When I think back, I remember laughter I never heard. My first memory of my enemy, lacks all sound. I stood focusing my longsight on him from the top of the Wall, guessing from the movement of men about him that he must be central to them, one of the leaders of King Saahr’s troops.
His head thrown back to let the sound out freely, his travel-tangled hair tossed back in the stirring breeze, as he rode among his men. He had a raggedly bearded strong jaw and eyes narrowed by the habit of squinting against the sun. Through my glass it seemed his mouth took on laughter unevenly, so that the curve lifted on one side first. His nose seemed a little long for his face, broken and mis-set sometime in his past. But his laugh was a big one, and seemed to tickle his companions, for they responded in kind.
One of them sat very tall on his horse, jet black of skin, his hair hidden by a turban. He had a long face, eyes hidden behind lenses wired to his face, and he joined in the mirth as stiff as though he could not help himself. The other had a broad and rosy appearance, hair brightly blonde in the sunlit afternoon. His beard had been braided in two thick plaits that hung over his cuirass, and he laughed as if he found it easy.
I stared through the lenses of my long-sight, and my hands felt cold, even in this warm autumnal light of afternoon. The laughing man possessed a powerful set of shoulders and big hands in his stained leather gloves. Relaxed and happy was how I saw him, my powerful enemy and my guest.
“So they are here,” I said to Mell as she lounged by me against the sun-warmed stones. “The first Corps of King Saahr’s army.”
“You sound excited,” she said with mild curiosity. “Did you see someone you wanted to fight?”
“Yes,” I said. “I believe so.”
Liit was singing again, quietly, under her breath, “‘When all the stars threw down their spears
“And watered Heaven with their tears,
Did he smile, his work to see?…”
“At least they seem mostly to be bow, sword and spear lovers,” Mell remarked. “I see only a few axes and mallets. I hate axes and mallets.”
“Except when the ax is in your own fist,” I reminded her. “You could have made an entire reputation for yourself with the ax, I’ll wager.”
“I hate the wounds they make,” she clarified. “Except when I make them.”
Trumpets sounded then as the parley troop emerged fully into bright sunlight of the Arena. Show, expense and more expense sent to impress our kingdom before negotiations that might make a war or end one before it had begun. In the van rode one of the largest horses I had yet seen, deep chestnut in color with a bright silver cloth under the saddle and a massive warrior in full armor upon his back. Trip the horse, I thought wickedly, and you’d have him. Then I knew better as I watched. This man rode too well for any fool, and I could see the wary balance of his body as he sat his horse’s prancing. Behind him rode the three I had marked, so different from this armored knight in their nearly insolent comfort and camaraderie. Only about two dozen men at arms followed. They reined in before our Gates, the rest of the main force holding to the skirts of the woodland so that their numbers could not be counted. I knew from earlier reports that this was an army of great size, and we had heard of more parts to come should they be needed. How could I refuse to feel dread as I looked out upon this enemy so numerous?
“Maybe this time that we should just pull in our horns like a little snail and refuse to do anything,” Mell said. “They cannot get us out, after all.”
“It is not our way,” I said. “We have a job to do, Master Mell. Let us be doing.”
We walked down the stairs together silent. I do not know whether she thought of the trial before us, or the treachery we ourselves had just enacted four nights before, but I know I thought of both. The world I knew had broken and I needed better wisdom than I had to knit it back together.
“Admittance we request and the famed courtesy of the people of the Wall, that the voice of our Lord, King Saahr might speak through us to the ruler of the country of the Wall, King Matthew.”
“Admittance you are granted, and the hospitality of this land,” answer came, and the Gate swung open. As expected, no rush from the rest of the force occurred, only the group at the Gate rode through, though my warriors were ready to react at first sign of any treachery. The enemy parley troop entered, keeping good order, their horses prancing a little and the silver and blue of their armor and trappings bright despite the travel dust upon them. No sooner had they entered the Gate than twenty officers and ministers of King Matthew rode out past them to serve their duty as hostages to the enemy for the duration of the guesting.
In the great hall of Assembly with the raised dais to one side and massive fireplace at its North end, all I could think about was the stench of old blood. Not real, of course; the place shone with brilliant sunlight and cleanliness, and I could see how its austere beauty struck our guests. They hadn’t anticipated such a touch of grandeur in this small kingdom. No matter; more revelations were to come. I watched the great knight in his armor face King Matthew on his throne, and wondered to see him fail to raise his gleaming visor. He moved stiffly on the ground, too, I noted and wondered if I should face him in battle if he would be slow. I realized then that I hesitated to look where I wanted to look, and turned my head deliberately to consider the laughing man. He did not laugh now. His face had set in grim though polite lines and I saw how he studied the faces of the King and the soldiers around him. So what was his rank, and to whom would the King assign his hosting? His face had seen weather and fighting, I dared imagine, near thirty years.
“I crave King Matthew’s indulgence and the indulgence of his court. My face is scarred and broken and burned past mending, too much a thing of ugliness to inflict upon this good company,” the armored knight said. His voice had a curious precision though it grated a little. I guessed that his lips at least could not be damaged to any extent for his words to come so clearly. “I submit myself to your hospitality. I am Sir Rebmun of the Kingdom of Saahr. I present to you my Lord Evandir,” and he gestured with his armored arm at the laughing man, who now seemed as somber as courtesy could demand. He bowed at his introduction.
“…Prince of the Kingdom of Saahr. With him, the Lords Devon, GrosRupel, and Aquitan, advisors to the crown’s representatives.”
So, what kind of a prince was this Evandir? Old enough and valued little enough to bear a respectable collection of scars, I thought, maybe six or so years over my experience. He walked forward with the slight awkwardness of a man who has spent days on horseback. But that did not deceive me. I saw an elastic strength in his movements and knew that, if as I had boasted to Mell, I truly wanted to fight this man, I had better watch him carefully now and learn all that I could. For my heart already told me that it would come to fighting. These were soldiers who had ridden with orders to do battle, and however we negotiated with them in the coming week of grace, I felt certain they bore fixed orders from Saahr that would accept nothing less than a full surrender of this kingdom. It was written in the bodies of these men, in the very way they stood and looked around themselves.
I spent little attention on the courteous interchange between governments, and more upon the flow of movement, of King Matthew handing arrangements over to different officials of his court, people I knew better by their robes than their faces. Today’s discussions would hold nothing of importance in detail, but the attitudes of guests and hosts would be set each in its way.
“And Lord Prince Evandir, we give your hosting to the Corpsmaster of the Wall.”
I came forward, a little perplexed.
“My honor, my Lord,” I said.
I had hosted before, but only officials of lesser rank and from near kingdoms, sometimes ranking officers. I had assumed I would have some lower man in my care. I saluted Evandir, noting the tiny frown between his eyes as he studied my black soldier’s garb and my cast-back hood. I could have told him it was my best, though that was none of his business. He smiled then, a big amused smile, and saluted me in answer. He would have a spare hosting in my care, yet if he was as I suspected, a soldier’s soldier, perhaps that would please him better than a Burgmaster’s home. I could not tell. He seemed to me to be unclear in his definition, even in this delegation I felt he did not play the part appropriate to his title. Yet the visored Knight Rebmun deferred to him verbally in each decision. Was that merely for cover in some larger diplomatic game that had its board of play far from us in the kingdom of Saahr?
He loomed too big for comfort, I realized as we left the hall. I had to walk by his side, and make polite converse, and it came hard. The Prince did not seem to mind when I stopped those efforts while we followed the crowds through the halls, for he had gone somewhere into his own thoughts, and the lines between his brows had deepened.
Out in the shade of the building I brought my horse to his, and saw puzzlement flash upon his face when he saw Kassh. I hid my smile; he hadn’t thought my quality enough to merit such an animal, and I was happy to keep him off balance. It seemed a good start to me. He said a few blandly courteous words during our march through the streets of the city, but he seemed very busy to me when I watched the flicker of his eyes, looking quickly down every alleyway and street as if taking notes on the layout of the city. Planning for his future attack and fighting in the streets, no doubt. First, my Lord, you must broach the Wall, I kept the words inside my lips.
Mell had the hosting of Lord Aquitan, so we roomed Prince Evandir in the barracks next door to his tall black friend in our empty hospital section.
“We shall take you and Lord Aquitan to the baths in an inch,” I said, using the barracks term for time. He understood that well enough, but he suddenly grinned a curling great grin at me and his eyes brightened into mischievous life.
“No sooner? Gods we must stink after two weeks in the saddle, my host. Call up Aquitan and let’s be after that bath before we stench up your rooms permanently. I have a change of clothes.” He tossed his saddlebags on the floor and with his big hands rummaged quickly.
“I put them on top — yes, I have been thinking more of water than of beer these three days at the end.”
He looked up at me comically from under his brows, like one of my ten-year-old neophytes half afraid of a scolding, and I felt myself smile.
“Though beer or ale too, would be welcome if it is not against your ways.”
“No it is not against our ways,” I said, and we went to find Mell and Lord Aquitan. “We shall see to it.”
Once bathed, we took them to the nearest tavern, where they put away an adequate amount of beer, large quantities of roasted pork with fresh brown bread and an assortment of red and blue potatoes, accompanied by fresh greens with vinegar and those tiny tomatoes and beans that still come from the vines in the autumn months. Hosting in autumn has its pleasures, particularly at table.
“You live a prosperous life here at the Wall,” Aquitan said as he took up another mug of beer. “It puzzles me.”
“That is just the beginning for the reasons we host our enemies,” Mell remarked. “In the next few days we have much to show you.”
Evandir and Aquitan deliberately did not look at one another, Aquitan adjusting his lenses with a careful hand, and I felt my heart tighten. I was right. This hosting would be only for pleasure–these men foresaw no peace. These men had their orders. Remembering what Quillson had said of Saahr, I could see no evil here, only resolve. These were men, nothing more. Big men. I wondered if Mell felt any of my unease, but looking over the table at her I would have said not. She slouched as comfortably as she would have in the company of Cascada and big Macc, pulling at a strand of hair that hung down in front of her ear.
“Business is for tomorrow,” Aquitan said. “Tell me instead why you have three levels of the baths, one each for the two sexes and a third where they are not separated. Is it tradition or practicality?”
“Both,” Mell answered. “If all one needs is a fast cleaning up from the day’s labors, one goes to the unsegregated baths. Five to ten minutes and out. For lingering and luxury or scraping off the toils of war and long travel, the segregated baths are customary. You seemed content; were your needs met?”
“Most of what we do in our kingdom is segregated,” Evandir said. “It lessens the complications of our lives, especially among the young. Religion enters in too, you understand. Some of the gods seem not to like mingling what they made.”
I began to think that this conversation grew a little more than suggestive, but Evandir twinkled at me before I could open my mouth. His broken face again held infectious mischief, as he lifted one last tomato in his fingers.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “the baths were splendid, even if we chose not to avail ourselves of all the… amenities offered.”
We returned them to the barracks by the twisted back way, passing the dim-lit windows with flickering candlelight making warm squares in the chill autumn streets. Amused I saw how Aquitan and Evandir moved, as if they were the only protection for each other, angled slightly and ready for a move, even though to an inexperienced eye they might have seemed casual as they walked and chatted informally with their hosts. For all their cordiality and ours, neither trusted us, and I commended them in my private mind. How many times had they been hosted by kingdoms unknown? But the unwelcome thought superseded, that however many it had been, the kingdom of Saahr was to date, victorious.
Mell and I picked up lumens in the barracks common room before we headed up the stairs. She led Aquitan into the next room while I opened Evandir’s.
I nursed the flame building in the bowl I carried. I had only one more duty before I could leave my charge for the night, I realized, looking about his room. The candle flared in the bowl before settling to a steady flame and I placed it upon his table as Evandir set a chair for me.
I shrugged and sat down cross-legged upon the floor.
“I’ve sat more time in a chair today doing deskwork than I want to tell,” I said. “The floor is more to my liking, if I don’t offend. I should leave you to rest. You have your arms with you so I need not taunt you by assuring you of your safety among us.”
Evandir grimaced then, settled into the chair himself, looking down at me as he crossed his booted feet.
“Yes,” he said, “that’s fair enough. You know I am no courtier and I sleep lightly, perhaps as lightly as yourself.”
He continued to scowl at me as if he had forgotten what expression he had upon his face. We heard Aquitan’s door close on some last wish of good sleep.
“I’m sorry,” he said, but he did not sound it. “I heard warnings about how it was behind the Wall, but I had not understood. I find it hard to see you stripped down to essentials, you and your friends of the Wall, all women or nearly so, walking like cats in the dark, armed to the teeth. I suspect that the sword at your side and the personal blade on your thigh are only the beginnings of what hardware you carry.”
“Our best weapons are those that cannot be taken from us,” I said with a smile that was more a baring of teeth than a sign of humor, but he smiled back with a real predatory delight.
“Than I can tell,” he said. “I think it would be a pleasure to fight you, not only with swords, but in real battle with no considerations of convention. I like to be surprised. I think you might surprise me.”
“So,” I said, letting a barbed edge show, “you don’t think I am too small to match you?”
“Only one warrior has ever overmatched me,” he said, “but I have many who match me, and I don’t grade them by stature. Don’t make the mistake, Ti of the Wall, of thinking me witless just because I am a man.”
I did not answer that, because he confounded me by his accuracy.
“Our women,” he said, almost growling, “have sometimes served in more varied roles, but now with the spread of our kingdom, that has been changing. The priests say the change will make us stronger as each kind of person is pre-made by the gods for certain strengths.”
“So there is a rule for the making of persons,” I said. “women, all business and accounting must do, because that is the way their brains and their fingers are shaped, and all men are made brawny and witless for fighting?”
I thought he would choke on my words with the laughter he tried to hold back. The hour was late and he had some consideration for sleeping barracks.
“Gods but I wish I could get you to burn your sword and join up with my men,” he said, then he literally bit his lip and dark blood showed.
“I’m sorry,” he said after a swallowed curse. “I didn’t mean to imply you were a lightskirt.”
“Lightskirt,” he blotted the blood from his lip with his sleeve, and saw my continued puzzlement. “A person with a flexible oath. A whore. ”
“Oh.” I thought it through. “You mean a female whore. There aren’t many in the city of the Wall. Indeed, I had forgotten to ask you, for if you want accommodation, I must be about finding it for you, unless you prefer a man or boy. There are more of them available than ‘lightskirts.'”
“Accommodation? I thought you were it,” he blurted out and then I saw the Prince turn an amazing vivid dark red. “What was in the beer tonight,” he muttered, “I am in a true fix now. I… we by our custom don’t insult our hosts by turning elsewhere, and in truth it has been my habit to pass such opportunities by. I am not happy killing women (and I do prefer women) I have slept with.”
“And you know we shall meet in battle; we both know we shall not end in peace,” I observed. “But killing can go two ways.”
“Well, have you ever killed a bed mate?”
“No,” I answered soberly, then as he stared at me I blushed as vividly as he had done, for the truth was I had never gone so far as to have a bed mate. It had always seemed too awkward, too embarrassing, too messy, and if an urge stirred me I always decided to let it pass. I had never permitted a more than friendly hand to rest upon my skin. I had excused myself in the knowledge that my life would have become complicated by such attachments and my judgment subject in an irresponsible way to my tenderness.
“It is just as well,” I said, and got quickly to my feet. “No wonder you looked askance when you were matched with such a host. No insult from the King or his ministers was intended — we have always given the easing of our guests into the hands of professionals. Professionals are always beautiful and the congress muddies the waters less.”
“I did request a soldier for my host,” he said very quietly, “though I did not expect the best in this Kingdom. I have heard tell of the Corpsmaster of the Wall. Your hosting honors me, Corpsmaster Ti.”
He rose smoothly to his feet and bowed, saluting with hand to his breast as I left the room.