Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sasha: A Trial of Blood & Steel by Joel Shepherd

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?


Scroll down and read the excerpt below to find out.


“The whole book had me hardly able to put it down, and my perpetual human need for sleep continually stood in the way of decent reading time. The vague allusions towards what will come in the sequel … has me eager to read more. This is definitely a book you will want to pick up … downright and thoroughly enjoyable.”

--Fantasy Book Review

“…I thought Sasha was excellent, especially given that this is Joel Shepherd's first fantasy novel. It offers a huge fantasy world, a fascinating heroine, heart-pounding descriptions of both small-scale sword fights and full-on warfare, several characters that genuinely grow and change, and — maybe most importantly — the hint that this is just the start of what could become a great series…Sasha is an excellent epic fantasy novel that promises great things for the rest of the series. Recommended.”

--Fantasy Literature.com

“The second half of the book crackles with intriguing characters, witty banter and vivid, realistic battles, leaving readers optimistic about the planned sequels.”
--Publishers Weekly


“Those who savor the intricacies of rival religions, vividly choreographed fights, and lots of bloody battle will enjoy [Sasha]…. this heroic fantasy should please fans of, say, George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice novels.”
--Booklist




Sasha: A Trial of Blood & Steel
Joel Shepherd




Blood & Steel Characters



Lenayin


Valhanan
Sasha ...................former Princess of Lenayin
Kessligh Cronenverdt . . . . . . . warrior, former Commander of Armies
Peg ....................Sasha’s horse
Terjellyn ................Kessligh’s horse
Teriyan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . leather worker
Lynette . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Teriyan’s daughter
Jaegar . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . headman of Baerlyn town
Andreyis ................Sasha’s friend
Lord Kumaryn Tathys . . . . . . Great Lord of Valhanan
Tarynt ..................councilman of Yule village




Tyree
Jaryd Nyvar ..............heir to Great Lordship of Tyree
Lord Aystin Nyvar . . . . . . . . . Jaryd’s father, Great Lord of Tyree
Captain Tyrun . . . . . . . . . . . . Commander of Tyree’s Falcon Guard
Lieutenant Reynan Pelyn . . . . Falcon Guardsman
Lord Tymeth Pelyn . . . . . . . . Tyree noble
Sergeant Garys . . . . . . . . . . . . Falcon Guardsman
Tarryn ..................Jaryd’s younger brother
Wyndal .................Jaryd’s brother
Lord Redyk ..............Tyree noble
Lord Paramys .............Tyree noble
Lord Arastyn .............Tyree noble
Galyndry ................Jaryd’s sister
Pyter Pelyn ..............nephew of Lord Pelyn
Rhyst Angyvar . . . . . . . . . . . . Tyree noble youth





Baen-Tar
Damon . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Prince of Lenayin
Torvaal Lenayin ...........King of Lenayin
Krystoff ................Prince of Lenayin, deceased
Koenyg .................Prince of Lenayin, heir to the throne
Wylfred .................Prince of Lenayin
WynaTelgar .............Koenyg’s wife
Sofy ....................Princess of Lenayin
Marya . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Princess of Lenayin, married in Torovan
Petryna .................Princess of Lenayin, married
Alythia . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Princess of Lenayin
Myklas ..................Prince of Lenayin
Queen Shenai .............Queen of Lenayin, deceased
Anyse . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sofy’s maid
Archbishop Dalryn . . . . . . . . . Lenay archbishop





Hadryn
Lord Rashyd Telgar . . . . . . . . Great Lord of Hadryn, deceased
Lord Usyn Telgar . . . . . . . . . . Rashyd Telgar’s son, Great Lord of Hadryn
Farys Varan ..............Hadryn noble
Lord Udys Varan ..........Hadryn noble
Heryd Ansyn .............Hadryn noble
Martyn Ansyn ............Hadryn noble




Taneryn
Lord Krayliss .............Great Lord of Taneryn
Captain Akryd ............Taneryn soldier




Udalyn
Daryd Yuvenar ............Udalyn boy
Rysha ...................Daryd’s younger sister
Essey ...................Udalyn horse
Chief Askar ..............Udalyn chief




Banneryd
Captain Tyrblanc . . . . . . . . . . Banneryd Black Storm captain
Lord Cyan ...............Great Lord of Banneryd
Corporal Veln . . . . . . . . . . . . . Black Storm soldier




Isfayen
Lord Faras ...............Great Lord of Isfayen




Neysh
Lord Aynsfar .............Neysh noble, deceased
Lord Parabys .............Great Lord of Neysh




Ranash
Lord Rydysh .............Great Lord of Ranash




Bacosh
Duke Stefhan .............Larosan duke
Master Piet ..............Larosan bard




Saalshen
Rhillian .................serrin leader in Petrodor
Aisha ...................female serrin
Errollyn .................male serrin, archer
Terel ...................male serrin
Tassi . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . female serrin




Others
Jurellyn .................senior Lenay scout
Aiden . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Nasi-Keth from Petrodor, Kessligh’s friend




Historical Figures
Hyathon the Warrior . . . . . . . Goeren-yai mythical hero
Markield ................Cherrovan warlord
Leyvaan of Rhodaan . . . . . . . . Leyvaan the Fool, King of Bacosh
Tharyn Askar .............great Udalyn chieftain
Essyn Telgar . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Hadryn chief
Soros Lenayin . . . . . . . . . . . . . former king, head of Liberation army of old
Chayden Lenayin . . . . . . . . . . former king, Soros’s son
Tullamayne . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Goeren-yai storyteller






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.”






Two


“I’M SAFER AT YOUR SIDE?” Sasha whispered incredulously, as she walked with Kessligh out through the inn's rear exit, and into the paved courtyard at the back. “What am I, some Baen-Tar noble wench to be
protected at every turn?”


The night chill was sharp, breath frosting before her lips as she spoke.  The remains of a declining fire burned within the courtyard, surrounded by a great many men, with a cup in hand, or placed somewhere nearby. Kessligh walked so as to keep well clear of the fire’s light, and to get her they passed unnoticed in the dark.


“Damon’s not here for me, Sasha,” Kessligh said grimly, hands in the pockets of his jacket as he strode. “He’s here for you.”


“For me? He doesn’t even want me along...”


“Damn it, pay attention,” Kessligh rebuked her, with more than a trace of irritation. “Haven’t you grasped it yet? Despite everything I’ve been telling you, with your friends and drinking sessions, and that new growth
sprouting from the side of your head? Krayliss is making his move, Sasha. It’s a desperate, stupid, foolish move, but no more so than one might have expected from Krayliss. He threatens martyrdom. If we’re all not extremely careful, he might just get it.”


Sasha frowned. She didn’t like it when Kessligh got like this. He made everything seem so complicated. Why couldn’t he just accept what she was, and how she felt? Why couldn’t everyone? “Krayliss... ” and she shook her head, trying to clear her mind. “Krayliss can’t use me as a figurehead.” Trying to be rational. “I’m a woman, he’d never accept a woman as his symbol of Goeren-yai revival...”


“You’re worse than a woman,” Kessligh cut in, “you’re Nasi-Keth. Krayliss hates all foreigners, Sasha—that means me, the lowlanders and the serrin equally, he makes no distinction. But you’re the closest thing to a genuine Goeren-yai within the royal line that he’s got, and he might just be desperate enough. Have you seen the condition of the Falcon Guard’s horses? Damon made the ride from Baen-Tar fast. He came to secure you, to make sure Krayliss couldn’t reach you first. That’s the doing of your father’s advisors. Your father has little enough fear of you. They have plenty.”


"My father’s advisors now include Wyna Telgar,” Sasha muttered. “To hear Sofy tell of it, anyhow. I’m sure my eldest brother’s wife would not have been pleased to hear that her father is dead. I wonder why Koenyg did not come himself, with that dragon breathing fire down his neck.”


“Prince Koenyg is a stickler for the rules,” Kessligh said grimly. “Rathynal approaches and the heir should not go gallivanting off to the provinces to bash some lordly heads together. That’s what junior princes are for.”


Lamps lit the stables ahead where several guardsmen were talking with local Baerlyn men, some of them regular stablehands. Several lads carried heavy blankets, or lugged saddlebags, or shifted loads of hay. The air smelled of hay, manure and horses—to Sasha’s nose, a most familiar and agreeable odour, tinged with the sweetness of burning lamp oil.


“It’s the Rathynal, isn’t it?” Sasha said, arms wrapped about herself, only partly to repress the shivers brought on by the cold air. “That’s why everyone’s so jumpy.”


“There’s a lot to be jumpy about,” said Kessligh, raising a hand in answer to the horsemen’s respectful hails. “Such a large meeting can only reopen old wounds. Especially with foreign lowlanders invited. There’s war in the offing, Sasha. Us old warhorses can smell it in the air. Damn right we’re jumpy. You should be too.”


“There won’t be a war,” Sasha said, with forced certainty as they walked down the long line of stables. “I just can’t imagine we’ll get involved in sometupid war in the Bacosh. It’s all too far away.”


“It’s nearer than Saalshen,” Kessligh said grimly. “And serrin come here all the time. Be careful of Master Jaryd—I know you derive great joy from boxing the ears of stuck-up young idiots like him, and I sympathise. But Rathynal is a time for all the great lords to make great decisions, and this Rathynal shall be greater than most. Lord Krayliss is a huge obstacle in such meetings—so long as he continues to sow division, Lenayin shall be forever divided, and the Verenthane nobility will never have its way on any great issue. Lord Krayliss delights in twisting the knife and ruining their grand plans at the most inopportune moments.


“Whether you like it or not, Verenthane nobility hear the rumours connecting you to the Goeren-yai, and to Krayliss, and they worry. In Lord Aystin’s eyes, there may not be very much difference between you and
Krayliss at all, and so I’d be surprised if his heir Jaryd feels differently. You can be certain Lord Rashyd and the northerners are not the only Lenay lords who would love to see Krayliss deposed and the entire ruling line of Taneryn replaced with a good Verenthane family. It would not surprise me to find that whatever incident has occurred, it was cooked up by Lord Rashyd with support from other Lenay lords, possibly including Great Lord Aystin Nyvar of Tyree himself.”


“You’re telling me that the gallant and dashing Master Jaryd Nyvar may wish to plant a knife in my back?” Sasha suggested with some incredulity.


“I’m telling you to be careful. Verenthanes frequently claim that all the old blood-feuds and bickering disappeared with the Liberation and the coming of Verenthaneism—don’t believe it. It’s still there, just hiding. It’s sneaking self-interest disguised beneath a cloak of smiling Verenthane brotherhood, and that makes it even more dangerous than when it was out in the open, as in older times . . . or more dangerous, at least, if you are its target. Trust me—I was born in Petrodor, and I’ve seen it. In such disputes of power, it’s always the knife you can’t see that kills you.”


“I’d prefer the old days,” Sasha snorted. “At least then rival chieftains killed their opponents face to face.”


“Don’t be stupid,” Kessligh said shortly. “A thousand corpses honourably killed is no improvement on a handful of victims strangled in the night.”


Terjellyn hung his head over the stable door, having heard them coming. Kessligh gave him an affectionate rub as a stable boy hovered, awaiting anything Baerlyn’s two most famous residents might require.


“You’ll be with Jaegar all night?” Sasha asked. The unhappiness must have shown in her voice, for Kessligh gave her a sardonic look.


“I think you can handle your brother for one night,” he remarked. “It would be nice if I could discuss Baerlyn’s affairs with Jaegar before we ride. We might be gone several weeks.” Terjellyn nudged at his shoulder. The big chestnut stallion was a direct descendant of Tamaryn, Kessligh’s mount during the great Cherrovan War thirty years gone. He’d ridden Tamaryn all the way from Petrodor, a mere sergeant among the Torovan volunteer brigades that had flooded into Lenayin following the invasion of the Cherrovan warlord Markield. The Liberation seventy years gone, the Archbishop of Torovan had not wished to see the thriving “Verenthane Kingdom” of Lenayin lost to a raging barbarian mob and had commanded Torovan believers to ride west on a holy war. Kessligh, however, had not ridden for faith.


Tamaryn had then borne him through the better part of an entire year’s fighting, in the wooded valleys and mountains of Lenayin, during which Kessligh had risen to lieutenant, then captain, and then Commander of
Armies for all Lenayin, and inflicted a thrashing upon the Cherrovan from which they had not recovered to this very day. Ever since, Kessligh had never had a primary ride that was not a descendant of Tamaryn—Terjellyn’s great-grandfather. It was the only superstition Sasha had ever known him to concede.


“Be nice to Damon. Try not to provoke him too much.”


Sasha stared elsewhere as Kessligh opened the stable door, and gave Terjellyn a once-over before mounting bareback. The big stallion, a more mature and refined gentleman than her Peg, walked calmly into the courtyard.


“We’ll be off before dawn,” Kessligh told her from the height of his mount .“We’ll go home first, get the gear, then rejoin the column on the way to Taneryn.” Sasha nodded, arms folded against the cold. “What’s your
problem?”


"What’ll happen to Krayliss?” she asked.


“You care that much?”


About the fate of the Goeren-yai?” Sasha shot back. “How could I not?”


Kessligh exhaled hard, glancing elsewhere with a frown. “I don’t know what to tell you,” he said finally. “You chose this path for yourself...”


“I did not,” Sasha retorted, sullenly. “It chose me.”


“You are still your father’s daughter, Sasha. Whatever new role and title you bear now.” His eyes refixed upon her with narrowed intent. “None of us can escape the accidents of our birth so easily.”


“That’s not what you told Damon back there. What was all that about me being your uma, and nothing more should matter?”


“One side of an argument,” Kessligh said calmly. “I’m sure Damon can provide the other side himself.”


“You should have chosen another uma. One without the family baggage.”


Kessligh’s lean, wry features thinned with a faints mile. “I don’t recall that I did choose you. In that, you chose me.”


Sasha gazed up at him. Kessligh’s expression, alive with the dancing shadows of lamplight, was almost affectionate.


“Don’t sleep in,” he warned her. “And for the gods’own sakes, stay away from that rye beer. It’s murder.” And he nudged Terjellyn with his heels, clattering off up the dark, cobbled path to the courtyard, and the laughing merriment of men.


~~~~


Sleep did not come easy. For a long time, Sasha lay beneath the heavy covers and gazed at the ceiling. The room glowed with the orange embers from the fire. From the second bed, furthest from the door, she could hear little sound from Damon’s bed.


She would have preferred her own, separate room, as was the usual arrangement when she had cause to stay overnight at the Star. But Damon having acquired the lordly quarters, form dictated that one royal should not sleep in lesser accommodation than the other. Such an occurrence might spread rumours of a division.


Sasha hated it all. Hated the gossip and sideways looks, hated the out-of-towners who stared and whispered, hated the northerners who sneered and made smirking comments amongst themselves. Had always hated it, in all her living memory. And her memory, Kessligh had frequently noted with something less than pleasure, was vast. She recalled the echoing stone halls of Baen-Tar Palace all too well, with their expensive tapestries and paintings. Recalled well the texture of the grass in the little courtyards between buildings where she had sat for lessons on a sunny day, and found far greater interest in the beetles and flower gardens than in classical texts or Torovan history . . . to say nothing of scripture, or embroidery.


Recalled the look her instructors, servants and various assorted minders had given her, the “Sashandra-always-in-trouble” look, that expected bad behaviour and was frequently presented with such. She’d never understood those rules. Should a deep-cushion mattress not be used for jumping? And what on earth was wrong with throwing scraps of food to the pigeons that sat upon her bedroom window ledge? And running in hallways, what possible harm could it cause?


“Unladylike,” had been the routine answer. And undignified, for arincess of Lenayin. “Then I don’t want to be a princess of Lenayin!” had been her typically untactful, six-year-old reply. They’d locked her in her room and given her a composition assignment to fill the time. She recalled even now the blank page of paper sheaf, and the little, sharp-tipped quill that looked like it had once been a waterbird feather.


Was that natural? To recall the experiences of a six-year-old with such detailed clarity? Kessligh had said, only half-seriously, that it stopped her from growing up, so tightly did she clutch to the memories of her past. Sasha had answered that on the contrary, it spurred her to leave that time even further behind. But now, lying in the warm, orange glow of the Star’s lordly quarters, she wondered.


She recalled throwing the sheaf of papers out the window, scattering pigeons from the ledge, and papers all over the gardens below. Not being able to do what one chose had seemed a great injustice. Her minders had concluded that she was spoiled, and had determined to make life more difficult, removing more privileges, and increasing the severity of punishments. That had only made her angry. The next time she’d thrown something out of the window, it had been heavy, and she hadn’t opened the window first.


Damon, of course, had since challenged her recollections of those times. It had not been all her minders’ fault, he’d proclaimed, upon her first visit back to Baen-Tar in four years, at the ripe old age of twelve. He’d been fifteen, somewhat gangling and with two left feet – not an uncommon condition for boys, Kessligh had assured her, and one reason why girls were easier to train. She’d been born wild, Damon had insisted. Wild like a bobcat, breaking things and biting people from the moment she’d learned how to walk. They’d only been trying to stop her from killing someone—most likely herself. And all of it had been no one’s fault but her own.


Twelve-year-old Sasha had punched him in the nose.


Whatever the cause of the madness, Krystoff had been the cure. Krystoff, the heir to the throne of Lenayin, with his flowing black hair, his easy laugh, and his rakish, good-humoured charm. Eleven years her senior, the second eldest after Marya, who was now safely married to the ruling family of Petrodor. Sasha suffered a flash of very early memory...hiding behind a hay bale in a barn, watching Kessligh and Krystoff sparring with furious intensity.


Gods she must have been young. She tried to recall the dress—her memory of dresses was particularly excellent, much the same way as a long-time prisoner must surely recall various types of shackles and chains. The frilly, tight-stitched petticoats? Yes, it must have been, she remembered yanking at them beneath her pleated, little-girl’s dress, trying to stop them from tugging as she crouched. She’d been five, then, that night in the barn ...and it had been night, hadn’t it? Yes, she recalled the flickering lamp-light and the musty smell of burning oil behind the familiar odour of hay.


But there hadn’t been any fire damage to the northern wall in that memory. She’d nearly burned it all down at the beginning of her sixth year, when she’d been caught sneaking and forcibly removed. She’d grabbed and
thrown a bale hook in her fury as they’d carried her away, striking a nearby lamp and sending hay bales up in roaring flames. Serrin oil, she’d later learned—long-lasting, but very flammable.


Kessligh had seen that throw, however, and been impressed. That had been about the time Krystoff had begun to take pity on her, taking an interest in one of his sisters at an age when the others, save for Marya, might as well have been invisible. She recalled him entering her room the day following the fire, an athletic and well-built seventeen, and surely the strongest, most handsome man in all Baen-Tar to her worshipful eyes. She’d been crying. He’d asked her why. And she’d explained that she was to be kept under lock and key for a week. No sunlight, save what fell naturally through her bedroom window. No natural things, save the pigeons that squabbled and made silly sounds on her window ledge. No grassy courtyards. No running,
and definitely no chance to sneak to the creaky old barn in the old castle and watch the Lenayin Commander of Armies attempt to whip her eldest brother into a respectable heir and Nasi-Keth uma.


Krystoff had melted. And suddenly, in the following days, she was free. He’d promised her that if she just behaved herself, she could come and watch him train that night. She’d been courteous and attentive all through that day, and had performed all her required tasks without so much as fidgeting. Her minders had been incredulous. And Krystoff, true to his word, had found her a nice, high hay bale to sit on and watch proceedings in the barn that evening after dinner . . . for Krystoff trained twice a day, she’d been amazed to learn, and did many other exercises in between. He was going to be not only heir of Lenayin, but Nasi-Keth, like Kessligh. She had not, of course, grasped anything of the broader significance of this historic fact, nor the disquiet it had surely caused amongst devout Verenthanes everywhere, despite assurances that in Petrodor, most Nasi-Keth were also Verenthanes, and found no conflict between the two. All Sasha had known was that it seemed awfully exciting.


Kessligh, with curious humour, had even shown her some basic footwork when big brother Krystoff had needed a rest. She’d gotten it first go, slippered feet dancing on the dust and loose straw. Krystoff had encouraged her with typically infectious enthusiasm. They’d found her a broomstick, broken the end off and she’d used it for a practice stanch. She’d managed the basic taka-dan first time also—some of which had come from spying, and some from simple inspiration. She’d even gotten the tricky wrist-angle, and how it
shifted with different footing. Krystoff had been excited enough to pick her up and spin her about, where another man might have felt slighted, upstaged by his little sister with a broomstick. Very few pupils ever simply “got” the svaalverd first time, not even serrin. Kessligh had just watched, his expression unreadable.


From then on, within the privacy of the barn at evenings, there’d been instruction for Sasha also. Lessons and exercises, too, for her to perform in her room in early mornings, before the servants arrived to fill her morning bath, and dress her in their latest torture contraption, and brush her long, flowing hair. She’d kept that half-a-broomstick beneath her mattress, and when it was found and confiscated, she’d used the fire poker in her room instead. Those exercises had been her wonderful secret—something her minders could never take away—and she’d practised every time she’d found a private moment. Her minders did not approve of Krystoff’s increasingly active role in her life, despite her improved behaviour. With improved behaviour had come high spirits, and a happy, rambunctious little Sashandra Lenayin had been every bit the challenge that a sullen, moody one had presented.


They’d been kindred spirits, she and Krystoff. She recalled helping him to raid the kitchens when soldiers just arrived from impromptu exercises were hungry and unhappy at being told to wait until mealtime. Recalled
Krystoff flustering the chief cook, and sweet-talking the giggling, blushing kitchen maids, while Sasha had stood on a chair, and loaded loaves of bread and bowls of soup onto trays for the queuing soldiers, who’d grinned at her and ruffled her hair.


Another time, he’d somehow talked the proprietor of the training hall into admitting her—Krystoff had been said to own the knack of talking fish out of water, or chickens into flight. (Or virtuous Verenthane maidens into his bedchambers, many had also said, when they thought she couldn’t hear.) There she’d watched athletic Lenay warriors drenched in sweat, pounding each other’s defences with utmost confidence and swagger . . . until they’d come up against Krystoff’s svaalverd, and found it like trying to swat a fly from the air with a wheelwright’s hammer.
Yet another time, rather naively, he’d introduced her to horses, and his little sister had fallen in love for a second time. Little Sashandra would abandon classes to go wandering around the stables, watching the stable boys and pestering the trainers for desperately coveted knowledge. And when the Royal Guards put on a formation display for a visiting foreign lord . . . well, no locks nor bars nor solid stone walls could hold her.


Those had been the best days, when her newfound confidence had blossomed, and with it, her first true sense of self. She’d even made peace with her other brothers and sisters . . . or no, she reflected now as she gazed at the ceiling—maybe not peace. More like a truce. An uneasy and often hostile one, with occasional breaches caused by either party, but usually resolved in short order.


Given nine headstrong siblings, that had been no mean achievement. Other than Krystoff, Marya—the eldest—had been her best friend, and her marriage and departure for Petrodor had been a sad day indeed. Koenyg, then second-in-line for the throne behind Krystoff, had long been jealous of his elder brother’s carefree popularity, and had spent much of his life attempting to become everything that Krystoff was not—disciplined, calm and sober. Her sister Petryna, now married to the heir of Lenayin’s Yethulyn province,
had been studious and sensible, and no lover of outrageous antics. Wylfred had preferred his own company and spent much of his free time in temple with his books. And then there was Damon, only a boy himself in all her Baen-Tar memories, and oh-so self-conscious and awkward in the presence of his overbearing, talented elder brothers. And Alythia, the glamorous one, who loved everything princessly that Sasha hated, and loved even more to demonstrate that fact to the world.


And then, of course, there were her two younger siblings, Sofy and Myklas . . . and her eyes widened. She had not asked anything about Sofy! Gods and spirits, how could she be so forgetful? She rolled her head upon the pillow and cast a glance across at Damon, apparently asleep beneath the covers. But there might be no time tomorrow, she reasoned.


“Damon,” she called across the beds. “Damon. Are you awake?”


“If I said no, would you leave me alone?” came Damon’s reply, muffled in the pillows. Sasha wasn’t fooled—he couldn’t sleep either. No wonder, given how heavily the weight of command usually sat upon his shoulders.


“How is Sofy?” Sasha asked him. “In all this fuss about Krayliss, I forgot to ask.”


“Like Sofy,” Damon retorted.


“Is she enjoying her studies?” Sasha pressed determinedly. Damon wasn’t going to get off that easily. “She seemed happy in her last letter, but I sometimes wonder if she tells me everything.”


“Sofy’s always happy,” Damon muttered. As if there were something vaguely offensive about that. “She asks about you a lot.”


“Does she?”


“Oh yes. Every time a noble traveller arrives in court, having passed within scent of Valhanan, she never fails to corner him and ask for news of you.”


Sasha smiled. “But she’s well? Her last letter spoke of Alythia’s wedding. She seemed very excited.”


“Not nearly as excited as Alythia,” said Damon. And rolled onto his back, appearing to abandon hope of sleep, at least for the moment. “But yes, Sofy is helping with the preparations. Alythia scolds her, and tries to be upset at her interference . . . she was unhappy with Sofy’s suggestions for the ordering of vows and ceremonies, thinking that she knows best in everything. But of course, on reflection, she agreed that Sofy’s ideas were best. As always.”


For all Sasha’s differences with Damon, they shared a common affection for their younger sister Sofy. It was mostly thanks to Sofy’s mediation that Damon and Sasha had arrived at their present truce. Sasha was yet to be convinced of Sofy’s faith in Damon, but she had conceded that her previous, less flattering impressions of him had been wide of the mark. But then, that was Sofy, always intervening, always drawing compromise from the most hardened of opinions.


“And the holy fathers are pleased with the wedding preparations?” Sasha asked, having heard a little of that controversy.


“It’s ridiculous,” Damon sighed. “Father Wynal now protests that the arrangements are not in full accordance with the scripture, but Alythia protests that she wants a traditional Lenay wedding like Marya and Petryna had...”


“Marya and Petryna’s weddings were anything but traditional,” Sasha snorted.


“Well, they had the fire and the dancing with hand painting...”


“That’s hanei, Damon,”Sasha corrected. “And the fire is tempyr, the purifier, the door between states of being. Its ymbolises a couple’s transition into married life, the athelyn ,the destruction of the old, making way for the new. It’s the foundation of the Goeren-yai view of the universe.”


“Sounds serrin,” Damon remarked, with less interest than Sasha might have hoped. The ignorance of so many Verenthanes toward the old ways disgusted her. They had been their ways too, a hundred years before.


“Serrin and Goeren-yai belief has much in common,” Sasha agreed, keeping her temper in check. Outbursts and lectures would serve no good purpose, she told herself firmly.“It’s one reason the Goeren-yai and serrin
have had such good relations for so long.”


“Anyhow,” Damon said dismissively. “Alythia thinks it’s pretty, and the hand painting—the hanei—is. And so much more glamorous than a traditional Verenthane wedding.”


“I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks so,” Sasha said sourly. “Verenthanes have to be the most morbid bunch, Damon. I hear in some parts of the Bacosh and the rest of the lowlands, women aren’t even allowed to dance. Can you imagine?”


“I can’t imagine,” Damon admitted, frowning at the ceiling. “But then, being a Verenthane means different things from one land to another. Lenayin will always be Lenayin. That is one thing Goeren-yai and Verenthane shall always have in common in this land. I think I shall always have more in common with a Lenay Goeren-yai than with a lowlands Verenthane.”


“We’ll see if you still believe in Lenay brotherhood should you have the misfortune to encounter Family Telgar on this ride,” Sasha said darkly.


“The men of the north are brave,” Damon said shortly. “I won’t prejudge them.”


“It’s not their bravery I question,” said Sasha. “It’s their humanity.”


Damon made an annoyed face, looking across the space between their beds. “Seriously, Sasha, need you always pick a fight? You of all people who can afford it least. I'm well aware what you think of the Verenthane north, you don’t need to hurl it at me at every opportunity. I can form my own opinions.”


Sasha bit her tongue with difficulty. “And how is Myklas?” she asked, determined to prove to herself that she could simply move on and not spill blood upon the floor. Kessligh would be proud.


“Well,” said Damon, with a note to his voice that suggested he too was surprised at the ease of his victory. “He’ll become a fine swordsman. He’s better than I was, at his age. Better than Koenyg, maybe. It’s certainly not from hard work. It must be talent.”


“Some things can’t be taught,” said Sasha, putting a hand behind her head upon the pillow. The air was cold upon her arm, whatever her undershirt and the fading warmth of the fire’s embers. But beneath the heavy
weight of skins and blankets, the warmth was delicious.


Damon gave her a long, curious glance, the fireplace illuminating one half of his face upon the pillows. “I heard that you fought,” he said. “Last summer, when the Cherrovan pressed Hadryn hard. I heard tell of some stories. Deeds of yours.”


“All lies.”


“The stories were greatly in your favour,” Damon added.


“Then they were all true,” Sasha corrected, with a faint smile. The incursion had been, for the most part, yet another ridiculous waste of Cherrovan life. A new chieftain had required a blooding, the story went. And a blooding he had received, most of it his own. Surely the Cherrovan had not been so stupid during the centuries when they had ruled Lenayin and all the mountain kingdoms as their own.


“I had doubted your abilities, once,” said Damon. “Even with Kessligh as your uman . . . I’d thought he’d only chosen you for other purposes. But the men bearing these stories are honest. It seems I was mistaken. And I apologise.”


Sasha gazed across at him with great surprise. And smiled. Sofy had always told her to try being nice to Damon, rather than arguing with him all the time. Good things will come of it, she’d insisted. And once again, it seemed, her little sister was right. “Apology accepted,” she said graciously. “You’re not the only man to make such a judgment. There are thousands who believe such, up in the north.”


Damon snorted. Then, “Has Kessligh told you of your standard? One story came from a man who was himself a master swordsman. He said he’d never seen anything like it.”


Sasha sighed. “Praise from Kessligh is rare. He hates complacency.”


“Can you best him sparring?”


“Sometimes. Maybe one round in three. More on good days, less on others.” But Damon looked very impressed. Besting Kessligh at all was said to be a worthy achievement. Most men would have been happy with one round in ten. But then, for those who did not fight with the svaalverd, it was no fair contest.


“I still don’t see how it’s possible,” Damon said, with a faint shake of his head. “For a woman. I have bested three Cherrovan warriors in combat. Combat is exhausting, for the fittest, strongest men.”


Never “frightening,” Sasha reflected. No Lenay man would ever admit so. “Yes, but you waste strength when you fight,” she told him. “Hathaal, serrin call it. There’s no direct translation in Lenay . . . energy, perhaps. Or maybe a life force, though serrin have too many names for that to count. A symmetry. A power derived from form, not bulk. The straight, sturdy tree is more hathaal than the crooked one, even if they are both as tall. You are stronger than me. But using svaalverd, I am more hathaal. And you cannot touch me.”


Damon snorted. “So confident are you. We’ve never sparred.”


“Tomorrow, perhaps?” Sasha said mildly.


“We ride first thing in the morning.”


“Convenient.”


“You know much of serrin lore,” Damon remarked, ignoring her barbs.


“Of course. I am Nasi-Keth.”


“Do you love the serrin?”


Sasha frowned. Footsteps creaked in the corridor outside, the last of the revellers coming upstairs to their beds. The dying fire managed one last, feeble pop. “I’ve yet to meet a bad or unpleasant one,” she said after a moment.


“That doesn’t answer my question.”


And it was not, Sasha knew, such an innocent question. There was war afoot between the Bacosh and neighbouring Saalshen. Visiting merchants fuelled a wildfire of rumour, serrin travellers had been rare of late, and Kessligh’s mood grim. She didn’t like to think on it. There had been bad news from the Bacosh before—for many, many centuries, in fact, one endless succession of terrible internal wars over power, prestige and matters of faith. Those had come and gone. Surely these latest rumblings would follow.


“The serrin are a good and decent people,” she answered. “Much of their lore, skills and trades has improved human lives beyond measure, from irrigation to building to medicines and midwifery . . . sometimes I wonder how we ever managed without them. Anyone who would make war on them will not gain my sympathy.”


“They live on lands that are not theirs,” Damon responded flatly. “Many include Verenthane holy sites. Sites of the birth of Verenthaneism itself. The Bacosh are the eldest and most powerful of Verenthane peoples, they’ll not let the matter rest.” Sasha rolled beneath her covers to fix her brother with an alarmed gaze.


“What have you heard?” she asked accusingly. Damon shrugged, his mood sombre.


“There is much anger. Talk of the Verenthane brotherhood uniting to take back the holy lands.”
In all recent history, the Bacosh had only been united once. The man who accomplished it, Leyvaan of Rhodaan, had named himself king, and repaid the serrin who’d assisted his rise with invasion and slaughter. The serrin response had been devastating, crushing Leyvaan and his armies, and taking the three nearest Bacosh provinces for themselves. That had been two centuries ago, and today, the so-called “Saalshen Bacosh” remained in serrin hands. Many in the priesthood called those lands holy, and wanted them back, out of the clutches of godless, pagan serrin.


“Such talk has existed since Leyvaan the Fool created the whole mess in the first place,” Sasha retorted. “The Saalshen Bacosh is a happy place. The only unhappy people are those outsiders who resent that fact. Besides, there is no Verenthane brotherhood. It’s a myth.”


“Even so,” Damon said tiredly. “People talk, is all. Perhaps it will fade, I hope so. We have enough troubles in Lenayin without lowlands concerns thrust upon us also.”


“Hear hear,” Sasha murmured. But Kessligh’s words remained with her: “War is in the air. Us old warhorses can smell it.”


“You’re not going to ask after Father’s wellbeing also?” Damon queried into that silence.


“No,” said Sasha. And tucked her warm, heavy blankets more firmly down about her neck. “Father has advisors enough to see to that already.”






Three


JARYD NYVAR RODE at the head of the Falcon Guards as the road wound uphill from Baerlyn, with Prince Damon at his left stirrup. The morning dawned bright and clear across rugged hillsides of thick forest and sparkling dew. Cold air nipped at his cheeks, and the steaming breath of horse and men mingled about the column, so that it moved along the road like some great, puffing beast. The land in these parts was as beautiful as Jaryd’s native Tyree. Birds sang in the trees, and on the way out of town, a pair of handsome deer had startled across the road.


At the distance of perhaps one fold from Baerlyn, they encountered a pair of riders waiting for them on the road beside a narrow trail through the trees. Kessligh Cronenverdt and his brat uman. That trail, then, would lead to their horse ranch in the wilds. Prince Damon acknowledged them with a wave, which both returned. They fell into line several places further back, in plain cloaks to ward the morning chill, their back-worn swords invisible beneath those folds. An unremarkable and plain-looking pair, they seemed, amidst a
column of Tyree green-and-gold, gleaming silver helms and polished boots. Unremarkable, that was, but for their horses—both stallions, one light bay, the girl’s a charcoal black, and both beautiful to behold.


It was a reminder of Cronenverdt’s past service, of the debt owed to him by the king. Jaryd had heard the mutterings of his father’s men, that Cronenverdt was little more than a hired sword who had commanded from the king a steep ransom for his services. Jaryd thought it somewhat rich for wealthy nobles to accuse Kessligh of being a mercenary considering the plainness of the man living out here in the wilds with his uma. Cronenverdt could have commanded a far larger sum and lived in a grand holding, with lands and gardens and prospective wives clamouring for his hand. Instead, when Prince Krystoff had met an unfortunate end, he’d left the king’s service and asked for nothing more than a grief-stricken, impossible brat of a princess to replace the uma he’d lost, and some horses.


Jaryd thought it far more likely that his fellow nobility were jealous of the man, partly for his accomplishments, and partly for the way in which he showed up their expensive tastes. It was surely not unreasonable that a man who had freely given his services, instead of being born into the obligation of service, should receive some gift in return? How to criticise such a man, who did not play by the rules that others understood? No wonder he made so many enemies amongst the ruling classes.


After a while riding along the forested hillside, Prince Damon fell back in the column to talk with Kessligh. Lieutenant Reynan took his place at Jaryd’s side.


“The brat was up before dawn,” said the lieutenant, rubbing sleepy eyes beneath his helm. “I’d thought to follow her, but that horse of hers is fast and doesn’t mind a night-time torch. Mine gets all flighty near a flame.”


Jaryd frowned at him. Lieutenant Reynan Pelyn was the brother of Lord Tymeth Pelyn, head of one of the twenty-three noble families of Tyree, and close allies of Family Nyvar. He was a big man, with a round head, small eyes, and a barely discernible chin. He had not served with the Falcon Guards for long—barely a year, in fact, just a short time longer than Jaryd had been in command. Jaryd did not think that the men were particularly fond of him.


“You’d follow her to her home?” Jaryd asked. He kept his voice low, and there was little chance of anyone overhearing above the stamp of hooves and jangling harnesses.


Reynan shrugged. “Lord Tymeth told me to keep a close watch on her at all times. I’m keeping a close watch.”


“So much effort for one girl,” Jaryd mused. “One might think your brother actually believes the tales the Goeren-yai tell about her swordwork.”


“It’s not her sword that’s the bother,” Reynan said darkly. “That little bitch causes enough trouble with the Goeren-yai as is, and the king’s gone too teary-eyed since Prince Krystoff’s death to do anything about it.”


“Do about it?” said Jaryd. “Lieutenant, who said anything about doing something about it?”


“My Lord brother said to keep a close eye on her,” Reynan said stubbornly, “and that’s what I’ll do. Make sure she doesn’t cause any trouble.”


“She’s just a girl,” Jaryd said shortly. “How much trouble can she cause?” And why, he thought, be so much more worried about her than about Cronenverdt? Cronenverdt held the real power, surely. The brat was just a distraction. A distraction for Cronenverdt himself, some said, in a meaningful way. A plaything for a man who’d developed strange tastes in sword-wielding women while amongst the serrin and Nasi-Keth of Petrodor. Some claimed he wished to sire a son from her, who might then claim the throne. Surely the
nobles of Tyree did not believe such nonsense? There were so many before her in the line of succession, after all...


Reynan gave his commander one of those weary, superior, adult looks that Jaryd disliked so much. “Never you mind, Master Jaryd,” he said tiredly. "You just concern yourself with the road ahead, and leave the other business to me. Just remember to call on me if you need any advice—you’re a fine warrior, Master, but older heads have ridden this road before.”


“I have plenty of advice from Captain Tyrun,” Jaryd replied, annoyed by the older man’s patronising tone.“ He’s ridden these roads far more often than you.”


Reynan’s face hardened. “Master Jaryd,” he said in a low, harsh voice, “that man is not noble born. He’s a peasant, little better than a pagan...”


“Captain Tyrun is a true Verenthane and a veteran warrior!” Jaryd retorted in rising temper. “He rose from lowly status because he was the best, as is the tradition in the Guard! Do you question that tradition, Lieutenant Reynan?”


Reynan’s jaw clenched. So that was the sore spot, and the reason why the other men disliked him. A lieutenant, after just one year. True, Jaryd was in command after a shorter period, but he was heir to all Tyree, and made no bones that Captain Tyrun remained in true command.


“No,”Reynan bit out. “I would merely advise, Master Jaryd, that you give some serious thought to where your future interests lie, for yourself and for Tyree.”


~~~~


It was midday before the column took its first rest, the men dismounting upon a broad, open shoulder of the Ryshaard River. Kessligh and Sasha found a large rock in the river shallows and spread out their food, whilst Peg and Terjellyn remained on the shore with a handler. Horses splashed in the shallows nearby, drinking deep, and men gathered to share rations.


Across the wide, wild bend of river, cliffs rose near-vertical in a broken, granite wall. Atop the cliff, trees lined the high ridge. Above those, an eagle circled. Sasha shaded her eyes against the bright sun as she ate, gazing upward. 


“Oh look!” she exclaimed. “That’s a silvertip. She must have a nest up there somewhere. There must be good fishing in the river.”


“How do you know it’s a she?”


“I don’t. But Lenay men have this silly habit of assuming every dangerous animal is a he, when in fact the females are usually more dangerous.”


High above, the eagle cried. Across the riverbank, men were gazing sky-ward, and pointing. Goeren-yai men in particular had a love of wild things, and birds of prey had a special place in their hearts. “Do silvertipped eagles have a legend to go with them?” Kessligh asked wryly.


Sasha frowned as she thought about it, watching the eagle’s circling flight. “Not that I can recall. Although it is said that a white-headed eagle swooped down to carry Hyathon the Warrior away from the fire mountain to escape the dark spirits. But white-headed eagles are much bigger than silvertips.”


“All nonsense,” Kessligh pronounced, and took a bite of his roll.


“Why?” Sasha demanded. “Just because it’s not what you believe?”


“Sasha,” Kessligh said around his mouthful, “if you’d seen as many people killed as I have, all because one of them believes this thing and the other believes this other thing, you wouldn’t think it was all so harmless.
Tales and legends are fun, but beliefs, Sasha. Beliefs are dangerous. Be very careful what you believe in, for beliefs are far more dangerous than swords.”


“And you believe in the Nasi-Keth,” Sasha retorted. “That makes you just as dangerous and misguided, doesn’t it?”


Kessligh nodded, vigorously. “Aye. But the Nasi-Keth take their learnings from the serrin, and the serrin simply don’t think like us. They don’t believe in truth. They don’t believe in anything they can’t prove, and they won’t construct these elaborate fantasies with which to advance their own power and kill each other. That’s the whole point of the Nasi-Keth, Sasha—it’s an attempt to help humans to think rationally. And that’s difficult, I know, because humans are fundamentally irrational. But it’s worth a try, don’t you think?”


“Hmmph,” said Sasha, chewing her own mouthful. “What’s rational?”


“Exactly the question the serrin ask each other constantly.”


“And what’s irrational about the Goeren-yai beliefs?” Sasha continued. “It’s rational, surely, that people survive as well as they can? Goeren-yai legends tell us much about these lands, and the animals, and the ways people can live and survive well out here. And the serrin have come here for centuries—they find Goeren-yai culture fascinating! So why should you, who takes his inspiration from the serrin, be so dismissive?”


“I’m not dismissive of the process, Sasha, just the conclusions. I’m dismissive of any culture that thinks it knows everything.”


“The Goeren-yai don’t . . . !”


Kessligh cut her off with a raised hand. “I’m dismissive of any person who lives his or her life like a frog down a well—all it knows is that well, and those walls, with no interest in what lies outside. I’m trying to make you think, Sasha. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do. That’s all the Nasi-Keth as a whole have ever tried to do. To make people think before they commit some terrible evil in the name of their various truths, if it is at all possible that they might be wrong.”


“Aye,” Sasha replied, “well maybe that’s the difference between me and you. You lead with your head, I lead with my heart.”


“Hearts can be rational too,” said Kessligh. “They just need a little training.” Sasha knew better than to try and get the last word in. “How was Damon last night?” he asked then, changing the subject.


“Nervous,” she said. “He slept a while, I think. His temper’s short, but that’s normal. Best not to push him.”


“With any luck, he won’t make me. He’s second from the throne, in truth. It’s best he learned to deal with these kinds of things on his own.”


Sasha stifled a laugh behind her hand. “Damon. King!” She swallowed a mouthful, shaking her head in disbelief. “I can’t imagine it.”


“Men have similar difficulty picturing you as my uma,” Kessligh replied, unmoved by her humour. His eyes flicked toward the riverbank. Sasha looked, and saw Master Jaryd Nyvar talking animatedly with a corporal.
Their conversation was about swordplay by the look of their moving hands.


Sasha snorted. “Only because those men have never thought women good for anything but babies and housework.”


“What’s wrong with babies and housework?” Kessligh said with a faint smile.


Sasha shrugged expansively. It was pointless to get annoyed. Kessligh simply liked contradicting her.


Kessligh swallowed his mouthful. “Before I came to Lenayin, I hadn’t thought women good for much but babies and housework.”


Sasha frowned at him. “Oh come on! There are serrin everywhere in Petrodor! What about all of these wonderful serrin women you keep talking about, the ones you studied with as a Nasi-Keth uma yourself?”


“Serrin women, exactly,” said Kessligh around another bite. “Petrodor has a very conservative branch of Verenthane belief where women are concerned. My mother died when I was young and from then on the Nasi-Keth were my family. I saw many serrin women, but the human women I knew were very fixed in their notion of what a real woman was. Even when I rode to Lenayin for the war, I didn’t see Lenay women as much different. It’s only when I met you that I truly realised that a human woman might be born with
the aptitude to be my uma.”


Sasha smiled. “Well at least I know what kind of behaviour impresses the great Kessligh Cronenverdt—bratish, noisy and overactive. I could revert, if you like?”


“Revert?” Kessligh asked in mock surprise. Sasha kicked him lightly on his boot and scowled. “My point,” Kessligh continued, “is that people never know what they shall be, and how they shall respond, until the moment of testing arrives. I can assure you that very few of my Nasi-Keth elders and peers suspected that I could rise to such heights from my beginnings. As a student I was quiet, uncooperative and solitary. I loved serrin teachings because they seemed to me to offer the best solution I’d yet seen to all humanity’s obvious ills.


“But I was always frustrated that neither my uman nor my other tutors seemed to grasp the implications of those teachings fully. And so I enjoyed the company of the serrin more than humans. Serrin never judge. Through them I learned to see the world as it is, and myself as I am, rather than what I might want or expect them both to be. Which is how I recognised your talents, while other men would not. I realised I was wrong about human women. Many men cannot admit this about themselves.


“Always be aware that you may be wrong, Sasha—about anything and everything. I rose to Commander of Armies during the Great War simply because I learned from my mistakes, and the mistakes of others, and when something did not work, I stopped doing it and did something else. Many commanders did not, due to pride or stubbornness, and killed not only themselves, but many good men as well. The unquestioned belief in one’s own supremacy and righteousness is the surest road to ruin yet devised by man. Avoid it at all costs.”


Sasha listened sombrely, chewing the last of her lunch as the river bubbled about their rock. Kessligh did not lecture often, yet she was not surprised that he chose to do so now. A Hadryn–Taneryn conflict was surely the most serious calamity she had yet ridden into. An uman’s role was to teach, and to prepare his uma for trials to come.


“Why have the Nasi-Keth not spread more through Lenayin?” Sasha asked suddenly. “I mean . . . you led Lenayin to victory over Chieftain Markield, you risked your life and became a Lenay legend—all because you volunteered to come from Petrodor. The popularity of the Nasi-Keth and the serrin was surely never so high in Lenayin as then. And yet there are so few other Nasi-Keth here.”


Kessligh nodded slowly, as if faintly surprised at the question. “Your father tried,” he said. “He believes in providence, in signs from the gods. When Markield was beaten, your father saw that the gods favoured the Nasi-Keth, and thus surely they favoured the teachings of Saalshen. That was a time when the king was least persuaded by the northern fanatics, since the north had failed to defeat the invasion without help as they’d insisted they would, and had protested my ascension to commander at every turn. Trade with Saalshen improved dramatically, and many senior serrin were invited to visit the capital. And, of course, he declared that Krystoff would be my uma, binding the kingdom and the Nasi-Keth inextricably together.


“But the response of the Verenthanes was not good, especially in the north. And precious few Nasi-Keth from Petrodor have felt inspired to follow me to the highlands.” He shrugged. “Perhaps it would have been different had Krystoff lived. Then Lenayin would have had a king both Verenthane and Nasi-Keth, as are so many in Petrodor.”


“And we have the Hadryn to thank that it didn’t happen,” Sasha muttered.


Kessligh fixed her with a hard stare. “Sasha. What happened to Krystoff is old history. It hurt me as much as it hurt you. But we’re riding into this mess now on the king’s business, and the king must be impartial. If you feel that will be a problem for you, best that you tell me now.”


“They killed him,” Sasha said darkly. “Not by their own hands, but nearly.”


“I know,” said Kessligh. “It changes nothing.”


“And who are you to be accusing me of partisan loyalties?” Sasha retorted. “Saalshen is losing credit fast with Father, and doubtless the Nasi-Keth with them. And now you come on this ride claiming to act in Father’s interests?”


“I have always been your father’s servant,” Kessligh said flatly. “I’ve fought in his service since I rode to Lenayin thirty years ago.”


“And should Father act against the Nasi-Keth?” Sasha persisted. “What then?”


“Then,” said Kessligh, “I shall cross that bridge when I come to it.”




from Sasha: A Trial of Blood & Steel © Joel Shepherd
Cover Illustration © David Palumbo

Design by Grace M. Conti-Zilsberger



Joel Shepherd was born in Adelaide in 1974. He has studied film and television, international relations, has interned on Capitol Hill in Washington, and travelled widely in Asia. His first trilogy, the Cassandra Kresnov Series, consists of Crossover, Breakaway and Killswitch.  Visit Joel Shepherd’s Web site at www.joelshepherd.com.


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