The horizon wavered in the heat of an early summer as Nolryn squinted across the balcony. He thumbed idly at the neck of his now emptied beer bottle, debating the wisdom of collecting another. The weather was only hot for the time of the year, so he didn't really have that as an excuse. Raykin's shimmering red desert would get much worse before summer hit.
The unseasonable warmth had made his morning of meetings drag much more than they had any right to, and Nolryn felt deserving of a little time out of his afternoon. And so, he sat relaxed in the self-service bar of Raykin's royal palace, three friends equally comfortable in their couches around him. The view of the desert opened out beyond the open fourth wall of the room, while the main city of Ni-Yana lay back behind the palace.
'I should be getting back,' he decided, leaning forward to set his bottle on the table. 'His Majesty awaits.'
Gylepi shrugged. He was flopped on his lounge, long limbs splaying everywhere like a wet noodle that had missed the edge of its pot. 'Suit yourself,' he agreed, 'but get us another bowl of dates on your way out?'
'And send another few beers up, too,' Garuk added. He drained his bottle and set it on the table alongside Nolryn's.
'Yes master,' Nolryn agreed with a flourished bow from his seat. He relished the feeling of sitting down for a moment longer, then swung himself to his feet.
A messenger waited at the door as he turned, a new girl he didn't recognise. He gave a sigh and ran his fingers back through his hair. 'I know, I know, I'm coming. Could you get another bowl of dates and some beers organised, while you're at it?'
The messenger shook her head. 'I haven't come from His Majesty's office.' She turned to address the other three men Nolryn had been sitting with. Nolryn's shoulders dropped in anticipation, and he saw Garuk's head thud back against the couch as he, too, realised the messenger's purpose.
'General Rau requires your presence in his office immediately,' the messenger confirmed.
Nolryn rubbed his face with his hands. 'Of course he does,' he muttered.
'Now?' Gylepi blurted, spinning around to hook his arm over the back of the couch. 'But we only just got back a week ago.' He turned a glare on Nolryn, which his dark eyes and heavy brow might have made fearsome but for the fact Nolryn knew him so well.
Murali, the seasoned campaigner, merely shrugged and replaced his empty bottle on the table.
'First I've heard of it,' Nolryn said, spreading his hands and heading back to the lounges. 'Majesty's had me on nothing but the Llayan wood merchants all week.'
'Still,' Gylepi went, turning back around now the initial shock had passed. 'Shouldn't he have told you something?'
Nolryn crossed his arms over the back of the couch with a grimace. The amount of information he wasn't privy to might be laughable if it didn't frustrate him so much. He looked back at the messenger, waiting patiently for an answer.
'Thanks,' he said with a nod. 'We'll still take the beer and dates, though.'
'Certainly, your Highness.' The messenger bowed herself out of the room with a small smile.
After less than an hour of idle speculation, the four archers drifted downstairs and across the courtyard to their general's small office. Most of the King's Own had already assembled, leaving only the blade archers and a few of the swordsmen yet to arrive.
General Rau sat on the edge of his desk, looking far more comfortable than the general rightly should before a mission. Nolryn frowned. It should be a good omen, he decided, though by their very nature their missions were never easy. The King's Own wasn't called in until the situation was desperate enough to need them.
He joined the line of Own riders, folding his arms and resting his back against the wall. Nimay, his best friend since childhood, nudged him and rolled her eyes. She'd never been able to speak a word, but the meaning in her gestures was always clear as words on a page. Here we go again... She had a bag of dates in her hand, clearly having been at the markets when she received her own call-up, and offered him the bag with raised eyebrows.
'Thanks,' he said with a grin, and picked a few from the bag. 'What's this one, then?' he asked of the general, nodding towards the embroidered map that covered the opposite wall of the room as he popped a date in his mouth. Definitely from the markets. They hadn't been pitted.
Rau displayed his open palms by way of apology. 'Majesty just found out this morning. You were in a meeting at the time.'
'We only just got back a week ago,' Gylepi complained again. 'How can it be that bad that we're needed?'
'Dire,' the general answered with an easy shrug, but said nothing more. He never revealed anything until the whole of the Own had gathered. He hated explaining things more than once, he said.
'Just a yes or no, General,' Gylepi pressed. 'Is it the Borderlands?'
Rau lifted his eyebrows and gave nothing away.
'It's the Borderlands,' Garuk confirmed. 'It's always the Borderlands.'
Finally the last of the Own riders trickled into the room and positioned themselves with backs to the wall.
Rau pushed himself from his desk and strode over to the map, then pointed to a cluster of towns just north of Ni-Yana, right on the Kazinian border.
'Called it,' Garuk murmured under his breath. Gylepi jabbed him in the ribs with an elbow.
'Much the same as ever,' Rau said over the groans that always accompanied his announcement of a mission. His tone was almost bored, and Nolryn reflected that the borderlands did come up as an issue in meetings quite regularly. It was always brought up with a sigh and a wave of the hand, a 'let's get this over with' so they could return to more serious matters. It was just the done thing, send the Own up there to sort it out and forget about it. Now that Nolryn rode with the Own himself, he wondered if there might be a better way of doing this.
'Ni-Nuka and Ni-Reska have been taken,' Rau was saying. 'Nothing as yet has been burned, but the locals who came down this morning say there were about fifty raiders this time around, so it's safe to assume they've taken another town since then, too. The crops, though, so far as we know, are intact.'
'Why not send up Second or Third Company?' Nolryn offered. 'Just a handful of them permanently stationed.' It shouldn't be so unheard of, he figured. The lower Companies were rarely ever used, and the army had a reputation as a cushy job because of it. Sending them up there would benefit both them and the region they defended.
Rau frowned, as though surprised that he should be fielding any questions for such a basic mission, then he shrugged. 'Ask Majesty,' he said, as though that should end the conversation, then he realised just who he was speaking to and pointed a finger at him. 'After the mission,' he added. 'Pack your bags, gentlemen, we're leaving dawn tomorrow. And I mean out of the gates at dawn, this time!'
Nimay grabbed Nolryn's arm, breaking him out of his musings, and held up her notepad with a few words scrawled on the paper. She always had a few questions for him after a briefing, and always the right questions, too. 'What crops?' she asked this time, and, 'Why the Own?'
Nolryn grinned and slung an arm over her shoulder. 'Barley fields and hop gardens,' he answered.
The swordswoman raised dubious eyebrows at him, which only made his grin broader. 'We're going to save Raykin's beer.'
Knowing that an argument with his father would demand more time than he had, Nolryn spent the rest of the afternoon preparing for the mission ahead. He checked over his horse's tack, leaving the bridle with the stable hands to repair some of the worn leather, then scouted around for everything he knew he would need: sun cream, insect repellent and basic medicines from the healing house, journey bread and dried meat from the kitchens and a full quiver of arrows from the barracks. Once everything was lumped on his bed beside his saddle bags, he began the task of fitting everything into them. He was just tossing the jar of insect repellent between his hands, debating whether or not he would really need it for a trip to the Borderlands, when a knock sounded on his door. He glanced up as the door swung open without his permission.
'Majesty,' Nolryn said with a slight nod of his head.
'All set?' his father asked, glancing at the two stuffed saddle bags standing at the end of Nolryn's bed.
'Just about.' He tossed the insect repellent once more, then folded his arms and rested his back against the bed post.
King Mithé mimicked his position against the door frame and interrupted before Nolryn could say anything. 'I'm sorry I didn't get the chance to tell you about this one sooner,' he said, and this time he actually sounded genuine. 'We have to move quickly up there, and you were—'
'Llayan wood merchants, I know. I'm just curious, though. I mean, I'm sure there's a reason, but why the Own?' He crossed his ankles and tossed the jar onto the bed. 'A few dozen bandits doesn't generally warrant a full Own mission.'
'Well,' the king said with a shrug. 'Why do you think?'
Nolryn sighed. He'd been doing that in the last year or so, turning his son's questions back on him rather than answering them outright. 'I don't know,' he answered awkwardly. 'The situation's just always felt a bit haphazard to me. Reacting rather than acting. Even the boys are treating it just as a thing to get out of the way.' He waved a hand, reaching for the words to say what he needed. It was as though nobody really cared what was going on in the borderlands, but he couldn't tell his father that. 'It's an important region. Can't we do something more permanent up there?'
Majesty's mouth tightened, indicating Nolryn had missed the obvious.
Nolryn's mouth tightened right back. 'Money,' he muttered.
The king nodded. 'Sending the Own up there every few years is as much as their taxes can pay for. Most regional areas can't afford that, so they're better off than many.'
'But surely we can do something better,' Nolryn pressed. He paused a moment and to change tact. 'Just let me work on it. If I can't do it cheaper and better, then we stick with the Own.'
Mithé's stern face wrinkled in a thoughtful frown. He wasn't dismissing Nolryn's thoughts outright this time, so that was a positive sign. Maybe he'd been right, and nobody really had thought of a better way of dealing with the problem.
'Talk with the locals while you're up there,' Mithé decided with a nod. 'See what you can come up with.'
Nolryn grinned. 'Thanks, Majesty.'
He woke early the next morning and dressed lethargically into his uniform in near-darkness. After a breakfast made to wake him up—the kitchen staff had graciously made him a mug of coffee, though they still didn't quite know how to make it right—he loaded himself with all his riding paraphernalia and traversed the three flights of stairs down to the courtyard and the stables.
The sky was a pale yellow-tinged grey, with a shock of gold where the sun was just peeking its face over the horizon. Beyond the towering outer wall that ringed the palace grounds, Nolryn could hear the bubbling of the crowd already gathering to farewell their heroes.
He yawned and rolled his shoulders to shake some life into them. As usual, most of the swordsmen had already turned up and stood outside the stables, their horses already saddled.
'You only live up there,' General Rau said by way of greeting. 'How does it take you that long to get down?'
Nolryn shrugged one shoulder under the weight of his saddle bags. 'Lot of steps, General,' he answered, then disappeared inside the stables.
His steed, a terracotta-splotched stallion he had aptly named Mongrel, stood excitedly in his stall. His head hung over the door as he waited for his rider to appear, and he began tossing it and making snuffling noises when Nolryn approached.
'At least someone's excited to go.' Garuk led his much more placid old gelding by, looking nervously at the stallion.
'As long as he doesn't go any further than excited,' Nolryn muttered. He set one hand on his hip as he frowned at his horse. 'I'm not coming in until you calm down,' he said sternly. The animal wouldn't understand the words, but there was at least half a chance that he would understand the tone of voice.
Mongrel snorted, tossed his head once more and fell relatively calm, though he was still twitching in anticipation.
'Good luck, Nol,' Garuk said with a shrug.
Nolryn took a deep breath and opened the door to his horse's stall. Mongrel pawed impatiently at the ground, but otherwise cooperated, as much as he was capable. He only tried biting once through the whole process, and that looked more like he was reaching for Nolryn's pockets for food than actively attacking. Finally, Nolryn was able to lead him from the stables, loaded with all the gear he would need for the journey. He swung up into the saddle, cringing as his thighs reminded him of the mission he had only just returned from a week ago, then pulled back a little on the reins, just enough to remind Mongrel who rode the saddle in their relationship.
The stallion tried once to toss his head and run for the gates, where the sound of the amassing crowd had elevated from an excited bubble to full-on cheering.
'Mongrel!' Nolryn barked, yanking him back. 'That's enough!'
'Are we going to have any trouble?' the general called.
Nolryn shook his head, not looking up from his horse's twitching ears. 'I will; you won't.'
'Good, that's what I like to hear.'
Eventually, a good hour past dawn, all fifteen riders of the King's Own were assembled and ready to leave. Already the sun burned over the wall of the palace, but it was still early enough that they could ride comfortably through the city streets.
King Mithé, as always, stood at the railing to his balcony two storeys above, arms crossed over the balustrade. He smiled and lifted one hand in a wave when Nolryn glanced up at him.
'Good luck, boys,' he called down. A few of the Own riders saluted back to him before General Rau called for their attention.
'Due north for a week, boys,' he announced. 'Let's move.'
The massive wooden doors of the palace front gates swung open, their normal creaking drowned out by the shrieking and screaming of the crowd. Nolryn was no longer amazed at how quickly the news spread through Ni-Yana. Even they had only found out themselves yesterday afternoon, at least half the city had turned out to see the King's Own leave. They always did.
'I hate this part,' Garuk muttered beside him. 'We're just doing our job, why is that cause for this much celebration?'
Nolryn grinned. 'Ten years, you've been with the Own, and you're still not used to the fame?' He shrugged. 'I like this part. Far better than being shot down in meetings with Llayan wood merchants.' His grin broadened when he realised that issue would be cleared up by the time he returned home in a few weeks. 'Lap it up.'
Not an inch of space was left within viewing distance of the Main Road. Children clung to palm trees and perched on their parents' shoulders. Every rooftop was covered with people waving and shouting, each trying to gain the attention of their heroes. Nolryn dutifully smiled and waved back, though he kept one hand tight on the reins the whole time. Mongrel didn't often act up in a crowd, usually saving his outbursts for when he was bored on the road or in his stable, but Nolryn wasn't taking any chances.
The procession near-crawled along the Main Road. Mongrel tossed his head impatiently a few times but otherwise behaved. By the time they crossed the bridge over the Ra-Lin into the farmland on the other side of the river, the stallion was fair yanking at the bridle to get moving.
'Fine,' Nolryn allowed him. 'Yes, let's go.' He gave Mongrel a light tap with the toe of his boot, and the stallion was off like an arrow from a bow. Nolryn stood up in the stirrups and gave a whoop and a laugh despite himself. He could hear the hooves of the other excited horses thundering behind him, but Mongrel had always been the fastest horse in the Own. They bolted through the farms, racing past mellow cattle and nervous sheep, through crops of hardy desert wheat and rows of date palms. It wasn't long before the farms petered out to be replaced by rusty red sand clumped with spinifex and saltbush.
Away from the protection of the palm trees, Nolryn pulled Mongrel up to a more manageable trot, knowing the horse would run himself out if given the chance. He settled back in the saddle, rubbing affectionately at Mongrel's shoulder even though the horse danced and tossed his head, snorting his displeasure at having been pulled up so early in his run.
The other archers soon pulled up alongside him. Murali rode straight-backed, though he was still the shortest of the archers by a good foot. Garuk slouched in his saddle, one hand braced on his thigh while the other loosely held his reins, far more relaxed away from the gawking city crowd. Gylepi crossed his lanky arms over the pommel of his saddle, flicking the slack of his reins back and forward with a lazy grin on his face.
'You know the best thing about Borderlands missions?' he asked, grin broadening.
'It only lasts a month?' Nolryn tried.
Garuk reached over and swatted him on the back of the head. 'Use your imagination, Nol. Where are we going?'
Nolryn cocked an eyebrow at him with a wry grin. 'The beer,' he realised. 'You know most of it ends up back in Ni-Yana anyway, right?'
The old veteran shrugged. 'It tastes better up there. Fresher. Hasn't come over a week's worth of desert and sun before it gets to you.'
Nolryn grinned in anticipation. 'How many have you done?'
Garuk frowned in thought for a moment. 'Five or six, maybe? Lost count.'
'Well, I've done three,' Gylepi answered, 'and I reckon you'd done at least three when I signed up.'
At least six times the villages and towns of the borderlands had been invaded, in only ten years. Nolryn frowned. There simply had to be a better way of handling the region than sending the Own up whenever Kazinians were sighted on the horizon. He tried to work the numbers in his head, whether permanently stationing maybe a hundred of the regular army members up there for the year would be cheaper than sending the Own up for a month every year or two.
'How much do the lower Companies make on assignment?' he asked aloud, half-aware he was interrupting the ongoing conversation on the merits of Borderland brews.
'Search me,' Gylepi said with a baffled shrug. 'Shouldn't you know? You pay them.'
'I never look at that bit,' Nolryn defended. 'They're right at the bottom of the army budget and they've never been on assignment my entire life.'
'A silver per week for Twentieth Company,' Murali answered, then gave a slightly self-conscious shrug when he realised the three archers were staring at him. 'As I keep saying, I'd rather be First General than Own rider.'
'Keep that up and you'll make it,' the prince told him with a lopsided grin. He paused a moment while he worked out the numbers. 'Still more than hiring the Own for a month every two years.' He shook his head, putting the problem aside. He would just have to speak with the locals when he got up there.
The route the Own travelled for the more normal missions in Kazin followed the Ra-Lin upstream to the mountains, but the road to the Raykinian Borderlands was little more than a worn path of packed sand that led due north. It was a straight track that cut through the desert, veering off only a little in the middle to cross past a permanent oasis fed by an underground spring. This being the perfect halfway point between Ni-Yana and the Borderlands at which to water the horses, an enterprising couple from the city had set up a pub beside it only about twenty years ago. Since then, a cluster of a dozen flat roofed, mud brick houses had grown around the pub, along with a herd of cattle that out-populated the residents. The village was so small and so new that it hadn't even been given a name, and was just colloquially known as the Watering Hole.
The Own riders reached the Watering Hole late on the third day, doubling its population for the night.
'Borderlands missions are the best missions,' Gylepi confirmed as he delivered the second round to their table. The beer was good, for being so far from the city, and served in solid earthenware mugs to keep the drink as cold as possible.
'You know,' Gylepi went on, 'you should really hurry up and get this place named after you, Nol. Ni-Nolryna.'
The prince grinned lopsidedly and accepted his mug. 'Maybe,' he said, non-committal. After all Majesty told him, he wasn't confident he'd make a good enough ruler to name a town after himself. Not yet, anyway. 'See if I can achieve anything in the Borderlands, first.'
'Well, let's plan it, then,' Murali announced. He collected the four empty mugs from their first round, already formed into the traditional beer-pyramid in the middle of the table. He upended three of them and positioned them on the table, then grabbed a handful of dates from the bowl, scattering four between the mugs.
'This is the most elaborate map I've ever seen,' Nolryn said with a grin as Murali placed a date on top of each of the upended mugs, then ate the last.
'I want to see how he's going to do the river,' Gylepi agreed.
Murali pointedly ignored them, then dumped the last upended mug a short way from the first three. He ran his finger along the crack between two planks of wood in the table, splitting the group of mugs. 'There's your river,' he decided. 'We need more Kazinian hills.'
'Getting there,' Nolryn said, lifting his beer with a grin. 'Not bad, this stuff. Bit weaker than I'd like, but for the middle of Aeia-damned nowhere this is pretty good.'
Gylepi grinned. 'Called it.'
Once Murali had procured the extra three mugs he needed, along with another handful of dates, he completed his map then folded his arms and stared at it.
'So that one's Ni-Reska,' Nolryn saw, pointing at the date closest to the crack, on the Raykinian side of the 'river'. 'That's gone. And that one'll be Ni-Nuka.'
The other three archers nodded. Murali leaned forward to point out the other notable landmarks. 'Ni-Alikalaa, that one on the hill, will be taken by the time we get there, too, which is of course the best tactical position.'
'So that's where we go first.' Nolryn frowned at the map, its valleys and the river. 'How deep is the river?'
The boys shook their heads. 'Not very,' Garuk answered. 'Waist deep in the middle, I'd say? Easy to ride a horse across, if they're used to it.'
'Except in winter,' Murali added.
'Mmm,' Garuk agreed past a mouthful of beer. 'Floods pretty fiercely over winter, I believe.'
Nolryn looked up, his mind already processing numbers. 'So if we were to station Twentieth Company up here, they'd only need to be here for, what, eight or nine months?'
'Now, that's a point,' Garuk agreed thoughtfully.
'That just about works out,' Nolryn murmured, drumming his fingernails against the ringing terracotta. It still wasn't enough, though. He had to come back to Majesty with an idea cheaper and better than sending the Own. 'How rugged is it?' he asked. 'Are there any gorges or cliffs or anything?'
'Anything defensible, you mean?' Murali shook his head. 'Rolling countryside. The proper mountains don't start until you're well into Kazin. You'd need at least a hundred to defend it, if you're talking Twentieth Company.'
It would have to be up to the locals, then. He would need to teach the locals to fight.
Over the next four days, the landscape slowly began to rise from the stark, flat desert. The dry spinifex and saltbush grew to clumps of stout trees clustered around underground springs and waving yellow grasses that hushed in the wind. The path widened to a road wide enough for a wagon to be pulled down, its hard-packed red earth scattered with lizards and snakes basking under the sun. Most escaped as soon as they heard the hooves of the Own's horses, though a few had to be scared away before the horses saw them and panicked.
After a short week of travel, the Own rode through what was ludicrously deemed the kingdom's highlands, rolling hills of brown grass and stands of eucalyptus trees dotted with the odd hunting house. They passed through three towns before reaching the first of the overnight tent cities. The town, no more than a few hundred people in normal times, had swelled to four times its size with the influx of refugees from the Borderlands.
Nolryn followed General Rau to the town's main inn, where the important members of the invaded towns—the mayors, pub owners and as many of the major brewers as would fit in the establishment—were being sheltered.
'Wait until after we've finished up to start pushing your agenda,' Rau warned. 'I know you have your ideas for the future, but keep your mind on the mission.'
'Of course, General,' Nolryn answered with a shrug.
The town mayors confirmed what Nolryn had already suspected. There were three towns that needed saving, and around a dozen homesteads scattered within the triangle.
'Lucky there's naught for them to burn just yet,' the eldest of the three mayors said, a lean woman with grey streaking her hair and a hard set to her jaw. 'The barley's just starting to show, so they can't burn our crops before we've grown them.'
'Speak for yourself,' the younger of the three muttered, a portly man not much older than Nolryn. 'We grow the hops. They can always be burnt.'
'Have they been?' Nolryn asked, not sure if the young mayor was simply being cautious.
He shook his head. 'I haven't seen any smoke, your Highness, I'll put it that way.'
The older woman looked up, a mixture of fear and hope in her eyes. 'Highness, I've always been of a mind that nothing happens without a reason, and now you've come up here. Have you some way to protect us?
Nolryn smiled grimly. 'Let's just get you back on your feet again first, then I'll do what I can.'
A weak smile spread across the mayor's lips, tinged a little with cynicism. 'I only hope you will, Highness.'
The Own set out early the next morning for the town of Ni-Alikalaa. They paused on a hill opposite the town, which perched like a crown amid the ploughed furrows of the barley fields. Ni-Nuka was easily visible on the hill beside it, and Nolryn remembered Ni-Reska would be in the valley behind the two hills, down close to the banks of the river.
'Here's where we split up,' General Rau announced. 'Half with Nol, circle around and ambush the rear, the other half with me, we'll take them head on. Offer surrender and take those who do to Town Hall—you can see it with the weathervane in the centre of town there, just opposite the pub—kill any who don't. Mayor Aklen has told us that many stayed behind to defend the town, all over this side of it, so my lot will rendezvous with them first and get them out. Onward to victory, boys.'
Nolryn saluted with the rest of the Own riders, then turned to the six men under his command for the moment. 'There's an orchard around the north-west side of the hill, so we'll make our approach through there. Since they haven't yet taken Town Hall, we can assume they're making their base of operations at the orchard's farmhouse. Take that first and we'll get a better picture of what's going on in town.' He turned Mongrel towards the valley. 'As the good general says, onward to victory.'
They raced down the hill past a long-abandoned farm house, its roof and two walls collapsed and weeds growing through the remaining windows. A creek at the foot of the valley held only a few stagnant puddles of water which doubtless flowed into the main river when the winter rains filled it. Mongrel leapt easily over the narrow creek, then Nolryn pulled him up to allow the others to catch up and proceed more cautiously through the apple orchard.
The flat roofed farm house was half-built into the side of the hill to keep it cooler, and a high bank made it near-unapproachable from behind. The Own rode at a swift trot towards the building, and Nolryn slung his bow from his shoulder as they approached.
With a few quick gestures he directed his squad, then nocked an arrow into his bow and approached the house, two swordsmen leading the way with blades unsheathed.
'We'll give you one chance to surrender,' he announced in Kazinian. 'Take it, and you may yet see your families again.'
Men began filtering slowly out of the farm house, each with a bow drawn, until there were five in all with their arrows trained on any one of the three Own riders before them. A sixth emerged with arms folded and feet apart as he stared Nolryn down.
'Ready,' Nolryn warned in a low murmur to the two swordsmen. They both nodded, their blades raised in front of them.
'Fire!' came the inevitable shout from the leader.
Nolryn fired first, along with Garuk hidden in the trees, and their arrows thudded soundly into the leader's throat. The two blade archers, hidden with Garuk, had flung their nasty little blades as well, and each took down two of the invaders.
For the Kazinians' part, two of the arrows were never going to hit their targets, sailing off too high or away to the side. Two were dashed away with two loud clangs by the swordsmen. The fifth grazed Nolryn's shoulder as he reached back for a second arrow, but it was little more than a scratch.
Within a few seconds, all six Kazinian invaders were down.
Nolryn quickly dismounted, with the swordsmen following, and ran up to do a check of the farm house. When it was clear the building was empty, they rode on to the town of Ni-Alikalaa.
This time they rode in formation, with the three swordsmen at the head and the two archers in the rear, flanked by the two blade archers. Nolryn led them through the town outskirts to where General Rau had told them to meet. He could see Kazinians wandering the streets in pairs, off in the distance where they knew they were strongest.
As Nolryn watched, a single arrow trailing a red ribbon sailed into the sky—the signal to attack.
Without a word needed for confirmation, the Own riders surged forward, holding their formation as the horses' hooves thundered against the packed earth streets. As they arrived in the town square, it was plain the full squad of Kazinian bandits had all flooded there to ward off the attacking Own riders. A dozen had run shouting into the centre of the square, swords flashing helplessly as the other half of the Own fell upon them.
'Hall tower,' Nolryn called to Garuk as he nocked an arrow into his bow. 'You take the furthest.' He aimed at the closest of the two men shooting from the flat roof of Town Hall, timed his shot with Mongrel's gait, and fired at the same instant as Garuk. Nolryn followed the arrows' paths only for long enough to see that the Kazinians fell, then swung around to pick up his next target.
As soon as they realised they were surrounded, the Kazinians broke and ran.
'Take them prisoner!' Rau roared. 'I want none of them warning the other towns before we get there!'
Nolryn took aim at one of the fleeing Kazinians, pinning him in the back of the leg before he had a chance to run and hide in the streets. He rode up beside the Kazinian and swung down from the saddle.
'Please don't kill me!' the invader begged. 'I surrender! Please don't kill me, please!'
'Wise move,' Nolryn praised him, then bent to first pull the arrow from his leg, then he tied a rope around the invader's wrists. He hauled the prisoner to his feet, with a yelp at the pain in his leg, then shoved him towards Town Hall. 'You'll be left with the town's justice. Wait and see what they want to do with you.'
They captured seven Kazinians in all, trembling and staring down at their feet or at the Own riders with wide eyes.
'Grab the locals,' Rau called to some of the men who were still on horseback. 'They're in the farmhouse halfway down the hill.'
Once the thirty or so locals who had stayed to defend their town returned, Rau left them in charge of the bound prisoners.
'Do you have a jail house?' Nolryn asked them.
'A small one,' one of the townsfolk answered, a burly man with a bandage around one arm. 'It's only got two cells, but should be enough to hold this stinking lot.' He held one hand out for Nolryn to shake. 'Here, thanks kindly for all your help, your Highness.'
Nolryn grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. 'You can tell the other residents that Ni-Alikalaa, at least, is safe again now,' he said.
'Nol!' the general called. 'We're moving!'
Nolryn gave him a loose salute in acknowledgement, then waved the townsfolk farewell and jogged over to join the rest of the Own.
'Nice job, boys,' Rau said briefly. 'Ni-Reska will be next, down by the river. This will be their smallest force, so if they're attacked they'll likely try fleeing either for Ni-Nuka or back across the border. Firing squad and dagger tossers, come in from the west and flush them out towards Ni-Nuka. Nimay, go with the stickmen to block the river escape. The rest of us will wait to catch them en route to Ni-Nuka.
Nolryn saluted him with the other three archers, then swung back into Mongrel's saddle. 'Been a while since we've led the charge,' he mused.
'Could be fun,' Gylepi agreed with a grin.
'You're not leading anything,' Rau told them. 'Just get them out in the right direction.'
Nolryn kicked Mongrel into action, and once more archers and blade archers were barrelling down the hill towards the riverside town. Ni-Reska didn't have the advantage of an orchard to conceal their approach, surrounded as it was by barley fields that were only just breaking the earth. Though the invading Kazinians were considerably less well-trained than those he was used to dealing with, Nolryn nevertheless felt helplessly exposed riding up the hill. Own missions habitually took him to the forests of southern Kazin, where there was plenty of shelter to hide behind. He hadn't realised how much he had grown used to the cover of trees until now.
'Are they really likely to run before us?' Nolryn called to the more experienced archers. 'I mean, there's only six of us.'
'If they don't,' Garuk called back, 'then we make them follow us. Shoot if they get in range.'
They split into pairs as they approached the town, galloping hard and loud through the streets. Nolryn rode with Gylepi, bow drawn as he steered Mongrel with his knees.
'There,' Gylepi said almost casually, 'behind the butcher on the corner. Just saw two go down the side street. You get the closest. Just run and fire.'
Again Nolryn felt exposed without a swordsman's blade to deflect any arrows fired at him. He urged Mongrel a little faster to pull in front of Gylepi and give his companion more space, then lifted his bow and fired as they burst out past the butcher. Both Kazinians fell before they had the chance to loose their own arrows.
He heard the sound of horse hooves behind him, and checked over his shoulder to see three coming up through the street. They were too far back to see much of the riders, but he didn't recognise the horses as being from the Own.
'Couple behind us,' he told Gylepi.
'Good,' the older archer said with satisfaction. 'The more start chasing us, the better. Lin's blood, I'll need a drink after this.'
Nolryn laughed his agreement and spurred Mongrel on. His grin was abruptly wiped from his face, though, when he spotted a fallen Raykinian body in the street, then three or four beside it. What was a routine, even easy, mission for the King's Own was devastation for the locals. No matter how quickly the Own could get here, the locals would pay far more dearly.
He gritted his teeth and surged on, counting a dozen Raykinian bodies slumped by the roadside. How many more were there, away from the streets he rode? He swallowed and tried not to count anymore. He had to find a better way.
They caught up with Garuk and Murali in the town square, then with the two blade archers a little further on, each pair dragging a handful of Kazinian horses behind them.
Nolryn checked back over his shoulder, but the mass of Kazinians bearing down on them was too thick to count in the narrow street. 'Looks like at least a dozen,' he shouted over the thundering hooves.
'Good,' Murali said with a stiff nod. 'They'll think they've got us outnumbered and keep following.'
They burst out of the town with the Kazinians close on their tail and rode straight towards the line of swordsmen. Swords clanged as they deflected the fired arrows from the invaders. Nolryn awkwardly wheeled Mongrel around, one hand still gripping his bow while the other pulled the reins. He held up his bow once again, grabbed an arrow from his quiver and fired through the line of swordsmen.
Realising quickly that they were outmatched, if not outnumbered, the Kazinians soon surrendered.
Nolryn sat panting in the saddle after the hard run, glaring back at the tiny town of Ni-Reska.
'How has this been the best Majesty can come up with?' he blurted as General Rau rode up to him. 'It's pathetic! Farmers and brewers can't defend against the Kazinian military, however badly they're organised.'
'It's never been the best,' Rau agreed, 'But it's the best their taxes can afford.'
Nolryn gritted his teeth, knowing full well the dangers of raising taxes in the kingdom's premier brewing region. Majesty had tried doing it once, nearly ten years ago. Though Nolryn had been too young then to fully understand the reason for it, he remembered the riots it had caused once the rise filtered through to the price of beer in pubs.
'We can do better,' he muttered.
As the day was growing long, they rode back up the hill to Ni-Alikalaa, which was now slowly being repopulated by the locals. Nolryn spent a long while standing on the flat roof of the town's largest tavern, looking down on the region, its tactical advantages and disadvantages. The river bank was the same all the way along, a wide, shallow river with a high tide-line that would quickly flood any attempt to fortify its banks. It was simply too easy to cross at any point, and too long to defend all along its length.
'If we could just make it deeper,' he mused. But how could one make the river deeper? Unless it rained more, it would always have the same amount of water. 'We could dam it,' he murmured, eyes following the lazy flow of the river. The river had always been too shallow for transport, as the Ra-Lin was used, so blocking sections of it off wouldn't be an inconvenience to those who lived along it. A dam at each riverside town would be enough to make the river defensible. They could build the dams over the summer, with the members of Twentieth Company to defend the workers, then train enough of the locals to defend the dams themselves once they were completed.
It sounded expensive, but the more he thought on it, the more it seemed the most plausible solution. Once the work was done, the people could easily defend themselves.
He grinned as the shadow of the mountains crept over the town, then stuffed his hands in his pockets and headed back down the stairs to the bar.
The dawn came dank and drizzly, the last dying effort of winter to keep its hold on the Borderlands before summer burned it away. Nolryn gathered with the Own in the Ni-Alikalaa town square to prepare for their final push for Ni-Nuka.
When they drew up outside the town, however, the last of the Kazinians walked from Ni-Nuka, hands raised as they dropped bow and sword to the ground. With what felt to Nolryn like an anticlimax, under a drizzly sky that suited the defeated Kazinians more than it did the Raykians, the Borderlands were freed.
The celebrations in the pub that evening were muted at best. The locals had seen this all before, though Nolryn learned that the death toll this time around had been much higher than normal.
'So, Highness, what will you do about this?' Mayor Aklen demanded of him, her eyes wide and piercing. Though her own town hadn't lost any lives this time, the community spirit of the Borderlands stretched well beyond a single town's limits. She knew people who had been close to the victims and felt their deaths as keenly as if they had been her own people.
Nolryn set his tankard back on the table and looked around the small group of town leaders. 'Three things,' he answered as he folded his arms and sat straight on the bench. 'The Borderlands are simply too easy to attack. What we need to do is make it less desirable for the Kazinians, make it more hassle for them than it's worth. The more men they have to send to take the region, the more expensive it will be, so they won't want to try. To that end, I will station a permanent military force in the region, fully paid by the crown, so any money they spend in the region will stay here.'
The town leaders were nodding expectantly and already looking positive. Nolryn noticed, too, that the general murmur of the pub was dying down. He was certainly speaking to more than just the mayors, pub owners and brewers now. He quickly changed his points around, saving that which would fire the locals up the most for the last.
'Second, the Borderlands are too extensive to defend. The river is shallow all along and easy to cross during all but the three wettest months of the year. To that end, I will set easily defensible weirs at Ni-Reska, Ni-Qawilia and Ni-Hethoa, keeping the river too deep year round to cross at any other than these points.'
The pub was silent. Even the Own riders were grinning behind their beers.
Nolryn rose to his feet, acknowledging all the locals as he pitched his voice for the room to hear. 'Finally, the people of the Borderlands have been prey too easy for the Kazinians. Too many are dying in these raids. To that end, I will give you combat training. You'll have the skills to defend your families. You'll have the knowledge to defend your properties. You'll have the strength, the force and the confidence to show the Kazinians that our Borderlands are not to be trifled with. Kazin already fears our army. She'd best start fearing our farmers just as well.'
The pub erupted as he had hoped it would, the locals cheering and chinking their beer mugs together in celebration. He needed as many of the locals fired up about getting their own training as possible. If they could defend their own lands, then half the work was done already.
He picked up his own mug as Mayor Aklen set a grateful hand on his shoulder. Her face was lit up with a broad smile. 'I'll hold you to those promises, Highness,' she warned, though her smile didn't lessen.
Nolryn grinned back at her and raised his mug. 'I only hope that you do, Mayor Aklen,' he agreed, then wove his way through the crowd to where the archers were seated. They each raised their mugs to him with a more muted cheer.
'There's the princey wrath,' Gylepi said as he knocked his mug against Nolryn's. 'You know, it's easy to forget you're prince until you come out with something like that.'
Nolryn cocked an eyebrow over the rim of his mug as he took a swig. He always wondered at people telling him that. He could never forget it himself.
'"They'd best fear our farmers"?' Garuk quoted. 'Where in Lin's name did you get that?'
'Spur of the moment,' Nolryn said with a shrug. 'It had the desired effect, anyway.'
'To the farmers,' Murali toasted, lifting his mug.
'Fear our farmers!' Gylepi and Garuk said at once. 'You'll get Ni-Nolryna named yet,' Gylepi added.
Nolryn shook his head and toasted with the rest of them.
Nolryn worked solidly on his proposal over the next month, talking with the minister for infrastructure, the army's First General, masons, farmers and Twentieth Company alike until he was as certain as he could be of the numbers. Only once he was sure he had covered any potential holes did he present his plan to King Mithé. There was still just the one question he was nervous about, but his backup for it was as strong as he could make it.
'It's more expensive than the Own,' Mithé murmured.
Nolryn could hear the unspoken 'But...' in his father's voice, though he felt he should speak it aloud anyway. 'Only initially. Maintenance of the weirs will be relatively cheap, and once the locals are trained we can halve the military presence up there. After the first five years, it will be cheaper.'
'And better,' Majesty added, so matter-of-fact that Nolryn almost missed it. His heart skipped a beat when he realised Mithé had approved of his plan.
'It's not perfect,' the king went on, 'but good initiative, Nolryn. For your first foray into a large scale project, it's pretty solid. Well done, son.'
Nolryn gave a one-shouldered shrug as he tried to keep the stupid grin he felt inside from reaching his face. 'Thank you, Majesty,' he managed with restraint. 'Beer?'
The king grinned. 'Thought you'd never ask.'