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A Guest

Better gear than good sense
A traveler cannot carry

"Camp here, Mainvale tomorrow. Beds the night after."

"How do cats make camp? I'm used to traveling with wagons, tents."

Niall grinned. "I'll show you. Gets me even with Egil."

Kiron looked puzzled. Niall got out tent cloths, lance sections, stakes and went to work. When he was done, Kiron kneeled down to look into the tent.

"Not much room."

"Two people, bedding. Infantry can afford wagons; we can't. Too slow."

"Who's Egil and how does showing me how a tent goes up . . . ?"

"My big brother. Couple of years back, after Father captured King James, Egil got to show him how we put up a tent. I figure the grandson of an emperor is about even with a king."

"You captured the king of the Karls? I thought you were allies."

"So did we. Your grandfather bribed one of the King's kinsmen to give him bad advice. Ended up taking 'Nora prisoner, trying to get control of the Order. Father got her out, took James prisoner, talked sense into him. Now we're allies again."

Kiron still looked puzzled.

"Who is 'Nora, what does she have to do with the Order, why did your father go to war with his allies to rescue her . . . ?

Niall stopped a moment to think.

"Forgot—you're a foreigner. Leonora is the Lady Commander of the Order. Also the mother of my big sister. Egil's big sister too—Cara's the oldest. She found the castle they were holding 'Nora in, she and Father got 'Nora out, all three of them went after James. I wasn't there, heard about it later."

"I thought you people, the Karls, a man only had one wife."

"Mostly. Father and 'Nora were before Father married Mother. Still friends, though. Family. Is it true your grandfather has dozens of wives?"

"Of course not. Just three, and the senior only gave him daughters."

"My brother Donal said there was a whole women's palace in the Western Capital."

"That isn't just for the wives—concubines too."

"Sounds like fun. Job you're planning for?"

"I don't have to be Emperor for that."

"What do you have to do, your part of the world, end up with a palace full of beautiful women?"

"Stay alive. Grandfather had four brothers. None of them managed."

Knute cut into the conversation. "Could stay here. Lots of beautiful ladies—whole holds full. Ask Niall. Safer, too. He started with three brothers, still has two—back to three counting Donal."

Kiron looked puzzled, changed the subject. "Both of you speak Tengu, Harald as well as I do. I thought I wouldn't be able to talk to anyone."

Knute answered. "Two years caravan guard, Imperial traders. Some vales folk speak it, mostly learned the same way, more don't. Want to talk to ladies, got a new language to learn."

"That sounds like a good reason."

By lunch time, bored with language lessons, they switched back to Tengu.

"Ever hunt in the mountains?"

"Near the summer palace. It's south of the low pass—mountains, but not as big as yours."

"With a bow?"

Kiron nodded.

"You'll like our mountains. Rabbits, goats. Climbing fun too. May take a few days to get used to it."

"What do you mean?"

"Harder to breathe high up. Not bad at Haraldholt, but you're used to the plains. Over the high pass everyone has trouble, even us—and we're the highest hold in the Vales."

Before dark the riders reached the Silverthread, turned up it into Mainvale. At the first farmstead Niall rode ahead, returned shortly.

"Dinner, beds in the hayloft."

The next day was spent riding, at times walking, as the vale narrowed and grew steeper. Where they stopped for lunch its sides were linked by a wall of weathered stone twice the height of a man, a narrow gap for the stream, the road beside it. Kiron looked at it curiously; Niall answered the unspoken question.

"Two hundred years ago, to keep Westkin from the upper vale, back when that's where the people were. Oldest wall in the vales."

"It isn't all old. See."

"That's one of the bits Father talked folk into patching when he heard about His Highness's swimming pool."

It was almost dark when they reached Haraldholt. Niall led the other two to the stable, where they unsaddled and rubbed down the horses with the assistance—loosely speaking—of half a dozen younger members of the household. As they came out of the stable a woman met them, a bundle of cloth over her arm. She looked inquiringly at Niall. He spoke slowly in Tengu.

"Mother, this is Kiron, the Second Prince's son. Father sent him to guest with us for a while. Kiron, my mother—Gerda Bergthordottir."

"Be welcome." Gerda nodded to a grandchild, who stepped forward; the plate held a chunk of bread, a small bowl. She reached into the bowl, sprinkled the bread with salt, offered it to Kiron. He took the bread, ate it.

"My thanks for your hospitality, noble lady."

Gerda returned his smile, handed the bundle of cloth to Niall.

"All three of you—I can at least send Knute back home clean."

"Yes, Mother."

Niall led the other two through the woods to a small house. For a moment Kiron thought it was on fire, then realized it was steam.

"Hot spring. Reason they settled here, first folk over the pass."

The next day Niall spent introducing Kiron to the hold and its occupants. The day after he found his guest a longbow and they went hunting. Three hours and a lot of scrambling later, they were on their way home with two rabbits and a bird.

"That's a lot of work for lunch. Wouldn't a mountain goat be better?"

"Less fun. More food. Aren't any this close."

"I might at least be able to hit the thing."

"Just need practice. Strange bow."

Kiron looked skeptical.

"You're mine."

Kiron looked up, startled; a moment before there had been no one there. The youth had a bow in one hand, the other pointed at them.

"Fair enough." Niall handed over their catch. "You get to clean them."

He turned to Kiron.

"The bandit who has just ambushed us is my nephew Asbjorn; it's his favorite game. 'Bjorn, this is Kiron, guesting with us a while."

Kiron spoke slowly in the vales tongue. "Honor defeated so valiant a hunter by."

Asbjorn looked at his uncle: "He noticed."

Kiron watched as Asbjorn, booty in hand, vanished downhill. Niall spoke in a puzzled tone:

"Noticed what?"

"What language he was speaking. He knew who I was. How young do they go for caravan guards?"

"Not that young; learned from Father. Tells a story in our tongue, mixes in Tengu, Llashi. Been doing it since 'Bjorn was little. For us too."

"He wasn't one of the ones I met yesterday, was he?"

"Arrived last night, across from Newvale. Boy climbs like a goat. Pretty good at stalking, too. Caught Father once—above himself for a week. Till Father caught him."

"And?"

"Took a mountain goat off him—had spent two days hunting it."

Over the next weeks, Kiron learned what he could of both hunting and stalking, including one fruitless afternoon under cover watching the path they thought Asbjorn would come home on. Evenings were spent learning the language, trying to make sense of the busy chaos around him. One evening, as he sat watching the children play, he heard a footstep, looked up. Gerda was watching him. She spoke slowly in her own tongue.

"I hope my son is taking proper care of you."

"Yes. Not boring. Different."

"The language. Is it a problem?"

"Hard. Learning. Slowly."

"You are doing very well." This time she spoke in heavily accented Tengu. "Better than I would so short time."

He switched with relief to his own language.

"Your speech is a little like Alteng—what the common people speak in our province. When I was little my nurse sang me songs in the Old Speech."

"You find it different here. Different how?"

"Less orderly."

"Vales less orderly than Kingdom. Kingdom than Empire. Like it that way." She smiled at him, held up a hand for silence, listened a moment, went off to deal with a quarrel between two of her grandchildren.

Kiron was still considering the difference between Haraldholt and his own childhood at breakfast the next morning when Niall sat down across the table from him, spoke hesitantly.

"I'm going down vale. Probably back tonight. Be all right, won't you?"

Kiron nodded. "I can practice my archery, language. Plenty to do. I could go hunting, but I'm afraid the rabbits and your nephew are both too much for me."

"Could go with him. Couldn't ambush you then. Lot of climbing, though. It's Aliana. My Lady, the one Knute teased about. Valholt Ladies should be back today—got word last night. Want to be there to meet her. Too long."

By early afternoon, having concluded that hunting with Asbjorn, although not dull, was too strenuous for an old man of twenty, Kiron made his way back to the hall in search of food and drink. The room was empty save for a lady in a chair by the fire, eyes closed. The boots by her chair were splashed with dried mud, the brown tunic almost black with dust. Kiron went into the kitchen, came back with a pitcher, mugs. Sat down, searched for words.

She opened her eyes. He spoke. "Beer. Weary from travel seem you."

She blinked, looked at him curiously, accepted the mug, drank.

"Weary indeed—left Cloud's Eye yesterday morning. That's good."

"Pool of hot water, for traveler."

"Plan to soak when I'm done sitting. Might take a while. What do you speak when you're at home?"

"Tengu. Know you any?"

She nodded.

"I'll never believe Knute again."

"Because?"

"He told me that if I wished to speak to beautiful ladies in the Vales I must learn his tongue."

"Mostly. I'm just visiting."

"In what fortunate land do you make your home?"

"Kaerlia. Other side of the pass I just came over. Is Harald back?"

Kiron shook his head.

"Do you know where he is?"

"At the Northflood ford three weeks ago. Figuring with Artos how to get our army home."

She looked at him curiously, hesitated a moment: "What happened? Did Harald beat him?"

"More or less. Why I'm here."

"Word the invasion was ended, nothing more. What happened?"

"Artos forced the Northflood, got halfway up Newvale. While he was doing it, Harald made it all the way to the Oasis, took it, forced our cavalry to surrender, came back. The Commander couldn't fight without supplies, cavalry. Surrendered on terms."

"How did—I can ask him. Must have been quite a campaign. Our side of the mountains tame by comparison."

"Harald told us Gavin got back across the river with his legions. Do you know what happened?"

"Some of it."

"Was there a battle? A siege? How did the Karls drive him back?"

"You're from the Empire. How much do you know of Imperial politics?"

"Some. What does that . . . ?"

"You know Gavin's the First Prince's man?"

Kiron nodded.

"His legions didn't get home, Second Prince's did, bad news for him, his patron. Made him too careful. You understand all that?"

"Yes."

"Attack supposed to be a surprise, almost was. Could have pushed straight to Markholt—damn little to stop him. Order, part of the border provinces, pretended to be a trap. Gavin stayed out of it for fifty miles—more than a week. By the time he started the siege his supplies were half gone, our levies coming in. Too careful—can't play safe in war. He should have known Harald was the other side of the mountains."

"Maybe he did. Artos said . . ."

The lady looked at him curiously.

"He said he had the fox to deal with, Gavin the vixen. He meant the Lady Commander. You know about her?"

She nodded. He thought he caught the shadow of a smile.

"Order got behind him, cut off supplies. Stay, try to take Markholt, starve. Went home instead."

"So he got the whole army back. Better than we did."

"He lost half the cavalry, Bashkai, maybe more. Fighting by Markholt. Fighting at the bridge."

"You're sure? Father says the farther you get from a battle, the more people were killed."

"Wise man. Yes."

"You talked to someone who was there?"

She nodded, rose.

"So have you. Think I can make it to the bathhouse now."

She went out. He thought about it.

That night, half asleep in the shut bed, he heard horses, people. Niall back? The next morning, wondering if it had been a dream, he followed the smell of bread baking across the courtyard to the side door of the hall.

Seated at the table was Harald, the lady beside him. Kiron tried to keep his face blank as his host rose to his feet.

"Kiron, my daughter Caralla, back from chasing your uncle's army back across the river. Cara, our guest, the Most Noble Kiron. Here learning bad habits from your brother and nephew; His Highness may never forgive me."

Kiron bowed, tried to keep from blushing. Caralla nodded, smiled.

"We met yesterday. Honors about even."

"The noble lady is as generous as she is . . . valiant."

Niall came late to breakfast. The Lady with him—young, pretty, shy—was introduced to Kiron and Caralla as Aliana. She used one hand to eat, one to hold Niall's, spent most of breakfast watching the older Lady.

Afterwards Niall suggested archery. While he was setting up the butts, Kiron, having determined that this Lady, at least, spoke no Tengu, took the opportunity to practice the vales tongue.

"Niall sister, Lady, know you?"

"Lady Caralla? Her first trip over the pass since I came west. I've heard of her. Everyone has."

"She your fellowship is?"

Aliana looked at him curiously, decided the question was real.

"She's the daughter of the Lady Commander. And Harald. And a famous captain. Two years ago she and Harald rescued her mother, captured the King, ended the troubles."

"I told you all about it weeks ago."

Kiron turned to Niall, switched languages with relief.

"Did you? You told me about someone called Nora being rescued."

"And my sister Cara helping. You were more interested in how many wives people had."

"Cara is Caralla?"

"And 'Nora is Leonora and 'Bjorn is Asbjorn unless its big 'Bjorn—Arinbjorn—and 'Liana is Aliana. Don't you have short names, for friends?"

"Kiron is my short name for friends. The long one has my father's name and his father's name and his father's and grandfather's too if someone is being really formal and wants to prove how learned he is, and a bunch of titles that don't mean anything. I can starve to death being introduced."

Aliana was stringing her bow; Niall imitated her. His first arrow missed the piece of branch stuck into the face of the target by almost a foot.

"And I can starve to death shooting that badly."

Later they went hunting. By the time lengthening shadows signaled time to turn back, Niall's archery had improved. So had Kiron's.

"I think I was lucky."

"Rabbit wasn't."

"Stop a minute; I want to keep it."

Kiron stopped by a small brook, filled his game bag with clumps of moss, twigs, a few small rocks, carefully stained the bottom with blood from the dead rabbit.

"Ask your lady to carry the game, stay behind us. She's harder to see than you are."

When the three hunters came into the kitchen, Asbjorn was sitting at a table, looking with disgust at the contents of the captured bag.

 

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