"Oh, well enough." Unfortunately. If he were out dead somewhere,
bleeding and serving up the crows a fine dinner, it'd be quite dandy
Dalan was silent for awhile. Again. Then, "You know that horse the
Prince just got from Imperial Faln? The big, black charger?"
I perked up instantly. Indeed I did know of the horse. Dorn was his
name and calling it a charger was a travesty; it was not a
muscle-bound oaf of a horse at all. Crossed with hunters, coursers,
chargers, palfreys, and through generations of blue bloodlines, the
Prince's latest addition to the royal stables was perfection unto
"Dorn?" I chirped. "Oh aye, I know of him."
"He's a spirited one. Fire all through him. Won't take the bit and
doesn't like a heavy rider, but the Prince is working with him slowly.
Never raises a whip against the beast, and believe me, that horse is
Sherdon's very own fury when he's displeased with his trainers."
paused, held the halter to the light, squinted, and then returned to
work. "But the Prince never lashes leather against the beast. It
do nothing but serve to break the animal, ruin a fine horse. The
Prince knows that. Knows that you can't beat something into submission
without destroying something valuable."
To tell the truth, my mind had begun to wander just the slightest, and
then it snapped to, because I realized he was telling me this for a
reason. More or less, he was saying it was all right to hide out in
the stables, and that I could rely on him not to tattle to Hebthar. I
guess big black bruised eyes could have that effect on warm-blooded
"You're a lot wiser than the bulk of people I know," I said
rising and dusting off my breeches. "Good night, Horsemaster."
Dalan grunted in response and I disappeared into the darkness of the
stable, walking down the stables, greeted by familiar whinnies and
snorts of dozing horses. I came to the hay loft and took the rungs two
at a time. It wasn't Imperial Faln, but then, as I said earlier, I
just wanted a place to rest my head for the night and forget my
I wasn't terribly bright at fifteen-coming-up-on-sixteen, and I knew
that. But I still had enough brains to know that heading off to my
room was a bad idea this morning. It was more a matter of flicking the
blades of straw off of me and heading out to sneak into the kitchen
for a bite or three. Seelata, the mistress of the kitchen and first
cook to the Prince, had seen enough of my face so that her plump
features didn't flush a tomato red when I showed up. On occasion, I
helped with peeling carrots, potatoes, plant-like things that had no
legs with which to run away from me, but like most people, I liked to
avoid the work. I just sort of ingratiated myself with her as I had
with Dalan, more or less, to get by and get what I needed. Despite her
naturally pleasant personality and inclination to love to death
anything that ate her dishes with a passion, Seelata didn't like me as
much. Something to do with breeches and eating too much and snatching
one pie too many and likening her to a sow ready for the butcher.
Insignificant things like that.
I strolled into the kitchens, intent on soothing my ravenous hunger,
and minding my disheveled appearance not in the least. The kitchen
drudges gaped for a moment, and then turned back to their work, paying
me no further heed. They were well accustomed to my oddly-timed
comings and goings and were growing a lot more accustomed to my
oddness in general. It wasn't often that nobility-kindly disregard the
fact that I just barely slide under the wire on that-spoke humanely
with anyone of the lower classes, especially servants. Or even speak
the way I did, slang and friendliness and youthful foolishness all
rolled into my voice. Besides, they had been hearing the rumors about
this little half-sister to the Captain of the Guard, who for years had
played with swords, forgivable enough in a child, but at fifteen? It
I was quite proud of that.
In fact, a lot about me was scandalous. Particularly the amount of
food I ate. Can we all say "pig?" The kitchen-mistress, Seelata,
dubbed me "The Kitchen Raider" as of late, because I, like
Raiders, took what I wanted without giving a Sherdon. I, being an
arrogant toadstool of fifteen-going-on-sixteen, reveled in that
honored epithet. It gave me plenty of pleasure to associate myself
with the Raiders, who were soundly defeating my brother and his guard
at every encounter.
Humming to myself, I pored over cooling loaves of bread and dishes of
fruit. Daintily, I reached for a raisin loaf, before Seelata came
"Cheerika, don't you dare!" she blustered, swinging a wooden
I snatched back my hand, narrowly avoiding a wicked blow. Silently, I
thanked the gods for youth, good reflexes, and Seelata's great age.
"Good morning," I sang cheerfully. Charm sometimes worked with
and she was usually very lenient. Not to say I was a very charming
person-only when I was hungry. Once again, good reflexes saved me as
ducked under her half-hearted blow. With not a little bit of
self-conceit, I praised myself for my nimbleness. "Don't you go
sweetening me, Cheerika!" she scolded, waddling after me with her
merrily plump figure. "And don't you snatch a morsel! The Captain
very upset when he came in earlier this morning..."
Oh, aye. My brother. Hmm. Well, I knew the chances were pretty slim
that he had woken up dead this morning. The gods were so unfair
"...and he left very strict orders that you were not to eat until
nonsense about meeting him in his quarters was cleared up."
I frowned. Apparently I wasn't going to eat until I settled matters
with Hebthar. Very well, then. I was off to see him in his quarters.
You see, unlike marriage, starvation wasn't in the distant future. It
was here, it was now, it was thinking that the wooden spoon Seelata
was holding would taste great with a little pepper and salt.
"Okay," I said, shrugging. "I'll take care of it, Seelata.
I spun nimbly and started to walk out, swiping a raisin bread loaf
before swiftly exiting.
"Cheerika!" came Seelata's appalled voice, fading as I dashed
Let's all give thanks to the gods that sows don't run very fast.
Especially not ones ready for butchering.
I tore off a corner of the loaf and popped it into my mouth, chewing
thoughtfully as I walked a slow and meandering way across the
flagstones. I headed for one of my old haunts, a courtyard so old, its
flagstones were a soft, worn grey that seemed to slough away beneath
my scuffed boots. It was tucked away in a corner of the perimeter
walls, where an ancient oak loomed darkly over the crumbling stone and
a stream flowed, entering through a specifically carved channel in the
wall. I was always glad to see this place, stream still flowing, tree
still glowering tiredly at the castlefolk. It was a weak spot, you
see. The tree was too close to the wall; it was easy to get around
Castle Faln's primary defense. The stream entered under the wall,
where an iron grate was supposed to cage out intruders. Years ago,
however, the iron had rusted through and washed away, and as a younger
miscreant, I used to swim under and through the grate to make trouble
outside castle walls.
Everyday that I came here, I expected to see the tree fallen and the
stream again barred. I figured that my brother, oaf that he was, would
eventually notice this spot. Luckily, and may the gods be blessed, he
hadn't. Which was another reason why I liked to deposit my self in the
I froze, then brightened. The voice that called was neither
reprimanding nor angry, and only one person in all of the Falnish
Territories who used such a tone with me.
I turned, smiled. "Good morning, Kren."
"Good morning, Cheerika," he gasped, being winded from the
ran to catch me. Wordlessly, I broke the loaf into halves and shoved
one into his hands. He mumbled some thanks and wolfed the food down
with the kind of perpetual hunger only a teen-aged boy possesses. We
walked the courtyard, fair Falnish Kren and darker half-Falnish
Cheerika, and still I waited, marking his excitement and wondering at
Finally: "I've been moved to the higher class, Cheerika! The
swordmaster said I'm better than my friends! I'm learning new moves
and everything now!"
I smiled brightly at him, sincerely happy. Kren, son of a Guard, had
already had his life and dream plotted out for him. To excel, by
Daquar, that meant all the Territories to him!
"That's great, Kren!" I exclaimed, slapping him on the shoulder.
pausing, I rubbed my chin in mock-contemplation and said, "Wait,
me guess... You want to practice these new moves, right? And, oh,
let's see, whomever would be foolish enough to take on a fine and
skilled warrior like yourself? Fools, I say fools, are there are fools
about? Show yourselves now!"
Kren socked me in the shoulder and I promptly socked him back. He
backed away, studied me, solemnly shoved the improbably large corner
of bread into his mouth, and then leapt at me. Shrieking, I dropped my
remaining crust and battered my friend about the head. Rough and
tumble games were often the rule around Kren and myself, and often a
scandal for anyone with any shred of decorum. Aye, that was me, little
old scandalous Cheerika. My brother would never be able to marry me
off at this rate.
The thought stopped me cold and Kren threw in a cheap shot that
properly eked a scowl from my face. Brows drawn together, I continued
to scowl at him while rubbing my just-abused tummy.
"You're lucky breakfast isn't all over you," I huffed.
He smiled. No, he lolled, like some long-limbed, gangly dog. "So,"
said, cheerfully ignoring my dark expression, "When can you practice?"
"You just can't wait to tan my hide, can you?" I said, allowing
scowl to drop and a smile to emerge. "Well, all right, say midday
"Midday meal?" he sputtered. Dismally, he asked, "When
do we eat?"
"I'll get you something," I promised, feeling around for my
pouch. "We'll eat between breaks, okay?"
"Why not now?" he asked, infused with excitement. I guess I
blame him; I would've been excited, too, if I were training for the
Guard and had been bumped up a class for my skill. Heaven knew I
wished I were. Then, by the gods, I'd show those Raiders just what
kind of blades Castle Faln could turn out!
"I've got to have a little chat with my brother," I said, climbing
my feet and dusting off the posterior of my breeches.
Kren seemed to deflate at that. "You're in trouble, again, aren't
I laughed, and grinning at him, said, "Since when am I not in trouble
"I really wish you wouldn't anger him like that," Kren grumbled,
worrisome nature of his cropping up again. "One day you're going
kick Mischief too hard in the tail, and Hebthar'll be sure to kick
your tail harder than Sherdon."
"Bah," I scoffed, extending my hand to my friend and helping
"Dead brides don't bring much into the family coffers, hmm? Gaunt
ones, of course, are another matter," I muttered, patting my stomach.
"Just stop kicking, Cheerika, just stop, please?"
I really hated it when Kren did that. That worrying thing. It wasn't
so much that it annoyed me, more like it cast a dark shadow on me. It
was like whispers in the dark, whispers of something ill coming my
way. I didn't like that.
"See you here at midday meal, agreed?" I said, smiling broadly
blatantly ignoring his words.
His features still flattened by worry, he nodded. "Agreed."
"And don't forget to bring me a practice blade!" I called,
heading to face my brother. We were going to have to discuss this
little kitchen affair, Hebthar and I. If he wanted to chase me out of
my room, fine. If he wanted to beat me senseless, not great but
acceptable. If he wanted me to run around in a dress, atrocious but
compromisable. Now, if you wanted to deprive me of Seelata's raisin
loaves, he had another thing coming!
Once again, imaginary readers, I would like you to pause and note that
I was an idiot. An idiot ruled by her stomach. Do remember to tack
that on. That's quite important, that stomach bit. And raisin loaves,
good gods, you've never tasted anything like Seelata's raisin loaves.
Although her puddings weren't anything to be scoffed at either...
I digress. I do that a lot. Live with it.
I headed back to my room for a quick bath and a clean change of
clothes. Sherdon knows I wasn't going to let him see me in this shape,
disheveled, rumpled, and straw-strewn just because he couldn't control
his temper and I couldn't learn to shut my mouth.
There's a message in there, I can feel it.
I didn't bother knocking; it wasn't a habit my brother or I had ever
learned to pick up in dealing with one another. I stormed in, strides
quick and sure, and there was a habit that we did share. It was never
a matter of calmly walking in to see the other, or dropping by for the
sheer Sherdon of saying hello and chatting a while. No, it was always
storming in, me shooting out like a lightning bolt, him following like
the lumbering idiot he was, or this case, with me storming in like the
hot-headed dimwit, of which I kindly take pains to remind you all.
Sometimes I came out hea-first, brain striking opposite wall, or
sometimes it was posterior-first, landing and-you wouldn't believe it
if you hadn't seen it-bouncing a few feet on underlying floor.
Sometimes it was the old lightning bolt-lumbering idiot routine. It
didn't matter which was the encounters proceeded, because they were
always the same: they were not fun.
"Brother," I said, coloring the word with the same mettle that
my lips in a displeased half-smirk.
He looked up from his parchment and seemed to suddenly catch fire. It
always amazed me that he never grew bored with the same routine. It
also always amazed me that he was perpetually reading parchments when
I entered. It wasn't as if he had a lot of friends who wrote to him.
Roaring, bestial, ugly men often have that problem.
"Cheerika," he snarled, and every little hair on the back of
stood up. Good. Very good. That was far more intimidating that usual.
If I didn't know better, I'd say he'd been practicing.
"Did you have a pleasant breakfast?" he asked.
I smiled at him. It was not a nice smile. It was the type of smile
where your teeth are gritted and "I WANT TO EAT YOUR HEART ON A
is screaming out from behind that false cheerfulness.
"I don't like you," I said pleasantly, still smiling. "You
paused. "You're not very pretty, either."
Oh aye, let's spell out "maturity" here. Of course, since we
dealing with a mature person, a little lapse of self-possession was
My brother smiled. It was not a very nice smile, either. I don't think
I shall tell you what it was screaming out, in case you wanted to
spend the next few nights sleeping peacefully and dreaming pleasant
"You are going to do what I say," he said stiffly.
I snorted. "Oh, of course. Just whatever did you have in mind?"
He set the parchment down on the table, his hands clenching themselves
as the paper slid to the wood. I don't think he was happy with me.
"You will again take up your lessons with the Lady Jali. You will
again take up your Northernspeak lessons. You will wear a dress, like
any sane woman would. You will accompany me to court, you will
accompany me when I dine with the royal family. You will obey. You
will not be seen at the stables anymore, and above all, YOU WILL NOT
PLAY WITH SWORDS!!"
A few errant strands of my hair flew back from my face from the breath
of his shouted words. I smiled at him, blinked, leaned forward onto
the table, and tapped his parchment irreverently with an errant
"Your breath reeks, too."
There were problems with my mouth. Big problems. Painful problems.
Problems that had built my endurance and sprinting abilities.
"Cheerika," he crooned through clenched teeth, "Would
you like a
Gauging from his red face and gnashed yellow-um, white-teeth, I didn't
think he was very far from carrying out that little threat. Except he
usually pounced first and threatened later. This whole situation
really wasn't looking so good. Really.
"What kind of bride would that make?" I said, grinning maliciously.
"Aside from a broken-armed on? Not at all appealing, I can assure
Hebthar nearly jumped up and seized my throat. I knew this move quite
well-ah, what a teacher experience is. But he restrained himself, and
although it signaled a victory for me, showed that I had hit some
nerve, all it did was worry me. Hebthar didn't restrain himself. Not
"I don't think you understand the position you're in."
Oh, no, I did. As always, it was a bad one. And going from bad to
worse was long since our routine. I didn't think anything he could
throw at me was going to scare me.
Go ahead. It's all right, let it out. Call me an idiot.
I never saw my brother move so fast before. He actually came over the
table, spilling parchments and quills and little wells of black, black
ink. When I next blinked, I found myself slammed up against the wall,
my feet well off the floor, and my throat protesting as his hands
closed around my throat.
"You don't understand," he growled, face an inch from mine,
rolling onto mine. "If you don't marry Sanri, you have no life.
are no good to me."
Well, so much for familial love, wouldn't you say?
Maybe he should have told me back then. I guess it wouldn't have made
much difference, except maybe I might have helped him. Maybe. You see,
years down the road, I discovered why my brother needed me married to
Sanri. Needed. With all his failures in protecting Castle Faln against
the Raiders, he was quickly becoming unpopular with the royal family.
A marriage between the princeling and myself would have made a
stepping-stone to mending that unhealthy rift. But it was still more
than greying ties between the royal family and the Captain of the
Guard, it was the incredible debts Hebthar had accrued. There was only
so much he could take from the royal treasury, only so much he claim
for his Guard. He had used it, all, some of it wisely, in fitting his
guards with armor and weapons, and some of it unwisely, in buying
himself extravagant indulgences. There was no more for him to take
from the royal treasury, and so he had used his own money, and later
credit by his standing and name, to purchase soldiers and weapons from
other holdings in the Falnish Territories. A union with royalty, the
bride-price they would have paid, would have been enough to cover his
costs. My brother Hebthar was a man in trouble, and this did nothing
for his state of mind, which was never that stable to begin with. He
was a desperate man, and had hung his last hope on marrying me off. I
don't think either of us truly realized how much trouble we were
really swimming in.
What was it Kren had said about kicking Sherdon's tail too hard?
I didn't remember too well at that moment, and I must admit, I very
rarely think well when slammed up against a wall and having the breath
squeezed out of me. But, Kicking, that stuck to the mind. So, I did,
landing a hard one into my brother's stomach, with force enough to
disengage his stranglehold and send him careening away a few feet (and
force enough to try to send me through the wall. Wasn't I lucky there
was about two feet of some very hard stone there to break my fall?).
The advantages of being beat up very often is that you get good at
taking a beating. So, when I hit the ground, I was up in a second and
darting out the door and down the halls. Every little bone, muscle,
and bruised piece of skin started to scream and whine about pain, and
I had to wave them off with a "Not now, later, Sherdon damn it!"
streaked down a flight of stairs, around a corner, and down yet
another hall until I was out in a courtyard, startling a pair of
kissing servants in a dark corner. Overhead, I heard a loud roar, my
brother the silver-tongued, beginning a rage.
"It's not a safe night to sleep at home," I sighed to myself.
enjoy this, oh gods?" I asked, face scrunched up in bitterness.
mean, come on, just how many times do you have to have poor Cheerika
beat up before you get tired of it? I mean, it gets a little old for
you, now doesn't it?"
But, I guess not. Because this sort of thing happened often. And was
going to happen a lot more in the not-so-distant future.
Days later, maybe six or seven, the only brilliant thing I could think
of was: Sherdon. My brother had set out his little yappy
second-in-command to look for me, and a sly fellow Frin was, at that.
It was almost a challenge. I suppose, however, that I should have
thanked my gracious gods that Hebthar was too concerned with my public
image to set a whole regiment out to look for me. Gossip didn't help
in the marriage marketing business.
Still, I really did get tired of constantly looking over my shoulder,
dashing from shadow to shadow, and worst of the worst, of starving. An
empty tummy just isn't anything to laugh about. Then, neither was
having the daylights beat out of me.
Still, I was getting along all right. Sleeping in the stables could be
a lot worse, but hay was relatively warm and soft, never mind it had
those Sherdon-cursed coarse edges that sometimes jabbed right through
your clothing and got you right there in the. Oh, ahem. Speaking of
which, getting clothing wasn't a problem either. I simply grabbed one
of the maids and threatened to her with something vague and menacing
and that seemed to do the trick. If Hebthar were in the room, waiting
to ambush me, she would have to lie her way around him-probably coming
to mend or wash my clothes-or face me. Since Hebthar didn't know her
name and her sleeping quarters, which I had made clear I did, she
didn't have a lot of choice as to which side she was throwing her
It did bother me that I was resorting to Hebthar's methods to get what
I needed. It bothered me quite a bit. I didn't want to be like my
brother, I didn't want people to tread fearfully around me, to wear
silence like a stifling shroud because they thought the slightest
misspoken word might touch off my temper. I didn't want to be Sherdon
Well, these things happen when one is at war with brothers. I
threatened her, and that was that. I claimed a victory with Seelata
and the kitchens, however. There I merely stole. It wasn't easy, mind
you, so stop your gaping. Seelata is mighty wicked with that wooden
spoon. Particularly when I incited her with remarks about fat sows
ripe for butchering. Which was every morning. And noon. And evening.
All right, I had a big mouth, don't nag me about it.
The point was I was getting along just fine living like a fugitive. I
even managed to keep a steady schedule with Kren. You could not have
told me in those moments of swordplay that there could ever be more
joy to life than this. Hours and hours we spent, throwing our weight
behind our wooden swords, clashing and breaking, cajoling and
"Cheerika," Kren pushed out as we locked at crossguards.
"Aye, Kren," I managed in a falsely sweet voice.
"I've something to tell you."
We broke, began to circle one another. "Do share, Daquar bless,"
mocked, feinting, missing, and retreating to fend off his riposte.
"The swordmaster has decided to start us on steel this sennight."
I froze in a moment of surprise. Steel? Steel swords?
Kren lunged, taking advantage of my consternation. But he was still
gangly, being a boy and spurting out with limbs in all directions. I
caught his awkward self and threw him back with force enough to toss
him to the cobblestones.
"Really, you've got to do something about your balance, Kren,"
clucking with my tongue. "I'm always throwing you to the cobblestones
"Shut up," he said without heat. I lowered my mock sword and
a hand to help him up. He accepted wordlessly, brushed off the back of
his breeches, and said, "Well?"
"Well? Why, I'm certain I am. You?"
You had to see this look. It was something you wanted a quick-handed
artist around to witness. The disappointment, the aggravation, the
curl of lip that inexplicably told you that you were the greatest
idiot the world has ever spawned.
I smiled sweetly back at him. Being obtuse could be fun.
"Well, are you going to practice with me with a real sword?"
I looked at him for a moment, blinked, and then burst into laughter.
Would I? "Would I? Oh Kren, I'd kill you if you hadn't asked!"
He smiled at me, the only smile I had seen this entire session of
swordplay. Kren was always so grim while fighting, as if he thought he
could stare me down in defeat or something. I had news for him; it was
about as effective as that little fake a right feint and go for my
"Do you have a sword? A real sword?" he asked me.
A fond smile took my lips and curled them. "Oh, aye, I've a real
sword. You just be sure to have yours!"
Kren shot me a look that told me he thought I was a liar. "Where
Sherdon did you get a sword? Did you swipe one of your brother's?"
"Kveln. Kren, it's Kveln."
There was a gasp of comprehension and an understanding nod. You see,
Kveln was my father's sword, left to my half brother after his death
(a terrible hunting party accident. Truly ignoble). My brother, with
twelve or thirteen of his own gold-chased, jewel-encrusted blades,
wanted nothing to do with undecorative, plain Northern blue-steel
blade who bore the name Kveln. So off it went to the armory, to be
rescued by a little dark-haired loud-mouthed idiot with a little
Northern blood. I guess it had something to do with things I
remembered from my parents, my dark Northern mother and my Falnish
father who had gone to the Northe. I remember, vaguely, my mother's
tales about Northern magic and Northern gods. Sometimes I wish she
hadn't died while I was so young. Sometimes I wish both she and the
younger sister she almost birthed had not left me alone at six. And
sometimes, although it was so long ago, I remember the language she
shared with me, the harsh-sounding words that were so numerous in
meaning and connotation, that Northernspeak was the poet's language,
harshness notwithstanding. And from my father, who sat nights
polishing Kveln and deigning to speak to his dark little daughter, so
colored like his favorite wife, he told me about Northern swords and
how each was forged with Daquar's-the God of War-blessing and named.
Each Northern blade took on a life with that name, and anything living
fights too hard against dying. Something bent on living was exactly
what you wanted fighting on your side.
That was all I had of them, really. One blue-hued, Northern sword of
plain design and snatches of Northernspeak to augment the Trader I
spoke now, along with every other person in the Falnish Territories.
In part, that was the reason why Hebthar wanted me to resume my
Northernspeak lessons, so I could be a little more than just like
every other person in the Territories. Exoticness was a great
"I remember that sword of yours," Kren brayed. He never spoke
Northern name. One, it was pretty difficult for someone who only spoke
Traderspeak. Two, he didn't believe in Northern magic and
Daquar-touched blades. He was just too Falnish, in some respects. "So,
when do we fight?"
I wanted to chose a time when it was least likely that either Frin or
Hebthar would be sneaking around, or too many other people, for that
matter. What first came to mind was sunset, when everyone was rushing
off for evening meals or battening down the fort against the chilly
autumn nights and the possibility of Raiders.
"Tomorrow, at sunset," I announced, with a slight smile. I
myself for Kren's protest and was surprised when none came.
"Agreed. Can you get your sword by then?"
Oh. Sherdon. I'd forgotten about retrieving Kveln, swathed in oil
clothes and hidden beneath my pallet.
"Aye, I'll have it." And oh please, please oh please, dear
don't, just don't play out your comedy of the caught and
brother-bludgeoned Cheerika. Just please.
"Hmm?" My brows were drawn in concern.
"Don't kick Sherdon in the tail, okay?"
A wry and weak smile broke across my face. "No, I won't. Anyway,
just wait for tomorrow. If any tail's going to be kicked, it's yours!"
He socked me in the shoulder. So I bit him. He hit me again and backed
away quickly. I chased him and kicked him. And then we went off,
laughing, playing roughly, two friends in a happy obliviousness.