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A Knock on the Door

Kothifir: Summer 45


The Knorth randon balanced the words on his tongue as if trying, dubiously, to taste them. “Queer sort of a name, don’t you think?”

“Very queer,” his fellow officer agreed.

“I mean, who would name a child after the Dream-weaver, given all the trouble that she caused? And why ‘Priest’s-bane’?”

His friend shrugged off the latter and the god that it implied. “Our priests go their way. We go ours. I hear, though, that the Highborn were marvelously put out.”

They contemplated this as they leaned on the rail of a third-story balcony outside their quarters in the Knorth barracks. It was late afternoon. The smell of dinner drifted up from the kitchen and a clatter of plates rose from the mess hall. The grassy quadrangle below had fallen into shadow. Opposite them stood the limestone bulk of the barracks’ south side. Beyond its ramparts, the ground dipped to reveal the red tile roofs of the Ardeth and beyond that, those of the Randir, all marching down to the South Gate which opened into the training fields and the Betwixt Valley. To the west were the Caineron, the Jaran, and the Edirr; to the east, the Brandan, Coman, and tiny Danior, tucked into an outer wall whose curve followed the eastern arm of the encircling River Amar.

This, then, was the Southern Host’s garrison at the foot of the Great Escarpment, in the shadow of Kothifir, its paymaster.

Oddly enough, the Host persisted in calling such a substantial collection of architecture their camp, as if at any minute they might pack up and march away.

There was more than a hint of ambivalence there, thought the first officer, whose name was Spare. The Kencyrath had been given a great task by the Three-Faced God, to defeat the forces of Perimal Darkling, ancient of enemies. Instead, their deity had abandoned them and they had been forced backward down the Chain of Creation from threshold world to world, ending up here on Rathillien—for no greater purpose than to sell their swords to a local god-king?

Oh, Spare understood the necessity well enough. His people had been ceded the Riverland, far to the north, but it had proved too poor to meet their needs. And they had been on Rathillien such a long time—three thousand-odd years—that their original purpose had long since been put aside in favor of mere survival. Even Torisen Black Lord, Highlord of the Kencyrath, had had to send nearly half of his forces south to Kothifir to support his Riverland base, without which he could not maintain control over the fractious houses under his dominion.

It wasn’t right that he and his fellow Knorth should be sent so far from their lord, thought Spare, not for the first time. Torisen held his followers lightly, not wanting to intrude on their lives any more than was necessary—not, of course, that any of them wished to be gripped as tightly as, say, Lord Caineron did his house. At such a distance, however, the bond sometimes trembled, giving rise to unwanted doubts. Now here was another one.

“Blackie has made this Jamethiel his heir,” he said, testing the idea as he had the name, uncertain of both. “His long-lost sister, a Highborn lady—well, a girl, actually.”

“I know. And he sent her to Tentir.”

“Which she survived.”

Both considered their own first year at the randon college, the culls, the camaraderie, the challenges. Only the best made it through.

“They say that she redeemed the Shame of Tentir by reclaiming the Whinno-hir Bel-tairi.”


“No one knows. She just showed up one day at the college with the mare under saddle, then rode off with the lost Randir Heir, Randiroc. And she trained with Bear. And she threw Lord Caineron’s uncle Corrudin out a window. And she killed a Randir tempter with a swarm of bees. And she defeated Caldane’s heir, riding a rathorn. Lord Caineron can’t have wanted her to graduate from the college at all. How could she with his war-leader in place as Tentir’s Commandant?”

This in some ways was the biggest mystery of all. Sheth Sharp-tongue must have been under great pressure to fail the Knorth’s unlikely heir, and from the sound of it she had given him plenty of opportunities. Yet rumor said that he had been solely responsible in the last cull for letting her pass. Sheth might be a Caineron, but his skills and integrity were legendary throughout the randon community. He would never have supported a cadet whom he believed unworthy.

“Where d’you suppose she is now?” asked Spare.

“Probably still presenting her credentials to Commandant Harn. Her contingent of second-year cadets, all eighty-odd of them, should be here any time now. In fact,” he added, harkening to the sound of voices coming down the public road beyond the barrack’s western wall, “that may be them now.”

Movement below drew their attention as figures spilled out of the Knorth barracks into the quadrangle. Ten, twenty, thirty . . .

“That’s the entire third-year class,” said Spare’s friend, leaning over the rail to look.

Thanks to the great battle at the Cataracts two years ago, an entire class of first-year cadets had either been killed or promoted on the field. Thus they had missed half of their year at the randon college, but had gained a glorious blooding against the Waster Horde. Established randon found them a bit rough-edged and aggressive, but very proud of the distinction that battle had given them.

Now they rushed forward to close and lock the garrison’s double gates.

“Now that . . .” Spare began, but halted as he sensed a presence behind him. A moment later the barracks’ commander appeared at his elbow.

He and his friend made way for her at the rail, exchanging glances over her gray, short-cropped head. Ran Onyx-eyed spoke to neither of them, but she was usually silent. No one tended to remember that her given name was Marigold. Rather it was her still, dark gaze that captured attention—that, and her masklike face. One never knew what she was thinking. It was most disconcerting.

Below, the third-year cadets were tumbling building blocks in front of the inner door. The barracks had suffered considerable decay during Ganth Gray Lord’s long exile, before his son Torisen had risen to claim his place three years ago. Scaffolding rose on either side of the inner gate, bearing more stones to reinforce the southern wall.

Voices sounded out in the road:

“K-north! K-north! K-north!”

Was that a cheer or a jeer?

The randon above waited to see what the newcomers would do when they found themselves shut out of their new quarters. After a certain amount of confusion beyond the wall, the outer door swung slowly open.

“Maybe they forgot to lock it,” said Spare’s friend.

“Maybe.” Spare felt a stir of excitement. “D’you remember what happened at Gothregor when the ladies tried to lock the Highlord out of the Women’s Halls?”

“No. What?”

“Wait and see.”

Into the expectant silence fell a sound. Someone was politely knocking on the inner door.

Its portals began to swing ponderously open. The stone blocks in the way were shoved back, digging into the grass, tumbling aside. A slim figure, hardly more than a child to Kendar eyes, stood on the threshold in the widening gap, silhouetted by lances of dying sunlight. And still the gate opened.

“’Ware the scaffolding,” breathed Spare.

Wood hit wood, and the builders’ framework splintered. Stones came thundering down. The third-year cadets retreated while officers burst out of the barracks to stare at the billowing dust. At last the cacophony dwindled to a trickling of sand and someone in the midst of the cloud coughing. The Highlord’s sister emerged waving dust away from her face.

“Er . . .” she said to all the waiting faces. “Sorry.”

“Huh,” said Ran Onyx-eyed.

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