Talion: Revenant Chapter Six
The goal of the 10,000 copy sequel challenge is to sell copies of Talion: Revenant so I can afford to take the time to write Talion: Nemesis. To build up momentum for the effort, I’ve decided to serialize the novel to the web. In this way I can let readers who’ve not had a chance to read the book to get a taste of it and decide if they want to buy a copy to support my writing the sequel. Thanks to everyone who has blogged about this effort—share the book with your friends, then we can all share in the sequel.
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Talion: Revenant is ©1997 Michael A. Stackpole
My heart rode in my throat, squeezed up there by the nervousness that tightened my chest and tied my stomach in queasy knots. Although, as Fourteens, we’d spent enough time around the Hawks to believe ourselves Elites instead of Justice novices, the birds were still unfamiliar enough to make flying solo a difficult experience. And now, after only two weeks of solo frights, our instructor expected us to stoop a Hawk at a target!
Our instructor, a grizzled old Elite with no hair and a scar on his upper lip that gave him a perpetual sneer, had forced us to straddle sections of logs and pretend they were Hawks until he satisfied himself we all had the commands memorized and instantly available. He stalked through the ranks and screamed out a command. If novice hesitated or gave the wrong signal, a stinging blow from the Elite’s quirt rewarded him. Though one of the best in our group, I got hit twice and could still feel the last lash tingling on my right arm.
After a morning of instruction in the middle of a hot field the Elite Fourteens flew their Hawks out to us and dismounted. Soon after their arrival three Lancers leading twenty old, broken-down nags appeared. Each horse had a stick and straw dummy tied into the saddle to serve as our targets for the afternoon’s exercise.
I picked Valiant as my mount. Erlan turned the reins over to me and scowled. “You hurt Valiant and you better march back to Sinjaria before I get my hands on you.”
I smiled at his concern and pulled myself into the saddle. “You just better hope Val doesn’t like me better as a master, Erlan ra Leth. Might get away from me and I don’t believe you quick enough to dodge his attack.”
I signaled Valiant to fly and he spread his wings. With two powerful sweeps of his wings we cleared the ground. Leaving the earth always pressed me down into the saddle, and this time was no exception. Still I maintained a strong grip on the reins and with gentle touches of my quirt I let Valiant know I was in command and intended to stay that way. I flew him a bit to the south, well clear of other Hawks taking off, then signaled him to climb and join the instructor and the others in formation.
All the Justice Fourteens were in the flight. Marana, Lothar, and I flew younger birds, as did most of the other Fourteens. Because of their heavier weights, Jevin and one big Imperianan novice, as well as the instructor, had to fly older birds. The older birds required more strength to handle, but had better training than the younger Hawks so were a bit easier to control.
Cotton-mouthed, I really wished to be on the ground riding a horse. While a horse cannot match the speed of a Hawk, the drop to the ground is much shorter. And horses don’t eat meat. Hawks have a nasty tendency to land near a fallen rider and feed as if nothing was out of the ordinary. My threat to Erlan, while offered in jest, was an Elite’s nightmare.
Down below, the Lancers organized half of the Elites and gave each of them two horses with straw men in the saddles. The other half wandered off with two Lancers across the golden meadow below us. In theory the birds had been trained to take riders and spare the horses. Our task was to guide the Hawk so it sighted the target and restrain it from attacking the horse in the event the Hawk decided it wanted the larger, edible target instead of the straw man.
We circled over the field waiting for a Lancer to release a target horse. A Lancer waved at one of the Elites and a horse slowly trotted away from the group below. It wandered aimlessly into the meadow, then headed across to where the other half of the Elites stood waiting. A whooping cry from a waiting Lancer sped the horse up and prevented it from grazing or stopping.
Our instructor pointed at Jevin, and the Fealareen raised his quirt in acknowledgment. He reined his bird out of our formation and looped it back toward Talianna in a pass that let the Hawk’s shadow drift behind the horse. Then he turned his Hawk back, let the bird sight the target, and gave it the signal to attack.
His Hawk screamed and collapsed its brown and black fletched wings. It fell from the sky with the speed of a priceless crystal goblet falling just out of reach. Jevin gripped the reins and saddle tightly, and his black hair flapped back behind his head like flashing raven’s wings. He leaned back, almost lying flat on the Hawk, to make the drop faster. Only his head leaned forward so he could see.
Jevin hauled back on the reins bare seconds before impact, pulling his bird away from the horse’s neck. The bird screamed again, plucked the dummy from the saddle, and turned skyward. Scenting no meat or blood, it cried out indignantly and dropped the dummy. Jevin flew over behind the horses and landed his hawk.
The next horse headed out. The instructor pointed at me.
I turned Valiant out of formation and spiraled him a bit lower. I knew a fall from even that height would kill me, but it made me feel better. My target wandered in a circle that brought it close to some trees, so I positioned Valiant for an attack from the rear, not broadside as Jevin had. Valiant bobbed his head several times to let me know he had the target sighted. I tapped his wing with my crop and we were off.
Valiant folded his wings and we dropped fast. It felt like my stomach still circled up above, and I couldn’t catch my breath. The wind tore at me. It whipped my hair back—snapping it like a flag in a storm—and clawed tears from my eyes. The target blurred and swam through the tears. I leaned back as far as I could and guided Valiant in at the target.
We came in just a little to the right of the target. At the last second I pulled back and to the left on the reins. Valiant screamed and unfurled his wings. He turned hard with his left wing fully straight and stretched out to catch as much air as possible, and his right wing half collapsed. We spun sideways as Valiant snapped his right wing taut and guided us across the horse’s path. I never saw the horse because I was suspended parallel to the ground with Valiant’s wings reaching from meadow to sky and blotting out any view of the target. Still, straw and shreds of a red cloak flew all around me and I laughed. Valiant screamed defiantly, straightened out our flight, and glided over to where Jevin had hooded his Hawk.
The others accomplished their attacks with seeming ease. Her long black hair a tangled cape behind her, Marana looked terrifying. She could have been a jelkom gathering bad children up for sale to the Dhesiri. Lothar, on the other hand, looked very heroic. His bird leveled off early and glided through a swoop that picked the rider out of the saddle without the horse noticing or being spooked. Others in our group did well: a couple missed their first attempt, but succeeded in the end.
The Elite instructor addressed all of us once he’d landed. “You all did an adequate job here today. Lothar was the best of you. His attack could have removed the last in a line of soldiers without alerting the others in the troop. Nolan’s attack, while very pretty and daring, is not a tactic a newly trained rider should use. It is just as likely to cripple the Hawk as it to succeed. Remember that.”
He looked hard at me. I nodded and blushed. “Justices tend to think of a Hawk as a fast, feathered horse, but it is a weapon. It is an unpredictable weapon that will eat you as easily as it will eat a target.” He waited a moment to make sure we understood the gravity of his warning; then he waved us away.
He ordered us to run the four miles back to Talianna. We passed the Elites coming across the meadow to get their birds. The Elites would fly them back to Talianna as we ran in, and, although the distance was really short compared to our normal training, all of us thought the Elites had life easy.
“Well, Nolan, did you apply to enter the wrong branch of the service?” Lothar ran up next to me. We were both in the middle of the pack. We knew it was a good position to be in to sprint the last leg of the run to Talianna and “win” the race back.
“Me, an Elite? You heard the instructor. By this time I’d have ruined fourteen Hawks.” I spat as Lothar laughed. “The birds are fine, but I prefer caring for a sword to a bird. Swords can’t eat you.”
Lothar laughed. “Call your sword a tsincaat.”
I frowned. “Why the formality? They won’t be tsincaats until we pass the final tests and get through the Ritual of the Skull.”
“Practice, Nolan, practice.” Lothar shook his hands out and wiped his palms on his tunic. “Even after a full year of training you’re the worst of any of us at speaking High Tal. You need the practice.”
“Finde thee thys any the better?” High Tal was a chore because all the words were older and harder to pronounce. The syntax made the tongue slow and precise. That precision and deliberateness was what Talions wanted, however, so I was forced to learn the language.
“Better thou hast become, Nolan, but ye speake with overmuch haste for proper speech.” Jevin pulled up along the two of us. Despite the mile we’d already covered, his deep voice contained no trace of a wheeze like mine or Lothar’s.
“Thou art a mountain demon, Jevin. Thou canst correct me amidst a run, yet thine voice hast nary a hint of strayne.” Sweat rolled off my forehead and stung my eyes. “Must we speake High Tal when I hath not the breath for a good, common curse?”
Both Jevin and Lothar laughed.
“What could be funny during a run?” Marana caught up with us and fell in beside Lothar. I saw Lothar’s pleased grin and smiled myself. Lothar had confessed to me an interest in Marana and she’d hinted a certain affection for him in a conversation just days before.
“Nothing,” I said. “Someone once told these two they were funny and they actually believed him.” We had one more hill before everyone would start sprinting to Talianna. The Elites flying back to the Mews passed overhead. “Marana, you look like a jelkom on that Hawk.”
“Stooping to drag off bad children like you?” She laughed and clapped her hands with delight. “Did I scare you?”
“No, I wasn’t in that saddle. Besides, Lothar looked enough the hero to frighten you off.” My comment broadened Lothar’s grin, and Marana read it clearly.
“He’d have to catch me first.” Marana put her head down and sprinted off to reach the base of the hill before the rest of us. Lothar headed after her, knowing full well that if she could keep running into Talianna the lead she’d build up on the hill would leave her unbeatable in the race. Jevin and I looked at each other, shook our heads, and moved a bit toward the front of the pack. My body protested but I shook my arms free of knots and ignored the rising, fiery pain in my thighs.
The two of them disappeared over the top of the hill—Marana a good twenty yards in front—while the rest of us were three-quarters of the way up the rise. Jevin and I topped the hill with four others, three boys and one girl, in front of us. They had run out in front most of the way, so they were ready to be passed. We obliged them and dropped into long-legged lopes that swallowed distance like a wolf bolting meat.
Marana still led Lothar, but both of them had fallen off the pace a bit. Clearly the hill had taken its toll. “Jevin, if we can keep a sprint up we can take them.”
“I’ll match you stride for stride, then pass you at the last.” He smiled his predator’s smile. That smile only came out when Jevin truly competed. In any contest where he could hurt someone he held back, but in this race he would give no quarter.
I bobbed my head in an imitation of Valiant. Jevin laughed and we ran. With each stride I reached out for more and more distance. My legs became iron springs hurling me forward faster and faster. My chest pumped like a bellows and my skin flushed scarlet. Distance evaporated and Jevin shadowed me.
Jevin and I flew past Lothar and overtook Marana easily. Their lead would have won the race had either of them started early and reached the hill well before the rest of us. As it was, the hill drained them. While their lead would hold the rest of the pack off, it did nothing to stop the Fealareen or me.
We rounded a long right-handed curve and raced in toward Talianna. I was on the inside and I knew the road ran straight past the Mews to the gate in the Siegewall to Taltown. The first of us through the gate would win, and I meant for that novice to be me. I also knew Jevin would pace me until the last ten yards, where he’d sprint past and win.
I smiled my own wolf’s grin at Jevin. “Fare thee well, mountain demon.” I put my head down and sprinted.
I saw everything along the road as a blur, but I could feel everyone’s eyes watch us. My lungs worked hard, sucking air in through clenched teeth and blowing it out my nose. My arms pumped furiously. My fingers splayed out like claws. They tore at the air to shred it and pull me along through it. My legs stretched and I flowed forward. There were no jerky movements, no jarring impacts with the ground. There was only fluid and I ran like rain whipped before the wind.
All the while I heard Jevin behind me. Where I sounded like a man on the edge of collapse, his breath came easily and reminded me of the low growl of a hunting wolf. I used that image. I imagined him stalking me. I let remembered folktales consume me. I caught up the terror of being chased by a Fealareen or a jelkom and used it to fuel my legs. I welcomed the panic and gave it free rein. The fear ripped through me and boosted me forward. I made no effort to curb it, and even let it play over my face, because I knew Jevin would never hold himself back and would use any tool he had available to win.
I shot a last glance over my shoulder. Jevin hung there like a nightmare beast lurking in my shadow. A new wave of terror surged up through me and I increased my speed yet again.
Two Lancers at the gate saw us coming. They exchanged a couple of words then turned to clear the way. They knew Jevin and I would not stop for anyone or anything. Thankfully even Lancers could understand the importance of a race, even if it was just for the sake of the race itself.
I shot through the gateway first. I tried to stop but my momentum carried me across the courtyard. I literally ran up the wall for two steps before my speed was spent, then I bounced back down to the ground. I turned and slumped against the wall. A couple of seconds later Jevin joined me.
Neither of us could speak. Our chests heaved and sweat covered us like dew on a morning field. I stood first, having spied the distant dots that had to be Lothar and Marana, and tugged at Jevin’s arm. He looked at me, puzzled, then understood. With energy from the gods alone know where, we struggled off to the Justices’ wing of the Citadel. Though the stairs were worse than the last hill, we climbed them and reached Lothar’s and my room on the third floor.
I collapsed on my bed while Jevin appropriated Lothar’s bunk. We lay there, very still, until we heard voices. Both of us smiled and sat up, as if we were not the least bit tired. I made notes in my journal while Jevin studied the chessboard on our table where Lothar and I were engaged in a game.
Lothar and Marana, hand in hand, slumped in the doorway.
“Who dragged whom across the line?” I asked innocently, and glanced at their intertwined fingers.
They looked at me with withering glances. Jevin and I simultaneously sank back on the beds and the four of us dissolved in laughing fits.
Hawk training comprised an afternoon each week. As Fourteens we also took on other duties. Along with the Fifteens and Sixteens we had to patrol the Citadel walls and accompany Services clerks on their various inspections of Taltown. While the duties were simple, they added to our training. We had learned to fight; now we had to learn how to deal with people without using violence.
The rooftop patrols were organized by wall, and members of every division except Services and Wizards had to stand guard. The leader for any patrol was selected ahead of time, and it was that Talion’s responsibility to make sure his force was assembled and vigilant. I think if I had been a Warrior or Lancer leading a group I’d hope I didn’t get any Justices in my patrol.
The night after the race Jevin and I had to stand watch from midnight until dawn. We’d gotten enough sleep to rest our bodies, but we were still giddy from the race. Others, including the Lancers at the gate, had come by at supper and commented they’d never seen men run so fast. That did nothing in the way of deflating our egos, and made us very resistant to discipline from anyone who was not yet a real Talion.
A Lancer Fifteen, Gaynor ra Borrowed Lands, led our patrol. He was as tall as me, and we were taller than all in the patrol except Jevin. I had reached a full six feet but had not filled out yet. Jevin both was taller, by at least another foot, and had bulked out to adult proportions. Gaynor was somewhere between us. His head was shaved except for the black mane running down the middle. Like most other Horseheads he was cocky, and the chip on his shoulder for Justices in general and Jevin in particular did not bode well for our watch.
He ordered us into formation and accepted the post from a tired Warrior Fifteen. The Baton of Command in his hand, Gaynor proceeded to brief his troops. “Talions, we have a sacred duty to perform tonight. We are to protect Talianna from any invasion, any violation, no matter how trivial. If needed we are to sell our lives dearly, crying out only to warn others of the danger.”
I rolled my eyes skyward and felt sick. I turned to Jevin and whispered, “It would sound better from horseback. He really needs to be a lord for this speech.” Jevin and I both chuckled.
Gaynor’s gray eyes blazed fury. “Do you Justices find something funny in my speech?” His voice carried the force of a reprimand but he was only a Lancer.
Jevin snorted. “Nothing beside the absurdity of it in light of the fact that there are no troops within sixty leagues of Talianna.” Jevin’s answer, delivered with a serious, respectful look on his face, wrenched a chuckle out of me and started two Warriors quivering with restrained laughter.
Gaynor walked back toward us, but stayed away from Jevin. “Fine, Talion. Then perhaps you’ll find watching the far end of the wall not too much of a chore. And your fleet friend may accompany you.”
I bowed with ceremony. “As my lord commands.”
Jevin and I broke formation, each picked up a spear from the wall rack, and walked to the far end of the roof without waiting to be dismissed. The post was the least desirable because it put us across from the stables and right above the manure pile left from mucking out the stables earlier in the evening. Luckily a breeze blew most of the scent out and away into the night.
The night was warm and the bright stars filled the sky. I easily picked out the Great Bear and the Dancing Turtle. I could only see the masts of the Ghost Ship because Tal was further north than Sinjaria. Sighting a familiar series of constellations always made the night seem more comfortable.
“Jevin, why is Gaynor afraid of you?”
Both of us sat on the roof and leaned our backs against the inner citadel wall. Jevin turned his face to me, but I could only see his fangs and eyes in the darkness. “I suppose it is the same reason you were afraid of me this afternoon. Does that answer your question?” Pain threaded through his reply.
I touched his shoulder. “Jevin, what do you mean? I don’t understand.” Already I’d forgotten the fear coursing through me because it had been just a tool to help me win a race. It wasn’t real then and it ceased to exist the second the race was over.
“Nor do I, Nolan.” Jevin turned from me and I watched his silhouetted profile against the starlit sky. “When you looked back at me I saw the raw terror I’ve seen during a couple of Festivals. People fear me because I am Fealareen, without knowing me or who I am.”
I could feel his betrayal, and I felt like I’d been hit in the stomach with a brick. “Jevin, I’m sorry. I don’t fear you. I know you hold yourself back when you might hurt another person, and I knew you would not be holding back in that race. Imagining you as a monster or wolf hot on my heels—which you were at the time—was just a way to convince my legs to work faster. I never imagined you would notice, much less be hurt by it.”
He started to reply, but I held up a hand and cut him off. “Ever since I swallowed my fear the first day I saw you, I resolved to be your friend. In battle you will be horrifying. You’re big and strong, capable of destroying foes. But you can only let yourself loose on enemies, you’d not hurt friends. Like it or not, until I go outlaw, I will not fear you.”
I felt the tension drain from him. “Nolan, thank you. I cannot judge people. You’ve all been raised on tales of jelkom and Fealareen. We’re not seen outside the Haunts. I’m as much a freak as that two-headed colt born last spring. It was lucky because it died. It did not have to go through a life of people being afraid of it.”
I nodded and scanned the stars. “I know a bit of what you’re talking about.” I swallowed my way past the lump in my throat and brushed a tear from my left eye. “My little brother Arik had a clubbed foot. People thought him demon-cursed or god-blessed. People wanted to burn him or have him touch them to heal their illnesses. No matter what they believed, though, people were afraid of him.”
We were both quiet for a second, each of us lost in thought of places many leagues to the east; then I spoke. “Still that doesn’t explain the depth of Gaynor’s fear.”
Jevin laughed lightly and all his teeth showed in the night. “No, Gaynor is a special case. Remember, Gaynor is from the Borrowed Lands. To you the Fealareen are just monsters in stories but to him we are reality and death for his family.”
I frowned. “Gaynor was brought here at the same time you were. Neither one of you knows anything about your homelands.”
Jevin smiled uneasily. “Gaynor has put our library to good use. He knows his homeland used to belong to the Fealareen. We used to graze our flocks there in the winter. A thousand years or so ago, human settlers began to flood into the area. They were mostly refugees from Tingis, the Tortured Province, but they took our best lands. At first we did not mind, we lived together with relative peace.
“Then a leader showed up and he offered to fight the Fealareen king for domination of the lands. An agreement was struck: every twenty-five years both leaders would meet in a series of Ritual battles and the winner would have dominion over the Borrowed Lands for the next quarter century. The Fealareen have a tendency to raid the area when they are in power—making them no different than the counts and barons elsewhere—and the citizens of the Borrowed Lands are in dread of their leader losing.”
Jevin shook his head. “Gaynor has decided he was sent from the Borrowed Lands to watch over me and prevent me from threatening the Shattered Empire!”
I looked away and swallowed hard. He was not the first Lancer to assume the weight of the world was on his shoulders, but he was starting younger than most. “When is the next Ritual?”
I did some quick math in my head. “That means you left the Haunts during the last Ritual.”
“A month later. I was born the night my father died in the Ritual. He was beaten for the second time. His defeat at the hands of Queen Briana would have led to his execution by the Fealareen had he survived the Ritual. Because of his loss I was cast out.” Part of Jevin cried out for an explanation of his exile. I read it in his posture and heard it in his voice.
I smiled and tried to steer the conversation back away from Jevin’s quest for an answer he’d never have. “I think you have that wrong, my friend.” Jevin turned and stared at me. “You weren’t exiled, you were sent out to keep an eye on Gaynor.”
That forced a smile back on Jevin’s face. He looked up and over me back toward where Gaynor marched from post to post requesting reports and encouraging his men. “Gaynor would just love that idea.”
I nodded. “So, we’ve decided why Gaynor especially hates you, but why does he hate me or any of the rest of the Justices? Did you and Lothar do something to him years ago?”
“No, not that I know of or can remember.” Jevin tipped his face skyward and calm seeped back into his body. “His hatred probably springs from our being Justices and the Justices’ position in the factional struggles in Talianna.”
I considered his remark for a moment. In the two years I’d been in Talianna I knew there were tensions between the different branches. All the military branches were jealous of each other, and no one liked the Services. Elites and Justices really comprised a small percentage of the total Talion population, but our political power was considerable, so we were viewed as either arrogant or far too influential for our actual worth. Wizards, with their subdisciplines and ethereal differences, were too preoccupied with magick to pay attention to the fights, but they were far too powerful to ignore or anger.
“Jevin I think I understand what you mean, but…”
The Fealareen chuckled, a low, evil chuckle. “It is rather simple, Nolan. I’ll just apply labels to things you’ve already seen and understand. Until the Empire fell apart the duty of the Talions was clear. We were the Emperor’s instrument of Justice.
“After the Empire fell apart, thought about the Talion role in the world changed. One faction wanted to reconquer all the lands and forge a new Empire with Talianna as the capital, because they felt without an Empire the Talions lost all legitimacy. Without an Empire we would wither and die. Once the Empire was rebuilt, and the Master was acknowledged as the new Emperor, we could continue our work.”
I knitted my brows in concentration. “Obviously we did not take that route, so there must have been another faction that was more powerful or made more sense.”
Jevin nodded. “Yes and no. The other main faction believed Talions should act as guides. They hoped, through subtle pressure, we could keep the world from falling apart. We could prevent a total collapse, as happened with the old Empire of Kartejan, and keep the world civilized. The guide faction wanted Talions to help keep the Imperial laws alive and to act in a positive manner.”
I closed my eyes for a second and thought. “You mean by training troops and having Justices bring the lawless down we could keep everyone on an even footing and prevent total barbarism from swallowing up the world?”
Jevin nodded. His bobbing head eclipsed the rising Wolf Moon. “Those are still the two biggest factions in Talianna. Two others split off. One advocates doing nothing more than keeping the peace. The other says all men are guilty of something, and that only terror and fear can keep people honest. Many Justices end up adopting the latter view, especially after they’ve tracked down a series of ruthless killers.”
I shivered. “Unless I miss my guess Lancers want to reconquer everything, and Justices believe in guiding?”
“In a nutshell. Add to that the feeling among Lancers, Warriors, and Archers that Justices exert more of an influence on policy than they should and you can understand why Gaynor feels the way he does.”
That made sense to me. The Master made all policy decisions but he consulted with the lords of the different divisions in regular meetings. With Lords Hansur and Isas in agreement, and His Excellency, the head of the Services, backing them, they formed a small but powerful faction that could block the ambitious plans of the military divisions.
Before I could make a comment, our political discussion ended abruptly. A black wave swept up over the Citadel wall and splashed over us. A muddy concoction of horse manure, urine, and straw from the stables, it stank enough to drop me to my knees as I tried to stagger over and see who had thrown the stuff up at us. I fell forward and spat even as Jevin stood and looked over the roofs edge.
Two clumps of manure hit him, one in the chest and the other in the face. He spun away and dropped beneath the wall. “Damn, Nolan, those were Lancers!”
I shuddered and shook my head to clear it. I got my legs under me and stood. I stumbled two steps to the left and leaned heavily against the inside Citadel wall. I spat again to rid my mouth of the sour taste.
Gaynor marched to our position. “Having some trouble, Justices?” He wrinkled his nose. “You stink.”
Jevin’s fists clenched and unclenched; then he lunged at Gaynor. I stepped forward and firmly planted a hand in Jevin’s chest. I felt his heart racing and pounding against his ribs, but something within him recognized me and he stopped. “No trouble, Lancer, beyond that which you caused us.”
Gaynor balled his fists and puffed his chest out. “You accuse me of some duplicity in this when it was your own slovenly manners and lack of vigilance that permitted this outrage!”
Anger burned off the weakness in my knees and cleared my head. I shoved Jevin back and stood nose to nose with Gaynor. “Perhaps I should remind you, Gaynor, that we are in your command and to have two of your men so attacked does not reflect well upon you.” That put him off a bit, because he’d clearly not considered that angle for viewing this incident. “I just want to add that if you ever feel you need to test your belief in your superiority I’m ready and willing to meet you any time and any place.”
I inched even closer and Gaynor gave ground. I couldn’t blame him, because I smelled horrid.
Gaynor straightened himself and sneered. “Clean your post up then go clean yourselves. I’ll file the report on this evening, Nolan, and while I may be criticized for my actions, there is no way either of you will escape a reprimand for your frivolous attitude. Even those who want to be Justices must play by the rules.”
Lord Hansur called both of us into his room after we had cleaned up. Though the sun had stolen over the horizon only an hour before, he already had a two-page report on our actions. He invited us to sit on campaign stools while he read the report. The dark woods of his desk and the shelves lining the walls lent the room a powerful, brooding sense that made me uneasy.
Finally Lord Hansur, sunk deep in a high-backed chair, looked up from the report. “Well, novices, did you openly defy his authority?”
“Yes, my lord.” My answer earned a scowl from Lord Hansur.
“Let us be more specific. Did you comment and laugh during his instructions to you?”
We answered together. “Yes, my lord.”
“Did you relax at your post and ignore what was happening in the courtyard below?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Did you threaten to beat the Lancer to a pulp?”
I shook my head. “No, my lord. I merely offered to meet him later if he felt the situation needed resolution.”
Lord Hansur shook his head. “It was kind of you to offer, Nolan, but this report has resolved the situation itself.”
I swallowed hard to get my heart back down out of my throat.
Lord Hansur rose from behind his oak desk, turned, and stared out the narrow window in the wall behind him. “I can understand your chafing under the command of a Lancer, especially that one. I can understand that he might have it in for you, Jevin, and that he might resent you, Nolan. I know he could have been hard on you—as hard as a Lancer could possibly be on a Justice—and that you bristled at this treatment. Still this does not excuse your action.”
He turned and riveted us with an iron stare. “Patrols are not organized for the protection of Talianna. If there was a threat we would not have half-grown boys guarding us.” Jevin and I both blushed. “Patrols are to teach you to work together. They are a basic military operation, and they are performed to teach you both to accept commands, and to understand how others command.”
He sat again. “I have to discipline you. Gaynor reached Lord Eric very early with this report and I was forced to sit through a discussion of respect and the lack of it among the Justices for the other divisions. Lord Eric also suggested there was no military discipline in the Justices and that for a force that is supposed to do anything any of the other Talions can, there is no way we can be thought of as martially competent.”
I looked down at my feet. I wished I could melt and run down through the cracks in the floor. “We understand the difficulty…”
Lord Hansur frowned hard. “Do you, do you really understand the difficult situation you put me in? I have to prove you are capable of planning a military operation and executing it. That means I cannot tell you what to do. And even if you and Jevin manage to research and come up with a historically brilliant campaign, Lord Eric can dismiss it as impossible to verify, or can suggest that any campaign using Talions would be assured of success because there are none who can stand against us.”
Lord Hansur sat silently and the silence settled over the room like a thick blanket.
Jevin spoke. His voice, though kept low and soft, shattered the quiet like a Hawk’s scream. “It appears, my lord, that Nolan and I must accept sole responsibility for our actions, and be disciplined if we cannot prove to Lord Eric’s or your satisfaction that we do grasp the importance of military planning and execution.”
Lord Hansur nodded. He turned to me. “Nolan, are you willing to join Jevin in his attempt to prove the accusations about you incorrect?”
“Even if it means being dismissed as a result of failure?”
That took both Jevin and me by surprise. My stomach felt full of wriggling snakes, and Jevin paled to an ashen gray. We nodded.
Lord Hansur smiled as if he’d expected this outcome since the beginning of our meeting. “Very well. I expect your plan in a sealed envelope by the end of the day. The plan should be executed two weeks from tonight.”
Jevin and I rose and bowed, then turned and left the room. We barely concealed the smiles on our faces. The night Lord Hansur picked was moonless, and Gaynor commanded that night’s patrol.
Although we’d done dozens of exercises in planning over the past two years, no military campaign we’d designed ever saw so much extensive work put into it. Jevin and I haunted the library and pored over maps by the hundreds. We even got permission to fly two Hawks out toward the area where the Justice Fourteens were supposed to camp out on the night of our operation. Everyone who knew something was up clearly assumed we planned to ambush our comrades to prove our understanding of military strategy and tactics. That won us our first victory and proved we understood the value of intelligence and counterintelligence.
Lord Hansur scheduled the Justice Fourteens for a field exercise west of Talianna on the night of our operation. He threw that in as an extra wrinkle, to make our job more difficult, but we turned it to our advantage. After questioning Allen about the terrain in the camp area we managed to cajole some rope and rock-climbing gear out of him so we could surprise our comrades by coming over an unscalable cliff at them.
Jevin and I planned to work alone originally, but it was difficult to keep our mission a secret. We invited Lothar and Marana to join us, and we told them we trusted them completely, but even they did not know our true target until that night. They liked the plan we told them about and they agreed to it enthusiastically.
Lothar’s opinion of our plan changed, that evening, when we told him what we were really going to do. “You’re going to attack Talianna?”
I smiled easily. “Yes. Look, if a couple of Lancers can sneak up on Jevin and me and do what they did to us it should be easy for us to slip into Taltown and enter the Citadel.”
Lothar looked at me like I was utterly mad, but before he could protest I turned to Marana. “You’re still with us, right, Marana?”
She smiled easily and shouldered a coil of rope. “Sure. This should be an adventure.”
I smiled at Lothar and his eyes blazed back at me. Marana’s involvement gave him no choice, which I knew as well as he did. I tossed him a bag full of clothing.
“Never again,” he mumbled. Jevin and I chuckled and led the way back toward Talianna. Our team walked well behind the other Fourteen groups and none of them noticed our departure. Part of the field exercise required each team to navigate to the campsite by the stars and a complex set of directions given us by Lord Hansur. In following the directions we’d find a number of hidden landmarks and had to write down the symbols we found on them. By looking at our individual course assignments and the symbols we wrote down our instructors could determine if we knew what we were doing or if we found the campsite by accident.
Our journey back to Talianna went off without serious incident. We alternated the position of scout and moved as quickly as possible while trying to be silent. Two groups of Lancers rode past us, but we hid well enough at the road’s edge to escape detection. While they probably wouldn’t have paid us any attention even if they had seen us, we wanted surprise in our operation and we took steps to insure it.
We came in toward Talianna from the west and cut up toward the north near the Mews. We left Jevin hidden in the shadows near the northwest corner of the Siegewall with our gear, while we changed into Elite tunics and quickly joined with Elites heading back into Taltown from feeding and caring for their Hawks.
“Damn birds get so testy when they molt,” I commented aloud as we reached the gate.
Marana agreed. “And they can’t be flown with any sort of speed. I hate it.”
The Warriors warding the gate looked at us, saw a bunch of Elites returning from the Mews, and let us pass without a second thought. We wandered casually into Taltown and headed off west. We reached the corner of the wall and, there in the shadows between a bakery and a small home, I pulled some string from my pocket. I tied it to a stone and sent it sailing up over the wall.
Jevin tied his climbing rope to my line and tugged twice on the cord. I pulled the slender rope over to our side, where the three of us held the rope as Jevin climbed up over the Siege-wall. Once on top, Jevin, dressed in his totally black nightsuit, dropped our supplies and then lowered himself over the edge of the wall. He let himself hang down to his full height, then released. His total drop was a little over six feet, so he landed soundlessly.
The other three of us pulled our nightsuits on over our uniforms and headed west. We successfully passed from the north wall to the south wall of Taltown and reached the manure pile easily. As we expected, from personal experience and two weeks of intelligence gathering, the novices at that end of the roof had moved away from their post. They talked and laughed with the pair of guards at the next station over.
Lothar arched a padded grappling hook over the lip of the wall. It hit with a muffled clank that sounded like thunder to me, but none of the novices paid it any attention, if they heard it at all. Lothar pulled on the rope to test how well the hook had set itself. It slipped once, and Lothar stumbled, but then the hook caught and held firm. Lothar signaled me all was clear, and my mouth went dry.
I climbed the rope first. Lothar held it at the bottom so I could pull myself up and virtually walk up the wall. Still the climb was difficult. I’d gotten only halfway up the line when it went slack and I fell against the wall. I tightened my grip and felt the fire starting in my shoulders, but I could do nothing to lighten the load on my arms.
My heart stopped pounding thunderously after a moment or two, and I heard the two novices patrolling above me. Each scraping step echoed louder and louder. Their voices were just loud enough for me to hear, but I couldn’t make out any words. I calmed myself, forced air in and out of my lungs, and relaxed the muscles I didn’t need to keep me on the rope. Below me Jevin, Lothar, and Marana had vanished, and from my vantage point, nothing looked out of the ordinary in the darkened street.
Finally the voices receded and Lothar stepped from the shadows to grab the end of the rope. He signaled me to come down but I shook my head and completed my climb. My shoulders burned with pain by the time I finished and elbowed my way over the crenellated wall. I dropped into the shadows, checked the hook, reseated it to my satisfaction, then waited.
Marana followed me up with no trouble. We moved forward, up and away from the hook, toward the novices. I looked over at Marana but could see nothing but a narrow band of flesh around her eyes. The nightsuits, complete with gloves and hoods, made us invisible unless one knew where to look.
I heard Jevin come up over the wall; then I felt Lothar touch my hip to signal his readiness. The four of us crawled forward and got close enough to the four novices—two Warriors and two Lancers—to hear their discussion. My heart leapt, and I suppressed a laugh. They were talking about what Gaynor had done to Jevin and me.
Like dust borne on night breezes, the four of us flowed forward. I swept up and grabbed a Warrior from behind. I pressed a dowel of wood into his back and clapped my left hand over his mouth. “Were this steele and not woode, thou wouldst be dead. Act as it were soothe.”
We’d decided to use High Tal to make the guards think this was a training exercise organized by their lords. Because of my difficulty with the tongue I had practiced my little speech for days. The novice stiffened, then slumped as if he’d fainted. I didn’t know if it was an act or not, but he was still breathing so I left him and advanced.
We took one more pair of novices before Gaynor came into sight. He marched along like a lord making his rounds and praised his men for their obedient and vigilant service. He looked very self-possessed. Baton tucked under his arm and a sneer of contempt riding confidently on his lips, he came toward us like a man with an appointment with destiny.
We overwhelmed him quickly. “Thou arte our captif. Do nothing or thou wilt be as dead in thys exercise.”
He stiffened for a second, debated resistance, then surrendered. We led him back to the station above the manure. ” Ye will climb down the rope, and wait for us at the bottom.” Gaynor turned to protest my command, then seized the rope and quickly started his descent. He knew he would reach the ground before us and be able to escape.
Seeing hope flash in Gaynor’s eyes, Jevin laughed and drew a real knife. Remorselessly he sliced through the rope suspending Gaynor over the manure pile.
Under the cover of Gaynor’s sputtered screams of outrage the four of us climbed down the interior Citadel wall. As Gaynor’s patrol responded to his screams by raising an alarm, we ran across the exercise fields and fought our way up the stairs to our rooms. Other novices poured down and out of the Citadel as we did, so intent on seeing what the fuss was all about. In our rooms we took off our nightsuits and hid them under our mattresses. Jevin put on an Elite’s vest and we joined the stragglers running down the stairs.
Absolute chaos reigned in Talianna. The patrol’s panic spread to the rest of the novices and then on into some Lancers who heard one of their own had been attacked. Full Talions shouted orders and tried to station novices in places they’d be useful. We ignored the commands shouted at us and joined the mass exodus of Elites toward the Mews. No one at the gate stopped us and none of the Elites noticed when we headed off west. And though difficult, we even managed to get all the symbols correct on our map to the campsite, though our instructors noted our tardiness and assigned us the early watch.
The next day Jevin and I had a note from Lord Hansur. It read: “I believe you understand military operations. No further demonstrations will be necessary.”
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