"THIS IS IT," Andrixine whispered.
"I'm scared." Lorien tried to smile, tried to force a laugh, but the sound caught in her throat. "I wish I had taken warrior training, like you."
"If you were a warrior, you'd be riding with me to Snowy Mount, not to Cereston to serve in the court."
"You have a different battle to fight, Lori," Kalsan said, riding up to join the sisters. "Yomnian gave you the gifts to be Sword's Voice just at the time we need you most."
They sat their horses where the Bantilli Trail met the King's Highway. Andrixine, Kalsan, most of Jultar's Oathbound and half the Sword Sisters from the Faxinor Chapter House would ride west, to Snowy Mount. Lorien would ride east with Brenden and Marfil as her bodyguards and Cynden, a Faxinor maidservant, to attend her.
The official story was that Andrixine was making the scholar's retreat her winter headquarters, to patrol the mountains dividing Reshor from Sendorland. The truth: she would use the seclusion and isolation of winter in the mountains to hide her pregnancy from the world. When the news spread that the Sword Bearer was pregnant, Reshor's enemies would rejoice and attack, and Reshor's allies would panic. Andrixine's family and counselors believed the timing was perfect and could only have come from Yomnian's hand. She would give birth in the spring and be ready for duty before their enemies could muster to attack.
Lorien, the quintessential lady, with her sense for fashion and fascination with politics, would go to Cereston and distract the court and Reshor's nobles. She wore the title of Sword's Voice to speak with her sister's authority and represent her before all the nobles and ambassadors in Reshor's capital. Her task was to make sure no one would suspect Andrixine's pregnancy until after the child was born.
The gap between Lorien and her older sister had never felt wider than it did today with a chill wind blowing across the rolling plain. The first crimson streaks of sunset painted the west with warmth and brilliant life, while rumbling, slate-colored clouds cast shadows to the east. Andrixine sat her horse easily with the wind tugging the hood of her cloak down, ruffling her shoulder-length brown hair. The silver and blue cord binding her warrior braids seemed to glow with the same light that touched the Spirit Sword when it gave her visions.
Lorien thought Andrixine looked warm and comfortable and eager to press on to face danger and duty. Muffled and nearly smothered in a long, thick traveling dress and a cloak, Lorien shivered and feared the tiniest gust would knock her off the sidesaddle. Would she be warmer if she adopted trousers and rode astride like her sister? She wished she could crop her golden curls short for easier handling. She wished she had taken up swordcraft. She wished her archery were better, so she could opt to join the Sword Sisters' flank of archers. But she couldn't. Her skills lay in heraldry, court language and politics, in knowing the proper form of address and curtsey for each rank, the latest dances and ballads, and in knowing how to discern truth from scandal in the gossip trickling across the country. Or so she hoped. Studying the events of their country after the fact might not be the adequate preparation everyone assured her it was.
A warbling from overhead turned into a trilling sound, and two shadows descended from the sky to land on Lorien's shoulders. She sighed and exchanged grimaces with Andrixine--just as two more shadows landed on her sister's shoulders. They had sat still long enough that their chaldo had decided to come down to roost.
Chaldo were messenger birds, used by King Rafnar, the Sword Sisters, and bands of Oathbound warriors for communication. The birds were a special breed, raised by holy renunciates in the Macani Range on the southwestern mountain border of Reshor. Smaller than pigeons, they had white belly feathers and gray-blue coloring on their backs. They were raptors, with claws and cruel beaks, a lilting song, three times the endurance of eagles and twice the speed of carrier pigeons. Legend said they came to Holy Nereena in a vision. Fledglings imprinted on specific people and were able to find them anywhere.
Andrixine had used chaldo all summer to communicate with her sub-commanders and with the king. In the last four weeks since learning of her pregnancy, she had trained her chaldo to bond with Lorien, so the sisters would have fast, reliable, utterly secure communication. As Sword's Voice, Lorien needed the ability to communicate with her sister quickly, with no chance of a messenger being attacked or their messages read by unfriendly eyes or even replaced with lies.
If necessary, the chaldo would protect her. Lorien tried not to think of that eventuality. She had another day of riding to reach Cereston, and, so far, no one but the king knew she was coming. What were the chances someone would attack her on the way to Cereston? Two Oathbound warriors protected her, and she would live in the Sword Sister Chapter House in Cereston. She would be perfectly safe.
So why did she feel increasingly sick to her stomach with every hour she drew closer to the capital?
"I think this is our clue to leave," Andrixine said. She shrugged, and the two chaldo lifted into the air with soft flutters of their wings. Lorien's chaldo followed suit. She held out her arms and reached across the gap between their horses. "Don't hate me, Lori," she whispered as the sisters hugged, "but I'm glad it's you and not me facing those fancy-dressed farmers and snake-minded poets."
"Hate you?" Lorien sputtered, feeling better already. "If not for you, I'd never see the coast, much less be invited to the palace. Unless I married someone's heir-son and had to be presented in court."
"Think about breaking hearts and dazzling those idiots who don't know which end of a sword to use," Kalsan offered. "We're depending on you to confuse everyone until the baby is riding his own horse."
Andrixine groaned and rolled her eyes, but the smile she shared with her husband sent a pointed twist of envy through Lorien's heart. When would she find someone who could make her laugh, who seemed to know what she was thinking, who watched her with such adoration, and whom she could adore? She envied her sister, even with all the problems awaiting her. Lorien thought she had prepared herself to make a politically astute marriage and be satisfied with that, instead of the soul-binding love her parents and sister had found. Why couldn't she hold onto that resolve? Was there something deeply flawed within her?
"See if you can smooth Lord Treyfas's feathers," Andrixine said.
"He should be smoothing yours," Lorien retorted. "The nerve of him, insulting you just because you wore trousers into the palace, and then calling Kalsan a simpering toady because he attended you. And then getting angry when he found out who you were, as if you set a trap to force him to embarrass himself!"
"Those in the wrong are more likely to create noise and fuss and claim injury than those they wronged." Andrixine shrugged. "Don't ask me why that is, I don't understand it myself. Ask Brother Klee. Remember, always go to him, or Commander Caleen. They'll watch out for you as if you were their own blood. Queen Sandia is looking forward to making you the darling of the court. She's ordered dozens of dresses, and she's planning a massive welcoming festival for you."
"And we'd better get going," Kalsan interrupted, as the chaldo came in again to perch.
The sisters hugged again, and Lorien reluctantly released her sister and stayed still when the majority of their traveling party turned west down the King's Highway. She waved and held back her tears until the chill wind brought great droplets of rain and Andrixine's band had dwindled to a small dark spot on the plain.
"It'll be all right, Lori," Brenden said. The Oathbound warrior winked at her and swatted her horse's neck, to get the silver-gray mare to turn and start walking. His green eyes glimmered in his dusky face, and the scarlet cords in his warrior braids glimmered in the deepening twilight of the oncoming storm.
"If we can find shelter before we're half-drowned," Cynden said with a snort that could have been either cynicism or amusement. She wrinkled up her nose at the two warriors, who exchanged grins over her cinnamon-colored head.
"The Sword Bearer wouldn't have entrusted her sister to us or to you if she didn't think us capable," Marfil said.
"Besides," Lorien couldn't help saying, "I have a map, and there's a wayhouse just over that far hill." She smirked at the two warriors, who had revealed a penchant for teasing the diminutive, sharp-tongued maidservant.
Her maid sighed in exasperation, but Lorien noticed that Cynden didn't hold onto her aggrieved look very long. Brenden seemed exceptionally talented at bringing out smiles and laughter. It might be interesting to watch a romance blossom between the two.
Lorien's spirits drooped at that thought, and she tried to concentrate on urging her horse into a gallop, so they could reach the wayhouse ahead of the worst of the rain. Still, she couldn't seem to stop the recurring complaint.
Those born of noble blood had to think of more than love and companionship when they married. None of the suitors who besieged Faxinor in the last year had appealed to her. Maybe she had grown cynical, suspecting everyone of seeing only her rich dowry, her place as Andrixine's heir-apparent, or the access she could provide them to the Sword Bearer. Lorien told herself yet again to give up any hope of a love match, to serve Andrixine and Reshor by marrying for political alliance, and be happy in it.
No matter how much it hurt, she would be happy in it.
"THIS IS DEFINITELY not the same as riding all morning and racing you home, is it?" Lorien asked the chaldo perched on a stump in front of the wayhouse in the early morning light.
The little predator bird trilled six notes up and three down, and bobbed its razor-beaked head at her. Lorien muffled a gurgle of laughter and finished folding her message for her sister into the waterproof packet that attached to the bird's leg.
The lazy days of practice and dreaming were over. Lorien supposed the games truly ended when their Uncle Maxil tried to murder Andrixine because she wouldn't marry Feril.
Lorien shivered now, thinking of her silliness in those innocent days. How could she ever have thought Feril charming? He was always heavy, but he took such pains with his clothes, and always knew the latest songs and troubadour tales. He seemed so well-educated. But his true nature emerged when he didn't get what he wanted.
Then their mother had been kidnapped, her sisters supposedly murdered, and Lorien caught Feril laughing in the garden just hours after the news reached Faxinor. He didn't even pretend to mourn Andrixine's death before he turned his attentions to Lorien. The first time he tried to steal a kiss, she had fled and emptied her stomach in the corner of her mother's rose garden. She had vowed then, as she did now in the early morning cool, never to trust sweet words or handsome faces until she knew the soul and mind of the man.
In Cereston, Lorien knew people would court her friendship and favor to win her support and influence the Sword Bearer. No one ever saw Lorien, barely nineteen years old and terrified of failing her sister, her family and her country. Andrixine had apologized for the position she had put her in--she had even ordered Lorien to retreat and give the duty to another if she found it too heavy--but a wise warrior used the weapons and tools Yomnian granted.
I don't want you to be miserable, or to hate me, Andrixine had said with a rusty laugh. Yomnian never gives us duties that destroy our souls, so how can I do that to you?
Hate her sister? Never! Jealous? Yes. But Lorien believed Yomnian's blessings often had to be earned. She vowed, with resolve as binding as Andrixine's vows as Sword Bearer, she would serve truly and well. No matter what it cost her.
Lorien lifted and released the chaldo with a simple flick of her wrist. She watched it arrow straight up into the pink and gold sky and vanish two heartbeats later. In her mind's eye, she traced the bird's flight toward Snowy Mount. Her head felt light and ready to disconnect from her body, half from hunger, half from nausea. She hungered to reach Cereston this evening, and she wanted to curl up under a bush and sob out her longing to ride straight home.
"Yomnian, make me a worthy servant, today and always," she whispered.