Story Excerpt Sunday: From A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith

A Stranger to CommandA Stranger to Command

by Sherwood Smith

[Editor’s note: This Book View Cafe book is part of the Epic Story Bundle curated by Kevin Anderson. The bundles are a “pay what you want” deal, but if you pay at least $15 you get all twelve books — a real deal. The sale is only good until June 16.]

Twelve

 “Brushfire!”

Shevraeth thought the whisper was in his dream. He said to Russav Savona, What’s brushfire mean in Marloven? Savona’s dark hair and eyes blurred, changing to Senelac’s dark hair and eyes—

—and vanished.

Shevraeth sat up in bed, bewildered. He couldn’t remember where he was. His mind tried to impose the enormous dimensions of his own bedchamber in Renselaeus, with its row of windows opening onto the roar of the vast waterfall, over this long, narrow room full of rustles and whispers and the drum of heavy rain—

—and the muffled thud of heels hitting the floorboards. A hand knocked into his arm. A face, revealed by flickering blue light through the window, leaned over him. He was in the barracks in Marloven Hess. The face and dark hair belonged to Stad.

“. . . going now,” Stad whispered. “Want to come?”

Lightning flared in the distance again. The boys were wrestling into clothes and boots as fast as they could.

“Janold asleep?” Shevraeth asked as he pulled on his tunic, his brain laboring to wake up.

“Gone.” Evrec flung the word over his shoulder, pale hair flying as he dashed after a mass of boys.

Shevraeth grimaced, yanking hard; his boots seemed to get tougher to force over his feet every day.

Stad ran between the empty, rumpled beds and out the door into the dark courtyard. Shevraeth followed him, straight into a wall of warm rain so thick he gasped, ducking his head and raising a hand to cup over his mouth and nose.

Habit prompted him toward the archway to the main passage, but a sock on the arm made him stumble after the others in the opposite direction, toward the wall bordering the lower school. They paired up, vaulting onto the wall with leaps, shoves, and pushes, the last ones reaching up to be yanked, feet scrabbling. Then they dropped into the narrow corridor between the upper school and the lower, running westward.

Shevraeth had never been this way, because it was out of bounds. His mind caught up. They were out of bounds, running about at night, no rad or master in sight, long after lights out. How many of the rules were they breaking, and for what? Brushfire? Wasn’t that what someone had said? It couldn’t mean a plains fire, not in this deluge. But the only related slang he knew was ‘brush,’ as in ‘Sindan’s gang had a brush with Forthan’s yesterday.’ That meant an exchange of insults, maybe shoves or a smack or two.

As Shevraeth splashed along behind Stad’s heels, he tried to shrug away the questions. The way the boys ran, tension and excitement rising from them all like a kind of invisible steam, the brushfire had to be something rare, something serious. Worth the risk of being caught breaking this many rules? Another unanswerable question.

But he was not going to turn back. If the others could live through a beating, so could he. I wanted to see Marlovens fighting, he thought. This is probably the closest I’ll come.

They ran across a rain-blurred expanse, made a sharp turn, and scrambled under a corral fence. Then they swarmed up onto a stone wall, one by one jumping to an adjacent roof. Other boys lined the slippery, overlapping tiles of the roof, the boys lying flat side by side. Lightning flickered far in the north, the weak blue light illuminating a huge gathering of boys. All the upper-school Houses except for the third-year seniors and a number of
second-year seniors crowded on that roof, watching the fight below.

They were looking down into the seniors’ practice court: forbidden territory.

Someone shoved Shevraeth down, a flat-handed gesture with intent. He slapped full length on the slippery tiles as a body dropped next to him. An elbow jammed into his ribs, forcing him up against the boy on his other side.

Below, dim figures struggled. They made long shadows in the courtyard, faintly outlined by the distant castle torches. Shevraeth wiped impatiently at the rain in his face as he tried to make sense of the roil of ghostly figures, then lightning flared again, this time from the south, and he was not the only one who gasped.

It seemed like hundreds of them down there in a battle so fast, so skilled he couldn’t make out single moves. Nearly a hundred big boys fighting not only with their hands, here and there glinted the cold blue of steel.

‘Brushfire’ anywhere else means war, he thought numbly.

Lightning flared overhead. In that one glare-bright moment the watchers could see that this fight was not like the shrieking grapple of younger boys, mostly noise and wild swings, it was a grim, voiceless, anger-driven striving by trained warriors to subdue, if not quite to kill. The younger boys—and it was only boys, none of the girls were there—savored the fight in silence, some excited, their avid young faces echoing the blood-lust they saw below in big brothers, cousins, or heroes they’d known all their lives. Some seemed uneasy. A very few, like Shevraeth, were appalled.

Many of the boys were poised to leap, to join in the battle, given only a single word.

That word did not come.

Someone, not Ponytail House, had had the wit to set up a rough watch perimeter, so when the whisper flashed down the line, almost as fast as the lightning above, “King’s coming!” they removed themselves in reverse order, quick as they could. Shevraeth turned his head a little sideways to avoid the splats of water splashing up from Gannan’s feet.

King’s coming.

A thrill of horror coiled, cold and uneasy, inside his gut. He didn’t know why the seniors had thrown themselves into this battle that couldn’t possibly remain secret, but he knew there would be far worse trouble than gossip in the mess hall the next day.

The colts all thought they reached their barracks without being caught, though Shevraeth was not the only one to feel that crawl between the shoulder blades that you get when you are sure you are being watched. He kept looking around—most of them looked around, braced for trouble—but the observers, far more experienced than they, merely counted the correct number sneaking back where they belonged, and moved soundlessly on, according to orders.

Inside the boys dashed one by one through the cleaning frame, which took the dirt away, not the water. In the dark, lit only by intermittent lightning, their drumming heartbeats drowned by the crash of thunder, they wrestled out of their wet clothes, laying the wet things on their trunks under their bunks in hopes they might dry before morning.

Then into bed, the overwhelming sense of impending disaster so strong that for a time all private boundaries were forgotten, the grudges and personal alliances, until Gannan said, “D’you think we’ll have an academy brushfire? All of us get to—”

“Shut up,” Evrec ordered.

Silence, except for the roar of hailstones on the roof.

The hail passed as quickly as it had come, leaving the steady, unmusical plunk and splat of drips. In the occasional flares of ever weakening lightning Shevraeth saw reflected gleams in other boys’ wide-open eyes. They were alone. Janold was not in his little alcove off the main entrance. This time it was their radlav who had first broken regs, and they all waited, knowing something would happen.

But the drips slowed, and it had been a long, hot, tiring day, everyone striving in the knowledge that testing was nigh. Gradually, one by one, they began falling asleep again, Shevraeth—he without family here, without a stake in quarrels he knew nothing about—one of the first.

o0o

Evrec, Vandaus, and Baudan were still awake when Janold tiptoed in, his boots in his hands. “Janold,” Baudan, the closest, whispered.

The senior paused in the door to his alcove.

Those nearest woke instantly. Janold set his boots down. Most of the boys sat up in bed, pale faces limned in the dim light shining in the window from the distant torches on the walls.

“What happened?” Baudan asked. “I mean, did the king come?”

Janold gave a soft, bitter laugh, one with no humor, only self-mockery. “Oh, yes. Zheirban said you boys were on the roof. That true?”

“We were,” Vandaus admitted, when the others hesitated. “But we left again on signal from Mud House. They were there, too, but they set up a perimeter.”

Janold sat down slowly on the edge of Baudan’s bed. “Zheirban tried to stop them. Forthan tried at first, but they called him out on threat of—” He stopped, lifting his head and peering down the row. “Is the visitor asleep?”

Shevraeth had been lying still with his eyes closed, once again fighting his way out of dreams. He could continue to lie there, but then he would be listening under false pretenses, the sort of slinking dishonesty the king’s cousin Nenthar Debegri favored, and he despised.

So he sat up. “I’m awake. Do you want me to go outside so you can talk?”

“Yes,” Nermand muttered, but Janold flipped up the back of his hand, a sharp, hard movement more effective than any curse.

Nermand flushed at the insult that—coming from his own radlav—he couldn’t officially resent.

“No, don’t go,” Janold said to Shevraeth. “You may’s well hear it all.” He paused while Evrec silently lit a single candle. Then he said, “Truth is we don’t come off looking so good, but maybe that’s something you need to know. I, curse it, I feel sick.”

He drew in a deep, shuddering breath, a tremulous hiss they all heard. Janold, tough Janold, who hardly ever cracked a smile, who beat most seniors at archery on horseback and double-stick fighting, who thrashed them with dispassionate and exacting equality when required. His pale hair hung in his eyes, dripping onto his cheeks, but he didn’t seem aware of it, or to feel his soggy stockings making pools on the worn barracks floorboards. He wore a white shirt that stuck to his body, with liberal mud prints all over it. Shevraeth wondered what strange variation in the rules led the seniors to fight in boots and trousers and shirts, leaving off the uniform-tunics. So much unspoken custom that everyone else but he understood.

“It wasn’t only Sindan versus Forthan, though that was part. It really is the old ways against the new. Everyone thinks the other side are cowards. They tied Zheirban up after he refused to join and locked him in our storage, but Janred Senelac was hiding on the ceiling beam. Dropped down, cut him free. Jan came and got the rest of us, on Zheirban’s command, the idea being to stop it, but we got drawn in…” He let the words drift as he stared sightlessly down at his open palms.

“Did the king really come?” Vandaus asked when the silence had gone on so long it seemed unbearable.

Janold’s mind returned from its bleak inward review and he said, “Oh, yes. He came. Walked right through the middle.”

“With Keriam?”

“With the Guard?”

“Was he armed?”

The whispered questions came from all sides.

Janold shrugged one shoulder impatiently. “He was alone. Empty hands. Walked right through us like a knife through spider webs. Stopped when he reached us. I was there, trying to stop—” Janold sighed again, and looked up at the ceiling, then down at his hands. “The king saw Sindan down. Said to Forthan, If he dies, you die.”

“Wha—” Nermand started to rise from his bed.

“Shut. Up.” Hauth reached past little Ventdor and shoved Nermand back onto the bed.

Janold didn’t hear the whispered exchange, short but fierce. His eyes were distant.

“Forthan had the knife, see. Sindan’s knife. Took it off him in the duel, and—well. He said to the king, I know. And then, Put me up against the wall. I’ll go. But not the post. And the king said, We both know he’s worthless and you, I want you one day to command my army. But you know the rules. You swore to uphold them when you took your command.”

The whispers broke out again.

“But it was Sindan’s fault!”

“Sindan brought the knife, not Ret!”

“It was all Sindan, that horse apple—”

Baudan said, “What’s going to happen?”

Janold turned his head. “I don’t know. The king saw us there. Didn’t even ask what we were doing, just sent everyone to barracks. Had someone carry Sindan to the healer, and go with the ones with cuts and broken bones.”

Stad said in a low, angry voice, “If they put Forthan up against a post I won’t go.”

Janold’s head jerked round, his face white with anger. “Yes, you will. We’ll all be there. If it comes to pass. We broke the rules. That’s what Sindan wanted, to break the rule of law, to go back to rule of force, of privilege being above the regs. We’re not going to let him win. Even if he dies.” He rubbed his hands through his hair, then stood up. “Go to sleep. All of you. If we are given a normal day tomorrow, Ponytail House will be on its best behavior.”

He vanished into his alcove and Evrec snuffed the candle.

Nermand muttered, “Forthan’s a coward—”

“Shut up, shit-head.” Evrec’s venom was so unlike his normal easy tones the others were shocked into silence.

*************

Sherwood Smith was a teacher for twenty years, teaching history, literature, drama, and dance. She writes science fiction and fantasy for adults and young readers.

Though known primarily as a fantasy writer, Sherwood and fellow BVC member Dave Trowbridge have collaborated on Exordium, a five-volume space opera.

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