No, no, no, no I can’t do it. Kel is my lady, my light, my love–and I can’t imagine a world where the people on that war front would ever have allowed her death. So let’s tell this story–she was found guilty of treason. She was sentenced to death, kneeling on that Tortallan river mud, enemy territory a stone’s throw behind her, hundreds of abandoned souls saved by her stubborn hands.
Dutiful misery was stark in the grip Wyldon used to pull her to her feet and tie her hands behind her. (He would not leave that job to a lesser man.) Rage poured off Raoul, simmering, trapped. The King’s Own protested–when they shut themselves up it was not at their commander’s order but at Kel’s quelling shake of her head.
Wyldon could protect Owen, who was his squire and his responsibility. The King’s Own had technically, roughly, been following orders. The rescued civilians were ushered toward safety with faintly awed hands. Kel, Merric, and Neal were ushered forward, too, by awed hands, but it was with their own hands bound behind them and it was not toward safety.
But the awe was there– these knights had done the impossible. They had gone into enemy territory, after monsters made of death and metal, and saved their people. They had done the impossible– they had put protecting homeless peasants above obeying their lord. Wyldon tied each of their hands behind their backs and they did not apologize. Neal raised his chin like he was challenging Wyldon to demand it of him.
But the Giantkiller fortress was flooded with children and civilians who had been written off as collateral damage. After days of hard travel, the children were no longer unnaturally clean and coiffed; they would always be scared. They would always be brave. They would not allow Kel to be the price paid for their lives.
A pretty young woman who had once stabbed a Scanran slaver to death found out where they were keeping Kel and her knights. Children threw tantrums to distract while the ex-convicts picked the locks on their doors. Tobe got the horses and kept them quiet. When they got to the main gates again, Neal ready to put them all to sleep, the guards turned around the same way they had days before and let them through.
Up in the commander’s quarters, Wyldon slept restlessly. He had told Keladry of Mindelan once that he believed the best thing that could be said of his tenure as training master was that she had been in his care. He still believed that to be true, but he had his orders. When they woke him, he would be stranded somewhere between rage and relief.
Only a handful of Haven civilians came out into the woods with Kel that night. Nealtsked about Giantkiller’s healers and worked on them all while Merric went though their stolen saddlepacks and took inventory. Fanche pulled bread, cheese, and knives out of her bulging skirts and passed them around.
Kel sat, staring at the space they would have put a fire if they had thought it was safe to light one. Neal bullied some bread into her and Merric asked, “What do we do now, Kel?”
She considered saying, “Why are you asking me?” but Kel had always been very bad at lying to herself. She looked up at the trees. Fir. Spruce. “There’s a war on,” Kel said. “No matter what they say back there, we still have a sworn duty. Or at least I do.” Her school friends were looking up at her like she held their allegiances in her callused palm. The Haven people were careful shadows, tired, certain. Tobe looked at her like he was never letting her out of his sight again. “I’m going to keep fighting.”
They took down their first Scanran raiding party the next day, finding them almost on accident. The first Haven dogs and cats skipped and sauntered into their makeshift camp the next night, curling up by the fire and dropping rabbits for the humans to clean for them.
Haven civilians and convicts began wandering in, grinning tightly, bringing stories of Giantkiller all up in arms. After the first week, once she’d figured out they might be there for good, Kel had started looking for clerks.
When Dom and most of his squad of the King’s Own walked into their camp without a single piece of official Crown livery on, Kel seized Dom by one rough, plain sleeve and dragged him to the side.
“You can’t be here,” she hissed. “Neal and Merric are as damned as I am. The refugees have nowhere safer to go, and I’m not going to keep them from a fight if they want it. But you– Raoul needs you, Dom.”
“Raoul needs us to win this war,” said Dom. “And neither of us could think of any better hands for my squad to be in than yours. If we’re going to win this, we can’t keep our best commanders in the dark.” He grinned. “Even if they’re grumpy giantesses of fugitives.”
They had stopped that Nothing Man and Stenmun, but there were still hundreds of machines left standing. Kel didn’t have strong fort walls to store metal-sewn nets on, to help bring them down. She sat down with Neal and Merric, with Dom once she’d forgiven him, and brainstormed. Fanche leaned on a pick-axe she’d taken off a dead Scanran, and called commentary and suggestion.
Every day brought them more struggle– Tortallan patrols to avoid and Scanran ones to pester, distract, or destroy. They seized Scanran supplies and hunted game; they holed up in hollows, clearings, and burned out farmhouses. Kel kept a map of their hideouts, skirmishes, and where they’d spotted troops, Tortallan or Scanran. She wanted a birds-eye view of this war, to know where she’d be the most help to the Crown who was even now hunting for her.
Back in Giantkiller, Wyldon complained to the Wildmage about the dogs that acted as Kel’s sentries, the cats that he thought might be stealing secrets, the horses that were too clever for their own good. “Call them off,” he ordered. “You gave Mindelan those animals, now take them back.”
“I didn’t give her anyone,” said Daine. “I cursed them with human types of intelligence, because they asked me to. I gave those animals a choice and they chose Kel.” She dimpled her cheeks; Daine was brave and ruthless, self-sacrificing and deeply devoted to Tortall. She was also rather untouchable, and she knew it. “Wouldn’t you, if you had a choice?”
“Clearly not,” said Wyldon, stiffening.
“‘If you had a choice,’ I said.”
When refugees fled their burned homes and scavenged fields, they did not always flock now to the grudging warmth of noble barns and outbuildings, to the cobbled-together camp Wyldon had left in Prince Roald’s careful hands (Roald had been stifling on the front lines, forbidden from battle but forced to listen to the aftermath; this at least gave him something to do).
Sometimes the refugees spilled into the forests and rocky canyons that they knew better than anyone, trying to sniff out a girl they had heard stories of– a girl who killed monsters and spoke to sparrows, who would fill their bellies and then fill their fists and set them to work.
Kel set up a training camp–roving, all her camps were roving. They stayed in one place for a whole week when they were in luck, but packed up and moved from place to place. They were homeless, countryless except for the way they tied Tortall’s colors around their upper arms and sang old drinking songs on thunderstorm nights when no one would hear them.
Kel set up a camp to train the refugees who flocked in and wouldn’t go. She trained them in crossbow, or long bow, in spear and basic tactics. She did not teach them woodcraft or how to move silently over mast and through brush. The northerners would grin, some evenings, fade back and then step out later to startle some poor experienced King’s Own man Kel had with her.
When they were trained enough, she split them up– King’s men, convicts, refugees all scattered together, their teams based on strengths and camaraderie. She gave them objectives and meet-up locations, then let them go and trusted, prayed, waited for news. She updated her maps. She tried to dream about the shapes of the war front.
When refugees come with dependents, children, elderly, or wounded, Kel tried to send them on south. Some went; some refused, so she set up another camp for them. When she told Tobe he was going with them, she thought he was going to screech at her the way a baby griffin once had, brilliant and rough with fear and youth.
“There are few people I trust more than you, to keep their head,” she said. “They’re going to need it. They’re going to need you.”
“What about what you need, lady?” Tobe demanded. “I go, you ain’t going to sleep, or eat, and all of your bully boys are too cowed to make you–”
“Tobe, I will be fine. I need you there.”
Once, no argument would ever have worked to change his mind. Tobe had clung close to her not because Kel would burn herself up to save other people, but because Kel was a miracle he did not know how to believe in. He had other miracles now–Gydo and Loesia, little Meech and the new doll one of the mothers was making him. Tobe had gone over water and through illusions of stone, into the den of the beast, and he had come back.
Tobe and Neal had a council of war before Tobe agreed to leave, parsing out a schedule for who took care of making sure Kel ate and slept while she took care of everyone else.
Kel sent Merric to head the civilian camp, with Tobe and Loesia as young lieutenants. She sent Hoshi, her sweet mare, with him, too, but kept Peachblossom. Peachblossom was her fury and her violence and she needed him here.
Fanche led her own combat crew, with Neal as their attached healer and mage– there were few commanders who could handle Neal, but Kel expected Fanche would be able to manage. She worried a little that they would both encourage the other, and come back with even sharper tongues.
Kel missed the walls of Giantkiller, the walls of Haven, but those were not things a fugitive and a deserter were allowed. She could not build herself into the earth here, in high sheer faces and comforting gates. She dispatched a heavy portion of mages with the small moving band of families and her injured people; they built wards and disguises and Kel pretended that that was enough to let her sleep easy at night.
She worried about drain, about usefulness, but then Tobe led a finicky dun mare into her camp one night and unloaded fletched arrows and knitted gloves and darned socks. “From the civilians’ camp,” he said. “We were bored. Only three attacks this week!”
“I worry I’m bringing you up wrong,” she told him, and sighted down an arrow to check it for straightness.
They got packages, sometimes– smuggled bundles carried by new refugees, or a wagon of supplies and weapons that Raoul would leave in their forest and blithely report back as ‘taken by Scanrans.’ A half year into Kel’s fugitive life, she opened a box and found folded set of sturdy clothes, winter gloves, all made precisely to her measurements by Lalasa’s careful hand. She held them close, buried her face in the cloth, and didn’t care if anyone saw.
They lost men on missions, because this was war. The kraken always had a price. One: the people who could never forget it. Two: the ones who never got the chance to remember, to wake up shaking, to learn how to breathe deep again.
Kel sat up late on nights they lost men, women, or animals. She sat up on nights they didn’t, sometimes, too, checking on the embers, keeping watch. Her father had a stroke while she was fighting Scanrans miles past the border. She got the news three weeks later–he was alive, but weak. Her parents were staying in the Tortallan capital, where they had been petitioning for her pardon.
“You could go south,” Neal said. “I bet we’d be able to find people who would hide you, even in Corus.”
“There’s a war on, Neal,” she said.
“He’s your father, Kel.”
“Haven’t you heard them saying it?” she said. “Heart of stone, that Keladry. Cold lump of it in her chest.”
“Cold isn’t the thing you’re doing here,” he said, frustrated. “Kel, you don’t have to carry this all on your own.”
“I’m not,” she said. “Just doing my part. Neal, I don’t want to talk about this.”
Remember: Kel was a northern girl, too. When they told stories about her they always remembered that. The refugee barracks, cramped and cantankerous, talked about the Mindelan girl who knew about cold winters, who had gone after her people when everyone told her to let them go, who would never give up on the north.
In the soldier mess, they talked about the ghost girl, who appeared and disappeared. Patrols found dead Scanrans almost daily, a few molted sparrow feathers left beside them, like a signature on a painting– that had been Dom’s idea. Kel would never brag in that way. She wasn’t bothering to bury the enemy dead these days, though.
“Did you know,” soldier said to soldier, “they say, in her page days, she never smiled, never cried, like she wasn’t human at all.”
They were officially enemies of the Crown. The first time Kel saw a wanted poster with her face on it, she went stock-still. Her palms went frigid and she wondered once, frantically, if she was sixteen again, a squire pressing her hands up against the door of the Chamber of Ordeal and daring it to give her nightmares she would never be rid of.
“Ah, there’re plenty of those, lady,” said one of her men, who took her stiffening as rage, not an identity-scouring despair. “Don’t be too angry. They’re nice and flammable, you know.”
Kel took a breath. Neal was not there to read the line of her shoulders, neither was Dom, or Fanche, or Tobe. There was just a squad of her people, waiting for marching orders they would follow to hell and back. If she looked close, she could tell who had been army and who had been a woodcutter, who an ex-convict with a shining mark on their forehead.
But they were hers, these men and women, hers to defend and hers to lead. They were Tortall’s, except– she looked out at them, their dirt-smudged faces, the way the wanted poster read “Keladry of Mindelan and associated, arrest on sight.”
They were fighting for Tortall, for its valleys and its children, but they were not Tortall’s. It had abdicated its right to these brave souls. It had abdicated its right to her when it had refused to fight for the most vulnerable of its people.
“Yes,” Kel said. “I am angry.”
The war dragged on; the number of metal monsters shrank and shrank, soon used only for important skirmishes. The Scanrans told stories, too, about the third army in the war, which disappeared into the trees and valleys like they owned them more thoroughly than the Scanrans or Tortalls ever could. George Cooper, the Whisper Man, grinned when his spies reported the talk, and sent his men out to tell more rumors, fear-mongering and myths.
Neal missed Yuki with the quiet lack of poetry that meant he meant it. Dom called him Meathead and snuck his letters out through Raoul and snuck Yuki’s letters back in. Neal was their main healer and he was worked to the point of exhaustion. When they had bad cases who also didn’t have memorable faces, they’d take them to Haven’s rebuilt doorstep and leave them for Roald to take in.
Roald had not renamed the refugee fort, but he was slowly falling in love with the work, the attention to detail and life of service that were the best traits of his family. In Corus, his father was frustrated and distracted, trying to win a war and knowing how bad it looked to allies and enemies alike that he could not find one twenty-something young woman.
This was a Jon frustrated, stuck up on his kingliness, his responsibilities, his pride– he was thinking about whole scopes of war, of what his conservatives would think of this rising unrest, of what the people would think of this girl who was willing to die for them miles into enemy territory at the hands of terrifying monsters.
Scanrans came to kill Kel and Tortallans came to take her. The Tortallans managed to snatch her more often than they should have, because Kel and each of her people refused to fight their own. “You are our own,” Kel’s people told them, hissed and glared those times when they weren’t able to run and flee well enough. “We’re on the same side here. We’re fighting for this land too, and she more than anyone!”
Sometimes the Tortallan soldiers went home and reported that they couldn’t hold that warrior maiden, that slippery northerner. The times they dragged her back to the closest town or fort, they’d be stopped on the road by all of Kel’s gathered mages, who put them to sleep and ferreted her away; once, they make it all the way to the safety of a good Tortallan walled city. When they walked her through the market, a riot sparked and Kel was pushed to the edge of it with a horse and full saddlebag of supplies, an old crone squeezing her hand in respect. Kel squeezed back.
She had built herself into the earth here– these rocky gorges and cold rivers, thick trees. They told stories about her, made legends, and Kel always expected them to be disappointed when they met her. She was broad and sturdy, steady, her hair cropped sensibly short even now (especially now). She did not look like she belonged to an epic story.
But a gleaming metal glaive rested on her knee, and when she went to battle with it, it looked like a shock of silver light, like a dance of death. Sparrows circled, brightly intelligent eyes in dull brown feathers, perching on cats who signed out messages with headbutts and flicks of their tails.
When Kel went cold, she was a northern winter, bone-aching, lethal. When she stood steady, she was the mountain bones of this place. They had called her Lump and they had called her Girl, and she had watched it all through dreamer’s lashes.
But Kel had never looked seriously at herself, the way her eyes went flat, or the way the whole camp turned to her. She had not realized–she was like the mountain bones of this place. She would stand tall and steady, carry the seasons, the trees, and the travelers; and when the time came, when she raged, the land would shake.
On the banks of the Vassa years before, Kel had been ready, on her knees, to take her punishment. She had spent the first few years as a fugitive dreaming of turning herself in, once the war was over. She deserved the things she had earned. She had made a call and she would live, or die, with it.
Kel had known she was committing treason when she had left for Scanra, and she had decided it was worth it. Meech had been plucking hair from his doll, leaving red yarn for her to follow. The children had deserved her sacrifice– but they were older now.
Meech had grown the first little hair out of his chin and gotten cheerful manly talks from Saefus and Dom, and an awkward but more technical one from Neal. Loesia was nearly as tall as Kel now, beautiful and careless about it. Tobe was sprouting, broadening every day. He’d taken over the civilian camp when Merric moved on to run his own squad.
The children had deserved her sacrifice, and they still did. Kel knew it, saw it again with surety when Gydo taught a woman three times her age to hold a spear, when Tobe scooped up a crying kid and made him laugh. They were brave and kind, her children, and they had spent years teaching her that she did not deserve to be sacrificed. They were worth her life, but so was she.
The war ended. Kel did not march herself to the Giantkiller gates and offer her hands for the shackles. She had built herself into the earth– when the war was over, her cause done, Kel did not leave the north.
Three months later, King Jonathan walked into their base camp, a King’s Own man Kel didn’t know staring over his shoulder, a few of her sentries skittering apologetically in behind them. Kel stood up, the butt of her pants muddy from snow melt, every hair on her standing on end. “Your majesty,” she said. She leaned on her glaive. She did not bow. She did not even consider curtsying.
“I signed a declaration of treason with your name on it, once,” Jonathan said conversationally. “What do you think we should do about that?”
“Do you care about obedience, your majesty,” Neal said with all the carefully educated haughtiness that was in him, even out here, even now, “or do you care about service?”
“That’s not the question,” Jon said. He didn’t look away from Kel, who was busy not looking away from him. “If I cared about obedience, I’d have a different King’s Champion, don’t you think? But Alanna is loyal to me, you see, and you’re loyal to something else. Might we talk privately?”
It took several glares before Kel could get her people to leave her alone with the king; she could only imagine how very many he had had to use to be left alone with her.
They stood in silence for a moment. The last time they had been this close, this level, they had just left Lalasa’s trial and Kel had been close to shaking with rage. Kel said, “A wise man told me once never to confront a king in public.”
Jon smiled. “That’s why I asked to speak to you privately.”
Kel went beet red; she heard Yamani teachers scolding her from a distant childhood. “I’m not a king.”
“You’re something to these people here. And you helped us win this war–from some of the reports I’ve been getting, you were instrumental. A deserter, in the woods. Though I’m not sure we were the ones deserted. But that’s not the question either.”
“Are you sure it’s not?” she said and he smiled again.
“The question has to do, disappointingly, with image.” He grinned at the distaste on her face and Kel took a moment, briefly, to detest how very personable this man was. Jon said, “My power has to do with legacy, loyalty, and strategy, but also perceived strength. You helped win us this war, Keladry, but you’ve also made the Crown look both stupid and weak.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“My mother raised me polite,” she said.
“I would like not to be enemies,” said Jon. “I would like to bring you–all of you–in from the cold. What would you need?”
“I need a pardon for every one of my soldiers,” she said. “And a letter of reference from the Crown for employment, for each of them.”
“Not a purse for each?”
“They deserve one,” she said. “But I have a guess what your coffers look like, your majesty.”
Jon buried his hands in his fur-lined pockets. His back was bowed. He looked upsettingly human there, with his nose red from cold. “Any of them looking to join the army?”
“Some,” she said. “But some of us are tired of war. And some of us are female, sir.”
“Queen’s Riders, then,” he amended, so pleasant she wanted to smack him. “And you?”
“What about me, your majesty?”
“One of the things I love best about Alanna is that I learn things from her, even now after all these years. She’s not afraid of me. You’re not afraid of many things, are you?”
“Heights,” Kel said.
“And what do you want, Keladry?”
“We won the war. I wanted that. I got my people out as safe as I could.”
“Do you want to keep your shield?”
“Do you plan to take it from me?”
Jon looked at her for a long moment. “No,” he said. “Did you know Raoul plans to retire from the Own, to act as knight training master in the palace?”
“I haven’t spoken to Lord Raoul in years.”
“Nonsense. He snuck out here on the regular to sing campfire songs, I’m sure,” said Jon.
Kel kept silent.
“The position of Knight-Commander for the King’s Own will be empty,” said Jon. “I need a solid, experienced leader in that position. And I need the world to see you, Lady Kel, as one of my assets and not one of my enemies. Can you be that?”
Kel looked at the woods around them, the solid trunks and white-dusted ground. This was the realm– she had decided that once, clean and freezing in the Ordeal antechamber. The realm was not the dusty word that sounded in people’s mouths. It was the light in Loesia’s eyes when she landed a solid shot on her sparring opponent. It was these cold mountains, and the wide deserts of the Bazhir where Kel had lost horse races among the Own, and the sea port towns where she had shored up homes against earthquakes.
“I always have been, your majesty,” she said.
She slept in a bed for the first time in years, on that ride back to Corus. Peachblossom had survived the war, cranky and aging. She was looking forward to putting him out to pasture and letting him rest his old bones; she was not sure he would let her go.
Kel had held her shield less years than she had spent training for it, but she felt ready for the pasture, too. She hung her shield on Peachblossom’s saddle and remembered riding north on her old friend’s back, the paint still wet on her emblem. It was nearly scraped off now, after years of damp nights and freezing winters. She ran fingers over the scarred paint and she empathized.
Her army rode beside her, all those who had chosen to come south with her. Many had chosen to rebuild up north, grow new lives in old land. Fanche rode at Kel’s shoulder, and arrayed behind them were a host of warriors who had never learned to march or ride in line.
Their gear was tattered and worn, much mended. Most of the men had beards though some, like Neal, had spent all the last few years stubbornly clean shaven. The women wore pants and weapons– some with hair chopped short, or with long tangled braids, weathered and proud, or with fiercely scrubbed cheeks, a bit of color brushed onto their lips.
They looked like bandits more than anything, ruffians and rogues, but when they walked into northern towns, the whole place stood at attention. An old man began a slow, proud clap and the entire square joined in.
“Do they always do this for you?” Kel asked the king. She didn’t remember this from the progress.
“It’s not for me,” Jon said. The king had a squad of King’s Own at his back now (they eyed Kel’s ragtag army uneasily, except for the one who had immediately started talking carpentry with a couple of the northern woodsmen). “This is the north. I don’t think you understand what you mean to them, Lady Kel.”
When they reached Corus, Kel and the long trailing line of her army, Jon offered a hand to help her out of the saddle. It seemed like the whole court was watching. Kel took it, strong-gripped, like it was an apology. When her feet touched Corus ground (the first time in years), she stiffened her wobbly knees and bowed, loyal knight to loyal sovereign.
They walked her through staring halls and showed her up to her new rooms, fit for a Knight-Commander. She stepped inside meaning to check lines of sight, means of access, but found herself instead with a weeping armful of seamstress.
“L-lady Kel!” Lalasa said into her shoulder, then pulled back to look at her. “Oh, those seams, I knew you’d be putting on more muscle and not mending properly, and oh–”
Kel wrapped her old maid in her arms and hugged back. Over Lalasa’s shoulder, Tian was smiling, waiting by a drawn bath. “Welcome home, Lady Kel.”
When she was clean and dressed, they all walked down through the (still staring) corridors and out into the city, where she was more anonymous. The Mindelan townhouse was shuttered and peaceful. It had never been home to Kel, who had a hard time calling even the Mindelan estate home. Her mother opened the front doors, though, and opened her arms wide, and that was home enough. When Kel had sniffled into her mother’s shoulder while Ilane cried happily into her daughter’s, they pulled each other into the house.
Her father was sitting up in his bed, pillows cushioned behind him. He looked pale, thinner, eyeglasses perched on his nose. Kel knew she was weatherbeaten as even her squireship had never managed; her shoulders broad and knotted, her hands scarred.
“My girl,” her father said, almost glowing with it. “My daughter, come home from the war.”
If she burst into tears, no one thought less of her for it.
Kel spent three months relearning how the Own worked– requisitioning from supplies instead of sympathetic supply wagoneers who told her they knew she was a good one. None of her soldiers were old men or desperate children or terrifying mothers. There was a stable for horses, a suite of rooms for her, and no longer a need to hide when she saw King’s Own colors come round the bend.
She had remembered most of their tactics, terms, and signals because she and Dom had spent years teaching civilians and fighting a war using those. She found herself a few clerks and starting writing down all the things her civilians had taught her, that they’d invented in a long northern war. Dom rejoined the Own, a squad leader again. He grinned so wide she thought he might hurt himself when he saw her in the Commander’s uniform the first time.
Some of the King’s Own were dubious–but many had ridden with her when she was Raoul’s squire. Others had been in the north, seen the aftermath of her missions, heard the whispered stories. “Exaggeration,” the ones who had been stationed in the south or the few fronts of the north where Kel hadn’t had people. “You know how woodsmen talk.”
But the men who had been in Kel’s north drew the ones like that aside, and talked about Scanrans piled neatly outside Giantkiller’s fort walls. They painted pictures with big hands and talked about a whole army that could vanish into the woods at will.
“If you play nice, boys,” said Kel, when she overheard. “I’ll teach you how to vanish, too.”
After the three months, when Kel felt steady enough on her feet for someone who was used to moving camp every three days for years, she started changing things.
She incorporated her new tactics. She brought in her old army, had northern woodsmen give lessons to sons of dukes and years-old veterans of the Own. She spoke to recruiters and started bringing in new blood– she gave Fanche a squad to lead in Third Company (Saefus retired from war to make custom cabinetry in Corus and began remodeling a little house for him and Fanche).
When new recruits came in, there were young women tucked in among them–shopgirls and goddess temple warriors who’d gotten tired of religion but not of combat. There were fishmongers’ sons beside noble blood.
Conservatives screeched, and Jon frowned at her over the weekly chess games they played now. “You can’t be okay with a woman commander for your Own and not women footsoldiers,” said Kel. “I’m not touching your army, at least– though you should probably work on that.”
The Own was as thrilled with her incorporating these new demographics as they had been when Raoul began recruiting from the Bazhir. “That’s what the Riders are for,” a King’s Own man complained to another, thinking himself outside Kel’s hearing. “You can’t make every branch of the military the same.”
“The Riders are for females, and peasants? The Own is for strong noble sons?” Kel said. She was taller than almost everyone these days and she used it. “The Riders are for swift cavalry skirmishes and rough ground riding. We are the hammer of the Crown. Do you want to explain to me what strength has to do with birth? With gender?
She leaned forward, flexing her bicep bigger, the Commander’s badge flashing, and the man stammered, answerless.
She introduced her parents to Tobe eventually (her mother eyed him critically, then requested a second plate of biscuits from the cook; Lalasa eyed him more critically, and then bullied him into letting her take his measurements), to Fanche, to Dom and the lieutenants she’d made throughout the years. Kel did not tell stories about the war, but sometimes when she came around the corner, late for tea, she’d hear Neal trailing off the end of a story, her mother’s gaze steady and serious on him.
Kel went down to the page and squire courts, which were Raoul’s province now. He came by her courts, sometimes, to look over his old men and her new Own. Her old knight master would always be just a little bit taller than she was.
The page practice courts were even smaller now than she remembered. She hadn’t thought she’d grown any bigger during the war, but maybe she had.
Out on the court, there were three girls in practice gear, clutching staffs and sweating in the early fall heat. There were no probations. She heard Raoul’s hearty, laughing voice rise above the mess of gangly adolescent limbs. The world changes, sometimes for the better.
On her thirtieth birthday, Kel climbed up Balor’s Needle one steady step at a time. She stood at the entrance to the platform for fifteen minutes before she could push herself to step out into the open air.
There would always be fear. But Corus spread out wide below her, the shining river and the dusty roofs. Tortall spread out wider than she could see, the forests and the hills, the lakes and coast. You could see so much farther from up high. Her realm spread out at her feet, as safe as she could make it.
She had been so many things–probationer and Lump, the Girl, a squire in green with mud on her cheeks; a commander who failed to protect her fort, but who saved every person she could; a deserter, a fugitive, a general. She had made it here, somehow, standing high up in the clear air, wary but not terrified. She had anger running under her skin now. She had forgotten how to do more than quiet it.
But Lalasa was waiting out in the city, with tea and Raoul’s favorite cookies, all her friends ready to welcome a new year of Kel’s life in. Neal would make a speech, and Raoul would probably cry, and Buri would laugh at him. Tobe would have ink on one cheek and she would wet her handkerchief and scrub it off of him while he squeaked that he was a university student not a child, and every parent in the room would smile like they recognized something there. Dom would smile, that way he had, where Kel knew he was smiling just at her.
Kel took the steps down one at a time, her knees threatening to wobble. Joren and this stair had been her nightmare for so long, and then the killing machines had been– but at some point, she had started being her own. Men sent out to fight and die for her. Ghosts in a forest, the way she could feel herself becoming legend, becoming fear.
But she was here now, stepping off the stairwell and onto solid Corus ground. Kel straightened her uniform jacket, pushed through the doors, and walked out toward the rest of her life. She was not leaving her fears behind, but who ever got to? There are some things you always carry with you.
When she got down to Lalasa’s little house, with its wisteria and daffodils, Kel could hear voices floating down the path, bright and known. She stood in the yard for fifteen minutes before she pushed herself inside.
She stood outside, in the soft yellow sunlight, and listened to the sound of people who loved her– breathing it in, letting the warmth settle in her bones. There are some things you will always carry with you.