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Dawn had barely broken in front of the white stone longhouse as the Volsaxi warriors paused in their sparring. Their attention was drawn to the two people confronting each other - one a mature warrior with the tattoos of Finovan on his face, the other a slip of a girl young enough to be his daughter.
She was so young, that was the trouble. Sora. His brother's child, not his. He had to remember that, no matter how much she looked like her. But Rana was dead, now, and he was damned if his niece was going the same way. "I don't care what colour you've dyed your hair. You are not joining my warband. You are not training with my warband. If you're here at all, you are acting as a woman of our clan should."
That Dilfara, teaching girls that they could fight as well as a man. Oh yes, they could fight. But as well as a man? No. Too small, too light, too fragile. If Rana had been able to fight as well as a man, she wouldn't have died with Dilfara, would she?
She was still there, still facing him - no lack of courage. But courage was not enough. "What do I have to do to convince you? Orlanth gave Vinga tests - what do I have to prove?"
"Nothing. I don't care what you prove. You are not joining my warband."
"We'll see." No hint of surrender there. "I'm a woman. There's always another way."
And she had found that other way. That was why she was down there now, below him where he stood on the walls, watching, unable to protect her. She had gone to the Vingans. He had thought only foreigners would do such a thing, forming a warband that was made from all tribes and all clans, joined only by their goddess. Clanless, like bandits. That woman, interfering again… and his King, listening to her. At least she was away at the moment, though, back in the north where she belonged, and he remembered that the oath Broyan had extracted from him to hold his peace only applied to her, not to other Vingans.
He had watched the Vingan warband leave the day before, heading out to escort supplies in across the Fellmoor. Usually the mere presence of a warband escort was enough but sometimes the Lunars attacked and there was a fight. So he was watching, knowing she was due back, knowing there was nothing he could do, but unable to leave his post.
It was still before noon when they reappeared, first scouts followed by an advance guard, then the pack horses and mules followed by a rearguard. They were taking it seriously: at least half the warbands would have nothing more than a few scouts out while the rest of the band wandered alongside as the mood took them. It should have been impossible to tell one red head from another, in that throng. But Sora was there in the middle of the rearguard, in the clan plaid. Most were foreigners, in alien patterns to his eyes.
Movement to one side of the track, behind the scattered rocks. Sylangi thieves and traitors, clearly out to intercept the supplies. Barely had he seen them than the Vingan scouts must have alerted their leaders, for the warband moved between the convoy and their opponents. “A bit spread out”, was his thought, but they had an advantage in numbers over the Sylangi. Strange that those cowards were trying to attack, in fact - maybe they thought women would be easy prey? Or perhaps their new overlords did not feed them well, and they needed the food in the wagons themselves?
Usually if two warbands met like this there would be an exchange of insults, challenges and a few duels to first blood. The Lunars didn't always understand, ignored the challenges as if their honour meant nothing to them. But the Vingans were just as bad - what could women know of the honour of war?
Javelins and arrows flew - he had to admit, those women knew how to use a javelin. If they would just stick to that, to what they were good at...
No challenges. It was odd, watching the battle from above like this. He'd never realised before how the Vingans worked - and it was effective, once you could see more to it than just chaos. They split up into small groups, targeting individuals with insults and javelins until a warrior would rush them whereupon they ran back out of reach. The exception was a few groups of better armed women who would go for isolated individuals or small groups, but even they only fought for a few strokes before they broke off, never giving time for the enemy to co-ordinate an attack against them. For all the apparent confusion it was remarkably effective with the Sylangi warriors taking plenty of wounds although few fell. He'd thought Sora would be safe with the rearguard, but she was attacking the Sylangi with as much enthusiasm as the rest of them. And none of her kin there - none of the comfort of standing shoulder to shoulder with a cousin you had known all your life.
Now the attackers were surrounded, attacked themselves on all sides. With such a loose formation, the Vingans covered a much longer front than most warbands would have managed with those numbers – no wonder he’d had trouble counting them in the past. The caravan continued towards the city, the muleteers urging their charges to greater speed.
He started to relax - surely she was safe, now? And then he saw it - reinforcements approaching from the Lunar camp, and in serious numbers too. He tensed - but the Vingans spotted them, despite the confusion of the fight they were already in, and the leaders responded by calling for withdrawal. The women disengaged as easily as they'd engaged, no time wasted in standing their ground to prove their courage. At least, most of them did - who was that stupid girl left alone between the two enemy warbands, bending over a red-haired body on the ground, as her comrades melted away? Sora! "Run, you fool", he whispered, knowing Orlanth wouldn't carry his words to her however loud he shouted. Was he to mourn another child taken by Humakt before she was really old enough to marry? No-one would go back for her - why should they? She wasn't their kin. Bandits, clanless - how could they have any loyalty to each other?
And then someone did. One of those better armed groups he'd seen before. Only three of them - charging straight into the front of the advancing warband, halting it in its tracks. He'd never seen anything so incredibly heroic, or foolhardy. Then they were away again, all four retreating to the safety of the others. The body she'd been so concerned with was left where it lay - dead before she'd even got there, he suspected. He'd have words with that girl when she got back. And he'd have to thank her rescuer, she was the equal of any man and braver than many.
He found them just inside the gate, the caravan having moved on to unload, and asked the nearest red-headed woman where she was.
"Your niece? I hadn't realised - no, she's fine. Though she may not be by the time Natalina gets through with her."
Further across, there she was, with an older woman, her arms covered in Vinga's runes, in the middle of berating her - but he knew the apparent anger in her tone for a mixture of fear and relief that matched his own. Sora probably didn't, though. Natalina looked up, recognising him, and the tirade stopped.
"You wanted words with her?"
"Seems it's all been said." His eyes were stony. "I was right, girl. I don't want anyone stupid enough to let themselves get cut off in my warband. You wanted to prove something - you've proved it."
He turned back to Natalina. "Who led the charge that rescued her? The clan owes them a debt: that was bravely done, going in with so few." It was going to be hard, thanking a Vingan, but it had to be done.
"You didn't see?" Her surprise was obvious. "That was Kallyr." She must have misinterpreted his shock and dismay. "Yes, I know, she had no business going herself, and I'll be discussing that with her when she gets back. She wasn't even supposed to be part of the escort, it was sheer chance we met up with her at the far end of the route."
"She's with the healers."
Sora looked ready to burst into tears. "She was hurt? Rescuing me?"
"That's what happens when you're that stupid," Natalina said icily. "It's not just your own life you're risking. Remember it!" Then she relented slightly. "No, it's all right. That wasn't your fault. She stopped an arrow much earlier, that was all."
Despite his dislike of the woman, Londar was reluctantly impressed. "You're saying she was already injured when she led that charge?"
"Yes, and as I say, I'll be having words with her about that. There was no need for her to go herself, any of us could have done it."
"If you'd noticed she was in trouble, you could have. You didn't." Kallyr was there, behind them, her expression carefully neutral as she recognised him.
Natalina ignored the hidden hostility, if she had even noticed it. "Oh, come on - how long would it have taken you to give the order?"
"Longer than she had. A girl that age facing those odds? How many seconds would you expect her to last? But you're right, it should have been her section leader going back for her. Who was it?"
"Lyzal." She pointed across the gateyard at a stocky woman in her mid-twenties.
“Ah. So she hasn't got being dead as an excuse. That, I might have accepted. Let's see what she has got.”
Lyzal looked understandably nervous as she was approached, and Kallyr's first words did nothing to soften the blow. "Explain to me how you let a sixteen-year-old beginner under your command get cut off, and then failed to do anything about it."
"It wasn't my fault! I told her…"
Natalina winced. "Ouch. Wrong answer."
Another woman had moved up beside them - he recognised Insterid, one of the guards who had been with Kallyr that time he was still trying to forget. The one who had been holding off similar odds without apparently breaking sweat, then. She was watching Kallyr warily now. "Anyone feeling squeamish, better leave. Whining as an answer means this is going to get messy."
Natalina nodded. "You're staying, I take it?"
"Someone'll have to pull her off the body, if Lyzal keeps that up. You know what she's like when one of the kids gets hurt."
"Or when anyone tries to pretend they didn't make a mistake."
He stared at them, incredulous. “But Sora's not her kin. Why would she care?”
They both turned towards him with identical looks of blank incomprehension.
“She's Vingan,” Natalina said, as if that explained it all.
“She's in the band,” Insterid added. “One of us. Our spear-sister.” And she said it as if she meant “sister” quite literally.
Lyzal was still backing away, babbling excuses. He couldn't hear quite what Kallyr was saying, but the white terror on Lyzal's face made the general effect very clear. She was as angry now as the last time they'd met, when - and he realised. When some of her Vingans had been killed, and she had seen it as his fault. He'd thought, then, that it'd been the way he'd effectively betrayed her, left her cut off and surrounded, just as his niece had been today, that had almost brought them to blows.
Lyzal was backed up against the wall now, with nowhere to run to. A few last crisp words, and Kallyr turned, leaving her huddled at the foot of the wall, sobbing. She nodded to Natalina as she returned. "You need a new leader for that section."
"So I see."
Sora was trying not to flinch away, all too obviously expecting the same treatment, and Kallyr's anger vanished, replaced by genuine sympathy. "It's all right, it wasn't your fault, no matter what this lot have been telling you. Anyone can make a mistake when they're new to all this. So, you've learnt not to make that one again. Did you work out what you did wrong, and how to do better next time?"
The girl still looked uncertain, but her confidence was starting to return with the encouragement. “I shouldn't have stopped for Frieda?”
“Not when you couldn't help her, no. Even if she'd been alive, you'd never have got her out.”
“I might. Somehow.”
Stubbornness and courage, even now - he had to admire that. His kin - and she wasn't giving in to anybody.
“You might” Kallyr agreed. “Somehow. What were your chances, do you think? High enough to be worth the risk of losing you as well?”
“I don't know…” She was an unsure teenager again. “How do I tell?”
She was taken aback by the roar of laughter from the audience that had started to gather, as was he. It wasn't that stupid a question.
Natalina was the first to recover enough to speak. “To start with, you ask someone who gets it right themselves more than, say, one time in ten.”
Kallyr started to protest, laughing, but was drowned out by the wave of agreement.
“You try thinking first,” Insterid added. “Leave being heroic but stupid to the men.”
“Anyway”, Natalina pointed out practically, “looking after the rest of the squad isn't your responsibility when you're the junior.”
“But she was my friend!” Sora was genuinely upset now, close to tears again - he wondered if she'd ever had a friend killed right next to her before. Probably not - and no woman of his family should have to. But he still couldn't defend her actions. He didn't have to.
“Ah, leave her alone. At least she's making mistakes from having too much loyalty and courage, not too little. All right, so maybe the details need a little work, but she's got the right general idea, and you know it.” Insterid smiled at the girl affectionately, putting a protective arm around her. "Anyway, if that's the sort of example she gets set, what do you expect the poor kid to do? Heroic but stupid is infectious."
And that, Londar thought bitterly as he watched Insterid lead the girl away, was the trouble.
He still had to thank her. Not to do so would reflect badly on the clan. He knew how to do things properly, though he doubted if these Vingans did. He summoned up the ancient phrases, retreated into the formality of the ritual thanks of one warrior to another on behalf of their kin. It occurred to him, vaguely, that if Rana had survived, he would not have been able to do that. His daughter, yes, but he would never have been able to marry her mother. Could never have claimed her as his kin.
The ritualised words flowed out, letting him forget who it was he was speaking to. And, thank the gods, she responded in kind, with none of those irreverent little barbed remarks he was half-expecting, that never quite went beyond the bounds of the oath they had both sworn. Sora deserved better than that. He had intended to use the wording that merely promised gifts from her kin, but somehow found his hand going to the arm-ring he had carried for so long. And why not? He could never use it for its original purpose now.
Sora broke off in mid-sentence, stiffened, looking over Insterid's shoulder towards her uncle. And Kallyr.
"What...?" Insterid couldn't sense any threat, but spun round, trying to spot what had alarmed the girl.
"It's Rana's dowry", was the incomprehensible reply whereupon Sora burst into tears and fled.
Insterid was torn, wanting to help the girl with whatever had upset her, but leaving Kallyr alone and unShielded with Londar was unthinkable, whether she needed protection from the man himself, his gift, or more likely, from her own sense of humour. Fortunately she saw Natalina intercept Sora and take her to one side. Fine. Her warband, her pupil, let her deal with it.
Insterid sighed and turned back to her duty. What in the world had Kallyr got herself into now? Not that she expected to find out any time soon.
"More junk for the collection?" Insterid picked up the arm-ring from where it had been discarded, admired it. "I thought he was going to bust a gut trying to be polite, but this isn't a bad bit of work. It must have been all he had to hand, giving you something this good can't have been intentional."
"I think it was, you know. Only it wasn't meant for me." Kallyr was staring at it thoughtfully. "Did you hear what Natalina found out from Sora?"
"Something about someone called Rana, whoever she is?"
"Was. That's the point. She was Londar's daughter - at least, the daughter of a woman he'd been spending a lot of time with, though they never married. Went Vingan - very young, again - went into her first fight half-trained, died along with the woman who'd been teaching her. It sounds as if "heroic but stupid" covers it nicely. That arm-ring was meant to be her dowry.”
"So that's why he's so down on all Vingans? A bit unfair, but I can see his point."
"Looks like it. And I'm a foreigner as well, so I get it both ways, quite apart from winding him up. Maybe I shouldn't have done that - at least, not quite so well."
"Maybe not," Insterid agreed, with a certain amount of resignation. "But that isn't it, you know. Not his real reason for disliking you in particular being anywhere near his niece."
"Well, think about it. There's plenty of people being heroic but stupid, most of them men, and he's not worried she might follow their example. After all, they come back dead, like this woman who got his daughter killed. But you? You keep showing her that you can be heroic, and take what look like stupid risks, and get away with it. You just did. Again. Why shouldn't she think it's a good idea, and try to copy it? People do - and they die."
“Yes. Yes, they do.” Kallyr met her eyes soberly. “Insterid, does that still rankle?”
“Not any more, no. My brothers died because they were stupid, not because you set them an example they were too incompetent to follow. But that wasn't how I felt about it then, and I bet it isn't how Londar feels now.”
“Probably not, no. So, what do we do about Sora? It isn't her fault her uncle's a stupid, stubborn, hide-bound, over-protective, chauvinistic moron."
"Don't 'ignorant' and 'blinkered' usually come in the litany somewhere?" Insterid grinned. "'Stubborn and over-protective', no wonder he's so irritating. Remind me again why you insisted on going back for Sora yourself?"
Kallyr ignored her. "I suppose we teach her how to judge her own abilities and her own risks, the same as we do for all of them. Teach her how to be cynical about heroes? Not that I ever needed to tell you anything about that. In fact… look, I know you don't have a lot of spare time, but could you keep an eye on her? She's on her own here, she's the only Volsaxi in the band so far, and her own clan aren't talking to her. Londar isn't going to admit openly that he was wrong.”
“Openly? - oh is, that what that arm-ring was about?”
“I think so, yes. When she's good enough, when she gives me an excuse to reward her, she gets it. He can't do that directly without losing face, but it works this way.”
“It works if he trusts your judgement. Interesting. He's too stiff-necked to admit to a mistake, or to apologise, in words, but there's at least two apologies there.”
Londar’s arm felt strangely light without the armring. Odd that a little piece of jewellery should have been so heavy, it was as if several other things had gone with it. Sora was beyond his help now – and, he realised, Rana always had been. Some of those Vingans seemed responsible enough to teach her and take care of her, at any rate, and some of the others…. Well, at the very least, he was glad that kind of loyalty was on her side. He knew all too well what it was like to be against it.