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Chapter Seven

The Duke is coming. The Duke will be here next week—no, two weeks—no, three days. Rumors swarmed over the stronghold like hornets, stinging all the recruits with excitement and curiosity. Every square foot of the stronghold was scrubbed, and what the working parties thought clean enough was scrubbed again—and again. They cleaned the stables, oiled every scrap of leather, polished every bit of metal on all the tack. The pits that served the jacks were dug out and limed, and the stinking refuse hauled away in carts to be spread on the hayfields of Duke's West. Along the road from Duke's East, fifty recruits filled holes and ruts and cleaned out the side-ditches. They rolled the surface with a heavy stone cylinder drawn by oxen, using strings and a notched stick to make sure the crown had an even camber. Siger had a group busy oiling the wooden practice blades and scouring all metal weapons; he would not tolerate so much as a fingerprint.

None of the recruits were allowed in the Duke's Court, but from all the bustling in and out it was obvious that the same rigorous preparation was going on there as well. Messengers jogged back and forth between the two villages and the stronghold, staying off the newly worked road to avoid the curses of the road crew.

* * *

It had been raining several days, a cold thin drizzle that penetrated without cleansing, but after a shift of wind in the night, the sky cleared. Paks, on duty as recruit guard in the night watch, had spent several miserable hours pacing back and forth on the battlements before the rain quit. She and Coben had complained every time they met at the southeast corner of the wall. The windshift brought drier and colder air; they agreed the exchange was for the better. Now, as the Necklace of Torre, the winter watch-stars, sank to the west, the eastern sky began to glow. Paks looked toward the mess hall chimneys—yes, a thin column of smoke, thickening as she watched, oozed from one of them. She thought of the asar, the hot sweet drink the night guards were given as soon as it could be brewed, and blew on her cold hands, looking outward again.

The land around was still a dark featureless blur, but she could see the ridge to the northeast, black against a sky now showing deep blue. It seemed much colder; she stamped as she walked back and forth from the gate tower to the corner. Light seeped into the sky, moment by moment. She could see the planks she walked on, and the remaining puddles, now frozen hard. She could see the paler blur of the road to Duke's East trailing away from the gate. She glanced back at the courtyard, at the mess hall chimneys, both smoking now, the smoke torn away in tatters from the tops of the stacks. She looked eastward. A white band showed beneath the broadening blue; only Silba, the dawn star, still shone in the lightening sky. She dropped her eyes to the land, emerging slowly to sight as if it rose from under dark water: the ridge to the east, and the mountains beyond it—the broad reach of the drill fields, sodden with rainwater that reflected the brightening sky. Southward, the road stood out more clearly, swerving to avoid a marshy area, lifting over a hummock of ground between the stronghold and Duke's East.

Sometimes, she remembered, you could see the smoke from Duke's East: the low buildings were out of sight in trees, behind the hummock, but she knew which clumps of trees to watch. It was still too dark. Her legs felt brittle with cold; she did a little jig at the corner, waiting for Coben to finish his circuit so they could talk.

"Gah—it's cold!" he gasped, shivering, as he came close enough.

Paks nodded, dancing from foot to foot, both of them numb. "N-not long," she said. "Did—did you see the smoke? Soon."

Coben grinned. "B-better be soon. Better go on; it's colder to stop."

Paks turned away. It was light enough to see colors now, muted though they were. There was the dark blur of trees along the river—the larger blur of the trees near and beyond Duke's East. When she got to the gate tower, the guard sergeant opened the tower door and beckoned her in.

"Here's something to warm you," he said. "Just came up from the kitchens."

Paks nodded gratefully, too cold to speak, and took the mug he offered. Even in the tower it was cold; steam rose from both mug and pitcher on the table. She sipped the scalding liquid; it burned her tongue. Her hands around the mug began to ache with cold, then warmed enough to tingle. She felt a warm glow inside, and drained her mug. "Shall I take some to Coben?"

"Let him come in, out of the wind," said the sergeant. "You walk both segments for a few minutes, then come for a second dose."

"Yes, sir." Paks rubbed her arms hard a moment, then opened the door and went back out on the wall. It was just as cold. A red streak fanned across the east. Coben was waiting at the corner; Paks waved him in. He jogged past her with a stiff grin. She walked on, looking east at the nearby slopes, and turned north at the corner to take Coben's place. North of the stronghold she could see more ridges through a gap in the nearest. Orcs laired there, someone had said. West were great rounded folds of moorland that the villages used for sheep pasture. She thought back to the moors above her father's farm. It had been cold there, too, but you could stay in with the sheep at night. Her nose wrinkled, remembering the smell. She grinned to herself. She did not want to be back there, even for a warm place at night. She turned and started south along the wall.

A chip of liquid fire lifted above the eastern horizon, south of the ridge: the sun, a fat red-gold disk. Crisp blue shadows sprang across the walk from the stones of the battlements. The early light gave the fields below a rosy glow. Evergreens along the river were clearly green, and bare branches on other trees glinted as they swayed in the wind. She looked again for Duke's East. Yes—smoke, now gold-white against a pale blue sky. She looked along the road, idly, then stiffened. She had caught a glimpse of sunlight on something—something that glittered.

She strained her eyes, squinting against the cold. Whatever it was lay between the hummock and Duke's East, where the road itself was out of sight. Another glitter, a vague sense of movement. Paks let out a yell. The guard on the other side of the tower, who had been heading for the west corner, turned and looked at her. She yelled again, and pointed toward Duke's East, then jogged to the tower. The door opened.

"What is it?" asked Coben. "Was I too long?" Behind him, Paks could see the sergeant.

"No—something on the road. On the road to Duke's East." Coben erupted from the doorway just ahead of the sergeant. "Where?" asked both of them at once. Paks pointed.

"Beyond the hummock—I saw something in the light, something moving."

"I can't see anything," said the other guard, a recruit from Kefer's unit, who had come through the tower. "What were you yelling for?"

"It may be the Duke," said the sergeant. "If she saw anything—we'll know soon enough. Get back to your posts; I'll rouse the others. If it is the Duke," he said to Paks, "I'll thank you for the extra warning. He won't catch us unprepared—not that we were."

Coben went back to the east wall, but kept looking over his shoulder to the south. Paks could not take her eyes off the road, where it came back into view over the hummock. Behind her in the courtyard she heard a sudden commotion, but she was not even tempted to turn around. The tower door opened, and half the complement of regular guards poured out, all armed, to space themselves along the wall. Paks saw two trumpeters waiting in the doorway. The other half of the guards, she realized, had gone out the far side of the tower. The sergeant reappeared.

"Paks, you and Coben come down and parade with your unit."

Paks tore her eyes from the road; the sergeant eyed her kindly. "Go on, now. I know you want to stay and see it, but the Duke likes everything done regularly. All the recruits should be together." Paks nodded, and slipped down the tower stairs to the courtyard. The recruit units were already forming. Stammel was watching for Paks and Coben with another jug of asar.

"Here—you two look half-frozen. Drink this quickly, go use the jacks and straighten yourselves up, and get back here as fast as you can." They took the jug into the barracks. Paks took down her windblown hair and rebraided it quickly, then downed a mug of asar. She ran to the jacks, rubbing her arms and stamping her feet. It seemed much warmer down off the wall. When they came out, Stammel took the jug and sent them into formation. Corporal Bosk moved out of her place and into his own.

Just as Paks stepped into her position, the trumpets rang out from the tower. She wished she was up there to see. After a breathless pause, the trumpets sounded again; this time she could hear a faint answering call from outside. Captain Valichi strode around the courtyard, checking each recruit unit in turn. Across the court, Paks could see his horse waiting. The trumpets sounded again. Captain Valichi mounted and rode to the gate. A bellow from the guard sergeant, high overhead. A rumble from outside. The sergeant yelled down into the court: "Captain, it's my lord Duke."

"Open the gates!" ordered the captain. Paks could hear the grinding of the portcullis mechanism, and the great brown leaves on the main gates folded inward. For a moment nothing happened. Then the clatter of horses' hooves on stone, and a figure in glittering mail under a long maroon cloak rode through the gates. Valichi bowed in the saddle.

"Welcome, my lord Duke," he said. The cloaked figure pushed back the fur-edged hood, revealing rumpled red hair above a bearded face.

"Early for breakfast, I'd have thought," said the Duke. "What sharp eyes spotted us this time?"

"A recruit, my lord," said Valichi.

The Duke scanned each of the recruit units; Paks felt his gaze like a dagger blade, cold and keen. Then he grinned at Valichi. "Well," he said, "let's keep that one. Good work, Captain." He dropped his reins and stretched. "Tir's bones, Val, I'm ready for breakfast if no one else is. It's cold out there, man. Let's get to a fire." He lifted his reins and rode through the wide aisle of the formations to the Duke's Gate. Behind him came two youths, also in chain mail, a tall man in flowing robes and a peaked hat, two richly dressed men in velvet tunics edged with fur, and a troop of men-at-arms. One of these carried a pennant on a long staff. Paks wondered if its polished tip had caught the light, and that's what she'd seen.

Grooms ran out to take the horses; the men-at-arms dismounted as the Duke went through into his court, and led their own mounts to the stables. Horses, Paks noticed, and not mules. The guard sergeant came out of the tower with all but the dayshift guards; he caught Stammel's eye and made a lifting gesture with his hand. Paks could not yet read the hand signals the veterans used, but Stammel grinned. He turned to Paks. "Good eyes. The Duke tries to take us by surprise, and he likes to fail—at that, if nothing else. Where did you see him?"

"I saw something—but I wasn't sure what—between that high ground and the village. It must have stuck up fairly high; could it have been that pennant?"

"Could have been, or a squire's helmet. The sun must have caught it just right—and then you were looking in the right place. Well done, Paks."

* * *

Duke Phelan might have traveled half the night to arrive at his stronghold at dawn, but that did not mean he planned to sleep the day away. Shortly after breakfast, he appeared in the courtyard to watch Kefer's unit at weapons drill, and by noon he had observed every recruit unit in its work. He said little that any of the recruits could hear, but his sharp glance seemed everywhere at once. In the afternoon the recruits lost sight of him; they were doing two-on-one engagements in the mud, with Stammel's unit the one, and trying to maneuver in the square. None of them had a glance to spare for the wall, or the cloaked figure atop it, watching. The sergeants saw, but said nothing.

In the next week, while the sergeants muttered and fussed over the recruits like hens with too many chicks, the Duke managed to see everything. He appeared in one barracks when the recruits were just getting up, and in another while they were sanding the floor. He walked through the mess hall during meals, and even ate there twice. The recruits could hardly choke down their food. He ate as if he liked it, and talked easily to his squires. They all knew by then that the young men in mail were his squires, and one of them a nephew of Count Vladiorhynsich of Kostandan. He was there when Vona's unit made a brilliant reverse in square and threw Kefer's unit off balance, and still there when Stammel's unit managed the same thing, not quite so well, against both the others.

"I wonder if he ever sleeps," muttered Arñe to Paks in the jacks, the one place they were almost sure he wouldn't be.

"I don't know. He was on the wall last night when we came on. Gave the watchword, just like Captain Valichi, but I nearly fell off the parapet."

"And this morning he was waiting in the courtyard when we came out. I wish I knew what he was thinking—"

"I don't." Paks had, in fact, been wondering what the Duke had done to Stephi, but she was afraid to ask anyone. Surely Stammel knew, from the men who had come, but—"If I knew," she said in answer to Arñe's quizzical look, "I'd be even more frightened of him."

"It's not like he's done anything to anyone," mused Arñe. "But I have the feeling he would. I'd like to be first on the road," she added, bringing up the unspoken thought of all of them. One recruit unit would be chosen to lead the march south to join the Company. The best unit, of course. They all knew who the best unit was—but a little coolness came into the friendships that had formed between recruits in different units.

"Barra and Natzlin think they're getting it," said Paks. Arñe snorted.

"After the way Vona's pulled them off two days ago? They'll have to do something big to make that up."

"Ours wasn't so sharp," Paks reminded her.

"Against both of 'em. Kefer's was only one-on-one. I hope—"

"We'll make it," said Paks, suddenly full of confidence. "We're much better with spears, and we've got four of the best swords—"

That week was, in fact, one long round of contests. Those few dimwitted enough not to catch on to that by themselves were forcibly enlightened by their companions. Mock combat the last day was hardly mock: collarbones and fingers, one or more in each unit, snapped under the blows of wooden swords. When the entire recruit cohort gathered in formation in the courtyard, there were no smiles. For the first time, they were being addressed by the Duke himself, formally.

Paks, in her usual position at the front of the formation, ignored the bruise that had three of her fingers swelled up like blue sausages. It had definitely been worth risking them broken to break the front line of Vona's square. Especially since they weren't broken; the surgeon said they'd bend in a few days. She watched for the Duke. One of his squires came through the Duke's Gate and nodded to Captain Valichi. The trumpeters blew a fanfare; Paks's skin rose up in chillbumps. The Duke strode briskly through the gate, cloak swirling. He spoke to Valichi, nodded, then moved to Vona's unit, on the far side of the courtyard. Paks suppressed a groan. Had they lost to Vona's? But the Duke made no announcement. Perhaps he was just inspecting, as he had twice before. She dared not glance over to see. Her hand began to throb more insistently; the pain edged up her arm. She listened to the rasp of the Duke's boots across the court. It seemed a very long time before the sound came closer. Now he was at Kefer's unit. She could hear that he was, indeed, passing along the ranks. She could even hear the rumble of his voice as he spoke to this recruit or that.

Then he was in front of them, greeting Stammel, and giving a quick glance along the front rank. Paks wondered if he would speak to each of them. She reminded herself of Stammel's instructions: "Say 'yes, my lord,' or 'no, my lord,' instead of just 'sir' as you would for the captain." The Duke came closer, with Stammel now a pace behind him. Paks could feel her neck getting hot. She tried to stare through him to the mess hall windows, but he was tall; it was hard to avoid meeting those gray eyes.

"Fingers broken?" he asked her.

"No, sir—my lord," said Paks, stumbling over the honorific and blushing even more.

"Good." The Duke moved on, and Paks heard nothing for some time but the blood drumming in her ears. After Stammel had told them, and she had reminded herself, she'd still said it wrong. When she could hear again, the Duke was already on his way to the front of the formation.

"When you were recruited," he said to them all, "you agreed to stay with this Company for two years beyond your training, and to fight at the orders of your commander. Back then you didn't know your commander. Now you do. All of you have qualified to join my Company, and that means you follow me—obey my orders, fight when I tell you to, march when I tell you to. Your sergeants will tell you—have told you, I expect—that I'm hard. That's so. I expect a lot of my soldiers. Skill, courage—and loyalty. To me, personally, as well as to the Company. Now if there's anyone who, after seeing me, can't swear fealty—now's the time to leave." There was a long breathless silence. The Duke nodded. "Very well. Then give me your oath."

Captain Valichi stepped forward to lead them in the oath of service. "We swear to you our hands, our blades, our blood, our breath—the service of the hands, and the service of the heart. May the gods witness our oath of loyalty and be swift to punish the oathbreaker."

"And I to you," said the Duke, "pledge hands and blade and blood and breath. My honor is your honor, before all enemies and trials, in all dangers high and low. The gods witness my oath to you, and yours to me." He looked back and forth at the recruits, and nodded.

"Well, now, companions—" Paks stiffened, surprised by the change in his voice and address. "You'll soon be on your way to battle. As always, one unit must be first on the road. 'Tis no easy chore to choose among you. Tir knows what I'll do if the Company grows to four cohorts. But the choice is made, and that's for Stammel's unit—" Paks suddenly felt that she could soar high in the air on the breath she drew. She locked her jaw on a yell of triumph. Someone behind her was less careful. To her surprise the Duke grinned. "One yell won't hurt," he said. "Cheer your sergeant, if you will."

And "Stammel!" they yelled, and the walls rang with it.

* * *

The Duke rode out the next morning, with a late snowstorm behind him. He had hardly disappeared into the swirling veils before the recruits were hard at work again—this time in preparation for the march south. First they were measured for their uniforms, having changed shape since they arrived. With the maroon tunics went taller boots and longer socks, a long maroon cloak with a hood, and—most exciting—armor. Instead of bandas, they would wear boiled-leather corselets ("Until you can buy something better, if you want it," remarked Devlin.) There were greaves for their legs, and wide bands to protect their wrists. And bronze helmets on top of all.

"Make up your minds," said Stammel, "how you're going to wear your hair. If it's long, I'd say keep it inside the helmet, hot as it is, or some enemy will grab it and throw you. It'll make a cushion." Paks found a way of winding her braid that was comfortable and secure. But the helmet was heavier than she'd expected. So was everything else.

"You'll get used to it," said Stammel. "After you've marched all the way to Valdaire in it, you won't even notice."

It seemed hardly any time at all since the Duke's visit when two of the captains arrived from the south to escort them. A last few days for inspection and packing the mule train that would carry their necessary supplies—and then it was the last night in the barracks. Paks found it almost as hard to sleep as she had the first one.


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