Read Tracato: A Trial of Blood and Steel Book Three Online
Authors: Joel Shepherd
As she passed the Neysh bannermen, Sofy knew she was getting close. Now came the Ranash, and she did not raise nearly the number of cheers from them as she had from the southerners. Ranash was northern, and entirely Verenthane. They recalled the Udalyn Rebellion, and they recalled the youngest princess of Lenayin’s part in it. Few appeared to blame her openly to any great degree, reserving that displeasure for her sister, Sasha. Most believed Sofy to have been in Sasha’s thrall…which was perhaps true, Sofy admitted to herself now, but not in the way
The Ranash infantry were more orderly too, and far better equipped, with heavier, black uniform armour, shields, helms and even spears. There were no earrings here, no tattoos, no decorations of any kind save a greater number of banners, many denoting family symbols that middle and southern Lenayin disdained, and many eight-pointed Verenthane stars on poles or flags.
The Ranash cavalry, when Sofy reached them, gave her no salute at all. Noblemen watched her coldly beneath heavy steel helms, and heavily armoured regulars chose not to even notice her passage. There were not so many of the Ranash as the Neysh, as all the north bordered onto hostile Cherrovan, and their forces were in much demand at home. With this in mind, the north had conducted early winter forays into Cherrovan before the heavier snows set in, and had inflicted great losses. Sofy had heard tales of entire Cherrovan villages destroyed, and warbands trapped in valleys and slaughtered without mercy. Most officers she’d spoken to seemed to think the thrust would weaken the Cherrovan sufficiently to keep Lenayin secure in the column’s absence. Sofy wondered how they could be so sure that it wouldn’t have just inflamed Cherrovan into a more serious attack in the months ahead.
She cleared the crest of another hill, and saw on the downslope the Ranash bannermen, leading the Ranash nobility. Ahead of them stretched a long column of carts and a few carriages, perhaps forty in all. Sofy galloped past, and could now see the vanguard, a great cluster of red and gold Royal Guardsmen mixed with nobility from each province, each with their own captains and entourage. Further still, several formations of regulars on horseback fanned across the hillsides, perhaps five hundred in all, spread left and right in a great crescent wall across the grass. Ahead of them, a mounted scout made a small figure against a distant hillcrest, and there would be perhaps a hundred more riding yet further before and out to the flanks, some staying close, others now several days’ journey away.
She’d barely begun to pass the central vanguard when a small horse broke from the side of a carriage and cantered to her side. Astride the dussieh was a slim girl in a light red dress over riding pants and boots. Her jet black hair was tied with multicoloured ribbons, and she rode with rare confidence for a Lenay woman.
“Princess!” she exclaimed, irritated as she drew alongside. “Why did you leave me for so long?”
Sofy smiled wickedly. “Did Lord Rydar corner you in the carriage again?”
“It’s not funny!” Yasmyn retorted. “I think he does not speak Lenay so well. I tell him ‘no,’ but he does not understand.”
“Oh, he understands well enough,” said Sofy, highly amused. “He just doesn’t listen.”
“He is an ugly man,” Yasmyn insisted, scowling. “Maybe he will listen if I cut off his cock.”
Sofy suppressed a laugh. Yasmyn’s threats were nothing to laugh at. She was from far western Isfayen, the second daughter of Faras Izlar, Great Lord of Isfayen. Like most of the Isfayen, Yasmyn had light brown skin, black hair and a pronounced slant to the eyes. Alone of all the women of Lenayin, Isfayen women usually went armed, and while they were rarely warriors in wars, they were as little known for gentleness as their men. Yasmyn’s blade was a wicked-looking curved thing that the Isfayen called a
, and she wore it shoved through the belt above her right hip. Sofy had seen her practising with it, and knew the
to be frighteningly sharp. Perhaps she should talk to the overeager and rather silly Lord Rydar, before he suffered some unfortunate injury.
Yasmyn had been part Damon’s idea, and part Koenyg’s. All Lenay princesses in a wedding procession required handmaidens, to attend to their needs and to protect their virtue…particularly as this wedding procession doubled as a great army, filled with young warriors eager to demonstrate their virility. The Larosans in particular, Koenyg and Archbishop Dalryn had reasoned, would expect numerous handmaidens on such a journey, for propriety’s sake. Sofy had eight, piled into various carts and carriages.
Damon, however, held a dim view of the useful attributes of most of Baen-Tar’s assorted maidens, noble daughters and ladies-in-waiting. He’d wanted for his little sister a companion who might not only protect her, but actually teach her something. As it happened, Great Lord Faras had seen the war as a grand opportunity to forge closer links between his province and the Lenay royalty. Damon had suggested his daughter might become Sofy’s primary handmaiden on this journey, and Faras had been pleased to appoint Yasmyn to the role. Koenyg was still unhappy about it. The women of Isfayen
would hardly be seen, by lowland eyes, as models of propriety and Verenthane virtue.
Sofy didn’t care. She was just happy to have some female company that wasn’t scared of contradicting her.
“Prince Koenyg is mad at you too,” Yasmyn added, trotting at Sofy’s side as they made gradual progress up the vanguard’s flank.
“Prince Koenyg is always mad at me,” Sofy replied. “What did I do this time?”
“He said you were gone too long. You know he does not like it when you ride so far.”
“I wasn’t gone very long!” Sofy scoffed. “I was just a few hills away. I found another old fortress and went exploring. Look, I found a coin.” She pulled out the coin from her belt and gave it to Yasmyn. “I’d like to get it cleaned—maybe I can discover whose it was.”
“If you want.” Yasmyn gave a shrug and tucked the coin into her own belt purse. “I say it was Valdryd the Reaver. He lived around the same time as these fortresses, and he laid waste to all these southern lands. The fortresses must have been raised by the inhabitants to try to stop him.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt they were raised to stop invading Lenays,” Sofy said sadly. “But raised by who?”
“It does not matter,” said Yasmyn. “Valdryd was strong. These men of the forts, they are all dead now. All fell before Valdryd.” She seemed pleased with this. Sofy expected nothing else of the Isfayen. She sighed, and thought how nice it would be if her nation were responsible for making some other contribution to its neighbours other than shortening the lifespan of their fighting men.
A great, roan stallion wheeled from amidst the Royal Guardsmen ahead, its rider spurring to Sofy’s side. Yasmyn wisely made way as Prince Koenyg, heir of Lenayin, brought his warhorse to his sister’s side. Sofy controlled Dary’s head with difficulty, as the horse towered over the little dussieh, snorting and dancing.
“That’s your last ride,” said Koenyg, glaring down at her. “I warned you not to stray so far.”
“I can’t hear you, brother,” Sofy said mildly. “You’re too high above me, please lean down closer else the wind carries your words away.”
“Don’t play games with me,” Koenyg said. “I’ll have enough trouble explaining this to your husband and his family when we arrive in Sherdaine. Fancy a lowlands Verenthane bride gallivanting around on horseback. You risk the future of all Lenayin with your stubbornness, and I’ll not have it.”
Sofy looked up at him for the first time. Prince Koenyg Lenayin was not
the tallest of King Torvaal’s sons, yet he made a striking figure all the same. He wore mail beneath a broad-shouldered leather jacket, and metal-studded shoulder guards patterned with the snarling image of a mountain cat. His gloves were overlaid with steel knuckle guards in decorative patterns, his boots bore steel caps and vicious spurs, and his sword pommel was a real Lenay beauty—a plain leather binding beneath a pommel head in the form of an eight-pointed Verenthane star. His face was broad and round, hard and handsome, and his dark hair, free of a helm, was short and perfectly neat. Beneath the mail and leathers, Koenyg’s body was broad and square, with shoulders made for swinging swords in the Lenay style. The Stone Wall of Lenayin, some called him. His expression now suited that name entirely.
“You and Father think to marry Lenayin to the Larosa,” Sofy said coldly. “I intend to make sure that the Larosans will be marrying a real Lenay, not some cheap lowlands imitation. I’ll not dress like them, nor talk like them, nor behave like them should it not suit me. I intend to keep Lenay maids in court, and teach the Lenay tongue to all courtiers. Should they object, I shall protest, and all shall hear of it. Imagine the Larosan shame, that they cannot satisfy the wife of the Regent’s heir, and the shame of Lenayin, to abandon her princess to such an unhappy fate. The alliance should suffer, I am certain.”
Koenyg’s gloved hands flexed upon the rein. Sofy knew that he was grinding his teeth. It was a while before he could speak. “You,” he said in a voice that barely carried above the thudding of hooves, “are dancing on very thin ice, little sister.”
“I am so tired of being pushed around,” Sofy replied, with dark, even temper. “
tired, Koenyg. The peoples of Lenayin are independent, and do not cherish being stamped upon. Sasha reminded you once, and I remind you again. Stop now, before you destroy everything you claim to serve.”
“You do not speak to me of service to Lenayin!” Koenyg snarled. “You are a woman! You do not wield a sword, you do not risk death in war, you live pampered and protected by menfolk on all sides. Your only sacrifice is marriage, in this case to perhaps the wealthiest and most esteemed family in all Rhodia! I think you got a bargain in this deal of life, little sister, yet you whine about it.”
“This isn’t about me, you big fool!” Sofy exclaimed with creeping desperation. “This is about Lenayin. You seek alliance with the Larosa, but on what terms? The people of Lenayin will never accept anything less than equality, yet the lowlanders to a man and woman consider us savages! You tell me to behave, not to ride my horse, to be a good and proper little Verenthane princess…is this to be Lenayin’s fate too? Should we not speak our tongues, and sing our songs, and dance our dances? Should we hide in shame, and beg
acceptance from those perfumed Larosan snobs? You’ve bossed and pushed and prodded all of Lenayin into this war, and willingly enough, thanks to the Lenay love of warfare…but good gods, Koenyg, you can’t neglect Lenay pride. You are a commander of Lenay soldiers, how can you expect us to enter an unequal marriage bereft of pride?”
Koenyg almost smiled, grimly. “That’s elaborate, Sofy, even for you.” His temper had nearly faded, a hard, implacable certainty in its place. “So skilfully you turn your little personal dramas into a concern for all of Lenayin.”
Sofy sighed, and hung her head. Arguing with Koenyg truly was like bashing one’s head against a stone wall. She should have known better.
“Less than a year ago, you had no great love of horses, and no skill in riding. Yet suddenly, your selfish pursuit is the foundation upon which the entire fate of Lenayin is balanced.”
“Aye. To suit yourself, you have. I ask you to change back, to suit Lenayin. You are one person, and Lenayin is many people. My tutors taught me maths, and I can prove it to you should you wish.” He touched heels to his stallion’s sides, and cantered off toward the vanguard’s head.
Yasmyn took her place again at Sofy’s side. “I like arguing with him so much better when he’s angry,” Sofy said glumly. “He doesn’t think when he’s angry. But when he recovers his senses like that, he becomes annoyingly insightful.”
“He scares me,” said Yasmyn.
“Oh go on!” Sofy scolded lightly. “You, a noble daughter of Isfayen, frightened of a man?”
man,” Yasmyn corrected. Her dark eyes, shining with worship, had not left Koenyg’s departing back. “All great men are frightening.”
Sofy sighed again. Given some time, she might have made a convincing argument that the majority of her Lenay brethren were not, in fact, savages. But the Isfayen were on their own.
Sofy was practising her Larosan in the royal carriage after lunch when the door opened, and Damon hauled himself inside. Ulynda, Sofy’s grey-haired tutor, bowed low. “Shall I leave, Highness?”
“Yes,” said Damon.
“No,” said Sofy at the same time. The middle-aged woman bowed to Damon, opened the carriage’s opposite door and climbed down with assistance from a Royal Guardsman. Sofy frowned at Damon as he loosened his swordbelt. “Damon, truly, she has a bad knee, there was no need to tell her to leave.”
Damon ignored her, pulling off his heavy gloves. Sofy’s third-eldest
brother had always looked slightly dark and morose, and now more than ever. He had a lean face, suited more by longer hair than the Verenthane norm. His garb was no less martial than Koenyg’s, but somehow it seemed to sit ill upon his tall frame. He looked sombre, Sofy thought. Brooding, even.
She put aside her book of Larosan poems and folded her hands in her lap, waiting. Damon did this sometimes, simply imposed himself upon her company, and left it to her to probe and discover what was bothering him. He leaned his head back now, rocking as the carriage trundled over rough ground, and stared blankly out of the open window.
“How’s the Larosan coming?” he asked.
“It’s a nice language,” Sofy replied. “They write the most lovely poetry.” Sofy loved their plays, songs and poems, and had taught herself Larosan from an early age. “I would learn faster if you would not dismiss my tutor in midlesson so you could come and chat.”
Damon let the jibe pass. This listlessness worried her. Unlike Koenyg, and the late-yet-legendary Krystoff, Prince Damon was not the most lively and positive of princes. But this was becoming extreme, even for him.
“The last scout says we will not be in these foothills beyond tomorrow,” he said. “We should be in Algrasse the day after that, and then there’ll be farmlands.”