From the Beginning: Chapters 1 – 5

Chapter 1

The rain slashed down unceasingly, half ice, stinging exposed skin and making it nearly impossible to see anything in the grey light. When the sun, hidden now behind the thick layer of clouds, set –not long now, I estimated – the stones of the Wall and the native rock would lose what warmth they held, and begin to ice over. Night watch would be treacherous, tonight. I counted it a small blessing that my watch had begun after the midday meal.

I wiped a gloved hand over my eyes yet again and scanned north and eastward, not focusing on anything, but looking for motion, or for something that didn’t belong, as Turlo had taught me; something that moved against the wind, or a shadow that hadn’t been there yesterday. I listened, too, to the sounds beyond the noises of the fort and the babble of the stream behind me: the hoarse cry of a raven, the soft chatter of sparrows settling into their roost: no alarm calls. I walked the few steps across the watchtower and began my scan again, to the northwest.

Footsteps sounded on the wooden steps. I did not turn; only when my relief stood beside me, looking out, could I look away.

“I think the gods have forgotten it’s the first day of spring,” Halle said. “Anything I should know?”

“There’s a raven in the usual tree,” I answered, still looking outward, “but it’s not alarmed, just making conversational croaks occasionally. I saw a fox about an hour ago, when I could still see, and its mind was on finding mice in the rocks. No owls today but maybe they’re not hunting in this rain. But there could be forty northmen out there, and as long as they moved with the wind and stayed low, I wouldn’t know. But I don’t think so; I’m guessing there is one, or maybe two, watching us, no more.”

“Wrapped up in their cloaks, under some rocks or furze,” Halle said. “I’d rather be here.”

“So would they,” I reminded her.

She laughed, but without mirth. “Go and get warm,” she said. “The hunting party brought back a deer, so there’s venison stew to be had.” I glanced over at her; her eyes were on the land beyond the Wall, watching.

“Good luck,” I said, and turned. I took the stairs down from the watchtower as quickly as I felt safe; the movement warmed me, slightly. At the bottom I stepped over the gutter, running with rainwater, and onto the cobbled walkway that ran along the inner side of the Wall. The Wall itself broke the wind, and the rain fell with less force. Still, I pulled the hood of my cloak over my head as I walked to the camp.

All the discipline of the Empire could not build a finished fort in a time of war, and while the tents and a few stone and timber huts stood in orderly rows, the roads and pathways between mostly were earthen – or mud, right now. Since the skirmishes had died down, some weeks earlier, work had begun on paving the main thoroughfares through the camp. A narrow cobbled track ran from the Wall to the centre of the encampment, just wide enough for two people to pass, and I noticed it extended a few feet further into the camp than it had when I had left for watch duty. I stepped off its comparatively clean cobbles onto the slick surface of the hard-packed earthen path. It had been built to drain, and two ditches ran on either side of it, but I could feel mud sticking to my boots.

At the kitchen tent I scraped the mud off my boots on the iron blade mounted outside, and shook the worst of the rain off my cloak. Ducking inside, I met a blast of welcome heat. I stripped off my gloves and cloak, and the thick tunic I wore beneath the cloak and piled them on a bench. A gust of cold air told me someone else had come in; I turned to see Darel already loosening the clasps of his cloak. He’d been on watch duty at the tower east of the camp.

“Quiet?” I asked. He nodded, concentrating on pulling his tunic over his head.

“Very,” he answered, when his tunic was off. His red hair, streaked with rain, stood up in clumps. He sniffed the air. “I hear rumours of venison stew,” he said. Caro, on servery duty, spoke up.

“More like thick soup,” she said, “but, yes, it’s venison. With some root vegetables and barley in with it. Sit down, and I’ll bring it over.” We did as directed, and soon enough two bowls of soup, or stew, stood in front of us, with a loaf of dark, hard bread. Darel cut the loaf in half with his belt knife, and passed one piece to me. I ripped off a chunk, and dipped it in the soup, and ate hungrily.

Caro brought over two mugs of thin beer, and for a space of some minutes we did nothing but eat. Others had come in as we ate, and the smell of damp wool began to overpower the scent of venison stew in the tent. No-one said much; another day of rain and cold and mud dampened spirits as much as it did hide and stone. The rain drummed on the tent, ceaselessly.

Caro put more fuel in the brazier and then slipped onto the bench beside me. We had ridden north together, from Casilla, half a year earlier, when Dian had come south to requisition food and horses and other supplies for the army. I hadn’t really known her there; she had worked at one of the small food stalls near the harbour, and sometimes on my way to or from my work on the boats I had bought something from her.

“How’s the soup?” she asked.

“Fine,” I said. It was; thick enough to be satisfying, and reasonably spiced.

“It was only a yearling,” she said. “Not enough meat to go around, really, so we had to make soup.”

Food, I knew, was becoming a problem. At the end of the winter, with almost all the army ranged along the length of the Wall, game within a day or two’s hunting was scarce. Sending men – or more likely women – south to the villages for provisions meant fewer of us to defend the Wall if another raid occurred. The truce, called ten days ago, could end at any moment; the Emperor and his advisors spent their days at the White Fort, east of our camp, negotiating with the leaders of the northmen. Fifteen months of war: eight to drive the invaders back beyond the wall; another seven, now, keeping them there, until the ravages of winter, little food, and the deaths of so many, on both sides, had led to the request, and agreement, to parley.

“Who brought it in?” I asked idly.

“Dian,” Caro replied. “They got two, both yearlings, but one went to the White Fort. Have you had enough to eat?”

I shrugged. “Enough,” I said. “Is there any tea?” Darel looked up.

“I could eat more,” he said, “if there is any?” In truth, I could have too, but knew I shouldn’t. Darel was so young, and growing, and thin as a starveling cat. All the cadets looked the same.

“There’s a bit,” Caro said judiciously. “Give me your bowl, and I’ll bring it back, and your tea, Lena.” She slid off the bench and went back to the servery. Darel stretched. “Dice?” he suggested. “After we’re done eating?”

I shook my head. “Not tonight,” I said. “My tunic needs repairing; one of the shoulder seams is splitting.” Caro came back, and Darel fell on his bowl as if he hadn’t eaten the first helping. I curved my hands around the mug of tea. It smelled of fruit: rosehip, I thought.

I sat, sipping the tea. Darel finished his soup, wiping every trace of liquid from the bowl with the last piece of bread, and pushed his bench back. He took his beer and joined a pair of cadets at another table, pulling out his dice. They would sit here, playing, all the rest of the evening, if Caro let them; the servery tent was warmer than the barracks, and there was always the chance of some scraps of food.

I finished the tea and stood to take the mug back to Caro, along with Darel’s forgotten bowl. Suddenly, the clatter of hooves on the cobbles rang out in the night. “Who?” Caro breathed. The cadets dropped the dice, and stood. The tent flap parted, and Turlo – General Turlo, now, and advisor to the Emperor – strode in. Darel straightened even more; the presence of his father always made him conscious of his decorum.

Turlo blinked briefly in the light of the tent. “General?” Caro said. “Would you like food, or drink?”

He smiled at her. “We ate well enough at the Fort,” he said, “but thank you. No, I came in search of two soldiers, and I’ve found them. Guard Lena; Cadet Darel: please go to your barracks; pack your possessions and come back here as quickly as you can. You two – Cadets Lannach and Samel, am I right? – go to the horse lines, please, and bring back two mounts. And then retire to your barracks,” he added. “Go!” he said, not unkindly; Lannach and Samel scurried to do his bidding.

Darel had not moved, but looked over at me. “General?” I said. “What is happening?”

“I will tell you,” he said, “when you return with your packs. Bring anything you cannot live without, and your warmest clothes and boots, if you are not already wearing them. Quickly, mind!” It was mildly said, but still an order. I glanced at Darel; he had already turned to put on his outdoor clothes. I did the same, conscious of the racing of my heart.

We dressed hurriedly and went out into the night. The cadet barracks lay in the opposite direction to the Guards’ – the women who had come to support the army of the Empire – but Darel hesitated. “Lena,” he whispered, “what do you think is going on?”

“No idea,” I said. “But we have orders to follow, and very little time to do it in. Be quick, Darel!”

I half-ran to the Guards’ barracks, trying not to slip on the slick path. I was in luck; the three women I shared my room with were somewhere else: Halle, at least, was on duty; I wasn’t sure about the other two. No questions to slow me down. I pulled my pack from under my cot and looked inside; spare underclothes and socks, and another pair of breeches and a shirt lay folded: the pack doubled as storage. I picked up my indoor slippers and put them in the pack. From the small wooden chest beside the cot I took a few other things: my comb, my sewing kit, the soft absorbent cloths I used every month during my bleeding, my small supply of anash, my pen and ink. Then I picked up the last two items that lay inside: two books. One was the history of the Empire, given to me by Colm, the Emperor’s advisor and castrate twin; one was my own journal. I stuffed them down inside the pack, and buckled it closed.

Outside the servery tent two horses – my Clio, I noticed, was not one of them- stood saddled and bridled beside Turlo’s horse. Inside the General sat alone, a mug of beer on the table. Caro had gone. Turlo looked up at me as I came in without smiling. He nodded for me to sit. I sat facing outward on a bench, waiting. Darel came in a minute or two later.

“Now,” Turlo said, “I will be brief. The talks have been fruitful: there is a truce that both the Emperor and the Northmen’s leader, Donnalch, can agree to. Ceannasach of the North, he styles himself; so be it. I remember when he was a stripling leading raiding parties for sheep, but no doubt he remembers when I was a stripling too, scouting up their glens. If you do this long enough, old adversaries are almost friends.” He grinned. Nothing, ever, seemed to keep Turlo’s spirits down. “But the treaty, my lad, and lassie,” he added, “requires hostages. Donnalch’s son, and another, to us, and two children of our leaders, to them.”

Darel found his voice first. “We are to be hostages? Sir?” he remembered to add.

“But I am not a child of our leaders,” I protested, not understanding.

“Aye,” Turlo said. I wasn’t sure which one of us he answered. He looked at Darel. “You are my son,” he said, “and therefore must stand as hostage. And you, Lena,” he said, switching his gaze to me, “Casyn asked for you to stand as his surrogate daughter. His own daughters are in Han, with their own children; and the Emperor has fathered no sons, or daughters, for that matter, in all his years.”

Casyn had asked for me to stand as his surrogate daughter. The words echoed in my head. I did not know my own father, although I knew he served at one of the easternmost postings on the Wall. In the almost two years I had known and worked with and served the General Casyn, I had come to regard him, and to love him, I had acknowledged, as I might have my own father. I had had no conception that he might have thought of me in a similar light. This time, I thought, you will not fail him. This time, you will go.

“What does it mean, to be a hostage?” I asked. I saw something flicker in Turlo’s eyes. He grinned again.

Exchanging the children of high rank as hostages is an old and honoured tradition,” he answered, “although not one we have respected, in some generations, and in truth needed to be reminded of. We’ll treat Donnalch’s son, and the other boy they are sending – his brother’s son – with every courtesy; they will lodge in the White Fort for now, and then be sent south to the Eastern Fort when the weather improves, and learn with our senior cadets. Darel, you will basically live the life that Donnalch’s son would have; whatever the education, in arms and tactics and books, they deem appropriate. That is the gist of it: we exchange our heirs, in surety for each side’s good behaviour. You will not be mistreated, but, understand, neither will you be truly free “

“And me?” I said. “I cannot see the northerners teaching me arms. And I am not a child.”

“You are right, of course,” he said, his voice graver. “I must be honest and say I do not really know. We have not concerned ourselves, over the years, in gathering much intelligence on how the women of the north folk live their lives, except to know they live with their men, and perhaps divide the responsibilities of daily life much as we did here once in the Empire, before Partition. But,” he said, his voice brightening, “you will bring us back much valuable information, as a result.”

“Am I to spy, then?” I said, trying not to feel exasperated at my superior officer.

“Of course,” he said simply. “Both of you. Do you not think that the northern boys will be doing the same?”

I realized the truth of what he said. “Why must we go so quickly?” I asked.

“I will tell you as we ride,” he said, standing as he spoke. “Mount up, now.”

Once we had ridden past the tents of the camp Turlo spoke again, his voice raised slightly against the wind and rain. “You asked about the need for haste,” he said. “Donnalch would brook no delay; the exchange had to be done tonight, before he would sign the papers of truce. Callan had little choice but to agree, since Donnalch’s son and nephew were already at their camp, close to the Fort on the northern side.”

“I wonder,” I said thoughtfully, “how long those two boys have known they would be part of the truce?”

And what their instructions have been?” Turlo said. “As always, you are quick, Lena. If Colm had been here,” he said, a trace of grief in his voice, “he would have seen the probability that an exchange of hostages would be part of any agreement, I believe, and we could have prepared the two of you too. But we did not see it, until earlier today, and there was no way to let you know.”

“Is the truce fair?” Darel asked.

“It is,” Turlo answered. “I cannot tell you much tonight; the proclamation will be tomorrow at mid-day, at the White Fort. You’ll be there, front and centre, by the bye, as proof to all of the good will between our two sides, so hold your heads up and be proud ambassadors for the Empire, when all the eyes are on you.”

“I hope they let us have baths, then,” I said. Turlo laughed.

“No doubt they will, ” he said.

We rode through the gates of the White Fort. (check what blog entry says). We stopped outside a large stone building; soldiers – cadets, really – stepped forward to take our horses. We dismounted, and shouldered our packs. The horses were led away. I glanced at Darel: he looked as nervous as I felt.

“General,” I said. “How long are we to be hostages?”

He looked from me to his son. “Half a year,” he replied. That long? I thought. But Turlo still spoke. “Half a year, from now till harvest, to give the northerners a chance to plant and harvest: food runs short on both sides of the Wall. Time for us to hold Festival, and let the villages know our needs for food and supplies. And in that time Callan and Donnalch – and advisors on both sides – will hammer out the terms of a final peace, or not.”

“But this is an order, and my duty,” Darel said, his voice steady. “I understand, General.

“Good lad,” he said. “And you, Guardswoman?”

A mix of emotions roiled through me. When I had ridden north to the Wall the previous autumn, I had sworn fealty and service to Callan, the Emperor, for the duration of the conflict with the northmen. He had not released me from this service, and therefore I too had an order and a duty to follow. I had thought I might die in this service, as so many had, so why was I reluctant to follow this order? And then I realized.

“General,” I said, “will it be known, that I shall be a hostage to the northmen?”

Turlo’s eyes softened. “You are thinking of your mother, and your sister?”

I nodded. “And others,” I said.

He understood. “My belief is you will be allowed letters,” he said, “at least to your family and other women. I will find a way to send word, to Tirvan and to the south; and when I can, to Skua. Will my word suffice?”

“Of course,” I said, grateful for his comprehension and compassion.

“Is there anything else?” I hesitated. “Tell me,” he insisted.

“Well, if I could, if it’s allowed – could I have my mare? Clio?”

He laughed. “Is that all? Of course you can; you’ll need a horse, no doubt. I’ll have someone bring her over in the morning, and her tack. Darel, is there a particular horse you would like?”

Darel grinned, his teeth bright in the moonlight. I saw the resemblance to Turlo in that grin. “I rather like the skewbald with the white eye,” he said, “but so does Rikter. But I don’t suppose he’ll have much chance of revenge, if I’m away with the northmen.”

Turlo reached out and cuffed his son lightly on the shoulder. If he had heard the fear behind the bravado, he didn’t acknowledge it. “Good man,” he said. “The skewbald it will be. Now, they are waiting for us, and we can delay no longer.” He pulled open the great wooden door, and beckoned us inside.

We walked into a hall where torches, held in black iron sconces, gusted high in the rush of air from the open door, and then subsided to flickers against the grey stone. Underfoot were stone flags. Turlo led the way, to another pair of doors made of great wooden planks. He knocked, but, not awaiting an answer, pulled both open, and, strode inside.

I stopped, Darel beside me, just inside the door. Like the hall, stone blocks formed the walls, but the ceiling curved above us, twice the height of the hall, with huge beams supporting it. Fireplaces burned at both ends of the room, and torches, this time in gleaming bronze sconces, lined the walls. But the floor… It was flagged, around the periphery, but otherwise a intricate picture, made from tiny fragments of stone and ceramic and glass made up the rest of the floor. The colours gleamed in the firelight. Faces and sea creatures and designs….and under my booted feet I could feel warmth. Into my dazzled mind the words carved on the stone gates of Casilla came unbidden: “Casil e imitaran ne.” ‘There is only one Casilla” was the common understanding of the words, which were in no language of the Empire, but a very old woman I had met in the marketplace had told me a different translation: “Casil this is not.” I had puzzled over those words, but something about this room resonated with them: it did not look as if it belonged to the Empire I knew, but to something older, perhaps greater.

I forced myself to look up at the men seated at a long table. I saw the familiar face of Casyn, and beside him his brother, the Emperor Callan. I saw the empty chair that should have been Colm’s, and now was Turlo’s. On the other side of Callan I saw a man, tall but slight, with greying dark hair and no beard, and dressed in a woven, woollen tunic and breeches, and a cloak, also of wool, over one shoulder. The cloak was pinned to his shoulder with an intricate, enamelled pin, and around his neck he wore a twisted gold ring. Like the floor, the brooch and the gold of the torc glittered in the firelight. Two more men sat beside him, one clearly a close relation; the other, younger and blond-haired, and stockier. And beside them, two young men, bracketing, I thought, Darel in age.

Callan stood. “Thank you for your speed, General,” he said. “Guardswoman Lena; Cadet Darel, of the third, welcome to the Council of the White Fort, where after long days we have agreed to a truce between the Empire and the Northmen. Has the General Turlo explained your roles?”

Callan had named me, the elder, first. “He has, Emperor,” I replied. He nodded.

“Yes, Emperor,” Darel replied. He had served at the Emperor’s winter camp, in the time before the invasion, and was less in awe of his Emperor as a result than some of his fellow cadets might have been. And, I was beginning to realize, Darel shared many traits with his father, and Turlo rarely stood on ceremony.

The slight man spoke, his voice surprisingly musical, and conversational. “This is your son, Turlo, then? Not that I need to ask: I can see it in his face. Who is his mother?”

‘”Arey, her name is, from Berge,” Turlo replied. “And before you ask, Donnalch, her hair is brown and Berge’s records say her forbears for as many generations as they have records are from south of the Wall.” Donnalch grinned.

“I wouldn’t trust all those records,” he said. Then his voice became serious. “And the woman, Casyn? You ask for her to stand surrogate for your own daughters?”

“I do,” Casyn said, in his grave voice. “If Lena will have it so. My daughters are both mothers, with small children; even so one might have agreed, but they are several days ride away, in Han village. And had I the right I would be proud to name Lena my daughter.” He smiled at me, with those words.

“Hmm,” Donnalch mused. “Lena,” he said, in his lilting voice, “You are from Tirvan, am I right?” “Teeerrvaan,” he pronounced it, not our shorter, flatter ‘Turvan’. I nodded. “How old are you?”

“Nineteen,” I said. I could not remember the title Turlo had mentioned., “Sir,” I added, in case he thought me lacking in courtesy.

“And you have skill with weapons, I am told,” he said.

“Some,” I said. “I have learned the sword, and the use of a secca, in these past two years; the hunting bow I learned as a girl. I am reckoned a good shot, with a deer bow,” I added.

He studied me for some time, without speaking. I kept my eyes on him.

“But I cannot put you with the boys,” he said, half to himself. He paused. “Will you read? and write?”

“Of course I can,” I said, too startled to be more polite.

“No, lassie, that’s not what I asked,” he said, spreading his hands. “I asked if you will. Do you like to do such, I should perhaps have said.”

“Yes,” I said slowly, with a quick glance at Casyn. “I have learned to like both; I have been reading the stories of our Empire, and I keep a journal, a private record of the happenings of my life.” Why did he ask me this?

Then,” he said, with a quick confirming look to his advisors, ‘I know what to do with you. You were a bit of a puzzle, lassie, but now I have it: I will send you to a Ti’ach; a house of learning, as we do with one of our own sons or daughters who are drawn to the written word. Will that suit you?”

He was asking me about where I would like to go? I glanced again at Casyn, and this time saw him make the briefest of nods. “Yes, sir,” I said. “It would suit me.” What had I just agreed to?

“My title is ‘Ceannasach‘,” he said easily. “But ‘sir’ will do fine, until your tongue is more comfortable with our language. “Now, these two youngsters” – he indicated the two boys – “are my son, Ruar, and his cousin Kebhan. They go as hostage to your Empire, to be cadets. You two come as hostage to the North, to Linrathe. We of the North hold to more of the old ways, and not all the agreement between us can be of the Empire’s shaping. So this exchange of hostages is a symbol, but it is also a surety, for us both, that the agreement we have made here will hold from planting to harvest. If it does not, then the lives of our heirs- of Kebhan and Ruar, or of Darel and Lena- may be forfeit. Is this understood?”

I swallowed. I looked at Darel; he had paled, but his face was resolute. Then I glanced over at the two northern boys; they looked solemn, but not shocked. They had known in advance, I thought.

“It is growing late, Ceannasach, and there is much to do if our truce is to be announced tomorrow.” The Emperor spoke; his voice sounded weary, but not strained. I regarded him: even in the forgiving light of the torches, he looked tired; his face held more lines, and his hair more grey, than when I had first met him, over a year earlier. Time had brought betrayal and loss, and the relentless battle to push the northmen back and reclaim the Wall for the Empire. But he had done it, against enormous odds.

“Aye,” Donnalch agreed. “Shall we have a few minutes with our children, to say our farewells, and then we can commit this agreement to paper, and sign our names to give us a season of peace?” He pushed back his chair and stood; immediately his two companions and the boys followed suit. “We will leave this room to you, Emperor,” he said. “As it’s your fort,” he added. I watched the five of them leave the room by a door in the far wall. It closed with a click of its latch.

“Darel, Lena,” Casyn said. “Please, come, and sit. Leave your packs.” We did as we were told, taking the chairs just vacated by the northmen. Casyn poured two glasses of wine, and passed them to us. “There is food, if you would like,” he said. I shook my head, as did Darel, which surprised me slightly. Casyn poured more wine, for himself and Turlo and the Emperor. He glanced at Callan, who nodded.

“You will be wondering why we agreed to this, and with such haste,” he said without preamble. “We have been talking, now, for nearly twenty days; at first, we were trying to create the terms for a lasting peace, but there is too much we do not agree on. But what we could agree on was the need for a hiatus, for the reasons stated. So then we began talking about the terms for a temporary truce; we had reached the agreement late this afternoon, and then Donnalch made the demand for hostages.”

“I could not let the truce fail on such a request,” the Emperor said. “The Ceannasach, I think, needed to put his mark on this agreement, and as he proposed his own son and his brother’s son as their hostages, saying that his people would see this as binding, in their tradition, I believe he offers this in good faith.”

I had a dozen questions, but none could be asked, here and now. I wished I had some time with Casyn, alone. I gathered my thoughts. What was appropriate to ask?

“May I ask a question, sir?” I said.

“Of course,” Callan said.

“What am I – we – to pay attention to, wherever we are sent?”

“Ah,” Callan said. “I could answer that better for Darel than for you, Lena. For you, cadet,” he said, turning to Darel, “there are two things: the state of their supplies, whether it is food or weapons or men, and, perhaps more importantly, what the men are saying. They will forget, eventually, to hold their tongues in front of you, and the boys your age will repeat what they hear from their fathers and uncles. Commit it to memory: do not write it down in plain words, at your life’s peril. Now, go with the General Turlo – your father,” he amended, in a rare acknowledgement of the relationship, “who will tell you what you can write, if you are allowed letters.”

Turlo beckoned Darel over to a corner of the room. The Emperor turned his eyes to me.

“Donnalch said he would send you to a house of learning,” he said. “What we know of these is limited. There is no code to brief you on, to pass on your knowledge, or even much advice I can give you. Listen to what is said, about Donnalch’s leadership, about the war, about what they wish to change. Exchange views on Partition, on your life as a woman of the Empire, our histories. Colm would have known more,” he added, “and I believe he would have envied you this opportunity.”

“I will do my best, sir, to remember that,” I said, feeling the prick of tears behind my eyes. Colm, who had just begin to show me complexity of our own history, and the cost and consequences of our choices. I could not fail him, either.

The Emperor regarded me in silence for some moments. I waited. “Listen to your instincts, Guardswoman,” he said finally. “You will do well, I believe.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied. I heard footsteps crossing the room: Turlo and Darel. They joined us. The two men stepped aside to confer in hushed voices. I looked at Darel. He tried a grin.

“Another adventure,” he said, in a passable imitation of his father.

Fatigue and apprehension began to dull my mind. The northmen joined us, and after some further conversation among the leaders, Birel – Casyn’s soldier-servant – led us through a warren of passages to our beds for the night. Darel’s bed was in a shared room, but I had a small, dark chamber to myself. The room felt clammy, but when I pulled back the blankets to climb into the narrow cot, I realized someone – likely Birel- had put a heated stone wrapped in cloth in the bed.

I pulled the blankets over my shoulders and wrapped my feet around the stone, then doused the single candle, standing on the small table beside the cot, which had lit the room. The mattress below me rustled; a thin pallet of straw, on a rope web suspended from a wooden frame. If I were lucky there would be no vermin sharing the straw. Where would I sleep tomorrow night? I shivered, more with apprehension than cold, and burrowed deeper into the blankets. I would not think about tomorrow. Instead, I began to count in my mind all the beds I had slept in, in this past year, since I left the one I had shared with Maya, and then Garth, in Tirvan.

The first had been the bed at Keavy’s inn, a day’s ride from Tirvan, with Garth beside me in the night. Then more inns, and camps, for several weeks, and then? The shared room at the Four-Ways Inn, I remembered, and then the bed with old Ione at Karst. My camp bed at the Emperor’s Winter Camp. Back to the Four-Ways Inn, riding as Emperor’s Messenger now, a brief sleep in Freya’s own bed. Then Karst again, and then Casilla: one night in a hostel near the gates, and then months in the Street of Weavers, sharing a house with Tevra and Ianthe, and Garth’s son Valle, and Maya, after she joined us. The memories of these rooms and houses and beds blurred and shifted into one; sleep claimed me.

I awoke to a knock on the door. The room held no light, and I had no sense of the time. “Yes?” I called.

“Time to get ready, Guardswoman,” I heard Birel say. “I’ve brought wash water; shall I leave it outside the door?”

“Wait,” I said, pushing back the blankets and sitting up. I fumbled on the table, and by feel lit the candle. Then I stood and walked the three paces to the door, and opened it. I stood aside, holding the candle high, to allow Birel to bring in the water.

He had also brought soap and a towel. “I’ll return shortly,” he said, “to guide you back to the great hall.” I thanked him, and he left.

This part of the White Fort had only communal latrines for the men, and so I used the chamberpot supplied to me the night before, and then washed. I combed water through my hair and dressed in my clean clothes. Then I repacked my pack, and waited for Birel.

He returned promptly. I shouldered my pack and followed him through the damp stone halls. The occasional ventilation grating set high on the walls told me the sun had risen. Around one turning he stopped and knocked on another door. Darel opened it, and stepped out. He too had dressed in clean clothes, and smoothed down his red hair.

“Good morning,” I said. “Sleep well?”

Of course,” he said. He had learned the soldier’s knack of sleeping anywhere and anytime, whether in a shared barracks or curled up under the lee of the Wall during a brief halt. “And you?” he asked.

“Yes, fine,” I answered. I had slept, solidly, fatigue trumping apprehension, and my sleep had been dreamless, as far as I remembered.

We followed Birel to the great hall. This morning the light came from the high windows, and the floor, while still magnificent, did not shimmer and glitter; the images lay still, sleeping, I thought, and then dismissed the fancy. The men of the Empire and the North sat at the long table, but the focus at this moment was breakfast, not diplomacy.

Turlo greeted us by name. “Come and sit,” he said, “and eat; there’s fresh bread, and some dried fruit, and eggs and cold venison.” Places were found for us, and food brought, and I made as good a breakfast as I had had for some months. Birel, unasked, brought me tea, smelling of mint.

I saw Birel take Casyn’s plate and pour something steaming into his cup. Turlo nibbled dried fruit; the Emperor’s place had been cleared and he studied papers before him, a pen in his hand. At the other end of the table the servers repeated the work, clearing plates, pouring drinks. The Emperor looked up.

“Now,” he said without preamble, “we had better talk of today.” I saw, from the corner of my eye, Birel gesture to the servers. They left the room, Birel alone staying, standing against the wall.

“Keep eating,” Callan said, as Darel moved to push aside his plate, “but listen.” The Emperor looked down the table at the Northmen; they has stopped their conversation, and focused on Callan. Donnalch rose.

“I’ll sit with you,” he said easily, and walked along the table. Casyn, with a glance at his brother, shifted over. Birel brought another chair, and Donnalch took the place beside the Emperor. The gesture, with all its implications, made me uncomfortable. I could not think of this man as the Emperor’s equal.

“We are lucky with the day,” Donnalch remarked, as he sat. “The sun is shining, and by all the signs there will be no rain before the afternoon. It’s best if we can do this outdoors, where as many men can see and hear as possible.”

Callan acknowledged this statement with a nod of his head. “If we speak from the watchtower west of this fort,” he said, “the land is nearly flat for a good space on both sides. Will that serve, do you think, Ceannasach?”

“Aye,” Donnalch said. “Your messengers are ready to ride?”

“They are,” Callan said. “And yours?”

“Mine also,” Donnalch agreed. “The copies of the treaty are ready too, the ones entrusted to my scribes, and yours also, I believe?’

“Done,” Callan said, “and the exchange has been made: the copies are here.” He indicated the papers in front of him. “I have read and signed them; there are no errors of copying that affect the meaning of the truce; your scribes are to be commended.” He spoke quietly and politely, but I thought his voice lacked spirit. He did not quite sound defeated, I thought; resigned might be a better word. I wondered what the treaty said.

“And yours,” Donnalch said. “I read through the copies from your scribes earlier, and wrote my name on them all; I wake early. So now, Emperor,” he challenged, “how will we determine the speaking order? Who has precedence?” He smiled as he said this, but something in his face told me this was a serious question. Donnalch’s men, I noticed, had become very still.

Ceannasach,” Callan said calmly, “as you yourself said last night, it is my fort. And my wall, and my watchtower. Your incursions into the Empire were repelled, and you and your men retreated back to your historic lands. I think our positions are clear, and therefore the precedence. Would you not agree?” He kept his eyes on Donnalch as he spoke. The hall was very quiet. I had the sense that this conversation had happened before

Donnalch held Callan’s eyes for several heartbeats. Then he inclined his head, a half-smile on his lips. “As you say,” he said, his voice courteous. “I will give precedence to the long years of history, and the remnants of the greater Empire that this room reminds us of.” I frowned. What did he mean? I glanced at Casyn. He looked grim; I repeated Donnalch’s words in my mind, and heard this time the subtleties: precedence not to the Emperor, or even to his superior military position, but to history. I watched the men, holding my breath, feeling the precarious balance in the room.

Callan stood, his hand lightly resting on his sword, his eyes still on Donnalch. I heard chairs scrape as around both men their supporters stood too. Belatedly I realized I too had better stand, although I had only my secca on my waist. I could hear Darel’s breathing beside me, not quite even, and the thumping of my heart. Very slowly, Donnalch came to his feet.

“The remnants of a greater Empire we may be,” Callan said, “and myself a pale echo of those Emperors who came before, but the soldiers of the Empire do not forget. If it is that history you would acknowledge, then will you face east with me, and bow to that memory, and to what may still lie beyond the mountains and the seas?”

“I will,” Donnalch said, “and my men with me. We do not forget either.” The men moved out to the centre of the hall, facing the windows where the morning light was brightest. Callan and Donnalch stood beside each other, their swords in front of them. I followed Darel to stand behind the men. I had absolutely no idea of what they spoke, or what this meant, but it did not seem right to me to not participate.

Callan’s voice rang out. “To the Empire unconquered,” he proclaimed, and bowed, deeply. I followed suit, a memory surfacing of Colm’s burying, and Callan and the soldiers facing east and bowing, then. What did they bow to? What greater Empire? Where?

The brief ceremony seemed to be over, but the men remained standing. Donnalch turned to Callan. “Perhaps, Emperor,” he said, “we should make this acknowledgement again, when we announce our truce. It would help, I think, to remind both sides that we come from a common history, although we have taken different paths. Perhaps, one day, we can find a road that we can all walk on, without enmity, and the truce we sign today may be the first step on that road.” He spoke simply, with no trace of the challenge or posturing I had heard earlier.

Callan nodded. “Perhaps,” he said.

A line from Colm’s history of the Empire came back to me. ‘When there had been silence from the east for many years….‘. I had thought, when I read it, that it had referred to a previous threat that had gone quiet, and had not asked Colm about it, although I had meant to. I wracked my brain. What did I know about the east? The mountains, the Durrains, which formed the eastern boundary of the Empire, and were said to be uncrossable. The Eastern Fort, where I had never been. Something more…the eastern fever. I heard the words in my mother’s voice, but I couldn’t place the context…something perhaps overheard as she instructed Kira. And what had the Emperor just said? What still may remain beyond the mountains and the seas? What was he talking about? I shook my head in frustration.

The movement caught Turlo’s eye; he turned to look at me, frowning slightly. I coloured: did he think I disagreed with Callan, or Donnalch? I made a small gesture of placation; he nodded slightly, and returned his attention to the leaders. Callan and Donnalch still faced each other, silent. Finally Donnalch inclined his head slightly, a faint smile crossing his lips, and turned again to sit. The Emperor followed suit, and both sides’ men as well. I found my chair, and sat as well.

The men spoke quietly now, looking at papers. I watched for some minutes, but when I saw Kebhan and Ruar begin whispering to each other, I turned to Darel

“Darel,” I murmured, “this bowing to the east, what’s it all about?”

“Don’t you know?” he whispered back, surprise evident even in the hushed tone.

“No,” I said. “Would I be asking, if I did?”

He remained quiet for a moment. “I suppose,” he whispered finally, “it doesn’t matter, to the women’s villages. I can’t tell you everything here, so this will have to do for now: once, many hundreds of years ago, maybe longer, we were part of a larger Empire, whose Supreme Emperor ruled from a city far to the east. What happened to that city, and those Emperors, we do not know. But what we know, the men, I mean, of command and strategy, and of fighting, we learned from them, and Callan and our Emperors before him take their titles in subservience to the Eastern Emperor, whether he lives or not, and remembers us if he does live.”

I stared at him. “But what happened?”

He shrugged. “I told you, we don’t know. Just that all messages, emissaries, trade…they all stopped. A very long time ago. We learn about it as cadets, and then we forget about it again, except in ceremonies, and at burials.”

“But why does Donnalch know about it, and honour the memory? The north is not part of the Empire.”

Darel shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe they have learned it from us, in the long years there have been soldiers on the Wall?”

“Maybe,” I murmured. My mind went back to a conversation I had had with Colm, months before. We had spoken of the building of the Wall, and how the northern armies had included men who had chosen to move north, rather than live under the rules of Partition. Perhaps, I thought, they brought the knowledge of the Eastern Empire, and the traditions around it, with them, and they have been maintained there to this day, as they have been here.

And what did it matter? This Eastern Empire had been gone for centuries. Rituals called upon many things: some invoked gods I did not believe in, and a long-disappeared Empire wasn’t that different. I would take the knowledge north with me, and maybe it would help in finding common ground with those who would charged with my keeping. It might be useful to know this, in a house of learning. I felt glad, suddenly, that I was not the village girl I had been before the day, nearly two years ago, when Casyn had ridden into Tirvan. I had known nothing then of our history, beyond a few bare facts, and nothing at all of the world beyond the borders of Tirvan. Since then I had learned to defend the Empire, ridden its length, lived in Casilla, served the Emperor. I had learned lessons of the heart, too, I thought, about love and loyalty, duty and obligation, and the inseparableness of them all. I would take all that north, and learn what I could, for my Emperor, and for myself.

Chapter 2

A weak sun brightened the day, but gave little warmth. The stones of the road, and the Wall, gleamed damply, still mostly wet but drying where the stiff northwest breeze struck them. I rode beside Darel in the middle of the entourage. His attention was mostly given to controlling the wall-eyed skewbald that had waited for him, tacked and restless, when we left the White Fort. I had been glad to see my Clio, although I needed both my voice and hands to keep her calm.

Darel’s horse shied, skittering sideways over the flagstones. Clio danced away from the larger horse. I heard Darel swear; hands and heels efficiently bringing the skewbald back into line. I guided Clio back into formation with a soft word. I felt the northerners’ eyes on us; they sat their rougher hill ponies easily, and would know that our mounts’ skittishness came in part from our own apprehension. Although, I noted, Kebhan and Ruar’s ponies trotted calmly.

Ahead of us the commanders and their advisors had noticed nothing. As we approached the watchtower where the proclamation of truce would be made, the crowd of soldiers deepened. We slowed to a walk, and then pulled up. Dismounting, I handed Clio’s reins to Birel, who had appeared beside me; he took the skewbald from Darel as well, and then motioned us forward.

I followed Darel to the base of the watchtower, and then up the wooden steps. I could hear more footsteps behind us, echoing on the thick planks. As I turned the corner onto the top of the tower, the wind snatched at me, cold and carrying the scents of woodsmoke and moor. My eyes watered. I looked northward. A horde of men and some women stood on the moorland below the tower, looking up. I turned my head to look south: an equal number, it looked to me, watched from that side, although almost all were men.

Watchtowers held, usually, one to three men; eight of us crowded the space. The Emperor, Callan, and beside him Casyn; Donnalch and his brother – whose name, I realized, I did not know – and the four of us who stood as hostage. From the end of the platform I saw a red head on the top of the Wall below: Turlo, with more men beside him. I guessed the Wall ramparts on both sides of the tower supported men, watching, guarding. The crowds on both sides shifted and voices rose and fell.

Casyn had told us, before we left the White Fort, what we were to do: step forward when our names were announced. Beyond that, nothing. Given the wind and the crowds, all proclamations were to be made twice, once facing north, once south, repeated by both the Emperor and Donnalch.

From the wall rampart below us came the wild moan of the elbow pipe, a sound that belonged to these windswept moors and valleys. The crowds on both sides of the wall gradually fell silent, except for the shifting of bodies. Together, Callan and Donnalch stepped forward, to the north, first. My gut tightened. I looked at the backs of the two men; Callan a head taller than Donnalch, and heavier. Neither man wore armour. Callan’s black cloak, woven with the white horse of the Empire, hung to his knees; Donnalch’s bore no emblem, but encompassed the greys and fawns and purples of the moor, as effective a camouflage as the feathers of a grouse hen. Donnalch’s dark hair lifted in the breeze.

People of the north,” he said, his voice pitched to carry. He followed it by something in a language I did not know; the words sliding together, sounding somehow as wild and sorrowful as the pipes. “People of the north,” he said again. “I stand here today – no, we stand here today, to announce a truce, between myself and Callan, the Emperor of the lands south of the wall, and between our peoples. Listen now, as together we tell you, in our common language, of the terms of this truce.” He turned slightly to face Callan. “Emperor,” he said, gesturing.

My thanks, Ceannasach,” Callan said. “These, then are the terms: For six months, we will lay down our arms; your people will return to your villages and our fields, to your byres and pastures, and mine will do the same, before starvation finds us on both sides of the Wall. I give my word here, and the Ceannasach will give his, that no raid nor battle will be undertaken by either side during this time of truce.” He stepped back slightly. The mass of people remained, for the most part, quiet, waiting, I thought, to hear more. Donnalch raised his voice again.

In those six months, I and Conlainn, and the Emperor Callan and his brother the General Casyn, will meet, and talk, with the intent and the hope to find a way to a permanent peace between us; a peace, mind you, not a treaty that makes one side a vassal state to the other. Only if we are equals can there be true peace. In surety of this truce, and our hopes for a lasting peace, I send my son Ruar, and my nephew Kebhan, to live with the cadets of the Empire.” At a nod from the man I now knew was Conlainn, the two boys stepped forward. Now the crowd did react: no-one shouted, or cried out, but a slow murmuring began. Donnalch raised an arm, and slowly, it subsided. The boys stepped back beside Darel and me.

Callan spoke again. “I have no children,” he said, calmly, “to my sorrow. The Empire sends Darel, son to the General Turlo, and Lena, who stands as surrogate daughter to the General Casyn, to live and work and learn with you, and as hostages to the Empire’s intentions. Here they are.” I took a deep breath, and with a brief glance at Darel, stepped to the edge of the watchtower. Hundreds of eyes looked up at us.

Thank you,” I heard Casyn murmur, and we stepped back. I let my breath out. Donnalch spoke again.

Look,” he said, holding up a rolled paper, “here is the truce. Watch, now, as the Emperor and I sign it in your sight.” He unrolled the paper, spreading it on the rampart of the watchtower. The wind caught at it. Casyn and Conlainn held in down, and first Donnalch and then Callan signed the document. It would have to be signed twice, I thought, for both sides to see. The paper was rolled again, and held up in Donnalch’s hand.

This truce begins now,” he cried, “and the penalty for any man or woman who breaks it is death: not only yours, mind you, for you may be willing to make that choice, but remember that you could be choosing death for my son and nephew too, and that is not your choice to make. As your Ceannasach, chosen by you to be your leader, I command you: uphold this truce, and leave here today with nothing more in your hearts and minds than your families and the sowing of your crops. We have made history here today, with you as witness; remember that and rejoice.” He said something else, in the same tongue, with its undercurrent of music and mourning, and handed the scroll to Callan.

We all turned, then, to face the soldiers and guards of the Empire. Callan and Donnalch repeated the same words, Callan announcing the truce, and then Donnalch giving the terms. Only in the minor changes needed for the speaking order and the audience did the speech differ from what had been said to the northerners.

I send Darel, son to General Turlo, and Lena of Tirvan, who stands as surrogate daughter to my brother and General Casyn, to live and work in the north, as hostages to the Empire’s intentions.” I heard Callan say. Again I took a deep breath, and stepped forward. The eyes before had been those of strangers, assessing, curious. Now the eyes of those I served with, my companions and friends, looked up. This was harder, I thought. I saw Halle in the crowd, met her eyes. She smiled, gave a quick nod. I swallowed. I did not look for anyone else.

I heard Casyn’s quiet cue and stepped back. The same formal signing of the document occurred, with Conlainn and Casyn holding the paper against the wind. Callan said the final words, reminding our people that my life, and Darel’s, were forfeit to truce-breaking. I heard the words, but I could not make them real. I wondered where Callan and Donnalch would meet; here, on the Wall, I supposed. Who would guard the Wall now? Soldiers from both sides, surely…

A clatter of boots roused me; the Emperor and the Ceannasach descended the steps from the watchtower, followed by their supporters. Darel stepped forward just at the same moment as one of the northern boys – Kebhan, I thought. They both stopped.

It is your Wall,” Kebhan said softly, and with a slight bow. “You go ahead.”

Darel hesitated. He looked at the steps, and then back at Kebhan. “The way is wide enough for us both,” he said. “Shall we walk together?”

Kebhan smiled slightly. “A diplomatic solution,” he replied. He wore woollen clothes similar to his father’s, woven in shades to blend with the moorland, and deerskin boots, and this close to him I could see Donnalch in the shape of his chin and his eyes. He turned to his cousin. “You will walk with the lady Lena, Ruar,” he said.

I am not called lady, Kebhan,” I said, “nor are other women you might meet in the service of the Emperor.”

He glanced at Ruar. “That is good to know,” he said. “How should I address you, then?”

By my rank, which is Guard,” I said, “or just by my name. You may also meet women who serve the Empire’s army but are not part of it: such a women you would call by their role: Cook, or Smith, if you did not know her name.”

I see,” he said in his soft voice. “In our lands, La–Lena, a woman of rank – and you must have such, if you stand as surrogate to the General Casyn’s daughters, is addressed as my lady, or Lady. You should expect this.”

I frowned. “Rank in the Empire does not come from our fathers,” I said, “so if I had any rank, it would be from my mother, who is a council leader in our village. But we do not use such terms: rank and titles belong to the Empire’s armies, not the women’s villages.”

We both have much to learn,” Kebhan said. “We must all try not to take offense at usages and customs not our own.” I frowned again: was he chastising me? But he turned away. “Come, Darel; Cadet Darel, yes?” he said. “We should follow our Ceannasach and your Emperor down these steps. Are you ready?”

Darel grinned. “Ready, Cadet Kebhan.” They descended shoulder to shoulder, heads high. I looked down at Ruar. Eleven, maybe twelve, I thought. In the Empire, he would be choosing his path to service, whether on the boats, or as a cavalry cadet, or training to be a medic, just as I at twelve had chosen my apprenticeship. I wondered what the customs were, in the north.

Come, then, Guard Lena,” Ruar said. A quick learner.

Cadet,” I replied, and we turned and walked together down the stairs.

***

Clouds scudded across the hills; we rode with the east wind in our faces, the thin spring sunlight holding little warmth. The track we followed was muddy; we kept the horses to a walk, and even so could not avoid being splattered.

Near mid-morning our leader, Ardan, held up a hand to stop. Turning in his saddle, he called to me. “Lena, ride up beside me.” I did as he asked. He had stopped at the crest of what had felt like a gentle rise, but below us lay a long, deep valley, and in that valley stood a complex of buildings, built of grey stone. An L-shaped hall made one side of the complex, standing three storeys high and roofed in lichened, mossy slate; from each of its wings ran lower structures, and two or three free-standing smaller buildings surrounded the central courtyard. Trees sheltered it, and the rocky valley side. It looked, to my eyes, very old.

“The Ti’ach,” Ardan said, gesturing. “Also called Ti’ach na Perras, for Perras, who heads this house, and to distinguish if from the others. Here you will live, for the duration of the agreement, and be treated as any other woman who had come here to learn.”

Looking down, I began to make sense of what I saw. Smoke rose from several chimneys. Someone came out of one of the smaller buildings, a basket in her arms, and began to peg out washing on a line. Others worked in what I thought was probably a garden plot, preparing the ground. It looked peaceful, nestled in its valley, undisturbed.

We rode down a switch-back path and over a stone bridge. The stream below ran rapidly, in full spring flow. In the paved courtyard we dismounted. I held Clio’s reins and looked around me. On seeing us riding down the path, the woman hanging washing had left her basket and gone into the large house, calling something as she went, so by the time we reached the courtyard several people had emerged from inside. I saw two young women, – one no more than a girl -and a man perhaps a year or two their senior, flanking a gray-haired man leaning on a stick, and an upright older woman beside him.

It was the older woman who spoke. “Ardan,” she said. “Welcome back. We were not expecting you. Are the talks completed then? Is there peace?”

My lady,” Ardan said. “There is a truce; six months to replenish our food supplies, on both sides of the Wall. Our Ceannasach and the southern Emperor have proclaimed it. And for surety, hostages have been exchanged. One has been sent here: I bring her to you: this woman, Lena, who stands hostage for the General Casyn.”

As Ardan had spoken I had stepped forward, Clio obediently following. In the silence I could hear her mouthing her bit. The older woman smiled.

Welcome to Ti’ach na Perras, Lena,” she said. “I am Dagney, and this -” she gestured to the man beside her “is Perras, Comiádh to this house. Ardan, will someone take Lena’s horse, please?” I felt Clio’s reins taken from my hand and heard her turn away. “Come,” Dagney said, beckoning. She and Perras turned and began to walk back into the house. One of the younger women waited. “Come,” she repeated. “I am Jordis. Are you tired, from your ride?”

I bristled at the implication of weakness. “No, my lady,” I answered. “I am used to riding; I am a Guard in the Emperor’s troops, and have ridden the length of the Empire twice. A few hours in the saddle is nothing.”

Oh, dear,” she said, flushing. “I have offended you. But, a Guard? I did not know women served in the troops. Please forgive me….will you tell me more?” I realized she was flustered, and younger than I had thought. I stopped bristling.

It is I who should apologize,” I said. “You only asked what anyone would of a traveller. I am happy to tell you more, but,” I looked over at the doorway, “should we not go inside, as the Lady Dagney indicated?”

Oh. Yes,” she said. I followed her up the shallow steps into the house. The door opened into a wide hall, lit only by small windows. The air smelled of stone and a smoke that was not woodsmoke, but something sharper. As my eyes adjusted I could see a long table and chairs standing on the flagged floor. At one end of the room a huge fireplace dominated; cabinets lined the opposite wall. Perras and Dagney, and the other man and girl waited, standing, at the table. The room was cold.

Jordis,” Dagney said gently. “Please go and fetch tea. Lena, will you sit?” Chairs were drawn. I took the one that Dagney indicated, draping my cloak over the back. Everyone sat, the young man last after helping Dagney with her chair.

Let me introduce you,” Dagney said. “This is Niav,” she indicated the girl, “and this is Sorley,” nodding to the man. They are students here, as, I assume, you are to be?”

I suppose I am,” I said, “my lady. Your Ceannasach,” I stumbled a bit over the unfamiliar title, “said I should come here,.” I tried to remember his words. “He said he would send me here, because I like to read, and write, and this is where sons and daughters of your land come, if that is what they are drawn to.”

The Ceannasach was a student here himself,” Dagney said, “for a while. He still visits, when he can. Now, Lena, tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?”

Tirvan,” I said. “It’s a fishing village, on the coast, south of Berge and Delle.” I saw Perras nod. “I had a boat there, with my partner. We were separated, in the preparations for the invasion by Leste, and later I went south, to find her, and for other reasons. The search took me to our Emperor’s winter camp, and I was there when…” I hesitated. What did I say to these people? It had been their men we had fought against.

When the Ceannasach took his men through the Wall,” Perras said, his voice precise and measured.

Yes,” I agreed. “When that news reached us.”

And you came north, to the fighting?” Dagney asked. “I also did not realize women fought at the Wall.”

I shook my head. “Not at once. I was given a task to do, to ride to the southern villages, to ask for women to ride north. I came north, to the Wall, later.” That would do, I thought; they did not need to know all my history.

The General Casyn is your father?” Perras asked. “You are hostage in his name, are you not?”

I am, “ I said, “but he is not my father.” I saw Jordis return, carrying a laden tray. “He asked me to stand instead of his daughters, who are mothers with small children, and some distance from the Wall. It was Casyn who trained us, at Tirvan, and we rode south together, for part of the way. Now he is -” I stopped. “Was, I suppose,” I amended, “my commanding officer.”

Perras nodded. Jordis put the tray on the table and for a minute or two the distribution of tea and small oatcakes, spread with a soft, pungent cheese, occupied us. I sipped the tea; it had a smoky flavour, and was unsweetened.

What languages do you speak?” the young man – Sorley, I thought – asked.

Only that of the Empire,” I said. He raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.

What books have you read?” Jordis asked.

Schoolbooks,” I said, shrugging. “My mother has books of healing – she’s a midwife – but I haven’t read those. There were not many books, in Tirvan, except those, and some on husbandry.”

But why, then, were you sent here?” Sorley asked. “Forgive me if I sound rude, but you have less learning than one of our children in their tenth year.”

I put my cup down and took a breath. “I came late to an interest in books,” I said, trying to remain calm. “In the weeks I spent at our Emperor’s winter camp, I was given a history of our Empire by the Emperor’s brother and advisor, Colm. Reading that, I began to want to know more. So I may know very little, but I am eager to learn.”

Colm’s history?” Perras said, his voice a shade less measured. “You have read Colm’s history?”

I have,” I said, “and discussed it with him, just a little.”

Perras shook his head. “He and I exchanged a few letters,” he said. “His loss was… more than unfortunate,” he said. “What do you remember? Could you write it down?”

I could,” I said. “But I have a copy, if you would like to read it.”

Perras put his cup down. No-one spoke.

You have a copy of Colm’s history?” Perras said. I could hear the disbelief.

Yes,” I answered. “Colm gave it to me to read, and after he was killed, the General Casyn told me to keep it. He said the Advisor had meant for me to have it. It’s in my saddlebag.”

I would be… “ Perras hesitated. “most grateful if you would let me read it. Would you consider allowing it to be copied?”

What would Colm think? I wondered. He and this man had spoken….”Yes,” I said, “I would, as long as it is done here. And I can keep an eye on it,” I added.

Perras and Dagney exchanged glances. “That can be arranged,” Perras said. “Or, if you prefer, we can give you pen and parchment, and you can copy it yourself.”

I thought of my own writings, chronicling the events of the last year; against Colm’s clear and upright hand, my notes were barely legible. I smiled. “I don’t think my hand is neat enough for that,” I said. “Fisherwomen have little need to write in a clear hand for all to read.”

“Perhaps that is something you can learn, in your time here.” Dagney said gently.

I will do the copying myself,” Perras said. “As I read it; it will help me in considering and remembering what is written, and allow me to annotate as I go. Is that acceptable, Lena?”

Of course,” I said.

Would you like more to eat or drink?” Dagney asked. “If not, then I will have Jordis show you to your sleeping chamber, and you may wash and change after your ride. And then,” she smiled, “perhaps you could bring the book down to Perras. He will be in his workroom, waiting as patiently as he can.” I heard the gentle teasing, and the affection behind it. I glanced at Perras. He acknowledged me – or Dagney’s comments? – with a nod. I grinned.

I will be as quick as I can,” I said, standing and turning to Jordis.

This way,” she said. I picked up my cloak and followed her out of the room and up a flight of wooden stairs. The sound of my riding boots echoed against the stone walls; Jordis, I saw, was wearing deerskin slippers. We reached a landing; I followed her down a hallway. At the third door she stopped and gestured me into the room.

I stepped through the door. My saddlebags sat on a low chest against one stone wall. A narrow bed, covered by a woven woolen blanket, faced a small fireplace, with a sheepskin on the flagged floor. A table and chair filled the space under the one window, and a wardrobe and washstand lined the other wall. Simple, but more than adequate, and much better than my shared quarters at the Wall.

“I am next door,” Jordis said. “Is there anything you need, Lena?”

I shook my head. “Just a few minutes to change, and perhaps to wash my face and hands…is there water in the jug?” I stepped over to the washstand. The jug was full, and a towel hung on the bar. “I see there is. Then, no,” I said, and then realized there was. “Wait,” I said. “Yes, there is. Jordis, I assume there are no servants here? We empty our own slops, and the chamberpot?”

“Yes, of course,” she said. “Except for the Comiádh , because of his infirmity. I will wait for you in my room; when you are ready, knock on my door, and I will show you the back stairs, and where everything is taken, and the well and laundry.” She hesitated. “Are you used to servants, Lena?”

“No!” I said. “I am far more used to doing for myself, and happy to do so, once I know the house. But should I not take the book to Perras first? And is that what I call him?” There was a familiarity to this, learning the protocols and ways of a new place. I had grown used to it, over the past year.

Comiádh is better,” Jordis answered, “at least at first. The older students, those who have been here for some time, often call the Comiádh by his name, but I am not comfortable yet doing so. I think I am waiting for him to invite me to do so.” She coloured a little.

Com-i-ath,” I tried. “Is that right?”

“Almost,” Jordis said. “The emphasis is on the last part, though – Com-i-ATH. Do you hear the difference?”

Comiádh,” I said, stressing the last syllable of the title.

“Good,” she said. “And yes, take him the book first. We can do the other later. Should I wait for you, or can you find your way back?”

If you don’t mind waiting,” I said, “while I think I can find my way back to the hall, I do not know there the Comiádh will be. Will you show me? I’ll be quick in changing; soldiers learn to be.”

I’ll wait,” she said. “I’m that side,” she indicated with a movement of her head. She left the room, closing the door quietly behind her.

I took a deep breath, valuing the brief solitude. I walked to the window; it looked out over the yard. The wind had picked up a bit, and the laundry billowed in the weak sunshine. I looked out, beyond the valley, to the hills where the play of cloud and sun dappled the grey-green of their slopes. A lone bird – a buzzard, I thought – rode the air.

I stepped away from the window and pulled off my riding clothes. I washed quickly in the cold water, and dressed again in my clean tunic and trousers. Hair freshly combed, I pulled my indoor slippers onto my feet, and picked up Colm’s history.

Jordis had left her door open. I knocked lightly; she turned from where she sat at her table; I saw she had been reading. She closed the book. “That was quick,” she said. She looked down at what I held. “Is that the history?”

I held it out to her. “Do you want to see it?”

Her eyes widened. “Not before the Comiádh,” she said, with a quick shake of her head. She stood. “Come,” she said.

I followed her down the stairs and through the hall. She led me to a door I hadn’t seen, in shadow between the cabinets, and knocked lightly.

Come,” I heard Perras say. Jordis opened the door, ushering me in before her.

Perras sat in an armchair beside a fireplace, where a fire glowed, giving off a rich, unfamiliar – but not unpleasant – smell, and warming the room. On both sides of the fireplace shelves held a number of books, and some objects. A large table held writing tools and paper, and an open book.

Lena,” Perras said. He stood carefully, steadying himself with the arms of the chair. “You were very quick.”

I held out Colm’s history. “I thought it important to you,” I said. And I have been trained to not keep those who outrank me waiting, I thought, but did not say. Perras took the book from me. He turned slightly to the firelight, and opened it. I knew by heart the words that began the first page: “In the third year of the reign of the Emperor Lucian…”

We stood in silence as Perras read, turning pages carefully. After a few minutes he sighed and closed the book. “I must not be greedy,” he said, “but I have waited a long time to read this work.”

You never met Colm?” I asked.

No,” Perras answered. “We exchanged a few letters, as I think I said, a few years ago, about what our records and our memories say about the building of the Wall, but we never met. I had hoped we would. We would have had much to discuss.” He glanced down again at the book in his hands. “So much,” he echoed. Then he raised his head, and smiled at me. “Please sit; it is easier for me.” he said, his voice firmer. He nodded toward a second chair, facing his, on the opposite side of the fireplace.

I did as I was bid. Perras settled himself back into his armchair, and looked up at Jordis. “You may go,” he said gently. “My thanks for bringing Lena to me.”

My pleasure, Comiádh,” she answered, and slipped from the room, pulling the door firmly closed.

I waited for Perras to speak. The warmth and flicker of the fire threatened to make me sleepy; I suppressed a yawn. The Comiádh appeared deep in thought.

I think,” he said without preamble, “that I would like you to sit with me each day, for a few hours, as I copy this history. That way I can ask questions of you, and discuss what you remember, as I read it.” He smiled. “And you can keep an eye on your book, as you requested. Does that seem reasonable, Lena?”

Yes, sir,” I answered. “But when I asked to keep an eye on it, I hadn’t realized it would be you doing the copying. I was afraid of…” I trailed off.

Inattentive apprentices?” he said dryly. I nodded.

So was I. In part, that is why I will make the copy. The book is precious to you, Lena.” It wasn’t really a question, but I nodded.

Yes. But mostly because Colm gave it to me, and because both the book and he taught me things I had never known about our history.” I stopped. Perras was regarding me intently. I felt a need to explain. “In our village school, we learned just the simple facts: that the Partition Assembly was held, and some of the reasons why, and why we now live the way we do. And that was all. But it was all I wanted to know, at ten or twelve. But now…” I stopped.

But now the facts are not so simple, and I think you are questioning whether they are facts at all.” Perras finished for me.

I nodded. “Yes,” I said. “Comiádh, as we go through this book together, would you tell me what you know, from beyond the northern Wall? I would like to hear your side, too.”

I saw a flicker of surprise in his eyes. “It will not make things simpler,” he warned. Then he smiled again. “Beyond the northern Wall,” he repeated. “Perhaps that is the first thing we must question.” I frowned, puzzled. “Turn around, Lena,” he said, “and look at the map on the wall.”

I turned my head. On the wall behind me hung a large map. I looked at it without recognizing anything. I stood and went closer. A blue expanse to the right of the map would be water, I realized, and there was blue at the top edge and also at the bottom. I saw the pointed symbols for mountains running down the centre of the map, dividing what I took to be land almost in half before they veered off to the left. Islands of brown dotted the blue near the bottom of the map. I frowned.

Where is this?” I asked. Perras stood, slowly, and made his way over to stand beside me. He laid one hand on my shoulder, and pointed with his cane.

Here,” he said, “is what you call the Northern Wall. And here we are – “ he pointed to a spot below the line he had called the Wall – “and here is your home village, Tirvan.” He pointed to a place on the right-hand side, where the land met the sea.

But,” I started to say, and then I saw. “It’s upside down,” I said, in wonder.

From what you are used to, yes.” Perras agreed.

He had taken his hand from my shoulder when he could use his cane to steady himself again, and so I took a step forward. I scanned the map. I found the roads I had ridden, and Karst, and followed the road with my eyes back to the Wall. Then I let my eyes travel down toward the bottom of the map. I could not read the names, but I could see the line of another wall, and named villages, and then a gap of ocean where the islands lay, and then just the edge of another land.

There is another Wall!” I said. “And what lands are these, here?” I pointed to the bottom of the map.

The land to the far north, at the bottom, island, and the islands belong to it.” Perras said. “The other Wall – it is not a stone wall, or not mostly, but an earthern dyke for the greatest part – is The Sterre. The land below it is called Sorham – the South Home of the men of Varsland, for to those people it is south; and between The Sterre and the Southern Wall is this land, Linrathe.”

I stared, trying to take it all in. Questions swirled in my mind. I didn’t know what to ask first. My eyes returned to Tirvan, trying to fix a point in this new image of my world. I heard Perras make his slow way back to his chair and settle himself. I traced again the road to Karst, and found Casilla, and let my eyes come back to the Wall. I followed the Durrains from the sea to where they bent eastward, and studied the islands and the northern lands, then brought my eyes down again to where The Sterre was marked, dividing the land from the Lantanan Sea to a bay of the unnamed northern waters.

Does the map show the same distances everywhere?” I asked without turning. “Would it take as long to ride from The Sterre to the northern sea as it does to ride from the Wall to Casilla?” The distances looked the same to me, on the map.

Were there roads of equal quality, yes, and the land equally flat or hilly.” Perras said. “The map is accurate, or as accurate as our mathematics allows it to be.”

Then,” I said, “Sorham is as big as The Empire, and this land – Linrathe? – only half the size of either. Am I right?”

You are,” he answered. “Come and sit down, Lena, and tell me what you are thinking. Turn your chair, if you like, so you can see the map.”

I did as he asked; I was being rude, standing with my back to him. I moved the chair so I could see the map with a turn of my head.

What are you thinking?” Perras repeated.

Too many things,” I said. “That the world is not what I thought I knew; and how can I not have been taught this, at home or by Colm? That your land is walled between two larger lands, and why then do you raid south and not north? Who are the Varslanders, and why have they not sailed south to the Empire?” I shook my head, like a horse trying to dislodge an irritating fly. “Too many things,” I said again.

Good,” Perras said gently. I looked up. “Now I know what we have to teach you, in your time here.You will find more questions, as we work together, but we have a starting place. But that is enough, for today. Can you find your way back to your room?”

I wanted to object, but I knew Perras was right; I had learned more than enough for today. “I can,” I said. I stood up. “Thank you, Comiádh.”

Thank you, Lena,” he said. I crossed the room and pulled open the door. I glanced back before I closed it; Perras had Colm’s history open on his lap, his face rapt. I closed the door behind me quietly.

Chapter 3

The hall was empty. I walked across to the outside door and pulled it open; the sun had begun to wester, but I estimated several hours of daylight remained. I wanted to check on Clio. I began to step outside, then remembered my indoor slippers.

Swearing under my breath, I pulled the door closed again and found my way to my room. No-one appeared to be on this floor either; I wondered briefly where everyone was. Probably outside, I thought, and pulled on my riding boots, and shrugged on my sheepskin vest as a well: the day had been cool, earlier. I went back down the stairs, trying to walk quietly; I did not want to disturb Perras, nor did I want someone suddenly appearing to ask me what I was about.

Outside the clouds were still moving quickly across the sky. It had rained briefly at some point; damp patches showed on the flagstones. I looked around, wondering where the stables were. I tried to picture the layout as I had seen it from the heights this morning, but I couldn’t remember stables. I wondered if Ardan and the rest of the party were still here.

I had better find someone, I thought, and set out for the nearest range of outbuildings. I poked my head into an open door: the laundry. No-one was here, but I could here voices close by. I walked along to the next door, and opened it. As my eyes adjusted to the dim interior light, I realized I had found the bath-house.

Ardan lay in a large metal tub, his legs hanging over the end. Gregor, another of our party, occupied the tub beside him. A jug of something – I guessed beer – sat on a table between them, and two large mugs. I averted my eyes. “My apologies,” I said. “I was looking for someone to tell me where the stables are.”

Walk down to the end of these buildings, and you’ll see a path that goes off to the north,” Ardan said. “Follow it, and you’ll find the stables. But your mare is in the field behind the stables; I gave her a rub-down, and an hour or so in the stall, and then turned her out. “ He sounded unperturbed by my presence.

Thank you,” I said. “I like to see her, in a new place.”

Aye, you’re well trained,” he said. “Close the door as you go, to keep the warm in, if you would.” I recognized the dismissal, and did as he asked.

The path took me to the stables as Ardan had said it would. They stood just below the crest of slight rise, where, I realized, it meant they drained down through a long field to the stream well away from the house. Clio stood lazily in the field among a group of horses, one hip cocked, resting. When I called her, she ambled over to the fence and blew happily as I scratched her poll and withers. Tatters of hair hung from her heavy winter coat. After a few minutes I gave her a gentle slap and she wandered away from the fence, back toward the other horses. I went in search of her tack.

I found it hanging in a space that doubled as tack- and feed-room, neatly stowed, and cleaned, albeit the quick cleaning of a working day. I wondered if Ardan or Gregor had cleaned it; I would need to thank them. I would give the tack a thorough cleaning – and Clio a thorough grooming – as soon as I could.

I heard a sound from the end of the stables, the familiar scrape of pitchfork on stone. I walked down the range; at the end stall, I found Sorley clearing out soiled bedding.

Hello,” I said. “Sorley, isn’t it?” He looked up, straightened.

Lena,” he said. “Can I help you?”

I shook my head. “I came to see my horse,” I said. “Although, would you know where Jordis is? She was going to show me around.”

He glanced up at the sun. “She’ll be with the Lady Dagney, in lessons,” he answered, “for another hour, I would think.”

Oh,” I said. “What should I do, then? Do I have time to curry Clio?”

You should,” he said. “Did you see the tack room?” I nodded. “You’ll find what you need there, but why don’t you bring her down this end – you can tether her there,” he said, pointing to a ring in the wall between two stalls, “and talk to me at the same time. If you would like,” he added.

All right,” I said, and went to fetch Clio and the currycomb. By the time I brought her back, Sorley had finished cleaning the stall, and was propping a barrow up against the end of the stable.

The manure and bedding goes in a pile just over there,” he said, indicating with his chin. He looked at Clio. “She’s a nice little mare.”

She is,” I agreed. “Her name is Clio, and she was bred at Han, in the north of my country.” I began the task of easing out the undercoat. As I worked, sparrows flew out from under the eaves of the stable and began to pick up bits of hair for nest-building. After a few minutes I glanced at Sorley. He sat on an upended bucket, watching.

Tell me how things work here,” I said. “What are the days like, and who decides what we do?”

The Comiádh and the Lady Dagney decide what we do, if you mean with whom we study. What we study depends on our own interests, for a large part, although there are some common subjects, such as how to write well, and how to take care of books and scrolls. Did the Comiádh say who your tutor would be?”

I am to work with him.” I said.

Then it is history, and politics, that interest you?”

I considered. “I suppose,” I said. “History, anyway. What does the Lady Dagney teach, then?”

Languages, and music, and the danta,” he answered.

What are danta?” I asked.

Long poems,” he said, “that tell stories about past kings, or battles, or other things; our history, in a way, but with a lot of other things – magic, and giants, and winged horses – mixed in.”

I moved to Clio’s other flank. “And are there other teachers?”

I saw the negative movement of his head. “No,” he said. “Although sometimes a student who has been here for some years will work with newcomers, if we are asked.”

I see,” I said. “How long have you been here, Sorley?”

Five years,” he said. “It will be time for me to leave, soon.”

To do what?” I wondered as I asked it if it were an intrusion.

I will go back home,” he said. “Help my father, instruct my brothers and in the school a bit, learn be the harr…I do not know how to say that, in your language – leader? Of the family, and the village?”

I don’t know, either,” I said. “In our village we had headwomen, but they were elected by the council, and the title was council leader. But I think I understand.”

Clio flinched as I tugged on a mat of hair, and I realized I had not been paying attention to the task. I soothed her with voice and hands and gave my attention to detangling the knot.

How do you learn, then? You do not have places like the Ti’acha?”

No,” I said. “In my village, in Tirvan, girls go to school from the time we are seven, until we are twelve. We learn to read and write, and do sums, and some history. We learn the rules that were set down at Partition, both for the Empire’s men and women, and for the villages. In our last year, we choose an apprenticeship, and after that we learn as we work, practical skills.”

And if a girl truly wanted to learn more – from books, I mean. Is it against the rules?”

I don’t know,” I said slowly. “It has never happened, as far as I know. Although my mother – she is the midwife and healer, as I said – sometimes said she wished she knew more, or had more books.” I wondered, then, if she would have gone beyond the village to learn, if the chance had been there.

If we can find peace, beyond this truce, I mean,” Sorley said, “then she could go to the Ti’ach na Iorlath, where healing is taught, for a season, if she would be allowed to.”

But she is more than twice my age,” I said.

He shrugged. “Age does not matter,” he said. “The Ceannasach himself comes here when he can, to discuss and debate matters with Perras, and the Lady Dagney, and to read more books, which leads to more discussion and debate.” I heard the bucket scrape as he stood. “The lesson will be nearly done,” he said. “Do you want to turn your mare loose again, or stable her?”

“Turn her loose,” I said. “She has spent too long picketed, or in stalls.” I untied the lead rain and walked Clio back down the stable block to the paddock, stopping briefly at the tack room to put away the currycomb. She looked a lot better, I thought, as I watched her trot away across the field. I turned to Sorley.

She will need shoeing before too long,” I said. “Who does that, here?”

There’s a smithy a few miles north of here,” he said. “But will she need shoes? You won’t be going anywhere; couldn’t you just take her shoes off for now?”

Anger spurted through me. Who was Sorley, to tell me what I could or couldn’t do? I bit back a sharp retort. He was right, of course. Although…

Do you not ride to hunt? I am skilled, both with the hunting bow and with a knife. I would like to help with that, if I could.”

He looked down at me, raising one eyebrow lazily. “Women don’t hunt here,” he said, “except for hawking. Can you fly a kestrel, or a sparrowhawk?”

No, “ I said coldly. “But I can take down a deer with one arrow, and I have killed both game and men with my knife.” I looked up at him. “Your women may not hunt, Sorley, but I am from the Empire, and the Empire’s women hunt.”

He flicked his eyes away from mine. “The decision will be Perras’s,” he said. “But my understanding of a hostage is that you live by our rules, while you are with us. But I may be wrong.”

He was most likely right. Casyn had told me much the same. “You are probably right,” I admitted. “I am not accustomed, yet, to this role of hostage..”

Nor do we really know how to treat you,” he said. We walked a few steps back toward the house in silence. “Have you really killed a man?” he asked, suddenly.

Yes,” I said. “Two, actually. But I would rather that was not common knowledge. I don’t like talking about it.” I no longer had nightmares, but the memories were not good ones.

We rounded the corner of the outbuildings that held the bathhouse and laundry, and there was Jordis. “Lena!” she said. “I was looking for you.”

I was at the stable, seeing to my horse,” I said. Inwardly I sighed. Was I to have no time alone?

I can show you around now,” she continued. “Sorley, the Lady Dagney is waiting for you.”

Then I better go,” he said. “I will see you later, Lena.” He walked off in the direction of the hall.

Where should we start?” I asked Jordis.

Well,” she said. “You have seen the stables. These outbuildings here hold the laundry, and the bathhouse.” I didn’t bother to tell her I knew this.

And how do these work?” I asked. “Do I do my own laundry?”

No,” she said. I must have looked puzzled, because she explained. “When I said there were no servants, I meant personal servants. But the land that belongs to the Ti’ach has to be farmed, and the families that do so pay some of their rent in labour. The women work in our kitchens, and laundry, and the men work the fields and herd the beasts, and keep the hedges and walls and buildings in repair. So your laundry is done.” She hesitated, and went on in a lower voice. “Except for your blood cloths; you will need to do those yourself; I will show you when it is your time, or mine, whichever is first.”

I nodded. “And baths?”

Weekly,” she answered. “Women one day, men the next. Our next bath day is in three days time.”

Better than the Wall barracks, I thought. I wondered when the last time I had had a bath. I thought of the bath-house at home, its water bubbling hot from the underground spring, and I missed home suddenly and intensely. I pushed the thought away. I followed Jordis over to the door of the bath-house and looked inside when she opened the door.

All right,” I said. “What’s in the part of the building beyond the bathhouse?”

The harvest kitchen,” she answered, “where preserves are made, and meat salted, and the like. It’s only used in the autumn, really.”

I nodded. “And in those rooms, in the low section on the other wing of the hall?” I pointed.

She glanced over. “Extra sleeping rooms, for when they are needed. Come, I’ll show you the well.”

The well was behind the hall. A small covered passage between the hall and the laundry gave access from both the front and back of the hall and its outbuildings. Behind the baths a small lean-to building was where the chamberpots were washed, and blood cloths rinsed, Jordis explained, and beside that the latrines. Both drained away underground, as did the laundry and the bathing room, and down, I supposed, to the stream.

You empty your pot, as I said, and fetch your own water, and keep your room tidy and clean; fetch food from the kitchen, get the table ready, help clear. Sometimes if there is a special guest, or a lot of guests, we’re asked to help a bit more in the kitchen. And we work in the kitchen garden; we were planting peas, when you came this morning, and gather eggs and feed the hens.”

That does not seem to difficult,” I said. “And the rest of the time, we learn?” I wondered how I would adjust to a life with so little physical activity.

Yes,” she said. “Either in formal lessons, or by reading, or, practicing, if you are studying with the Lady Dagney. Are you?”

No, “ I said. “With Perras.”

She looked surprised. “With the Comiádh! Women do not usually study with him!”

But, Jordis,” I said with a flash of impatience, “I am not a woman of your land. I am a soldier of the Empire. I am not interested in music, and songs of your past. I want to understand our history, and what it can teach us about what our future might be.” As I said the words I recognized the truth in them. I wanted again to be alone, to think about this, and the questions the disturbing map on Perras’s wall had raised.

I did not think that was something women did, in your land,” Jordis murmured.

I flushed. I had been short with her, but she was right.

It’s not,” I said, “but it’s want I want to do.”

I spent the best part of another hour with Jordis, first touring the rest of the outbuildings – fuel-store, toolshed, cidery – there was an orchard somewhere – and the chicken coop, where the hens that provided eggs for the Ti’ach were housed at night. Then we went inside, and I was shown the kitchen, and the stillroom, and Lady Dagney’s teaching rooms and the adjoining music room, where Niav was practicing a stringed instrument. We did not go to the third floor – the male pupil’s rooms, Jordis explained, and off-limits to the girls and women of the Ti’ach. That part, at least, reminded me of the inns of the Empire, where men’s rooms were also separate, and often – as here – with a separate staircase for access.

Finally the tour was done. We had returned to the kitchen; at about this hour every day the household gathered for tea, Jordis explained, and there were two trays being prepared in the kitchen: one with a large pot of tea and mugs; one with a plate of buttered bread, and another of oatcakes. We each took a tray, and carried them through to the hall. Jordis went back to the kitchen and returned with a third tray, this one with small plates. She distributed them around the table: I counted nine.

Nine?” I said to Jordis. “I haven’t met everyone, then?”

Oh,” she said. “Only Cillian, of the Ti’ach. He is a pupil of the Comiádh, like you, but he is older. I don’t know who the other two plates are for – perhaps some of your escort?”

My question was answered as the household began to gather. Ardan and Gregor came in from outside; Sorley, Niav and Lady Dagney from her rooms. At a look from Dagney, Sorley walked over to Perras’s door and knocked before opening it. “Tea, Comiádh,” I heard him say. He waited until Perras entered the hall, then closed the door quietly.

We took our seats. Dagney looked around. “Where is Cillian?”she asked.

He rode over to the smithy,” Sorley said, “several hours ago.”

We won’t wait,” Dagney decided. She poured mugs of tea and we passed them around the table, followed by the plates of bread and oatcakes. Following the lead of others, I took one piece of each. My stomach had been rumbling for a little while. I wondered if I had missed lunch, or if mid-morning and mid-afternoon tea replaced that meal here.

What have you done this afternoon, Lena?” Dagney asked me. I gathered my thoughts. “After I met with the Comiádh, my lady,” I said, “I went to see my horse; I like to do so in a new place. She needed grooming, so I did that, and talked with Sorley, who was also at the stables. And then Jordis found me, and showed me around, until just a few minutes ago.”

And what do you think of our Ti’ach?” she asked. I wondered what the question really meant. I doubted she wanted a polite, meaningless answer.

It seems very peaceful,” I said, ‘and organized so that there is time for both learning and work in and out of the house. The way the building is designed reminds me of some of the inns which I have stayed in, on the road, except for the stables being more distant than would be usual. Beyond that,” I shrugged slightly, “it is only my first afternoon, and those are my first impressions.”

I am glad you find it peaceful,” Dagney said. “We do strive for that; and it will be a change for you, will it not?”

It will, my lady,” I said.

Lena is to study with me,” Perras said to the room. He looked around. “But it appears you all knew that – except, perhaps, you, Niav?” She nodded. “It will be good for me to have a second pupil, and one who brings a different knowledge than most. But, Lena, you should also spend a few hours a week with the Lady Dagney – I am thinking of languages- you speak only one, and it would be useful if you had at least a basic understanding of our language, and that of Varsland.”

If you wish,” I said. A thought struck me. “Am I making you all speak my tongue, because I do not understand yours?”

Dagney smiled. “Not entirely,” she said. “When a student leaves here, it is our hope that he or she will be comfortable in speaking three languages: our own, Óráidh; that of the Maraii, the people of Varsland: Marái’sta, we call that language, and yours. So in conversation at mealtimes, and in lessons, we may speak any of the three. We will speak Óráidh’reacht – that is our name for your language – for a week or two, both for your benefit, and for Niav’s, as she is just beginning to learn it.” I glanced at Niav, who coloured slightly. She was younger than I had realized.

Also,” Perras said, “many of our books are written in Oraidh’reacht, or a version of it, so it is important that students learn to read it, as well.”

I wonder how many of our soldiers can speak or read these other two languages, or at least the language of Linrathe, I thought. Turlo, perhaps, and borders scouts, and those with long service on the Wall? It could not be wise to deal with an enemy who could communicate in your language, without learning theirs, too.

I will be off in the morning, with your leave,” Ardan suddenly announced. I looked his way, but he was addressing Perras. “Gregor will stay, as the Ceannasach directed. I see no reason to leave two men.”

Nor do I,” answered Perras. I frowned. Why was Gregor staying? And then, of course, I realized: he was my guard, to ensure I did not leave. I opened my mouth to protest, and then closed it. As the Ceannasach directed, Ardan had said. Ardan could not change the order, even if he had wanted to. Darel would be guarded too, and, I reflected, so would Kebhan and Ruar, on our side of the Wall.

The room was darkening, and I heard rain against the window. Niav brought candles from the sideboard and lit them. I glanced toward the window. “Comiádh, sir?” I said. “May I go to stable my horse? I would prefer her not to be out all night in the rain, as there is a stable for her.”

We’ll go, Ardan said, before Perras could answer me. “No point in us all getting wet.”

Thank you, Ardan, Gregor,” Perras said, but even as the men stood the hall door opened. A tall man stepped in; his dark hair dripping rain onto a heavy sheepskin jacket.

Cillian,” Dagney said. “I will heat the tea up. You are late; is all well?”

Yes, my lady,” Cillian replied, his voice soft. He walked into the low light given off by the candles, and for a moment I thought he was someone I had seen before…but where? “Just that the rain has come from the north, and so I rode back from the smithy at a walk as the path was slippy, and then I took the time to stable the horses in the paddock, and ensure they had a bite of hay. But a hot mug of tea would be welcome.”

Niav had gone to the kitchen at Dagney’s words. Ardan and Gregor hesitated, and then sat again. “That was kind of you,” Perras said. “You have saved these two soldiers a wet trip.” The two men murmured words of thanks, but Cillian shrugged them off. “No matter,” he said, shedding his wet coat and hanging it on the back of an empty chair. No, I decided, I did not know him.

Niav returned with hot water, and filled the teapot. She brought Cillian a mug, and the last of the bread and oatcakes. He smiled at her, and ate hungrily. The room was silent.

After a mouthful of tea, he looked up. “I am being rude,” he said. “We have visitors.”

Ardan and Gregor you will remember,” Perras said, “as soldiers of the Ceannasach’s guard.” Cillian nodded. “And this is Lena, Guardswoman of the Empire, one of the two hostages exchanged in surety for the truce. The Ceannasach has sent her here, and she will be studying with me, so you have interests in common.”

I saw the flash of surprise in his eyes, followed by a cold, evaluative look. “Another student of history,” he said. “You will be busy, Comiádh.” He spoke no word to me.

Does he hate the Empire, I wondered, or just women?

Now, Lena,” Dagney said. “The hours between our afternoon tea together and supper are not scheduled; this is time for all of us to use as we please, in study or practice, or conversation, or solitude. There is a rota for the duties of the house each day, but you will not start on those until tomorrow. You are not bound to the house; you may, in this time, exercise your horse or see to her other needs, if you wish, but the Ceannasach has asked Gregor to accompany you if you ride out, by yourself or with others of the Ti’ach. We are glad you are with us, but scholars and teachers of the Ti’ach cannot be responsible for your safety; that is Gregor’s job. I hope this will not distress you?”

No, my lady,” I answered, glad I had realized Gregor’s role earlier; I might have been less calm, otherwise. I had had little to do with Gregor on the ride here, but he had always been polite. I judged him to be perhaps thirty, a lean man of middling height with a relaxed air to him. I wondered how he would find life at the Ti’ach, guarding one woman in a school. Ardan – or the Ceannasach – must have had reasons to choose him, I thought.

Niav and Jordis rose and began to gather the plates and mugs. Sorley stretched, and spoke to Dagney. “My lady, will I disturb you if I practice on the ladhar for an hour? I can take the instrument to my room, if it will.”

It will not,” she said. “And the practice room will be warmer.” He thanked her, and left the hall.

I stood too, uncertain of how to take my leave. “Thank you,” I said finally, “my lady, Comiádh, for such a welcome to the Ti’ach na Perras. I am looking forward to my time here.”

Dagney looked surprised. “Your presence here graces us,” she said. “We will learn together, for you have things to teach us, too.”

I am eager to start,” Perras said, “tomorrow.”

I smiled, and said thank you again, and smiled too at Cillian, thinking I would make the overture.

Then I walked up the stairs to my room, pulled off my boots, and collapsed on the bed.

I drifted into a light, dreamless sleep for a while, but the room was cool and I had not pulled the blanket over me. I woke to cold hands and feet; swearing at my own stupidity, I found my deerskin slippers on the floor, and from my pack I took a woven scarf, which I wound around my neck, tucking the ends inside my tunic. No fire had been laid in the hearth; remembering Dagney’s words to Sorley about the practice room being warmer, I guessed that fires in our rooms were reserved for the coldest months alone. Fires had been a luxury in the barracks, too; I was used to the cold. I lit the candle on the table.

I pulled my journal out of my pack; pen and ink stood in a stand on the table, beside the candle. But I was not ready yet to write down my feelings and impressions. I turned my pack out onto the bed and put my few possessions away in the wardrobe and chest. Then I sat at the table, and opened my journal.

But still I did not write. I stared out into the darkening world, past the candle’s reflection, and let the thoughts and impressions of the last week swirl through my mind. That room at the White Fort, with its floor of pictures; the rituals invoking an Eastern Empire; the map on Perras’s wall, a world turned upside down.

Chapter 4

In the end I only wrote a factual account of the past few days; I could not marshal my thoughts to do more. I had not had a chance to write since Turlo had come to the servery looking for Darel and me, and so even the facts took a long time. My hand ached as I reached the end.

I glanced over what I had written, and picked up the pen again. Why have I never heard of the Varslanders, when they are closer than Leste? I wrote. Why do they not trade with us? What peace treaty exists between them and the Northmen- the people of Linrathe? These would all be questions I could ask Perras.

There was one more thing. Ask Perras about the Eastern Empire, I wrote. Not yet: for some reason I felt it was not something I could broach with him until I knew him better. But the ritual at the White Fort haunted and frustrated me; I felt like a child again, kept from grown-up mysteries.

From downstairs a deep ringing “boom” sounded: I guessed it was the signal for supper. I combed my hair and straightened my tunic, then bent to extinguish the candle. Second thoughts made me stop; I opened the door; the hall was not lit. I lifted the candlestick – it was made to be carried, with a thumb loop and a base that fit snugly in the hand – and in its flickering light made my way down to the hall.

Supper was mutton stew and barley bread, and more oatcakes served with cooked apples. A light beer accompanied it. Perras and Dagney led the conversation, directing questions at the other students about recent lessons, and what conclusions they had drawn from what they had learned. I guessed this was the usual pattern at the evening meal.

But at the end, as we were finishing the oatcakes and apple, Perras cleared his throat. “Tonight we will not have our usual entertainments after supper; for there is something you all should hear: the words of the treaty our Ceannasach and the Southern Emperor have signed. So let us have the table cleared, and, I think, wine poured for everyone, and then I will read the treaty to you.”

Do we ask the kitchen-folk to join us?” Jordis asked, already gathering plates.

Perras shook his head. “No. I will gather the cottagers tomorrow, and they will hear it then.”

Cillian went to one of the cupboards and brought back goblets that caught the firelight, making several trips with the fragile objects. As he placed them on the table I realized they were glass, something I had never seen except for some old and tiny medicine bottles my mother had. From the same cupboard he brought a flagon made of glazed pottery, and poured a small amount of dark wine into each glass. He did not distribute them.

Ardan moved a candle from the centre of the table closer to Perras, and handed him a tied scroll. The older man loosened the ties, and unrolled it, reading the words. I saw him nod, slightly, and then he looked at me.

Lena,” he said, “You among us, save for Ardan and Gregor, will have heard these words before. When I have read them, I would appreciate it if you would tell us how they were received, by the gathered soldiers of the Empire. I will ask Ardan to do the same, for our men.”

I will do my best,” I murmured, glad of the forewarning. Perras glanced around the table again, and began to read.

Herein are the terms of the truce between Linrathe and the Southern Empire, agreed this first day of spring at the White Fort, between Donnalch, Ceannasach of Linrathe, and Callan, Emperor of the South. For six months, both sides will lay down our arms, to return to our villages and our fields, our byres and pastures, before starvation finds us on both sides of the Wall. No raid nor battle will be undertaken by either side during this time of truce.” Perras voice was strong, pitched loud enough for all of us to hear, but not to carry to the kitchens.

In those six months, Donnalch and his brother Conlainn for Linrathe, and the Emperor Callan and his brother Casyn for the South, will meet, and talk, with the intent and the hope to find a way to a permanent peace between us; not a treaty that makes one side a vassal state to the other, but an agreement of equals. Only if we are equals can there be true peace. In surety of this truce, and our hopes for a lasting peace, Linrathe sends Ruar, heir to the Ceannasach, and Conlainn’s son Kebhan, to live with the cadets of the Empire, and as hostages to Linrathe’s intentions. In return, and in the absence of direct heirs of the Emperor Callan, the Southern Empire sends Darel, son to the General Turlo, and Lena, who stands as surrogate daughter to the General Casyn, to live and work and learn in Linrathe and as hostages to the Empire’s intentions.”

The penalty for the breaking of this truce by any man or woman, from Linrathe or the Southern Empire, is death for the transgressors, who risk also the lives of the hostages of their land. Remember this, and maintain the peace.”

It is signed by both the Ceannasach and the Emperor,” Perras finished. No one spoke.

The wine, now, I think,” Perras said. Cillian and Sorley rose and distributed the glasses, Cillian serving the end of the table away from me. I watched how Perras cradled his, cupping the bowl in his hand gently. I copied him, the glass feeling cool and smooth against my hand. I held it lightly, afraid of its fragility.

To a temporary peace,” Perras said, “and may a lasting one arise.”

To peace,” Dagney said, and took a sip of her wine. The rest of us followed her lead. The wine, rich and smooth, warmed my throat. I put the glass down carefully.

Now, Lena,” Perras said, his voice conversational. “What can you tell us of the reaction, from the Empire’s men? And women,” he amended.

I had only a few minutes to see, “ I said slowly, “and you must remember that soldiers are trained not to show reaction to orders, and the truce, read out by our Emperor, is an order. So I may be guessing, here, a bit, but what I think I saw was relief. We have been at war for over a year; many have died, and food is scarce. I think nearly everyone wanted and welcomed a truce.”

And did you?” Perras asked.

Yes,” I said. “For the same reasons.” And because I had begun to thought the war unwinnable, but I did not say that aloud. I suspected many on the Wall felt the same.

Ardan?” Perras said. “What did you see and hear?”

Much the same,” he answered. “I also saw pride, when the Ceannasach spoke of a treaty of equals. They- we – have great faith in him, and look to this as a beginning of change for Linrathe, in our dealings with both the Southern Empire and with Varsland.”

Lena,” Perras asked, “what will happen now, for your soldiers? Where will they go? The treaty speaks of returning to fields and villages, but that is not your way, is it?”

I shook my head. “No,” I said, “not for the men.” Niav leaned forward.

Is it true,” she asked, her voice hushed, “that women do not live with men in your land, by law? And that they do all the work of men?”

It is,” I said. I saw her eyes widen in the firelight.

But why?’ she asked.

I glanced at Perras. “Go ahead,” he said. “The others know what our history teaches; it will be instructive for us all to hear what you were taught about Partition.”

I would have told a different story, not too long ago,” I said. “But briefly, then: many long years ago, men and women of our Empire did live together, much as I imagine your people do here. But military service was mandatory, and the Emperor of the time, Lucian, wished to expand his Empire, except that he needed the approval of the people to do this: those were the laws, at the time. Village councils were in the hands of women, as so many men were away so much of the year, and those councils overall did not want the Empire to be expanded at the cost of more lives. So the Emperor called for an assembly, and after long discussion and debate, a proposal was made that divided the laws that govern men and women: women would live in the villages, farm and fish and provide food, much as they already did, and be governed by their councils. Men would fight: the army would govern them. It is called the Partition Assembly, as it divided not just our laws, but our lives. “

I took a breath. “What I did not know, until this past year, is how many objected. For many people of the Empire, men and women, Partition was not the answer. But by our laws, those people either had to submit to the new laws of the Empire, or choose exile. Many chose exile, and most, I believe, crossed into these lands. Some of us in this room may share common ancestors; your Ceannasach and our Emperor may be distant cousins for all I know. But to live separate lives has been our lot now for twenty generations or more, and it seems normal to us now,” I finished. Or it had, until the invasion from Leste, I thought. I looked over to Niav. “Does that answer you question?” I asked.

Yes,” she said. “So you can do everything? Build a wall? Shoe a horse? “

I laughed. “Well, not me personally. But in my village, in Tirvan, there were women who did those things, and who built boats and houses, and ploughed and harvested the fields. I fished, with my partner, from our boat. “

And you can fight,” Sorley said. “After all, you are a soldier now.”

Yes,” I answered. “I can fight, and I have. I can handle a sword, and a bow, but my specialized training is with the secca, the knife, in close combat.”

Sorley,” Perras said quietly, “we are diverging from our purpose here tonight, with these questions. You will recall I asked Lena what would happen now, for the soldiers of the Southern Empire.”

My intent was to remind us that there are now women among the Empire’s soldiers, Sorley said, “and that perhaps what happens for male and female soldiers might be different.”

As it will be,” I said. “Women will return to their home villages, to the work they left. The men will return to their duties, whether that is teaching cadets, or patrolling the Wall or the Durrains, or building roads, training horses, or making swords, I suppose.”

But they will continue to be soldiers, and train, and plan, for the next six months, and our men will not, for the most part,” Cillian said. “Which could be seen as giving the Empire an advantage.”

Do not underestimate the Ceannasach,” Ardan said sharply. “Do you think he would not have thought of that?”

The Southern Empire has had professional soldiers for many generations,” Perras pointed out. “And yet we have fought to an impasse. Will one summer change that?”

Is not the point,” Jordis said, “that there should be no more fighting? The Ceannasach and the Southern Emperor will spend this summer talking, looking for a permanent peace. And another winter war? Remember what Halmar wrote:

war in winter sends sorrow soaring

hunger hurts cold kills

ravens rejoice wolves wait

men moan women wail

death in darkness glory gone…

And if the intent is to find peace, then perhaps the Ceannasach did not see harm in the soldiers of the Southern Empire returning to their usual duties?” she finished. Her insight surprised me – unfairly so, I admitted to myself, as I barely knew her.

Do you think the Ceannasach can negotiate a permanent peace, under the conditions he has laid down? An agreement of equals?” Perras asked. It was Sorley who answered.

If he does,” he said, “then surely it would challenge the terms of our peace with Varsland, with the Marai?” he said. No-one responded.

Forgive me,” I said, “but I do not understand. What are the terms of the peace with Varsland?”

It was Dagney who answered. “Linrathe pays tribute, or tax, if you like, to Varsland,” she said. “In return, the Marai – the ship-warriors of Varsland – do not raid into Sorham, and leave landholders such as Sorley’s father, and my brothers, in peace. It was not always so.”

Is that why there is another Wall? The Sterre?” I asked, remembering the map.

It is not why it was built,” Dagney answered, “but now, yes, it defines the border between Sorham and Linrathe. The Marai do not cross it, although they may enter Sorham for peaceful purposes, seeking trade or marriage. People of Sorham travel north, too, to Varsland or the islands, for the same reasons. My own mother was born on Naermest, one of the islands of Raske, or the Raske Hoys, as they are named there. Many – if not most – of the folk of Sorham carry the blood of the Marai.”

So, “ I said slowly, working through it, “Linrathe has a peace treaty with Varsland, but by the terms of this treaty Linrathe is, “ I hesitated, looking for the right word, “subservient to Varsland. The Marai are paid to leave Sorham in peace. But is it Linrathe, or Sorham, who pays the tribute? Who does Sorham belong to, if not itself?”

Long years ago,” Perras said, “Sorham was conquered by Varsland, if conquer is the right word. The Marai moved south from Varsland, settling on some unclaimed lands, raiding into claimed lands, taking wives and fathering children. But folk also moved north from Linrathe, especially when our numbers swelled at the time of Partition in the Southern Empire. Conflict ensued, and after some years the current agreement was reached: the Marai withdrew with the promise of peace, leaving Sorham to Linrathe, for a price.”

And our Ceannasach thinks, I believe,” Cillian interrupted, “that if he can negotiate a treaty of equals with the Southern Emperor, then it will be time to challenge the terms of our treaty with the Marai. Their king is old; there will be a new one soon, so what better time?”

Aye,” Ardan spoke softly. “That is how I see it, too.”

If our two countries find peace,” Cillian said, “then is not the very reason for the Southern Empire’s army gone? What happens to an army when there is no enemy to fight?”

No-one replied. I took another mouthful of wine. Candles and shadows flickered in a small movement of air, from beneath the door or a loose window. Cillian was wrong, I thought: enemies could still arise, as Leste had.

Perras broke the silence. “I think that is enough discussion for this evening.” he said. “Perhaps one song, before we retire? Lena, is there a song of the Empire you could sing for us?”

I had not expected this. “I have not much of a voice,” I said, stalling.

No matter,” Dagney said. “Sorley, would you fetch a ladhar? Sorley will follow you on the instrument,” she explained, as he went toward the practice room, “or accompany you, if the tune is one we know.”

I hope you can recognize it, if it is,” I said. I wondered what to sing, reviewing in my mind the songs sung at Tirvan. And then I knew.

Sorley returned, and moved a chair back from the table. He ran his fingers over the strings of the ladhar, and adjusted one tuning peg. Then he nodded. I stood.

This is not a song of my village,” I said. “I learned it from our potter, Tice, who was from Karst, at the southernmost reaches of the Empire.” I took a breath, and began.

The swallows gather, summer passes,

The grapes hang dark and sweet;

Heavy are the vines,

Heavy is my heart,

Endless is the road beneath my feet.

I heard the notes of the ladhar, as mournful as the song. I glanced at Sorley; he nodded. I continued, the instrument now in time with my voice.

The sun is setting, the moon is rising,

The night is long and sweet;

I am gone at dawn.

I am gone at day,

Endless is the road beneath my feet

The cold is deeper, the winters longer,

Summer is short but sweet;

I will remember,

I’ll not forget you,

Endless is the road beneath my feet.

Sorley plucked a few more notes from the ladhar, letting them fade away into the night. Silence held, for a minute.

Thank you,” Dagney said. “The tune is known to us, but not those words. Would you write them down for us, Lena? And anything you know about the song?”

Of course,” I said. “Tice said she had learned it from Jedd, a retired general of the Empire. And I heard it sung at the the Emperor’s winter camp, but that is all I know. I think it is a southern song, though, because of the line about the grapes.”

You may be right,” Dagney said. “You will find paper and ink, and a pen, in the box on the table in your room. If – when – you run short, just ask for more. And now, I think, it is time for us to retire. Lena, you will hear the breakfast bell in the morning; before that, your time is your own, as is the time now until you choose to sleep. “ She stood, as did Perras. “Good night to you all,” she said.

Good night,” Perras echoed. “Don’t stay up too late, children.” I saw a quick flicker of a smile on Cillian’s face as he stood to fetch Perras a candle, a smile that brought again the feeling that I knew him from somewhere. He saw me looking at him, and the smile vanished. Perras, organizing himself with candle and stick, looked from Cillian to me. “Cillian,” he murmured. “Would you light me to my room? I find myself unsteady tonight.” He handed the candle back to the younger man, and together they walked slowly to Perras’s study door.

Ardan had also risen. “Bed for me too,” he announced, “I’ve an early start. Sleep well, all.” Gregor, with a nod to us, accompanied his commanding officer.

No-one spoke for a moment, and then Sorley spoke. “Cillian holds a grudge against the Empire,” he said quietly. “It’s not personal, Lena.”

I’m glad to know I wasn’t imagining it.” I said tartly. “Am I allowed to know what that grudge is?”

The students looked at each other. “I suppose so,” Sorley said. “We all know. His mother – she was very young – died after giving birth to him. His father was – is – a soldier of the Empire, but whoever he was, he never returned to see how his lover had fared. Cillian has not forgiven him, and, by extension, the Empire.”

I see,” I said.

Perhaps,” Jordis said, “if he had known you were coming, he might have had time to prepare himself.”

I think the Comiádh is speaking to him now, about this,” Sorley said quietly. He stretched. “I am going to practice the ladhar,” he said. “Niav, do you want to join me?”

The younger girl shook her head. “I would rather talk to Lena,” she said, and then shot a doubtful look my way. “If that is all right?”

Did I want to talk? Inwardly I sighed. But I had had my time alone, and my journal, and I did not think I had anything more to write tonight. “Of course,” I said.

Sorley grinned. “Niav loves stories,” he said. “She’ll turn them into songs, though, Lena; be warned.” He left us, raising a hand in farewell as he did.

What would you like to know?” I said to the two young women sitting with me.

Everything,” Niav burst out. “What your village is like, and how you learned to fight, and about your travels. And how it feels, to be told you must live in these villages, and not marry.”

That is too much for one night,” I said slowly. Is that how she sees us? I thought.

Tell us about your travels,” Jordis said. “Tell us about Casilla – you have been there?”

How do you know about Casilla?” I said, surprised by the question, but glad of the change of topic.

It’s on the map, “ Niav said, as if it were obvious. “We learn the geography of your country too, as well as ours, and Varsland.” She sounded put out, as if I had under-estimated her. Then again, I thought, I had.

Casilla, I thought. How to begin?

When the wall was breached…” I stopped. “When it was opened to your soldiers,” I amended, “I was at the Emperor’s winter camp, for the Midwinter celebrations and proclamations. As the army prepared to ride north, I was asked to ride as messenger, to the southern villages, to ask women who would to ride north too. That task took me some time, and when I was done I stayed for a while at Karst, the grape-growing village of the south.”

Why did you not ride north?” Niav demanded.

Hush, Niav,” Jordis said. “Lena will tell us what she wishes. Do not pry.”

It’s all right,” I said. “I did not know, yet, if I wanted to fight again. Defending my village was one thing; it was personal, and those threatened were my family and my friends. I was not yet sure I could raise weapons in a larger cause.”

I remembered my conversations – arguments, really – with Halle, who had seen no choice but to ride north, nor had wanted one: she wished to be a soldier, and could not understand my reluctance. I had not liked her, then, and could not tell her how my actions, which had led to the death of my friend and cohort-second Tice, had made me doubt myself. Nor did I want to tell this to Niav and Jordis, tonight.

So,” I said, resuming my tale, “I stayed in Karst for some weeks. My cousin Garth had a son there, and I stayed with the woman raising him – his aunt – and another friend. The child’s grandmother, however, made life difficult for the child and his aunt, and when she decided to go to Casilla, I chose to go with her. “ I paused.

Casilla is walled,” I continued, “with enormous gates to let in the trader’s carts. The gates and the watchtowers are of stone, and they gleam white in the sunshine, and the flag of the Empire flies at each tower, snapping in the wind from the sea. Inside the gates there is a wide road, running down to the harbours: it divides the city in two, into the women’s section, and the men’s. At one point there is a wide square where the market is held.” I stopped, unsure of if I was being clear, trying to marshall my thoughts.

Harbours?” Jordis said. “More than one?”

Yes,” I said. “The fishing harbour, on the women’s side, and the quays and anchorage for the ships of the Empire, on the men’s side, and between them the traders’ quays.” Saying this, I remembered the scream of gulls, and the shouts of men and women working on and around the boats, and the salt, pungent smell of the sea and of fish.

This divided life.” Jordis said, “It’s hard to imagine. Everything must be duplicated, then? Cookhouses and bakeries, shops and inns?”

I nodded. “Yes. There are two cities, really, and the separation is maintained, except at the market, and during Festival. I had wondered, too, how it might work, but the rules of Partition are held.”

How strange,” Jordis murmured. Niav said nothing, but instead sang a stanza, softly:

O we forbid ye, maidens all,
With flowers in your hair,
To go or come by Kertonhall
For young Fintaill is there.”

The tune was haunting. “That’s lovely,” I said. “Is that from a danta?”

Yes,” Niav answered. “It’s from a long song, that tells how a maiden won her true love back from the fair folk, angering their queen in doing so. The Lady Dagney says it is very old, and that we share the story with the Maraii. I will learn it in their language, soon. But how did you know about the danta? “

Sorley told me,” I explained.

Tell us more about Casilla,” Jordis said, a shade impatiently, I thought.

On the main gates,” I said, “there is an inscription, in no language I know. It says “Casil e imitaran ne.

Casil this is not.” said a voice behind us. We all turned, to see Cillian standing there. He repeated the words I had spoken, but his inflections made them sound very different. “Or,” he continued, “’Casil is not equalled here’, if you prefer a more elegant translation.”

So the old woman was right,” I said, half under my breath. But my comment was heard.

What old woman?” Niav demanded.

In Casilla,” I said slowly, ‘those words are generally taken to mean ‘There is only one Casilla’, but an old woman I met there told me they meant exactly what Cillian just said: “Casil this in not.”

And they do,” Cillian said. I had not heard him return. He pulled out a chair and sat. “Do you not learn Casilan?” he asked.

No,” Jordis said sharply. “There were no languages taught in Lena’s village. We talked about that over tea, before you arrived.”

And it would seem that is true throughout the country, if the inhabitants of Casilla believe the gate inscription to mean “There is only one Casilla,” Cillian commented. “Casilla, Lena, is a diminutive, meaning ‘Little Casil.” Perhaps once it was meant to rival Casil, but the gate inscription indicates that someone realized it did not.”

And where is Casil?” I asked. But as I spoke I realized the answer. “In the Eastern Empire?” I added, before anyone could answer.

Cillian raised an eyebrow.

So you have learned some things.” he said. He was, I thought, striving to be polite. I wondered what Perras had said to him. I shook my head.

Not really,” I admitted. “I heard of it only in the last weeks; it was something Donnalch – your Ceannasach,” I added, stumbling a bit over the unfamiliar title, “and our Emperor spoke of at the White Fort. They gave an oath to ‘the Empire Unconquered’. Darel – the other hostage, a cadet – told me it meant the Eastern Empire.”

Is that all he told you?” I saw Jordis react.

Cillian, is this not what the Comiádh will instruct Lena in?” she said quietly.

He looked at her. A small muscle in his jaw twitched. He nodded.

Jordis is right,” he said. “You should discuss this with Perras, not with me.”

No!” I said, too forcefully. “Please, can’t we talk about it now? It has been puzzling me.”

Cillian sighed. “Tell us what you know, then.”

I thought back to what Darel had said. “There was an Empire in the East,” I began slowly, “and a Supreme Emperor, to whom the Emperor here owed allegiance. He – the Supreme Emperor – ruled from a city in the East – that would be Casil?” Cillian nodded. “And then one day all trade and communication – all contact – stopped. But the Emperor and the troops still pay homage to the memory.” I shook my head. “That’s all I remember.”

It’s a fair summary,” Cillian said. “But Perras will tell you more, and be glad of your interest.” He stretched, and ran a hand through his hair.

Was Linrathe part of that Empire?” I asked, remembering what had puzzled me at the time.

Cillian nodded. “Not that I was taught,” he said. “Ask Perras, Lena; he has the stories. I am no lover of Empires, lost or current.” The chill had returned to his voice. He stood. The chair scraped on the flagged floor. “Sleep well, daltai. I will see you at breakfast.” He stalked away, not to the stairs, but to the door. A breeze, a taste of night air, and he was gone.

.

Chapter 5

I slept well. I had gone to bed shortly after Cillian left, pleading fatigue, and had fallen asleep almost immediately. I woke to the chatter of sparrows outside my window, and faint sounds from the house.

Downstairs, I helped Jordis and Sorley bring food from the kitchen to the hall: bowls of a thick oat porridge, jugs of milk, dried fruit. This, and tea, was breakfast. Niav took Perras a tray in his rooms, Dagney explaining quietly too me that he was stiff and sore in the mornings, and preferred to eat alone. There was little conversation over the meal, at least until the food was finished and most of us were drinking a second cup of tea.

Now, daltai” she said, using the same plural of ‘student’ that Cillian had the night before, “most of you know you duties or lessons for the morning. Lena, Perras wishes you to go to him, but he will not be ready for you for another hour, and unlike the others you do not have work to be getting on with. So, Sorley, will you take Niav for her lesson in the first hour, and then I can work with Lena?”

Of course, my lady,” he said. The others excused themselves, heading off to work, practice, or lessons. Cillian had said nothing during the meal, and did not look my way as he left. I waited for Dagney to speak.

Shall we go to my rooms?” she asked, rising. I followed her from the hall and through the music practice room, into the teaching room. Like Perras’s room, this appeared to be her study as well as her teaching space. Many bookcases stood against the walls, but here the shelves held instruments as well as books. Larger instruments hung from pegs. She gestured me to a chair facing her desk.

We had spoken,” she said without preamble, “of you learning at least the basics of our language, and perhaps that of Varsland. Does this seem sensible to you, Lena?

It does,” I agreed, “at least, it does for your language. I am not sure about Varsland’s, not at the same time, unless they are very similar?”

They share some words,” she said, smiling, “but, I see your point. You have not learned another language, even a few words, at all?”

I thought back to the weeks guarding the Lestian captives. Had I picked up any words? Not really, I admitted to myself.

No, my lady,” I said. I explained about the Lestians. “I don’t think I even thought to try to learn their words. I just let their captain translate.”

So,” she said, “it is unlikely you have a predisposition to learning languages. But no matter; it will be more work for you, but far from impossible. You are older than most who learn another language, and that will slow you down. You are in for a challenge.” She smiled. “Let us begin, then. We will start, as you did so long ago, with the letters and the alphabet – we do not use different letters than you do, do not worry – but we do pronounce them differently, and use them in different combinations and with different accents, and those are the first things you should learn.” From a drawer of her desk she brought out a printed sheet and handed it to me.

For perhaps forty-five minutes I learned the alphabet again. I expected to just say the sounds, but Dagney had me think about how my mouth muscles and my tongue worked to make the sounds, and what happened when I used them differently. Even more surprisingly, she had me sing the sounds, as well as speak them.

Good,” Dagney said finally. “You can practice with Niav: she can correct your pronunciation, and you hers in Óraidh’reacht. But there are three words I would like you to learn before we end. Can you guess what they are?”

I thought about what I would want to be able to say. Food? Water? But I could point to those, or make signs.

Please and thank you?” hazarded.

Very good!” Dagney said. Yes, those two, and one more – ‘sorry’. hose three allow you to be polite, and good manners smooth many an awkward discourse.”

They do, my lady,” I answered, thinking of Casyn, always thoughtful, always polite.

So,” she said. Repeat these after me, and then try to use them as often as is reasonable. ‘Please’ is ‘allech’i‘.”

Allech’i,” I repeated.

Further back in your throat,” Dagney prompted. I tried again, generating a more liquid sound and a nod from Dagney. After several more attempts she held up her hand. “Good,” she said. “You should know, too, that in Óraidh ‘please’ is usually used at the beginning of a request, not at the end. You would say, “Allech’i, basi an tar’an”, or ‘Please pass the bread” not “Basi an tar’an, allech’i.

I thought about it for a moment, saying the words in my head. “I think,” I said, “I will end up saying “Allech’i, pass the bread, please.” She laughed.

No doubt,” she said, “for a while. Are you ready to move on?”

One question,” I said. “If I am addressing a particular person, would I say, ‘Allech’i, Jordis’, or ‘Jordis, allech’i’?

‘Please’ at the beginning is preferred,” she answered, “but using a person’s name first is not wrong, especially if you are trying to gain their attention. A good question, Lena.”

‘Thank you’ – meas, and ‘sorry’ – forla – took up another quarter of an hour. The rules for their use were the same as allech’i, for which I was glad. Finally Dagney sat back.

Enough for today,” she said. “You have been a good student. Go to the kitchen now, and ask for tea with honey; your throat needs it. Perras will be expecting you, but have your tea, and do whatever else you need to, before going to him.”

Thank you, my lady,” I said. She smiled in response, but I could see her mind was already elsewhere, her eyes slipping down to a musical score on her desk. I closed the door quietly behind me and went, as directed, to the kitchen. It was empty but for one woman, who sat at the long table peeling root vegetables.

Hello,” I said. I didn’t remember seeing her earlier. “I’m Lena. The Lady Dagney sent me here for tea with honey, for my throat.”

Yes, my lady,” she said, her accent thick. She stood and went to the stove, moving a kettle forward and opening the door to give the coals inside a poke. I saw the flames rise, and almost immediately the kettle began to steam. She reached for a mug, and from a canister added something dried. The kettle sang; she poured hot water into the mug, and a spoonful of honey, before handing it to me.

Meas,” I said, hoping my accent was passable. She smiled. “Allech’i, may I know your name?” I added.

Isa,” she answered. “I am Isa, my lady.”

Meas, Isa,” I said. “But in my land, I am not addressed as ‘my lady’. Just by my name, Lena.”

But you are in our land now, my lady, and I must,” she said. “It is the custom.”

I nodded. “Yes, of course,” I said. “Forla. I should have realized.” I should have, too, I thought, hoping I hadn’t embarrased Isa. No, just myself, I thought, when I glanced at her; she had returned to scraping parsnips, unbothered. I took a tentative sip of the tea; rosehip, the traditional winter tea for colds and sore throats. The heat and sweetness felt good on my slightly scratchy throat. I stood awkwardly, not knowing if I should stay or go. Isa looked up.

Sit, if you would like, my lady,” she said. I pulled out a chair and sat, cradling the mug. Isa smiled at me. “Are you here to learn music, like my niece?”

Your niece?” I asked, puzzled.

Niav,” she answered. “She is my sister’s youngest. She came for a visit last year, and the Lady Dagney heard her telling stories and singing to my little ones, and offered her a place here at the Ti’ach. We were all pleased, but I lost my helper with the babies.” She laughed. “But there are always girls for that! So are you here to learn the songs and stories?”

No,” I said. “I will learn history while I am here, with the Comiádh. But he and the Lady Dagney thought I should learn your language as well, so I will be working with her as well.” I took another swallow of the tea, thinking back to what Kebhan had said when he too had called me ‘lady’ – ‘a woman of rank.’ Did being a pupil at a Ti’ach, a dalta, confer rank? Or was it my status as hostage, guarded by a man of the Ceannasach‘s troops? I thought of asking Isa, but somehow it did not seem appropriate.

Like young Cillian, then,” Isa said. I noted the lack of any honorific.

A better balance,” I said lightly. “Two student for the Comiádh, three for Lady Dagney.” A thought struck me. “Are there usually so few students, Isa?”

Nae,” she said, shaking her head. “There should be half-a-dozen more, but the war took them; the boys away to fight, were they old enough, or to home to do the work of those who went. The girls also went for home, to be another pair of hands on the farms, or in the workshops. So we are not what we should be, here at Ti’ach na Perras,” she finished, her voice sorrowful. “Only the lady Jordis, and Niav and Cillian, and the lord Sorley – and I hear he is soon for home too, and now you, my lady.”

Well, I thought, I had my answers, to both questions. I finished my tea and put the mug on the table. “Meas, Isa,” I said. “I should go to the Comiádh now; he is expecting me.”

Allech’i, wait a moment, my lady,” she answered, getting up, “and I will make tea for you to take to him. Would you like a bitty more, as well?”

I declined, and in a minute or two left the kitchen carrying a steaming mug for Perras. I knocked at his door.

Come,” he called. I opened the door and went in.

I have brought you tea, Comiádh,” I said.

Ah, Lena, welcome,” he said, from his seat at the table. “And thank you for bringing my tea. You have had some?” I nodded, and he took the mug from me and placed it on the desk before him. A banked peat fire warmed and scented the room.

I have been transcribing the history,” he said. “Now you are here, I suggest we do this: I will read to you what I have transcribed, and you will follow along in the history, and tell me if I have made an error. And please, ask questions as we go. Do you think we can do that?” He handed me the volume of Colm’s history, gesturing to another chair at the table.

Of course, Comiádh,” I answered. I sat across from him, and opened the book. He took a long swallow of his tea, and straightened the papers on the table.

To begin,” he said, and began to read.

‘In the third year of the reign of the Emperor Lucian, when there had been silence from the East for many years, consideration was given to the expansion of the Empire’s lands, as the villages and towns grew crowded. The Emperor’s eyes turned to the northern lands, bleak and mountainous as they were, and he offered free land there to any man who would join him in the conquest.’

Perras read the words, but it was Colm’s voice I heard. Tears pricked my eyes. I did not need to check the text in front of me; I knew these opening words off by heart. I realized Perras was waiting.

I nodded. “That is correct,” I said.

Any questions?” he asked. I shook my head.

Not now,” I said. I wanted to ask about the East, but it seemed too soon.

Perras nodded and continued to read. This time I did drop my eyes to the book I held.

‘Many joined Lucian, for the offer of land was tempting. But they did not find the conquest of the northern lands easy, for the inhabitants knew the hills and valleys, forests and caves, well, and used them to their advantage to repel Lucian’s army.’

Go on,” I said. Perras cleared his throat. His voice, I thought, was strong for a man of his age.

‘After several years of skirmishes and small battles, a spring came that was cold and wet throughout the land, and crops and cattle suffered.’

Stop,” I said. He looked up. “The text says ‘both cold and wet,’ I explained, and you read ‘cold and wet’.” He nodded.

Thank you,” he said, and made the correction before continuing to read.

‘But there were many men to feed in the troops, and Lucian, his thoughts fixed on the northern lands, decreed a higher tax of food from the villages and farms. The headwomen of the villages said ‘No’ to this tax, almost as one voice, arguing thus: You have taken our strongest men; the rain and cold are unceasing; how are we to feed you? They demanded an Assembly, and the Emperor, bound by the laws of the Empire, had to grant it.’

Now I do have a question,” I said.

Yes?” he encouraged.

What Colm wrote here, that the tax of food from the villages came before the Partition vote – this isn’t what I learned, at Tirvan. There, I learned that the army fed itself for some years, before taxing the villages.”

You did not ask Colm about this?” Perras asked.

No,” I answered. “We talked of other things that day….I had meant to,” I finished.

Someone wrote once that those are the saddest words that can be said,” Perras said gently. “I too had meant to talk more to Colm.” He sighed. “We must shoulder that regret, and go on. I think the answer to your question may be two-fold, Lena. Firstly, in your village – was this history written?”

No,” I said, “not that I know of. It was told to us; we learned all our history that way.”

Tales spoken,” he said, “even when those who tell them believe them to be true, can often stray from what actually happened. But they often retain much of the truth, and it is possible that there were two sets of taxes; the one before Partition vote, and one, later, that increased the tithe even further, and that over the years the two have become confused, conflated into one event. We may never know,” he finished. I could hear what I thought was a trace of frustration in his voice.

Is there nothing in your books that speaks of this?” I asked.

No,” he said. “Those who wrote our histories were not terribly interested in what was happening in the southern Empire. Although the Partition vote and its results – the laws dividing your lives into women’s villages and compulsory army life for boys and men – did warrant mention. It was rather drastic,” he added.

I suppose,” I said. “It was just normal, for us, until these past two years.”

Of course,” he said. “Shall we go on?”

‘For ten days and nights women and men met and debated,’ he read. ‘The men supported the Emperor in his quest for more lands, arguing it was needed. The women argued there was land enough; careful husbandry would be sufficient. Finally Lucian suggested a parting of the ways: men would fight; women would fish and farm. A vote was taken and by a small margin passed.’

Not quite six in ten,” I said. Perras looked up, his eyebrows questioning. “That is what the Emperor told me,” I explained.

How did he know this?”

I thought back, to that first meeting, and the unexpected turn the conversation had taken. “He said Colm had found the records,” I said. “In a storeroom somewhere.”

Perras leaned back in his chair. “I think,” he said, “I will include that, as a footnote. I did not know how close the vote was, and it is worth recording.” He wrote for a minute.

Should I tell him, I wondered, that Callan had planned a new Assembly, to consider and vote again on the Partition agreement? Nevin or Blaine would have sent word of this north, had they both not died that Midwinter’s Day, executed as traitors. And there was my answer. I was not a traitor; I could say nothing. I regretted even making the comment about the vote. But the Emperor had told me to exchange views on Partition and our histories – did that mean I should talk about it? No, I told myself firmly. It’s not our history; it’s our future. And he told me to trust my instinct, and my instinct tells me to say nothing.

Perras finished his writing and looked up again. I hoped my confusion did not show in my face; to hide it, I glanced down at the book in my hands. “This next paragraph,” I said, forestalling any comment from Perras, “I have always wondered about what it says.” This was not strictly true: it had been Niav’s comment last night about marriage, that had caused me to wonder.

Let us check my transcription,” he said, “and then please ask what you wish; if I can answer you questions, I will.”

But the decree from the Emperor after the Partition vote was not to the liking of many men and women.’ he read. ‘All men would serve in the Emperor’s armies, whether they wished to or not; all women would fish and farm, or run the inns and workshops. Marriages were divided and families sundered. Twice a year only, war allowing, could the men visit their homes. Many fled the lands governed by Lucian, going east over the Durrains, or taking boats south; some even fled north, to the wild lands and people there.’

It is correct?” he asked. I nodded. “And what did you want to ask?”

Several things,” I said, prevaricating. Suddenly I did not feel I could ask what I had originally wished to, about marriage; not yet. “The people who fled east,” I said instead, “Across the Durrains. Where would they have gone? What lies beyond the mountains?” I turned, to look at the map that hung on the wall behind me. It showed the Durrains, but the land beyond them was blank.

Ah,” Perras said. “It is not on that map, Lena. But if you go to that third shelf,” he pointed at the bookshelf to the right of the fireplace, “and get down the blue box, I will show you.” I stood to do his bidding. I pulled the blue box from the shelf and placed it on the table.The Comiádh opened it and took out a rolled paper, tied with faded ribbon. He loosened the bow and spread the paper – the map – out, weighing the edges with the box on one side and his inkwell on the other.

Come and stand behind me,” he said. I did as he asked, peering down at the map. It was old; the paper browned and spotted, the colours faded.

Here are the Durrains,” Perras said, indicating a line of marks on the map. It was oriented in the way I was used to, the mountains running down the map to the sea at the bottom. But to their right, where the map Casyn had drawn for me long months before had ended, more land was shown; land and rivers and towns, occupying most of the sheet. In large letters, extending over most of the lower portion of the map, was the word ‘Cadenti‘.

What does that mean?”I asked, pointing at the word.

Conquered,” Perras said.

Conquered?” I said. “By whom? When? What language is that?”

By the Eastern Empire,” he said, “Half a thousand years ago, at least. And the language is Casilan, the language of the East, the archaic version of Oraidh’reacht, to answer your questions in order.”

I stared at the map. “I did not realize….I thought we were part of that Empire, yes…but conquered by them? Who were they?”

The Casilani ruled much of the known world,” Perras said. “They were, from all we know, a people of order, literate and learned, who sought to expand beyond their borders, perhaps at first to feed their growing population. From this city here,” he pointed to the far right edge of the map, where ‘Casil’ was inscribed in faded gold lettering, “they marched and sailed armies east, and conquered almost all the lands you see here. They brought learning and order with them. They established subordinate Emperors in their colonies – your Emperor Callan is heir to that position – to oversee the army and the food shipments and the taxes. And then, quite suddenly, they disappeared.”

This was much as Darel, and then Cillian, had told me. I looked at the map again, noticing this time that the lands to the north of where the Durrains bent eastward were shaded in grey, not the faded green of most of the map. I moved my eyes to the left, where the land I recognized as my own lay: it too was shaded green, but to its north, the map again was grey.

I pointed to that grey. “Is this Linrathe?”

What is Linrathe now, yes,” Perras answered.

Does the grey mean it was not conquered?”

It does,” he said.

Why not?” I demanded. “How did these lands hold out, if my own did not?”

For much the same reasons, I believe, that your Emperor Lucian’s armies could not: “they did not find the conquest of the northern lands easy, for the inhabitants knew the hills and valleys, forests and caves, well, and used them to their advantage.” he quoted.It is a wild land, Lena, and very difficult, and more so as you go north. But they did try; the Sterre, the other wall you noticed yesterday on the wall map: they built it, but could not hold it for more than a dozen years, if that. Their armies retreated south, and left these lands in peace, more or less.”

As Lucian had, and now as Callan needed to. Was it just the land that made Linrathe so unconquerable?

At the White Fort,” I said slowly, “the morning of the proclamation of truce…I was there. The Emperor, Callan, and the Ceannasach debated who should speak first, at the proclamation. Callan claimed precedence, and Donnalch…he granted it, but I didn’t understand his reasons.” I struggled to remember. “He said that we came from a common history, and that he and his men did not forget the greater Empire either. What did he mean, if Linrathe was not conquered?”

Sit, Lena,” Perras said, “and I will attempt to explain.” I did as he asked. When I was seated, he went on.

Linrathe – or what would become Linrathe – was not conquered, no,” the Comiádh answered. “But in the dozen years the Empire of the East’s armies occupied this land, the leaders here saw much to admire in the Empire’s ways, although they had no wish to be ruled by Casil. They sought – both during and after the occupation, for the Eastern Empire continued its presence in your lands for another two hundred years – to learn from the East, from their writings, from observation and likely from the interchange of ideas, and adopted what seemed good and appropriate for our people. These schools, for example, are part of that tradition. So, yes, the Ceannasach spoke truly, when he spoke of a common history, although we have moved on from that common history in very different ways.”

I see,” I said slowly, my thoughts whirling. My confusion must have shown on my face, for Perras put down his pen.

I think,” Perras said, “that is enough for today. You have much to think about, and the mind does not learn if it is force-fed. There is still over an hour until the mid-day meal; it is your time, of course, but perhaps you might go riding? I used to ride after lessons, especially difficult ones; it helps settle one’s thoughts.”

My mind cleared at the thought of riding, of action and movement, not thought. Clio would be sufficiently rested. I stood.

Meas, Comiádh,” I said.“It is a good idea.”

Meas, Lena, for helping me with the transcription” he replied. “Come to see me at the same time tomorrow, and we will continue.”

I closed the door quietly behind me. The hall was empty. Upstairs, I changed into my outdoor clothes and boots. From my bedroom window the sky gleamed grey; not threatening rain, I thought, just a grey day.

After a quick visit to the latrine I began the walk past the outbuildings to the stables and paddock. After a moment, I heard footsteps behind me, and turned to see Gregor following me. Of course, I thought. I won’t be alone; he has to go with me.

The Comiádh told me to go for a ride,” I said without preamble, “as a break from my lessons. Since you have to come with me, do you know this area well enough to lead me somewhere to gallop? I am in the mood for a run.”

I can do that, my lady,” he said. I didn’t bother to correct him. We walked in silence to the stables; the horses grazed in the paddock, but as always Clio came to me when I called her. I scratched her head, wishing I’d brought her a piece of bread, and led her out of the field and to the tackroom.

Gregor followed with his tall bay, and tacked the gelding up with the economical, practiced moves of a cavalry soldier. He mounted, not waiting, I was glad to see, to offer me a leg up; I swung onto Clio’s back and followed Gregor away from the stable.

The path ran down along the edge of the stream, its surface pocked by the hooves of sheep. The stream itself gurgled and splashed along a bed of dark rock, running fast with the early spring rains and the melting snows of winter. A small brown bird with a brilliant white throat hunted in the moving water, walking into the stream and diving below the surface.

What bird is that?” I called to Gregor. He reined up and looked where I was pointing.

A snámh’a,” he said. “I don’t know its name in your language.” He shrugged. “It swims? That’s what its name means.”

Swimmer?” I hazarded. “Swimming bird?”

He nodded. “Something like that.”

Meas, Gregor,” I said, and was rewarded by a brief moment of surprise on his face. Mentally I chastised myself for forgetting to use ‘please’ before my question. Next time, I told myself.

Ahead I could see a stone bridge spanning the stream; beyond it, the track led into a wide valley, with the stream at its right edge. We clopped over the bridge; at its far side, Gregor glanced back at me. “We can gallop here,” he said. “Do you want to set the pace?”

No,” I said after a moment’s consideration. “You know the land better. We’ll follow.” He nodded, and urged his bay into trot, and then quickly into a gallop. Clio tossed her head, and galloped after them.

When was the last time I had galloped for pure pleasure? Somewhere in the grasslands, riding south with Garth, I thought. It felt like a lifetime ago. I leaned a bit further forward, and gave myself up to the sensation of speed and power.

It took us about ten minutes to reach the far end of the valley, and sweat lathered along both horses’ reins when we pulled up. The valley had narrowed toward the end, the land rising more steeply on the left side. Gregor pointed up the hill. “If we go up there,” he said, “there’s a good, long, view. It might interest you.”

Let’s,” I said, and Gregor turned his horse’s head to the hill. We followed a track that zigzagged back and forth across the slope to reach the top, an easy climb. The hilltop was flat. Sheep grazed, scattered across the plateau, and a strong wind blew from the west.

I gazed northward. I could see a line of hills a long distance away; snow lay on their peaks and the highest were shrouded in cloud. I thought I saw a glint of water before them. Gregor spoke.

I was born in those hills,” he said. “That’s home, or was. My da’s a shepherd, like most there, and my ma and sisters weave the wool.”

Some women in my village were weavers, too,” I said. “They made blankets, and sails, and material for clothes. Is that what the women in your family made?”

Not sails,” he said. “But the other, yes.”

Do you miss them?” I asked impulsively. He did not answer immediately. “ Forla, Gregor,” I said. “I should not have presumed to ask that.”

It’s fine, my lady,” he said, and the tone of his voice told me he was not just being polite. “I was just collecting my thoughts. Do I miss them? Yes, I suppose I do; although there is no real place there for me. My brother helps my da with the sheep, and there is not a living there for all of us. So a soldier I became, when the Ceannasach asked for men.”

I looked up at him, sitting easily on his horse beside me. He was looking north, the wind blowing strands of his dark hair across his face. I thought he might be younger than I had first judged him to be, close in age to Cillian. Why was he a soldier, and not Cillian? ‘I am no lover of Empires,’ Cillian had said. Surely someone who felt like that would have joined a fight against the Empire? But was that what the invasion was about? I realized I didn’t know. I had never questioned, never asked.

Allech’i, Gregor,” I said. “What does the Ceannasach want with the Empire’s lands? Why did he breach the Wall?”

He looked down at me. “Don’t you know?” he said, the surprise evident in his voice.

No,” I said, “I don’t. I thought it was to support a faction of our soldiers who wanted to overthrow the Emperor, but it can’t just be that. There has to be something more for the Ceannasach, and your people. Is it for land?”

No,” he said. “Not for land, or for any prizes. We invaded to give you back what your Emperors have taken from you. You live in tyranny, my lady, whether your realize it or not; men and women are meant to live together, to marry and raise families, to work together. And you cannot. There are many here in Linrathe whose ancestors, mine included, escaped your lands to freedom here, and for many generations they have been asking our leaders to free the southern lands. This Ceannasach has listened, and acted. So it is all for you, my lady Lena, and not for us at all.”

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3 thoughts on “From the Beginning: Chapters 1 – 5

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