Just as was planned, they rode out the day after next, on an autumn morning crisp and sweet-smelling as a golden apple, and took the main road south, past fields of grain and rivers and moors, and patches of forest scattered here and there across the vast green ocean of grassy plains. Septimus imagined the hooves of so many horses must raise a cloud of dust behind them, but Korian told him, Ned and Tinisk to keep close to the front of the column and so Sep did, holding on to the reins for dear life and doing his best not to fall off his mare, who was, as Korian promised, a quiet, sweet-tempered beast. Talvi disentangled herself from the Women’s Battalion at the rear and rode with them too, ignoring Korian’s scowl. She didn’t complain even once about blistery thighs – something Sep couldn’t pride himself on. He longed for the midday break, but after it was over and he had to get into the saddle again he felt worse than he did before he rested, and he didn’t even want to imagine how raw and painful he would be when he would unhorse for the night. A few times, he paused to think what the Tilirians would do if he couldn’t ride at all. He wouldn’t put it past Korian to swing him across the saddle, he thought bitterly. Or leave him behind. Perhaps it wouldn’t be too bad after all.
In the evening, when they set camp in a field outside a village called Hinassi Koor (which, as Ned explained to him, means Cherry Root), Sep found himself and Ned sitting ’round a fire with Talvi Orr. They had soldiers whose job was to cook for the commanders and they were roasting an ox not far off, but Talvi scoffed at “farmer boy fare”. She made the cook cut off a few choice slices of meat for her and put them on spikes, and was now charring them at the fire. She pulled several jars and bottles out of her traveling bag and uncorked them, and the air was filled with the smell of foreign spices. She seemed to relish this seemingly lowborn women’s work, something Sep found surprising.
“I might be good with a bow, but it doesn’t mean I’m inept among the pots and kettles,” explained Talvi, “my father always kept a good cook, and I’ve been sneaking down to the kitchens ever since I was a little girl. At first I was just begging for hot pies and tarts fresh out of the oven, and then I asked to stir a kettle, and before I was ten, the cook proudly announced to my father that I could replace her if I wanted to – to which, of course, my father would never agree,” she added, smirking.
“How come your father allowed you to ride with the troops?” asked Sep.
“Oh, don’t think it was that easy,” Talvi laughed, “it took a great deal of, shall we say, skilled convincing. But I always had my own way,” she grinned widely, sprinkling the sizzling meat with powder of red hot pepper.
“So it would seem,” Ned interjected, and she laughed.
“I take it you disapprove, Paladin?”
“I don’t think it’s good for anyone to always have their own way.”
“I happen to agree with you. Life would be boring, wouldn’t it? But think, on the other hand, of never getting to do what you want. That is the fate of most women.”
Ned said nothing, although Sep thought he could feel mutiny in his silence. He suddenly remembered that pretty and gentle girl, Tari Tionae, and felt a little sorry.
Despite himself, Septimus found his mouth watering. All day long, riding had made him feel so queasy he had nearly forgotten how hungry he was, but now all of a sudden he was famished. Gratefully, he accepted a slice of roast meat from Talvi and took a bite. It was deliciously tender and well-spiced, and Sep was so immersed in the process of chewing that he did not notice the footsteps of Korian, who approached their fire with a self-satisfied smirk on his face.
“How fares the fair one?” he asked airily.
“Good evening, Commander,” said Talvi in her most innocent voice, fixing him with a stare of golden eyes. “We’ll share some of our meat with you, in exchange for a cup of wine.”
“Thank you, but I have already eaten,” Korian said dismissively.
“Not anything like this,” she assured him.
“Roast beef is roast beef,” Korian shrugged. “My belly is full, and that is already luxury enough on a march like this. To you, of course, plain food is novelty.”
“Not at all,” countered Talvi, and despite the mildness of her voice, Septimus could feel her temper is rising. “I am not a pampered little princess, despite my noble father’s professions. I am no stranger to hardships.”
Korian snorted. “Hardships? If you mean saddle blisters and sleeping on hard ground, that’s but a warm-up to what awaits us ahead.”
Septimus found himself very earnestly hoping that this was only said to give Talvi a fright, although the girl looked as serene as ever, turning another chunk of meat over the fire.
“You are not being very courteous,” observed Talvi.
“You gave up the right to courtesy when you donned man’s armor and took up a sword.”
“And a bow,” she added.
“Right,” the Commander said vaguely. It was his indifference that finally riled Talvi up, despite the very clear consciousness that she is being goaded.
“You underestimate my abilities,” she declared. Septimus wolfed down his second chunk of meat, in fear of the dinner being overrun by pointless bickering. He had had too much of that kind of experience in school to underestimate the danger. Ned, he noticed, stalked off imperceptibly into the darkness, an uncomfortable expression on his face.
“I beg your pardon, my lady,” Korian made a mock bow, and went on in tones that dripped acid. “I have the highest opinion in the world of your abilities which, I am more than certain, will yet astonish us in the course of our long and perilous journey. I am convinced you shall be the fright of the Malvian savages at the south border, and the savior of the realm. One arrow from that prettily fashioned bow of yours, and our enemies will scatter and run, and all that will be left for us to do is pick up the pieces of their abandoned banners and burn them to ashes.”
“I know your opinion of me,” Talvi regained composure, “you think me a silly, trifling girl who doesn’t know what she is about. You will be proven wrong. Moreover, you will be glad to be proven wrong, as much as you always hate being in the error.”
All the meat was done by then, and she laid it aside in a copper pot and got up.
“By all means please continue enjoying your supper,” Korian entreated her, “I will not intrude upon you any longer.”
But Talvi stood upright on her feet, and fixed him with an insolent stare. “I will resume my supper soon,” she said loudly and clearly, “now, however, I am going to go behind those bushes over there, and make water.”
“That is not a very ladylike statement to make,” remarked Korian, and Sep could tell that for the first time, the Commander was well and truly amused.
“I will not be able to survive very long in the Women’s Battalion if I am a fine lady,” Talvi said pleasantly. “There will be time enough for curtseys and giggles when the trouble is over and we go back home. Now excuse me. I’m off to take a piss.”
And she marched away, shouldering him. Korian looked after her, grinning wickedly and unrestrainedly for the first time.
“I hope I have not caused any deep offence,” he said in an unconcerned tone, “but one cannot be expected to withstand such an opportunity for innocent entertainment, isn’t that so?”
Septimus could not venture to answer.
“Be that as it may,” continued Korian, “now that our little bowmaster went away to squat in a private spot among a clump of bushes, I should ask you for the favor of your company, Septimus Swift.”
As little worldly experience as Septimus had, he knew as well as anyone that this is a moment when one must hide his reluctance. “Certainly, Commander,” he said, putting aside what was left of his meat.
“Walk with me,” asked Korian, and together, they walked in silence, until they were almost at the edge of the camp. This corner was sparsely peopled, and the crackling of fires, bawdy jokes and coarse laughter formed now an indistinct humming in the background. Korian no longer appeared disposed for amusement. His eyes were chips of emerald ice, and his face wore a distinctly queer expression. When he teased Talvi he seemed almost a boy; now it was obvious he was a man, and one used to having his orders obeyed. He isn’t my Commander, Septimus reminded himself.
“Is there anything in particular you wanted to speak to me about?” asked Septimus, wondering if perhaps he is being too forward, but it seemed that bluntness was more apt than suavity to please his unlikely companion. Korian gave a satisfied nod and ran a hand over his face, as if obliterating every trace of emotion.
“You have heard of my sister, Datrine, have you not?” he asked.
“I have,” Septimus replied cautiously, somewhat puzzled.
“A great deal, I can easily surmise,” Korian went on, “if you have been in the company of Ned Kamtesir above one hour. So tell me,” he said forcefully, “tell me, Septimus the Sightseer, what you think.”
“I think I would like to know the point you are trying to make, Commander,” said Septimus as politely as possible.
“My father has prohibited to speak the name of Datrine in our home,” said Korian. “An outlaw, she is now called. A traitor whose death would wash us all clean,” he added bitterly.
“Well, it’s obvious you disagree,” said Septimus, “you are not the only one. Your other sister, Tari... she was fearful of being heard, but she asked me to give her love to Datrine, if ever I chance to meet her... although I couldn’t promise her it would happen.”
“Ah,” Korian’s eyes thawed slightly, and a note of pride and pleasure could be heard in his voice when he spoke. “Tari has always been meek and obedient, but it does not mean she has no mind of her own. Though in this case perhaps it’s her heart speaking more than her head. She always had her heart in the right place, that little one. And so does Datrine,” he added, with such ferocity that Septimus would not have dared to object even if he had felt the inclination to. He had no such wish, however. He was prepared to continue listening to the Commander’s effusion of speech.
“You are new here,” said Korian, “you will hear many a man portray my sister in the darkest shades. Do not believe every bit of whispered gossip. Datrine may have betrayed the king’s politics, but she did not betray Tilir. She was simply too proud and restless, and had too much of a fire in her, to continue sitting with her hands folded in her lap and watch helplessly as our country is being ravaged. Her loyalty is to her people, her home, her clan, her land... and perhaps, if I had not been the heir to the leadership of Tionae, if I had not been tied by my oath to the king, I could venture to support some of her decisions more openly.”
“Do you trust her, then?” Septimus raised an eyebrow. Whatever may be said for the spirit of Datrine, he was under no impression that she had displayed strategic brilliance. If she had, she wouldn’t be so hated and feared even in her father’s home.
“Better and worse,” Korian said brusquely. “I love her. Once you meet her, you will understand why.”
“Once I meet her?” Septimus repeated. “Are we definitely going to meet her, then? I didn’t know that was part of the plan.”
The Commander gave him but a half-smile before turning away and leaving him alone, caught in a stray gust of wind that made him feel sudden gooseprickles cover his arms.