The Blue Swordpart #2 of Damar Series by Robin McKinley / Young Adult / Fantasy
She scowled at her glass of orange juice. To think that she had been delighted when she first arrived here - was it only three months ago? - with the prospect of fresh orange juice every day. But she had been eager to be delighted; this was to be her home, and she wanted badly to like it, to be grateful for it - to behave well, to make her brother proud of her and Sir Charles and Lady Amelia pleased with their generosity.
Lady Amelia had explained that the orchards only a few days south and west of here were the finest in the country, and many of the oranges she had seen at Home, before she came out here, had probably come from those same orchards. It was hard to believe in orange groves as she looked out the window, across the flat deserty plain beyond the Residency, unbroken by anything more vigorous than a few patches of harsh grass and stunted sand-colored bushes until it disappeared at the feet of the black and copper-brown mountains.
But there was fresh orange juice every day.
She was the first down to the table every morning, and was gently teased by Lady Amelia and Sir Charles about her healthy young appetite; but it wasn't hunger that drove her out of bed so early. Since her days were empty of purpose, she could not sleep when night came, and by dawn each morning she was more than ready for the maid to enter her room, push back the curtains from the tall windows, and hand her a cup of tea. She was often out of bed when the woman arrived, and dressed, sitting at her window, for her bedroom window faced the same direction as the breakfast room, staring at the mountains. The servants thought kindly of her, as she gave them little extra work; but a lady who rose and dressed herself so early, and without assistance, was certainly a little eccentric. They knew of her impoverished background; that explained a great deal; but she was in a fine house now, and her host and hostess were only too willing to give her anything she might want, as they had no children of their own. She might try a little harder to adapt to so pleasant an existence.
She did try. She knew what the thoughts behind the looks the servants gave her were; she had dealt with servants before. But she was adapting to her new life as best as her energetic spirit could. She might have screamed, and hammered on the walls with her fists, or jumped over the low windowsill in her room, clambered to the ground by the ivy trellis (special ivy, bred to withstand the desert heat, carefully watered by Sir Charles' gardener every day), and run off toward the mountains; but she was trying her best to be good. So she was merely first to the breakfast table.
Sir Charles and Lady Amelia were all that was kind to her, and she was fond of them after a few weeks in their company. They had, indeed, been far more than kind. When her father died a year ago, Richard, a very junior military adjutant, had laid the difficulty of an unmarried sister and an entailed estate before Sir Charles, and begged for advice. (She heard all this, to her acute embarrassment, from Richard, who wanted to be sure she understood how much she had to be grateful for. ) He and his wife had said that they would be happy to offer her a home with them, and Richard, too relieved to think hard about the propriety of such a godsend, had written to her and said, Come out. He had not specifically said, Mind your manners, but she understood that too.
She hadn't any choice. She had known, because her father had told her five years ago when her mother died, that she would have no inheritance; what money there was was tied up very strictly for the eldest son. "Not that Dickie will mistreat you," their father had said, with the ghost of a smile, "but I feel that, with your temperament, you had best have as long as possible a warning to resign yourself to it. You'll like being dependent on your brother even less, I fancy, than you like being dependent on me. " He tapped his fingers on his desk. The thought that lay silent between them did not need to be spoken aloud: that it was not likely she would marry. She was proud, and if she had not been, her parents would have been proud for her. And there is little market for penniless bluebloods of no particular beauty - especially when the blueness of the blood is suspected to have been diluted by a questionable great-grandmother on the mother's side. What the questionableness exactly consisted of, Harry was not sure. With the self-centeredness of childhood she had not thought to ask; and later, after she had realized that she did not care for society nor society for her, she had no desire to ask.
The shipboard journey east on the Cecilia had been long but uneventful. She had found her sea legs almost at once, and had made friends with a middle-aged lady, also traveling alone, who asked no personal questions, and loaned her novels freely to her young companion, and discussed them with her upon their return. She had let her own mind go numb, and had read the novels, and sat in the sun, and strolled the decks, and not thought about the past or the future.
They docked at Stzara without mishap, and she found the earth heaved under her strangely when she first set foot ashore. Richard had been granted a month's leave to meet her and escort her north to her new home. He looked younger than she had expected; he had gone overseas three years ago, and had not been Home again since. He was affectionate to her at their reunion, but wary; they seemed to have little in common any more. I shouldn't be surprised, she thought; it's been a long time since we played together every day, before Dickie was sent off to school. I'm an encumbrance now, and he has his career to think of. But it would be nice to be friends, she thought wistfully. When she pressed him to give her some idea of what she could expect of her new life, he shrugged and said: "You'll see. The people are like Home, you know. You needn't have much to do with the natives. There are the servants, of course, but they are all right. Don't worry about it. " And he looked at her with so worried a face that she didn't know whether to laugh or to shake him. She said, "I wish you would tell me what is worrying you. " Variations of this conversation occurred several times during the first days of their journey together. At this point there would be a long silence.
Finally, as if he could bear it no more, he burst out: "You won't be able to go on as you did at home, you know. "
"But what do you mean?" She hadn't thought much about native servants, or her position, yet; and obviously Richard knew her well enough of old to guess that now. She had written him letters, several each year, since he had gone overseas, but he had rarely answered. She had not minded very much, although she had thought occasionally, as when his six hastily scrawled lines at Christmas arrived, that it would have been pleasant if he were a better correspondent; but it hadn't troubled her. It troubled her now, for she felt that she was facing a stranger - a stranger who perhaps knew too much about her and her accustomed way of life.
She blinked at him, and tried to rearrange her thoughts. She was excited, but she was frightened too, and Richard was all she had. The memory of their father's funeral, and she the only family member standing beside the minister, and of the small handful of servants and tenants whom she had known all her life and who were far away from her now, was still raw and recent. She didn't want to think about her new life; she wanted time to ease into it gradually. She wanted to pretend that she was a tourist. "Dickie - Dick, what do you mean?"
Richard must have seen the homesick bewilderment on her face. He looked back at her unhappily. "Oh - er - it's not your house, you know. "
"Of course I know that!" she exclaimed. "I appreciate what the Greenoughs are doing for you and for me by - by taking me in. " And she added carefully: "You explained all that to me in your letter. "
"Do you think I don't know how to behave myself?" she said at last, goaded, and was rewarded by another long silence while she felt the blood rising in her face.
"It's not that I don't think you know how," he said at last. She flinched, and he began: "An - "
"Harry," she said firmly. "It's still Harry. " He looked at her with dismay, and she realized that she was confirming his fears about her, but she wasn't going to yield about that of all things. The realization that she would insist on being called Harry seemed to silence him, because he did not try to reason with her further, but withdrew into his corner seat and stared out the window.
She could tell by his voice that he did not want to hurt her, but that he was truly apprehensive. She and Richard had been wild animals together as small children; but when Dickie had been packed off to school, their mother had dragged her into the house, mostly by the ears or the nape of the neck, and begun the long difficult process of reforming her into something resembling a young lady.
"I suppose I should have started years ago," she told her sulky daughter; "but you were having such a good time, and I knew Dickie would be sent away soon. I thought it hardly fair that your lessons should start sooner. " This lifted the cloud a little from her daughter's brow, so she added with a smile, "And, besides, I've always liked riding horses and climbing trees and falling into ponds better myself. " After such an open avowal of sympathy from the enemy, lessons could never be quite awful; on the other hand, they were not perhaps as thorough as they might have been. On particularly beautiful days they often packed a lunch and rode out together, mother and daughter, to inspire themselves - the mother said - with a little fresh air; but the books as often as not stayed in the saddlebags all day. The daughter learned to love books, particularly adventure novels where the hero rode a beautiful horse and ran all the villains through with his silver sword, but her embroidery was never above passable; and she only learned to dance after her mother pointed out that such grace and balance as she might learn on the dance floor would doubtless stand her in good stead in the saddle. She learned the housekeeping necessary in an old ramshackle country house well enough to take over the management of theirs successfully during her mother's last illness; and the first horrible months after her mother's death were made easier by the fact that she had something to do. As the first pain of loss wore away, she realized also that she liked being useful.
In the shock five years later of her father's death, and with the knowledge that she must leave her home, and leave it in the indifferent hands of a business manager, it had occurred to her to be relieved that the little eastern station at the farthest-flung border of the Homelander empire where Richard had been posted, and where she was about to join him, was as small and isolated as it was. Her mother had escorted her to such small parties and various social occasions as their country neighborhood might offer, and while she knew she had "conducted herself creditably" she had not enjoyed herself. For one thing, she was simply too big: taller than all the women, taller than most of the men.
Harry could get nothing more useful out of her brother about his private misgivings as the small rickety train carried them north. So she began to ask general questions - a tourist's questions - about her new country; and then she had better luck. Richard began visibly to thaw, for he recognized the sincerity of her interest, and told her quite cheerfully that the town at the end of their journey, where Sir Charles and Lady Amelia awaited them, was the only town of any size at all within three days of it. "There's a wireless station out in the middle of nowhere where the train stops - it exists only for the train to have someplace to stop - and that's all. " The town's name was Istan, after the natives' Ihistan, which was deemed too hard to pronounce. Beyond Istan was a scattering of small depressed cottages in carefully irrigated fields where a tough local tassel-headed grain called korf was grown. Istan had been a small village before the Homelanders came, where the farmers and herders and nomads from the surrounding country came to market every fortnight and a few pot-menders and rug-weavers kept shops. The Homelanders used it as an outpost, and expanded it, although the native marketplace remained at its center; and built a fort at the eastern edge of it, which was named the General Leonard Ernest Mundy.
Istan had lately become a place of some importance in the governmental network the Homelanders had laid over the country they had conquered eighty years before. It was still an isolated spot, and no one went there who didn't have to; for it was at the edge of the great northern desert of the peninsular continent the Homelanders called Daria. But thirteen years ago the Aeel Mines had been discovered in the Ramid Mountains to the northwest, and in the last eight years the Mines had been officially declared the most profitable discovery on the entire Darian continent, and that was saying a great deal. The profits on oranges alone paid the wages of half the civil servants in the Province.
"The Mines are awful to get to, though; the Ramids are very nasty going. Istan is on the only feasible route to the Mines, and is the last town large enough to re-supply any caravan or company going that way or coming back out again. That's why we got the railroad, finally. Before that we were the only reason anyone would want to come so far, and our attractions are limited. But the Mines are the big thing now. They may even figure out a way to dig a road through the Ramids. I wish them luck. "
Istan also remained tactically important, for while south of it the boundary to Homelander territory swung rapidly east, the Homelanders failed to push it back any nearer the mountains of the north and east. The natives, perhaps from learning to cope with the desert to survive at all, had proved to be a tougher breed than their southern cousins.
Some of this Harry had read at Home when she had first heard of Richard's posting three years before. But she felt the reality of it now, with the western wind blowing down on her from the rich Aeel Mines, and the odd greenish-bronze tint in the sky, and the brilliant red of the sunsets. She saw the dull brown uniforms of the Homelander soldiers stationed here, with the red stripe vertically drawn over the left breast that indicated they served in the Darian province of the Homelander sovereignty. There were more soldiers, the farther they traveled. "It's still a sore point that Istan is the eastern frontier; we can't seem to bear the idea that the border doesn't run straight, north to south, because we would like it to. They keep threatening to mount new offensives, but Colonel Dedham - he's in charge of the old Mundy - says that they won't do it. And who wants to own a lot of desert anyway? It's the farmland in the south - and the Mines - that make it worthwhile to be here. "
She encouraged him to talk about Her Majesty's Government of the Royal Province of Daria, and if she did not listen as closely as she might to the descriptions of the ranks and duties of the civil servants Richard had the most contact with, she arrived at Istan at last with some small idea of how Homelanders in general were expected to respond to Daria. And she had seen korf with her own eyes, and a band of the wandering tinkers known as dilbadi, and the changing color of the earth underfoot, from the southern red to central brown to northern yellow-grey. She knew a broad-leafed ilpin tree from the blue evergreen torthuk, and when Lady Amelia met her with a corsage of the little rosy-pink pimchie flowers, she greeted them by name.
Lady Amelia was a small round woman with big hazel eyes and curly grey hair and the wistful look of the fading beauty. Her husband, Sir Charles, was as tall as Richard and much broader; he must ride sixteen stone, Harry thought dispassionately as she shook his hand. He had a red face and white hair and a magnificent mustache, and if his blue eyes were a little shallow, there were laugh lines generously around them, and his smile was warm. She felt as if they had looked forward to her coming, and she relaxed a little; there was none of the loftiness she was expecting toward a poor relation - someone else's poor relation at that. Sir Charles during the first evening gave her a complete history of Daria, its past, its conquest by the Homelanders, its present, and its likely future, but most of it she was too tired to follow. Lady Amelia's occasional quick comments, when her husband stopped to draw breath, about Harry's present comfort were much more welcome, although she tried not to show it. But midway through the evening, as Sir Charles was gesturing with his liqueur glass and even Richard was looking a bit glassy-eyed, Lady Amelia caught her new charge's eye for a long moment. A look of patience and affection passed between them; and Harry thought that perhaps all would be well, and she went up to bed in good spirits.
For the first few days in Istan she unpacked, and looked around her, and only saw the newness of everything. But the Homelanders of Istan were a small but thriving community, and she was the latest addition to a society which looked forward to, and welcomed, and cross-examined, and talked about, its additions.
She had always suffered from a vague restlessness, a longing for adventure that she told herself severely was the result of reading too many novels when she was a small child. As she grew up, and particularly after her mother died, she had learned to ignore that restlessness. She had nearly forgotten about it, till now. She wondered sometimes if her brother felt that impatience of spirit too, if something like it had had anything to do with his ending up at a small Border station, however tactically important, although his prospects, when he graduated from university, had suggested something better. This was one of the many things she did not ask him. Another question she did not ask was if he ever missed Home.
She set down her empty orange-juice glass, and sighed. They'd missed the orange groves, coming north from Stzara, where her ship put her ashore. She picked up her fork from its shining white, neatly folded linen napkin, and turned it so that the sunlight that had glittered through her orange juice now caught in tiny star-bursts across its tines. Don't fidget, she told herself.
This morning she was to go riding with the two Misses Peterson, Cassie and Elizabeth. They were near her own age, and the admitted beauties of the station; the entire 4th Cavalry, stationed at the General Mundy, were in love with them. But they were also cheerful and open-hearted, and she was fond of them. She had never much cared for beauty, although she was aware that she lacked it and that her position might have been a little easier if she had not.
They would return from their ride by midmorning, because the sun would be growing too hot for anyone to brave it for pleasure. She planned to ask Lady Amelia if they might all come back here for lunch. She already knew what the answer would be: "Why, of course! We are always delighted to see them. I am so pleased, my dear, that you should be so clever as to attach the two most charming girls we have here to be your particular friends. " Harry caught herself playing with her fork again, and laid it down emphatically. This evening there was to be another dance. Richard had promised to escort her; she had to acknowledge that, however little they found to say to one another now, he was very good about escorting her to parties, and dancing with her - which meant that there was at least one man present whom she did not tower over. Her gratitude was not at all dimmed by the suspicion that he was nursing a secret passion for Cassie, nor by the thought, not even a real suspicion, that he might not want himself made a fool of by his sister's unpopularity. No, his kindness was real; he loved her, she thought, in his silent and anxious way. Perhaps simply being a very junior military adjutant with an unmarried sister suddenly thrust on one's hands inevitably made one a bit of a prig.
It never occurred to her to speculate whether any of the young men in their shining regimentals that Dickie painstakingly introduced her to, and who then painstakingly asked her to dance, presented themselves from any motive outside a willingness to do their friend Crewe a favor by standing up with his oversized sister. It would have surprised her very much to learn of her two or three admirers, who so far resisted the prevailing atmosphere of the barracks as to incline to an altar less populated than that of either Miss Peterson. "But she's just like her brother," one of them complained to his best friend, who listened with a friend's patience, although he was himself incapable of seeing the charms of any woman other than Beth Peterson. "So damned polite. Oh, she's nice enough, you know. I don't suppose she actually dislikes me," he continued, a bit uncertainly. "But I'm not at all sure she even recognizes me from one day to the next, so it hardly counts. "
"Well," said the friend good-humoredly, "Dick remembers you well enough. "
The admirer threw a boot at his friend - the one he hadn't polished yet. "You know what I mean. "
"I know what you mean," agreed the friend. "A cold fish. " The admirer looked up from the boot-blacking angrily and the friend held up the extra boot like a shield. "Dick's stiff with honor. I daresay his sister's like that. You just don't know her well enough yet. "
"Balls, dinner parties," moaned the admirer. "You know what they're like; it could take years. " The friend in silent sympathy (thinking of Beth) tossed the boot back, and he began moodily to black it.
The object of his affections, had she known of this conversation, would have agreed with him on the subject of balls and dinner parties. In fact, she would have added the rider that she wasn't sure it could be done at all, getting to know someone at any succession of such parties, however prolonged. And the friend was right about Dick Crewe's powerful sense of honor. He knew well enough that at least two of his friends were falling in love with his sister; but it never crossed his mind to say anything about them to her. He could not compromise the privileged knowledge of friendship in such a way.
And Dick's sister, oblivious to the fact that she had won herself a place in the station hierarchy, chafed and fidgeted.
Lady Amelia arrived at the breakfast table next. They had just settled the question of Cassie and Beth coming to lunch - in almost the precise words anticipated - when the door to Sir Charles' study, across the hall from the breakfast room, opened; and Sir Charles and his secretary, Mr. Mortimer, entered to breakfast. The two women looked at them in surprise; they had the unmistakable air of men who have been awake several hours, working hard on nothing more than a cup or two of the dark heavy local coffee, and who will rush through their meal now to get back to whatever they have been doing. Neither of them looked very happy about their prospects.
"My dear," said Lady Amelia. "Whatever is wrong?" Sir Charles ran a hand through his white hair, accepted a plate of eggs with his other hand, and sat down. He shook his head. Philip Mortimer glanced at his employer but said nothing. "Richard's not here yet," said Sir Charles, as if his absence explained everything.
"Richard - ?" said Lady Amelia faintly.
"Yes. And Colonel Dedham. I'm sorry, my dear," he said, a few mouthfuls of eggs seeming to restore him. "The message came quite out of the blue, in the middle of the night," he explained through his metaphors as well as his mouthful. "Jack - Colonel Dedham - has been out, trying to find out what he can, and I told him to come to breakfast and tell us what he's learned. With Richard - that boy knows how to talk to people. Blast them. Blast him. He'll be here in a few hours. "
His wife stared at him in complete bewilderment, and his young guest averted her eyes when he looked at her, as it was not her place to stare. He laid down his fork and laughed. "Melly, your face is a study. Young Harry here is going to be a fine ambassador's wife someday, though: look at that poker face! You really shouldn't look so much like your brother; it makes you too easy to read for those of us who know him. Just now you're thinking: Is the old man gone at last? Humor him till we're sure; if he calms down a bit, perhaps we'll get some sense out of him even now. " Harry grinned back at him, untroubled by his teasing, and he reached across the table, braving candlesticks and an artistically arranged bowl of fruit, to tap her cheek with his fingers. "A general's wife, on second thought. You'd be wasted on the diplomatic corps; we're all such dry paper-shufflers. " He speared a piece of toast with his fork, and Lady Amelia, whose manners with her own family were as punctilious as if she dined with royalty, looked away. Sir Charles piled marmalade on his toast till it began to ooze off the edges, added one more dollop for good measure, and ate it all in three gulps. "Melly, I know I've told you about the difficulties we're having in the North, on this side of the mountains with our lot, and on the far side with whatever it is they breed over there - a very queer bunch, from all we can gather - and it's all begun to escalate, this last year, at an alarming speed. Harry, Dick's told you something of this?"
"You may or may not know that our real hold over Daria ends just about where this station stands, although technically - on paper - Homeland rule extends right to the foot of those mountains north and east of here - the Ossanders, which run out from the Ramids, and then that far eastern range you see over the sand, where none of us has ever been . . . those mountains are the only bits of the old kingdom of Damar still under native rule. There used to be quite a lot of fighting along this border - say, forty years ago. Since then their king - oh yes, there's a king - more or less ignores us, and we more or less ignore him. But odd things - call them odd things; Jack will tell you what he thinks they are - still happen on that plain, our no-man's-land. So we have the 4th Cavalry here with us.
"Nothing too odd has happened since the current king took the throne around ten years ago, we think - they don't bother to keep us up to date on such things - but it never does to be careless. Um. " He frowned and, while frowning, ate another piece of toast. "Everything has been quiet for - oh, at least fifteen years. Nearly as long as I've been here, and that's a long time. Ask Jack, though, for stories of what it was like up and down the northern half of this border before that. He has plenty of them. " He stood up from the table, and went across the room to the row of windows. He lifted the curtain farther back as he looked out across the desert, as if breadth of view might assist clarity of thought. It was obvious his mind was not on the explanation he was giving; and for all his assumed cheerfulness, he was deeply worried. "Damn! . . . Excuse me. Where is Jack? I expected he would have at least sent young Richard on ahead before now. " He spoke as if to himself, or perhaps to Philip Mortimer, who made soothing noises, poured a cup of tea, and took it to Sir Charles where he stood squinting into the morning sunlight.
"Trouble?" said Lady Amelia gently. "More trouble?"
Sir Charles dropped the curtain and turned around. "Yes! More trouble. " He looked down at his hands, realized he was holding a cup of tea in one of them, and took a swallow from it with the air of a man who does what is expected of him. "There may be war with the North. Jack thinks so. I'm not sure, but - I don't like the rumors. We must secure the passes through the mountains - particularly Ritger's Gap, which gives anybody coming through it almost a direct line to Istan, and then of course to the whole Province. It may only be some tribal uproar - but it could be war, as real as it was eighty years ago. There aren't many of the old Damarians left - the Hillfolk - but we've been forced to have a pretty healthy respect for them. And if King Corlath decides to throw his chances in with the Northerners - "
There was a clatter in the street below. Sir Charles' head snapped around. "There they are at last," he said, and bolted for the front door and threw it open himself, under the scandalized eye of the butler who had emerged from his inner sanctum just too late. "Come in! I've been in high fidgets for the last hour, wondering what's become of you. Have you found out anything that might be of use to us? I have been trying to explain to the ladies what our problem is. "
"Would you care for breakfast?" Lady Amelia asked without haste, and with her usual placid courtesy. "Charles may be trying to explain, but so far he has not succeeded. " In response to her gesture, a maid laid two more places at the table. With a jingling of spurs the two newcomers entered, apologized for their dirt, and were delighted to accept some breakfast. Richard dropped a perfunctory kiss on his sister's cheek on his way to the eggs and ham. After a few minutes of tea-pouring and butter-passing, while Sir Charles strode up and down the room with barely suppressed impatience, it was Lady Amelia who spoke first. "We will leave you to your business, which I can see is very important, and we won't pester you with demands for explanations. But would you answer just one question?"
Colonel Dedham said, "Of course, Melly. What is it?"
"What is it that has suddenly thrown you into this turmoil? Some unexpected visitor, I gather, from what Charles said?"
Dedham stared at her. "He didn't tell you - ? Good God. It's Corlath himself. He's coming. He never comes near here, you know - none of the real Hillfolk do if they can help it. At best, if we want badly enough to talk to him, we can catch one of his men as they pass through the foothills northeast of here. Sometimes. "
"You see," broke in Sir Charles, "it makes us hope that perhaps he wishes to cooperate with us - not the Northerners. Jack, did you find out anything?"
Dedham shrugged. "Not really. Nothing that we didn't already know - that his coming here is unprecedented, to say the least - and that it is in fact him. Nobody had any better guesses than ours about why, suddenly, he decided to do so. "
"But your guess would be - " prompted Sir Charles.
Dedham shrugged again, and looked wry. "You know already what my guess would be. You just like to hear me making an ass of myself. But I believe in the, um, curious things that happen out there - " he waved the sugar spoon - "and I believe that Corlath must have had some sort of sign, to go to the length of approaching us. "
A silence fell; Harry could see that everyone else in the room was uncomfortable. "Sign?" she said tentatively.
Dedham glanced up with his quick smile. "You haven't been here long enough to have heard any of the queer stories about the old rulers of Damar?"
"No," she said.
"Well, they were sorcerers - or so the story goes. Magicians. They could call the lightning down on the heads of their enemies, that sort of thing - useful stuff for founding an empire. "
Sir Charles snorted.
"No, you're quite right; all we had was matchlocks and enthusiasm. Even magic wanes, I suppose. But I don't think it's waned quite away yet; there's some still living in those mountains out there. Corlath can trace his bloodlines back to Aerin and Tor, who ruled Damar in its golden age - with or without magic, depending on which version you prefer. "
"If they weren't legends themselves," put in Sir Charles.
"Yes. But I believe they were real," said Jack Dedham. "I even believe they wielded something we prosaic Homelanders would call magic. "
Harry stared at him, fascinated, and his smile broadened. "I'm quite used to being taken for a fool about this. It's doubtless part of the reason why I'm still a colonel, and still at the General Mundy. But there are a number of us old soldiers whose memories go back to the Daria of thirty, forty years ago who say the same thing. "
"Oh, magic," said Sir Charles disgustedly, but there was a trace of uneasiness in his voice as well. "Have you ever seen lightning come to heel like a dog?"
Dedham through his politeness looked a little stubborn. "No. I haven't. But it's true enough at least that the men who have gone up against Corlath's father and grandfather were plagued by the most astonishing bad luck. And you know the Queen and Council back Home would give their eyeteeth to push our border back the way we've been saying we would for the last eighty years. "
"Bad luck?" said Lady Amelia. "I've heard the stories, of course - some of the old ballads are very beautiful. But - what sort of bad luck?"
Dedham smiled again. "I admit it does begin to sound foolish when one tries to explain it. But things like rifles - or matchlocks - misfiring, or blowing up; not just a few, but many - yourself, and your neighbor, and his neighbor. And their neighbors. A cavalry charge just as it reaches full stretch, the horses begin to trip and fall down as if they've forgotten how to gallop - all of them. Men mistake their orders. Supply wagons lose their wheels. Half a company all suddenly get grit in their eyes simultaneously and can't see where they're going - or where to shoot. The sort of little things that always happen, but carried far beyond probability. Men get superstitious about such things, however much they scoff at elves and witches and so on. And it's pretty appalling to see your cavalry crumple up like they're all drunk, while these madmen with nothing but swords and axes and bits of leather armor are coming down on you from every direction - and nobody seems to be firing at them from your side. I assure you I've seen it. "
Richard shifted in his chair. "And Corlath - "
"Yes, Corlath," the colonel continued, sounding still as unruffled as when he thanked Lady Amelia for his cup of tea, while Sir Charles' face was getting redder and redder and he whuffled through his mustache. It was hard not to believe Dedham; his voice was too level, and it rang with sincerity. "They say that in Corlath the old kings have come again. You know he's begun to reunite some of the outlying tribes - the ones that don't seem to owe anyone any particular allegiance, and who live by a sort of equal-handed brigandry on anyone within easy reach. "
"Yes, I know," said Sir Charles.
"Then you may also have heard some of the other sort of stories they've begun to tell about him. I imagine he can call lightning to heel if he feels like it. "
"This is the man who's coming here today?" said Lady Amelia; and even she now sounded a little startled.
"Yes, Amelia, I'm afraid so. "
"If he's so blasted clever," muttered Sir Charles, "what does he want with us?"
Dedham laughed. "Come now, Charles. Don't be sulky. I don't suppose even a magician can make half a million Northerners disappear like raindrops in the ocean. We certainly need him to keep the passes through his mountains closed. And it may be that he has decided that he needs us - to mop up the leaks, perhaps. "
Lady Amelia stood up, and Harry reluctantly followed her. "We will leave you to discuss it. Is there - is there anything I could do, could arrange? I'm afraid I know very little about entertaining native - chieftains. Do you suppose he will want lunch?" She spread her hands and looked around the table.
Harry suppressed a smile at the thought of proper little Lady Amelia offering sandwiches, with the crusts neatly trimmed off, and lemonade to this barbarian king. What would he look like? She thought: I've never even seen any of the Freemen, the Hillfolk. All the natives at the station, even the merchants from away, look subdued and . . . a little wary.
"Oh, bosh," said Sir Charles. "I wish I knew what he wanted - lunch or anything else. Part of what makes all this so complicated is that we know the Free Hillfolk have a very complicated code of honor - but we know almost nothing about what it consists of. "
"Almost," murmured Dedham.
"We could offend them mortally and not even know it. I don't know if Corlath is coming alone, or with a select band of his thousand best men, all armed to the teeth and carrying lightning bolts in their back pockets. "
"Now, Charles," Dedham said. "We've invited him here - "
" - because the fort is not built for receiving guests of honor," Dedham said easily as Sir Charles paused.
"And," Sir Charles added plaintively, "it doesn't look quite so warlike here. " Dedham laughed. "But four o'clock in the morning," Sir Charles said.
"I think we should be thankful that it occurred to him to give us any warning at all. I don't believe it's the sort of thing he's accustomed to having to think of. " The colonel stood up, and Richard promptly took his place behind him. Sir Charles was still pacing about the room, cup in hand, as the ladies prepared to leave. "My apologies for spoiling your morning to no purpose," said Colonel Dedham. "I daresay he will arrive sometime and we will deal with him, but I don't think you need put yourselves out. His message said merely that he desired an audience with the Homelander District Commissioner - not quite his phrase, but that's the idea - and the general in command of the fort. He'll have to make do with me, though; we don't rate a general. The Hill-kings don't go in much for gold plate and red velvet anyway - I think. I hope this is a business meeting. "
"I hope so too," murmured Sir Charles to his teacup. "And - at the moment - we can't do much more than wait and see," said the colonel. "Have some more of this excellent tea, Charles. What's in your cup must be quite cold by now. "