Disclaimer: The Chronicles of Narnia is the intellectual property of C. S. Lewis and his estate. No money is being made from this story, and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author's Note: This story was written for the 2012 Narnia Big Bang challenge. It is not the story I signed up to write, but it turned out that I couldn't write a sequel to "Out of Season" without first going backward. Many thanks to metonomia for the beta, and to i_autumnheart for the awesome artwork! (You can find her paintings at this post: narniaexchange. livejournal. com/ 69219. html ) Warnings for character death and violence; this is a war story, after all.
Summary: Ilgamuth Tarkaan was fourteen when he first rode to war. He was likewise fourteen when he pledged his life and his name to Prince Rabadash, a decision that would shape the rest of his life. Prequel to "Out of Season."
To Every Thing There Is a Season, part 1
Ilgamuth Tarkaan was fourteen when he first rode to war.
This was not an unusual age. Most Tarkaans' sons learned to ride as early as they learned to walk and were trained with sword and spear from boyhood. To blood one's spear was to become a man.
What was unusual was the context. Kidrash Tarkaan, the High Lord of Calavar, had kept the province largely neutral in the decade of civil war that followed Zarman Tisroc's death, so Ilgamuth's brother had proven himself in skirmishes against roving bands of deserters instead of in a proper battle. Ilgamuth had expected to do the same, riding out at his father's side.
But even after Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) captured Tashbaan and put his elder brother to death as a coward and traitor, some of the southwestern provinces were still reluctant to recognize his legitimacy. Two years into his reign, the High Lords of Rachegra and Drinachlala rebelled outright. Therefore the Tisroc raised a great army to crush the traitors, and permitted his own son, who was now fifteen, to accompany the campaign.
This was a moment of great opportunity. Anyone who could become one of the crown prince's companions would win immeasurable influence and power for himself and his family, should Rabadash succeed his father in due time.
Kidrash Tarkaan's voice carried less weight at court than the High Lords who had supported Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) from the start of his campaign, but Calavar was justly famed for the quality of its horses and the wealth of Elith, one of the two main ports between the Shirush and the Nandrapragaan, and so when Ilgamuth's father asked a favor from his lord, Kidrash was able to have Ilgamuth assigned to the small personal cavalry troop that Prince Rabadash would command.
The rest would be up to him.
The soldiers from Calavar were led by Alimash Tarkaan, the son of Kidrash Tarkaan's sister. He took the weight of his responsibility seriously, judging by the pains he took to speak individually with each of the boys going to war for the first time, listening to their obliquely expressed worries and explaining the more practical details of life in an army. The trip to Azim Balda, where the army was assembling, took three days. "Your first lesson: armies always travel slowly unless somebody makes a great effort and is very well organized," Alimash Tarkaan said when several of the boys complained. "We can only go as fast as our supply train. Otherwise, as the poet Roondeh said, 'An army chokes on its own dust; it starves in the midst of plenty.'"
Ilgamuth whispered the second line of the poem as Alimash quoted it, and smiled to himself. He was not always skilled at putting words to his own thoughts, and having a store of potentially apt phrases was a comfort. He also liked the images and rhythms, and the sense of disparate words coming together into a balanced whole, greater than the sum of their individual parts.
It was good to be going to war at last. That was what he had been born and raised to do, like any Tarkaan's son, rich or impoverished. He was less sure about becoming one of the prince's companions. Truly, it would be an honor, but Ilgamuth was not sure he wanted to leave the quiet countryside of Calavar for the grandeur of the royal court. His brother Ilvari would inherit their father's lands, but there was no shortage of work on the estate or around the village of Zivathoor, and Ilgamuth had thought he might try his hand as a scholar or an engineer once he proved himself a man. He doubted he would have that chance if he somehow caught the prince's eye.
It would be shameful not to obey his father's wishes, though. He would try his best.
In Azim Balda, the Calavarene contingent met the rest of the army and organized themselves into divisions by specialty and by province. Alimash Tarkaan went off to argue his precedence with the other commanders of chariots, the other boys accompanied their kinsmen to the camp set aside for the light cavalry of Calavar, and Ilgamuth was left alone in the courtyard of the house commandeered by Prince Rabadash for those who would be his companions.
Ilgamuth had brought two horses - Naija, a bay roan mare, and Shaxi, a chestnut gelding - along with the spear and sword his mother had presented to him the morning of his departure. They weren't precisely new, since it was best to know the balance and handling of one's weapons before putting them to the test in battle, but they were new enough and his mother had tied ribbons of scarlet and black silk around them in honor of Tash and Azaroth, the gods of war and death, and a white ribbon for Achadith, the great queen of heaven whose favor granted victory. He also had his armor, three changes of clothes, a letter of credit up to three hundred crescents, a coin purse with five crescents, twelve sickles, and a handful of copper minims, a letter of introduction from Kidrash Tarkaan, and a copy of his family seal on a chain around his neck.
After a moment, he collected himself and pulled the bell rope just inside the outer courtyard gate. Two male servitors came out of the main house. One took his horses and led them toward the attached stables; the other took his saddlebags and led Ilgamuth into the house.
"You will share a room with Chlamash Tarkaan, O my lord, until General Jenin gives the order to ride south," the servitor said respectfully. "I will place your possessions at the foot of your bed while you present your seal and your letter to Prince Rabadash (may the gods smile on him). He and the other young Tarkaans are in the inner courtyard."
Ilgamuth nodded his thanks and set off through the room and corridors of the borrowed house. He suspected it belonged to a merchant rather than a Tarkaan; there was a telling lack of heirloom weapons on the walls, and an equally telling number of landscape murals on flat walls rather than raised and textured plaster work. But it was still a very nice house, and the carpets were more lavish than any Ilgamuth had seen except for his one trip to Kidrash Tarkaan's house when he was very young.
The inner courtyard was arranged around four shallow water channels, each rising from a circular pool at one doorway and leading to a low fountain in the center of the garden. Several boys and young men sat on the rim of the fountain, laughing and jeering as others played halgah among the bushes, striking the leather ball with fists and feet as the two five-man teams fought to advance to opposite sides of the yard. Ilgamuth counted twenty-four in all, dressed in varying degrees of finery, and wondered which was the prince. Presumably he was a player rather than one of the unlucky watchers on the sidelines, and presumably he was neither the youngest nor the oldest in the group, but that left far too many options.
One of the players noticed him standing in the frame of the open door and whistled, a piercing, wavering note that Ilgamuth recognized from horse drills. Someone caught the ball, and everyone turned to examine the newcomer.
Ilgamuth felt akin to a horse that had wandered unexpectedly into the midst of a dozing pride of lions, only to see the great cats wake with hungry eyes.
He swallowed his fear and bowed from the waist, touching his hands to his forehead. "Greetings, O worthy ones," he said. "My name is Ilgamuth Tarkaan, son of Ilcortha Tarkaan of Zivathoor in Calavar."
One of the players - a tall boy, still beardless, wearing a crimson tunic and turban - stepped forward. "Calavar," he said. "Kidrash Tarkaan is your overlord?"
"Yes," Ilgamuth said, wary at his questioner's lack of a reciprocal introduction.
"A good man with a keen mind, my father says, though perhaps more cautious than befits a soldier," the boy said. "Let us hope you equal his insight and surpass his courage. I am Prince Rabadash, son of Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever). Be welcome in my house."
"Thank you, O my prince," Ilgamuth said, stepping into the courtyard.
"Are you any good at halgah?" a gangly boy in a dark blue turban asked, tossing the leather ball from hand to hand. "You make twenty-five, which means we can field five teams; that's lucky! And this way Ilvari and Zuketh won't have any excuse to continue shirking. I'm Corradin, by the way - son of Achilar Tarkaan, warden of Castle Tormunt."
"Otherwise known as Corradin Slip-Tongue," a tall, broad-shouldered boy added. Corradin threw the ball at his head. The tall boy struck it neatly back, and Corradin caught it one handed, laughing. Behind him, the prince rolled his eyes in exaggerated impatience.
"I don't know if I'm good, but I can play," Ilgamuth admitted.
"Excellent! Take my place while I rearrange the teams," Corradin said. "You're with Azrooh, Hunagor, Zarman, and Prince Rabadash, striking that way." He pointed toward the notional goal, then threw the ball to Ilgamuth.
By the time a pair of servitors came to the courtyard to announce that supper was prepared, Ilgamuth had played eight rounds of halgah, watched ten more, and had no idea whatsoever what the prince or any of the others thought about him. He consoled himself that he hadn't been the worst player on the field, and that the prince would probably care more about their performance in battle and their loyalty than their skill at boyhood games and their quickness at making friends.
Prince Rabadash appeared ready to stay awake well into the night. Ilgamuth, more used to following the cycle of the sun and uncomfortable among strangers, claimed weariness from the road and retired early - or he would have, if he hadn't passed through the merchant's small library on his way upstairs. Nearly an hour later, he surfaced from a volume of war poetry at the sound of feet in the hall outside his temporary bedroom. He hastily blew out the lamp, slipped the book under his flat pillow, and pretended to be asleep when Chlamash Tarkaan opened the door.
Chlamash was a tall, stolid young man who'd evidently been to war at least once before, since he was attempting to grow a beard. (The results were sadly scraggly.) Ilgamuth watched him through slitted eyes, wondering if he would catch the faint scent of smoke from the lamp and call Ilgamuth's bluff, but either the other boy failed to notice or failed to care. He simply removed his shoes, changed into soft sleeping trousers, and dropped straight off to sleep.
Ilgamuth watched the stars through the narrow, open window and wondered what he thought he was doing here.
He woke with the gray light of dawn on a cloudy day. Chlamash was still soundly asleep, as were most of the others, judging by the closed doors along the various corridors of the upper floor. Ilgamuth found the merchant's sumptuous bath on the ground floor and proceeded to wash and scrape away the grit of the road that he'd largely ignored the previous day. Then he went in search of breakfast.
The house slaves were naturally already awake and had set a simple breakfast out in the dining hall: a large bowl of fruit, a platter of dark bread with side dishes of honey, oil, pickled fish, and spiced humus for toppings, and several pitchers of watered white wine. Ilgamuth helped himself and resumed exploring the house. The arch of the sky and the calls of birds were the same he had always known, but the sounds drifting over the walls of the property were the waking grumbles of a city, dominated by people and the clatter of wood and stone rather than by animals and the aimless murmur of water and wind.
He was in the stables, crooning nonsense to his horses, when Prince Rabadash found him.
"Here you are," the prince said. Ilgamuth jerked backward in surprise, then caught himself, pressed his hands briefly to his forehead, and bowed from the waist. "Stop that, fool," Rabadash snapped, brows pulling down and eyes rolling like a maddened horse. "What sorry excuse for an army would we be if my companions had to interrupt themselves and bow every time I walked past? That humility is for soldiers, not Tarkaans."
Confused, Ilgamuth held his tongue.
Rabadash seemed to take that as agreement. "You have a good eye for horses, typical for a Calavarene," he continued in a calmer tone of voice, looking appreciatively at Shaxi and Naija. "You'll need a third, though. I run my cavalry by the old rules, to ensure we will have the greatest possible advantage of speed. Go to the horse market and find a reasonable mount instead of the dogmeat trash some thieves try to sell to the regular army."
"As you command, O my prince," Ilgamuth said. "Ah. Pardon me, but about the cost-"
"On your own shoulders," Rabadash snapped, annoyance blooming over his face once more. "Your father spent money and favors to buy you a chance at my side, but I and only I decide who will stay there. I have no use for men who can't make their own way. I need strong companions, not ones I have to carry over every tiny obstacle in life. Buy a good horse or slink home with your tail in the dust and spend the rest of your miserable life on your knees with a petty horde of silver to remind you of your lost chance at glory."
He whirled and strode out of the stables. The horses shifted in muted agitation as he passed.
Ilgamuth stroked Naija's soft nose, letting her breathe the familiar scent of his skin and clothes under the foreign odors of the city and the perfume of the merchant's soap. Shaxi leaned over the high wall dividing his stall from his sister's and lipped at Ilgamuth's hair, a habit Ilgamuth had never bothered to train him out of.
"Where am I supposed to find a horse market?" he wondered aloud.
"I see you've been subjected to the horse lecture," a voice said unexpectedly from behind his shoulder.
Ilgamuth twitched, controlled himself for the sake of his horses, and turned slowly to see who had snuck up on him. Three of the other would-be companions stood in the central aisle of the stables: Corradin, the one who had welcomed him yesterday afternoon; a tall, broad-shouldered boy with the light skin and straight hair of the far northwestern provinces showing around the edges of his gray turban; and an older boy whose chin was graced by the start of a respectable beard, which he had dyed a brilliant scarlet.
It occurred to Ilgamuth that if these others knew about the 'horse lecture,' presumably they also knew where to find a horse market. And it would do him no favors to continue keeping to himself, no matter how awkward and tongue-tied he felt among strangers.
"Prince Rabadash instructed me to buy a third mount," Ilgamuth agreed. "Would any of you be so gracious as to show me the way to a suitable market?"
"Truly it is fitting for us, as ones who would become close as brothers, to extend every favor to each other," the bearded boy said. "Alas, my horses are accustomed to a regular schedule and I must exercise them before the third hour." Suiting deed to word, he pushed past Ilgamuth and began fussing over a rather high-strung stallion at the far end of the stable.
"Our horses are not nearly so particular as Anradin's," the tall boy said with a broad smile. "We were introduced last night, but remembering such a mountain of names without any context is a skill more suited to courtiers than soldiers. I am Ilvari Tarkaan, from Vesilan in Archeni province. This fool is Corradin of Castle Tormunt, in Ifayyapura."
"And you are Ilmurath from Calavar!" Corradin finished triumphantly.
Ilvari sighed. "As I said, a fool. Thank you for proving my point. His name is Ilgamuth."
As Ilgamuth nodded in agreement, Corradin waved his hands in grand dismissal. "Ilgamuth, Ilmurath, Ilmarkesh, Ilragesh, Ilcortha, Ilsombreh, Il-this, Il-that, Il-the-gods-themselves. The gods know our names, we know our deeds, and who needs to fret over the grains of sand in our shoes? Psssht! Now follow me, Il-one and Il-two. We have a horse to buy."
Ilgamuth looked furtively toward Ilvari and caught the taller boy rolling his eyes. He let his own amusement show on his face. When Ilvari smiled, he began to feel this war might not be such a bad way to enter the world of men, whether the prince chose him or not.
The army spent two more days in Azim Balda before beginning the long march south to the rebellious provinces. Ilgamuth rode his newly purchased horse, seeking to build trust between himself and the sullen pinto mare, while a groom led Naija and Shaxi in the rear of the prince's column. The mare had been nearly three times as expensive as she would have been back home in Calavar - now he had only a hundred and twelve crescents remaining to his name.
If he won the prince's favor, his poverty would be fleeting.
If he won the prince's favor, his freedom would also be fleeting. With only rare exceptions, royal companions rode where their master rode, ate what he ate, slept where he slept. They spoke his words and their swords were extensions of his.
It was rather like slavery, Ilgamuth suddenly thought, only freely chosen rather than imposed by the outer world. He wondered if there might be a poem in that comparison. He suspected not: it seemed close to treason.
Already three of the other contenders had abandoned the quest for one reason or another and faded into the general mass of the cavalry. That left twenty-one boys and young men trying to distinguish themselves in Rabadash's eyes.
Ilgamuth kept his new mare absently in line with the rest of the small troop and wondered what he could do to make his mark.
Anradin of the crimson beard and several others rode close around the prince, evidently competing to entertain him through the interminable heat of high summer. The air was filled with the scent of sweat and horses. Dust kicked up by the passage of several thousand hooves, feet, and wheels drifted down to coat everything and everyone in a fine layer of grit. Ilgamuth could not even distract himself by watching scenery, since the prince's column was in the very center of the army and all he could see to either side was a veritable ocean of soldiers who looked as hot and tired as he felt.
He began reciting poetry in his mind as a distraction, which had the unfortunate side effect of letting Corradin and Ilvari sneak up on him yet again.
"Have you named her yet?" Corradin asked, nearly startling Ilgamuth into wheeling his horse around to face the unexpected threat. But he had not grown up in the heart of Calavar's horse country for nothing. He controlled himself and the mare before they could disrupt the column.
Corradin was laughing at him nonetheless.
Ilvari simply shook his head and sighed. "It is said that taking a nameless steed into battle brings misfortune on her rider and his companions," he said. "You must give her a self so the gods can see her."
"'They run like wind, like lightning, like a storm-tossed sea on dry land; who can count their number, any more than drops of rain or grains of sand? But beware, O man, before you think to steal a single hoof; their master knows them all,'" Ilgamuth quoted.
Corradin laughed harder.
"Just because Sokda knows every horse in the world doesn't mean Tash or Achadith do. You have to bring them to the right gods' attention," Ilvari said patiently. "What is the mare's name?"
In Calavar, horses were not named until they were known, so the word would not interpose itself between beast and master. Ilgamuth had not yet learned all the moods and habits of his new mare, nor had she grown accustomed to him and able to respond to his slightest shift of attention. But she did remind him of a folktale his elder sister Hunariyyah was fond of: the sullen girl who sat by the oven all day and would never help her family with any of their chores, nor offer the fresh bread to any guests, until one of those guests revealed himself as a prince in disguise and bought her for his slave because he found her sharp tongue amusing.
"Hareena," Ilgamuth decided, and poured a tiny pool of water into his right palm, letting it drip through his fingers onto the mare's neck.
Ilvari nodded in satisfaction.
"It's leagues upon leagues to Rachegra, and all of them exactly the same as this," Corradin said, still wheezing slightly from his fit of laughter. "You will expire of boredom long before we meet the traitors in battle if you keep to yourself the whole way. Come meet the rest of our happy little band and entertain us with your poetry and tales of battle."
Ilgamuth frowned. "This is my first time at war," he said.
Corradin blinked and nudged his gelding closer. "I know you don't have a beard, but I assumed that was because of your scar," he said, pointing toward the left half of Ilgamuth's face. "Where else could you take a wound like that if not in battle?"
Ilgamuth kept his hand from covering the maimed side of his mouth by pure strength of will. He hated touching the ruined skin and feeling the twist in his lips and cheek that forced his mouth into a permanent sneer.
"When I was eight, I fell from a tree and struck a branch on the way down," he said, and forced himself to shrug as if untouched by embarrassment.
Corradin hissed on an indrawn breath, as if feeling sympathetic pain. "I see, I see. No wonder you didn't say anything about it earlier. But consider the bright side: after we put down this rebellion and are chosen as royal companions, everyone will assume you got the scar defending the prince's life. If my sisters are any fit standard for judgment, that will make you very attractive! Now come and pretend you're not a hermit in training."
He directed his gelding toward a group of six other boys, obviously expecting Ilgamuth and Ilvari to follow him.
"It is not good for anyone to always be alone," Ilvari said after a moment. "It is particularly undesirable for a soldier to stand at a distance from those whose lives he holds in his hands, and who hold his life in turn."
"As you say," Ilgamuth agreed, and they rode together toward Corradin's friends.
The rest of the journey to the border of Rachegra seemed to take simultaneously years and no time at all. By the time General Jenin ordered the army to make camp on the northeast bank of the broad, sluggish Angaavush River, Ilgamuth felt he was made of nothing but road dust and threadbare poems. He also felt that he was further away from winning Prince Rabadash's favor than ever.
Though Ilvari and Corradin presumably could be counted among his friends, he still felt as if a pane of glass stood between him and them. As for the others, he knew their names, their faces, enough about their temperaments to class them as pleasant or unpleasant, and enough about their skills to know which he would prefer to have at his back or side in battle - but little more. He knew even less about the prince.
Rabadash seemed to flash from mood to mood at the flap of a crow's wing, and whether there was a foundation beneath his whims was impossible to say from Ilgamuth's distance. It was also impossible to know if there was true steel behind his hunger for glory, though that question, at least, might soon be answered if the rebels chose to give battle rather than shut themselves up in their cities and forts and prepare for interminable siege.
It was unusual to set camp in the seventh hour with the sun barely past zenith, but it was doubtless wiser to have the river guarding their van rather than lurking at the rear to drown them in the event of an unexpected attack. It was also good politics to give the rebel High Lords one final chance to bow their heads and sue for peace, without handing them the provocation of an imperial army on their lands.
Ilgamuth and Chlamash, the largest and quietest of the would-be companions, helped the prince's personal slaves beat down the tall grass of the southern plains and set up the royal tent while the rest of the boys unfolded and steadied their own shelters. A few had complained about the work in the early days of the journey, but Rabadash had turned on them in a fury, his face contorted like a demon, and shouted that, "Calormen was built by men who rode a thousand leagues without complaint, who went without food, without water, without sleep if need be, all for the glory of the Tisroc, the empire, and the gods. They did not scruple to dirty their hands. Do not dare to think that you are above them, you midden-loving sons of crippled dogs!"
Occasionally the prince even helped erect his own tent, though he spent most evenings in discussion with General Jenin, the court officials sent to ensure the legality of the war, and the various provincial unit commanders.
This afternoon Rabadash stormed back into his section of the camp, Anradin and Zuketh trailing like wolfhounds at their master's heels. Ilgamuth was certain those two had won the prince's favor. He was fairly sure that Chlamash, a sullen southern boy named Hunagor, and a short, fiery boy named Azrooh would also be chosen as companions, presuming they survived the approaching battles. Five was a good number. Very few princes and Tisrocs had named more than five companions. Considering that Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) himself had only ever claimed one sworn man, who was a generation older than himself and now served as Grand Vizier, for Rabadash to pick a large number might seem presumptuous.
Ilgamuth drifted toward Rabadash's tent, where the prince was ranting to anyone who would listen about how General Jenin's age had curdled to senility, how caution had soured into cowardice. "The rebel curs will never bend unless they are made to bend, with the edge of a sword at their necks to remind them of the oaths they have forsworn," he said. "This show of good faith, this mockery of negotiation, does nothing but give them time to increase their stores and dig in like the badger in his set, like the tortoise in his shell. It will take half of forever to burn them out into the open, and every day we keep these peasant excuses for soldiers away from their home provinces, every field we burn and every cow we requisition, will only breed new thoughts of rebellion in some other lords' rotten, fly-infested hearts."
Rabadash turned and struck the pole holding up the roof beam of his tent, making the entire structure shudder and sway. "Useless! 'Learn from your elders,' said my father (may he live forever) when I left Tashbaan. All I can learn from this maggot of a man is how not to pursue a war!"
"You could take command from him, O my prince," Anradin suggested, stroking his short beard. He did that often; Ilgamuth suspected it was an attempt to look older than his sixteen years. "You are the heir. General Jenin must obey your orders."
Rabadash scowled. "My father (to whom the gods give strength) has specifically ordered the General to disregard any order I give that would weaken his authority. He has also ordered me to roll over and show my stomach and throat to the man rather than put him in his place."
"A pity," Anradin said. Zuketh and Hunagor murmured agreement.
"What exactly are the general's plans?" Corradin asked, leaning forward with curiosity bright on his face. "And does anybody know where exactly the rebels are? Rachegra and Drinachlala are not the smallest provinces in the empire."
Rabadash shot Corradin a sour look, but the change of subject did seem to distract him from the worst of his temper. He sent one of his slaves into his tent to bring out a large map which he pinned to the ground with borrowed daggers, and began explaining the strategic and tactical situation, as best as the army's spies had been able to determine.
"The main force is gathered in the provincial seat of Had Ordjah on the Tavrir River, fifteen leagues south across the Angaavush from our position. Sibanis Tarkaan of Drinachlala has sent his three eldest sons to join the High Lord of Rachegra, though half his sworn vassals remain within his own province. Of their own forces, the rebels in Rachegra have three thousand horse, six thousand foot, at least one division of chariots, and whatever siege engines and fortifications they have had time and resources to build since the traitor Urcharooh Tarkaan forswore his oaths and declared against my father (may he live forever) in the week of the Spring Festival," Rabadash said, pointing out the city and the current location of the camp on the beautifully drawn and calligraphed map.
"Had Ordjah has little natural fortification aside from the river itself, but the city has often been turned into an artificial island during past wars, and the river has been dredged so deep over the centuries that the city bridge is the only feasible crossing within two leagues in either direction. Doubtless the rebels will destroy it the minute they see our approaching dust."
"That is not an easy siege, O my prince," Ilvari said.
"A child could see as much," Rabadash agreed angrily. "Therefore we must find a way to avoid one, particularly since there is a constant risk of counterattack from Drinachlala, but General Jenin seems determined to bury the army in the quicksand of futility."
"How would you plan to avoid a siege, my lord?" Ilgamuth asked, and then forced himself not to flinch when everyone's attention swung toward him.
"How would you?" Rabadash asked, turning the question back around on him. "Tell me, O Ilgamuth of Calavar, Ilgamuth the poet, Ilgamuth of the twisted lip. You are here to become a soldier and a leader of men. How would you take Had Ordjah without a siege?"
Ilgamuth swallowed and tried to think. "To take a city, you must defeat its defenders. If a siege and starvation are impossible or impolitic, you must get your own soldiers within the walls or lure the defenders outside," he began, stalling for time by quoting truisms.
Across the map, he could see Corradin rolling his eyes.
"If Had Ordjah sits on the floodplain, there is little chance of secretly bringing enough soldiers close to the walls to make a difference against over eight thousand men, let alone the entire population of the city, even if there were a way to get them through the walls. Therefore it becomes a question of luring the defenders out."
"Blindingly obvious," said Rabadash. "Continue."
"To hear is to obey, O my prince," Ilgamuth stammered, his mind racing. "There is no tactical reason for the High Lord of Rachegra or his allies to venture beyond the security of their walls. But tactics are not the only considerations that drive men to action. 'Passion undercuts reason, toppling empires as water levels mountains.'"
He heard someone snort at the fragment of poetry.
"Do not interrupt," Rabadash said, his voice deceptively mild. "Platitudes are not plans, sweet though poetry may be to the ears. Continue."
Ah! Ilgamuth grasped at a fleeting idea and shoved words around it as best he could. "General Jenin will not move the army until official negotiations have fallen through. O my prince, what if a handful of us rode to the city. What if we rode in disguise? Who would notice another group of refugees taking shelter from the Tisroc's wrath?"
"Aha!" Corradin said, jumping in. "Then we kidnap the High Lord's daughter, carry her off at the stroke of midnight, and marry her to Rabadash! Very romantic!"
The rest of the gathered boys dissolved into laughter. Even Rabadash seemed amused, though he signaled Zuketh to slap Corradin on the side of his head.
"No," Ilgamuth said, and then a bit louder, trying to make his voice carry over the jumble of laughter and jeers, "no, we kidnap the High Lord's son."
Rabadash went still, and silence spread from him until Ilgamuth could hear nothing but the sound of quiet breathing. Even the noise of the surrounding army seemed to fade away.
"Urcharooh Tarkaan has four daughters, but his only son is a child of barely four years. His next closest blood relative is his half-brother, whom he hates and has banished from his lands," Ilgamuth said. "I listen to the soldiers talk around camp," he added hastily when Rabadash's face darkened in sudden suspicion. "If we take his son, at the very least we will cause suspicion and dissent between the High Lord and his allies. If the gods favor us, we might even provoke him into opening his gates and attacking what he considers a small group of madmen. Meanwhile you, O my prince, could summon the rest of the army to cross the Angaavush, kill the traitor, and crush whatever forces he brings with him beyond his walls."
He tried not to shift awkwardly in the continuing silence.
Rabadash drew a deep breath. "The edge needs sharpening, but the blade itself is sound," he said. "Which of you fools has been to Had Ordjah before? Anyone?"
There was a general chorus of demurrals and shrugs.
Rabadash hissed through his teeth. "Useless. That means I must be one of the kidnappers, since I was in Had Ordjah only this past autumn, and am therefore the only one who knows the shape of the High Lord's palace. Ilgamuth, as this plan was your idea, you will come with me. So will Zarman, Ilvari, Chlamash, and Kinboor. We leave at dusk. Anradin, I will leave you my ring and my seal. At dawn on the day after tomorrow, you will order General Jenin to proceed across the Angaavush and south toward Had Ordjah, whether he wishes to or not. Until then, give out that I have taken a fit of pride and am avoiding him lest I be reminded of my supposed lack of power and experience."
As the twelfth hour of day drew to a close and the sun bled scarlet and gold on the distant tablelands of Drinachlala and the yet more distant peaks of the western mountains, six boys wrapped in dusty cloaks requisitioned from peasant foot soldiers rode downriver along the Angaavush, toward the main road and the ford. They carried swords and daggers, but their spears remained behind. Rabadash had decided they were too obvious a sign of noble blood and warlike intent and would interfere with their disguise. (His sudden passion for misdirection did not extend to changing their clothes, however. Ilgamuth was uncertain if that was a hidden layer to the plan or simple oversight.)
Rabadash led the way, followed closely by Kinboor Tarkaan, whose mother was Rachegrene and who therefore had some familiarity with the province, though he lacked the social standing to have ever visited its High Lord. Ilgamuth and Ilvari took the rear. Ilgamuth had chosen Naija for this trip; she was steadier than Shaxi, and he felt he still didn't know Hareena well enough to trust her reactions in a chase or a battle.
"This is the worst kind of luck," Ilvari muttered, his voice barely carrying over the jingle of harness and the clop of hooves on hard packed earth. "We asked no blessing from the gods, we're starting a journey as the sun dies instead of as it rises, and we are technically disobeying the Tisroc (may he live forever)."
"Surely we can stop at a shrine in the city," Ilgamuth murmured back. "And this sort of journey is the kind I would request Azaroth's blessing for rather than any of the sunlit gods. Darkness suits its beginning."
"I note you avoided my third point," Ilvari said.
Ilgamuth shrugged helplessly. "How could we disobey the prince? To report him to General Jenin, against his orders, would be treason. To not report him may also be treason. At least along this path we have a chance at a great victory that will push any questionable tactics into the shadows."
"We also have a chance at getting the crown prince killed, or worse, held hostage by rebels," Ilvari said gloomily. "Why did you speak up?"
"The prince asked," Ilgamuth said.
In truth, he wondered that himself. What was it about Rabadash's focused attention that had driven away any doubts Ilgamuth had about serving him? Now that the prince was riding several horse lengths ahead, the spell of his eyes and voice broken, Ilgamuth remembered that Rabadash was rash, that his temper was foul, that his favorites among the potential companions were Anradin who fed his pride, Zuketh who took his every word as holy writ, and Hunagor who idolized him so obviously that a blind man could see his hero worship.
And yet. Sometime during the journey Rabadash had paid enough attention to know that Ilgamuth liked poetry. He had listened to Ilgamuth's ill-considered idea instead of immediately declaring him a fool. He was brave enough to risk his life and his honor on this half-mad plan, and while part of that was undoubtedly a thirst for glory, his ranting about sieges did suggest that he might wish to spare the soldiers and the land that would someday be his from unnecessary death and destruction.
"The gods willing, this will come to something other than complete disaster," Ilvari said in a gloomy tone. "Ware the ford."
Their horses splashed into the water at a shallow spot marked by a pile of whitewashed stones, and crossed into Rachegra.
AN: Thanks for reading, and please review! I appreciate all comments, but I'm particularly interested in knowing what parts of the story worked for you, what parts didn't, and why.