Authors: Jo Walton
Tags: #Women soldiers, #Science Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Fiction
"Treachery, yes. A shame that such a man still lives and bears the name of king. Yet nobody who was alive in those days can claim—"
Before ap Cathvan could continue Angas cut him off. "There's been treachery enough on all sides in the last twenty years, true enough, but nobody can say there was treachery on Rowanna's part. She took Urdo and fled to Thansethan in disguise, and nothing else would have served to keep him safe to grow up. Of them all it was the Jarn who kept faith in what she swore. And
'what gods' you say, ap Cathvan, making my blood boil, as if they all serve those bloody-handed gods of war? But you know as well as I do that she and all her kin have trusted in the White God.
To be sure there was oathbreaking enough when people swore by gods not their own, but there is an end of that."
"For those who will turn their backs on their own ways, but not all of us will, and I wager not all of them will either. Oathbreaking is in their blood, as honor is in ours."
"Rowanna broke no oath, she remained steadfast to her vows when nobody else did, not even my own father behaved as well as she did in the years after Avren's death."
Angas looked angry enough now to leap at ap Cathvan with any more provocation.
"Some say," I ventured, "that she fled with a baby, three, four years old, and who is to say that the man who stood up in the monastery fifteen years later was that same baby."
The two angry faces rounded on me, united now in their fury. Suddenly we were in the middle of a spreading circle of silence.
"Nobody loyal to the king says that!" spit ap Cathvan.
"Urdo is the best king we've ever had, and when he was crowned he asked if anyone disputed who he was or what he did, and if nobody would dare speak up then they should not mutter it behind his back!" said Angas.
"I am only saying what I have heard said, not that I believe in it." I said, holding Apple steady.
He was tense between my legs, sensing a fight. Sure enough Angas put his hand on his sword.
"If you hold to what you said, then I shall challenge you for the king's honor."
I did not want to fight this man I liked, and least of all for this cause, but I could see no way to back down now without appearing a coward. I drew breath, and before I could speak the king himself was between us on his greathorse. He had heard, and ridden back between the parting lines while we had been intent on each other. He drew to a halt now, and the rest of us halted around him; the whole ala was listening. He leapt from his horse and stood firm on the ground before her head. He was the broadest-chested and most solid man I ever saw—even Duncan or Angas was like a silver birch in comparison to an oak. I felt quite certain I should be put to death for treason. I drew another ragged breath, but he ignored me.
"Is this how you defend my honor?" he asked, looking from Angas to ap Cathvan. They hung their heads. "She spoke only out of ignorance, as many people speak. It is the natural way for people to think when a boy has grown up hidden not knowing who he is. I could hardly believe it myself when I first was told, that I was the trueborn High King of all Tir Tanagiri, like something from a story. Some of you know that the path from there to here was not as easy as the stories will have it." There was a ripple of cheerful laughter, breaking the tension. Then he raised his hand, and there was silence again.
"If it was hard for me to accept it was true, how much harder for those who have never met me? Hard indeed for those to whom the names of my father and grandfather are tales, whose whole lives have been taken up with Jarnish wars and fraternal bickering? We will not bring the King's Peace by killing them when they find it hard to believe! The way to drive out that story is not by spearing every farmer who repeats it, nor by slaying every armiger in mortal combat either." He smiled at me then, and my heart leapt. "It is true I was raised in Thansethan. The way to drive out the rumor that I
am not my father's son is not with the sword, and not even with the word of the monks who were there when my lady mother brought me, and are there still. The way to drive out that rumor is by my own deeds. I shall be king, but no man can be king alone. Your deeds must keep my peace, or the people will say that there is not justice when you come to take them who break it, and that Urdo is a false king, whose armigers are false. It is no part of my peace to murder over rumors, so put down your swords and embrace, whether the daughter of Gwien finds me king enough or no."
Angas and I dismounted, and embraced, making peace as the king bade us. In all this time since the king rode up I had said not one word. I wanted to say that I had not doubted him since I had seen him, and that he seemed the truest and most honorable king that there could be, and besides he had promised to help me. But no words would come that did not seem too foolish to pass my lips. As Angas mounted again I slipped to my knees in the mud before Urdo.
It was growing dark, and the gathered horsemen were but shapes in the gloom, moonlight glinting on their lance tips. Yet I saw Urdo's solid shape clear as he stood against the western sky, his horse behind him.
"My lord, I would swear to you," I said. He looked into my eyes for a long time, very gravely, and then took my hand. I had to ask him the right form of words and he told me and I repeated back to him the armiger's oath, only where one would say the name of the lord I said, "My true king, Urdo ap Avren ap Emrys, High King of the Tanagans" and as he raised me up to give me back my sword he smiled.
The Three Most Generous People of Tir Tanagiri
Elin the Generous, daughter of Mardol the Crow
Gwien Open-Hand, son of Nuden ap Iarn
Cathvan Soup-Ladle, son of Senach Red-Eye but Urdo himself was more generous than them all.
— "The Triads of Tir Tanagiri"
When I was a small child Darien and I shared a nurse, a local woman who had been nurse to my father Gwien long before. Under my mother's eye she would tell us the stories of Vincan heroes and battles, famous victories and fortitude in the face of adversity. Last thing at night she would tell us old Tanagan tales of daunting quests, desperate last stands, and unexpected reversals of fortune. In those tales, heroes traveling the roads often found strange and inexplicably marvelous things at every turn—burning trees, giant fighting cats striped in black and gold, floating castles. Always these wonders had the likeness of some familiar thing but made strange by size or transformation. At my first sight of Caer Gloran I believed for a moment that I had fallen into such a tale.
The wall around the fortress was stone-built, like the wall of any house or farm, yet it stood twice as high as my head and stretched far out of sight. Caer Gloran was in origin a Vincan fortified camp, one of those built five hundred years before during the conquest.
When things were peaceful the camp seemed to them a good place to station a legion. It stands on the highroad at the place where the Havren is first narrow enough to ford.
When the province was properly peaceful Caer Gloran became the local center for tax collecting. A market town grew up around it as the countryfolk rode in to trade with the troops and the administrators. The town had grown and prospered then shrunk when the bad times came. The wall was built in the time of my great-grandfathers, when the first barbarian invasions began to reach up the Havren. To anyone who had seen Vinca, or even Caer Tanaga, it was a paltry place. I had never then seen any city, never anywhere bigger than Magor where perhaps eight hundred people lived. I knew none of this history as I stared at the bulk of the wall in the moonlight.
I was tired. I had been looking forward to the thought of stabling for Apple and a sheltered rest for myself. Now I felt chilled and uncertain. It was hard to imagine a welcome within those great walls. When we reached the gatehouse I gaped even more, for the wall's width was fully in proportion. As the gates swung open and we rode inside I looked back behind me, as if to check that the hills and the river were still glimmering there. I was not entirely sure that a hundred years might pass in a night or if I might not wake up quite transformed.
The man who came to meet us did nothing to reassure me. He wore long brown robes and had a brown hood drawn up over his head. He pulled down the hood when he saw Urdo, revealing a thin dark face. Around his neck hung a white pebble, which caught the light from the lantern he held and seemed to gleam slightly. Had I known what he was and how much it would have angered him to have been compared to the Folk of the Hollow Hills, I would have leapt from my horse and proclaimed my thought at the top of my voice. As it was I stayed on Apple's back and followed the others to the stables as
Urdo got down and greeted the man.
The stables at Caer Gloran lie near the gates. In the original plan the fortress, like all Vincan fortresses, had housed foot soldiers, a Vincan legion marching in disciplined conquest carrying all they needed. They built the same fortress wherever they halted from the deserts to the snows. Much later when I went to Caer Avroc and Caer Lind I found much of them familiar from knowing the ways of Caer Gloran. Very little of the town had changed since it had been built, but the stables were new and spacious. Most of the horses were kept most of the time picketed in the fields inside the walls, but we rode now to the stable block where eager grooms started up as they heard the clatter of hooves.
These grooms were mostly young people around Garah's age or a little older. I eventually managed to make one of them understand that even though I was coming in with the ala I had no prearranged place to put Apple. I told her he was well behaved and well used to other horses, but she took us to the transient's stable where there was plenty of room. There was so much room in fact that she found him a stall with a space on either side. This showed me she was used to handling stallions. I knew Apple wouldn't have given any trouble, but I was glad of the courtesy.
The floor was dry, and walls only slightly chewed. Apple headed straight for the manger.
A young groom brought Apple the same turnips and carrots and armloads of fodder the other horses were having. He began to eat enthusiastically. She showed me the room where I could store Apple's tack. Before I had quite settled Apple, Marchel appeared. She had taken off her helm and I could see that her hair was the color of damp straw. She leaned over the side of the stall.
"Magnificent, isn't he?" she said. "Good appetite. He doesn't even look terribly tired.
And he's a real fighter too. How old is he? A six-year-old?"
"Six, yes, he was four when my father brought him back from Caer Tanaga."
"So you've only had him a couple of years? Any luck with foals yet?"
I straightened up, all my joints aching. "He was given to my father's war-leader, Duncan, not to me. Duncan already had a greathorse of his own, though he was a gelding, being an unlucky color. Duncan came riding up out of the east twelve years back, and his was the only greathorse we had before my father brought those three back. Duncan did not want to change, so he gave Apple to his daughter Rudwen. The king had given my father and my brother each a mare. So last year we had two full-bred colts, each as pretty as their father, and this year one filly, paler in color but with a noble head. I was beginning to help train one of last year's, by Apple out of my father's mare Dauntless." I looked away, I did not want to think where little Hero was now. Apple was eating happily. I
leaned over and patted him, taking comfort from his warm presence. "He would have been mine when he was grown. Mostly I rode my brother's mare, training, or Banner, who was a half-breed four-year-old that Duke Galba gave us as a colt. Apple had the run of our other mares as much as he would, the other stallions wouldn't come near him, and my father was well pleased with the general improvement of the horses."
"Anyone would be. But I didn't mean to make you sad talking about your stock, which has been lost. Not that the Jarnsnien will get much good of them. Greathorses don't do much good in twos and threes, you need a whole ala to be effective. Oh but he's a lovely beast. I was just admiring him and wondering if my Spring would like him as much as I do. If ap Cathvan says it's a good match, that is. He'll know, and care. He spent an awful lot of time getting so many horses mannered and ready to be given away at the crowning, but he remembers them all. Some of the monks at Thansethan didn't like Urdo doing that with the herd, not that they didn't have enough left. They've been breeding horses there for a long time."
"Are the monks there devotees of the Horse Mother, then?" I asked, putting one of my blankets
over Apple's back and making the Horse Mother's sign. Marchel raised an eyebrow.
"They worship the White God, all of them, very devotedly. He watches over them well, and horses thrive in the pastures there."
"I do not know the White God."
Marchel looked up at me, frowning. "Where were you educated?" she asked.
I looked at her. "My mother taught all of us to read and write, and Duncan taught me fighting."
She laughed. "Forgive me. You speak such excellent Vincan I had thought you must have been sent away somewhere to school and had it beaten into you. The way you fight too—your Duncan must have been a very good teacher. Well, some of the best armigers among us came straight from the country. That does make sense of you not knowing.
Well, the priests of the White God teach reverence for all life. Many of us in the alae worship him. Thansethan is one of his greatest strongholds in Tir Tanagiri. Urdo was raised there, as you may know."