Authors: Jo Walton
Tags: #Epic, #Science Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Fiction
"Ap Carbad, take all these people whose children are not here today down to the stables to wait," Conary said without even turning his head to look.
Ap Carbad gathered up the extra people, pausing when he came to Inis but passing on as Inis beamed like an imbecile and indicated Conary. Inis was very clever about using his madness to his advantage when it suited him. He could be absolutely outrageous and nobody would challenge it. Emer had been afraid of him at first, but now that she knew him better, she liked him.
King Conary led the ten of them remaining into the Weapons Room. Emer had never been right inside the
Weapons Room of the Speckled Hall before. As a child, she had had no weapons of her own to leave, and for practice, they used weapons kept down at the stables. The light came in under the eaves where the roof met the walls. The walls were plastered and painted with pictures of champions fighting in chariots. Maga would have sneered at the paintings, which were crudely drawn and used too much blood-colored paint. Emer quite liked them. The way the people were standing looked right, almost as if they could move. It took a moment or two for her to lower her eyes to the arms they had come to find.
The room was almost full of weapons of all descriptions, clearly carefully arranged, but equally clearly using some system she could not imagine. There were spears and knives and slings in great profusion, and piles of round slingshots, lime mixed with blood and set harder than stone.
Among them were swords, more swords than she had ever seen. At home her father had a sword of course, and her brother, and maybe half a dozen
of the other champions. Here, there seemed to be uncountable numbers of them. Emer stopped. She knew better than that. Ap Fial had taught her the Thorn Knowledge, how to count large numbers. She ran her eyes over the swords, counting by threes and twelves. "Forty-five and two," she murmured, impressed.
"What?" Conal asked, setting down a sling and turning to her.
"Forty-seven swords," she said. "That must be one for each champion of Oriel."
"More," King Conary said, stopping abruptly again and turning to Emer. "Many of these
swords are mine, battle spoil that I have not yet gifted to any champion." He bent and picked one up to show her. "This is a
Vincan cavalry sword. I won it fighting them on the coast of Demedia five, no, six years ago."
He half drew it out of the scabbard. "Look at the edge on that!" He set it down again carefully in its place and picked up another nearby. "This one belonged to the champion Ardan of Muin; before I killed him. It is called Oakheart.
See how the hilt is carved and the blade is veined a little like an oak leaf? It was made by a smith of Muin, you do not see those patterns on swords made in the north."
Quite suddenly King Conary seemed to notice that everyone was watching and listening. His face twitched and he set the sword Oakheart down carefully. "Well, why are you waiting?" he asked. "Arm these children; it is why we have come here." Then, as they began to bustle about, he put his hand on Emer's arm. "Do you just admire good weapons, or can you use a sword, ap Allel?" he asked.
"I can use one a little," Emer admitted. "My father taught me. But he said I should wait until I was tall enough to use a real one. Mostly I have used a wooden one made the right size for practice."
"Very wise. The sword must work with the arm, and if you started using an ordinary sword before you were tall enough, you would have too much to unlearn, or you would need a sword as tall as that onemdash" he indicated the Vincan sword "mdashwhen you had all your growth."
"Is that the sword of a Vincan who made that mistake then?" she asked. "Or an ogre?"
He laughed. "Neither. It is a cavalry sword, meant to be used from horseback."
"Riding on a horse? For battle?" Emer was astonished. "I have ridden, but I would never have thought of such a thing."
"Their horses are larger," Conary said. "Much larger. Even their ordinary horses are almost three hands larger than ours, and their war horses maybe six hands higher. They can bear a heavy man in armor. They use them in preference to chariots. I might do so myself if I had horses of that size."
"And they use those swords?"
"They use thrusting spears first, and then the swords."
"Sir, I did not realize before what a feat you were recounting when you told me you won that sword in battle,"
Emer said, bowing with both hands on her heart, the bow given to a mighty warrior, not the bow given to a king.
Conary laughed and looked distinctly pleased. "If you have to fight against them, use spears,"
"Spears have the reach. Get the horse fast, and then they will be down on your level.
Best of all, use a belly-spear." He reached out without looking and drew forward a spear with a wicked barbed head. "It twists on the way in and can't be drawn out straight, so it's almost sure to kill. I keep those for fighting against cavalry. Horse-warriors are a nuisance, but the good thing is that there are not very many of them. They cannot be everywhere at once, else raiding Demedia would be a foolish pastime indeed."
Emer laughed, knowing that Oriel raided Demedia every summer they were not at war elsewhere.
"You must be armed today," King Conary said, sounding much happier about it than he had earlier. He touched her elbow and then her wrist, then held his hands apart at that distance. "I know," he said and looked about him. Then he frowned. "Conal!"
Conal was on the other side of the room with his father, looking desperately unhappy. He was wearing an armor coat, leather set with iron rings, and holding a spear. He and Amagien both looked up at Conary's call.
As Conal looked up he smiled easily. Emer was surprised how at quickly he could do that.
Inis, who was standing by the door turning a knife in his hands, also glanced over, then away.
"Conal, where are those Jarnish swords I said you could use for practice?"
"If you have lost the king's swordsmdash" Amagien began.
"Oh no, they are not lost," Conal said, with a smile like ice over deep water. "They are here with the sling I
use." He took a few paces among the weapons, dodging Leary who was pulling on his armor coat, clearly entirely at home in the room, and took up a pair of long knives and handed them to Conary.
"They are mine, and should not be kept with your father's weapons," Conary said, frowning.
"Useless boy!" Amagien said. "Can't you do anything right?"
"I am very sorry, sir," Conal said, looking at Conary.
"Humph. They're not harmed by it. Have you outgrown them yet?"
"The smaller, yes, but I am still using the longer." He turned to Emer. "I use them for practice. Using a weapon with an edge is different from using a wooden one, even when the weight is the same."
King Conary measured Conal's arm the same way he had measured Emer's, and frowned.
"This will be the summer he will grow," Amagien said grimly, as if he would personally make sure of it.
"He is smaller than Darag but taller than Leary. He is not small for his age," Emer said, surprising herself.
Conal gave her a swift frown and shook his head a little. Amagien looked furious.
Conary laughed. "Does your charioteer defend you already?" he asked. "Well, so it should be.
Emer ap Allel, take this sword. It is a Jarnish weapon. These were won in a sea-fight, years ago.
When you grow taller and wish to change it, bring it back to me. Conal, you keep the other until you too, need a longer sword."
Emer took the smaller of the pair and turned it over curiously. It was not quite like a sword sized for a sixteen-year-old. The shape was unusual, but the balance was good. Conary handed the other to Conal just as Nid's mother came up with an armor coat for Emer. She shrugged it on over her clothes. There would be time at the stables to take off her overdress. She belted up her shift and fixed the sword to her belt. Beside her, Conal was doing the same.
"And a spear," Conary said. He touched Emer's head briefly and made for the wall where many spears were standing propped. He took up one without hesitation arid strode back to her with it. She hefted it for a moment. It was just the right length. She was glad to see he had chosen an ordinary throwing spear, not a barbed belly-spear.
Conary went over to Leary then and after exchanging a few words found him a blade.
"If we are done here, then to the stables," Conary said. "Time is wasting."
As soon as they were back out in the sunshine, Inis came up to Emer quietly. "I thought you would need a knife today," he said.
Emer bit back the first six things she wanted to say, all of which were questions. "The king has given me a sword," she said, showing him.
"I saw," he said. "That was well done." Without another word, he turned and walked off, towards the gate of the dun, back towards the grove.
Emer stared after him.
"Sometimes he is just impossible," Conal said.
"I don't understand him," Emer said.
"To understand him, you'd have to be him, study all the branches of knowledge for twenty-one years, and at last come to the depths of the Oak Knowledge that drives people mad. And after that, he has spent half the rest of his life spread out across lots of worlds. He's my grandfather, and I've known him all my life and he has been nothing but good to me, but I wouldn't want to understand him."
Emer felt almost afraid of the intensity Conal was letting her see. "Come on," she said. "We ought to catch up or we'll be left with the chariot with the wobble."
"Oh, no," Conal said. "This isn't practice. We don't use the practice chariots. We'll take my father's chariot.
And his chariot horses. He will do that for me, and I'll make him proud of me."
Emer looked. Amagien was up ahead talking to the king, taking no notice of them at all.
"Thank you for asking me to be your charioteer," she said.
"I meant it," Conal said. "Not just for today. I mean to be a great warrior. I will need a charioteer. I want you."
"Why?" Emer asked. Then, as she saw his face fall, she added hastily, "I mean, yes, yes of course, but why
"Because you are brave," Conal said. He looked as if he might say more but he just shrugged, as if that was enough.
Emer grinned, too full of words to speak any of them, then ran off after the others, with Conal running beside her.
Finca had sent word to the stables, and both chariots had been harnessed ready. She was even here herself, fussing with the horses. Elenn was with her, still looking downcast. Ap Carbad and a great crowd of champions of Oriel were gathered around talking busily.
Emer stole a moment to dress herself properly in one of the stalls before they set off. Nid came with her and they helped each other bind up their shifts tightly and tie back their hair.
"My mother's upset," Nid said, frowning. "She wanted to have time to make me new clothes for when I come back, and she's only just started to warp the cloth for them never mind got them done. She doesn't care about lucky days. She says this is a scramble."
"She'll be glad when you come back," Emer comforted her. Nid looked unsure for a moment.
Then they went out and rejoined the others.
The grooms handed them the reins and they mounted up. Emer put her spear into the slot for it at her side.
Nid looked much steadier once she had horses to control. Emer's pair seemed well matched, both in color and temperament. They were dun mares, each properly mealy nosed and raring to go.
Then King Conary raised his hand for quiet, and everyone stood together without saying anything. Amagien kept shifting his weight and scowling at Conal.
"You stand before me children," King Conary said. "Children of my blood, children of my dun, or fosterlings of my hearth, but children all. Today you take up the arms you bear, not now in practice but for the first time in truth. Bear them well and worthily, and as long as you may bear them in honor. Go now and hunt, and carry back whatever you may kill in token that you return to me children no more, but men and women grown and champions of my household."
Nid's mother and Leary's father were weeping openly, and Leary's mother was wiping her eyes.
Nid's father was grinning like a man who was ridiculously proud. Amagien continued to scowl.
Finca looked emotionless.
Elenn was smiling distantly, like a queen painted on a wall. Emer was deeply relieved that her parents weren't here and that she had got out of doing this before the whole court in Cruachan.
There would be a fight over it, she knew, but just one fight, not a whole drawn out campaign.
At a signal from Finca, she and Nid let the horses go and a moment later they were driving down the track that circled Ardmachan.
"Where to?" she asked, wishing she could turn and see Conal's face. Then he came and stood beside her, so close she could feel the warmth of his body.
"Anywhere we want," Conal said. "Anywhere, anywhere at all, anywhere in the whole island of
Nobody can stop us." He laughed, and they all laughed with him. Emer felt as if she had managed to escape a cage that had been around her all her life.
The farmers in the fields looked up as they heard them. "They probably think we're mad," Nid called, and that made them laugh all the more. They came towards the first track leading away into the countryside.
"There are four hours to sunset," Conal said, sobering a little. "There's likely to be game in the woods. Let's go that way."
Emer obediently turned the chariot southwest, full of delight.
"If it's such a fortunate day, why haven't we found anything yet?" Laig called.