This is harder to write than I thought.
I think I had better start with losing Methden.
I’ll begin when the academy seniors had all been sent home, and after them next year’s seniors. They were wild with anger at being treated like babies. Especially after the triumphant battle at the river. But one battle is not the war—that’s what everyone said to one another, sometimes with a little smile—because no one believed that Norsunder would beat us. Not on our own ground. Some of the older teens, including those never in the academy, ran to fight despite the orders to lie low, and didn’t return.
Then my father, Jarl Jarend Ndarga of Methden, was killed. After that, every messenger’s words brought another sword stroke to the heart.
The rest of us spent our days and nights running. We scavenged arrows. We begged farther and farther into the city for bandages, listerblossom, willow-steep, and the like, when the garrison healers ran out of supplies. The garrison became a lazarette of wounded, angry warriors determined to rise and get back to defend the kingdom.
That ended abruptly as a snuffed candle when word came that the new Harskiald, the hero Retren Forthan, had struck his banner at Aladas Pass.
You hear about striking the banner. It’s in a lot of the saddest and most warlike ballads, the ones requiring at least five drums. Though it had been centuries since it had last happened, we all knew what it meant: that everyone, from the rankers to the runners, had died in a battle. And the commander, in this case the Harskiald, who had never lost a wargame, had slashed the banner himself so that it would not fall into Norsundrian hands, before turning his sword on himself.
That news stunned us as if a gigantic hand had slapped us all to the ground. And still more bad news came. Now the enemies were converging on the royal city.
There was another thing I’d heard about, but had never actually heard: all the old people singing the weird mourning ballad called the Andahi Lament. They sang it again and again, all through the night before the memorial for my father and the others of Methden who had fallen. They sang through the memorial, which was carried out under the eyes of the enemy, on a frigidly cold day, the sunlight mercilessly clear. Too many were Disappeared that day, my father, Jarend Ndarga, Jarl of Methden, the first.
For my brother Retren and me, resistance started that day.
Here is another beginning. I said this was hard. It was a Fifthday morning. Raining. Mother wept in her room. But everyone who knew she was weeping also knew she was a foreigner so Retren and I didn’t get any shame. And Lesra was too young to care about appearing to be weak.
Retren didn’t say anything and neither did I, but I knew he was missing Da, too. It was the day after the memorial. He and I met to plan revenge. What to do was obvious—kill Norsundrians—it was the number that had to be settled. I’d said one for each year of our lives but he scowled and said it was fine for me because I was fourteen, but he got cheated because he was not quite eleven. I reminded him that he could kill as many as he wanted, only they’d be for him not for Da, but I could see his point, so we decided in the end to do one for every year of Da’s life, divided in half. (And if one did their half first they’d keep their mouth shut till the other caught up.)
I set myself a goal: I had to kill mine within the same amount of time the Norsundrians had taken to invade. I thought, if I can kill that many in the same time, then they’re not tougher than us. They just had cheats like magic, or something.
Easy to decide, but difficult to achieve.
There weren’t too many Norsundrians in Methden, as most were attacking Choreid Dhelerei. I only got one the second night, and I wasn’t sure he was dead. The following two days I couldn’t find any lone ones to shoot without being seen doing it. I roamed the streets both days, and lurked around the garrison, which was next to empty, waiting. The Norsundrians who were there went about in groups, steel bare, and anyone, especially men, who even looked at them wrong got attacked and beaten. A couple were killed. Retren and I stayed away from the garrison until Commander Herid returned from the royal city, sent by the king.
I was sitting in the map room with young Sereth (or Sereth, I guess, since Old Sereth died of his wounds the second day) playing cards’n’shards. Commander Herid walked in, looking strange in the face. His uniform was gone. He wore carter’s clothes, worn and dirty. Sereth and I both stood up (I always stuck to army protocol when I hung around the garrison, my choice, and they were used to it) and the garrison commander’s eyes flicked over us as he slammed the door shut behind him.
“Lost the royal city?” I said.
He sat down heavily in his chair, looking so strange in civilian dress. “Yes. Lost, and heavy losses. Including the little princess.”
“What?” That was several voices at once.
“And the king?” Sereth asked.
“Fought in the thick to the very end. In fact, four of them dragged him away when we decided to go to ground. There were just too many of them. Too many of us dying.” He lowered his voice. “I was told he did the sword dance. All alone. Before the princess’s bier.”
Everyone looked away, or down, at that. I was too sick to speak, until Commander Herid said slowly, “Young Van Stad is now in command. Said before he sent me off, in these clothes, with a hay cart, that those of us left have to stop wasting ourselves and concentrate on forming an effective resistance.”
“King’s alive, then?” Sereth persisted.
“Was when he sent us home.” Commander Herid shut his eyes, his lips a thin line, then he let out a breath and said, “King promised to escape, so they can’t send him back a soul-bound ordering us to fight for them.”
Sereth sat back, satisfied. He and the king are distant kinsmen, though I think they’ve met only once. “He’s not stupid. He’ll leave, and be back when he can do something for us.”
“That’s what he told us. Has to find some other rulers who know a lot of magic.”
“What next?” I asked, more interested in our immediate future, now that I knew the king was safe.
“We wait. We’re entirely at their mercy.” I could see how he hated to say those words.
“Not completely. We can do something,” I said, jumping up. “I’d best return. My foreigner mother will weep buckets, if it’s known I’m out so late.”
“It’s my thought you’d best keep your distance from the garrison for a time. I don’t know what’s to become of us, or if the remedy to mind enchantment the king taught us some time ago will work. You and Retren might do best to lie low. See what they’re like before doing anything.”
“We’ll see,” I said, ignoring the blather about mind enchantments. Da had said most of it was mage-talk, no use to us.
I stealthed back in over the wall to the second story in case Mother was watching for me downstairs. I climbed in the library window and ran up to my room. Retren was there, asleep on my bed. I lit a candle, and the sound woke him up.
“Well?” he said.
“The royal city is lost. They killed the little princess. But the king escaped.” I sat on the end of my bed, and began getting out of my wet clothes.
“Our resistance continues. But we’ll add to the revenge for Da’s death, vengeance for the Harskiald, and all the others at Aladas. We were too young to go to the royal city against them but we can make up for it by causing them as much trouble as we can, right here, with what’s left of the group.”
He turned his palm up in assent. “It’s getting cold. Bet we’ll get an early winter this year. Tchah! If they’re coming I hope they hurry because I want the revenge to start.” He moved to the door. The shadows were dark there, but in spite of the tough talk his voice betrayed how much he was still missing Da, and all those at the garrison who were never coming back. “Oh—almost forgot…” He sidled a look at me so I knew what was coming before he said it. “Ramond sent a message. Wants to meet in the morning, about the Norsundrians. Calls a truce. Figures because of this we can forget—“
“I don’t want to know what he says. Obviously he wants a truce or he wouldn’t’ve sent a message.”
“You don’t need to be so nasty.”
“It’s that Ramond. Makes me that way, hearing his name. Where’s the meeting at?”
“I’ll think about it.”
“The river gate, at dawn. If you don’t go, I will.”
“I said I’ll think about it.”
“I’ll stop by here before I go. If we both go, we should together.”
His last sentence was a change in tone (from challenge to suggestion) so I said, “Right.”
He left quietly.
I flung the last of my wet things over a chair and climbed into bed. Ramond at dawn. Ugh. But it was better to face trouble than have it sneak up from behind. So I’d go. I’d decided to from the start, but Retren needed reminding of who was in command.