung the banners of the nine major Kencyr houses whom most of the randon served. Leaping flame, stooping hawk, and snarling wolf on the south wall: Brandan, Edirr, and Danior. Gauntletted fist, two-edged sword, and devouring serpent on the north: Randir, Coman, and Caineron. Over the two western doors that opened into New Tentir were the stricken tree and the full moon of the Jaran and the Ardeth. Between them, in pride of place over the massive fireplace, hung the rathorn crest of the Knorth, highlords of the Kencyrath for thirty millennia.
One tenth of that time had been spend here on Rathillien, the last in a series of threshold worlds held and subsequently lost in the Three People’s long, bitter retreat from Perimal Darkling down the Chain of Creation.
The college at Tentir dated from the ceding of the Riverland forts to the Kencyrath nearly a thousand years ago. Since that time, every cadet had added his or her stitch to the appropriate banner, building it up even as its back decayed against the dank walls. Some, such as tiny Danior, showed patches of stone wall between bare upper threads. Others, especially the Caineron, looked like ungainly, pendulous growths.
Not unlike Caldane, Lord Caineron himself, thought Rue, grinning.
Her horse stopped and tossed back his head, nearly jerking her off her feet. A moment later, a faint rumble came from under the earth and the hall shivered. More slates fell. Birds fled out the holes in the roof. The horse backed, eyes rolling white, jerking the reins out of the cadet’s hand. Before she could recapture them, he had bolted across the hall and down the side ramp to the subterranean stables. The frightened bugling of horses already in stall welcomed him.
Rue tramped up to the cadet by the door.
“Didn’t you hear my hail?” she demanded, having to raise her voice over the rumpus. She also had to look up, the other being a good head taller than she as most Kendar her age were. “D’you know that the outer ward is unguarded and the hall door is unlocked? I thought for sure the hill tribes had broken in and sacked the place. Where is everyone?”
The Coman cadet shot her a distracted look, and winced: the young lord of his house, looking to his standard, had set the fashion of wearing a tiny, double-edged dagger as an earring, never mind that with any incautious move it stabbed its wearer. “I heard you, but this is my post. No, the guard isn’t set. We aren’t back to rights yet since the last big quake, nor yet since the one before that.”
“Huh,” said Rue.
As far as she could see, Tentir had gotten off easy. In contrast, sections of Mount Alban had been displaced all the way to the Southern Wastes, then north to Kithorn, before finally snapping back to their foundation. Parts were still missing. That morning, when Rue had left, the scrollsmen and women had been searching with increasing urgency for the upper levels’ privy.
The Coman flinched as something overhead shifted. Grit rattled down into his upturned face.
“A week we spent,” he said rapidly, “sweating in the fire timber hall below, expecting every minute for the whole keep to collapse on our heads. They said the old buildings were the safest and no one dared go out for fear of being swept away by the weirding, but still … all the new cadet candidates jostled together – Ardeth, Caineron, Knorth, the lot… No discipline. Fights. As for the Merikit, I wish they would come! Tentir is a proper hornet’s nest, just waiting for some fool with a stick.”
“Hall, there! Hall!” roared a stentorian voice outside, over the general tumult.
The Coman threw open the door. Cadets thundered past, rank on rank, feet booming on the boardwalk. They ran grimly in cadence to the now distinguishable shouts of the drill sargents standing in the middle of the training square:
“Run! Run! RUN!”
The Coman waited for a momentary break between squads, then darted out. Rue, craning out the door, saw him reach a cadet who had tripped, fallen, and been trampled before his mates could scoop him up.
“Down!” shouted the commander of the on-coming squad.
Rescuer and victim fell flat. The ten-command hurdled over them two by two, a ripple of heads rising and falling like water over a hidden rock, lucky that none of them tripped. Then they were past. The Coman lurched to his feet, supporting the fallen cadet. They flattened themselves against the wall as the next squad thundered by, then staggered back to the door. Rue reached out to pull them in. All three collapsed in a heap on the hall’s flagstones.
“Get off me!” someone in the pile said thickly.
They sorted themselves out with much cursing and some flaying of fists, one of which caught Rue on the ear. She staggered backward, shaking her head to clear it.
“What’s wrong with you people?” she demanded, but instinctively she knew: the former Lord Coman had been a staunch Caineron ally, but the new one, Korey, was wavering. Caldane was said to be furious about that, and the young cadet whom they had just rescued was a Caineron. Here, writ small, were all the tensions between their houses.
The Coman shook the smaller boy until he stopped trying to fight and the teeth rattled in his head. Then he propped him against the wall.
“This … has been going on … for hours,” he panted, leaning against the doorpost. “Punishment run … ha! D’they want … to kill … us all?” For the first time, he regarded Rue closely. “You’re that border brat … aren’t you? The one that came down … from the Min-drear High Keep. One of Brier Iron-Thorn’s ten-command.”
“Bloody Thorn,” muttered the Caineron. His nose had begun to bleed. He groped for his token scarf and snuffled wetly into it. “Damn, bloody turn-collar. S’if M’lord Caldane wasn’t good enough for her…”
“He wasn’t,” said Rue, glaring. “Ten serves the Highlord now.”
“Your ten-command was out Merikit-hunting and went missing without leave during the storm.” The Coman regarded her speculatively. “We thought you’d been swept away. Better if you had been. You’re in dead trouble now, brat.”
Rue glowered. “We had things to do.”
“Tell that to the Commandant. I reckon he’s about fed up with you Knorth. We all are. Crazy, the lot of you. D’you still check under your bed every night for Gerridon, or maybe for a darkling crawler like the one your precious highlord claims to have seen here last fall?”
Rue set a pugnacious jaw. She knew that he was baiting her, that the Coman and the Knorth were on even less easy terms than the Coman and the Caineron, but this touched on her lord’s honor.
“What d’you mean, ’claims’? D’you think it couldn’t happen? You Coman live at the southern end of the Riverland. Here in the north, things happen. We’re closer to the Barrier than you seem to realize and what’s behind that, eh? Perimal Darkling itself! Some days at High Keep, you can see Master Gerridon’s House looming through the mist like it was about to push its way right through.”
Behind the now sodden scarf, the Caineron snorted. In that muffled sound was all the contempt with which his lord Caldane regarded all things darkling, or anything else not of immediate use to him.
“You don’t believe me? Well then, who d’you think was behind the Waster Horde, pushing, when we fought it last winter at the Cataracts? Darkling changers, that’s who. Our own kind, once – Kencyr, fallen with the Master, warped in the shadows of his house.”
The Coman grinned. “So the singers of Mount Alban say, especially that creepy Ashe. If you want to label anyone ‘darkling,’ how about a dead woman who won’t lie down, much less shut up? As for the rest, some people will swallow any singer’s Lawful Lie. And I wouldn’t brag about the Cataracts if I were you, brat: Folk may recall how the Highlord acquired a sister at the edge of the Escarpment – with a flash and a loud bang, apparently. He’s the last pure-blooded Knorth, isn’t he? So where did she come from? The whole thing’s another Lawful Lie, if you ask me … and what are you smirking about?”
“Wait and see,” said Rue.
The Caineron focused blurry eyes on her. For so young a boy, barely fifteen, he looked remarkably dissolute, like someone recovering from a vicious hangover. He might well be: two days ago Caldane had indulged in an epic drinking binge and passed the effects on to all the Kendar bound to him who hadn’t yet learned how to defend themselves.
“Think you’re so clever for getting out of this, eh, shag-head?” he said thickly, indicating the grim stream of exhausted cadets pounding past the door. “And you got out of High Keep too, didn’t you? One more minor house dying on its feet, one more Kendar scuttling out before it falls…”
Rue’s ill-cropped hair almost bristled. She had hacked it off to leave in her lord’s cold hand in case she should never return – a poor substitute for her bones burnt to honorable ash on the pyre but better than nothing. If she had been glad to escape that grim place, guilt had made her chop all the more fiercely.
“I have my lord’s permission to train with the Highlord’s folk. Min-drear randon always do.”
“Damn, bloody Mind-rear, trotting after a crazy rat-horn …”
“That’s rath-orn, moron.” Rue glanced up at the Knorth house banner, at the fierce, horned beast embroidered on it, ivory armor agleam in the darkening hall. How could anyone make fun of a thing like that, except perhaps some idiot Riverlander who had never even seen one?
The Coman glanced out the door. “Here comes your house again, lad. Up and out.”
The Caineron cadet lurched to his feet. At the door, he looked back at Rue. “I’ll remember you, Mind-rear. And we Caineron all remember Brier bloody Iron-thorn.” For a moment Caldane seemed to leer out of the boy’s heavy eyes. Rue fell back a step, making the Darkwyr sign against evil. He blinked, laughed uncertainly, and stumbled out to be swept up by his people as they thundered past.
The Coman stared after him. “Has everyone gone mad?” He looked at Rue as if tempted to make the warding sign against her. “Insanity is contagious. Ganth Gray Lord infected the entire Host in the White Hills and now Torisen Black Lord is doing it again!”
“If you want to complain to him,” said Rue as the far door was forced open, screeching on bent hinges, “here’s your chance.”
Into the twilight of the hall came two riders, one on a tall black stallion, the other on a small, gray mare with an intricately braided white mane.
“That’s Lord Ardeth,” said the Coman, staring at the latter. “What in Perimal’s name…” His voice trailed off and his jaw dropped.
The lord of Omiroth seemed to have brought a great light into the hall, as if at the rising of the full moon that was the emblem of his house. It shone bone-deep through his clothes, through his very flesh. But no, thought Rue, also staring: it must only be that snow-white hair. And yet, and yet …
The Ardeth were an arrogant lot, proud of their subtle lord who in his one hundred and fifty odd years had brought his house through so many disasters that even the scrollsmen of Mount Alban had lost count. The worst had been the thirty-one years of chaos after the White Hills when, without a highlord, the Kencyrath had nearly fallen apart. Only Ardeth had known that Ganth’s heir lived: the boy Torisen, exile-born, who had come to him in secret and whom Ardeth had hidden among the randon of the Southern Host. There, four years ago, Torisen had come of age and at last claimed his father’s seat.
The Caineron claimed that he was still Ardeth’s puppet, or worse.
At the Cataracts, others suspected that the Highlord was slipping through his mentor’s fingers.
Since then, his friends had begun to wonder if, after all, Torisen needed Ardeth’s influence to save him from himself.
Rue knew instinctively that the old lord was now trying to reassert control over the younger man.
Perhaps that was only right, she thought, half-dazed, drawn to the old Highborn as if to the sun after bitter cold. Perhaps here was the true heart of the Kencyrath, its secret master to whom all should yield as Torisen himself once had. Her own lord was a broken man, his sons ash before him, his Kendar loosely bound to him by his faltering will. Torisen Highlord held his own people almost as lightly – through weakness, sneered the Caineron, whose own lord gripped them like cruel death; through misplaced tact, said his allies, shrugging. Rue only knew that it made her nervous. What a splendid thing it would be, she now thought, to fall at Ardeth’s feet, to put her life between those thin, strong hands and hear his murmured words of welcome.
Then she shook herself, silently cursing. Everyone knew that old Adric had a taste for the exotic drugs of the Poison Courts and had resorted to them for help before now, sometimes with unnerving results. Let him glow in the dark like a rotten eel. She was a Min-drear and would hold true to her bond, if not for her lord’s sake then for her mother and her mother’s mother before her.
Torisen Black Lord, Highlord of the Kencyrath, rode into Tentir on his war-horse Storm like the shadow cast by the other’s brilliance. Dark clothing, dark ruffled hair shot with premature gray, both horse and rider seemed to melt into the hall’s shadows except for the latter’s face, pale with strain floating forward wraithlike – that, and his fine-boned left hand with its tracery of white scars, gripping the reins. His right hand he carried out of sight, thrust into a dusty coat.
A large, gray wolf slunk at his side as close as he could get without being stepped on, closer than Storm liked judging by the roll of the stallion’s eye. However, the Wolver Grimly only watched his old friend Torisen with unhappy concern.
If Ardeth’s lunar glow seemed to promise safety, the Knorth appeared to be in obstinate self-eclipse, dark of the moon, when all things fall into doubt and danger. He neither looked at his old mentor nor seemed to listen to him. Nonetheless, he rode with all his weight on the outside stirrup, leaning away from that soft, insistent voice.
Rue got the Coman’s attention by kicking him in the shin. “Go tell the Commandant we have company.”
“Yes,” he said, still staring, and then, belatedly, “ouch.”
He stumbled out the door without looking, and brought down an entire Edirr squad.
“Rest!” roared a sargent.
All around the square, cadets collapsed, panting, on the boards.
Meanwhile, other riders had entered the hall at a wary distance from their lords, two columns of them, split by house. They ignored each other but their mounts, catching their mood, fidgeted and snapped.
Rue’s attention leaped to the most reassuring face in the crowd, there, a respectful length behind the captain of Ardeth’s guard. Teak brown from the southern sun, short cropped hair the smoldering red of mahogany, Brier Iron-thorn had come to Tentir by a long, hard road. She was older than most cadets, more experienced, and mistrusted by them for her sudden change of houses at the Cataracts. Before that, no one had believed that such a thing was possible. Not from the Caineron. Not against the will of its lord. But here she was, even more an outsider than Rue. If anyone could show these smug Riverlanders a thing or two, it was Rose Iron-thorn’s hard, handsome daughter.
Oh, please, thought Rue, let her start with him.
Five-commander Vant rode glowering at Brier’s back. They had all seethed with resentment when a former Caineron yondri had been put in charge over them, but none more so than Vant who had been forced to yield ten-command to her. If he kept in Brier’s shadow now, it was because he hoped that she would draw the lightning of whatever punishment they all have earned.
Hooves rattled on the flagstones. A bay gelding danced nervously, eyes rolling, between the two lords and their retinues. Everyone looked somewhere else except Rue, who stared open-mouthed despite herself.
Like her brother, the bay’s rider wore black, but her jacket had an odd cut to it, one sleeve tight and the other full. Unlike Torisen, the slim hands that nervously gripped the reins were sheathed in black gloves. What she didn’t wear – and this was why no one would look at her directly – was a mask. For a Highborn lady to show her face naked to the world was indecent, much less one marked across the cheek by a thin, straight, barely healed scar. That she looked so much like a younger version of her brother was, in contrast, merely disconcerting.
So was the thin, sharp face that peered warily over her shoulder. The bay bore two riders, the second Caineron’s half-cast bastard son who, somehow, had become the first’s servant.
As if to compound this strangeness, a Royal Gold hunting ounce trotted after them into the hall. The cat, Jorin, was blind, which perhaps explained why he blithely plumped himself down in the path of the on-coming riders and began industriously to wash.
His tail twitched under a descending hoof. He leaped up, squalling, the bay shied, and both riders fell off.
The whole mixed retinue was suddenly in motion, horses separating by house and wheeling about to face each other, their riders’ hands falling instinctively to sword hilts.
The bay, unheeded, tossed his head and trotted sedately off down the ramp.
Only the black stallion and the gray mare hadn’t moved. Ardeth’s voice murmured on, oblivious. Torisen stilled the commotion behind him with a raised hand – the right, its three broken fingers splinted and heavily bandaged. He looked past Rue, and his thin mouth twisted in a wry half-smile. She realized, with a start, that the Commandant had entered the hall during the confusion and was standing behind her.
She had to crane to see his face. Sheth Sharp-tongue was tall even for a Kendar, with a touch of Highborn subtlety in his features. Highborn and Kendar alike found him unnerving. Most believed, however, that he was the greatest randon of his generation. Rue remembered uneasily that Sheth was also a Caineron and that house’s war-leader.
“My lords, welcome to Tentir,” he said.
His gaze fell, speculatively, on the bedraggled figure in the middle of the hall, who had picked herself up and was slapping dust off her clothes. Her companion and cat both tried to hide behind her. Meeting the Commandant’s eyes with a carefully blank stare, she swept up long, black hair that had tumbled down in her fall and twisted it back up under her cap.
“Who have we here?” he asked of no one in particular.
Rue couldn’t help it. “’Some fool with a stick,’” she muttered.
The Commandant glanced down at her. “I daresay,” he said dryly. “My lords, welcome to Tentir.”
Rue ducked hastily away from him to hold Storm. The tall stallion snorted down his nose at her and stood rock still as Torisen awkwardly dismounted, favoring his injured hand.
“Honor be to your halls,” he responded, preoccupied, and touched the mare’s shoulder with concern. Sweat had turned it pewter gray, and she was trembling with fatigue. “My lady? Adric, for Trinity’s sake…! Think of Brithany, if not of yourself.”
Ardeth had also swung down and was drifting toward him like a sleep-walker, still murmuring. Sheth raised an eyebrow as both Grimly and the Highlord retreated behind Storm, the wolver keeping between the two Highborn, ignored by both. The stallion laid back his ears but subsided, grudgingly, at a sharp word from his master. Ardeth’s power rippled out through the hall. The stitches on the nearest banner rustled as if trying to escape.
“You know,” said the Commandant mildly, “each stitch represents a randon’s bond the eternal fabric of his house. The cadet candidates here haven’t yet formally earned their scarves nor set their marks, so they aren’t as strongly anchored as their seniors.”
“Tell him, not me!” Torisen snapped, circling behind his horse. “Adric, you should rest. Remember your heart.”
“Yes, Grandfather. Please rest.”
A handsome young man had slipped into the hall from the arcade. He wore a cadet’s belted jacket, but of an elegant cut and material touched with embroidery as golden as his hair. Obviously, he hadn’t taken part in the run. Rue’s first indignant thought was that, Highborn or not, he should have. That conviction faded, however, in the presence of a glamour more subtle than his grandfather’s, but still enough to make Rue stare. So did Torisen.
“Peri,” he gasped.
“No,” said the Commandant, giving him a brief, hard look. “His son, Timmon.”
As Ardeth advanced smiling on the boy, his attention diverted, the whole room seemed to breathe for the first time since he had entered the hall. Torisen sagged against Storm’s hindquarters, and not just with relief that the old lord was no longer focused on him. He looked like someone who had taken a hard, unexpected blow. The Wolver rose up on his hind legs and became a very hairy, very worried young man, reaching out to steady his friend.
“Look at you,” Ardeth was saying fondly to his grandson. “All dressed up like a randon. Your father would be so proud.”
Among the Kendar, someone turned a snort into a cough. Timmon’s father Pereden had never trained at Tentir. Nonetheless, he had expected to lead the Southern Host and finally had gotten his chance after Torisen put down the commander’s collar to become Highlord. On Pereden’s orders, against the advice of his randon, the Host had marched to near ruin against the vastly larger Waster Horde. Pereden himself was believed to have died in the Wastes. A good thing too, many thought, but no one said so in his father’s presence. Ardeth had spent the previous winter vainly searching the Southern Wastes for the bones of his beloved, heroic son.
Now, his mind momentarily off the Highlord, the old man sagged with exhaustion.
Timmon regarded him with growing alarm. “Please, Grandfather,” he said again. “Come to my quarters and rest. Your business with the Highlord can wait.”
Ardeth patted his grandson’s arm absent-mindedly. There was a winning quality in the boy’s voice that made even strangers eager to please him, but his words had set the old lord’s thoughts wandering back to the real business at hand: convincing Torisen that his best interests, nay, his very survival, lay in putting his shaken fortunes in the hands of his former mentor. No one could doubt Ardeth’s thoughts, because he spoke them out loud.
“You must remember, my dear boy,” he added, with devastating candor, “that many believe you as prone to madness as your late, unlamented father.” His pale blue eyes drifted to that second black-clad figure standing silent between the restless battle lines. “Indeed, once news of your latest scheme leaks out, even I may be unable to save you.”
Torisen straightened with a jerk. “Young man,” he said, forcing himself to look at Timmon, “if you will extend your hospitality to me and my friend Grimly, we will gladly drink the welcome cup in your quarters. Adric?”
Ardeth smiled, the drug-fired light again emerging from the cloud of his exhaustion. The hall shivered as his renewed power rippled through it. “But of course I will join you, dear boy. We have so much to discuss.”
“Take care of your grand-dam,” Torisen said to Storm, who snorted: of course. Avoiding the old man’s extended hand, he slipped out of the hall into New Tentir with Grimly again on all fours trotting at his heel.
“Well done, my lord,” murmured the Commandant as Torisen passed, adding blandly, “I believe I will join you.” At the door, he turned.
“Conduct the Highlord’s … er … guests to the Knorth quarters,” he said to Rue. “As for you –“ his hooded glance swooped back to the other uneasily waiting cadets “—I will have something to say to you later. In the meantime, tend to these horses. All of them.”
Ardeth’s guard gingerly skirted the Highlord’s sister with eyes averted and thrust their reins into unwilling Knorth hands. The mutter of protest that followed them died under Iron-thorn’s hard eyes. Tired and hungry, the Knorth cadets sullenly followed their Southron ten-commander down the ramp.
The Highlord’s sister was left standing in the middle of the hall. She looked about her at the banners, the battle flags and, above, at the faint glimmer of randon collars hanging on the upper walls.
“So this is Tentir,” said her other companion, looking down his sharp nose at the disheveled, darkening hall.
“Yes,” said his mistress, in quite another tone. “This is Tentir.”
Rue approached them, reminding herself that she had spoken to the Highborn before, but Jameth’s face had been decently masked then. She looked quickly away as the other turned to her.
“If you’ll follow me, lady.”
As they climbed the stairs to the second story Knorth guest quarters, the relentless shout rose again from the training yard outside:
“All right, younglings, rest’s over. Up and run, run, RUN!”