Authors: Jo Walton
Tags: #Women soldiers, #Science Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Fiction
Then I went forward with the scouts.
We crawled slowly through the heather to the top of a rise that would give a good view of the town. It had stopped raining in the night, though everything was still very wet. I was glad of the protection the riding leathers gave me from the damp, but even so it was uncomfortable. If I did not have a hot bath and then get thoroughly dry soon I felt as if my skin would start to mildew. Crawling uphill I could see the sea before I could see the town and the fields. It stretched up almost into the sky. It was silver-blue and empty all the way to the coast of Munew. There was no sign of any Isarna-gan ships. There would not be if they had landed away west near Tapit Point as Senach had said. As a child I had raced Darien up this hill and flung myself down on the dry purple heather to stare up into the summer sky. There had never been reason to come up here since I left home.
I propped myself up on my elbows and looked. The fields and woods stretched out as they always had, the red of berries starting to show in the hedgerows. There was a mist rising from the river. The town looked much the same as when I had last seen it. There were more buildings inside the walls, houses, storehouses, and workshops. The soft pink of the Vincan bricks in the wall of our house contrasted with the golden slabs of dressed sandstone that made up the new town wall, the barracks, and the new stables. There were people moving about inside the town, still too far away to distinguish faces. I prayed to the Lord of Light for Veniva's and Morien's safety. I could do nothing else for them
until I could reach them. The wharves stood empty, and the two roads leading down to the water were blocked with wagons turned sideways. The walls were being patrolled, and there were wooden fighting towers set up near the barricaded gates. It was good to know that someone was taking proper precautions.
All the Isarnagans were on the outside still. Senach had not exaggerated. There were thousands of them. There were so many it looked as if they could break the walls by leaning in on them. The ground was dark with people. They had raven banners, black on white.
I started to count the plumes of thin smoke rising in the early-morning light. If each cooking fire meant thirty warriors—then Flerian ap Cado nudged my elbow and indicated something to me on the far side of the town, the direction from which they had most likely come.
"Wagons," she said. I saw them. Fifty or sixty pony wagons were drawn up into a square.
Clustered around them were Isarnagan women wearing long shawls, and children of all ages including babes in arms. These were not raiders come in quantity. This was an invasion. They had come to stay.
I had listened to Emlin half the night as we rode, telling me the defenses inside the walls at Derwen. There was no way we could communicate with those inside, other than by lifting the siege. They must be terrified. But they should be safe for a little while unless they did something foolish. I had an ala. One tired ala. A hundred and forty riders, against what looked like the whole mass of Tir Isarnagiri crowded around the town walls. I could make it difficult for them to take the town. I could do a lot of damage to them. But they could take more damage than we could. It might be possible to scare them and scatter them. If I could identify their leader I could probably kill him, though it would be risky.
But if they fled where would they go and what would they do? They would scatter into small bands and ravage the countryside. I could not be everywhere at once. The farmers around
deserved protection, too. The Isarnagans had brought their families. It would be very hard to make them go back where they had come from.
I put my head down on my arms for an instant, then looked up again. I had seen, but I was no closer to knowing what to do. If they knew how to fight against us they would make a stand in the trees, or just across the river. We could ford it, but it would slow us down. They could do us a great deal of damage from a distance with their deadly little slings that could break a horse's leg. I had no idea what they wanted, or who might be leading them. I wished they were Jarnsmen whose desires and tactics I understood better.
I looked at Flerian. She was the girl who had brought news across the battlefield that Galba was dead. Her grandfather was in the ala, too, Berth ap Panon, Galba's trumpeter.
He had been with Galba for years and had served the old Duke before that. Much as I wished for my own ala about me who understood me, I knew these were good people.
What was more, I could never have done that night ride with troops who did not know the land.
All the same I would have liked a friend there, someone who would have understood and laughed with me if I said that this was not how I would have chosen to pay a visit to my family home.
Flerian was counting fires, her eyes intent. She saw me watching her and glanced over.
"Five thousand, I would say, though they will not all be fighters," she said. "This might not be all of them." She looked over to me as if she was expecting orders that would make the whole thing simple. She was very young, but still she should have known better.
I bit back a groan. She was right, and there was no point in destroying her belief in me.
I had been thinking of the problem of scattering them to pillage the countryside, and it was probably already too late. "We'll have to find out what they think they're doing," I said. I glanced at ap Teregid on my left. He was asleep. I poked him. I was too tired myself to be thinking straight. The scouts were out, I would soon learn if they had scattered. I started wriggling backwards until I was far enough down the slope to stand and walk back to where the groom was patiently holding Beauty.
With two alae it might be possible to squeeze them, if we could get them to form up just right. I doubted they would be that stupid. I wondered if I could keep them here until reinforcements arrived. Three would do it, three would squeeze them up against the town wall like a hammer and anvil. They were Isarnagans, not Jarnsmen; they would have no practice at fighting against us and very few long axes. I started counting times to Caer
Gloran in my head, but no matter how the messenger and then Marchel hurried she could not be here in less than four days, and more likely five. If Urdo brought my ala from Caer Tanaga as soon as news reached him, or more likely sent them with ap Erbin, they could not be here for ten days at the earliest. He had Gwair's ala there, too. With four alae it would be easy. I would have to find Nodol Boar-Beard, the quartermaster, as soon as I got back and ask how the supplies were holding out. Without access to what was inside Derwen I didn't know how long we could manage. We might well have to send back to Magor.
All these calculations were made more unpleasant because I knew the town could fall before the others arrived, and my family was inside. The walls were strong, but they had been built by human hands and could be torn down the same way. I thought of my mother Veniva, my brother Morien, and my old arms master Duncan, the people I had grown up with. It was true that in my heart my home was in the ala. Yet talking to the farmer in the dawn had reminded me how much responsibility I bore to the people on this land. I had sworn to Morien very lightly, thinking it no more than a formality that he must have a named heir for Derwen until he should have a son. But I had claimed the title before Urdo and Ohtar. It wasn't as if I hadn't cared all through the War when towns and homes were m danger. When Ayl had nearly taken
Caer Rangor I had fought on with desperation. Nevertheless, this was different. Somehow these were my people, my responsibility in a way that only my own troops had ever been. I had not understood before.
I rode back beneath dripping trees to the clearing where the ala were resting and finishing up their breakfast. Even though we were ready to move off again as soon as we needed to, there was something of the style and shape of a camp about the ala as I passed through the sentries. People were sleeping by half pennons, the tired horses were cropping the grass, the latrines and cooking area were in the right places. Almost everyone was either asleep, on guard, or tending to the horses. I felt much more comfortable as I moved among the armigers. One of the cooks handed me some smoked mackerel wrapped in a little bread as I passed by. I called out a blessing on him and went on without stopping, munching it.
Emlin leaped to his feet and came towards me as soon as he saw me, swallowing the last bite of cheese he had brought from Magor.
"What good news?" I asked as he reached me.
He grinned. It did him good, it wiped away some of the weariness around his eyes.
"Two Isarnagan captives. Not scouts, nobody's seen any of their scouts. I don't think the idiots have scouts. I don't know what to make of the ones we've caught though. They were off in the trees sharing a blanket, about two miles from here, three miles or so from the town. Ap Madog and his half pennon almost rode them down before they saw them.
They fought very fiercely resisting capture. The woman got wounded and is being patched up right now. The man has hardly said a word to anyone. He had a sword, so he must have some sort of rank. I've not talked to them yet, just to ap Madog, though I looked them over before sending them to ap Darel. Nobody's reported any sign of anyone else at all yet, away from the main army. I'm so glad you're back. Come and see them, I was just giving ap Darel time to get done before going to them."
"Good," I said. "Well done." Emlin smiled, and I walked along with him towards the center of the makeshift camp where the prisoners were. It Would be very useful to have some idea of what the Isarnagans wanted. "Is the woman a fighter?" I asked as we walked.
"She had a long knife as well as a spear, according to ap Madog. So I'd say so. Why would anyone be here who wasn't?"
"Red-Eye was right about the numbers," I said, swallowing the last of my breakfast.
"And we saw camp followers and children. I'm very much wondering what that means."
Emlin grimaced. "Whatever are we going to do with them after we've got rid of all the others?
Send them back orphaned across the water?"
Ap Darel was just finishing singing a charm and binding up the woman's arm as we reached them. They were clearly Isarnagans, their clothes were woven wool in mottlings of heather colors and their hair, particularly noticeable in a camp where everyone's head was shorn short in mourning, fell in smoothly braided dark loops that would fit easily under a helmet. They were standing in the sunlight almost in the center of the camp.
There was a clear space around them. Four armigers were standing guard out of earshot for quiet voices. The one I passed did no more than flick his eyes towards me. They needed sleep. I could still see no way to avoid a fight today. I needed to distract the Isarnagans from the town and let the people inside know we were here. It was also dangerous to risk being caught in the open. But armigers and horses both needed rest.
Emlin and I walked into the cleared space. A spear was lying on the ground where ap Darel had clearly just set it down after using it in the healing. The woman must have been quite badly hurt. The other Isarnagan was standing with an arm around her as anyone might support an injured comrade. I didn't pay much attention to him for the moment.
She looked like a fighter, and she looked as if she'd had a bad shock and lost blood. She was
quite young, not much over twenty I guessed. She had a scar on her cheek that looked as if it had been made with a long knife from the side a few years ago, before she had finished growing.
"Keep it strapped still for a day or so, then exercise it slowly until it is strong again, and it will be as good as ever," ap Darel said. "You must be careful not to lift anything heavy too soon or you will always have a weakness there."
"If your people don't kill us in the next day or so I shall certainly remember your advice,"
the woman said, deep amusement clear in her voice.
"We never kill prisoners," I interrupted. They jumped and turned towards me. Ap Darel clicked his tongue in reproach and retucked the last twist of bandage, then turned away to pack up his things.
"That's clear enough," the man said. "Do you always do your best to mend what you yourselves have broken?" He sounded both amused and puzzled. As he turned to face me, stepping away from the woman slightly, I saw that he was a very handsome man. He was tall, too, his eyes were almost level with mine; he overtopped the woman by a handspan or so. He smiled at me with easy confidence, as to an equal. I knew immediately that these were certainly important people, neither scouts nor ordinary Isarnagan fighters. He was as used to giving orders as I was.
I wondered even more strongly what they had been doing off in the ?woods. An officer would surely have somewhere in camp he could withdraw with a friend if they wanted privacy?
"We would prefer not to break things in the first place, but if we must, then yes," I replied, evenly, not smiling. "I am sorry to learn that things are otherwise in Tir Isarnagin." I had known it already, from the Isarnagans we had fought beside after Caer Lind. They could never be trusted with prisoners. We always used courtesy in these matters, ransoming prisoners or getting the use of their labor. I always remembered Thurrig growling on the subject in training. "Be polite first. There's always time for chopping people up for information later if need be, but putting them back together if it turns out they're important isn't so easy. And the dead may fertilize the soil, but it takes the living to turn it over and plant crops."
"Who are you?" I went on, not giving him a chance to speak. His face darkened in a fierce frown.