Southern Central Plain, Fal’Borna land, Memory Moon waning, year 1211
He was being hunted. Somehow he had become their prey, like the rilda that grazed on this plain. Except slower. So much slower.
Stam Corfej had been peddling his wares among the Fal’Borna for the better part of eight fours; more than half a lifetime. He knew as well as anyone how hard the white-haired sorcerers of the Central Plain could be. He’d bargained with them, been threatened by them, been called a cheat and a dark-eye bastard and worse. More than once he’d considered giving up on the Qirsi and returning to his native Aelea. A peddler could do well in the Mountain Nation, perhaps not inland, but along her rocky shores, in Redcliff or Yorl.
But it had never taken him long to dismiss the idea of returning to the sovereignty. Whatever gold he might make in Eandi territory he could double and then some trading among the Fal’Borna. He knew the tastes of the golden-skinned clan. He knew their ways, and he knew how to best them in a negotiation.
And while he didn’t particularly like the white-hairs, he had never felt threatened by them. At least not until now.
It was said among peddlers in the Southlands that commerce cared nothing for the color of a man’s eyes. Qirsi and Eandi, white-hair and dark-eye; they had spent nearly a thousand years fighting the Blood Wars, learning from their fathers to hate the other, and passing that lesson along to their children. But when it came to trade, men and women of both races managed to put aside their enmity. Gold was gold. The Qirsi might have thought the Eandi brutish and cruel, but they loved Qosantian honey wine; Eandi nobles cursed the white-hairs and their frightening magic, but they decorated the hilts of their swords and the hands, wrists, and necks of their mistresses with gems from the Nid’Qir.
Stam had done well over the years catering to such appetites. He’d traveled the length and breadth of the Southlands searching for wares that would fetch a good price. He’d traded in the fishing villages of the D’Krad and the woodland towns of the M’Saaren, the shining cities of the H’Bel and the septs of the Fal’Borna, and he had learned a great deal about the likes and dislikes of all the Qirsi clans.
So when he saw those Mettai baskets that Brint Hedfarren was selling at the bend in the wash, where he and his fellow merchants often gathered, he jumped at the chance to buy them. The Mettai were renowned for their basket weaving, and these baskets were as beautiful as any Stam had ever seen. Tightly woven, brilliantly colored, and, best of all, clearly dyed by hand, which increased their value. If Barthal Milensen and Grijed Semlor and Lark hadn’t been there claiming their share, Stam might well have bought every one that Young Red was selling. As it was, he only got twelve.
Who would have guessed that twelve Mettai baskets -- fewer actually, since he still had three in his cart -- could kill so many people? Who would have thought that they could destroy two good-sized septs so quickly and so completely?
That night in the first sept, Stam had no idea what was happening. At first it seemed that the pestilence had come and he assumed that he would fall ill like the Fal’Borna around him. But as the night wore on and the white-hairs began to destroy their z’kals with fire and shaping magic, he realized that whatever illness had struck at the sept was nothing like any pestilence he had ever seen. He fled the village, amazed that he had managed to survive and wanting only to put as much distance as possible between himself and the horrors he had witnessed.
Three nights later, when the same disease struck at another sept he was visiting -- a sept more than eight leagues away from the first -- he began to suspect that this was more than mere coincidence. He still didn’t understand, but he knew that he wanted nothing more to do with white-hairs and their magic.
He decided that he’d lingered too long in the north. He resolved to turn his cart south and make his way to the warm waters of the Ofirean Sea. The Snows were coming; the plain was no place for an old merchant during the cold turns.
A few days later Stam stopped at a Fal’Borna village along the Thraedes River, intending to trade for some food and wine. This wasn’t a sept, but rather a small, walled city, known as H’Nivar. It had once belonged to the Eandi, but it was taken by the white-hairs during the last of the Blood Wars. As Stam approached the north gates of the village, he saw a line of peddlers’ carts stretching in his direction. He slowed, unsure of what to make of the column.
“Pardon, friend,” he called to the trader at the end of the line. “Can you tell me what’s going on here?”
The peddler, an old Eandi man with long grey hair and a full beard, shrugged, puffing on a pipe filled with what smelled like Tordjanni pipeweed.
“Word is, th’ white-hairs are searching all peddlers’ carts.”
The man shrugged again. “Don’ know.”
“Baskets,” came a voice from farther down the column. A young woman peered back at them, the wind making her long red hair dance. “They’re looking for baskets, just like all the Fal’Borna.”
Suddenly, Stam found it hard to draw breath. “Why?” he asked, barely making himself heard.
The woman frowned. “Haven’t you heard about the plague?”
He felt light-headed. “What does the plague have to do with baskets?”
She waved her hand, seeming to dismiss the question. “Probably nothing at all. But you know the Fal’Borna: They’re always looking for some new reason to hate the Eandi.”
“They claim it’s a Mettai curse,” said the merchant in line ahead of the woman. “They think that the Mettai and some merchants have conspired together to destroy them.” He laughed. “As if the Mettai would trust us.”
The woman said something in return. Stam didn’t hear what it was. His mind was racing. Baskets? A plague? A Mettai curse? What had he done? What had Hedfarren done to him? Had it been his baskets that sickened the people in those two settlements? He didn’t understand how it could be possible, but then again, the blood magic of the Mettai had always been a mystery to him.
He shouldn’t have left the way he did. He would have been better off waiting there on line for a while longer before pretending to grow impatient. Then he might have been able to steer his cart away from the city without drawing attention to himself, without giving anyone reason to think that he’d had anything to do with the baskets. He might even have learned more about this curse the others were talking about.
But in that moment, all he could think was that he had to get away from the Fal’Borna as quickly as possible. He’d been dealing with the Qirsi of the plain for years, and he knew just how brutal they could be with their enemies.
And he was their enemy now. He hadn’t intended it; he hadn’t known what he was doing. But they wouldn’t believe that, nor would they care even if they did believe it. He was a dead man.
He turned his cart around and started back the way he had come.
“Hey, where are you going?” asked the man who had been in front of him in line.
Stam didn’t look back. “I have to go.”
“It doesn’t affect us, you know,” the man called to him. “This pestilence. It won’t make you sick. You have nothing to worry about.”
Stam nodded, but he said nothing and he didn’t look back. It was all he could do to keep from using his whip to make Wislo, his cart horse, go faster.
“What an idiot,” he heard the man say to the others.
About the only thing Stam did right that day was turn north rather than immediately striking out eastward, toward the Silverwater Wash and the safety of Eandi land. As a lone rider heading away from the city to the east, he would have been noticed instantly by the guards at the gate. By steering Wislo to the north for a league or so, he was able to use the column of waiting peddlers’ carts to conceal himself from the Fal’Borna.
Not that any of this occurred to him at the time. Instead, his mind was consumed with questions. Had Young Red known when he sold those baskets what they would do to the white-hairs? He had been awfully eager to be rid of them. At the time Stam believed that the young merchant didn’t know the value of his wares, though looking back now he realized how foolish he’d been to think so. Brint Hedfarren, despite his age, was already one of the most successful merchants in the Southlands, a rival for old Torgan Plye himself. Of course he would have recognized the quality of those baskets. He sold them for a bargain price because he wanted to be rid of them. It was the only explanation that made any sense.
Was Hedfarren in league with the Mettai? It seemed a ridiculous question, or rather it would have only a short time before. Now though . . .
He followed the river north from H’Nivar for several hours before realizing that he was making a mistake. He needed to get out of Fal’Borna land, and instead he was driving his cart into the heart of it. He considered his options for a moment or two, but quickly recognized that he had none. To the north lay the septs of the rilda hunters; to the south he’d find only the Ofirean and the great Fal’Borna cities along its shores. The J’Balanar held the lands west of the plain, and though the Fal’Borna and J’Balanar had fought battles in the past, both clans were Qirsi. If the Fal’Borna declared Stam their enemy, he’d be no safer among the J’Balanar than he was here.
He had to turn east and hope that he could cross the Silverwater into Stelpana before the Fal’Borna found him. As soon as he formed this thought, however, he felt his entire body sag. He’d never make it. He was at least thirty leagues from the wash, and with the moons on the wane he’d have little choice but to cross the plain by day and rest at night.
Still, Stam turned his cart, determined to reach the wash or die in the attempt. Once more, he had to resist the urge to drive Wislo too hard. It wouldn’t do to kill the beast before they crossed into Eandi land, and he couldn’t afford to appear to be in too much of a hurry.
He kept an eye out for Fal’Borna riders, septs, and villages. He forced himself to stop periodically so that Wislo could rest and graze and drink from the rills flowing among the grasses. And when he stopped for the night, he made do without a fire, despite the cold. Since he hadn’t reached the H’Nivar marketplace, he was still short on food. But he could do nothing about that now. He would get by on a few bites of dried meat and hard cheese in the mornings and evenings. He had an ample gut; he wouldn’t starve. And with the cold rains that had fallen over the past turn, he’d find plenty of water.
He continued this way for two days, and by grace of the gods, or by dint of skills he hadn’t known he possessed, or thanks simply to sheer dumb luck, he encountered no Fal’Borna. At one point on the second day, he thought he spotted a sept to the north, but he turned slightly southward and drove on, glancing back over his shoulder every few moments, expecting at any moment to see riders bearing down on him.
By the fourth day, Stam had started to convince himself that he would be all right, that the Fal’Borna weren’t even looking for him. Early on he had imagined the other merchants mentioning him to the city guards at H’Nivar, describing his odd behavior and noting that he fled immediately upon hearing of the plague and the baskets. But Eandi merchants had no reason to help white-hairs at the expense of one of their own, no matter how strange they might have thought him. He might still give himself away through some chance encounter with the Qirsi, but he didn’t think he had anything to fear from the merchants.
He had been at a loss as to what to do about his three remaining baskets. Just as he didn’t build a fire for fear of drawing the notice of the Qirsi, he didn’t dare burn the baskets out here on the open plain. Nor could he risk just leaving them in the grass. What if some innocent Fal’Borna came across them and didn’t know the risk? What if it was a child? He didn’t particularly like the Qirsi, but neither did he wish them harm. And he refused to be the cause of any more suffering like that he’d seen in the two septs in which he’d sold Young Red’s baskets.
So he carried them with him, and deep down inside his heart he was glad. They were the only weapons he had that might give him some advantage over the Fal’Borna. He didn’t want to use them this way, but if the Qirsi gave him no choice, he would. At least, that’s what he told himself.
On the sixth morning after he fled the gates of H’Nivar, Stam woke later than usual, his heart pounding in his chest like a war hammer, his stomach tight and sour, his breath coming in great gasps. He’d slept poorly all night and had finally been driven from his slumber by a dream of Qirsi horsemen who pursued him across the plain, laughing harshly at his vain attempts to outrun them with his plow horse. It had been raining lightly when he went to bed so he had slept in the cart. Now, though the sun was shining and it was uncomfortably warm beneath the cloth covering that protected his goods from the elements. He tried to sit up, but his heart still labored and the queasy feeling in his gut seemed to be worsening by the moment.
I’m sick! he thought, fear gripping him by the throat. I’m dying!
He’d believed all this nonsense about a white-hair plague, and now he was going to die of the pestilence out here alone. The bitterness of this irony actually brought tears to his eyes.
For several panic-filled moments, he tried to decide if he was truly dying or if he was just a fool. In the end, he was forced to conclude that he was a fool and that everything he was feeling could be traced to his nerves rather than some disease. He forced himself to get up and crawl out of the cart. He had trouble keeping his balance at first, but the cool air steadied and calmed him. After a few long, deep breaths he began to feel better.
He took a drink of water, which also helped. A bit of food might have been a good idea, too, but he wasn’t quite ready for that.
Stam started toward Wislo, who was grazing a short distance away, and noticed immediately that the old beast looked agitated. He was switching his tail wildly. He held his head high and had his ears laid flat, and he was scraping his hoof in the dirt. Stam stopped and scanned the horizon, a different sort of fear taking hold of him.
“What is it?” he asked in a low voice. “What’s got you upset?”
Wislo shook his head and whinnied.
Stam gazed westward for another few moments, but he saw nothing. He was convinced, however, that something was out there. It could have been wild dogs, which moved south out of the highlands in packs as the Snows approached. It also could have been the Fal’Borna.
He’d never been one to place much faith in his own intuition, but it seemed too great a coincidence that he should wake up feeling as he did and then find Wislo in such a state.
“They’ve found us, haven’t they?” he said. “Or they will have soon enough.”
He made his decision in that moment. If the Fal’Borna caught up with him as he was driving his cart toward the Silverwater, they’d assume the worst. But perhaps he could deceive them.
He led Wislo back to the cart, put the harness on him, and climbed into his seat. And then he started westward, back the way he had come. Perhaps if the Qirsi encountered an Eandi merchant making his way into their land, they’d believe that he had been in the sovereignties all this time. Surely they wouldn’t be able to blame him for anything that had befallen their people during the past turn.
This was Stam’s hope anyway.
Before he and Wislo had covered even half a league, he spotted the riders. There were at least a dozen of them, and they were driving their mounts hard, heading due east on a line a bit north of the one Stam had taken. They seemed to spot him just a moment or two after he spotted them, and they turned right away, thundering toward his cart, their white-hair flying like battle pennons.
They reached him in mere moments, reining their horses to a halt a short distance in front of him and brandishing spears.
“Stop right there, dark-eye,” one of the men called to him.
He was broad and muscular, with golden skin and bright yellow eyes. He might have been a few years older than his fellow riders, but otherwise there was little that distinguished one of the riders from the others. For all the years Stam had spent among the Qirsi clans, learning their ways and taking their gold, he had never figured out how to tell one Fal’Borna from another, or one J’Balanar from another of his kind.
“Greetings,” he said, raising a hand. He was pleased to hear how steady his voice sounded.
“What are you doing in Fal’Borna land, Eandi?”
Stam let his hand fall to his side. He thought this an odd question, but he tried to keep his tone light. “I’m a merchant.”
“Do you think we’re fools? Of course you’re a merchant. But what are you doing here?”
He opened his mouth to answer, hesitated, then repeated, “I’m a merchant.”
The Qirsi and the rider next to him shared a look.
“Where have you come from?” the second man asked.
Stam had never been a very good liar, so he thought it best to keep his answers simple. He almost said, “Aelea,” but that would have put him too close to Mettai lands. Instead, he said, “Stelpana.”
For some reason, this seemed to pique the Fal’Borna’s interest. “Where in Stelpana?”
He felt a bead of sweat trickle from his right temple. “Nowhere in particular. I just visited a few villages along the east bank of the Silverwater.”
“And how many days ago did you cross?”
Stam hesitated, chewing his lip. He wasn’t exactly sure how far he’d come since leaving H’Nivar, and he didn’t know how many days’ travel he was from the wash.
“I . . . maybe . . . I don’t know. Three days?”
Again the Fal’Borna exchanged looks.
“Three days,” the first man repeated.
Stam nodded. His mouth had gone dry.
“What goods are you carrying?”
The one question he’d been dreading most.
“The usual. Blankets, blades, cloth, some jewelry, a few flasks of wine.”
“A couple, yes.”
Their bearing changed. Clearly they’d already been suspicious of him; now they appeared to grip their spears tighter, to regard him with open hostility.
“Where did you get them?” the first man demanded in a hard voice.
“I traded for them with another merchant.”
“I . . . I don’t remember. It wasn’t someone I’d met before.”
The Fal’Borna frowned. “Where was this?”
He felt as if he were sinking in mud. Every lie he told seemed to compound the last one, and he was having more and more trouble remembering what he had said a moment before.
“One of the villages,” he said. “In Stelpana.”
“You’ve had them long?”
“No. Just a few days.”
“I take it these are Mettai baskets.”
He nodded. “Yes.”
“Why would you bring them into Fal’Borna lands now?”
“T-to trade. I’m a merchant. That’s what I do. But I can leave. I can turn back, if you want me to.”
The first man shook his head. “Get off your cart.”
“Off!” the man said, his voice like a smith’s sledge.
Stam hurriedly climbed off the cart, his legs trembling. The Fal’Borna nodded to two of his riders. Immediately the men jumped off their mounts, strode over to Wislo, and unharnessed him.
“What are you doing?” Stam asked.
“We’re going to burn your cart, and we don’t wish harm your animal.”
“No!” Stam said. “You can’t!”
The man grinned darkly. “No? Perhaps you’d prefer that we search your cart. Perhaps you’d like us to handle those baskets you’re carrying. Isn’t that why you brought them here?”
Did they know that he’d been in their land all this time? Did they know what had happened to the septs he visited?
“I . . . I don’t mean your people any harm. I never have. You must believe me.”
“I don’t. If you’ve just come from Stelpana, then you know that your people and mine will soon be at war, if we’re not already.”
Stam’s eyes widened.
“That’s right, Eandi. We know about the army your people are gathering on the other side of the Silverwater. We also know about your alliance with the Mettai.”
Stam had no idea what to say. He wasn’t even sure that he believed the man. An army? An alliance with the Mettai? It made no sense. Why would the Eandi sovereignties attack the Fal’Borna? Why would his people risk the resumption of the Blood Wars?
The hatred that divided Qirsi from Eandi was as old as Qirsar and Ean, the gods who had created the people of this land. The two gods -- who were both brothers and rivals -- had instilled in the people their enmity for each other. Eandi fear of Qirsi magic was rooted in the earth, like the mountains of Aelea and the woodlands of Tordjanne. The Qirsis’ contempt for the Eandi was as fundamental to life on this plain as water and air. The Blood Wars had been over for a century, but the truce that followed had done nothing to change the way white-hairs and dark-eyes regarded one another.
But during the last century of the old wars, the Qirsi had beaten the Eandi armies in battle after battle. They’d taken the fertile land of the Horn, pushing the warriors of Stelpana back across the Thraedes. And then they’d gradually taken the Central Plain as well, forcing the Eandi to cede more territory, until at last the white-hairs held everything west of the Silverwater.
Now, according to this man before him, the Eandi were planning an attack. It made no sense. Or did it?
“They’ve allied themselves with the Mettai?” he asked. “You’re sure of this?”
The Fal’Borna bristled. “You think I’m lying?”
“No, of course not. I just . . .” He shook his head. “I don’t understand why they’d do this.”
“Your kind hate us. Isn’t that enough?”
But it wasn’t enough. Yes, the Eandi of the sovereignties hated the Qirsi, and they hated the Fal’Borna most of all. But to send thousands of men to their deaths . . .
They must have believed they had a chance to succeed. Was the magic of the Mettai that powerful? Could it win this new war for them?
“Step away from your cart, dark-eye. Unless you want to burn with your baskets and the rest of your wares.”
It hit him like a fist to the stomach, stealing his wind, nearly making him gag. Young Red’s baskets. That was why the Eandi were attacking now. From the way the merchants at H’Nivar spoke of this white-hair plague Stam gathered that it was sweeping across the land, destroying septs and villages just as it had those he visited.
“Move, dark-eye!” the Fal’Borna barked at him.
Stam staggered forward, away from his cart. After just a few steps, though, he stopped. “Wait. My gold.”
“Your gold will burn along with everything else. The fires we conjure spare nothing.”
“But that’s all I have. How will I live?”
The man regarded him, the look in his eyes so cold it made Stam shudder. “You won’t,” he said.
Stam felt his legs give way. If it hadn’t been for the Fal’Borna warrior beside him, who grabbed him by the arm, he would have fallen to the ground.
“I don’t deserve to die,” he said. “I’m just a merchant.”
“You’re an Eandi, and your people are about to invade our lands. You’ve just crossed the Silverwater carrying baskets that you know will kill us. You truly expect us to spare your life?”
The man narrowed his eyes. “You didn’t what?”
Stam straightened and pulled his arm free of the warrior’s grip. If he was going to be executed, he’d die with his pride intact. He wouldn’t let the white-hairs hold him up, and he wouldn’t be killed with a lie on his lips.
“I didn’t just cross the Silverwater. I lied to you.”
“What do you mean?” the Fal’Borna demanded. “Why would you lie about such a thing?”
Stam actually laughed. “I thought I was saving my life.”
The man stared back at him, a stony expression on his square face.
“I’ve been trading on the plain for nearly half the year. The last time I was in one of the sovereignties the Growing hadn’t even begun. I lied to you because I sold baskets in two villages that were then struck by the wh--” He winced at what he’d almost said. “By this pestilence that’s killing your people.”
The Fal’Borna glared at him. “If you’re arguing for your life--”
“I’m not. I’m simply telling you the truth. I didn’t know what the baskets would do. It took the second outbreak of the pestilence for me to begin to understand, and even then I needed to hear other merchants speaking of it in H’Nivar before I finally made the connection.”
“When was this?”
“A few days ago. I’ve been trying to reach the Silverwater ever since.”
The man shook his head. “But this morning--”
“This morning I sensed that you were near, so I turned around and pretended to be driving onto the plain instead of leaving it. If I had known that war was coming . . .” Stam shook his head. “I don’t know what I would have done, but I wouldn’t have bothered with this deception.”
“You know that we still intend to kill you.”
Stam nodded, taking a long, unsteady breath. He wasn’t ready to die. Then again, he wasn’t sure he ever would be. His had been a good life. Suddenly his eyes were filled with tears.
The Fal’Borna eyed him briefly. Then he faced Stam’s cart. An instant later the cart burst into flames, the wood popping violently, the cloth that covered his wares turning black and curling like a dry leaf. Wislo had been led away from the cart, but still he reared when it caught fire.
Stam was surprised by how little smoke there was. The Fal’Borna was right: Qirsi fire burned everything.
“There are more baskets, you know,” Stam said, staring at the blaze. “I wasn’t the only merchant who bought them.”
“We know that. We’ll find the others.”
“And you’ll kill those merchants, too?”
“We’re at war,” the Qirsi said, as if the answer was obvious. “The Fal’Borna won the plain by showing no mercy to our enemies. We’ll defend our land the same way.”
“We’re merchants, for pity’s sake! We didn’t intend--”
“Enough,” the man said. He didn’t raise his voice, but he didn’t have to. “Your death will be quicker than those of the Fal’Borna you sickened with your baskets. Think of that as you go to Bian’s realm.”
Stam wanted to be brave, to die well, as he had heard soldiers phrase it. But he couldn’t help the sob that escaped him in that moment.
Abruptly he felt pressure building on the bone in his neck. He tensed, opened his mouth to scream. But no sound passed his lips. Instead he heard, as clear as a sanctuary bell, the snapping of bone. And all was darkness.
Stelpana, along the eastern bank of the Silverwater Wash
Tirnya Onjaef had done everything in her power to make certain that the army of Qalsyn reached the Silverwater Wash by this day. It had been her idea to attack the Fal’Borna. She had recognized the spread of the white-hair plague across the Central Plain for what it was: a unique opportunity to win back for the people of Stelpana the lands lost to the Qirsi during the Blood Wars, and to reclaim for her family its ancestral home of Deraqor. She had persuaded her father, Jenoe, a marshal in the Qalsyn army, to use his considerable influence to push for this invasion. And it had also been her idea to propose an alliance with the Mettai, the Eandi sorcerers of the north. This strategy finally convinced His Lordship, Maisaak Tolm, Qalsyn’s lord governor, to let them march.
This was to be her war. When at last the armies of Stelpana defeated the Fal’Borna and reestablished the Central Plain as Eandi territory, the lion’s share of the glory would be hers as well. She stood on the cusp of history. And never in her life had she been so bored.
They’d been camped along this shallow stretch of the wash for two days, awaiting the arrival of the army from Fairlea, the largest city in northern Stelpana. This was one of two armies Stelpana’s sovereign had sent to supplement the force that marched from Qalsyn under the command of Tirnya’s father. The other army, from the southern city of Waterstone, had arrived the same day as Jenoe’s soldiers.
Tirnya had never been patient. Her father still told anyone who would listen the story of the first year she attended Qalsyn’s famed Harvest Battle Tournament. She was three years old at the time and already headstrong. Sitting with her mother and hundreds of spectators, waiting for the first match to begin, she had finally grown so irritated that she stood on her seat and screamed as loud as she could, “When is someone going to fight?” Even His Lordship had laughed, though he was a thoroughly humorless man who despised Tirnya’s father.
If anything, Tirnya found it harder to wait now than she did when she was young. She prided herself on being punctual, on following orders, and on demanding the same of those under her command. She had little tolerance for those who weren’t as conscientious as she.
In this case, though, her own annoyance was the least of her concerns. The Snows were almost upon them. Already cold winds blew out of the north. In another turn or two, these winds would strengthen and bring with them wicked storms from the lofty peaks of the Border Range. An invasion of Fal’Borna lands held tremendous risks any time of year. The Qirsi rilda hunters were fierce warriors and accomplished sorcerers. Fighting them on the plain during the Snows would have been unthinkable under any other circumstances.
But the plague was striking at the Fal’Borna now. No one knew for certain how long its effects would last. Tirnya and her father couldn’t afford to wait for the warmer turns of the Planting. By that time their opportunity would have vanished, and Deraqor might be lost to the Onjaefs for another century. Every day that they waited brought the Snows that much closer, and gave the Fal’Borna another chance to find a cure for this illness that had weakened them. For now, as well, the Fal’Borna didn’t know of their plans, or if they did, they hadn’t yet had time to gather an army of their own and send it to the Silverwater. That advantage wouldn’t last forever.
Jenoe might have been as eager as she to cross the river and begin their march toward Deraqor and the Horn, but he didn’t show it. After waiting a few hours the first day they reached the wash, he suggested that they make the most of the delay by using the time to train their soldiers. Hendrid Crish, the marshal of the Waterstone army, agreed, and soon captains from both armies were leading their soldiers in drills.
The Mettai, who had marched with Jenoe’s army from their village of Lifarsa near Porcupine Lake, kept to themselves but watched the soldiers from afar.
Tirnya trained with the rest that first day, but by the middle of the second morning, she had become too agitated to do much more than watch the eastern horizon for signs of the Fairlea army. She left it to her lead riders to train her men. As darkness fell that night she went to speak to her father. She was so angry that she couldn’t help raising her voice, even though Marshal Crish was there with Jenoe.
“They’re going to make a mess of this, Father!” she said, raking a hand through her long hair. “We can’t wait much longer.”
Jenoe had merely shrugged. “There’s nothing I can do. I’m sure they’ll get here before long. Until then, we’ll train.”
He was right, of course. They couldn’t do anything at all. But that only served to make her angrier. She stalked off without saying more, and bedded down before most of her men had finished eating their suppers. She lay huddled in her blankets for a long time before falling asleep, and awoke frequently during the night, thinking each time that she had heard the sounds of an approaching army.
On this, the third day since their arrival at the camp, they woke to dark skies and a heavy, wet snow. Again, Tirnya’s father called for the men to train. When they complained, he said “We may have to fight the Fal’Borna in weather like this. Best we’re ready for it.”
Again Tirnya kept apart from her men, gazing eastward, shivering within her riding cloak.
“You should train with them.”
She turned at the sound of the voice, but quickly looked away.
Enly Tolm. He was Maisaak’s son, lord heir of Qalsyn. He was also a captain in Qalsyn army, just like her. And once, not so very long ago, he had been her lover.
Of all those in her city with whom she had discussed her plans for this invasion he had argued against it the most vehemently. It was madness to risk a new Blood War, he said. They could never overcome the magic of the Fal’Borna; they were destined to fail. Yet, when His Lordship gave them permission to march, Enly asked that he be allowed to accompany them. He’d claimed that he wished only to help them succeed, but Tirnya suspected that he was driven primarily by his lingering affection for her.
Since leaving Qalsyn she had avoided him as much as possible. He was arrogant and an ass, and she wasn’t interested in hearing him argue that they should abandon their mission and return to the city. As for any feelings she might have had for him . . . That had ended long ago.
“You look cold,” he said. “You should join your men. It’ll warm you up.”
“You’re not training,” she said, still facing east.
“I was. I came to see if perhaps you wanted me to keep you warm.”
She smirked and shook her head. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“I should think.”
“Go away, Enly.”
“Maybe they’re not coming,” he said, standing beside her and gazing to the east as well. “They might have decided that this was folly, and that they’d be better off staying in Fairlea.”
“The sovereign ordered them to march. They’ll be here.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. The Ballidynes have a reputation for defying authority and keeping their own counsel.”
She looked at him. “Do you know them?”
“I’ve met Shon, the lord governor, a few times. He’s been a guest in my father’s palace, and we visited Fairlea several years back.” He glanced at her. “If you think I’m an ass, you should meet Shon. He makes my father seem gracious. And the lord heir is even worse.” Enly cringed. “Gods, you don’t suppose Shon will send him, do you?”
Tirnya grinned. “I hadn’t given any thought to who he might send. But if this man bothers you that much, I hope he does.”
“It’s not funny,” he said, scowling. “Gries is condescending, smug, and ambitious to a fault. I was kidding when I said they might not come. They’re probably keeping us waiting just to show us that they can, to make it clear to your father that he won’t have authority over them. But they’ll show up eventually. If they believe there’s even the slightest chance that they can improve their standing or add to their treasury, they’ll be here. It’s true of Shon and doubly so of the son. He’d make a terrible commander, and a dangerous ally.”
“He sounds like you.”
“He’s nothing like me.”
Tirnya raised an eyebrow, the smile still on her lips. “Why do I get the feeling that this man -- Gries? Is that his name?”
“Why do I get the feeling that he’s exceedingly good-looking?”
He looked away.
Tirnya laughed. “I knew it! I bet he’s an excellent swordsman, too.”
“He is,” Enly said, his voice flat.
“Better than you?” She leaned forward trying to look him in the eye. “Enly, has he beaten you?”
He turned to face her. “No!” he said. “He did not beat me. We drew blood at the same time. Both of our fathers agreed that we did.”
Tirnya stared at him open-mouthed. “He drew blood? Against you? I’ll have to ask him how he did that.”
“I’m serious, Tirnya. I know you’d do just about anything to make a fool of me, but Gries is . . . You shouldn’t trust him. And if he really is in command of Fairlea’s soldiers, you should warn your father to be wary of any counsel he offers. He’s reckless.”
She rarely saw him this way: earnest, almost pleading with her to take him seriously. Most of the time Enly used his wit and his bravado to conceal his feelings. And though usually her first impulse was to poke fun, this time she felt compelled to reassure him.
“My father’s a wise man,” she said. “He’ll weigh carefully any advice Gries gives him, just as he does the advice he gets from you and me.”
Enly nodded, but his lips were pressed thin, his brow creased.
“If you’re so concerned about it, you should speak with my father yourself.”
He shook his head. “The lord heir of one house can’t be overheard speaking ill of his counterpart in a rival family. It would be . . . unseemly.”
“You spoke ill of him to me.”
Enly met her gaze, but only briefly. “Yes, I did. And I trust that when you tell your father about our conversation, you’ll be discreet.”
Tirnya almost made a joke of this, but again she could see that to Enly this was no laughing matter.
“Of course I will,” she told him.
He still didn’t look mollified.
“His father probably won’t even send him,” Tirnya said. “We’re a long way from Fairlea, and as you’ve told me time and again, marching to war against the Fal’Borna is pretty dangerous.”
Enly shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Gries will be leading them. I meant what I said before: he’s reckless. He’d risk his life and the lives of his men if he had a chance to bring glory to House Ballidyne.”
“You really hate him, don’t you? I’ve never heard you speak of anyone this way. I think it’s a good thing I didn’t beat you in this year’s Harvest Tournament.”
“I told you he didn’t beat me! And besides that has nothing to do with it. I’d hate him even if we’d never fought.”
“I find that hard to believe. You Tolms hate to lose at anything. You don’t even like it when--”
“There they are.”
Tirnya spun to look in the direction Enly was pointing. Far in the distance, cresting a small hill, she saw the army, easily a thousand men strong. They marched under two banners: the blue, white, and green of Stelpana, and a second flag of blue and black that must have been the sigil of House Ballidyne.
“I have to tell Father,” she said, hurrying back toward the camp.
She stopped, turned.
“Don’t let anyone else hear what I said about Gries.”
“I promise,” she said, and went in search of her father.
By the time Tirnya found Jenoe, he already knew that the Fairlea army had been spotted. His cheeks were flushed and his face was covered with a fine sheen of sweat, but he was grinning. He enjoyed training, even out here in the middle of nowhere.
“You should have worked with your men,” he said, as soon as he saw her. “Your watching for them didn’t make them get here any sooner.”
“You’re humoring me,” he said, with a slight frown.
They started walking to the east edge of the camp, where they would greet the soldiers of Fairlea.
Tirnya was eager to share with Jenoe all that Enly had told her about House Ballidyne, but Stri Balkett and several of Jenoe’s other captains were walking just behind them. Instead she asked her father what he knew about the lord governor and his son.
“Not much, really. I met Shon when he came to Qalsyn. You were young at the time -- I don’t think you’d finished your third four. He struck me as being a rather difficult man,” he went on, lowering his voice and glancing back to see that the captains wouldn’t overhear. “I think that he and Maisaak got on quite well, if you follow my meaning.”
She smiled. “I think I do. What about his son?”
“The older one, you mean? Gries?”
“I’ve never met him. Why?”
She felt her cheeks redden. “No reason. Enly seemed to think that he might be commanding this army.”
“He might be at that,” Jenoe said, apparently oblivious to her discomfort.
Enly was waiting for them at the east end of camp, and he raised a hand in salute to the marshal.
“Captain,” Jenoe said. “Tirnya tells me you expect the lord heir to be at the head of the Fairlea army.”
Enly shot Tirnya a quick look, but then nodded to her father. “Yes, sir. I think it’s possible.”
Jenoe looked out at the approaching army. “It hadn’t occurred to me that the lord governor would send him, but I think you’re right. That’s Gries leading them, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Enly said, his tone betraying little. “I believe it is.”
The northern army was close enough now that Tirnya could see the man clearly. He was tall and lean, with curly yellow hair and a long, angular face. He wore a simple brown riding cloak over a surcoat of blue and black, and he had a leather baldric slung over his back. Even from this distance, even with the skies dull, Tirnya could see the jeweled hilt of his sword gleaming just above his left shoulder, within easy reach of his right hand. This weapon and his impressive white horse, which he rode with easy grace, were all that marked him as anyone more than a simple army captain.
Tirnya could see immediately why Enly would dislike this man. He was handsome, he looked like someone who had grown accustomed to success, and he didn’t appear to lack for confidence. Once more she couldn’t help thinking that he and Enly were probably very much alike.
The man riding just behind Ballidyne’s lord heir said something that made Gries laugh. He had a good smile; strong, nothing held back. She found it hard to believe that this was the man Enly had described just a short time before. She glanced his way and found that Enly was already watching her, frowning, probably reading her thoughts. She looked away.
Before long, Gries and his army reached the wash. The Ballidyne captain dismounted, walked to Jenoe, and dropped to one knee. The other captains and lead riders in his army had climbed off their horses as well, and now every man from Fairlea followed Gries’s example and knelt before the marshal.
“Well met, Captain,” Jenoe said, stepping forward.
“Marshal Onjaef,” Gries said in a clear, ringing voice. “The army of Fairlea is here to give whatever aid it can. We are yours to command.”
“Thank you, Captain. We’re honored to march alongside the soldiers of your fine city. Please rise, all of you.”
Gries stood and the two men embraced, drawing cheers from every soldier there.
“We number twelve hundred, Marshal,” Gries said, his tone crisp. “One hundred or so are mounted, the rest are on foot. My father and I agreed that we’d be better off against the Fal’Borna if we had more bowmen than swordsmen. So we marched with seven hundred archers. That’s why we’re late in arriving. We already had the bows, but laborers worked night and day to fill our quivers. I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”
Jenoe smiled. “No apology is necessary, Captain. We’re pleased to have you here.” He indicated Enly with an open hand. “I believe you know Qalsyn’s lord heir, Enly Tolm.”
Gries grinned and extended a hand, which Enly took with obvious reluctance. “It’s good to see you again, Enly. I’m sure I’ll enjoy fighting alongside you a great deal more than I did fighting against you.”
“And this is my daughter, Tirnya. She’s one of my captains.”
Gries faced her, still smiling. Gods, he was handsome.
“Captain Onjaef. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Jenoe introduced Ballidyne’s lord heir to Stri and the other captains. Gries was every bit as gracious with them as he had been with Tirnya and Enly.
Tirnya caught Enly’s eye while this was going on and gave a small shrug, as if to say, “I thought you told me he was a monster.”
She could see that Enly wanted to say something, probably about how she was too easily taken in by a winning smile and large, deep brown eyes. But in the end he merely shook his head and looked away.
When Jenoe had finished his introductions, he instructed Gries to have his men make camp beside the armies of Qalsyn and Waterstone.
“We’re eager to cross the Silverwater and begin our march toward the Horn,” the marshal said. “But you and your soldiers have come a long way. We can begin our march westward tomorrow.”
“With all due respect, Marshal, that’s not necessary.”
Jenoe hesitated, eyeing the man doubtfully.
“We’ve kept you waiting long enough,” Gries went on. He glanced at Tirnya and the others. “All of you. It’s only midday. Even with the time it will take you and your men to break camp, we can still cross the wash and cover another league before nightfall.”
Tirnya caught her father’s eye and nodded.
“Very well,” the marshal said. “Thank you, Captain Ballidyne.” He turned to Waterstone’s marshal and the other captains. “You heard him. Let’s break camp. I want to be moving as soon as possible.”
For the next hour, the camp was like a bee hive, teeming with activity. The tents of the two marshals were dismantled and packed away, riding horses were saddled, cart horses were harnessed to the wagons that held provisions, and finally soldiers arrayed themselves in their companies. They were ready to go so quickly, that already Tirnya was wondering if before darkness fell they might cover two leagues rather than one.
Then they commenced their fording of the wash.
This section of the river, known as Enka’s Shallows, had been used for crossings by Eandi armies during the Blood Wars. The Silverwater was wider here, and so its waters were slower and relatively shallow. Still, the wash was one of the major waterways of the Southlands; even during the driest turns of the Growing its waters were powerful and treacherous. And with the rains that had fallen recently, its current had strengthened.
Two dozen riders were sent across the wash with heavy rope, which they were to stake to the ground on the far bank. Those on foot would then use the ropes to resist the current as they crossed. But from the start, little went as they had intended. Three of the mounts under those first riders lost their footing and were swept downstream. All three horsemen managed to right their horses before they were lost, but clearly Tirnya and her father had underestimated the difficulty of this crossing. If horses struggled to make it, the foot soldiers would have a terrible time.
Jenoe ordered a dozen more riders across with what remained of their rope. Tirnya was to lead this second group and after securing her piece of rope to her saddle, she urged Thirus, her sorrel, into the waters. The other riders followed, all of them upstream of Tirnya. The bank of the wash was steep and no sooner had Thirus plunged into the river than it was up to Tirnya’s thighs. The water was frigid, and it tore a gasp from her lungs. How could anyone hope to wade across on foot?
She wanted to shout to her father that they needed to find another way across, even if it meant marching south to N’Kiel’s Span, but Thirus had begun to struggle against the current and was having trouble keeping his footing in the soft silt of the riverbed. Twice the beast stumbled and was nearly pulled under, but both times Tirnya managed to right him. She spoke to him, trying to keep him calm, but she could feel him growing more agitated by the moment.
She heard someone cry out just to the right of her. Another horse had stumbled as well, and its rider wasn’t as fortunate as Tirnya had been. The horse went under briefly, broke the surface of the water again, and began to thrash wildly. The rider, a young captain from Waterstone, was unseated.
Tirnya saw him go under, his eyes wide with fear and shock. He thrust his hand up out of the water in a desperate attempt to grab the rope that trailed from Tirnya’s saddle, but he missed. At the same time, she leaned back as far as she could and reached for him, brushing his fingers with her own. Again Thirus stumbled, and Tirnya lost her grip on the reins. She heard someone behind her shout her name -- Enly, probably. She slipped off the saddle, but managed to grab hold of the pommel before being taken by the waters.
The water was so cold she could barely draw breath, which was the only reason she didn’t let go and swim after the young captain. She could see him still, flailing in the current, clearly trying to swim back to the east bank. But the stream was too strong, the water too frigid.
And then she saw something out of the corner of her eye that lifted her heart. A figure on horseback thundered southward along the riverbank after the captain. The horse was white, and she knew without looking that the rider must be Gries. The captain’s efforts to swim to safety were growing weaker by the moment. He had to be growing weary, and Tirnya didn’t expect that he could even remain conscious in water this cold for very long. He was also nearing the end of the shallows. Another hundred fourspans or so, and he’d be lost to swifter waters.
Gries drove his mount hard, but for several moments Tirnya doubted that he could reach the man in time. Yet somehow he did. He drew even with the captain, passed him, and then steered his mount into the water, halting directly in the captain’s path. With a great effort the captain raised a hand. Gries grasped at it, lost his grip, reached for him again. And this time he managed to hold on to the man.
Tirnya heard a mighty cheer from the men behind her, and knew a moment of profound relief. The captain had been her responsibility, and she’d nearly lost him. Only a turn before, she had lost two of her men in a skirmish with some road brigands. She had grieved for days afterward, and she still found it difficult not to blame herself for their deaths. Losing this man as well might have been more than she could bear.
Confident that the captain was safe, she tried to haul herself out of the water and back onto Thirus, to whose saddle she still clung. But the cold water had weakened her, too, and her clothes weighed her down. Her arms felt leaden; her legs were growing numb. She tried a second time to climb onto her mount, and this time succeeded in getting her leg over Thirus’s back.
Just as she did, she heard splashing behind her. Looking back, she saw that Enly had ridden his bay into the wash.
“What are you doing?” she asked him, breathless from her struggle to get out of the water.
“I was coming to help you.”
She pulled herself the rest of the way onto her horse and took hold on the reins again. She was shivering violently, her teeth chattering, but she was safe.
“I’m all right,” she said.
“You’re freezing.” He reached for her reins. “Let me help you to the other bank.”
“I don’t need help,” she told him again, her tone hardening. She exhaled and closed her eyes, then looked at him again. When next she spoke it was in a softer voice. “Thank you. But really I’m fine.”
Enly looked hurt, but he nodded and started back to shore. Tirnya continued on to the other side of the wash and upon reaching it spurred Thirus out of the water and onto solid ground. He was as exhausted as she, but he managed to gain his footing on the steep embankment. The other riders had already reached land and were driving their stakes into the ground and tying off the ropes. Tirnya did so as well.
Then she straightened and gazed back across the river. Gries had just reached the armies again. Those remaining on the opposite bank were cheering both the lord heir and the captain he had saved. Several men helped the young captain off Gries’s horse and one threw a blanket around his shoulders. Jenoe was there with the others and he offered Gries his hand. The marshal grinned broadly and said something; no doubt he was complimenting the man on his quick thinking and bravery.
Enly still sat his horse a short distance from them, his britches darkened and dripping. He stared at Gries and the others, but he didn’t go near them. After a moment, he gazed in Tirnya’s direction. Seeing that she was watching him, he turned his mount and rode away from the water’s edge.
With the ropes finally in place, the foot soldiers and the Mettai who were marching with them were able to make their way across the river. It was slow going, and by the time the men and women reached the western bank, they barely had the strength to climb up out of the riverbed and onto the grass of the plain. But no one else was carried downstream by the current, and even the carts bearing their provisions forded the wash without incident. Still, by the time everyone had crossed, the sky had begun to darken. Not that it mattered. No one had the strength to march deeper into Fal’Borna land on this day. They made camp for the night barely a hundred four-spans from where the armies of Qalsyn and Waterstone had slept the night before.
Since leaving their home in Lifarsa, near the Companion Lakes, Fayonne and her people had been largely ignored by the Eandi warriors with whom they marched. Not that Fayonne had expected more. As eldest of the Mettai village, she had dealt with plenty of Eandi merchants and the occasional Eandi army captain. All of them were arrogant. All of them treated her and her people with disdain.
It hadn’t surprised her this day when, after crossing the Silverwater Wash, the army captains had nearly reclaimed their ropes before she and the other Mettai had a chance to cross the river. Naturally the Eandi let them cross, and Marshal Onjaef even had the courtesy to apologize to her for the oversight. But she thought it typical Eandi behavior.
Still, she didn’t regret at all her decision to march to war with these people. She knew that those who had come with her from Lifarsa felt the same way. The Eandi, too, had seemed to understand their eagerness to leave the village. How could they not? The ramshackle houses, the stunted crops, the half-starved beasts grazing on wisps of grass. Probably they thought her a poor leader. Probably they were asking themselves, “How could any eldest allow her people to suffer so? How could she have done nothing while her village died?”
Let them ask. What did they know of her kind, and how they had suffered? They couldn’t possibly understand what afflicted Lifarsa. Nor did they have to. The Eandi needed Mettai magic if they had any hope of defeating the Fal’Borna in this war of theirs. Fayonne and her people needed the land they hoped to take from the white-hairs. Nothing else mattered.
After fording the river, she and the other Mettai made camp a short distance away from the Eandi, as they always did. They remained close enough that if the marshal needed to speak with Fayonne, he or his officers could find her with relative ease. But the Eandi soldiers seemed happiest when the Mettai kept their distance, and Fayonne felt the same way.
Still, they were close enough that they couldn’t escape the aroma of roasting meat from the Eandi camp. Clearly the Eandi had no trouble killing game here on the plain.
Mander had accompanied her, as was proper, since as her son he would lead the village some day. She had sent him and his friends to hunt, hoping that perhaps the luck of the Eandi would rub off on them. He returned sometime later, looking glum and resentful.
“Nothing?” she asked as he approached.
He shook his head. “The warriors killed deer, fowl, even a few boar.”
He laughed mirthlessly. “Rabbits. Nearly a dozen of them.”
Fayonne shrugged. Rabbits were better than nothing. A dozen would be enough to give the fifty Mettai who had marched with them a taste of meat, and to put something other than boiled root and stale bread in their bellies.
“I thought it would be better once we were away from Lifarsa,” Mander said, staring at the small fire she had lit with magic.
“It may get better. Be patient.”
A frown creased his brow. He was so much like his father. Not only his looks -- the dark eyes and long black hair, his long, sharp features and lanky build -- but also his refusal to cling to false hope. Even as a child, Mander had preferred a hard truth to an easy lie. Just like his father. Tawno would have been proud of the man his boy had become.
“It’s not going to be any better, Mama. We both know that.”
“No,” Fayonne said, “we don’t. We have leagues to go before we settle again. Distance may be our ally in this. And who knows what a century and a half of white-hair magic has done to this land. Anything is possible. It’s good that you’re sensible, but you must allow for some hope.”
He nodded, still grim-faced.
“The others need to believe it’s possible, Mander,” the eldest said, dropping her voice and looking around to see that no one was listening. “Don’t take that away from them. Not so soon.”
“I won’t,” he said. “And I won’t give up. Not yet.”
“Good. With all our people have been through--”
Before Fayonne could say more, Mander touched her arm lightly and pointed toward the Eandi camp, a warning in his eyes.
She saw the man a moment later. Her eyes weren’t as keen as they once had been.
The Eandi walking toward them had been with the marshal and his daughter the day the army first reached Lifarsa. At the time Marshal Onjaef had given the man’s name, but Fayonne had forgotten it. She did remember, however, that he was lord heir of Qalsyn and the son of the marshal’s lord governor. She also recalled that of the three who had dined with them in Lifarsa that night, this man had seemed least willing to forge this alliance. He had asked Fayonne why she and her people were so eager to leave the village, and he had appeared unsatisfied by her vague answer.
Fayonne stood as the man approached. An instant later Mander rose as well.
“Good evening, Eldest,” the Eandi said. “I hope I’m not disturbing you.”
“Not at all, my lord.”
A thin smile crossed the man’s features for just a moment.
“Please call me captain or Enly.”
“Very well. What can I do for you, Captain?”
“May I sit?”
Fayonne and Mander lowered themselves to the ground once more. The captain sat opposite them, on the far side of the fire.
The man cleared his throat. “I was wondering if you might be willing to tell me a bit more about your village.”
Fayonne felt that Mander was watching her, but she kept her eyes locked on those of the Eandi.
“There’s little to tell,” she said. “I’ve been eldest of Lifarsa for nearly two fours now. Before that, it was a man named Gav. He was a farmer, like me, though he also had a smithy. Before him--”
“Forgive me,” the captain said. “I’m not . . .” He stopped, frowning. “I won’t claim to know many Mettai. But those I’ve encountered have always been tied to the land around the lakes. They consider it their ancestral home. The other Mettai we spoke to refused to help us, and had no interest in leaving. But you . . .”
“You told us much the same thing the night you ate as our guests in Lifarsa.”
“I remember,” the man said. “And you said that not all Mettai are the same.”
“If you ask me again tonight, I’ll tell you the same thing.” She raised an eyebrow. “You think I’m wrong?”
“I think that most Mettai are the same when it comes to their feelings about their land and about involving themselves in a new Blood War.”
“Do you want our help, Captain?” Fayonne asked. “Clearly the marshal and his daughter do, but do you?”
He exhaled. “I don’t know. I . . .” He stopped himself, looked away. “I don’t know,” he repeated.
Fayonne opened her hands. “Then I don’t know what to tell you. You want me to be just like the other Mettai you’ve met, few though they may be. But you’re nothing like Marshal Onjaef, or his daughter, or the other Eandi captains you ride with. They want to use our magic against the Fal’Borna. They trust that we’ll honor our side of the agreement we reached with you. And they’re right to trust us. We will shed our blood for you. We’ll draw upon our magic and do everything in our power to fight the white-hairs. What more do you need to know?”
The captain stared at her across the fire.
“I suppose you’re right,” he said. “That’s all that matters. Tirnya and the marshal have been telling me the same thing for days.” He climbed to his feet. “Forgive me. Good night.” He nodded once to Mander and walked back toward the Eandi camp.
For a long time Fayonne and her son said nothing. The eldest watched the man recede into the darkness and when she couldn’t see him anymore, she lowered her gaze to the fire. Eandi men sang in the distance, a song she didn’t know. She heard laughter from the warriors nearest to the Mettai camp. Her people were quiet, though she could hear the murmur of a few conversations.
“He won’t be content with those answers forever,” Mander said so quietly that his words barely reached her.
Fayonne shook her head. “He doesn’t have to be. We’ll march, we’ll fight, and then this will be over. Hopefully we’ll live and the Eandi will win and we’ll have new land to settle. But whatever happens, he only has to leave us alone for a short while.”
“Listen to me,” she said, turning to face him. He looked so young in the firelight, just like Tawno when she first fell in love with him. “The Eandi don’t understand us. They know little about our magic or our ways. It would take them several turns to figure out any of this. It will all be over well before then. Just keep this to yourself, and don’t let on to the others that you’re worried.”
He hesitated, but only briefly. “Yes,” he said, nodding. “All right.”
Fayonne smiled. “Good. You’ll make a good leader some day.”
Tirnya wasn’t certain why she had volunteered to do this. Upon setting up camp on the west bank of the wash, her father had announced his intention to invite Hendrid Crish and Gries Ballidyne to sup with him and his captains. He instructed Stri and his men to find game for their meal, and he dispatched a messenger to the camp of the Waterstone army to convey his invitation to Marshal Crish.
He was about to send a second man to speak with Gries, but Tirnya stopped him.
“I’ll speak with him, Father,” she said.
Her father cast a look her way. She began to blush under his gaze, but with the light failing, she didn’t think he noticed.
“All right,” he said, in a tone that made her want to hit him.
“I just want to thank him for saving that captain today. I felt . . . I had a chance to grab his hand, and I missed. If Gries hadn’t pulled him from the wash . . .” She shuddered.
Jenoe smiled indulgently, his expression softening. “I understand.” He gestured in the direction of the Fairlea camp. “By all means. Go. Talk to him.”
She started toward the army of Fairlea, following a circuitous route past soldiers and small campfires. And before she was halfway there, she regretted her decision to go. She didn’t know this man. From all that Enly had told her, she gathered that he couldn’t be trusted. On the other hand, he had seemed genuinely good-natured when they were introduced earlier in the day, and he had saved the young captain from Waterstone seemingly without regard for his own safety.
And he’s very handsome.
She grinned to herself. Once again, as she had during her conversation with Enly that morning, she wondered how much of what Qalsyn’s lord heir had told her was born of his jealousy and his fear that she’d be drawn to Gries.
Was that why she had offered to deliver her father’s message in person? Because she was attracted to the man? Or because she wanted to make Enly think that she was attracted to him?
She paused. She hadn’t seen Enly in some time, since watching him cross the wash. Where could he have gone? The men around her were from his company, but she didn’t see him anywhere.
“Have you seen Captain Tolm?” she asked a young soldier, who sat with his friends pulling feathers from three quail they had apparently just killed.
The man stood. “No, Captain.”
Tirnya frowned. “Well, when you see him next, please tell him that the marshal would like him to join us for supper.”
“Of course, Captain.”
Tirnya nodded to the man and his companions and moved on.
Before long, she had crossed into the Fairlea camp, though had it not been for the different uniforms she might not have known. The sounds were just the same -- pockets of laughter, quiet conversations, a few young voices raised in song -- and in the torchlight and glow of fires the faces weren’t all that different from those of the men in Qalsyn’s companies.
She asked one of the soldiers where she could find Captain Ballidyne, and he pointed her to the center of the camp. She stared in the direction he indicated, straining to see in the darkness. She saw no tent like those erected for the two marshals, but she smiled weakly at the man and made her way to the heart of the northern army.
Tirnya spotted him from a good distance. He stood a good deal taller than any of the men around him, and his yellow hair seemed to shine with firelight. She had to admit that her heart beat just a bit faster at the sight of him, and she chided herself, feeling more like a schoolgirl than an army captain.
Stepping past the men around him and into the glow of his campfire, she said, “Excuse me.”
All of them had been laughing at something, but they fell silent at the sound of her voice, and every pair of eyes turned in her direction.
“Captain Onjaef,” Gries said, a smile on his face. “Welcome.”
“Thank you, Captain Ballidyne. Forgive me for intruding, but my father would like you to join him for supper.”
“I’d be honored.”
She nodded. “Good.” She stood there for a few moments, unsure of what she ought to say next, and wishing once more that she’d let her father send a messenger.
“Perhaps I could escort you back to your camp now,” Gries finally said. “If that’s all right.”
“Yes, of course.”
He had a small, white scar high on his right cheek and another on the same side of his face, just by his temple. She knew scars like that. She had several herself.
Tirnya realized she was staring at him, and glanced away.
“Jondel, you’ll be in command while I’m gone,” Gries said to one of the men. “Not that there should be much need, but just in case.”
He faced Tirnya again, smiling once more. “Shall we?”
She turned and began walking back to the Qalsyn army with Gries beside her. Neither of them spoke at first, and the silence soon began to grow awkward. At last, Tirnya said the first thing that came into her head.
“You must leave yourself open to thrusts when you attack with your sword hand.”
Again she blushed, and again she was grateful for the darkness.
“The scars on your face. Those are from battle tournaments, aren’t they?
“Yes, they are.”
She heard amusement in his voice.
“I thought so,” she went on. “They’re both on the right side of your face, so I’m guessing that you have a tendency to leave yourself unguarded when you attack.”
“I did, when I was younger. Those scars are several years old. It’s been some time since I was bloodied in a tournament.”
Tirnya smiled inwardly. There, at least, was the arrogance Enly had warned her about. “I see,” she said.
“You think I’m boasting.”
“No,” she said. “I know you are.”
Gries laughed. “I deserved that.”
“I have scars, too,” she told him. “Plenty of them, including one from this year.”
“Let me guess. From Enly?”
She nodded. “I’m afraid so.” She glanced at him. He was looking straight ahead, his straight nose and strong chin silhouetted against the pale glow of the camp. “You and he have fought, haven’t you?”
“Once, a long time ago. We fought to a draw.”
“That’s what he told me.”
He looked at her. “And you didn’t believe him?”
“It’s not that,” she said. “But the Tolms are . . . they’re very proud. And he seemed rather defensive about your match when I asked him about it.”
“Neither of us could have been more than fifteen or sixteen at the time. He was the quicker swordsman, and he was probably more skilled, too. I was stronger and had a longer reach.” He shrugged slightly, a strangely small gesture for such a large man. “It made for a good match.”
They walked in silence for a few moments.
Then Tirnya said, “Thank you for saving that man, today.”
“You’re welcome. He was one of yours? I thought he was from Waterstone.”
“He was. But I had a chance to grab his hand, and I missed.”
Gries chuckled. “Good thing, too.”
“Forgive me, Captain, but he weighed more than you do. If he’d gotten hold of you, he would have pulled you after him, and I’d have had to save both of you.”
Tirnya opened her mouth, closed it again. She didn’t know what to say, although in that moment she was furious enough to say just about anything.
“I’ve angered you.”
“You’re damn right you have.”
“I didn’t mean to. I was just saying--”
“You were calling me weak, and implying that I was foolish to have tried to save that man.”
“I’m a captain in the army of Qalsyn, and for three years running I’ve fought Enly in the final match of our Harvest Tournament. Yes, he’s beaten me, but no one else has. I took an arrow in the chest just over a turn ago, and still I’ve led my company this far. Before long I’ll lead them into battle. You look at me and assume that I must be weak, that I must need the protection of a man. I don’t. If I’d gotten hold of that soldier, I wouldn’t have let go and I wouldn’t have been swept downstream with him. Believe me; don’t believe me. I couldn’t care less.”
She quickened her pace, intending to leave him there.
“I do believe you,” he called to her. “I’m sorry for what I said.”
Tirnya slowed again, then stopped. She didn’t look at him, not even when he halted just beside her.
“I didn’t mean to offend you.”
She said nothing. She wasn’t ready to forgive him just yet.
“You were wounded?”
Tirnya nodded. “Road brigands. We were on patrol and we tracked them to a small clearing in the wood south of Qalsyn. Part of my company got there before I did. I rode into the middle of a skirmish and was hit almost immediately.”
“Sounds like you’re lucky to be alive.”
“I am. Two of my men died,” she said. She looked up at him. His face was bathed in the warm light of fires and torches. “I’m a captain in the army of Stelpana, just as you are. I deserve to be spoken to in a manner that befits that rank.”
“You’re right. I won’t do it again.”
She nodded once and led him the rest of the way to the Qalsyn camp in silence.
By the time they reached Jenoe’s makeshift quarters, a great fire burned before it and the two deer killed for them by Stri and his men had been mounted on large spits. The air around them was redolent with the scent of roasting venison.
In Tirnya’s absence Enly had returned, and he eyed both her and Gries with suspicion and manifest jealousy. Tirnya tried to ignore him.
“Captain Ballidyne,” Jenoe said when he saw them. “I’m delighted you could join us.”
“Thank you, Marshal. I’m honored by your invitation.”
It had grown colder since sunset, and Tirnya was still chilled from crossing the river. While Jenoe and Gries chatted, she slipped into her father’s tent and threw his riding cloak over her shoulders. She emerged again just as Stri, Marshal Crish, and another captain from the Waterstone army were arriving. Her father noticed her with his cloak and grinned.
“Please, make yourselves comfortable,” he said, indicating with an open hand a few large, weather-worn logs that were arrayed in a half-circle before the blaze. “I had a few men bring these up from the riverbank. I daresay they’ll be more comfortable than the ground would be.”
Marshal Crish nodded approvingly. “I’ll say. Well done, Jenoe.”
Tirnya sat between her father and Stri at one end of the semicircle; Enly sat at the other end, as far from her as possible, and Gries took a spot just on the other side of Jenoe. Two of Stri’s soldiers stood near the fire, tending to the cooking meat.
“I want to thank you again, Captain Ballidyne,” Waterstone’s marshal said. “That was quite a feat you pulled off today. You saved the life of a man I value and trust.”
Gries looked down and grinned, the way someone might if he were embarrassed by such praise. But it didn’t seem to Tirnya that he looked embarrassed.
“You’re too kind, Marshal. I’m sure that any man here--” He glanced quickly at Tirnya. “Any person here . . . would have done the same.”
“Forgive me for not asking earlier, Captain,” Jenoe said, “but how is His Lordship your father?”
Gries smiled, though it appeared forced, even pained. Tirnya thought that he looked much the way Enly did when Qalsyn’s lord heir spoke of his father.
“He’s well,” Gries said. “Thank you for asking. He wishes you success in this endeavor, and he prays that the gods will watch over all the men under your command.”
“What does he think of this . . . endeavor, as you call it?”
All of them turned to look at Enly.
“I’m not sure I know what you mean, my lord,” Gries said.
“Of course you do. For better or worse, we’re marching to war against the Fal’Borna. Surely he expressed some opinion on the matter.”
Gries’s expression hardened. “He sent twelve hundred men to fight this war, Captain. He sent officers. He sent me. I believe that’s opinion enough.”
“Perhaps it is. My father sent me, but I’m not sure that says anything at all.” He grinned, as if to show that he was joking. No one laughed.
“Do you have an opinion you’d like to share with us, Lord Tolm?” Hendrid asked.
Enly’s eyes flicked toward Tirnya. She gave a slight shake of her head.
“I asked to be here,” he said, looking at the marshal again. “As Gries said, that’s opinion enough.”
Gries turned to Jenoe. “I would like to know more about these Mettai who are with us. Was it your idea to approach them, Marshal?”
“No,” Jenoe said. “It was Tirnya’s. But I think that their magic will give us a great advantage in our battles with the Fal’Borna.”
Gries nodded. “I don’t doubt that. But I’m surprised that they agreed to this alliance. Living in the north, I have some knowledge of the Mettai. I’ve never known them to want anything to do with us or with the white-hairs.”
Again Tirnya found herself sharing a look with Enly. But it was Jenoe who answered.
“These Mettai are strange,” he said. “I’ll admit that. And the lands they inhabited were blighted. I believe they’re desperate to find somewhere new to live.”
Gries narrowed his eyes. “You say their lands were bad?”
“They seemed so. And even the woodlands around their village were unusually quiet. Our men tried to hunt for their suppers that night, and found little. Most of them resorted to eating their rations instead.”
“What was the name of this town?”
Jenoe glanced at Tirnya, a frown on his face. “I can’t remember.”
“Lifarsa,” Enly said.
“Yes, of course,” Jenoe said. “Thank you, Captain.” He turned to Gries again. “Do you know it?”
Fairlea’s lord heir shook his head. “No. But it’s strange that any Mettai would live on blighted lands. In addition to being sorcerers, they’re farmers, trappers. Their entire way of life is rooted in the land.”
Jenoe didn’t appear to be bothered. “Well, as I say, this is probably why they were so eager to join us.”
“No doubt,” Gries said.
“Capt’n Balkett,” called one of the men by the fire. “Th’ meat’s ready.”
“Excellent,” Stri said, standing.
The others stood as well, and soon all of them were eating the roasted venison, which was as good as anything Tirnya had tasted in years. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was until she took the first bite. It seemed everyone else had been as starved as she, because for a long time no one said a word.
Eventually Enly made his way to her side. He didn’t say anything, but she sensed that he wanted to ask her questions, probably about what she and Gries had talked about.
Before he could, she asked him, “Where did you go off to before?”
“Missed me, did you?” he said, his mouth full.
“Not at all. But I was curious.”
He shrugged, but he wouldn’t meet her gaze. “I went to speak with Fayonne.”
“Fayonne?” she repeated. It took her a moment. “The Mettai woman?”
He took another bite.
“What were you talking to her about, Enly?”
He finally looked her in the eye. “I asked her the same questions I put to her that night in Lifarsa, the same questions your friend Gries was just asking. What are they doing here? Why were they so eager to leave their homes?”
She wanted to walk away, to make it clear to him that she didn’t share his suspicions or care what the woman had told him. But in truth she did want to know. When at last she said, “And what did she tell you?” it felt like a surrender.
Before he could answer, Gries walked up to them, holding two large pieces of meat.
“More for either of you?”
Enly didn’t look at all pleased to see the man. But he took a piece of meat and mumbled a “thank you.”
“It sounds to me like you have doubts about this war, Enly,” Gries said, taking a bite, his eyes fixed on the ground.
Enly stopped chewing for a moment.
Tirnya shook her head. “No, he doesn’t.”
Enly swallowed. “I have the same questions you do, Gries. I want to know why, after centuries of keeping to themselves, these Mettai are suddenly willing to take sides in a new Blood War.”
“Have you asked them?”
“Tirnya and I were just talking about that. I spoke to the eldest just a short time ago. She really didn’t tell me much.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Tirnya said pointedly, glaring at Enly.
“But it does.”
She looked at Gries. “Not you, too.”
“I’m sorry, Captain. But anytime you march to war with an ally, you need to be certain that you can trust them, and that you understand their motives.”
“These Mettai want land. They want a new life. What more do we need to know?”
Gries shrugged. “I’d like to know more about their village.”
“There isn’t much to tell,” Enly said. “It looked like the other Mettai villages we visited, but the houses were run down, and their livestock looked . . . unwell. The stew they served us the night we supped with them was awful.”
Tirnya grimaced at the memory of the meal, knowing that she couldn’t argue with Enly on this point. The stew itself had been heavily seasoned with an unpleasantly pungent spice, and the meat in the stew had been stringy and sour tasting.
“Were the houses old?” Gries asked.
Enly looked puzzled. “Old?”
“Did it look like the Mettai had been living there for a long time?”
“Yes, it did,” Enly said. “Some of the houses were in disrepair, and Fayonne and her people seemed desperate to get away. I definitely had the sense that they’d been there for many years.”
Gries shook his head. “That I don’t understand. Like I said, the Mettai are farmers. They depend on the land, and they know how to care for it. If the soil was bad, they would have left long ago.”
“So what does all this mean?” Enly asked.
“I don’t know,” Gries told him. He looked at Tirnya. “Watch them. I doubt they’d betray us. If they’ve come this far, they must be sincere in their commitment to the alliance. But much of what you’ve told me strikes me as odd.”
It wasn’t the first time one of Tirnya’s companions had forced her to acknowledge that these Mettai were strange, and that they seemed too willing to join the Eandi army. But perhaps because it came from someone she barely knew, rather than from her father or Enly, both of whom had spoken against this invasion, she took Gries’s warning more seriously than she had the others.
Stri joined them before she could say more, and began to ask Gries questions about his city and the northlands. Gries seemed happy enough to talk about his home. When he learned that Stri came from south Stelpana, near the Ofirean, he had questions of his own. For a long time Tirnya and Enly listened politely as the the two captains went back and forth with tales of their childhoods.
After some time, Enly gestured to Tirnya that he wanted to speak with her alone. Reluctantly she let him lead her a short distance from the others.
“You want to gloat?” she asked, when he turned to face her.
Enly gave her a sour look. “Gloat?”
“He agrees with you about the Mettai.”
“After all that I told you about Gries earlier today, why do you think I’d gloat about him agreeing with me?”
He had a point.
“So what do you want?” she asked.
Enly started to say something, but then stopped himself, his eyes locked on hers. After a brief pause, he shook his head. “Nothing. I . . . I was looking for an excuse to get away from Gries and Stri.”
He shrugged. “That’s it.”
Tirnya wasn’t sure she believed him, but she also didn’t care to press the matter. “Fine then,” she said. She turned on her heel and strode back to where her father was speaking with Waterstone’s marshal.
Enly remained where he was, alone at the fringe of their small circle. He ate what was left of his meal, and he stared at the fire, though several times Tirnya glanced his way only to find that he was already watching her.
Eventually, Jenoe announced that he was going to sleep, and he urged the rest of them to do the same.
“We begin our march toward the Horn in the morning,” he said. “And now that we’re in Fal’Borna land, we could meet up with Qirsi warriors any time. I want all of you well-rested.”
They bade one another “Goodnight,” and started back to their respective parts of the camp. Tirnya hadn’t gone far, though, before she remembered that she still wore her father’s cloak. Laughing at herself, she turned and walked back to the fire. As she drew near she saw that her father was talking to Enly, and that he looked angry.
After a moment’s hesitation, she stepped closer, taking care to keep out of the firelight lest one of them see her.
“. . . Was unacceptable,” her father was saying. “I understand that you’re lord heir, and I’m but a marshal in your father’s army. But he made it clear that for the duration of this march and whatever battles are to come, you are under my command.”
“Yes, Marshal. I agreed to that as well.”
“Then act like it, damnit!”
Enly shook his head. “I didn’t do anything--”
Jenoe raised a finger, silencing him. “Don’t! You know full well what you did. Asking Gries what his father thought of this war. What were you thinking?”
“I didn’t see anything wrong with the question.”
“I know you too well, Enly. I know how clever you are. Don’t pretend to be a fool.”
Enly looked away, the muscles in his jaw tightening.
“You think this is a bad idea,” Jenoe said. “I understand that. But we’re here now. That discussion is over. And trying to open it again in front of our allies is beneath you.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “What I said before is true. We could find ourselves facing the Fal’Borna tomorrow, or the next day. The last thing I want is for Gries and Hendrid to doubt our commitment to this invasion. I hope you didn’t mention your reservations to the Mettai.”
“I didn’t,” Enly said, still not looking at him.
“Good.” He gestured vaguely at the camp. “These soldiers must have complete confidence in us, Enly. Doubt in the mind of a warrior is fatal.”
“I understand, Marshal.”
Jenoe stared at him for several moments, as if weighing whether he should say more. Finally he nodded once. “All right then. Don’t do it again.”
“Get some sleep.”
Enly nodded and met Jenoe’s gaze for an instant. Then he walked away. Jenoe watched him leave before stepping into his tent.
Tirnya stood in the darkness for some time. She should have been angry with Enly. This was why she had warned him not to respond when Hendrid asked him for his opinion of their “endeavor.” She also would have expected herself to take some pleasure in seeing his ears pinned back by her father. But she couldn’t bring herself to feel anything but sorry for him. She’d been on the receiving end of her father’s upbraidings enough times to know how he felt.
Eventually she turned and walked back to where her company slept. She’d return her father’s cloak in the morning.