Banners in the Wind

Chapter One


Triolle Castle, in the Kingdom of Lescar,

10th of For-Winter

They'd come so far together. Now they were leaving. His comrades-in-arms, his allies. All gone, as soon as they were paid the gold they had been promised. Tents were being struck, the picket lines for horses unstrung. Soil was being shovelled back into latrine pits.

His father always said it was much easier to tear something down than it was to rebuild it. Who was going to rebuild Lescar?

Looking down from the battlements of the castle's gatehouse, Tathrin shivered. The sun might be shining but ten days into For-Winter was a far cry from that scorched summer in the northern hills, where he had helped gather this army. Now both halves of autumn were done and so was their campaign.

The Summer Solstice felt like a lifetime ago. No, more than that. It could have been some memory of a different life in the Otherworld. But every priest swore those passing through Saedrin's door to rebirth in this world remembered nothing of any earlier lives. Tathrin recalled every step of the way that had brought him here, from the quiet life of a merchant's apprentice in distant Vanam to cutting men down as a . . .

What was he? He had marched with this mercenary army but he was no sword for hire. He had served as the captain-general's clerk through this swift and brutal conquest of Lescar but Evord had briskly replaced him once his command post was established here in Triolle.

Well, Tathrin was a man of Lescar, if nothing else. Captain-General Evord had reminded him of it that very morning. The time had come for the ordinary folk of Lescar to determine their country's future, the Soluran soldier had said. It was no longer the business of Dalasorians, of mercenaries like Evord himself or of the stocky blond men from the remote Mountains who had been hired to fight these perpetually warring dukes to a standstill.

His army could deny rule to the dukes, Evord had said, but they could not hand it to Tathrin or anyone else, not unless he wanted to pay their wages to keep their boots on the populace's neck, just like every other tyrant who had gone before.

So, like every other Lescari man or woman, Tathrin must look to himself to surmount this winter's challenges. Could they possibly celebrate the Winter Solstice Festival in peace a mere thirty-seven days hence? How would they maintain any such peace after that?

Where would he be celebrating? Tathrin wondered glumly. Not with his family, that much was certain. He'd made the mistake of hastening home just before the Autumn Equinox, only to find his parents aghast to learn of his part in bringing this war to Lescar. He had fled their condemnation, all the more wounding in the light of his own misgivings once first blood had been shed. But that blood, and all that had followed, could no more be unshed than the smoke escaping a chimney could be recalled.

He looked up at the creamy banner that had been devised in Vanam, when they first swore to end Lescar's strife. Hands made a golden circle, each one grasping a symbol of the peace they sought: the farmer's hayfork, a sheaf of wheat, the goodwife's broom; a scholar's quill. The priest's handbell proclaimed the rule of law rather than ducal caprice, and the foot soldier's halberd asserted every common man's right to defend his hearth and household.

If they could build a lasting peace for Lescar, would that allay his guilt for bringing so much death and destruction to his countrymen? Tathrin ran a hand through his unkempt dark hair and winced as his fingers caught in a tangle.

He was so bone-achingly weary. When had he last had a night's sleep untroubled by dreams of mayhem?

Could he possibly persuade these people of Triolle that their lives had truly changed for the better, now that this army of foreigners and mercenaries had won the autumn's bloody battles? Why should they trust Tathrin? He might be Lescari but he was a Carluse man. Even in the best of times, the dukedom of his birth and this domain of Triolle had eyed each other uneasily over their common border.

This was very far from the best of times. Beyond the stream dammed to create the mere defending the castle's flank, Tathrin saw the shuttered windows and barred gates of Triolle Town. Evord's swift campaign had spared Lescar the devastation left by rampaging armies but the meagre trade