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Sasha
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Sasha

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Author: Joel Shepherd
Publisher: Pyr, 2009
Hachette Australia, 2008
Series: A Trial of Blood and Steel: Book 1

1. Sasha
2. Petrodor
3. Tracato
4. Haven

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

Sasha is a fighter, the like of which the highland country of Lenayin has never seen.

Spurning her royal heritage to be raised by the great warrior, Kessligh, her exquisite swordplay astonishes all who witness it. But Sasha is still young, untested in battle and often led by her rash temper. In the complex world of Lenayin loyalties, her defiant wilfulness is attracting the wrong kind of attention.

Lenayin is a land almost divided by its two faiths: the Verenthane of the ruling classes and the pagan Goeren-yai, amongst whom Sasha now lives. The Goeren-yai worship swordplay and honour and begin to see Sasha as the great spirit the Synnich who will unite them. But Sasha is still searching for what she believes and must choose her side carefully.

When the Udalyn people -- the symbol of Goeren-yai pride and courage -- are attacked, Sasha will face her moment of testing. How will she act? Is she ready to lead? Can she be the saviour they need her to be?


Excerpt

One

SASHA CIRCLED , a light shift and slide of soft boots on compacted earth. The point of her wooden tanch marked the circle’s centre, effortlessly extended from her two-fisted grip. Opposite, Teriyan the leather worker matched her motion, stanch likewise unwavering, bare arms knotted with hard muscle. Sasha’s eyes beheld his form without true focus. She watched his centre, not the face, nor the feet, nor especially the wooden training blade in his strong, calloused hands.

An intricate tattoo of flowing black lines rippled upon Teriyan’s bicep as his arm flexed. Thick red hair stirred in a gust of wind, tangled where it fell long and partly braided down his back. High above, an eagle called, launched to flight from the row of pines on the northern ridge overlooking the Baerlyn valley of central Valhanan province. The westerly sun was fading above the ridge, settling among the pines, casting long, looming shadows. The valley’s entire length was alive with golden light, gleaming off the wood-shingled roofs of the houses that lined the central road, and brightening the green pastures to either side. Nearby, several young horses frolicked, an exuberance of hooves and gleaming manes and tails. From a nearby circle, there came an eruption of yells above the repeated clash of wooden blades. Then a striking thud, and a pause for breath.

Of all of this, Sasha was aware. And when Teriyan’s lunging attack came, she deflected and countered with two fast, slashing strokes, and smacked her old friend hard across the belly.

Teriyan cursed, good-naturedly, and readjusted the protective banda that laced firmly about his torso. “What’d I do?” he asked, with the air of a man long since resigned to his fate.

Sasha shrugged, backing away with a light, balanced poise. “You attacked,” she said simply.

“Girl’s gettin’ cute,” Geldon remarked from amidst the circle of onlookers. Sasha flashed Geldon a grin, twirling her stanch through a series of rapid circles, moving little more than her wrists.

“Always been cute, baker-man,” she said playfully. Guffaws from the crowd, numbering perhaps twenty on this late afternoon session. Strong men all, with braided hair and calloused hands. Many ears bore the rings of Goeren-yai manhood, and many faces the dark ink patterns of the wakening and the spirit world. Lenay warriors all, as fierce and proud as all the lowlands tales, a sight to strike terror into the hearts of any who had cause to fear. And yet they stood, and watched with great curiosity, as a lithe, cocky, short-haired girl in weave pants and a sheepskin jacket dismantled the formidable swordwork of one of their best, with little more to show for the effort than sweat.

Teriyan exhaled hard, and repeated his previous move, frowning with consideration. “Bugger it,” he said finally. “That’s as good an opening stroke as anyone’s got. If someone has a better suggestion, I’m all ears.”

“Improve,” Tyal remarked.

“Kessligh says the low forehand is a more effective opener than the high,” Sasha interrupted as Teriyan gave Tyal a warning stare. “For a man your size, anyhow.”

“Ah,” Teriyan made a mock dismissive gesture, “that Kessligh, what would he know about honest swordwork? You and him can stick to your sneaky svaalverd. Leave the real fighting to us, girlie.”

“Look, do you want to know how I do it, or not?” Sasha asked in exasperation. There weren’t many men in Lenayin who would dare call her “girlie.” Teriyan was one. Kessligh Cronenverdt, the greatest swordsman in Lenayin and her tutor in far more than just swordwork for the past twelve years, was another.

Teriyan just looked at her, a reluctant smile creeping across a rugged face.

A bell clanged from the centre of town, midway up the valley. Stanches lowered, and all commotion about the training yard ceased as men turned to look, and listen. Again the bell, echoing off the steep valley sides, and then again, as someone got a good rhythm on the pulley rope.

“Rack your weapons!” yelled Byorn, the training hall proprietor, above the sudden commotion as men ran, boots thundering up the steps from the outside yard to the open, broad floorboards of the inner hall. “No haste in this hall, respect the circles!”

Despite the haste, men did keep to the dirt paths between tachadar circles, careful not to disturb the carefully laid stones, nor the sanctity of the space within. Sasha moved with less haste than some, seeing little point in elbowing through the crush of young men taking the lead. She walked instead with Teriyan and Geldon, up the dividing steps and into the high-ceilinged interior, unlacing her banda, and taking time to select her real weapons from the wooden rack where she’d hung them earlier. With weapons, Kessligh had instructed her often, one never rushed.

Most men did not own horses and began running up the trail toward the main road. Sasha fetched Peg from his field beside the training hall, used a stone paddock wall to mount, and galloped him in their wake... but before she could go racing to the lead, she spotted a familiar bay mare coming up the road to the training hall, a slim, red-haired girl upon her back, waving one-handed for Sasha’s attention.

Sasha brought Peg to a halt, and waited. Lynette arrived with a thunder of swirling dust and flying hair, eyes wide with in a freckled, paleface. She was panting and the mare—Chersey—was sweating profusely. May be enough for as even- fold ride at speed, Sasha reckoned with a measuring eye, knowing Chersey’s abilities every bit as well as Peg’s.

“Sasha, ”Lynette gasped, “it’s Damon. Damon’s here.”

Sasha frowned. “Damon came to Baerlyn? With what?”

“I thi...think it’s the Falcon Guard.” She brushed a ragged handful of curling red hair from her face as a gust of valley wind caught it. Herlong dress was pulled well above her knees, with most unladylike decorum, exposing a pair of coarse- weave riding pants beneath. And leather boots in the stirrups. “I’m not sure...I was taking Chersey for a ride out past Spearman’s Ridge when I saw them coming, so I turned around and came back as fast as I could... They had the banners out, Sasha, it was full armour and full colours! They looked magnificent!”

Sasha’s frown grew deeper. The Falcon Guard had been lately posted in Baen-Tar.“You didn’t speak to them? You don’t know why they’re here?”

Lynette shook her head. “No, I came straight back and told Jaegar, and he sent some one to ring the bell, and then I came looking for you...”

“Damnit. Lynie, I want you to go and get Kessligh—he went to buy some chickens.”

“He’ll hear the bell ringing, surely?” Lynette asked in confusion, as more men mounted nearby, and went galloping up the road.

“Kessligh takes his chickens very seriously,” Sasha said wryly. “Just try and hurry him along a bit.”

“I’ll try,” said Lynette doubtfully. Sasha kicked Peg with her heels, and

went racing up the road as Lynette pulled Chersey about in a circle and followed as best she could. A short way along, Sasha came across Teriyan, Geldon and several others, running at a steady pace. She pulled Peg to a trot alongside and extended an inviting hand to Teriyan.

“Come on,”she said, “council heads should get there first.”

“Leave it, girl,” Teriyan answered without breaking stride. “I still got some pride left, you know.” Sasha scowled. Lynette went racing past on Chersey. “Hey, where’d you send my girl off to?”

“Ask her yourself, if you ever catch her,” Sasha snorted, and galloped once more up the road.

The road wove between paddock fences and low stone walls, catching the full face of the sun before it vanished behind the ridge.

She was gaining fast on two men ahead as she reached the main Baerlyn road. Upon the wooden verandahs flanking the road, Baerlyn folk had gathered—mothers with their children, elderly folk in light cloaks or knitted shawls, and the men now walking or running along the road’s broad edge, keeping the middle clear for horses. Peg loved a target, and passed the leading horses in a thunder of hooves.

The road wound past Geldon’s bakery, then past the trading houses and side alleys leading to warehouses, and the workshops of jewellers, potters, furniture makers and Teriyan’s own leather shop.

Up ahead she saw a gathering of horses and dismounted men in armour blocking the road, milling before the stone facade of the Steltsyn Star, Baerlyn’s only inn. Heraldsmen held banners, gusting now in the light valley wind, indicating that Damon was still in the vicinity.

Sasha pulled up beside several men from the training hall and surveyed the scene. There appeared to be an effort underway to lead the regiment’s horses down the Star’s side lane, to the stables and paddocks that stretched to the southeastern valley wall at the rear. Her searching eyes found Jaegar, Baerlyn’s headman, upon the Star’s verandah gesticulating in earnest discussion, then waving a thick, tattooed arm across the semi-organised mass of waiting men and horses. He spoke with Damon—tall, darkly handsome and notable by his purple and green riding cloak, the gold clasp at his neck, and the gleaming silver pommel of his sword at one hip. Now twenty-three summers, by her reckoning, and seeming tired and dishevelled from his ride. All the men held a respectful distance, except the Falcon guard captain and a young man in lordly clothes, eagerly surveying the conversation, whom Sasha did not recognise.

Then the guard captain turned upon the step and shouted above the snort and stamp of hooves, the jangle of armour and the busy discussions of men, “In units down the lane! The stables are already half full, fill them as you can, then fill the barn—it should take another ten! The rest, there’s three more properties behind the inn toward the valley side, there should be enough room in those barns, if not, move down and knock on the next door. Be polite, I want not a hay bale disturbed without permission, nor a chicken’s feather plucked, nor a sow’s tail pulled. I’ll not have the good folk of Valhanan saying the Falcon Guard make poor guests! Tend to your mounts, then gather back here for a good hot meal on the king’s own coin!”

That got a rousing cheer from all present.

“Men of Baerlyn!” bellowed Jaegar, with a barrel-chested volume that surpassed even the captain. He was a stocky man of middling height but with massively broad shoulders. The angling light appeared to catch only one side of his face, leaving the other darkly ominous . . . except that the darker side as facing the light. Upon closer inspection, the spirit-mask of Goeren-yai manhood revealed its finer intricacies of weaving curls, waves and flourishes.

Sunlight glinted on the many rings in his ears, and upon the silver chain bout his broad, sculpted neck. His long hair, parted cleanly down the middle, bound down the centre of his back in a single, leather-tied braid.

“Those with space available indoors, please find a sergeant or corporal and say so!” Jaegar continued. “There’s no need for any more than the horse tenders to spend a night in the cold! Illys, we’d welcome some music inside tonight!” There was a cheer from the Baerlyn townfolk who had encircled the Falcon Guard, in all curiosity and eagerness to help.

"And Upwyld with the ale!” yelled someone from the periphery. “Don’t forget the ale!” And that got an enormous cheer from everyone, soldiers and locals alike.

Jaegar held both calloused hands skyward to quieten the racket, and then bellowed, “It is the honour of Baerlyn to receive this most welcome visitation! Three cheers for the Falcon Guard!”

“Hoorah!” yelled the Baerlyners. “Hoorah! Hoorah!”

“Three cheers for Master Jaryd!” with an indication to the young man beside them on the verandah. Again the cheers. The young man held up a hand with a cheerful grin. Something about the glamorous cut of his clothes, and the self-assured smile on his lips, made Sasha’s breath catch in her throat. The Falcon Guard were all from neighbouring Tyree province of central Lenayin. He must be one of Great Lord Aystin Nyvar of Tyree’s sons. Not Jaryd Nyvar? Surely the spirits would not be so cruel to her? “And three cheers for Prince Damon!” And those three cheers, to Sasha’s mild surprise, were loudest of all. Damon, she noted, glanced down at his riding boots and looked uncomfortable. She repressed an exasperated smile. Same old Damon.

“Three cheers for Baerlyn!” yelled the captain, and the soldiers answered back in kind. “Let’s move!”

With little more fuss, the soldiers began filing down the Star’s cobbled side lane. Sasha finally completed her rough headcount, and arrived at perhaps eighty men and horses, their numbers clustering a good way up the road past the inn. The strength of standing companies varied from province to province—in the north, the great armoured cavalry companies numbered closer to a thousand each. The Falcon Guard company, by her reckoning, should have about five hundred at full strength. Perhaps this contingent had left in a hurry and the others were following.

She left Peg in the care of a farmer she knew well. Damon and the young Tyree lordling stood in continued conversation with Jaegar, now joined by another two Baerlyn councilmen, similarly tattooed and ringed as Jaegar. Sasha eyed that contrast as she approached unseen, slipping between soldier-led horses—the Baerlyn men rough and hardy Goeren-yai warriors. And Damon tall, clipped and elegantly attired, a Verenthane medallion—the eight-pointed star—prominently suspended on a chain about his neck.

Rural Goeren-yai and city Verenthanes. The old Lenayin, and the new. The Goeren-yai believed in the ancient spirits of Lenay hills, the Verenthane in the foreign, lowlands gods. Sasha was born Verenthane, but lived amongst Goeren-yai . . . and was raised by Kessligh as Nasi-Keth, the followers of the teachings of far-off Saalshen. She sometimes wondered if she’d done something to offend some gods or spirits in a previous life to have deserved such a complicated fate. She often thought things would be so much simpler if she could just choose one or the other . . . or the third. But no matter which she chose, her choice would offend countless powerful people.

Sasha thrust the doubts aside, cleared the gathering about the steps, and trotted briskly up. Damon saw her at the last moment and straightened stiffly. Nearby commotion abruptly slowed, and conversation paused, as people turned to look.

“Damon,” said Sasha, managing a half-genuine smile as Jaegar quickly made way for her atop the steps.

“Sashandra,” Damon replied, similarly ill-at-ease. And then, with meaningful emphasis, “Sister.” And spread his arms to embrace her. Sasha returned the hug, the first time she had embraced her brother in nearly a year, by her immediate reckoning. From about the verandah, and upon the road, there was applause and some cheering. Beneath Damon’s riding clothes, Sasha felt the hard weight of chainmail, which was sometimes decorative custom for a travelling prince, and sometimes not. This, she guessed from the size of the company, was not. They released each other, and Damon put both gloved hands upon her shoulders and looked at her.

“You’re looking well,” he remarked.

Liar, Sasha thought. Little though she’d seen him of late, she knew well his true opinion of her appearance these days. In Baen-Tar, the seat of Lenay kings, the ladies all wore dresses, and hair so long you could trip on it. Some of her wry amusement must have shown on her face, for Damon barely repressed a smile of his own.

"You too,” Sasha replied, and meant it. “What brings you to my humble town?”

“Well,” said the young prince with a hard sigh. “Therein lies the tale.”

~~~~

“We’re still not clear exactly what happened,” Damon said to the table, his voice raised to carry above the mealtime clamour. Changed into a clean shirt beneath a patterned leather vest, covered again by the riding cloak in regal purple and green, he looked to Sasha’s eyes far more comfortable now than in the armour. His fingers toyed absently with the wine cup. “We only received word that Great Lord Rashyd Telgar is dead, and that Great Lord Krayliss is responsible.”

Sasha stared sullenly at the open fire upon the centre of the Star’s main floor. Flames blazed within the stone-lined pit as several kitchen hands hurried about and rotated the three sizzling spits. Men clustered at long tables between ceiling supports as Baerlyn youngsters served as waiters, hurrying back and forth with laden plates and mugs of ale.

Voices roared in conversation, and heat radiated from the fire, as music and the smell of good food filled the confined air beneath the Star’s low ceiling.

“You’re sure it was Krayliss that killed Rashyd?” Jaegar pressed from his seat alongside Captain Tyrun, commander of the Falcon Guard. Tyrun and Sasha were sitting on either side of Damon at the head of the table. On Sasha’s left sat Teriyan, widely regarded as Jaegar’s right-hand man in Baerlyn, due mostly to his swordsmanship and exploits in battle. The young Master Jaryd completed the group, ignoring the breathless stares that the serving girls sent his way. At the end of the table, a chair for Kessligh sat empty. If Damon were offended at his absence, he didn’t show it. Probably he knew that Kessligh was Kessligh, and did as he pleased.

“I’m not sure of anything,” Damon replied to Jaegar, somewhat testily, but recovered from his outburst no sooner than it had begun. Same old Damon indeed, Sasha noted sourly. Damon took a breath. “I only know what word reached us in Baen-Tar. The messenger said his lord was dead and that revenge must follow. Against Krayliss.”

Damon took another bite of his roast, then cleaned up the remains of his vegetable raal with a piece of bread. The table exchanged sombre glances, an oasis of silence amongst the raucous din. Sasha met no one’s gaze and simply stared at the central fire. Lord Rashyd was dead, and Hadryn province, the greatest of Lenayin’s three northern provinces, was now without its leader. And now the Falcon Guard were riding from Baen-Tar to take revenge on Lord Krayliss of neighbouring Taneryn province. It seemed that the age-old conflict between Hadryn and Taneryn had flared once more, with all the ancient, treacherous history that entailed. Sasha did not trust herself to speak, lest some slip of caution unleash the seething in her gut.

Lenayin had ten provinces—eleven, if one counted the city lands of royal Baen-Tar. A century earlier the Liberation had permanently established long-disputed borders and created a class of nobility to rule over them. In all of the provinces save one, the nobility were Verenthane. The one exception, of course, was Taneryn. Lord Krayliss was the only Goeren-yai great lord in Lenayin. No surprise then that the Hadryn–Taneryn border remained the most troubled in Lenayin. To all the many causes for countless centuries of war between the Hadryn and Taneryn, the Liberation had added religion.

As grand as the Liberation had been, not all the Lenay peoples had shared in its benefits. For the Udalyn peoples, the Liberation had proven a disaster. Today, they lived trapped in their valley within the boundaries of Hadryn, holding fiercely to the old ways, despite the Hadryn’s attempts to convert them or kill them. The Taneryn considered them heroes. The Hadryn, heretics. It remained perhaps the most emotive of unresolved conflicts in Lenayin. For Goeren-yai across Lenayin, the Udalyn represented antiquity, the old ways from before the Liberation, too strong to die, too proud to give up the fight. If the Udalyn were somehow involved in this latest calamity, Sasha reckoned, then matters could become very grim indeed.

“Rashyd’s men were on manoeuvre, we heard,” said Captain Tyrun, downing his mouthful with a gulp of wine. Tyrun had a lean, angular face, like the falcon from which his unit took its name. His nose was large, his moustache broad and drooping. Less well clipped, Sasha noted with reluctant curiosity, than most Verenthane officers, although his face bore no sign of the ink quill, nor his ears of rings or other, pagan decoration. Most likely he was no Goeren-yai, although if he wore a Verenthane medallion, it lay hidden beneath his tunic. “It seems he was killed within Taneryn borders. What he was doing there, if he was there, we don’t know.”

“Making nuisance, most likely,” Teriyan remarked around a mouthful. “Hadryn’s claimed the western parts of Taneryn for centuries, damn Rashyd’s been angling for a war since his father died.”

“Words were exchanged,” Tyrun continued, ignoring the dark look that Damon fixed on Teriyan. “A fight ensued between Rashyd’s men and Krayliss’s. Some were killed on both sides. And Krayliss killed Rashyd personally, with clear intent. So the messenger said.”

“He might not have seen it all, ”Jaegar cautioned.

Or might be lying through his teeth to protect the honour of his ass of a lord, Sasha thought to herself. Still, she forced herself to remain silent. It would not befit anyone to be speaking ill of Lord Rashyd so soon after his death.

The calamity was beyond her immediate comprehension. No one in these parts liked Lord Rashyd Telgar, with his arrogant, northern ways and strict Verenthane codes. But for Krayliss to kill him... There were some who’d said that Lord Rashyd sat at the king’s right hand. And others who’d said that the king, at Lord Rashyd’s...

Tyrun heard Jaegar’s caution and shrugged. “As you say,” he said. “We have yet to discover what happened. But Krayliss has taxed the king’s tolerance for a long time now, and there comes a time when even our tolerant king must put his foot down. In this, we are the heel of his boot.”

“Our king,” said Master Jaryd, somewhat tersely, “is vastly long on tolerance. He is a merciful man, a man of the gods, for surely they favour him. My father says that Lord Krayliss has preyed upon this mercy as a spoilt child preys upon the tolerance of a doting parent. Like the spoilt child, Krayliss deserves a spanking. With His Highness the Prince’s blessing, I intend to administer it personally.”

Jaryd downed a mouthful of ale with a flourish, lounging in his chair as an athletic man might, who wished others to observe the fact. Sasha observed him with a dark curiosity, having never seen this particular young noble face-to-face before. Jaryd Nyvar was a name known the length and breadth of Lenayin, and even those like Sasha who tried to avoid the endless gossip of Verenthane nobility knew something of his exploits. At no more than twenty-one summers, Jaryd Nyvar was the heir of Tyree. His mother was a cousin to Sasha’s father—King Torvaal Lenayin—which made her and Jaryd related, she supposed. It was hardly uncommon amongst Lenay nobility—she was probably related to far more arrogant young puss-heads than Jaryd Nyvar. But it made her uneasy, all the same.

Every year at one of the great tournaments, Jaryd Nyvar would win personal honours of swordwork or horsemanship. His flamboyance was famous, his dancing reputedly excellent, and it was said he made grand gestures to the ladies before every bout. Sasha had heard it said jokingly that Jaryd’s swordwork was so excellent because he’d spent most of his days beating off hordes of girls, and their mothers, with a stick.

Looking at him now, she grudgingly conceded the stories of his appearance were not too far-fetched. He was very pretty, with light brown hair worn somewhat longer than most Verenthanes, just above the collar at the back, and large, dark brown eyes that promised fire and mischief in equal measure. She had not heard of his command posting to the Falcon Guards. Perhaps his father grew tired of his pointless gallivanting and thought to put his skills to some decent, disciplined use. And his father, they said, was dying. Perhaps that added to the urgency.

“The Falcon Guard was posted to Baen-Tar for the summer?” Teriyan asked Jaryd.

“The latter half of the summer, aye,” Jaryd agreed. He took a grape from the table and tossed it easily into his mouth. “We trained with the Royal Guard and others . . . gave them a right spanking too, I might add. Right, Captain?”

“Aye, M’Lord,” Captain Tyrun agreed easily. “That we did.”

“I’ve served in both Hadryn and Taneryn,” Teriyan said, chewing on a slice of roast meat. “That entire border’s full of armed men waiting for an incident. I wonder if the Falcon Guard will be enough. You’re damn good, sure, but eighty men can’t be everywhere at once. If this gets serious, there’ll be hundreds runnin’ around like headless chickens. Thousands, maybe.”

Three more companies are several days behind us,” Damon said. “Each of those is promised at closer to their full strength—five hundred men in total. Most of the Falcon Guard were on manoeuvre about Baen-Tar. That’s another hundred. We left in too much haste for anything more.”

“We’d have gathered a Valhanan company on the way through,” Captain Tyrun added, “but there’s none standing ready at present. We did think it common sense to gather Yuan Kessligh on the way through, however. If he’s willing.”

He glanced toward the empty chair. Sasha shrugged. “I can’t speak for him,” she said. “But I’d be surprised if he weren’t.”

Jaryd slapped the table with one hand, delighted. “Wonderful!” he exclaimed. “To ride with Yuan Kessligh! I’ve dreamed of that since I was a lad—smiting evil-doers at Kessligh’s side! That fool Krayliss won’t know what hit him.”

“Krayliss is the evil-doer?” Sasha asked, implacably cool. “We have yet to establish what occurred surrounding Lord Rashyd’s death. Until such a time as we know for sure, Lord Krayliss deserves the benefit of any doubt, surely? Or has my father’s law changed so drastically when I wasn’t watching?”

Jaryd smiled broadly, in the manner of a masterful warrior challenged to a duel by a raggedy little farmer’s girl with a stick. “M’Lady,” he said, with a respectful, mirthful nod, “surely you know what Lord Krayliss is like? The man is a bigot, a . . . a rogue, a thief—a vain, strutting, pompous fool who is a blight upon the good nobility of Lenayin! And now, apparently, a murderer, though this will surely surprise no one who knows his type.”

“I’ve met Lord Krayliss, Master Jaryd. Have you?” Jaryd gazed at her, his smile slowly slipping. “I’ve met Lord Rashyd too. And strangely, I find your description could just as readily describe him as the other.”

“I too have met Lord Rashyd, several times,” Jaryd said coolly. Sasha wondered if he’d ever conversed with a young woman on a matter that did not involve her giggling shyly with starry eyes. “He is...or rather was...a hard man, at times confrontingly so. But at least he was not a...a shaggy-headed, mindless, chest-thumping...” he waved a hand, searching for a new, derogatory adjective.

“Pagan?” Sasha suggested.

Jaryd just looked at her for a moment, realisation dawning in his eyes. Sasha shifted her gaze to Jaegar, beneath meaningful, raised eyebrows. Jaegar coughed, and sipped at his drink. From this angle, the spirit-mask on the left side of his face was not fully visible, but gold glinted from his ear, and upon his fingers. The long braid, also, was like nothing a respectable Verenthane would ever stoop to wear.

Anger flared in the future Great Lord of Tyree’s eyes.“ You put words in my mouth, M’Lady,” he said accusingly. “I meant no such thing!”

“You young Verenthane lords put words in your own mouths,” Sasha retorted, “and scarcely a thought before putting them there. Remember whose guest you are. They’re far too polite to say so. I’m not.”

“Shut up, both of you!” Damon snapped before Jaryd could reply. The young man fumed at her, all trace of cool demeanour vanished. Sasha stared back, dark eyes smouldering. “Please excuse my sister, Master Jaryd,” said Damon,with forced calm. “Her tempers are famous.”

“And her allegiances,” Jaryd muttered.

“Oh pray do tell us all what that means?” Sasha exclaimed, as Damon rolled his eyes in frustration.

“I have many Goeren-yai friends, M’Lady,” Jaryd said, levelling a finger at her for emphasis. “None of them admire Lord Krayliss even a jot. You, on the other hand, seem all too pleased to rush to his defence.”

“I’ve heard those stories too,” said Sasha. “The Hadryn and their cronies have never been friends to either me or Kessligh. They accuse me of sedition, of plotting against my father.” She put both hands up on the table with firm purpose. "Are you accusing me of sedition, Master Jaryd?”

Jaryd blinked. Sedition, of course, was punished by death, with no exceptions. A person so accused, without reasonable proof, had obvious grounds for an honour duel. Those, also, ended in death. With very few exceptions. Jaryd started to smile once more, disbelievingly. No man about the table seemed to share his humour. Jaryd Nyvar, tournament champion of Lenayin, seemed barely to notice.

“No,” he said, offhandedly, with an exasperated raise of his eyes to the ceiling, as though he felt his dignity severely pained to have to tolerate such dreadfully silly people. Fool, Sasha thought darkly. “Of course not. Your tempers delude you, M’Lady. I have nothing but admiration for so great a Verenthane beauty as your own.”

“Tell me, young Master Jaryd,” said Teriyan, leaning forward with evident amusement, chewing on some bread. “Have you ever sparred against a warrior trained in the svaalverd?”

“As a matter of fact, no,” Jaryd said mildly. “The only two people so trained in Lenayin, I believe, are Kessligh Cronenverdt and his uma. And the visiting serrin, of course, but they never enter a swordwork contest, even though I have often seen them at tournaments.”

“And have you ever wondered why the serrin don’t enter swordwork contests?” Teriyan pressed.

Jaryd smirked. “Perhaps they are afraid.”

“Not afraid, young Master,” said Teriyan. “Just polite.”

~~~~

Damon strode angrily along the upper corridor, the Star’s old floorboards creaking underfoot, as the sounds of merriment continued from below. Sasha followed, conscious that her own footsteps made far less noise than her brother’s, and that their respective weights were only half the reason why. When they reached his room, Damon ushered Sasha inside, closed the door and threw on the latch.

It was a good room, as Lenay accommodation went. Four times larger than most of the Star’s rooms, its floorboards covered with a deer-hide rug, and small windows inlaid across the stone walls. Against the inner wall, two large beds, with tall posts and soft mattresses beneath piles of furs and fine, lowlands linen. Between the two beds, a fireplace, crackling merrily, and a small pile of firewood in the wicker basket alongside.

“Why do you have to go and do that?” Damon demanded at her back. Sasha walked to the space between the two beds, where heat from the fire provided some comfort.

“Go and do what?” she retorted.

“And this!” Damon exclaimed, striding over, reaching with one hand toward the tri-braid upon the side of her head . . . Sasha ducked away, scowling at him. “What in the nine hells is that?”

“It’s a tri-braid, Damon. One braid for each of the three spirit levels. Don’t they even teach basic Goeren-yai lore in Baen-Tar any more?”

“Why, Sasha?” Damon demanded, angrily. “Why wear it?”

“Because I’m Lenay!” Sasha shot back. “What are you?”

“Cut it off. Right now.”

Sasha folded her arms in disbelief. “Make me!” she exclaimed. Arisen from the dinner table, there was a sword at her back now, and more weapons besides. Damon, unlike Master Jaryd, knew better.

“Good gods, Sasha,” he exclaimed, with a sharp inhaling of breath. He put both hands to his head, fingers laced within his thick dark hair, looking as he would never wittingly appear before his men—utterly at a loss. “A year since I’ve seen you. A full year. I was almost looking forward to seeing you again . . . almost! Can you believe that? And this is the welcome I get!”

Sasha just stared at him, sullenly. Her temper slowly cooling as she gazed up at her brother. Not all the Lenayin line were blessed with height—she was proof enough of that. But Damon was. A moderately tall young man, with a build that spoke more of speed and balance than brute strength. He would be very handsome indeed, she thought, if not for the occasionally petulant curl of his lip and the faintly childish whine in his tone whenever he felt events going against him.

He was the middle child of ten royal siblings, of whom nine now survived. With Krystoff dead, Koenyg was heir. Wylfred would be next, had he not found religion and committed to the Verenthane order instead, with their father’s blessing. Then came Damon. Second-in-line now and struggling so very hard beneath the burden of expectation that came of one martyred brother who was already legend, and an overbearing stone-head of a surviving elder brother.

“I’m not a Verenthane, Damon,” Sasha told him, firmly. “I’ll never be a Verenthane. You could cut my braid, stick me in a dress and feed me holy fables until my mind dissolves from the sheer boredom, and I’ll still not be a Verenthane.”

“Well that’s all fine, Sasha,” Damon said, exasperated. “You’re not a Verenthane. Good for you. But you have a commitment to our father, and that commitment includes not making overt statements of loyalty toward the Goeren-yai.”

“Why the hells not?” Sasha fumed. “Goeren-yai are more than half of Lenayin last I looked! It’s only you lordly types that converted, and the cities and bigger towns . . . most of Lenayin is just like this, Damon! Small villages and towns filled with decent, hard-working folk who ask nothing more than good rulers and the right to continue being who they are without some shaven-headed, black-robed idiot strolling into their lives and demanding their fealty.”

“Sasha, your last name is Lenayin!” Damon paused, to let the impact of that sink in. Wiser than to rise to her provocations. That was new. “The family of Lenayin is Verenthane! It has been for a century, since the Liberation! Now, whether your arrangement with Kessligh means that your title is officially “Princess” or not, your family name remains Lenayin! And while that continues to be so, you shall not, under any circumstances, break with the continuity of the line of Lenayin!”

Sasha waved both hands in disgust and strode across the floor to lean against a window rim. Looking northeast up the valley, small lights burned from the windows of the houses that lined the road, then the dark, ragged edge of the upper treeline, separating the land from the vast expanse of stars. Hyathon the Warrior sat low on the horizon, and Sasha’s eye traced the bright stars of shoulder, elbow and sword pommel raised in mid-stroke.

“Sasha.” Damon strolled to her previous spot, blocking the fire’s warmth. "Master Jaryd speaks the truth. There have been rumours, since the call to Rathynal, of Krayliss courting your approval...”

“The nobility talks, Damon,” Sasha retorted, breath frosting up on the cold, dark glass. “Rumour is the obsession of the ruling class, everyone always talks of this or that development, who is in favour with whom, and never a care for the concerns of the people. That’s all it is—talk.”

“Just who do you think you are, Sasha?” Damon said in exasperation.“ A champion of the common people?Because I will tell you this, little sister—it’s precisely that kind of talk that breeds rumours. Krayliss and his kind cannot be dismissed so easily, they do have a strong following amongst some of the people...”

“Vastly overstated,” Sasha countered, rounding on him. She folded her arms and leaned her backside against the stone windowsill. “The rulingVerenthanes simply don’t understand their own people, Damon. And do you know why that is? It’s because there are so few Goeren-yai among the ruling classes. Krayliss is the only provincial lord, and he’s a maniac!”

“A maniac who claims ancestry with the line of Udalyn,” Damon said sharply. “You of all people should know what the Udalyn mean to Goeren-yai all across Lenayin. Such appeals cannot be taken lightly.”

“I of all people do know,”Sasha said darkly.“ You’re only quoting what Koenyg told you. And he knows nothing.”

Damon broke off his reply as the door rattled, held fast against the latch. Then an impatient hammering. Damon looked at first indignant, wondering who would dare such impetuosity against Lenay royalty. Then realisation, and he strode rapidly to the door, flung off the latch and stepped back for it to open. Kessligh entered, holding a wicker cage occupied by three flapping, clucking chickens.

“Ah good,” said the greatest swordsman in Lenayin, noticing the fire. He carried the cage across the creaking floor with barely a glance to Damon or Sasha, and placed the cage between the two beds. The chickens flapped, then settled. “These lowland reds don’t like the cold so much. Makes for bad eggs.”

And he appeared to notice Damon for the first time, as the young prince r elatched the door and came across with an extended hand. Kessligh shook it, forearm to forearm in the Lenay fashion. Damon had half a head on Kessligh and nearly thirty years of youth. Yet somehow, in Kessligh’s presence, he seemed to shrink in stature.

“Yuan Kessligh,” Damon said, with grea tdeference. “Yuan,” Sasha reflected, watching them from her windowsill. The only formal title Kessligh still retained, and that merely denoting a great warrior. An old Leay tradition it was, now reserved for those distinguished by long service in battle, be they Verenthane or Goeren-yai. It remained one of those traditions that boundt he dual faiths of Lenayin together, rather than pulled them apart. But Kessligh, of course, was neither Goeren-Yai nor Verenthane. “An honour to see you once more.”

“Likewise, young Damon,” Kessligh replied, his tones trong with that familiar Kessligh-edge. Sharp and cutting, in a way that long years in the service of refined Lenay lords had never entirely dulled. Hard brow neyes bore into Damon’s own, beneath a fringe of untidy, greying hair. “And are you the hunter,this time? Or merely the shepherd, tending to errant sheep?” With a cryptic glance across at Sasha.

Sasha made a face, far less impressed by the gravitas of the former Lenay Commander of Armies than most.

“Oh,well...” Damon cleared his throat. “You have heard, then? About Lord Rashyd?”

“I was just talking downstairs,” Kessligh said calmly. “Catching up with old friends, learning the news, such as it is. So Master Jaryd will live to see past dawn, I take it?”

Damon blinked, looking most uncertain. Which was often the way, for those confronted with Kessligh’s sharp irreverence on matters that most considered important.

“It appears that way,” Damon said, with a further uncertain glance at Sasha. Sasha watched, mercilessly curious. “Please, won’t you sit? I’ll have someone bring up some tea.”

“Already done,” said Kessligh, “but thank you.” And he sat, with no further ado, crosslegged on the further bed, with the chickens murmuring and clucking to themselves on the floor below.

Sasha considered the study in profiles as Damon undid his swordbelt and made to sit on the bed opposite. Damon’s face, evidently anxious, his features soft and not entirely pronounced. And Kessligh’s, rugged and lined with years, with a beakish nose, a sharp chin and hard, searching eyes. Like a work of carving, expertly done yet never entirely completed. He sat straight-backed on the bed, legs tucked tightly beneath, with the poise of a man half his years. It was a posture that wasted not a muscle or sinew, an efficiency born of lifelong discipline and devotion to detail. And his sword was worn not at the hip, as with most fighting men of Lenayin, but clipped to the bandolier on his back, as with all fighters of the svaalverd style.

Damon sat with less poise than Sasha’s teacher—or uman, in the Saalsi tongue of the serrin—placing a foot on the bedframe and pulling up one knee. At his feet, the chickens clucked and fluttered at the further distur- bance. Damon looked at the chickens. And at Kessligh. Struggling to think of something to say. Sasha tried to keep an uncharitable smile in check.

“These are good chickens?” he managed finally. Sasha coughed, a barely restrained splutter. Damon shot her a dark look.

“Well I’m trying to broaden the breeding range,” Kessligh replied serenely. “These are kersan ross, from the lowlands. The eggs have an interesting flavour, much better for making light pastries.”

“You traded for these?” Damon asked, attempting interest, to his credit. It was Lenay custom that no serious talk could begin before the tea arrived. Poor Damon was horrible at small talk.

“A local farmer placed an order through his connections,” Kessligh replied. “A wonderful trading system we now have with the Torovans. Place an order with the right people and a Torovan convoy will deliver in two or three months. They’re becoming quite popular.”

“As with all things Torovan,” Sasha remarked. Damon frowned at her. Kessligh simply smiled.

“Ah,” he said. “Thus speaks she of the Nasi-Keth. She who fights with Saalshen style, loves Vonnersen spices in all her foods, washes regularly with the imported oils of coastal Maras, lives off the wealth from the Torovan love of Lenay-bred horses, speaks two foreign tongues, and has been known to down entire tankards of ale with visiting serrin travellers while playing Ameryn games of chance. But no lover of foreigners she.”

Kessligh’s sharp eyes fixed upon her, sardonically. Sasha held her tongue, eyebrows raised in a manner that invited praise for doing so. There had been times in the past when she had not been so disciplined. He grunted, in mild amusement. Then came a knocking on the door, which Sasha answered and found the tea delivered on a tray.

She set the tray on a footstool for Kessligh to prepare, then settled into a reclining chair with a sigh of aching muscles.

Damon accepted his tea with evident discomfort. Prince or not, few Lenays felt comfortable having Kessligh serve them tea. But that had not stopped Kessligh from cooking for entire tables of Baerlyn folk when suitable occasions arose. Sasha had always found it curious, this yawning gulf between the popular Lenay notion of Kessligh the vanquishing war hero, and her familiar, homespun reality. Kessligh the son of poor dock workers in lowlands Petrodor,trading capital of Torovan, for whom Lenay was a second (or third) language, still spoken with a tinge of broad, lowlander vowels that others remarked upon, but Sasha had long since ceased to notice. Kessligh the Nasi-Keth—a serrin cult (or movement, Kessligh insisted) whose presence had long been prominent amongst the impoverished peoples of Petrodor. Kessligh, serrin-friend, with old ties and allegiances that even three decades of life and fame in Lenayin had not managed to erase.

Kessligh considered Sasha’s evident weariness with amusement, sipping at his tea. “Did Teriyan wear you out?” he asked.

"More demonstrations,” Sasha replied wryly, stretching out legs and a free arm, arching her back like a cat. Her left shoulder ached from a recent strain. It seemed to have altered the balance of her grip, for the tendon of her left thumb now throbbed in sympathy where her grip upon the stanch had somehow tightened, unconsciously. The knuckles on her right hand were bruised where a stanch had caugh ther, and several more impacts ached about her ribs, causing a wince if one were pressed unexpectedly. The front of her right ankle remained tender from where she’d turned it several days ago, during one of Kessligh’s footwork exercises. And those were just the pains she was most aware of. All in all, just another day for the uma of Kessligh Cronenverdt. “They all want to see svaalverd, so I show them svaalverd. And rather than learning, they then spend the whole time complaining that it’s impossible.”

Kessligh shook his head. “Svaalverd is taught from the cradle or not at all,” he said. “Best they learn little. It makes an ill fit with traditional Lenay techniques. Men who try both get their footing confused and trip themselves up.”

“We could try teaching the kids,” said Sasha, sipping her own tea. “Before Jaegar and others get their hooks into them.”

“The culture here is set,”Kessligh replied. “I’m loath to tamper with it. Tradition has its own strength, and its own life. And I fear I’ve caused enough damage to Lenay custom already.” Meaningfully.

Sasha snorted. “Well I would be a good little farm wench, but it’s difficult to fight in dresses, and impossible to ride...”

“You could have kept your hair long,” Kessligh suggested.

“And worn a man’s braid?” With a glance at Damon, who listened and watched with great intrigue. The former Lenay Princess and the former Lenay Commander of Armies. To many in Lenayin, it still seemed an outrageously unlikely pairing. Many rumoured as to its true nature.“ I couldn’t wear it loose like the women because then it would get in the way, but I can’t wear a braid like a man because then I’m not allowed to be a woman at all. The only option left was to cut it short as some of the serrin girls wear it. I don’t do everything just to be difficult, you know, I did actually put some thought into it.”

“The evidence of that doesn’t equal your conclusion,” Kessligh remarked with amusement.

Sasha gave Damon an exasperated look. “This is what passes for entertainment in the great mind of Kessligh Cronenverdt,” she told him. “Belittling me in front of others.”

“What’s not entertaining about it?” Damon said warily. Sasha made a face at him.

“I assume you’ve made comment on Sasha’s new appendage?” Kessligh continued wryly, with a nod at her tri-braid. “She insists it’s all the fashion. Myself, I wonder why she can’t hold to Torovan jewellery and knee-high boots like good, proper Lenay children.”

Sasha grinned. Damon blinked, and sipped his tea to cover the silence as he tried to figure out what to say. “You approve?” he said finally.

Kessligh made an expansive shrug. “Approve, disapprove...” He held a hand in Sasha’s direction. “Behold, young Damon, a twenty-year-old female.In the face of such as this, of what consequence is it for me to approve or disapprove?”

Damon shrugged, faintly. “Most Lenay families are less accommodating. Tradition, as you say.” Sasha raised an eyebrow. It was more confrontational than she’d expected from Damon.

“This is my uma,” Kessligh replied calmly. “I am her uman. In the ways of the serrin, and thus the ways of the Nasi-Keth, it is not for uman to dictate paths to their uma. She will go her own way, and find her own path.

Should she have chosen study and her ball ore instead of swordwork and soldiery, that would also have been her choice...although a somewhat poorer teacher I would have made, no doubt.

“So she feels a common cause with the Goeren-yai of Lenayin.” He shrugged. “Hardly surprising, having lived amongst them for twelve of her twenty years. The mistake you all make, be you Verenthanes or romantics like Krayliss, is to think of her as anything other than my uma. What she does, and what she chooses to wear in her hair, she does as uma to me. This is a separate thing from politics. Quite frankly, it does not concern you. Nor should it concern our king.”

“Our king concerns himself with many things,” Damon said mildly.

“Not this,” said Kessligh. “He owes me too much. And King Torvaal always repays his debts.” Damon gazed down at his tea cup. “Baerlyn is not the most direct line from Baen-Tar to Taneryn. What purpose does this detour serve?”

Damon glanced up. “Your assistance,” he said plainly. “You are as greatly respected in Taneryn as here. My father feels, and I agree, that your presence in Taneryn would calm the mood of the people.”

“The king’s justice must be the king’s,” Kessligh replied, a hard stare unfixing upon the young prince’s face. “I cannot take his place. Such a role is more yours than mine.”

“We have concern about the people of Hadryn taking matters into their own hands,” said Damon. “Lenayin has been mercifully free of civil strife over the last century. The king would not see such old history repeated. Your presence would be valued.”

“I claim no special powers over the hard men of Hadryn,” said Kessligh, with a shake of his head. “The north has never loved me. During the Great War, my successes stole much thunder from the northern lords, and now Lenay history records that forces under my command saved them from certain defeat. That could have been acceptable, were I Verenthane, or a northerner. But I’m afraid the north views Goeren-yai and Nasi-Keth as cut from the same cloth—irredeemably pagan and godless. I do not see what comfort my presence there could bring.”

“But you will come?” Damon persisted.

Kessligh sipped his tea, his eyes not leaving Damon’s. “Should my Lord King command it,” he said, in measured tones. “Of course, you understand that Sasha must therefore accompany me?”

Damon blinked at him. And glanced across at Sasha. “These events make for great uncertainty. I had thought for her to remain in Baerlyn, with a complement of Falcon Guard for protection.”

“You’d what?” Sasha asked, with no diplomacy at all.

Kessligh held up a hand, and she held her tongue, fuming. He unfolded his legs, in one lithe move, and leaned forward to pour some more tea from the earthen-glaze teapot. “She’s safer at my side,” he said. And gazed closely at Damon. “And her continued presence here, away from me, would only create an inviting target, wouldn’t you say? In these uncertain times, it’s best to be sure.”

Copyright © 2009 by Joel Shepherd


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