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Authors: Marion Zimmer Bradley

Darkover: First Contact (35 page)

BOOK: Darkover: First Contact
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Soon the camp was dark and silent; only the small red eye of the fire, covered with green branches against the morning’s need for hot porridge, sizzled and watched from its cover. All around the fire dark triangles marked where the men lay in their blankets, beneath the waterproof sheets, stretched up at an angle, to protect them from the still falling snow; miniature open half-tents pitched on a forked stick apiece, each with two or three or four men beneath, huddled together and sharing blankets and body warmth. Beltran lay at Bard’s side, looking curiously small and boyish, but Bard lay awake, staring at the fire and the white-silver streaks of snow that made pale arrows across the light. Somewhere, not far from them, the enemy lay immobilized, heavy carts mired in snow, pack beasts floundering.
At his side Beltran said softly, “I wish Geremy were with us, foster brother.”
Bard laughed almost noiselessly. “So did I, at first. Now I’m not so sure. Perhaps two green boys in command are enough, and we are well off to have Master Gareth’s experience and wisdom; while Geremy as an untried
rides with your father who is well skilled in command. . . . Perhaps he thought if we three went together it would seem too much like one of the hunting trips we used to ride on, the three of us, when we were only lads. . . .”
“I remember,” Beltran said, “when we three were younger and we rode out like this. Lying together and looking into the fire and talking of the days when we would be men, and on campaign together, in command, in real war and not our mock battles against
herds. . . . Do you remember, Bard?”
Bard smiled in the dark. “I remember. What mighty campaigns and wars we planned, how we would subdue all this countryside from the Hellers to the shores of Carthon, and beyond the seas. . . . Well, this much has come true of what we planned, that we are all on campaign, and at war, just as we said when we were boys who hardly knew which end of a sword to take hold by. . . .”
“And now Geremy is a
riding with the king, and he thinks only of Ginevra, and you are the king’s banner bearer, promoted in battle, and handfasted to Carlina, and I—” Prince Beltran sighed in the darkness. “Well, no doubt, one day I will know what it is that I want from my life, or if I do not, my father and king will tell me what it is that I will have.”
“Oh, you,” Bard said, laughing, “some day the throne of Asturias will be yours.”
“That is no laughing matter,” Beltran said, and he sounded somber. “To know that I will come to power only over my father’s grave and by his death. I love my father, Bard, and yet at times I think I shall go mad if I must stand at his footstool and wait for something real to do. . . . I cannot even go forth out of the kingdom and seek adventure, as any other subject is free to do.” Bard felt the younger lad shiver. “I am so cold, foster brother.”
For a moment Beltran seemed, to Bard, no older than the little brother who had clung to his neck and wept when he went away to the king’s house. Awkwardly, he patted Beltran’s shoulder in the dark. “Here, have some more of the blanket, I don’t feel the cold as badly as you do, I never did. Try to sleep. Tomorrow, perhaps, we’ll have a fight on our hands, a real fight, not one of the mock battles we used to take so much pleasure in, and we must be ready for it.”
“I’m afraid, Bard. I’m always afraid. Why are you and Geremy never afraid?”
Bard snorted brief laughter. “What makes you think we’re not afraid? I don’t know about Geremy, but I was afraid enough to wet my breeches like a babe, and no doubt I’ll be so again. Only I haven’t time to talk about it when it’s happening, and no wish to do so when it isn’t. Don’t worry, foster brother. You did well enough at Snow Glens, I remember.”
“Then why did my father promote you on the field, and not me?”
Bard half sat up in the darkness and stared at him. He said, “Is that flea still biting you? Beltran, my friend, your father knows you have all you need already. You are his son and his legitimate heir, you ride at his side, you are already acknowledged just one breath away from the throne. He promoted me because I was his fosterling, and a bastard. Before he could set me over his men, to command them, he had to make me somebody he could legitimately promote, which he could not do without acknowledging me specially. Promoting me was only sharpening a tool he wished to use, no more, not a mark of his love or special regard! By the cold whirlwind of Zandru’s third hell, I know it if you don’t! Are you fool enough to be jealous of me, Beltran?”
“No,” Beltran said slowly in the dark. “No, I suppose not, foster brother.” And after a time, hearing Beltran’s silent breathing in the dark, Bard slept.
In the morning it was still snowing, and the sky was so dark that Bard’s heart sank as he watched the men going glumly about the business of caring for their horses, cooking up a great pot of porridge, making ready and saddling up to ride. He heard muttering among the men to the effect that King Ardrin had no right to send them out in winter, that this campaign was the work of his fosterling, who didn’t know what was proper and right; who ever heard of a campaign like this with winter coming on?
“Come on, lads,” Bard urged. “If the Dry-towners can ride in weather like this, are we going to stand back and let them bring clingfire to hurl against our villages and our families?”
“Dry-towners are likely to do anything,” one of the men grumbled. “Next thing, they’ll be holding harvest in springtime! War is a business for the summertime!”
“And because they believe we will stay snug at home, they think it safe to strike at us,” Bard argued. “Do you want to stay home and let them attack?”
“Yes, why not stay home and let them come to us? Defending our homes against attack’s one thing,” a burly veteran growled, “but going out looking for trouble, that’s something else!”
But, though there was grumbling and muttering, there was no open mutiny or rebellious behavior. Beltran was pale and silent, and Bard, remembering their talk last night, realized that the youngster was terrified. It was easy to think of Beltran as younger than himself, although in solid fact there was less than half a year between them; Bard had always been so much the larger of the foster brothers, the strongest, always best at swordplay and wrestling and hunting, their unquestioned leader.
So he made occasion to speak to Beltran about his fears that the men would mutiny, and asked Beltran to go among them and try to sound out their mood as they rode.
“You are their prince, and you represent the will of their king. A time might come when they would not obey me, but they would not be willing, I think, to defy their king’s own son,” he suggested guilefully, and Beltran, looking at Bard with a sullen scowl—after all, should he take orders from Bard?—finally nodded and drew back to ride alongside first one, then another of the men, asking questions, talking to one after the other. Bard watched, thinking that perhaps in this task Beltran had put aside his fears—and perhaps that touch of personal concern from their prince had quieted the men’s rebelliousness.
And still the snow continued to fall. It was up, now, to the fetlocks of the horses, and Bard began seriously to worry about whether the horses could get through. He asked Master Gareth to send out the sentry birds, but received the halfway expected answer that they would not fly in such weather.
“Sensible birds,” Bard grumbled. “I wish I needn’t! Well, is there any way to find out how far from us the caravan is traveling, and whether we will come up with them today?”
Master Gareth said, “I will ask Mirella; this is why she is with us, so that she can use the Sight.”
Bard watched as Mirella, seated on her horse amid the falling snow, her hair showing bright copper through the thickly salted flakes on her braids, sat staring into her crystal. The light reflected, faintly blue, on her face; the only light, it seemed, anywhere in that dismal day, was the blue light and the flame of her coppery hair. She was muffled in cloak and shawls, but they could not hide the slender grace of her body, and Bard found himself, once again, letting his mind linger on her beauty. She was, doubtless, the most beautiful young girl he had even seen; next to her Carlina was a pale stick. Yet Mirella was completely beyond his reach, sacrosanct, a
vowed virgin for the Sight, and there were uncanny warning tales about what could befall the manhood of any man who would assail the virginity of a
against her will. He told himself that he could, with his gift; assure himself that it would
be against her will, that he could force her to come to his bed willingly. . . .
But that would make an enemy of Master Gareth. Damn, there were enough willing women in this world, and he was handfasted to a princess, and anyway this was no time to be thinking of women at all!
Mirella sighed and opened her eyes, the blue light dimming from her face, and her glance rested on him, shy, serious, so direct that Bard wondered, a little abashed, if she could read what he had been thinking.
Instead she only said, in her still neutral voice, “They are not far from us,
vai dom.
Three hours’ ride over that ridge yonder—” She pointed, but the ridge she spoke of was invisible in the falling snow. “They have encamped because the snow has fallen deeper there, and thicker, and their carts cannot move. They are up to the hubs of the wheels, and the draft animals cannot move. One broke a leg in the harness and the others tried to stampede and nearly kicked themselves to death. If we ride on as we are going now, we will come upon them soon after midday.”
Bard rode to relay this news to his men, and found them grim, not at all pleased by the news.
“That means we have to fight in deep snow, and what do we do with the caravan when we have captured it, if their pack beasts are not working?” one old veteran inquired sourly. “I suggest we make camp here and wait for a thaw, when we can take it easier. If they’re unable to move, they’ll wait there for us!”
“We’d run out of food and fodder for the horses,” Bard said, “and there’s an advantage to doing battle when
choose. Come on, let’s get there as soon as we can!”
They rode on, the snow continuing to fall. Bard watched the gray-cloaked
frowning. Finally he rode forward and asked Master Gareth, “How shall we protect the women in battle, sir? We cannot spare a man to guard them.”
“I said it before,” Master Gareth said. “These women are skilled
they are capable of looking after themselves. Melora has been in battle before this, and although Mirella has not, I have no fear for her.”
“But these men we shall fight are accompanied by Dry-town mercenaries,” Bard said. “And if your daughter and foster daughter are taken prisoner—
or no—they will be dragged in chains to be sold in a Daillon brothel.”
Melora, riding near them on her ambling donkey, said quietly, “Have no fear for us,
vai dom.
” She put her hand on the small dagger she wore at her waist, under the cloak. “My sister and I will not fall into Dry-town hands alive.”
The calm, matter-of-fact way she spoke made a cold shudder run up Bard’s spine. Curiously, the note was one of kinship. He, too, had known that he faced death or worse in battle, and had come early to that knowledge, and the note in Melora’s voice made him think of his own early battles. He found himself grinning at her, a tight, spontaneous grin. He said, “The Goddess forbid that it should come to that,
. But I did not know there were women capable of such decisions, or courage in war.”
“It is not courage,” Melora said, in her sweet voice. “It is only that I fear the chains and brothels of the Dry towns more than I fear death. Death, I have been taught, is a gateway to another and better life; and life would have no sweetness for me as a chained whore in Daillon. And my dagger is very sharp, so I could end my life very swiftly and without much pain—I am, I think, rather afraid of pain, but not of death.”
“Why,” he said, reining in his horse so that he rode beside her donkey, “I should use you to hearten my men, mistress Melora. I did not know women were capable of such courage.” He found himself wondering if Carlina would be able to talk this way when she rode into battle. He did not know. He had never thought to ask her.
It occurred to Bard that he had known many women intimately, since his fifteenth year. And yet it seemed to him, suddenly, that he really knew very little about what women were like. He had known their bodies, yes, but nothing of the rest of them; it had not occurred to him that any woman could be interesting to him, except for coupling with them.
And yet, he remembered, when they were all children, he had talked with Carlina as freely as he had talked with his foster brothers, had spent time with her; he had known her favorite foods, the colors of frocks and ribbons she liked best to wear, knew her fear of owls and of nightflyers, her dislike of nut porridge and seed cake, her dislike of pink frocks and shoes with over-high heels, how bored she became at sitting for long hours over her sewing; he had comforted her for the callouses on her fingers as she learned to play the
and the tall harp, and helped her with her lessons.
And yet, when he had become a man, and begun thinking of women in terms of lust, he had grown away from Carlina; he did not know what kind of woman the child had become. What now seemed worse to him, he had not really cared; he had thought of her mostly as his promised wife. He had, lately, thought a great deal of bedding her; but somehow it had never occurred to him to talk with her, just talk with her as he was doing with this odd, soft-spoken, unbeautiful
It was disquieting; he had no particular interest in bedding this woman. In fact, the thought rather repelled him, she was so fat and so ungainly and so plain; she was one of the few women he had met who did not stir his manhood even slightly. Yet he wanted to go on talking with her; he felt closer to her, in a strange way, than he had felt in many years to anyone else except his foster brothers. He looked ahead of them, to where Mirella rode, silent and distant, and bewitchingly pretty, and as before, he felt the sudden stir of desire, and then he looked back at the solidly built, ungainly Melora, slumped on her donkey like, again the uncharitable comparison, a sack of grain. Why, he wondered, could not the beautiful Mirella also be soft-voiced and warm and friendly like this, why could she not ride at his side and look into his eyes with such sympathetic interest? Melora’s hair was almost the same flame color as Mirella’s; and behind her moon-faced chubby cheeks there was some faint hint of the same delicate bone structure. He said, “Mistress Mirella—you and she are very similar; is Mirella your sister or half-sister?”
BOOK: Darkover: First Contact
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